Friday, 31 August 2018

Blackamoors



I have already mentioned that I was born in the top flat of a converted house that belonged to the engineering firm where my father worked, Geo. W. King of Stevenage. Back then, Stevenage New Town was still very much under construction. The town I knew in my childhood and youth had already become a stable, knowable place, but in 1954 it was still a shifting mosaic of building sites and half-constructed roads. That house, scheduled for demolition, was a remnant of an older Stevenage, when it was still just one of dozens of former coaching stops strung out along the Great North Road; the road that, before the coming of the motorways, used to be the main route from London to Edinburgh. The property had an odd but evocative name: Blackamoors.

My parents had spent the first years of their marriage in my mother's native village, Pirton in North Hertfordshire, sharing accommodation with my maternal grandparents. It can't have been easy, so soon after both of them had returned from military service – my mother had been a sergeant in an ATS anti-aircraft unit, outranking my father, a humble despatch rider – and especially with a small child to care for, my sister, born in 1946. To move to an exciting new town, and finally to get their own place, however temporary, must have been thrilling enough. But Blackamoors was, by all accounts, a rather grand house with grounds that were far beyond anything they would ever be able to aspire to themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that my earliest days were spent in what, in family stories, comes across as a little paradise.

I am told I spent many contented hours in my carry-cot on the lawn, surrounded by foraging green woodpeckers – still among my favourite birds – while my sister and the little girl from the downstairs flat played in the grounds, which included a pond which still survives (perhaps symbolically located behind both the town library and a large office block that once contained the pub of my youth, the Longship, on its ground level). Back then, that pond was a home to newts and frogs and other pond-dwelling creatures; now, probably not so much. With the family in the downstairs flat being good friends (and my godparents) and with a daughter the same age as my sister, it must have felt rather like the sort of communal living my generation experienced in similar large properties twenty years later. There were so many happy, foundational stories told about the place that, in my mind, the name "Blackamoors" came to represent some paradisal phase in our family story [1]. It never occurred to me to wonder what a "blackamoor" might be, probably until I read Othello at university: it was simply the name on the gates of Eden.


A few years ago, I found some clues to the nature of this little Eden on the Great North Road. By some miracle, it turned out that the local museum had a postcard of the property in its collection, and they made me a copy. Naturally, I have no recollection of the place, and I had always imagined it to be somewhat older, but this, clearly, was a substantial private house built in the early 20th century. I then found an auction record dating to the pre-war period, describing Blackamoors, curiously, as "a little gem in Herts, a house to satisfy the most discriminating of housewives". According to the auction house, this "little gem" stood in 5.25 acres of grounds, with "quaint hall, 3 reception, 6 bed rooms, 2 bath rooms, 2 staircases, and the usual offices, all company's services, telephone, part central heating, lavatory, basins in bedrooms, useful garage". Not so very little, then, even divided into two. I also found a notice in the London Gazette for 1948 concerning the winding up of the London and Suburban Coal Company, in which the chairman was named as Robert Swan Brewis, coal merchant, of "Blackamoors", Stevenage. Brewis, presumably, was the last private owner of the house before the New Town loomed on the horizon, leading to the flight of the wealthier locals; King's then presumably took over short-term ownership, no doubt at a bargain price. Finally, I discovered a compulsory purchase order from 1956 by Stevenage Development Corporation for Blackamoors Lane, "which land was formerly an access way leading from London Road, Stevenage aforesaid to the property formerly known as 'Blackamoors'". So, at most, I can only have lived in paradise for two years, and probably rather less.

Obviously, there also needs to be a serpent in Eden. The other day, I was reading about the concept of "Maya" in Eastern religions, something which has always fascinated me, and noticed the story of the rope and the snake. That is, that in the dark, a rope lying on the ground may be mistaken for a snake, but in the light the illusion will vanish, and it will be clearly perceived for what it really is, a rope. At Blackamoors, my mother had the opposite experience. In broad daylight, bringing in some washing from the line, she noticed that someone had left a dirty old rope in the washing basket. Reaching in to remove it, she found she was holding a snake. This event became a key element in the Blackamoors origin myth, although I don't think it was ever regarded as the Great Teaching it probably was. Mum was a formidable, complex, and unusual person, but deriving metaphysical insights from even such startlingly instructive real-life incidents was never one of her stronger characteristics. Which, now I think of it, may in a perverse way account for why I have spent so much of my life doing precisely that, to the extent that I am still parsing out and puzzling over the episodes and anecdotes that went into the construction of my own personal Dreamtime.

Stevenage Town Centre under construction (image: Stevenage Museum)
Blackamoors was beyond the Co-op's facade, about 150 yards down to the left.
The family story was that I was born above the toyshop, Playland, that occupied
the corner of Queensway opposite the Library (now a Cash Converters, I see...)

1. Obviously, my take on the situation is both entirely reconstructed from hearsay, and also entirely self-centred. You might say I have put the ego in Arcadia... (Heh. Sorry about that).

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Wallpaper



It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a couple returning from a brief vacation will probably still be in a holiday mood. So, having got home from Bristol and finding that we were still in a holiday mood, we finally made the trip out to Jane Austen's cottage in Chawton, something we'd meant to do for years, but had somehow never accomplished. Reader, at this point I should make my ritual confession of still never having read a single Austen novel, which, I'd guess, puts me in much the same position as at least 80% of the 55,000 visitors each year who creak across the venerable floorboards. Yes, many have admired Colin Firth in a wet shirt on TV, but far fewer have grappled with Aunt Jane's subtle literary ironies on social class, aspiration, and the screaming boredom of a woman's life among the landed gentry of early 19th century England. I have done neither, myself: it's nice, sometimes, to find yourself in the ignorant camp.

Among the exhibits in the cottage, I was very struck by some fragments of Jane Austen's actual wallpaper. They looked rather like the long shreds you end up with when stripping the wall, which is probably exactly what they were. However, enclosed in a glass case like geological specimens, they looked, inevitably, rather comical. I mean, it's good to know exactly what ambience surrounded the Austens as they went about their daily business and – who knows? – maybe those marks are where Jane herself spattered this exact spot opening a late night can of beer, or are the result of repeatedly banging her head against it in frustration, unable to find yet another synonym for "handsome". But, having served as a model for the reproduction paper pasted onto the actual walls, you'd think it was "job done" for the wallpaper scraps, and they'd be filed away, pending the time when some future advanced technology will enable Miss Austen's customary sweary sarcasm to be exhumed from the fossilized soundwaves trapped within them. But some curatorial impulse is persuaded that we should have the opportunity to contemplate these faded and torn quasi-religious relics of Georgian interior decoration.




In principle, I'm not about to disagree. I love to mooch about in a good museum – and a bad museum can be even more fun – and I also enjoy poking around in some stately pile, preserved for the nation by the National Trust. And, it's true, despite the heightened level of irony in my mooching and poking, I expect a museum to contain the real thing, even if it has been changed utterly by the depredations of time, rust, and moth; I don't expect a museum to be full of reproductions, artist's impressions, and interpretation boards. Although where time / rust / moth have been particularly active, these can certainly help, so long as they are placed alongside the real thing, and not substituted for it. But, on the other hand, I also don't expect any notable house with a steady flow of visitors to have been restored into a museum-piece by removing all modern amenities like electricity and flush toilets, or ensuring the west wing is authentically cold and damp by un-repairing the roof, or wafting in the bona fide stink of a Tudor barnyard (although I believe something of the sort is done at York's Jorvik Viking Museum). It's a difficult balance to get right.

But, I remembered visiting Dyrham Park last week – not least ascending the staircase shored up by acrow props and scaffolding ("No more than four people on the staircase at one time, please") – and thinking: this place is falling apart not just because of a lack of funds, but also because no-one is allowed to replace the woodwork, strip off that god-awful "original" wallpaper, fix the dodgy plaster, or generally brighten the place up. Like so many ancestral piles abandoned to the nation by their cash-strapped inheritors, it has the gloomy patina of a neglected attic. No longer anyone's home, it has become a tomb. I was reminded of the unplayable ethnic instruments in Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, with their perished leather, cracked soundboards, and stiffened gut strings. Such dead things make a fine metaphor, but a rather sad display. If only we weren't quite so obsessed with preserving every last scrap of the ancestral past, down to ragged strips of wallpaper, such buildings could have a useful future, and be used for something other than rather dismal museums of aristocratic poor taste.


Sunday, 26 August 2018

Bristol Guardians



While we were in Bristol last week we managed a couple of excursions. One was to the American Museum, near Bath, and the other was to Dyrham Park, a National Trust property in the Cotswolds. Allegedly, I have been to both places before, probably some time back in the last century, but have no convincing memories that would corroborate this. Sadly, this often seems to be the case, these days; not only can I not recall where I was when either Kennedy was shot (at school, probably, but who knows?) but I can't find my driving glasses, which is much more annoying.


As you can see, I've made a few new "guardians" by cross-fertilising photos from the two places. I got a particularly rich haul of figures from the "folk art" section of the American Museum – even the toff below playing an enthusiastic game of pocket billiards is American – and a lot of useful background material from Dyrham Park. Now I'll definitely remember I've been there, probably. No sign of those glasses, though.


Thursday, 23 August 2018

Barcelona Guardians II



This trinity of grinnin' fools combines statues from St. Petersburg and Barcelona – one in a museum, one on a street corner – plus a little typographic ingenuity to produce an essence of smiley-ness. Can you imagine holding that expression long enough for someone to photograph, let alone sculpt it in marble? Come to that, can you imagine feeling the need to sculpt some local notable in marble? Somewhere along the line, public life lost the urge to memorialise itself. I'm in Bristol at the moment, and I'm struck by the busts of city and university notables from the 19th and the first half of the last century that clutter up various niches and unvisited corners of the city museum. No-one, now, is likely to pay to have a mayor or vice-chancellor immortalised in stone. Assuming they could even find someone capable of doing the job.

I forgot to note which particular saint the benign-looking bearded fellow below is (the one with the sunglasses), but he's clearly in a relaxed mood. The other (smaller) one is my go-to guy for "contemplative, fashion-forward male with shaven head". You may have noticed him before around here, pondering the great mysteries. Saint Shades of Barcelona clearly thinks he's doing a good job.


Sunday, 19 August 2018

Barcelona Guardians I



Naturally, I've already been working on some photo-collages using the raw materials I brought back from Barcelona. I'm still keen on the idea of "guardians" as a thematic series, based on sculptures and statues of various sorts. It's a well-established stimulus to creativity to set yourself certain rules and constraints within which to work; the urge not to be boringly repetitive – despite these self-imposed limits – leads to the sort of constant small innovations that keep things fresh, for the creator, at least. In this case, some of the rules include a "portrait" orientation, and the ability to "read" well as a small 10cm x 15cm print on an A4 sheet.

The gargoyle-like thing above must be in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) somewhere, probably in the Romanesque section, but I encountered him / it as one of a number of 3D reproductions in the gift shop. It's a sort of variant of a Green Man, eating or extruding a tongue-like ram rather than the more usual foliage, and very like the moon-faced, bearded character I used to use as my Facebook icon, with the lower half of a man dangling from his toothy maw.

The rather lovely carved wooden woman below is a reliquary, also to be found in MNAC. The pearly halo-shape behind her is one of the enormous internal air shafts in the Museu d'Historia de Catalunya, inverted,  with various other bits and pieces superimposed, including the air vent in our Barcelona apartment. It's all grist to the compositing mill.


Thursday, 16 August 2018

Absent Friends


Present!
Recently, I received an email out of the blue from an old schoolmate. Ian was someone I had grown up alongside – quite literally, we were next-door neighbours for a few years as small children [1] – and, although I knew we had not been close friends in those most memorable years of late adolescence, nonetheless he is someone I ought to be able to remember well. Except that, annoyingly, I couldn't, and the more I thought about it, the vaguer my recollections became. I could remember him at primary school well enough – we had sat in the same classrooms for seven years, after all – but who had been in his group of friends at secondary school? What direction of study had he taken in the sixth form? Good grief, hadn't he, in fact, been in one of my own subject groups? German, perhaps, or Geography? No, that was another boy, similarly tall, and with a certain facial resemblance to Ian, but not him. Or was it? This had all the makings of a first-class mnemonic embarrassment.

Now, once you have passed the age of 60, failures of memory take on an alarming quality, like finding a fresh crack in a load-bearing wall, or being woken by a ringing telephone in the small hours. Things like that Billy Collins poem, Forgetfulness, are no longer quite so wryly amusing. I have spent entire mornings trying to remember a name, coming at it from various different angles until, with a disproportionately intense surge of relief, it has turned up in some dusty corner of my overstuffed and neglected memory palace. Phew! But on the subject of Ian at secondary school: nothing.

So, to cover my humiliating lapse of memory, I emailed another old classmate to ask if he could remember anything about Ian. But he, too, only had the vaguest memory of someone who might or might not have been him. Which was odd, because Ian was large and characterful, not the sort of lad you would easily forget. It was as if he had been edited out of the narrative.

In the end, the answer turned out to be simple. He had indeed been edited out. Ian's family had emigrated to California in 1966, and so he had spent just a single year at our secondary school. There was nothing there to forget, other than the removal of his piece, so to speak, from the board. In those days, this would often happen. Someone would fail to reappear at school at the start of a new year in September, and their absence would either not be noticed at all, or quickly forgotten. Friends and classmates came and went; new ones took their place in the register. A move to another school in another part of town, never mind another part of the world, meant they had simply ceased to exist, in any meaningful sense, in the ongoing group Bildungsroman (or soap opera, if you prefer) of 30 or so individuals.

Of course, that was before social media. It never ceases to amaze me that my daughter is still in touch with a girl who left her school at about the same stage as Ian left mine, when her family moved to Yorkshire. I suppose there must have been people in my day who stayed in contact with a particularly close friend by letter or by phone, but I'm not aware of any; after all, letter-writing is rather more effortful than texting, and a single family landline is not an ideal medium for sharing adolescent secrets. No, absence from daily "facetime" resulted, in effect, in a complete excision from reality.


The oddest thing, though, was realising that neither of us could have the faintest idea of who or what either of us had been, become, acquired, abandoned, ventured, achieved triumphantly, or failed at miserably on the journey from age 12 to age 64. Which is a long, eventful journey by any standards. Who, I wondered, did Ian imagine I was now? Did this matter enough to either of us to take the necessary corrective steps (essentially, to write an entire summary autobiography)? I suppose if someone were to read their way through the nearly ten years' worth of posts on this blog – all 1,500 of them – they might get a sense of who I am, or at least of how I have chosen to present myself. But "I" is always a work in progress, and will have been changing even over the course of this most recent decade, too. And then there are the shameful and secret (or indeed admirable) things, forgotten by or unknown to me but regarded as essential attributes by those more objective observers, one's work colleagues, friends, and family. Nobody is ever quite who they think they are, especially in the eyes of others.

I suppose there is a case to be made that your 12-year-old self is your purest self. Poised between childhood and adolescence, at that age you are both completely yourself and a blank canvas; wise to the world, but not yet compromised by it. To be known and remembered as you were then, and only then, is to be a character in some eternal tale of late childhood, such as Just William, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or, ah, Lord of the Flies. Which has its attractions, doesn't it? Why complicate things?

But what must it have been like, to have been uprooted from Stevenage New Town and transported to Southern California in 1966, right at the time of peak Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds, not to mention Mamas and Papas, Mothers of Invention, and, um, Monkees? Or Vietnam and Civil Rights, come to that.
It's automatic when I
Talk with old friends
The conversation turns to
Girls we knew when their
Hair was soft and long and the
Beach was the place to go

Suntanned bodies and
Waves of sunshine the
California girls and a
Beautiful coastline
Warmed up weather
Let's get together and
Do it again
Beach Boys, "Do It Again"
Sounds awful, doesn't it? All that sand and warmed-up weather! Poor guy, forced into proximity with suntanned California girls, picking up those good vibrations, when he could have been hanging around in the rain at chilly bus-stops after pub closing-time like the rest of us. When the family returned to England some years later, it must have felt like the expulsion from Eden.

But, when I was thinking about the possibilty of someone doing that same journey in reverse, from Southern California to North Hertfordshire, a little memory-ping went off. At the back of my mind, I suddenly found I had a vague recollection of, yes, some American lad who had turned up at our secondary school for just a year or so. Or was I just imagining that because of its conveniently satisfying symmetry? What was his name? Jim or Joe, maybe? Damn it, here we go back into the dusty memory palace... I may be gone for some time.

Absent!
1. Their house could well have been the location of the Mary Mouse episode.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Barcelona




I've been in Barcelona for most of the past week, where it has been uncomfortably hot, even at night. It must be tough on climate-change deniers, insisting against all evidence that this is how the summer is meant to be, isn't it? Hot? But mind if I take off my shoes and socks? I concede that the wildfires are not entirely untypical: I remember sitting in a bar in Vigo around 1980 (admittedly on Spain's Atlantic coast), watching abandoned vineyards burning unchecked in the hills above, as smuts floated down onto the tablecloth and into my beer from the leaden, smoke-filled sky. But a daily temperature approaching 40 degrees centigrade is just too hot for me, and kicks off an irritability in my northern gene set. Look, guys, let's just sack this place, get back in the boats, and head home to the fjords and meadows ASAP, yeah?

This year so far has felt a little too like ticking off European cities in brief visits, but we'd promised to take the daughter somewhere for her birthday (twenty-four! How can this be possible?) and Barcelona was the top destination to emerge. Luckily, we had arranged an air-conditioned apartment on a shady street. In fact, most streets in Barcelona are shady, following that typically southern European tall and narrow urban grid configuration that blocks off sunlight and channels cooling breezes down balconied canyons, echoing at night with competing TV shows and heat-induced arguments. When it's still around 30 degrees late at night then something as simple as agreeing which restaurant to eat at can cause tempers to fray, never mind the descent into the noisy, sweaty hell of the metro system, standing-room only at all hours.

Not the Camp Nou 

 The bottles look fine, but the bacon has seen better days...

You'll know how excited I was to come across this ex-budgie

Unsurprisingly, I have no great insights to offer after such a brief time in a city I barely know, one that speaks a language, Catalan, that floats somewhere bafflingly between Spanish and French, and which has many different and interesting facets, quite a few of which, however, are obscured at this time of year by hordes of tourists, and the facilities and distractions deemed necessary for their (that is, our) accommodation and entertainment. One thing that is obvious, however, is that, as in so many of the great European cities, the inhabitants of Barcelona – always kept at a politicised simmer ready to boil over into action by the hot issue of Catalan independence – are finding that mass tourism is beginning to destroy the place they love, and they'd like to have it back, please. Setups like Airbnb are not popular, as they exacerbate the housing and neighbourhood gentrification crisis created by tourism, and the city council is quite rightly cracking down on the unlicensed letting of apartments.

Touristically, I confess that we did visit Sagrada Familia, but I couldn't quite see why it is such a must-see mass attraction. Sure, the view from the top of the towers is spectacular, but in its unfinished state it's still a bit of a building site, and the Gaudi style is really not to my taste. Frankly, the cathedral is chaotic, aesthetically, and not in a good way. Worse, there's really nothing much to see, other than the view from the top: it's a single large empty space contained within some rather unappealing modernist ecclesiastical architecture. Compared to, say, Chartres, Cologne, or pretty much any long-established cathedral it seems a bit of a non-event. Rate it meh.

 View from Sagrada Familia

View of the Stadio Olimpico from MNAC

More to my taste was the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC), covering the whole history of art in Catalonia, from prehistory to the modern day. Even the view from the top is better, and the gigantic, railway-station-sized Sala Oval is, apparently, the third largest publicly-accessible enclosed space in the world, so take that, Sagrada Familia. Modern art does seem to have a peculiarly Catalan slant –Picasso, Miró, Dalí, Tàpies and many other lesser known artists all being from the region – although what is referred to as "Catalan Modernism", strictly speaking, seems to have more in common with Art Deco and what in Britain is generally referred to as "Arts and Crafts". Like Gaudi's work, it's not really my cup of tea. But, needless to say, I found plenty of material for future photo-composites in there. Regrettably, I didn't get to visit the Museu de Ciencies Naturals de Barcelona.

You probably get the best sense of touristic Barcelona by visiting the beachfront area. It's a classic Mediterranean setup, and I expect many people spend their entire holiday basting themselves on the hot sand. The daughter and I went for a lengthy stroll along some of the choicer bits, and it all seemed well-organised and well-maintained: there were none of the fag-ends and hazardous rubbish you have to watch out for on British beaches, and there were plenty of beach showers, first aid stations, bars, and all the other requisites for the safe enjoyment of sun, sea, and sand, if that's your thing. Sex, too: we wandered through a stretch of nudist, gay-oriented beach, which was strange. Who knew so many men shaved "down there"?

 Beach bar

Sun, sea, and sand (yawn)

Photographically, I was happy to carry just a Fuji X-M1 with the 27mm "pancake" lens. Harsh sunlight is not ideal for the sort of pictures I like to take, and neither are the extremes of bright and shade you get in lively city centres at night. I did take a fair few, but only came away with a handful that stand in their own right. Obviously, what I was really after was raw material for composites, and I got a good, useful haul for such a brief visit. Watch this space.



Thursday, 9 August 2018

Listening To The Voice


If this picture reminds you of the work of Tom Phillips, and in particular of his extraordinary bookwork, A Humument, that would not be inappropriate. A while ago there was a competition, judged by the great man himself, to create a Humument-style image out of a page of W.H. Mallock's A Human Document (the unwitting but inexhaustable source of A Humument). I couldn't resist entering but, inexplicably, I did not win. So I've recycled it into my "guardians" series, where it seems quite comfortable. The original statue is in the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.



Monday, 6 August 2018

He Is The Eggman



I came across this contemplative bloke in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Yes, he really is studying an egg, and yes, there really does seem to be some kind of disturbance going on in his lap. Possibly a chicken? Endless scope for ribaldry and double entendre there (which came first, is that a rumple in your toga, etc., etc.) but it's far too hot for that sort of thing.

Friday, 3 August 2018

We're Having a Heatwave



I'm going to be away for most of the coming week. It is hot enough for anybody here in Britain at the moment, but we'd already planned to head to Catalonia [1] for a few days. Just in time, as it turns out, to catch a potentially record-breaking heatwave in the Iberian Peninsula. Oh, great... Let's hope their infrastructure can cope rather better than ours has been doing. I see a lot of visits to air-conditioned museums in my immediate future. "The wind is in from Africa..."

I'll probably put together the usual couple of pre-scheduled posts to keep things ticking over, although I'm not sure why I'm bothering: not many actual people seem to be dropping by at the moment, even if the robotic visitors are as relentless as ever and do seem finally to have broken into the previously reliable Google Analytics figures (although if you do live in Paris, and made 46 visits over the last three days, or in Boardman, Oregon, and made 23 visits, each lasting an average of precisely 0 seconds, I'd be curious to see how you score on a Turing Test).

These two pictures are from a series which is emerging from my composites based on statues and memorials, with a working title of "Guardians". And, yes, one is yet another re-working of good old Krylov the Fabulist.


1. Incredibly, there seems to be no good, tourist-oriented Catalan phrasebook on the market. Given the popularity of Barcelona, not to mention Majorca, as a tourist destination, you'd have thought you'd be spoiled for choice, but no. I've had to settle for a "teach yourself" text, which tells me rather more than I want to know about irregular verbs and the like. I guess I'm about to find out what Catalans really think about (a) tourists and (b) poorly-spoken Spanish.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

A Voyage Round My Father


ca. 1938

Today would have been my father's 100th birthday, which is an extraordinary thought. "Would have", because he died in July 2007, not long before his 90th. He would certainly have made it to 90, and maybe even 100, had he not concealed the symptoms of the disease that killed him. Or rather, had he not succumbed to an infection in hospital shortly after the emergency operation that attempted to save his life. Typically, this foolishly brave, stupidly self-effacing man had concealed his symptoms for too long because my mother was dementing, and he felt honour-bound to see her through her final years. Only when she had finally been admitted to the care home where she almost immediately died did he seek treatment, but it was far too late. As I say, typical. What can you do?

This was also typical, of course, of so many decent men of that entire generation, born into the long shadow of the Great War, and destined to follow their own fathers – like them, in most cases, cheerfully grumpy, insolently obedient, and reluctantly brave – into a conflict not of their making. Deference and obedience were part of the fabric of society, then, and it took a braver, more free-thinking sort of man to question or refuse so-called "service". It was almost literally unthinkable. But the problem with military service, especially as a private or NCO, and particularly under wartime conditions, is that it raises inchoate attitudes of compliance and conformity into reflexes, and re-badges them as virtues. Do what you're told, and we'll all be OK. Do what you're told well, and you'll be rewarded with praise and promotions. Don't, and you'll cop it.

These questionable reflexes carried over into civilian life and the workplace. Before the war, my father had been an apprentice at a local engineering firm, Geo. W. King, which was run by the King family along patrician lines. The head of the firm was known as "Mr. George", and his son as "Young Mr. George". They seemed to know most of the large workforce by name, and it was a successful and innovative enterprise, mainly building conveyor belts and other mechanical handling devices for car factories and warehouses. After returning from six years in uniform Dad was taken back on, worked hard, did what he was asked, and rose from the factory floor to the drafting office, eventually achieving middle management status as a "production controller". Equipped with a little schoolboy French, he was even dispatched to France around 1960 to help oversee the installation of conveyors in the Simca factory. Deference and loyalty combined with natural ability seemed to be paying off. At patrician King's, effort went into building that loyalty. As it happens, I was born in the upstairs flat of a house just off the Great North Road in Stevenage belonging to King's. My godparents, also employed at King's, lived in the downstairs flat. The King's apprentices "charity beat balls" were famous (in 1964, the Rolling Stones, no less, performed for them in the Stevenage Locarno). Families were not ignored, either; every year there was a children's Christmas outing to some show in London [1]. Every five years, a new "long service" lapel badge was awarded to employees. By the 1970s, Dad had worked there for over 25 years, and was still in his early 50s.

Things began to go wrong around then, however. As the post-War decades progressed, younger men in possession of engineering degrees were leapfrogging their seniors in the promotion stakes. Dad found this a bitter pill, I think: the educational opportunities denied to his generation, but secured by them for future generations, were being taken for granted by relative beginners, and putting the older hands at a disadvantage. Also, the work environment was changing from the patrician to the managerial as control of the firm slipped away from the King family. Worse, the British car industry was in terminal decline, with knock-on effects all down the supply chain. Then, catastrophically, in 1973 Geo. W. King was taken over by Tube Investments, who saw no future in the mechanical handling side of the enterprise. 700 employees were made redundant, including my father. To add insult to injury, TI stole the King's pension fund, simply because it was a handy pot of money, and the law at that time said they could. None of those long-serving, redundant employees would see a penny of their pension. So much for those lapel badges.

This, combined with various domestic troubles and setbacks (including, I'm sad to say, a rebellious son who gave unnecessary cause for worry to his parents) would have embittered any man whose whole philosophy of life had been crumpled up and flung in his face. Loyalty? Long service? Experience? Fuck off! Welcome to Brave New Britain! Dad had always been a wary, ironic man (see the post Father's Day), but he now became increasingly inward and withdrawn, despite finding new work with ex-colleagues who valued what he had to offer. The father I had known as a small child – beaming and bearing gifts when he returned from a week working in Paris, or proudly showing us round the King's stand at an Earls Court exhibition en route to a family outing in Leicester Square; a family man simply, happily content in his life and his prospects – that man had already retired, hurt, before he had even turned 60 in 1978.

Burma Reunion 1947

Which was particularly sad, as he had in many ways been an unusual man and an untypically engaged father, rather ahead of his time. For a start, he always seemed to know everything I might want to know. Whether it was the various types of cowboy pistols, or the names of indian tribes and their chiefs, or the names and habits of exotic animals, or how to fix a broken bicycle, or make a trolley out of pram wheels and planks, or how to draw a boxer, or how to mix brown paint out of blue, red, and yellow paint, or the best way to build a bonfire ... He always knew. He often made me playthings – a sailor's hat from a cornflakes box, a hideaway from wooden pallets in the back garden, an improvised guitar from a rolled up newspaper – and taught me, quite consciously, how imagination was so much better than expensive (and unaffordable) toys. I was never ignored, I could always get his full attention. True, he would sometimes offer to wallop me, give me a good hiding, skin me alive, knock my block off, put salt on my tail, and various other hair-raising threats, and I'm sure I must have had the odd smack, but I can't actually remember any; the threat was usually enough. To this day, the very idea of levering open a tin of paint with the end of a sharpened chisel gives me an almost religious thrill of horror.

The wider world outside work and family seemed to hold little interest for him, although at one point around 1965 he did stand for the local council as a Liberal Party candidate (he lost), persuaded to do so by an old acquaintance from his pre-war days in Letchworth – my mother always pointedly referred to her as an old girlfriend [2] – who was a Big Noise in the party. He loved my difficult, conflicted mother with an exemplary, selfless devotion. Again, I think their relationship was ahead of its time, a model for any aspirational, working-class couple. He understood and supported her need to have a job – she was at work from the time I started at primary school – and never ignored, embarrassed, or belittled her the way other fathers seemed to do. Their pet name for each other was "mate"; I have no idea why, but I've never heard any other couple use the word in that affectionate way, ever. In their prime, they were a formidable pair, cut out for bigger things that never quite happened. Frankly, I think it turned out that they had placed too big a stake on loyalty and deference; they had both been let down by a system that asked for their trust, and then betrayed that trust. As old age set in, and my mother's decades of ill-health became the Big Issue, the two of them moved to Norfolk to live in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. They had always been inseparable – unhealthily so, really – and now rarely ventured out except to shop, spending every evening at home in front of the TV. They seemed to have no friends, and no interests. I felt oppressed by what they had become, and my visits were a trial of endurance that never lasted more than a couple of days.

After my mother died in 2007, and before his own final illness became acute, Dad had a year of relative freedom, which I did my best to encourage. Things he hadn't done for years "because of Mum" came back into his life. He could go for walks (Mum couldn't walk, and couldn't bear to be left alone), so I bought him boots. He could listen to music (Mum didn't enjoy jazz, his passion), so I bought him CDs. He could read (Mum always felt ignored when sitting in the same room as a reader), so I bought him books and an illuminated magnifier to aid his failing eyesight. Our weekly chats on the phone – a repetitive filial chore (perhaps penance) I had come to dread over the decades – became enjoyable; he was free to talk about things he hadn't talked about for most of his life, and most weeks I would be jotting down a new shopping list as I listened.

Then the inevitable call came: he had been rushed into hospital for an emergency operation. I drove the four hours up to Norwich to visit him afterwards, and he seemed to have shrunk alarmingly into a tiny, frail, exhausted old man in a post-op gown. We talked for a bit, nothing of any great consequence, and then I had to leave for the drive back. On the way out, I realised I had left a bag by his bed, so headed back. The curtains had been half drawn around his bed, so he couldn't see me, but I could see him: he was laughing and joking with the three young nurses who had arrived to give him a bed-bath. I grabbed my bag and left the old guy to it. He was two weeks away from his 90th birthday; how would we best celebrate that now?, I wondered. The very next day, though, I heard he hadn't made it through the night. But I was grateful to have had this last intimate glimpse of him being (and enjoying being) the man himself, and not being my father, or a dutiful husband.

1985: not much older then than I am now...

1. I'll never forget those coach-rides into central London, eventually going along the Chelsea Embankment before turning up into the West End. At one Christmas show, I remember looking across at a striped awning opposite the theatre we were being ushered into, which appeared to bear the name STRIPE-ERAMA. Only in later years did I realise it must have been STRIPERAMA, a strip-club on Soho's Greek Street.
2. The name "Elma Dangerfield" always used to come up, but this cannot be right.