Most weeks recently have flown by with indecent haste but this one is crawling, perhaps because on Friday I shall pack up my books and pen-drives and power down for the entire month of August. But worry not! dear reader, for I shall get together – or curate, as we now say – some golden oldies for you to read, so you will not be bereft of posts.
I won’t be going mad; no foreign holidays or weeks at the coast, instead I’ll be doing stuff at home and having some days out, possibly with the son. We may get as far as the coast, though I doubt it; it’s a bit of a trek from here. It’s odd that such a sea-loving person as I should so persistently settle inland; Leicester, Loughborough and Madrid are all about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get. But there you are. I cherish a dream that when I retire (if I ever do) I shall get a dog and a bungalow by the sea and end my days walking on the beach like my grandfather did.
Since there is such an appetite (in one or two quarters at least) for posts about my childhood, I’m going to describe my grandfather. Herbert Newell (Bert) was what is known as a ‘character’; that is to say, he was mildly eccentric and completely unselfconscious. He’d been in the Navy in the First World War and used to shout ‘Orf keps!’ and other naval phrases at random intervals for no apparent reason; he’d then lived and worked in the East End and knew snatches of Yiddish which he spoke mainly to the cat, Monty. This venerable tabby lived for nearly twenty years, as long in cat years as Grandpa himself.
Grandpa believed in hard work and self-sufficiency and was a Tory, though of the old, one-nation school (he had no time for Thatcher.) He bought their newly-built bungalow in 1963 for £300: it sold after his death in 1991 for £90,000 and is probably now worth three or four times that. I remember our first trip down there; we’d been used to visiting them in Hackney but some inner clock told me that the journey was longer this time. Our parents said nothing and hugged a secret to themselves and finally we drew up outside this brand-new bungalow where Grandma stood at the door. By some miracle they had translated themselves here – but it was all right, because the miracle had a name: retirement.
My childhood is measured by those holidays in Rustington, every year a new challenge, every year the boundaries of life expanding. I bought my first camera there, a Polaroid (Mum said it was a waste of money; I said it was my money and in the end that camera lasted ten years) and learned to row on the boating lake. We measured our years in how far out from the shore we could swim, homing in on our parents far away on their blanket. An outing to the beach was a major operation involving blankets, towels, flasks* of coffee, bags of sandwiches and a huge, wide-necked thermos containing hot stew. Later on we would go for tea and ice creams at Macari’s, an Italian cafe which Grandpa always translated into Greek as Macarios’s. But when I hit teenage these holidays became boring: there were very few boys on the south coast and I longed to meet one as fed up as I was. He’d be with his family; I’d be with mine: our eyes would meet across the cafe… nope, never happened, only in my Jackie magazine.
*I’d better not use the word ‘thermoses’ or I’ll be in trouble…
There were rituals on these holidays: we ‘always’ had to visit ‘Auntie Nellie’ next door (I remember her husband Noel as a sick, declining figure; their house was called ‘Elno’, a combination of their names.) There were obligatory visits to Uncle George and Uncle Reg, Grandpa’s brothers whom he never visited (‘I know where they are and they know where I am’) trips to Arundel Castle, rows on the boating lake and walks on the Downs. Some of these rituals were delightful; others, like having to go to the old flint church in the village, a bore: on family holidays you had to take the rough with the smooth.
Grandpa must have been frustrating for the adults as his habits were so ingrained, but for us children he was a delight. He was a fund of stories, songs and poems and talked to himself continually. He smoked roll-ups in the sun-lounge (Grandma wouldn’t allow it in the house), a habit from his Navy days, and taught us to play cribbage. Grandpa was independent to the last, refusing to give up his bungalow until he died, still healthy, still going for his daily walk and flirting with his ‘girls’ in the shops. For this and all his other qualities, I salute him.
RIP Grandpa, we miss you.