The flimsy, coloured, ribbons of family history fray so easily. An estrangement here, a broken home there, and the garland of paper-doll-generations, each weakly willing to hold fast to the next, is torn beyond repair. Memories blow away with the sigh of a last breath. The stopper is shoved in the bottle forever when someone simply does not listen.
Then, some minimalist, unsentimental dud in the family gets to clear the drawers. The corroborative evidence that turns hearsay into history, the old letters and bills, fine and crisp with age, go the same way as the now anonymous photographs. The negatives stand less chance still. Yet these might turn out to be the hoard of the rarest treasure, since they are all that remain of the images that, being a bit blurry or badly composed, don’t get printed out and bandied around to diminish the photographer’s (in this case my father’s) reputation.
It’s not the crispest of photographs, as my Aunt Rene proudly presents her only child to the camera in front of her family home in Stonnall, which they share, quite tightly packed, we can imagine, with her husband, my father’s brother, George, her parents and her brother Kenneth. A pretty building both then and now known as “Church Cottage”, its carved wooden bargeboards are enough to hint at the 1830s Gothic revival design of what had been originally constructed to be the residence of the Master and Mistress of the the Sunday and National School, Stonnall.
The first stone was laid on the 8th of August 1839 by the “amiable Lady of William Leigh, Esq.” according to the Staffordshire Advertiser of the time. It is also delighted to describe that “the children, to the number of two hundred and upwards, repaired to an adjacent hill, where, in groups of 24, they were regaled with buns and tea, and, in a tent, which the committee of ladies had tastefully decorated, the same wholesome beverage was served to a considerable number of the respectable inhabitants.”
The open porch has now been built up, and the original bargeboards design approximated, but a view of the cottage in this, present, century confirms its Gothic credentials with its steeply pointed gable and dormer windows. How so? One of the main benefactors of the project to provide better education to the poor children of Stonnall was the devout William Leigh of Little Aston Hall, whose own taste in architecture may have been influenced by his interest in the Oxford Movement.
Back in 1952, let’s walk round the back of the cottage, through the gate on the left hand side which divides it narrowly from the National Schoolroom, then still standing. My Grandad Horton had walked from Clayhanger and from Fishponds to pay his penny for the privilege of attending this school, until he left to begin work at the age of 12 in 1901 ..scuffling the couple of miles on the old track that still discernibly leads from Main Street to Church Road, past the magical tree crowned eminence of Grove Hill, where that memorable picnic had been held in 1839.
Just a few paces takes us to the vicinity of the outside lavatory, the fuel store and the toolshed, where two fat sheepdogs sit obediently to earn treats from their diminutive master, Albert Bastin. This draws the attention of his wife, Gladys, and this young, willowy incarnation of my mother. Aunty Rene, characterised all her life by her industriousness, does battle with the densely weeded patch of ground. The trees are clothed for spring. But it may not be very warm. My mother, now, some 65 years hence, is still seldom without a cardigan over summer costumes, which she still wears thus, with a single button done up right at the top. But see, she has conceded the removal of her checked scarf. Albert, shirted collarlessly and in sleeve garters has suffered some indecision as he dressed: his waistcoat is worn under his sleeveless pullover. No tailor has measured him for his outfit. His trousers are voluminous on his small frame, and look like they belong to someone else, which, without much doubt, they will lately have done.
Mrs Bastin was warm and generous, and my mother remembers the kettle always singing on the range and a little bit of something nice proffered to go with the cup of tea in those days. Uncles, aunts and cousins on her mother, Ellen’s side (she was born a Bagley, or a “Begley”) inhabited the miners’ cottages of Walsall Wood and Brownhills in the 19th century, breeding great quantities of children in small unhealthy, often fatal spaces, alongside the Craddocks, Seedhouses, Heaths, and, yes, Hortons. Perhaps she and I were real relatives, not just in-laws. Like me, Mrs Bastin had an Uncle George, and there is no doubt that my antecedents crossed his path, as he was the Licenced Victualler of Brownhills’ “Jolly Collier” at the turn of the century.
Mrs Bastin died at the age of 82. That was in 1976, the legendarily hot summer.
I turned 15 that year. My beloved friend, L. and me were indolent in companionship in the heat of those school holidays. I made pencil drawings of her lovely aquiline profile as we sunbathed in the garden at Bosty Lane, Aldridge, as she read on, and on. This little resort was hemmed by the bright roses and gladioli and honeysuckle growing strongly in my mother’s well tended flower borders, and the thoroughly creosoted fence and trellis beyond them camouflaged the rest of the world from view. In cooler evenings, we listened to Motown and the Moody Blues in L’s front room, laughing at nothing at all, until we were crying with virginal mirth. As if the smile could never be wiped off my face.
Time honoured, each Sunday morning, I was still inseparable from my dad as we trundled between the high hedges that flanked the unchanged lanes of Shenstone and Stonnall..If he hadn’t a customer to call on, then that left us more time to visit our family. Without fail our itinerary took us to what had been my dad’s childhood home on the smallholding at Keepers Cottage, Footherly, to see Uncle Bill, my dad’s unmarried, eldest brother, who lived on there, alone now but for the terriers and the chickens, since my Grandad Horton’s recent death. We walked the woods, and stepped stealthily to holly bush cover where I was encouraged to see what I could do with my shotgun, and in a confusing irony, challenged to identify correctly every species of creature as they fled from us.
And in one of the dusty barns at Keeper’s, the third Horton brother, my Uncle George, might also be observing Sunday Morning Visiting, and also have a bull like head bent over some broken contraption. “Worro,” the brothers would greet each other solemnly, through a veil of cigarette smoke, the fag held upside down in the curved-over hand, protecting it from imaginary rain. “Arr,” two of them chorused deeply when the third proposed a solution to the make do and mend engineering problem at hand. It was man-land, and I was an honoured ambassador from the other country, which was a wonderful feeling.
Uncle George, nearer in age to my Dad, a roguish fellow who had once been most willing, I was told, to have a ferret suspend itself from each earlobe, to win a smile from the ladies, lived then in Cartersfield Lane, Stonnall, where Aunty Rene’s abode could be picked out from the other neat council houses by the shine on the very drain pipes on its exterior walls. Calling there, some Sundays, my dad and I would find Mrs Bastin, Rene’s widowed mother, smiling cheerfully from an armchair, no longer living in Church Cottage. Albert Bastin had been a roads-man for the parish: with barrow and shovel and bucket he toured the lanes’ verges. The accommodation went with the job, but remuneration must have been slight, and who would not devise ways of augmenting it? He was not believed, according to the Lichfield Mercury of 1932, when he claimed that the 17 shillings of money that he had collected from the neighbours on his round, to place their bets of football on horse-racing were the first he had been tempted to take. The fine he received for the “street betting” offence was a painful £2, with 15 shillings’ costs.
To the end, Mrs Bastin’s rosy cheeks and silvery bun of hair, and mental faculties were all intact, a treasury of reminiscences of everyday life in Thornes Hamlet between the wars, of which, shamefully, only fragments remain in my memory, like the early morning scamper down the sloping field and across the Chester Road to work in the fields on Ikins’ farm.
I am listening now, but the photographs are silent.