If I climb up a short way behind this gravity-defying pile of stones in the Welsh mountains that I now call home, I can view a dozen lofty peaks three times higher than the eminences of Barr Beacon and Castle Ring, which were the most elevated points in my childhood landscape of South Staffordshire.
I can even see Cardigan Bay this morning, in the clear Autumn sunlight, but yet I suffer very much from hiraeth, as they say around here. This is the longing for a point on the life graph which, it really must be remembered, has two, equally important, axes: time and place.
But it is lovely here today. On this valley-side platform, which has evidence of human habitation stretching back through the last several millenia, my upbringing in the lowlands engenders a feeling of vertigo in me: It’s as if I am looking down from the balcony of an auditorium, onto a screen which shows a long, slow, musical film in which the leading roles are played by waving treetops, brisk singing water, ravens, buzzards, and a chorus-line of a million songbirds. I gasped with starstruck delight to find that the osprey is even an occassional guest star. This glamorous show-stopper, I surmise, is contracted to a studio elsewhere, and has now migrated for the winter. If this were the Savoy, at Townend Bank in Walsall, as frequented by my parents in the late 1940’s, I’d be in one of the very best of the soft, plush seats and I would have handed over two-and-thruppence, Mother tells me, at the booth in the huge foyer, where any sort of chocolate could also be purchased. She wrinkles her nose at the thought of the cheaper seats at the Classic, known to them as “the Flea-Pit” at the bottom of Stafford Street, run by two enterprising middle aged ladies.
The finest vantage point from which to view the past seems not to be high ground, but underground. My memories are the “deepest” cracklings of my mind, and my earliest personal archaeology resides at the bottom of boxes, comprising photographs, diaries, and precious slips of paper. Buried treasure. The faces of the dead start to lose their definition in our mind’s eye within months of their demise, but here are their features, sharply rendered in the heist of a breathing, smiling moment, so clear and real an image that you find yourself lobbing a few light conversational words at it. How could I begin to recall the exact strokes of his writing? Yet here is the actual imprint of his moving hand. I gathered up whatever I could from 155, Bosty Lane in 2007. The present seems out of focus in comparison.
My father was 81 when he died, but had barely stopped working. Apprenticed as a bricklayer to J. R. Deacon of Lichfield in the early years of the war, his position was left open for him during his service in the Welsh Guards. He rose to general foreman but “went on his own” during the 50’s and was responsible both for the construction of trendy modern edifices, and the sensitive repair of dear old buildings throughout the Lichfield, Walsall, and Birmingham area. The projects were smaller and smaller undertakings* as he got into his 60s and 70s, but the working clothes still got a regular outing. The under layer was that mysteriously insulating garment, a string vest, followed by a shirt whose collar couldn’t stand another turning by my mother, always with a tie, that perhaps worn just a little skew-whiff. Brown dungarees were for building work and the white over-trousers and jacket for painting and decorating. Both were of a thick cotton that had been laundered over the years into a soft and comforting fabric. The painting and decorating outfit was a coat of many colours when inspected closely, bearing the painterly battle scars of a portfolio of jobs that encompassed the capacious sitting rooms of Rosemary Hill Road and the factory toilet facilities at Churchhouses factory. Tools were gathered in what I thought was an ingenious means of carrying them – a bag made of a complete circle of tough brown hessian stuff, with handles either side. Flat on the floor it displayed every hammer and chisel at once to be chosen from, but everything could be clanged and chimed together in an instant for transport purposes.
It wasn’t all about the mortar and the paint. The customers were his friends. He didn’t get rich out of them, that’s for sure. Interesting tales filtered home of lives beyond our experience. In Four Oaks, Miss Harvey’s ancient aunt, who lived with her, had been a suffragette, and armed with an enormous ear trumpet, was able to detect my father’s responses to her fiery anecdotes of activism before the first war. In Brownhills, Barry Chaplin has sunk all of his money into the “Beehive” – an old pub, converted into a foundry, and intended to make a fortune. My dad pointed the brickwork under the upper windows by leaning out of them with me holding on to his ankles. This is true.
Mr Sparshott’s affluent ancestors on his mother’s side had bequeathed him a vineyard in Bordeaux. The old man used to beckon my father away from his work and into the greenhouse of his enormous garden in Court Drive, Shenstone, when Mrs Sparshott wasn’t looking, under the pretext of sampling what had arrived in the latest crate, but really in order to muse on life with an affable companion, who was an excellent listener. I even remember my dad’s amused report on one of their conversations about their different stations in life: “Just got in the right place in the queue when they were handing out parents,” was Leon Sparshott’s pithy conclusion. I trace to this my firmly held belief that we deserve neither credit nor blame for where we are born. Never a drinker, my dad used to have to repair to his father’s home, Keeper’s Cottage, in Footherley Lane, to sober up before driving home to my waspish Mother. The smell of alcohol on his breath was cause enough for vexation, and they would only be able to put an invoice in for half a day’s work.
But that’s how he was happy to approach the working day, expecially after his heart attack. I nearly lost him in 1971. He knew stress was the killer. In season, each Tuesday was strictly reserved for fly-fishing at Packington Lake in Warwickshire. And if his day undertaking regular maintenance work on the Avion in Aldridge included a lunchtime hiatus for a pool contest or an opportunity to record the changing face of Aldridge’s road system, then I for one, don’t blame him.
*Sometimes literally. One lovely lady could turn to no-one but my father, to carpenter neat little (lined) coffins for her beloved late cats, and supervise laying them to rest in her garden.