Friday, 20 February 2015

The Quiet and Pleasant Man

Robert James Shepherd - my grandfather on my mother's side - was born on the 8th of March, 1910 somewhere in Liverpool, England for the sake of argument. He was one of a fairly large working-class family tracing its ancestry back to Northern Ireland, and possibly to Scotland before that. I almost certainly have some of the details wrong, but this is as much as I can recall from my mother's genealogical research which takes our family tree back to the late 1600s. Somewhere in there lurks a member of the Orange Lodge, but we don't like to talk about him too much, not least because we don't really know enough about him for anything more than a short sentence.

My grandfather's parents were Joseph and Emmeline Shepherd, and his military documentation gives his home address as 17, Hotspur Road in Bootle, which is technically Merseyside rather than Liverpool depending on who you ask and when; and providing you ask someone other than my grandmother who would customarily adopt a face of stony and silent disgust in the event of anyone mistaking her for a Scouser, which occurred with some frequency due to her fairly distinct Liverpudlian accent.

What I have left of my grandfather's story is cobbled together from fading childhood memories; a couple of hundred black and white photographs which, if numerous, remain nevertheless mysterious; and a lever arch file containing military documentation, certificates of training, pay book, and all sorts. From these I know that he was a joiner by trade - following in his father's footsteps so I believe - who enlisted with the Royal Artillery on the 1st of April 1933. The next few sequential documents I have are third and then second class certificates of military education passed in English, mathematics, map reading, and a subject termed army and empire. He is identified as a Driver on these certificates, ascending to the rank of Gunner on his first class certificate of military education dated to the 16th of October 1935. He transferred to the Army Reserves at the rank of Bombardier on the 29th of January, 1939. Notes made in his Certificate of Service booklet dated to the 28th of September, 1938 describe his conduct as exemplary, with some officer whose signature I am unable to decipher describing my grandfather as follows:

A first class surveyor and a reliable and trustworthy NCO. He is very intelligent and is methodical and painstaking. He has a quiet and pleasant manner.

England went to war with Germany on 3rd of September, 1939, from which point my grandfather's story is told mainly in photographs as he sits atop a camel before the Great Pyramid in Egypt, along with other scenes of his life in India or the North African desert. Two formal uniformed portrait photographs delineate his promotion from Corporal to Staff Sergeant, and then there are the medals - notably the Africa Star - and what little I am able to remember him telling me of his time with Montgomery's Eighth Army when I was a kid.

My mother was born just after war ended, and a receipt for the payment of an examination fee dated to the 3rd of November, 1948 testifies to my grandfather's return to civilian life as a structural engineer - or an architect if the more specific term seems a little obtuse. He may not quite have designed the buildings, but he made sure they didn't fall down. This trade was much in demand in the city of Coventry in the West Midlands, much of which had been flattened by the Luftwaffe during the war, although it could probably be argued that Coventry City Council spent the next two decades bulldozing the bits which Hitler's finest had missed. Anyway, the point is that my grandparents moved to Kenilworth, Warwickshire, just down the road from Coventry, which is how my mother ended up in that part of the country, and ultimately how I came to be born. Kenilworth had become aspirational in the years following the second world war. You were someone if you lived in Kenilworth, which pleased my grandmother as much as anything pleased her. My grandfather, who had never suffered any particular shame in acknowledging his Merseyside roots, may have felt differently, but work was work and I suppose he tended to keep his thoughts to himself.

My mother has described her home life as pleasant up until the age of twelve or so, at which point my grandfather apparently found himself bewildered as to how to cope with teenage girls. Where he would once play with my mother and her younger sister, read to them and tell them stories, he became a distant and apparently humourless authority figure inspiring my mother to rebel further when charged with inconsequential accusations made purely for the sake of authority.

He seemed to do well as an architect working for Coventry City Council, and he had his friends and his fishing at the weekend, but the war had stayed with him in certain respects, unfortunately leading to a spell in the nuthouse during which he was subject to electroconvulsive therapy. It probably didn't help that my grandmother had never quite been the sharpest tool in the box, and had always been a somewhat self-absorbed individual. Whilst she doted upon me as a child, and I in turn thought she was wonderful, even at that age I could see she had something of a martyr complex. Nothing my grandfather did for her was ever quite good enough, and he did plenty.

'Never mind,' she would say with a laboured sigh. 'I suppose at least you tried.' She herself had been the least favoured of three children, the one with neither the beauty nor any particular talent to speak of, and so she grew up with a vague sense of being owed something which she could not quite articulate. She apparently fell some way short of being the world's greatest mother, and I always wondered if she saw my arrival in terms of atonement, as a way of making up for lost time. I was indulged as her own children had never been.

The happiest days of her life had been as a land girl on the farm of Sammy Shellew in Cornwall, and memories of the same were frequently invoked for the sake of contrast with an endlessly disappointing present. If only she had married Sammy, or if only she had not moved so far from the wonderful Thelma, her greatest friend in the whole world. She met with Thelma a few times in the seventies, but eventually fell out with her; and then the venerable Sammy Shellew came to stay, which didn't work out so well due to his having interpreted my grandmother's gushing praise as a sexual overture, which probably wasn't entirely his fault.

For most of the 1970s I would be taken to stay with my grandparents every other weekend, arriving Friday evening and coming back Sunday afternoon. It was a regular thing, a routine, and like many children, I loved routine and found it comforting, something upon which one might rely in a world which appeared chaotic through not yet being fully understood. One of my earliest coherent memories is of watching Neil Armstrong landing on the moon as viewed on my grandparents' black and white television on Sunday the 20th of July, 1969. I would have been three years old, two months short of four. My grandfather was ten years older than I am right now.

Weekends generally began with breakfast, usually my grandfather making buttered toast - your bog standard Mother's Pride white sliced bread and probably Stork margarine, but somehow I've never been able to make toast quite so good as he did. Tea was stewed until bright orange - or at least the complexion of Judith Chalmers from that holiday show. The cocktail cabinet built into the sideboard was well stocked with kid drinks, Cresta or else bottles of Nesquik syrup for milkshakes and a selection of drinking straws, but they got me onto tea quite early on, always served from a pot into a cup with a saucer, one of those matching sets invoking some level of sophistication.

'He's been a proper little tea urn this weekend,' my grandmother reported one Sunday as my parents arrived to take me home, and it was true that I had been guzzling one cup after another. I can still recall my overpowering thirst of that particular weekend.

Some Saturdays I'd awake before my grandparents and would go downstairs and find something amazing in being the first to rise, in being the one to draw back the curtains upon a new day. On one such occasion I switched the radio on just as Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty was playing, and right in the middle of that Bob Holness saxophone break which I have ever since associated with an early Saturday morning at my grandparents' house; and the thing is, I'm not even sure of this being a real memory as opposed to some sort of association made after the fact.

My grandparents didn't seem to like anything racier than Jim Reeves so far as I could tell, so modern pop music was absolutely out of the question. My grandfather had apparently taken some delight in mocking his youngest daughter's love of Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders by referring to them as the Bananabenders, and I don't recall the radio ever having been tuned to anything that would have featured Baker Street. My parents took me to see Grease at the cinema in Stratford-upon-Avon when it came out, and the next Friday as they ferried me over to Kenilworth, I begged them not to tell Grandma we'd been to see the film. I somehow felt that such an admission would bring disgrace upon us, but I still have no idea how I thought this would work or what would happen if our terrible secret should be revealed.

Breakfast was usually prefaced by my grandfather walking up Caesar Road to the newsagent for a newspaper. I would tag along and he would buy me one of the small, brightly-coloured plastic dinosaurs from the display on the counter, or in later years the new issue of 2000AD comic; and I have a very specific memory of reading issue sixty-eight with the gruesome cyborg Artie Gruber on the cover at the breakfast table with my hot margarined toast and orange tea. My grandfather quite possibly passed some faintly disparaging comment on my reading material, thus cementing the memory in place. 2000AD comic was one of the first things I understood as belonging to my generation and thus beyond the scope of adults. Six weeks later as our family headed off for a week's holiday in Delabole, Cornwall, my mother frowned at the cover of issue seventy-four upon which Judge Dredd is seen on the verge of being devoured by a tyrannosaurus.

'It's very violent,' she observed in disapproving fashion.

'It's violence in the cause of good,' I explained somewhat ineptly.

After Baker Street, the orange tea, toast, and my weekly dose of violence in the cause of good, my grandparents and I would bundle into the navy blue Morris Minor and drive to Leamington Spa. My grandfather drove cautiously, perched forward in his seat, gripping the wheel and generally refusing to talk. Often he would whistle Bizet's March of the Toreadors from Carmen, and he would whistle it with such enthusiasm and frequency that I came to regard it as his signature tune; although specifically I have a better memory of him whistling it when it was just the two of us. He seemed less given to flourishes of carefree cheer in my grandmother's company, and my mother tells me that he was once in the habit of singing to himself, Pennies from Heaven and other songs of the time. I suppose by the seventies he generally felt less moved to song.

By the eighties, having invented experimental music, I produced a track attempting to invoke his memory by recording the running of a friend's Morris Minor whilst whistling March of the Toreadors. It seemed like an important thing to do, but the recording was disappointing.

Once in Leamington Spa I would be unleashed in a labyrinthine Regent Street toy shop called Toy Town, there to blow what feeble sum of pocket money I'd managed to save on model railway accessories, Ellisdon's jokes and novelties, Micronauts, Dinky's die-cast Gerry Anderson vehicles, model kits of dinosaurs, Shogun Warriors, or Faller alpine houses earmarked for the aforementioned model railway. I was good at spending money but not at saving it, so my model railway comprised mainly accessories and scenery with very little actual railway. With hindsight it strikes me as a little weird how I would buy and build bungalows, houses and shops past which no miniature electric locomotive would ever trundle on OO gauge tracks, and I can't help wonder if my granddad ever noticed this and imagined I might have some subconscious drive to one day follow him into the architectural trade. Having been a joiner, he still had all of his carpentry tools and so jollied me along by making a couple of wooden tunnel entrances which might eventually parenthesise the locomotive passage through a hillside of papier maché and chicken wire.

I repaid him by never getting around to constructing my hypothetical layout, and by nominating him test subject for all the Ellisdon's jokes and novelties I bought once I gave up on the model railway idea. Whilst he never struck me as particularly lacking a sense of humour, he tired of the job fairly rapidly then resigned during breakfast one Sunday. He'd responded to the loud farting rasp of the whoopee cushion on his chair with an indulgent smile. He'd found the plastic fried egg on his plate considerably less amusing, and the novelty double-sided suction cup by which I had attached his cup of tea securely to its saucer was the last straw.

'Your mother shall hear of this,' he muttered darkly, carrying the still full cup and firmly attached saucer to the kitchen. It had been a long weekend for him. The day before, my grandmother had only just talked me out of trying my joke sweets on him by suggesting there was a possibility that I might kill him. I'd made the sweets myself from everything I could find in the kitchen cupboard. To my grandfather's credit, he made no attempt to throttle me, despite probably knowing that no court in the land would have found him guilty. He never raised his voice to me, because I suppose he understood that, being a child, I was essentially psychotic and that it was therefore nothing personal. He was nevertheless able to induce me to behave with just a few words. It was probably the military training.

My grandmother's approach to child care was based on flattery, giving me stuff, and assuming it would be appreciated. It generally was appreciated, although I nevertheless got out of hand from time to time. Standard child psychology would have termed it a testing of limits, which I could have told you even back then. I had become irritable at being addressed as sweetheart or similar endearments with such frequency, and so I began to experiment with basic rudeness, making strident demands, complaints about the quality of service, and on one occasion directly calling her an old bat. I was probably about six or seven and I thought it was funny because I knew she would let me get away with it.

'Don't speak to your grandma like that,' my grandfather suggested, momentarily fixing me with the mildest of glances; and in that moment I saw myself as the repulsive brat I had become. It felt awful and I learned my lesson immediately. It was as though I'd been punched in the stomach.

On Saturday afternoons I would play with whatever I'd bought back from Leamington Spa, or sometimes we drove to Coventry to visit the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, and my grandfather would point out which buildings he'd helped design as we drove through the city. The swimming pool was one of his, as were parts of the university, so I believe, and it had been his job to make an assessment of the extent of the coal mining beneath the city and whether or not the ground would be able to support the weight of St. Michael's Cathedral.

Some Saturday afternoons, he would take me down to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth to catch fish from the stream, or around Kenilworth Castle; and I have no idea what we talked about during those walks, but I recall that we talked at length. As my mother has observed more recently, whilst some of his views were staunchly conservative and typical of his background and times, he was essentially a decent and intelligent man who was interested in things. He had seen some of the world and had come back the better for it in most respects but for those more directly related to the war. He would take me to Leamington Spa and have me splash around in a kayak for an hour or so at a small boating lake near Jephson Gardens, and I would notice the Indian women in their saris and remark on how strange they looked.

'I think they look very pretty,' he observed somewhat forcefully, possibly even wistfully given the time he'd spent in India, belying the generalisation of his generation's supposedly inherent xenophobia.

His creative energies went into plays and letters hammered out on a typewriter which he would sometimes encourage me to use. He wrote a play called One Bad Apple or something similar, a heavy-handed cautionary tale of a hearty and generally conservative workplace ruined by one of those shifty labour union type fellows, and there was another play about a wayward and rebellious daughter coming to no good. He didn't really seem to get much interest in this material, but it was significant that he at least tried.

He encouraged me in my formative attempts at storytelling, listening patiently as I read him by Bod fan fiction. The opening scenario in which Bod had a beautiful dream about a bowl of strawberries and cream was a direct lift from the barely animated children's television cartoon, but the conclusion - the world ends and in the next world Bod is a gorilla - was all my own work. There were also many, many episodes of Doctor Stew, a sequence of single page cartoon strips drawn on a long, long roll of rough hand tissue which had never made it to the dispenser of the cattle shed in which my dad worked.

'There's an awful lot of burping in these,' my grandfather observed reading through my scrawled efforts. It didn't seem like he disapproved exactly, but I got the impression he was concerned. Each episode - and there were at least a hundred of them - usually ended with Doctor Stew eaten alive in time for his devourer to emit a satisfied burp in the last panel, which was also the punchline.

Concerned or otherwise, it impressed me that my grandfather had taken the trouble to at least read my incoherent and extraordinarily repetitive attempts at humour. My grandmother would customarily have sung my praises more or less irrespective of what I had done, which was nice but ultimately didn't count for much.

Saturday evenings were television - The Pink Panther, Doctor Who, Basil Brush, The Generation Game, Starsky & Hutch - all of those shows which have since become tarnished by the overwhelming and disproportionate sentiment of their own nostalgia; or my grandfather would turn off the television and tell me about his time in the war, which was always something of a treat. Perhaps it was because I could tell how much he enjoyed reliving it with me, drawing maps of Tobruk and North Africa with arrows to illustrate movements of troops and tanks, and himself in there somewhere.

Sundays were different, at least following breakfast. Sometimes he would take me fishing, the one activity in which he still took real pleasure, so it seemed. He had made me a kid-sized fishing box in his workshop in the garage, and off we would go with flasks and sandwiches to some point along the River Leam or the Avon or the Sowe. He was keen on outdoor activities, and the boot of the Morris Minor was always well stocked with camping equipment, a kettle, tin mugs, a tiny Primus stove and so on. Alternately we would just go for another walk to Abbey Fields or one of the usual places.

'I've been feeling a bit depressed,' I told him in response to some question or other as we headed out of the door one morning, our breath misting the crisp air. I don't recall how old I was, younger than thirteen, and young enough for it to seem strange that I would articulate such a thing.

I got the impression that he was quietly horrified. 'You shouldn't be depressed at your age,' he said, a trace of pain in his voice.

At the time I had no idea of his own history of depression, the hours sat silently rocking back and forth before the fire described by my mother, nor any really developed idea of what the term even meant. I was trying to articulate a vague feeling of insecurity based on the knowledge that I was getting older and one day the fortnightly visits would cease. I recall this as a fairly specific fear I had voiced in relation to my grandmother's stated ambition to run a tea shop. She had predicted a peculiar future in which I would be riding around with my followers as part of some biker gang. Everyone would draw to a halt behind me as we approached the crossroads.

'Come on, lads,' I would say, 'my grandma's always good for a cup of tea and a bun,' and off we would all ride. The image amused me, but was followed by the altogether more apocalyptic, 'of course one day you'll stop coming to see us altogether.'

I was briefly inconsolable.

Sure enough, my visits became less frequent as I got older, and as my grandfather contracted bowel cancer some time in 1979. We visited him in the hospital in Warwick, and it terrified me to see him frail as a bird in his huge bed, happy to see us but barely enough of him there to fill the pyjamas. I'd always suspected that some elements of the world were subject to change and would ultimately become different, and now it was happening. I didn't cry when I heard he had died because it didn't make sense, but I was distraught at the funeral.

Denied the supposed source of all her woes, my grandmother became a quite different figure, certainly more tragic, but not so tragic as to excuse her increasingly eccentric passive-aggressive behaviour. The jokes she told about her terrible husband lost their jovial tone to become a spiteful, insecure whine about how she could have wasted her best years on such a useless man; but the complaints served only to underscore her own failings, her sense of having been owed something she could never quite articulate. What photos remain of my grandfather are those she somehow missed when she was throwing it all away, and from amongst what little is left of him I have a letter that was never posted, typed on a sheet of lined foolscap and addressed to John Newbury of the BBC. It is dated to the 15th of June, 1979:

I listened with interest to your programme on depression on Wednesday last, and as one who suffered from this complaint over a long period in the past, and having been cured I feel I should inform you of some of my experiences in the hope that you will pass on any relevant information to others who are suffering.

I suffered this sickness from 1944, on my return from five years continuous service in the Middle East and India until about five years ago when I learned about and obtained acupuncture treatment; and apart from one brief spell I have not experienced any depression since. The one instance occurred about four years ago during the transition from a busy working life to one of retirement.

Concerning the discussion on your programme I believe that any lowering of morale for which the causes are known - external conditions such as bereavement, domestic conflict etc. - is really only a sadness which, generally, time will heal. In my opinion, depression is a complaint which has no known cause and exists only within the patient, and can occur at any time regardless of circumstances. In my experience, lonely people are not more prone to this sickness than others. During my last period in hospital I found the other patients to be a typical cross-section of people including a works manager, school teacher, miner, and a policeman. One particular character was a hearty, boisterous person, apparently happily married with children, liked his job and was financially secure, circumstances which should promote contentment; but he suffered and frequently cried for no apparent reason. This was real depression.

I have found that these attacks can occur in different ways, one being like a huge mass of black fluid flowing into one's mind and another like a thousand different thoughts racing through the mind without pause until I feared for my sanity.

I felt a deep sympathy for the people who took part in your programme and I hope that you will tell them that they have no need to continue to suffer, that there is a cure and that I sincerely hope they can avail themselves of it and obtain relief.

Thirty-five years later, there may be days which pass without my thinking about him, but I am not directly aware of them. I often wish I could go back and talk to him as I am now, or at least take back some of the utter crap I almost certainly came out with, although there's probably no need. I'm fairly sure he understood that I was just a kid, and talking rubbish was my job.

As the years pass, I come to see myself in what I am able to recall of him all the more, and this impression has been cemented by a couple of photographs taken in the early 1950s which may as well be photographs of myself; and it occurs to me that there's probably no need to invent time travel just for the sake of apologising for my having been ten and slightly gormless, because he never entirely went away and, as I have said, I'm sure he would understand.

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