Saturday, September 29, 2007

That Old Feeling

Yes, I know, I'm late. Contrast Podcast came out this past Tuesday and I'm only now getting around to posting about it. I'm a delinquent FiL...

This week saw a celebration of 78 rpm vinyl. Indeed, skool doesn't get much older than that, unless you go back to wax cylinders. And what an eclectic celebration it is! Everything from Elvis to Hawaiian hula to Ferrante & Teicher. Truly one of the more contrastic podcasts of late. So don't pull your nose just because there's no Wedding Present, Sufjan Stevens, or Arcade Fire - have a listen to it here and expand your musical horizons! And if you want the tracklisting or are minded to comment, then pop on over here.

Unfortunately I no longer have any 78 rpm records; I believe they got lost somewhere between multiple moves and one basement flood. But my choice this week, Gracie Fields' "Biggest Aspidistra In The World," though ripped from a CD, was originally released back in 1938 on a 78. I was first introduced to Gracie Fields's music some thirteen years ago, under circumstances that spawned what are probably permanent emotional resonances.

Though born Up North in Derbyshire, My Great Uncle Don lived for most of his life in Shoeburyness, close to Southend-on-Sea in Essex. That's about forty miles due East of London. He was a pharmacist and for many years he and his wife, Ida, ran a local chemists in nearby Westcliff-on-Sea. My Father was very close to his Uncle Don and Aunt Ida, and while a teenager and a young adult in the 1940s and 1950s he would frequently visit them, often taking his rugby friends along. He regarded them almost as parents and spoke very fondly both of them and of his time in Southend. Ah, the Kursaal...

For the first few years that I lived in the UK, I would go down from Cambridge to Shoeburyness every so often to visit Uncle Don. By that time he was a widower in his late eighties. Uncle Don looked like a cross between a bulldog and a stout Flemish duchess and was always dapperly dressed in Marks & Spencer best. He was an infallibly polite man, though he held very strong conservative views and did not suffer fools gladly. He also had an dryly impish sense of humour.

My visits always followed the same script. After arriving at Southend Central train station on a Sunday, I would take a taxi to his modest bungalow near the seashore and then we would make our way to Thorpe Hall Golf Club, where he was a highly respected member emeritus. We would first have a drink in the club bar --Uncle Don
always had a bottle of Worthington's White Shield strong pale ale-- then decamp to the dining room for a traditional English lunch of overcooked vegetables, decent roast meat of some sort, and a sticky pudding. We would then return to his bungalow, settle into his 1949 vintage sitting room, and chat for a while.

While conversation was occasionally grueling (due largely to his Northern taciturnity), more often than not I got him talking about my Father and The Old Days, and I just lapped up his stories. After a while he would suggest I put the kettle on and we would then sup tea with the TV on until he fell asleep in his armchair. I would then wait a respectable period of time, then loudly declare, as if we had been chatting all along, that Goodness, I'd better think about catching my train back to Cambridge.

Upon getting back to my digs, I would ring my Father in New York to relay the essence of my visit. It was usually late, and I would frequently be grumpy and irritated as a result of British Rail delays. Dad would always thank me for having gone to see Uncle Don, as distance and circumstance meant that he couldn't do so himself. And I was always pleased that I had been able to do it for him, pleased enough to significantly mitigate the irritation and grump.

In late 1994, at the age of 92, Uncle Don took rather poorly. After a spell in a nursing home, he was admitted to hospital following a suspected mild stroke. At the time I had just started work in The City and was in the midst of a distasteful crash-course on Basic Accounting For The Numerically Challenged. Nevertheless, a sense of urgency settled over my debit and credit thoughts, so I told my Father that I would go visit him one evening at Rochford Hospital. When I finally arrived, some two hours after setting out (thanks again, British Rail), I wasn't even certain whether or not he knew I was there; his eyes stared fixedly at the ceiling, and a horrid, raspy breathing laboured out of his gaping mouth. I told him that my Father sent his love and jabbered about I-remember-not-what for about fifteen minutes before taking my leave. He died later that night. My father was more grateful than ever that I had made the visit.

In planning the funeral, my Father asked me to track down a copy of Gracie Field's "Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye." Apparently Uncle Don had mentioned to Dad that he'd quite like to have that jaunty song played at his funeral. I located a Gracie compilation, and on the appointed day the song duly rang forth as a conveyor belt carried Uncle Don's coffin from an achingly kitsch chapel into the flaming heart of Southend Crematorium. I remember my Father sobbing openly, oblivious to the confusion of the other attendees who had not been forewarned of the musical choice.

So that's how I met Gracie. And every time I hear her, I think of Uncle Don, overcooked vegetables, Southend-on-Sea, Worthington's White Shield, and journeys on old British Rail slam-door trains.

And of my Father. Crying.

Gracie Fields - Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye (buy here or e-here)


ally. said...

what a lovely piece ducky - i've been dreaming of a brown ale in the bar at the end of southend pier a lot recently and when i'm finally there i shall raise a glass to gracie, uncle don, and your fine self.
thanks ever so for the kind words

bona lavs


mjrc said...

aw, fil, ally's right. this is a really lovely post. so many people don't make the extra effort to keep up relationships that aren't convenient or purely for pleasure. your father must have been very proud of you for treating his uncle so well. may it come back to you one day in the form of some young person who cares enough to visit you in your dotage. : )

Eliot Iguana said...

I somehow hope that in his dotage, FiL will be locked away with many old chums to drink to excess and try to manage the miracle of slam dancing from a wheelchair or walker... I rather like the thought of a bunch of decrepit 80 year olds trying to belt out Sex Pistols lyrics. ;)

FiL - special note of pathos for me tonight. Dearest diva daughter began singing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" tonight, which prompted me to look up the original Elton John/Kiki Dee video and enter into a duet with my spouse (shocking eldest child in the process). Haven't had that much fun since we made you sing "I Will Survive" the night before your wedding!

Mentok said...

It's compelling personal essays like this that convince me you are wasted in high finance, or whatever it is that you do.

"Dryly impish sense of humour" indeed! On the basis of this song alone, I'm sure Uncle Don was gentlemen I'd have loved to have known.

You certainly earned the title "grand"-nephew, eh? We can all only hope to be blessed with a young relative like you in our old age.

Tim Young said...

So Gracie has now been added to my personal 'play this at my funeral' folder. Thanks Uncle Don.