Saturday, 6 October 2007

Back to the neighbours

Closer even than neighbours were our lodgers, Mr. and Mrs. Whitefield. They rented two of our rooms, and shared our scullery.

In post World War II England such arrangements were not uncommon - there being such a shortage of housing.

“Uncle” Whitefield worked for the B.A.C - the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and we reckoned that anyone who worked there had “a good job”.

He was losing his hair, and “Auntie” Whitefield would give him a comb-over. He was a great supporter of Bristol Rovers Football Club (soccer), and wanted to take me to a game. My parents would not give permission on the grounds that I might hear bad language from the fans. (If only they could hear me now!).

The Whitefields owned a battery operated radio, and once in a while I would earn a few coppers by taking the accumulator (battery) to a home at the top of Stepney Road, where another neighbour had the equipment to charge the accumulator overnight.

When my brother Andrew came along in 1950, the Whitefields adored him, and I think would have liked to adopt him.

Now our home was getting very crowded and Uncle and Auntie Whitefield moved to a new City Council owned flat on Lower Knole Lane in Brentry, Bristol.

My twin sister and I would take the ‘buses to visit them, certain to be rewarded with a florin or a half crown.

Across the street from us were the Hurketts. Mr. Hurkett kept a lovely garden, and in the summer we would hear the click, click, click of his old fashioned mower.

From time to time a horse would pass by, maybe drawing a cart, or perhaps a horse for a mounted policeman. Mr. Hurkett, on hearing the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves would wait outside his gate, hoping that the horse would leave a gift - to be used as fertiliser

He had been a “tinker” (a mender of pots, kettles, pans, etc., usually an itinerant) which made him very romantic in my eyes.

At Christmas, each possessed with a good treble voice, my twin and I would sing carols for the Hurketts (and others in the neighborhood), and be rewarded with coins which we used to buy family Christmas gifts.

Across from the Hurketts, were the Perrys. I remember next to nothing about them, except that they were the very souls of that restrained English propriety and respectability which was the hallmark of successful English working class folks. They were amongst the nobility of our neighbourhood.

And there were the Staceys. Mr. Stacey sold insurance for the Cooperative Insurance Society. This was in the days when the “insurance man” came once every week or fortnight, and collected monies for simple life insurances. (I took one out “on my Dad” and was rewarded with maybe 30 pounds when Dad died in 1974 -- enough to buy a new suit for his funeral.)

Mr. Stacey owned a car, probably a Morris 8 and I remember seeing its chrome gleam in the sunlight. He was evidently quite successful, for in due course Mr. and Mrs. Stacey moved to the more than respectable suburb of Westbury-on-Trym. (revised Oct 7th to read Morris 8 instead of Austin 7)

Friday, 5 October 2007

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My cousin Rosemary died when she was 21. The year would have been 1959 or 1960. Rosemary was a most beautiful woman, the only child of my Uncle Fred and Aunty Phyll. She died from what we then called Hodgkin’s Disease.

From the time of her death until her burial, her body rested in an open coffin in the “front parlour” of her parents’ home. Various people kept vigil with the body during that long week.

That’s the way it had always been done, but Uncle Fred and Aunty Phyll were amongst the last to keep the old custom. They, and folks of my own parents’ generation were very realistic about death. If Granny or Grandpa lived and then died in your home, you would be very aware of death. The body would be there for you to see, and the “front parlour” was often reserved for this laying out (and for Christmas and other special occasions).

There were other customs. If a parent, child or spouse died, the men and young boys would don a black tie, and women would wear black, or a black arm-band, stitched to outer coats. Thus, even folks in the street knew that you were in mourning. ( When the mother of my friend Tom Bees died, he wore a black tie for a whole year, and he was the last man I’ve known who kept that older custom).

When a neighbour died, we would close the curtains at the front of the house from the time of death until the burial. Thus, when we walked the streets, if we saw closed curtains, we knew that there had been a death in that street.

Similarly, we boys were taught that if a funeral cortege passed by, we were to doff the hat, and bow the head until the cortege had passed.

I regret the loss of some of those old customs. Of course it is easy to romanticise the past, and not all was “whole” in our former way of death. Many will remember when we dare not utter the word cancer, and perhaps referred to it as “the big C”, part of a conspiracy of silence. And many people died in extreme pain as a result of a common assumption that there was virtue in a painful death.

Our Western attitudes towards death and dying have been changed greatly by two happenings.

The first was the widespread and blessed acceptance of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work “On death and dying”. She helped us all to understand ourselves and our dying ones. She gave us a language to express that which we had dimly understood.

The second was the pioneering and remarkable work of Dame Cicely Saunders, the creator of the modern hospice movement. In her residential “St. Christopher’s Hospice” she blazed a trail leading to our expectation of death with dignity, and without pain. It’s hard to imagine a time when we did not have “Hospice” - a most necessary and gentle facet in our recent ways of death and dying.

But, and this is a gentle “but”, there is the “law of unintended consequences”. I think of two.

First, the misunderstanding of Dr. Kubler Ross’s work, which often leads to the expectation that grief can be processed. “He/she has to go through the grief process” we say.

Dammit no! Grief cannot be “processed”. It has to become part of who we are, and that may take a long time. (One of my regrets about 9/11 is that as a Nation we were led into early vengeance, leaving us no time to allow the grief of that dreadful day to become part of who we are.)

Second, the expectation that death is always alright. Less than two hours after the death of my friend Bruce, even as his body was being removed from the house, someone (a professional nurse who should have known better) said “ well at least he is in better hands”.

I wanted to say “ you mean the frigging undertaker” (though the word “frigging” was not in my mind!)

What possibly could have been “better hands” at that moment than the hands of Ben, Bruce’s partner, and Nelson, Bruce’s son, both of whom had cared for Bruce until the end? Not even the “hands of G-d” at that moment.

Death stinks. And as a person of faith, in the face of death, I live between two poles. Both are expressed in poems I’ve already added to this blog.

“Death be not proud” by John Donne (1572-1631) is the pole of faith. In it, death personified is given the finger.

“Do not go gentle” by Dylan Thomas is the pole of feeling. It is about Dylan’s father. He had been a Union man, a protestor against the injustices of working life. He was being urged to die with grace. “No” says his son the poet, “die as you have lived” - “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

I live twixt those poles. And I miss Bruce so much.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Bruce Wirtz, Resurrection House - and hospitality

Bruce’s death is a hard blow to so many. Not least to his partner of 15 years, Ben. And Bruce’s wonderful children, (and I mean wonderful), Nelson, Katie, Andrew and Eunice, together with their families.

Two years ago I officiated at Nelson’s marriage on Cape Cod to Meredith, and then six weeks later, the four children and I were together at St. Luke’s Church in Worcester for the Requiem for their mother, Mary Virginia, at which I presided.

Now Bruce has passed. We’d been friends for 31 years. He was a wonderful Priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Bruce had a marvelous gift for hospitality, and we would joke that every person he met, even in the supermarket, would get an invitation to dinner at the home he shared with Ben in SRQ.

I’d see Bruce and Ben during their annual trips to New England, and they would urge “visit us in Florida”.

“Florida”, I would exclaim, “I hate Florida”.

But at Nelson and Meredith’s wedding I promised that I would visit. That I did in early 2006, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I came to SRQ, stayed with Bruce and Ben; met many of their friends; re-united with Barbara and Kay, (parishioners in Pittsfield - retired to Bradenton); and was enchanted and delighted .

Within six months I had retired here! During my first four weeks, Ben and Bruce checked in with me by ‘phone or in person every day. That wonderful gift of hospitality again!

Now Bruce has died, and I am sore. I will reflect a bit on death and grief tomorrow.
It stinks.

After a year in retirement I found a niche as a volunteer at Resurrection House, a wonderful day shelter for homeless people. I’d been inspired to this ministry by Debbie Little of Common Cathedral in Boston.

At Resurrection House I “shoot the breeze” with homeless people; take in laundry; assign showers and once a week facilitate a prayer service in the Chapel. (It’s Bruce’s gift of hospitality all over again).

(Two other volunteers who love the poor, and who pray with us each week, are “Sisters of the Epiphany” a part of the very right wing Ave Maria group founded by the owner of Domino's Pizza. Oh go figure will you - I cannot!).

Common Cathedral has created wonderful crosses which I give away at Resurrection House (see illustration).

Forty of them arrived in the mail today, and I drove down to Resurrection House today to keep them safe in my mail box.

Near to the House I encountered D….. H…… a regular guest at the House. He was peddling his under-sized bicycle like a bat out of hell. I tooted my horn and he made a U turn and came back to me.

“Padre Miguel” he exclaimed. We chatted. I asked if he had work. “Yes” he said, “just for today. I have to be there at two o‘clock, what time is it now?”.

“Three o’clock” I replied. Off he shot. But as he did so he called “I love you Pastor Michael”.

Oh the gifts we receive.

Thank you Bruce. Thank you Debbie. Thank you D….. H……

My friend Bruce Wirtz died on Tuesday, so I did not "blog" yesterday.

Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10)
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.

Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Three Queens and other matters.

Between February 1952 and March 1953 ( my eighth birthday was in May 1952) we had three Queens in England.

There was the imposing, stately, and yes regal, Queen Mary, widow of King George V. I was told that she would be called the “Dowager Queen Mother”, but that was never one of her many official titles.

Queen Mary was born on May 26th, as was I. Each year B.B.C. radio would play the National Anthem on her birthday - a nice bonus I thought “for me”!

Then Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, widow of King George VI. She’s the “Queen Mum” , known to most Americans.

Finally, the new young Queen Elizabeth. She became Queen upon her father’s death.
“The King is dead. Long live the Queen” was the official announcement.

Elizabeth II was not crowned (“coronated” as my grandmother put it) until June 1953, by which time Queen Mary herself had died.

Thus ended my British era of “Three Queens”. Now I am surrounded by them in Sarasota!


I had problems with a few words. Our local bakery, “Parker’s” marketed their bread under the name “Parker’s Vitality Bread”. All well and good, except that for me it was “Vitta-Litty” bread.

Well, little wonder, for I had spent many years being my-zuled. This, while the rest of the English speaking world was being miss-led. Figure that one out!


My grandmother taught me a rhyme. I’ve not heard it from anyone else, nor have I been able to track it down “on the web”.

Nanny would say:

“Naughty Jack went out to play
In the meadow yesterday.
Mother told him not to go
Near the brook where rushes grow.
But he did, and tumbled in.
Got wet through, right to his skin.
Now he’s got a cold in head.
Atishoo, Atishoo, Jack’s in bed”.

Then Nanny would rock with laughter. I thought it was a rhyme about my dad who was always known as Jack.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Strange Fruit

Three nooses hanging from what had been a “whites only” tree at a schoolyard in Jena, LA. The School Superintendent described it as a prank.

A noose hung outside a Black Cultural Center at the University of Maryland.

A noose found in the locker room of the Hempstead, NY. Police Department, where the Deputy Chief is a Black American.

Back to the ‘50’s?

Not quite. The three instances quoted above happened in 2006 and 2007.

Back to the ‘50’s?

Not quite. The last “officially reported” lynching took place in 1968. That’s if you discount the 1998 slaying of James Byrd.

Nooses are never pranks. They are icons of Americans’ widespread decision to be racist.

Read again this 1939 song, made famous/infamous by Billie Holiday.

Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

The folks on our Terrace

Our terrace contained five houses. Each backed on to the old L.M.S. railway (now a bike path), and the terrace was on the rise which led up to the railway bridge.

We were # 47, and the Charltons and Auntie Elsie, of whom I have written were at #49.

At #43 were the Halletts. They were jobbing builders. They had an "L" shaped builders’ yard, the bottom end of which cut across our back garden.

Old Mr. and Mrs. Hallett were pleasant enough, and my parents and they would have the occasional “across the wall” chat. They were the only neighbours with a ‘phone, so we relied on them for the occasional emergency call. They had two children, Phyllis and Don who worked in the family business.

Phyllis was the book-keeper for the family business, and I always think of her) pardon the expression) as a “maiden lady of a certain age”. She kept herself to herself, and bore a certain air of disapproval.

Don, the son, in due course inherited the family business. This was long after he married a lovely woman named Joan. As was the custom, even though we were not invited guests, Mum took a few of us children to the wedding at St. Stephen’s Church in Soundwell, Staple Hill.

Sometime before the wedding, my twin sister and I took a wedding gift to Don and Joan. We gave them a tubular canister of “spills”. “Spills” were maybe 8” x ¼” pieces of very thin wood. They were used to take a light from the open fire for a pipe or cigarette, or to take a light from one already lit gas stove burner to another.

That was the only time I ever entered their home.

Joan was the most friendly of the family. She and Don never had children, and I think that she grew sadder as the days went by. She was always so very kind to us, even when we reached our peak of nine children.

Don was a “piece of work”. He had a certain arrogance and disdain towards his neighbours. Once, soon after Dad had died, he climbed the wall into our garden to erect a fence on the low brick wall which separate his yard from our garden. Mum was incensed and offended that he had not bothered to ask for permission to enter our garden.

It was left to me to “ream him out” which I greatly enjoyed.

At #51 were Mr. and Mrs. Fox. They kept themselves to themselves. They too never had children. Mrs. Fox was “house-proud to the max”. She was reckoned by other neighbours to be shrewish and gossipy and we were not supposed to like her. (She was Welsh, and that was, in good English fashion, held against her).

# 53 was owned by the Plymouth Brethren of the Gospel Hall we attended. The house’s big wide side wall could be seen from the railway bridge, and the Brethren painted a text theron.

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 8:5).

I am not sure if that text “saved” anyone. But it confused me. I thought that the third word was “condemneth” and I could not understand why God would condemn his love!

The Brethren used the house to accommodate missionaries and evangelists who were on furlough. First, there was Mr. and Mrs. Norton, and their daughter Ivy, retired missionaries from India. I adored Ralph Norton, and when I was a little boy I said “when I grow up I want to be like Mr. Norton”.

Ivy taught piano, and I was enrolled as a pupil. But I did not like to practice! In their spare and un-heated bedroom the Nortons had nothing but a bed frame and spring on which they stored apples, to eat in the winter months. Ivy Norton took me there one day to pick out an apple, a somewhat shriveled “Coxes Orange Pippin”. I suppose that they had bought the apples in bulk during the season.

After the Nortons came the Moores. They too had been missionaries somewhere or other - I think in the Caribbean. Jack Moore was a pompous bully. I rang the door bell one day to ask if I could see his son Ken, a lad about my age. “Why to you want to see him?” bellowed Mr. Moore. “Because he is my friend” I replied. “No” said Mr. Moore, “he is not your friend, he is just an acquaintance, and you may not see him”.

Then came the Hislops, (or Hyslops) Mr. Hislop was an evangelist. He set up tents (in the American “Revival” fashion) , from which he blustered “the Gospel”.

As an earnest young 17 year old Plymouth Brother, I “worked for his campaign” in Yate, Glos, when I was employed at the Westminster Bank in nearby Chipping Sodbury.

He said one thing which I have never forgotten. “God” he said, “has cast all our sins in the depths of the sea”. Mr. Hislop continued - “then God put up a sign saying ‘no fishing’” Not a bad description of unconditional grace!

Tomorrow, a bit about other neighbours, the Hurketts and the Parrys, and some stuff about local traders - with thanks to my brother Martyn for his reminder of these.