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Posts Tagged ‘ordinary’

If you spilled your entire mug of morning coffee all over the bed, if your boiler broke down, if you’d forgotten to put the bins out, and then a gazillion-to-one meteorite wrote off your car, all in the same day, you could justifiably claim to be having a bad one. The rest of the time, it’s more often a question of attitude, in which case a moment’s mindful awareness can draw the sun from behind what only seems to be the gloomiest of clouds.

Take this afternoon, for example. It had such a pleasant vibe to it, whilst being nothing out of the ordinary, so I presume it was more a matter of catching myself in a positive frame of mind, and seeing the treasure in the pleasure of small, familiar things. I drove out to Southport, to the Eco-centre Park and Ride, then took the bus to Lord Street. Times are hard, the bus was empty, and we could dwell at length on that, but not today.

I treated myself to coffee and cake at Cranberries in the Cambridge Arcade. Then I took a leisurely browse in Broadhursts bookshop. There, I picked up used copies of Naoimi Clien’s “Shock Therapy”, and J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”. I should have read the latter when I was a teenager, I suppose, but better late than never. The former is a nightmare vision of the world, one I’m not sure I’m ready to admit into conscious awareness, even now. It’s an important book, but we’ll set that to one side for a rainy day. Then an impromptu rummage in a charity shop turns up Somerset Maugham’s “Razor’s Edge”. I don’t know Maugham at all, but his opening paragraph grabs me, and he moves himself to the top of my reading pile, no doubt much to the chagrin of others who have been waiting patiently for ages. Sorry ladies and gentlemen.

Of the rest of the old town, only Boots and M+S, are hanging on gracefully. Of the new emporia, there is a sense of cheapness and impermanence about them. I have always enjoyed a walk through Boots, just for that divine fragrance – and especially in recent years after a return from the grey decades of anosmia. I’m also under instruction from my good lady to look out for Cerruti 1881 aftershave, but I don’t see it. I’ll have to order it online, and therein lies the tale of every town’s decline, and our complicity, even as we lament it. But what else can one do? We could dwell at length on all of that, but not today.

And then I recall one could usually always rely upon Boots for the presence of beautiful, well-dressed young women in heels and makeup, and it seems one still can. It’s old-fashioned of me, I know, and perhaps even daring these days to say so but, as with the beauty of a sunset, and an autumn woodland, I’m glad of it for the way it delights the senses. The rest of the town looks tired, so we catch the bus back to the Eco-Centre, and the car park.

There’s a Mk 3 Capri, from 1985, parked next to us, and it moves away with that deliciously distinctive V6 purr. We always had an eye for a Capri, but never owned one. In its day, of course, it was the most stolen car in the UK. There’s an old Roller, too, a mid-70’s Silver Shadow. There’s something still nostalgically classy about an old Roller – a weddings and funerals thing, I suppose. I find the new ones are aggressively vulgar. Again, we could dwell at length on that, but not today. Instead, let’s wind back to coffee.

Coming up on two years of retirement now, and as I settle over coffee, in the Cambridge Arcade, I am thinking about what, if anything, I miss about the working life, and I have to say not much. When others ask about this, I usually tell them I miss “the people”, which, I imagine, is the correct, indeed the psychologically mature, thing to say. But speaking as an introvert, it’s never strictly true, since the forced company of others, whilst I admit is probably good for us, tends also to be mentally draining. We need to recharge by spending periods alone. My dreams are still peopled by former colleagues, whose names I find, on waking, I no longer remember. Familiar faces, but without names? I don’t know what the dreams mean by that, but they raise no particular emotional tone in me, other than perhaps vague worries about creeping senility, so I don’t give them much thought.

The only thing I really miss, is that Friday feeling, this being, as I recall, an almost child like excited anticipation of the weekend, and of all the joys you were going to cram into it before that flat tire of a Sunday night. It’s just in the way of things, we don’t fully appreciate our freedoms without the limitation imposed on us by the structure and the rhythm of a working week. In retirement then, it’s important to observe one’s mood, correct the temptations of negativity, and, since not every day can be made a white-knuckle ride of screaming pleasure, we look more closely for the pleasures hiding in the small things, which are everywhere and every day to be had. Otherwise, I suspect our contentment, and the value of our retirement risks dissipating, as the days take on a galloping similitude.

Of the small things this afternoon, we count the smile of the waitress who brings our coffee, we count the scent of a second hand bookshop, we count the beautiful women amid the exotic scent of the Boots fragrance department, and we count that gorgeous gurgling sound of an old V6. Then the sacrifice of the Friday feeling is a small price to pay and, which, in retirement, with a certain subtle vigilance, can be enjoyed any day of the week.

Header photo – Sunset, the pier at Southport, by me.

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If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

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