Eulogy

Our father Kenneth, known to some of the family as Joe and to his colleagues as Johnny, was quite a complex character. Born in 1914, one of his earliest memories was to hear the pit-head sirens sounding in celebration at the end of the Great War; another was the death of his 16-year-old cousin in the great influenza outbreak. He was a pupil at the Lewis School, Pengam, once described by Lloyd George as “The Winchester of Wales” and it was a source of pride to him in later life that some of his more famous countrymen – England Cricket Captain Tony Lewis, Wales & British Lions Rugby Captain John Dawes and never-to-be-Captain Neil Kinnock – followed him through those hallowed portals.

He was a brother to four sisters and although there are few anecdotes I can relate about these times, I believe there was an occasion in which he pushed someone’s nose into a boiled egg.

He was very hard-working but the 1930s was not the best decade to try to find a job in South Wales. He tried his hand at chickens, gaining a certificate in Poultry Husbandry from the Usk Agricultural College and later he was a door-to-door salesman, peddling brushes around on his bike. However, father eventually became an economic migrant, leaving the Valleys and settling in Kent. He found employment briefly at the Woolwich Arsenal, but more importantly he found our mother at the St. Mary Cray tennis club, and in 1940 they married. These were, of course, turbulent times, and within a month he had received his call-up papers. Being able to read a micrometer, he was placed in the air force as a mechanic and after a period of training was posted overseas.

Compared to many, father probably had a relatively easy war in the sense that he was never in direct contact with conflict, following up behind the troops as Monty did his stuff in the Sahara. Perhaps the greatest danger he was in was in London in the Blitz when, bombs raining down, a soldier he was with shot the lock off an underground station so that they could find shelter. However, he must have missed Beckie enormously, and there was one occasion on which he risked arrest by taking illicit leave to be with her, hiding from the Military Police in the lavatories at King’s Cross Station until the coast was clear. On his return from active service more than 3 years later, he entered a household as a stranger to one of its members, his disabled oldest son Geoffrey. Although he rarely talked about this, or the war years, they must have had a profound effect on him. I think that Geoffrey’s death in 1960 was a tragedy from which neither he nor mother ever fully recovered.

The 9 post-war years saw five more children come along. Father became a teacher and it was at the Langdon Hills Primary School that he spent almost all his career. He made some good friends and the family is very grateful to those of you who have managed to make the journey today. Of course, the teaching profession has never been one in which fortunes are made, and he cultivated the garden assiduously in order fill our hungry mouths. For a good part of the year he provided all the vegetables we ate and also put his poultry skills to good use, for all of my childhood and beyond keeping a dozen hens at the bottom of the garden.

On his retirement in 1976 he confided in me with a slurred voice: “Boyo, I’ve got an ambition. I want to draw a pension for longer than I drew a salary!” and he set about achieving that ambition with gusto. He expanded his chicken emporium so that he now had 200 hens rather than the dozen or so, and he sold eggs and some surplus fruit and veg at the door. He also made bread and something which passed as home-made wine… It was also around this time that he became a founder member of the Ramsden Heath Horticultural Society and every year we would help him prepare the fruit and vegetables for display in a fairly haphazard fashion. Even so, on a few occasions he won the Cup for the best overall performance in the show and at the time there were probably only two or three gardeners in the village who could stay with him.

He was an enthusiastic DIY practitioner, and there were few jobs that he would not tackle. In the early days of occupation of Lawn House, he took on some massive projects: re-pointing the entire side wall, building the garage, laying crazy paving. Later on he tried his hand at being a lumberjack and took some incredible risks. Those of us who witnesses the incident will never forget a very large piece of poplar tree he had just severed hurtling past him and ripping the chain-saw from his grasp as it plummeted some 30 feet to the ground below, leaving him looking like some odd weathercock, balanced precariously at the top of the ladder. There was another incident when they were both in their 80s that he persuaded mother to venture with him onto the lean-to to try and find out where the rain was getting in. She lost her balance and started to slide down the roof but he somehow stopped her and helped her back through an upstairs window. It is quite remarkable that a man with such a disregard for his own safety should have survived to the age of 92.

He was an armchair sports enthusiast, a passion I shared with him, and certain events became family institutions. The annual five-nations rugby tournament was a favourite, and it was a great time to be supporting Wales. He was also keen on cricket and the television would always be on for the test matches. On quite a few occasions we went to county games, often Essex v Glamorgan, and we saw some tremendous cricket. He was very happy in 1969 when, on a visit to Chris and Andrea in Cardiff, he and I watched his beloved Glamorgan at Sophia Gardens. It was the first day of the match that sealed the County Championship when Majid Khan hit a wonderful century and before the close Ossie Wheatley ripped the heart out of the Worcestershire batting. He remembered such details for a long time and would tell others about them years later.

But most importantly, he was a doting grandfather. He loved his grandchildren hugely, and would often indulge them, somewhat to their parents’ consternation, but I don’t think that any of them ever came to any harm as a result. As they grew and developed, he took enormous pride in their achievements, but had the infuriating and probably mischievous habit of heaping praise on them in their absence.

It was, of course, a massive blow to him when Beckie died, after 64 years’ marriage, and one that most of us thought that he would not survive, but he recovered better than any of us expected and I think that for the last couple of years of his life he was as happy in Broadoaks as he could have been anywhere. He did not make friends easily – after his retirement it seemed to me that he had little contact with anyone but the family – but whenever we visited him he spoke warmly of the other residents, especially Eric and Grace. Neither did he ever lose his interest in sport and current affairs: quite often he would tell me about some news item that had escaped my notice, or a sports result that I didn’t know. His quick wit and rather black sense of humour also stayed with him, and even into his 90s he was capable of a witty aside which demonstrated great keenness of mind.

The end came in Southend Hospital on 5th May. He was too ill to be told of his sister Kathleen’s death only a few days before his own, so if there is an afterlife, then I think he was in for a big surprise. Indeed, I can imagine him greeting her: “What the hell are you doing here?”

Thorn Raven Discovery Tandem

There has been a great deal written about our tandem, by me and others, which is now almost at the end of its 100-day money-back guarantee period.

In spite of the hub problem in Scotland, I am very peased with it. It’s not built for speed, which suits us, but a very solid kind of ride: no “twitchiness” and feels very reliable on downhills and corners. Having said that, we have had it over 46mph on a downhill but gravity was the cause, not our fast pedalling.

I was already familiar with Rohloff hubs as I have one on my solo machine. Occasionally I feel as though we ought to have one gear higher than we have – it’s not that uncommon for us to be bowling along on the flat in top gear doing about 25 mph – but that would sacrifice the bottom gear, which we need, even in Essex.

The S & S couplings are fantastic. It’s easy to dismantle the bike in about 2 minutes for putting on trains, but usually takes a little longer to re-assemble as the frame tubes have to be lined up. I haven’t tried doing this on my own, but I would think that it would be very hard with just two hands.

We thought we would miss the drum brake – we had one on our Claud – but the rim brakes on the tungsten rims are superb. Terrific stopping power, and the ear-splitting squealing that they emitted when new has now gone.

We equipped ours with Carradice panniers – front, rear, bar bag & kit-bag – and it easily carried everything we needed for our Scottish trip. Whether we would have had the hub flange break if we had been less heavily-laden I don’t know, but the alternative would have been a Y-frame trailer, assuming that you can fit one to a Rohloff hub. I haven’t researched that, but the handling even with the amount of luggage we had was excellent, and I would be reluctant to sacrifice that.

I am prepared to accept that the problem we had is very rare, but I still think it shouldn’t happen. I think that there is little doubt that our combined weight, the luggage and some of the terrain we crossed is getting close to the edge of what is reasonable, but having said that a hub should not break before a spoke does. If Rohloff’s estimate is correct that this only affects 1 in 1000 hubs, then if it happens again to us it will be 1 in a million.

I definitely think that the Panaracer Pasela tyres were not up to the job. Andy Blance, Thorn’s “main man” when it comes to frames and technical matters, sounded more surprised with our tyre problems than he did with the hub problem. PPs may be OK for a lightly-built crew, but Schwalbe Marathon Pluses are the heavy-duty choice in my book.

ACF Suffolk Ride

The day began for me with Parcel Force arriving with my tandem wheel while I was taking a crap contemplating my navel, so I failed to hear the doorbell. Janet emerged from our marital bed in order to open the door in her negligée but by this time the parcel force man had slung the parcel over the fence into the back garden. I retrieved it, opened it and was just admiring its beauty when another one of nature’s wonders in the form of Fatbloke appeared at the front door. After admiring his beauty for a nanosecond or so, we set off for the station only for me to realise that I was wearing the wrong glasses so I swifty returned home to find the right pair. We still had plenty of time for the 8.28 train.

After an uneventful journey we arrived in Stowmarket to see some cyclists in the car park. Some of these I had seen before so I was pretty sure we were with the right group. We hung around a bit in the rain and also the not-so-rain while Nutkin drove in from her drey (wherever that may be) and soon we were off. Very soon I was left well behind again as we had some gentle climbing to do in the face of a not very gentle headwind. After 6 miles or so I took a right turn, which I knew to be correct having studied the map and route sheet in some detail before we set off, thereby finding myself at the front as everyone else had gone straight on before realising their mistake. This gave me time to don my waterproof and have another look at the map.

We sheltered under a lime tree in Thorpe Morieux, where Regulator played with the stocks, the heavens opened briefly and then closed again, and the consensus was that we should do less cycling and more indulging, so the route was amended so that we reached the lunch stop after about 17 miles’ cycling rather than the originally-intended 34. I did not notice any dissenting voices to this state of affairs. We arrived in Lavenham where suddenly our number was swelled as TimC and Veronica appeared as if from nowhere. It was not long before we arrived at the Six Bells in Preston St. Mary.

There was a fine selection of real ale on offer, so I went for The Augustinian, a Nethergate brew which hitherto had escaped my attention, while we examined the food menu. There were some quite exotic dishes available so, feeling a bit lionish, I decided to plump for Wilderbeeste, although it wasn’t spelled like that in the pub. It arrived on a large block of stone which had been pre-heated, and in effect it cooked before my very eyes so I was spared the sheer drudgery of stealthily stalking the said creature with the rest of my pride before bringing it down with a spectacular rugby tackle and asphyxiating it with my jaws. I enjoyed it in spite of the inevitable air miles which must presumably have gone into its preparation, unless the Suffolk savannah has large herds of the aforementioned antelope roaming free.

Once replete we meandered around for a few more miles until we reached Stowmarket station once again, where a decision had to be made. FB and I were booked on the 7.29 train so it was entirely necessary for us to find somewhere to drink beer to fill up the time. The so-called “Superpub” around the corner from the station turned out to be probably the worst pub any of us had ever been in, with no beer, a large and mesmerising television churning out the latest garbage from the hit parade and no other customers apart from a band of ACFers who were all too polite to tell the barman where to shove his fizzy rubbish. After a while the other ACFers who did not have to catch a specific train all disappeared which was the cue for FB and me to find a pub which did sell beer. We came across the Oak so we had a couple in there and it was time for us to catch our train back to Prittlewell.

High Easter 200k

I decided, purist that I am, that I would not take the car to this 200k. I worked out that I could catch a train at 6.18 a.m. in Southend and that the connection from Shenfield would give me 45 minutes to cycle the 8 or so miles from Chelmsford to High Easter, so I could just get in before everyone set off. Except the train was late and the peloton was about half a mile down the road as I met them coming the other way.

I was pretty much resigned to another day talking to myself when, after 10k or so, another cyclist pulled alongside and we rode around together. I expected him at any moment to say “So long then!” and disappear over the horizon, but he didn’t. He waited at the tops of hills (there weren’t many) and at important junctions. This was a fantastic help because, having used up my good weather quota for the year when we did LEJOG, it peed down all morning and a good deal of the afternoon as well. Under such conditions my glasses are useless.

In the same way as the Inuit have about 3 dozen different words for “snow” so there are at least 35 different types of wet. I had them all. There’s seeping up from the saddle, oozing up the sleeves, dripping off the eyebrows into the eyes. The night before, I even woke myself up when a drip of sweat plummeted down my ear-hole and landed on my ear-drum. But the worst of these is the glasses. You cannot read a map or a route sheet when your glasses are wet or steamed up, so my companion did all the hard work for me. We missed our way somewhere near Great Bardfield, so out came the maps and we sorted it out again, and while we were off piste, we saw a cuckoo calling from the branches of a dead oak tree. My pal got a puncture (he was using really skinny tyres) and told me to go on ahead while he mended it. All the lube was washed off his chain, so I could hear him coming up behind me every time I had gone on.

We got to all the controls in time, and on each occasion we left slightly earlier in relation to the maximum time allowed. I exchanged a few words with Redsnapper at the Castle Hedingham youth hostel, and then we were on our way again. At the final control, the Three Horseshoes in East Hanningfield (the second best pub in the village, sadly), I had my pint of orange juice and lemonade and a bag of nuts, leaving my man to finish his sandwiches and catch me up. He did, but he had another puncture.

After we answered the question about Stapleford Tawney church services, it was hell-for-leather for High Easter. Except I had neither hell nor leather. My legs had turned to jelly and the slightest gradient felt like the north face of the Eiger. We still had about 20 miles to do, so I ate another cereal bar and scoffed a handful of jelly babies and on we slogged. It took a very long time for my legs to respond, but just as I thought there was not enough time to finish, suddenly I was bowling along the flat at 27kph and we only had about 8k more to do with half an hour left.

The he punctured again. I got my head torch out and could read the route sheet: right turn to Bird’s Green, then follow the signs to Berners Roding, then Good Easter, then High Easter and I was back. I carried on for quite some time, but the puncture-plagued one was with me again eventually. We remarked that we hadn’t come across a helpful sign for a long time, but we definitely hadn’t missed any so we must be on the right road… mustn’t we? The we found a road sign, and we were something like 8 miles away from our destination with only 15 minutes left to go.

****

When I was about 16 I began to fish for pike. This was a Good Idea, because I could get the free tickets for Abberton, one of the best pike fisheries in Britain at the time (1970) as my brother worked for the Essex Water Company.  One day, I hooked, played and had close to the bank the biggest pike I had ever seen. It was so big that we had no way of landing it – our net was far too small. My brother dashed across the road to ask a well-known angling writer if we could borrow his landing net for this massive creature. He sauntered over, put the net in the water for me to pull the fish over it, and as I did so, the hook came out. Not surprising really, as my fishing tackle consisted of a 50p reel, a £2 rod and hooks of commensurate quality and it had straightened under the pressure of me playing the fish. I watched with tears in my eyes as The Biggest Pike in the World pointed its bows away from me, and with a dismissive wave of its tail, was gone. To this day, this remains one of the greatest disappointments of my life.

DNFing in this Audax was in the same league. With a massive effort of will I had dragged my complaining body around the course, aided by one who would have finished hours ago had it not been for me, a millstone round his neck. The legs could do it, just. The wrists were complaining, but they kept going. At the end of the day, my big handicap, and one which I cannot overcome, is that I cannot see a route sheet or a map if it’s raining or dark. Ergo, I depend upon someone else for vital information and because of me, that someone else DNFed as well. His name was Darren and he was a primary school teacher from Dagenham, having given up a highly paid law job a couple of years ago because he couldn’t stand it any more. Darren, if you read this, thanks mate. I couldn’t have got close to finishing without you.

I arrived home to a beautiful nourishing bean stew and told the rest of the family that if I ever talk about doing another 200k they have full permission to lock my bike and hide the key until I come to my senses. Then I solemnly logged 145 miles on bikejournal.

145: more than gross. How appropriate.

Two at Once (3)

Well, I’m an orphan. My dad died at 3.45 this afternoon. My sister was with him. I would have been, but we were delayed at the vet’s with the dog. I was just on my way out the door when the phone rang.

I get to work as his executor on Tuesday.

Visiting my dad.

Tonight I spent an hour or so with my dad.

He is in a very bad way. His lungs are rattling like I don’t know what. He is incapable of speech. He looked at me and tried to speak, but I could only guess what he was trying to say.

He had been wearing an oxygen mask, but had taken it off. The nurses told me that he kept doing that. I spoke to him and he responded with his eyes – I know he understood me – but was unable to make an intelligible response. I watched him with the oxygen mask. He had pulled it off, but kept it in his hand. It suddenly dawned on me – he didn’t want it on all the time, but he did every so often. I took over here. I held the mask to his face, and every so often he would pull it away. At certain times he would release the tube, I asked him if he wanted the mask again, he would nod, so I would hold it to is face. When he had had enough, he would pull he mask away again. We kept up this unspoken dialogue for quite a long time.

I took a break and spoke to one of the nurses, explaining to her about Dad’s sister, who died yesterday. I told her that we didn’t want to tell him, because he has got enough on his plate. If I’m wrong, they will meet on a cloud somewhere soon and can have their own private celestial argument. If I’m right it won’t matter a damn. I went back in to his side-ward and continued our game of hide-and-seek with the oxygen mask.

At one point he lifted his left arm and pointed to the clock. I told him it was 7.15. He seemed satisfied. I told him that our Rohloff rear wheel had been delivered to Bridgewater and that they were going to fix it soon. I don’t think he cared very much. The be-all-and-end-all of his existence is access to that oxygen mask.

I asked him if he was in pain. He nodded. Was it his head? He nodded. The nurse came in and administered paracetemol par rectum. He winced. Why don’t they just add it to his drip? Or do the doctors prescribe it like that just for the awkward patients?

At about 7.55 I asked him if he wanted me to go. He nodded. I was very glad to get out of there. Please let him die in the night.