Reflections on life

SETTING A COURSE FOR LIFE

It isn’t difficult to see some aspects of my father in a heroic light. He was a risk taker and a natural entrepreneur who went right out on a limb to follow his instincts, creating a business and a life entirely his own way. 

He was the son of a monumental stone mason, and my grandfather’s yard was immediately across the road from the cemetery of an English Northern mill town. Head stones and memorial plaques were the stock in trade. The only child of his father’s second wife, he became the favourite, eclipsing his step brother and sister in his parents affections, and consequently doing pretty much whatever he chose, setting a pattern for life.

He completed his apprenticeship with his father and shortly after met my mother, a secretary in a paint factory who lived in a nearby town, and they went on rambling and climbing trips together, staying in youth hostels in the Lake District. I remember hair raising black and white photos of them in the 1930s, each hanging from a single rope with no climbing gear of any kind, scaling a cliff face, in stout shoes.

My father took to her because she didn’t fall at his feet. Being the son of a man with his own business, and good looking to boot, he could take his pick of girls from an early age. But my mother was less easily impressed and he had to woo her, a novel experience. When war broke out he was called up, they married, and she moved near to his barracks. He became a PT instructor and she would watch him through the wire fence of the parade ground, mercilessly drilling his squad to impress her.

Eventually he was sent to Germany, was too close to a bomb blast, and lost his hearing in one ear. He would never talk about the war, but he was a wonderfully imaginative story teller and thrilled my brother with ghoulish tales of battle where he was the hero, and always  “up to my cap badge in blood!”

When he was de-mobbed they followed their dream of a country life, and with meagre savings and a motorbike and side car, they moved to the Lake District, living in a spartan rented cottage with cold water and open fires. He opened a stone mason’s yard in the nearby village, and for a few years they lived very simply. Then a spinster aunt who must have saved scrupulously all her life, and always had a soft spot for him, died and left him what would amount to about seventy thousand pounds today. It was the springboard into a future he could not have imagined.

Slate quarrying was inherent in the mountains of the Lake District, but by the 1940s most had been abandoned. My father loved this beautiful sea green slate and had been challenged by working with it, for it was hard and demanding to carve. Now he saw a different opportunity. New machinery was opening up the potential to cut and polish slabs and tiles, and there was demand for materials to re-build Britain after the war.

So a whole new life began. He bought an old wood turning mill that was now no more than a run down handful of buildings by a riverside. But the timber drying shed had been converted into a dwelling, a long two story building with eight bedrooms, currently used during the summer months as a guest house for holiday makers. My mother was to take it over, and make money to  buy machines for the business he planned. 

Then he took on the lease of a small, abandoned quarry on the hillside of a mountain pass. He knew plenty about working stone by hand, and nothing about getting it out of the ground. But there were local men who had worked in quarries since they were fourteen, and he gathered a handful, and they began.

Gradually they built stock piles of slate blocks, which had to be transported seven miles down the mountain by a battered old army truck to the sheds behind the guest house, where they would be sawn, polished and cut to size as new machines were acquired.  

It was quite a business getting the blocks, which all weighed upwards of a ton or more, off the truck and stacked on the bank, using an old, rusting crane. Today it would be done in minutes with a forklift, then it took an hour or more. The stones each sat across two pieces of wood so that a heavy chain could be pushed underneath and used to lift them. Two men worked on the back of the truck, chaining up the block to the crane, then swinging it round and onto a stack.

I remember sitting on a window sill when I was about seven or eight, watching my father on the bank outside commanding the operation. Whilst they were trying to chain the last block, it fell off its wooden supports and lay flat on the back of the truck. He swore in exasperation. “Right, push it to the edge” he shouted, and positioning himself at the back of the truck he leant forward, put his hands on his knees, and braced himself. 

It took them all their strength to push the block, a little at a time, until the weight of it was balanced between his arched back and the edge of the truck, leaving a space between the two for the chain. As his body began to take the weight, his arms shook, his face was crimson, and the men raced to get the chain under and lift the block. Once it was safely on the bank he leant on the truck for a few moments, then without a word he walked away. 

It was only a few years ago, when the memory came to me so vividly of his back arched under that stone, that I realised what an impression it had made on me. And that he had given his all in so many ways, learning everything from scratch, how to quarry stone, process it, find customers, and run a growing business. My future took shape in those few seconds, and became my reality in the years to come.

Inevitably the family had to fit in around the needs of the business. My mother took her lead from him, and with no experience other than cooking for the family, re-opened the guest house from the beginning of April until the end of September every year, catering for a dozen or more guests. It was a big learning curve for her too, and she made one proviso – that some of the money she earned was saved for my brother and I to go to boarding school in a few years time, so that we had a head start in life. 

We couldn’t live in the house during the holiday season, it was guests only, so a wooden hut was put up at one end of the building, big enough for a bunk bed for me and my brother and a single bed for my mother. My father slept in a makeshift room in one of the mill buildings, next door to his office; brown lino floors, crumbling walls, a battered old desk and a camp bed.

So we didn’t see much of them during the summer. When I came home from school I put cloths on tables and set up for afternoon tea, which was popular with hikers. My mother filled trays with tea, scones and cakes, and I served the guests and cleared away. Then I was free, and ran to the river, swimming, building dams, and leading expeditions into darkest Africa until the light was fading. 

When I got home a plate of whatever the guests had for dinner was waiting in the tiny back room behind the kitchen, I ate, and went to bed. My brother was absorbed in slicking his hair like Elvis, Dad was in the pub, and Mum was busy preparing for tomorrow.

In October we moved back into the house, mother could relax before the next season, and sometimes on Saturdays we all went out for tea, quite an event. And the cycle continued until, unexpectedly, my mother became pregnant again. By this time the quarrying business was established, her earnings were less crucial, and the guest house closed and became a home. 

I was ten when my younger brother was born, Mum had her first tiny car, an Austin A30, and Dad stunned us all one day by driving up to the front door in an old Daimler convertible. The following year we got a TV. We had arrived.

I grew up believing, at an unconscious level, that you worked as hard as you could for as long as you could, and you did whatever was needed, without question. It was never spoken, and was not considered in any way exceptional, but simply to be expected.  

The patterns established early in life can be difficult to see, never mind change. I was on a hospital trolley one day in my fifties, burnt out, and arguing with a doctor who was telling me I needed three months off work. He was right, I could barely stand, but I spent those months feeling guilty and ashamed of letting everyone down. And like my father, I went back and carried on regardless, until my last day. 

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