28 April 2011

A Sense of Pride

I took this picture in Acton Park, London W3, three years ago this month. This was my local town park, two minutes from my doorstep for the last nine years that I lived in London before returning to Aldridge in 2001. I loved this park and I wasn't the only one; it was loved by the local community.

When I moved to Aldridge, one of the things that struck me about the the area and Walsall in general was the graffiti everywhere (granted not quite so bad now) and in the local parks and green areas, the dog dirt, the broken glass, the rubbish, the druggie paraphernalia and a general sense of the parks not being cared for and loved by those who lived nearby and used them. There are no doubt a myriad of reasons for this including the fact that up here a lot more people have gardens to use and so parks get left for less desirable elements of society but I would like to concentrate on something else.

Acton Park has a little pond, lots of green space, a lovely avenue of horse chestnut trees, a rose garden, paths and shrubs, a playground and a little cafe selling food and drinks at reasonable prices catering equally for the latte yummies and the burger brigade. The most important building in the park though is the play centre. This council run, council funded facility is not an unusual thing in London; it isn't just Ealing that has them and it isn't just labour controlled authorities that run them either. The Play Centre was my saviour! It was open 7 days a week from 11am to 7pm and 9pm for two nights a week. It didn't cater just for the small children but for all young people up to the age of 18. There was a craft room and a games room which contained pool tables and a table tennis table. It was open to all as long as you kept to the rules; no fighting, no vandalism, treat everyone equally and with respect.

You would often see young people of say 14, 15, 16 there accompanied by younger siblings and everyone looked out for one another. It wasn't utopia, arguments did break out, children did upset one another and now and then there would be fisticuffs but mostly the young people policed themselves with the help of the two staff that were always on duty and adult volunteers. These adults with help from the young people, organised many activities with boundless energy and I recall attending acorn planting days, drumming workshops, flag painting, paper mache this that and the other, tree and shrub planting, rubbish clearing and then there were the Park Open Days when we all had a big BBQ and a party.

Acton is a diverse area in common with other inner London places. Diverse in terms of ethnicity and diverse in terms of wealth and poverty. Just down the road from the (then) million pound homes (probably triple that now) were the terraces that I lived on and just down the road from there was the largest council estate in west London. It wasn't the best place to live and it wasn't the worst. I saw street crime in action on more than one occasion but one thing I always bore in mind was that such activities were the responsibility of a tiny minority because the majority ruled.

The park more or less cleared the dog dirt problem with bag dispensers and bins. Bins were places all over and so there was never any real amount of litter lying around. I rarely saw broken glass and as for graffiti, well if anyone did have the temerity to start tagging anywhere then there was a residents/users hit squad who would be on to it anywhere in the local area almost before the paint could dry. Consequence of this was gradually the incidents of graffiti fell dramatically. You didn't get small and large gangs of youngsters hanging around because they were too busy playing pool, table tennis or chilling with their mates at the Centre. And the park was theirs too. On hot, sunny days you couldn't see the grass for individuals and families playing and picnicking.

None of this happened overnight. It took years of dedicated work from council workers and residents together but the point is local people were proud of their space and locality and protected it and this included the young people. When I returned there three years ago after an absence of seven years it was still a place that was being cared for by all.

I shall return to this subject from a slightly different angle focussed on the locality I now live in in a few days but in these days of budget cuts to parks and youth centres for example, I do wonder whether councils really see that by cutting these type of budgets they start storing up troubles and costs in other areas for the future or is only the short term a view that can be seen now?

24 April 2011

Space to breathe

I've been to Portugal once before. Spent a fantastic week in Lisbon, three years ago. This time the visit was through the kindness of a very dear friend who is currently renovating his house in Central Portugal. Nearest town Mortagua; 9 miles. Nearest city Coimbra; half an hours drive.

This is deeply rural, heavily forested, sparsely populated, mountainous countryside. Barely able to get a mobile phone signal let alone internet, so there was no twitter, facebook or email for 12 days. Delightful. So much so that I avoided watching the news on TV too. Total tranquillity. The village where we stayed, pictured above had no shop but there was a tiny church and five minutes walk up the road a little cafe bar where a huge decent brandy cost a whole euro.

As we travelled north on the virtually empty toll road from Lisbon I became aware about 100 kilometres out just how few villages there were on the mountains. All you could see was forest and mountains. Lovely scenery. Not spectacular but lovely. So green and so much space and that feeling and knowledge of the space available became a beautiful warm comfort blanket for me. Sure there are lots of places on our lovely island that are remote and people free but this was mile upon mile upon mile of people free space. Not surprising when you think that the total population of Portugal is little larger than that of the Greater London Region. I could get addicted to that space, it gave birth to a sense of freedom within that I have rarely felt before.

The neighbours in the village, all local Portuguese bar one, live relatively simple lives, farming their small patches of land, being as self sufficient as possible growing grapes upon vines, vegetables, keeping a small number of livestock and picking up wood for burning free of charge from the forests where the professional lumberjacks leave plenty behind for all. There is a scarcity of young people for they leave to find work in the cities and on the Algarve, not wishing to work in the way that generations before them have done so.

So it was that I felt peace again. There was the space to breathe and to breathe such pure air and the tranquillity of a place where there is just a tiny population, The sounds of nature are all encompassing and the stars can be seen as there is little light pollution; it's been a long time since I saw so many stars in the sky.

As I lay there on the roof terrace at night and watched the stars I found I could see my Mother's face in the sky above me and smile again.

4 April 2011

For My Mother


My eulogy read for Mom today:

************************************************

Barbara,

Barb to my Dad,

Mom to me, Nicola and Stewart,

Nanny to Justin, Ellen, Baris, Shakira, Holly and Jack

As you all know, Mom had suffered various health problems these last 8 years that made life difficult and painful for her and robbed her of her mobility and independence but the Barbara, the Mom, I remember and will always remember with love, is the fun, energetic and sometimes, embarrassing one.

  • The Mom who used to hang off the door between the kitchen and the living room doing chimpanzee impersonations.

  • The Mom who could roll those big and beautiful brown eyes round and around like no other person

  • Or for example, when I was 6 and broke my nose at school. No telephone at home or with neighbours in Bonner Grove in those days and so Mrs Bickley, the Head, a stern, strict, no nonsense sort of steely grey haired woman, had to bring me home, blood gushing from my nose, in her brand new little blue mini. As we pulled up in front of the house Mom was on the front lawn playing football with the teenage lads from next door (I’m not sure where Nicola and Stewart were…napping maybe) I can still see Mom now, slim, small beehive hairdo,beige slacks and a white top, and Mrs Bickley saw this display and tutted, very, very loudly.

  • The Mom who headed straight for the Waltzers at the fairground and kept telling the young lad to keep pushing us faster and faster or who would never let me drive on the dodgems.

Mom was born in Erdington on 23rd April 1937, St George’s Day. She was always very proud that the flags flew on her birthday.

Mom was close to both of her parents and loved them dearly. They were her hero’s. She missed them both desperately after they died.

Although Mom spent her childhood years experiencing the austerity of WW2, she had a happy childhood and I could spend the next few hours retelling stories she told me about those years. But then I could spend the next few months retelling stories she had told me about everything!

Whilst looking for a photograph last week I came across some school reports that she had kept. They were tucked in with programmes for musical and choral concerts that she had sang in whilst still ay school, at places such as the Town Hall in Birmingham. I’ll just read a few comments:

  • 1948: A grades for every subject except Music, which surprised me somewhat, where she got a B. Comment “She is always bright and cheerful”

  • 1949: Excellent for Vocabulary.

“Excellent reading, very expressive and fluent. Art, Barbara has marked ability and should do well. Comment: She is extremely vivacious.”

  • 1951: Class position for English, 2nd out of 39, 2nd also for Domestic Science. 1st for spelling. Art, “Barbara’s work is very good.” Final comment: “She is developing into an attentive, well-mannered girl but she must learn to moderate her voice!”

These comments illustrate those things that Mom took pride in and that she did well; her spelling, her writing, and they also illustrate qualities that she carried with her throughout her life; good manners, cheerfulness, vivacity.

After leaving school Mom worked in many secretarial positions for various employers including Birlec and her last job at West Midlands Police. I remember her always leaving for work looking like a million dollars. But then Mom rarely looked anything other than a million dollars. Hair well cut and perfectly shaped, nails shaped and polished, make up carefully applied and lovely clothes. Always smart, always looking her best.

Many people have said to me in the last few weeks “Your Mom was a beautiful woman, on the inside as well as the outside.

Mom had her passions and interests. She loved nature and spent many happy hours gardening. She took pleasure in watching the passing of the seasons and would be the first to have spring daffodils in a vase in the house. She loved Daffs and she loved roses especially. She loved her holidays with Dad and when we were at home, with us too. She loved the sun and sitting in it and she always got a fabulous tan!

And there was her faith. I always knew Mom had religious faith but it wasn’t until she had gone that I realised how deep her faith was. Mom left a letter detailing exactly what she wanted today, the type of service, the reading, the hymns. The last sentence reads “Please don’t cry, just remember I’ll be with my Lord.

The church did play a big part in her life for very many years. She worshipped at Aldridge Parish Church and latterly, here at Pelsall. For Mom, worshipping her Lord meant singing and she sang in the choirs at both churches. She loved singing and she loved the choirs. Singing was a massive part of her life.

Mom was stubborn too! She knew her own mind, wasn’t scared of voicing her opinions and she was never scared of speaking out if she thought an injustice had been done. Mom was thoughtful and kind. She looked out for elderly and ill neighbours and friends, visiting them even when she herself was not well.

Mom was the first person I turned to when both of my babies were born and she gave both of them their first bath. I believe that to be true for Justin and Ellen too.

She was active in the local community also, being a founding secretary of a playgroup in Aldridge that still runs today and also secretary of the local liberals.

A few years ago, Mom’s brother, my Uncle, Allen wrote me a letter detailing memories he had of his sister from their youth. I would like to read you a few extracts.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“I was born in 1945 by this time Barbara was eight and she has always reminded me that from day one she looked after me as a second mom.

I recall lying in bed one day when I was quite small and your mother was singing. She was always singing.

She had a collection of records. Nat King Cole, Dicky Valentine and others I can’t recall. She used to play them all the time. Barbara knew every word of every song. She would be sixteen or seventeen at this time. She was very good-looking, even beautiful. She had a lovely figure and a lovely outgoing personality. She would have been a joy to know.

Sunday was baking day. Cake, pastry, tarts, licking the mixing bowl, watching Mom and Barbara mixing, cutting baking and cooking the Sunday roast. The radio would be on all morning. The Sunday service would be on, loads of hymns for Barbara to sing to. The highlight was family favourites.

I recall Barbara singing every note of every song while she was baking.

Harry and Clara Wilkins were great pals to your Nan and Granddad. We used to see a lot of them.

Harry and Clara were aficionados of the clubs. We would all pack into Harry’s car and end up at one or other of what was the latest “in” place to be seen in. Aldridge, Rushall, Pelsall, labour, conservative, working men’s.

I would be about 10 at the time. Ruby Murray had the latest hit; “Softly, softly” Harry knew that Barbara could sing. He convinced her and the rest of the club that she wanted to sing and they wanted to listen. Up she went. I am not sure about the chap on the piano but your Mom, my sister and your children’s Nan, she was magnificent. As I am remembering this there are tears of pleasure in my eyes. Linda I was so proud. This was not just anyone, this was my sister singing “Softly, softly” as good as, no better than Ruby Murray, Barbara was my sister and just as good looking as Ruby.

After that there was no turning back. I am not sure how your Dad came on the scene, but certainly Harry knew him (as did everyone else in Aldridge).

I remember he was handsome, blond hair, strong, he knew everything there was to know. He was world wise, street wise, and he charmed his way into your Mom’s life and our lives. I think we all fell for him; he had true charisma. As a couple they were perfect. Both outgoing, both attractive and at their peak in every respect. They took your breath away. After a whirlwind romance they were married.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thank you Uncle Allen. I treasure that letter.

Dad was a regular at the Labour Club in Aldridge and Mom had been taken there for her 20th Birthday on 23rd April 1957. Dad saw her singing there and was smitten. Just three months later they were married. Like all married couples they’ve had their ups and downs, but they managed nearly 54 years together only to be parted by Mom’s death. An incredible achievement.

When I asked Dad if there was any particular memory he wanted me to include in this eulogy or anything that he wanted me to say, he replied “ Just that I loved her”. And he did and does and always will, as we all will. We all loved her and we are all missing a giant Barbara sized piece in our lives. Larger than life and always singing.

I would like to finish with the poem printed in the back of your order of service sheets:

If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower
Nor inscribe a stone


Nor when I am gone
Speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves
That I have known


Weep if you must
Parting is hell
But life goes on
So .... sing as well

Bet she’s singing God’s ears off right now. Hope so.