Okay, so I know it’s been a while since my last blog. I think my head is becoming as cluttered as my garage and there is too much to do, too little time and no sense of order at all.
The good news is that I have found a home for the lathe, the bad news is that my garage has now been condemned as a death trap (by you know who). If I was being totally honest I would have to agree that something needs to be done and my new year’s resolution is to clear a pathway through to the light switch (baby steps).
As if to prove how long this has taken me to get going on this blog I started writing it just after bonfire night, prompted by the great Round Table firework display on Saffron Walden Common. It reminded me of a couple of bonfire nights growing up. The first is one of my earliest memories.
Until I was 5 we lived in Finsbury Park, North London, in a first floor flat of a house that mum and dad had bought when they were first married. I can remember quite vividly (aged somewhere between 2 and 3) dad lifting me from my bed one night, wrapping me up in a blanket and taking me outside to see the fireworks from the top of the steps at the back of the house. My guess is that they were nothing compared to the displays of today, but those were the days when people had their own bonfires and fireworks parties so there were fireworks shooting off all over the place and from our steps we had a magnificent view.
As it has already been established, our family did not do ‘normal’. Though much like the Christmas rituals that I described in my last blog, there was always some effort made to join the nation in the celebration of certain events, even if we did do something different to mark the occasion. While all our neighbours were having back garden fireworks displays, we did something else. Whether it was through lack of money, or the implicit understanding that ‘Plisners don’t go with the flow’, I don’t know. We occasionally had sparklers on bonfire night but never fireworks. However, one evening when I was nine or ten, dad arrived home with some un-marked boxes. He built a bonfire and proceeded to sprinkle on it an assortment of filings that he had collected from the various metal-working machines at school, creating our own unique firework display. Peter and I looked on as the various copper, iron and aluminium filings danced and crackled in the flames giving a very first (unbeknown to us) chemistry lesson when dad helped us identify the colours produced by the different metal filings.
Bonfires were in fact a large part of our childhood. These were the times before global warming when local farmers created fake sunsets when the wheat stubble in the fields was set aglow following harvest. Dad regularly had a bonfire going in the garden and Peter and I would spend hours poking sticks into the flames and generally playing with fire – oh those days before health and safety. Being fortunate to have a big garden, we never had any complaints from neighbours and ours was the only washing that ever came off of the line smoke-flavoured.
There was one occasion, however that could have made the local headlines. Dad decided, instead of trying to mow his way through an acre of a foot-high dry grass or labour for hours with his scythe, that it would be quicker to use the farmer’s method and set the grass alight. It was the theme of our childhood that while much preparation went into the planning of something the end result was not often as planned. Setting fire to the dried grass was indeed a very quick way to remove it, but as the fire sped towards the house there was a very real danger that it too would be removed and the fire brigade had to be called when it was apparent that the single garden hose that had been on standby for such an eventuality would not be sufficient to stem the roar of the approaching flames.
Fortunately for us, and the neighbours, the flames died down of their own accord and the fire brigade had nothing to deal with when they arrived.
Being so comfortable around bonfires did lead me to be quite blasé about them and not so long ago I had a similar incident here in the corner of my garden. After having a particularly wild and successful bonfire (there is nothing quite like that satisfaction you get after burning through a years’ worth of dead branches and reclaiming that space in the garden) I put out the fire and went inside to change. A couple of hours later my other half, who was about to go on the running machine, pointed out that there was a tree on fire in the garden. He then continued on with his exercise while my daughter, son and I rushed outside and created a human chain to pass buckets of water from the end of the hose (that was about 5 metres shorter than needed) to the burning tree. An hour later we returned to the house, muddy, cold and soaked to the skin, to be greeted by a “Have you put it out then? from my other half who, having completed his exercise, was now sitting warm and dry on the sofa.
Needless to say I have now purchased a longer hose.
As I have already mentioned dad could turn his hand to most things and before embarking on something new there would often be much planning and preparation involved. This would apply to jobs large and small. However, despite the preparation things didn’t always go to plan.
I have already written about the bees that Dad kept in the back garden. (They can’t have been the most productive of bees, because I can’t ever remember eating any honey that they produced.) However, anyone who has kept bees will know that it is the local bee-keeper who is called upon when a swarm of bees is spotted. During his bee-keeping period dad was called out on frequent occasions to collect these swarms. The phone call would come, and dad would drive off with his beekeeping paraphernalia that was kept permanently in the back of the car: stick; basket; blanket and, hardly ever used but taken nonetheless: a head-veil and gloves. He would return with the bees buzzing around in the back of the Austin 1300 estate and place them by the side of an empty hive which they would eventually move into and start a new colony.
The swarms were usually found hanging beard-like from a tree or hedge, but occasionally they would be in more difficult areas like on a roof or chimney stack, and dad would usually just knock the swarm into a basket with his stick, cover them with the blanket and put them on the back seat of the car before driving home.
Before I relate the tale of the ‘Bees on Barrington Hill’ I need to put it into context so apologies if you are already well versed in the habits of the humble honey bee. Bees swarm when a colony gets too large and a new queen is created. When that happens, the old queen leaves the nest with her drones to find somewhere new. Swarming bees are usually quite docile because, in preparation for the journey ahead, they gorge themselves with honey and because their bellies are so full it is hard for them to use their sting. As a consequence, it is usually easy to collect them safely and encourage them into a new hive. However, if you try to collect them when they have been swarming for a few days and their bellies are empty it can prove a bit more difficult.
One day, while I was at a friend’s house in the next village, waiting for my guitar lesson, somebody spotted a swarm in the hedge at the top of the hill (the house was at the bottom) and dad was duly called. When he arrived with the usual kit we all stood (well clear) at the bottom of the hill while dad walked up with his stick and basket with a confident (done-this-many-times-before) air about him. It quickly became apparent that these bees were not as accommodating as usual when we observed, from the bottom of the hill, dad zigzagging across the road at the top being followed, in a cartoon-like chase, by an angry cloud of bees – still to this day one of the most comical scenes I have ever witnessed.
After coming back down the hill to collect his gloves and the head protector that he normally eschewed, he managed eventually to persuade the swarm into his basket. Taking them home in the car was a challenge and I can remember the back of the car ‘alive’ with angry, hungry bees. They never did settle or take advantage of the new home that had been ready primed with honey and after circling the empty hive for several days they eventually buzzed off to annoy someone else.
Anyway, back to Dad’s meticulous preparations. He spent over a year doing up an old Volkswagen van in preparation for a road trip to Europe with Peter, where they planned to retrace dad’s escape from Austria, through France and Spain. Everything they could need for their journey was installed or packed into this in this bed-sit on wheels. Maps were scrutinised, ferries booked, old friends who they might see along the way were contacted – in fact no stone was left unturned in preparation for the big trip – that is apart from one small detail. After the big send-off, and at about 30 miles into their journey, they ran out of petrol had to call out the AA for assistance!
Another instance of advance planning, without quite getting everything right, was the wall-papering incident.
Mum was away on a course for a couple of days and dad thought it would be a nice surprise to get the front room wall-papered while she was away, enlisting me as his assistant. Mum had already bought the wallpaper and was planning to put it up herself at some stage and while dad could turn his hand to almost anything, she was the wall-papering expert of the family. Everything was collected together ready for the job and dad, not having done wall-papering for a while, decided it would be a good idea to measure out and cut all the lengths first, before attaching them to the wall. Then there would be only the pasting and sticking up to do. I had helped mum in the past and her approach had always one piece at a time and once she saw how the first piece went up she would adjust the second accordingly, then the third and so on and so on.
So, with the strips for the whole room cut and ready to be pasted we set on with putting the first piece on the wall. I observed with horror that there was a ½ gap at the top and that meant that every piece had been cut ½ inch too short. Not only that, but dad hadn’t factored in the pattern which needed to be lined up, so as well as the length problem, we also lost a further half an inch matching up the design as we went along. By the time we go to the corner of the room we were 2 inches from the ceiling and had a stepped effect along the top of the wall. Not to be put off, the whole room was completed with dad saying: “Nobody will notice once it has been up a few days”. In any case it was well above eye level for this sub-five-foot family. When mum came back she was surprisingly calm about the mess we had made of the job and promptly went out and bought a small border which covered the poor workmanship, and nobody was the wiser!
Just to end with; in my last blog I said that I didn’t think there would be any more surprise finds, so I am pleased to report one more surprise. I noticed that a poster in one of dad’s make-shift frames looked rather thick and on unclamping the frame, and looking behind the Kandinsky poster that was displayed, I found six copies of the poster photographed below. With the assistance of Google, I established that they are stone-signed lithographs of Picasso’s Cote D’Azur – though not as far as I can tell of any great value (though I have been told they might fetch around £100 each). How long they had been there and why dad had six, hidden behind another picture, I will never know.
As I mentioned earlier this blog was started some weeks ago and the intention was for the photograph at the top of the blog to be this seasonal Christmas pudding creation. The season having now passed, but not wishing to waste the effort (though it was used on my Christmas cards) I am posting it here at the end of this blog instead.
Many people have been fascinated with my ‘Dad’s Drawers Collages, so I thought that I would show you a bit of background to the creative process. Laying out the design is the easy part and as you can see from the picture below I start off with my ‘palate’ of drawers.
Once the design is laid out the tricky bit starts where I have to strap the tripod to the top of the step-ladder to get high enough to fit the design into the frame of the shot. It’s a bit of a Heath Robinson contraption with the tripod strapped to the top of the ladder and the camera case acting as ballast the other end. The camera then gets attached to the tripod and “Hey Presto” (after much clambering up and down) we have our shot. Much to the annoyance of the rest of the family, it then takes a couple of weeks to return all the individual bits and pieces back to their rightful drawers, rendering our conservatory out of use for some time!
To finish with I leave you with an assortment of documents that no-one but my dad would have kept.