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10:34am on Friday, 5th February, 2010:

100 Today


Had my mother's father lived, he would have been 100 today. As it was, he died in 1989.

Here's a photo of him at our wedding in 1985:

That's exactly how I remember him, except that the flash on his forehead makes him look like he had less hair than he did (which, thanks to the way that male baldness is passed through the female line, means I know I won't be going bald myself — unlike my paternal grandfather).

He was a wonderful grandad: exactly what, whenever you hear what qualities ideal grandads should have, you think "yes, that's my grandad". He was kind, jolly, and always treated children as equals. We loved him to bits. I still miss him to this day.

He was the fifth of eight children, and, like everyone else in his family for generations, destined to be a farm labourer. He was a good one, too: unlike many of his schoolfriends, he spurned the idea of living in a tied cottage because it meant the farmer could threaten you with eviction; instead, once a year he'd go to York along with the other farm labourers for what amounted to a labour auction. The farmers would choose which workers they wanted and establish what they were willing to pay. It was entirely possible that you could return home with no job, or a low-paid one many miles from home. My grandfather was always chosen first by the farmers in his district. (My grandmother told me that; he was a very modest man himself and never offered such information of his own accord).

He spoke making a distinction between second-person singular and plural. Basically, he used thee, thou, thy, thine. It was years before I noticed this; I just absorbed it like any child does with language. As a result, I can speak that way myself if I want, I don't have to think about it. Unfortunately, as with the French tu, it's only a form you use with your close friends and relatives, so it's not a lot of use to me except it makes me grate when I see it in cod medieval dialogue trying to look authentic.

Despite his simple background and upbringing, he was a clever man. He wasn't educated, but he was clever. You wouldn't have known it except to talk to him; he had the driest sense of humour I've ever encountered. He was extremely knowledgeable about agriculture, not so much because of what he'd been taught as because of what he himself had observed. He would take us for long, long walks through the countryside when we were children, pointing out things like foxes' dens and badgers' setts and telling us how he knew the difference. He was sort of like a Crocodile Dundee except for deepest rural Yorkshire instead of the Australian Outback. One thing he could do, which he was apparently in demand for, was tell the size of a field in acres just by looking at it. I tested him once, too, on a field in my home town, Hornsea, which I knew to be 10 acres: he said it was 10½ acres, and when I corrected him he said no, it was 10½. I went back to my original source a few weeks later and asked him how big the field was and he said it was 10. "Not 10½?" I asked. "Well, if you want it exact, yes, it's 10½". Field-sizing: as super-powers go, it's an unusual one.

He would call me "professor" sometimes, because he thought I was clever. It never occurred to either of us that one day I would ever get to be a bone fide professor; my biggest regret about him is that he didn't live to see it happen. To us, it was out of the question that someone with our status would ever reach so high. There was a window of opportunity, though, through which I managed to climb; these days, the curtains would probably have been drawn on me.

The most ironic thing about this being my grandfather's 100th is that he himself did not know for many years when his birthday was. Few people of his background and generation paid much attention to it. They didn't get cards, they didn't get presents, and they only knew it was Christmas because they got an orange and a threepenny bit in a stocking on Christmas Day. When he married my grandmother in 1938, she had to ask his mother when his birthday was, because he only knew it was in February.

I could go on and on, but this is a blog, not a biography. The past may be a different country, but the people there were people just like us.

Oh, I should tell you his name, because that's important: Arthur Toase. Yes, that surname is pronounced as in fingers-and-toes. From such teasable beginnings come strength of character.

Damn, but I miss him.

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).