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11:02am on Monday, 1st August, 2011:

100 Today


Today, my paternal grandfather would have been 100 years old, had he lived. As it was, he died in 1982 from complications due to diabetes.

Here he is as I remember him:

Fortunately, baldness genes are inherited through the maternal line, so my dad still has a full head of hair.

My grandad was a very clever man, but he was frustrated in his efforts to improve himself by two events that derailed his plans. He didn't ever talk about either of these, but I got to hear some things second-hand that I could piece together.

First, his father (an upholsterer by trade) ran off with a woman when my grandad was around 14, which meant my grandad had to get a job instead of staying on at school. It wasn't until a few years ago that we discovered that his father had started a family with this other woman and as a result my dad has three half-cousins living in Australia.

Second, World War Two broke out and my grandfather was drafted into the 8th Army. At the time, he was what would now be called a physiotherapist (back then it was a "masseur" or "male nurse"); this was even more unusual then than it is now, but it was one of the few routes for a boy from a poor background to get into medicine. Six years in North Africa put an end to that ambition. My dad was born just after the war started, and my grandad didn't see him until close to the war's end.

Upon his return to civilian life, my grandad got a job at the Gas Board, where he worked until he retired. I don't know exactly what it was he did, I just know that it involved a large forge and a great deal of heat, which he and his fellow workers endured by drinking cups of hot tea (which may sound counter-intuitive, but hot tea makes you sweat and you cool down more than if you drank something cold). I have a very dim recollection of being taken to see him there once; because it's dim, I must have been quite young — three or four at most.

My grandad was something of a perfectionist, which in combination with my grandma's immaculate housekeeping meant that childhood visits to their house were always fraught with the worry that we might put something somewhere where it didn't go or, worse, break it. Nothing like that ever happened that I remember, but I do remember having to be ultra-cautious.

He had a very particular sense of humour. Although he would occasionally repeat jokes he'd heard at work, he mainly raised a laugh by saying absurd things completely straight, as if they were true. This could be quite confusing as a kid, because you don't always know that absurd things are absurd, but I grew to appreciate it when I got older. It's ultimately from him that I got my copy of School Yarns and Howlers , containing the funniest 50 pages I've ever read. That's his sense of humour right there.

Oh, if you look at the photo you'll see a slight curve at the bottom of his two front teeth: this is because he smoked a pipe and it wore them out.

After my grandmother died, my grandad (quite unexpectedly) remarried. The woman he married was his next-door neighbour, whose name I didn't know until I looked it up just now on Ancestry.co.uk: Elizabeth Brownsword. Everyone called her Sis, a name she was given by her very domineering sister. As a result, when my grandfather died everything he owned went to her. The sister stepped in, and my father and my uncle didn't get anything — not even things that were theirs in their own right. It was a very messy business, and may well have contributed to my uncle's becoming estranged from the rest of the family a year or so later.

My grandad was quite well known locally for collecting matchbox labels. He'd stop in the street and pick them up, eventually amassing 26,000 of them. My grandma tolerated his hobby, but no-one else ever showed the slightest interest in it except for me. I liked the exotic pictures, the strange writing, the minute differences; I liked the sets, I liked the way he catalogued them, and I liked them as aesthetic objects. As a result, he promised them to me when he died. The last time we saw him alive, a month before the end, he knew he didn't have long left so he gave me his matchboxes to take away — all except the best ones, which he kept on display rather than in albums. One of those, from the Boer War, had a candle in it that he actually lit for me once, using up one of the remaining matches in the process. It felt to me like a great honour, which indeed it was; I don't know that anyone other than me and my grandad would have thought of it that way, though. I've no idea what eventually happened to it or to the other display matchboxes, but they were denied me (out of spite, I think) and were therefore probably just thrown out. I wish I had it; not because a museum might give me a tenner for it, but because I liked it.

As with all my grandparents, there's so much I want to ask my dad's dad now that I didn't ask him when he was alive, so will never know. As a kid, I was more interested in kicking a ball about with my brother in their tiny yard using the gap between the outside toilet and the coal shed as a goal. He was a bit of an enigma: a very intelligent man doing manual labour that made next to no use of his abilities, but generally happy with if not entirely accepting of his lot.

That wraps up my short series of entries on my grandparents, because my paternal grandfather was the youngest ("and bossiest" — my mother) of the four and therefore would have been the last to have reached 100 if he'd lived. He didn't live, though.

Nevertheless, I have 26,000 matchboxes in my attic by which to remember him.

Referenced by Forge.

Referenced by Philuminist.

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).