Yesterday I attended the celebration of the life of my extraordinary grandfather who passed away a few weeks ago. My mum’s dad was an inspiration to me and a towering presence in my life and my family’s life. In the last couple of years I’ve talked about him a lot from the stage as my trio performed my tune ’80 Years Of Pleasant Half Hours’ which I wrote for his 80th birthday. Sadly by this point he was too ill to come out and see a gig but he loved the fact that he was being talked about up and down the country!
As a kid, he even helped to inspire my obsession with music though he always played down his musical abilities. He performed in a skiffle group called the Cotton Pickin’ Five back in the 50s and he used to play guitar and sing to me in my youth. As I began my musical adventures we also used to play music together, something which I will always treasure. Happily some of this was recorded on video back in 2010 so I have these precious memories to watch.
My sister and I spent many many hours with him, my grandmother and my great grandmother when we were kids. He loved kids and took great delight in playing daft games with us and my cousins. In fact when I think about it, it’s amazing how active our adventures where when you consider that he was already physically not in great shape and his mother was hitting her 90s! As a slightly older kid and into my teens I continued to absolutely adore my extended family and the legendary new years gatherings were my favourite night of the year (and still are). Grandpa absolutely loved being the host and his hospitality was famous. Family meant everything to him – his children, grandchildren, parents and of course my quite phenomenal grandmother. His marriage to her is an inspiration to anyone and a real tale of true love. Family has played such an enormous part of my life and his influence on that is colossal. Yesterday the sense of an end of an era was huge yet his influence will of course live on each and every day.
Grandpa was an unfailingly practical person and it’s fair to say not always the most tactful about it! He had his fallings out with his children at times during his life and was a complicated character. Sometimes he blatantly looked for an argument as well and because he was irritatingly good at having them, the results could be explosive! But for someone who on paper was very conservative and very opinionated, I also found him a good deal more open minded, progressive and willing to learn than my assessment above suggests. It was of course easier for me being one more generation removed as there wasn’t that same ‘parent-child’ difficulty – it’s easier with grandchildren he actually said to me! In addition, he rather liked the fact that I’d give as good as I got and happily we never did fall out. Far from it. We disagreed. A lot. A lot a lot a lot. But we always came away from our discussions with a healthy sense of a debate enjoyed.
I spent my childhood looking up to him but If anything, my relationship with him was probably even closer as I hit adulthood. That practical streak was a big influence on me – I wouldn’t have said I was naturally an organised person or a pro-active person and the idea of me organising my schedule, flights, hotels, finances and everything seemed frankly terrifying in those days! But an immensely practical mother and grandfather and a massively driven self employed Dad were a big influence and somehow I’ve made a career out of this banjo lark. Grandpa embraced email way before most people and we exchanged very regular messages which featured his magnificent way with words, something else which fed into my life as my UFQ bandmates have frequently told me – ‘I don’t know a single other person who says that!’. I absolutely loved telling him about my career and his pride and interest in it continued to drive me on and I will so sorely miss telling him all about my travels. Happily, he did make it to a good few gigs too – my first ‘proper’ theatre show at Stafford Gatehouse and remarkably my appearance at Shrewsbury Folk Festival back in 2011 where he raised his hand as I gave him a shout out from the stage. In the later years, before his health declined further he also attended my gigs at a pub near to where he lived where it so happens I met my future girlfriend too. I played there mainly so he could attend – it is therefore because of him that I’ve met my partner, a fact which he immensely enjoyed! He welcomed her as he welcomed every other partner who has come into the family and it is a source of great joy to me that they got to know each other and he regarded her so highly.
Not going into details too much, but during some very difficult personal periods he was also a tower of strength for me. My grandparents’ location in Shropshire was absolutely ideal. Although I was living in the northeast I was frequently back in Stafford for longish periods and so always took the opportunity to head over on the train where he would meet me at the station in his electric buggy. I relocated back to Stafford in 2012 and recently to Shropshire itself and it has been such a joy to see so much of my grandparents. The many evenings spent ranting away over a glass of something nice were…well as he would say, a very pleasant half hour.
I’ve mentioned his health – he truly was incredible in this regard. He defied the odds year after year despite being medically retired in his late 40s and being convinced he wouldn’t last much beyond 60. I never once heard him complain about it – he had so many conditions and was confined to barracks so much which for a naturally active person who relished travel must have been hard. But he always focused on what he could do and not what he couldn’t and as mentioned above, embraced email very early, wrote books, came to whatever gigs and occasions he could and of course enjoyed the company of his family and in particular his extraordinary wife. He also encouraged my Granny to continue to enjoy trips, outings, walking and all the other activities she loved and relished hearing about them when she returned. The distressing period near the end where he lost his sight and began to lose his faculties was mercifully short and my abiding memories are of a larger than life character with an amazing positivity, wonderful humour, innate hospitality and a very strong moral sense. He adored his family who all adored him and I am of course greatly struggling with the idea of never going round for a rant over a drink again or sending him an email or postcard from my tours abroad. I’ll miss his sage counsel and his unconditional support. But I will forever treasure having 32 years of my life with him firmly a part of it and his colossal influence will live on in me always.