A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 22 July 2016

My Great-Grandfather: an Oral History

I never met my great-grandfather: he was born around 1898 whereas I was born in 1994. What follows, then, is a combination of 22 years worth of stories and one meal (along with several pints) that I had earlier this evening with my dad and uncle.

My dad's family came from Bradford, in Yorkshire. This was in the years before Bradford was a byword for immigration - and in particular Pakistani immigration - and my great-grandfather was very much a product of his time. He was fiercely patriotic: upon the outbreak of war in 1914, he immediately turned up to the local recruiting station. The recruiting officer looked at him somewhat skeptically and inquired as to whether he was indeed eighteen (this being the minimum age one had to be in order to sign up). My great-grandfather had to shake his head and Chief Eastleigh admit that he had not in fact achieved this age. Perhaps unfortunately  the sympathetic recruiting officer been suggested that he should go for a walk around the block and "By the time you're back you should be eighteen."

We know very little of the things he did and saw during the ensuing four years of trench warfare: the vast majority of them, he simply refused to talk about in later years. The one thing we do know about is that on one occasion he was in a trench while it was being (presumably unsuccessfully) stormed by the Germans. One particular German soldier leapt over the top of the trench brandishing his rifle, bayonet affixed, and would have landed directly upon my great grandfather; indeed would surely have killed him. Fortunately a fellow British soldier, who would go on to become one of my great-grandfather's firmest friends, was on hand to fatally stab the German in the groin.

After the war my great-grandfather became a builder: you can point to whole rows of houses in Bradford, each of them his handiwork. I don't know much about this period: my grandmother was born in 1933, my dad in 1963 period. The next story I know which directly involved him came shortly after the Second World War, and concerns how he made another long-lasting friend. This was an Irish immigrant who had been sacked from his previous job for fighting; my great-grandfather nevertheless employed him, reasoning that anyone who had fought for Britain in World War II could not be all that bad. The last we heard of this man, which came not long after the turn of the millennium, was that he had recently sold a patch of land to Leeds council for several hundred thousand pounds. This success he credited greatly to the start he had been given by my great grandfather.

In later years he suffered a number of health set backs: he broke his neck and survived at least two heart attacks. One of these heart attacks came on the building site, when he was working to a strict deadline imposed by his contract. What was he to do? The other men were mostly busy at their own jobs; my grandfather was at this point well into the Multiple Sclerosis which would eventually kill him aged 52; and my grandmother, entirely apart from the fact of her being a woman, was not at this point in the best mental health. Hence my dad, aged at this point only 10 years old, had to pile building supplies into a wheelbarrow, carry them upstairs, and finish the tiling of the bathroom. This my dad did, albeit to what he later realised was an abysmal standard. Still, my great-grandfather reflected, "it [was] a higher standard of building than some of those Paki builders."

(That is perhaps an unfair, or at least incomplete, picture though. While it is not the only racist joke I have heard him to have made, he owed these attitudes to ignorance rather than malice. When once asked to do some work for a Sikh gentleman, he was initially mistrust full but within 5 minutes was talking to this man as he would have any Brit.

In his spare time, my greta-grandfather enjoyed working on cars. It was in his garage that my dad learnt to maintain and restore cars, a passion which has continued to this day: more or less every car my parents have bought had previously been involved in a crash and my dad restored it (saving money: every Yorkshireman's favourite hobby), and he now restores classic motors.

My great-grandfather never truly retired. He stopped charging, to be sure, but when the young couple two Doors Down needed some help he offered to plaster their entire house, over a period of several weeks, for no compensation.

He was himself only semi-literate, but lived to see my Dad and Uncle go to university. Eventually, despite numerous unhealthy habits, he passed away at 85 - by the standards of the time and place a quite remarkable age.

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