An English Boy Abroad
(When “Abroad” is the UK)
Man Boy and Hire Car
A few years ago my eldest lad asked me if one day it would be possible for me to take him to my home-town to see where I was brought up. The occasion arose at the end of June this year and we set off on a 5am flight out of Arrecife into Leeds/Bradford Airport. His list of things to do mostly composed of food. He’s a healthy 14-year-old with a keen interest in cookery and seems to never be out of the fridge at home, so this was unexpected. It turned into a very enlightening experience for both of us and something I am grateful we had the chance to do.
All of my sons hold British passports, but none of them have ever lived in the UK. They were born here in the Canary Isles three years after their Mum and I moved here. I have always loved Spanish culture since my first trip to Spain in 1985 whilst playing a gig at an Air-force base in Rota, close(ish) to the southern border with Portugal. It was a very different Spain at that time and my first memory of it was not the springtime sunshine, but the food. The salads were sensational, the fish were deliciously lovely and I fell for the diet immediately.
Permanent blue skies take a little getting used to but I knew as we drove up through Madrid, into France and through Paris and then across the channel back to the UK that I would be coming back, as each kilometre north we travelled turned the sky a bit more grey. A year later we were contracted to spend a winter in the Canaries and I was smitten again. Young Lanzarote was very quaint and the ex-pat community quite small so I was once again thrust into the local cuisine and culture. Also, living a winter staring at the beach/sea/sky view from our local bay just cemented it, although I was contractually obliged to go home and back a few more times before setting roots down here for good. Being away just strengthened my love of the country.
Once settled my wife and I pushed ourselves to learn the language and do our best to integrate into the local community. Unlike many ex-pats, I have never had English TV in my house and before digital TV, everything was in Spanish apart from the odd VHS tape and DVD sent from “home” so the children began being immersed in Spanish very early.
They then attended “guarderia” or nursery school from just a few months old and as they began to speak they had our English accents and the local vernacular in Spanish as usually happens with truly bi-lingual children. They actually mock my Spanish accent and I have been speaking it ten years longer than they have been alive. They attended local Spanish schools until a few years ago when my wife and I moved them to a private Bi-lingual school with a decent reputation for turning out university graduates, and as my wife also works there as an English teacher – it makes for a convenient situation in our house-hold.
For years the kids attended birthday parties and social occasions at which we were often the only English family there and I believe this was a fantastic way of helping us all integrate that bit further. I am aware though that despite all of this my kids have holes in their Spanish culture. They don’t have Spanish grandparents or cousins, aunts and uncles to learn from as the other local kids do so they lack cultural aspects in that regard. Who can forget the stuff we all learned bouncing up and down on our grandparents knees. The rhymes – “diddle diddle dumpling…”. The expressions our parents used, like ” you daft a’peth…..” – terms my kids don’t hear as the ex-pat community is still relatively small here. Of course they get some from their wonderful English grandparents – “the Galloping Major” was my favourite that I learned along side my kids while they bounced on Granada’s knee – but there are obvious gaps in their Spanish personalities.
Luckily for us they all read a lot and have some lovely friends and they are fully accepted as just kids, not English kids or foreign kids. They have been brought up smack in the middle with questions about both cultures they are part of. This really struck home with me as soon as we landed.
We had hired a car and set off “up north”, despite the protestations from the girl behind the counter at the hire car desk quaintly informing me (incorrectly from my point of view) that we were indeed already “up north”. Being June, the weather was as nice as it could be for England, a 1950’s summer day with just occasional fluffy, white clouds in a perfect blue sky as we drove out of the airport and into Poole in Wharfedale. It was mid-day and as we headed into the country side and got comfortable with the car and eventually found the switch to open the windows, he recoiled in horror of the smell of the slurrying that had been going on. It took me a second to realise this was a completely new smell to him, where we live has very few green fields and after explaining what was going on he wrinkled his nose up; “they spray it on the fields? Uugg!” I hardly noticed it despite not having been in the UK for several years myself. Then he spotted a cow in a field and he looked genuinely worried. “Dad, there’s a loose cow….” He wound up his window – and so it had begun.
What’s That Dad?
On the short drive up the A19 he took photographs of articulated lorries and car transporters and almost every road-sign that had the name of my home-town on it. Then his tummy rumbled so I told him we’d stop for a bacon sarnie and a brew. His face, when I pulled up to a scruffy little port-a-cabin in a lay-by, was a picture in itself but when I opened the door and actually went in, he followed with the trepidation of someone being lead into a lions cage. He actually thought I was playing a trick on him leading him into an abandoned old caravan by the roadside. He soon came round when he smelled the food but I found him scanning all the certificates of food hygiene and qualifications of the staff while we waited for our foil wrapped sandwiches and mugs of tea.
On arriving at my Aunts house we were greeted by hugs and kisses and food she’d prepared before heading to another Aunts house where she had done the same. We made arrangements for the next few days, turned down another slice of cake and finally left for our “Hotel” for the week. My good friend Rich, from school had kindly offered to put us up. No sooner had we got there and dumped the bags we were whisked off to a local pub for yet more food and a few beers for Rich and I to catch up on. My lad was splitting at the seams when we finally got to bed.
Our Genial Hosts
Next morning after a very light breakfast, unusual for him, we picked up one Aunt and drove into town to meet the other and headed straight to the parish hall for morning coffee and biscuits. An old boy was playing the piano, quite good he was as well but looked awkward propped on three stacked chairs – the original stool looked long gone. My son was collecting the drinks and told me he’d just paid less for 4 coffees and cakes than he did for a single cup of tea on the plane. Lesson learned? I hoped so. As we headed into the local market, a shadow of the market I remembered, I went on the hunt of a bag of winkles and some whelks, which I eventually found. He’s quite used to sea food and this would be more or less normal to him, he actively sniffs out places that serve octopus back home.
Then he spotted it, or at least his nostrils did. A pie shop was close by and one whiff caught him like the Bisto Kids to their roast dinner and his wallet was out. He could not believe his eyes. Pies as far as the eye could see. “What’s in ‘em Dad?” he asked scanning the display like a pilot checking his instruments. He finally left the shop with scotch eggs and sausage rolls and quite a few kinds of pies which he grazed on for the next few hours. We visited the riverside and I marvelled at the view of the new white water rafting course and watched seals flopping in and out of the calmer water up river.
My mind tried to remember where the factories had been and how the skyline used to look whilst the chimney stacks had still stood. How the scene had changed, even the water had changed colour, you could actually see a few feet into it. Stockton-on-Tees has changed an awful lot since I left there in 1983-4.
It was the same – but different. I could find my way around the streets, no problem, but the aspect of almost all of them had changed. There were, of course, familiar sights, bridges across the river that are never easy to alter. The corporation hall and almost all of the churches still held on but most of the pubs had closed and the high street market less than a quarter of the original busy Wednesday market day I had left behind. We drove past my senior school, boarded up and ready for demolition. Young ones eyes could not grasp the size of it or the playing fields attached. I didn’t miss running round those at all, especially in winter, so I drove on, shuddering at the memories of the biting cold rain hitting bare legs and twenty or so other kids pumping out steamy breaths as they jogged around the perimeter.
An Old Family Home where my Dads cousin had lived
I drove him past my old haunts, clubs I had worked in, shuttered up and derelict. There were gaping holes where the Hills Door factory and other well known businesses had stood. They appeared very frequently and put me off my stride when explaining something to him. “Wait ’til you see this, just round the next bend – its called a gas-o-meter”. I turn the bend and its gone, nowhere to be seen. I took him past my primary school, which he at least recognised as a school, and was struck by that feeling most of us get, that it looks so SMALL. How did we fit on those little chairs. It wasn’t so far away for him so he didn’t get it, but he was impressed with the distance I’d had to walk each day to get there.
The House I Was Brought Up In
One serious aspect of his difference in cultured upbringing was hard to accept and set me thinking. He went to buy something and asked to borrow a “tenner” – “you have money, where is it?” -“I left it in the car, Dad”. He did this again and again even though he saw me putting everything out of view each time we stopped. We don’t encourage them to leave stuff in the car in Spain either, but they often do and we don’t tend to worry so much about it. Certainly not in the town we live as there are no shady looking back streets, a healthy police presence to reassure the tourists I suppose, and as we have to have important documents on us at all times, we would never dream of leaving a wallet in a car.
Rich, my school friend is now a banking big-wig and he had access to one of the original High St shops in which the higher floors stood empty. The building was a bank and obviously they were not going to rent out the higher floors to anyone, but this had been a bank for a long time and the top floor had not been touched since the very early 1900’s. We were shown up to find all the original gas lights still in the walls, some with intact mantels, the original fireplace and straw and mud in parts of the walls. Of course it has all been fortified from the outside and a new electric system and sprinklers stuck on to the old walls. Even if you could get up there and hide until the bank was closed, I don’t think you would get past any of the thick security doors on the stairs on the way down, least of all come into contact with any actual money. But as I looked out of the window towards the town hall clock, which we were at eye level with, I couldn’t but help think that someone had sat at a desk in this room with this very fire lit while my Grandad and his siblings were wheeled up and down the High St their pram. My lad seemed intrigued and even took a trip up the rickety steps up to the loft.
As far as High Streets go, this one remains largely unchanged for over a century going by archive photographs that are available for anyone to see in the Library or on line at PIcture Stockton, a web site run by the library. The feeling of bringing a further generation to walk the very streets my great-great grandparents had discovered as they searched for a place with decent work was a little overwhelming for me. In fact just being among a street full of people who’s accent was my own accent again was a little too much and I found myself looking round thinking I’d heard my Mam, which was of course impossible as she passed on in the late 80’s.
To me it was a slightly uncomfortable feeling. For it to be complete, in my mind, I needed to get on the number 36 bus back home for “me tea” in a familiar house, probably pie, peas and chips, and put on the “telly” for a while before going and having a practice on the piano. My Mam would fend off the neighbours who complained a lot at the endless scales and my Dad would lay on the sofa behind me for every single minute of practice, filling the room with Benson and Hedges smoke all the while, but he never missed a minute of it.
Here, with my lad, I was a tour guide to a life that didn’t exist any more. Apart from the High Street, I found it really hard to get fired up about anything. Each time I told him about something, time had to contradict me and place a new school where a park was, or a supermarket in the pub car-park while the pub was now the “Bengali Lion – eat-in or take-away”. I showed him all my Dads old haunts as he had shown me his own Dads playground. Alleyways at the backs of rows of houses and becks and streams and enormous conker trees. Mine were all gone or converted to something else. You get no satisfaction telling your lad you did a gig in this massive boozer in front of the full ‘Boro squad of 1976, and now, where the boozer was is now a branch of “Victoria’s Secret” and the concert room at the back has been turned into “Poundland”.
My boy was very astute and began to sense it was not how I remembered it at all and he smiled faithfully at every story and asked endless questions to keep my mind on the now, rather than let me wander back to the non-existent past. It was a wonderful time. He now informed me that he would have to do the same with his son – if he could remember any of the details – when that time came. We took a final visit to Blackwells Family Butchers on the green in the village and he bought up enough stock to feed a small platoon “for the trip back to the airport”, an hour and twenty minutes drive back down the A19. There we would inform the lady at the hire car counter that we had returned from our expedition, and that a bit more “north” did actually exist as we had photographic evidence and some empty paper bags with the address of the butcher’s shop on under a logo of a smiling pig (oblivious to his certain fate). That particular part of “the north” though was definitely missing something for me.
Time and curiosity of what lies further afield, has stripped the town of all but remote relative traces of us. Both of my sisters have settled far away and only one remains in the far south of the UK. Like our ancestors, we hit the road to find somewhere to settle. Where they had found work and peace had not been enough for us. I felt the circle of life on this trip back. Luckily for me I have a painting that my Dad bought me just after I moved away which froze the High Street in a time I recognise. One look at it allows me a free trip back, in my head, and it’s all as I left it. I took a photograph of the same scene, from the same place while we were there, but this picture has my beautiful lad in it, leaning against the wall of the Parish Church scanning the local shops for one that sells pies.