Part of the wonder of the human experience is the function of memory. One of the things I find fascinating is how we remember events differently, from our own unique perspectives. When Virginie says, ‘that’s not how I remember it,’ I think she is right of course. How can she possibly be experiencing the world the same way that I do?
Not so long ago when I was visiting my Mother I found her going through some old photographs. Some were of my Father from the years before I was born. Some were from a time when it was just me and my Mother and Father. My memories from that time were sunny moments devoid of detail, apart from one Easter-time when I ate chocolate rabbits on the front doorstep, sitting next to my father. The sun was shining, and there was a black cat. Later that day I threw up the chocolate rabbits all over the back seat of my Mother’s Ford Anglia as we bounced over a hump-back bridge.
Dad was certain that he wanted to farm pork. He loved pigs. ‘Wonderful animals,’ he would say, ‘so clean, warm and friendly.’ One morning we woke to find two enormous spotted pigs foraging in the front garden. My Father was dressed and out there in a minute, patting and fussing them before walking them both back down the lane to the farm at the bottom of the hill. But he had been conscripted into the army and posted to Germany where he trained in coach-painting and vehicle mechanics. He discovered a talent he hadn’t realized was there and so he joined a local garage when he returned from Germany. Eventually, with help from his older brother he built his own workshop, then, one day, he came home with a wreck on the back of a trailer.
The wreck was the corpse of an old 1920’s Rolls Royce that had been used as a farm transport vehicle during the War and there really wasn’t an awful lot left of it. It went into the workshop and so did Dad. To be honest, it felt like this obsession, while fascinating and productive, only really served to keep him in the workshop and out of the home. Mum says she had no idea he had any interest in vintage vehicles until that day. He found the Rolls in an orchard, buried under bales of hay and rotting apple crates. “I’d known it was there for years,” he told me later, “I watched it rust and thought, that one day I would have to rescue it.” He paid the farmer £15.00 for it in 1967. Mum was livid. She cheered up when he sold it for thousands a few years later.
I remember sitting in the back of the Rolls with Santa Claus at a fete in East Grinstead. We were Santa’s transport of choice. It was liking riding in a space-ship with a minor deity, because, to a five-year old, that was the reality. That was what I remembered. My Dad knew Santa Claus personally. How cool was that?
Dad restored a Silver Ghost, which he drove to Lake Annecy in the Haute Savoie, France. We went in convoy with the Sussex and Surrey Vintage Vehicle Association, which was a motley collection of ancient motors and bewhiskered folks. I remember going to the local market in a red double-decker London bus! One year we traveled in the Rolls Royce to Bordeaux in South West France and had a tour of a local wine cellar. I can still see the wine barrels stacked up, blonde wood in twilight, the sun a brilliant orb kept at bay behind tall oak doors. There is a family myth that great Grand-dad, along with great Grand-ma, escaped the fate of Romeo and Juliet by smuggling themselves to England hidden in wine barrels (but that’s another story).
I find this photograph fascinating. My Father is the boy on the left. You can see him thinking. Its 1947, he has grown up in Sussex under the threat of doodle-bugs and other Third Reich threats. His little brother, on the right, was three years old at the end of the war. All my father’s memories of the war were exciting and dramatic, watching the spitfires roar across the sky, hearing the boom of mortar fire, hiding in the Anderson Shelter while bombs fell and sirens sounded far away. In this picture, as far as I can tell, he’s still trying to come to terms.
His adult life was punctuated by spells in London hospitals despite his incredible strength (he was a local arm-wrestling legend). Unfortunately, heart disease, triggered by scarring of the arteries during an adolescent bout of scarlet fever, resulted in an early death at just fifty-seven. He had been taking pills from his early thirties and underwent open heart surgery in his mid forties, later on there were stents, and promises of further interventions, but it was just a little too late.
It would have been his eightieth birthday this week. We raised a toast at the supper table and his grandchildren demanded stories about Grandad Roy. There are plenty of those to go around…