Saturday 28 October 2017

My Grandad drove a tram

Crossing the Line – Part 1

So where do I start? 

Perhaps with the people who made me and brought me up.  We were a small family.  I am an only child of parents who were both the only child in their families.

I only knew one of my grandparents.  The others were all dead before I was born.  And for the first 8 years of my life I hardly saw him either.  He was so totally different to my parents (or so it appeared) that it was sometimes difficult to believe that they had anything in common. 

A while ago, I remember doing one of those rather frivolous on-line quizzes which are supposed tell you something about yourself.  In a few questions, this one purported to reveal what social class you were, and my result was “Solidly Working Class”.  I laughed.  I am a clergyman, educated at Oxford, from an independent school, born of a vicar and a teacher.  Surely you can’t get much more middle class that that?

But as a thought about it, I also remembered that my parents were not from middle class homes, far from it, and neither were their parents.  Perhaps this frivolous quiz was revealing something about me which I had not identified before?  Perhaps I was more working class that I realised?

Grandad (back left) with friends before the War
My grandad was staunchly working class, deeply proud of his Lancashire working man’s values.  My parents had climbed the social ladder.  They had moved beyond their working class roots, aspiring to something more refined.

He lived in a rented bedsit in the same neighbourhood in Bolton where he had always lived.  We lived in a huge Victorian vicarage with a tennis court, bluebell wood, orchard and rose garden.  Our vicarage had old servant’s quarters in the attic which were bigger than his entire home.

He was a man of few words – preferring to keep his thoughts to himself most of the time.  He smoked 40 cigarettes a day and collected his Embassy tokens for treats or presents from the catalogue.  My parents were always talking – their jobs required it – and hated anything to do with smoking.

He loved working with his hands and the tool bench which he had made, contained the tools of his trade.  When my dad had become the first person in the family ever to go to university, grandad made him a beautiful desk out of old ammunition boxes.  By the time he had finished, no-one would have guessed the wood’s former purpose and today the desk is where I often go to write sermons or blogs, having been passed down to me, by my father in turn.  It still shines with that deep dark lustre of mahogany that has been lovingly worked to perfection.

He also made radios, and other ‘modern’ gadgets.  He did the whole thing, from designing the circuits to combining the components and making the cabinet which housed them.   I remember one in particular.  It had something like a liquid crystal display above the tuning dial with two glowing bars which came together when the radio signal was strong and drifted apart as the signal faded.  “To find the best signal” he would say, “you tune the radio until the bars are as close to each other as they can get”.   It was like magic to me.

When I was seven he gave me a model railway – not in a box, but laid out on an enormous table with a station, goods yard, village and level-crossing.  It was like my own small version of Legoland but made in wood and metal, and painted with loving care. 

When I was about 8, ill health brought him to live with us, and he made a 36” racing yacht for me, engaging me to help him at every stage.  I remember being given the awesome responsibility of pouring the molten lead into the mould he had made for the keel.  I remember him showing me how to steam strips of wood so that they would bend around the frame he had made to form the sleek lines of a racing hull.

These were the things he had done with my dad when he was a child – model train sets and racing yachts were the pinnacle of their relationship, but my father had left these far behind as sixth form led to university, and then on to theological college and ordination.

That is not to say that grandad didn’t have his faults.  He could be deeply moody and his few words could move almost imperceptibly to sullen depression at the drop of a hat.  His dark moods could last for days when he would shuffle around in a world of his own, speaking to no-one. 

When he came to live with us for the final 5 years of his life, his smoking drove my mother mad, and his working class pride was the antithesis of everything she aspired to.  It wasn’t that her upbringing had been pretentious or snobbish – far from it.  In many ways it had been significantly harder than my dad’s.  Her father had been an unskilled, alcoholic labourer in Sheffield.  Work was casual and unreliable, and when he did get paid, he would drink the money on the way home before beating her mother savagely.  My mum had a childhood characterised by poverty, fear and malnutrition in the slums of Sheffield and I don’t know if she would have survived but for the kindness of a local prostitute who used to give her money for chips.  Where grandad enshrined working class dignity, she only knew working class misery and she had fought with everything she had to leave it far behind.

Perhaps the reason they clashed so often was that he reminded her of the things she had escaped from.  He didn’t drink, but his room was always thick with smoke.  He would watch ITV - she watched BBC.  She had a modern cylinder vacuum cleaner – he loved his old upright Hoover and he would tell me over and over again how and why it was different and better than these modern plastic gimmicks.  He was content to sit quietly in his chair in his room with his ashtray and his telly.  He didn’t care if he was on his own, and resented coming downstairs to family meals.  She wanted to go to dinner parties, talk to educated people, and develop her career to get as far away as possible from the origins which he continued to represent.

 And when he got moody, he really got moody.  I am sure that part of the reason for building model train sets and yachts with my dad, was to avoid really talking to him.  He was a very guarded man who had seen almost everyone he loved die, and he had built a wall around his heart to stop it ever being broken again. 

After his early 20’s were stolen in the trenches of the First World War, seeing his friends and comrades die, he was one of the very few of those who enlisted early to return home.  He then married but his wife died after giving birth to my dad.  He withdrew within himself more and more.  Then my dad almost died when he was 2 years old from an ear infection.  He was only saved by his grandmother taking him out of hospital when they had given up on saving him, slowly loving him back to life.  

He did eventually allow himself to love again, but could not show it, because his love was for his wife’s sister, also widowed.  The taboos which remained about such relationships were still strong in his community – when he was born it was still illegal to marry your dead wife’s sister and it was expressly prohibited in the Prayer Book.  Although that changed in 1907, the stigma and disapproval of such relationships was still strong, and it was only after the death of his mother-in-law many years later that they dared to express their love and get married.  She then died only 3 or 4 years later.

I suppose that his job as a tram driver suited him for that very reason.  Isolated in his cab, he could just get on with life without having to engage with other people.  He simply got the tram from A to B and back again as the world went on around him.  I think he started on the horse-drawn omnibus, moving to electric trams with the advent of new technology.  But when the trams were replaced by buses, he was unwilling to make another technological leap by learning to drive.  Instead he became a bus conductor for the rest of his working life.  I can imagine him as a character in the TV comedy “On the Buses” – suspicious of change, proudly working class, resentful of authority, and resistant to anything which would threaten his fragile status quo.

As a child, I do remember that whenever I got too close – whenever I started to penetrate the wall which he had erected around his heart – he would quietly distance himself again, not in a cruel or manipulative way, but to shore up his self-defence.

He died when I was 13.  The smoking finally got him and he had a stroke, aged 81.

After 3 months of an air purifier running non-stop in his room 24 hours a day, it still smelled of stale cigarettes, and when we took the pictures off the wall, they left clear rectangles like oases in the darkening layers of tar and nicotine which surrounded them.

Yet I learnt so much from him about enduring adversity and about retaining the right kind of pride & dignity, no matter what anyone else thought. 

I still have the yacht.  The train set went when I was a teenager because I needed money and space for a settee and a hi-fi.   But I still have the yacht we made.  When I look at it, I see a man who took pride in what he did – a man who was self-contained and resilient – but also a man who cut himself off from others out of fear of getting hurt again.

My grandad drove a tram.

Grandad, mum and me

(With Thanks to Sam Emms for the title graphic - thanks Sam!)

Click here for an Introduction to Crossing the Line


  1. Oh my goodness Ben, such memories of playing with your train set and yacht as children together and yes the fog that was part of grandad’s ever prevalent ambience. I had no idea he was a tram driver though I remember our Saturday morning adventures in the vicaridge all those years ago however. Seems like an age now. Thanks for sharing these precious things brother. Chris

    1. And thank you Chris for being a part of them. As you will see later on, you helped keep me sane, and helped me grow up! I will never forget that. Blessings. Benny

  2. What a lovely piece of Benny- very touching , I hope you will be writing more along these lines

    1. Thank you - that's my intention, so thanks for the encouragement.

  3. I love the way you write. Looking forward to the book. Sending fond wishes and prayers for healing and comfort from Boston, MA

    1. Thank you Charlene. I was guessing that CDS was you and just read your Fb comment so now I know. Book? Probably not, but I love writing so I'm so pleased you like the way I write! Thank you for the prayers and continuing encouragement.

  4. Moving and beautifully written, Benny. You have captured a world that seems very far away. Looking forward to reading more. Though we have not seen you for a long time, we are thinking of you. Warmest wishes to you and your family, Mark and Faye T

    1. Lovely to hear from you Mark and Faye, and thank you. I have just posted Part 2 - My mother was a nun...! I hope you are well.