Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Recipe for Disaster

Sitting at my father’s feet, he reading and I gazing into the fire, a thought occurred to me, and I asked him:
            ‘Father, how do you make gunpowder?’
            Now, you might think that most fathers would change the subject with alacrity, or deny any knowledge of the recipe and tell the errant child to go and help with the washing up. But my father had more than a little of the eccentric about him, and though a learned man he sometimes deviated just a bit from the path of conventional wisdom that says at all costs to keep your child safe. And so he replied:
            ‘Fetch a pencil and some paper and I’ll tell you.’
            I did. And he told me.
            ‘Sulphur I can get from the greenhouse,’ I noted. ‘Charcoal from where we have the bonfires at the bottom of the garden. But where can I get saltpetre?’
            ‘Well, you can ask the chemist in town to sell you a couple of ounces. Only thing is, he’ll probably ask you what you want it for.’
            I nodded and saw at once that this might present a problem. ‘I wonder what I should say?’ I murmured, half to myself.
            Some might think it shocking that a parent should not only encourage such hazardous experimentation as I proposed, but fibbing as well, as he did indeed encourage:
            ‘Tell him you want to use it to clean the front doorstep.’
            But he was anything but a bad man. He was in fact ever generous and kind, and as a doctor admired and loved by his patients, and respected by those he taught and unfailing in his support of them. But that aside, I hadn’t the least idea that front doorsteps could be cleaned by such a means. In any event, I did not doubt him and duly made my way to the chemist the next day.
            As anticipated, he leaned over the counter in a way most certainly calculated to intimidate a small boy, and asked me not a little severely:
            ‘And what would you be wanting saltpetre for, young man?’
            I am sure that I looked as if butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth as, picture of innocence as I must have been, I repeated what my papa had told me. He hesitated and regarded me unsmilingly. But I was duly handed the chemical, weighed out into a small brown paper bag. I concluded that the correct way to clean front doorsteps was a piece of knowledge to which adults in general were privy.
            And that afternoon my best friend and I had our eureka moment behind the garden shed. And we suffered no worse effects than mildly singed eyebrows.
            Determined to repeat the experiment – this time perhaps to manufacture a rocket that would actually take off – I returned to the chemist’s. Only this time I made the mistake of taking my elder brother with me.
            The chemist asked the same question again. Again, I replied that I wanted to clean the front doorstep.
            ‘Oh no he doesn’t!’ interrupted my brother, ‘he wants it to make gunpowder!’
            The chemist’s reaction was predictable and I will not detail it. At least he did not summons the local policeman. We were, indeed, sent empty away.
            The time came, of course, when I sourced my supplies elsewhere. And this time I did not go with my brother. My father was delighted when my first rocket rose about six feet from the ground before detonating violently. Sadly, my next pyrotechnical escapade resulted in the blowing of a two foot crater in my father’s asparagus bed. This was not at all well received and in fact signalled the end of my firework manufacturing. And while I have no recollection of the penalty exacted upon me, it was not a severe or in any sense cruel one, he being, as I said, a kind man. It was the sight of my father’s anguish at witnessing the destruction of his pride and joy that did for me, and caused me more pain than any chastisement could have done.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Reading to Children - a grandfather's perspective

Reading to Children – a grandfather’s perspective

I am sure that I’m not alone in having cherished early memories of being read to while sitting  on someone’s lap, or at their feet in front of the fire. I don’t recall being read to by my mother as she died when I was quite little – although I am sure that she did read to me: I have a dog-eared edition of “Orlando the Marmalade Cat Becomes a Doctor” (dog-eared perhaps not being quite the right way to describe a book about a cat. Sorry Orlando). It is 62 years old and signed inside “To Henry, with love from Mama”. Yes,I am sure she read it to me, and I am sad that she never saw me read it in turn to the grandchildren she never had the joy of knowing or indeed her great-grandchildren, who have all delighted in it in turn.
            I certainly have memories of being read to by my father. He was a kindly if rather austere man – probably something to do with his never ceasing to grieve for my mother until his own death, 18 years after hers. His choice of books perhaps reflected this – Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes Short Stories”, Kipling’s “Puck of Pooks Hill” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”. His live-in housekeeper who – although my father was never comfortable with it – did the essential mothering after my own mother died, liked a different genre: Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit” series, and the “Rupert Bear” annuals. Oh – and Blyton’s “Noddy”. Those got passed on to my own children, then on to theirs. And how deliciously un-politically correct those original editions are too. But I don’t think my little grandchildren even notice what so many of their elders would consider gross beyond words.

            My grandchildren are as involved with the television and their computer games as any others of their age. But it is not difficult to coax them away with the promise of a story and loving physical proximity. Last weekend we spent the day with my younger daughter and her husband and their three little ones. The youngest, Jimi, will be 4 in September. We’d bought a book back from Italy for him, of all things about a grand-dad and his truffle hound (we’d had a holiday in Piemonte, famous for its truffles). It was perhaps a little old for him, and with a good smattering of Italian words. But he wasn’t deterred. He snuggled up dreamily to me while I sat cross legged (yes, some of us 65 year olds can still sit cross legged. I am rather proud of that) on the grass, like an old Buddha. Jimi’s  rabbit nibbled the grass at my feet. His attention held for a good ten minutes, and he was as mesmerised as any child would be in such a situation. Magic.

            And it reminds me of two of my nieces in the west of Ireland. They are in their mid-twenties now, and both qualified teachers. But on the (sadly) rare occasions that they see me they never fail to run up excitedly and hug me. ‘Do you remember, Uncle Henry, how you used to read “Peter Rabbit” to us. And we loved your English accent!’

            But how could I forget?