Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A machete to my memories

I've just got back from Rushden in Northamptonshire, where my mother and I attended Bob Whitworth's funeral. My Dad wanted to come as well, but had to wait in Thaxted for some workmen who've been threatening to arrive for days!

Mr Whitworth was my junior school headteacher, and it was clear from the enormous turnout that his warmth and wisdom had touched many people. Even the local MP!

It's been a beautiful wintry sunny day; the kind of light that makes everything look like it's swimming in a mixture of butter and golden syrup. We stopped briefly in Higham Ferrers to look at the house I grew up in. It's a pilgimage I periodically make. It was so dark inside that I had to press my head right up to the window, to see how much it had changed since the last time. It seemed grander. More formal and less alive somehow. I was mortified to discover, after much peering, that someone was sitting on the sofa staring right back at me, phone in hand, no doubt ready to call the police!

Rushden looks incredibly down-trodden these days. All the old shops, those stalwarts of the town, had closed down, and the High Street looked like something from the Wild West, with countless premises boarded up. Everything was familiar, but it was as though its very soul had evaporated. Many of the shops I used to visit were still displaying their  former signs, yet in the window, there was nothing but empty mannequins, or broken shelves, or signs which promised something else. The coffee tavern had gone, the little junk shop where I bought all my ABBA records had gone, the Italian restaurant where we celebrated exam successes, the independant department stores where people bought rose-pink lipstick and pointless note-books covered in glitter... all evaporated. Nothing but the odd kebab shop, a few nail bars and shops that said they'd purchase second-hand gold. It makes me weep to think about it. It was like someone had taken a machete to my memories.

We walked around for a bit, searching in vain for somewhere nice to eat lunch. We ended up in a chinzy place, lined with teapots, and cheap Welsh dressers splitting under the weight of hundreds of pointless nicknacks. It was situated in a shop that I remember being built, which nowadays is sandwiched between Iceland and Wilkinson; the only shops that survive recession.

We were forced to share a table with an elderly couple with alzheimer's. The woman kept dropping her knife on the floor and either couldn't hear or understand a word that anyone was saying to her. My mother went to the loo and was horrified to discover her sitting on the men's toilet, with her skirt around her ankles and the door wide open for the world to see. How terribly sad to lose one's dignity in this manner. And yet, she and her husband were dressed up to the nines like the trip to this terrible cafe was the highlight of their week.

The funeral was lovely, if that's a word you can use to describe such things. I was lucky enough to sit next to my old music teacher, Chris. Not only was it lovely to see her - I've always said she has to take a large amount of responsibility for the way I turned out - but she also acted as our information bank, reminding us who everyone was, and pointing out teachers and parents I'd not seen for decades. She also sang the hymns beautifully, and because I knew none of them, she gave me something to copy!

After the funeral I bumped into someone who'd been at senior school with me. She was one of those people who doesn't seem to come with an off-switch! Perhaps she was just trying to catch-up at hyper-speed, but within the space of about 3 minutes, I found out all sorts of things about her, including the fact that her son is entirely incontinent!

January 18th 1661, and Pepys was up with the lark and riding like the wind through the rain and sleet from Dartmouth back to The City. All was well within his house, apart from his pet monkey, which had been left out of its cage and was hopping about and no doubt weeing all over the house. Pepys beat the poor creature "until it was almost dead", which strikes me as a fairly bizarre over-reaction. One wonders whether he'd have taken his anger out on Elizabeth had she been present. Fortunately she wasn't.

After putting the half-dead creature back into its cage, Pepys went a-drinking with his father. A pleasant evening was somewhat destroyed by the arrival of his troublesome cousin, who was so rat-arsed that Pepys ceased to be able to get a word in edgeways. This became a great deal more irritating when they were joined by a doctor, who Pepys was trying to collar for medical advice. In the end, he left his cousin with his father, and whisked the doctor away to another pub. His problems included pain passing water after a night out on the tiles and short-term memory loss. The doctor's advice? Unsurprisingly, to lay off the alcohol!

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