Gardening, Grandfathers, Memories & Coca Cola.

I was thinking about my Grandfather today. It was the mix of sunshine and my attempts at gardening that sparked it off. I was cutting the front lawn and pulling out weeds by hand when I had an instant flashback to being 6 years old and my Granda paying me ten pence to pull out the weeds in the front garden – “Rossy boy! Pull those weeds out and I’ll give you two bob for sweeties.” Two bob – I was way too young to know what two bob was but I was a quick learner. No weedkiller required back in the day – just grandchildren in need of two bob (or ten pence to those of us born in the ’70’s) for a Wham bar or ten Chelsea Whoppers. I didn’t really appreciate the gardening jobs back then – all I wanted to do in those pre-guitar days was play football. I didn’t really appreciate my Granda much either. We lived with him and it was like having a second Dad, a second bloodhound nose to throw off the scent of your skullduggery, a second set of eyes to have to sneak your mischief past… another warden walking the corridors at night. If you managed to get your teenage, drunk, stoned ass past Mum and Dad you still had to get your tomfoolery past Granda. No mean feat I might add – the man was one of those guys who had been round every corner. He lived through two World Wars; smoked 40 fags a day; kicked the habit at age 77 after a heart attack, when the Doctor was of the opinion that he had a few months to live; and was still fit to do mental arithmetic and walk a few miles early into his ’90’s. He had been round more than a few corners.

Orphaned at fourteen years old and sent to live with relatives who didn’t care too much for him or his younger brother, he once told me that they were barely fed and lived on scraps from the table at their new ‘home’. One day they overheard their carers refer to them as a ‘burden’ and my Granda decided it was time for him and his little bro to hit the road. Life seemed kinda crueler and darker one hundred years ago from all the stories my Granda used to tell me.

What do you do in 1919 when you’re 14 years old and you have to look after your kid brother, with no home and no money? Let’s put it into perspective. My kid brother still reminds me how I threatened to murder him in his sleep after he threatened to tell our folks that I was smoking. I was 14 years old at the time. If we were orphans back then and his fate had depended on me he would have lived a very short life. I would have cooked him up for dinner once we ran out of bread, milk, Weetabix, and Pot Noodles. 1919 vs 1989 paints a bleak picture. 70 years isn’t a long time in terms of our linear approach to time but the gulf is massive in terms of the character of 14 year old boys.

My Granda did what every 14 year old did back then – he went and got himself an Instagram profile, a Facebook & Twitter account, called himself an Entrepreneur, visualised and manifested money, put videos out on youtube to maximise his profitability, received millions in sponsorship money, created the avatar of success, and lived happily ever after. In a word – no. He was a grafter of the highest proportions. Remember when I said I didn’t appreciate him while I was growing up? The truth is I didn’t truly appreciate him in every sense till long after he was gone, when I grew up, became a man, and realised what a legend he was. This guy was an entrepreneur of the highest order. He didn’t know anything about buzz words or marketing strategy or online promotion. He just knew how to make money. More importantly he knew how to graft and he had no respect for any man who didn’t have a skill, and a will, to work. When I got my first official job and would take the odd sick day or I had holidays to take he used to quiz me relentlessly – “Why aren’t you at work, boy? You’ll be getting your cards. Sick day? There was no sick days in my day. Holidays? We worked and got paid. Nobody took sick and nobody took holidays.” – and it really did take the fun out of pulling a sicky.

Back to 1919: The first business our two young entrepreneurs  – Jimmy & Vic – started was an ice cream cart. They basically made ice cream, wheeled a cart around trying to sell it, ate what they could of the leftovers, and then threw the rest “over the hedge on the way back down the road” as Jimmy used to say. They couldn’t keep the ice cream anywhere overnight. This was 1919 and they were a couple of kids. They made ice-cream every day and sold it. It kept them in food and clothes and it put a roof over their heads. No social media, no advertising, no qualifications, and barely an education between the two of them.

As one little successful endeavour turned into another Jimmy eventually went on to become a Draughtsman and almost left Northern Ireland to head to America in pursuit of riches and opportunities. Then, when he wasn’t expecting it, he met my Granny and it was Game Over for him. He loved her like I can’t even begin to articulate. Whenever he would talk about her he would refer to her as Mrs Alexander. He never called her by her Christian name of Julia. Such a different era he came from. I used to laugh at it, and I used to think it sounded crazy. He would say things like “you only get one good woman in this life, son. One good woman. You only get one” whenever he would reminisce about his beloved Julia. When I was going through my Divorce he often popped into my head and I used to wonder what he would have made of it all. He always got a kick out of my antics. He knew I was a tad off the reservation and he just knew I would always be in trouble for one crazy reason after another.

I used to stay up late to record Mtv’s Headbanger Ball onto VHS tape back when Sky Tv first began it’s assault on the UK audience. It was on every Monday morning at 1am and I had to guard the VCR because my Granda had this incessant need to switch every appliance and socket off before bed. He was convinced the place would burst into flames once we all fell asleep if even one socket was left switched on. After a few episodes of my favourite Tv show being ruined I decided to sit up and watch it while it was recording and decided to hell with being tired at school on Monday morning. He used to look at me over his newspaper with a look that said “In my day we went to bed early and got up early in the morning to go to work.” More of his crazy notions and ideas. Nowadays I long for that sort of ‘crazy’ and I long for this era to be more like that era.

It was easy for me to justify my lack of appreciation of this sharp witted old man who lived with us and thwarted my shenanigans at every turn. But what about from poor old Jimmy’s point of view? He must have thought at some point in his life that he would grow old with his beloved sweetheart, Julia. My Granny sadly passed away in her early fifties… and old Jimmy never looked at another woman for the rest of his life. If he hadn’t been such a tough determined orphan back in his teens he might not have ever met my Granny, he also maybe wouldn’t have had the strength and grit needed to survive her passing. Losing his Mother, his Father, his eldest Brother, and taking to the streets to make his own way in life, with his younger brother in his care was probably the sledgehammer that beat him into a tough enough slab of resilience to endure his wife’s passing. I’ve often heard of how he always called her “My pal” and that they were the best of friends. I’ve never known a man to truly revere a woman the way my Grandfather revered my Grandmother. I’m told she was an absolute angel on earth and everyone who knew her said she had a heart of pure gold. Old Jimmy on the other hand was a cross old geezer who didn’t suffer fools gladly and didn’t give any man anything for free. He could point out people who still owed him money for fish suppers 30 years after the fact. Julia on the other hand, I’ve heard my Mum tell stories of how Julia used to bag up extra fish and chips for young families who didn’t have too much money when Jimmy wasn’t looking. My Dad would always back up his dear old Dad when those stories were told – “He always knew rightly” he would say.

When he first married Julia, Jimmy decided to start his own Fish’n’Chip Shop. He still had that entrepreneur spark burning inside him. He borrowed £2000 to set up his first Chippy and his Mother In Law told him he would end up “in the Crum” aka The Crumlin Road Gaolhouse. “She was a crabbid auld bitch” is how Jimmy described his Mother In Law. He didn’t mince his words. He didn’t end up in ‘the Crum’ either, and in fact he ended up working his way to buying his own property in Carrickfergus for the princely sum of £2000 and when he turned that into a goldmine he bought a nice bungalow for him and his beloved Julia at a price of £3000. Both buildings were paid for in cash and back in the ’60’s that was the sort of behaviour that wasn’t very common and wasn’t to be sneezed at. The orphan who lived on scraps, survived being homeless, sold ice cream from a trolley, dodged German Aeroplane bullets bouncing along the floor in the Aircraft Factory during the blitzes, made himself a successful businessman, married the girl of his dreams, bought her a beautiful bungalow, and then had to endure losing her much too young, before they could even enjoy their bungalow. Life can be a strange trip indeed.

Fast forward back to the future – any year of the ’80’s will do. By the ’80’s I was fully on my feet, as was my big bro, and what our little bro lacked in walking skills he made up for in craziness. Granda kept a greenhouse in our back garden and it yielded bountiful supplies of grapes and tomatoes. He also had a strawberry patch at the bottom of the garden, two pear trees, and an apple tree. This tough old man, who should have been spending the best years of his life living with his beloved, tending his little greenhouse, and rocking in his rocking chair while his wife cooked a lovely meal, was now living in quite a different reality. Once we could all walk, we all instantly knew how to kick a football. Once we could all kick a football everything else was just secondary to us. My Dad loved football, even old Jimmy loved football. What Jimmy wasn’t too keen on was his Grandchildren’s version of football, especially the middle one (me) who could blast a football like a cannonball from the age of 5 and could take out not just the front pane of glass on Jimmy’s greenhouse but also the back pane… with the same shot. A crash, followed by the scampering of little feet, followed by the shuffling of bigger feet, and the cries of “which one of you wee buggers smashed my glasshouse again?!” followed by nervous titters and giggles was a regular occurrence in our house. Then there were the times when he would go to get dressed up for his weekly walk into the town to collect his rent from that old Chippy he owned, collect his pension, and walk around the town soaking in how things were changing. When he would go to find his leather gloves, his hat, or his silk neck tie it was common enough to find that these items had maybe been borrowed by a goalie, a gangster, and a cowboy. If we weren’t playing football we were playing Cowboys & Indians or Cops & Robbers. Lets not even mention the times his false teeth were knocked from his nightstand onto the carpet or were procured in an attempt to kit out Rambo – our German Shepherd – with a new set of molars. Lets not even mention the fact that Rambo demolished the strawberry patch on a regular basis, even when it was well protected by wire mesh – German Shepherds are one intelligent breed of dog. Or the time when his pear trees were used as ammunition supplies and the pears hurled like grenades into the laps of the elderly neighbours who were enjoying afternoon tea in the garden on a summers day. Oh, and that rocking chair he should have been gently rocking in during those twilight years? Well, that wasn’t a rocking chair at all to us, that was a spaceship, a helicopter seat, a cockpit, and a pirate ship depending on what E numbers we were high on that day.

Suffice to say that this poor man had a shitload of strong winds blowing in his face from the day and hour he breathed life. On paper, nothing seemed to work out the way he had planned. If I was to go into all the crazy details of his life you would be forgiven for thinking that he was cursed. Yet and with all I never ever heard him complain about his life. Not even once. Sure he complained about the desolation of his greenhouses; he complained when we used his bed as a trampoline to break our fall from our stunt dives off the top bunk; he complained when we drew all over his newspapers; and he complained when we turned the living room into the Wild West, the hall into a karate dojo, and the kitchen into a boxing ring, but he never complained about his lot in life. He taught us life lessons at every opportunity and spoilt us rotten. Even when his health gave way and he spent the last few years of his life in nursing care he still used to sit and tell me “You only get one, you only get one.” Even with speech that was ravaged by multiple strokes I always knew what he was saying. He didn’t have a complicated way of looking at life. He didn’t have a lot of creeds or a tangled web of theology to enforce upon you. He just had a few blunt codes that he lived by – Honour Your Father & Mother; Adore and Protect Your Wife; Work Hard; and Have Faith In God.

It’s strange how the real impact someone has on you is only revealed long after they’re gone and long after you first heard them tell you a story or attempt to teach you something. It’s sad that we often fail to appreciate the ones we love while they’re still with us. I took an urge for a glass bottle of coke today after the gardening. The first time I ever had one of those was when my Granda took me into the pub and bought me a bottle of coke and a packet of Tayto cheese ’n’ onion crisps. He left me the last sip of his Guinness too. One of the many Granda/Grandson rituals we shared back in the day. While I am not a fan of corporate fascism and sugary, poisonous drinks peddled to children, I can’t help having a love and the odd craving for a glass bottle of coke. It tastes different, it tastes sweeter, it tastes like a bygone era to me. An era when the creeds were simpler and the summers were longer. An era when you walked along the country road holding your Granda’s hand, and he pointed out the cows in the farmers field and took you carefully to the gate to stroke them. An era when Playstations and X-Box’s didn’t raise kids when their parents were working – Grandparents did. Those walks always finished with a visit to the pub where I would sit on a stool much too big for me, swinging my legs like Kermit The Frog, sipping on a glass bottle of coke, and asking for 10p to play space invaders. Granda downed a pint of Guinness, let me finish the last sip and then it was home for dinner.

I used to share a bedroom with old Jimmy for many years growing up. In the years when he started to get older and his bladder wasn’t what it used to be I would wake up every morning to the sight of his glass ‘bedpan’ – a weird shaped bottle which he would pee in during the night. I thought I’d erased that memory from my mind. A few years ago my wife came in all excited about her new wine decanter – a piece that she had found in an antique shop and a piece that would be perfect for the Christmas Dinner table. She pulled out of her shopping bag what looked like an exact replica of that old pee bottle. I gagged, threw up a little in my mouth, told her to take it back to the shop and never to have it anywhere near my dinner table. When I told her the story of my mornings waking up in the same room as my Granda, and the sight of a full pee bottle we both had a laugh and she took the fancy wine decanter back to the shop the very next day, telling the shop owner why she had to return it and giving him a laugh too.

The memories and impressions left with us by those we love are relentless, unforgettable, and unmistakeable. Sometimes the memories are a sign that those departed are around us. I’ve felt my Granda’s energy quite a lot these past two years. I can’t explain or rationalise that in any way – it’s just a knowing. Sometimes the memories are a sign of a life of much love. Sometimes they are just happy memories, stored in our minds to encourage us and make us smile. Growing up with a ‘second dad’ was a pain in the ass. Looking back now, having a ‘second Dad’ was f**king awesome and I am Thankful for the blessing while every day still learning the lessons. Don’t underestimate the influence you have on those around you, even when it seems like you’re just an old pain in the ass who spoils their fun. Spoiling their fun and trying to teach them the old ways will maybe make decent human beings out of them some day…

James Henry Alexander – Thank You.


Your loving Grandson, who’s still always in trouble and who still enjoys a bottle of coke now and again… and the odd pint of Stout when he really wants to reminisce.

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