These Grand Old Men Are A Source Of Wisdom (12 October 1973)
In my first town which is not past its century as a municipal borough, there was a man who could remember when most of it was farmland. Naturally, as a junior reporter, I knew him. One wet and dreary day I met him on the main street. “Good morning, Mr. ________, though it’s not a very good morning, is it?” I said.
I was about to hurry past when he stopped me with his walking stick, peered at me through the rain dripping from his bowler and asked: “How old are you, young man?” I told him. He then prodded his finger at my chest and said: ”Remember this: at your age every morning’s a good morning.” It was a well-deserved ticking-off and the fact that I remember it after half-a-century show that I was suitably impressed.
But then, I have always had a great respect for the aged. I think this must be due to the close contact I had in my childhood with my paternal grandmother. She brought ten children into the world. Then she was amateur midwife for myself and about 30 or other grandchildren “and nivver lost a one.”
She had a hard life, but was a sweet and sanguine soul, could produce both food and wine from items picked up from the wayside, knew the curative value of mould 50 years before the discovery of penicillin, was full of old sayings and spoke the old Yorkshire dialect, the knowledge of which was of inestimable value to myself both at school and later in the correct spelling of basic English. She died over the age of 90 having had scarcely a day in bed except when she was “ligging-in” (confinement).
Every town and village I encountered in my reporting life had at least one “grand old man” at the time. He was not necessarily the most ancient inhabitant, but he was usually the one who had seen and done most and had the longest memory. Sometime he was a bit huffy at first, but he always warmed to a young chap genuinely interested in what caused things to be as they are today. And as implied in my first paragraph, he was often a source of wisdom as well as knowledge.
As a reporter you must also be wary of such a man (or woman) not because he gets wrong but because he so often proves himself to be right, whatever the documentary evidence might say.
If you write such rash assertions as “the biggest crowd ever seen here” or that anything is “for the first time ever” he is sure to pop up with a correction. Like Sir Everard Duncombe did when the Gazette implied that his village of Great Brickhilll was to have its first police station (or resident policeman, I forget which). The phrase “within living memory” is particularly dangerous. Even I, with my mere 27 years in North Bucks, can recall forerunners of some organisations now springing up in the new city and claiming – or having it claimed for them – that they are the first of their kind in the area; so what must the real old-timers think?
Long before the last war and in other places I had a lot of good “copy” from old stagers. Like men who had fought in the Ashanti war or the Abyssinian campaign (I hope any young readers know their history enough for that), even one whose father was killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade.
So on arriving in North Bucks, I was especially intrigued by the statement of J.J. Sheahan, in his “History and Topography of Buckinghamshire” published in 1861 that Bletchley was then “remarkable for the longevity of its inhabitants,” a statement he does not make about Fenny, or many settlements if any.
Shortly after my arrival, however, a series of articles in the Gazette by Warren S. Dawson threw a different light on the matter. Mr. Dawson had been a professional historian before retiring to Simpson. He was one of the very few who could translate the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt and was awarded the OBE late in life for his works. Dawson Road on Bletchley’s eastern industrial estate commemorates him. After his retirement he was a keen and meticulous student of local parish registers and he found no great evidence of longevity either in Bletchley or anywhere else in the area.
The explanation of Sheahan’s statement must be that in 1861 an unusual proportion of Bletchley people were in their 70s and 80s. I am also pretty sure that it is only since 1947, when Dawson was writing, that the notion of longevity has lifted to the 80s and 90s. The 1971 census revealed several nonagenarians in Bletchley alone, to say nothing of the rest of North Bucks. A very few years ago John Bates, of Bletchley, died aged 102, and there have also been centenarians at Winslow and Wolverton in the last 10 to 15 years.
There have been a lot of grand old men – and women – in this district in my time here, as there still are. In their late 80s and occasionally in their early 90s they have been not only alive, but still kicking. I think of Mr Joe Fennell, who at a big Co-op party to mark his 90th birthday, showed the youngsters how to do an old-time waltz; of Mr. Oliver Wells, who lost both legs below the knee in a railway accident and 60 years later could still walk two miles on his artificials; of Mr. W.J. Brown, Mrs. Fennemore, Mr. William Bryant and many others.
And I also think of a man whose well-known name I shall not mention but who gave me one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. He was having difficulty in stepping down from the pavement to cross the bottom of one of the Queensway side streets when I came up behind him, and offered to take him across.
We were about halfway there when we were overtaken by a well-known, still-youngish and most respectable woman, all soignee and beautifully groomed and in a smooth-fitting spring costume. She bade us a good morning and was only five or six steps ahead when the old man stopped dead, braced himself, dug me in the ribs with his elbow, raised his walking stick towards the back of the on-going figure and said in his loud voice: “What-ho, m’lad, how do you fancy that?” (or words to that effect).
I was only 40-odd at the time but I did wonder which of us ought to be helping the other cross the street.