Sometime in the ‘60s Dad bought a car, for Sunday outings. Sunday outings were the thing to do at that time. The whole family would pootle off somewhere to look at stuff they might not have looked at otherwise, and to have a picnic. On the road we would pass other families, also dutifully pootling. On the grass verges we would spy other families, dutifully picnicking. People don’t seem to picnic on grass verges nowadays, do they?
Dad used to drive us to Bedgebury Park, which meant looking at a lot of very similar trees and being bored and fractious (I’d enjoy an outing to Bedgebury much more now than I did then, which is no doubt why I didn’t enjoy it then) or to Minster-on-Sea. This meant changing into our cossies in the unsavoury public conveniences at the bottom of the road before attempting some paddling on a pebbly beach. We enjoyed Minster more.
Dad was driving a sunshine yellow Bedford van in those days. He normally cycled everywhere, come rain or come shine, including to and from work. He obviously needed transport for his growing family, and driving Mum’s parents around, but begrudged spending money on this despised rival to the racing bicycle. The Bedford van was second-hand at the very least. Probably fifth-hand. One of the sliding doors fell off at the conclusion of one outing and (in a far from sunshiny mood) Dad drove us home like that – Mum, me and my two sisters, Nan and Grandad, clinging to the slippery red upholstery in a howling gale.
Dad had a lovely deep voice and could sing in tune. Most of his singing was done in the car, on our Sunday outings. The rest of us…
Well, Mum was Mum: she never seemed to do anything exuberant or celebratory, and she didn’t sing. Nan and Grandad didn’t sing either, when they were out together as a couple. They were on their best behaviour and just sat in the back, po-faced. Nan had been known to cavort round the cherry tree singing a risky Carmen Miranda song when Grandad wasn’t in earshot, pairs of cherries draped over her ears. Mum didn’t sing, or dance, with her either.
Now, increasingly, as I grow through the ages and stages they were at then then, things become clear to me – the adult constraints; the unspoken thoughts; the hints of disagreement; the bonds and the burrs of marriage, of parenthood and of grandparent-hood; the individual loneliness under the togetherness; the misunderstandings; the way the War had silenced everyone; the way nothing must be allowed to rock the boat; the way post-War children were plentiful, but invisible, and got lost in the mix sometimes.
My youngest sister wasn’t born yet, or maybe born but too small for singing. My Canadian sister and I were close in age and we did sing, but only when Dad was in the mood to back us up, which wasn’t always. We irritated him, and the more of us there were together the more we irritated him, but he did sometimes manage to suppress that. He too was on his best – or better – behaviour.
Sister and I were particularly fond of Michael Row the Boat Ashore, often singing it several times over because we had enjoyed it so much. We even managed a wobbly freestyle harmony.
Dad had an excellent memory for lyrics and ran through all the sentimental American songs he had picked up from Sing Something Simple on the radio (featuring The Cliff Adams Singers). Don’t Fence Me In was his all-time favourite. He overlaid it with an American/ cowboy drawl, as everybody did in those days when singing American songs. They wouldn’t have sounded right otherwise:
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in…
It’s a sad memory, as well as a happy one. I do so wish sometimes that I could wind back time at double speed, like in the movies, and be singing on a Sunday outing with my father and sister. I’m glad that then I didn’t know I was going to end up in this particular sort of now. But that’s the mercy, isn’t it? The cloud of unknowing: the shield and protector of childhood.
(I can’t say I’m a fan of Family Guy, but I love this:)