“Give my regards to the Elan Valley. The Visitor Centre was a fave lunch venue for the Old Dears.”
This from schooldays friend Mike when I mentioned that John was taking me out for a little excursion. I knew Ken and Doreen very well, from first meeting Mike at the age of 12 all the way to their passing. For donkey’s, Lizzie and I visited them after they retired to Presteigne and then to Llandrindod Wells, first as a couple and later with our own kids.
I liked the idea of treading footsteps they themselves had walked in their dotage. With my surgery now only days away this is very much a time for personal reflection, and here was yet another opportunity to gaze upon events from my past. L P Hartley rightly reminds us that the past is a foreign country, but it’s a place I’ve revisited often since I was rushed into hospital in the hours of darkness ten weeks ago with dangerously abnormal blood results.
Following the diagnosis of a parathyroid gland tumour, John is one of many family members and friends who have called, written and visited, just for a chinwag or to take me out for bijou trips. This adenoma, the annoying bastard, has been sending my blood chemistry to all sorts of weird, wonderful and deeply alarming places, none of them even vaguely resembling territory to which blood chemistry should ever venture. But its days are numbered. Wednesday next the little bleeder gets ruthlessly chopped out. Good riddance, say I.
Thus yesterday saw two chums touring the Victorian splendour of the majestic dams constructed over a century ago to carry drinking water to my hometown, dear old Brummagem. It’s 73 miles from the lowest reservoir at the bottom of the Elan valley to Frankley Reservoir on the western fringes of Birmingham, an east-west drop of some 50 metres. And astonishingly, the billions of gallons of water that have kept the city hydrated for over a century travel all the way via the Elan aqueduct and pipework by gravity only.
Clever sods these Victorians. For many decades from the end of the nineteenth century Birmingham Corporation was perhaps the most visionary authority in the country, delivering a dazzling array of public services to the rapidly expanding city. And the glory of the Elan dams is one of the city elders’ greatest triumphs.
I’m still not up to ambling very far and won’t be until after my operation, but for the entirety of the afternoon John and I indulged ourselves on a meandering drive along the length of the 26 mile circuit of the entire valley, pausing here and there to take in the views, admire the complexity of the engineering and to marvel at the vision that created the entire spectacle. And we got out of the car to shoot the breeze on short strolls, occasionally in sunshine but more often under brooding, mother of pearl skies. For ten whole weeks I’ve longed for the joy of the Big Hill, its expansive views, its lofty perches and its open skies. ‘The Mountains are Calling’, proclaimed my t-shirt of choice for the outing. Indeed they are.
The drive home through torrential rain was shared with Christine Collister and Clive Gregson on the car stereo. ‘Home and Away’ is an album of rare beauty. I let my thoughts follow a path of their own choosing as I reflected on the day, memories of Ken and Doreen, my childhood, growing up and on being an adult. Or at least, pretending to be. Standing on the cusp of entering a seventh decade is a vertiginous, insecure and scary knife-edge ridge, with a long drop on either side. It’s also a haven of great privilege. For I can very clearly recall my parents at the age I am now, as well as the relationship I had with them when I was at the age of my kids today.
My own upbringing hugely influenced my hopes for the Dad I wanted to be. I’ve always tried to listen to the tales my past have weaved, and to heed the lessons of events both long and also recently passed. It’s a continuous process. We have to learn as we go along, and we should never stop learning. Failing to do so and ignoring all that has gone before is a path to a barren wasteland.
Equally, as we move on through the decades it’s sheer folly to talk of ‘the wisdom of age’ and to believe that we know best just because we’ve walked a path upon which those who follow have yet to step.
My Dad was a kid once. As his own father grew old, he grew with him. If the fates decree it thus, so shall it be for my own kids and me, and for them one day with their own offspring. So it goes, on and on. Yet there is no wisdom. There’s no such thing.
For all and any of us inhabiting this world, if we’re really, really lucky there may be a few answers, though usually there are just more questions. But every time I reflect on events in the present to discover parallels with events in the past, such that I find myself thinking ‘now I understand’, it’s a blessing beyond measure.
And I’m very happy to say that my children rip the piss out of their old Dad constantly. I’ve taught them well. Each time I recount details of my latest outing during this period of confinement they chortle as they tell me I’ve turned into an old fogey being wheeled around by his carer. They are utterly without mercy.
Quite right too. Delusions of adequacy, let alone grandeur, are to be avoided at all costs. It doesn’t pay to take oneself too seriously I say. And to perpetuate the fallacy of doddering seniority, I shall pick my moment to share with them my newly acquired and dazzling yet toothless grin following Tuesday’s extraction (which, incidentally, was hugely less traumatic than I feared).
And we know better anyway, eh boys? Our dotage is some way off yet.
Thus closes another week. Now I move on to getting my throat slit next Wednesday, and the final reckoning for this effing tumour. And as my mother-in-law sagely advised me a week or two ago, ‘there’s nowt wrong with enjoying a bit of ill-health’. So I intend.
Such larks, such japes there are to follow.