Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Of Rugby League and facial hair

Performing my morning ablutions today, I took time out to cream off the growth on my upper lip. I'm convinced that the rate I grow hair like that indicates high levels of testosterone or something – If I left it, I'd end up with a rather obvious moustache and could tour the country as a 21st-century version of the bearded lady.

But it reminded me, as such a process often does, of my affection for facial hair (on men, that is).

It was only a very few years ago that I suddenly had one of those lightbulb-over-the-head moments and realised that almost all my boyfriends down the years have had facial hair. Pure coincidence? I doubt it.

Another thing eventually struck me: the first man who ever treated me like the proverbial little princess was my maternal grandfather. And he wore a moustache: a white somewhat Ronald Colemanesque affair by the time I knew him.

My grandfather died when I was about seven or eight, leaving me as the only one of the four grandchildren who remembers him. But remember him I do.

He'd started his adult life as an office boy in a steel company in the north west, and worked his way up to being the company boss.

My first memories of him are set against a background of the large house he and my grandmother lived in by then. I was sat on his knee and knocked his cigarette, setting light to the armchair. But I wasn't in trouble.

He'd sing to me – Coming Round the Mountain and the Maurice Chevalier hit from Gigi, Thank Heaven for Little Girls. And he'd show me an incredibly delicate music box that, when you opened it, would reveal a tiny feathered bird that went round and round, raising it's wings and singing. When my oldest uncle dies, it will come to me.

I already have a book of British birds that had been his. I'd sit on his knee and pour over the beautiful colour pictures, calling the owls "pussy birdies" and gigling at his moustache, as though that made him a "pussy birdy" too.

When staying at my grandparents' house, I used to scramble into their bed in the morning – something that never happened at home. My grandmother is a hazy figure in those memories; only later did she take on a more distinct and clear form. From those days, only my grandfather is clear in my mind's eye.

They retired to a bungalow on the Isle of Man, and for two or three years, we flew out in old DC Dakotas from Liverpool Speke (now John Lennon Airport) to holiday there.

He'd take me down in his big car to the dockside at Ramsey, where we'd stand together watching as the fishing boats came in, and then buy fresh herring straight from the fishermen.

He chased me around the living room, hiding behind chairs, peering out with a mischievous expression, a rolled newspaper in his hand, pretending that he was going to use it if he got near enough. I'd squeal with pleasure and a kind of excited fear (if you can possibly call it that). He never did actually catch me, of course. It was all about the chase.

I'd sit on the step of the kitchen door and pod fresh peas. We'd occasionally have a whole plate for supper, served with nothing more than salt and butter.

And every morning when I woke, it was to the sound of the gulls, shrieking as they wheeled above, for all the world looking as though they flew and surfed the thermals for the sheer fun of it.

We'd walk down the narrow, winding path that led down the cliff face to the park that lay below. There were little go karts that required an old sixpence to make them go, and a long slide that I fell off once – fortunately only right near the bottom – leaving a sight scar over my right brow.

Sometimes we'd get in the car with my parents and go to Point of Ayre, and stand on the stoney beach below the lighthouse, all throwing pebbles at targets made of piled stones, topped with an empty drinks can. A few years later, my grandfather's ashes were scattered there.

He died, as I said, when I was very young. I was devastated. But in recent years, I've come to think that I'm almost glad that he died when he did. I've learnt, over the years, that he was a bit of an old reactionary – we'd have disagreed about so much. But instead, he remains safe and secure in my memories – completely unsullied by such unsavoury realities.

I discovered something more about him a few years ago.

In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, he'd been the secretary to St Helens Rugby League Football Club in the north west. Later, he was a director of the club.

But in 1930, Saints had reached the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. The team set out on the Friday in a charabanc. I have a photo on the wall at home of them, looking oh-so-serious, standing outside the coach, waiting to board for the journey south. A few sport flat caps or trilbies. My grandfather stands at the end, one of two club officials traveling with the party, booted and suited, a badge on his lapel, a sheaf of papers in his left hand and bowler-hatted, a heavy-lidded, insouciant look on his face, and with the obligatory dog that's crept onto the picture standing by his feet. There was no moustache in those days.

Well, Saints lost that final. The story I'd heard over the years was that the team had all been drinking in London on the Friday night after they'd arrived, and were too hungover to do themselves justice in the game itself.

But a few years ago, when The Other Half and I were attending a Rugby League game in London, we got chatting to someone who, having heard this story, announced that he knew the Saints' club historian – and that my little tale wasn't completely accurate.

We waited with baited breath to hear what had really happened – only to be told that they hadn't been drinking, they'd spent the night in a brothel.

The Other Half looked nervously in my direction, wondering how I'd take this news. I burst into laughter. "At least there was one character in the family!" I said, with something of a sense of relief. And given that my grandmother was a cold fish (who also bullied her daughter when my mother was a child), I can't say I blame him.

Some weeks later, I told my mother. Then I was the one who was shocked, on realising that she didn't seem surprised. And a few years further down the line, when my niece starting watching the sport, the story came up again. My mother glanced at me with a look that said: 'Don't tell her the real version just yet'. So I didn't. But one day I will.

My mother idolised her father – he was the bulwark between her and her mother, and he spoilt her and made her, I think, feel really cherished. A generation later, he repeated the trick with me.

I can't see my father in any those memories from the time – or rather, I have no really positive memories of him. It's as though he didn't exist for me personally, merely as a supporting actor in the play going on around me. But the man with the moustache did – and still does in my memories. And, without ever intending to or without me ever realising it until the last few years, he left me with an abiding attraction to moustachioed men.

Back in 1996, I was reporting on my third Challenge Cup final from Wembley. Coincidentally, Saints were playing, and beat Bradford in an absolute classic. I suspect my grandfather had pretty conservative views of what women should or should not do, but at that moment, I felt sure that his moustache would have bristled with pride, as his own granddaughter sat in the press box to report as his beloved Saints won the cup.

Of course it's only a fancy, but I rather think I'd be right.


  1. I very much enjoyed reading this, Sybarite. My own grandparents couldn't have picked me out in a crowd of five, but I pride myself on my relationships with my own grandaughters. My dearest wish is that they (and - dare I hope? - maybe my great-grandkids)will have special memories of me. I guess I won't want them to be remembering me for my moustache though.

  2. Quelle masterpiece, my dear!

    And your grandfather sounds like an uncle of mine. Married to a cod of a woman, and once in a while we'd come across him in the back garden with his flask of sippin' whiskey and flirting with the lady across the way. Finally married the old girl when he was in his 80s.

  3. Thank you both very much, ladies.

    Still Learning – well done you. My family is so dysfunctional, in so many ways, that I am incapable of even imagining what it must be like to have a close family.

    Irene – your uncle sounds a treat; a real character.

    I must admit, it's been a surprise to realise that my reminiscences can prove entertaining for others.