An Uncle to Be Remembered

My dear old uncle Gordon slept in not to awake in this world yesterday, almost reaching his 94th birthday which would have been in May. Gently he slipped off this mortal coil after his long and eventful life.

Gordon Melvin was christened in fact John Gordon Melvin if I am informed or remember correctly from a distant discussion with my mother.   As with some families people took to using Gordon for him and Lawrie for his brother, my dad, who was Leonard Ross Lawrence Melvin. Their grand mother had been married to a Lawrence, a well standing family with a chandelry and manufacturing business in Glasgow, later to become Simpson Lawrence. Her Lawrence husband died young and she married a Mr. Melvin, who was by family accounts a jewler with an unsuccessful business on Union Street in Aberdeen in the late victorian age.

That side of the Lawrence family became accordingly relatively poor at the turn of the century, and one of their sons ended up living with his new wife in a small cottage on the edge of the fairways at Beildside in Aberdeenshire during or just after world war I where their first son, my father, was born in 1919. Gordon was then born in 1923.

The boys played together and got up to mischief along the river Dee including spinning for trout and salmon when the bailiff was having his ‘tea’. Once they took their jack russel with them and the collar, an important and not insubstantial investment in your canine then, whipped off in a tustle and ended up in the river. One of the boys was either spinning at the time, or cast quickly and managed to hook the collar !  That was the earliest memory I remember my father talking about. Oh, and a picnic as a boy when he had lain on his stomach to arise with terrible tummy ache, he told me as a word of warning as to my posture at an alfresco lunch.

Picnic-ing was raised to a high status in both sides of my family, as an outdoors feast and highlight of any summer weekend or mid holiday outing. Uncle Gordon was certainly a proponent of the travelling and consuming of sandwiches, tea and boiled eggs. He was also a military man, and rather too keen on getting up at 6am, the middle of the night as far as myself and my father where concerned when on holiday.

Gordon and Lawrie moved in the 1930s to Helensburgh as teenagers at some point. Gordon was reprimanded at school for what would become a life long passion, betting and running a book. I don’t know if they attended Hermitage Academy but I would guess so. Lawrie took an apprenticeship as a draughtsman at the famous John Browns Shipyard in about 1935, when work on the great Queen Mary, Hull #552 was making progress. He then worked on the first Queen Elizabeth, the largest riveted ship ever built, before making a drastic change of plans along with his Brother Gordon. They enlisted for war. Presumably Gordon was not yet an apprentice or had already joined the merchant navy and been commandeered. He would begin his life long connection to Lincolnshire by a posting to minesweepers on the river Humber out of Grimsby and Hull. My father took an equally dangerous mission as it would turn out, with the Royal Engineers with the British Expeditionary Force which was of course repelled with the capitulation of France. Casualties were not enormous because the retreat was organised, but my father was captured inland of Calais, on his way to Dunkirk, having been shelled and abandoning his lorry load of ammuninition. He was at this point also injured by shrapnel, which apparently plagued his bowels in life thereafter.

 

Gordon swept the river mainly and some of the channels out in the somewhat shallow North Sea off the major fishing and military river. “Gerry” as he always called the German Wahrmacht Forces, developed fiendish mines which went off with magnatic fuses and then later pressure and vibration fuses. Ships were mysterioulsy degoused by electromagnetic currents from cables under rivers and harbour entrances, so new mines were developed to get around this avoidance technique. Gerry would drop the most advanced mines from planes pretty accurately into the Humber. Not once but twice Gordon said that the following sweeper was consumed by a mine presumably set off by his own converted trawler in the lead, with the fuse designed to detonate midships or under the stern of larger ships once the bow had passed over. ALl hands lost as the riveted vessels simply disintegrated. There but for the grace of god.

He also told me just last year how he was in the NAAFI in Hull waiting for a train to a new billiteting or the like, playing billiards and having a pint with some girls from the hairdressers on the corner. The girls left and a few minutes later the siren went too late, a bombing raid was underway and they hid themselves under the snooker table. The nearest bomb hit the hairdresser salon, and the girls they had just been chatting up were amongst those bodies they helped to dig out of the rubble. As he was helping he glanced at his watch and had to leave the scene to catch his train. All very mysterioulsy matter of fact as perhaps was the british way then at least.

 

My mother claimns he aslo was on the artic convoys to Murmansk, but he never talked of that. At the end of the war he joined the fire brigade and I believe he was posted to lincolnshire. He found out that the RAF fire service had better pay and conditions post war, and at some point left to this service. Also he met his first wife, Barbara in Lincoln.

 

Joining the RAF fire service certainly meant that his life would continue to brush with momemntus historic events and times. He was washing down for examplke, fall outr from RAF bombers flown throught the H bomb clouds on Christmas island in the 1950s, was posted to Singapore in the 1960s and worked at bomber command in High Wycombe before a final transfer to his last few years pre retirement to the Vulcan bomber base at RAF waddington retiring just before the Falklands war in about 1981- 2, when those same aircraft would perform their last action from Waddington. I remember seeing one take off from the train on a trip to Doncaster in 1981 / 82.

 

Retired life looked very promising for Gordon with a nice bungalow in Heighington ooutside Lincoln. Unfortunately his wife Barbara died quite suddenly in 1982. More on his future later.

My first memory of Uncle Gordon was on one of his regular summer holidays to Scotland in most likely 1971 or 72. I was tiny. The holiday included overnighting at Loch Gair of all places, and we arrived I remember at night in a thunderstorm. It was all a bit bewildering to me. New people, my cousin and her yuoung kids too perhaps there. Going somewhere late in the day. A thunderstorm. Playing on the beach the next day, I often thought of this mysterious part of my memory and it was only years later my mum told me it was Loch Gair, a place on loch Fyne I have passed dozens of times since.

 

My next memory of that side of the family was being given a kind of knitting and weaving set for my Christmas from Elanor who wasnt sure if Keith was a boy oir a girls name. Then there were his cars of course. He didnt invest a lot in cars, or much else Uncle Gordon. I don’t think he owned his semidetached in Monks Risborough either. Maybe he was a little too fond of the phillies. He certainly wasnt flash for a senior fireman and later in leadership in the 1970s. His cars were on the cheap and functional side, with him having I think I vaguely remember a Morris 1800 for the trip including loch gair, and then a god awful puke green coloured FIat. It was one of those which fiat sold the moulds to Russian Lada. Box like and outdated even by early 1970s standard, it was none the less quite a strudy car. I seem to remember meeting up with them as once again, an early memory, at the Cross Keys between helensburgh and Loch Lomond. They went on further with their dog ‘pouch’ and perhaps we followed later for a highland holiday.
Either side of that early memory is another early memory which I dont really connect Gordon to the image of, but was the first of several trips to the legendary Anderby Creek. This was the stuff of family folk lore for us in the 1970s, which seemed a happier, sunnier time all in all, highland holidays excluded. We had a renault with I believe a rear engine, a funny wee car. I remember most that dad connected the TV in the caravan to the battery to keep us entertained. I dont remember much else of that trip, probably 1972, but I was 6 when I remember going in one of our wonderful renault 16s we had.
Then we played on the beach all day, and went the walk back from Gibralter Point nature reserve all the way once. Skegness was there as a day trip too, along with Ingoldmells and its fabulous tackyness. I think we were there in both 1974 and the hot summer of 1976. The rubber boat called ‘diculous which young Andy Pandy, now a bloke in his mid forties like me, christened age 3 or 4. “its ‘ diculous that”.

The market day at Afford, and the vicars daughter I had been in p1 with when he had been  a Navy chaplain at Faslane. The ford at the village in the wolds. The long journey there and back on the M1, Scotch Corner and back to normality of Rhu.

I remember uncle Gordon well from those two holidays and things like the row boat tour on the lake, sans life jacket, and the ‘golden blanket award’ for who ever slept the longest. I was getting to lknow uncle Gordon as a wise and even tempered fellow, very different from my slightly neurotic and often distant father. He never hid the adult world of card playing, smoking and his beloved tobasco sauce from us. We were allowed to stay up to eight thirty I think, before being put down with one of those night light candles beside me – i was terrified of the dark and monsters behind the curtained cupboard or under the bed.

It began to seem like holidays either in Scottish Highlands or Anderby Creek would come every year for ever and ever, with Gordon as the patron of the whole fleet. THe holiday time El Capo del Familia.

Our next trip was that to the centre of the Scottish Highlands at Fort Augustus in what I suppose was 1977 because the summer was not a patch on the scorcher of all history 1976. It was a lovely holiday with day tours here and there, and long dog walks in the woods and along the caledonian canal. Despite the weather and the midges! We also went over to pick up dad from Loch Hourn, at which a strange crossing of lines occured which would reappear much, much later in Norway. Iain Macalister was crewing for my dad, and him and Nicky and perhaps Noney (Noel) Oddling probably remained on the boat while dad had some time in the Caravan up the Glen over the canal at Ft Augustus. I remember myu dad suddenly speaking a foriegn language to a neighbour from the caravan door, I presumed to be German from hsi five years at the pleasure of Adolf Hitler in Germany. It turned out to be his mother tongue, Doric.

The last holiday we had as a complete family was most likely Islay in one of the years 1978 to 1980. It too was  a lovely holiday with the usual excursions in our lower middle class charabangs, the Renault 16 and the Talbot Sunbeam…Islay dunlop cheese, the Bownore distillery, Port Charlotte,biscuits and cheese at the house outside Port Ellen and the warm waters with the whisky run off, probably the fine wines or other illegal stuff these days. Our favourite sport, the inverted Cornetto race, who could take the most time eating Walls’s newest delight. Soon his brother would be dead and his wife would follow not long after. Well, the seventies for me were a very happy time, a far off place where kids could have fun and the sun always shone at least most of the time.

 

Also there was the most famous joke in the family. We were nearing the end of the holidayt and Gordon, a later life Twitcher and RSPB member, was determined to spot a Cough, the migratory crow with the flagrant red legs and beak. I think I had my RSPB young ornithologists book with me which is a clue to the joke. We drove off dwon the rather desolate Mull of Oa on Islay, where coughs were known to flock. Gordon stormed off out with different visual apparatus to catch a glimpse, but returned after a good while from the wind blown point ’empty handed’. Dad, who had borrowed my book, asked his borther “what do these birds look like then, they dont have a red beak and legs with a black bodydo they” ….yes was the reply  ” oh, only one came and hopped on the bonnet of the car”. A second or two of disbelief passed before Gordon knew Lawrie was fooling with him.

We also had of course the famous October Week Tours to Monks Risborough and its clement autumn. Three years in a row mum took me alone to visit them, taking the train down on the Royal Scot no less to London and out again to Princes Risborough, with day tours to the grand museums of London. Walks in the woods to owith his every boysterous and not very nice springer spaniel, Whisky ( B&W you see) Years later I would revisit princes risborough when I worked for Leo Laboratories. How koind my mum was to take me. In fact it was not long after one of these excursions that dada died, the 29th October 1980.

After dad died I think Gordon and Barbara gave me a little bit of extra attention and I had one more, final childhood trip to Anderby and the area, with a tour to do some trainspotting at Doncaster as a nipper of 12 or 13 in 1981 before poor Barbara died suddenly.

1982 we tried a Highland holiday without the Capo Del Familia, with just mum and Aunty Margaret Brown. It wasnt a patch on the whole gang being there and I felt stifled by being with two middle aged ladies, no matter how nice they were with me. The house got burgled and we took off home early, somewhat to my horror and delight too.

1983 would mark a new and very happy coincidence that would enrich two quite lonely people’s mlives. The Capo del Familia was back on form and booked a holiday home on the hillside above Loch Broom near Ullapool. Wanting for company, my Mum invited one of her old ‘ Sea Rangers’ Eileen who was a kindly spinster, old before her  time,  with a kind of Scots Irish accent he had on account of her mother being from the emerald Isle.

Ullapool was a super holiday in many ways, despite the weather. The summer isles ….well you can usually see them very nicely from here. Un beknown to me it also kindled an unlikely romance and change of direction for Gordon and Eileen, who fell in love and started a very respectful courtship before Gordon finally moved back up to Scotland in I think 1984 for his second go at retirement with a second wife.  They lived pretty much happily ever after until Eileen became Ill and Gordon started going blind.

 

Last May I spent one of those all too infrequent, but very enjoyable afternoons with Uncle Gordon to offer my condolences and to just be with hime and his life and times. He told me of the hairdressers in Hull and we talked of the Cough leg pulling.  He faded away tghereafeter and agreed reluctantly to move to Lincoln to be in an old folks home. Yesterday he simply forgot to wake up and was left to his dreams of a long, interesting ang good life. RIP Gordon Melvin, 1923-2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements