Tuesday 25 January 2011

Making notes for Charlie

If I had any principles at all, this is the one by which I would have governed my life: leave well alone.

If you spot a suspicious mound of earth in the garden, or a mysterious pile of papers in the attic, do not think, “Ooh, I wonder what’s in there?” Avert your eyes and pass on. The alternative will undoubtedly lead down a clichĂ©d path involving cans and worms.

For example, I believed until quite recently that my maternal grandfather, a respectable Alnwick garage proprietor, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1936 while on a fishing holiday in Wales. But then a cousin’s cousin began researching the family tree and uncovered an altogether more lurid cause of death.

Vainly scrabbling for respectability, the last survivor of my parents’ generation observed that lots of men picked up exotic diseases during their service in the First World War. Which might have been a satisfying explanation if my grandfather had not spent the entire war tinkering with cars (among other things, by the sound of it) in Northumberland. I suspect he rarely if ever ventured beyond Gateshead, though that in itself may explain a lot.

My other grandfather was also oddly spared the trenches, even though he volunteered for them. I still have a letter of appreciation from Lord Kitchener’s PA’s PA’s PA, regretfully turning down his application because of his vital work on the home front, and enclosing an armband bearing a crown.

Wearing this was presumably designed to stem the flow of white feathers from war-hungry ladies as he plodded around the centre of Newcastle, putting the fear of God into the Kaiser as one of His Majesty’s postmen. Why this work could not have been delegated to one of the eager feather distributors remains a mystery.

In case you are thinking wistfully of what might have been, I should perhaps add that even the despatch of both my grandfathers to the Western Front would not have saved you from this column, for my parents had already been born in the Edwardian glory days of Downton Abbey (though not, sadly, in quite such privileged circumstances).

These reminiscences are prompted by a flagrantly stupid departure from my principles of laissez-faire. In my book (which I inherited from my father) doctors are to be avoided at all costs. Yet now that I am a married man with family responsibilities, I allowed myself to be nagged into consulting one after a mildly worrisome incident a couple of weeks ago, when I turned to leave after standing through a half hour presentation and found that I had temporarily lost the use of both my legs.

Predictably enough, the resulting medical investigations have so far shed no light whatsoever on that incident, but have definitively established that I have suffered a heart attack – albeit a heart attack I never even noticed. Cue medication, further unpleasant tests, possible surgery and a massive adjustment of diet and lifestyle.

Male Hanns have never made old bones. Indeed my father, who had his fatal heart attack aged 73, was the longest-lived of us since at least 1700 – a fact rather glumly pointed out to me last year by my brother, now aged 72 ¾.

I shall do my best to improve on that, but do not feel inclined to bet on it. So I now propose to occupy much of my remaining time writing a big, fat, square book for my son distilling everything I know about the history of our family, country and the world at large, and any other advice that I think might prove useful when I am no longer around for consultation.

I doubt that it will become a best-seller, but so long as one particular person reads it to the end I shall not feel that my life has been completely wasted.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

No comments: