Tom Cox's father revisits his childhood haunts
“I’M NOT WALKING ABOUT HERE WITH YOU IF YOU WEAR THAT HAT,” says my dad. It’s a fair point. The Bilborough Estate in Nottingham is a more dangerous place than it once was and some might say that it might have been just as sensible to wear a sign on my forehead saying “Please come and mock me!” as the straw boater that is currently on my head - especially combined, as it is, with a pair of flares and an Allman Brothers t-shirt. This area, between 1949 and 1967, long before Nottingham gained the nickname “Shottingham”, was where my dad grew up: a place of painstakingly-tended allotments and front-yard Alsatians that has been mythologised so much in recent times in my dad’s anecdotes that I have decided to take him there myself and “give him the floor”. It’s a rare privilege for my dad, who is used to my mum and me shushing him as he launches into long, experimentally-structured stories about the time he and Stuart Staples went to Jacko’s Oller and built a den or the time he hit Terence O’Doherty with his toy Davy Crockett rifle after Terence let Mr Bowers’ tyres down and blamed it on him. I note that he has prepared for it extensively: in the back of his car I can see an amount of old maps more suggestive of a 16th-Century desert island treasure hunt, than a wander around an East Midlands council estate.
I know this area pretty well too: my parents and I used to live not far from it, and, until they moved to their old people’s bungalow in the nineties, my grandma and granddad still lived in the council house where my dad grew up. It’s changed a lot since then - the daunting high rise flats and pre-health and safety horror film nightmare of a playground at Balloon Wood have gone and my granddad’s old allotment has now been built over - but, to my dad, it’s a different planet. “THAT WAS ALL WASTE GROUND OVER THERE,” he says, pointing to a 1980s housing estate where the roads are all named in tribute to the Nottingham ice skating duo Torvill and Dean. “ME AND JIM SPURGEON WENT OVER THERE AND FOUND A HALF-DERELICT HOUSE WITH A FAMILY OF WILD GYPSY PEOPLE LIVING IN THERE. I WAS REALLY SCARED BUT I SHOWED THEM MY KNIFE AND THEY WERE IMPRESSED. JIM SPURGEON WAS VERY ADVANCED FOR HIS AGE. WE DIDN’T HAVE SEX EDUCATION AT OUR SCHOOL IN THOSE DAYS. WE HAD HIM INSTEAD. HE TOLD ME HAVING AN ORGASM WAS LIKE HAVING A THOUSAND CHRISTMASES AT ONCE.”
This is less a trip down memory lane for my dad, than a trip down a memory dual carriageway: at least three stories are always running at once, beside an often completely unrelated rant about modern life. “A CANAL USED TO BE JUST THERE BUT IF I WENT AND PLAYED AROUND IT I COULDN’T TELL YOUR GRANDMA BECAUSE SHE SAID I’D GET POLIO. WHY DO PEOPLE HAVE PERSONALISED REGISTRATION PLATES? EVERY TIME I SEE ONE OF THEM I WAVE SO THEY KNOW I’VE RECOGNISED ITS OWNER FOR THE SPECIAL PERSON HE IS. WHEN THEY DRAINED IT THE O’DOHERTYS TOOK LOADS OF FISH HOME. SEE THAT MANHOLE COVER? THEY WOULD HAVE HAD THAT OFF IN A SECOND JUST TO SEE WHAT WAS UNDERNEATH.” Often, say when you’re trying to prepare a meal or chop down a tree together or make arrangements for travel, getting my dad to focus on the issue at hand and give you time to think is a challenge, so there’s something refreshing and liberating about just letting him flow, like putting on a double prog rock concept LP called ‘Nottingham: Overture’ and completely giving yourself over to its meandering rhythms and drum solos.
After wandering through the neighbouring estate - “WHEN WE USED TO COME UP HERE ON OUR BIKES PEOPLE WOULD STAND ON THEIR FRONT DOORSTEP AND SHOUT ‘SOD OFF BACK TO YOUR END’ AT US; SOME OF THEM WERE MUMS IN THEIR FORTIES” - we cross a road and head up a footpath into one of the few remaining areas of greenery. I step in some of the abundant dog poo - “WATCH OUT FOR THAT DOG POO,” says my dad, twenty seconds afterwards - and we arrived on a railway bridge. It was on this stretch of the line where, in 1960, my domineering grandma caught my dad leaving pennies on the track, and went home to call the police. “I COULD JUST SEE THIS TINY FIGURE IN THE DISTANCE ON THE BRIDGE, JUMPING UP AND DOWN, BUT I KNEW IT WAS HER. WHY ARE MOBILE PHONE SHOPS ALWAYS FULL OF PEOPLE WHO LOOK LIKE THEY CAN’T AFFORD MOBILE PHONES?”
I think back to my visits to my grandparents’ house: my dad listening, finding only the rarest of opportunities to get a word in as they reported on everything they’d done since they’d last seen him. “BOTH SIDES OF MY FAMILY WERE LOUD. YOUR GRANDMA ONCE TALKED SO MUCH AT CHRISTMAS THAT YOUR NAN HAD TO BE SICK.” I don’t feel sick after four hours walking around Bilborough with my dad, but I do feel tired. I’m interested to see what it will be like when we get back to my parents’ house: “Perhaps he’ll be too exhausted to hold forth in his usual manner at the dinner table?” I wonder, but he continues. “I DIDN’T GET CHANCE TO TAKE YOU FURTHER OVER TOWARDS ILKESTON. WE USED TO GO TO THE FAIR THERE. CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT? BEING FOURTEEN, WITH YOUR COUSIN FLOB AND HIS GANG AND HANGING OUT WITH GIRLS AND HEARING ROY ORBISON FOR THE FIRST TIME? IT WAS INTOXICATING.” It’s not until just past ten that he finally flags, falling asleep in the middle of a story about my uncle Paul and a hamster. I go upstairs, begin to run a bath, then return downstairs to very quietly ask my mum where I can find some bodywash. “WHAT’S BODYWASH?” asks my dad, opening an eye. “YOU MEAN SOAP? IT’S BLOOMIN’ SOAP, SO CALL IT THAT. TAKE THAT BEER WHEN YOU GO TOMORROW. I’LL ONLY USE IT FOR MY SLUG TRAPS IF YOU DON’T. DAMN. I DIDN’T TAKE YOU TO THE HEMLOCK STONE, DID I?” And then, instantly, he’s snoring again.
Read more stories about Tom's dad in his latest book, Talk To The Tail (Simon And Schuster, £8.99) or at a discount from the Saga Bookshop.
Read more great humour in Saga Magazine.