U3A Writing: Taid
…I have hardly ever seen a photo of Taid without his pipe. He smoked Ogden’s St Bruno flake, and I remember the smell in our house on a Sunday lunchtime as he cut open his Welsh newspaper with his penknife – a mixture of tobacco, newsprint, mint sauce and roasting lamb…
Elizabeth Robison presents a glowing word portrait of her Welsh grandfather – her taid – the most unforgettable character that she has met.
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Taid is the Welsh word for grandfather and I am writing about my taid, Hugh Bryn Roberts who was born in the village of Bryngwran on the island of Anglesey about 1880.
The arrival of the railway from Liverpool to Holyhead in 1850 convulsed and transformed life in North Wales and an agricultural slump at the end of the nineteenth century meant that thousands and thousands of mainly young people left Wales to find work in the growing industrial areas like Manchester, Liverpool, Birkenhead or further afield.
The 1901 census records my taid as a lodger at the home of one David Jones, blacksmith, in Birkenhead, but by 1910 he had married the landlord’s daughter and become a partner in the Smithy, a business known thereafter as David Jones and Son.
Taid was one of five sons of Robert and Miriam Ellen Roberts who left Wales to seek work elsewhere. One became a policeman and later a publican in Liverpool, one lost a hand in an industrial accident at Cammell Lairds shipyard, thereafter returning to agricultural work in Anglesey, two emigrated to the USA, where one died in a swimming accident and the family gradually lost touch with the other.
I often think of those bereft parents. Years later my aunt had a letter from a woman in California who was trying to trace her Welsh ancestry. My aunt’s first response was: What kind of name is Mandy for a Welsh girl?
I was the oldest grandchild and we lived with my grandparents until I was six years old, so it seemed perfectly natural to me that Taid should be at the centre of my young universe. My mother often said that he would ask me, ‘Do you want to go to so-and-so with me?’ And I would reply, ‘I’ll go anywhere with you Taid.’ She would watch us tottering off down the road, hand in hand.
So where did we go?
To the Smithy for a start. On Saturday mornings he would go and do a bit of paperwork and then go and deliver bills to nearby engineering firms that he had done work for. While he worked, I would try to ‘tidy up’ the seemingly dirty and chaotic workshop with its anvils, bellows, steam hammer and tools. I also remember one Saturday morning sitting on a high stool in the offices of one of the engineering works while the secretary typed my name on my handkerchief.
We went to his allotment where the neat rows of vegetables and dahlias seemed such a contrast to the dirt and chaos of the Smithy.
We went to the seaside, West Kirby, Hoylake, Moreton, Meols, and I can remember him kneeling beside me one day and pointing across the Dee estuary to the distant Clwydian hills and saying, ‘That’s Wales over there, Cariad.’
We visited deacons from the chapel where I was petted by the wives and where tea and cakes always seemed to be on offer. I remember being in a bedroom where Taid talked to the night-shirted deacon who sat upright in bed while I sat on the edge of a chair that had a pair of trousers over the back that had one leg pinned up to the knee. It was not an uncommon sight in those days to see WWII veterans with a trouser leg or a jacket sleeve pinned up. All I knew was that I desperately did not want to lean back on it.
We went to hymn-singing festivals, eisteddfods, to Anglesey to stay with his relatives, and while there we would call on older people who I now realise were his contemporaries from his life before he moved away. Even when I was in the early years at high school I still used to go downtown with him on Saturday morning and we would spend time in an Italian milk bar, which had, to me, a very exotic smell, which I now know to be ground coffee – in those days there was only ever a bottle of Camp coffee on the kitchen shelves. While he drank his coffee and smoked his pipe I had what I regarded as the food of the gods – ice cream in a silver dish with bright red juice over it.
As we were coming out of there one Saturday morning we saw Madame Larame coming towards us. She was a Welsh woman who was my music teacher at school. I think she had distanced herself from the Welsh community by supposedly marrying a French Canadian during the war, though no one in Birkenhead ever saw him. My grandfather lifted his hat to her but she ignored us, so he took off his hat and did an elaborate bow in front of her and said, ‘Good morning, Mrs Larame,’ so pointedly that she had to engage with him. Afterwards when he was telling the story he would add, ‘Well her father was the station master at Criccieth!’ All the Welsh people in the town knew exactly which North Wales town or village everyone else came from.
‘Praise the Lord, we are a musical nation,’ said Rev Eli Jenkins in Under Milkwood, and Hugh Roberts certainly illustrated that. As well as being a deacon, he was the leader of the singing in the chapel – an important role in all Welsh chapels, of which there were seven in Birkenhead when I was a child. On Sundays he would take his place in the Set Fawr, the big raised dais below the pulpit, and conduct the four- part harmony singing of the hymns, which most people read from the tonic sol-fa notation. He had always been in male voice choirs and for many years conducted one.
He told a story against himself of how he had once come in too soon when they were singing The Hallelujah Chorus and when asked what happened next he told us that everyone looked around to see who had made the mistake, so he looked around too.
He was very proud of me when I sang in eisteddfods or played the piano at music festivals. My mum used to light a fire in the front room on Saturday afternoons so I could do my piano practice. Taid would sit there by the fire, smoking his pipe and humming along to Fur Elise or The Duchess of Westmorland’s Delight.
I have hardly ever seen a photo of Taid without his pipe. He smoked Ogden’s St Bruno flake, and I remember the smell in our house on a Sunday lunchtime as he cut open his Welsh newspaper with his penknife – a mixture of tobacco, newsprint, mint sauce and roasting lamb. He could peel you an apple with that penknife and the skin would be all in one long piece. The pipe was lit with several Swan Vestas matches and he used to tease us by showing us the box and asking us to count how many swans there were on it. There were two extra ones on a flap inside when you opened the box. As we approached the chapel on Sunday morning he would pick a privet leaf from a hedge to tamp down the tobacco so it would not spill in his pocket.
Taid always wore a waistcoat, often with a watch and chain, and as well as his penknife one pocket always had a few Victory V’s in it which he would break into quarters for my brother and me.
During rationing he used to keep his sweets ration book on a high ledge in Mrs Cross’s sweets and tobacconist shop. I have to admit that my brother and I more than once bought Uncle Joe’s mint balls or sherbet lemons and told Mrs Cross, ‘Use Mr Roberts’s coupons.’
I suppose Taid learnt some English at school, but he also went to night school when he arrived in Birkenhead to become more fluent, mainly through reading David Copperfield. He didn’t always get things right and as kids his malapropisms amused us greatly. After a visit to an old couple, he came home and said: They were sitting there like Joan and Arc. He talked about enjoying visitors because the broke the ‘mahogany’. We kids always regarded him as great fun.
In his seventies and eighties he would come and sit quietly by the fire in our house while we did homework or submitted to one of Mum’s Derbac lotion and fine tooth comb sessions. Once I had to write a poem for English homework and while several family members offered suggestions for how I could produce some kind of desecrated version of Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Taid suddenly came out with:
Winston Churchill is the fattest man
Between here and the Isle of Man.
A tall upright man, when not in his Smithy overalls, he always looked very smart – I can even remember him wearing spats. In winter he wore a Homburg and in summer a Panama. I can visualise him wearing the latter to play bowls at the Co-op club while we kids played nearby.
I have to admit that if Taid had a fault it was probably vanity. He would make himself a little copper ring to wear on his little finger for an important conducting occasion. His daughters would test out whether he was really asleep on the sofa before launching into their evening gossip session by saying quietly, ‘I saw so-and-so today and she said, ‘Isn’t your father a handsome man?’ Sometimes one eye would come open and he would enquire, ‘Who was that, Nancy?’
It is a custom at Welsh weddings for any of the guests to speak when the main speeches are over, and Taid would always end his speech with a word of advice to the bride:
Treat him like a dog. (Pause.)
Feed him well and brush his coat. (Pause.)
And let him off the lead now and again!
Still hale and hearty into his seventies and eighties he made a bit of a hobby of going to funerals after he finally retired from the Smithy. I suppose seeing former business associates die off gave him a slightly superior feeling. I remember him coming home one day and saying, ‘They bury them like a dog in the C of E.’ After he had been to a Catholic funeral we asked him how he knew what to do. ‘Just followed the fellow in front,’ he said.
On another occasion there had been prayers at the home of the deceased before the undertaker called the widow to lead the mourners to the funeral cars. Taid noticed that while snuffling into her hanky as she went along the hall, she still managed to turn the light switch off as she went past.
While most of his life was spent with family and in the wider Welsh community, he had nicknames for some of our other neighbours – the thin woman, the gypsy woman and the Jewboy. The latter was, on reflection, one of his closest friend in old age and they would spend hours putting the world to rights sitting in Mr Makin’s second hand furniture shop until my grandmother sent me to tell him his tea was ready.
I was the first person in my family to go to university, and although he was very proud of the idea of university, he would quiz me when I came home – did we wear uniform? What were tutorials? Why did we have to read so much?
I came home to see him after he had a stroke and my mum sent a telegram saying, ‘Come when you can.’ Virtually paralysed he was still able to squeeze my hand and whisper: ‘The BA.’ In those days people spoke very proudly of anyone in the family who had got their ‘cap and gown.’
At Taid’s funeral I was overwhelmed by how many people came to us with tales of all the kindnesses he and my nain had done for them when they first arrived in Birkenhead from Wales. Apparently people knew to time their arrival in Birkenhead to coincide with the Sunday night chapel service. After the service the longer established people would help and advise them where to find work and lodgings on the Monday morning. I am told that Taid very often arrived home on Sunday night with one or more temporary lodgers in tow.
There used to be a feature in Reader’s Digest called The Most Unforgettable Character I ever Met. Taid has to be mine.