A Walk To Bog End And Back With My Dad - Tom Cox

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Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A Walk To Bog End And Back With My Dad



“What’s this?” I asked my dad. He’d just walked into the living room with several canvases under his arm. On top of the pile was a watercolour painting featuring Winnie The Pooh and Piglet walking through a dark underpass hand-in-hand while three somewhat grotesque, mean-faced men in trenchcoats loitered on the the other side.

“IT’S WINNIE THE POOH AND PIGLET ABOUT TO BE ASSASSINATED,” my dad said.

"Is it one of yours?"

"YEAH."

He handed me the canvases and I began to browse through the others. There were about a dozen paintings in total: all works in progress, mostly of a dark, madcap or macabre nature. One featured a bearded man on a wooden cross with a not displeased expression on his face, surrounded by people in tunics who were wielding sticks with feathers attached. 

“Does this one have a name?” I asked.
   
“YEAH,” he said. “THAT’S THE TICKLING TO DEATH OF JESUS."


My dad went outside to fetch some wood and I continued to look through his art. He’s always painted, as far back as I can remember, but he’s been working particularly hard recently, since being semi-retired, and his style has really come on, developed a new freedom. Here were disco dog walkers, nightmare medieval murder scenes in complex mirrored formation, Spiderman giving money to a busker, a bank of Feline Gods staring down in judgement at the grotesque figures at a pedigree cat show. I was so mesmerised that time must have briefly frozen and when I looked out the window after what I thought was four seconds, my dad was 200 yards away, wrestling a log near the small river that runs behind his and my mum’s house. Seemingly another four seconds later, he was back inside, one hand full of kindling, another full of chocolate.
   
“He’s always got a load of wood in his hands,” my mum had told me earlier. “I ask him to wash them but he forgets. There are black marks all over the walls and banister.”
   
I pictured a different house, in a parallel dimension, that my dad lived in alone, unmarried: a remote, dirt-floored shepherd’s hut, strewn with spilt acrylics, rabbit carcasses and Yorkie Bar wrappers. The embers of a small fire burned outside with arcane pieces of masonry scattered around it.
   
The phone rang and my mum picked up. It was my auntie Mal, wanting to plan our walk for today. My parents live on the east side of Nottinghamshire now, but I’d been wanting to walk through the countryside over on the west side, bordering Derbyshire, where we used to live, as I’ve been researching some of the history of the area, which is sometimes referred to as “DH Lawrence Country” with either pride or deep seated resentment by its residents. My mum handed the phone to me and Mal and I agreed on a basic five mile route, with a four mile epilogue just in case we felt ambitious. “… Then those who feel like going all the way can,” said Mal.
   
“OOH MISSUS!” said my dad, who’d clandestinely picked up the other receiver and been listening in. 
   
Clandestinely picking up the other receiver and listening to conversations has long been a habit of my dad’s. Perhaps the most memorable example of this was the time my mum was talking about a life drawing class she’d attended, at which their village postman turned out to be the model. Just as my mum had reached the story’s climax, my dad, via the other phone, chipped in: “EVERYONE RECOGNISED HIM BY HIS SACK.”
   
We completed the fifty minute drive to Chris and Mal’s house, then set off on foot towards our target: the tiny nearly-hamlet of Bog End, via my old secondary school and an estate of pebbledash houses where a kid called Ian once threatened to hit me with a hammer. “YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’RE MADE ENTIRELY OF MOSS,” my dad said, appraising Chris’s fuzzy green jumper. My mum, Mal and I admired the Victorian pattress plates on the beautiful dark red brick buildings of the old brewery: heartbreakingly empty and unloved for a decade, its windows periodically smashed by local schoolkids, but now being readied for a mixture of residential conversion and demolition. I had my first ever pub pint nextdoor to here, in The Nelson And Railway inn, and I remember thinking it tasted astonishingly fresh, due to the brewery’s close proximity, but also that it seemed sort of weak. This was no doubt due to the fact that the only alcohol I’d consumed in any quantity previous to that had been Carlsberg Special Brew. I didn’t know at the time that Special Brew had a reputation as a tramp’s drink and, at 9% alcohol, was knock-a-horse-over strong. I just thought it was what you drank, because that’s what Beau O’Dowd, who could pass for 18, bought me and my friends from the off licence on Hardy Street when we were on our way to a school disco*.


  
Down by the old railway cutting, with the brewery buildings in the background, the footbridge restored and the white dog shit that peppered it during the 1980s gone, it was easy to imagine the old branch line train chugging down here. My dad and I agreed that there is something uniquely eerie about railway cuttings, that they retain an atmosphere like few other places. We paused to take the atmosphere in then I went and ruined it. 



“There’s a term for areas like this now, you know. They call them ‘edgelands'," I said to my dad.
   
“LOAD OF BOLLOCKS,” he said.

We turned a couple of sharp corners, past my nan’s old house, and met a friendly tortoiseshell cat with a sardonic military officer’s face and Chris and I gave it some fuss. “I think that’s your cousin’s cat,” said Mal. "Yeah, I think it is," agreed my mum. It seemed surprising, but perhaps wasn’t as much so as I initially thought. Quite a lot of my family still live on these roads and almost all of them like to decorate animals with lavish and privileged lives, so there’s a fairly strong chance that if you meet a promiscuous pet in the street, it will be one of theirs.



Soon we were high on the hill above Kimberley, with the tower blocks of Basford and inner city Nottingham shining through the haze in the distance. In the other direction, on a clear day, you can see Crich Stand from here: the landmark of another, more handsome kind of Coal Country, where people are less eager to fight in the streets, but not one where my family could have afforded to live when I was young. Over the hill’s brow, though, in the direction of Bog End and Greasley Beauvale, the view was as unspoilt as any in North Nottinghamshire: a haunting Wilkie Collins ghost tree, the spire of Greasley church, patchwork fields which could almost be in one of the gentler parts of north Devon were they to make slightly more elaborate promises. I walked down here with a girl I liked called Sarah one dark winter night when I was fourteen and, as we reached the quietest most romantic spot below the tree canopy, she moved in close to me and spoke softly, explaining that we could never be together as she’d started doing stuff with a boy in the sixth form. "Matthew's got a really hairy chest," she elaborated. "Do you have a hairy chest yet, Tom?"

"Not really," I admitted.

Maybe you could find a name like Bog End for a place where I live now, in the West Country, but it seems like a quintessentially Nottinghamshire name to me. This is what I and nearly all my friends - including several of the female ones - used to say when excusing ourselves: “I’m just going to the bog.” I’d never considered that it was an unpleasant or offputting phrase until I met a well-spoken southern girl who instructed me to stop using it. It’s pretty, though, Bog End. A wildflower meadow here has appeared in my dreams countless times: a fluffed up psychedelic memory of a childhood picnic, surrounded by bees and red admirals. As we closed in on it today, my dad reached full flow, like a man playing a jazz fusion song, using only the narrative of nostalgia.

“I PUT AN EASEL UP THERE IN 1982 AND PAINTED IT THEN GOT BITTEN BY A HORSEFLY. DID YOU KNOW DH LAWRENCE SMASHED A BESSIE SMITH 48 OVER HIS WIFE’S HEAD? HE DIDN’T LIKE HER PLAYING BESSIE SMITH ALL THE TIME. I LOVE BESSIE SMITH. WOMEN IN JAPAN IN OFFICES PAY YOUNG MEN TO COME AND MAKE THEM CRY THEN DAB THEIR TEARS AWAY. I READ ABOUT IT. THEY’RE CALLED SOMETHING BOYS.” He adjusted his new hat, which fell slightly over his ears. “I CAN’T HEAR MYSELF.”

“You’re lucky,” said Mal.



Our old landlady, Lady Barber of the legendary pit-owning Barber family, called these fields, most of which she owned, “Nottinghamshire’s green lung”. Anyone who’s spent time in the villages surrounding Southwell or East Bridgford might view that as pushing it slightly, but it is not wholly inaccurate. If you ignore the cars that yobs would steal and set fire to outside it every weekend, and the fact that our nextdoor neighbours once got tied to chairs by armed robbers and beaten with baseball bats, the second house I lived in in this area with my parents was in a very picturesque setting. It’s an old farmerworker’s cottage, a couple of miles from here, and today’s route won’t quite take us to it. I have been back to it in the last few years, though, and it’s very different. The ruined abbey - immortalised in the Lawrence short story A Fragment Of Stained Glass - is now a tea room, offering a dish with the ominous name 'Lady Chatterley’s Platter'. Our old house and our neighbours’ are now all big fences nearly-as-big dogs and ‘KEEP OUT’ signs, which is depressing, but should perhaps not be viewed as any sign of changing times, since my parents were burgled twice during their five and a half years living there.

“THREE TIMES,” said my dad.

“Two,” said my mum.

“NO. YOU'RE FORGETTING ABOUT THE SHED.”

“Oh yes. You're right."

Once every month my dad would walk a mile through the woods from this house and deliver our very reasonably-priced rent to Lady Barber by hand at Lamb Close House. He knew the two main rules: 1) Don’t Mention DH Lawrence, and 2) Know Your Station In Life. More than half a century after Lawrence’s death, the Barber family still nursed a grudge about the thinly veiled, none-too-flattering versions of their relatives in his novels. Researching a Lawrence piece for The Spectator to coincide with the centenary of the novelist’s birth, in 1985, the journalist Richard West was told upon visiting the area that Lady Barber’s husband, Sir William, would on no account talk to him about the subject. When Sir William was still alive, early in our tenancy, he once played the piano for my dad and invited him to play a game of Name That Tune. Later Lady Barber asked him to compile her a jazz mixtape. She could be cruel, too, however. Once, as my dad left, after delivering our rent, she pointed to her dog’s bed and announced - to her own great amusement, but my dad’s puzzlement - “And there’s your dog blanket, Mr Cox!” One another day, he was shown around the grounds, through a nursery full of Victorian toys, garages housing top of the range 1920s cars and a huge greenhouse containing a lump of coal which, in my dad’s words, was “THE SIZE OF A TRANSIT VAN”: a touching memento of when the family first realised they could make money off the sweat, toil and blood of the poor.

I’ve been listening to Lawrence on audiobook recently and found that it’s a great thing to do if you want to sink into a deep trough of despondency on long car journeys. I find him much more depressing than Thomas Hardy, perhaps mainly because of the echoing familiarity of what he’s talking about. I recently got about halfway through his celebrated 1913 novel Drunk Pit Bastard but had to break off from it, just to remind myself that life contained a flicker of hope. I want to read his books, though, as the place he describes is incontrovertibly a part of my past: the headstocks looming on either side of my first childhood house, four miles from here, riding my first bike past striking miners huddled around a fire in a barrel, making a den on the spoil heap next to Underwood pit using an old mattress I found. I recognise an earlier version of a very particular Nottinghamshire wordview, and way of speaking, in his writing: a worldview and way of speaking that I thought for a long time was the only one. I met the nature writer Ronald Blythe for barely an hour in 2009 and didn’t tell him where I was from but clearly he picked up on it. “Tom is tall, dark and thin and looks like he has escaped the denouement of a DH Lawrence story,” he wrote later in his Church Times column.

At Greasley Church my mum, Mal and Chris and I stopped to look at the gravestone of Millicent Shaw, who was crushed to death in the middle of a populist crowd frenziedly rushing to attend a local hanging in 1844, and then at the churchyard’s burgeoning snowdrops and ancient yew tree. My dad pointed to the adjacent layby: “WE HAD OUR HUBCAPS NICKED HERE IN 1995.” Outside the church stands a faded tourist information board, featuring a photograph of Lawrence. “LOOK AT HIM,” said my dad, pointing at it. “DOESN’T HE LOOK A STUCK-UP TWAT.”

Unlike the Peak District, only a few miles north west, this has never been renowned Walking Country and, unsurprisingly, we passed no other ramblers on our route through the countryside but, as we return to the outskirts of Kimberley, we are joined by a few men with dogs. One, a black labrador, barely out of puppyhood, gleefully nudges a red ball through the park. “LOOK OUT FOR THIS BASTARD,” my dad advised Chris and me. “IT WILL HAVE YOUR FACE OFF.”

Mal and I suggested that perhaps he was being unnecessarily negative.

“THAT’S MY JOB,” said my dad. “I’M LOOKING FOR THE CLOUD NEXT TO EVERY SILVER LINING. I CAN’T WAIT TO HAVE A SLEEP ON YOUR AND CHRIS’S BED IN A FEW MINUTES. I’M KNACKERED.”

“Why not take a few quiet moments to yourself right now?” I suggested. “Relax and don’t speak for a bit. It might help.”
  
In the pub, we had some lunch while two men on the table opposite discussed their favourite motorways. They agreed that the M62 was their least favourite. My dad showed us his mobile phone: a clamshell one from the earlier part of the previous decade, which showed an alert for 144 unread messages. 

"I'VE NEVER LOOKED AT ANY OF THEM," he said. "I DON'T KNOW HOW."




We passed by my old secondary school, just as the children were leaving. Two youths shouted abuse at us from across the street. I wasn’t not sure exactly what or who their target was but I got a strong sense that it was not entirely unrelated to my duffle coat. What they shouted didn’t sound especially malicious, more like their own code language, and they didn’t seem like the modern version of the kid who threatened to hit me in the face with a hammer, just a couple of mates showing each other that they can act tough in a safe kind of way, when getting an animal scent of something out of their limited ordinary sphere. They were probably not totally unlike a fourteen year-old me: had got into a few fights, but didn't go out of their way to seek them out. I usually got the bus to school but sometimes, when doing a supply teaching job in the area - one of which involved him teaching in Lawrence's old classroom - my dad would give me a lift. At the time, he drove a 25 year-old Morris Minor, while most of my friends' dads drove Ford Escorts or Vauxhall Astras made in the last seven years. In an act of self-preservation, I would never let him drop me off on this road, and preferred to walk the last half a mile.  

“IT’S A GOOD JOB YOU WEREN’T WEARING YOUR BIG HAT WHEN WE WALKED PAST THOSE YOUTHS,” he said.



He seemed genuinely tired on the drive home and, as it got darker, I worried about him, especially when he was devoting his concentration to an open-ended anecdote. He had a nap when we got in but by tea time, an hour later, he’d got his energy back. He told me about the parking ticket my mum had received recently and how the next day he’d stuck the orange and black exterior part of it on his mate Malcolm’s windscreen when Malcolm wasn’t looking. “WHEN MALCOLM SAW IT HE LOOKED LIKE A GOLDFISH WHO’D JUST RECEIVED SOME REALLY BAD NEWS,” he said. 

We decamped to the living room and went through some old books that he and my mum were giving to charity to allow for more space in the house. He handed them to me so I could check I didn’t want any of them myself. “THIS IS FOOKIN’ BRILLIANT,” he said, passing me one. “THIS IS SHIT. HE’S A MEDIA WAZZOCK,” he continued, passing me the next. This went on for some time, and there appeared to be no middle ground in his critical appraisal. Later, my mum and I chatted about her artwork and her cat, George, and, as we did, my dad sketched on a pad on his knee.

“Mick, you don’t see Tom very often,” my mum said. “Why not stop drawing, just for a little while?”

“I CAN’T,” he said.



*I looked up Beau O’Dowd during the writing of this piece, for the first time ever, and was elated in a small way to read an article in the Nottingham Evening Post announcing that, having been made redundant from his factory job, he is starting his own “microbrewy" in a shed, with another one of my old classmates, Anthony Reynolds. I assume that Beau and Anthony are starting a microbrewery, not a microbrewy, but I like the Post’s typo and hope they keep it. I suspect that what Beau and Anthony will be brewing will not be Special Brew as merely sniffing it can kill people of our age.


Enjoyed this? Why not read more about my dad in my latest book, and the one before it?

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A Walk To Bog End And Back With My Dad Reviewed by Tom Cox on 05:51:00 Rating: 5

16 comments:

SN said...

' He adjusted his new hat, which fell slightly over his ears. “I CAN’T HEAR MYSELF.”

“You’re the lucky one,” said Mal.'

Love it.

Nina said...

White dog poo! Why don't we see white dog poo anymore? And why was it so prevalent in the 80s? I loved this post Tom, evocative and brilliantly written as always, but it is the white dog poo that is lingering in my mind now....

Alice Bondi said...

I knew as soon as you hinted about this post that I'd love it, and I wasn't disappointed. I especially enjoyed the anecdotes about what paying the rent entailed and the landowners' dislike of Lawrence. But your dad is, as ever, a star (and actually, your mother even more so, for retaining her sanity despite him....)/

VerityF said...

As an ex-East Bridgfordite I agree that there are other areas of greenness in Nottinghamshire, mostly heading towards the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire boarders, but we won't contest the title. Two lungs are better then one :)

Anonymous said...

Great writing, Tom. Keep sending it. Thanks from California. Mary and Tony

Anonymous said...

Telling someone to 'bog off' was a common insult at my North Lincs secondary school, and we have a ' back bog' (unloved downstairs loo surrounded by sacks of cat litter and smelly trainers) at home now in Devon. Until you wrote about this lovely word today I thought everyone called their toilet 'the bog'. Maybe it is just an East Midlands thing.* Poor old D H Lawrence is woefully unfashionable these days so it was good to read an article about him. I wonder why he has fallen out of favour so much as we love many other miserable, depressing writers.... *J Edward Oliver wrote about the bog too in his inimitable comic strip ' Waterloo Turd.' Not sure where he came from though.

Susan said...

A fantastic piece, I really enjoyed it. Could read a whole book about your dad!
I really like his art work as well.

Denikatcase said...

A very beautiful funny and moving piece, Tom. Thank you for giving us these charming glimpses into your family life. I love your dad's paintings. They'd make a stunning exhibition. ❤️ X

Anita said...

Yet another lovely piece Tom.
Thank you for letting us be part of your life.
Your Dad's art is fabulous x

Christine March said...

This piece is beautifully written, as always. What I always enjoy about your wriitng Tom is how you sweep me up in your narrative and then make me laugh so hard tea flies out my nostrils. Your love of family (past and present) and countryside is a joy to read. A lovely piece.

Squirl said...

There is so, so much in this post to love. But your dad really is the star of this one. His art work really cracks me. Love your writing, as always.
Peg

Layla Morgan Wilde said...

Tom, your dad deserves a book and an art show. The tortie needs a monocle. Can't you just imagine her in a motorcycle sidecar? Across the pond, we have a New Yorker cartoonist who did a memoirish graphic book titled: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant. It's about her aging parents and reminds me of your parents, except yours are more fit and funnier http://rozchast.com/books.shtml

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the journey into DH Lawrence country, told in a most amusing way. I'm not sure why Tom's father calls Lawrence a STUCK UP TWAT, as Lawrence came from a modest background. He had delicate health, yet travelled to Australia and wrote his book 'Kangaroo' there. I think this deserves admiration.

Telemaque said...

Say what you will about us Yanks, we sure got DH Lawrence's number:


"Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

"Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping" (Ed Zern, Field and Stream, November 1959, p. 142).

Gina said...

Love your writing style (reminiscent of my own, albeit non-UK, which, don't get me wrong, makes it special to me) plus your dad's way of looking at things! Well done all around.

Cloud Cuckoo said...

My only remembered DH Lawrence line , the last line of a poem on teaching, could well have been written in that classroom, and it is an example I used to follow: "I shall sit here and wait for the bell."