Selfie With George Clarke

 

The Cool House at Signal Lane (1975-1985)

 

I think that Nanna Joan Cool’s most looked-forward-to day was a Sunday, because on Sunday morning, she got up bright and early, spent a long time selecting which hat to wear, and walked down to St Cuthbert’s parish church[1] in Donington to show off her finery. She was always very proud in relaying to us the flattering comments other parishioners had made about her head gear. I always had my doubts about her religious convictions, though, because I never (not at all unregrettably) heard any feedback about the sermons she had surely sat and listened to, so I had long suspected that her sole reason for going to church, [2] was to show off her latest hat. A motive which I, Jay Cool (expert hat maker), can very much relate to.
Nanna’s hat collection was very fluid. I rarely saw the same hat worn twice; this was largely because, having worn it to church once, she would decide it wasn’t quite what she had wanted after all, and would take it back to the shop where originally purchased, often six months afterwards, to exchange if for another. All the shop assistants in Wolverhampton knew Joan Cool, a regular customer, who spent hours choosing a hat or another garment, and another few hours on her return arguing with them that she had not missed the date by which they could be exchanged or refunded, and that being such a loyal customer, she certainly did not need to provide them with her original receipt or any other proof of purchase.

 

On my visits to Signal Lane, I would enjoy secret visits to Nanna’s wardrobe, trying on her hats and shoes, and carrying around with me for ever after the very-telling odour of mothballs. When the shoes and hats had been exhausted, I would raid her wooden jewellery box, which may have been a wedding gift from the Sankey family, for brooches and hat pins. If prevented from further explorations around the house, by let’s-see-how-far-I-can-wind-you-up interventions from my older brother, I would wander out and down the garden path. I often heard cursing and swearing, words that were shocking and unrepeatable here (I am a ‘Mission Child’ after all), emanating from one of the two long greenhouses. My Grandad, Arnold, could always be found sitting on a squat, wooden, three-legged stool, amidst his tomato plants, chain-smoking his way through multiple packs of cigarettes and chatting animatedly with his nephew, Norris Cool. They were partners in crime, both keen gardeners, and both keen to escape from their polite, God-fearing, wives to the sanctuary of a greenhouse and the company of like-minded blasphemers.

On a successful bypass of the greenhouse, I would gravitate towards a large-cubed-metal container, full of gallons of pitch-black rainwater. This was the home to several very old and large goldfish. The water was so filthy, dark and deep that I could happily pass hours there waiting for a rare sighting of a goldfish, on an occasional visit to the surface. I suspect that the fishes ended up there after being won by cousin Ned at a visiting funfair, because it’s doubtful that Grandad Arnold Cool would have made any acquisition that he couldn’t make a tidy profit from.

Defeated, and fed up of waiting for goldfish to appear that may or may not have been dead and gone by then, I would seek out an old oven that lay buried or burrowed into a mound near one of the greenhouses. I believe it originally served the function of heating the greenhouse but, to my mind, it was a play oven and I loved making mud pies and baking other concoctions for my dolls and make-believe friends. In those days, you see, I could cook [3] and was a fantastic hostess and entertainer. Some parties did, however, get disbanded and the guests dispersed if I was discovered by Grandad, who seemed to enjoy blowing his fuse at me if he found me doing anything that involved making a mess in his dominions.

Occasionally, when cousin Ned grew tired of the company of my older brother, Simon, he would lower his sights and join his girl-cousin. Together, we persuaded Nanna Cool to donate some firelighters, and went on a trip down the garden to make a camp fire, over which to heat up a can of baked beans and some roast mouth-watering marshmallows on sticks. This was, by far, my favourite Signal Lane pastime, but Joan Cool was none too pleased on finding that we had used the whole box of firelighters – to light a fire for just one can of beans! Oh well, back to the rolled-up newspapers, Nan! If I remember correctly (i.e. this is probably all made up!), I believe that I had to use Friday’s pocket money to replace the lighters, whilst Ned, once again, got off Scott free. Just one more example of the oppression of the fairer sex throughout time. And I’m not in the slightest bit bitter!

The salt and the fire lighting episodes did nothing to dampen our enthusiasm for getting ourselves into trouble. At the back of my grandparent’s massive garden, was an L-shaped extension which went around the back of the next-door neighbour’s property. At one time, it had been full of rows of cabbages, but in a concession to his old age and smoker’s cough, Grandad had left it neglected and overgrown for a couple of years. This was an opportunity for development. Ned and I decided to build ourselves a secret den, well out of sight of the cottages, and unlikely to ever be discovered. We set about collecting planks of wood from the back of the henhouse to begin our building work.

 

 

 

A superb construction was soon well under way, tucked in a corner and propped up with an old apple tree. Unfortunately, a nosy neighbour spotted us and objected to the appearance of this eyesore at the rear of his garden. Grandad was quickly informed and we were chased down the garden, with the kindly Arnold waving his walking stick around at us, yelling at us to dismantle our ‘artwork’ immediately.

Rather than give in to this kind of intimidation, Ned and I sought a new location for our den. No-one used the third cottage (my Grandparents’ house had, at one time, been a terrace of three cottages – two of which they had knocked through into one, and the other which, at various times, s
erved either as a rental property, a honey-processing factory, or a shed) at that time, or so we thought, so we would be safe enough if we added an extension onto the old coal bunker which fronted onto Signal Lane.

Only one firelighter was needed in this case; it was more than enough to turn Grandad into what, even at that time, one could have likened to an atomic bomb. Another eyesore had to be dismantled: What would our military neighbours think? [4] It didn’t even last as long as the first!

A near-death experience might have put most children off den-building for life, but it didn’t occur to Arnold to take a look inside the coal bunker. Ned and I had kitted this out nicely with a couple of makeshift stools and a plastic tea set. It wasn’t so much fun, though, to have a hideaway that truly was a secret – and our coal shed den was soon abandoned! [5]

Whereas it is true that Grandad’s walking stick was waved around in front of me an awful lot, to be fair, I didn’t ever receive any bruises from it. He was more threat than action, that is, if one chose to delegate some of his tales of childhood to fantasy land.

 
Copyright of all content owned by Jay Cool, April 2018

 


 


[1] St Cuthbert’s church, Donington, was founded by Roger de Montgomery over 900 years ago. I have yet to find a family connection with the Montgomery family but, rest assured, I am looking for it and will keep you updated! UPDATE! Roger de Montgomery was best pals with my 28th Great Grandfather, William of Normandy, and was keeping him company as plans were made for the invasion of England. Being of wise mind, Roger stayed in France, and waited until William had done the dirty work, before travelling the seas to claim his own piece of pre-prepared English soil and taking the titles of first Earl of Arundel, Chichester and Shrewsbury. I think I can accurately relabel him as the first Parasite of William and will henceforth blame him for my loss of inheritance.
[2] Either that, or, in a quest to find common ground with her husband, she had read the Gough’s ‘History of Myddle’ and was hoping that her hats would get a prominent mention in its sequel: ‘The History of Donington’, as, in the 70s, it was no longer expected that every parishioner be in attendance, at church every Sunday. Indeed, I am quite certain that the vicar, Mr Hounsfield, would have welcomed a break from being compere of the weekly fashion parade.
[3] I made the mistake at some low point in my career of allowing myself to get roped into teaching Cooking. I was invited, by the Head of Department, to choose the recipe for that week. Fond memories of peppermint creams made at Brownies, led me to go for this option, a wise choice which didn’t involve any cooking at all. It was a big hit with the parents, whose darlings returned home with Tupperware containers full with sloppy green slimy stuff. I don’t think I saw a single self-contained solid sweet at the end of my lesson. Not entirely sure what went wrong there! Needless to say, my name did not appear on the following term’s teaching schedule for Cooking. Clearly, my name is not in any way linked to my talents; ‘cook Hayward’, a well-regarded estate cook, mentioned in Gough’s ‘History of Myddle’, has no actual connection, as far as I can work out, with the Cool family. I do, however, think I might have something to offer, in terms of creativity, with Heston Blumenthal, so I do have plans to get in touch with him soon to discuss how we can work on a collaborative project.
[4] I think Grandad made a mistake in dismantling our front garden den. Like the signs advertising his honey, pickles and jam, I believe it would have been an instant tourist attraction. After all, in 2016, thousands of customers spent a fortune buying tickets to see Tracey Emin’s un-made bed at the Tate modern. Our den was far more creative and inspiring! Plus, you could hide inside it and have private conversations. Who would want to try out a bed full view of the public? And the bed eventually sold for £2.2 million, so what would our den have been worth? Still, it’s too late to put Arnold Cool right on this now!
[5] Now, I think it a pity that I abandoned this den so quickly, as I am sure the adult-me could have gained a great deal of publicity for this memoir, by featuring the den on Channel 4’s ‘Amazing Spaces’. Plus, I , Jay Cool, would now have been the proud owner of a selfie taken with George Clarke!

 

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