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I remember inkwells, so does my 100 year-old father-in-law.

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

My father-in-law, Maurice Rutherford is probably the best known, least known poet in Britain. He is certainly the most modest and on 28 September, he will be 100 years old. Yesterday, we picked him up from his home so he could watch a live stream of The City Speaks; a performance at Hull Truck Theatre in celebration of the poetry and poets of the city and most especially of his own life and work. The entire cast read one or more of his poems and halfway through, both cast and audience sang him a rousing Happy Birthday. It was an amazing honour and he was, as they say, chuffed to bits. But that's not why I'm writing this blog.


On the way over from his house, we stopped off at our local farm shop for some asparagus to have with lunch and while Jeannie was inside buying much more than she went in for, 'Gee' as we call him and I - neither of us particular supporters of the monarchy - mused on the changes that had taken taken place in both his lifetime, that of the person being buried at Windsor today and also myself, some thirty-odd years younger than both of them. We've talked about it before: how, in some strange ways, he and I have more in common than Jeannie and I have with our kids. For instance, we both remember wooden desks with inkwells and learning to write - first on individual chalk boards (or was it some other scraping tool?), then dipping sharp-nibbed quill-like pens into the ink poured into the ceramic wells by the ink monitor. I remember being desperate to be selected as ink monitor, because it meant going to the stationery cupboard to fetch the blue-black powder that would be transformed into ink with the addition of water. Once inside the cupboard, there was the musty smell of paper: exercise books, sugar paper, drawing paper and blotting paper, as well as powder paint, pencils and paintbrushes (used and new). The smell of the stationery cupboard is still with me as a residual sensory imprint (see previous blog post) as is the almost indescribable smell of the rehearsal room later in life, with its dank beer-stained carpet and whiff of 'gear'; flight cases, amplifiers and what we used to call jazz-woodbines (not for me though).


Gee and I also both remember steam trains and the particular smell of stations; of engineering, metal, hot steam and coal smoke. Coal smoke too was an everyday smell of winter that still, although it is much rarer these days, takes me back to my youth, walking home from school on frosty late afternoons with our bare knees chapped above long grey woollen socks and breath visible in front of us.


Another image common to both of our early childhoods, his in the late 1920s and mine a corresponding 30 years later, is school milk, which was first introduced when he was a lad in Hull. We both remember snowy winters when each small milk bottle in the heavy aluminium crate was capped with snow, the milk inside frozen solid. One of my winter memories in particular at one of my first schools was my classroom being heated by a single cast-iron stove that had to be fed with coke by the teacher. Another, memory I confessed to him once when talking about poetry, was of having to learn Wordsworth's 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' off by heart, having to stand up in class to recite it aloud and failing miserably. This humiliating experience put me off poetry until my late teenage years, when I discovered the Liverpool poets and realised poetry wasn't soppy, only for girls and the Fotherington-Thomases of this world (Hello clouds, hello sky!). And then the epiphany of being reacquainted with Wordsworth and Coleridge at A-level and discovering that, not only was Wordsworth involved with the French Revolution, but Coleridge was quite likely out of his box on opium when he wrote 'Kubla Khan'. Suddenly poetry was cool and I began to write a little myself, imitating Catullus, whose Latin poems (in translation) seemed both cool and sexy and some of which I nicked to give to a prospective girlfriend, pretending I'd written them myself.


So, next weekend, the family will descend on us from Brighton, Newcastle and Maidstone (but sadly not from Denmark, where Emma is too pregnant with a new grandchild to travel) and we will celebrate not only 100 years of The Remarkable Mr Rutherford, but also a century of change that has quite possibly surpassed that other century of change when QE II's great, great grandmother was on the throne.


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