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    No trips scheduled at the moment. Plus, owing to the covid 19 restrictions, my 99th birthday has been postponed until further notice. Jo is waiting for a knee proceedure and she and Tony will not be visiting me in New York in August. Early next year, covid willing!
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    Unfortunately all theatres and concert halls are closed for the duration! I miss them more than ever, now, but my collection of CD's and DVD's make up for some of the loss.
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Ch 3. Uncle Nart

Uncle Nart (Cockney-short for Arthur, I believe) blotted his copybook early on in his married life—he cocked a snook at family tradition and named his first-born Benjamin. In the Thompson clan tradition, only my father, the eldest son, possessed that right. It is true that he did not compound the atrocity by adding the traditional middle ‘William’ to his son’s names as well, but his transgression was enough to marginalize him somewhat. He was still included in wider family affairs but never, it seemed to me, to be in the main stream. He was talked about in family gatherings somewhat remotely. He was very fond of his beer and consumed it as if he were concerned that the world’s supply would shortly run out. Which, I suppose, earned him his reputation for the occasional unfamily-like behaviour.

I became extremely fond of him from the outset. He always made us laugh and often astounded us with his magic tricks—he could make a sixpence drop out of your nose or ear! On our annual fortnight holidays in Ramsgate, a seaside town on the east coast, he delighted us kids with giant Toblerones and gave us unlimited pennies to spend. He seemed to us to share his money with great generosity—the adult family thought– recklessly. In my boyhood mind, I associated him with jellied eels, cockles, whelks and horse- and dog-racing. I recall him taking me to the Hackney Wick and Romford dog-racing tracks on several dark winters’ evenings and being enchanted with the flares of the vendors and the excited shouting of the punters. I suppose my father would have accompanied us but I only recall uncle Nart. He would ply me with copious draughts of lemonade and jellied eels or cockles as I watched the races. Sometimes, he would ask me to choose from a long list, one of the strange names in his newspaper. He would then go to one of the colourful gentlemen standing on their boxes with their chalkboards at the ready, and make some transaction. I was very pleased with the trust he placed in me. I have no doubt that he was genuinely fond of children. To tell the truth, though, those fierce giant dogs, with their bloodthirsty tongues hanging through their wire muzzles, scared the living daylights out of me each time they thundered by. But, by that time, I had learned not to show it.

He could also spin a great yarn. He told us of his visit to Dr. Jellie, an eccentric old medical man who looked after the sick poor in the Hackney area. Few of Dr. Jellie’s patients could afford to pay him in cash. Occasional eggs from their chicken coops and some seasonal vegetables from their allotments were the best they could manage. Dr. Jellie was of the old school, he was convinced of his vocation. He carried on his practice in complete disregard of the financial consequences. Among the first of these was the Gas Company’s arrival to cut off the supply of gas to his house and, therefore, his source of light.

It was about this time that uncle Nart consulted Dr. Jellie one evening about a severe case of hemorrhoids. He found the good doctor at his desk illuminated by a number of lit candles in those saucer-shaped candlesticks fitted with finger holders for carrying them. The doctor ordered Nart to drop his trousers and bend over for examination. It so happened that the aging Dr. Jellie suffered a shortsightedness which required him to wear very thick spectacles, and so, as the candle approached closer  to Nart’s exposed flesh than comfort would allow, he, Nart that is, began a cautionary retreat. Nart described a wonderful scenario in which he, with his trousers around his ankles, buttocks thrusting heavenward, shuffled around the consulting room at an ever-increasing pace, while the myopic Dr. Jellie, pursued him, candle to the fore, intent upon examining his rear at closer quarters! My uncle’s narrative was a good deal more colourful than mine. But, I loved the imagery, and have happily re-told this story many, many times!

On an occasion much later on, Uncle Nart was invited, after a great deal of family heart-searching, to my sister’s wedding. The family’s trepidation appeared justified when Nart arrived at the church. It was patently obvious from his uncertain progression and his very loud congratulatory and sexually explicit pronouncements, that he had commenced his celebration somewhat earlier in the day. The assembled congregation fell to whispering among themselves. All was well, however, until the Vicar arose from his knees and pronounced: ”We will now sing verse twenty-four from hymn number 13, book number 2”. At this point, Nart shot to his feet, finger aloft, no doubt having in mind his bet for the day, shouted: ”And what’s the trap number mate?” I was told that a distinct shrinking could be observed on the Thompson side of the aisle as members attempted to make themselves appear less visible. But this was only one facet of a complicated being.

Nart also had a passion for budgerigars. He bred them in a large aviary set up in the yard of his house in Broke road. There were hundreds of them, pairing off and twittering happily. Occasionally, I would be allowed to open the door of the nesting boxes to see the brooding hens on their eggs and, sometimes, their little fledglings. He won many a ribbon for his prize birds. But this too ended in tragedy. In the winter months it was necessary for the aviary to be heated in order to maintain a proper environment for the sub-tropical birds. Nart’s solution to this problem was to place an oil lamp in their compound each evening—ensuring that it contained enough fuel to last the night. The wick, of course, had to be adjusted precisely. In spite of some dark suspicions, (the exact cause was never found) the lamp accidentally malfunctioned and sent out searing flames in all directions. A great many birds were instantly roasted where they sat, sleeping in serried rows on their roosts. Others panicked and spread the fire to the wooden nesting boxes. All were lost.

Nart left the scene of the tragedy exactly as it was for some time and we children got to see the aftermath of the fire, the charred nesting boxes and the little blackened corpses, all in a row. And to wonder about our sad emotions. They were not the same as watching a chicken getting its neck wrung for Christmas! As far as I know, Nart never looked another budgerigar in the eye from that time on.

—An interesting footnote to this story: I was walking in Hyde Park in London last year (2011) and was amazed to see groups of budgerigars twittering in the trees! Apparently the climate in Britain is now warm enough for sub tropical birds to live in the wild–No winter heating necessary!

It was Uncle Nart who scrounged two gallons of black-market petrol for my motorcycle after the war when all non-official vehicles were at a standstill—there was nothing he couldn’t fix. Except, perhaps, his own family affairs. I understand that his wife, Minnie, had left him at some time and taken Minnie Tonker, their daughter, with her. His son, Benny, had had a chequered war-time career in the Army. Later in life, Nart had sired another son, Arthur, whom I have met once or twice, but who now seems to have dropped out of the family circle. Minnie Tonker, by routes unknown to me, eventually settled in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury is way up in the north of Canada. Its surrounding terrain is so bleak that NASA used it as a proving ground for the Moon Landing mission. For entertainment, the population turns out in their cars on dark nights to watch the rail trucks, atop the massive slag heap, dump their fiery loads over the man-made cliffs.

This picture of Minnie Tonka and me was taken in her house in Sudbury in 1985. This would make me about 74 at the time

Many years ago I called in on Minnie Tonker on my way back from a fishing trip in the north of Canada. She greeted me with instant recognition even though it had been well over fifty years since we last had met. “Oh! Ben!” she exclaimed with welcoming arms outstretched. But it was not me she thought she was greeting—it was my father! She could hardly have retained an image of the little boy’s face she knew in her childhood, of course, but my father was her uncle and therefore memorable. I appeared to her now, so like my father looked then! Such are the vagaries of the human mind’s recall—it made no difference that my father would have to have been a hundred or so years old. Minnie Tonker was not her real name—she loathed it, she told me. I had always had the idea that her parents had given her it out of a misreading of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and were thinking of Minnehaha, but I never really knew. So engrained is it in family lore, that I have forgotten her real name again.

My daughter, Susan, and I have arranged a number of family reunions in London during the past several years. I dearly wished that Minnie Tonker could have participated and so enjoyed the reaction of our remaining aunts and their progeny. She was invited, of course, but, sadly, her emphysema got the better of her and she became too ill to travel. She died shortly thereafter–a year or two before Ada, the last of the Thompson aunts.

By good fortune, these reunions have allowed me to become close friends with Ian Thompson and his beautiful wife, Pam. Ian is the grandson of Nart and he possesses all the caring attributes of the uncle I loved.

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