November 29 2005

Until I was eight or nine I thought my grandfather was a sea captain, a misconception due to a framed photograph at my grandmother`s of him in full naval rig, looking like a cross between Lord Jim and Admiral Jellico.
It gave him an heroic status which persisted even after I learned that he never went to sea. The uniform was for a play he had once appeared in and even when Granny showed me pictures of him in other roles, it was the navy image that lingered.
He died a decade before I was born, but he was a real presence in my early life because my father spoke of him often and always with great affection.
Granny was his second wife and considerably younger than him. A son from his first marriage died on the Somme, so I guess Dad was especially precious to him. Certainly they seem to have been very close, even though circumstances meant that they often didn`t see much of each other.
When his parents were touring, my father was left for long periods with a couple who ran a pub in York where racehorses were stabled, which probably explains Dad`s lifelong and frequently costly flirtation with the sport of kings.
The demands of a career in the theatre meant that Grandad and Granny spent much of their lives on the road, not always together. By himself, he was an innocent abroad.
“When I travel alone I have the happy knack of losing myself,” he wrote to her in a letter I still have. It was written from an address in Liverpool, one of the hundreds of theatrical digs they knew so well.
In it he speaks of a day that was probably typical for him. Bound for a theatre in New Brighton, he got into the wrong portion of his train and ended up in Manchester where he had to wait several hours “. . . and what with meeting people and visits to the Old Swan, seeing people off and more visits to the Old Swan, little Willie Copeland was about boozed”.
His travels brought him to Stafford several times. His last visit was to the old Lyceum Theatre in Martin Street where he appeared with Granny in a play called Alone in the World. His address book lists two landladies, Mrs Ashton and Mrs Corcoran, both in Earl Street.
But Grandad`s career was erratic and when times were hard he had to turn his hand to other things. He had a fine tenor voice and sang in concert parties and in pubs around Liverpool, his home town. For a while he managed a cinema in Frome, Somerset, and once in the early 60s Dad and I made a pilgrimage there while holidaying in the West Country. The cinema had been closed for the best part of 30 years, but the building was still there and so were the faded posters of King Kong, the last film it had screened.
By the time theatre work eventually dried up the stress of looking for it had taken its toll. He had a breakdown (neurasthenia, they called it then) and retired with Granny to a rented flat in Chelsea where he died looking much older than his 68 years in 1933.
Granny moved to Stafford to be near Dad and lived for many years in a two-down, one-up in North Walls, the photo of her sea captain the only reminder of an earlier and very different way of life.

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