As I fumble around in my jacket pocket for a mint or perhaps a hard-boiled rhubarb and custard, I notice that swans are gathering on the mirror-like water beneath the Castle Bridge. It is a bridge I have known all my life. This is a river I have known all my life. I am sitting on a bench I have known all my life.
This entire scene before me – the long grass on the opposite bank, the curve of the riverside walk to my left which takes you down to the cascading waters of the weir, and to my right the mighty railway station bridge – is so deep within my psyche that it is sometimes impossible for me to separate memories from dreams. Did my ten-year-old self really sit here on this bench with my best friend in 1967, the two of us planning what we would do with our lives if we were given super-powers? Or did I just dream that? Certainly, on summer afternoons, just before teatime, my little brother and I would often wait here for Dad who would be cycling home from work on his museum-piece of a bike. Now that one is definitely a memory and not a dream.
The sun is low now and partially obscured by cloud. There is a chill in the air. I allow myself to drift into a pleasing fog of abstracted fancy, and for a moment I can almost see our old Dad pedalling his trusty steed towards me.
Just over there is the rather magnificent Severn Bridge Junction signal box, built in 1904 and – I’ll have you know – the largest of its kind in Europe: a cathedral among signal boxes. And just there you can also see the Abbey Church, which is possibly even more magnificent than the signal box, and indisputably somewhat older, clocking in at 1083. That’s what I love about Shrewsbury: layer upon layer upon layer of history.
The streets of my childhood are just a stone’s throw from here: North Street, Queen Street, Burton Street, West Street, Donkey Alley. Our family moved to this oh-so-ordinary and yet oh-so-enchanting Victorian suburb in 1963 and left it in 1979. I was six years of age when we came here, twenty-two when we left. My formative years. From the birth of Beatlemania through the glory days of Slade and T. Rex and Rod Stewart and David Bowie to the death throes of punk.
We lived in a magical beaten-up old house in the shadow of the lovely All Saints Church. All these years later I cycle or walk or drive back down here frequently, seduced by what many these days would refer to as nostalgia, but what I prefer to think of as communing with the past.
A jogger now passes by, his iPod plenty loud enough for me to pick out the monotone of an insistent rebellious rap. I smile to myself, momentarily considering my own kaleidoscopic tastes in pop music. Rap, I’m afraid, I shall never warm to. Nevertheless, I am proud to say I enjoy just about everything else from The Searchers to Coldplay. But wide though my musical interests are, and as vast as my CD collection is, I suppose some might say that the writing was on the wall for me as far back as 1978. Even at that point in my life I was beginning to live in the past. Because although I knew full well back then that in order to be cool I should really have been loving Paul Weller snarling his way through hits like The Modern World, I in truth yearned for the much more melodic tunes of the sixties and early, pre-punk seventies. In my heart of hearts, I suppose I will always prefer The Marmalade to The Jam.
Oh dear. A weak joke. Our dad would have approved . . .
I look downstream now, towards the weir. The jogger and his iPod disappear into the distance.
Ah. Our dear old parents, God bless ’em, would have been totally baffled by the world today. What would they have made of iPods? Come to that, forget your digital downloads and your memory sticks – Mum and Dad would have been confused by shower gel and clip-on sunglasses.
Dad was decidedly working class, dirt forever under his fingernails. Mum: lower middle class, curlers and cardigans. He was fun-loving, gregarious, all beer and dominoes. She was shy, sensitive, easily embarrassed.
Dad had his silly sayings:
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
“I can’t help it if I’m good-looking.”
Mum, sitting by the open fire on a winter’s afternoon, had her simple wisdom:
“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
We boys played endlessly with our Matchbox cars and plastic soldiers. We were happy to stay indoors for much of the time, which was just as well as trips out were few and far between. Although, for the vast majority of our childhood, our family could not afford a car, we did however have an old banger for a few months. It was so untrustworthy, though, that it wasn’t used a great deal. For the most part, it seemed to me, our pride and joy – an ancient Hillman Minx – stood rusting round the corner in West Street; worthless, built like a tank, looking sad as if it knew it had a date with the scrap merchant.
Meanwhile, we boys played on. With crayons and scissors, staples and Sellotape, we would create our own comics featuring the adventures of our own superheroes and cartoon cats. Our interests in writing, story-telling and publishing – not to mention a strange and enduring fondness for stationery – thus found an early outlet.
Oh dear. The pre-pubescent me: every bit as shy as my mother, uncertain, slow to learn, under-achieving, scared of his own shadow, head in the clouds, almost always preferring the sanctuary of home to the often not-so-great-outdoors. In here: telly, biscuits, Mum. Out there: a host of tiny dangers. Beyond that old dependable front door lay the domain of bullies: big boys with fists and attitude. Adults could be just as bad. It was a world inhabited by sneering teachers, suspicious shop-keepers and unfriendly bus drivers.
Oh watch out. The jogger is back. He must have been as far as the weir and is now on the return journey.
“Hey mate,” I pretend to say. “Got any Marmalade on that iPod?”
The swans have moved on now. It’s getting cold. Time to go home. But I’ll be back again soon.
This is how I nourish my quiet, unobtrusive love for our long-gone Mum and Dad.