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We've all been in situations where we wonder, "What on earth am I doing here?" I certainly have, but not often, for I pride myself on getting on with people. It's my belief that you can always find an ice breaker, something in common with everyone, but it takes effort. I'll sometimes ask people about their job or their interests. I may find they love sport or rambling or maybe, like me, they'll even enjoy politics. Some people are film buffs or humour aficionados, while others are bookworms. Most people like to reminisce about past holidays and places they've seen, others will speak of a hobby, be it photography, bird watching, or listening to music. If all seems lost the state of the weather will usually come to the rescue but sometimes even that fails. This is a tale of one of my unique, 'What on earth am I doing here,' moments. It also tells how old fashioned luck turned a tiresome event into memorable one!
It starts in the July of 1975, when Jenny and I were on a train to visit her Aunt Sybil for a weeks holiday on her farm in Monmouthshire. Looking back, I don't know how we could have gone, but I had persuaded Jenny to leave our daughter, Kathryn, with a trusted family friend. I had some stupid notion that it would be good for all concerned for us to have a break alone. I was not only wrong, I was heartless, for Kathryn was only eleven months old. I have apologised to Jenny many times, for the last thing a young mother would want was to be parted from her child, however capable her carer. I was, on that occasion, a 24 Carat Gold Fool! Never the less, on that of Saturday of July 5th, we were on a train heading west, and I was missing Jimmy Connors playing Arthur Ashe in the Wimbledon Final. I had shouted out to a guard on one of the station platforms and asked if he knew how the match was going? He'd replied that Connors, my tennis hero, was getting smashed. This, together with the fact we were already missing Kathryn, was not an auspicious start to our holiday.
When the train reached our destination we were met by Jenny's Uncle Ron who, apart from a brief introduction at our wedding, I hadn't really met. On reflection, I think it would be fair to say his welcome was not the warmest I had ever received. "How's Connors doing," I asked, and he looked at me blankly. "At Wimbledon, in the tennis," I explained. Another blank look, before he informed me he hated tennis. The remainder of the journey to his hill top farm was filled with one word replies to our questions. "Could it be that Uncle Ron was not ecstatically joyous at our arrival," was the thought that entered my head! When we finally arrived we found Auntie Sybil's greeting was more welcoming. She was the sister of Jenny's Father and was a very beautiful woman. She didn't look anywhere near her age, which I knew was on the other side of fifty. I liked her but she was a complete scatterbrain, some of her comments made me think she was tuppence short of a shilling, not quite the full quid as an Aussie might say. She had three grown up children from her first marriage, all of whom had flown the nest. But she and the man my mind had already titled, Reticent Ron, were childless.
Throughout that first evenings meal I could tell something was badly remiss between our hosts. Perhaps Sybil hadn't discussed our visit with Ron, for he ate in complete silence. "What are we doing here," was the question repeatedly running through my mind. The next morning was no better and, although the day was warm, there was certainly a chill in the air around that breakfast table. Adding to the gloom was the morning paper had revealed that Arthur Ashe had beaten the magnificent Jimmy Connors. The omens all pointed to this being a very long week, for Reticent Ron was now notably hostile towards me. However, that was to change on the Monday morning, after another frosty breakfast, and I'm not talking about the famous Kellogg's cereal. I'd left Jenny in the Kitchen helping her Aunt and I was sitting on a comfortable garden seat enjoying the sun. I was reading a book I'd bought especially for the holiday and it was titled, 'Great Contemporaries,' and it was by Winston Churchill. It was in essence, the great man's view on a number of other men of history, including Lord Baden Powell, Kaiser Wilhelm, Herbert Asquith, Adolph Hitler and many others. After reading for an hour or so I went into the house to see Jenny and make myself a cup of tea, When I returned, Reticent Ron was sitting down and avidly reading my book. He looked up at me and for the first time since I'd arrived I saw him smile!
"You like history then," he said, gesturing with the book, and went on to ask what I thought of Adolph Hitler? "If he'd died in 1935 he'd be remembered as a great man, but he lived ten years too long," was my reply. He then asked me my opinions of the Kaiser, Field Marshal Hindenburg, and some of the others featured in the book. He became animated as we chatted and he seemed delighted with my response. Before I knew what was happening he'd invited me to join him at his local pub that evening to meet his pals. I couldn't help but smile when shortly afterwards I heard him say to his wife, "I've invited our nephew down the pub tonight." Suddenly, I was his nephew, and I found there was wine on the table for that evenings meal and some sort of German Organ music was playing. His cheerful conversation flowed, as did the wine, and the change in his personality was remarkable. Later, down the pub, he kept introducing me to various people and it was always with a loud, "Meet my Nephew Ken." In public he was a gregarious man and his distinctive voice could be clearly heard by everyone present. I admit to hiding my astonishment when he pointed out a portly chap and loudly said, "See that fat bloke, he's a Jew!" I was to find out he wasn't overly fond of Jews. When we got home he immediately got out two glasses, some tonic water, and a gin bottle. I realised the night was not over as he began to tell me about himself......
He said that all his life he'd admired Germany and the fact that he was a farmer saved him from having to go to war. He admitted that he'd thought Hitler would beat us easily and said he'd had an expensive radio system with which he'd once listened nightly to German radio. He seemed pleased when I asked if he'd heard of the so called, Lord Haw-haw and his infamous, "Germany calling, Germany calling," propaganda broadcasts. Uncle Ron said he had, and he'd secretly listened to them throughout the war. He did concede when I raised the subject that Hitler was, perhaps, an evil man, but it was obvious to me that he didn't believe it. I soon realised that the mixture of wine, beer and gin, had turned Reticent Ron into Rambling Ron and ramble on he did. With increasingly slurred words, mixed with lots of laughter, he delighted in espousing his right wing views. He didn't seem to mind that I constantly disagreed with him and, when we finally went to bed, his parting words were an affectionate, "Goodnight Nephew!" There was no doubt that Uncle Ron was an eccentric oddball, verging on a crackpot, but I also realised that, despite his screwed up views, I was genuinely beginning to like the man!
On the penultimate morning of our stay, Ron announced that he'd booked a table at the nearby, 'Wallnut Tree,' for that evenings meal, he said it was a good restaurant, but full of Jews. He, Sybil, Jenny and myself, duly arrived and soon found ourselves enjoying an excellent meal. The trouble was, that despite warnings from his wife not to do so, Uncle Ron was taking delight in playing, spot the Jew. It wasn't funny, it was outlandishly bad behaviour, and I knew downright rude. So why did I find myself chuckling? "Look at the nose on that one," he said, pointing at a newly arrived diner and I laughed until it hurt. I promise there is not an anti-Semitic bone in my body and I apologise if this memory offends. But I have never agreed with political correctness and sometimes even serious things can be very funny. This memory of an unusual man was worth retelling for in just seven days my innermost thoughts of, "What on earth am I doing here," changed completely as did the attitude of Jenny's Uncle Ron. The cold, withdrawn and unfriendly man who'd picked us up in his icicle-ridden car, morphed into a warm, talkative and generous host who was, despite his secret wish to become the Gauleiter for Monmouthshire, mostly a good person. He'd changed his personality and, to all and sundry, I became his, 'NEPHEW KEN.' Just because he'd picked up a book by Winston Churchill and found that he and I had something in common!
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