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FATHER’S TURN FOR THE VERSE

CHRISTMAS comes but once a year,

And when it comes, it brings good beer.

That was the first rhyme my father ever taught me, and for a while I thought it was actually a Christmas carol. My father was a brewer by profession, though, so he was entitled so to sing. Every year, before Christmas had properly arrived, the brewery would produce little power-packed bottles of Royal Wrexham Ale with a purple label and he would proudly bring back some of the first batch. It tasted like barley liqueur and was said to have the strength of seven men or half a bottle of whiskey or something like that. I loved it as a child but I haven’t dared drink it as a grown-up.

We grew up with beer in the house as if it were a normal part of life, not a forbidden substance. The same was true of verse. My father knew thousands of scraps of verse which he would produce without warning, so regularly that I find myself come out with them without thinking. I certainly had no intention of starting this piece with a rhyme about beer. Or indeed, about tomatoes.

To market, to market went my brother Jim,

Somebody threw a tomato at him.

Tomatoes are soft, they come in the skin,

But this one wasn’t, it came in the tin.

The strange thing about this is that he had wodges of poetry on his shelf, and never referred to it once. First editions of Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke and AE Housman told me that there had once been a time when he had read and liked poetry. But the only book he ever urged me to read was Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, and the only verse he ever quoted was stuff on that deathless level…

The boy stood on the burning deck,

His pocket full of bombs,

When one went off, the lot went off,

And left him in his coms.

Just sitting here, I find they come back to me without even trying. Challenge me to quote a line of Robert Graves, and I would be lost. Challenge me to remember a hymn, and all I can come up with is:

There is a happy land far, far away,

Where they have ham and eggs, three times a day.

Oh, how those boys do yell,

When they hear the breakfast bell,

Oh, how those eggs do smell,

Three times a day!

That was one of the longest pieces he ever taught me – well, I say taught, but really I just heard them at such regular intervals that they became part of me. It’s odd looking back how much of it seems to be about eating or drinking.

If you ever go to Dolgellau,

Don’t stay at the Raven Hotel,

There’s nothing to put in your bellau,

And no one to answer the bell.

It’s extraordinary. I haven’t thought of these for years. I wonder if my father is writing this piece for me? If so, I had better include the piece he was proudest of, and the one which he thought boasted rather better rhyming than the regular poets ever came up with. It’s important, by the way, that you should know that a cassowary is a big kind of bird like an ostrich, or so he always told me.

If I were a cassowary

On the plains of Timbuctoo,

Then I’d eat a missionary,

Boots and hat and hymn book too.

Being a brewer, at Christmas he did things that nobody else did, like taking me and my brother out on a tour of various pubs handing out mysterious gift-wrapped parcels and getting others in exchange – generally, I seem to remember, he would give away bottles and receive things with feathers on or salmon recently retrieved from the River Dee. There would be visits to the sample cellar, the sawdust shrine in the depths of the brewery where new beers were tapped and tried. Best of all, there would be the Boxing Day visit to the football match; Wrexham against the world, us in the only pub in Britain which is actually inside a League football stand, and maybe a wee dram of Scotch at half-time…

It was Christmas Day in the mortuary,

The coldest day of the year,

And one of the corpses sat up and said :

It’s flaming cold in here!

When in came the mortuary keeper,

His face all aflame with beer,

And took one look at him, and said:

You can’t do that there ‘ere!

Unlike all his other poems, this seemed to be part of a much larger work, and I often urged him to tell me the rest. One day, one day, he would say. He never did. But he left me a lot to be going on with.

The Independent 1988