When I was 14 the oldest person I knew was Mr Smith. He lived in a tiny cottage, one room up and one down, with a scullery cum kitchen behind the ground floor. The cottage was on a sharp 80 degree angle between two streets, contributing to its miniscule size. Later it became a one-man barbershop, which shows how small it was.
I was assigned by my local community to visit Mr Smith. Our church, of which I was a reluctant member, had a scheme for sending volunteers to visit old people who might be lonely and Mr Smith was my assignment, to visit during the summer break from school. I don’t remember minding at all. They told me he was 93 and I was curious to meet him.
I was a bit scared when knocking on his door the first time but we instantly got on, in spite of the 79-year age gap. He was a good conversationalist and asked me about myself and what my ambitions were. I don’t know how well I answered.
This was in 1960 and he was then 93. So his birth date had been 1867. The American Civil War had ended only two years before.
In our weekly talks Mr Brown told me he had been a merchant seaman at the end of First World War and been part of a convoy that sailed to the far northern Russian port of Archangel. It was a hazardous run, with over 40 British merchant ships being lost between 1914 and 1918.
People in Archangel had given him simple presents. He showed me Easter breads – little buns stamped with a cross – and decorated wooden spoons, whose varnish had hardly dried in almost 50 years. I held and saw the past in my hands.
Mr Smith had been 47 when the First World War started. Think of it. At that point he was already too old to fight, although not too old to go to Archangel with the convoy.
When the summer holidays ended and my duty rota ceased I had good intentions to go and see him, but I was young and life beckoned. So I missed his going and I was sorry.