It was July, 1967 when I first married, in Scarborough on the lovely Yorkshire coast. Scarborough had always been important to our family, as dad managed to save enough money through his working year to take us to Scarborough for a week’s holiday during the school summer break. Every year in my childhood memory. The school summer break was important because mother was a teacher. So it was fortuitous that my first marriage was to a Scarborough girl whose mother ran a boarding house.
Because she was an organised girl, who liked everything to be sorted and ‘just so’, the marriage was planned a long time in advance. The church, her childhood church, was booked a year ahead. A great deal of time was spent organising the reception. Scarborough in the holiday season is not an easy place to get a reception planned. In the end, one of the best hotels, right in the centre of town, took the appointment. Prospective wife, prospective mother in law and I spent a long time with the hotel, arranging food, drinks and facilities for photographs (ultimately some on the grand staircase and others on an outside terrace with beautiful sea views). There were some difficulties with drinks, as many of my relatives came from teetotaller backgrounds and the bride had never let alcohol pass her lips. In the end it was agreed that a limited amount of Asti Spumante would be available for those who wanted it with other soft drinks where preferred. As I remember it, the Asti was delightful.
The fact that the United States of America and the USSR were heavily engaged in the Cold War had not entirely escaped our attention. Some friends had taken part in peace marches to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. We had read that brown paper bags to place over the head might be issued should a nuclear war break out. Having fairly recently served as a national serviceman in the Royal Air Force, I was aware that some fellow airmen had been posted to Christmas Island where British nuclear bombs were tested. Some of those fellow airmen are still suffering the consequences.
The build up to the marriage was long and slow. We were both teachers. As my mother was. In the end, the appointed day was to be about a fortnight into the school summer holiday. Father would take two weeks holiday. He was allowed three weeks a year. Because mother in law-to-be ran a boarding house we; my parents, my brother and I, were invited to Scarborough to stay in the boarding house the week before the marriage. This all seemed to be eminently suitable. We enjoyed Scarborough. Mother in law-to-be was a suitable hostess.
As my brother was to be best man at the age of fifteen, we needed a gift for him. Something less conventional was deemed to be appropriate in his case, at his age. He had recently been promoted to our local cricket team’s first eleven as an opening batsman. He regularly haunted sports shops. In Scarborough there was an especially good one. A new cricket bat was decided upon, an expensive one, endorsed by all the batsmen of the England cricket team. Both my wife to be and I signed it, alongside the official signatures of the England cricketers. Later in life, it returned to us, for use by my son.
What we had neglected to do was to buy a ring. It had been discussed. I was not required to wear a wedding ring but my bride would. It was to be simple. Nothing fancy and expensive. But it did need to be gold. Good quality, durable gold. A copper curtain ring would not suffice. We had tentatively looked in the windows of jeweller’s shops. But never entered. I was finding my salary was not going far. I had my first car through a bank loan. I was renting an apartment for the first time near where I taught. The first few days in Scarborough were very busy with other details. Sorting out the legal procedures with the registrar. Consulting with the church minister. Ensuring that mother had the dress she wanted for the day. Final fittings of the bride’s dress. I was not allowed near. Visiting relatives and prospective relatives. Checking that all was well with the busy hotel. When we finally got round to visiting a jeweller’s shop together, we were greeted with pursed lips.
‘When would the item be required?‘
‘Oh, dear. We don't have in stock the required item in the correct size. It will need to come from headquarters.’
We called every day up to the Friday before the Saturday ceremony. At two p.m. on the eve of the wedding the ring arrived.
Meanwhile, in the wider world, the Beatles were signing a letter published in The Times, part of a petition to ask for the legalisation of marijuana. As I was an amateur classical musician, I had no idea who the Beatles were. I suspect some of my younger numerous cousins did know. That debate, the legalisation of marijuana still goes on. The world moves on but some debates linger.
The day before the marriage, I was ejected from the boarding house. I was not allowed to sleep in the same house as my prospective bride on the eve of the wedding day. I was thrust into the bosom of a family of friends: the daughter was to be bridesmaid, the father the man appointed to ‘give the bride away’ as mother in law was a widow. All very proper for those days and all very traditional. Except that I didn’t sleep a wink all night. On the morning of the marriage, walking along the seafront promenade to clear my head, I unexpectedly came across my parents.
‘You’d better make yourself scarce. She’s down here having her last minute hair do.’
I felt singularly unrequired, unnecessary.
I was early at the church. So was the minister. And the registrar, as the church wasn’t licensed for marriages. So were many local guests. My brother was there looking a little uncomfortable in his new suit. I showed him where all the gratings were on the church floor, where he had to be very careful not to drop the ring. But no bus with all my friends and relatives from home and from Tyneside. Nor was there any sign of Peter, my best friend, who was to play an organ that he had never seen before. He was very accustomed to church organs, being organist in the church where I sang in the choir, a wonderful three manual organ with a full range of pedals. I had been given opportunities to play that organ and was bewildered about which keyboard to play and when.
On the appointed hour - on the precise minute when the service should have started - the bus appeared having been stuck in holiday traffic jams. One farm uncle and aunt were there. But not my favourite farm aunt and husband. I puzzled for years about why that was. A family squabble years later explained it. Then around the corner Peter arrived.
‘Has it started? Where’s the organ?’ wrestling to open his music case. And straight into the voluntary to welcome the bride who had appeared in the nick of time at the open door of the church.
I had been afraid that the minister, having a pretty full church for a change, might launch into one of his lengthy sermons. He was accustomed to preaching for an hour and a half or longer. Fortunately, he had remembered that the reception was about a mile away, through heavy holiday traffic and was carefully timed for the hotel’s sake. He did cause some merriment among the gathered congregation and a potential heart attack on my part, by announcing the wrong hymn. Peter did not hesitate, used to putting priests and ministers in their place. He played the correct hymn tune very loudly, and paused, whereupon the minister corrected himself to everyone’s relief.
Meanwhile, having served their jail terms, one for possession of amphetamine and the other for allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were released to resume their musical careers. Again, I had no idea who they were. In San Francisco, where my daughter lives, one of the offspring of this marriage, the first steps were taken in the construction of the wonderful Bay Area Rapid Transport system. When I visit, I love it. At the same time, not so far away, in London, Cicely Saunders was putting to finishing touches to the Saint Christopher’s hospice, the first of its kind. In the United States of America, Lyndon Johnson was struggling to contain race riots taking place in many cities and states, resulting in significant loss of life.
Remembering what had been done to my cousin’s car and his and his bride’s luggage by his mother, the farm aunt who attended, I had hidden my car. Call me a spoil sport if you like, but I had no wish to have kippers tied to the hottest parts of the engine. Or more tin cans than emerge from most rubbish dumps tied to the exhaust. The reception went well. More than expected took Asti Spumante, including many of my Methodist leaning, ci-devant teetotallers. Despite mother in law’s protestations, the meal was a buffet and I was devastated to be detained by well wishers and failed to get a chicken drumstick. One of my uncles, used to big family gatherings, self catered, in church halls, declared,
‘By lad. This is posh.’
We were glad to get away. To our secret destination. My flat in the oldest house in Newcastle upon Tyne. Previously I had shown it to my Tyneside spinster aunts. Their comment,
‘Oh dear. You’re never bringing that girl here.’
Being hungry on arrival, we took ourselves to the only place I could afford, the local greasy spoon for a fry up. Mr True Romantic.