Organising a surprise 90th birthday celebration is not the easiest thing. You can’t exactly get everyone drunk and annoy the neighbours with your loud music and loose morals. So we do the next best thing. We ask my Dad what kind of surprise he would like.
It turns out that, as the years have passed, he has become a man of simple tastes. He says he wants to use the day to follow the cycle route that he took on the night after the Manchester blitz when he dodged the bomb holes to go into work in among the burning buildings. My brother wants to know whether he intends us to cycle the whole way but after it turns out that he is quite content to be driven we agree to a family trip and to try and include in as many of the old family homes as we can.
So it is that at 9 o’clock sharp my Dad and my brother find themselves stood outside 10 Norfolk Gardens in Urmston with me taking their photograph. This produces some very strange looks from the neighbours and, when I show her the picture, it also provokes an awkward question from my mother. What on earth we were doing taking a lovely picture of number 10 when we actually lived at number 8 which is outside the shot?
Flushed with our success with posing outside the wrong house we move on, following the road from Urmston into Manchester which my Dad took. Naturally a few things have changed in the intervening years. They have plonked one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe slap bang in the middle of the route. My Dad helpfully points out that I appear to be having more difficulty working out the route round it than he did negotiating German bombs. It is his birthday so I helpfully avoid voicing my first thoughts on a reply.
We do, however, eventually manage to negotiate the obstacle and arrive safely in Eccles. We are attempting to find his first home which was a clothing shop that he lived over. Astonishingly, when we manage to locate it the shop is still being used to sell clothing. Admittedly the stock is rather less fashionable than you’d find in the Trafford Centre shopping complex but this all adds to the fun. We can’t actually find any items that were on sale when my Dad lived there but we have a very good go and are pretty sure that if we looked long enough we might.
Then we go outside and start looking for the railings that my Dad claims he got his head stuck in for so long that they had to call the fire brigade. The area is still remarkably familiar to him. There is a newsagents in exactly the same place as it always was with a sign that looks like it belongs in the same era, the theatre he used to go to is still standing though derelict and the local mosque is still there. Well, OK, the mosque is perhaps a new feature but it occupies a building that was always there.
What is more important for family history is that there is still a set of railings standing outside one of the buildings in the backstreets. The birthday boy tries to convince us that these are still the same railings and that they have been standing there all these years. We try and convince him to put his head through them again so that we can take his picture. He turns us down on the grounds that he has wised up considerably in the intervening 83 years and no longer feels the need to put his head through railings to impress his friends and relations. My brother and I exchange glances that indicate we are disappointed that he is not fully entering into the spirit of the adventure.
Nevertheless we decide to forgo further efforts to persuade him and we drive off into town. There are no obvious signs of any recent German bombing raids but there are still rather too many locations that look like they have been devastated by something equally horrible – possibly a town planner or a property developer. It is therefore a relief when we get to the centre of town.
Here we are looking for two very important things. We are trying to find the site of the bank that my father worked for so he can explain to us how he went in to the building to take out the ledgers before they were burnt and all record of people’s life savings was lost. We are also trying to find a decent coffee. We succeed with the coffee and have a very nice break in the ultra posh Midland Hotel.
We are less successful with the bank. It turns out that it was pulled down after the war. Apparently it suffered from bomb damage. This possibility should, perhaps, have occurred to us a touch earlier but all good campaign plans need at least one flaw. So we move on to the Barton Arcade, which is the other place where he worked during the war.
The three of us stand on the ground floor of what is now quite a posh Arcade and try to work out how we can get up to the first floor where he worked when all the upstairs offices are locked up for the weekend. Fortunately three aging men casing a joint fails to generate a call to the local constabulary and a passing shop assistant helps us out. We trundle upstairs in the lift and my Dad stands outside his old office trying to recall what it felt like as a 16 year old boy to arrive for his first day at work.
This takes him all of one minute and then he brightens up and suggests that we move on the Museum of Science and Industry. I have confidently told him that there is a Lancaster bomber there which might bring back memories of his later and more direct contributions to the war effort. After a triumphant negotiation of the Manchester oneway system and only one high speed U-turn we manage to park right outside the museum and I proudly show him the Lancaster bomber.
Apparently not all bombers used in the war were Lancasters and this is a Shackleton. Apparently he didn’t even fly on Lancasters, he flew on Halifaxes. Apparently I am an ungrateful and inattentive son who might have listened a little more carefully to his war stories. But other than that my suggestion that he visits the museum isn’t a complete washout. They have an example of a
one man self assembled plane called a flying flea. Seeing this brings back many happy childhood memories. He saw one crash at an air show. They had to make their own entertainment in the years between the wars.
By this point my brother and I are rather worried that we might actually be tiring him out. It is not entirely a good idea to trail a 90-yearold man with a heart condition across a city and then throw in a visit to a museum. We suggest that we take a rest and ease up a little. This idea goes down really well. He concludes that we are running out of energy before he is and that if he trails us round a couple more museums he might wear us out completely.
So we do the Manchester Art Gallery and the Lowry. My brother and I try and drop hints that he might be overdoing it by seeking out seats for him in the rooms that he is most interested in. He tries to drop hints that we might be a couple of wimps who are spoiling his fun. Eventually we compromise in the best family tradition. We follow his agenda.
Well, it was his birthday! I think he said he was 90, or was it 19?