A few years ago bookseller Steerforth came across a remarkable diary, which he began to publish on his blog and which we now serialise on The Dabbler. If you’re new to Derek, you can catch up with the previous instalments here. This week: 1980, a year of triumph and shocking disaster for Derek and his family…
The end of the 1970s marked a turning point in Derek’s life. He had been a devout Mormon since his 20s and now, in his middle years, an opportunity had arisen to become a bishop within the church. It would mean moving almost 200 miles away to a town in the West Country, but neither Derek nor Brenda seemed to have had any reservations. Their three daughters were now adults and were busy making their way in the world. Derek and Brenda’s teenage son was a different story. He would never leave.
And so our son reaches his birthday. Each year is a bonus. And what of his birthday? Well, it started with gifts, including a set of sound-affected lights so that he can have blinking lights while playing his records and thus be a real disco fanatic. Unfortunately two of the bulbs were broken. He had also received an Abba tape and a case for his favourite cassette tapes. And as a bonus, I gave him 200 sheets of his favourite paper for copying what he refers to as “details” – items from the Radio Times. He has a marvellous memory for details concerning radio and television programmes. One only has to ask him who is reading the news for the week and out comes the answer.
Derek’s paternal pride is particularly touching, because his son is mentally handicapped.
As in every other journal, Derek complains of mysterious aches and pains that blight his daily life. They are clearly largely psychosomatic, but Derek seems oblivious to this. It never occurs to him that the strain of caring for a handicapped son (and a belligerent mother-in-law, of whom more later) should have any impact on Derek’s health.
Occasionally, Derek’s maladies affect his performance at work:
I was much troubled by hypertension last night, and in fact most of yesterday. I spent my lunch break in the gallery at the Registrar Office, lying on a roll of corrugated brown cardboard and a borrowed cushion, trying to relax away the stress that causes my system to creak and groan like an ancient motor engine. If the weather had been better I would have lain on the roof – an excellent place for catching the sun and avoiding the wind (external). However, this luxuriating can get me into difficulty, for on Thursday I was on the roof, ensconced between two gables, and dropped off to sleep. Since I was assigned to two marriages there was considerable panic. At last, David Hooker decided to search the roof and found me. Jeers and laughter arose from the staff as I made my humble way down the stairs; it was counted as the funniest event in some time.
Another theme that recurs in each journal is Derek’s conviction that his diaries will be an invaluable legacy for his children and grandchildren:
I mentioned my idea to Brenda to type up my journals and give a copy to each of the girls, and she does not think it is a good idea at all! She sees it as something rather egoistical that they are not likely to thank me for at all. Actually, the passing of something of myself to future descendants had not entered my head; my chief thought was to provide a history of our life as a family. After conversing with Brenda, I am resolved to continue this undertaking, for it is something I feel deep in my bones: a compelling urge that cannot be dispelled even by the most compelling arguments.
Derek appears to be enjoying his new role as a bishop in the Mormon church, although he is dismayed to find that he is required to intervene in rather complicated domestic matters involving divorcees and adulterers. When a lost sheep returns to the flock, Derek’s relief is palpable:
Jennifer Griffin is very much an improved lady since she gave up receiving false revelations. She is now actively pursuing a course in hotel management.
In the evenings, Derek loves to take his son to a wrestling match or old-time music hall show:
On Monday evening we took Richard to the Winter Gardens to an old tyme music hall, and O! how he enjoyed singing along with the choruses, for he is an expert on pub and music hall songs. The hall was packed with senior citizens. In fact, we were the youngest people there! During the course of the evening, the call went out “Is there a doctor in the house?” and everyone laughed. But it was a serious request and eventually a lady was taken away by ambulance.
Afterwards we bought three bags of chips and walked home, chobbling as we went. This was the first time Richard has ever had the sweet joy of passing through the streets at night with a bag of chips in his hand. His delight was almost palpable.
At Derek’s workplace there is talk of taking industrial action against the policies of the new Tory government. Derek would have none of this. In a passage that could have been written today, he writes:
No one likes the policies the Government has brought in to put the country back on its feet, and there is a suspicion that the rich are being better cared for than the poor. At the same time the alternative can only be eventual ruin for the country as a civilised society – rather like Rome as it plunged into the dark night of the closing of empire.
But as a Crown servant, I am precluded by law from embarking on industrial action; but never have I had the inclination to take such.
1980 seems to be a good year for Derek’s family. One daughter is engaged to a policeman that both Derek and Brenda thoroughly approve of. Another has just enjoyed a holiday abroad, although Derek has mixed feelings about that:
She and Kerry went to a disco, getting back at 12.30am. I wish she would not attend such places; they are dens of iniquity and the atmosphere cannot be conducive in any way to spirituality. The local male inhabitants have this thing about breasts. But she is of age; she must do as she will do.
Derek and Brenda appear to have successfully carved out a new life for themselves in the West Country and they enjoy exploring the local area and socialising with old and new friends. One day they receive an invitation to have dinner at a friend’s new house in Taunton:
They put on a most excellent spread – prawn cocktail, side salad, fondes of chicken, prime steak, and pork, with chips and sausage meat, and such a variety of sauces as to be inclusive of everything in any possible catalogue.
We left their home at five to eleven and had an uneventful trip until we got to Oldmixon. And then the devil tried to destroy us. As we drove along the main road, a yellow car came speeding across a junction. There was no pause in the pace of the vehicle; he must have been travelling at all of 60-miles per hour. There was no chance that he could miss us or that we could take any avoiding action. He rushed into the side of the van with a nightmare sound that I can hear even now.
There was the noise and the rain and the screaming and the helplessness of uncontrolled movement. And then there was pain as well, and Brenda sitting there in the driving seat, terribly bruised about the head, her hands dripping with blood, and crying out over and over again, “It wasn’t my fault, was it? It wasn’t my fault, was it?” And myself assuring her that it was not, and a terrible tightness around my stomach where the seat-belt had wedged; and our daughter thrown from the back seat amid a jumble of goods. And the screeching of cars and the shouting of men and the absence of the windscreen, and friendly hands reaching in trying to undo the seat belt. Eventually they cut it with a knife and the police came and the ambulance; and Brenda was placed bruised and bleeding on a stretcher and reached out to hold my hand. And the rain still came down, a curtain to hide the hideous wreckage of the vehicles; and it all seemed like some Goyan nightmare.
Hours later, Derek is lying on a stretcher in the local hospital. Suddenly he hears a familiar voice.
Frank Beaston, just admitted for a check-up, having swooned at the wheel of his omnibus again. I called and he came and he grasped my hand and the tears started to his eyes.
Fortunately, Derek and his daughter only have superficial wounds. They are discharged in the small hours of the morning.
Before we left the hospital, we crept into the ward where Brenda lay, and I spoke to her and laid my hands upon her head and gave her a whispered blessing. She was confused and had taken a most terrible knock to the head, but she knew me and clung to my hand.
Later, the police describe Derek and his family’s survival as nothing short of miraculous. Derek thanks God, convinced that ‘had his hand not been upon us we would surely have died.’
It is a difficult time for Derek and his family. In addition to recovering from their injuries, they have to co-operate in a police investigation to establish who the guilty party is. Derek’s morale is at a low ebb and at one point he writes:
Non-day succeeds non-day; and we sit and nurse our bruises and count our losses; and still the worst part is wondering whether any good can happen to this family. When each disaster succeeds the next almost without interruption, it becomes most difficult to exercise faith; not in the sense of increasing disbelief, for that God lives and the gospel is true is a fact like breathing as far as we are concerned, but whether we as a family shall ever have a little peace and prosperity in this life is the big question.
Luckily, Derek enjoys a brief respite from his existential gloom when he and his daughter go to see The Empire Strikes Back:
Marvellous stuff! The complete science fiction adventure for boys young and old. We sat enthralled for over two hours at the sights and wonders on the screen and the continuous action. The effects were – in more ways than one – out of this world. The vast landscapes and monstrous machines, the curious animals all were incredible and yet believable; but they never overshadowed the characters – Darth Vader continued to dominate the villainy like a sort of galactic Hitler; Luke Skywalker had perceptibly grown in character. Given the opportunity I shall see this sequel at least once more.
I understand from the tabloids the films planned run to nine in number. That worries me somewhat; I ponder whether it will be possible to sustain the action and the wonder and the growth of the characters for nine films. I would hate there to be a falling off.
In December, Derek looks back at the past year comes to this conclusion:
And what of my past year? Well, certainly it has been full of curious things. My first year as a bishop, one of the greatest honours that can come to any man in this church. My eldest daughter’s marriage to a fine young man. The accident, plus the loss of the van. Our first year in our new home. The opportunity of doing more reading than has been possible in a long time, one of the great blessings of commuting to and fro on the train. A room where for the first time in my life I can see almost the full extent of my library instead of having to hide books in cupboards and boxes.
But there is one serious threat to Derek’s optimism: Brenda’s mother:
A curious lethargy lay upon myself and Brenda. I put it down to a return to the eating of white bread rather than the wheatmeal we have been having. The problem is, Brenda’s mother will not eat brown bread, so Brenda reverted to getting white again. Anyway, I got a loaf of granary bread for a sandwich and felt better almost immediately. The simple solution is for Nanna to have her own little loaf.