Old Bill

The second of a short series of blogs on my Mum and her side of the, family. 

My Grandmother Ellen died while my Mum was in hospital giving birth to me so I never got to know her. By that stage her relationship with my Grandfather had broken down and she was living with my Aunt Lily in another house in Parkgate near the Oval. And because  of this family breakdown, for the earlier part of my life I didn’t know my Grandfather either, indeed I was walking with my Mum pushing my brother in his Tansad (there’s a word you don’t type every day) up the Newtownards Road she stopped to talk to an older man. After a few minutes we moved on and I asked who he was. “That’s your Grandad,” she said, but for some time that was as far as it went.

It was a year or so later when she started to take us to visit him in Island Street... which I mainly enjoyed because there was an adventure playground across the road at the time, and another playground round the corner. I only recently discovered that we only started visiting because my Grandfather had taken ill. 

William Porter had been born in Derry, but had reputedly lied about his age to get into the army in the first world war, and as I wrote yesterday, it was when he was discharged that he met my recently widowed Grandmother Ellen in Glasgow. They returned to Northern Ireland, settling in Belfast where he worked as a labourer. It was in the tiny two bedroom house at 75 Island Street that their growing family were brought up. But when war rolled around again, once more he volunteered, again (reputedly) falsifying his age. He was stationed as an artillery  Staff Sergeant to Sandhurst where he was involved in training the young officers. It was there he was to meet the man who would go on to be his commanding officer when he was stationed to Burma, eventually rising to be Colonel of his regiment, and who said at his funeral that he would never have gotten through Burma had it not been for “Old Bill” as he was known in the regiment. 

“Old Bill” nearly didn’t make it through Burma, as in one skirmish he was hit on the head by a Japanese katana sword, splitting his skull. He was saved by a group of Ghurkhas who patched up his head with tree moss and palm leaves, and kept his suitably inebriated with their tipple of choice until the pain had died down, the wound had healed and he was returned to base for more conventional treatment. He and the Ghurkhas developed an affinity in that episode and he retained an admiration for them for the rest of his life, an admiration that he didn’t have for many foreigners. He also retained a pronounced groove in his skull. But it didn’t stop him from seeing out the rest of the war in the east, and it was a few years after the war that he was again discharged and briefly returned home. He got a job with the Admiralty police who stationed him to his home town of Derry, but my Grandmother refused to move there with him. She had gotten used to his absence, and there had always been a slight tension between him and the children of her first husband Jim, possibly exacerbated by his regular drinking. This together with the later family breakdown on his return from Derry, contributed to my Mum’s antipathy both to him, despite him being her biological father, and to alcohol, especially whiskey. When I, much later, went to Scotland to university, with my Mum associating Scotland inextricably with whiskey, she warned me that if she ever caught me drinking it she would completely cut me off... Knowing how she had cut off my Grandfather for years, I believed her... It didn’t stop me, but I at least made sure she never “caught me”... at least not until my wedding, but that is another story...

Even when we did start to visit him again, there was always a wariness on the part of my Mum. Even when talking to my brother and I about him she never even referred to him as “Your Grandfather” but as “Fagin,” the character from Oliver Twist... Indeed I always think of him as Fagin, rather than as William or Bill. Mind you, when she gave birth to her second son, she did name him William Porter Campton, in honour of her father... Although he apparently didn’t see it as much of an honour, as he already had a son named after him, my Uncle William Warren Porter, and that was enough (I’m not too sure that my brother has ever seen it as much of an honour either...)

Not long after we had started to visit him the houses in Island Street were ultimately due for demolition and so my Uncle Warren moved him into the house he had initially bought as a retirement investment, since at that point he was serving as an RAF chaplain. My Grandfather moved into the house at Dundela, overlooking the football ground, and we started to visit even more regularly since it was closer. I remember lunches of potatoes boiled in their jackets smothered with butter and mustard, with corned beef, followed by a cup of Camp coffee, reeking of chicory, and topped off with Carnation condensed milk. You don’t get meals like that any more!

He subsequently moved to my Uncle Warren’s new house in Portrush, where my Aunt Joan had returned for the last two years of my Uncle Warren’s service in the RAF for the sake of her children’s schooling. When there he had a regular pattern of going down to the local British Legion for a drink, coming out and presenting himself to the local police to be brought home... Which they did... 
In the early 1980’s he did end up for a short time in the old UVF nursing home “Craigavon” (Sir James Craig, the founder of the UVF and the first PM of Northern Ireland’s home) on the Circular Road, just around the corner from our house. One day when visiting he expressed his displeasure about the fellow resident in the bed diagonally opposite him. “Huh!”He said, “See him, he’s an old IRA man, and every day they give him a bottle of Guinness... And here’s me... I actually was in the UVF and they won’t give me one...” I don’t know whether he was accurate regarding the other man’s political affiliations, but certainly despite the different prescribing patterns back then, the nurses were not going to give Fagin alcohol of any sort...

When my Uncle Warren returned from the RAF he first took a post in Bellaghy Presbyterian and he took my Grandfather to live with him there. But one day, he went missing. Given the political tensions in that town it wasn’t necessarily somewhere you wanted an 89 year old man with an unpredictable temperament wandering around. Just as they were getting ready to call the police, my Grandfather returned. He had actually gone to Derry and back, to purchase a grave for himself because he wanted to be buried back in his home town. When asked if he was successful he grumbled, saying that he had got a grave, but not in the old Altnagelvin graveyard as he had wanted, but in the new one “On the cold side of the hill” as he called it. But a few months later, just shy of his 90th birthday, he died in Bellaghy, and was buried on the cold side of the hill in Derry...

And so it was that by the time I was 18, all of my grandparents had died... My grandfather on my father’s side had died in the early 50s, my Mum’s mum while I was being born and, my Dad’s mum in the early 1970s. The limited contact with my Grandfather was all the link I had with that generation... To a large extent that is also sadly true of our sons. Both my mum and Sally’s dad died before they were both born and my Dad died when they were too young to really know him. That’s why I really appreciate the relationship they have with Sally’s mum, despite her being over in Prestwick... The time they share together is important and I hope they appreciate its importance.

It’s also in part, why I am putting these stories on record now... because all too soon, those who know the truth first hand will no longer be around to tell them.


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