A True English Gentleman
Michael penned his autobiography in 2010 as a remembrance for his family. The following excerpts are insightful to his lovely British humour, his unquenchable thirst of learning and achieving, his drive, perseverance, motivation and especially, his endless love for his family.
A Succinct Autobiography
I was born in 1938 on the 8th of August in Hillingdon, England. I don’t know why no brothers or sisters ever ensued, but I hardly think it was because I was such a perfect child. Anyway, I was told I was about 18 months when we moved to Trowbridge, Wiltshire.
I had my first girlfriend when I was about five; her name was Carol Burton from across the road. Her mom used to come to our door to cadge a cup of sugar.
Victory in Europe (VE Day) was celebrated on the 8th of May 1945 with a street party in Whiterow Park and great cheering and happiness, although as a child it meant little to me beyond that. My only memories of the war were making covers for the windows for mandated blackouts and visiting a crashed fighter plane in our local field; I don’t even know if the plane was one of ours or one of theirs. I was blissfully unaware.
My Pop’s new job after the war was an accountant for the government’s new programme for housing displaced Europeans; Poles, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Hungarians and the like. They were housed in hostels, rather like army camps. Our new home was in Plymouth with accommodations in a Nissan Hut, our new home.
I became a Southampton football club supporter after seeing them playing at the Dell for the first time. My grandfather used to take me when we visited him in Southampton. Within a year he died of a heart attack during our visit. It was the first time I had seen a dead person. We inherited our house in Eaton, a historic college town across the River Thames from Windsor.
I did quite well in school ending up on the top class with prizes for art, geography and woodwork. In the interest of fairness (?) I was only allowed to keep one prize so I selected the woodwork prize. I still have that book today; it is called The Junior Woodworker by Charles H Hayward.
I joined the Boy Scouts and went to meetings at our wooden hut on the Brocas in Eaton. This was a great period of development for me and I took it seriously learning about the camaraderie and outdoor life and becoming a Queen Scout at 16.
I got my first apprenticeship at Flexello Castors and Wheels. So there I was, having signed up for a 5-year tool making apprenticeship at the age of sixteen. I was able to attend school for one day a week and evening classes in mechanical engineering. I worked in every shop in the company as well as tool making, learned the skills of machining, welding and fabrication, electroplating, press setting, assembly and later I learned draftsmanship production control, and design. Valuable assets unavailable today, as it seems apprenticeships are no longer offered in engineering.
It was 1955 and I had got over my puberty and was taking an interest in girls as well as studies. At first I found girls very attractive but quite frightening. I took quite a long time to come to terms with the possibility that a girl you might ask for a date might refuse. Some boys were able to persist or take the refusal psychologically. Eventually, more years gave me the confidence I needed to form sensible relationships maybe, like my education, I started off slowly.
Friendships included Phil Walker, John Sayers who are also apprentices as well as Robin Charlwood, and Sandy Roome. Sandy and I took a holiday touring in his new frog-eyed Austin sprite, a small sports car. Running late one night on our way to Scotland we decided to sleep in a covered haystack at Gretna Green, which is famous for performing instant wedding ceremonies for eloping couples. I awoke to find a torch light shining in my eyes – it was a policeman who thought we were a runaway couple! Continuing to Inverness, we had a fine old time on dates with a couple of good looking nurses on the banks of Loch Lomond.
Working at different plants doing work study of operations in various areas gave me the opportunity to work in Birmingham where a team member was a producer of plays and looking for people to join the Cincinnati theater group. That was when I first started acting. We did mainly farces with some thrillers and musicals and at least one festival play each year. I became very involved with the theater group as well as Liz Laidlow who acted with them. Liz and I became very close to marriage but things did not quite work out for us and she emigrated to Canada.
I started working with Pop in his newly started business a non-destructive testing firm designing radiation proof doors. Not sure where we could manufacture them we made them in the front yard of our house in Ascot. My parents purchased this house near Dorking. Originally built in 1897 and renamed the Dutch house in 1924. Lord and Lady Pethick Lawrence were a great force in the Suffragette Movement with Sylvia Pankhurst who often stayed at the Dutch House. There was a motto over the stairs in the front foyer: “Oh Liberty thou Choicest Treasure” which was put up to commemorate her release from prison.
A strong accented local lad was employed by my parents to tidy the garden and do other odd jobs. When I was introduced to him he said to me “are you married Michael?” “No” I said. “Ah” he said. “You be gone round the orchard tasting all them sweet apples – you’ll end up with an old crab”! Well that was not a good omen for the future!
I remember some excellent Christmases there. The tradition was for the women to cook the turkey dinner and sip Pim’s and the men would go down to the Holly and Laurel pub for a couple of pints of ale from 12:00 noon till 1:00, the only time they were open on that day. We would return and set the table for a magnificent spread of which we all ate and drank far too much.
We would then retire to the living room and those still awake would watch the Queen’s speech at 3:00 p.m. – everyone spent the evening playing Monopoly. The following day, Boxing Day, is very much a sporting holiday and if you were not participating it was a day of recovery from the excesses of the day before.
At 33 I decided to take up rugby. I had never played the game before but I realized after 3 years I wasn’t big enough, fast enough or knowledgeable enough to survive the knocks from one week’s game to the next. So I gave up playing.
I joined the Dorking drama society and West cut players and performed in many plays. In this thespian activity I made many friends both male and female and yes, some in between! One thing you must do is turn up for every rehearsal it became increasingly hard for me to do because I was engaged deeply more and more into sales for my company.
In 1973 I was accepted as a chartered engineer through nomination by the Institution of Production Engineers. This pleased me greatly: it is the most prestigious qualification in engineering.
I had an amusing experience in Italy – at least for people who shared the hotel breakfast table with me. Being over ambitious and a little foolhardy, I joined a passel of skiers in the queue taking us up to a red run. It was a button lift, which was shaped like a kind of inverted mushroom which you were supposed to grab as it came round and shove under your seat at the same time you get your skis lined up in the grooves in the snow. Well, it never quite happened like that for me. I got my skis lined up in the grooves okay but did not quite get the button under my seat – I decided to hang on! Dragged halfway up the long slope I found it quite impossible to pull myself up onto the seat – so I let go. Now that day I was wearing a very distinctive pair of bright yellow long socks over my ski pants. I rolled off to the side of the lift path and found myself in very deep snow, so deep in fact that it swallowed me completely. One ski had come off and I managed eventually after considerable struggle to climb out of the hole using that ski to lever myself up. The only way I could get down to the base of the slope was to wrap myself up with my skis and roll down. It worked but was ungainly and took some time. Next morning at breakfast, I listened to a doctor relating to his family and the table at large, the funny story of the fellow he saw in bright yellow socks floundering about in the snow. Everyone fell about laughing. I didn’t say anything and never again wore those socks when skiing.
When I turned 42 I was ready to settle down and married Ruth Reynolds. My parents knew her by then and I broke the news to them one afternoon. There was a pregnant silence, and my mother said I’ll make a pot of tea. There were other girls before Ruth, many of whom would have made a good wife, but in my case it was a matter of timing. I had become restless living with my parents and wanted my own home. Come to think of it, I could have done that anyway. I saved up 10,000 pounds for precisely that purpose. I used to joke “I spend all my money on wine, women and song – but some people waste it!”
On Halloween, 1983, our son was born and two years later we were blessed with a daughter. Robert and Lucinda were truly a joy to us both. Robert is single-minded, rash determination and Lucinda’s quiet assessment of everything she did before attempting it. They haven’t changed even today, they are different as chalk and cheese and I love them both.
A couple of years later our business ran into trouble. The beginning of the recession was apparent. I did not realize it at the time but I was under a lot of stress and suffered a heart attack in 1986. There is nothing more pressing than the prospect of imminent mortality.
In 1988 a lot of bad things were happening. Pop decided to retire, my mother had a subdural hematoma, Ruth had taken the children to America for a 6-week holiday right after my heart attack and our relationship had become increasingly strained. I put my company into liquidation and not being able to find a job I was forced to investigate the opportunities in America. Shortly afterwards, we were divorced.
If you could imagine being cast into a foreign country at the age of 52 with no proper job, no money, no credit, no car and no friends or relatives and nowhere to live – you’d have a good idea what the choice meant to me of either staying in America or returning to England. Winston Churchill’s famous and apposite saying “two countries separated by a common language” strikes home with some vigor.
In 1990 I secured a job with a small company. I would be working in shipping and receiving but wasn’t told I would be it! It worked out well and I quickly got the hang of it – offering some amusement to the other employees – hearing me asking on the phone for a carrier to “give me a ring” and to “send a lorry!”
I joined a group headed to North Carolina to shoot the rapids of the Nantahala River. It was quite an exciting adventure but halfway through I felt a pain in my chest. I thought nothing of it at first although it did persist during my drive home and I began to suspect it was my heart. Still believing it was indigestion I was passing Rockdale hospital so decided discretion could be better part of valor and pulled up at the emergency entrance. It was a heart attack and I was admitted straight away. They gave me drugs which sent me into a most unpleasant frightening even psychedelic trip. They stabilized me then sent me to an Atlanta hospital where I needed a double bypass and an aneurysm repaired the following morning.
Several promotions at work and a new fiancé I had met at a lonely hearts club. I fell in love with her but in the end knew it wasn’t going to work. We were completely opposite over every imaginable thing. Why are we always attracted to the wrong type for us?
In 1997 my Pop was in the hospital with suspected food poisoning. I went to see him; the doctor pulled me aside and said he would not make it. He said he had kidney failure and would not benefit from a dialysis machine. I said “what is this – planned obsolescence?” he did not reply. That tells you about the National Health Service in England – if you are a 79-year-old. Rather like a curate’s egg – good in parts!
I bought a home and settled down to enjoy it. With a new job at Motan in Detroit it was a good firm to work for. I was responsible for the whole of the southeast and part of the Atlantic seaboard as well as Texas and Mexico. It involved a lot of traveling.
I was looking for a new wife at the time and had seen and rejected quite a few that year until the end of 2000. I moved to a new house in Alpharetta and it was not far from my new office in Norcross. I joined a fitness club to get back in shape as I had not exercised since my original heart attack in 1986.
I was feeling a little bit uptight one evening in December of 2000 and went for a drink at Bridges- a fairly smart San Francisco style restaurant about a mile from my house. Ordering a scotch and lighting up a cigar I stood nonchalantly gazing at the TV which was reporting on the election dispute over the pregnant chads should they be counted or were they invalid? Sitting a few feet along the bar was an attractive blonde lady dressed in a smart business suit and drinking a vodka and tonic. We started talking about the election and realized we were on the same side. She told me later she didn’t understand half of what I said due to my English accent! Following my request she gave me her telephone number.
After our initial date she invited me and the children to a Christmas party she was holding at her house. We went and enjoyed the company of foreign students and various friends – not least of who were members of a pipe and drum band with whom she played the bagpipes. At her request, Robert took along his clarinet and played it well but with some trepidation.
Pat Angulo and I were very attracted to each other and started to date quite regularly. 11 months later we were engaged and planned a fairly lavish wedding and honeymoon for the following spring. We married at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta with a sit-down reception followed by three day get together with all of our friends and family at Brasstown Bald Resort and reception then we honeymooned in Hawaii and in San Francisco.
We have been looking at houses new and old and also building plots for some time. We looked at a house in Hoschton where Pat had torn the asking price neatly off the top of the sales brochure. We went into the house – I was smitten; a house of about 5,000 square feet including a finished basement and nearly three acres – it was then that I got the sticker shock! She laughed and I fell in love with her again. How are we going to afford it? Well, it turned out we could after astute bargaining and a careful examination of our finances bearing in mind we both earned good money at the time we combined our furniture moved in and named it Stand Fast Cottage. Standfast is the Grant family motto.
Our first year together was great and unstressful with both of us in good health; but in April the following year I suffered a stroke followed by a TIA one year later. This rocked us back on our heels and I was forced to take an early retirement at the age of 64. We had already decided to send Pat to college to learn nursing and she gave up the early courses to supervise my recovery through speech and physical therapy. I was not able to drive for about 2 years totally losing my independence. It was a bitter pill to swallow. It was even more bitter to lose much of my sight in the third year through the sudden development of glaucoma.
Pat worked hard on her nursing studies and graduated in 2006. I never saw a more deserving and industrious student.
I don’t know how to tell you about my health deterioration in 2005 where I suffered congestive heart failure and had an internal defibrillator fitted. The ICD gives you a violent shock if your heart stops, bringing it to life again and this happened to me five or six times in the first month it was fitted. Frankly, I did not expect to see the age of 70.
Pat and I traveled quite a bit on the European continent; smoking a hookah on a pile of cushions on the lawn of Hyatt hotel, bargaining for a carpet at the Grand Bazaar, all made the visit to Istanbul worthwhile. On the island of Patmos we were able to see the apocalypse’s cave where St John wrote Revelations and upon our arrival in Athens we, met an old friend of Pat’s who took us to some Greek dancing and provided a guide for us around the Parthenon, Acropolis, Maidens Temple and museum. 2 years later we took another sailing trip to Rome, Nice, Monte Carlo, Cannes, Portofino, Corsica, Sardinia and Elba.
Christmas and Boxing Day are a special time for me and unlike my birthdays it holds fond memories of England. I’ve always cooked a stupendous meal which is my way of celebrating in true English fashion. Traditionally, I cook a standing rib roast with English vegetables such as roast potatoes, leeks and parsnips and finish with Christmas pudding which we set a light together with brandy butter! We have a special starter such as avocado and shrimp and finish with biscuits and a European variety of cheese. All of this is topped off with traditional crackers with colored paper hats and novelties! It is also a special day for Pat since she does not have to do a single thing in the kitchen and it’s free to entertain, and has entertained, up to 16 guests.
Our household runs along quite smoothly with Pat’s sons, Scott and Richard, helping keep up the cars as well as the property maintenance and the gardens. Her daughter, Amanda, is in Ohio and we share time with her family at Thanksgiving.
For some years I’ve been saying I wanted a dog – a border collie. Pat relinquished at last and got me one for Christmas. A 6-month-old puppy named Duke. He is a fine specimen and I have already trained him and he no longer pulls on his leash.
Pat and I decided to convert the home to a bed and breakfast. It is now 2010 and history will show we are in the middle of the worst recession since 1930’s and it doesn’t look like lifting for some time either. The whole enterprise will keep us busy and interested in later life.
Due to exercise and a stress-free existence, but most of all, Pat’s love and care, I am basically a happy man and consider myself very lucky. I’m sure God had something to do with my final good fortune.
Expressions of condolence for the family may be made at www.hughesfh.com. Hughes Funeral Home, 26209 Pollard Road, Daphne, AL, is assisting the family.