Gas, Graffiti and Jesus

by Julian Bonser

My first complete decade on this planet was the 1950's. I was born amid the devastation and austerity left by WW2, although at the time I didn't know I was witnessing devastation and austerity. Because bomb sites, food rationing and prefabs were the norm to me, and I never questioned them at the time. And I was happy. I had a mother and father who were devoted to each other and myself, and that status quo never changed.

Life for me started in a flat on Majestic Avenue in the borough of Chudsley. Grandiose though it may have sounded, it was one of many roads with illustrious names comprising a large council estate, the houses built in the 1920's. But they were well constructed, with pleasing architectural detail - and they're still there, most privately owned and with modern front doors and cars parked in paved front gardens, and the obligatory satellite TV dish. When I was four, my parents bought a house in Westmoreland Road, a large Edwardian semi built in 1914 and several streets away from our council flat. I was there until age twenty five, and my parents finally sold up in their early seventies.

I attended the local primary school from age five to eleven. And aged seven I joined the Cubs, their venue being the assembly hall of my school on a Wednesday evening. Jumping through the various hoops to earn Proficiency Badges was popular, with some of my fellow cubs acquiring so many badges that the fabric of their green jumper could hardly be seen. My first badge was 'Home Orderly', and the test was conducted by Mrs Fairclough who lived opposite the school at number 7 Imperial Crescent. I had to lay a grate in her sitting room with newspaper, wood and coal, and light the fire using only two matches, change a light bulb, peel and cook potatoes, clean a pair of shoes, make a cup of tea, make a bed, and boil an egg - not too hard or soft, which I was permitted to eat once I'd 'graduated'.

One of my pals at school was Russell Simons, and our friendship would stay intact for many years. Russell lived around a quarter of a mile from me in a small but attractive 1930's detached house. It was a house that had 'family' written all over it. It was a house that couples settled down in to raise their young and enjoy that twenty five year golden plateau of family life. It was a very complete house, one of hundreds of thousands of similar 1930's houses to be found across Britain. A house for the humble suburban populous that makes up such a large proportion of the Earth's crust.

Russell's parents, Ernest and Celia, were quiet, contented people. And he had an older sister, Rosalind. Ernest Simons worked for the Inland Revenue, and whilst he might have been one of several thousand Senior Clerks administering the Tax machine against a grey backdrop, at home he was master of the house and all that went with this small principality. Ernest and Celia never argued. Their division of labour had natural boundaries that never needed defining. And on the occasions Ernest chose to assert his authority, Celia would always defer to him. Many's the time when I was there, Celia would trot out the 'of course Dear' to her husband, and she'd turn to me with a soft humorous glint in her eyes that spoke volumes. She was a warm, bright, stoic person and very much the glue bonding the family together, and I liked her.

It took me a while to really understand what Ernest was about. I saw him as the little man with a dreary job, a small cog amid big wheels. A man who made up the shortfall of importance in the outside world by being the grand patriarch in his personal castle. But later in life I realised that I'd got it so wrong. Because when I was of an age that I could appreciate the folly of making superficial judgements of other people, I saw Ernest Simons in a profoundly different light. His singular ambition was to provide for the family he so dearly treasured, regardless of the personal sacrifices he would have to make: to keep them safe and secure and ensure his children received the education he lacked. All this went flying over my head at the time, and Ernest had sadly passed away before I'd come to understand his true worth.

Aged nine, Russell and I commenced Sunday School at St Michael the Archangel. We walked there as neither of our parents had a car. At 14 we moved up to the Family Service, the main attraction being the young ladies who attended from our social group, and the ones from other situations, who were as curious about us as we were about them.

Confirmation classes were announced, and for most of us it was de rigueur to attend, simply because it appeared to be a logical progression at that time of our lives. My parents were only occasional churchgoers, but they were pleased that I was planning to be confirmed. Russell's parents drew a mixed response. Celia was pleased and said she'd be looking forward to the confirmation ceremony. Ernest was a little dismissive but went along with it. I can remember being in the Simons' sitting room when the topic came up, with Ernest in his orator's position by the fireplace, thumb's dug into his waistcoat pockets. 'Don't believe in all that stuff'. He'd said that on several occasions and I'd always wondered if he truly had no belief in God, or whether he simply couldn't admit to not having dismissed the Almighty completely out of hand.

Nevertheless, Russell and I attended Conformation classes and six months later took our vows. From then on in we attended church on a variable basis with the fair sex being the main motivation. We were now at different schools. Russell had passed the Eleven Plus exam and was at a grammar school, whilst I as an Eleven Plus failure was at the local secondary modern. But we met up almost as regularly as before.

Opposite the Simmonds' house was the entrance to a site owned by The Gas Board. The entrance comprised two large green iron gates with ornamental posts, and the road frontage for the site was bordered by high iron railings, and immediately behind that, a hedge that over the years had entwined itself in the iron railing and almost obscured them. A drive, with lawns either side, led away from the gate to a neat, two story building used for administration purposes. Around 20 acres in size, the site had been procured for use as a gas works. But with natural gas looming on the horizon, it was never built. From the road, the entrance looked like that of a municipal park, and Ernest and Celia agreed that it wasn't a deterrent to buying the house they'd so fallen for as young people looking for a nest to grow their young in.

But in June 1962, all that was to change. I remember Russell coming round one evening glum-faced. 'They're going to build a gasometer opposite our house'. With the advent of natural gas, the Gas Board had decided to build the gasometer as one of the many storage facilities around Britain. This grim revelation hit Ernest extremely hard. He'd always been sensitive about the fact that the road running parallel to the road he lived in was the border between the boroughs of Chudsley and Beauville. Whereas Beauville was associated with wealth and white collar workers, Chudsley smacked of industry and council estates. It was a festering sore with Ernest that his house was only a hundred yards from the up-market borough, although in reality, the immediate landscape on either side of the boundary line was essentially the same. But the word Chudsley had always caught in his throat when giving his address. And now an ugly monolith in gunmetal grey was to dominate the neighbourhood.

It took around a year to build the gasometer after the predicable local objections from outraged residents had gotten overridden by the council planners, and it was every bit the blot on the landscape that the word gasometer evokes. Mercifully, there was no smell of gas, there being no old fashioned coke ovens extracting gas from coal. Like an oyster cocooning an irritating spec of foreign matter, Ernest set about wrapping up the 50 foot monstrosity in fantasy and hyperbole and capricious thinking. But there was no pearl.

'It's an experimental gasometer that will be dismantled next year - it is a revolutionary design and companies from all over the world will come to study the technology - the Gas Board are moving their design and development facility to this site - it will bring jobs and prosperity to the area - the value of our house will soar'.

For a while, Ernest was withdrawn and made little effort to assert the law in his dominion. Until one day, out of nowhere, he devised a means of spiritually extracting himself from this seemingly intractable situation. Because Ernest had come to the realisation that his house was actually in East Beauville, a district not to be found in the A to Z street map, or indeed in any street directory or map: a small district that neatly encapsulated his house and garden. Swiftly, Ernest advised his amended address to those who mattered, letters and parcels still arriving thanks to the bemused local postie and the unchanged postcode.

Now firmly in denial, Ernest was able to take pity on 'those poor residents in Chudsley'. Having kept shtum about the gasometer to friends, relatives and workmates who weren't in the know, he could speak openly about it, and the relief he felt that they'd not built it in East Beauville.

At this time, Russell and I were 18 years old, and the church had organised an outing to see Billy Graham at the Concorde Sports arena. Billy Graham was a household word for us and we saw the trip as a fun day out with our respective girlfriends. I got a 'that should be interesting' from my parents, but the news drew a slightly strange response from Russell's dad. Celia, as predicted, smiled and said, 'oh, lovely'. Ernest, however, nodded and hmm'd a few times, and then asked when and where the rally was being held. A few days later Russell told me that his Dad had expressed an interest in attending, but that he would be sitting separately. We both pulled bemused faces and left it at that. And in truth, neither of us would have been comfortable with Ernest sitting next to us.

We all enjoyed the rally, the atmosphere being buzzy and with a most pleasant sense of fellowship that had us holding spontaneous, animated conversations with anyone who looked our way. But being young and having that youthful ambivalence to religious belief common with our age group, we left on a high that had cooled within a few days.

What Ernest took away from the event I'll never really know. But slowly, and almost imperceptibly at first, he started talking with a more assertive style. His native diction might have been described at the time as erring on the side of 'working class', although it's probably not PC these days to use such an expression. And he'd say 'nuffing' instead of 'nothing' - etc etc. This new vocal style gradually became Stentorian in character and Ernest would start using words such as 'luncheon', and 'perambulator' and omnibus, and many other words where the abbreviated version was in common use. Ernest certainly wasn't copying Billy Graham, who spoke with passion and conviction, but with a sense of humility that sat well with the lowest common denominator. However, something had flicked a switch in his seemingly bland psyche. My analysis at the time was that this was somehow a manifestation of Ernest's inner anger and frustration at having that wretched gasometer overshadowing his house.

The psychology aside, this new, improved incarnation of Ernest Simons went from strength to strength and if my theory was correct, all of the negative emotions that swilled around inside Ernest were catalysed into the energy driving his now masterful persona.

As happens, Russell and I slowly lost touch. Russell went on to university and I started an electrical apprenticeship, and it would be some twenty years before we re-established contact. I'd moved London, got married, and had teenage children. Whilst Russell was back living at home after a failed marriage. I'd called his parent's number one dreary November when nostalgic memories of our youth had bubbled-up and piqued my curiosity sufficiently for me to pick up the phone. I had no idea of the current status quo in the Simons household, or whether they still lived there, but Ernest answered, and after a warm 'nice to hear from you after so long' greeting he announced that 'Russell is taking luncheon'. Luncheon - pie and chips - was popped in the oven and we spent an hour or so catching up. A week later I visited and suddenly Russell and I were nineteen again. Celia and Ernest were now grey-haired, and whilst Celia had aged pleasantly, Ernest looked tired and there was something unsettling about his appearance that I couldn't put into words.

'Dad's having tests'. I could tell Russell was concerned for his father, but he added an optimistic, 'probably a bit run down - he was working long hours coming up go his retirement'.

A constant in the Simmonds' lives was the gasometer, now decommissioned after nearly twenty five years with some ghastly conservationist group pushing for a preservation order. But it wasn't Ernest's and Celia's most pressing problem at this time.

And then an astonishing thing happened. One misty morning in February the Simmonds and their neighbours awoke to a most incredible sight. As, painted on the side of the gasometer was a magnificent forty foot picture of Jesus. With a soft smile that radiated compassion, understanding and forgiveness, Jesus gazed down at the Simmonds' homestead. No one came forward to take credit for what must have been a highly organised operation and a team of gifted artists. For a day it was media fodder, and for a few weeks a constant trickle of curious people turned up daily to stare in awe at this remarkable piece of art.

The conservationists banged their drum even louder, now demanding the gasometer be declared a national monument. It was even mooted by an obscure Christian organisation that the gasometer be converted into a church.

On first beholding this astonishing sight, Ernest had quietly looked up at Jesus, whose gentle eyes appeared to be looking straight into his. He didn't say much, but from that moment he dropped his habitual denigration of 'that ghastly thing' and instead noted the artistic value, the gasometer now fulfilling a new role as the artist's canvas. And he pervaded the idea to anyone who would listen that a defunct gasometer decorated with a giant painting of Jesus had a unique cachet.

Test after test ensued for Ernest to establish his malaise. But whilst he and Celia maintained an optimistic outlook, the hand on the barometer slowly and irrevocably came to rest on 'terminally ill'. Within six months Ernest was too week to get up, and a hospital bed had been brought in. At Ernest's insistence it was positioned by the window so that from his pillow he could look into the face of Jesus. It was the last image he saw before sleeping, dim and with an orange hue from the sodium street lights. And the first thing he'd see on waking, Jesus' face now vibrant in the early Sun's rays.

Ten months after I'd seen Russell, he called me. His voice was low and subdued and I knew it was about Ernest. 'Dad's pretty bad and I don't think he's got long to go. Please come and see him as I know it will cheer him up a little'.

I dropped everything and drove up to Chudsley, arriving around 7.30 pm. Russell ushered me into the lounge with a quiet 'Thanks for coming, Julian'. Rosalind was there, and in happier times our mutual greeting would have been pleasantly animated, but we simply murmured soft hellos. Celia smiled at me, though her eyes were dull and empty. 'Not long, Julian'.

Russell led me to his parents' bedroom and slipped away, telling me, 'I'll be downstairs'. Ernest looked gaunt and weak, but he smiled and bade me, 'Nice to see you, son'. Gone was the Stentorian voice and the patriarchal demeanour and back was the humble soul I'd known from childhood. Though terribly ill and approaching the end of his life, Ernest appeared to be totally at peace. And every now and then he'd look up into the eyes of Jesus as if seeking assurance that he was still there.

We chatted for a while, and then I could see that Ernest was getting tired. But for a few seconds his eyes brightened and he smiled; 'I'm not frightened of dying, son, because I know that Jesus has come here to take me home'.

Ernest passed away that night, and in the morning at around 11.30 am the local undertaker arrived to collect his earthly remains. At the same time, a hive of activity was taking place within the Gas Board's site on the other side of the road. Today was demolition day and from 7.00 am, a team of men had been laying hundreds of small explosive charges at strategic points on the gasometer to bring it down safely and with minimal disruption to the residents.

As the undertaker's vehicle commenced its journey to the funeral parlour a long, deep rumble, like an approaching thunder storm, broke the silence, as in fast succession each explosive charge on the gasometer detonated. And slowly the massive structure imploded, sinking to the ground until it was reduced to a shapeless pile of twisted steel, ready to be cut up and carted away.

Gone were Jesus and Ernest Simmonds.

I attended the funeral a week hence and Russell and I pledged to meet in the not too distant future, but that was fifteen years ago. In a strange way I wanted to remember the Simmonds household as it was when Russell and I were young. A few months ago I started to ponder on Russell's situation in life and established through Borough records that he still lived at 56 Woodcrest Road along with his mother. I could see from the satellite pictures on the Internet that a large housing estate sprawled within the former Gas Board site. From the street view, little had changed with number 56, and it looked well cared for, still with the original front door. In fact it looked exactly the same as the first time I visited over fifty years ago.

Curiosity got the better of me and I picked up the phone and called Russell's number. I wasn't sure whether I really wanted to speak to him, just know perhaps that he was still there. And I prefixed the number with 141 to suppress my number. A voice answered: 'Simmonds residence'. It was unmistakably Russell, but now it was full and grandiose - in fact, Stentorian. Russell demanded to know who was calling, his telephone manner becoming more imperious, and with a wry smile, I hung up.

Somehow I felt that the moment for re-establishing contact with Russell had gone, and I sat in the quiet of my study replaying the night I'd visited Ernest, and the strange manner in which Jesus had come into his life. At the time I'd dismissed his words as being those of someone searching for belief in their final hours. But I think differently now. And my prayer is that Jesus is there for all of us to 'Take us Home' when our time comes.

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