Ancestors, Honors, and Politics

Donald Shephard

Such was our first meeting. It was a few weeks later when commenting to my mother that I had made a new friend that I discovered that our mutual ancestry was somewhat closer than Eve. The pettifogging reader may note that my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. was neither the brother of my mother nor of my father. Well, you are right, he was not. Furthermore, I cannot claim that he was married in even the loosest sense of the word to any of my parents' many siblings, half siblings, or even step-siblings. Fred's relationship to me was perhaps the only thing about him that was legitimate. In order to make this perfectly clear I shall reluctantly have to admit that there is the smallest but distinct possibility that, God forbid, there may be Irish blood in my veins. There, I have confessed it. I do feel much better now that you know. The way that I came to discover this tragedy of generic misfortune causes me to digress.

My mother's sister's aunt's second cousin twice removed from her father's side, who lived in Chile, as opposed, and they often were opposed, to the cousin who died there, asked my mother to dig up their mutual heritage. Digging up, if that is the appropriate term, the old heritage is a dangerous pastime in the best of families. The effort was short lived as there was no record of our esteemed relative's mother ever having been born in Glasgow where that particular and peculiar branch of the family sprouted. We all know that many of the inhabitants of Scotland came along with the bagpipes and whiskey from Ireland, and we may have our own opinions as to which of the three cargoes was more valuable. Letters to the appropriate record keepers in Northern Ireland revealed that there was no birth certificate for my mother's relative there either.

Turning to the Republic of Ireland, my mother was informed that the building which housed the birth certificates, wedding certificates and death certificates, these latter two being quite different papers I may add, issued prior to 1906 had been destroyed in a fire. This is, of course, very convenient for thousands of Irishmen throughout the world. Even though this was a distant and tenuously held relationship, I prefer to believe that the good woman was an illegitimate Scot rather than allow the suggestion that there is any possibility of a drop of Irish blood in my veins.

It is from that side of the family, my mother's sister's aunt's second cousin twice removed from her mother's side that my dear old uncle emerged relatively unscathed. Now I suppose that some of you may have noticed a small discrepancy in the insignificant details of the lineage I have cited above. Do not let it disturb you. Family is family and family honor, no matter how humble, is family honor. Just having a member of the family with letters after his name makes my chest swell with pride. You may have noticed that I refer to my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. by using his full and correct title. Some of you may be B.S.'s. By that I mean that you have graduated from an accredited university with a Bachelor of Silliness degree. Others of you may be B.A.'s with Bachelor of Airs degrees. Still others of you are knighted and are Sir Nose-in-your-Bum, K.B.E., signifying that you have been kissed by an eagle. These types rarely brag about just exactly where they were kissed, Basingstoke perhaps. Some of you may be members of Royal Societies of one breed or another, such as Mrs. Tweak-your-Ears F.R.S.P.C.A. which, of course, means that she is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Animals.

Then there are those of you who have won great honors in the wars of humanity-versus-humanity such as those brave men who have the letters V.C. after their names. This V.C. is the British equivalent of the American Congressional Medal of Honor, the German Iron Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

Once, while sitting on his cottage doorstep and cleaning his "silverware", I asked Fred about the letters after the name of the officious head Forest Keeper. They were impressive, George Killemall, D.F.C., F.R.C.S., Esq. Fred gravely explained them all to me. In this case, he explained, D.F.C. indicated "Defender of Fried Chips", and F.R.C.S. showed that he was a "Frightened Ridiculous and Cowardly Soul."

"Thank you so very much," I said in awed gratitude for his in depth analysis. I was young and impressionable then, a condition which does not last long in war children.

"What about you? What letters come after your illustrious name?" I asked.

I knew that he was the somewhat nonchalant owner of several medals, which he kept in a drawer with other bric-a-brac, and I assumed that he therefore had some letters after his name. My dear, old uncle stopped polishing the spoon he held in his hand and, wistfully looking up at his family coat of arms for as moment, explained that he was rightfully and most correctly referred to on formal occasions as Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S.

"What does E.P.N.S. mean?" I wondered.

"It is a medal I won during the Battle of the Bulge when a sniper fired into our trenches and I deflected his shot with this very spoon. The bullet went back over the enemy lines and decommissioned three non-commissioned officers. Here, look, you can see the mark left by the bullet as it went around the inside of the spoon." He said.

Since I could indeed, see the mark the story must be true. You, the doubting Thomases of the world, may have noticed the purely coincidental fact that Electro-Plated-Nickel-Silver spoons have my erstwhile relative's letters stamped on them. I believe that pseudo-hallmark is in his honor but I have sometimes wondered what story he would have told me if he had been polishing one of his other spoons at the time. All of them had U.S.N. stamped on them, undoubtedly, as a reward for one kind of heroism or another. Of course, it was also possible that he was the founding member of the "Unnaturally Sober Nighthawks" as he claimed but, you know, sometimes Mr. Plinge tried to tell us things to save our young ears from the terrible truths of those inhumane times and that may have been one such occasion.

From that time on I have given my uncle his full and correct appellation in order to show the deepest respect possible to such a man. He is quite like a fine old wine, perhaps a Bordeaux or a Tawny Port which has been poured into a decanter to breathe. It is only after truly savoring the many nuances of flavor, especially the aftertaste, that one can be sure to give full justice to its body and soul. I have, from time to time, refreshed my memory of my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. by sitting quietly by a fire and solemnly contemplating this similarity while drinking the one and thinking about the other.

It occurs to me that Fred could no more have claimed to be Fred Plinge, U.S.N. than wine from another region of France can claim to be Bordeaux. Goodness knows Fred did not pretend to be any more than he was already. He was as concerned with the truth as George Washington and as honest as Honest Abe. I will go further than that and unreservedly claim that he was as honest and truthful as all the American presidents rolled into one. Now there is a disquieting thought.

I see that I have been remiss in keeping you up with Jane's tale (homophones are so dangerous.) Only when a publican became desperate for a barmaid did he hire Jane, knowing that her generosity was not limited to her off hours activities. She gave away beer. She never actually filled an empty pint without charging something for it, that would have been dishonest, but neither did she allow one to become half empty. Typically, a host had more customers, pumped more beer and made less money when she was at the bar, which possibly accounted for the inconsistency of her career if not her life.

Life was simpler in those days. There was no television. There were only two radio stations, if you included the "Third Program" as we did, and both of these were run by the B.B.C., the Boring Boys Club. Winter nights in England begin about four-thirty in the afternoon and drag on to about eight or so the next morning. All these factors blended to create a desperate need for cheer. What better place to find it than amongst the Whippet Clan's camaraderie at the Holly Bush. Many nights were spent there by the good people of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding discussing the joys of food rationing, unemployment, and socialism amongst the other spoils of winning the war.

Gerald was no exception to this need for cheer, in fact he required rather more than others. Perhaps for this reason Jane poured more beer into Gerald's glass beer mug than into any other. Now if Gerald had known of a quid pro quo he would have realized that Jane expected one or possibly more. Finally, she managed to convince him that his heart's desire was to walk her home when the pub closed.

Seven months after the onset of her attachment to Gerald, Jane was preceded by her large midriff, and trailed by her not-at-all-guilt-ridden lover. Still later, Jane was to be seen about the village with her son William in hand, being shadowed by her son's designated father, at such a distance as to suggest disassociation with considerable feeling. Since the whole village knew that Gerald was always last in line, nobody was surprised when the three Biddy's nodded knowingly.

Barely a year later, Jane could be seen with William, a small gangling child sporting a blue sleeveless woolen pullover but no shirt, causing the village tongues to wag at a higher frequency.
          "Well," said Mrs. Clara Biddy, "There's a nice kettle of fish I must say!" She designated Will Waistcoat as the father on the basis of the well known gene of blue sleevelessness.

And she not married!" said Ophelia Biddy, "Tsk! Tsk!" And off they went for another cup of tea.

Myrtle Plinge, being more often a victim of the village gossips than a benefactor, kept her distance from them even though the Bible had told her to consider public opinion. She was not sure what she was supposed to do with it after she had considered it, but then her mind was not of a theological bent. Thank God. In this way Myrtle was surprisingly ill informed of certain matters.

She was a sweet and kind old soul whose intelligence quotient ran parallel with her age for most of her life. She voted diligently for the candidate at the bottom of the ballot in the misbelief that the underdog deserved her support. I say misbelief yet, in a way that will become clear presently, they truly did deserve her vote because she invariably selected the perennial candidate of the Communist Party of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding. These politicos were a sad group led by a seedy, old sometime substitute school teacher known to his supporters by his real name, Algernon Thistlethwaite, and to the anti-vice squad by his nom-de-guerre, Ivan Pederasky.

Algernon, as we shall politely call him, lived a life which embraced the trappings of capitalism during the period of about four years when there was no election in sight. However, whenever such a gala event loomed on the horizon he was compelled to raise the flag of revolution and collect whatever peripheral members of society he could muster to promote his cause. Unfortunately for Mr. Thistlethwaite, running for election cost money and he was forced to gather together a meager fund to pay an election office deposit and to hire a small, necessarily red van equipped with a loud speaker system. This vehicle had in fact seen revolutionary times before World War II when it had been the first machine used to transport a Tory Party member throughout the East End of London. This event can best be described as a futile attempt to make silk purses out of sow's ears by trying to persuade Cockneys to vote for the Conservative Party candidate.

In order to garnishee the funds for the van, Algernon frequented the village pubs for a few weeks prior to election day, skillfully arousing the otherwise flaccid interest of a peculiar section of the population. In Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding this was the Whippet Clan. They were ideal, being more or less single, and more or less young, men who spent much of their time living off the land by poaching pheasants and hares from farmers in three counties. Their work required a great deal of commuting, was rarely monotonous and was necessarily swift, often explosively so.

Algernon would begin by supplying this loose clan with sufficient alcoholic stimulation to provide them with enough Dutch courage to last through the night and into the ranks of the employed before they realized their sad lot. It amazes me how often in history people have been led to live absolutely miserable lives on the basis of a vague promise of improvement in the future. Having bullied them into gainful employment as builders' laborers, he thereafter harangued them with a diatribe on dialectic materialism each evening as they soothed their aching bodies in the warm golden glow of a pint of bitter, or possibly ten. These orations from Algernon invariably began with the phrase "Comes the revolution..." Being good listeners and fast studies, they soon came to realize that wealth should be shared. Since they rarely had any wealth, this idea held no fear for them, and certainly they were prepared to share a pint or three with this prolific speechifier. They invariably finished the evening with a rousing chorus of "The Red Flag", a well known Rugby song which begins, "The working class can kiss my ...." and ends with "the Red Flag flying there." I have averted attention from the middle parts of this ditty, as is my custom in such delicate and sensitive areas.

Each of the lads got a draw on his pay on a different day of the week to ensure that no day would end without the prospect of a "quick one" at the pub. One, as you will recall from your arithmetic lessons, is a relative number varying from five to ten when rounded up nicely. Gerald, of course, being last in line, got his draw on Friday, payday. So, calling on comrade Algernon to prate away all evening, they supplied him with enough beer to lubricate his raspy old voice. This considerable subsidy coupled, as it were, with a temporary halt to his weekly contribution to the more obscure glossy French magazines of the times, enabled him to acquire enough money to reserve the van for election day. This down payment became considerably inflated since the van owner, Mark Black, knew that he would inevitably not be able to collect the balance.

Mark Black ate meat rather more frequently than the rest of us. His method of supplementing both his diet and his income involved raising chickens. Algernon, of course, fully understood the Keynesian economic theory of supply and demand. Applying this theory to the world of food rationing was a nice touch. Mr. Black raised the chickens. Mr. Pederasky provided the introductions to the upper echelon of the police community of the county. Mr. Black sold his poultry at a paltry fee to carefully selected officers. Mark Black accrued wealth. Ivan Pederasky provided a service to the law enforcement agency assuring a safe passage for his putrid publications and incidentally the occasional bird. The police chief was plump and prosperous, representing a fine law abiding village. Everyone gained although not everyone prospered.

Since it was the police chief's brother-in-law, Jane's uncle, who supplied the grain for Mark's chickens, whether he knew it or not, the whole arrangement was kept in the family. Now, perhaps you are thinking that the Police Chief must have known that the source of the grain was his sister's husband. Perhaps too, you are surmising that the trough feeding chief was none too happy with his sister's choice of a rustic for a spouse. All I can say in that case is that your cynical view of mankind is unbecomingly accurate.

Be that as it may, my dear, old uncle Fred Plinge, E.P.N.S. was a keen student of the ways laws should have been written and even, on occasion, knew the way they were in fact enacted. He explained it to me as we sheltered from a shower, our backs nested well into an ancient hawthorn hedge during one of those interminable questioning sessions of my " heducation."

A candidate," said Plinge, "must receive ten per cent of the vote or lose his deposit."

Why?" said I.

That law," said Plinge, "is to deter the lunatic fringe of society from raising the cost of elections by putting up frivolous candidates without the ghost of a prayer of a chance of success."

"Why?" said I.

"Donald, " said my dear, old uncle less than patiently, " You'll only get one more question today..."

"Why?" said I.

"...and that is it. Besides, it stopped raining."

That last statement had a certain amount of relative truth to it in as much as the cats and dogs had ceased to drop out of the sky. We hurried on with our peak-capped heads down against the slight shower, leaving any remnants of political science in the hedge where it blooms very prettily every fifth spring to this day.

This affair is getting to be a very serious business. First there was economic theory and practice. They were followed by political science. Now we shall have to stretch the limits of my learning by citing some higher mathematics. There were about four thousand, eight hundred and twenty nine people living in older row houses along the river Roding and beside lanes meandering amid the surrounding fields and forest. We might have poled these gentle folk and we might have found that they were generally Labourites, a fact that surprised old Winnie and many people outside England after the war.

In the gently rolling hills of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding there were entrenched the more well-to-do members of society. That is to say, men there actually possessed more than two shirts and the women may well have had three dresses or more. Some even drove motor cars every day just to go to work, not the women, of course. That same imaginary poll would have shown these stalwarts, these citizens with hearts of oak, voting for Winnie, King, country and possibly even God by casting their votes for the Tory party. These people numbered perhaps nine hundred and thirty nine, going down hill with the wind behind them and dripping wet.

Scattered among the highlanders and the lowlanders of the village, lurking silently in the guise of normalcy, were the peripheral members of society who cast the deciding votes. Now, let us turn our attention to a statistical analysis of the significance of these numbers.

For a variety of reasons, which it might be fun to examine in detail some other time, people who honestly believe that they live in a democracy, do not vote. If you are one of these people, let me tell you in no uncertain terms that it is a sin and God is going to get you for it. Seventy two percent of the highlanders turned out to vote even if it was only to establish the president of the Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding Cricket Club, U.P.B.T.R.C.C., which has yet to win a game this century, unless you count the one that was called for rain the day before the Outer Mongolian Yak Riders team, the O.M.Y.R.C.C., left for home.

A miserable fourteen percent of lowlanders might turn out to vote on a good day. Five percent of these same lowlanders would only vote if the weather was good, and if the local soccer team, U.P.B.T.R.A.F.C., was not in a championship match. Three more percent might be goaded into action if the missus nagged them enough about, "What the 'ell d'yer fight the bloody war for then if yer not going to vote?" Another, quite separate three percent only turned out if they were temporarily without the means to buy a pint. The final three percent only became civic minded if the were not "working on a promise from the old girl," whoever she might be at that moment, showing excellent judgement in the relative importance of procreations and elections. This meant that a miserable minimum of the registered Labourites actually voted.

Those of you who happen to be accountants will be pleased to note that each party could count on precisely six hundred and seventy six votes. It is a trifle scary to calculate that any third party candidate had to collect one hundred and fifty votes in order to gather ten percent of the ballot and save his deposit. You see the Labourites got six hundred and seventy six votes as did the Tories for a total of one thousand three hundred and fifty two. Adding the one hundred and fifty votes of the third party gives a total of one thousand five hundred and two votes. Ten percent of that is one hundred and fifty, more or less.

Well, you cannot have two-tenths of a vote, unless you count the time "Sergeant" Llewellyn, a rather nasty Welsh Corgi terrier, ate eight-tenths of his mistress's ballot as she carried him in her arms at the polling station. Thereafter he was known as the sergeant-at-arms, but I digress from my analysis.

A careful study of the intriguing details of this mathematical socio-political analysis will reveal to you that the free-thinkers, bleeding-hearts, Irish nationalists, Ulsterites, Shinn Feiners, Welsh rarebits, Scottish Nationalists, New Liberals, and Communists held the balance of power in Upper-Piddlington-By-The- Roding. A shocking fact, I must admit.

Myrtle Plinge, in her dotage, settled one election by voting for a legitimate candidate for once. Having been told so many times that the last person on the ballot was the Communist Party candidate, she finally remembered it on election day and chose a different stratagem.

"I voted for the one with the smallest," she explained to her beloved son, Fred. Being possessed of more courage than wisdom, Fred asked his mother the question.

Smallest what, mother?"

Why, name, of course, silly." she said, eyes twinkling wickedly. As so often happened, Fred could not tell if she knew what she was doing and was enjoying it immensely or if her selection was as random as she made it appear.

So it was that Myrtle cast the deciding vote that resulted in the election of one Martin Wigglesworth-Pew, a Tory of a delicate shade of blue. What would have happened if Myrtle had counted the "Wigglesworth" as well as the "Pew" instead of just the "Pew" in her critical calculation of the worthiness of the candidates, providence only knows, and she is not telling. The Right Honorable Wigglesworth-Pew began a most acrimonious investigation into the feeding and care of certain fowl and foul play in the otherwise blameless police force of Upper-Piddlington-By-The-Roding. As a result, the police chief, who had become quite pig-eyed, retired rather sooner than he had planned but much later than he should have.

This investigation also led to the removal of Mark Black from circulation when he joined Ivan Pederasky on one of his too frequent visits to the big house. In this way a different circle of people gained power, prestige, and the associated monetary benefits, as a direct result of one daffy old crone.

Myrtle it was who influenced the shift of power within the village, who altered forever the natural flow of resources and changed the lives of many who hardly knew she existed. Having quietly and calmly wrecked the political, social, and economic equilibria of the village, Myrtle went home to a nice cup of tea saying, "Comes the revolution, I'm going to get a new teapot."

During this election campaign, as she waddled along, again heavy with child, Jane was ahead of Gerald by at least a furlong. The result of her second trip down maternity lane, without the luxury of any contact with a vicar, was Timothy, a hyperactive little fellow who never had an ounce of baby fat during his short stay in the nest. Jane dressed him in drab brown.

"Clara says to me," said Ophelia Biddy," 'Do you see what I see?' she says. 'Yes, indeed I do,' says I."

"What was it you saw?" Asked Dorothea Biddy.

"He's the spitting image of his father."

"No! Well I never!" Said Mrs. Ophelia Biddy, which is entirely untrue because she did do it once behind the bicycle shed. She did not like it, and never was asked again through nine long years of marriage to Mr. Biddy, may his soul rest in peace. The Biddy court awarded the honor of Timothy's paternity to Thom Tickletrout on the fine scientific basis of their similar level of energy and their mutually brown clothes. Gerald, by then, plodding along a league or so behind Jane, William, and Timothy wherever they walked.

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