“A lesser son of greater sires am I”, declares, Théoden King of the Rohirrim, in The Lord of the Rings (though he went on to perform feats of valour on the battlefields of Gondor, deeds “not unbecoming men that strove with gods”, if I may mix Tolkien and Tennyson). Perhaps we are indeed lesser men (and women) than the good and the great who went before us, or as the Prayer Book puts it, “our fathers that begat us”.
That certainly seems to be the case with regard to the moustache of my maternal grandfather, which is a great deal wider and more luxuriant than my own. I had no idea that any photograph of him existed, but sure enough one recently turned up on the internet. It shows him in the sports gear of the Edwardian sunset.
I suppose there are rather few people alive today who can boast a grandfather who died more than 100 years ago, but William Henry Cornelius died in 1911, aged only 36. That’s before the first World War, and only a few years after the old Queen took sick. Indeed grandfather would have seen the last two decades of Victoria’s reign.
The website with the photograph says that he “was said to have been a boxer” — an idea perhaps suggested by the loosely clenched hands in the picture. But mother told me nothing about that. In fact grandfather took up distance running in his thirties, and enjoyed considerable success, before succumbing to a heart attack — very likely brought on by over-exertion. He left grandmother a widow with a houseful of children to care for, and no social security. Grandmother (who survived into my early years) was left ruefully reflecting that a cupboard full of silver plated cups was no substitute for a husband.
My mother was only a child at the time, but it was probably because of her father’s early death that she left school at the age of twelve to start working in a packaging factory, Moore’s Modern Methods — which soon became involved in the logistics of the war effort.
I feel a certain affinity to grandfather, because I too took up distance running in my thirties, completing innumerable 10k and half Marathon races, and four full Marathons. But I collected no cups or prizes — just a few finishers’ medals. My best Marathon time was 3 hours 32 minutes — about an hour and a half short of Olympic standard.
And I too ran into heart problems twenty years ago. But today we have stents and statins which were not available in grandfather’s time, so I’ve lasted a little longer. Well quite a lot longer, I suppose.
It’s salutary to reflect that but for medical procedures developed in my lifetime, I should now be lame, and blind, and dead. So despite the problems in the NHS, maybe it’s time to raise a glass to the medical profession. And to grandfather.