Root Menu

Brian Edwards

In conversation with Christopher Whalen

My wife died eight years ago…and it’s a pain every day. In some respects, I guess I guard it, I ensure it continues…See that lampshade? Bits hanging off it. But I didn’t buy it…Ann bought it. So it stays there. I got a new carpet, but am I going to change the rug? No, because Ann picked the rug…That’s been changed, but only for an identical one. Nothing’s changed, for all the wrong reasons…I guess I want things to carry on the way she did it. The opportunity to make associations with other women has happened…but I walk away. I use the expression “I’m not in the market place.” But I don’t have a problem being on my own. I have a number of friends, and the kids of course. I go down the golf club three or four times a week. I’m very fortunate.

After my wife died, I always turned down approaches from other women because I would compare. As time goes on…the dreadful things that she used to do (like squeeze the toothpaste in the middle) are forgotten. She was a bit special…I was approached – and those are the words I would use – and I said, “I would compare you to her and sorry, you’d come second.” I would see things that she would do that they didn’t; and things she wouldn’t ever do that they did. No point in getting into grief and aggravation: just leave it alone. It would be very unfair.

I met my wife by chance…it’s always by chance. I decided one day when I was sixteen to go and watch a game of cricket that my friend was playing in. I ended up playing myself because they were one short. The next week, my friend’s father had to go to a funeral and wasn’t going to play, so they said, “Well you’d better play in his place.” It wasn’t “Will you?” It was “You’re playing.” I played for thirty-odd years after that. So that was a defining moment…but it didn’t feel like it at the time. It had a major impact on me: I became a more mature and confident person. I became second team captain, first team captain, fixtures secretary. It changed my social life.

I met her at a dance in the winter. It came to May and I said, “Right, I’m going to be playing cricket now until September. Saturday nights I don’t get out because I’m playing cricket, so I’ll see you in September or not, as the case may be!” And she said, “How can I come to cricket then?” She ended up scoring and doing teas. We were going round together for five years before we got married and I said to her on a number of occasions, “I wish I hadn’t met you quite this soon.” I didn’t have any wild oats to sow – well, I had plenty of wild oats, I just never got round to sowing them! I was only seventeen when I met her. She was my first proper girlfriend.

Ann and I had two sons who are now both married. My elder son, Neil, lives locally in Radley. He’s married to Jane, who is a great source of help and support. They have one son named Rhys, who’s 14. We play golf together from time to time, which is great fun. His Christmas present for the past four years has been his membership subscription. I suppose granddads are entitled to do daft things like that. My younger son lives in Munich. He’s married to Judith who is also very supportive. They have a daughter, Nia, who’s nearly two, and there’s another one on the way. I’m very fortunate to have supportive kids and their wives. The girls’ parents are good as well – I see quite a bit of both families.

All the guys I mix with now, and their families, stem from that first cricket match. We go out on Friday nights, and we’ve been doing this with roughly the same group of guys for forty-six years. My wife used to say, “You’ve been going out for all these years and you’ve probably only ever missed five.” I used to say – and it was always the same – “You’re exaggerating – there must be seven or eight!”

In my group of friends, we never had disagreements: we had different opinions and we voiced those opinions, but it would never be a case of walking away from them. I could pick up the phone and say, “I need you,” and they’d be here. Similarly, if they said it to me, I would be there. But it’s not just them: it’s their wives and their families. This circle…I’ve found it very, very supportive.

I don’t know what was so special about my marriage – it wasn’t me! It wasn’t me. I had ENORMOUS tellings-off, with justification: “For God’s sake! Why are you working all these hours?…Are you going to be playing cricket every Saturday and Sunday?”

***

My sixth sense is that my wife used to say, “I was going to say that!” and I said, “I know, I can read your thoughts!” and she believed it! But I haven’t got a sixth sense.

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More often than not, if there’s some discussion, then I’ll say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.” And I lead. I don’t know why that is…I can’t really abide indecision. But in other aspects, if someone says, “Let’s do something” – fine. If it doesn’t give me any problems, then I’ll become a follower. I guess it was shared in my marriage…The truth is, she used to make me think that I was making the decisions! “And now what?” she used to say! These blokes that say – you hear it less nowadays – “I wear the trousers” – in your dreams, pal! Why is it like that? Because women are brighter for a start! They’re more worldly-wise. Blokes are thickos. She used to make out she wasn’t very bright…Any major decision, she took it.

***

I’ve been very fortunate with the variety of jobs I’ve had within the same company. I sort of stumbled from one to the other. There was no plan. This career planning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! When I worked at Morris Radiators initially there were about 1500 people working there – it was very labour intensive. Twenty-five years on, the introduction of new technology and changes in working practices have seen those numbers decline. As an example: there was a chrome plating plant for bright finish components. Now bright finish components are made of plastic in one operation. This resulted in the labour force being reduced to 450.

For the last fifteen years that I worked, I was part of the management of a personnel department, now known as “human resources”. People knew I treated them honestly. That didn’t mean I didn’t give them a good kicking at times…but then, they needed it. I was the main man in Oxford, but I worked alongside a guy who was in charge of six factories – he was the divisional HR manager. But we did it mostly my way. If we disagreed, we ended up doing it my way. My job was managing the people, the “human resource”. We’d get ’em in; we’d get ’em out. Ensure that they were going to be efficient: “efficient” means having access to training, being there – I would look with great interest at absences every week. We had some software that would flag up easily the absence of people. I used to run a report, “Ding” – like that – and out it would come: six months, top ten, all that sort of stuff. People would say to me about absence: “I haven’t been that absent.” I’d say, “You get the same money as him. Go tell him you’re not absent that much. He’s here every day.” Those were the people I represented: the guy that worked hard, was there every day, was a damn good employee, who…did everything we wanted. As for the guy who said, “I’m away again today, I can’t make it today, I’ve got this headache, I’ve got this toothache”…

I worked there for thirty-six years and I did lots of other jobs first, so I knew the patch intimately. It was a factory where people stayed for a long time. There were more twenty-five-year service people there than there were in the rest of Unipart’s organization. So I knew the men, I knew about them. I was able to say to them things that other people weren’t able to say. I had to make people redundant. Seven or eight years on the trot we made people redundant just before Christmas, but they were all voluntary. They went away with a decent amount of money. We had one compulsory redundancy. We were looking for people who performed worst in certain headings. We ended up with a sort of matrix, and then each manager would say his piece. They all sat in a circle, and I remember I sat outside, on the edge of the circle, making notes. The general manager would look at me and I’d signal yes or no, and I made the judgements.

The company was called various things. It was a manufacturing site on the Woodstock Road. Now they’re building houses on it. It was part of the Rover or Leyland organisation. It was called Morris Radiators in its day. And then it was called a variety of other things. To begin with, I was a tool-maker there. And then I left and went to Pressed Steel because I would get more money and I would learn more about the job. After three years of learning other aspects of it, I had had enough. I got invited to go back, so I went back and carried on tool-making. And then on a Friday afternoon, a man was promoted by somebody coming along and saying, “Monday, you’re the foreman.” The personnel manager for Woodstock Road – there were probably a thousand people working there – rang me up and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “A bit of this and that.” “Have you got five minutes?” And I said, “Yeah.” “Come along for a chat.” So I went in and sat down and he said, “Deano’s leaving.” (Deano was running the training department.) So I said, “Oh, is he? Why’s that?” He was promoted through the organisation, going into Pressed Steel. Pressed Steel was part of this conglomerate, whereas when I went to work there, it was actually a separate company. And he said, “How do you fancy taking his job?” And I said, “What, training?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “No, Ron! I don’t think I fancy that. Stood out in front of people. I couldn’t do that.” He said, “We only administer it. We don’t do much training.” I umed and ahed and umed and ahed – nobody had ever offered me a job like that. I thought it was a big promotion. It felt like it. I guess I would have had more money, but it wouldn’t have been huge – probably another grade up. It wasn’t a management grade. I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll give it a go.” So that’s how I had the good fortune to be offered the position of Senior Training Officer. I inherited about 15 apprentices. My appointment coincided with the manufacturing industry as a whole deciding that they would no longer train young people in any of the manual skills. There was a similar move in the construction industry. There is now a shortage of skilled people, and there are fewer people capable of training apprentices.

Apart from a short stay in quality, I’d never worked in an office environment. I was in an office environment on my own, with a secretary. If I didn’t make it happen, it didn’t happen. If I didn’t keep on top of the job, it would catch me out. I was terrified! About nine months into the job, seemingly never to provide training, I was helping to run a week-long residential training course every third week. So every third week I was away in Warwickshire at the training centre. The first three sessions I did, I sat down to do them because I was frightened if I stood up I’d fall over something. It made me become a lot more confident as a person.

My job in human resources evolved into a whole variety of things, like dealing with the trade unions. It was very interesting. But as it went on, I began to take on more and more responsibility. I was working a twelve-hour day. I’d get to work at quarter to eight and leave at seven-thirty-ish, sometimes later. I had been a nightshift supervisor and I had complained bitterly that if somebody wanted personnel, they had to come back during the day to find it. I had said numerous times that there needs to be human resources support at night. And having said it, one night I changed the working hours: they started at six on a Thursday. So I made a point of being there at six.

***

Nowadays I feel like I’m fundamentally lazy. As time goes on, I’m less eager to strain the brain. Pressing buttons is okay. But pressing buttons and something doesn’t happen – oh God! – switch it off!

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I do a bit of DIY. I built two wardrobes upstairs. The house could fall over and the wardrobes would stay there! My son Ian’s father-in-law is a carpenter, and he saw them and said, “You didn’t want them to fall over, did you?” I’ve worked in steel…bit of wood, but make it a substantial bit of wood! All the supports are two-by-three. And it’s HUGE!

***

I don’t have a problem feeling at home in other parts of the world. It’s an extension of here. I will go to Germany tomorrow and they are not…alien people. Although my knowledge of German is very limited. I tried learning it for three years, but it never stuck. We went to twenty-four different Greek resorts, because she didn’t want to go anywhere else. She hid from the sun, but we went to Greece. Why didn’t we go to Greenland? I don’t do outrageous things, so where I go, I act in exactly the same way as I act here. I try to be civil…The other day on the bus, I got up to let a woman sit down, and loads of people hadn’t…I say, “The age of chivalry has still not passed!” I don’t get uptight. I get on a plane and go somewhere. People get excited about when it’s been delayed for an hour or two. It’s just the way it is.

***

The worst moment I spent with my parents was them dying, I suppose...I was very fortunate. I had a cracking upbringing. My old man wasn’t socially relaxed. I could never be matey with him. It was always the old man. When my father died…it was a blessing. He’d had a number of operations and he was in a poor old way. They took him into hospital, and I went in there one day, and it was then I first realized that probably people know it’s about to happen. He was a bit weepy. He said sorry.

I try not to be a burden on my family. They don’t want some old fella they have to keep worrying about. When I go, I want to go “Bonk!” – like that, because I don’t want to give them grief. I spent five years going to the geriatric unit in Churchill, shaving gents on a voluntary basis. To see the state that those people were in has made me hope and pray that I have a major heart attack! Step in front of a bus or something. When I was a shaving a guy, he may have stayed asleep the whole time I was shaving him, and assumed I was a doctor or something. I found this frightening. The lights were on, but there was nobody home. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

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What do I need that money can’t buy? Apart from the obvious…I don’t need anything. My needs aren’t great…I’ve got a limited amount of money and I’m eking it out. Hopefully, I will have gone before it goes. I’m fortunate. I’m (I was going to say healthy) reasonably healthy. I’m able to go walk around a golf course and play it badly with a bunch of blokes I’ve known for a long time. I see an awful lot of people worse off than I am. Ann died in Sobell Hospice, that’s why I go back there. It was about three years until I got back there. I’ve been going there about five years now. You see people coming in there with little kids. They’re in there and they’re going out feet first, and you know it. I’ve been very, very lucky. I go to the local hospice one evening a week. I try to be the best volunteer up there. Why do I do that? Because they say, “You’re terrific.” I like that. But also, I see my role up there as doing every thing possible so that they can go on and maximize their time to do the nursing. I gather there are two volunteers out of seven that actually answer the phone. Well I stick the phone in my top pocket – it’s a mobile type phone to take round the ward – and it means I haven’t got to go back, anything up to fifty yards, to pick the phone up. The nurses say, “You can’t believe how much that saves us!” I do, I know how much that saves us! That’s why I do it!

When she died, I was shocked. I was in a trance, I suppose. We’d both known for years she was terminally ill and she’d got – the guy said – one to two years. She had the most awful year, in which she had psychological problems. Tried to take her own life. It was…difficult. I had a job to do, so I’m doing the job. My boss was saying, “Whenever you wanna go, you just go.” When she was in Sobell, it was a case of going up there in the morning, and then going back in the evening, and maybe going down in the middle of the day as well. When I left her, she started to have a cough, and be a bit congested, but she seemed…okay. I got a phone call in the middle of the night, about 4am, saying, “Get in there,” because she had deteriorated. My perception was that it was out of the blue. By five in the morning she was dead. I’ve seen people die in there and be unconscious for twenty-four hours, thirty-six hours – longer even. It was as though she’d said, “Right, I’ve had enough of this. Get him in.” And I got there, and…fifteen, twenty minutes later she’s dead. It was horrendous.

About two years after Ann died, this guy, Bob, who I used to report to at work, died with exactly the same problem. That was…that was a very, very painful time. To see it all happen again…I went down to see him over Christmas – he had worked up till Christmas – and he said, “I’m going to find it bloomin’ hard to get back into work after Christmas.” And I said, “Bob, so why are you going to do it then? Don’t go! Do your own thing.” And throughout January, he didn’t go to work, and I used to go round and see him. And he said, “I never realized what you had to put up with.” And I said, “Who, me? Put up with? There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s all wrong with you. It’s all wrong with Ann.” And he said, “I just never realized.” And then he decided he was going back to work. He went back to work till Easter. Got a holiday booked over Easter. He kept setting himself targets. When it came, he finished work on the Thursday and was going on holiday on the Monday and the doctor didn’t think it was very wise. So he didn’t go, and he died the following Saturday.

Ann never set herself any targets. She just went to die. She decided she wasn’t going back to work, so I said “Fine. Whatever.” There was a time when she was ill, I said, “I wish it was me.” I’m glad she’s not having to put up with this. She would have managed it, handled it, no doubt, better than me. It’s…it’s not a lot of fun.

***

She was a good dancer. She used to tap dance as a kid. We used to say that “Blokes get to sixty-five and they fall over. You’ll be tap-dancing on my grave!” That was a sort of periodic statement. Why don’t I come to the Town Hall for the tea dances? I say I’ve got L and R on those shoes and sometimes I get them on the wrong feet! You don’t want me to dance.

August 2004