There are always uncles at Christmas; the same uncles. I had lots of uncles, all Welshmen, mostly huge men with prodigious thirsts and sometimes not easy to be with. I mostly knew them through family gatherings at holidays (and weddings and funerals) and Christmas.
Most were beer men, extraordinary drinkers, a few owned pubs or worked in breweries. They were all important to me.
I suppose that is why, at this time of year, Uncle Tommy always comes to mind. It is partly because it is the party season at Christmas and Uncle Tommy, with his wonderful singing voice, was the most easily remembered partygoer in our family.
Partly, too, it is the imported beer in my refrigerator this time of year. Uncle Tommy always brought imported beer to a party not because he liked it, but because he thought it was the fashionable thing to do. Also, as nobody else liked it either, he got to take it home and use it again. Dad said the six-pack was at least as old as me.
And partly he comes to mind this time of year because of the dark and chilly weather and lights on the houses and trees; when I opened our door to his knock, he seemed to have arrived in a violent, multicolored squall. I’m still not sure whether that was some trick of his (wizardry, perhaps?) or of the weather.
Uncle Tommy was, in fact, neither; that is, neither uncle nor Tommy. He was adopted into the family during his eternal courtship of Auntie Maisie, and we cousins called anything that was large, warm and moved Uncle or Aunt, because that was safe, and very likely true.
When Maisie and Tommy went separate ways, Tommy just stayed and Uncle stuck. We collected cousins loved him because he treated us as sensible and sensitive beings, and even as adults, and he was eccentric and fun and usually sober.
His real name was not Thomas but Tudor. In fact, Tudor Rhys is about as Welsh a name as anyone deserves. But, as he was living in England at the time (Dad told me) and singing semi-professionally (he was the semi-part, unpaid), he took the stage name of Reece on the basis that the bluddy English couldn’t pronounce the H in Rhys (which is by no means silent) so he might as well get rid of it. A tommy is a British soldier and a gun; very manly. Hence, Tommy Reece.
Uncle Tommy was bit pompous, to be honest, which didn’t endear him to my Dad, as this story shows:
Uncle Tommy often stopped by our house Thursday evenings knowing the larder was bare at home (payday on Friday) and, as he said, my Mam had a wonderful way with baked-beans-on-toast (mostly toast, I remember). He was late one evening “Very busy at work, you know” and so I asked him what he did.
“Liaison” said Uncle Tommy, pronouncing every letter in the Welsh way, but finishing with a giant French nasal that would have made de Gaulle proud. Later I asked Dad, who was a union shop steward, what liaison meant. “Unnecessary,” he said.
Wearing a tie to work in those days was a badge of honor and status, and Uncle Tommy always wore one. Pompous again. But I have never seen one like it before or since and perhaps he made it himself. It was pre-tied on a wire that allowed him to attach it to elastic around his neck and he always looked well turned out. However, the tie was made of plastic. Uncle Tommy was very proud of that: “Cleans up beautiful with a damp cloth and a bit of Vim, see,” he said.
Uncle Tommy always traveled by bike. It was a fixed-wheel bike; as he explained you had to keep pedaling, always, no free-wheeling. He got the bike, free, from a man who threw it in the hedge the third time it bucked him off. It had dropped handlebars and cascades of cogs and gears such as I was never to see again until I came to Davis.
“This bicycle is the equivalent of a Ferrari, see,” he said, which I assumed was some kind of antelope, though he rode it very slowly indeed with his legs whirling away as, he assured me, they do it in the Tour de France (whatever that was). I suspected that only the lowest gear worked or Uncle Tommy had also been bucked, once or twice, by this bike.
Uncle Tommy and his wife May and their son Colin lived at 12 Pierce Avenue (though treeless), Solihull. The Lincolnshire Poacher (a pub) was at one end and an Indian restaurant called the Jal-Nar at the other. It was close to a large coal yard on the Grand Union Canal that divided the newer homes on Pierce Avenue from an old Victorian neighborhood on the other side.
“We are on the right side of the canal, you know,” Uncle Tommy insisted, “in Solihull, see.” Solihull is the posh area, with very fancy and high-priced homes and church-aided and private schools. Pierce Avenue had been included within that boundary, rather like a bit of East Davis getting assigned the El Macero ZIP code, by some bureaucratic accident or carelessness or an odd quirk of nature or geography. Uncle Tommy took it as appreciation and recognition.
I remember the house well. It was unusually tiny and steep; steep steps to the door and steep stairs inside. It was squeezed onto the end of a block of houses with hardly enough room to build and had only one door on the side of the house.
“It’s all the rage,” said Uncle Tommy. “Same door serves as front and back and prevents through drafts, see.” The replacement number 12 on the door was cut out of a flattened tin can with little artisanship, though the “1” was not too bad.
I remember the garden was no garden at all. It had been the dumping ground for the builders’ waste and Uncle Tommy had made no effort to clean it up. It was perfectly wild and beautiful and had wonderful wildlife (or vermin, Dad said). Uncle Tommy had learned the Latin names for the weeds growing there, nightshades (Mandragora officinarum), dandelions (Taraxum officinale), wild grasses (family Gramineae) and nettles (family Urticaceae), and would conduct tours as if at an herbarium, rolling out the endless rich names and blind to the sheer chaos.
We loved that indestructible place. He taught us that nettles meant hearth (they grow around often invisible ruins) and the wretched yard then became then our Pompeii and Byzantium; every chip of broken glass and discarded tile in the builders’ debris became an ancient relic, arrowhead or mosaic, to be stored studiously and reverentially on the steep steps leading to the front-back-sideways door to join the souvenir sea-shells and driftwood and pine cones piled there.
And even today I’m fascinated by old junk and love the elegance of brewers’ Latin in Hordeum vulgare (barley), Humulus lupulus (hops) and Saccharomyces cerivisiae (yeast).
Uncle Tommy often tried to augment his income. One venture was to print business cards, at home, using a tiny printer he had bought through a magazine. He showed me the printer; I recognized the technology at once, having just done Guttenberg at school. I accepted his offer of employment at sixpence the hundred and managed to make a penny-hay’penny after two days’ labor. “That’s the tragedy of piece-work,” Dad said.
Many years later I found out that the BBC on the radio at Christmas did not actually know me and all my cousins and our families by name, and all our transgressions and (far fewer) successes. It was Uncle Tommy in the other room with a microphone rigged to the radio who interviewed and amazed us.
But he got into serious trouble, one year, when he left the microphone switched on in a room where my aunts were gossiping and simulcast their conversation to my collected beer-drinking uncles. “That was an eye-opener,” Dad said.
Uncle Tommy had a splendid tenor voice and an elegant and subtle way with a song, especially in Welsh, and would entrance us with his repertoire of traditional and modern songs and ballads. One year I had practiced-up, on the piano, “Bless this House” as written, in the key of C. Uncle Tommy, the semi-pro, announced like a town crier that he would be accompanied on the piano-forte by Meistr Mihangel Sion Llewis (me); during the applause, he whispered in my ear “Give it to me in E-flat, buttie.”
No musician, I, and he might as well have asked for it in H or P; as it turned out, he managed perfectly well in C, as I knew he would. And perhaps that is the Uncle Tommy I treasure most: the singer. The sheer delight of the music. The high point was always the last song, “Myfanwy,” a song of unrequited love and parting and longing, which might very well be the most lovely song there is.
When he was finished there was never a dry eye in the house.
Everyone should have an Uncle Tommy. Especially at Christmas.
May I wish you a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected]