|Sergeant Malcolm Armstrong
Everyone’s story is crafted by the dreams and frustrations of their teenage years, their courting, and how they managed their children in their early years. As children grow up so they slowly understand what makes their parents tick.
But with me it wasn’t just my parents that I began to understand, but also my big brother Malcolm, who when I was born in 1950 was just 10 weeks from his 15thbirthday, and only an academic year from leaving secondary school.
15 years are as big a gap as exists between some parents and their children.
One of my brother’s duties as a boy was to cut boxes of Cornflakes to the shape of the soles of the family’s shoes to make them last that bit longer.
Another was to drill holes into sheets of newspaper through which string would be passed so they could be hung in the lavatory.
He also held the “backs” record for the time taken to shovel a load of coal into the coal house (the backs as opposed to the fronts entrance to the terraced house, which was reserved for doctors, teachers, and undertakers.
Malcolm was one of the first pupils to sit the 11 plus (introduced in 1944 by R A Butler as a method of funnelling children into appropriate forms of secondary education).
Research has since shown that in its early years the 11+ discriminated against children of working class parents, partly because some of the questions asked assumed a middle class upbringing, partly because of the size of their home and the lack of books in the house, and partly because of the parents’, particularly the mothers’ lack of education,.
I said at my mother’s funeral that she loved for England, and that’s by far the most important thing in life,
But did she mentor her children to work hard and learn?
No, Mammy, I love you but you didn’t.
So in 1946 Malcolm failed his 11 plus, by no means unusual for the children of working class parents. In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, Professor Ernest Nicholson (Provost of Oriel College, Oxford) and millions of others, many of whom later excelled in life also failed.
And famously Winston Churchill, and Aneurin Bevanwere not only failures as children, academically, but also had to repeat a year at school.
Some were lucky enough to pass the 11 plus, which was a lifeline to a local grammar school.
But those who didn’t were given a passport to work in a local factory.
And in South Elmsall failing the 11 plus for a boy was a fast track for the pit.
Joe, our father, a miner, didn’t want that, so before I started nursery school Malcolm had left secondary school and began work with Standard Fireworks, which had assembly factories in South Elmsall, one at the top of our street.
His subsequent journey was inspired by two villains, both arsonists who set fire to parliament:
1. Guy Fawkes, who blew up the UK Parliament in 1605
2. Adolph Hitler, who blew up the German Reichstag in 1932
Guy Fawkes because the November 5th bonfire celebrations in the UK are the mainstay of the firework industry in the UK
And Adolph Hitler because the fear of a resurgent and belligerent Germany after WW2 meant the UK maintained a sizeable conscripted armed force, to which Malcolm was conscripted in1953, for a compulsory 3 year stint.
For me this was fortuitous, for where would we have all slept, in a 2 up 2 down.
When he came home on leave, as a party trick Malcolm hoisted me above his head on one arm.
By 1957 Malcolm, now 21, was as bald as a coot, which meant he looked older than he was, and when he was demobbed he was offered management jobs that most in their early twenties were denied.
His army service ended at the rank of Sergeant, which also helped.
When he was demobbed, he found a management position with Standard Fireworks, partly because of his rank, partly because of his explosives knowledge, and a little because of his alopecia.
From Standard he was recruited to Benwell in Nottinghamshire
Then to Astra in Kent.
And from there he launched his own firework company, Theatrical Pyrotechnics
Malcolm excelled at this business, which gave him the wherewithal to buy an Aston Martin, live behind electrically operated gates, and drive 2 expensive cars with personalised number plates, MJA 1 and MJA 2.
Riches were one thing, but importantly Malcolm became a consultant to the government on explosives matters, and lectured to universities throughout the land on the potential of gunpowder.
It must have tickled him, as an 11 plus “failure” to lecture Oxbridge undergraduates.
But for me more importantly is the man who was close to becoming a vicar in his teens
And who lost 2 teenage children – almost 3 – to violent deaths.
He was a Tory all his life.
I’m a left wing socialist.
My hero is Aunaren Bevan, also the son of a coal miner, and poor scholar, who founded the NHS and who said that Tories were vermin!
But my Malcolm, together with his gracious and beautiful second wife Eileen weren’t vermin. They were angels, who spent 30.happy years together.
They were beautiful, beautiful people, who helped and loved the needy
After the break-up of his first marriage he won custody of his children – not many men do that.
The Malcolm I will remember is the middle aged man who saw a handbag thief on Victoria station, took chase and rugby tackled him, pinning him to the floor of a parked taxi cab.
The Malcolm I look up to is the man who travelling by train from London to Kent overheard a party of youths using foul language.
Standing up he ordered them to stop, because their language offended him.
My Malcolm was a spirited man with a moral purpose.
He was quirky, but a good egg.
A bloody good egg.