Firstly, a little about myself. I was born at about 6.30pm on 3rd November 1964 (I was due on Hallowe’en) at Mayday Hospital, Mayday Road, Croydon, Surrey into a Roman Catholic family, the fifth of six children. I was given the names, Michael John Harper (my paternal grandmother, Nellie Maria Howes, had suggested I be called Richard Henry - ouch!) and I weighed 10lb - rather heavy. Sandie Shaw was at Number One in the singles charts with the curiously parenthesised “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me”.
Now in my forties, I weigh between 11 – 11½ stone (70 – 73Kg). At 5’8½“ (1.74m), I’m taller than both of my parents. I have fair hair (very blonde as a youngster) of medium length (though during my twenties it was much longer) which generally falls in a centre parting.
My parents are Terence Edwin Henry Harper (b. 14/11/1928) and Audrey Winifred Mary Harper née Miles (b. 24/03/1924) and at the time of finishing writing this book in 2008, both are still alive.
My brothers and sisters, also all still alive are:
- Catherine Louise (b. 14/11/1956 - Hammersmith Hospital)
- Elisabeth Jean (b. 16/02/1958 - Hammersmith Hospital)
- Stephen Francis (b. 08/02/1960 - 48 Norbury Cross, Norbury)
- Nicholas David (b. 30/09/1961 - 48 Norbury Cross, Norbury)
- Gillian Margaret (b. 30/12/1965 - Mayday Hospital, Croydon)
At the time I was born, the family lived at 48 Norbury Cross, Norbury, London SW16 4JQ. Dad later told me that before buying this house, he and Mum had looked at a house in Longthornton Road off Stanford Way. My earliest memories are not terribly interesting I’m afraid. The earliest I can remember includes being carried out of a dark room (the front downstairs room of the house) into the back room where I was placed on either the table or the ironing board, perhaps for a nappy change. I can also remember being weighed at the local clinic on an old style large steel basin weighing scales.
Early life seems to have become a little more lucid after joining nursery school, which was run by Mrs Barley at 75 Norbury Court Road, a large house on the junction with Ena Road. I recall fingerpainting and a climbing frame in the large garden but not much else. I don’t remember any of the other children there, except my younger sister Gill (always Gill to me, though later, she preferred Gillian) who joined a year later.
Mum was born Audrey Winifred Mary Miles at 21 Clifton Gardens, Chiswick on 21st March 1924 to twenty six year old Winifred Mary Miles née Perks (known as ‘Winnie’) and her husband of nearly three years, Ernest Miles, aged twenty nine.
On Mum’s birth certificate, Winnie is described as an ‘Elementary School Teacher’. Winnie, who had been born in Kings Norton, and her younger sister, Agnes (who was to die young from a congestion of the lungs) had attended a convent boarding school from an early age, after their own mother’s (Clara Elizabeth Pitt) death in childbirth, and their father James Perks had remarried for the second time.
By the time Winnie attended college, there were basically only three avenues open to women: Business, Domestic or Teaching. And so, Winnie ended up teaching in Brighton, where she would meet Ernest on a blind date with another couple.
After their marriage in 1921, Winnie continued as a supply teacher when called upon. However, Ernest did not want Winnie to go out to work, even when he was out of work himself, and they would have to survive on his war/disability pension of twenty four shillings per week. On 15th October 1941, Winnie died of a brain haemorrhage at 30 Twickenham Road, Isleworth, aged just forty three, when Mum was still only seventeen.
Mum’s father Ernest had grown up in Cranleigh, Surrey, a contender for the largest village in England. Known as Cranley until the 1860s, its name was changed on insistence by the Post Office, to avoid confusion with nearby Crawley. The name is believed to have derived from the large crane breeding grounds in the area. Ernest had wanted to run away to the circus, but the First World War came along. Seeing action as a machine-gunner, he lost a leg when hit by a shell which probably didn’t do much for his chances in the circus, and from then on he wore a wooden leg.
After a brief spell as a diamond polisher, Ernest’s profession on all official certification from the time that Mum was born until his death is described as ‘Artificial Limb Maker’. On 1st October 1958, Ernest killed himself at his home at 22 Heathfield Gardens, Chiswick by putting his head in a gas oven, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Schoolwise, Mum attended St Mary’s Catholic School at Acton Green, before heading off to St Mary’s College at Gumley House, Isleworth at the age of eleven. She attended only part time, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and left school aged sixteen as her father did not want her to go on any longer. She passed the school certificate in matriculation, gaining five credits in Geography, Art, Maths and Latin, but not History in which she scored only 14 out of 100.
During World War II, the house that Mum was living in with a friend, was bombed. Fortunately she was not at home otherwise you might not be reading about it now.
In March 1941, Mum became a telephonist. She had wanted to go into the land army, but had been put off by her father. After marrying Dad on 31st December 1955, she continued to work until Catherine was born in 1956, at which point she packed up work until Gill was five years old, around 1971. Each Christmas period with stacks of Christmas cards to be delivered, she would also help out as a temporary postwoman.
As a young woman, Mum was interested in the ballet and in opera and indeed Mum and Dad’s first ‘date’ was a trip to the opera.
Mum did not really get on with her mother-in-law. When she stayed with Mum and Dad, Nana being a very dominant woman, would ‘take over’. Although she was probably just trying to be helpful, I get the impression that this considerably irked Mum. Indeed, after the early 1970s until her death in 1981, I can remember Nana visiting our house only once more, in 1979 – I can date this fairly accurately as I recall that one evening she watched Top Of The Pops with Gill and me, on which a coloured group called The Whispers performed ‘And The Beat Goes On’ – Nana, in those days before political correctness had seeped into the national consciousness, referring to the band members as ‘darkies’. If Nana did visit at any other time inbetween, I don’t remember it.
Mum seemingly did the majority of any decorating that was required around the house, hanging wallpaper and repainting regularly over perhaps a five year cycle. She also did the gardening, washing, cleaning and the majority of the cooking – the exception to this being on the occasional Sunday morning when she would have to work, in which event Dad, Liz or Steve would step up to the plate.
Looks-wise, Mum had a shock of dark, curly hair, the gene of which clearly did not propagate itself into any of her children, all of whom had straight hair, though Catherine and Nick were both somewhat darker than the rest of us. In later years, as her hair greyed, she had something of the look of Queen Elizabeth II (the monarch, NOT the transatlantic liner!!J). She had an ongoing battle with her weight, something that had afflicted her throughout her early years, and something that I understand depressed her a fair bit.
As a consequence, she joined Weight Watchers, a dieting club that provided a structure towards the goal of losing weight and keeping it lost. She also had plenty of books on the bookshelf in the living room on the subject of dieting. However, it was a lifelong battle. I remember that at one time she certainly had a penchant for Mars Bars, though unlike the bizarre fad prevalent in the 1990s in Scotland and the north of England, I never knew her to have them deep fried in beef dripping.
Personality-wise to me, Mum suffered little nonsense and imposed a stricter sense of discipline than Dad seemed to. In retrospect, it appears too that she was not a very physical person with us. Many families I have met across the years have a much more physical comfortableness between them, hugging each other at emotional, family times such as Christmas or goodbyes, whereas my parents invoked almost an invisible barrier around themselves which we could rarely enter. Whether it had been much different for my older siblings when they were growing up, I don’t know. Certainly when still aged in single figures, I can remember Dad playing horsey and sitting us on his knees, but this disappeared as we grew up. Years later, perhaps partly through the missing element of tactility through her early years, Gill told Mum that she had not felt really loved as a child. Although Mum replied Gill, “Of course we love you, we love all of you”, she rarely seemed to show it and to my recollection this is the only time I heard her say so. Her love for us was implied by the fact that she was our parent, fed us, kept us warm, but I guess Gill needed more affirmation than I ever did.
I do not regret that my family is not particularly close. Indeed there is a welcome space between us in my view, which for many years after we all left home was breached only by birthday and Christmas celebrations. Steve and Liz have kept things together in more recent times, without their efforts I do wonder if we would have drifted even further apart. Whilst I warmly remember how we all grew up together and felt a tinge of regret as each sibling fled the nest, culminating in a measure of sadness as the final tie with the family home was cut, we have always been encouraged to stand on our own two feet, and feed, clean and clothe ourselves from as early as possible. It is something of a relief that unlike other families, my parents, siblings and friends are not always dropping by. I like my space and attempts to invade it unannounced to any considerable level would be severely frowned upon. Much later in life, my first wife would seemingly forever be arranging weekends, dinners or evenings with friends, appointments stretching into the distance with little prospect of any weekend rest from the treadmill of working life. This drove me bonkers.
Later still, the circumstances surrounding the end of my first marriage and the ensuing fallout which has been evident ever since, would demonstrate what was in my view, some surprising behaviour on the part of my parents. Their disapproval served as further proof of how different their family values were to what might be considered these days, and maybe back in their days, as normal. I could never say that what I did was entirely the right thing to do, and I probably came across arrogantly in defending my actions, however I could not reconcile their behaviour with what I would have expected from devout Christians – whatever happened to the parable of the prodigal son?. Hey ho. When all is said and done, we all have to live our own lives and are entitled in this thankfully free country to our own opinions. Anyway, you can read much more about this in volume two….
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It may seem to you that I thought my Mum was maybe not the nicest person that there ever was, but it is important to put things in context. Brought up in a religious environment, her own mother dying when Mum was just seventeen, her father having only one leg and committing suicide, her first child mentally handicapped and six children to bring up might all seem like ample reason why she could seem hard faced. But if you knew her, you would know of her intelligence, her ability to solve cryptic crosswords (which I have pleasingly inherited), her love of books, her uncontrollable laughter at family in-jokes that would bring tears to her eyes, her threats to us children of ‘spifflication’ when we were not behaving, and her range of usable swearwords being limited to ‘buckets of blood’ (or if she was really annoyed, ‘buckets and buckets and buckets of blood’). Perhaps my fondest memories of her (apart from the numerous dinners and puddings that she prepared for me) are of the year or two when, while still with the Civil Service in my early twenties, shift work meant that one week in every three, I would not have to arrive at the office before midday. This meant I could get up late in the morning and would frequently sit and chat with Mum in the kitchen. This was probably the closest I ever got to finding out what she was really like as a person, rather than just being my mother.
Dad was born Terence Edwin Henry Harper on 14th November 1928 to thirty one year old Nellie Maria Harper née Howes and her husband of five years, Herbert William Harper, aged thirty two.
In 1931, at the age of three, Nellie (my Nana) took Dad to Saint-Mars-la-Jaille in France, where her Uncle Harry (maybe or maybe not actually blood related) had lived for many years working as a coachman for the Marquise de la Ferronays. They would visit again some years later, Dad recalling meeting Jeanne Lordon, known as Nené, who had been Harry’s French wife. On this second occasion, Nana and Dad were also privileged to have an audience with the Marquise.
Until the age of seven, Dad went to Kingswood School, Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, London. Due to Nellie’s poor bronchial health, Dad’s parents moved to the newly built house at what is now 38 High Wold in Chipstead, Surrey (built December 1935 at a cost of £1500 with £6 17/6 to pay per month on the mortgage). This was the third house to be built on that road, now a fully populated cul-de-sac. After moving, Dad attended Sunny Corner School on Bouverie Road, Chipstead until the age of nine.
He then went to a modern school at the bottom of The Drive at the junction with the A23 Brighton Road, halfway between Smitham and Reedham stations. And then until autumn 1940, aged eleven, he attended Purley County School for Boys in Placehouse Lane, Old Coulsdon, Surrey.
I looked up this school online and found an interesting history of the school written by one George Walker Winter (which can be read in full online at http://members.trip). Hopefully this gives a flavour of the environment that Dad found himself in. Well known Old Boys of the school included the actor Peter Cushing, who is known to have lived in Kenley, and the athlete Gordon Pirie.
At the time of Dad’s attendance, the Headmaster would have been Mr Mitchell, a distinguished scholar and Head of Science who had taken over from the school’s original archbeako, Mr Wight in 1920. Mr Mitchell’s ethos involved “maintaining the School’s reputation and vigour”. Existing activities were developed and supplemented by new activities such as trips to places of interest in London and the surrounding areas. Perhaps more tragically, Rugby Football replaced Soccer as the school’s primary winter sport.
Mr Mitchell was evidently a tough cookie. Misbehaviour was recorded in the form’s conduct book, and serious offences attracted detention on Saturday morning. The Headmaster also used the cane as a punishment, administered in the Headmaster’s study after school. The worst part of the punishment was considered to be the friendly handshake afterwards to show that no ill feeling was borne by either party. (By the time I went to school, the practice of using the cane as a deterrent/punishment against ill discipline was fairly non-existent. While there were pockets of corporal punishment, a culture of rebellion was starting to build across the nation whereby any teacher that physically harmed a child was prone to having to defend a lawsuit raised against them – however as you will read later, this didn’t stop some of my teachers…)
The Form position of each boy was regularly calculated on Form Mark Sheets. At assembly, the Headmaster would announce the top three names in each form and comment on those at the bottom of the class, some of whom would be invited to an evening’s interview with the Head.
At the end of the Spring Term, there would be a Sports Day, ending with tea for the parents. Staff and boys would provide the entertainment for an evening’s concert in the School hall.
Mr Mitchell would hold tea parties for boys heading for university or college. The Headmaster and his wife would dispense advice on life’s pitfalls, notably the fairer sex who were considered a major distraction. There were frequent warnings against associating with girls from nearby schools, such as Purley County School for Girls in nearby Homefield Road. Mr Mitchell went a long way to prevent his charges from consorting with girls, even when travelling to and from School. At lunchtimes, a strict lookout was maintained to ensure that boys would not leave the School grounds to meet girls.
The Placehouse Lane site had only been open for six years or so by the time Dad started attending there, the growing school previously having been located at the junction of St James’s Road and the A22 Godstone Road halfway between Purley Cross and Kenley. The new school building was not perfect, though narrower corridors and smaller cloakrooms than were really desirable fitted in with the cutbacks required by the Nation’s economic situation. However these drawbacks were offset by easier journeys to Art and Woodwork lessons, and a playing field within the school grounds.
Room 40 served as the location for Assembly and various stage performances. By decree of Surrey County Council, all classrooms overlooked the playing field on the sunnier side of the building, which judging from my own experiences of hot afternoons in a stuffy classroom must have had plenty of boys daydreaming in a post-prandial haze. The remaining three sides of the building around the quadrangle harboured the Art and Woodwork rooms, Science labs, Headmaster’s study, Medical Room, Staff and Prefect Rooms, Hall, Gymnasium, Kitchen and Caretaker’s quarters. Swimming lessons were also now included in the curriculum though they involved a bicycle journey to Croydon Swimming Baths.
At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, around the time that Dad would have started there, and indeed throughout the six years that the war lasted, the school faced a new set of problems. There were fewer staff available, travelling to school was more dangerous, and some lessons and exams had to be held in underground air raid shelters next to the playing field. Evacuation too, caused its own difficulties. However, the School held fast despite the various threats to its continued existence, such as aircraft crashes, bombs, and doodlebugs.
Mr Mitchell handed over the reins of Headmastership in 1945 as the School slowly returned to normal life. One amusing story about Dr Birchall, the new Head, involved a morning visit to the new Woodwork and Handicraft teacher, Mr Love. Dr Birchall enquired whether Mr Love could advise him what he could do about his artificial leg (the result of a wartime aircraft crash) which was making nasty noises as he walked. The Headmaster could then have been seen lying on a workbench in the Woodwork room while Mr Love applied lubrication to the offending limb.
However Dad would have missed all of this as both he and his mother were evacuated to Ackworth, Yorkshire in autumn 1940, and lived at the house of the sister of one of his father Herbert’s office colleagues on the junction of what is now the A628 and A638 roads connecting Pontefract to Barnsley, and Wakefield to Doncaster. This arrangement continued until April 1941 when Dad and his mother returned south to Ruislip, Middlesex.
From that point on, Dad went to the Salvatorean College on High Road, Harrow Weald, Middlesex, where his fees were waived. Having been taken off Latin at the start of the Fifth Form and having failed English Literature and Art, he gained four credits in school certificates (Maths, French, English Language and History) and a further pass in Geography, however five credits were required to go on to get a degree. (Dad’s father Herbert had himself got a degree in Geology at the age of thirty eight, having attended night school at Birkbeck College).
During this last period, Nana was working at Air Ministry records in Ruislip. From 1945, Dad ran a paper round from Arnold’s in Ruislip High Street earning nine shillings a week, all of which went towards the housekeeping.
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Dad’s father had left Nana when Dad was eleven years old. He continued to see him for about two years after that, but afterwards only at court for their divorce hearing in 1954, when Dad was about twenty five. In Dad’s view, Nana’s arthritis may have come on as a result of the stress.
Dad tells of a time when his father and his mother’s brother Jack Howes met at Ruislip. Apparently Herbert wanted to bash Uncle Jack, while Jack did not like Herbert for having ditched his sister, Nellie.
Dad began his National Service in August 1947 with a few days at Padgate (near Warrington), after which he was transferred to West Kirby on the tip of The Wirral for the requisite period of square bashing. Nana did not want Dad to go abroad during his National Service and due to her circumstances as a single parent, enlisted the help of her brother Jack to prevent Dad from getting posted abroad. However, Dad did not want to be treated differently from anybody else. He did not tell either of them of his leaving date in April 1948 until he was on the boat.
National Service had been introduced in 1939, continuing after the Second World War until 1960 (though the last discharge was not made until May 1963). It had been formalised by the 1948 National Service Act so that from 1st January 1949, every man between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six was expected to serve in the armed forces for eighteen months, and remain on the reserve list for a further four years. The period of basic duty was extended to two years in 1950 following the Korean War, while the length of availability as a reserve was reduced by six months to compensate. National Servicemen who showed promise could be commissioned.
Many saw National Service as “career interrupted”, and it had a significant effect on British society and culture. Service could only be avoided if one had been employed in one of the three essential services for a minimum of eight years i.e. Coal Mining, Farming and the Merchant Navy. After peace-time conscription ceased, the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy returned to the status of voluntary professional organisations, despite repeated calls from social conservatives for a return to enforced conscription.
Dad’s National Service as a radio operator with the Royal Air Force stationed in Egypt continued until September 1949, when he returned home, again travelling by boat. He believes that he might have stayed abroad if there had been no ties with home. His father had spent his own war in Salonika, Greece, Dad believes, as a despatch rider.
After completing his National Service, Dad worked as a civil servant in the Finance Department of the War Damage Commission. Evidently Mum joined a different department which involved the Finance Department checking their work. Dad saw her name one day – ‘AWM Miles’ – and asked a colleague what she was like, receiving the answer ‘She’s Alright’. Sometime later, he found cause to go to her department and took the opportunity to ‘look around’. In his own words, not one to say boo to a goose where women were concerned, it was Mum who asked Dad out. (Indeed Dad told a story once of how on one occasion, he was propositioned by a – ahem – working girl in the West End of London – he ran a mile). Mum had tickets to an opera which was something that Dad had not seen much of before. Mum later ended up working in the Finance Department too, though by the time of their marriage, the certificate records that she was by then working for the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
Nana had made Dad promise that he wouldn’t get married before he was thirty years old (possibly as she married at the age of twenty six and her marriage hadn’t lasted?) She wasn’t best pleased when he did get married at the age of twenty seven, however he did tie the knot at the same church as his parents had thirty two years previously, on Dec 31st 1955. Mum’s half-Uncle George (Perkes), who was a Roman Catholic priest, presided at the ceremony..
During the 1960s, Dad supplemented his civil service salary by taking part time jobs at Whiteleys, a department store in Bayswater, West London where he worked in the record section, and at White City Stadium where he worked behind the counter until one day when his honesty was questioned, at which point he left.
By the time I became truly conscious of Dad, he was probably in his early forties. He was always bald to my knowledge, having started thinning gradually until by the age of thirty, the hair on top of his head had just about gone. I must say, that I always imagined that my hair would follow the same path as his, however so far I have been lucky and whilst my hair has receded a little higher up the scalp and to my eyes seems thinner than perhaps it once was, I am not yet what one would call bald. Steve too has managed to retain something of his hirsuteness, while Nick has perhaps been a little less fortunate and has thinned out to a greater extent. There is a myth that suggests that baldness promotes virility. Whilst true for Dad who fathered six kids, Nick has yet to get off the mark while Steve and I have five kids between us. I do wonder whether the quality of today’s shampoos or the amount of water one drinks (keeping those cells feeding the hair follicles nicely plump and lubricated) or the more recent fad for scalp massage at the more upmarket hairdressing establishments has any effect on hair retention, or indeed on virility!
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These days, with my own children, I see many of my own father’s traits reflected in me. I see myself as a kindly and knowledgeable father who is keen to ensure that his children are imbued with good manners, respect for one’s elders, pleasure from reading, a thirst for knowledge, an inquisitive nature, and an interest in sport and music (though if they develop an interest for anything else, I shall applaud their preference). I am perhaps more fortunate than my parents were in terms of available money, but equally I am wary of spoiling my children by throwing money at them. I want to ensure that they don’t go short, but equally I want them to appreciate the value of money as I was taught to and have continued to be mindful of throughout my life. I intend to put aside some money to help them on their way when they are older though they will not receive this money until there is a true need for it.
On the darker side, at rare times, my Dad could have quite a fearsome temper, when it was wise not to get on the wrong side of him. I particularly recall getting slapped round the back of the legs having broken the window sash in the boys’ bedroom by hanging from it, and crying on the floor by the clothes horse in the back room. I fully knew why I was being punished and made sure that I never did THAT again. When Dad was angry his face would turn bright red and the veins would bulge around his temples and forehead. I can see that my temperament is very similar to Dad’s.
I am fully aware of the arguments in favour of not smacking one’s kids, but I contend that it did me no harm when I was growing up and I generally learnt my lesson from it. As a kid, you don’t consider that smacking is not allowed or may be frowned upon by others, the rules are made by your parents and you abide by those rules considering them to be normal for everyone. These days, smacking is generally disapproved of on the basis that there are non-physical ways to control children (dogs are best controlled by rewards for good behaviour so this probably works for children too), however the success of these surely varies from child to child and smacking probably persists behind the closed doors of many of those who may publicly oppose it.
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Both Nick and I developed affinities with Dad’s interests. Nick followed Dad’s interest in buses. As a boy, Dad had himself visited many bus garages around London, and consequently nurtured Nick’s interest in the subject. All London Transport buses had a notation on their sides (separate from their number plate) indicating which garage they were from. Whilst I grasped the notions that a bus with AK on its side hailed from Streatham Bus Garage and QC denoted a Camberwell bus, both Nick and Dad had a vast knowledge of the notations for garages all over London. Similarly, I could recognise an RT, RM (Routemaster), DM or DMS style bus, but Nick and Dad knew them all.
This great knowledge of public transport should be taken as an indicator that for many years, Dad did not drive. It should be noted that his father had not been a driver either so maybe the need to do so had not been at the forefront of Dad’s mind. Indeed it was not until Dad was in his mid-fifties that he finally managed to pass the test, bringing home a cornucopia of cream cakes in celebration of his new found licence to roam.
Nick and I both benefited greatly from Dad’s appreciation of music. Dad’s interest covered such a wide range of styles that we simply had to drink from Dad’s fountain of knowledge. Was it a natural instinct for my elder siblings to gather round the radio to listen to Petula Clark singing ‘Downtown’? Were we simply more in tune (ho ho) with music per se that it was entirely natural for us to gravitate towards it? Dad certainly helped with his regular record sessions featuring either pop music or classical. See the music chapter for a more in-depth appreciation of Dad’s influence on our tonal tastes.
Certain other memories of Dad ring loud: Crouching down on the kitchen floor, polishing the family’s shoes each evening; Sitting at the far end of the kitchen in his dressing gown eating his breakfast while listening to the radio; Finishing up a large dinner with the profound “It’s A Great Life”; Hearing a favourite singer/song on the radio, and sighing ‘Ah! The Greatest’ – more acts that I have had hot dinners must have been awarded that accolade; Gurning with the whites of his eyes showing and his jaw jutting out and occasionally displaying his false teeth while rumbling “Meeee-Ears”; His amusing attempts at opera; Drying our hair after a bath and blowing raspberries on the backs of our necks when we were very young; His runny custard; The bobble hat in the colours of Crystal Palace that he would wear in bed to keep his head warm; Standing in the doorway of the back room, jangling the change in his pocket to Liz’s irritation. The list goes on and on.