Earlier this year I attended the funeral of my uncle Rennie – or Reninghelst – as he was never ever known in my lifetime.
Rennie was my favourite uncle of all my uncles because he was an unstoppable force. He was a fantastic footballer – I think he trialled for a First Division side once – and his skill on the ball was evidential as he revealed his box of tricks in garden kickabouts. He taught me how to ‘dummy’, but little did I know that this would later be referred to as the ‘stepover’ in modern footballing parlance. My father was a pretty good footballer as well, playing left-half for Middlesex County Boys, but Rennie was in a different league. The ball stuck to his feet as he dribbled his way around myself and my dad. We were easy meat.
A lovable rogue, Rennie took it upon himself to help my gran with odd jobs – you know, building walls, garages, sheds, and totally reshaping my gran’s back yard with a combination of brute force, theft and haphazard landscaping. Short of material to construct these exterior masterpieces, he would help himself, with our wheelbarrow, to the sand from local school’s long-jump pit and appropriate cement from a nearby building site. He took the water from my gran’s tap, however.
Rennie was one of six Harris brothers: Billy, Les, Miah (Nehemiah), Albert and Doug were the others, in order of age, alongside my gran, Edna – the only girl – from Grancha and Nan.
Grancha named Rennie for a specific reason. In the First World War, while sitting in a muddy Belgian trench waiting for the whistle to order them to ‘go over the top’, the Germans lobbed a gas cannister only feet away from where Grancha was positioned. Struggling to get his mask on, Grancha almost lost his life. He was taken away to a hospital in Reninghelst, where medical staff ensured that he lived and that he ultimately produced a daughter called Edna. Such was the care he received, it was only fitting that one of his sons would take the name of the village that saved him.
I’ve been watching a BBC documentary – inbetween child care duties and shopping errands – called WW1: The Last Tommies. Of course, the horrors of World War One are well documented, but this series takes first-hand accounts of 27 people who fought in, or were affected by, this bloody awful conflict that claimed the lives of millions of people.
Vivid descriptions of survivors detailing the sheer lunacy of running down a muddy field alongside your compatriots waiting for a German bullet to cut you down, tells me that a) I was born lucky and b) I must never forget those who fought for my freedom.
Of course, I am preaching to the converted. Pretty much everyone I know agrees with this sentiment, but literally, I would not be here had it not been for the people of Reninghelst. They have ensured that generations live on, that I get to enjoy the joys of fatherhood and that one day I might be able to teach my son to do a ‘stepover’.