Memories of Alex Helm by his son Ian Helm
Article type: Correspondence
The following reminiscences are abridged from two email messages sent by Alex Helm's son Ian to Peter Millington during September 2007, following an enquiry about photographs.
...Dad was not a willing subject for photography.
As to credit for the pictures, I'm afraid I can't tell you who took the first one with him in a tie. I believe this was in the very late 60s and may have been taken to accompany his lectures at Keele University - I can't remember many other occasions on which he could be bullied into wearing a tie. The second, tieless, photo is one I can attribute with some accuracy, as the photographer was myself - it was taken with my Kodak Brownie, my 9th birthday present, with which I irritated everyone in the family, including the dog. The photo therefore dates from 1962.
I was interested to read the transcript of the 2002 conversation with Drs Peacock and Cawte, among others]. In the fifties and sixties these two were, as they've indicated, regular visitors to our home, first as single men, then with new wives and subsequent families. It all seems like yesterday. I also remember Roger Marriott turning up in, I think, a Bond Minicar, a strange and unstable-looking 3-wheeled contraption that looked lucky to survive a journey down the street, let alone halfway through England.
In the discussion, Norman has somewhat compounded his recollections of his first and later visits. The model railway that he speaks of was long after his first visit in the mid 50s. Dad had his first heart attack in 1959, and the perceived wisdom in those days was that exercise was bad for survivors - he was told to give up dancing. He therefore sought another outlet for his restless energy and creativity, and somehow decided on this. The first layout was on an 8ft by 4ft board in a corner of our large dining room. This was followed by a 12ft by 6ft version which half filled the room; then when Mum demanded somewhere for the dining table again, he hit on the round-the-room solution - however, this was not until the mid sixties. There weren't too many houses where a request to pass the salt would have it brought round on an "o"-gauge train. I was the envy of my schoolfriends, and I believe he was also consulted on the layout of the model railway that was created at Alton Towers.
However, I don't want to imply that he was some kind of dotty eccentric - merely that he had a mind open to many possibilities which the rest of us would find unconventional. He was hugely practical, and dedicated to his work. He was, for instance, a good carpenter, and made all our furniture after the war - I still have a table and my sister has his bookcases. He saw printing as a means to stimulate the desire to read and write in illiterate children at the school. He was a skilled typesetter, which in those pre-linotype days (never mind Desktop publishing!) involved individual letters set in reverse in a frame. He was once offered a printing machine, an Arab, for £10, the only snag being that it was in bits and had no instructions. We spent a weekend assembling a working machine from a box of bits, including powering the treadle mechanism to save us having to peddle. We were immensely proud of the result - but still had a box of bits. When we put these together, we had built a paper-folding machine as well.
His refusal to drive was also practical. He had learned on a tank transporter in India, on which, he said, he had to brace both feet on the dashboard in order to turn the steering wheel. In the early to mid fifties, the salary of an approved-school teacher with a young family simply didn't run to a car. Then when he had his first heart attack, he declined to drive again in case he had another attack at the wheel and caused an accident.
He could also embrace modern technology as it existed then. To help his work he bought a table-top photocopier. The thing was clumsy by modern standards, and needed rolls of heat-sensitive paper, but it was modern in 1967. I am absolutely convinced he would have embraced computer databases as a better means to an end - so I'm happy to see his work updated and made accessible in this way.
Behind all this there was a family man who, like all of us, could be complex - kind or bad-tempered, serious or funny, but was above all grounded and normal. The portrait in the conversation misses his abiding humour which could be literate or deeply silly, such as in the gang-shows he wrote for the school every year, that ended up involving the whole school and Mum, and which always sold out.
I seem to have wandered at length from the initial request, but my visit to your website stirred memories that haven't surfaced for years. I hope you'll forgive me trying to shed some light on the man rather than the scholar...
Millington's response mentioned a set of still photographs on Flickr captured from a film about Danesford School, Congleton, where Alex Helm taught. These included pictures of country dancing being called by a older man who it was thought might be Helm. Millington also mentioned the letterhead that Helm printed for the indexing project in the 1960s (see above). The indexing slips that Ian Helm mentions below were different.
...I think [the tieless photograph] was probably truer to the man - he was in his own quiet way, a non-conformist in an era when conformity was expected.
I've had a look at the Flikr pictures, and I'm afraid you're wide of the mark - as children of the sixties, we wouldn't have gone anywhere near country dancing, and Dad wouldn't have been seen dead in a buttoned-up cardigan! He was also, in truth, built on far sturdier lines than the man shown calling the dance, who was, I believe, another older teacher called Jim Muirhead. Jim was near retirement then, whereas Dad was only 46.
However, some of the pictures were evocative of things I'd forgotten, particularly some of the shots of the playground, which show Dad's then-new craft room, and up some steps, his first classroom, which was known as the rec hut - it used to be the live-in staff's recreations room before it became a classroom. I'm struggling now to remember the names of the "house-sisters," who looked after the boys after hours, but the shots of the kids on the trampoline are in the hall where we used to have the gang shows. Dad also used to somehow acquire current feature films which he'd show for the boys and staff every second Tuesday - somehow, he'd got hold of a modern cine-projector.
I'm mildly intrigued by the red/blue letterhead you mention - was this one of his index forms? If it's printed on some flimsy off-colour paper that would make toilet roll look like Anaglypta, then these pre-date the Arab, and were printed on one of 4 Adana hand presses, little desk-top things that he bought himself to get the rec-hut printing up and running. I think this was in part what would now be called enlightened self-interest, as he wanted to get his pamphlets into print cheaply and effectively., but a lot of boys learned basic English purely to get in on the printing.
I'd also like to add a trivial correction to the web conversation if I may - Mum's forename was Mehr, not Meir. She was, as Christopher said, nicknamed Sunny all her adult life, and while this was a reflection of her disposition, it was also in truth a contraction by her wartime army colleagues of her maiden name, which was Suntook. She is perhaps the unsung hero of Dad's researches, as she provided hospitality, support, proof-reading and (positive) criticism in equal measure, not to mention tolerating a living room that was part reference library and a dining room that was devoted to train-sets! I suspect that but for Mum, when Dad was engrossed he would not have got round to eating.
As I said in my pervious message, Dad's interests were broad and Catholic - for instance, he studied old folk traditions yet loved reading the most modern science fiction for recreation (having used up 2 rooms with other things, his collection of sci-fi took up the landing). I can't pretend that I shared his enthusiasm for folklore (although I was roped in to proof read for him on occasions) but I do find it very gratifying that nearly 40 years after his death people such as yourself are pursuing, updating and even, quite correctly, challenging the output of his very home-grown brand of scholarship. That's not a bad legacy.