Lost legends of Pear Tree - Author Kalwinder Singh Dhindsa on life in 1980s Derby
- Credit: Archant
From the highs of a nostalgic childhood to the lows of his father’s suicide, author Kalwinder Singh Dhindsa’s life is one of loss and rejuvenation..
Life in 1980s Derby wasn’t always particularly easy. Gripped by a series of harsh winters which mirrored periods of economic gloom, the city had its fair share of issues to navigate as the decade progressed.
The start of the decade had even witnessed the city’s football team, Derby County, slump to the second tier of English football; a far cry from the days of Championship triumphs and glorious European adventures just a few years before.
It was against this backdrop that Kalwinder Singh Dhindsa grew up, in the Normanton area of Derby. His childhood was, however, an altogether happier affair.
‘I had a lot of family members around me – my mother’s brothers and sisters and my father’s brothers were all within walking distance so we had cousins very close to home,’ recalls Kal.
‘We all had our own little world that we happily played in; external factors didn’t really affect us that much.’
The area of Normanton that Kal called home was, at the time, synonymous with the aforementioned Derby County; with the Rams’ famous Baseball Ground a stone’s throw from his house.
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While memories of the glory days of the mid to late 1970s under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, and then again under Dave Mackay, were fading, having the club embedded so prominently in the community gave the area a special feel.
‘Living in Pear Tree, every few days there would be a football match at the Baseball Ground and the streets would be full of people,’ he rememebers.
‘The buzz was incredible. You could hear the noise from my house, the roar from the crowd, it was amazing. When all that finished and Derby moved away from the Baseball Ground it really ripped that out from the local community. It all changed, but it was still home.’
And that home has long been a beacon for people of varying backgrounds, even if much has changed since Kal played on those narrow, distinctive streets.
‘There were a lot of people, different communities and not just Punjabi,’ recalls Kal.
‘We had Irish, Ukranian, Caribbean, Polish – it was very multicultural. There might have been different languages and different approaches in how we conducted our lives but deep down we were all the same.
‘We were immigrants, we could all relate to that, so there were never many issues within those communities. Yes, we had some issues with racism and crime that cropped up but thinking back now I really loved my time there – it was a happy, safe place.
‘It’s not quite the same now, I think many communities have become more isolated, but it is still home and I will never reject that. It’s where my father planted his roots in 1967 when he first came to the UK and where I was born and raised.’
Kal’s life was turned upside down in 2006 when his father, Mohinder Singh Dhindsa, died of suicide at the age of 51, having battled the often silent, indiscriminative condition that is depression.
It would be some time before the dark that engulfed Kal would begin to cede to light but in the meantime there was something powerful he could cling to amidst the grip of sadness – an ever-growing sense of place, identity, heritage and culture.
‘I knew that if I let Pear Tree, Normanton and Derby go, not only would I lose my sense of identity but I would also lose any relationship I still had with my father,’ he explains.
‘To me, Pear Tree was my father. I have to honour that memory and remember my own past. That’s why I am so deeply involved in trying to raise Derby’s profile over all these years.’
By his own admission, the months and years following his father’s death saw Kal, a father of two, carry on in a state of flux. He was still living, but moving ‘sideways rather than forward’.
It was the tragic death of one of the world’s most loved stars that gave Kal the impetus to take his own circumstances and transform them into a force for good; a cause he remains steadfastly committed to to this day.
‘For many impacted by suicide, the last thing they want to do is talk about it,’ acknowledges Kal.
‘I never wanted that, I wanted to share my father’s story and help others talk about loved ones that have died in this way and show them that suicide is the direct result of a mental illness that corrupts the mind – it isn’t a sane decision where an individual has simply had enough.
‘That’s how I finally accepted what had happened to my father. For a long while I couldn’t get around it in my head. It was only when Robin Williams passed away that I finally figured it out – he had a mental illness, that’s what killed him; that’s when I was able to move on.’
Kal is well known throughout Derby for championing the city and championing mental health, largely through his literary work – be that books, poems or through education.
Perhaps an unlikely result of his experiences is the strength of connection he has cultivated with some of his community’s heroes; not least Steve Bloomer – a former resident of Pear Tree who, in a career spanning from 1891 to 1914, became an England international and Derby County’s record scorer. His heroics have been immortalised in the song ‘Steve Bloomer’s Watching’; sang before every home Derby match.
‘Some people look at me, constantly talking about the likes of Brian Clough, Peter Taylor and Steve Bloomer and think ‘who cares’ but to me it matters. To me they were more than just football personalities, they were fathers who had families as well as their own personal struggles.
‘I ended up almost piggybacking on the back of statue projects – Clough, Taylor, Bloomer, Mackay among them – and in the process of sharing their stories I could then share my own and those of my father. Bloomer especially keeps cropping up in my life, he’s a really important figure to me.
‘Everything I get involved in comes back to Derby and back to my father. What kicked off my passion for Steve Bloomer was reading Peter Seddon’s excellent biography on him. It took me home, back to Pear Tree, back to the same streets Bloomer walked in his day, the same streets my father had and the ones I walked. Me and Peter have since become friends and I can’t thank him enough – I don’t know where I would be if not for that book.’
Intent on sharing his experiences to help others in similar situations to ‘reflect and come to that understanding and sense of closure a lot sooner’ than he was able to, Kal was faced with an obstacle – how to marry up the memories of his father with his passion for community.It was an obstacle that wasn’t so much chipped away at, rather obliterated in a moment of clarity.
‘I was sitting at my computer and saw a book on my shelf by Gary Imlach, an American football commentator,’ he recalls. ‘His father, Stewart Imlach, played football for Scotland - Gary’s book is entitled My Father and Other Working-class Football Heroes. I had a lightbulb moment – I could take Steve Bloomer’s story and my dad’s story and merge them, hence the name of my book, My father & the lost legend of Pear Tree.
‘I was writing for about ten years before the first book’s release in 2016. When I started there was a lot of bitterness in my words and in the stories I recounted. Thankfully, because it took so long, I was able to live, grow, understand and reflect and my writing changed accordingly. I went back and changed a lot through the process.’
Yet for all the blood, sweat and tears that had transferred from Kal to the pages of his first book, the story was not complete.
‘I didn’t have a definitive end to the story and that’s how the second book, Are We Dreaming, came about – released in 2018.
‘I knew it ended at a specific point and that Bloomer was going to come into it with the unveiling of his statue at Pride Park and my involvement in it, but I wanted a definitive ending.
‘The general ending came with Robin Williams and that moment of clarity but I also wanted to end on a dream sequence. In it, I am dreaming in my bed, in Pear Tree, and am woken by John Motson (the football commentator). I go down to the Baseball Ground and that’s where I meet these lost legends - they come back to me and I thank them for all they did for me. It ended there. I had finally released my story, 12 years after my father had died.’
Kal’s story – growing up in Pear Tree, devoting time and energy to his community and to the memory of his father - has inevitably strengthened his sense of self and an understanding of the myriad elements that make him who he is today.
‘I have a deep feeling of identity as to my heritage and where I am from,’ says Kal. ‘I have a beard but I don’t wear a turban, I am not a baptised Sikh but am proud of who I am. I am a British-born Punjabi Derby man of Sikh origin. All these factors make me who I am; from the English side of my culture to the Punjabi side; I am proud of it all.’
While you would be forgiven for thinking the publishing of his books would be the end of the story, for Kal it is merely the end of the beginning.
‘Neil Gaiman, the writer, once said ‘When bad things happen, make good art’ - I built statues to my heroes, wrote and performed poetry while engaging the community on mental health; and all because of my father.
‘I need to keep writing about these experiences, sharing them, getting them down on paper because one day I will have to tell this story to my daughter and son when they ask how their grandad died. I want to tell them the truth.
‘Don’t forget these people but remember how they lived, the happiness that came before. Keep talking about them and their lives because only when their names are forgotten do they truly die. I can’t help everybody but I have helped many. If I can continue to do that, all my work will have been worthwhile.’