“Screams from adoring teenagers and a “mini-riot” made up the fantastic reception BBC Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn received when opening the new Strawberry Fields boutique in Rickmansworth on Saturday morning.”
“Traffic through the town centre was delayed as the DJ made his way to Penn Place. Several times the police cordon around the shop front was broken as frantic teenagers peered closer into the glass window. A small child trampled in the rush and the decorative flowerbeds outside the shop crushed.”
“Tempers frayed as limited numbers of fans were allowed into the shop to receive autographed photographs of this quietly spoken doctor’s son from Bournemouth, who himself had to be rescued by police in the scramble.”
“He left the premises by a back entrance to make his way to a football engagement.”
(Watford Observer, October 11, 1968)
Tony Blackburn, screams, frantic teenagers, really? Yes really, this was the 1960s.
Four years earlier, there had been a gala opening of fourteen shops in Penn Place. The event had even been broadcast in the USA, because William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had lived and married in Rickmansworth.
I was eight, and my family had just moved to Chorleywood. Mum and Dad both worked, and we would do our weekly shop in Rickmansworth on Saturday morning. At some point, the local grocers Anthony Jackson, just along from Penn Place, was replaced by that brash newcomer Tesco, to my grandma Sallie’s disapproval. I was appointed custodian of the Green Shield Stamps: it was my task to stick the vast roll of stamps Mum acquired at the till into the booklets.
It was quite a relief when they introduced a stamp representing ten of the little blighters.
Then on Saturday 5th October 1968, Strawberry Fields threw open its doors, shamelessly exploiting the huge stock of goodwill accruing to that marvellous song. I wasn’t a cool twelve year old, but I knew straight away it was the best shop in town. When I had finished getting my Saturday morning haircut, I would wait in there soaking up the music, looking longingly at the records and studying the latest charts on the board, while Mum was getting her perm from Mr Louvère, two doors away. My older brother Rob might have done the same as me, although about this time he more or less abandoned barbers’ shops.
I don’t remember actually buying many records there. Rob and I still shared a bedroom, and I was usually also happy to share his records, so I was introduced to bands like Led Zeppelin and King Crimson while I was quite young. We also possessed a reel-to-reel tape machine, which we used to record our favourites, in the early days from pirate radio and Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops, and later from Radio 1.
But there’s one record I certainly did buy there. About March 1970, I heard a languid, dreamy song one Sunday morning on Kenny Everett’s radio show. It was called The Prettiest Star by David Bowie, who had made his chart debut the previous year with Space Oddity. (Not to be confused with the brittle, metallic glam-rock version later to appear on Aladdin Sane.). It had a beautiful, wailing guitar part, played – although I didn’t know at the time – by Marc Bolan, soon to break through to huge success with Ride a White Swan.
Next Saturday morning I was in Strawberry Fields asking for the record. Despite the plugs from Kenny Everett, it hadn’t done much, and they didn’t stock it. But they could order it for me, and it would be there by Thursday. So I broke my bus journey home from school in Watford, and stopped off in Rickmansworth to pick it up. When I got home I ran upstairs and put it straight on the record player, with the stacking arm up to make it repeat play indefinitely. According to Wikipedia, it reportedly sold fewer than 800 copies, but I still think it’s beautiful.
Another record I bought there was much less cool, certainly at the time. I had heard Let’s Hang On by the Four Seasons on that radio show where Jimmy Savile (yes, him) played the charts from five, ten and fifteen years ago. The song ambushed me with its cheesy falsetto pop drive and conviction. This was years before the band’s 1970s disco reinvention, decades before Jersey Boys. I found in their imported oldies box and bought it. Rob nearly disowned me.
My other clear memory of Strawberry Fields again relates to David Bowie. In April 1973, Rob, a passionate fan, had pre-ordered Aladdin Sane , illegally discounted, from an upstart mail order advertiser in Melody Maker called Virgin Records.
Release day arrived, but not the LP. Luckily our cousin Jonathan was visiting: we all went to Strawberry Fields to listen to the new album – I can’t remember whether it was in a booth, or sharing headphones. The verdict was positive, and Rob prevailed upon Jonathan to buy a copy there and then – enabling us to listen repeatedly to Bowie’s new masterpiece until our cousin returned home. After that I think there were just a couple of days of anguish until Rob’s own copy arrived.
In 1974 our family moved to Chipperfield, and soon afterwards I left for university. We didn’t visit Strawberry Fields again. The shop moved down to the High Street. Online comments suggest that it lost its cutting edge: also the collapse of Resale Price Maintenance in the 1990s caused fierce price competition in the record industry from chains like W H Smith and Our Price. This made life very difficult for small independent record shops, and at some point unknown to me, years after it opened with such a bang, Strawberry Fields closed its doors with barely a whimper. So ended a tiny but magical chapter of Rickmansworth’s history.
It started with Pauli. We had booked a villa near Pisa in the summer of 2000, and we drove up a narrow winding road and reached a remote house. As we got out of the car with our two young daughters, still unsure whether we had reached the right place, a large and scruffy Alsatian bounded towards us. We braced and stood in front of the girls, but the dog’s charge turned out to be no more than a friendly welcome.
The owner explained that Pauli lived at the house, but that he would happily take her away if we preferred, otherwise could we feed and look after her? By this time, the girls were excited about having a dog about the house, so we agreed. She was very well behaved and no trouble at all.
When I took a run along the track which led up through the woods, she followed me. At first I wasn’t happy having to be responsible for her, but soon realised it was she who was looking after me, and was very pleased to have her company when we encountered large dogs some distance from their owners. Pauli kept in range, and we reached a clearing with wide views: there in the distance was the beautiful old city with its famous leaning tower. Only one city in the world looks like that. I called her back and we returned to the house together.
A year or so later I was walking with Rachel and Alice when we were greeted by a friendly dog. We chatted to the owner, and the girls told her that we didn’t have a dog because Mum and Dad didn’t think it was a good idea. Their wistful, uncomplaining tone made me feel slightly hard-hearted, as was no doubt intended. Our happy experience with Pauli encouraged us, and dog ownership entered the agenda.
Debbie had grown up with an elderly black Labrador called Snudge, and that became our choice of breed. By the autumn of 2002 we were the proud owners of Tasarla Cracker, puppy of Tasarla Black Jewel Ginty, sired by Hatchfield Feargal, a Field Trial Champion. When we visited the breeders to choose one of the litter, Cracker ran over to say hello, wagging his tail and licking our hands: he had been adopted by the breeders’ daughter, who had carried him about. As a result he was super friendly, both to people and to other dogs. In his playful enthusiasm he tugged at my shoelace and managed to untie it. This was the dog for us.
While I was at work, Debbie worked hard on training and socialising him, and his friendliness made him an ideal family dog, tolerant of the abundance of attention he received from excitable girls of eight and six years old. He had known only love and care, and he was gentle and trusting. But we hadn’t foreseen what a calming influence he would be in the household. Not that our lives had been particularly turbulent, but like almost any household with children, there would be the occasional noisy argument or shouting match. Cracker would slink off and hide, looking guilty and distressed, under the impression that he was in disgrace. The sight of his innocent suffering would often lower the temperature – or at least the volume – of the argument.
He loved charging around with other dogs, and once or twice escaped into next door’s garden, where he and Snips trashed some plants in their exuberant play. Another time I was impressed by the ability of dogs to moderate their play: when he was newly full grown he was charging round the garden of our holiday cottage in Dorset with three other dogs. The game must have been too boisterous, as one of them suddenly let out a yelp. The dogs didn’t stop, but immediately dialled down their speed and intensity.
His friendliness with other dogs did have a downside. He was confident of his irresistibility, and this confidence was often justified. (Don’t worry, pregnancy was not a risk). But he wasn’t always a gentleman, and didn’t always understand that when a bitch (or a dog) says no, they mean no.
And there were one or two gaps in his socialisation: flappy raincoats could set him off, and sometimes he would be indignant about people who had the temerity to take a walk unaccompanied by a dog, or to come round a corner unexpectedly. He resented our neighbours moving about their own back garden. Also he gave our daughters the opportunity to add the word coprophagia to their vocabulary at an early age. And to our embarrassment, he could sometimes exhibit racist tendencies. He certainly wasn’t perfect.
Debbie’s brother and his wife out in Athens owned Nelson, also a soft-hearted black Labrador. This meeting, billed as the resistible force vs the moveable object, sadly never took place.
He was polite about the house. Having grown up with Tumbi being so badly behaved at dinner time, I was determined that Cracker should not be fed scraps at the table. He can’t have been happy about the delicious meat smell drifting down from our plates: he would march off and glug great quantities of water, as if to say “who needs meat when you can have water?” Then, as plates were emptied and cutlery laid down, his hopeful black nose would slowly appear over the table.
In his early years, Cracker often accompanied me on my runs, after one Saturday when his big brown eyes stared up hopefully as I tied my running shoes. Why not? I thought. He had trouble matching my running speed, by which I mean he preferred either a second gear trot or a fifth gear sprint. So when he was off lead – he would dawdle, then zoom past, then dawdle again. Some nuances of running etiquette did escape him, typically when we encountered a chocolate Labrador bitch.
But there was such joy in seeing him bounding along beside me, ears flapping. He would go off on detours but I could always trust him to come back to me soon. Sometimes he would nuzzle my hand as we ran along, as if to say “Thank you, Dad.” Only once, on a cold and very wet February day, did I sense him staring at me asking the question: “Why are we doing this?” I didn’t have an answer for him.
Once I took him on an absurdly ambitious run along the Cornish Coast Path from Boscastle to Widemouth Bay – over twelve miles. There were thunderstorms about. I wildly underestimated how long this fiercely undulating run would take, and among the worry about whether we would ever arrive, the girls had already planned the Cracker Memorial, a giant bronze statue with his noble features looking out to sea from a prominent headland. Meanwhile I would be remembered by a cross made of a couple of lollipop sticks secured by a rubber band.
One time he found a squirrel in the middle of a field, unable to take its usual escape route up a tree. Cracker was upon it in no time, but was then stumped as to what he should do next. His killer instinct lagged some way behind his speed.
I noticed that after we started running I seemed to get more respect from him on walks and around the house, as if he now accepted me as a pack leader. Once he was even allowed to take part in a charity 10k trail race in Chalfont St Giles.
At one point in the race we came to what seemed an impossible stile for him to pass through: while I was fretting and scratching my head about what to do next, he got bored with my dithering, took a run-up and leapt clean over, landing safely on the other side.
We had a go at Canicross (“Where your dog takes you for a run”) and we finished 5.6km in a respectable 27 minutes 52 seconds, sixth out of ten in our class. I’m pretty sure he could have kept up with a faster partner. We even appeared in the background on The One Show: they had been there filming a piece in which ex-athlete Colin Jackson was partnered with a humorously unsuitable dog.
Keeping a pet is often recommended as a means of reducing stress. It doesn’t always work like that. But sometimes after a frustrating day at work I would pass through the lounge on the way upstairs to change out of my work clothes, and Cracker would roll over for a tummy rub. I could feel my mood lighten at the chance to give – and to receive – a little love, with no trace of the demands which people make on each other. Although he could be overenthusiastic: whenever some task required my head to be near floor level, he would regard it as a slobbering opportunity.
He could be obedient to the point of stupidity: Alice found that if he was lying at the edge of the sofa, he would still obey the “Roll over!” command, even if meant that he tumbled to the floor. Repeatedly.
He loved the childrens’ summer parties: he would lead the kids round and round the garden in a frantic game of chase. Sometimes the girls would set up an obstacle course using play equipment, and he became quite proficient. He won the agility competition (and a medal) at the Chorleywood Village Day, because we had trained him to run through the play tunnel – all the other dogs failed at this hurdle. He almost retained his title the following year – under Rachel’s expert guidance he completed a superb round, but in the tiebreaker the judges inexplicably awarded first prize to a dog with an adult handler. Being a Labrador, however, his performance in the obedience competition (i.e. not eating the sausage) was less impressive.
By the time he was twelve, his health was failing: the cancer which had visited him since he was eighteen months old became overpowering. He grew lethargic, and could no longer accompany us on walks. Reluctantly we took him on his last visit to the vet, where the woman gently injected him with a sinister blue fluid. He hardly reacted, passing imperceptibly from sleep to something deeper. I know that stuff’s not for humans, but it did its work very peacefully. “He was the perfect family dog” I told the vet as I looked on him for the last time.
We remember him for his patient, joyful and loving personality. If a hug was happening, he always wanted to be part of it. We unanimously voted him the nicest member of our family. Sometimes he seemed too good for us: as if we just didn’t deserve him. Bless him.
Alice took the rap, wrongly I believe. It was 25th May 2005 – I know that because it was one of the most famous nights in Champions League history, the Miracle of Istanbul.
Unaware that the match was scheduled for that evening – or that Liverpool would be finalists – I had arranged for Mum and Dad to look after the girls, and bought us tickets for to see Jack Dee at the Wycombe Swan. He was very funny. I don’t think he had taken account of the Champions League calendar either, because after the interval he moaned (amusingly) about missing the match, and goaded the football fans in the audience by threatening to reveal the half-time score – which I now know was 3-0 to AC Milan.
Later, back in the car park, I overheard excited football talk coming from the next car. I turned on the radio and heard the story of Liverpool’s amazing comeback, and penalty shootout victory.
Dad regarded himself as Welsh, and I see myself as a Watford man, but we were both born in Liverpool, and would support them against anyone but Watford. So back at home, he had no doubt been looking forward to a night watching the footie while Mum fielded the kids. I imagine him getting steadily gloomier as AC Milan built up their three goal lead in the first half.
About seven minutes into the second half, there was a cry from the kitchen accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. Dad went straight to the kitchen, where he found Mum staring at a mess of glass shards and Marmite adorning the kitchen floor. Alice had picked up a jar by the lid, which hadn’t been properly screwed on, and a half spiral of contact coupled with the stickiness of the product had kept the jar and its contents attached just long enough to lift it over the hard tiled kitchen floor.
Mum and Dad set to work clearing up the dangerous, sticky mess while keeping Rachel and Alice at a safe distance. Finally, calm and order was restored, and Dad could return to the football. It was three all. In a six minute period, Gerrard, Šmicer and Alonso had all scored – the most amazing comeback in Champions League history.
And Dad had missed it all. AC Milan then steadied their ship, and there were no further goals in normal time or extra time, and Liverpool triumphed in the penalty shootout.
But who should take the blame for that Marmite disaster? Debbie is a wonderful cook. My contribution in the kitchen is to clear up afterwards, and in doing so I frequently find lids sat loosely atop ingredient jars. And just today I found the Ariel top not completely screwed on. Chaos and anarchy.
Of course, it’s never a good idea to pick up jars or bottles by the lid. But Alice was only eight, and entitled to believe that sensible adults wouldn’t have left it in a hazardous state. So I wonder if the Marmite had been put back in the cupboard after Debbie had left it unscrewed. Now I’m not comparing this to the Dreyfus affair or the Birmingham Six, but I do think there might have been a miscarriage of justice here.
I wouldn’t describe Debbie as Marmite – I don’t think anyone hates her, and I love her very much. But she does sometimes fail to screw caps and lids on properly. And d’you know what, that’s probably the worst thing about her.
When my grandparents Sallie and Jack came to live with us in Chorleywood in 1964, it was, I imagine, part of the deal that we would be getting a dachshund. They had owned one before, also called Tumbi.
This dog was in turn named after a dog their son (my uncle) Philip had got to know in India during the war, named after a village in Gujarat.
Unaware of the adage that a dog is for life, Mum and Dad promised my brother Rob a dog and me a cat as presents, and soon after we took delivery of a black-and-tan dachshund puppy, and later a white kitten which I named Cleopatra, shortened to Cleo, later known as Puddha.
At eight years old, my early experience of dogs had not been positive. I remember being nipped by a poodle in a cafe when I had made an unwelcome approach. I had also been scared of a Labrador owned by my Mum’s friend, which no doubt sensed and reflected my fear, and barked at me for what seemed a full half hour. So it took some time before I achieved any rapport with Tumbi. At first I must have assumed she spoke English, otherwise why else would I have endlessly repeated “do your widdle” while walking her round the garden?
If Rob and I were under any illusion that Tumbi and Cleo belonged to us, it didn’t last long: Sallie fed them, and looked after them during the daytime. That was enough to earn Tumbi’s loyalty. The cat, of course, belonged to nobody.
Tumbi – whom we also called Wumpy, or Wumpy-Tump – was born, we were told, on 29th February 1964, so only had a true birthday every four years. She was fiercely loyal to friends and family, and would howl her greeting when familiar legs entered the house. She had a good memory, and even occasional visitors were assured of a warm welcome. The exception to this was my Auntie Sheila, who was always greeted with suspicion, even hostility. I assume this was because Tumbi detected essence of cat on her clothing. Also she must have had a bad experience with the milkman, as the clinking of milk bottles sent her into a fury.
We tried to get her to chase away the squirrels who were devouring the bird food, opening the back door with the instruction “Send ‘em off!” She followed the same path across the lawn every time, heedless of where the varmints might be. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing a couple of squirrels simply stepping back a few paces, as if from a railway track.
We didn’t train Tumbi well. Sallie was not a big eater, which was often the source of arguments with my mum, who worried that she wasn’t feeding herself properly. Sallie would surreptitiously feed the dog pieces of her teatime cake, or dinner from the table. This made Tumbi seriously overweight and gave her terrible habits: she came to expect food at the table, and would insistently howl for it – a problem which got worse as she grew older.
Sallie was 77 when she came to live with us, so she didn’t walk quickly. Perhaps she felt Tumbi needed more exercise, so as she walked along the flinty surface of Park Avenue, she would kick the stones with her boots for Tumbi to chase after. This created another bad habit: Tumbi started barking ceaselessly for us to throw stones for her. Not very safe – there’s a reason why dogs are usually encouraged to chase sticks instead. Also very annoying, to us and the neighbours. Once, just to get our own back, at a riverside picnic Rob and I threw such a barrage of ‘tonys for her that she just stood there standing in the stream barking furiously, too paralysed with choice to chase any of them.
Sallie died when Tumbi was seven. Our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway arrived to find her lifeless in her rocking chair, with Tumbi lying patiently at her feet.
Mum was houseproud, and wouldn’t have had a dog out of choice, but she dutifully took on responsibility. It wasn’t easy: with Mum and Dad both working, the dog was left alone for long periods, and as she got older some neighbours reported her howling in distress when left alone during the day. With hindsight we should have hired a dog walker, or at least a visitor to let her out in the middle of the day.
Encouraged by Mum, we spoke to Tumbi in her own language, a joint development I think by Mum and her cousin Mollie. Suddie wob mom doll meant “thought he was mother’s darling” and Ubble sings doin’ to los meant “awful things they’re doing to you”. I also gave her a full name, in keeping with what I felt was her (hem) aristocratic bearing: Fittipaldi J. Esterhazy J. Mustang-Goulash J. Los J. Sisyphus J. Tumbi. That requires explanation.
Fittipaldi – after Emerson Fittipaldi, the racing driver, obviously.
J’s – we once held a pencil to her paw in an attempt to get her to sign her name, and it came out looking vaguely like a “J”.
Esterhazy – after Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the villain of the Dreyfus affair. Who apparently spent his last years writing anti-Semitic articles in Harpenden.
Mustang-Goulash – no idea, probably just added for extra length and comic effect
Los – from Tumbi language, meaning “you”.
Sisyphus – Tumbi’s habit of chasing stones, and particularly, pushing them up hills only to see them roll back down again, earned her this nickname from Dad,
Tumbi – her actual name.
In the second half of Tumbi’s life, Rob and I were sometimes a little mean to her. Back when Gary Glitter was thought of as nothing worse than an untalented prat (innocent times), we would sit Tumbi vertically – which can’t have been good for her long spine – and make her dance along to I’m the Leader of the Gang, her paws punch in time. And when Rob brought home his life partner, she was shocked at our cruelty, addressing the dog in her own language with phrases like “Are you dettin old an’ useless an’ dyin’, den?” “Are you big fat useless lump, den?”
The cat, of course, could easily outwit Tumbi. If the dog was occupying the basket, the cat, being fed on demand, would approach her food cupboard miaowing. We then put out some food, but she walked away immediately. Tumbi (definitely not fed on demand) would rush out of her basket hoping for the leftovers, only to find the food dish snatched away, and Puddha settled in her warm basket.
Tumbi always enjoyed her walkies, and in her last years at Chipperfield she still got excited when her lead was brought out. Once as I walked along our road, she followed at a snail’s pace on a gradually climbing bank and found herself on top of a steep slope, trapped by her short, arthritic limbs. So I walked her back to the start of her climb, and turned round. She went exactly the same way, and got stuck again. I didn’t try to walk her again. In her dotage she also walked into our garden pond, and got lost in our (pleasant but not huge) garden. Sometimes she would plod into her basket, quite unaware that the cat was already in residence. Puddha tolerated this intrusion with weary acceptance.
Tumbi had been part of my life from eight years old through grammar school and university to the beginning of my career. When I visited Mum and Dad from London one Sunday in early 1980, Tumbi looked confused and immobile – completely out of sorts. Dad said he would take her to the vet the next morning. I asked if he was expecting any treatment to be recommended for her, and he shook his head. I got to the floor, gave her a last cuddle, and said “Going to see Nana”. Mum was touched and amused to hear this from an avowed atheist.
Tumbi did have some bad habits, largely because Sallie had been more of an indulgent grandma than a mum to her. But Tumbi was loyal, affectionate and fun, and I loved to hear her charging upstairs to lie at the end of my bed on weekend mornings. She had lived to a ripe old age, and almost reached her fourth birthday (i.e. nearly sixteen years). I’m sure she went to doggie heaven. Well, probably.
When I was about eleven, I was an avid collector of coins, attracted by the romance of finding Victorian pennies, halfpennies and once, a silver Edwardian shilling in my change. A fondness for money itself may also have played a part. The announcement in 1966 of plans for decimalisation injected urgency into my hobby, and when I grew old enough to do a paper round, a large part of the proceeds went towards this solitary pastime.
Occasionally I bought a copy of Coins and Medals, before moving downmarket to the livelier upstart Coin Monthly. But it was probably as a reader of the former that I casually asked my father whether he had any medals from the war.
He replied that he had not, because he had never claimed them. Probably like many others, he had regarded these baubles as a poor reward for years of putting his life at risk in the service of His Majesty. But then he thought, why not? and decided to send off for them. Of course, he still remembered his Service Number. Before long, he had received – over twenty years after the war ended – four medals: the War Medal 1939-1945, the Defence Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, and specifically for his main theatre of service, the Burma Star.
I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which they were delivered: less so by the medals themselves. “Silver” coins minted before 1947 still consisted of 50% actual silver. But the War Medal and the Defence Medal, although silver in colour, were made of cupro-nickel. More disappointingly, they carried no identification, suggesting medals stacked up in a warehouse, waiting to be claimed. There was nothing personal about them: I could not have expressed this at the time, but I was left with the impression that the government had regarded the recipients not as individuals but as a homogeneous, expendable mass.
My mother’s parents lived with us, and after my Dad’s medals arrived, my grandfather Jack Brockbank similarly decided to see if he could still claim his medals from the Great War – by now nearly fifty years previous.
To his surprise, after filling in a form, they arrived. He had been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
I found these far more impressive. The British War Medal was struck in silver, and showed St George on horseback trampling a skull and cross-bones and a shield showing the Prussian eagle. The Victory Medal showed a winged figure of Victory, and was inscribed “The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919”, dating the end of the war to the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps from our perspective the Second World War more closely fits the description of a “war for civilisation”.
But it was the edge which fascinated me: both medals were inscribed “173612 DVR. J. BROCKBANK. RE.” Although the medal was still meagre recompense for the dangers he had faced, it was at least personal – something the recipient could be proud to own.
Relatively few of the British War Medals survive: when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the silver market in 1979, the silver price went up eightfold, and their bullion value far exceeded their market value as medals: as a result, many were melted down.
In the 1920s the British War Medal and Victory Medal acquired the nickname Mutt and Jeff when worn together, inspired by the US newspaper comic strip. When accompanied by other commonly awarded medal, the 1914–15 Star (or the 1914 Star), the set of three were humorously known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, after three popular comic strip characters, a dog, a penguin and a rabbit.
My father and grandfather allowed me to be custodian of their medals, but as a collector, I didn’t want to leave it there. Some time around 1970 I bought a few of the other WW2 medals, where they were affordable from paper round pay.
I also acquired a 1914-15 Star, the one which Jack had not received. I noticed that it had an inscription on the back, but I didn’t pay it much attention, and my small medal collection spent half a century largely undisturbed on my bookshelf in its Coinval album. Just occasionally I’d glance at them, and feel gratitude, with a flicker of peacetime boomer guilt, that I’d never been called upon to fight in a war, as my grandfather and father were.
2022 began with a flurry of renewed work on my family tree, as the 1921 Census emerged. In the course of my researches, I read about a Facebook page called Medals Going Home, run by postman and genealogist Adam Simpson-York. He acquires named WW1 medals and other identifiable memorabilia on eBay, and reunites them with descendants or other family members. To do this he uses Ancestry.com to follow the family down to the present, and social media such as Facebook to locate living family members to receive the medal. His randomly scattered acts of altruism have been featured on the BBC’s One Show.
What a marvellous idea! To track down a missing medal belonging to a particular serviceman or woman is virtually impossible. But going the other way, pushing rather than pulling, as it were – starting from a named medal including a Service Number (especially one with a less common surname) – it is frequently possible to find their grandchildren, or great-nieces and great-nephews etc. And a medal which has been lost, forgotten, sold, stolen or cleared out of a house at some point over the last hundred years can again find a home where it is valued.
I remembered the 1914-15 Star I had bought, and went to look at it for the first time in years: it would mean so much more to the recipient’s family than to me.
Using the Ancestry website I started building W. B. Boast’s family tree. I soon established that his full name was William Benjamin Boast, born in Lambeth, London in 1887. He got through the war, married and had a couple of children, and lived until 1956 – so there could be some living descendants.
I also found his naval record, which tells us that he joined the Navy in 1903 when he was 16 years old, and lists the ships he crewed. The record also tells us that he was 5 foot 6, with auburn hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, that he had a scar on his lower lip, two scars on his right hand, and tattoos of a girl’s head in a star on his right arm, and a sword on his left arm. It shows his progress from Boy, 2nd Class to Able Seaman in three years.
He served on HMS Malaya from January 1916 to April 1919, fighting at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The Malaya was hit eight times and took major damage as it was last in line of the squadron of fast battleships which had to turn right round, one after the other, in the face of the full German line. A total of 65 men died in the battle, or later of their injuries, and the Malaya got home with a serious list.
W.B. Boast was invalided out in 1919 following the amputation of the third finger of his right hand. Back in civilian life in 1921, he worked as an electrical fitter in Willesden, London, and was still doing so in 1939.
But I was no nearer to finding the next generation down after his daughter and son. So I enlisted Adam’s help at Medals Going Home. Within 48 hours, he emailed me to say that he had found Able Seaman Boast’s granddaughter: he included her telephone number and said she would be expecting my call.
I called her, a lovely lady living in Great Yarmouth. She was only three when her grandfather died, so she didn’t remember him, but she knew that he had served in the Navy, and was very pleased to know that the medal would be on its way to her house. And that, I think, is where it belongs.
My parents were members of the Watford U3A Creative Writing group in the 1990s and 2000s, and almost all of these pieces by my mother (Kathleen Edwards née Brockbank 1925-2007) were written during that period. Where they relate to specific memories, I have attempted to order them chronologically, and the others according to their estimated date of writing. The photographs and links are my additions.
One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten. He sat on the chair, looking lonely, unhappy One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten. I clambered beside him, to comfort him counting One two, three four, five six, seven eight, nine ten.
At home on the bookcase I have a small statue and each time I see it I’m back home beside him Happily counting while mother stands by. Suddenly sensing that now its not playtime I slip off his lap and floorbound sit watching while mother unhappy, her face clouded, weary, says softly, “It's alright Jack. Don't worry. Go swiftly and safely. I know you'll do well".
Many years later, the rest of the story, familiar to many but still hard to tell. That morning he left us to stand in a work pound with a few dozen others as desperate as he. All hoping to be the one that was chosen to work for one day maybe two even three He was counting because of an old superstition Good luck would attend him by counting to ten.
That day was a good one, he came home delighted He'd called at the fish shop to bring home our tea. We had it with chips and some new bread and butter It tasted so good I remember it still.
Depression recession, laid off, redundant. Words often spoken by bland T.V. announcers In how many places are such scenes re-enacted? Have they all happy endings as happy as ours? All we can do is to try to make certain that no-one feels lonely or useless or hungry as to how we can do this well thats a big question If you know the answer please telephone me!
Old age sharpens the memory of the past, so it has been said. Perhaps this is why some events and some people stay in the mind. Uncle Tom is as sharply defined as if we were in the same room, and yet it is nearly fifty years since I last saw him.
He lived in North Wales, across the road from the Aqueduct, a renowned local landmark. We lived about forty miles away, a mere nothing these days, but then the journey involved a ninety minute train journey on a slow, stop-at every-station train. We lived in a three-bedroomed house and there were four of us, my mother and father, my brother and myself. I don’t think he ever slept at our house, but I can clearly see him sitting in a rocking chair, feet stretched out towards the open fire, pipe in mouth (it was never alight and I doubt if it had any tobacco in it), elbows touching the arm of the chair, hands waving enthusiastically as he listened to his favourite operatic arias, often joining in, inventing his own librettos as he sang. It was my job to wind the gramophone if it began to flag. Uncle Tom did not need winding up. He would continue to hum until my efforts were rewarded and: “Mimi was once more in her garret sewing until the frost was over”, hitting the notes correctly. In retrospect it was Uncle Tom that fashioned my love of opera which has since informed my life.
He was a large man with a strong square-jawed face, gentle eyes and eloquent expressive hands. He hated violence of any kind, certain that the Great War, his war (he had fought with my father at Gallipoli) was a senseless criminal waste of lives which should never be repeated.
During the second world war I was evacuated to Wales and spent some time living with Uncle Tom’s brother and wife who lived nearby. We would meet over tea in his tiny kitchen. His wife Dora presided over the teapot. She had a large unfriendly dog who used to sit on a chair by the tea table, a napkin around his neck, lapping his tea from a china saucer. Uncle Tom was reluctant to allow me to share the table with the dog so the dog would be banished to lie on the floor where he would growl angrily and nip any feet within range.
We would go for walks by the River Dee, which ran under the aqueduct, or by the canal which ran over it. He would tell me that some day there might be a fair world where everyone would have an equal crack of the whip. I wasn’t too sure what the phrase meant, but he explained “fair shares and opportunities for all”. He hoped I would live to see it. So do I, but I doubt it.
He was adopted by a large female cat which wandered starving into the house, but was quickly banished to the back yard by the large unfriendly dog. He fed the cat secretly, and found an old wooden box for it to lie in, well hidden between the wall of the yard and a tree. The cat repaid him by producing litters of kittens at regular intervals. Uncle Tom would be dispatched to “drown them in the Dee” He would obediently take them away, return home, try to light his tobacco-less pipe, and all would be well until the next time.
Some time later, during a family crisis, my brother and I had to go to the brickworks where he was employed. It was beginning to get dark and as we waited in the large factory we could see many pairs of curious eyes shining through the gloom. “What are those?” we asked. “Tom’s cats” was the reply, “He says they keep the mice down, but we all wish he would get their mother seen to”.
Uncle Tom died the day my first son was born. A man of passionate beliefs, sensitive, empathetic, I still miss him, and hope he found the “presence that disturbed him” that he spoke of, misquoting Wordsworth as we walked beside the river Dee.
It began in a lift, a very small lift, with just enough room to take a trolley, its occupant and me. It was the beginning of the most frightening moment of my life.
It had been a fairly routine day. It was 2 pm, nearly time to go off duty. The telephone rang; could we admit a little girl from casualty with more than 45% burns? She had been stretching up to reach a snapshot on a shelf near the fire when her clothing caught fire. I relayed the message to the ward sister. She took the phone from me. Her voice was curt and somewhat exasperated as she turned to me. “You’ll have to stay on late to take her to the theatre; I can’t spare anyone else.”
The lift was gloomy, dark and noisy. The little girl’s screams had been muted by morphia but she moaned quietly. I held her hand.
“Its all right, Mummy will be here soon. The doctor is going to make you better. You’ll go to sleep, and when you wake up Mummy will be there.”
“You promise, Mummy and Auntie Betty. They won’t be cross will they?”
“I promise. No, they won’t be cross.”
They’d better not be cross, I thought to myself. How could they be so careless? What was a six year old doing alone in the house?
“Can I have Jane? I want Jane”
“Soon. Very soon.”
“I can’t go to sleep without Jane”.
“I’ll find her for you if I can. If I can’t, I know she will be here when you wake up.”
Who or what was Jane? A doll or a teddy? Perhaps I could call my friend on the children’s ward. She might be able to find a discarded toy that would help if mummy and Aunty Betty were too distraught to bring it with them.
When we reached the theatre she refused to let go of my hand until the anaesthetic took effect. The surgeon pulled back the sheet. “This won’t take long. She’s far too shocked to take a prolonged anaesthetic. Wait there nurse, we will need you soon to take her back.”
Theatre Sister nodded reassuringly. “It will be good for her to have a familiar face with her when she wakes up.” Hospital gossip had told me that this particular theatre sister terrified all who came into contact with her including renowned surgeons. Not so this day though.
I must remember to ask her mother to bring Jane. I’ll ask casualty to ring up. I tried to think who was on duty in casualty. Was it someone I knew? My train of thought was interrupted,
“Its all right, nurse. You can go now”
“No I can’t go, I have to wait…”. My voice trailed away. The trolley was pushed past me, and I saw that Jane would not be needed.
The silence was absolute. Everyone seemed to be in suspended animation. Even now, 45 years later, I can describe the theatre ante-room in minute detail. The small figure was lifeless. Until that moment I had not realised what death meant. Now I knew, and I found it terrifying. It was the absence of life. I knew now why people believed in the soul. The child on the trolley had retained nothing of the little girl I had taken up in the lift. Something had gone, but where? Not to an all loving all caring God. Where was he when those little arms stretched up too far?
“I’ll take her down.” Nobody stopped me. Back to the lift, darker and colder. I held the hand again. But it wasn’t her hand. She wasn’t there.
Back in the ward in the side room reserved for visitors I saw two women, one carrying a small battered Teddy – Jane? The sun shone brightly lighting up every corner of the room. Why then did it feel so cold? They were silent. Staring into a blackness only they could see.
I like to think that the little girl found Jane.
The Way We Were
Matron sat bolt upright behind a huge desk. I stood in front; I could not do otherwise – there was no other furniture in the room. “Is your family part of the Brocklebank Shipping Line?” she asked, but did not wait for an answer.
I answered questions on schooling, yes, I had matriculated. No, I had not completed my training at a local children’s hospital. “Why not?” I couldn’t tell her that I had left because one of the children had died. Sick adults die as well; if I wanted to be a nurse I would have to get used to it. So I lied.
“I left because I felt that I would get a better training here”.
“Why do you want to be a nurse?”
“I always thought I would like to be a doctor, but I think women are more useful as nurses; they are better at caring”.
I knew it was rubbish; I was, and still am ashamed. But she looked pleased. I was accepted, possibly because she thought there was an outside chance that I was connected to the Brocklebank Shipping Line.
Breakfast was at 7am. It was consumed at great haste. We were always anxious to know if authority had decided in the night that we would be needed on another ward.
Night Sister closed the meal by rapidly intoning grace, and where we to go. We had learned to accept our fate without a change of expression. We received a full report on our arrival on the ward. Sleeves rolled down, wrists trim in starched cuffs, hands clasped dutifully behind our backs; then to work!
The junior student nurses – or “pro’s” as we were called – were banished to the sluice room, scrubbing everything in sight so that when the Assistant Matron did her rounds she found “everything exactly as you would like to find it, Nurse”.
There was a mid-morning break. Half an hour maximum, often only ten minutes. Tidy your bedroom, change apron, grab a snack.
Make beds. We did this at a tremendous rate, and we enjoyed it. It was making people comfortable, and gossiping time. The patients would tell us their worries, and we would tell them ours.
Ward rounds followed. God-like consultants walked from bed to bed, trailing an army of silent acolytes in strict ranking order.
Professor C, the Consultant Physician, was short in stature, incisive and brilliant. It was said he had the Chinese ability to diagnose merely by taking a pulse. His bedside lectures were enthralling, but I always found myself hoping the patients didn’t understand all he was saying, although we did use jargon intended to mask reality. For instance, tuberculosis was described as pthisis, or acid-fast bacillus – anything but TB, which the patient would readily interpret as what in those days was a death sentence for him and probably for some of his family as well. Perhaps the Consultant occasionally made mistakes, but we were not aware of them. If any of us were taken ill, he is the doctor we would choose to treat us.
The Consultant Surgeon (always known as “Mr.R”) was noted for immediate decisions and radical surgery. He was handsome, and he knew it. Mopping his brow in the theatre made most of us go weak at the knees. His smile alone was said to cost his private patients fifty guineas. He operated fast, and most of his patients recovered. Everyone adored him.
After the consultants came first, the Registrar, slightly more approachable than the Consultant. One I remember in particular had the word “rat” as part of his name, and was called so by the nurses on account of his amorous propensities; we all knew it, so few were deceived by his charm.
And after the Registrar came the Housemen, still superior to the nurses, but easy to talk to given the right circumstances. We would exchange advice on how to cope with demanding seniors or difficult patients. The Housemen were immature, inexperienced and weary. We had much in common.
During the day, Matron would do a ward round. She was 4 ft 10, and yet made a rule banning any trainee probationer under 5 ft 3. She wore a large starched hat rumoured to be a foot high, though no-one ever got near enough to her to check if this was true. We were all terrified of her, from the most senior consultants downwards. Before the war she ordered all her ward sisters to do the patriotic thing and join the PMRAF nursing service reserve, but in 1939, as soon as they were likely to be called up, she ordered all of them to resign – – she didn’t want to lose any of her staff!
She would sometimes refuse to enter a ward for a round, conducted with military precision, because as she glanced through the doors she had seen a bed castor that was not straight, or one of the embossed designs on the white counterpanes was upside down. When she retired, a select few of her ward sisters were commanded to take tea with her; they were served tea and biscuits in order of seniority.
Was she liked? No. Was she respected? Most certainly. I, for one, am grateful to have known her.
Dinner-time. Hand out those plates even if they are too hot to handle; most of us developed asbestos fingers.
Afternoon visiting. Two only to a bed. More bedpans, more bedmaking. Cuffs off when working, cuffs on when speaking to anyone above the rank of Charge Nurse.
Off duty at last, at six, six-thirty, or sometimes seven. Try to collapse into bed.
“Brocky, come on, you can’t go to sleep yet, come out with us for a meal”.
“Can’t, sorry, no money”.
“Jones has got a Welsh parcel”. That’s a different matter; all that Welsh butter oozing round the crusts of Bara brith.
10pm. Lights out.
10.05pm. Torches on. Whispered tales of horrors past and horrors yet to come.
11pm. Creep warily back to own room. To bed at last.
Coming of Age
Casualty was very busy that night. We didn’t know why, but then we never did. Sometimes a ship would dock and the city would fill up with drunken sailors; that would make us busy. On Orangemen’s day we would be deluged with fighting Irishmen needing stitching and separating. Tonight was neither. Night Sister promised to send us down some extra staff, but so far hadn’t been able to do so.
I had just finished dressing a third degree burn on a child’s hand, and called in the next patient, when four policemen rushed in wheeling a lady who was screaming. She was obviously in great distress. The policemen heaved her on to the bed turned to me and shouted: “She’s all yours”, and disappeared. The casualty officer was nowhere to be seen – probably in the next room.
I looked at the lady. She was very young, about twenty maybe. She lay on her back, knees bent, screaming and pushing. She was giving birth. I knew nothing about childbirth. I had only just emerged from the age of innocence in which babies where flown in by a stork. In those days it was not the source of entertainment that it is considered to be now.
I could see the head emerging. I held it because it seemed the right thing to do. She was pushing and screaming as I shouted “Help”. By the time help arrived, in the person of the extremely efficient but terrifying night sister, I was supporting a very slippery baby boy still attached to the umbilical cord. Sister took over.
“You have a beautiful little boy”, I told the exhausted mum. She burst into tears.
“Don’t tell my mother, please, please.”
“It’s all right, don’t worry”, I tried to reassure her. Night Sister turned to me:
“Well done, nurse”, she said – the only time I had ever heard her praise anyone. “Go and get a cup of tea, you deserve it.”
On my way to obey her command, a very tired Casualty Officer grabbed my arm.
“Will you tell that good lady that her daughter has just given birth. She insists that her daughter has never known any men. I have told her that as far as I know there has only ever been one virgin birth, but her daughter may well be the second.”
Finally off duty, I rushed to see my friends to regale them of the night’s experience. When I opened the door of my room all of my friends were already there singing “Happy Birthday”. Believe it or not I had entirely forgotten that to-day I was twenty-one. I had come of age.
(Kath imagines a day in 1957 from her mother Sallie’s perspective)
It was a twenty minute bus ride from my house to my daughter’s, so I had plenty of time to think on the way there. Was it time to show her Philip’s letter? Was it necessary, even? The answer to the last question was easy – of course it wasn’t necessary. So why was I worrying about it at all? I couldn’t help it. The letter had lain at the back of a drawer and its contents had intruded into my thoughts for six years. The only way to silence its presence was to tell Kath. She wouldn’t mind. She would laugh. Yes, I will tell her. Today.
Kath met me at the bus stop with my 4 year old grandson Robin. He ran towards me.
“Nana. Nana, have you brought me my forprise?”.
“Robin!”, Kath shouted. “I told you not to do that. I hope you haven’t, Mum. He has a house full of toys.”
I picked Robin up and hugged him. “Wait until we get home dear. I know you will like it.”
Ten minutes later as Robin played happily with his forprise, a toy car, I opened my handbag and showed Kath the letter I had received from my son Philip.
It was written when he was out in Burma with the RAF, and began: “I have met the man that Kath will fall in love with” – the man in fact that she was now married to. Kath did as I had predicted: she burst out laughing.
“You did well not to tell me, Mum. You knew how I might react: Philip dictating my future!!! I am as strong willed as you are. How would you have felt if your brother had decided who you should marry?”
I smiled but said nothing. In an instant I was back in a little cottage by the side of the River Dee in North Wales. I was packing a small bag (I had very few possessions). I was in a hurry. I had to be out of there before David returned. I wrote a note, very short: “I’m sorry. Goodbye.” That was all. The villagers would tell him the rest.
Soon I was crossing the fields to my brother’s house. To where Jack, who had fought in Gallipolli with my brother, was waiting for me. I was running away from my husband, my sister, my friends, my life. I had to be with Jack. I didn’t care how scandalised the village would be. I didn’t know how or where we would live. I only knew that we had to be together. We still are. Some day I might tell Kath the full story – but not yet.
We had to move down South, far away from the sea. The sea? Well, it was the estuary of the river Dee. Hoylake, our nearest beach, was not beautiful. It was almost sand-free, and the sea was often too dangerous to swim in, but we loved it. We could also walk to Thurstaston Hill, where Turner is reputed to have painted some of his sunsets. My parents lived just a bus ride away, and all our friends were nearby. We knew we would hate to move, but move we must; there was no alternative.
So we put the house on the market. Potential buyers and others came round – it was difficult to tell which was which. After a while we were able to differentiate between them: the potential buyer was often fairly brusque and asked searching questions about plumbing, heating bills, and whether the field at the bottom of the garden was likely to be built on. The others, the merely curious, were talkative, flattering about the decor and furnishings etc.
One potential buyer indicated a bookshelf fitted into a corner. “Is that a fixture?” he asked, “we could use the space”. “Yes” I answered tartly. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could manage without the bookshelf that my father had painstakingly built into the corner. It is possible that some potential buyers were put off because I didn’t really want to sell our first house, our honeymoon house, the house where my children were nearly born before I was rushed off to hospital with a police escort.
In the end, the house wasn’t sold until we left it entirely to the estate agents. When it was sold, our semi-detached house, I told our elder son, then aged four, that we were moving house, he exclaimed: “How can we move house when they’re joined to each nuvver?”. I would dearly have liked to have literally moved the house, if only to keep my father’s bookcase and the Claygate fireplace that we received as a wedding present.
As for being near the sea? I fear there will need to be an alarming degree of global warming before we could sun ourselves on the beach at Abbots Langley.
The Pool Builder
The bricks had arrived at 6 pm. It was light enough to make a start but he was a quiet man and when the family insisted that it was time for tea and TV he sat in his favourite chair and planned the next day’s programme. Tom chased Jerry through walls and halls but Jack was mentally counting bricks. (Had he ordered enough?) Flipper’s diving and writhing made him concentrate on the cement needed to line the hole. Was it deep enough? It would have to be at least 6ft at one end. He was momentarily diverted from his planning when he news showed marchers in Hyde Park bearing banners “Ban the Bomb”. What use to ban it? Someone would use it sooner or later. Back to the mental drawing board.
The next day was cloudy, cold and miserable. No matter. At 8 30 am he was out by the holes edge lining up the bricks. He picked up each one, feeling its weight and examining it for cracks. One or two he discarded “More like Sally’s malt loaves than bricks” he smiled to himself, and wondered if the comparison had more to do with the delectable smells wafting through the kitchen window than the shape of the bricks. He began to build the wall, plastering the mortar between each brick with great precision. Not too little, the wall had to be strong – not too much the wall must be neat.
By lunch time he had built up one side. He checked it and it was good. His lunch was hurried. No urge to eat. He had to get on. It took him a week to finish the wall and then he had to wait an impatient two days for the concrete mixer to arrive to turn the dark brown stony hole into a neat rectangular grey shape.
The pool liner arrived, and was duly fitted. He watched others stretching it carefully so that it fitted perfectly and then began to lay the paving. He worked methodically and quietly. He was probably the only carpenter who seemed to be able to hammer in a nail with scarcely a sound. It was not surprising then that the stones were levelled silently or so it seemed to Sallie who dozed on a garden seat near where he worked.
Occasionally he consulted the plan. His plan drawn with a draughtsman’s skill with a few artistic embellishments at the side. The family had teased him when they realised that he had sketched in his two grandsons poised on the edge about to dive in. He smiled and continued. He didn’t tell them that it was only the thought of their pleasure that kept him going. It must be finished when they started the school holidays, he told his aching back as he straightened up. One more week and it would be completed. It was. It is there still. 35 years later. The things that Jack built were built to last.
The Rocking Chair
In the bedroom crammed next to a computer and a wardrobe we have a rocking chair. As heave it out to hoover behind I sometimes think it’s time it was pensioned off. It never will be. Why? I’ll tell you…
Perhaps I should try to describe it first. It’s covered in green velvet, I think. A sort of drab indeterminate green, very fashionable at the time. My mother and I bought it. Its has worn wooden arms which are discoloured with age which have been unsuccessfully varnished and shine where they shouldn’t. So does the velvet, or maybe it’s called dralon, I can’t remember. It’s very comfortable though. It has a tendency to rock a bit too far back, hitting the wall which is all too close behind it, and shooting it’s occupant’s legs high in the air. Most of our guests were wary of it which is one of the reasons it has been relegated to the bedroom. I love it. Every time I sit in it I am Sallie, my mother. All her life or at least all that part of her life that I shared, she had a rocking chair. We chose this one together…
I can still see her rocking, quietly reading. It was usually George Eliot. A very well known and much loved writer. She could quote much of that good lady’s philosophising thoughts…however, back to the rocking chair. There isn’t much more to say about it. I have thought of having it recovered, and even got as far as the inside of a shop specialising in such work, but something stopped me. Covered in some bright new material with the wood french polished, it would lose its magic, not just for me but for my sons who have already told me, half jokingly, that they intend to quarrel about who will inherit it. They too can see their Nana, Sallie, my mother.
Aelwyn writes: When Kath referred to the arms of the chair as being “unsuccessfully varnished”, she was kind enough not to name the expert who succeeded in varnishing the arms unsuccessfully.
I, too had a special relationship with Sallie, my mother-in-law, and she was greatly missed. What Kath has also not mentioned is that, one day while she and I were out working, Sallie’s heart finally gave out on her while she was sitting in her favourite rocking chair.
Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight
“Come for a walk.”
“Not now. I’m reading.”
“Shall I make a cake?”
“No need, I’ve made one.”
“But I wanted to.”
“Lets have a chat.”
“Not now no time we’re watching.”
Why didn’t I go walking, enjoy her baking – it was better than mine – chat instead of watching tripe on TV. Now there’s no time left. It’s too late.
If only time moved backwards. Then we could recreate the past. Instead she joins me whenever I walk on sand dunes, and we talk about her grandchildren and their children. Do you think she can hear me? Tell me she can.
To you, my darling Ael
What are we doing, you and I, Standing quietly in the Square? Why are we there? Tired, cold, old, Together in love, Clutching our hands - Saving our land?
I see you standing, Pale, silent, Thinking perhaps of those now still, And yet again the cry is "Kill!".
R and F and R and L, R and D and R and A, Our future, The sun, the earth, the sea, the sky, Our world might die.
That's why we're there, In Trafalgar Square.
Through a winter window
The trees are white with frost leafless branches stroking the icy air The birds move fast, chattering with the cold? The patio pots, cracked, spill grey soil on white turf Forlornly empty, cold and bare. table and chair Did we ever picnic there? Yet through my winter window I can see A Christmas tree - thereby hangs a tale
We planted it many years ago, after Christmas. It had served us well. Decorated with baubles and surrounded by presents, we felt that it deserved to prosper. It certainly did. It grew so much the first year that even if we had had the heart to uproot it, it would not have fitted into the house. We bought a new artificial one. At least it was man made. not a living reproach mutely asking, “Why am I here when I ought to be outside?”
Life continued. The family grew, loved, left home, bought houses. We grew older. My brother died. It was not unexpected, but cut short a brilliant academic career. Our sons and their partners came to the funeral. We were all in that state of wordless misery invoked by such occasions. Somehow it is possible to keep up a mindless flow of socialising chatter with relations and friends while eating the funereal food. There are even flashes of light in the gloom as you see familiar faces and recall old times. Afterwards, back home once more, the silent sadness returns.
“Anyone for tea?”
“If you like”, uncaring.
“Mum, we have something to tell you.”
“I am pregnant.” The lilting Scottish voice of our daughter-in law. A feeling of such joy surged inside. We had wondered. We had hoped. We knew that there might be difficulties. We did not dare to ask.
I looked out of the window and saw our Christmas tree and made a silent vow. If all went well we would cover the tree with lights and give presents to every child staying in the court every Christmas. That was 14 years and three more grandchildren ago.
The tree is still there. The top blew off in a storm but it recovered. If you visit us at Christmas be sure to bring your grandchildren to see the lights.
Eight years old But I could see My Life
Grace and glamour Early life's joys I knew
Crooked and limping Forgetful and Stupid Old age
The Sun drops low That trodden road Twists out of sight
The Future Mercifully hidden Don't look dream Live only for the day
I must be calm though this little girl is dying. Her eyes are beseeching, asking for help. Talk to her, play with her, comfort her, help her. Show no emotion but sympathy, no crying.
The colour is black. It's dark and despairing, It's shape a relentless hard-balled fist. “Here's your teddy. I've dressed him - See his lovely red jersey And hat at an angle”. She's smiling, she hugs him. For that moment she's happy.
The colour is red now, with streaks of bright sunlight. The fist has now opened, It's soft and appealing. Hold her hand now, and whisper: “It's all right, I'm with you. Go to sleep. I will stay here, I’ll stay till the morning”. Her eyes close. For ever?
The black fist's returning. Get up, you're off duty - pretend you don't care.
Age cannot wither
We have a plant that refuses to die. We have moved it into dark corners, (Surely plants need light?) But it doesn't die. It thrives, it grows, It refuses to flower. Is it too old? In despair, we move it To the top of the freezer; It shudders in time to the engine. It grows even bigger. We will have to move house To give it more space. We can't put it out in the cold, Because it's showing us How to grow old, Gracefully.
I remember from my childhood a breakfast conversation with my dad. I liked my sums, and I said “I’ve been thinking, Dad, in the year 2000, I’ll be the same age as you are now.” He liked that – as an actuary, fond of number puzzles, he recognised a kindred spirit. He once thrilled Mum by pointing out the day when their combined ages added up to 100. So that would have been in April 1972. Similarly I can date my conversation with Dad. I turned 44 in 2000, and Dad turned 44 in 1963, so I would have been six or seven.
One of the most exciting things about being a parent – if you have the energy to appreciate it – is watching your child’s personality and sense of humour emerge and surprise you, first in physical play, then in language and dialogue, finally in jokes and banter. Naturally, every child seems like a genius to their doting parents, so these family tales should be read in that light.
Rachel was an early, prolific and witty talker, while from very young Alice had a gift for physical comedy. I thought of them as our Groucho and Harpo.
Rachel has forensic reasoning, which she has carried into her career. I can fairly accurately fix the date we became aware of it: about the time Dad and I watched Michael Owen score and David Beckham get sent off against Argentina, so late June 1998, when Rachel and Alice had just turned four and two.
We were on Mull, doing our traditional walk from Tobermory to the lighthouse. As a party of eleven, aged from two to seventy-eight, progress was slow. Rachel observed:
“Alice is yer slowest person that can walk.” Uncle Rob indulgently engaged:
“What, slower than a snail?”
“No, yer slowest person that can walk!”
“What, slower than a baby?”
“No, yer slowest person that can walk!” Then the killer blow.
“You should listen!”
Rachel’s diction was still imperfect, and walk came out as wart. The combination of childish speech and ruthless logic was devastating, and Rob, his benign avuncular offerings rudely rejected, muttered something about her future career as a lawyer.
A couple of years later, Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid came on the CD player in the car. The song reached the lines:
“Bet you on land they understand Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters”
“Oh yes they do!” piped up Rachel from the back.
Alice had, and has, a delightful infectious chuckle. On a walk by the Thames, she put some rubbish in a bin, and the lid bounced back unexpectedly. She recoiled in comically exaggerated horror, and repeated the scene three times, I burst into laughter. She was very young. It’s a big moment, the first time your child intentionally makes you laugh.
At the end of a long journey to the Yorkshire Dales, we were growing tired and impatient for the journey to be over, when Alice, about six, affected a convincing Chicago gangster accent, and greeted every church with “Look at da choich!” or “Da boys are hot on our tail Bugsy, we’re gonna hide in da choich.” Good times.
On another trip, Bowie’s song The Man Who Sold The World had just played on the mix tape. As we passed through a rural area where pungent muck had recently been spread, and the odour seeped into the car, the traditional question went up: “OK, who did that?” This time it was Alice’s voice singing from the back:
“Oh no, not me I never lost control”
It was all in the timing.
One generation after my dad heard me make that arithmetical observation, it was my turn to discover more of my child’s personality. The girls had seen an advert for Disney World on TV, and Alice excitedly proposed a family trip there. “We can have breakfast with Goofy!” Rachel – who I reckon was about eight – shot back “But we already get to have breakfast with Goofy two days a week!”
I was ten per cent deeply offended. But really, the speed, the engineering, the lethal concealed barb. That’s my girl.
In the 1980s, going to gigs was my default form of entertainment. Living in Kentish Town in north London, it was a short walk down to Camden, where I spent many happy nights in the Dublin Castle on Parkway, and other nearby venues.
But the Mint Juleps home patch was east London: they emerged from youth theatre at the Half Moon on the Mile End Road, where they had all worked as volunteers. So I don’t remember how I first found them – I don’t think it was round my way. But from the minute I saw and heard them, I was under their spell. Their personalities, their vivacity, their banter, but mostly their glorious voices and harmonies, were an irresistible wave of joy, “like a bolt of sunlight breaking through low hanging cloud” as one fan described it. Their gigs were simply the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to.
They were six girls: the four Charles sisters Debbie, Sandra, Lizzie and Marcia, and two of their school friends, Julie Isaac and Debbie Longworth. (“Four of us are sisters, but I bet you can’t tell which four.”) They had no musical training, and it seems they never set out to be stars: they started the journey to become professional singers when they agreed to a gig in a pub, after the owner had heard them singing at the Half Moon.
They sang unaccompanied, or a capella, and each took her turn in the spotlight, stepping across the stage to sing solo. They handled rhythm and blues, pop, soul, reggae and gospel from the fifties and sixties with complete assurance, style, and an infectious sense of fun.
Sandra would win a roar of appreciation for her astonishing extended “We-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll” at the beginning of Shout. Marcia’s resonant bass lines drove the songs along. And when super-cute, sweet-voiced Julie stepped out to sing One Bad Stud, every guy in the audience imagined she was singing just to him. Debbie Longworth and Lizzie were also great singers – Debbie playfully introduced herself as “the token white”. There were no weaknesses – every song was a delight, and you couldn’t keep the smile off your face.
For me the highlight came when Debbie C took a turn to sing gospel, with Jesus Gave Me Water – a number associated with Sam Cooke among others. Her vibrant, warm contralto, and especially her performance on this song was thrilling, and on the video there’s a lovely moment 56 seconds in when she flashes her eyes at the camera in annoyance after a slight fluff.
And it seemed to me, in my optimistic and naive twenties, to suggest – even in the midst of the Thatcher era – that we were on the dawn of an age where race would become irrelevant, where people would at last be judged on the “content of their character”, and this joyous music would lead the way. Perhaps it was the lager talking, but we seemed to be travelling so fast. How disappointing that thirty-five years later we are no closer to this destination. If I were black, disappointing wouldn’t cover it.
The group had a decent measure of success. They toured with Sister Sledge, Billy Bragg, Kool & the Gang, Lenny Henry, Shalamar, Fine Young Cannibals and provided backing vocals for Bob Geldof, the Belle Stars, Alison Moyet, Al Green, Gabriel and Dr. Feelgood. They worked with artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and appeared in Spike Lee’s 1990 TV production, Do It Acapella.
They were signed by legendary new wave label Stiff Records, who implicitly acknowledged that they were at their best as a live act by recording them live at the Shaw Theatre in London for their 1985 debut album One Time. They broke into the lower end of the charts with a charming version of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart in 1986 and with Robert Palmer’s Every Kinda People in 1987. They provided the final release on Stiff Records before the label folded: the rap-styledGirl to the Power of 6, produced by the highly successful Trevor Horn – celebrating girl power nine years before the Spice Girls came on the scene.
But their single releases abandoned the joyful a capella style. Their production leant towards 1980s fashions, leaving behind the variety which had been the foundation of their shows. They wrote some good numbers – in particular Debbie Longworth’s Don’t Let Your Heart, which I thought of as their signature song – but their studio recordings weren’t distinctive enough to grab the imagination of the record-buying public.
Some of the records sounded like a natural solo number had been hastily rearranged into a group song, to give all the girls a role. The records never quite captured what made them so special live, and some group members sensed that. In a 2013 interview Debbie Charles recalled frustration at Trevor Horn’s approach to production: “We’ve got a sound already, why’s he trying to give us a new one?”
Arguably Stiff Records lacked confidence in the genre: although the Flying Pickets had shown a couple of years before that a capella groups could have big hits in the UK, they had quickly faded from the charts, being seen as a novelty act.
Listening to the vitality and sheer joy of their live performances decades on, it seems incomprehensible and plain wrong that they didn’t take the world by storm. It may be that the lack of a single focal point made the Mint Juleps difficult to promote, but for me that was one of the attractions – the girls clearly had a lot of fun together, and supported each other as a team. As their career progressed, Debbie Charles and Julie Isaac were increasingly assigned lead vocals, and who knows, perhaps they were offered solo contracts (update – see blog comment below, only from DEBBIE CHARLES herself, no less), but the group stayed together.
I should admit to a track record of championing acts which fail to hit the commercial heights their talent merits. I confidently backed The Panic Brothers (who?) for stardom. I saw a swingin’ soul band called Q-Tips, and concluded that they were a great band, but that their singer was the weak link. That’s right, the singer who went on to fame and fortune as Paul Young. So what do I know? Sorry if I jinxed it for you, ladies.
But happily they seem not to dwell on coming so tantalisingly close to stardom, and in this 2013 interview the two Debbies focus on the things they got to do and the fun they had. From Debbie L: “We were like kids, just messing about and having a good time, but we were getting paid for it as well.” From Debbie C: “Absolutely no regrets at all, I would not change anything. People ask me if I miss the Mint Juleps…I miss sitting in our minibus with those five other people, because we used to laugh till we cried.”
There are other fans who refuse to forget the Mint Juleps. Like Niall McMurray, who has written eloquently in praise of their single Docklands. And like American superfan Robert Doyle, who wrote an outstanding blog piece on them in 2014 (see Part 2: The Music), and started the excellent Mint Juleps tribute page on Facebook the following year. He’s done a great job of keeping the flame alive, finding lost video gems from the past and building a fan community. Mint Julep members sometimes make cameo appearances in the comments – as four are sisters, it’s not difficult for them to stay in touch.
I have no doubt they can all still sing beautifully. Unhappily the Half Moon Theatre is now a JD Wetherspoon pub. But if Debbie, Debbie, Julie, Lizzie, Marcia and Sandra ever feel like getting together for a reunion concert in their east London patch, I’ll be first in line for a ticket. Or perhaps second in line. Just after Robert Doyle.
With no qualification besides being an obsessive fan, I was invited to give a sixth form lecture at Watford Grammar School for Boys – my alma mater – on 20th January 1984, on the subject of popular music. The invitation arrived due to the enthusiasm of my cousin Phil, who by coincidence was now teaching Classics at the school – and perhaps due to the credulity of John Holman, the teacher tasked with organising the sixth form lectures.
I was flattered, although initially hesitant. But I had given a best man’s speech the previous year which went down well, so I thought, why not? I prepared a lecture entitled “Songs and Stories”, consisting of ten songs, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, each accompanied by a brief introduction, and arrived at the school at lunchtime. I had left the school in December 1974: nine years later Mr L.K. Turner was still the headmaster. He had always seemed a remote figure, so it was a strange feeling, returning as an adult to sip sherry in his office with a couple of other teachers.
Off duty from enforcing discipline, Mr Turner – or Trog, as I will always think of him – was relaxed. Conversation turned to some CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) graffiti which had adorned the school wall all through my career there. He mused whether any contemporary issue would arouse the same strength of feeling – this was Margaret Thatcher’s fifth year in power – and I thought he sounded a little wistful that the youth had become apathetic. This surprised me, I remembered him as the embodiment of “The Man”. We concluded that CND at the time was probably still – or rather, again – the issue most likely to stir young people to protest.
I delivered my speech to a fairly passive audience, perhaps tired on a Friday afternoon, perhaps a little surprised and indignant that they were expected to pay attention to a 27-year old’s views on pop music – quite reasonably wary of this sacred youth territory being annexed by the curriculum. Or maybe they found the lecture dull. Certainly it proved a tougher audience than a good natured and slightly tipsy wedding gathering. The talk was enlivened when my final music selection suddenly came on at twice the volume of the previous nine: presumably this was a way for the boys tasked with the audio to show appreciation for their favourite – perhaps the only one they liked.
In the discussion afterwards one boy pointed out that I had omitted so many great artists – what about Hendrix, for instance? Of course, Hendrix was indeed mighty, but being limited to ten records, I couldn’t cover everything. A teacher posed the question: was pop music just a sop to keep youth from protesting or getting involved in politics? I had, and still have little sympathy with this view – the music is real. I responded tartly: “That sounds like the question of a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t like music.” That got a few sniggers at his expense, but I later regretted my sharpness – he had only been trying help me by breathing life into the flagging conversation.
Thirty-seven years later, I have stumbled on my notes. It doesn’t seem like my tastes have changed very much: if called upon now (and I’m not holding my breath) my music choice would be little changed from 1984, although I would phrase a few things differently. And I might omit the Rascals song, which though it still sounds great, doesn’t define a genre as the others do.
With my notes was the programme of sixth form lectures for the Spring Term. I had completely forgotten, if I ever knew, what august company I was keeping. Later that term one speaker was the Rt. Hon. Cecil Parkinson MP – previous holder of two cabinet jobs, later holder of two more – who also served two terms as Chairman of the Conservative Party. Another was Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, which was to last just two more years before it was abolished by Thatcher’s government. Livingstone later bounced back to serve two terms as Mayor of London.
I don’t think I was aware of these political heavyweights being on the same bill that term, and just as well: I was nervous enough already. Thankfully I didn’t have to follow them on stage.
SONGS AND STORIES (20 January 1984)
I want to talk to you about various aspects of popular music over the last thirty years. I should say right at the beginning that I won’t be attempting to give a full history of pop music – I couldn’t begin to do justice to the subject in the time available – nor will I attempt to draw a tidy conclusion at the end. All I want to do is to play some records which have been important in the development of pop music, and to talk about each in isolation. This is, I should emphasise, a purely subjective choice.
Some of you probably aren’t interested in pop music; others of you may enjoy it, but may not expect to see it reduced to being a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. To both, I apologise. But if some of you come to discover and enjoy the music played today, I’ll be well satisfied.
The first record I want to play is by the Robins, later known as the Coasters, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954. America during the 1950s had hundreds of black vocal groups making records, often with very little to distinguish them. But what set the Coasters apart was their hugely talented songwriters and producers, Leiber and Stoller. The Coasters churned out a long string of records, each of which was a miniature opera – a perfectly formed piece of theatre in three minutes.
Their better known records include Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak which both have a flippant teenaged theme. But the song I’m going to play is Riot in Cell Block Number 9 which is possibly the most menacing and hard hitting drama on record. Full use is made of sound effects, while the singer’s voice is tinged with sufficient brutality to be convincing as a man doing time for armed robbery.
Elvis Presley is these days most often recalled as a grossly fat 40-year old crooning ballads to to blue-rinsed matrons in Las Vegas. This image does no justice to the fiery and controversial figure he once was. During the 1950s Presley became a huge star by the violence of his music, his moody good looks and his lithe and suggestive dancing. American television found his stage act so profoundly shocking that they would only show his performances from the waist up.
Presley was born into a very poor family in Mississippi where he grew up surrounded by and enjoying black music. His success came about because he combined in his music the rhythm and mood of black rhythm and blues music with the sharp lyrics and energy of white country music. To understand the impact Presley made in the 1950s it’s important to realise what went before him. The music scene was dominated by soft ballad singers like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Rosemary Clooney; there was no appreciable teenaged audience. This was partly because teenagers had very little money to spend, and partly because the music scene was too middle aged and sedate to be of interest. But the emergence of rock’n’roll, epitomised by Presley, and the growing affluence of the fifties was to change that. The record which best demonstrates the violence and youthful energy of rock’n’roll is
Doo-wop is the slightly comical term applied to a very popular ballad style of the 1950s. It is so called because nonsense phrases like doo-wop would often be used as harmony against the lead vocal.
Literally hundreds of black American vocal groups used the style, and would actually sing on the street corners of their neighbourhood. They would often sing unaccompanied, sometimes to avoid detracting from their intricate vocal harmonies, but more often for reasons of economy. Recently the unaccompanied, or a capella style has made an unexpected come back with The Flying Pickets.
The proliferation of groups singing in this style meant that thousands of records were made, usually very cheaply and mostly of indifferent quality. Sharp-eyed producers would pull a local group into the studio, set up some beers, press a few dollars into their hands, and ask them to sing. The results were often appalling.
The Five Satins would have been forgotten with the rest of them, had it not been for the extraordinary quality of one of their records, In the Still of the Night.
The first reaction on hearing this song is probably one of amusement at the weird arrangement and the deliberately dumb backing vocals. But if you listen closer you might hear the simplicity and understated power which makes this, in many enthusiasts’ view, the finest record ever made. They say the song hangs in the air over New York City on summer nights. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean but it’s probably true.
Elvis Presley may have had a shattering effect on the calm of Eisenhower’s America, but he was ultimately assimilable. For all his raucous shouting and obscene gyrations, he loved his mum, he ate mashed banana sandwiches, and he was proud to do his bit for Uncle Sam when he was called up in 1958. He was, in spite of everything, an all-American boy. Little Richard made no such concessions, and no one has ever understood him.
Little Richard would sing and play piano with demonic energy, standing and bashing at the piano as if he was trying to smash it. He had a powerful voice, always on the edge of hysteria; he would sing with a passion and commitment which belied the fact that the lyrics were usually quite meaningless.
From 1956 to 1958 Little Richard had a string of million-selling records. His manager found himself without any new material to promote, and with a typical disregard for commercial considerations, Little Richard refused to go back into the studio. Instead, with casual genius, he sent in a rough demo tape lasting less than a minute, called Keep A-Knockin’. This was dressed up in the studio to a respectable length and became another million seller.
If rock’n’roll was marvellous drivel, Keep A-Knockin’ is a fine example. It is so brash and confrontational that you have to take sides – you either love it or hate it. This was very much the stuff that helped create the generation gap.
Predictably, no performer could keep up this level of energy and commitment for long. While touring Australia in 1957, a fire had broken out in the plane he was travelling in. Convinced that he would die, he got down on his knees and promised that if he was spared he would give up “the devil’s music” and devote himself to the gospel. The plane landed safely, and Little Richard was as good as his word – since when God has never looked back.
In complete contrast to Little Richard, Sam Cooke was the very model of urbane sophistication. Well-groomed, polite and clever, he had frequently sung in American night-clubs, and sang in a smooth, sweet style that owed much to his training as a gospel singer.
From 1960 to 1965 he made many fine soul records. Unfortunately he had to fight a running battle with his record company, who wanted to turn him into a second Sammy Davis Jr. But Cooke’s voice was distinctive and beautiful enough to transform the slightest song or the most sickly arrangement into something worth hearing.
But his finest record is Bring it on Home to Me from 1962, in a straightforward gospel style, making much use of close harmony and call and response with a second vocalist.
Cooke was never popular with the white American establishment; he was too clever, too successful for their taste. Incidentally, he was a close friend of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and was among the first into the ring to congratulate him after beating Sonny Liston.
Sam Cooke died in a shooting incident in a hotel in 1964. Some have speculated that this was a CIA set-up.
Listening closely to the slightly hoarse quality of Cooke’s voice, it’s easy to see why Rod Stewart claims Cooke as a major influence. However, it is debatable whether Stewart has ever conveyed such powerful emotion in his singing.
The only record producer ever to acquire the status of legend in his own right is Phil Spector.
After singing, writing and producing a few fairly ordinary hits in the early 60s, Spector slowly developed the production style that was to make his name. Where other producers used a four or five piece rhythm section, Spector used overdubbing to create a multi layered, symphonic effect which he called the “wall of sound”. He took pride in the craftsmanship he lavished on what critics described as trash; he was fond of referring to his “Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll – little symphonies for the kids”.
By the age of 23 he was a multi-millionaire. Then the problems set in. He put six months work into recording a Christmas album which was released on 22nd of November 1963, the date of president Kennedy’s assassination. Suddenly nobody wanted to hear his version of Frosty the Snowman. Three months later the Beatles arrived in America, crushing all opposition before them. Finally, the enemies he had made by his idiosyncratic behaviour conspired to bring about the failure of what he regarded as his greatest record – Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High.
Humiliated, he went into virtual retirement, an increasingly enigmatic figure in dark glasses surrounded by bodyguards. Always image conscious, he enjoyed this reputation; he was quoted as saying “It isn’t funny when you see your father’s head blown apart by a shotgun.” We have no evidence that anything like this ever happened to him. Either way we can only agree: it isn’t funny to see your father blown apart by a shotgun.
Be My Baby by the Ronettes is probably not Spector’s best recording but it is the one that best illustrates his dictum: symphonies for the kids. A little girl’s voice, singing a lyric of unashamed banality, is surrounded by great waves of sound; one girl and a thousand-piece orchestra. Like it or not you have to agree: it’s way over the top.
John Lennon claimed in 1971 that the Beatles made their best music before they ever signed a recording contract. This remark was probably made to shock rather than to inform. But what he meant was that before the Beatles ever reached the studio, they had a raw pace and excitement which was never quite captured in their more polished studio recordings.
From 1960 to 1963, hundreds of beat groups sprang up in Liverpool, and many of these make the trip to Hamburg, where their rough and ready music was very much in demand at the local night clubs.
Conditions in these night clubs were appalling. The groups had to play for stints up to eight hours; they would consume vast countries of alcohol and drugs, and more than once their performances were interrupted by violence between rival gangs.
The track which I’m about to play comes from the Live at the Star Club album. This was not released until 1976; it was taken from an amateur recording of the Beatles performance. This explains the poor sound quality. But it is difficult to listen to this recording without getting some feeling of how exciting those early performances must have been, and without an intimation of the huge talent that was to take the world by storm in 1963 and 1964.
Listening to this today, it is hard to believe that the man playing bass guitar and singing backing vocals is currently at number one with Pipes of Peace.
Aretha Franklin with the daughter of a black preacher in Detroit, the Reverend CL Franklin. This man was a wealthy and by all accounts devastating Baptist preacher, who held sway over a huge and devoted congregation, and commanded large fees for his appearances.
The influence of gospel music and the church was the foundation of Aretha’s success, but this success took a long time in coming. From 1960 until 1966, she made scores of records with CBS; but while everyone agreed she was very talented, none of the records were artistically or commercially successful.
1966 saw her move to Atlantic Records. and November of that year saw the historic recording session with Atlantic’s top producer, Jerry Wexler. With the rest of the American music business looking on with interest, Wexler decided to set Aretha loose. Where before she had recorded in a clipped, polished style, Wexler encouraged her to sing her heart out, over a taut, understated backing. The result was definitive soul music; pure, uninhibited and powerful.
The Rascals didn’t just play soul music – they understood it. What made this unusual was that they were white, at a time when for white people to play soul music was virtually unheard of. Blue-eyed soul they called it.
Besides that I have to admit that their story is not particularly interesting. But they left us one monumentally exciting record. The frenetic Good Lovin’ which was a US number one in 1966. In Britain it never did a thing.
They wouldn’t agree, but in many ways the Sex Pistols can be seen as the true successors to Little Richard. Both rely on uncompromising attack; both produce a violent confrontational sound. Significantly, both produced their finest records in a period of less than 12 months; it was simply not possible to maintain the intensity of feeling – in the Sex Pistols case hatred – which inspired their most powerful work.
Their manager Malcolm McLaren has always claimed that he created the group from nothing, that they were totally untalented and owed all their success to his promotion and publicity stunts. This is simply not true; for despite the Sex Pistols indifferent musicianship and unpleasant behaviour, they make uniquely powerful records, which again like Little Richard, forced the listener to take sides.
Sadly, Sid Vicious started to believe his own publicity; he stabbed his girlfriend to death and later killed himself – a born victim carrying on his shoulders the accumulated hang-ups and neuroses of his generation.
My parents were members of the Watford U3A Creative Writing group in the 1990s and 2000s, and almost all of these pieces by my father (Aelwyn Edwards 1919-2015) were written during that period. Where they relate to specific memories, I have attempted to order them chronologically, and the others according to their estimated date of writing. The photographs and links are my additions.
This piece should really be preceded by another piece entitled “My Reading”, because we learn to read stories before we even dream of writing them, and some of the stories we read will have made a greater impact on our young minds than others. What have I remembered from those days? The stories by Frank Richards in “The Magnet” every week about Greyfriars School, with Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Billy Bunter and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. Lorna Doone, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Northwest Passage, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, these made an impact on me. And, of course, I keenly devoured the county cricket batting and bowling averages. The books we were obliged to read at school for our exams made little or no impact on me. Our English teacher at school despaired of my unimaginative weekly essays; my first loves were always Maths and Chemistry –not much opportunity for creative writing there! Yes – “unimaginative”, that’s the word.
When I came home from abroad after the war, I was surprised to learn how much my letters home had been appreciated; after my parents had read them, they were passed around our friends. “What wonderful letters”, one particularly effusive friend said to me, “you could have a great future as a writer”. But that was all very well; from abroad I had been writing about new countries, new experiences; no imagination was required of me, it was all happening. I suppose I have always had some talent for description, but there was never much call then for metaphors or similes; there was little or no poetry, it was mostly factual.
During my business career, I was quite good at writing long reports on difficult technical matters in language that could be understood and appreciated by non-technical readers. All very commendable, but there was still no call for metaphors or similes, just plain unimaginative facts. I have from time to time written some so called poems when something has moved me, but are they poetry? I doubt it.
Then along comes U3A. Here was a challenge to indulge in some creative writing. I believe I have shown some flashes of imagination along the way, but they are only flashes. I enjoy writing, sitting in front of a word processor, letting the thoughts come along, but I envy much of the writing read out by my U3A colleagues, especially the imaginative bits. No, my English master was right – too many facts, not enough imagination. The metaphors and similes continue to elude me.
Early Childhood Memory
I believe I have become a mature adult without my nature being particularly acquisitive, and with a tendency to think well of my fellow human beings. Yet my first conscious memory is of myself as a person with obsessive desires and a fierce capacity for resentment.
I was being wheeled along in a pushchair by my mother; I suppose my father and my brother were there as well, but I have no recollection of them. We were walking home along Allerton Road in Liverpool, where the No.8 trams ran in a grassed area in the middle of the road, and the pavements were also edged with grass. My mother was in a tearing hurry to get home, after we had been out to tea with friends. She seemed tense or worried about something, as if the outing had ended disastrously in some way – perhaps someone had said something that annoyed her, or she had some pressing physical desire to get home at the earliest possible moment.
Relaxed and comfortable in my pushchair, I surveyed the world outside, and rejoiced in the beauty of the daisies growing in the grass. I expressed a desire for our progress to be delayed so that I could pick some of these lovely daisies to take home. My mother, however, was implacable in her refusal of my very reasonable request, and I spent the remainder of the journey home complaining over and over again:”I wish I could get out and pick flowers”. My constant reiteration of this phrase can hardly have improved my mother’s state of mind, and I remember feeling quite bitter towards her at the time.
I take comfort from the thought that, if I had not remembered this episode of obsessional desire and resentment, it would have remained hidden deep in my subconscious mind, ready to emerge in some terrible form later in life. That it has not so far done so, is something for which we must all be eternally grateful.
From time to time, the Church of Saint Lawrence in Abbots Langley plays host to a gypsy funeral. These funerals are an amazing sight, the hearse being drawn by a team of magnificent, beautifully groomed black horses, proudly sporting brilliant white cockades. My reaction to this sight borders on that of a child seeing something wonderful – an exclamation of “Wow!”.
And I remember how one day, many years ago, when I was aged six, living in the suburbs of Liverpool, a friend ran up to me in the street, and breathlessly panted: “Come down to the end of the street, quick, or we’ll miss it”. Not knowing what to expect, I followed his bidding, and ran down to the main road that crossed at the end of the street… and then it came, round a curve in the road, a magnificent funeral procession. But instead of the usual boring old horse-drawn carriages, there was this wonderful sight, never seen before. No horses, no carriages, but a glorious cavalcade of beautiful gleaming motor cars. For that six-year-old boy, there was only one word to describe it – “Wow!”
The Gold Watch
By Easter 1926, my father had been teaching at Granby Street School in Liverpool for nearly 20 years. When he left to take up a headship in Wales, he was presented by staff and pupils with a gold watch inscribed “A mark of affection and esteem”.
He wore it every day for the rest of his life, tucked into his waistcoat pocket at the end of a gold chain. Every night before going to bed he would wind it up, slowly and carefully. After he died, the watch passed to my elder brother, who kept it at the bottom of a cardboard box. When my brother died, it came to me; it looked very sad, lying in this box, so, encouraged by the rest of my family, I took it out and tried to coax it into life. After it had made a few spasmodic attempts to get going, I took it to the watch man in Abbots Langley. He peered at it, then announced that it was a bit out of his class, but, if I wished, he could take it to a friend of his in London, but it might be a bit expensive.
I agreed to have it done, and in due course, he returned it, saying: “It’s a nice little piece”. Now, I wind it slowly and carefully every morning, and on those rare occasions when I forget to wind it, a strange feeling of guilt comes over me like a distant echo from the past.
“Evening the Wild Woods Among”
When I was six years old, my father was promoted to a head teacher’s post, with the requirement that he should reside in the head teacher’s house a hundred yards or so from the school. This meant that he sold the house that he was in the process of buying, leaving him with some cash in hand, which he used in part to furnish the new house. Among his acquisitions at the time I remember a small billiard table, and a large picture which hung over the fireplace in the living room.
The picture was of a leafy path winding through an autumn-tinted wood; in the centre of the picture were two rabbits, sitting on the path, contemplating the scenery. The title of the picture, written in script, was “Evening the Wild Woods Among”. Some years later, as I approached my years of discrimination, it dawned on me that this title was rather comical, and outrageously twee. Imagine my delight to find that my mother’s opinion on the matter coincided with mine. Her sense of humour ran exactly parallel with mine, but I’m afraid that my father sometimes found our amusement not always in the best of taste.
As a postscript to this tale, it was a matter of great satisfaction to discover that when I took my intended bride home to meet my parents, she read the title beneath the picture, and could scarcely control her mirth.
He was a strong, stocky man with red hair and an unruly red beard. He was, in fact, my father’s uncle, and he farmed a mountain in a high Welsh valley. He spoke no word of English. I was about six years old when, during a visit to the farm, he decided to teach me my numbers in Welsh. He sat by his roaring fireplace, with a huge kettle hanging from a hook directly over the fire. On the hob, a large pot of tea sat permanently, ready to be poured out when required. In the oven by the fire, large sheets of oatcake were baking, and would in due course be turned out by Auntie Kate, to cool on the hob.
He had the hoarse sing-song voice which cropped up in our family from time to time. He put his arm round my shoulder and started on the numbers: “Un, dau, tri”. I struggled ywith the unfamiliar vowels, but he seemed pleased with the result. We worked up through the numbers, until we reached eight, nine, ten: “Wyth, naw, deg”. When he was satisfied with my progress, he gave a great hoarse crow of delight, and I was rewarded with a piece of newly baked oatcake, spread with newly churned butter.
Cadwaladr lives again in my nephew David, who is currently creating a home by renovating a derelict silkworm farm in the south of France.
We have a photograph of David, seated on a low wall, nursing a chain-saw in his lap. His unruly red hair and beard take me straight back almost eighty years, learning my numbers by the roaring fire.
The Taste and Smell of Aelwyn
What does my name taste like? What does it smell like? My name recalls the memories of my childhood, like the crisp apples in my father’s garden, the scent of the white lilac outside my bedroom window, the wonderful rice pudding my mother made, the damp following the rain that comes sweeping down the mountain, linseed oil on a cricket bat, and the scent of new-mown hay.
Water Under The Bridge
There was a favourite game in my youth in which I would stand with a friend on one side of a bridge that passed over a stream. We would each choose a small twig, and together we would drop our twigs into the water, and then rush to the other side of the bridge to see whose twig emerged first from under the arch. There were numerous theories applied to determine the size and shape of a winning stick. If a twig was too big, it was more likely to hit some obstacle lurking in the water; if it was too small, it could be stopped altogether by an obstacle, so there was clearly an optimum medium size. A refinement in this process was to choose a twig that had at one end the prongs of a fork, so that if it hit an object, the fork would initiate a turning movement to enable the twig to progress beyond the obstruction.
There comes a time in all our lives, probably on more than one occasion, when we are about to embark on a path where the outcome is uncertain. We cast ourselves into a stream on one side of the bridge, not knowing what is in store; whether we will be stopped, or delayed, by some hidden obstruction, or whether we will emerge successfully on the other side, preferably ahead of our competitors. All we can do is to prepare as best we can, remembering the lesson of the medium-sized twig with a fork at one end.
The Compleat Angler or Dedication
I was brought up in a land of tumbling Welsh streams, with rocky pools where trout would lurk, swimming lazily in the sunny waters, waiting for the next flood that would bring fresh food down from the hills. In our small town there was a breed of wiry old men who spoke little English, who, after a spell of rain, would emerge purposefully from their cottage doors, clutching fishing rods and with satchels over their backs. They knew that the rain would have been enough to flood the streams, and the trout would be feeding. They would return two or three hours later with bulging satchels, happy with the prospect of a few tasty suppers to come.
Occasionally I tried my luck at fishing, and sometimes I would have a little modest success, enough for one small supper. I sometimes wondered whether I was doing the right thing, killing fish for my own gratification, but at least I was supplying the household with food. In any case, I ate meat, and was prepared to pay other people to kill animals on my behalf, so my conscience was not seriously troubled. But on the many occasions when I caught nothing, I had still spent the afternoon in the glorious countryside, scrambling up and down the banks of rushing streams, with rewarding glimpses of the surrounding hills.
It is all so different here, in this flat English country where I now live. Fishing is a totally different occupation from what I once knew. Here, the anglers sit for hours by the side of a canal, their rods propped up on the bank, surrounded by expensive-looking gear and a bucket of squirming maggots, gazing at nothing. What do they think about? Do they think at all? Are they just escaping from some even less exciting activity at home? And even when they catch a fish they throw it back in again. Are their consciences troubled by the thought of inflicting pain on the fish for their own gratification, with not even the excuse of procuring food? They huddle against the most severe of weathers, which leads one to suppose that they are fiercely dedicated to something, but to what? And if they have caught nothing at the end of the day, what have they to remember? A view of the opposite bank, a few barges passing by to interrupt their reverie, and walkers on the towpath behind them cursing gently as they take evasive action past the ends of the rods.
No; I prefer the old way.
He had dreaded this moment from early morning. As soon as he woke up he had sat on the edge of the bed, and the feeling of foreboding hit him in the pit of his stomach. Before the end of the day he would have to undergo an ordeal which would expose him to the critical gaze of hundreds of people. He was sure to make a complete ass of himself; and worse – what if his mission failed? His shame would be known to everyone, and he would never be able to live it down.
He hardly noticed what he ate for breakfast; somehow, he got through the morning, and his lunch tasted of sawdust.
And now his time had come. After much fumbling, he finally managed to secure his protective clothing; his comrades wished him well. He almost stumbled as he went down the steps, and set off on the long, long walk. For the first time as a member of the school cricket team, he was going out to bat.
The Cricket Bat
Willow growing by the water,
Branches polled to make it stronger.
This will make the wood grow harder.
Then maturing, ripe for cutting.
Comes the axeman, fells the willow,
Cuts it into chunky slices,
Measures length and breadth and thickness.
Skilful hands then shape and polish.
Add the handle, glue it tightly.
Proudly taken to the wicket,
Scoring runs in ones and twos,
Boundaries, too, in fours and sixes.
Till the day comes for retirement,
Abandoned sadly in the attic,
Gathering dust for evermore.
The Six Senses
It was a blazing summer day. The grass was green and still retained the scent of a recent mowing.. A rook cawed from one of the trees that stood tall, shading one corner of the cricket ground. The game had not been particularly exciting, but I was enjoying myself, just being there, and taking part.
I was fielding in the slips. The bowler – he was the local postman – trundled up to the wicket to make his delivery, and I remember seeing the ball hit the edge of the bat. The next thing that I was aware of was discovering that, for some inexplicable reason, I was lying on the floor, with my elbow grazing the grass, and I thought what a fool I must look, falling over in front of all these people. In the next instant, to my surprise, I discovered that the ball had become firmly lodged in my outstretched right hand; I had made a brilliant diving catch.
Now, how did this all happen? My conscious mind knew nothing at all about what was going on – it had merely told me not to do something so stupid as to fall over in public. So who, or what, told me to dive for the ball? Was it a sixth sense, providing me with the impetus to dive? After all, that is why I was there, to catch the ball if it came my way, but surely my conscious mind should have been aware of what was happening. I understand that our brains has two halves; do these two halves operate independently of each other without any mutual intercommunication? Does one half control our normal activities, while the other half acts secretly and mysteriously, controlling our dreams, and providing us with a sixth sense that comes to our rescue when needed?
A Telephone Call to Remember
I had been in India for over two years with, of course, no home leave, when I was offered the chance of attending a Staff Navigation course in Shropshire. This involved sitting an exam in Delhi, which I passed, and shortly afterwards I was on my way. This involved hopping from airfield to airfield across India from East Bengal to Karachi, where I boarded an Imperial Airways Sunderland flying-boat which, after some delays, eventually landed in Poole Harbour. Wonderful! I could pick up a telephone and call home! When I did, the the astonishment and disbelief in my mother’s voice was wonderful to hear, and in two days I was home, with three weeks leave before the course started, a mere sixty miles away with more snatched weekends at home. Amazing!
Cockroaches and Litter
There is nothing quite like the train journey from Bombay to Calcutta, unless it is the journey from Calcutta to Bombay which, fortunately, I have not had to experience. I undertook this journey as part of my service to King and Country, being, like so much in service life, something to be endured, especially so in India.
The train pulled out of Bombay in mid-afternoon and soon started its climb up to the Deccan, the central plateau in that part of the country, and as we travelled, the heat of the day gradually diminished. I had supplied myself with reading matter for the journey, including that day’s copy of the Bombay Times. The first-class accommodation was a space, perhaps ten feet square, containing a bed that folded down from the wall of the compartment; it was reasonably comfortable.
There are lessons to be learnt on this type of journey. One is never to leave any food, especially fruit, in an open position where it can be seen. When you stop at a station, there are many things that strike you, such as the heat, the milling, loudly chattering hordes of people, and the monkeys squatting and chattering on the roof above the platform. If there is any food exposed in your compartment, before you realise what is happening one of the monkeys will have invaded your space and carried off his booty back on to the roof, where he proceeds to demolish it, telling his friends about his exploit, while his beady eye defies you to seek a remedy. The next lesson, learnt during the first night on the train, related to living conditions in that noisy, litter-strewn country. Sleeping comfortably enough on the bed, if for any reason you wish to switch on the light, you are immediately aware of a scuttling sound, and there you see dozens of cockroaches on the floor scurrying for shelter, some of them under your bed. It is a sickening experience, but like so many things, you get used to it, and accept it as a way of life.
At the first stop the next day, newspaper boys came along the platform selling the Bombay Times. Very efficient, you thought, as you started to read it, then you realise, that althought the date of the paper was correct for that day, it contained no news at all, merely articles and political comment. You then realised that these papers had in fact been printed in Bombay on the previous day, and had travelled with you on the train, to be produced for your delectation the following morning. Lunch that day was taken at Allahabad, with the temperature at 120F in the shade.
Another night on the train, remembering to avert your eyes when you switched on the light to reach for a drink of water, then finally, arrival in Calcutta, where you are expected, and transported to the relative heaven of an RAF airfield.
The 1948 Olympics
I was fortunate to have been present for two days of the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley, and I have a very clear memory of some of the events. Before the Games began, the identity of the runner who would bring the Olympic Torch into the stadium was a closely guarded secret. It was widely assumed that it would be Sydney Wooderson, holder of the world record for the mile, and a great favourite with the British public. In the event, the runner who emerged from the tunnel was totally unrecognised by the crowd. He was a young, athletic, fair-haired man, presumably chosen because he was the organisers’ idea of a Greek god. A great opportunity to honour a much respected British runner had been missed.
My clearest memory of my first visit, a Saturday, is of the 4 x 100 metre relay race. The American team were widely expected to win, and sure enough they came racing in yards ahead of the British runners. But no sooner was the race over than it was announced that at one of the hand-over points, the Americans had handed over the baton outside the prescribed limits, and were accordingly disqualified. The announcement was received in silence, and as the Americans trudged disconsolately out of the stadium they were given a great round of applause from the crowd. As far as we were concerned, they were the clear winners. However, when the film of the event was developed – there were no instant replays in those days – it was realised that the hand-over had in fact been done correctly, and on the following Monday it was announced that the American team had been reinstated as winners.
On the final day of the Games the crowd in the stadium were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the leading marathon runners. In came a Belgian, Etienne Gailly, but no sooner had he started his final lap of the track than he collapsed. It was a pitiful sight. He was desperately trying to reach the finishing line but was overtaken, first by an Argentinian, Delfro Cabrera and then, to the delight of the crowd, the British Tom Richards.
My seat on this final day was near the middle of the back straight of the circuit, from which point I had a splendid view of Fanny Blankers-Koen on the far side of the stadium, streaking to the finishing line with her fair hair streaming behind her. She was a great competitor, and a favourite with the crowd, due in part, I believe, to sympathy felt for the Dutch people over their terrible experience so recently endured under German occupation.
From my seat I had a close up view of the unfortunate ending to the efforts of the Jamaican 4 by 400 relay team. They were a very impressive quartet of runners including Arthur Wint, who had already won gold in the 400 metres event. In the relay, the Jamaicans were well ahead when, I think it was in the third leg, Wint was steaming along the back straight when he was suddenly seized by cramp. He fell to the ground at the side of the track. beating his baton on the ground in a frenzy of rage and frustration.
One of my sons has acquired tickets for this year’s Games, and has offered me one. Regretfully, I have declined his offer, as I think the occasion would be too much for my old bones. A pity, really, as I would have loved to have been able to say I had been at both events, separated by 64 years.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Kath and I were at the stage when we were getting to know one another. We were staying at my parents’ home, and we had borrowed my father’s car so that I could show Kath some of the delights of my home territory. We drove, only a few miles, to a lake hidden among the mountains and we parked by the roadside on the grass verge. Ahead of us was a strip of land projecting into the water, which concealed from us a small bay further along the lake.
We sat there, enjoying the scenery, holding hands and otherwise minding our own business, when, from around the bend ahead of us came an agitated young man. He came up to us and exclaimed excitedly through the open car window: “I say, did you see that? Extraordinary!”. We had seen nothing out of the ordinary, so he went on: “A swan swam out from behind that bit of land” (indicating the strip of land ahead of us) “with an enormous eel struggling in its beak. It swam on and disappeared over to the other side of the lake”. We expressed our wonderment, but the young man was disappointed that we were unable to share in his excitement, and he went on his way.
About fifteen minutes later, a swan swam out from behind the bit of land, with an enormous eel struggling in its beak. It swam on and disappeared over to the other side of the lake. For a while we were shocked into silence. The young man hadn’t seemed like the sort of person who could foretell what we were about to see; a real prophet would have been a much calmer person. So, the only possible explanation was that we had witnessed a loop in time, but for all our insistence, nobody else seemed to have noticed it.
Boxing Day 1963
My mother died on Boxing Day. We were sitting up in bed having our morning cup of tea, when my brother rang to tell us. It was a shock, of course, but not really a surprise; we had had a feeling, when we saw her in the little cottage hospital in Wales, that we would not see her again. Perhaps we should have gone to see her more often, but it was a long way, and it is not as if we could have done anything. They had looked after her very well in the hospital, and so they should, for she was one of a handful of women who had fought to keep it going thirty years before.
One thing that did surprise us was the reaction of our younger, seven-year-old son. The ten year-old took the news calmly and sadly, but the younger one, usually so capable of controlling his feelings, exploded in a fury of tears and rage; he hadn’t wanted her to die, he said.
Kath’s parents had been staying with us over Christmas, and they immediately insisted that we should have our breakfast, pack a bag and go. They would look after the boys, and that was that. I am not sure at what time we drove off, but it must have been quite early, because it was still light when we arrived, and that was in the days before motorways speeded things up. We shared the driving, but Kath hated the narrow Welsh roads, twisting and turning between dry-stone walls, with no pavements. As we arrived at the familiar little gate above the house, our friends Glanmor and Jean came out, Glanmor in his iron leg supports having hauled himself up the steep steps of slate from the courtyard below. They had been to sit with my father; your cousin Margaret is with him now, they said.
Margaret was my father’s favourite niece; almost fifty years earlier, she used to visit my parents regularly at their home in Liverpool as a welcome relief from the rigours of a nurse’s training. Now, having retired, she was known throughout this part of the country simply as “Matron”. We went down the steps and into the house. Margaret and my father were talking together softly in Welsh, their first language; they were both more comfortable in Welsh, rather than in the English learnt later in the schoolroom. village; later, my brother and his wife arrived Margaret soon went home to her village; later, my brother and his wife arrived – their child-minding had taken a little longer to arrange than ours had. My father wound up the grandfather clock, and that was the end of Boxing Day.
Sense of Smell
The sense of smell is a strange thing. It can be very evocative, in the perfume of a woman’s hair, the scent of new-mown grass, or, in my case, a reminder of one of the most miserable few days of my life.
In 1943 we had been obliged to spend about three weeks in Cairo during our flight from England to India while we waited for some spare aircraft parts to arrive from the U.K. I hated Cairo; it was, literally, a stinking city, full of persistent flies and pestering beggars, and above all, unbearably hot under the July sun. How I hated it! On this particular day I was walking along one of its streets, fending off the flies and thieving ragamuffins, when I suddenly felt sick and faint, and would have fallen had not some soldiers come to help me. They escorted me to a nearby Forces’ canteen, from where I later made my way back to base. The doctor diagnosed heat-stroke caused by a deficiency of salt, and prescribed a few days rest, with strict instructions to drink as much salt water as I could manage during the next few hours, and to make sure I kept up my salt intake thereafter.
Many years later, I was digging a very large hole in the corner of our garden; we had decided to create a swimming pool, and the first requirement was, inevitably, a very large hole. The digging went on happily for a week or two, then one warm Sunday evening, down in the hole, I suddenly felt faint and sick. At the same time, my nostrils picked up a scent that I instantly recognised — it was the stench of Cairo. I had no hesitation in making an instant diagnosis of my ailment — it was heat-stroke. So I clambered out of the hole, drank a couple of pints of salt water, and put my feet up for the rest of the evening.
The cure was effective, and the swimming pool was duly completed and much enjoyed by all the family.
On My Father’s Funeral
Slow Welsh voices,
Half forgotten cousins, dimly remembered friendships.
My two sons a part, but yet apart.
I look towards the sky, beyond the pale autumn hills,
Reaching for infinity,
Wanting to touch his hand just once again.
A little dust to his frail dust;
Then we go down through the trees, to begin life again.
What will it be like, being retired? It is an experience most of us go through only once in a lifetime, so that when it happens it is for the first time, and for the last time.
We all know what a weekend is like: two days when you can do more or less what you like. We all know what a holiday is like: two weeks or so when you can almost forget all about the office. But retirement? Well, to start with, it was rather like a long weekend. Then it seemed rather like a long holiday. And eventually you come to realise that this is it! The stress of your job – that black cloud that has followed you around for so long – is no longer there; no more travelling in the rush hour; and as you lie back in bed at eight o’clock in the morning, the sounds you can hear are those of other people going to work. Good luck to them!
A little while after I retired, Kath took early retirement from her stressful job, and suddenly we were able to spend more time together than at any time in the previous thirty years of our married life. But what shall we do with all this lovely, hard-earned free time? To start with, you can catch up with the decorating, sort out that corner of the garden which you never quite got round to, and give yourselves a special holiday. Then what? We took the view that if we were to preserve our sanity, we should keep our minds active, so we decided to become volunteer workers for the Citizens Advice Bureau if they would have us.
Twelve months later, after an exhaustive and exhausting course of lectures and in-house training, we were let loose on an unsuspecting public. Now, nine years on, I suppose we are old hands, but every day brings new problems. Inevitably, a high proportion of the work relates to that ten per cent of the population who are getting progressively poorer while the rest get richer. And every day the questions pour in:
“My business has failed; I owe my suppliers £5,000, I have borrowed €4,000 on my credit cards, and I have a mortgage of £100,000 on my house which is now worth £90,000. What do I do?”
“I’ve had this form in the post. I can’t read or write – could you please tell me what it says, and fill it in for me?”
“My husband died last night. What should I be doing?”
“I’ve had this poll tax demand. What am I supposed to pay it with?”
“I am 16 years old. I have become pregnant, and my parents have thrown me out on the street. Where can I go?”
And so it goes on; it certainly keeps our minds active!
Holidays and Travel
If you are energetic and own a pair of stout walking shoes, then there is no more satisfying walking holiday than following the South-west Coastal Path. This runs for 500 miles west from Minehead in Somerset, round Land’s End, and back eastwards to Poole in Dorset. To my mind, the most rewarding section of the Path is along the north Cornish coast from Hartland Point (which is actually in Devon) to Land’s End. If you stand by the lighthouse at Trevose Head, near Padstow, on a clear day you can see almost the whole of north Cornwall in two great sweeping bays, from Hartland Point to the north-east, and south-west to St. Ives.
A good starting point is the pub at Hartland Quay, which is right on the water’s edge by a beautiful stretch of jagged rock outcrops which are constantly battered by the sea. On the wall in the bar of the pub is a chart showing the position of all the shipwrecks on that part of the coast over the last two hundred years; the landlord sits morosely in the corner behind the bar, no doubt recalling the days of the wreckers who lured ships on to the rocks in order to raid their cargoes. Walking south-west, you are soon out of Devon, and into a world never seen by most travellers, a world of hidden coves and headlands, high cliffs, abandoned tin mines, rusting breeches buoy equipment used to rescue sailors from wrecks long since forgotten, a variety of seabirds, and always lovely views. Some of the walking is decidedly strenuous, involving steep climbs and descents, but always rewarding.
If you intend to spend more than one day on the coastal path, a certain amount of advance planning is essential, as public transport away from the main towns is non-existent. You can, of course, carry a tent on your back, or walk back to your starting point each day, but the best way to make progress along the path (although environmentally unfriendly) is to use two cars; take both cars to the end of the proposed walk, abandon one there, and drive (with all members of the party) to the starting point. At the end of the walk, pile into the waiting car and drive back to the starting point to pick up the other car; and make sure that the right car keys are in the right place at the right time.
Excellent booklets are available giving details of the route and pointing out items of interest along the way.
Remember, dear, when we were young,
Our hearts were gay, our days were long.
You loved me then, I love you still.
Gone are those days, say what you will.
But when a rainbow fills the sky,
I pause to think and wonder why
Vows we made have passed us by.
A Holiday Trophy
We were on holiday in Northumberland with our family in the days when we were young and active. We climbed mountains, walked by the side of tumbling streams, and embarked on a boat to the Farne Islands, where, apart from grey seals, we saw puffins feeding their young, ceaselessly flying to and fro carrying cargoes of sandworms in their beaks, and diving with them into the tunnels where they had made their nests. Inevitably, of course, the Farne Islands lighthouse reminded us of the time when we had first read of the heroic deeds of Grace Darling, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter as she rowed her boat to the rescue in stormy seas.
But in our hotel there was an object which delighted us each day as we left in the morning and returned in the evening. It was a terrestrial globe about two feet in diameter, sea-green in colour and showing the sea and all the Earth’s land masses moulded to show the contours of the mountains; whether or not the mouldings were to scale we never discovered but they were very effective. The globe was mounted on an elegant wooden frame which enabled one to rotate it through 360 degrees of longitude at will. It was a navigator’s delight.
The globe stood in a corner of the hotel foyer, accompanied by a notice stating that similar globes were available for sale at an address a few miles away. I became possessed of a gnawing envy of anyone who could own such a delightful object, until, just before the end of the holiday, it dawned on me that I had a birthday coming up with no idea of what main present I would like. Brilliant! We drove off to the small factory where the globes were made, paid out an amount that significantly increased the cost of the holiday, and returned home with a globe and its stand securely jammed into the rear seat of the car. So now my lovely globe resides in our living-room, where it can be turned through 360 degrees of longitude at will and for ever.
Stratford has been part of my life from about the age of eight. When I was young we used to spend part of our summer holidays at various places on the south coast; which in those days meant two or three days driving from our home. My mother, being starved of culture in our small town, always insisted that the first overnight stop on our journey would be Stratford, the first task when we arrived there being to race round to the theatre to book seats for that evening’s performance in what was then a magnificent new theatre. Although I probably did not make much of Shakespeare’s plays to begin with, I was always aware of the buzz of excitement and anticipation in the audience. One thing I do remember from those early days was peering over the balcony, and seeing Bernard Shaw sitting in the stalls.
Afterwards, during the war, I met Philip in the RAF, and later married his young sister. After the war he had a brilliant academic career, his last appointment being as Shakespearian Professor of English at Birmingham University, based in Stratford, where a duty he delighted in was to coach actors performing at the theatre to help them interpret some of Shakespeare’s more abstruse texts. And so it was that we visited Stratford quite regularly and got to know the ins and outs of the town. Being there with Philip was an education in itself. One of the recurring highlights was eating out after the theatre at “The Black Swan”, also known as “The Dirty Duck”, where the actors used to foregather, many of whom had a cheery word or a wave to greet Philip. But it could not last, and, after a distressing period of illness, emphysema carried him off at much too early an age.
Now, at the start of each year when the theatre programme has been published, our next door neighbour chivvies us with: “What shall we see in Stratford this year?”, and this is becoming an annual routine. So once again we are walking around the streets of Stratford, but we avoid the road where Philip lived and died – it has too many memories.
A Christmas Story
The lights of the church were dimmed. By flickering candle-light, I listened as the congregation around me sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”. It was a lovely sound, and I felt so much at ease with these people.
How different, I thought, from the wartime years when hatred of Germans was a way of life, a hatred fuelled by the terrible wailing of air raid sirens, the ruthless advance of the German armies and the grimness of the gas chambers. In the years after the war, it had been a long time before I could meet a German man or woman without being aware of a great gulf between us, as if I was meeting some alien beings with whom I had so little in common.
And now, for three years, my two young granddaughters had lived with their parents in a village in Southern Germany, being brought up in this alien environment among these alien people.
Then, one Christmas, I was persuaded to attend the Nativity Play at their village church. The scene was suddenly familiar; the hall was filled with adoring parents and grandparents, children forgetting their lines, teachers trying desperately to get the little actors and actresses into their correct positions, angels with crooked wings, boys reluctantly playing shepherds, wise men and kings. It was all so familiar, only the language was different. How could one have hated these people? They were just like us. Yet these were still the race of people who had done those terrible things, or had allowed them to happen, not so many years ago. So, if they are just like us, how could we be so sure that we could not have done such things, or allowed them to happen, in our own country? This thought burned in my mind, while, by flickering candle-light, the congregation sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”.
Summer is a state of mind. If winter is for discontent, then summer shall be for contentment and happiness. All our lives, from infancy through to old age, we have collected treasured memories of the long happy days of summer.
Childhood days spent on the beach, digging holes, building castles, splashing in and out of the sea. We remember those times, the sun was always shining: already we had started building up that heap of memories that was to become our mature perception that summer equals happiness. After childhood, happy days followed on the cricket field, chasing round the boundary, holding catches, even scoring a few runs; it was all happiness. Walking up and around the hills near my home, – it didn’t matter whether I was on my own or in company, it was enjoyment experienced to the full.
From 1940 to 1946 I was deprived of five successive summers, but in the following years, summer thrived again, in my remaining bachelor days, and with my partner, and then it was back to the beaches with children, and, in almost no time at all, with grandchildren. There is something within us, a happy facility to remember the best of times more clearly than other times. And so it is that we remember our summers, full of glowing memories. It is a state of mind.
I like throwing my breakfast on the floor. Sometimes when I’ve eaten all I want to – it doesn’t matter whether it’s porridge or Coco Pops – I think to myself, if I just move the plate to the edge of the tray on my high-chair, and tip it up a bit, with a bit of luck the plate will topple and spill the rest of my breakfast all over the floor. And there it sits, a soggy mess of porridge (or Coco Pops) on the floor by the legs of my high-chair. Mummy gets very, very cross, and shouts at me in a loud voice, and carries on muttering to herself as she cleans up the mess and takes it away.
Then, the next time she walks past my chair, she stops, bends down, and gives me a great big kiss on the top of my head. That’s why I like throwing my breakfast on the floor.
The wind catches in my hearing aid;
My head is full of sound,
Trapped, with the music of Hiawatha:
“Pemmican and buffalo - -".
The buzzard soars back over the hill:
"First he danced a solemn measure - -".
Kath and Speff stroll on ahead:
“Then they said to Chibiabos,
The friend of Hiawatha - -".
The path turns out of the wind:
My head is free,
And I am free, to return to the world.
When the Globe Theatre was being built, we subscribed for a paving stone to be laid bearing the name of Kath’s brother, Philip. He had been closely associated with Sam Wanamaker in the initial stages of the Globe project, until ill-health, followed by his death in 1989, meant, that like Sam, he did not live to see the successful completion of the task. The paving stone seemed a fitting memorial to him and to his work.
Kath’s cousin, who had always been very fond of Philip, wanted to come down from North Wales to see the Globe and Philip’s stone, so she came down for the weekend, and on the Saturday we arrived at the theatre. However, because there was to be a matinee of Hamlet that afternoon, the only people allowed on to the paved area were those currently going round on the last guided tour of the morning, and those with tickets for the afternoon performance. This also meant that we could not get to see the inside of the theatre. A young steward (he was black) was guarding the door; Kath moved closer to him, and explained that her cousin Mollie had come all the way from North Wales to see her cousin’s stone, and could he please make an exception. He opened the barrier, and asked us to return as quickly as possible.
We found the stone, and stood by it in silence for a few moments. Then a nearby door into the theatre opened, and we could see that there was something going on in there. Quick as a flash, we were through the door and into the ground area of the theatre. There were quite a few other people there, so we weren’t conspicuous. And there, on the stage was Mark Rylance, Hamlet himself, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, reciting the first Act soliloquy that begins: “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt”. He moved about the stage as he spoke, listened to in total silence. At the end, the makeshift audience applauded, and he took a bow. Only then did we realise that he had in fact been making a sound recording, with microphones at each corner of the stage. This was indeed serendipity; we had moved from the position of seeing nothing, to seeing the stone, and by chance getting entry to the theatre and seeing the master himself performing a scene from Hamlet.
And then, strangest of all, Mark Rylance squatted centre stage, near the front; before him was a small dish of burning incense, while he rocked gently to and fro, uttering a low humming sound. Is he a Buddhist, or is this some strange ritual which he undergoes before each performance? While we were pondering this question, our friendly steward appeared and quickly ushered all the stragglers out of the theatre and back through the barrier. He had done us proud.
At Torre del Lago
At Torre del Lago I stood in the sea;
How the waves came tumbling by.
A new surf board?
Is what I will become.
-forted by the sand and the sun.
And his daughters jump in the water,
We made our way down the slippery track beneath the trees, picking our path cautiously between the boulders. The wet ground was covered with an incandescent carpet of red-brown beech leaves, together with a few leaves of oak. Below us was a raging torrent of clear brown water, swollen by the rain of the previous night.
A short time before, we had stood on a bleak hillside by the grave of my parents. With no-one living near enough to tend the grave, the edges had been invaded by grass, but an overall covering of moss, although a sign of neglect, did lend it an air of tidiness. We stood together for a while, in a mood of helpless silence. Our Scottish granddaughters, having made an inspection of the grave of great grandparents they had never known, wandered among the headstones, attempting to decipher and pronounce the strange Welsh placenames.
The rain started again as we continued down the track, but we were protected by the great canopy of leaves overhead. The river beneath us plunged down and down; at times the tumult of the turbulent water drowned out our talk, but in that great sound we could hear the voices of those who had passed this way before.
His picture shows a man in uniform,
He stares with steady gaze beneath his cap;
But he was not a military man,
He played the cornet in a famous band,
None other than the Besses o' the Barn.
But in Kath's family he's better known
For grandparental deeds which led him on
To bed two sisters - no, not both at once!
But first he married Alice, Sallie's mum,
Sal had a sister Bel, and brothers two.
Now Sallie, she was Kathleen's mum, and she
Had also borne a clever son as well.
Alas, it came to pass that Alice died,
But John, desiring comfort, cast his eye
Upon her sister Edie; but the law
Decreed to him: “In no wise shalt thou wed
Thy dead wife's sister”. John, quite undeterred,
Lived with her anyway, and once again
He fathered four, again two girls, two boys.
Now one of these was Doris, who survives,
A very hale and hearty ninety-four. If we consider the relationship That Doris bears to Sallie, it's a hoot! They share a father, but by different mums, So they're half-sisters, that is very clear. But their two mums are sisters, which in turn, Means they are cousins, so it's plain to see, That they're first cousins and half-sisters too. Now you'll be glad to hear there is no more; John Cooper has a lot to answer for!
Thoughts on Millennium Eve
The birth of a New Year always gives rise to thoughts of the past, of those we have known who are no longer with us, and of the future, wondering what it may hold for us, and for our children.
I have never taken much notice of the significance of particular anniversaries. Certainly, birthdays and other annual events are there to be celebrated, but I am not one of those people who dread the approach of a 60th, 70th or 80th birthday; one day follows another in much the same fashion, no matter how many times the Earth has rotated on its axis or revolved around the Sun since the day of one’s birth. But, of course, there are exceptions; I fancy the fiftieth anniversary of my marriage will not go unnoticed, and the advent of a new Millennium is a bit special.
The celebration of a New Year always seems to be a dreary affair in southern England; I have always found it to be a more significant event in the north, and on the Celtic fringes, while the Scots go quite mad. I have clear memories of some of these occasions.
On the first New Year’s Eve that I can remember, I was aged 7 or 8, and we had come from Wales to stay with relatives in Liverpool. Shortly before midnight I was roused from my sleep to come downstairs and out into the street to hear the sound of a great tradition. On the stroke of midnight came a glorious cacophony; every ship on the River Mersey and in the docks blew its siren, from the toot-toot-toot of the tugboats to the bleating of the ferry-boats and the deep-throated boom of the ocean going liners. There were many more ships then than there are now; it was a memorable sound.
For the New Year of 1950/1951 I was invited to stay with Kath and her family in Wallasey. We were not yet officially engaged, but we knew that it would happen. There was a very real and deeply-felt knowledge that we would shortly be taking a step that would shape the rest of our lives. That alone made it a memorable New Year.
In the early 1960’s we were living in Brookdene Avenue in Oxhey. On this particular New Year’s Eve, we had spent the evening with some Scottish neighbours. We emerged from their house shortly after midnight, ready to share our conviviality with whoever might be around, but the place was totally quiet and deserted. We expressed our opinions of the miserable southern English who lived all around us, but all was not lost. There had been a significant fall of snow during the evening, so a sledge was produced, and we spent a hilarious hour or so pulling each other in turns along the silent length of Brookdene Avenue. Crazy, but memorable.
And now to the Millennium Eve. Our thoughts of the past, of those we have known who are no longer with us, extend, not only to the previous twelve months, but to the whole of our lives. Our thoughts of the future extend for a further period than just the next year. We are aware that the Millennium is a unique event in our lives, and for that reason it has given rise to a greater solemnity and a greater degree of celebration than is accorded to a normal New Year. Why, even the southern English condescended to notice it!
Waste Not Want Not
Sixteen Christmases ago, soon after we first moved into our present home, we bought a tiny Christmas tree, about eighteen inches high. At Twelfth Night, we removed the tinsel and baubles, and realised that the tree had some roots, so, ever optimistic, we planted the tree by the fence where we could see it from our kitchen and bedroom windows.
This magnificent tree is now two storeys high, and, this year, for the first time, it has provided a home for a pair of magpies. The magpies were very busy, building their nest with some very unwieldy-looking pieces of wood and some lesser twigs. In no time at all, both parents were flying around furiously, fetching food for their voracious young. Then, alas, disaster struck! While both parents were away foraging for food, a crow raided the nest and removed one of the chicks, which lay at the foot of the tree for a while, a pathetic little bundle of black and white feathers. The crow then removed it a few yards over the fence into the paddock, and started to attack the bundle with its vicious beak. After a brief shower of black and white feathers, the crow began its meal. The distraught parents tried to attack the crow, but the crow defended itself by a series of brief counter-attacks. The two magpies were no match for the much larger crow, and all they achieved was the slowing down of the meal.
Eventually, the crow flew away. One of the magpies, however, stayed behind, and finished off the meal.
A Peak of Happiness
We started planning our Golden Wedding celebration more than twelve months ahead – our friends had been telling us that we needed to do this before all the best places got booked up. So, after some research, and on the recommendation of a friend, we decided on St Michael’s Manor in St Albans as the venue. It had a “special event” menu comprising a mouth watering buffet lunch, a large dining area holding up to sixty people, with the freedom of the gardens and lake, should the weather be fine. When we told our sons what we were planning, they said “What about music? You two cannot have a celebration without music”. So they said they would organise something.
So we started compiling the guest list, a process which over the next few months was punctuated by such exclamations as “What on earth do you want to invite them for?” Eventually the list, including some last minute additions, totalled seventy-eight for a venue that held sixty, but fortunately, twenty were unable to come for various reasons, including, alas, two who died. The last minute additions included two drivers for guests who couldn’t face the prospect of driving themselves to St Albans.
The day dawned fine and bright, and by midday was getting warm. The invitations had said “12 noon for 1pm: informal dress” and they started rolling in, and were all present and correct by one o’clock, chatting on the patio clutching glasses of champagne and orange juice. The guests had come from far and wide, not only from the four corners of England, but from Scotland, Wales, France and Switzerland. Apart from Kath and myself, there were six survivors of the wedding day, of whom four were present, including my nephew David, who during the whole wedding service fifty years ago was fast asleep in his carry-cot at the back of the church. A very special guest was Kath’s ninety-eight-year-old Auntie Doris.
The buffet lunch was every bit as mouth-watering as had been promised. At the point when everyone was finishing their coffee, and we were thinking about speeches, suddenly the most wonderful thing happened. A man came in and sat at the grand piano that had been lurking in the corner, followed by a troop of seven people in costume, who turned out to be real live opera singers.
And for the next hour we were regaled with solos, duets and quartets from all our favourite operas, and other music that reflected our fifty years together. It was absolutely amazing, a most wonderful surprise addition to our celebration.
Meanwhile, the sun had continued to shine, and, after the speeches, during which our sons said very nice things about us, as well as letting out some family secrets, everyone dispersed to wander about the grounds, and the grandchildren sat and dangled their feet in the cool waters of the lake.
And the cost? I can tell you – – it was worth every penny.
In the Supermarket
Harry wished he had paid more attention to what his wife actually did when she was shopping. He stood miserably, with the wire basket in his hand, gazing at the shelves, wondering where to start. Mildred would have gone briskly to the nearest shelf, picked what she wanted, consulted her list, and gone on to the next purchase. He hadn’t even made a list. He looked bleakly at the cabbages, the cauliflower, the broccoli; even if he bought them he had very little idea what to do with them. He turned away, and as he did so his basket hit a trolley coming up on his right-hand side, being pushed by a young woman with a toddler perched on the front of the trolley. “You stupid man”, she shouted, “you could have brained my boy with your carelessness. Do look what you are doing”, and she swept on her way. Harry, already miserable enough, was stunned and embarrassed by this outburst, which he thought was quite undeserved. Slowly, he moved on, and was cheered to discover a shelf full of ready-made meals; he read the instructions, and knew that at last here was something he could cope with. He chose a few, and, with a new-found confidence, set off for the cereal shelves; here, again, there was something he knew what to do with. He made his choice, but as he reached up for the packet, somehow he dislodged a whole pile of cereal packets on to the floor. He felt his misery returning as he slowly bent to deal with this latest disaster, when he heard a cheerful voice saying “Let me help you”, and he was surprised to find that it was the same young woman who had shouted at him only a few minutes earlier. In no time at all she had retrieved all the packets and put them back on the shelves. He stammered a “thank you” as she sped on her way. Later, as he was queueing at the checkout, he saw her and the toddler, still perched on the trolley, heading for the car-park. Their eyes met, and he caught a brief smile before she disappeared out of sight. He gave a sigh, and supposed that he would eventually get used to this new way of life.
A Weekend in Paris
I have recently returned from a weekend in Paris. My son Rik was running in the Paris Marathon on the Sunday, so the whole family went over in support. We found time to visit the picture gallery at La Musee d’Orsay, which contains a wide variety of works by all the major artists. It was, incidentally, the first time I remember seeing paintings by Monet that were not either water-lilies or the face of Rouen Cathedral. The front of the Musee building has two large clocks; at one point we found ourselves standing behind one of them, looking through the clock face, over the Seine to a splendid view of Montmartre and the Cathedral of Sacre Coeur.
As we stood there, I became aware of the huge second hand progressing across the face of the clock, but because we were behind the clock face, the hand was moving backwards – it was moving anticlockwise. I had a sudden vision of time itself moving backwards, and there came into my mind the words of the poem by Elizabeth Akers Allen:
“Backward, turn backward, O Time, in thy flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight”.
Why would the poet wish to do this? Was she weary of being an adult, seeing things through a glass darkly, and now wished to see them once more face to face, and to speak as a child, to understand as a child, to think as a child? Did she wish to abandon, just for one night, the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood? I can understand the poet having a fleeting wish of this nature, but I feel that she would find the experience a great disappointment, a travesty of a dream. Would I wish to turn back my own clock? No, I would not wish to go back twelve months, to live that time again, knowing as I do now the dark cloud that was looming. Far better to remember those times as they were, not knowing what Fate had in store.
And the Marathon? It was an exciting, involving event. Rik was content with his time, not his best, but then it was the hottest April day ever recorded in Paris.
You went away from me
Away from me
And yet you expect me
To still be
Waiting here for you
Knock on my door tonight
All you like
Ring my bell tonight
Go to hell tonight.
I'm not waiting here for you
I've gone away from you
Gone for good from you
The trees are weeping;
All summer through
They bore the green canopy of leaves
That gave shade on sunny days,
And joy to the beholder.
Now the colder days have come,
With wind and rain;
The colours of the leaves have changed
To yellow, brown and rusty red.
And when the change is done
The leaves begin to fall
Bidding a sad farewell
To oak and ash and sycamore
Who gave them birth,
And now see them depart.
The trees, now gaunt and bare,
Will stand like silhouettes
Against the winter sky.
But in the dawn of spring,
New life will come,
The trees will once again
Give birth to their green leaves.
When men and women weep,
And bid a sad farewell
For loved ones who have gone,
Their lives, too, are gaunt and bare,
Lonely against the wintry sky.
But in the dawn of their new spring,
Those green leaves will never come again.
For forty years my love and I
Would watch the seasons passing by.
The nodding daffodils of spring
Gave notice of the summoning
Of joyous summer, kind and warm.
Then came the autumn with its storm
And wind to blow the leaves away.
The winter came, but not to stay.
Together we would face the cold
Until the frost released its hold.
In the midst of winter's reign
We knew that spring would come again.
But now my love has left me all alone.
I thought that she and I would never part.
My grief is heavy as the hardest stone.
The icy hand of winter grips my heart,
The green of spring will never come again.
The leaves of summer will not now unfold.
The autumn colours I will seek in vain.
Now all my life is winter, bleak and cold.
Summer Time Winter Time
Why is it that, twice a year, we go through the ridiculous charade of changing the time on all the clocks in the house by one hour? This used to be a relatively simple task, when we had perhaps one or two clocks in the house, and one or two watches. Now the process is an absolute nightmare, apart from wall clocks and bedside clocks and watches, we have to perform fiddling operations on computers, radios, video recorders, hi-fi’s, ovens, microwaves, central heating systems, telephone answering machines and the one we always forget, the clock in the car.
And six months later, we put them all back again to where they were. It is as if, twice a year, the whole population of the country, together with the entire population across half the world, link arms and perform a grotesque dance, chanting all together: “Put the clock forward, put the clock back” which is very little different from: “You put your left leg out, you put your left leg in, you put your right leg out, you put your right leg in”. And it makes about as much sense. And it’s not just in our homes – the whole of industry is caught up in it, while timetables for all forms of public transport have to be readjusted in some detail.
Why do we do it? Who benefits from it? There are groups of people who complain regularly: the farmers complain about cows being confused at milking time; the whole population of Western Scotland complain that they are condemned to going to work in the dark, at one end of the scale it is dangerous for children to go to school in the dark, and at the other end it is dangerous for them to go home in the dark.
It all started with The Daylight Saving Act during the First World War, to allow factory workers and agricultural workers extra hours of daylight for recreation during the summer. The idea seems to persist that the process actually creates longer hours of daylight in the summer, which, is, of course, ridiculous nonsense. So why do we do it? Will someone please tell me!
The Seven Ages of Christmas. (One man in his time plays many parts)
First the small child, believing implicitly and with simplicity in the person that is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. He it is who fills the eagerly awaited stocking at the end of the bed, lending an air of magic to the whole affair.
Then the schoolboy, still creeping like snail unwillingly to school; he has long since discarded the myth of Father Christmas, and knows full well that it his parents who will provide, whether the gift is a yoyo, a cricket bat or a laptop.
And now the lover, scared to death when he approaches the object of his affections, – how could such a gorgeous creature possibly have any interest in the gangling youth that he has now become? What can he possibly give her for Christmas that would not arouse great howls of derision from his beloved and her friends?
He then becomes the parent, with his own child, proudly playing out the myth, tip-toeing softly into the bedroom to place sundry goodies into the waiting stocking.
When the boy has grown, the father will find fellow-feeling in his son’s reaction to Christmas, whether the gift is a yoyo, a cricket bat or a laptop, and will anxiously wait to be invited to join in the enjoyment. He can still keep pace with advancing technology, but for how long?
Now he is a grandfather, older and wiser in many respects, he is nevertheless beginning to lose touch with technology as each year brings out more complex and incomprehensible objects to be manipulated freely by the younger generations. He becomes painfully aware that the great new waves of technology are leaving him high and dry. But the granddaughters, for that is what the generation has produced, are lovely creatures, bringing old grandad into their lives with their fun and their music.
The seventh age eventually comes when, sans eyes, sans teeth and sans hearing but not yet sans everything, he sits in a corner, ever more bewildered by the things around him. When someone speaks to him, he smiles happily in agreement, without having heard a word that was said to him, but it’s Christmas, his children and his grandchildren are happy. What more can he ask?
The clouds are low and mist enshrouds the hills,
A myriad streams fall down into the fjords.
Great giants stride unseen across the land.
They walk so tall.
Amid the grey, grim grandeur of the scene
I hear the sound of great Wagnerian chords
That crown it with an awesome majesty.
We are so small.
It is a great privilege for me to stand in front of you today, in front of this great gathering. This day will go down in history, and in years to come we shall look back and remember with pride that we were here when it all began. You see on the wall behind me our new logo comprising the letters that will soon be on everyone’s lips, the G.O.P.P. Our party, this great party, will from now on contest every by-election in every part of the country, we will contest seats in local government, and muster as many candidates as possible in order to storm into the next general election with the confidence that breeds success.
The rest of the world will want to know what we, the G.O.P.P., stand for, so we, the executive committee that you see up here on this platform, have drafted a manifesto that we intend to publish at the earliest date possible, and I will now read out to you the main points from this document, a document whose contents will shortly reverberate around this great country of ours, and indeed, around the whole civilised world. These are the changes, the radical changes, that we will bring about immediately, from that great day when we assume power, and take on the responsibility of government.
First, it will become mandatory for any organisation on receiving a telephome call to ensure that it is answered by a real human. It will be illegal to arrange for the call to be answered by a recorded voice, and especially severe penalties will be incurred if the voice is that of a person whose accent is incomprehensible.
Secondly, we will abolish the tedious practice, which we are at present forced to undergo, of changing our clocks twice a year. This serves no real purpose, and benefits no-one.
Next, we will not tolerate any unnecessary changes in the English language that we learnt in our childhood, and have used all our lives. Examples of this are references to “train stations”, when the proper term we have used all our lives is “railway stations”. Again, when we were at school we learnt about “kilometres”. Any other pronunciation, such as “kilometres” will be banned, and subject to severe penalties.
We will put a stop to the rapid proliferation and complexity associated with modern electronic devices. There are already in existence far more electronic gadgets than we need, and far more than the world, and in particular, our membership, can ever cope with. This ban will be extended to the motor industry. They have imposed upon us the use of computers and other electronic gadgetry under the bonnets of our cars making repairs ever more incomprehensible and more expensive. We all remember the days when a little trouble under the bonnet could be readily dealt with by the use of a spanner and a screwdriver; that is the sort of world in which we want to live. There will, of course, be exemptions to the law restricting the unnecessary march of electronic devices; this will relate to electronic aids for the those of our fellow-citizens who are suffering some kind of disability; I refer particularly to the deaf and the blind.
I have outlined to you a few items from our manifesto; there will be many more, all designed to usher in the new world that we are all craving for. Thank you all for coming here to give your invaluable support to our great movement. Our future will be guided by your dedication and support for the G.O.P.P., the Grumpy Old Peoples’ Party.
Following a recent episode, I recognised a sensation of something akin to “déjà vu”. So far as I can recall, this was the third time that I had had this type of experience.
The first occasion was when I was digging a large hole in the garden of 57 Chestnut Avenue for a swimming pool. On this particular day, which was very warm, I was deep in the hole and suddenly felt dizzy and sick. Accompanying these sensations was a smell which I immediately recognised and which took me back to a previous time when I had felt these symptons. It was in Cairo in the year 1943. The doctor diagnosed heat stroke on that occasion, so now, in my large hole, I knew that I had heat stroke again. I knew the cure – to drink salt water, which I did, and it worked.
The second occasion was when Robyn, after she had been accepted for Lester Pearson College in Canada, was going through a series of meetings organised to familiarise students with what they might expect to find in their new colleges. She came back from one of these events all excited, because she had suddenly realised that, in her own words, “It’s all really happening”. I was immediately transported back to June 1941. Having been in the army for six or seven months, and hating everything about it, I was offered the chance of transferring to the RAF for aircrew duties. I wanted to be a pilot, of course, but settled for the role of navigator, having been persuaded that I was better suited for that job. About a month or six weeks passed, during which time I came to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen, and that I was doomed to stay in the army, but eventually I received my transfer papers. I was to report to Lords cricket ground. On the appointed day, I arrived to find the Eton v Harrow match in progress, but, more amazingly, I became part of a throng of khaki-clad figures, all eager, as I was, to exchange khaki for blue. And then I knew that “it was all really happening”.
And the third, more recent, episode? On the last morning of our stay at Sainte Cécile, I narrowly escaped falling down the long flight of stone steps leading down to the basement. Fortunately, I was saved by prompt action from Rik, who clawed me back from potential disaster. My reaction (apart, that is, from expressing gratitude) I can only describe as cool, which I found surprising. I suppose it was a case of “It’s all over, there’s no need to panic”. This was precisely matched by my experience in 1944, when flying over the Japanese front line in Burma I perceived a line of bullet holes erupting from the upper side of the wing, and heading straight for me. That they did not reach me was, again, clearly an occasion for gratitude, but to whom? Fate? God?, or some anonymous Japanese machine-gunner? Anyway, my reaction was, again, cool, attributable to some extent to the fact that I had a job to get on with, tipping supplies out of the aircraft to our troops below. In both cases, panic came later, in the small hours of the night, recalling what might have been.
It appears inevitable that, as I have grown older, my ability to absorb new information has diminished almost to zero. There is only that much more that I can take in. My brain has accumulated as much knowledge as it can carry. My memory bank of accumulated wisdom now carries a sign: “House Full”. I am only too well aware that there is a vast amount of new information and new technology that would dearly love to be admitted to my over-stuffed cranium. Some of it has, with great difficulty, managed to penetrate the apparently impenetrable, but, I believe, only at the expense of other items of knowledge (which includes people’s names) that have, due the intense pressure of all this jostling and elbowing for space, been released to wander in some outer region where lost souls gather.
But do I care? Well, not really. I could count my blessings if I had a mind to – my lovely family, for one thing, and there is much still to look forward to. Love, sunshine, another performance of Wagner’s Ring – you name it, I’m ready for it.
My one great sadness is being deaf. It does exclude me from so much. Here is a poem:
The Devil came up to my side. “Can I help you, sir?” he said. “Restore my hearing” I replied, “My soul is yours when I am dead”.
And I would do it, like a shot, without a hint of hesitation. But then I don’t believe in an after-life. I would have to take a chance on being mistaken and ending up in Purgatory.
Never mind. As I said, you name it, I’m ready for it.
On most mornings, after I wake up, a tune comes into my head, and stays with me for at least part of the day. It can be anything from something simple, like ‘baa-baa black sheep’ or a Bing Crosby oldie, to an operatic aria, or to the opening bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Sometimes I sing along with the tune of the day, which gets a bit tricky when trying to sing all four parts of the quartet from Rigoletto. But in general I just let the music flow through me for as long as it wants to.
I remember when I first realised that music could be fulfilling. This was at a Christmas concert in our chapel when I was about ten or eleven. A young girl of eighteen sang a solo, a Christmas hymn, and it was beautiful; I met her again many years later, and she too remembered the occasion. A few years later I joined the local male voice choir, and then a large mixed choir singing magnificent works like Verdi’s Requiem. And ultimately I wound down my choral activities with the Chipperfield choir, still singing great religious works. Singing in these choirs was a great joy to me, surrounded as I was by all this lovely sound.
After a married life in which attending operatic performances played a crucial role, I have now turned more to orchestral music. It was a great delight recently to see a TV programme about Sibelius and his symphonies, which I had never heard before. I just sat and let the music pour over me. Long may it continue to be so.
Libya – February 2009
This was a brilliantly successful venture, well organised in all respects. There were 22 people on the tour, four singles and nine couples, a very nice bunch, with no doubt a high proportion of Guardian readers. Word seemed to have gone round that one member of the party was a deaf old man, who might need a bit of support. True enough, when it came to steep scrambling, or climbing out of an amphitheatre, there always seemed to be someone on hand in case I needed help. Not that I ever did, but it was nice to know. Also, when any announcement had been made, there was usually someone making sure I had heard it properly.
The hotels were good, but the food was very ordinary. We learnt to avoid lamb and camel, and stick to chicken or fish. Their meat, especially camel, is really tough. I was quite impressed with Libya. For all his alleged faults, Gaddafi seems to run a happy country. The people are, I think, the most courteous locals I have ever met, often coming forward to help us to cross a road carrying four lanes of traffic. It is noticeable that maintenance of roads and pavements does not come high on their list of priorities. After heavy rain the whole place is awash with puddles, rather like Abbots Langley High Street, only more so.
The first site visited was at Sabrarta, to the west of Tripoli. There was an immediate sense of history as the site unfolded. Sabrarta was a port used by the Romans for trading with Central Africa, and was built on a site gradually sloping down to the sea. I was enchanted by the deep blue sky and dark blue sea (wine-dark?), and seeing the waves breaking over the remains of the harbour wall out to sea. It was beautiful, and a great start to the tour.
After a flight to Benghazi we went east to Tocra (Tukra or Teucheira), which was disappointing, partly because the local guide was inarticulate. There was an impressive necropolis and some glorious surf pounding on the beach. We went on to Ptolemais, with the same inarticulate guide.
The next day was spent at Cyrene, the oldest and most important of five Greek cities in the region of Cyrenaica. This was my favourite site on the tour. It was built on several levels, starting quite high among towering cliffs, and descending by a series of steep tracks down to the sea. I think I liked it particularly for its dramatic setting. The next day we walked from our hotel in Appolonia (which was the port for Cyrene) to explore the local ruins, but this bit was cut short by a howling, freezing rainstorm, after which we flew back to Tripoli.
The next two days were occupied at Leptis Magna. It’s immense, breathtakingly so, both in sheer size, but also in the majesty of so many of the buildings. Wow! about sums it up. Apparently the Palace of Versailles was largely built with looted material from Leptis Magna. The guide went on to say: “And the French weren’t the only ones”, as our thoughts strayed to Virginia Water.
On the final day, we had a tour of Tripoli, including the impressive museum, presided over by an immense portrait of Gaddafi.
The Green Thing
In the queue at the supermarket, the cashier told an older woman that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment.
The woman apologised and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”
The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment.”
She was right — our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day.
Back then, we returned milk bottles to the milkman, jam jars to the shop. They were sent back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so we could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day.
We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the shops and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we went out. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day.
Back then, we washed the baby’s nappies because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. Worn for years and lovely still: Rose’s jumpers go to Jill.
Back then, we had one TV, or radio in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief, not a screen the size of the Isle of Wight. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the post, we used a wadded up old newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. We used a push mower that ran on human power and exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right; we didn’t have the green thing back then.
Back then, people took the bus and children rode their bikes to school or walked. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerised gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find what was on at the pictures or book a holiday abroad using a gas guzzling aeroplane.
But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then?
So because we are not as green as you think we should be:
Remember: Don’t make old people mad. We don’t like being old in the first place, and it doesn’t take much to annoy us.
We sit in the Meeting, silent,
Waiting for God.
I met Him once,
When, as a boy, I stood by a stile,
Where the path dips down into the trees.
I gazed across the valley, and saw, high in the clear blue air,
The long mountain ridge, etched against the infinite sky.
I marvelled at its beauty,
And for a while I was at one with Nature,
And with the glory of God's creation.
The moment passed.
I went down the path into the wood,
And home to tea.
Then I was young and innocent,
But now I am grown old,
He and I may not meet so easily again.
Perhaps I may yet find Him
At the heart of a great chord of music,
In the clasp of a tiny hand,
In the texture of a rose.
I have split my life into four compartments:
First, the period of education and the accumulation of knowledge.. But much more than that it was about learning to integrate with other members of the human race. But that’s the same for everyone – what was different for me? What was special? All I know is that I came away from that time with a passion for cricket, rugby and music. What is emblematic from these? I think I would settle for my recording of the Verdi Requiem. This was, and still is, an amazing experience, whether from within the performance, or just listening to it.
The second phase was military service, which had the effect of broadening the mind, with travel to places that I had never dreamt of visiting, and exposure to danger that reinforces one’s delight in just being alive. There is no doubt what is emblematic of this period – my RAF Flying Logbook, which I still have.
It is actually a red South African Air Force Logbook, since that is where I started flying training. It is a potted history in itself, from the first tentative entries to the final flurry of innumerable flights to remote areas of Burma, where the army on the ground would be waiting for their supplies. Part of the cover of the book is stained a pale yellow colour by the mildew that accumulated on it during the abominally hot, steamy monsoon.
The third phase was my bachelor existence in London, learning my trade in the years between the war and my marriage. This was not particularly memorable, and I regard it as having been a period of preparation for the fourth phase, which was my fifty-five years of married life. What is emblematic of that period? I cannot do better than nominate for that honour my two sons and my four granddaughters. What more could one ask?
“I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me.”
“It would be difficult to rate too highly the part played in the (Burma) campaign by the air…Under the direction of Sir Guy Garrod, and later under that of Sir Keith Park, air supply in Burma had reached a summit. It was done by imaginative planning and by resource, energy and courage in execution. The administrative staffs, the ground staffs and the allied air crews determined that whatever happened no failing of theirs should ever let the fighting troops down; the supply pilots doubled their hours of flying and staffs worked through the night. The result was a revolution in supply and in combat as profound as that created by the arrival of the internal combustion engine on the battlefield. Park wrote, “The armies advanced on the wings of the Air Force.””. (The Campaign in Burma, Frank Owen)
Like many veterans, my father Aelwyn didn’t often talk about his experiences during the war. But in 1999, as a project for a creative writing group, he wrote down these recollections from his time in the army and the RAF in WW2. When writing, he was looking at the events, large and small, which shaped the course of his life. The photographs, and their captions, are my additions.
We were a motley collection of recruits, melded in the space of a few weeks into a tolerably efficient set of four crews proudly manning a row of gleaming 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of London, together with the support teams, operating the predictor, the heightfinder and the spotter’s telescope. My job was to link all these with the command centre; this was a responsible job, which I enjoyed, and for which I carried one stripe and the exalted rank of unpaid acting Lance-Bombardier. Our one hour of glory came one night when we were operating a somewhat hit-and-miss method of firing. By day, we could see the target and make a fairly good shot at aiming for it using our instruments (not that there was much call for this at that time). At night, we would be told by a tracking unit at HQ where the enemy aircraft was expected to be, placing it somewhere inside a half-mile cube of air at a height of anything up to 20,000 feet. We would then aim for the centre of that cube, usually with no effect whatsoever. On this particular night, all four guns fired together, and we paused to search the sky. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the fifty or so assembled men, as all four shell-bursts lit up the outlines of the German bomber, identified as a Heinkel by Smithy, our spotter, by the curve of the leading edge of its wing. The throbbing sound of the plane droned on, and I shouted to the crews to wait for the sound to reach us. Several seconds later, we heard the spatter of the four bursts; the sound of the aircraft faltered briefly, but then carried on. We told HQ our exciting news, but they were sceptical; later, however, we learnt that on that night a night-fighter had shot down a limping Heinkel, and 380 Battery was duly credited with a “half”.
I found army life, when we were not in action, a most depressing experience, largely due to the sharp distinction made between officers and other ranks. This came to a head when, one wet day, our section was ordered to move a large pile of wet sandbags from one part of a field to another. This was called “keeping them occupied”. When I asked the officer in charge what the point was of this particular exercise, I was blasted with the reply that I was not paid to think. The opportunity to transfer to the RAF shortly afterwards came as a blessed relief.
It was one of those occasions when my parents would drive from Dolgellau to Shrewsbury to meet me, usually on a Sunday, when there were no local trains, or in the evening, when my main line train ran too late to connect with the last “local”. I was on leave from my anti-aircraft unit in outer London. On the way home, my mother turned round from the front seat to ask how my application for an army commission was proceeding – a project close to her heart. Now was the time for me to break the news that I had recently applied for transfer to RAF flying duties, and I was due to attend an interview with the RAF the following week. The silence from the front seat seemed to go on for a long time; I think my parents had visualised me spending the rest of the war in comparative comfort and safety as an artillery officer, and here I was, throwing this away for the thrill (and danger) of flying Hurricanes or Spitfires. “Why?”, asked my mother. I explained that I wasn’t happy in the army, and thought I was capable of doing something more worthwhile.
So, the following week, I went to Bush House, sat a brief exam in English and Maths, and was interviewed by a Squadron-Leader. “So you want to be a pilot?” “Yes” I replied. “Do you know what an observer is?” he asked, and continued: “He’s the chap who gives the orders to the pilot, tells him where he is, and what course to fly. You scored full marks in your Maths test, so I think you’d be ideally suited to train as an observer. What do you think?” There was something in his tone of voice that suggested that I either became an observer or stayed in the army, so after a brief moment of hesitation, I agreed. This was one of those moments when I was aware that my life had been diverted on to a new course.
In June 1941, a throng of khaki-clad figures, eager to exchange their uniforms for blue, assembled one summer day at Lord’s Cricket Ground; Eton were playing Harrow that day, but neither group took any notice of the other. Eventually, we were marched down to a half completed block of flats in St. John’s Wood, facing Regents Park. Six of us were crammed into a ground floor room, sleeping on mattresses on the concrete floor. One of these was Ted. He was an unassuming chap, short, with black curly hair. He had been in searchlights, an activity then falling out of favour due to the development of radar. He and I became friendly, and on one occasion about three of us were invited to his parents’ house at Ealing for tea; he was obviously the apple of their eye.
We were posted together to Torquay where we were all drilled on the quayside, and where we were inducted into the arcane mysteries of the triangle of velocities, the basis of all air navigation. Ted developed a crush for a teenage girl who played the violin with her parents in a trio playing at teatime in a Torquay café. He drank his way through gallons of tea listening to her, and actually got to speak to her once before the trio packed up and moved away.
We became separated after my guardroom misdemeanour (below), but strangely met again at the Port Elizabeth flying school in South Africa, where he was two courses behind me; I forget how he came to be behind me in training, having left Torquay ahead of me. He had a special chum on his course, named Gregory; he seemed very defensive about this friendship, and it is only as I write that I realise why this might have been. After Port Elizabeth, I came home to the UK, while Ted went round Africa the other way to the Middle East; we didn’t keep in touch. Two years later, while in India, I received a letter from his parents, which they had sent to my home in Dolgellau. Ted had been killed in a horrendous road accident near Cairo, in which fourteen airmen had died. Such a waste; much worse, somehow, than being killed in action, which, in the situation we were in, was expected to happen to some of us.
The Guardroom Fire
Towards the end of my time at Torquay, I was on guard at the front door of the hotel by the harbour which served as our billet. It was two o’clock in the morning on a freezing December night, and ten paces behind me, in the front room of the hotel, roared a blazing coal fire. The temptation was too much; I had darted back to the fire to thaw out for no more than twenty seconds, when I heard the sound of boots approaching up the street. I scampered to the door, only to find that the Orderly Sergeant had arrived before me. The next day, I received the punishment of seven days confinement to barracks. Four days later, we were given two weeks embarkation leave, so my companions went off, leaving me to finish my period of punishment before being allowed to go. In the meantime, I had been selected to play rugby against a navy team at Devonport, in the course of which my collar-bone was fractured. So, instead of going on embarkation leave, I went home on sick leave with my arm in a sling. My misdemeanour, which had caused me to miss my original posting, had thus brought about a strange twist in my fortunes.
Training in South Africa
The war brought me into direct contact with a large number of new experiences. Extensive travel at Government expense was certainly one of them, including enduring the rigours of life sleeping in a hammock in the hold of a ship lumbering through stormy winter seas to South Africa.
I returned six months later in cabin accommodation as an RAF officer with my navigator’s wings; the hold of the ship on this occasion was occupied by Italian prisoners who, on warm nights, would gather on the lower deck and sing as only Italians (or perhaps Welsh) can.
In the meantime I had learnt the joy of flying, and the skill of navigating over the sea out of sight of land; it was later an exciting experience to navigate our own aircraft from Cornwall to North Africa and on to Egypt and India, all without any modern navigational aids – just with maps and instruments.
It was not until February 1944 that I eventually arrived on an operational squadron. I flew in to the airfield at Agartala in East Bengal, and was made welcome by Squadron-Leader Bray, B-Flight Commander. He took me on a tour of the station; the camp was quiet – half the squadron were on the afternoon operation, and the other half were resting after the early morning shift. The officers’ quarters consisted of a long, low bamboo building, known as a basha, divided into ten or twelve sections, each furnished with a pair of rough Indian beds wreathed in mosquito netting. in front of one of these sat a scowling figure, his face half shaved, razor in hand, with a brush sitting in an enamel mug full of soapy water. Behind him, inside the basha, a wind-up gramophone was playing. “This”, said Peter Bray, “is Flying Officer Brockbank, the Squadron Navigation Officer”.
The half-shaved figure looked up; I broke the silence with: “It’s good to hear a spot of Beethoven out here”. He put down his razor, and said: “At last! Someone on the Squadron who recognises Beethoven when he hears him”.
The next time we changed camp, I moved in to share a basha with him. Within a few months we were joint owners of all Beethoven’s symphonies on 78 rpm recordings. Seven years later, his sister and I were married.
Supplying the Chindits
In 1942 Japanese troops had forced their way northwards into Burma. At the end of that year Brigadier Orde Wingate, who had joined the staff of General Wavell in India, was given permission to form the Chindits, a group of soldiers who were to be trained in jungle raiding and guerrilla tactics. In February 1943, Wingate and 3,000 Chindits entered Burma. Their task was to disrupt Japanese communications, attack outposts and destroy bridges. The operation was very costly, and of the 2,000 who returned, 600 never recovered to fight again. However, before leaving Burma they had created clearings in the jungle between 100 and 200 miles behind the Japanese lines for use in any future operation.
In August 1943, Wingate met Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt and persuaded them to agree to expand the role of the Chindits. Wingate, now a major general, was given command of six brigades forming the 3rd Indian Division, and he returned to India to plan the next operation.
One day the pilots and navigators crowded into the briefing room. There was an expectant hush. We knew that some new operation was being planned, but what was it to be? Captain Smith, the Army Liaison Officer, came in accompanied by the Wing Commander and the two flight commanders. He silently unrolled a large map of Northern Burma and pinned it up on the board. “First of all”, he said, “I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is a top secret operation, and its very existence must not be breathed to anyone, however senior they may be.” An excited buzz swept around the room; what was it all about?
Smithy launched into his spiel: “Quiet, please! Last year, as you all know, General Wingate and his Chindits penetrated deep into Burma, behind the Japanese lines. One of their main objectives was to identify and prepare as far as possible, airstrips to be used in future operations. Three of these airstrips are shown in red on this map. In the last few days, troop-carrying gliders have been flown in carrying men and materials to prepare the airstrips to enable our Dakotas to land on them; and that is what you will be doing tonight. This Squadron will be flying to these two sites (pointing to the map) which have been christened Aberdeen and Broadway. We will be ferrying in a variety of cargoes, men, supplies, jeeps, light artillery, and ammunition. And, believe it or not, mules. Some of you may find yourself bringing back casualties. So far as we know, there has been no sign of Japanese activity near the airstrips, but some of the gliders had crashed on landing, and there were some casualties among the glider crews and their cargoes.”
“Operation Thursday” was launched on 5th March 1944 (actually a Sunday). In the 1943 operation the Chindits had been on their own, but this time they were supported by the RAF. The first wave of troops was flown in by troop-carrying gliders which landed in the jungle clearings prepared the previous year. This was a very hazardous procedure, and there were many casualties as a result of crash landings. This process was not helped by the fact that the Japanese had discovered one of the clearings and scattered logs over its surface. These troops then cleared these areas to make them into landing strips fit to take the DC3 aircraft, And so the operation went on night after night, landing on these strips lit up only by a few oil flares, pouring in troops, weapons, ammunition.and food. We also brought out casualties. Over the next few months the Chindits destroyed Japanese roads, railways, bridges and convoys, and once again they suffered heavy losses.
It was an exhilarating time for the RAF crews being part of this ambitious and top secret operation, flying at night and landing behind the Japanese lines on dimly lit airstrips, unloading our cargo and haring back to our beds in India. It was also very hard work.
Carrying mules was an interesting experience. The aircraft would be fitted with bamboo stalls for four mules, and a ramp was laid up to the door of the aircraft. The efforts of the muleteers to persuade their mules to go up the ramp and into the dark interior of the aircraft were hilarious to the onlookers, although the fierce bucking of the animals and their flailing hooves were no joke to those within range.
At the other end we kept well out of the way until the mules were unloaded and the stalls dismantled, before going home to our beds. I can assure you that there is no more obnoxious, pungent aroma than that of a mule’s urine, which would swill about the floor of the aircraft before disappearing into the fuselage below. On one occasion, when one of the aircraft was diverted on to the daily passenger and mail run to the forward areas and Calcutta, a senior army officer announced “You know, I swear I can smell mules in here”. We looked at him pityingly – it was still a very hush-hush operation – and said “Why on earth would we carry mules in this aircraft? You must be mistaken. Sir”. He shook his head in sad disbelief.
And so it started. Night after night, for several weeks, flying deep into the heart of Japanese controlled territory, landing in the dark on the airstrips, unloading the cargo, having a brief chat to the army lads on the ground, then getting the hell out of it back to our beds, back in India. Then, for several months more, dropping supplies to the army from the air as they spread out over the whole territory, disrupting Japanese communications to hinder their invasion of India further north and diverting their troops in the process.
At about this time, I had a letter from my mother, saying how comforting it was to know that everything was quiet in our theatre of operations. Well, I suppose in 1944 a little matter like the invasion of Europe seemed more important to the English newspapers than our spot of trouble thousands of miles away.
During my active service there were some unpleasant experiences, such as learning that some old friends and some present Air Force mates would not be seen again; enduring the steamy sweaty heat of the monsoon and its accompanying mosquitoes; or having Japanese machine-gunners popping off at me. Much better, though, was the good humour that pervaded most situations, and the sheer thrill of taking part in meaningful operational flights, mainly involved with flying army troops into Burma and keeping them supplied from the air.
I imagine very few people now remember the battle for Kohima. To be truthful, very few people except those who were involved even knew of it at the time that it happened, from April to June 1944. But at the time, it was somewhat overshadowed, at least to those at home, by the Normandy invasion. Yet it was, in stragetic terms, as momentous an event as the battles at El Alamein and Stalingrad, if on a somewhat smaller scale.. In each case, the outcome was a reversal of the fortunes of war, turning back the tide of the hitherto victorious German and Japanese armies, initiating their retreat, and their ultimate defeat.
The Japanese had surged northwards through Burma heading for the roads and railways that led directly into India, and they had caught the British and Commomwealth forces unprepared. They captured the hill town of Kohima, the local capital of Nagaland, in the most north-easterly region of India. Nothing now lay between the Japanese and the plains of India – except, that is, for the small British garrison based in Kohima, who had been forced to retreat beyond the town. This contingent of the army, comprising 2,500 men of the 2nd Infantry Division received its orders – Kohima must be retaken at all costs – against a Japanese force of 15,000. It was a battle of bloody artillery duels, hand to hand skirmishes and bayonet attacks. And mud. And rats. The British fought almost to a standstill, with heavy casualties, until reinforcements arrived from India, from which point .the Japanese were driven slowly back, and forced to retreat back the way they had come.
One of the contributing factors to the success of the British soldiers was the constant supply of food and and ammunition dropped to them by the RAF, whereas the Japanese were running out of both ammunition and food. It was, frankly, gut wrenching to fly over the area, seeing whole hillsides with their trees totally denuded of leaves, knowing of all the mayhem that was going on on the ground beneath.
A monument was later raised to the men of the 2nd Infantry Division, bearing the words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say ‘For their tomorrow we gave our today””.
There was no time for fear; if fear was to come, it would come later.
Our routine had become established over many months. Early in the morning we would wake up, emerge from our mosquito netting, have breakfast and attend the briefing. We would be told the location of the morning’s target, a jungle clearing somewhere in Northern Burma where we would drop supplies of food and ammunition to units of the 14th Army on the ground. After drawing a few straight lines on the map, we would take off, head for a convenient gap in the high ridge of the Chin Hills, and descend to the DZ, the dropping zone. The pilot would make a quick decision on the best way to fly the four or five low-level circuits it took to drop our one-ton load. We would start our circuits, with the crew taking off the door, and piling up the heavy packages in the doorway, attaching any parachute lines to the inside of the aircraft. When the pilot rang the bell, we would all give a great heave, and the load would topple out into space, and with a bit of luck, land within the DZ.
While the pilot made each subsequent circuit the rest of the crew ran up and down the fuselage, lugging the packages down to the door and stacking them in time for the next bell. After the last drop, we would permit ourselves the luxury of looking out of the open door and waving to the army lads on the ground; we didn’t envy them.
One fine morning in 1944 we flew off into the high clear air of East Bengal, over the Chin Hills and down to a new DZ that we had not visited before. where a section of our army was dug in facing a similarly entrenched unit of the Japanese army. The open space for the DZ was immediately to the rear of our front line, but close behind that was a ring of sharply rising hills which ruled out any possibility of making low-level circuits in that direction. There was nothing for it but to make our circuits over the Japanese front line. This decision was inevitably accompanied by the silent prayer that if we should crash-land, please let it be on our side of the line. Routine took over as we piled up our load. What we had not bargained for was that, as our large, slow, lumbering Douglas DC3 passed low over the Japanese line, some enterprising machine gunners would turn their weapons skyward and let fly. On the second circuit, while we were scampering up and down the fuselage, we heard a series of metallic clanging sounds. I paused to look out of the window, and saw a line of bullet-holes erupting on the upper side of the wing, heading straight for me. It all happened so quickly, yet I seemed to be watching it in slow motion. The line of holes stopped before they reached me; I made a mental note to worry about it later, and returned to my packages.
We had landed back at base, and were taxiing along the runway to our dispersal point, when we became aware of the smell of petrol. The pilot immediately stopped and switched off the engines, as he had had a mental vision of sparks from the exhaust meeting catastrophically with petrol vapour. We piled out in something of a hurry, to find high-grade octane pouring on to the runway from a bullet-hole in the underside of the fuselage. You couldn’t really blame the Japanese, they had only been doing their job.
Fear? The immediate experience of fear had been thwarted by the demands of an urgent routine, and by not knowing, until the danger had passed, of the hole in our petrol tank. Fear did return, briefly, under the mosquito netting that night, but it was softened by having been a shared experience. Tomorrow, the routine would take over once more.
Acknowledgements to “The Campaign in Burma”, Frank Owen, 1946 and “Wings of the Phoenix”, HMSO, 1949
My father’s cousin, Rhys Jones (1903-1974) was called up in 1941, and served as a tank driver during the Battle of Normandy, landing on Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944. He set down his account of the war in about 1966, after retiring from running a shop in Llanuwchllyn in Wales. He wrote in Welsh, although he had been educated in English from the age of seven. His younger brother Arthur – who also fought in the Battle of Normandy – translated it into English – “a strict copy of the original, with no add-ons”, as he put it. There are some take-offs, however: Arthur said that he left out some sections or toned down the English translation to make it less disturbing to read.
Many thanks to Rhys’s daughter Mair and Arthur’s daughter Gwerfyl for permitting me to publish this on Ramblings. Mair cautions that “there are some inaccuracies in the telling…these were long ago, though very vivid , memories for him. The sequence of events is not always correct.” But this is a powerful, detailed and sometimes harrowing account of one man’s war, which doesn’t always show his fellow soldiers in a good light. It is left entirely in Rhys’s own voice, as translated by Arthur.
The story of Trooper Rhys Jones 7941218 of the 24th Lancers and 44th Royal Tank Regiment
When in 1941 I received my calling up papers and a postal order for the sum of five shillings, it was the equivalent of an earthquake in the lives of our small family. I was 38 years old, a sales representative by trade and lived, with my wife May and daughter Mair who was four years old, at Porthcawl near Bridgend, South Wales, a regular chapel goer and superintendent of the chapel’s Sunday School.
I was not a conscientious objector although I had a deep respect for the true objector, particularly the Quakers, but I had to face reality because the German Jews were people like ourselves and they were slaughtered in their thousands, therefore the time had come to stand, come what may, no matter what happened to family or skin. It was with a very heavy heart that I handed over the keys of the Austin 10 to my successor and with my wife and daughter took the bus to Bridgend to catch the train to Tidworth, and emotions ran high as I got on the train and left them on the platform. I was very open to these emotions and I had to fight to keep them under control, but like a cat who is determined to come into the house if you open the door a fraction it’s in like a flash, and there is a quiver in the lips and voice and tiny hot pokers behind the eyes, so that people realize that it’s not a strong man standing before them but a very emotional creature. But by telling myself off and blowing hard into a handkerchief I was able to control myself and turn to watch the countryside roll by.
When we reached Swindon I had to change trains. I could see several other men and youths who were on their way to swell the legions of the British Army that day. It turned out that there were 75 of us, many in my age group, the rest the 18-20 age group. I found out that 15 of them were Jones’s and that the group’s previous occupations varied from coal miners to actors. We were eventually kitted out and formed into two squads, and after a pep talk from the Colonel who told us if we passed our preliminary training in 6 weeks instead of the normal 12 we would be eligible for a week’s leave. We were ready to oblige!!
One thing caused me much anguish. I found out that I was the original wooden soldier. When the order came to fall in on the marker my muscles stiffened and my legs and arms lost all semblance of coordination. In hindsight I was probably trying too hard, but the fact remained I was hopelessly inadequate on the square. The answer was to bury myself in the centre rank and try and attract as little attention as possible. I was sweating profusely and had blisters on my heels, which eventually turned septic. I went to the M.O. and was excused marching to my and the squad’s huge relief. The leave was safe!!
In my barrack room I had two Welsh lads in the beds on either side Will Jones from Tonypandy and Alf Phillips from Mountain Ash who used to sing ‘How deep is the night’ and ‘Trees’ alternately. Alf’s voice was nothing to write home about but Will had a glorious voice.
I had many chats with Will particularly about the depression years in the 1920’s and 30’s and how he tried to keep body and soul together for himself and family. He spoke of how he and his ‘butty’ went to the Midlands to try and raise money- he did the singing and his friend collected the money. One warm afternoon they were in one of Birmingham’s main streets and when they came to a busy pub they decided to stop and try their luck. Will began singing and after a bar or two the ‘butty’ went in. Will finished his solo and as an encore started singing ‘Cwm Rhondda’. His friend came out looking well pleased, and they went up a side street to count the money and found that there was almost a pound there. Wil asked shyly ‘How did I sound’. Oh’ came the reply ‘Once I got through the door, there was so much noise I couldn’t hear a note!’ Unfortunately they discovered that Will had a serious eye defect and that was the end of his military career.
After a month’s training we were ready to do our first guard duty. Everything that could be blancoed was blancoed, the brasses shone brightly as did the boots. When we got to the guardroom the Orderly Sergeant had a shock – out of the twelve of us there were eleven Jones’s. My partner on duty was a Hugh Jones, a former clerk in the Municipal Office in Merthyr. On the 10-12 guard after 10.30 pm we had to stop everyone, and anyone without a pass was taken to the guardroom. I found that my partner was (a) extremely conscientious (b) slightly hard of hearing (c) had a lively imagination. He insisted that as he was the senior soldier, the responsibility was his. He was 7941215 Jones Hugh, I was 7941218 Jones R and therefore junior!. During the first spell of duty he failed to hear footsteps approaching until I told him and with the command ‘keep me covered’ jumped out to meet the foe. ‘Halt who goes there’ he cried. ‘Friend’ came the reply. ‘Advance to be recognized’ and the Sergeant Major appeared. ‘Pass please’ said Hugh ‘I haven’t got one I’ve only been to the Mess’ came the reply. You must come to the guardroom’ said Hugh and escorted the S.S.M. who was muttering imprecations to the guardroom. Very conscientious was our Hugh. On our second spell of duty, it was our duty to call the duty cooks. With difficulty we found the barrack room and in Hugh went to turn on the lights. There were about fifty men in the place but we had no idea who to wake, so Hugh shook the nearest to hand. Talk about bedlam as a stream of abuse hit him. We were told later that the men on duty had a towel draped over the bottom of the bed, but no one had told us!! This was the only time I shared duty with this Hugh Jones, and he receded into the mists of time!
There was another Hugh Jones in the squad and with Alun Griffiths the three of us became great pals. This Hugh came from a village near Dolgellau in North Wales and Alun from Ponterwyd near Aberystwyth, and I had a high regard for both. By this time we had finished with the square bashing and had moved on to driving, which suited me much better. After wheeled transport we went on to Bren gun carriers and then to tanks, Valentines and Matildas to start with. The three of us were already proficient drivers before joining up and had no difficulty in adapting to tanks, but Hugh was also mechanically minded and when the chance came to join a Cadre instruction course with the chance of a Home posting, Hugh whose wife was expecting a child took the exam and passed with ease, and so we lost Hugh to the Cadre.
Alun and I went on to the gunnery, firing everything from revolvers to the Besa (or the Beezer) as it was called – the heavy machine gun in the tanks. Both of us did very well. Then a weeks course on W/T and then we were ready for leave again. Before going on leave we received the news that the Cadre Course was too full and Hugh was back with us again, albeit three weeks behind.
After the leave came the posting. Thirteen of us were posted to the 24th Lancers. Shortly afterwards another posting went to the Middle East, among them Hugh. Before we leave Hugh whom we cannot allow to be swallowed up by the mists. We heard, when we were in Whitby, that he had been killed, but it later transpired that he was a prisoner of war. I met him after the war and he said when being questioned after being captured the German officer asked him if he was Welsh and where he came from and when he replied Dolgellau the officer said he knew it well because he used to stay at Barmouth – ten miles away! Shortly afterwards the tank went off with six of the prisoners on the back, the remainder, Hugh included, were told to follow in the tanks tracks. Of course as soon as they could the remainder went the other way and soon came to the British lines. In about a week they were captured again. They were shipped to Italy where they remained in a P.O.W. camp until the Italians gave up. Before the Germans arrived Hugh and a friend escaped to the mountains until the end of the war. If he had not tried for the cadre class he would have been with Alun and myself for three years before we went to the cauldron that was Normandy on D-Day. Remembering that, maybe he was better off where he was.
Back now almost to the start, we were almost like the Three Musketeers. One hot afternoon we were sitting on the grass having a lecture on gas warfare and half asleep. I heard a soft tenor voice reciting a Welsh hymn! He stopped after a couple of lines and I was able to help him. That is how I met Alun Griffiths from Ystumtuen, Ponterwyd, Aberystwyth. Welsh speaking, a fervent Welsh Nationalist whose heroes were Saunders Lewis and John Morgan Jones, Aberystwyth. Saunders Lewis’ articles in ‘Y Faner’ were the chief items of arguments between us. Hugh used to listen to us arguing with an smile on his face when the arguments became fierce. To my mind Saunders Lewis was like an angry wasp stinging indiscriminately. In Germany he would have long been a poor bit of soap and in Russia would have excavated his weight several times over in the salt mines. He was a great dramatist and a distinguished author – though I must admit that most of his writings went over my head. Of course all these arguments and discussions used to draw the attention of others in the room and some used to say that we should only speak English in the British Army. We used to counter that we were perfectly ready to go home and leave them fight their own battles, but that we would continue to speak our mother tongue. One, Corporal Bennet, said that all minor languages should be outlawed and everyone should speak English only. A few Scotsmen bridled at this and one Cockney asked ‘What’s wrong with them, I like to hear them jabbering’. Three or four English lads backed him up and with that Bennet gave up – sunk without trace!!
Early one morning thirteen of us left for the north. We bade Hugh and the rest farewell. On leaving Tidworth (I never saw the place again) we journeyed north through York to Scarborough and waited there for a lorry to take us to Whitby and it was a blessed relief to arrive. Next day we were allocated to various squadrons. Four of us went to B Squadron including Alun and myself. The Squadron Leader was Major Fitzhugh who then further segregated us into troops, Alun went to the second and I to the third. The troop leader was away and a few days elapsed before I saw him. To say that he was disappointed in me is an understatement. I was too old, not tall enough, but he was prepared to give me a chance to reach the high standards he expected before getting rid of me. He was very haughty and I was surprised to learn that he was a dog breeder in civilian life.
Anyway in a couple of weeks time the squadron went down to Pembroke for test firing, leaving us behind to guard the family silver and came back with an odd tale about our officer. During a misfire the gunner after attempting twice to fire had to wait a few seconds and then open the breech. The loader then had to take the dud out of the breech and hand it over to the tank commander who was to throw it out of the turret. This is what happened in Pembroke. There was a misfire and when the loader took out the shell there was no one there to pass it to, the poor loader had to struggle out himself with the dud, fortunately it did not go off and although the incident was hushed up, the officer was out of favour with the C.O. for some time.
We move forward three years and by now the officer was a three pipper and second in command of ‘C’ Squadron, we were near a village called St Pierre. ‘C’ went to assist some infantry while we were in reserve and listening to the radio traffic on the headsets, A call for help came from one of the troops whose officer had been injured. We heard the C.O. ordering the second in command to go and assist and he answered ‘Roger Wilco Out’. Then Charlie Baker twice asked to report my signals, but no reply. It turned out that as soon as he got out of sight he had ordered his tank to lie up and ignored all signals. When the squadron pulled back,someone went to look for him and that was the end for that officer
Back to Whitby. There was one other Jones I should refer to. Lewis Cuthbert Jones was about my age from a well known family in Neath. He had had a good education and had been in Persia with one of the oil companies. He had been a sergeant in the Home Guard. We called him Lewis or L.C. but he was called Cuthbert at home. He was a lovely man and most interesting when in a good mood, but was prone to deep depression when he used to turn his head to the wall and nobody could console him. Outside the camp I had little to do with him. He had much more money than I did and he was fond of hard liquor and so the division was natural. I was sorry to hear that he eventually succumbed to his depression. In his company I got to know the meaning of ‘charming. He went to Squadron A and I saw very little of him afterwards.
I’ve mentioned Alun without giving much detail. He was about five foot eight tall, blond haired and blue eyed and the picture I have of him is him half lying on his bed writing with a long stemmed pipe in his mouth almost resting on his stomach and scratching his cheek with his fingernail. He was always ready to help and many times helped to get me ready to go on guard-the job I hated most. He was a good debater and thought the world of Aberystwyth. I was stupid enough once to praise Whitby in comparison to Aberystwyth. The blue eyes flashed and I was overwhelmed by a torrent of words, and there was nothing for it but to make a ‘strategic’ withdrawal! He was kind enough to write a few verses when I reached my fortieth birthday. I suppose it’s about the only time that will happen!. We were together for three years and I’m glad to say that he came home unscathed and I had the pleasure of his company many times in later years. In a turbulent four years I consider his company to have been pure gain.
Back to the story! The Valentines that we had were too slow and undergunned, I was by this time a Driver Mechanic receiving the princely sum of sixpence a day extra. I remember once on my first outing with a new crew, the oil pressure failed and I was forced to pull up. Eventually the fitters arrived and diagnosed a broken oil pump. Consequently it was much later when it was repaired and the officer hadn’t a clue which way to go ‘That’s easy’ said the fitter, ‘follow the trail of damage’, which we did and later we rejoined the rest in a field and prepared for the night. At this time another troop was formed and I found myself in it and so bade goodbye to the haughty officer. My new officer a Lt Webb, a schoolmaster in civilian life. A tall man who carried his head slightly to one side. A sombre and serious man, seemingly devoid of humour, who worked hard himself and expected everybody else to do the same.
I remember doing guard duty one night when Mr Webb was the Orderly Officer, things were quiet after the last of the passes had returned from the nearby town and I could see Mr Webb coming up and I had the chance to warn the Orderly Sergeant before challenging ‘Halt who goes there.’ He replied ‘Orderly Officer’ and I said ‘Pass Orderly Officer’. He came up to me and asked ‘Why did you not say ‘Advance to be recognized?’ I replied ‘because I recognized you twenty yards away sir’ to which he said ‘Oh I see, but you should always go by the drill book.’ He was a man for crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s but I found him a very good officer, very fair with great concern for his men. May his soul rest in peace for he was killed early on in the campaign in France. Shortly after his death a parcel arrived addressed to him and his crew. When opened there were five medallions and picture of St. Christopher, plus a letter from Mrs Webb saying she was sending them on after having them blessed by some Archbishop. They arrived too late for him, poor soul.
By this time we had new tanks, Crusaders, which were much faster than the Valentines, but had the same popgun. Then came Centaurs with their six pounders but eventually the American Sherman came with a 75mm gun and weighed just under 35 tons. The engine was of course my prime interest with its Chrysler engine of 450 h.p. and a petrol consumption of two gallons a mile. It’s main drawback was its height and as we found to our cost, its armour plating was no match for the 88’s and a distinct tendency to go on fire when hit. They were not called ‘Tommy Cookers’ for nothing. When the Firefly with its 17 pounder arrived much later on things evened out somewhat.
Things were always changing in the army. We troopers were the only constant, and we were always on the move. From Whitby we went to Crowborough, Sussex then to Castle Martin in Pembroke then to Thetford in Norfolk and on to Bridlington, a short time at Kirkcudbright then to Milford near Southampton and from there to Normandy. When in Crowborough we had a ‘leave’. It happened that my wife and daughter had gone to stay with my mother at Llanuwchllyn near Bala, North Wales, so I asked for my railway warrant to be made out there. I was working on the tank one morning when the Major came up to me and asked what connection I had with Llanuwchllyn. I explained that my mother lived there and I had a brother who was farming in the area ‘Where’ he asked and I replied ‘Pantgwyn’, ‘I know the place well’ he said and had been shooting there with his ‘kinsman’ Sir Watkin Williams-Wynne. He chatted about the area for about half an hour. When he left I continued with my work. Before I had really settled down the all too familiar voice of the Sergeant Major cut in ‘What did the Major want’? I explained, to which he replied ‘He was with you long enough’ and off he went. The Sergeant came, ‘Taff what did the Major….?’ and so on. I had to abandon work on the tank that day. For one who normally kept his head down, a visit from the ‘Boss’ stood out like a sore thumb!
We did various exercises and schemes. We had visits from officers who had returned from the Middle East and Italy who lectured us on what the enemy had in store for us. One stands out in my memory – a Captain Baum who was an expert on guns and firing, he had a slight speech defect. He fired a question at a trooper who also stuttered. When the unfortunate man tried to reply, the Captain, rather red in the face thundered ‘What is your name’ H-H-h-Hawkins’ came the reply ‘H-h-Hawkins are you m-m-mocking? ‘N-N-No Sir said the poor chap ‘I s-s-stutter’. ‘Oh I see’ said the Captain ‘come and see me after the lecture and I’ll give you the name of my doctor, he cured me.’
Looking back, the instructors laid far too much stress on camouflage and urged us to use camouflage netting and hide under trees to hide ourselves from enemy aircraft. So doing we would gain an advantage on attacking forces. The idea was all right but when we got to France we hardly saw the Luftwaffe and we did most of the attacking. The habit of hiding under trees cost us dearly, especially in tank commanders who were about fifteen feet up and very vulnerable to air bursts and mortar fire.
I have mentioned my ‘wooden soldier’ trait. When in Thetford our division had a marching competition and much to my despair our troop won and I was in a real panic when we were chosen to represent the 24th Lancers in the final test. But there was nothing for it but to go, and after being smartened up, away we went. Two Guards Drill Sergeants put us through our paces, and then we were lined up in ‘open order’. Two members of each troop were to be called before the Major General to be questioned. In our platoon the first to be called was Griffiths A. and away Alun went. When he came back- Jones R.! Oh well!! One pace back, left turn and the little wooden soldier went to meet the only general he ever met face-to-face. I halted, gave the man a heck of a salute and in a clear voice said ‘7941218 Jones Rhys. Trooper’ then ‘You come from Wales, Jones?’ ‘Yes Sir.’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Porthcawl, Sir.’ ‘I come from Brecon’ he replied. For a second I was speechless then out came ‘Oh Cymru am Byth Sir’. He was obviously pleased and gave me a warm smile. ‘You may return now.’ ‘Yes Sir, Thank you Sir.’ another salute, two steps back, right about turn, and back to the obscurity of the centre rank.
No we didn’t win but the Sergeant Major said to me of my solo run ‘By God Jones, I thought you were going to fall over when you did the right about turn, after speaking to the General.’ Enough said!!
The tempo rose as the months passed. Old faces vanished and some hard weeding among the officers. We had already been within a whisker of going to North Africa, where the First Army was in some trouble. We had our embarkation leave and I arranged with my wife that If I finished my letter with ‘Yours truly’ she would know not to expect a letter from me for some time.
We started very early one morning and drove through the dark to Newmarket, loaded the tanks, then the long slow journey to a port near Helensburgh beyond Glasgow. The tanks were loaded on to the ship and then most of us boarded the train to join the troopship.
When we reached Glasgow we had a message that plans had been changed, so back we went to unload the ship and back to Newmarket where we were given leave to make up for our disappointment!! About this time we were taken out of the 11th Armoured Div. (flash, black bull on a yellow backing) and joined the 3rd Armoured Brigade (flash, fox’s mask). There were three regiments 3-7 Dragoon Guards, The Sherwood Rangers and ourselves. The first two had swimming tanks, we had tanks which could wade up to about ten feet of water.
We were sent to Milford on Sea to a small Manor house with the Isle of Wight across the Solent. By this time Mr Fuller was our troop officer, a lovely man and a real gent. Anyway it was my habit to write in English to my wife but in Welsh to my mother. Lt Fuller came to me one day and told me he was sorry but if I continued to write in Welsh my letters would be delayed as there was no one in the regiment who could understand what I had written. ‘Oh’ I said ‘there’s no hurry’. Then the Squadron Leader came in and in a very civil tone explained about any delay. ‘That’s all right Sir’ I replied. In my letter I had told my mother to give my regards to the Rev. Dr I.D.Jones. When my mother finally got the letter she was baffled but my uncle spotted it at once and said ‘He’s in Bournemouth.’ The Reverend had for many years been a minister at Bournemouth, but had retired and moved to near Bala.
We went from Milford to a holding camp at Winchester where we were fed by the Americans but had the chance to explore one of England’s oldest cities.
After one false start we went to Southampton and embarked in a whale of a ship called the ‘John I Jones’ an American owned and manned ship. Ours was the last tank to board. The food was American and strange to my tastes, things like peaches and meat, a spoonful of potatoes and a little bread. Gallons of coffee. They were very kind to us for the four days we were on board.
One day the heavy guns of the Navy were enough to deafen anyone and the air was filled with aircraft in their thousands going back and forth. By about two o’clock the ship had gone as near the shore as she could and we waited while a large raft came alongside and started loading. The lorries first of all and then the tanks. We drove slowly on to the barge in case it capsized. The raft was so long the helmsman had great difficulty in keeping it heading for the shore, but land was slowly getting nearer. The co-driver and I were sealed in and eventually the order came ‘Start up, Taff’ and into the water we went and slowly drove on to dry land. I believe that our tank was the first of our regiment to land. We landed at 6.30 on June 6th. Our D-Day had arrived!
What was the reaction? Fear certainly with the heart pounding away. The bodies floating in the sea were proof that this was no child’s play, but you had to hide your fears and listen carefully to the tank commander’s directions as we were still under seal and could see very little ourselves. The vision through the periscope was minimal and we had to rely on someone who could see what was going on. I saw a row of men coming to meet us with their hands on their heads – those were the first P.O.W.’s for me to see. We went out of the village into a large field to wait for the regiment to assemble. In the next field a cow lay feet up to show that everything was endangered here.
The morning came and we saw some planes flying in from the sea. Suddenly someone started firing at them from between us and the sea. Some of the enemy were still around and we must have bypassed them the previous evening. Shortly afterwards three of our tanks went by with infantry aboard and later we heard the noise of the 75’s and chatter of Brownings, and the noise of the enemy’s mortars in reply. Shortly afterwards the tanks came by again with the troops giving the thumbs up. The 24th Lancers were in business!! That is what happened for the first couple of days, mopping up and disposing of snipers who were causing much damage and casualties to the soft skinned vehicles. These snipers were very prone to hide in church towers and it became the habit to plaster any church tower as you approached.
We were used to seeing corpses both German and ours. Mr Fuller once complained to me that the Germans always fell face down, while ours fell face up! The regiment moved on, about 60 Shermans and some smaller Honeys. On the road I saw a young girl on her knees praying and making a sign of the cross. I would like to say that this first action of ours was a success, but it turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. At first we were fired at from some trees, to which we replied vigorously, then things quietened down. About a mile ahead there was a river bridge, one of the Honeys started to cross but was hit by an A.P. and stopped, blocking the bridge. I saw our troop sergeant walk past, I couldn’t understand and I heard from my tank commander that the sergeant’s tank had been hit. I asked what had happened to the rest of the crew and heard that Mr Fuller’s crew were helping. Later we heard the story. The sergeant’s tank was hit, killing Hearn the co-driver, the driver was badly burnt and died later. The gunner was blinded and the wireless operator was in shock – he was only twenty years old.
The three were put on Mr Fuller’s tank leaving the body behind. Perhaps I am biased but I had scant regard for professional soldiers, think of it, the regiment’s senior sergeant abandoning his crew to their fate and walking away, not in a blind panic, that I could have understood and forgiven. The sergeant lost his stripes and transferred to the A.D.C. I saw him once later in Leopoldsville in Belgium and he told me he hoped to get his stripes back before long.
That was the start of heavy losses, and fierce fighting. I remember being told to rest early one afternoon because we were due to take part in a night action. Now I have always hated driving in the dark, my night vision is not good. I couldn’t settle down, thinking of the seven tanks that were left out of eighteen. I walked back and fore and was rather downhearted, Mr Fuller came up and asked if I had heard the order to rest. I replied that I intended to do so immediately. He replied that there was no hurry and asked what I thought of things. I told him I felt downhearted and that the best thing would be to get a ‘cushy’ wound. He tried to cheer me up by saying our old friends, the 11th Armoured would arrive soon as they had been held up by bad weather. I had a very high regard for Mr Fuller who had been very kind to me all along and had got me leave when my daughter became ill when we were at Thetford. Anyway night eventually arrived and we had to move forward and in time there came the dawn. After a bit of a skirmish we were told to go to a hedge to watch a copse of trees where Germans were hiding. I turned the tank so that it faced the hedge, for two reasons. It reduced the target to any lurking 88 and it gave my co-driver and myself the chance to see what was going on! Len Guest was the W/O, he loved to play chess and he had a board with pegs so that we could move the board back and forth without upsetting the pieces. I found this a great help, it helped to reduce tension, even though I was soundly beaten more often than not.
There were fluctuations between two extremes at this period. One was either bored stiff or scared stiff!. We were sitting by that hedge all of three hours without a sight of the enemy and after a peek through the periscope I started writing a letter. ‘Dear family, I hope this letter finds you as it leaves me – in good health.’ There was a huge explosion and my tank commander yelled ‘Start reversing for God’s sake’ We went back through the hedge and I could see the officer’s tank like a firework display. Fortunately the crew escaped with burns and shock and the officer was wounded in the ‘ham’. He was wounded again outside Brussels and killed near Hamburg about an year later. One of the best.
‘The weather is getting much better..’ the letter continued! The following day was a bad day for the squadron. In the morning Major Bennet, the Squadron Leader was wounded, early afternoon Captain Jock Kerr was killed – a lovely Scot. Sir Robert Arbuthnot came to take charge of us and was killed less than half an hour later. Only two officers remained, ‘Pip’ Williams and Cummings and they were not friends.
A call came over the radio, ‘Baker Williams to Sunray over’. Pip Williams answered. Silence. Then ‘Baker Williams to Sunray over’ with emphasis on the Sunray. Then came the reply. I am Sunray’ from Pip.
A few days later came the complaint that someone was firing at us from the rear and the 11th Armoured presented themselves. Shortly afterwards we were withdrawn and that was the end of the road for the 24th Lancers. Many of our officers came from the 17th-21st Lancers whose motto ‘Death or Glory’ is well known. I am afraid that we had more of the first than the last. In fact our casualty list read more like an electoral register than anything else, so much so that it was decided to post the remnants to other regiments, and the question was what was our fate to be. Lt. Pip Williams asked me to leave the crew and go as his driver, but I asked to be excused as the rest of the crew and myself had been together from the start, apart from the tank commander, we knew each others ways and trusted each other. The news came that we were to go to the 44th R.T.R. I heard that Alun (Griffiths) was to go to the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. A truck came to pick us up and away we went to face the future. The memories of times past remained. One of those memories was of my sister Margaret, a hospital matron, who on occasion used to send a parcel containing a Canadian Red Cross packet of ‘Compo’ cocoa, a mix of cocoa, dried milk, and sugar which when mixed with hot water produced a delicious drink. and my stock was high in the troop while the cocoa lasted!!
One day in Normandy a very similar parcel arrived, although I could see that it was not my sister’s writing, the lads gathered round in expectation as it was opened and it was more in anguish than anger that the cry of “bloody nuts” went up. My uncle Tommy, an invalid had been laboriously collecting the nuts from hedgerows near his home to send to me!
We went to the outskirts of Caen, and after a word of welcome from the colonel then on to the echelon. They were still Shermans but this time with Whirlwind engines, much less powerful than the Chrysler engine I was used to, but I soon got the hang of it. The regiment came from Bristol originally and had fought in the Middle East, Italy and now France. They were not as regimental as the Lancers which was a relief to me personally.
After receiving losses in the battle for Caen we went back to the Bocage which was not tank terrain as it suited the 88’s to a ‘T’. We were pressing the enemy hard and with the Americans approaching from the other side, we pressed hard to cut the enemy off at Falaise. It was hell on earth, my new tank commander was a Sergeant and as the gun was a 17 pounder I had no co-driver as his place was filled with ammo-racks.
We had been there some time when there was a huge explosion. I looked back and saw Len Guest lying on the floor of the turret with his eyes open. The gunner was shouting ‘Help me Taff’. Out I got and into the turret. The commander was seriously injured. I got hold of him and told Charlie Price the gunner to tell the Squadron Leader what had happened. We were told to withdraw to our previous position and slowly that is what we did. By the H.Q. a house had been taken over as a first aid post. We got the commander out alive but poor Len had to be lifted through the hatch. The place was like an abattoir and we had to clean the place up before the blood dried – anything to keep us going. Afterwards we went to see how the tank commander was getting on. He had received a blood transfusion and things were looking brighter for him. They had buried Len with about 15 others. We received a new tank Commander and wireless operator and back we went to the fray.
That night on the radio came the news that the Government had raised the allowance on orphaned children from ten shillings to eleven shillings and sixpence. Oh well!!
The cream (prisoners of war) were increasing as was the tempo. ‘Press on regardless’ was heard with increasing frequency on the radio. The rumour was that there were Tigers ahead. The Fireflies with their 17 pounders led the way. We got to a village and by the first house a one armed man in some uniform – railway or post office – gave us a lovely salute, grinning from ear to ear. About fifty yards away round a bend an old lady with one finger in her mouth and pointing up at the roof which was on fire. ‘Half a mo, Taff’ said the commander and tried to douse the flames with an extinguisher. In less than half a minute the radio began to utter imprecations and we had to proceed. We came to a school which had been turned into a First Aid Post by the Germans and two of them with Red Crosses on their arms stood there. In the end we were met by a squadron of Churchills coming the other way. The eggshell had broken. It had been some day.
What amazed me was the way the Germans relied on horse transport. There were hundreds of them alive and dead, usually in pairs, one dead or injured and the other standing patiently by its side. ‘Drive on’ was the cry and sometimes there was no way to avoid it but we had to drive over dead or dying animals. Suddenly the Germans gave in and then came the ‘cream’ thousands of them. I saw one line, three deep as far as I could see with lorries, cars and tanks including some Shermans nose to tail for miles. The peace and quiet after the continuous firing was a godsend. Not so the nights. The usual way for a tank crew to sleep was to tie the tarpaulin to the tank track, lay out the bed and then fold the tarpaulin back over the bed to cover and tie it to the top track. The trouble was as the night wore on the heat from the sleeping crew reached the mangled remains of horses etc on the tracks so that an awful putrid smell filled the ‘tent’. One of our crew boasted that he could tell from the aroma what we had crushed during the day, cow horse or German !!
We had a few days to do a bit of maintenance on the tank, the gunner changed the barrels of the machine guns and cleaned the main gun while I looked after the Whirlwind – an old aero engine by all accounts. It drove the tank quite well on hard ground but on soft ground it was like a snail, particularly when going through hedges when we were in a hurry normally. After a short break we were to start on an amazing journey, a tragi-comedy of a journey across France, Belgium and Holland. To explain about myself, I tried hard to remain impersonal about the enemy. To me, he was just an ordinary chap, like me, called to serve his country. This was not how the French, Belgians and Dutch looked at them, and their treatment of prisoners of war was vicious at times. However away we went, when we entered a village, church bells were ringing like mad. An occasional banner with ‘Welkum’ on it across the street. Then away out of the village, the noise of firing, a battery of 88’s, one or two tanks going up in flames, the rest firing at the battery until it was silenced, then on again.
Occasionally a small group of Germans waited by the side of the road to give themselves up. Once we were in the third tank and I saw a group of about a dozen waiting to surrender, their arms piled up nearby. The leading tank stopped, suddenly a Frenchman grabbed a rifle and shot one of the Germans, then danced around his body in high glee. The remaining Germans ran for cover behind the tank. The radio started demanding an explanation for the hold up, and the officer explained what had happened. ‘Push on’ was the order, but the young lieutenant refused quoting the Hague Convention and the rights of P.O.W’s to safety – the first time I had heard of it. Shortly the infantry arrived and away we went. We travelled 63 miles that day and I had to pour in 120 gallons of petrol to slake the tank’s thirst.
Around this time we reached a sizeable town, Chartres I believe, or a similar name. I was in the leading tank when we reached the huge square of the old town and the welcome was ecstatic. A procession was formed and paraded around for a while before forming a circle and in the centre a group of young women were put on a bench and had their heads shaved. Some of the girls wept, while others seemed unconcerned. Their crime was to have been too friendly towards the Germans. Orders came through to continue and with the usual scout car ahead, away we went. We had only gone about a quarter of a mile before we met a German scout car coming at break neck speed. We saw one another at the same moment. The Germans did a hair raising turn and two men jumped out and legged it down a lane.
It happened so quickly that no one had time to react and away we went until we reached the Belgian border. The whole journey has left my memory a little vague but I remember entering an industrial city (Liege??) where we were welcomed with clenched fists. Not in a threatening manner – they were Commies. We had one particularly eventful night. To the right of us were the Welsh Guards being welcomed into Brussels. To the left were the Canadians attempting the same thing at Antwerp. Ahead of us was the real German Army. These were attempting to get back to Germany but to get there they had to get past us. They were very determined and the battle lasted most of the night with very hard fighting, Whatever could be said of us as attackers, we were very doughty defenders. About four in the morning the Germans withdrew, but they were a pain in the Canadians’ side for a long time. We had to slow down, our lines of communication stretched back to Normandy, by now many miles in the rear.
Our food arrived in packages lettered A to G. The last was the most popular because it contained canned fruit!. The most difficult thing to get right was the compo tea. The usual drill was to dig a hole, pour in some petrol put on a ‘dixie’ full of water with a match floating on top to take away the taste of smoke. Stand back and throw a lighted match into the hole. Wait for the water to heat up, but not boil, and then add the compo. If the water was not hot enough the tea would come to the surface, if too hot the milk would rise in lumps to the top and then you’d get the ‘sack’ until your turn came round again!. When it was too ‘hot’ outside the tea would be made on the turret floor on the little primus. This needed continual pumping and the water took a long time to get hot enough. Often when almost ready the order would come to move, so the labour was wasted. This job was done by the W/O. Talking of Wireless Operators around this time our W/O was wounded, not badly fortunately and we had a Lance Corporal Baldwin in his place. I did not know him but had seen him around H.Q.. When we started the next attack I heard an odd noise coming from the turret, I turned round and could see the L/C in tears. He cried and sobbed for two days before we could get rid of him. Our term for this was ‘slap-happy’. My most difficult period was during the last few weeks of the war when I found it difficult to leave the safety of the tank. This I had to do, to answer the call of nature and my normal duties around the tank. But by talking sternly to myself I could force my body to move.
I saw only two, outwardly at least, who were completely unafraid. One was the Major of the Squadron, the other the Sergeant Fitter from Bristol. I remember seeing him, when a shower of H.E. exploded over our heads, lighting his pipe as casually as if waiting for a hailstorm to pass while sheltering under the lee of the tank. I understood he was a window cleaner in civvy life. Certainly I was not of the same mould and I did not intend leaving my wife and daughter to enjoy the largesse of the government if I could help it.
After a spell of peace and quiet we were on the move to Holland. We followed the Guards Armoured Div and Eindhoven was the first place we got to. The welcome was the same as usual and we were held up. I put my head out of the hatch and noticed an old chap trying to attract my attention, he stretched up and gave me a wooden clog. I have it still. The order came for us to move and when I had the chance to look I saw he had put his name – A.C. Jongol – in indelible pencil and his address, but the address was not clear. I wondered what his intentions were. This was an odd campaign, the roads were narrow for scores of miles and the terrain on either side was enemy held and they were causing chaos. I missed some of it. I had slipped and hurt my knee which had swollen badly and I was unable to depress the clutch. After two days the rest of the crew turned up after coming second best to a Tiger. We had a four day break and then a new tank. By this time it was obvious that this nut was too tough to crack. The Guards got to within a couple of miles of Arnhem but no further.
About this time I was transferred (no fee paid!!) to be the Squadron Leader’s driver. My predecessor had erred badly by leaving his tank at every available opportunity to loot any nearby house. ‘Liberate’ was the word used and although his mate had been killed by a booby trap he was undeterred. This was the ugly side of war – the ruthless pillaging of ordinary people’s homes looking for anything sellable by those who had come to liberate them. These lads were great in every other respect, but property brought out the animal in them.
Our next job was to clear the left hand side of the road and take the town of Tilbert. I remember the odd signs that met us there “Goodbye Hello”. The news came that the Germans had attacked the Americans and were threatening Eindhoven. I noticed that the infantry were the South Wales Borderers. The action was short and fierce and the Germans retreated.
By this time winter was upon us and the weather got much colder. The engine turned a large fan to prevent over-heating the engine. This fan took its air from the turret which cleared the fumes when firing but made the drivers and co-drivers seats a very draughty place indeed. I noticed that my new co-driver Jim Wassal wore only denims over his underclothes, while I had my underwear, khaki battledress and then a tank suit over that. When I asked him why he said ‘Fire,Taff.” According to his reckoning he would have five seconds to bale out to avoid been burned to ashes when we were hit. He looked at me with pity and said ‘You’ll never make it.’ Make it or not as the weather got colder I added a pullover and Balaclava while Jim shivered by my side all gooseflesh. We found ourselves back over the Dutch-Belgian border and the H.Q. was established in the Customs Officer’s house.
One night the news came that a German patrol had landed on our side of the river. I was told to inform the troop that were mounting guard that night and away I went. I reached the house and up the stairs. Seeing a light in one of the rooms I entered. There lying in bed were a man and wife both elderly, looking with staring eyes under their night caps at the apparition who had burst in. I smiled and apologised in English, closed the door, up another flight before I found the H.Q. I could well have spoken to the old couple in Welsh for all they could understand – they were Walloons.
I had a home leave at this time and it was good to be home but the time passed too quickly and back I came to find myself in another part of Holland The first night I was billeted with a farmer and his family. That evening they started singing something similar to a national anthem. I asked if it was the Dutch national anthem but they shook their heads and said ‘Limberg’ or something similar, it may have been a province.
The following day we attacked a small town, without much opposition. The only obstacle was that the roads were strewn with mines and two of our tanks lost their tracks. We settled down and established the H.Q. in a cafe. The news came that our Squadron leader had been promoted to second in command of the regiment and that another Major was on his way to take charge of us. When he arrived in a couple of days he turned out to be rather a county type who had been in the War Office for some years. The first thing he asked was ‘Are there any letters to censor?’ Normally we took the letters to the troop officer who usually asked ‘Are these all right?’ and signed them without further ado. Major Deas made a meal of them and I often heard him laughing over the contents of the letters. He had a very fruity voice and it soon became plain that he knew nothing of running a squadron and still less of fighting. Yet he was a very likeable character.
We now moved to the outskirts of a village where we stayed for some weeks. I slept in a farmhouse – in the attic. The house, the cowshed and pigsty were all under one roof. The smell of ammonia at night was overpowering!! The family of nine were staunch Catholics who lived mainly on potatoes. Their wan faces were proof of that. We had a corporal who was a menace to everything in skirts between ten and seventy years old. One day the wife caught our corporal molesting one of their daughters who was about twelve. She gave him two or three hefty clouts. Everything OK? Not likely, she had transgressed by losing her temper and the whole family had to join in supplication for the errant woman, while she sat wailing in the corner. In my view the wife should have given the so and so another couple from the other side. On Christmas morning the whole family went to church before 5am. I asked if the church had been heated. “Nein” was the reply.- and I thought our family were religious!!.
One other thing happened that day. The Major came round to wish us well, and when he came to me said ‘Heah is my drivah – a good chap but I do wish he wouldn’t write Welsh letters, I cannot understand them’. The poor soul. One more thing about this place. I was on guard from 4 to 6 in the morning and as I went past a farm entrance I heard a noise like someone crying. I looked around but I couldn’t see anyone and carried on with my patrol. I wasn’t too happy about it so turned back and went into the extensive farm yard to find a woman splashing about in the well in the centre of the courtyard. I ran to the door and found the farmer talking to one of our sergeants. We got a blanket and eventually lifted what appeared to be an old lady who looked very ill. She was carried to the house. That morning at breakfast I mentioned this to our landlady to see if she knew what had happened. My description of an ‘old frau’ hardly fitted with the “plonk wasser” she mentioned. That evening she told me “Nein nein old frau” and that the woman concerned had had a child a fortnight earlier!
It was at this time and in the most unlikely place I suffered most from battle fatigue, I had gone on a short leave to Brussels and the place was buzzing with Americans. The news broke that the Germans had attacked the Americans on the Ardennes, and had broken through and were making for Brussels. The locals were in panic because the Germans had plastered ‘We shall be back’ on walls everywhere and this had worried them greatly. The Americans had vanished from the streets and we were quite glad to get back to the unit. This was when we saw refugees with their carts and bundles looking for sanctuary. When I got back to the tank I was glad to get inside the steel plating.
Towards the end of February came our next push. This was the one action that stood out in my memory and the main reason for that was our Major. He was a character compared to his predecessor who apart from commands like “Driver start up” “Driver right” and so on never spoke to his crew. Not so Major Deas. He had an interest in us all – too much if anything. He drank more whisky than he should, but he was a warm individual. who appealed to me.
In the exercises before the attack it was patently obvious that he hadn’t a clue about battle tactics. One thing that concerned his crew and troop was that he insisted on leading the squadron from the front, and instead of the troop leader being at the base of the ‘V’ the ‘V’ was inverted. On these exercises he got to the target ten minutes before anyone else “Like a fairy on a Christmas tree” as our Corporal remarked.
He fouled up when we got to the marshalling area where the movement of units was carefully laid down. We watched as hundreds of tanks and vehicles passed, then came a gap and the command came from the Major “Start up” and away we went, only to find out about a quarter of an hour later that we had moved too soon and had split another regiment in half, and we were split from the rest of the 44th. We shortly found a place to pull in, and things were straightened out but the stock of our Major was very low.
The battle came, which was fierce. We were in reserve and Captain Watkins was sent forward to take charge of another squadron. The Major had the idea that he would like to see the action at closer quarters and received permission to go forward. The place was in turmoil with shells, mortars and machine guns going off. Our Major was shouting “Hoo Hoo” at Captain Watkins who hastily waved his arm. From the middle of this maelstrom a young German soldier appeared leading an old man and woman to safety. Suddenly the old girl stopped and lifted her skirts and attended to the call of nature. The lad stood by quietly while it happened!!
It was time for us to take the stage again and moved behind Captain Watkins (who lost his life in this action) and away we went to take a crossroads. One troop to the left another to the right and us on the road. I tried to go as slowly as I could to enable the others to keep up, but the orders from the Major was ‘speed up’. The co-driver and I looked for troops on the wings but no sign! We soon arrived at the crossroads without a shell or mortar to hinder us and to our surprise the Major announced this over the radio to HQ. The Major left the tank to talk to the attendant infantry when the first burst of H.E. came over. The co-driver and I had opened the hatches to see if the infantry had arrived and I received a small nick on the back of my neck from the shrapnel. We closed down again smartly!. The corporal was very uneasy and told me to start up. I asked where the Major had got to, and he didn’t know. My co-driver and I looked at each other, we knew the corporal was sweating on his leave, which was due. Orders being orders so I started up. A few seconds later the order came to switch off because the Major was under the tank with half a platoon of infantry sheltering from the barrage. In a few minutes the Major returned and I heard the corporal asking “Sir may I talk to you, man to man? “Certainly corporal” came the reply. “You’ve got this tank in a bloody stupid position, Sir” After a pause the Major asked “Drivah, and what do you say?”
Now I am naturally loyal to those in charge and I knew that Frank Murain the corporal was almost hysterical at the thought of losing his leave. We had got where we were without incident so I replied ‘We (the co-driver and I) are quite comfortable thank you sir.’ ‘Thank you drivah” and then silence. Soon afterwards the major’s legs became very swollen and that was the end of his career as a soldier.
Many months later the Major was Town Major near Hamburg. One night I had gone to bed at a nearby castle when the R.S.M. himself came to wake me up and told me to dress and go to another castle about five miles away, which was the HQ. I was puzzled but obeyed. On the way I was told there was a sergeants’ mess party with Major Deas as a guest and he had expressed a wish to see his old driver. I received a huge welcome from him and his description of me made me blush! He put his hand on my shoulder and said I was to bring my wife and meet Mrs Deas for a ‘quiet little drink’. The old Sunday School Superintendent almost choked on the spot!!
Back to the war. We moved about fifty yards to the right of the main road as another regiment was taking over the attack. I saw them coming down the slope and within seconds three or four tanks had been destroyed. The rest went on out of my sight. The noise of firing was incredible and eventually they came back – what was left of them – in a rare panic, throwing smoke bombs behind them until it was impossible to see anything. The panic spread and I could see some of our tanks pulling back. The Major told us to move, but only a short distance. Then the voice of the second in command came on the radio icily demanding to know what was happening. That was enough for the Major to send out rockets while we slipped quietly back to our position. The regiment that took the beating was City of London Yeomanry, Gentlemen of London. They lost dead or wounded all their principle officers and many junior officers, a dark day for them. The Germans were overcome in a day or two.
We pulled out to central Belgium to practice with swimming tanks. To those of us ex 24th Lancers, these were not new. An apron of giant inner tubes were placed around the tank which were inflated from a compressed air tank a propeller was added and that basically was that. We went down to the river blew up the tubes, put the thing in gear drove in until the propeller took over. The driver and co-driver were about six feet under water and were guided by the tank commander who was above water level. Look for a reasonable landing spot, hope the river was not flowing too quickly a light throttle. The fact that only one tank failed to cross was proof the system worked. Of the fighting from here on, little stands out in my memory. The enemy consisted of 15 year old boys and Home Guard types to fill in. The main worry were the anti-aircraft gun turned anti-tank guns. We had to treat them very carefully. By attacking from three sides at once we could subdue them without paying too high a price. No one wanted to be the last to die if that could be avoided but accidents happened. A lad from Lancing, Sussex who had just married that Easter was killed when getting out of the tank. He got hold of the machine gun barrel to help lever himself out. He must have given a jerk because it fired and he was killed. He was the last casualty of the 44th although it was some days before the Germans laid down their arms. There was general jubilation with shots fired in the air, to the alarm of local residents who thought the Russians had arrived! The morning arrived and with it – a block of blanco!. The close relationships between officers and men was beginning to unravel and spit and polish was re-established as the order of the day, and in a flash we were back to the barrack square.
Non-fraternisation was the rule with the threat of the glass house for those caught. We had a new Major and one evening he and another new officer saw one of our lads walking arm in arm with one of the local girls. They shouted at him and they took off in opposite directions and the Major and Lieutenant started chasing the trooper. Suddenly the trooper fired his revolver at his pursuers, who abandoned the chase. In an hour or so the place was swarming with Red Caps. This led to nothing and the trooper from H.Q. troop was heard to lament that he hadn’t had a Sten gun to do a better job!!
What of the Germans? their reaction was mixed, thousands of refugees swarmed round the place only too ready to take their revenge on their old masters. Some had heard of the treatment meted out by the Russians and were thankful they were on our side of the fence. They were also very bitter. The 44th were one of the Desert Rats and carried the flash on our arm. In a few hours most shops in the town carried displays extolling the virtues of rat poison!
The main question at the time was what age and service group you were. I was group 20 and although six months elapsed before I finally got out, I was very lucky. We were in a castle (schloss) near Lubeck on the Baltic and our job was to supervise the demob of thousands of German Army personnel to make sure that no unauthorised people went through. Working with us were a number of German army people and they appeared to be a good bunch of lads.
Quite a number of Poles worked in the kitchens and one day the Sergeant Major came and said he was arranging a chess match between me and the Polish champion, because so far I was unbeaten in the squadron. Well you learn by losing and I said I’d be delighted to play him. The night before the contest the Pole went berserk chasing after the cook with a carving knife. He was taken to hospital and that was that.
I had a short leave in Amsterdam and we stayed in a school which advertised that they were ready to send a parcel of tulips to our home address for a fixed amount of guilders. I sent one to my mother and the other to our home address at Porthcawl but I didn’t see much of a display in either place! Amsterdam though was well worth seeing.
November came and Group 20. I bade farewell to the 44th and turned back to Wales. It took me four days to get to Oxford and then to Hereford where we were issued with our demob suits and arrived home the following day.
The fetters had been cast aside after four and a half years of a strange life, a mixture of joy and sorrow and indeed highly comical at times. I was honoured to have had the fellowship and friendship of many good men.
I slipped back into civvy life without any trouble and resumed my old job like a fish in water. I have somewhere two medals – there should have been three – and a piece of paper saying ‘Employed as a tank driver- reliable and safe, conscientious and hard working under any conditions.’
No doubt I should have been learning more (or at least something) about the Phoenix Park murders, or rereading the turgid pages of Le Baiser au lépreux: I felt a continuous dull guilt that I was neglecting my studies. I wasn’t using my teenage years to take my first fumbling steps towards love, or taking advantage of the days when a small seventeen year-old could buy a pint of bitter unchallenged, as long as he had the money: no, instead I spent many hours buying and selling coins to improve my collection usingads in Exchange and Mart. I must have been fascinating company.
Only later did I understand that indulging my passion for trading had given me good practice for my City career. Luckily I didn’t completely ignore my studies, as I might not have been offered my entry level job at a stockbroking firm without a degree of some sort.
Sometimes your teenage interests suggest – if not always clearly – your direction in adult life. Ten years ago I met up with old school friends Charles and Richard. I remembered Charles at school had enjoyed tinkering with machines: he had become a railway engineer, specialising, when called upon, in crash forensics. Richard, I recalled, used to relish an argument on a point of detail – he had become a lawyer. I was now a City trader. We raised a glass to square pegs in square holes. Sometimes the pieces fit.
But life at school isn’t always a reliable predictor of adult life. I don’t imagine Jem, for example, would have forecast that I would grow into someone who runs marathons for the fun of it.
His name was Jeremy, but we all called him Jem. Perhaps we should have spelled that Gem: he was small and bright – younger than the official age group for our year, but sent ahead because he was clever – also friendly and funny. We were in different forms, but I met him on my first day at Watford Grammar when we found ourselves washing our hands next to each other in the luxurious toilet annexe. Two older boys were using the facilities, and one called out “Hey you two, come over here!” (Relax, this does not go badly.)
We went over there, and were asked to stand with our backs to the wall. “Blimey! You fellows are small!”. One produced a piece of chalk and marked our heights on the wall. He stood back and pronounced Jem narrowly the “winner” – i.e. the shortest boy in the school, he reckoned – and shook our hands. We looked at each other and shrugged, relieved that all the stories we had heard at primary school of blood curdling initiation rites had boiled down to this mild and good-natured ceremony.
I can’t speak for Jem, but I saw my small stature as a badge of honour: I was confident of my academic ability, and gained my self worth from that. In the following years Jem and I would often contend to be top of the year in the fortnightly maths tests – until, that is, my understanding of the subject hit a calculus brick wall.
About five years after our first encounter, we were shivering in Cassiobury Park on a Wednesday afternoon waiting to begin a cross country run. These runs were almost universally unpopular. They took place in the winter when the pitches were too waterlogged for rugby or hockey: as a result it was usually cold, wet, and very muddy. There was the fearsome Jacotts Hill, which seemed to appear in every route, and the ritual instruction to keep to the path as you crossed the golf course – suggesting that, were you slain by a ball, the knowledge that you had been righteous might comfort you as you drew your last breath.
I was competitive. Most boys didn’t try, or didn’t admit to trying – it wasn’t cool, and those who enjoyed sport preferred chasing a ball around. Many slowed to a walk as soon as they were out of sight of the teacher. But I did my honest best, and struggled: typically placing about 80th out of 120 boys, when few ahead of me cared, and probably none behind me. I plainly had no talent for this.
So I no longer put much effort into these runs, and on this day Jem – no great enthusiast either – and I decided to jog round together. It started well enough: we set off about three quarters down the field, and settled into a relaxed jog/walk which left enough breath for conversation. But after a mile or so we noticed that we had lost sight of the Athlete ahead of us, and when we came to the next junction we realised that neither of us had been paying attention when the sports master had been outlining the route.
How lost can you get in a town park? Well there’s nearly 200 acres of Cassiobury Park, and over the next forty minutes we did our best. I might have felt a little annoyance: after all, Jem lived on the Cassiobury estate, dammit. Well I guess he didn’t spend his weekends exploring the park. Our navigation skills were roughly equal. By the time we found the finish line, the master (it might have been “Beery”?) had given up and gone home, assuming he had miscounted, or perhaps he was indifferent to the fate of the boys in his charge.
So had I asked Jem, as we trudged shivering back to the changing rooms, do you think that in late middle age I’ll run through the very same muddy park regularly, often on cold rainy days, half way through a 21-mile training run, because I want to? Will I run fifteen marathons on thirteen different courses? Then he would have looked at me pityingly, assuming that the trauma of our wanderings in the park had scrambled my brain.
So what changed? In my mid thirties I took stock of my health and realised that I wasn’t getting much exercise: I tried running and became addicted. I found it therapeutic to apply myself to something so simple yet so difficult: as I ran, knots would untangle in my head. And there was the question of control: now running was a choice, I could enjoy it. I wonder if Jem ever caught the running bug?
I’m pretty sure that I haven’t acquired any new talent for running over the past half century. At least I no longer have to worry about navigation when I’m in a big city marathon: there are always plenty of people to follow. But it’s a sport where tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness count for a lot, and if those are talents, I claim them.
Why do I sometimes remember things that no-one else does? Do I make these memories up?
When, in January last year, I wrote Teacher’s Pet about my time at Watford Field Junior School, and put the article on a local Facebook group, a former fellow pupil called Andy Skinner commented on the article, and we began a dialogue.
Something then stirred in my memory: something to do with Skinner, a party, my brother Rob, and a Motown single. Eventually it took shape. In about 1970, we – well, Rob – had owned a copy ofthe sublimeTracks of My Tears, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then he didn’t.
Lamenting its absence from the collection of singles in his collection he had blamed “Skinner” – we used surnames a lot at school, there were too many Johns and Richards – a boy in the year between us. As I recall, Rob had been at a party some time in the early 1970s, and he told me that Andy Skinner had “borrowed” the record to tape it. (Home Taping was Killing Music.)
In my mind this was tentatively associated with another Motown single of lesser status – although still a decent single – that we had in the pile, Do What You Gotta Do by the Four Tops, which peaked outside the top ten in 1969. My recollection was that it was a temporary swap which had become an indefinite one, as Rob and Andy’s paths hadn’t crossed again – at least not when they were carrying these Motown hits. In view of the difference in quality of the two records we felt somewhat cheated.
And here I was, unexpectedly in touch with Andy, someone I remembered from school, but only vaguely, as is the way with kids in a different year. So in a message to him I wrote, tongue in cheek, that Rob would like his copy of Tracks of My Tears back.
Perhaps unsurprisingly after so much time had elapsed, Andy replied that he had no memory of ‘blagging’ the record, nor did he remember Rob from school, and doubted if he owned the record. But when I tentatively suggested that if he found it, he might return it out of the blue to Rob, it appealed to his sense of humour and he readily agreed.
To Andy’s surprise, he did find Tracks of My Tears when he searched in his loft, so he dispatched it to Rob’s address with exactly the message you would send when returning something after 49 years.
I pictured Andy, in the Spotify era, wiring his cassette recorder up to the hi-fi like we all used to. I waited for the joke to find its mark, and in January 2020 Rob received the record and Andy’s note in the post. Rob and I have pranked each other in the past, so I wasn’t surprised that he sensed my hand in this and messaged me “This arrived today, without any address or any other clues. Don’t suppose it rings any bells with you?” I took that as a coded accusation. Well, really.
I tried to nudge his memory by sharing initially ‘vague’ recollections which soon became more specific, but in vain. He knew nothing about it, and the joke had fallen flat. I was prepared to leave it at that, and leave a bit of mystery in his life. But I wrote a follow-up article to Teacher’s Pet which mentioned Andy, and the game was up. Rob wrote “The Andy Skinner you wrote about. He wouldn’t be the same Andy Skinner that mysteriously returned the Tracks of My Tears single to me a couple of weeks ago, would he?” So: no joke, no mystery. Ah well.
So, did I make the whole thing up? Did I unintentionally spoof someone I barely remember from school into going up to his loft, locating a vintage 45 and randomly sending it to my brother? If so I’m actually quite proud. I understand that Picasso’s Girl With a Dove is on anonymous loan to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I might ask to have it back, if they don’t know where they got it from.
Perhaps I just remember something they don’t, even though I wasn’t directly involved: where music is involved my memory seems to be sharper. Or possibly, I remember the incident accurately, but have pinned it on the wrong guy. But it seems to be corroborated by Andy finding Tracks of My Tears when he didn’t think he owned it: also to some extent by the confirmed presence of Do What You Gotta Do in Rob’s collection – although Rob doesn’t recall how he acquired it, and Andy doesn’t recall ever owning it, so it hasn’t made a journey in the opposite direction. Most people are just too busy living their life to mentally archive it as they go.
But did you spot that line of marker just under the sleeve window? Perhaps there is writing behind that which might shed light on the mystery. I must ask Rob to take a look.
Gwerfyl looked out from the Eagles pub where we having dinner, where five people I didn’t recognise were seated at a table.
“Three of those people are your relatives”. That should have surprised me, but it didn’t. After all, this was Llanuwchllyn.
When my father died in 2015, it fell to me to sort out his papers. It wasn’t an especially onerous task: Dad was very organised, and everything was carefully filed. Once I had bundled up anything financial or legal for the solicitor, I was left with three envelopes containing information about the family: one for each of Dad’s parents, and one for Mum’s mother. Dad hadn’t created a family tree himself, but he had kept documents and letters from family members who had sought or provided information. The absence of an envelope for Mum’s father was, I think, only because there had been no correspondence from this quarter of the family.
I kept the envelopes safe, but thought no more of it until January 2017, when I sustained a heel injury trying to run further than I should. I thought that uploading the information I had inherited would make an interesting replacement for running as a winter diversion. But once I had signed up to Ancestry.com and started to add the data, momentum took me straight past that point, and into new researches as the website pointed me towards ancestors, great-uncles, great-aunties and cousins I had never known about. My family tree kept on growing.
I knew all four of my grandparents, and each had been strongly associated with a particular place. Nain (Dad’s mother) came from the Toxteth area of Liverpool. Some of Mum’s mother Sallie’s family can still be found around the Chirk and Wrexham area of north Wales where Sallie grew up, and Mum’s father Jack grew up and lived most of his life in Wallasey on the Wirral.
But it was my father’s father, Bob Edwards (or Taid as I knew him), whose extended family is still most closely connected to his childhood home. He was born on his father Evan’s farm Pantclyd, in Llanuwchllyn, North Wales, into a family which had farmed the area for generations. He was the fourth child of the nine who survived infancy.
Of course, this meant that my father had many cousins, and I have many second cousins descended from my great grandparents. And because Llanuwchllyn is a farming community, and the land is owned by family members, many still live in the area. But my Dad didn’t generally make much effort to keep in touch with his Welsh family, perhaps because he didn’t speak the language fluently.
Pantclyd held a fascination for me, no doubt in part because the house in Dolgellau where our family stayed with Nain and Taid when I was a boy was also called Pantclyd, renamed by Taid presumably in tribute to his childhood home. When I found out from a correspondent on Ancestry that an Edwards – Eiddon Edwards – was living in Pantclyd (Llanuwchllyn) my curiosity was aroused. Was the house and farm where my grandfather was born in 1883 still in the family, nearly 140 years later?
So I wrote an old-fashioned paper letter to Pantclyd, and within a couple of days Eiddon had emailed back confirming that he was indeed my second cousin. Pantclyd had come to him through his grandfather Llewelyn and his parents Idris and Ann. When he mentioned that his brother Geraint owned a couple of holiday cottages which he rented out, I resolved to make the trip to visit the Land of My Fathers.
I contacted Geraint, and booked up a week in September 2020 – he was kind enough to give us mates’ rates. During the Coronavirus lockdown, it looked doubtful whether the trip could still take place, so we were grateful to arrive at Talybont.
Prominent from the main road past Llanuwchllyn as we arrived was the statue of Sir Owen Morgan Edwards and his son Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards. Sir Owen was my great grandfather Evan’s second cousin. It was the first time I’d seen any relatives honoured with a statue.
Sir Owen and his son Ifan were both champions of the Welsh language. Owen was an academic, and published many books and magazines promoting Welsh poets and writers. He also became a wealthy man, leaving an estate of £17,500 – a tidy sum in 1920. Ifan set up Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth) which among other things, organises the Youth Eisteddfod.
I couldn’t go to Llanuwchllyn without visiting the grave of my great grandparents Evan and Elin Edwards, buried along with their son Thomas.
We were delighted to have been invited to Pantclyd, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Eiddon, his wife Heledd and their two young sons. Besides being my taid’s birthplace, two much sadder stories attached to Pantclyd. Two of Taid’s brothers died young: my namesake and great uncle Richard Edwards tragically drowned there in 1905 at the age of 20.
Eiddon took me on a tour of the grounds, and showed me the pool under a waterfall – perhaps where this happened.
Taid’s oldest brother Evan John also died young, in a shooting accident, just three years later at the age of 30.
Pantclyd is now a happy family home after being comprehensively renovated and extended in recent years by Eiddon, a builder by trade.
An undoubted highlight of the trip was visiting my dad’s favourite cousin Arthur Jones with his daughter Gwerfyl for morning coffee. Arthur is now a lively 98, full of stories and laughter. He pings out emails from his iPad like a young ‘un, and a couple of hours before we arrived he sent me a Facebook friend request.
Arthur fought in the Battle of Normandy with the Welsh Guards, arriving a few days (“Quite soon enough, thank you!”) after D-Day. He was a tank driver and fitter: he explained how his job was to drive the one at the rear: if a tank broke down, a fitter would have to get out of the tank – sometimes under fire – to replace the faulty part. Many fitters did not survive the war.
After the war Arthur had the less dangerous task of guard duty outside Buckingham Palace, and recalls that the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret could be demanding employers, sending through reprimands if they felt they had not been saluted sufficiently smartly when returning to the Palace in the small hours.
Arthur later bumped into my dad in London at the Victory Parade on the Mall on June 8 1946.
“When it was all over and we were waiting for the crowd to disperse, suddenly an airman stood in front of me, Aelwyn!! He had spotted me as we marched down the Mall to our positions! We hadn’t met for years. The Sergeant Major who was standing in front of me turned round to blast me for talking on parade then decided to let it go!”
Being only 17 when the war started, Arthur at 98 is one the younger veterans, and has been in demand for TV interviews in recent years, sought after for his vivid and lucid wartime reminiscences.
His brother Rhys, eighteen years his senior, also fought in the Battle of Normandy: some twenty years after the war he wrote his wartime memoirs. When Rhys died in 1974 his daughter Mair found his story among his papers and circulated it to the family, and Arthur translated it from Welsh into English. It makes fascinating if sometimes difficult reading.
After the war Arthur went from tank to tanker: for four years he drove the milk tanker from the local creamery to Liverpool every day – in an unheated cabin through the bitter winter of 1947 – before being promoted to an office job as assistant manager. Eventually in 1965 he took over his brother’s shop and ran the sub post office with his wife Mair, before retiring eighteen years later.
Unfortunately I only took an interest in the family tree after my parents died, and there are many questions I would have like to ask my mum and dad about their childhood, their parents, grandparents, cousins, great-uncles and great-aunties, and all the other family anecdotes. So to meet someone like Arthur, who remembers my dad as a child, and has so many stories to tell, is very precious.
One story concerns his Aunty Maggie, my nain, a schoolteacher.
“Aunty Maggie was a very doughty lady indeed whose first words to us when she arrived on a visit were “Let me see your books!” Homework and satchels would vanish when we heard Uncle Bob’s car outside!”
Arthur also told an amusing story about my dad Aelwyn which I hadn’t heard before. Maggie told her son Aelwyn – about ten at the time – to take Arthur, about eight, who was round at their house for a day – for a walk up the hill from their house in Dolgellau. Perhaps Maggie had put up with as much noise from the boys as she could. Anyway, it seems Aelwyn resented being put in charge of his young cousin and he wanted to watch the cricket match: so he abandoned Arthur at the top of the hill and ran back down so he wouldn’t miss the first over. When taken to task, apparently, he replied that he had only been told to take Arthur up the hill.
Arthur is the fount of all knowledge about the Llanuwchllyn tree, and I wasn’t the first visitor hungry for family stories. On seeing a photo of his grandmother Elin, who died was Arthur was thirteen, he volunteered “I don’t think she had a tooth in her mouth!” He keeps an extensive family tree on a long paper scroll, much consulted by local genealogists.
Visiting in September 2020, we were restricted in what we could do. We weren’t able to bring our daughters along, or shake hands with my newly found relatives as I would wish. But I was able to meet four second cousins for the first time – the fourth being Irwyn, to whom Gwerfyl introduced us at the Eagles – and renew my acquaintance with the wonderful Arthur. Having lived near London and worked in the City for most of my life, I could have felt like a foreigner in a part of Britain where English is very much the second language. But the people were welcoming, and instead I felt the warm embrace of my Welsh family. It felt like coming home.
In contrast to the sad stories of Richard and Evan John, Debbie and I stumbled on a much happier tale from Pantclyd’s more recent history. We were walking up the Aran from Llanuwchllyn, headed towards a ladder stile over the corner of a stone wall. There was nobody in sight, until a man and woman emerged from our right. We met at the stile, and got chatting. I mentioned that we had visited Pantclyd, and he said he had grown up in a farm along the valley. His name was Robin, and his wife was Gill.
Gill then told how, when she was a girl, her family was on a camping holiday in Llanuwchllyn, when they were cut off from their destination by flooding. They were saved by Geraint and Eiddon’s father Idris Edwards, who allowed them to camp at Pantclyd. They liked it so much they ended up coming back every year. During their time staying at Pantclyd, Jill met Robin in the local chapel, and they were married in 1967.
Assuming that everyone in Llanuwchllyn would know Arthur, I mentioned that we had visited him, and Robin confirmed that he knew ‘Arthur shop’ and that they were related, to some degree. Arthur was able to confirm that Robin was indeed my third cousin, and for good measure, that he was Sir Robin, a noted physicist who had served as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Wales, Swansea for nine years. What were my chances of walking up a remote hill and bumping into a cousin and a knight of the realm? In Llanuwchllyn, I’d say, quite high.
Not a bowl made of copper, but one containing mostly 1p and 2p coins, awkward change from those days when cash was commonplace. It struck me that many houses in my village, Chorleywood – where most residents are lucky enough not to need every penny – might have just such a bowlful, waiting to be collected for a charity.
It was late summer 2011: like many others I was saddened by the terrible drought and famine in East Africa, and the Disaster Emergency Committee had launched an appeal. I thought of our copper bowl. I had time – a week of unused holiday – and I had pent-up energy accumulated during a long injury induced break from running. I decided to carry out a local collection. If that was successful, perhaps it could be scaled up nationally. Could this be my Geldof moment? First, I would have to see how it went in Chorleywood.
There are rules to follow, you can’t just go round rattling a tin. You have to apply to your local licensing authority – in my case Three Rivers District Council – for a licence.
The licence duly came through, and my bluff was called. Now I had to do it. I based my plan of campaign on a 2005 Electoral Register of Chorleywood West, the most recent I could get my hands on. From this I calculated there were 2,003 households to target for collection. My first task was to get the flyers designed and printed.
I ordered plenty of these A4 flyers, folded in half to A5, ready for insertion into clear sealable plastic bags for delivery. The idea was that householders could simply tip their spare coins into the bag ready for collection.
2,003, I discovered, is a large number of houses, especially in a fairly rural area like Chorleywood, where there are many long driveways, and lengthy walks between them. Luckily I had help from my wife, a daughter, some of her friends, and one or two friends dotted round the village.
The main distribution effort coincided with some of the hottest October weather seen in England, with temperatures approaching 30°C, which made a full day’s delivery challenging. But this was still the easy part. The challenge was always going to be the collection, with the embarrassment of approaching strangers to ask them for money.
By the time we had finished delivering the leaflets, it was time to start collecting from our starting point. I made up some simple but authentic ‘Authorised Collector” badges, and I began in my own road, where I had an early taste of the range of responses I could expect. One man opened his door, stared at me blankly while I made my brief pitch, then shook his head silently and closed the door. One lady opened her purse, and on failing to find much in the way of change, considered for a moment before placing a ten pound note in the bag.
One man who lived in a large gated house resisted the temptation use the intercom to tell me to go away: instead he buzzed the gate to allow me to approach his front door, where he made a donation. Perhaps he wished to dispel the impression that visitors to his castle weren’t welcome. Most gave something, but only one or two fitted my target profile – the ones who had accumulated small change that they didn’t need, which they were happy to donate.
As we ventured further into Chorleywood, a pattern emerged. We were doing this at a difficult time of year: the kids were at school and many houses were empty. By the time the occupants had returned it would be too dark to be knocking on doors. We made two attempts to collect from each address: if the second was unsuccessful we put a slip through the door.
My first full day of collections was only patchily successful, and I hadn’t needed any trips back to my car to relieve the weight of my shoulder bag. But one man said yes, I’ve got a whole shoebox full of 1p and 2p coins. Do you really want them? Yes, I explained, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. They’re in the attic, he said, can you come back in an hour? And there it was, a big box of coins. It took me twenty minutes to count and bag it, but I didn’t mind. For reasons which might not reflect well on me, I’ve always enjoyed counting money.
A number of encounters stayed in my mind. There was a very trusting old lady who asked me inside and chatted for ten minutes while she fussed around trying to find the bag. Don’t worry, I said, I’ve got plenty of spares. No, she said, it’s here somewhere. Of course she was just lonely and wanted a chat. There was a picture of a smiling boy in a stadium wearing a baseball cap. “My grandson” she said quietly. “They’re in America. I don’t see them very often.”
I reached the house of a friend of ours. She said she’d seen the leaflet and thought it was a great idea. “How’s it going?” she asked. It had been a slow morning. “So far I’ve got more material for a book than money” I replied glumly. They kept a jar for small change in their hallway so large that she needed my help to safely tip it out. “This is the moment it’s been waiting for” she said. That’s what I call a friend. Time to stop for the morning and end on a high.
One man said he had an accumulation of foreign coins, would I accept those? I thought, why not, we could get something for them. Another man raised his finger and said “Wait a minute.” He soon came with a Swiss 50 franc note, with about a quarter missing. “You’re welcome to this if you can use it.’ After a little research, I posted it off to the Swiss National Bank, and within a few days they sent back a brand new 50 franc note. Now that’s a country which takes its currency seriously. I was able to exchange it for about £35.
When my wife was collecting she called on one of the grandest houses in Chorleywood, a mansion in a row of mansions. The lady of the house invited her in, and then spent fifteen minutes explaining why she wasn’t going to give anything.
Of course, no-one is obliged to donate – after all, it’s their money. I’m not too fond of cold-callers on the doorstep myself. Many said they had already made a contribution to the TV appeal. But to gratuitously waste the collector’s time seemed a step too far. Perhaps she was lonely too.
There is an artist well-known in the village, who contributed generously, and then said “Now it’s your turn.” She had up a charitable foundation in the name of her son who had died tragically young, and asked for a donation. I was happy to oblige, reassuring her that the money was coming from my own pocket.
One of the incidental benefits of the project was the opportunity to get up close to some interesting and beautiful local houses. For years I had been amused by a sign announcing a house named after a southern US state, tucked out of sight down a long driveway. It seemed an absurd name for a house in commuter belt Hertfordshire. But on approach it was a large white house with a grand portico, surrounded by open country. With the unseasonably blue sky behind it, it could have been a plantation house in the Deep South.
One finding from our team of collectors was that we obtained better results collecting in our own roads, where we were better known and (hopefully) trusted. If I had been able to recruit a collector for each road, as well as having much less work to do, we might have collected more.
As the collection drew to a close, it was gratifying to receive a number of phone calls from people who had been out when I called, many with large piles of coins to contribute. It felt good to ring a doorbell knowing my visit was welcome.
I had my eye on another source of funds. In the City dealing room where I worked was a huge glass jar, into which people would drop their small change and leftover holiday coins and notes. Over a few years it had filled to a point where it took two people to move it. Having established that there was no plan to empty it and no proposed use for its contents, I was allowed to annex it.
But before simply tipping out the contents and counting them, I had another wheeze to increase revenue: a charity competition at £10 a ticket. Entrants had to guess the total value of UK currency in the jar, and half of the ticket money would be given out in prizes for the three closest guesses. Twenty-five entrants meant another £125 for the appeal.
The entries provided support for the idea of the wisdom of the crowd, with the mean of all the guesses coming in within 3% of the correct figure – although one respected analyst was so spectacularly wide of the mark that subsequently I regarded his work with scepticism. Some colleagues volunteered to help out on a quiet afternoon , and we spent a happy half hour counting. That jar contained £263.56 in British money, just 94p away from the winning guess. Adding in the money from the competition and the proceeds of selling a few Euros, the jar brought in nearly £400. It was quite an effort to take that lot to the bank.
Once all the collections were finished, and the coins bagged up, I drove my overburdened car to the nearest bank that was open on a Saturday morning to deposit it into the DEC East Africa Appeal account. I also found a dealer where I could exchange the accumulation of foreign coins. Adding everything together, we had raised £2,603.56 – the local contribution averaging slightly more than £1 per house.
Was it worth it? Yes of course, we raised a decent sum of money for an excellent cause, and the experience of planning and carrying out the collection was interesting and mostly enjoyable, if sometimes exhausting. Would I do it again? Well, no. The most stressful part was ringing on strangers’ doorbells. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently thick-skinned. And though we raised a worthwhile amount, it didn’t seem amazing for the effort and time we had put in. It would have been much easier to work (even) harder in my regular job and make a personal donation.
I remember calling on a house occupied by a couple I took to be recently retired. The man took me into his garage to show me some neatly arranged storage jars he had accumulated, each filled with a different denomination: 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p. He hadn’t really known what he was going to do with them, so he seemed quite grateful to have the opportunity to put them to good use. While he took them away to decant them, I chatted to his wife. “That’s a very kind gesture of your husband” I commented. Her face softened and her eyes seemed to lose their focus.
Gripping read, isn’t it? That’s how I spent my leisure time when I was 25. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever written, by a wide margin. Having left Deloitte Haskins & Sells the previous year citing technical differences with the examiners, I obtained a measure of closure by getting this article – criticising an aspect of their audit techniques – published in Accountancy, the most widely read magazine of that profession.
As a failed accountant, I didn’t exactly have the world at my feet. An employment agency sent me along for an interview for the role of assistant in the two-man statistics department of a small, specialised stockbroking firm, Gilbert Eliott & Co. I reported back that I did like the idea of working at a stockbrokers, but the job seemed pretty dull. The agency gave me some excellent advice: once I got settled in, she said, if I showed promise I could get the opportunity to try out on the sales desk, where the money was made.
So I had settled for a fairly dull job as assistant in the two-man Statistics department of a small, specialised stockbroking firm, Gilbert Eliott & Co. My boss Dick was about sixty, and I could see my future etched in his closed, tetchy old face, measured in endless priority percentage calculations, monthly preference and bond updates, and in thirty-nine annual fixed interest handbooks.
But one day while Mr George Baylis FCA – the firm’s personnel officer and a qualified accountant – was enjoying his complimentary copy of Accountancy, my face stared back at him from page 136. He let me know he had seen the article, and he must have mentioned it to his fellow partners. Within a week, the head of the preference department, Peter Thompson, had come into our tiny office – carefully choosing the hour when Dick was at lunch – and asked whether I would like to transfer to his department: initially to help with administration and dealing, but with a view to graduating to broking.
In the early 1980s the City was still largely populated by the old guard of aristocratic third sons, blackguards unsuited for the army or the church and old gents wandering in to to the office at ten from the Waterloo train, disappearing for lunch between one and four. Many were lazy, some were plain stupid. Steadily they were being replaced by sharp- witted lads from Essex, grammar school boys and even the odd graduate.
So when Mr Thompson made his offer, I didn’t hesitate. Given the calibre of some of my colleagues, it shouldn’t be difficult to make a mark. My knowledge of the stocks was comprehensive after the stats training, but the sales aspect of the job didn’t come easily: for a long time I was nervous of making a fool of myself on the telephone.
The partners must have thought the safest course was to assign me accounts where the firm was doing little business, so I couldn’t do much damage, and might improve our revenue there. After a slow start – Mr Wild, one of the partners, had to take me out to lunch to remind me that I was supposed to be bringing in new business as well as looking after the admin – ambition eventually overcame fear. One lunchtime when I was alone, minding the shop, it was as if a switch had been flicked in my head: suddenly I knew what to do. I made four sales calls, and two of them were successful. The two partners on the desk came back to a couple of decent dealing slips they hadn’t expected.
But the day I really got my feet under the desk was in 1983, on 3rd August which happens to be my birthday. A fund manager from a previously barren account which I had been carefully (but so far unsuccessfully) cultivating – supplying a stream of what I hoped was helpful information and analysis – called me up out of the blue. “Are you busy this morning?’ she asked. “Oh, one or two things on” I lied. She ignored my reply and pressed on. “Well, you will be now. Have you got a pen and paper? I want to sell these.” And she read out a long list of holdings. Over the day we got all the business done. Now I knew I could do the job.
Of course, the problem for the firm in assigning its barren accounts to the new guy was that I now knew that the revenue I had generated attached to me personally as much as it did to the firm. This made me confident of what I was worth to my employer, current or future.
And if a person gives you something, it is instinctive to thank them. But when Mr Thompson handed me a bonus slip representing an amount of money I could only have dreamt of three years earlier – and of course exceeded the social value of my work by a huge factor – I resisted the impulse to thank him. I simply nodded acknowledgement and said “OK.” Because the bonus was clearly a miserly percentage of the increased revenue I had brought in.
This was Thatcher’s decade, the age of the yuppie. Before long, opportunity knocked again in the shape of an approach from a rival firm. “Big Bang” was on the horizon, and broking firms, buoyed with cash from US and other banks, were aggressively recruiting. When Simon & Coates (soon to trade as Chase Manhattan) named the salary they were proposing to pay me – roughly triple what I had been earning before – I needed time to consider it. About three seconds. I tried to contain my excitement. “I think that sounds reasonable” I said. I was on my way. And all thanks to that very dull article.
“If you played for your primary school football team, come and stand over here.”
I proudly went and stood over there. So did three quarters of the class. The prefect who had been tasked with helping to stream the first year into equal ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups scratched his head and consulted the master. Then he pointed to McKenzie, the tallest boy in this large elite.
“You, come and stand here. The rest of you, stand next to him in order of height, tallest on the left.”
There was much jostling and preening in the middle ranks, but I knew my place, and went straight to the right. The cut was duly made two thirds of the way along the line, and I was consigned to the B-stream.
Watford Grammar liked to rub shoulders with prestigious private schools, and rugby was key to that strategy. The absence of football was the cause of periodic unsuccessful protests at the school. We started the term playing hockey, which I quite enjoyed, then after half term we were switched to rugby.
It was easy for me to stand out in this group. Most had no talent and no interest. I was fiercely competitive – with reasonable ball skills, and good acceleration. Mainly, I cared – I was determined. My tackling technique was sound: if I wanted to stop a boy, even a large one, he was coming down. Mr Morgan looked in despair at the kids trying not to get dirty, running away from the ball, shirking tackles, standing there shivering – generally ninnying about – and declared “Edwards is the only one of you with any guts!”
I was promoted to training for the U12 team. Dad thought I’d make an excellent scrum-half, but that position was taken. I can’t actually remember what position I was assigned – I certainly wasn’t part of the scrum – probably the wing, as I was given the job of throwing the ball in at the line-out. We worked out our signal: if I was told to throw long, I should throw short, and vice versa. I wondered how long it would take our opponents to crack that code.
The Saturday in January dawned crisp and cold. So cold that when Dad dropped me off at the school that afternoon, a master was waiting there to tell us the match was cancelled as the pitch was frozen hard. My debut would have to wait.
Dad loved rugby. He had played for London Welsh second team in the late 1940s, and captained their third team. He was of average height, and not heavily built, but fast and skilful. He recounted how, after he had once scored a try, a teammate had said ‘I knew we’d score as soon as I saw R.A.’s head go back.’
Eventually, though, he suddenly realised, as he was standing one afternoon on a muddy pitch in driving rain, that he wasn’t enjoying it any more, and retired from the game. He would sometimes go to Twickenham with his brother when England played Wales, but mostly watched on TV. My brother and I once had reason to be glad of his enthusiasm: after watching a thrilling Wales win, Dad leapt from his chair and said ‘Right, is Moore’s still open?’ and we rushed down to Mill End to buy the secondhand moped Rob and I had been eyeing up.
Rob’s unusual left leg restricted his running, and had ruled him out of playing football or rugby competitively. Dad would love to have a rugby playing son, and I was his last chance.
So far most of my rugby had been played against kids who were small, or uninterested, or both. When training resumed for our next school fixture, I had a taste of playing against larger boys who actually cared. At eleven years some had entered a rapid growth phase, and the gap in height and weight seemed to grow by the week. For a while I continued to hurl myself at them, but soon it occurred to me that I could get hurt, and my conviction started to waver.
So at the training session I spoke up and confessed to the coach that I didn’t want to be in the team. I just wasn’t enjoying it. He was disappointed: I had been chosen for my competitive spirit: where had that gone? But he accepted it, and asked if anyone else didn’t want to be there. A boy called Mark took advantage of the opportunity to make a more low key exit, and as we walked away he confided ‘I wish I had the gift of the gab like you.’ My brief spell in the U12s was over, and I now played rugby on Monday afternoons only.
When Dad died in 2015, I went through his address book to make sure everyone had been notified. One card went to Richard, about my age, the son of one of my Mum’s best friends. In his reply, after offering condolences, he wrote:
I will always remember how he gave me his old London Welsh rugby shirt when I started playing for them. I carried it around in my sports bag for the next five years as a good luck mascot.
I never knew that. I couldn’t have reached the heights of London Welsh. But I thought, if that fixture hadn’t been cancelled, had I stayed the course, Dad would have loved to give me that shirt.
Aelwyn peered sleepily at the darkness through the kitchen window. “It’s not fair. Why can’t I go too?”
“Because you’re too young.”
Maggie continued to fuss over Glyn. “No, you’ll need your raincoat. Have you got your sandwiches? Your apple? Your water bottle? Your permission slip? Bob, could you get Glyn tuppence spending money? Thank you. Glyn, put your cap on straight.”
Aelwyn was bitterly disappointed, but complaining wouldn’t change anything, just annoy his mum. He was nearly eight, three measly years younger, that was all, and his big brother was making no effort to hide his excitement. Soon he would be joining his friends on the long charabanc trip from Dolgellau.
It was Wednesday 29th June 1927, the day of the first total solar eclipse visible from mainland Britain since 1724. The whole family was up at 1am to see Glyn off: the motor coach had to be in Preston before six. Aelwyn felt the sense of injustice rise again within him.
“Two hundred and three years! It’s been two hundred and three years since the last one, and it’ll be another two hundred and three years until the next one!”
“No darling” said Maggie mildly, peering over her husband’s shoulder at the Liverpool Daily Post. “It says here there’s going to be another one in 1999. On August 11th.”
“Oh thanks, I’ll put it in my diary.”
Maggie looked sharply at the boy, but saw the beginning of a smile on his face. Bob stirred from his newspaper.
“Only seventy-two years to wait!” Aelwyn was making a calculation.
“And forty-three days!”
Bob, the headmaster, smiled and winked at his son, the future actuary. He furtively handed him two pennies as Maggie saw Glyn out of the door. “You’d better get back to bed.”
I’ll be eighty, thought Aelwyn. Some people get to eighty, don’t they?
Seventy-two years and forty-three days later, Aelwyn woke up in Merryfield Manor in St Cleer. His two sons had organised a holiday with their young families for him and Kath: eleven people in all, with Alice at three the youngest of four granddaughters.
Rob and Rik were tempted by the thought of driving to the Cheesewring, an atmospheric ancient site, to view the eclipse, but were overruled by concerns about traffic, parking and crowds. So a leisurely breakfast was taken, and the garden chairs were strategically placed ready for the event at ten past eleven. Aelwyn told his story from 1927. Glyn had indeed needed his raincoat: it had poured with rain and no-one had seen a thing, beyond a few seconds of heightened gloom.
The children were repeatedly warned against looking directly at the sun, so that Robyn, the oldest, was moved to announce that she got it, thanks, and had no intention of blinding herself. The weather was not as bad as last time, but there was still a solid cloud covering. Anticipation mounted as the time approached.
When it came, it was atmospheric rather than spectacular. The clouds were thin enough that Aelwyn could make out the shape of the moon as it moved across the face of the sun, and as it grew darker he saw an owl swoop from woods nearby, and heard a cock crow in the distance.
Later he watched the sun go down with a glass of wine in his hand, and spoke of punching the air in celebration after being told about the special holiday. “It was an amazing experience. Well worth waiting seventy-two years for.”
And forty-three days, Dad. Don’t forget the forty-three days.
Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up our own minds, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of our own. Then we understood it was really about giving Mum and Dad a brief respite from noisy kids every Sunday.
As a six year old, I hadn’t enjoyed Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left a clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.
Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.
Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a simplified and speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if you hit the ball you had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.
There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.
The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)
The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.
Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there were two Jewish boys and one Asian boy. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But that didn’t prevent seeds of doubt being sown.
Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.
(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident encouraged the headmaster to move him on.)
My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. They couldn’t all be right. But they could all be wrong: surely that was the only reasonable conclusion?
My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. A thin, austere figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.
Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.
The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.
Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.
The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.
This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.
I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.
A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?
My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?
Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.
In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?