Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

There is one sound that evokes for me quintessential mid-summer in England; echoes of long hot days, the smell of mown grass; the sipping through straws of long cool drinks. It takes me back to childhood memories of eating salad for a fortnight. The sound is, if you haven’t guessed already, the BBC’s theme tune that heralds the start of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships.

We would arrive home from school to find Mum watching events unfold in SW19 on our black and white TV: an avid tennis fan, she would watch until well into the evening until Dad arrived home, often with strawberries from the local farm. We’d eat these after various cold cuts, served with vanilla ice-cream, cut from a slab encased in cardboard which had been transported home from the village store wrapped in newspaper.

Mum had a soft spot for Ken Rosewall, who always carried a large white hanky on court because he had terrible hay fever and as a fellow sufferer, she was sympathetic.

Ken Rosewall

Ken Rosewall

Sadly, he never won on the grass at Wimbledon. Other players of the day were Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King. I never remember rain stopping play in those days: summer was summer then. I didn’t really become interested in tennis until the mid seventies. For one thing, we had colour television by then, and for another, in the shallow eyes of a teenage girl, the players started to look more interesting.  I joined Mum on the sofa with salads on our laps and she patiently explained the finer points of the game. I was hooked.

A new guard was emerging – less gentlemen, more brat pack – just what was needed to shift the game’s profile into the next generation. I’m talking  Jimmy Connors – he of the awful haircut and on-court grunting (was he the first, I wonder?); Bjorn Borg, who played the game like metronomic Swedish Pac-Man, getting everything back, 15-0; back and forward, 30-0; along the baseline, 40-0; in his striped shirt; game Mr Bor….zzzz.  However, I’ll forgive him that because he was good-looking and did have impeccable manners.

My favourite player (of all time, actually), is of course, Johnny Mac.

Johnny Mac

Johnny Mac

The enfant terrible and complete antithesis to Borg, with his red hair band, his left-handed shots and wooden racket, not to mention his out-bursts of frustration, all served to make him the most watchable player on the tour as far as I was concerned, especially as Mum wasn’t in the least bit enamoured. Such raw passion and a determination to win was regarded as rather less than genteel on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club. A bit of a shake-up was what was needed at the time, and a bit of a shake-up is what Johnny Mac provided. Tennis had been perceived as the sport of the elite until this era of new players arrived, and they gave inspiration to kids thrashing about on hard public courts up and down the country.

John McEnroe is now a popular member of the BBC’s Wimbledon commentary team. He is amusing, still sometimes controversial and committed to the game, having been a major player in his country’s Davis Cup team. He’s part of the establishment. Mum likes him now. Game, set and match, McEnroe.

Wimbledon is but a couple of weeks away now.  Summer will finally arrive. I’ll be putting the TV on as early as I can – not to watch wall to wall tennis, necessarily, but the reassuring thwack, thwack of balls across the net is a signal to get out lashings of ginger beer,  served with ice cream floats and force the family to eat salad for a fortnight. Tradition – it’s what Wimbledon is all about.

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This is Veteran Jim “Pee Wee” Martin.

He is ninety-two years old. 8944021905_2cc4329064[1]

He arrived in England from Ohio, America, last weekend to begin his three-week Trip of Remembrance through Europe, visiting the places he encountered during WW2. He is travelling with his companion, Doug Barber, a history teacher, also from Ohio. Our son (the Sofa Loafer), met them at Heathrow and drove them to Wiltshire, where they revisited places Jim remembers from 1943. He had a reunion with Rosemary, a young girl he met in the village of Ramsbury, where he was billeted prior to the Normandy Invasion.  They have corresponded ever since, know all about each other’s lives and families, but this was their first meeting in almost seventy years.

One of Jim’s ambitions was realised when, on the way back to Surrey to stay over at Chez Pellett, they made a detour to take in Stonehenge. After walking all around the site it was back in the car to a final stop at the Bourne Woods, Farnham. It was here that the HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers” filmed the Currahee Mountain sequence and Jim had been impressed that the location used was sympathetic to the real Currahee – which he had run up and down many times during training at Camp Toccoa. He amazed everyone when, after almost two hours in the car, he got out and sprinted up the hill. Doug managed to capture it on a short video. You can watch it here.

They arrived at our house in the early evening after a brief stop at a typically English pub. I expected him to be travel weary, jet-lagged, even. I would have been. But Jim is an extraordinary man and we feel very honoured and privileged to have made his acquaintance. We had a light supper and talked till late in the evening, S-L showed us a DVD of Jim taking a tandem sky-dive at the age of eighty-nine – another of his ambitions was to jump out of a plane again. Very early the next morning, they set off for the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry. The Sofa Loafer delivered them to mutual friends in Normandy who will look after them while there. After four days they head to Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Tonight there will be fireworks  to celebrate the 69th anniversary of D-Day. There will be parties and lighting of beacons all along the coast. They’ll all be there and I have a feeling that Jim will be the last man to bed. As he said when we were watching the sky-dive video – “Life is not a spectator sport.”

A moment of quiet reflection

A moment of quiet reflection

All Photographs courtesy of Doug Barber.

Below is a brief description of Jim’s war.

Jim’s war began in 1942 when he signed up to the 101st Airborne Division and trained with the 506th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment), at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, moving to Fort Benning for their jump preparation before being shipped to England in 1943. His G Company was based in and around the beautiful village of Ramsbury where further training was undertaken until the start of Operation Overlord – the Battle for Normandy.

In the early hours of 6th June, 1944, Jim, aged twenty three, was one of over 13 000 American paratroopers who crossed the Channel in a C47 and was dropped by parachute into Normandy. He landed safely near the small village of St Cȏme Du Mont, near Utah Beach. Thousands of his compatriots didn’t: the Germans had flooded the drop zones and many troops drowned, unable to stay upright in deep water, the weight of their chutes and supplies dragging them down. Jim went on to fight in Normandy for thirty three days before returning to England in July.

 By September 1944, Jim had jumped again, this time into Holland where his Company fought to secure “Hell’s Highway” in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. After seventy days of fighting in the Netherlands, Jim’s unit camped out in France until they were sent to Bastogne in Belgium to take part in the Battle of the Bulge during a bitterly cold December. After Bastogne, Jim took part in the Rhineland Campaign and ended his war at Hitler’s mountain home, “The Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden in 1945.

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My mother was ten when war broke out in 1939. She and her family lived in the countryside just south of London, at Addington Palace Hotel, where her father was  manager. He had worked in the catering industry since leaving the army in 1918 at the age of twenty, having served in the First World War for four years. Mum remembers clearly the family gathering around the wireless in their sitting room to hear the grave news that war had been declared.

At first, life at the hotel went on as usual and then the departure of many local school children to more rural locations began. My grandfather would not consent to my mother and her sister leaving; the hotel seemed safe enough, he wanted to keep the family together and there was very little news from Europe until the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940. Some of the rooms at the hotel were commandeered by the British army for officers; troops were stationed in tents along the driveway leading up to the Palace. The toll house was used as a guard-room.

In July 1940, the family were able to witness at close range the planes fighting in the Battle of Britain. For over three months the skies above the hotel buzzed with the sound of aircraft. Addington is within a few miles of Biggin Hill, one of the many small airports used.

By 1942, the army had moved on but the village was thrown into great excitement – the Canadians were coming! Troops were billeted in houses all around the village, and again, rooms at the hotel were used for senior officers. The Mews, a separate part of the hotel, was also taken over for accommodation with a canteen and there was to be a parade ground. Everyone at Addington Palace now really felt part of the war.

The Canadian soldiers were only too ready to make friends in the village, organising games for the children – football and races on the village green.

My mother is far left, sitting on the windowsill

My mother is far left, sitting on the windowsill

Christmas 1942 was the most memorable of the war. The soldiers arranged with my grandfather a children’s party at the hotel. All the village children were invited, entertainment was provided. The soldiers dressed up in fancy costumes; there was a ventriloquist act and a film show. With food now being rationed, as good a tea as possible was provided.

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The party was talked about for a long time afterwards – my mother remembers it vividly and still has the autograph book containing the signatures and messages of some of her favourite soldiers. She has particular reason to have such fond memories of the Canadians. In 1943, her father died suddenly. The sympathy and kindness shown to her and her mother at this time by the soldiers was overwhelming, in particular by the Canadian chaplain, Norman Sharky, and Colonel Bell-Irving.

Later the same year, the Canadians moved on – one day they were there, the next they had gone and my mother never saw them again. It remains her greatest regret.

Post script.

My Sofa Loafing historian has since discovered that his Grandma’s Canadians were from the 2nd heavy ack-ack regiment and left Addington to protect the British coast at Dover. Col Bell-Irving was awarded the OBE when his regiment shot down enemy aircraft during their first engagement.

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The Juno Beach Centre, in Courseulles-sur-mer, (east of Arromanches on the way to the port of Caen at Ouisterham), is a very informative museum dedicated to Canada’s contribution in World War Two. The centre houses several rooms, each devoted to a different area of the war. We spent a morning there a couple of years ago with a french-speaking Canadian history student who guided us outside onto the beach to explain the Canadian assault on Juno. She lined us up in regiments and explained how fourteen thousand Canadian troops landed on 6th June facing heavy machine gun fire as well as mined obstacles.

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In front of the Centre is this beautiful memorial to the fallen.

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I was amused by a recent article in the Guardian, forwarded to me by a friend. It concerned a group of ten grown men playing an elaborate version of tag, which has evolved over twenty years. It brought to mind a game my sister and I started, years ago, shortly after she was married.

I was at her house for coffee one morning and together we were admiring her wedding gifts, until she came to one which she placed carefully on the table. What was this odd thing? Even now I find it hard to describe. It was given to the happy couple by an elderly lady who was going through a phase of producing goods to sell at craft fairs. (I don’t think the phase could have lasted long).

Imagine if you will, a large pebble, the type you’d find on Brighton beach.

It was not as tasteful as these

It was not as tasteful as these

Encase this in a woollen jacket crocheted in a variety of mismatched colours and weights of yarn. What have you got? Well, we had no idea. It didn’t look like an animal or a goofy little Gonk thing. There were no eyes, for a start. We looked at it. I picked it up, turned it over. I tried to think of something kind to say; my sister, typically, was enjoying my discomfort.  I caught her eye and we started to laugh and we carried on until we were howling uncontrollably. We decided eventually, once we’d calmed down, that it must be a paperweight. There was nothing else it could be – it certainly wasn’t ornamental, it was hideous.

Some weeks later, after my sister had visited me (and I think some of you will guess where this is going), I found the Stone sitting on the windowsill in our cloakroom. I cried with laughter all over again, by myself, while I pictured her doing the same thing, thinking about my discovery. We share a warped sense of humour.

The next time I went to my sister’s I left the Stone somewhere she would later find it. And so our little game began. We never mentioned the Stone again, but I knew that she knew that I knew there was a competition on to see who could hide the Stone in the most obscure place.

The anticipation of an impending visit caused as much hilarity as the search afterwards. Over the next couple of years the Stone turned up in a number of unlikely places – under the kitchen sink, in our bed, the freezer, in a bag of potatoes, on top of a cupboard, in the garden shed. As soon as she’d gone, I’d  rummage around the house until I found the Stone, (sometimes it would take days), ready to re-hide it when I visited my sister.

My husband and I even took the Stone away with us on holiday, featured it in some of our holiday snaps which I later showed my sister who didn’t bat an eyelid.

Our game came to a tragic end, however, when I hid the Stone inside a floor cushion filled with polystyrene beads. Weeks went by, my sister visited me, I had my usual, by now obsessive, ransack but to no avail: the Stone was missing. At first I thought she’d moved the game up a notch by purposely not hiding it just to confuse me but then I discovered through a bit of family subterfuge that my brother-in-law had sat down abruptly on said cushion, split the cover and spilled beads everywhere.

My sister, in a fit of rage, scooped the whole lot into a bin bag and took it to the tip.

Or did she? I live in hope that I might stumble across the Stone when I’m least expecting it; that my family intel was wrong, that she found the Stone and hid it somewhere so ingenious at our house that in twenty years it has remained undiscovered.

Whatever really happened, I guess we’ll never be sure – neither one of us wants to break the silence. But we had the most hilarious fun playing our game of hide and seek – perhaps that is for what the Stone was intended. Surely no other wedding present has provided so much mileage in terms of mirth – and it would never have been used as a paperweight.

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Unusually for a household which includes family under the age of twenty-five, we have no game consoles.  My son had a play station when he was younger but preferred the great outdoors and often played by himself while his friends were attached to a handset.  I feel the affectionate use of the term Sofa Loafer when alluding to him may well have given some people the impression that all he does is lounge around watching Top Gear repeats on television. While he does do a fair bit of this, once he comes in from work, he is also multi-tasking. His laptop is constantly open so he’s either writing, researching, communicating or networking.  Or eating, come to think of it, sometimes all at once: impressive, eh?

Well, as I’ve been allowed to see some of the results of his research, I have to say that I think it probably is fairly impressive and it’s why I’m giving him a bit of free publicity.

With a passionate interest in WW2 history, his ultimate goal is to become a battlefield tour guide, but for now he has been working towards producing a book, containing anecdotes, historical facts and old photographs related to the American 101st Airborne division’s time in England, when they were billeted in Wiltshire before the D Day jump into Normandy on 6th June, 1944. His manuscript is almost ready for editing and he has sourced a publisher.  He has created a Facebook page where you can keep up to date with his progress, but his personal D Day is for it to be ready in 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary.

This year he’ll be escorting a very important person to Normandy for the celebrations – an American veteran who he met during his trip to America two years ago and who is now retracing his steps in Europe during a two and a half week stay on this side of the pond.  He and his travelling companion will be staying with us and revisiting his billet site (as well as Stonehenge, at his request), before the ferry journey across to France, from where he will travel on to Belgium and Holland, meeting up with other friends there.

While I am delighted at the prospect of this visit, my main concern at the moment is locating some Anglo-American bunting. This is most definitely an occasion for putting out the flags.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures from Normandy, a place now of tranquillity and historical interest, but whose inhabitants and the landscape saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War Two.

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

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The floor of the hall at Tatsfield Primary was polished herringbone, the patina of which had been hewn by years of fluffy knickered or grey short-clad bottoms sitting in regimented rows at assembly time, listening attentively to the head teacher’s words of wisdom while inquisitive fingernails blackened as they traced grooves between the waxy, grime filled wood blocks. The hall was divided into three separate areas by battleship-grey concertina doors which allowed for Class Two at one end and the staff room at the other. These doors could be folded back to create one large room for such occasions as the Aberfan jumble sale or nativity play.

Mostly though, the hall was used as our dining room where Mrs Sutton, dressed in blue overalls and thick beige stockings, patrolled like a camp commandant, making sure we had eaten up every last morsel of the disgusting fare that was put before us.

In the afternoons we had lessons with Mrs Jones who wore tweed skirts and played the piano. She taught us Scottish dancing, where we learned the Gay Gordon’s and how to spin an eighth-some reel.  Sometimes we sang songs from the Singing Together pamphlet which included Big Rock Candy Mountain, but it was Quinquireme of Ninevah from distant Ophir and the dirty British coaster with a salt caked smoke stack* that I loved the most. I had no idea what it all meant but the words were exotic, the rhythm was exciting and set me dreaming of faraway places.

I’d still be dreaming about these faraway places when it came to arithmetic lessons with Mr Ripley.  We’d stand around his blackboard on its portable easel in the hall and he’d get more and more exasperated when I failed to grasp what was, according to him, the simplest of calculations. He would bash his stick of chalk against the board and get louder and redder in the face as he kept repeating his explanation over and over again. I blame him for my inability to understand anything numerical and am forever grateful to Sally Robinson for letting me copy her answers.

*From Cargoes by John Masefield – we had it set to a tune – thankfully I can’t remember that, but here is the whole, beautiful poem:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.


Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.


Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

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Last week my nephew sent my mother a link that he’d found on the internet when he googled his grandfather’s name (my father) and the name of his shop, Pearl Cross. It led him to this site for ancient coin collectors(http://ancientcoincollecting.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/dancing-with-universe.html), and a delightful piece by a man called John Hooker, who had been an apprentice at Pearl Cross in the sixties. It reminded me of a piece of memoir writing I did last term when we were challenged to remember when we were thirteen.  This is what I wrote.

Stock Books

Money, or my lack of it, became a source of concern at around the age of thirteen. My best friend Laura had secured a position in the village collecting bottles for Dick-the-Milk and I was desperate to start earning.  Mum came to my rescue by suggesting that I took over from her, write up Dad’s stock books for the year and he’d pay me half a crown per book.  I had neat handwriting then and thought this would be a breeze.  He brought the first two books home the following weekend and I sat for the best part of my Saturday at the dining room table, transferring remaining stock from last year into brand new, leather bound speckled paged ledgers. It was hard, time consuming work, particularly as Dad’s writing was indecipherable and many of his crossings out looped into the line below. I didn’t understand what much of the stock was – I’d never heard of Cabochon; Pearl Drops sounded like sweets and a Half Albert made me think of a small kindly Uncle. Dad was pleased with my efforts and I was thrilled at my first wage packet: five shillings delivered to me in a little brown envelope.

     With the Easter holidays approaching and Dad needing the books complete, I was able to continue my employment, not at the dining room table, to my delight, but at his shop, just off Charing Cross Road. We’d leave our village, perched high on the chalk ridged North Downs, early to avoid the traffic – Dad would  never use public transport – and drive to King Street in Covent Garden. He would park his Mini Traveller in the space between two orange boxes, left there for him by a contact in the fruit trade.  A five minute walk down New Row and across St Martin’s Lane would bring us to Pearl Cross, sandwiched between a second hand book shop and a fish restaurant.  A complicated unlocking process would ensue involving a circle of keys attached by leather fob to a chain worn by my father which seemed to disappear down one trouser leg.  Wooden shutters were lifted off the windows, the burglar alarm secured.

      Our first job of the morning was to unload the wardrobe-sized safe of its contents – velvet trays and leather boxes teeming with jewellery and curios to display in the windows.  I especially loved lining up the little ring cases and dangling necklaces on satin covered dowel rods. I would then go down the steep half spiral stair to the dusty basement where I’d resume my work with the stock books. I sat at an old desk underneath the mottled glass pavement bricks, listening to pedestrian feet, pleased when they stopped, knowing they were peeking at my window above.

     When it was time for lunch, we’d  share a sandwich from the Salisbury on the corner.  Dad never usually took a lunch break as such but on the days I was there, he’d walk me to places like the National Gallery, Foyles or the new Chinese supermarket in Long Acre, and leave me to find my own way back. So my world started to widen and my love affair with the west end, with art and books began.  Thanks, Dad.

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I read a fantastic book recently called Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green. (http://matthewdicks.com/blog).  I dropped Matthew a line to let him know how much I had enjoyed his book because I had had an imaginary friend as a child.  He encouraged me to write this.

Barry, my Imaginary Friend

I was nearly three when we moved from an apartment in town to an old house in the country with a large, overgrown garden. That was where I met Barry. He had sticky-up black hair and wore a black coat with a sticky-up collar. Together we explored, in amongst forgotten raspberry canes, swathes of chin-height toughened grass and chaotic weed filled flowerbeds. He pushed me into a clump of nettles once, from where I emerged red and itchy. Nanna gave me a dock leaf and told Barry off, so that was alright. He didn’t do it again. I think he was a bit frightened of Nanna. For three summers we played together, Barry and me, making camps under bamboo or climbing the old chestnut tree, swaying on lower branches, at sea on our pirate ship.  He was a lost boy to my Peter Pan; Will Scarlett to my Robin Hood.

     I’d run down the garden after breakfast, determinedly avoiding the daily brushing of pillow-mussed hair where I’d find Barry, usually with a grazed knee.  He fell down a lot so I kept him supplied with sticking plasters, taking one for myself at the same time. When it came to peeling them off, I’d squeal as my mother ripped then rubbed the fraying grey ridges at bath time.  I was never as brave as Barry.

     Even though my parents often laid a place for him at table, Barry never came into the house. Sometimes I would take a biscuit or piece of fruit outside and we’d feast in our camp. One day, my little sister joined me in the garden and that was the day Barry disappeared. He was shy, you see. She never replaced Barry; I had to make do with her company but she was only ever Friar Tuck or Tinkerbell.

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