Learning today about the death of probably our greatest Dame…Vera Lynn, I was prompted to look at my Dad’s wartime sketches.
He was posted to India in 1941 and served in the Indian Army in the REME corps as an artificer ranked as Sergeant operating in both India and Burma campaigns where he was awarded the Burma Star.
Dads war began in 1939 at London Arsenal in Woolwich as did many new recruits, then posted to one of the many hills overlooking the Sheffield Steelworks taking care of the anti-aircraft batteries protecting that important industry. Finally, he was posted to Scapa Flow and watched the HMS Hood depart on her fateful Journey.
Returning home in late 1945 from the forgotten army, he came back with memories and several reminders of his army days. Amongst the many there was his love for making curries and chutney which was an anathema to us kids, but unknowingly far ahead of his time as Indian curries seem to be our loved staple diet??
One preserved item which he brought home, has much fascination, is his dog-eared booklet of drawings he made whilst in hospital recovering from malaria at Imphal in the northern territories of India. In the drawing pad he sketched several actresses of the day in wonderful detail which characterized his accuracy in all things and emphasized by his pre and post wartime working life at Kirkstall Forge in Leeds as a long serving servant (43 years including war years) as a skilled `grinder` until his retirement.
The following day after his retirement, he returned to the Forge and carried on working for a further 5 years as a part time `toilet attendant` not being able to break the habit of 6 o’clock rising and the long walk to and from work for all those years. He says with dignity and my immense pride, that he loved the fellowship of his workmate comrades which was a source of comfort, enabling him to have the same chatter and banter he had loved over his working life at one firm. I find it hard to stop the flow of tears as I remember him as a magnificent dad and a model for my own life which I cannot ever strive to accomplish.
His accuracy for detail springs to mind in personal family achievements, as I see it from a child’s eye view. For us 3 children then (later to be 5) in the Spartan austerity years of the 50`s, he excelled every Christmas in making us toys from scavenged oddments of wooden crates. What he made are too numerous to mention…. but later his intricate detailing came forth into our parlor room where he constructed a gigantic (it seemed to me) Trang model railway with two stations, sidings, buildings, tunnels, woods and fields all littered with animals and trees.
His detailing created a story from his wartime years where as an artificer and being very slight of build at 5`.2”, he was the guy who would crawl down the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun to the breach and sort the problem. It took years to understand that he was teasing us.
Christmas was a feast of home-made decorations and `a real tree` bought in the City market and dragged onto the corporation bus, much to the annoyance of other passengers.
Decorating the house and garden for the 1953 Coronation, managing to save up for a TV set…. is a long-lasting memory of major importance?
The house would be wallpapered (after stripping… horrible work for us kids) every year and glossed through in the strangest of color combinations. The garden became a nursey for the growing population of gnomes with fountains and several gnome fishing ponds, all painted to perfection with spare Valspar paint stored in his coal cellar converted to a dual-purpose store of wonderous smells and clutter. It was said that if it did not move …then it would get painted.?
He, like most post war veterans would `make do and mend` as he cobbled our shoes using a `cobblers last` often clouting in steel studs to gain a longer shoe life but providing us with a wonderful platform for sliding on the pavements.
Winters were damn cold in those years and coal for the fire providing the only source of water heating, was at a premium. Often, he would walk our old pram on a 7-mile journey to my grandma’s house to fill it full of coal and struggle to drag back (a slight 5`.2” hero) to keep us kids winter warm. That pram load augmented the coke he would snaffle out of the Forge in his knapsack, only if he could not chuck over the factory wall sufficient coke onto the outside paving (collected by his cohort in crime, my Mum). When it got dire, and usually at a weekend when fuel supplies were exhausted, he would break up his shellac 78 rpm record collection to burn on the fire, creating just enough heat to get us a Sunday night bath where we all shared the same bathwater. He did explain that in later years the heat from a 78 rpm record (often outdated 30`s music) as bought for a penny a piece from the market, which he religiously attended every Saturday after work to bring in fresh supplies for the week ahead, was cheaper than coal. I recall with disappointment that Jerry Cologna singing `Ebb Tide`, (my favorite) became a casualty.
2-week holidays to the East Coast of Yorkshire were sacrosanct and he would slave alongside Mum to save enough money each year to provide us with a lifetime of golden memories.
Bonfire night was Dads own charge where we as kids wood `chump` in the local wood towing back huge branches ripped off oak trees, for him to carefully stack into a pyre for a mounted aloft settee we might have spotted in the woods, where using our best effort to create a ragged clothed effigy of `Guy Fawkes ` who would sit in fear.
Bangers, squibs (often thrown (not PC today)) Catherine wheels, jumping crackers, roman candles, volcanoes, snowstorms, and rockets with a 3 second 20-foot ceiling height, were soon consumed. Then it was time for chucking into the embers raw spuds to roast, but always after the obligatory feast of homemade parkin, nut toffee, washed down with Dandelion and Burdock.
The wonderful memory was to see the neighbors join in where many war time songs were brought to fill the garden and beyond. Loud chatter of current affairs and past wartime exploits were brought into focus where I recall listening with total disinterest and lack of appreciative understanding. But the community as I look back into those days provides a real modern day understanding of our post war heroes and life in the Golden Lane.
He was a stalwart of the local pub where he organized, managed and was the MC for weekend stage acts he brought in for the amazing community. Pub and war heroes long gone, now the council estate is an entirely different community today.
Amongst his pub activities he was the founder and organizer of Leeds United Football Supporters Club for the estate. Every home game, a cream colour Wallace Arnold bus would appear to take a full load (3 busses for cup games) of flat capped woodbine smoking enthusiasts to Elland Road, gaining far more support in the Revie years.
His first car was a Standard 12, and was surpassed eventually by a rare Daimler DB with a Ritz Sports body. The chrome work was spectacular, and my favored Sunday job was to clean it to a glaring condition whilst he crawled underneath greasing and servicing the wonderful car. He was persuaded to buy the old vehicle by a smooth Blarney gifted Irish guy `Pat Murphy` who worked alongside him and was criticized for being mugged … but Dad knew better and it turns out to be a family heirloom. Needless to say it got hand painted several times using his favorite paint…Valspar. ?
Finally, and not being able to get him, in my opinion a deserved `gong` for his community services, …I did manage to get him into Buckingham Palace for the annual tea party with Mum, who in her own right was also deserving for her work in the NHS, pioneering mental health `care in the community`.
This magical recollection was not intended, but just a few words to mention about Dad and his drawing of Vera Lynn, but now a short allegory As I sit here closing in thankful tears that I let my mind wonder into the past to learn and promote these valuable memories for the future.
I love you Dad.
1919 to 2010.