Tag Archives: life

In Remembrance – A letter from home

This letter was found in 2009 among some papers that belonged to my father’s great aunt (Hilda Hutchinson) who lived in California. It was written by her brother George’s wife (a widow) and illustrates very clearly the terrible effect the war was having on one family. 

14 Nutbrook,

East Dulwich,

London SE   

Sunday, Jan 28th 1917

My dear Hilda, 

Was more than pleased to hear from you.  I thought I was quite forgotten by Uncle George’s friends for ever.  Uncle Fred and Aunt Clara never come to see us now.  They have been twice since Uncle has been dead, which is over thirteen years now.  I do miss him, more every day, but thank goodness, I have got good children.  Sorry to say, I have had one of my boys missing five months through this wicked War, left a wife, with five children.  

My son George has just come home from France has been out there fifteen months he does look so ill.   I am afraid be he’s done for, he does not expect to go back to France.  My other son has gone in the Army.  He is expecting to go out any time.   All my boys are in the Army.  Your mother will remember the names of them.  The one that is missing (Ernest) was such a dear good boy and a real mother’s boy.

My daughter Olive has been married now two years last September, her husband is such a good fellow, but of course, he is in the Army.  He is in Egypt of course, now he has gone, Olive is living with me, Olive is such a good girl for I have been ill for years now.  I cannot do any work, for three years could not dress myself but Thank God I am much better and now able to do a little work, in my own home.  Olive has been good to me all the time of my illness and has never left me.  My other daughter Bertha is getting on as well as can be expected as she also has bad health.  I don’t know if your Mother knew she has lost her husband eleven years, she has three children.  One was born after her husband died.  Arch has got two children a boy and a girl.  The boy is 14 years and the girl 10 years.

Now about yourself.  So pleased to hear you have got such a good husband and that you are so happy.  You must do all you can for your husband.  I don’t think there is many of them about now.  I am more than pleased to think that Olive has such a good husband.  We shall be more than pleased to see him come home.  We shall be very pleased to see you  and your husband when ever you come to England and your cousin would do all she can for you to make you happy and comfortable. 

It is dreadful in England now with the War going on.  I do wish it was all over.  You must thank God, that you are all over there, out of this trouble, the price of food is dreadful, I do wish it was all over.  Pleased to hear that your mother and father and the rest of the family are keeping well, what a large family of you.  I would like to see you all again.  About your Grandmother, you did not put her number – but I will try and see what I can do for you, but the weather now is so bitterly cold but as soon as it gets warmer, I will go and find it for you and will let you know as soon as I can.  It is not safe to go out of a night it is so dark, all shops close much earlier.  It is not at all pleasant in England now, but then we must all hope for a brighter time.  Well dear Hilda, I must now draw to a close.  Give my love to Mother and Father tell them I shall be more than pleased to hear from them.  Tell your mother that Eveline died two years before her father.  I must now close hope these few lines, will find you and your husband in good health. 

I am dear your affectionate Aunt Polly.

Olive’s husband died in Palestine. Earnest died in Flanders. George survived the war but never recovered from his injuries.

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Best Laid Plans

Busy family life

Busy family life

Well both grandsons are off to school (Reuben’s first year, Oscar’s second), summer is drawing to a close and I’m all fired up ready to proceed with my Grand Plan – back to writing that novel again. Seriously!

Eight thirty in the morning I’m sitting at my desk, fingertips at the ready, but almost immediately the phone rings.
‘You’ll have to come to work’ – husband’s voice – ‘there’s a couple of things I need you to look at urgently’.
OK. So I jump into the car and drive straight to our business premises five minutes away.

All the problems are solved quickly but once at work I decide I might as well open the day’s post and sort through some invoices and then I remember I need to pop into town to get some food for dinner. And might as well drop off the ironing – after a houseful of visitors last week it’s all piled up and there’s this wonderful local business where the ladies are better than fairy godmothers.

Lunchtime already? I’m just settling down for a quick snack before starting work on my Grand Plan when the phone rings again.
‘Are you doing anything’ – daughter Sam’s voice – ‘only I need to pop to town for an appointment and Delilah’s asleep?’
No problem, Sam promises she will just be an hour – I grab my tablet, proving I’m trying hard to succeed with the Grand Plan and it makes me seem like an avant-garde gran.

Delilah wakes after less than half an hour. As soon as I pop my head around the door she takes my hand and leads me on a route march around her house, a guided tour, discharged in a language of her own making which she assumes I comprehend. As we enter the kitchen she waves a finger at the tap – time for a drink of water? Already, at one year old, her nature leaves me in no doubt she had a previous existence as a headmistress.

Sam arrives home. Relieved of duty I can shoot off home but as I leave she hands me a bag of freshly picked damsons surplus to requirements…if I don’t want them perhaps great-gran would?
It seems sensible to take the damsons straight to mum’s, it’s not very far, almost en route, and they’ll only go rotten if I take them home. Having had a spectacular harvest this year we’ve got piles of ripe fruit gently going rotten in assorted bowls and we can only eat so much jam and chutney and the freezer is full.

Dad’s mowing the lawn. As soon as I appear he stops work and leads me to the garage, a look of smug triumph on his face. Ever since my parents moved here two years ago the garage has been full to bursting with household goods and furniture deemed no longer useful. We suggested they give all the stuff they no longer want or need to charity shops but old furniture is bulky and unfashionable and even local auction houses aren’t interested in taking it. However dad has discovered a man with a van (a community charity) and he is coming to take everything away later today, so last chance if I want anything.

I’d been meaning to grab their emergency fridge –newer and smarter than the one we have at work and doesn’t need defrosting. And then there’s the brass coffee table – can’t let that go because I have its twin. But it’s hardly fair not to take them away immediately. Dad’s been waiting long enough to park his car inside the garage – it’s so untidy cluttering up the drive.
Husband isn’t too pleased but comes immediately. Another essential job done and dusted.

Now where was I? Better make the dinner…..best laid plans and all that. I’ll just have to start on my big plan tomorrow.

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A Sense of Belonging

When I was a child going to stay with my Nan was sublime. She lived three hundred miles away, in Northumberland, not four miles from the best beach in the whole wide world. Staying at Nan’s meant freedom. My younger sister and I would go exploring the boundless sand-dunes and rock-pools on what we thought of as ‘our’ beach, because more often than not we were the only souls there. An infinity of childhood memories survive in Druridge Bay.

 

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Nan’s house was tiny; a miner’s cottage in a remote and rural village where the mines had long since closed. Our visits were cramped, my sister and I shared a bed in the box-room, but to a child who lived most of the year in a faceless, frenzied city it felt safe and comforting as a big, warm hug. Nan’s village had a tight-knitted community and everyone seemed to know we ‘belonged’ to Nan. It didn’t matter if family had migrated to Newcastle or the Blue Mountains of Australia (like great-aunty Jean) if they had roots in the village they would always belong.  

 

I realise that living a whole lifetime in just one place is extremely rare. Over time most people get ‘displaced’, work and relationships drive them to search for a better life. Yet that intrinsic sense of belonging seems to beat at the heart of humanity and too much suffering is rooted in the sense of not belonging or in not being able to belong. Staying at Nan’s was one place I felt I belonged as a child because it was where I was accepted unconditionally, and unconditionally loved.  

 Grannie Wright's cottage

It’s not surprising the sense of belonging spurs many writers. Shakespeare often referred to his roots in Warwickshire and unlike contemporaries wasn’t embarrassed to set some of his plays in rural England. It is likely he never thought of London as anything more than a bachelor pad because he didn’t invest any of his hard-earned money into buying a home there. There is a rumour that young Shakespeare had to leave Stratford abruptly after being accused of poaching (fish?) from Charlecote, an estate belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy, a prominent squire. The story bares more than a ring of truth because William’s family were near destitute at the time but the case never came to court so there is little in the way of evidence. Early in his career as an actor/playwright William uses a scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor to suggest that ‘luce’ (a type of fish which famously appear on the Lucy coat of arms), might actually be ‘lice’. No doubt Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed the pun at Lucy’s expense but the very fact William chose to point his pen at the family’s emblem seems to indicate a deep and lasting hurt.  

 

A writer’s job is to synthesise facets of life through the medium of words. And the sense of belonging is something most people experience at some point in their lives, pining for a particular time and place where the future is never in question, where the living is easy, the fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.     

 

I’m sitting in the railway station.

Got a ticket to my destination,

On a tour of one night stands my suitcase and guitar at hand.

And ev’ry stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band.

Home-ward bound.

I wish I was,

Home-ward bound.

Home where my thought’s escaping,

Home where my music’s playing,

Home where my love lies waiting

Silently for me.

 

In 1965 an unknown singer-songwriter came to England to perform in pubs and clubs and fell in love with a young lady who was to become his muse. Paul Simon wrote down the words to this song while waiting to catch the ‘milk’ train from either Liverpool or Widnes Station (Paul says Liverpool but Widnes claim the glory). Travelling alone between gigs this New Yorker thought of home as the place where Kathy was waiting for him, Brentwood in Essex.

 

 

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Dust

I love this time of year. It’s late May and the weather is getting warmer, saplings burst forth beneath a cerulean sky and puffs of snow-white clouds hover upon the horizon. The days are getting longer but summer hasn’t quite arrived; the countryside radiates with wild flowers, with fresh, green-scented renewal. And that effervescent energy, that primeval life-force, seems to spill into our very being. Nature’s providence drives human motivation. But I suspect spring is also nature’s way of keeping women-kind indoors.

 

Maybe it’s the unique angle of sunlight as it beams through the windows, acting like a magnifying glass on every speck and filament of dust, but nobody would believe I ever took up arms with the Dyson. Glistening in the clarifying light is a finite veil of dust that mocks my frequent battles. I suspect this evidence proves that nothing is really taken away, just re-cycled. Like Superman, dust is virtually indestructible.

 

Anyway this got me thinking about the motivation behind spring cleaning. Were our iron-age sisters as concerned about dirt when spring cast her beams through the doorway? Because I suspect this impulse runs very deep. And how many battles might never have been fought if women-kind denied those instincts for a spring-cleaning splurge? Did the men-folk, lacking any impulse to defeat a foe as oblivious as dust, spur their energies into other (outdoor) activities…..such as hunting, and picking fights with the neighbours? And I was always taught the reason medieval wars generally launched in spring had something to do with the harvest. History could be told quite differently if dust was a perspective.

 

Which started me wondering what other traditionally ‘masculine’ sports are activated by spring? Perhaps it’s no coincidence May is the preferred month for elections? And what accolades might I have achieved if it wasn’t for an impulse to sweep the remains of winter out of the house? A quick run through Google confirms my suspicions, the activity of Spring-cleaning occurs world-wide, Wiki’ even proposes it was first ‘celebrated’ in ancient Persia! But I believe this urge is so instinctive, so primeval, it would hardly be recorded until some well-placed power-monger, realising the value of keeping women busy at home, timed the most iconic events and festivals to coincide with what was already a natural and well-known phenomenon. So the war against dirt became sacred and anyone trying to change things is still accused of ‘stirring up dust’.

 

I’m looking again at the dust spun patterns on my window-sill, at the silver-framed pictures of my family, at the pottery dancing figure my daughter made when she was twelve, and tucked in an old blue candlestick I see a Lego flower has been planted. It’s an alien, plastic creation and I know exactly which grandson is responsible. He’ll laugh when I show him! Tricked gran again, putting something where it’s not meant to be, messing up the tidy humdrum of life in wonderful creative chaos. Proof, as if I need it, that I don’t live in a laboratory, but a home. Dust is a by-product of contentment and the fact it remains in-situ merely evidence of a busy life. And what doesn’t get re-distributed can be described as enchanted, as fairy-dust waiting for action.   

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Me, my-self, I

I’m not sure where I lost myself but I do know it happened somewhere between leaving adolescence and arriving at menopause. The bustle of day-to-day routine took up the slack of ambition and made me into a very different person from the one who came into being. Somehow the ‘who’ I should be became the ‘who’ I am.

 

Now I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing to lose oneself. Some very great things are achieved by change. But lately I worry about losing the ‘me’ who formed decisions based on what I wanted or liked. The ‘I’ has been diluted to the point it’s impossible to make any deliberate decision unless convinced it parries with the wants of every other member of the family, and that’s a growing list these days.

 

Of course I have to blame myself.

 

I think, therefore I am. But I think of others’ first, therefore I am not.

 

I’m a wife, mother, sister, daughter, gran….my life is full. But the essential person that is me seems to have disappeared. And so I fluster when asked what I want…..not because I don’t know but because it’s somehow lost, or buried. Is it selfish to want to find me? One thing I’ve learned from my grandchildren is that character is stamped at birth. Time waters down the obsessions, disciplines our wildest dreams, but I’ve found growing old has dissipated the expression of self that made me an individual.

 

And I finally understand my own grandmother who dressed up to the nines in her nineties and went out in style. The photo shows her in her teens, riding her favourite motor-bike.Image

 

 

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Life Happens

Apologies, I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. Life, as John Lennon once said, has a habit of happening when you’re busy making other plans.

 

A series of incidents halted the whole family in its stride, life changing incidents that take centre stage. My mum had to be rushed into hospital after a major artery to her heart became blocked; emergency paramedics saved her life. Seven days later my husband’s mum died.

 

My mother-in-law May Alice King would have celebrated her ninety-first birthday on 12th April. Although I’ve known her most of my life it seems I’ve never really known her. During the Second World War she served in the Women’s Royal Air Force as a flight engineer. The wartime shortage of men, metals and materials meant aircraft were delivered in kit form from the USA to special hangers on the west coast of Britain where teams of ladies put them together then flew them to active stations. May always said she enjoyed the war, from a very enclosed life growing up on a small farm in Kent she travelled across the country and met people from all over the world.

 

When clearing her bedroom we found RAF manuals under her bed, marked Top Secret. We also found a box of love letters belonging to May, from the man who would become her husband. George King earned the engaging title of Grumpy Grandad from his grandchildren, because his attitude was always so awkward, it hardly seems possible the same man poured out such sentiments as those in his letters.

 

George spent nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Poland. At 20 years old he was sent to France with the East Kent Regiment (Buffs) in June 1940 as part of an allied attempt to hold back the advancing German army. With a unit of four men operating a single Bren gun even this raw recruit realised they didn’t have a chance. While the British Army was being evacuated at Dunkirk George was guarding a bridge in Arles. A Panzer Division smashed through without stopping. George and the two other soldiers still alive after seeing action ‘legged it’. They spent two weeks wandering around northern France trying to find some means of crossing the Channel until they were rounded up by a German patrol and marched off to Poland. Many men died during that march across Europe. Food was scarce and most prisoners had suffered injuries before being captured, George lost both his friends.

When they arrived at their destination (Thorn) they had to build their prison camps. Hardly any wonder that during most of our lifetime he never mentioned the war. The first we knew about his time in Poland was when our son moved there in 2007, by the strangest of coincidences David’s apartment was within site of Stalag XXB where his grandfather had been interred.

 

Finding these letters has been a revelation. George tells in detail what everyday life was like in the prison camp. And he wrote every week, not sad letters, just honest and full of hope. He is surviving when so many lives are being lost, surviving the bitter cold Baltic winters and lack of proper food. There were many comrades to share his troubles.

 

One of the few people left who remembers George’s home-coming said he couldn’t speak for months, they organised a party but George couldn’t face it. And the first words he spoke were to his cousin, ‘Have you got my football boots?’ Before the war George was signed to play professional football and hoped to take up where he left off. He never got the chance because his knees were too badly damaged.

 

We still have lots of boxes left. Who knows what we’ll find? They belonged to a generation who didn’t like to talk about the past and certainly wouldn’t air their emotions, not even to family. And that’s the real sadness. Image

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Goodbye Tom

I didn’t sing at your funeral,

And I know how you loved to sing.

Did you choose those hymns?

They rang with your thoughts,

Reflected your hopes, your life.

And I sat in your chapel,

Surrounded by strangers and friends,

Who also came to say goodbye,  

Wanting to grieve without tears.

 

Goodbye Tom.

 

You never feared emotion,

And lived to love life.

You wouldn’tImage be embarrassed

By its ending.

 

 

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Stand and Wonder

It has been a week of rushing here and there, assaults on the necessary. Ordinary life sifted by a disrespect for my time, my precious time. I’d rather be writing than doing the washing, making beds or preparing meals but these things must be done. I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother even, although I can’t believe I’ve lived long enough. And I love having visitors to stay, its just that house-work seeps my energy.

Dashing into Sainsbury’s to buy groceries on Saturday, all my worries and stresses biting at my heels, I found myself wishing I could wave a magic wand. It seemed every other shopper was my enemy. Until I reached the far end of the store, where the soft drinks aisle was empty except for a young man pushing his mother’s trolley while she selected the shopping. I think it was his smile that caught me first, men of his age are generally too self conscious to smile like that. And he kept smiling that beautiful smile as he responded to his mother’s instructions.  It took me several moments to realise he was completely blind. I felt small in comparison. I can’t conceive of the courage required to negotiate our crazy world in complete blindness but I recognize when love has no boundaries.

Life has a way of weaving a kind of magic which rarely comes as anticipated. I was reminded that the things we do out of love have more resonance than our small minds can comprehend. 

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