It was obvious that my modest training venture was doomed, for the reason already referred to, it seemed that we had too many people and too few rabbits, whilst Australia had too many. Unfortunately the long journey reviled the flavour. However, it proved a useful stop gap until I found work with the village grocer come baker. There were probably worse ways of wasting the early years of one' life than chasing round our pleasant little island on a dilapidated tradesman's cycle. Though there was slightly more to it than that. It was patiently accepted as just another job; the inevitable where there was no prudent, well silvered guiding baud.
The proprietor was a rather gruff old gentleman, who also dabbled in the estate agency business. He certainly preferred this and keeping the books to purveying bread and groceries; for he never lifted so much as a packet of
salt all the time I worked there. Impeccable dressed, he would sedately round the parish like a country squire of yesteryear. He usually sported a fair of handmade boots of a beautiful shade of dark brown, in which he took
exceptional pride no matter what the weather, he would somehow manage to keep them spick and mud free. One evening he was due out for a business appointment, when he realised that Mary the maid was on her half day. So, being the only menial available that could reasonably be called upon, I had to clean the precious boots. Having been trained to clean my own almost from the time I could lift a brush, I thought nothing of it. It seems to come naturally to some of us to truly appreciate real craftsmanship; the band stitching was so perfectly even that it was almost impossible to believe that a machine had not been used. The leather was remarkably supple, and quickly took on a war, pleasing shine. Giving them a final vigorous polish with a soft duster, I promised myself that when I'd reached adulthood, I would boldly walk into one of those rare establishments discreetly marked "Bespoke boot & shoe making", and order a pair of shoes the same sumptuous line, for it was a fair measure of a man's success in life, even in those days. Well, it's a bit late now, and it seemed such a reasonable ambition at the time. From then on, I got the job regularly; taking almost as much pride in them as the owner did, not that it did me any harm, for Mary appreciated being relived of one of her chores, and suitably showed it buy seeing that my afternoon cup of tea was accompanied by biscuits, a slice of cake or a couple of newly baked buns. For it hadn't taken long for the news to travel from the store to the house that I possessed a voracious appetite that afflicted like some pernicious cheesecake.
Now I come to think of it, it's more than likely that it was the ready availability of the various enticing forms of quickly absorbed nourishment that kept me there so long. One of my tasks was packing and weighing dried fruits etc., - dates from Tunis, fat figs from Smyrna, fine currants from Greece, large juicy raisons from South Africa, prunes from California, glace cherries from Italy and glace fruits from Southern France. For this slightly dignified
establishment mainly catered for the limited number of well-to-do of the district. Frequently I'd stand and day dream trying to visualize what these seemingly exciting and exotic places were really like. Always they seemed to
spell out one magical phrase, "Abundant sunshine". At Christmas, among the festive specialities would appear those
coloured jars of ginger from far off China, decorated in cobalt blue of verging shades, with that permanent standby
of the more humble Chinese artist the hawthorn; others slightly more original in pictorial aspect, with attractively colourful scenes of Oriental life. But my mental meandering would of times be swiftly brought back to the mundane reality of life by a gruff reminder from the energetic and taciturn manager Mr. Lowther, "Come on boy! Haven't you weighed those up yet?"
He was a dark, slightly built middle-aged man with permanently bent shoulders, and his constant habit of peering over
his thick lensed spectacles tended to accentuate this physical defect. No man was ever more in need of bi-focals.
His Chaplin style look tended to give him the more determined look of an equally well-known character who favoured this particular style of hirsute facial decor. His dynamic activity at once branded him as an "outsider "for, anything in the way of continual undue hassle was considered unseemly or even odd. Unless one had been born on the island or lived there so long. For this slightly dignified establishment mainly catered for the limited number of well to do of the district that it was forgotten when they had first arrived (usually about thirty years) newcomers were regarded as foreigners by the true natives. As about half-dozen families could trace their "occupation" back more than three centuries, it was perhaps understandable. My new overseer slowed down over the course of the years and eventually qualified.
He was, undoubtedly a real grocer of the old school, and would not have been out of his depth at Harrods or Fortnum and Masons. He was wise enough to recognize ambition for the shallow passion it could be. Sentence after a conscientious day's work. The relaxation and tranquillity he found in his pleasant abode overlooking the oyster beds at the edge of the creeks. It wasn't by accident that his neighbour was a reasonably successful and talented seascape artist named Briscoe.
Mr, "El's" lightning like visits to the W.C were almost farcical; he would undoing his flies as he left the door to
the yard, and before the closet door had had time to re-settle rapidly retracing his steps drawing them up again,
rubbing his hand energetically on his coat before re-entering the shop. Anyone who was the least leisurely in this
obligatory activity would be greeted sarcastically "Where you bin then - on ya holidays?" He would have had twelve
inches sawn off the bottom of the door and a timing device fitted if he could have so arranged it. Errand boys are
notable for being extremely trying at times and as Mr. El had never been rewarded by nature with children, he wasn't
a slight disadvantage. He couldn't understand that on a low-built bicycle one was bound to snap a peddle off now and
again whilst cruising at speed and them fruit westing in their paper bags was extremely venerable. My eating habits
be eventually accepted (or tolerated), and when in good humour would jocularly remark "Thank god you don't belong to
me - for I'd sooner kept you a week than a fortnight"! Though his hair thinned noticeably the first year worrying
over the effect any employ was having on his profit margins. I feel sure he would have cheerfully dispensed with my
services on numerous occasions and had gently prodded the "guvnor" with the proposition grudgingly, it must be
admitted that I'd left a far trail of broken eggs, pots of jam, bags of flour etc. behind me. The old bike got the
blame - the pedals were too near the ground! He'd glare at me over the top of his "specs" after fresh mishap saying
"I'd like to meet the designer of a bike that you couldn't bust"! Yet, from the loss, never a word of criticism - not
one chiding comment in over two and a half years It took me quite a time to discover why I seemed to have the edge on my adversary. However, one day the very quietly spoken Mr. Hayward met me in the yard, saying "George. I'd like you to borrow a pair of shears, then go along to the memorial and tidy it up, take a carton and collect any dead leaves, weeds or pieces of paper from around the cross.
One could hardly query this incursion into the realm of the jobbing gardener, and I didn't particularly relish the
job, mainly because, still being on the shy side, 'I'd be under the eye of every passer-by - with the usual unavoidable questions It certainly seemed a worthy and public-spirited gesture, so off I went to the simple oak
monument that, to me, represented so many wasted young lives. It just happens that I am filled with gall every time I see a war memorial, for they stand as silent witness to the shameful stupidity of mankind in general.
Conscientiously pursuing my task, I paused for a few minutes to peruse the names carved on the plinth; many of the
surnames were familiar, but the bearers, I had been too young to have remembered. Suddenly, my moving gaze was
arrested - John W. Hayward I read. Thoughtfully, I resumed my tiding up, then returned to the shop. Calling Frank the
assistant, to one side, I asked him if John was related to the governer. " Yes his only son" replied he, with a
certain reverence in his voice, for Frank had experienced active military service too. So that was it. Slowly
I walked away without another word. The supreme, but vain sacrifice needed no precise details as far as I was
concerned. Later that day the boss, who was normally very parsimonious with anything approaching praise, saw me in
the warehouse, he came in, patted me kindly on the shoulder, looked at me steadfastly with a sad, far-away look on
his face and said simply "Thank you George, thank you!" As he turned to walk away, I saw the tears well into his deep
blue eyes, and the slight droop at the corners of his mouth. At times there's a deeply understanding inter change of
feeling between two human beings - the cruelly shattered dreams of the old man--the sensitive mind of a young boy. Words have no meaning then; he knew that I could readily have shared his tears of sorrow with him. About three times a year, usually just before Armistice and Christmas days, and the day before his son's birthday, he would quietly approach me and say wistfully, "Will you do the usual little job for me George?" I can't think of anything in my life that I did more willingly and thoroughly, for I knew in my heart that the old man, patiently nursing his secret grief, looked upon that unpretentious token of remembrance as a personal recognition by the villagers of his tragic boss.
Something else I learned too, was never to judge a person by other folk's opinion, for Mr. Hayward had the reputation
of being both slightly mean and miserable among many of his customers, and most of his staff. The reason for his
rather dour demeanour was now plain to me, and his alleged meanness was likewise unapparent, for when I went to his
desk for my wages on a Saturday evening, Ma's small grocery bill was settled. It was competitively modest, for the
local carter would bring most of our supplies from a cheaper source in the town. The routine was always the same, my
wages were handed to me, Ma's bill was then paid; whereupon the boss would then politely hand me back between two and
three shillings. A kind of discount really but very acceptable - and I certainly couldn't see anything stingy about that. At holiday times, when we were a bit busier than usual, there'd be an additional half-crown. It could well be that he was a keen student of human nature, and knew that I could easily have robbed him, for there was ready access to everything in the ware house. Though not so much as a "bent" box of matches would have
entered our house with Ma's knowledge. Often the slightly frustrated manager would look askance at his superior's
generosity, and one could almost hear him thinking,
"By rights the young blighter ought to pay to work here - the amount of my stock he gets through each week". We eventually adjusted ourselves under an off times ruffled flag of truce.
Apart from old Lowther's unremitting efforts to introduce some of his brisker city learned business methods, life somehow seemed to move along at a more acceptable and even tempo than today. Even the two bentwood chairs, one at each end of the counter indicated that here trading was being conducted in a considerable manner; the profit motive was that much less obtrusive. Often, when Mr. Hayward learned that one of his customers was temporarily experiencing a "rough patch" through illness or other misfortune, he would silently pick up a freshly made warm sponge, a Dundee cake or a quarter pound of a tasty home-cooked Yorkshire ham; wandering unobtrusively to the rear of the shop he would drop it in my delivery basket, mumbling, "George deliver that to Mrs. Whiteman with my complements," as though ashamed to be caught in an act of kindness.
Whenever I found myself at a loose end my instructions were to go and assist Ernie our industrious baker. He was a law unto himself and no one slightly invaded his domain. He welcomed nobody in his overheated 'hive' unless they had a sound reason; as a helping hand, I was acceptable. In between his twice daily bread baking, he produced various kinds of cakes and sponges. He had been a regular soldier and a merchant seaman; he knew the world. And his slightly exaggerated tales fascinated me, but he was a man who could comfortably talk and work at the same time. I was happy to just work and listen. One job neither of us liked was, cleaning and greasing the metal containers for tinned bread, so we would endeavour to do it together. I liked Ernie for this; he didn't treat me as "just the boy" and would try to show me a very acceptable way that he appreciated my help. There was seldom time to assist him in the mornings, but often he would come to the bakehouse door to unsure that Mr. Lowther was engaged in the shop and whisper hoarsely "There's a couple of hot rolls for you, if you can find a bit 'o butter". Can a duck swim?
I'd hide the bike and then nip smartly into the bakehouse. There was usually a 28lb tin of honey on top of the brick
built oven being liquefied ready for pouring, which provided the occasional change. Should one fancy cheese, there
was a slight problem, as bulk and fancy cheeses were usually kept in the cellar, which had access from the shop
itself. This obstacle was usually overcome by a friendly word in Frank's ear. To introduce a little welcome variety
into my diet, whenever there was a cake-baking session, should there be a small quantity of the mixture left over
(and occasionally when there wasn't). It would be carefully places in small flat tin; to emerge from the oven later as "George's bit". It naturally developed into a policy of mutuality-you look after me, and I'll look after you! it worked like a charm, and, incidentally, slightly helped to ease the perpetual state of friction between our Ernie and Mr Els as the former rather infrequently politely called him. Undoubtedly, my colleague was a trifle masochistic; he had to be to start lighting the old-fashioned coal fired oven around 4am for six days a week.
It was a matter of considerable amazement to me that one could draw such beautifully clean loaves from a small, dark oven that started its day as a grimy, smoke-filled kiln, obviously one was going to get a profusion of smuts somewhere; providentially, they had usually settled on the oven floor by the time the temperature was right.
Ernie would then grab a very long pole from the flat-surfaced oven roof, attach a length of very wet sacking to its metal-looking comparatively small metal door would be quickly closed whilst the shaped pieces of dough and the filled tins were arranged on the wide dough-trough lid, as conveniently to band as extremity and rapidly swirl this around the interior flagstones. He would then reach for the other long pole with a large wooden spatula end, and capable of accommodating three to four loaves, he would swiftly test the interior heat, with his bare hand, flour the spatula, and rapidly commence filling the oven. This wasn't work that would be done in a leisurely fashion, for every minute the operative was open created a waste of valuable heat. Efficient bakers didn't allow for spoiled batches, though the occasional odd loaf or two was justifiable in the circumstances. It was an individualistic and highly skilled craft, today one gets a machine made mainly steam baked product, which just isn't the same category. After his feverish activity, our baker would pick up the bottom of his apron with both hands and carefully wipe the running perspiration from his face and neck, and sag with a sigh of relief onto a sack of flour. Lighting a welcome cigarette, nothing would move him for the next ten minutes.
When I arrived just before 8am, the racks in the wide passage located just outside the bakehouse would be filled to capacity, and the appetizing aroma would assail one's nostrils as a pleasant morning greeting. Within a few minutes the horse drawn delivery cart would be backed up against the passage door and I would start throwing the bread two at a time brick style, to Sid, the delivery man. In turn he would stack them on the two empty four bags that covered the floor boards of the vehicle. All went smoothly till we came to the cottage loaves, which couldn't be caught as easily as they were thrown. If any were marked by contact with the floor, which was roughly every other day, they were put to one side. Later to return to the oven for a few minutes; Ernie would then remove any unsightly marks with a rough metal rasp, which also served to scrape the blackened crust off the odd specimens which had suffered through being too close to the fire box. Anything left over from the previous day Ernie would dexterously titivate with milk; and place it in the hottest side of the oven for a few minutes; after this resuscitation they emerged looking more attractive than after their first "firing". They usually sold readily for Ma wasn't the only customer who considered that new bread was harmful to the teeth, slightly indigestible, and apt to disappear too readily. Though the only time I felt ill-effects, was if my morning rolls had been bolted too hurriedly when Mr. El was on the warpath.
In a crafty endeavour to persuade Ernie to produce the maximum quantity of items in the shortest possible time during the tri-weekly cake making sessions, my normal duties would be so arranged (or curtailed) so that I could assist in the preliminary preparations. For in the true professional manner, every ingredient had to be at hand before my friend would begin to make a start; and as the meticulous Mr.El assembled these in the warehouse my first task was to carry them into the bakery. The only mechanical aid was the sponge-mixer, which was a large open-topped, hand operated machine, with interior contra-rotating blades activated by a geared drive. Basically, it was merely an exaggerated version of the small "hand-beater" that most housewives are familiar with; except that a bit more muscle is involved in beating up thirty to forty eggs plus the required amount of caster sugar. We'd start on the shelled eggs first, and after I'd been steadily churning away for about fifteen minutes would come the usual.
Are they half-way up the urn yet?" "Not quite Ernie"; "Alright, gimme the handle! You go and wash the currants"! This
was done in a large fine-mesh sieve and the colour of the water never ceased to amaze me when I'd finished. They're a
fruit that normally don't show the dirt, and being second grade, there were usually some stalks to fish out too. Once
the egg and sugar mixture was sufficiently aerated in would go the appropriate amount of flour. Just the three
ingredients, no questionable constituents, no dubious fillings - and the end product - a crisper type of sponge with
a superb flavour. At fifteen pence the double round, they sounded a bit "pricy" - but the best always did cost that
little bit more. The same basic principle applied to their cakes, only butter was used as a fat, usually lightly salted which came in attractive little wooden kegs. Here I learned how to make "Dundee's" and "Madeira's" (plane, cherry, walnut and chopped ginger) occasionally my mentor would be persuaded to make a few "Old Maids Delights'. A deeper and slightly more economic confection liberally loaded with caraway seeds, never could stand the dammed things myself.
There was nothing more likely to relieve any tedium than a stealthily wary entrance by Mr. Ell followed by "Could you
do me a couple of birthday cakes tomorrow Ernie?" It produced a similar reaction to sticking a stillest in a bull's
rump. "I'm not a bleedin confectioner I'm a baker"! my pal would angrily shout, "I'v got more 'n enough to do
without friggin' around with a lot of icing bags'! His task master would surlily stomp out, his head down lower than
ever, muttering "Oh dear me, tut.tut tut!" Quietly following him out I made for the warehouse, there to sink on a
sack of rice, and convulse with laughter, to be joined a few moments later by Frank, who'd been discreetly
"eavesdropping" For the grocery trade isn't normally conducive to undue merriment; and this fairly regular
performance of aimless antagonism made a welcome diversion. After allowing time for a cigarette and a little sit
down to calm the recalcitrant one, I'd sneak cautiously back to the bakery for the expected instructions "George, go
and see exactly what that miserable old sod wants - I'm sick o' tellin 'im that I've more 'a enough on my plate
already - and tell 'im they'll 'ave to be just ordinary Dundee's", returning ultimately with a packet of almond
paste, icing sugar and a piece of paper inscribed with requisite greeting. The next day I'd watch Ernie steady his
rather "nervy" hand by sheer willpower as he applied the appropriate wording to the top of the cake in a perfect
copper plate style, which very few people are capable of emulating even with a firm hand and a good pen. His cake décor was as consistently stylized as a Japanese artists portrayal of the female face; on a "like it or lump it" basis. There was only one possible way of getting a wedding cake out of him, and that was to be very closely related to one of his drinking pals.
During our activities, we nearly always had a singularly unobtrusive audience of one, this was Lucy the cat (should really be Loosey), who'd be stretched languidly on the topmost sack of flour, silhouetted against the rough, whitewashed wall. The pronounced warmth of the bakery tended to intensify the normal mating capacity of her kind, for she dropped a litter of three or four with unnatural regularity. Transported and left to her own devices she would undoubtedly have double the feline population of the Roman Forum in about two years. During my first month she deposited a quartet in a nest of bundles of white paper bags in the warehouse. This scumming display of wasteful ingratitude did little to endear her progeny to Mr. El, who immediately gave me the job of extermination.
Wriggling unsuccessfully by explaining that it was something I'd never done before, he being a man slightly addicted
to homely philosophy, opined that one who aspired to wisdom should earnestly endeavour to learn something new every
day of his life. He continued, "There's nothing to it boy, all you need is a half a bucket of water an' a second
bucket with a couple of bricks in it" not wishing to appear too squeamish, I reluctantly made the necessary
preparations and then collected the luckless kittens in a small carton. It all seemed so downright callous - they
looked so helpless and harmless - their piteous mewing didn't help me either. Tipping them quickly into the water to
get it over as expeditiously as possible, I dropped the weighted pail on top of them. Returning from a delivery over
half an hour later, the combined receptacles were hurriedly taken to the manure heap behind the stable, where the
water containing the victims was hastily thrown, without so much as a backward glance to ascertain whether the
operation had been affective. I returned to the shops annexe to load my large oblong wicker basket for another
delivery. On my return, Frank met me at the door with a slight grin on his face, saying "I thought you'd drowned
those pusses", I did", countered I "nearly an hour ago "you mean you nearly did - old Lucy has just trotted past me
into the bakehouse with one in her mouth", Apparently the top bucket had a deep rim round it's base which had trapped a small pocket of air that had enabled one to survive. The next thing I saw was Sid, the bread-rounds man, disappearing round the corner of the stable with the survivor in one hand and a bucket in the other. He'd seen too much human and equine suffering as a war-time sergeant of cavalry to worry about despatching anything as insignificant as a newly born kitten. They all sensed my discomfiture, and thankfully, that unpleasant task never came my way again. Not that I haven't had to steel myself to despatch larger specimens of the same species, where circumstances have made it imperative. For, as an old Texas saying goes "Whatever crawls across your back is sure gonna crawl across your belly"!
At the far side of the spacious yard, behind the warehouse, was a pleasing group of evergreen shrubs and one fine afternoon, to my immediate interest and amazement I espied a big ginger tom getting at our Lucy in the shrubbery. It was most unusual, to say the least, for these animals mainly pursue their amorous inclinations more discreetly (even if more noisily), under the cloak of darkness; not that Lucy appeared to be the least bit interested in the impropriety of the hour. Sid happened to be standing just inside the washhouse. With an urgent note in my voice I called out "Quick Sid, take a look at this"! He did and sized up the situation immediately; it happened that an open sack of potatoes stood just inside the door, he grabbed a fairly large one and threw it with all the strength he could muster. To our mutual surprise and delight it caught "Ginger" clean between the eyes, and bowled him over flat on his back. In later years learned that the sudden dislocation of such an activity was known medically as "coitus interruptus"; the well-aimed "King Edward" had undoubtedly interrupted the old tom's coition in no uncertain
manner, and after about two seconds in the prone position recovering from the initial shock he leapt in the air
before disappearing in a northerly direction at just below the speed of sound. Wiping his hands on the seat of his
britches, Sid strolled coolly back to the warehouse saying "Well that's one litter we won't have to polish off"!
Making my way into the bakehouse, there was Ernie, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, punching away at the
customary massive heap of dough, the perspiration dripping off the end of his nose and chin into the dough trough;
he paused momentarily
whilst I related what had happened, then continued to renew his attack on the soggy mass, saying, No wonder his kids
all moan because he always hands 'em broken coconuts when he taked 'em to the fair"! As Mr. El. grudgingly put it.
"It's better to be lumbered with Lucy than outnumbered by mice".
Working among foodstuffs certainly trained one not to be excessively fastidious, for I wasn't too happy about
repeatedly seeing the beads of moisture dripping off Ernie for a start. Sticking my neck out one day, I said
slightly reproachful "doesn't all that sweat affect the flavour of the bread"? "Of course not ya chump, It's got
salt in it", tersely snapped he. Resigning myself to the thought that intense heat destroys bacteria, I sidled out.
Having nothing better to do, and feeling slightly peckish, I found an excuse for visiting the cellar, where the slab
Dundee was stored to keep it moist and intact. Reaching for the long sharp knife which lie at the end of the greasy
topped oak table, and feeling that the old quip about never, missing a slice of a cut loaf could equally apply to the
cake, I was just about to carve off a slice when a darned great beetle scampered across the tempting, currant studded
surface to disappear over the edge of the table. Being unfamiliar with the appearance of beetle droppings, and
realizing that they wouldn't be readily discernible on fruit cake anyway. I likewise disappeared swiftly up the
well-worn wooden steps. It's remarkable how a simple little thing like that can take the edge off one's appetite.
During one of our infrequent spells of really warm weather, Mr, El. asked me to fetch a raw York ham from the same location. Dropping it beside the cheese cutting board, a simple device whereby one could neatly and cleanly cut any hard or semi-hard cheese with a tiny piece of wire, I retired to the warehouse. On returning a few minutes later, there's our manager peering intently through his thick lenses at the end of the ham and prising gentles from the vicinity of the knuckle bone; anglers considerately refrain from refusing to them as maggots! For fear of upsetting the fish. Meanwhile Mr. El was weirdly muttering under his breath, I believe he'd one worked in a Hebrew delicatessen store, but "them bloody blowflies" was plain enough when suggested that this particular blue-bottle might have been acquainted with our adage "The nearer the bone the sweeter the meat" , he wade the rather puzzling aside that it only applied to skinny birds . Having patiently removed the "lively little lodgers from their nesting place he neatly "strung the joint with white twine and bid me, "Here ya' are! Now go and wash it thoroughly in
vinegar and water - then trot it the backhouse" Here it was placed in a huge oval iron stew-pot to gently cock on the
"slow" side of the oven. When I skinned it the next morning, Ernie, sampling a succulent morsel avowed he'd never
tasted better - it must have been the vinegar.
Howard's Stores in Church Road is probably the shop where George worked. In this early photograph, the baker Toby Greenleaf stands in front of the bakery on the left. Edward and Agnes Howard and family moved to Mersea in 1907 to run the Stores. Their son John was killed in the Battle of Arras in 1917.
In a fairly closely knit community such as ours, with three chapels and a church (all quite well attended), it
didn't take much for anything or anybody even slightly noon-conformist to get a bad name. Numbered among the
former was the small privately owned billiard-room at the rear of a little general store in the village centre, which the bluff proprietor probably found more profitable than the shop itself. This sporting saloon contained a three quarter size billiard table, and a slightly smaller, well-worn bagatelle table, both of which were very popular with the local lads. It was about the only "non-alcoholic" establishment where they could forgather, but the cheerfully massive owner would bar anyone he knew to be under fifteen. It was an especially attractive haven in the winter, for there was usually a bit of a blaze in the grate, and those who weren't actually engaged in a game would be standing around "nibbling" the participants whilst heartily chewing either tiger or peanuts,
the husks of which, incidentally helped to keep the fire going. There would be a bit of swearing and the usual exchange of bawdy jokes common to such rendezvous. Understandably, it was for male patronage only, but one day, one of the more carious and venturesome of the local girls allowed herself to be enticed inside, and the expected bit of boisterous skylarking ensued. As a convenient frost-free stone, a couple of sacks of seed potatoes usually stood against the wall under the end of the bagatelle board. There was a bit of hurried whispering between the ringleaders to the effect that the inquisitive one should be duly initiated as a member so to the alarmed accompaniment of "put me down you fools"! And interspersed anxious female giggles they hoisted her bodily on to baize covered table. As I hurriedly disappeared through the door, two were holding her down whilst the third industriously filled her draws with small potatoes. One never knew where this sort of thing might end; though I learned later that it was the end, for her yells had attracted the prompt attention of one of the proprietor's sons. Even allowing for their singular happening, the opprobrious name "Sod's opera" hardly seemed warranted, but give a dog a bad name and it usually sticks.
In a sincere effort to become a little more efficient with the coloured balls, I would rush home to dinner, bolt it
hurriedly, then cycle vigorously down to the favoured haunt in the hope of getting a half an hour practice in before
returning to work. Being the quietest period, it enabled me to make a few "boob" shots without being howled down
with derisory laughter. Unhappily for me, the place was really "out of bounds", and also unknown, Ma was getting
suspicious, Eventually she must have wheeled the necessary information out of one of my younger brothers. More
artfully, she refrained from exercising her particular brand of control in daylight, and also close to working hours,
so on the principle of "Give 'em a bit more rope", she patiently bided her time. As my game improved, I was more
comfortably participating in the threepenny or sixpenny side bets, and the temptation to visit the "Opera" on my way
home from work was too great to resist. With a grain of sense, it was obvious I was pushing my luck... One evening,
at around dusk, and in the middle of an existing match, one of the lads came in saying cautiously, "Your mother's
outside an' wants to speak to you", Handing him my cue, I said, "all right Jimmy, play my next shot will you?", and
with all the confidence I could muster went outside. With two grains of sense, the wisest course would have been to
slip craftily out of the rear door and high-tail it over the neighbouring farm. Some of us just have to learn the
hard way. Of course, there's Ma, looking decidedly stormy, and armed accordingly with one of the families favourite
weapons - the faint hearted female's friend - the old umbrella! She wouldn't - not at my age! Would she? - then
you didn't know Ma, - right up the High Street. Lifting her encumbering skirt with one hand her brolly in a menacing
position in the other, it would have made a smashing comedy film sequence. Only this was for real. But after her two
determined initial whacks, she didn't stand a cat in hell's chance of catching me. I can assure you. Puffing and
blowing and almost diving through the kitchen door, there's the twins laughing fit to burst, and Dad trying hard to
look serious. I just got behind a kitchen chair as Ma came through the doorway puffing even harder than I was; as she clung tenaciously to the door handle. I could tell right away that she'd let herself get out of condition. I lifted the old chair about six inches off the floor in a slightly threatening manner in case she found her second wind; as anticipated she found enough to commence her three minute upbraiding with
"I warned you not to go in that horrible place!" etc., etc. As she gradually eased off one twin slyly grimaced at the other, and both nearly rolled off their chairs with convulsions. Ma had a sense of hummer too, suddenly realizing the incongruity of the situation, she gave a subdued chuckle as she returned the rather unconventional "chastener" a case of a strong-minded woman having unwittingly bred four equally determined sons.
Not that there weren't similarly stern parents in the family, my favourite uncle had been a staff-sergeant in a
famous regiment for many years, and had seen active service in several parts of the world during his twenty-one years
in uniform. He eventually became a civil engineer after his return to civilian life, and was determined to give his
four sons a better start in life than he'd had; for he'd joined the Army at the age of twelve as a band-boy. By
diligence and band work he progressed and ultimately managed to ensure that they entered good grammar schools, mostly
through scholarships. One day whilst his lads were in their early teens he returned home for dinner after perhaps a
particularly trying morning; the family were sat round the large table at their mid-day meal with the cabinet type
radio blaring out the pop music of the day. As he walked in the room he said "Turn that thing down one of you"! then
strode out to the kitchen to wash his hands; returning to the room still drying them on the towel, he said sharply
"I thought I asked someone to turn that thing down" not a blink nor a move followed - what uncle quickly recognized
in military parlance as "dumb insolence". He quietly walked over to the instrument, with its speakers-fret about
eighteen inches from the floor, then - wham!! And his right foot went straight through it. I don't know what the
immediate reaction was, but it cost him quite a bit for repairs, which he purposely refrained from getting done for a
month which in turn affected him as much as anyone, for he was very partial to the news and sports results at least
twice a day (this was in the pre-TV era) As one can readily imagine, the old man's irate action became a standing
joke with the family. His youngest son, a Flying Officer in the R.A.F and the favourite of the family, was killed in
the Battle of Britain; the next one was flying mainly on active service, for about four years before being brought
down in a De Havilland Mosquito during a day light raid on Berlin; the next one was a sea going officer in the Royal
Navy during the war years (ultimately retuning as a Captain); and the eldest served as a Captain in the Royal Artillery, being wounded in action. They were (or are) equally successful in civilian life. As one of life's more ordinary folk, I feel sure there's a moral here somewhere.
To return to my own tale; it took about two months to convince Ma that there was really nothing morally harmful in the mistakenly maligned snooker room, but in defence to her qualms I also agreed to join the more sedate billiards club, where they had two beautifully kept full-sized tables. Though these tended to over-awe me, for they looked like football pitches compared with what I'd been trained on. After many long years away it was regrettable to find on my return that the fine club room had been taken over for Council Offices and the site of the "Opera" now occupied by an extremely pleasant and well-planned library, but there's unlikely to be any youthfully hilarious laughter or apprehensive girlish giggles in there.
Strangers who came into our midst were always of considerable interest, and they'd be objected of unobtrusive but very keen curiosity till we found out a bit more about them.
If they had any claim to distinction, financial in particular, they were that much more welcome; little more money in
circulation in our small world all helped. Our tranquil backwater always attracted someone of note, mainly I suppose,
as islanders as a nation, there were always the few who preferred our even more intimate proximity to the sea. Even
in recent years a couple of ex-Cabinet Ministers found sanctuary with us, not that anyone found anything surprising
in this, for it's certain that Roman dignitaries, both civil and military had spacious villas here during their
Emperor's permanent occupation of the area. It certainly didn't impress me as a lad, for I was still bewildered as to
why Egyptology and the relevant religion appertaining to the Amen-Ra, Osiers Isis and Horus cults (to name a few) had
entered into the curriculum of my final year at school. There didn't seem much point in teaching pupils of our social
strata something that certainly couldn't possibly help one to earn a reasonable living. It would have been as logical
to have shown us films on the remarkable exploits of 'King Kong' - and much more entertaining.
It was always those who were that bit different as people or in their mode of living who made the deepest impression on us. There was the heavily bearded, slightly bent, but spare, large-framed figure of the retired missionary doctor who lived in a fine secluded house and grounds. He'd never touch so much as a weed in his own well laid out garden, but spent most of his spare time stolidly wandering for miles carrying a flat type of wicker basket avidly collecting every small piece of wood and dry twig he could lay his hands on. Summer and winter alike, wet or fine, he would usually be clad in the same long, dark overcoat and a check "Sherlock Holmes" drop-flap cap. It was pointless to great him with a cheery "Morning Doctor"! for he had never been known to answer. He would only return home his receptacle and free hand were filled to capacity. What caused an ageing man who'd spent the best years of his life so usefully and devotedly to end his days like this? It obviously wasn't lack of resources, for his wife was well known socially for her generous philanthropy. Perhaps only this rather overbearing lady and God knew the
real answer - and neither were likely to tell; for geriatry was something still to be properly understood, and treated adequately.
[ This was probably Dr and Mrs Rudduck who lived at The Gables ]
It's possible that was aware of the vivid contrast with another retired medico who'd joined us, Mr Ernest H. Harmack. Not that he was ever referred to plain "mister", When he first came here, the word soon went
round that he was a doctor; and allowing for the disability accompanying his achievement - that was that. Though it was an honorary title, it was also an honourable one as far as everyone here was concerned; it fell on deaf ears when
he protested that he wasn't a qualified man. He lived about two hundred yards further along the road in a pretty little cottage. Of the "roses round the door" type that many of us dreams of returning to. About midday he would come
striding briskly, and resolutely past our house in his dark brown Harris Tweed jacket. "plus- four" golfing trousers and dark coloured stockings; usually hatless, and often with the breeze streaming through his longish grey hair and
beard, whilst his eyes twinkled merrily from his ruddy countenance. We knew that he was bound for his favourite inn
for his daily pint or so, enlivened by a jovial chat with the land lord. Often I'd meet him on my rounds, calling
cheekily, "Hello Doc"! with a suitable comment on the weather, Almost invariably he would have a cigarette tucked
under his right thumb, for that was all that remained of his hand with which to hold it, so he would
cheerfully wave the stump of his left arm, which had been amputated just below the elbow,
Replying heartily "Hallow boy". To me he was a wonderful personality, for he had lost his limbs as an early pioneer
in harnessing the then saviours dangerous X-Ray in the cause of humanity. A persons hands are usually reckoned
second in importance to the eyes, and undoubtedly, there are those who would even reverse this sequence There are few
in western civilization who do not benefit from X-Ray treatment at some time in their lives; this man was one who,
uncomplainingly had paid a heavy penalty for his self-scarifying work in jointly initialling the hazardous research
into the control of the incidental radiation problems. Wilhelm Rontgen, an outstanding German physicist had
discovered what was then known as rontgen rays in 1895; fortunately a few far sighted medical men realized what a terrific advance in diagnosis this portended. At this time "Doc,' was employed as a hospital clinical photographer. Just two years after, in 1897 he in close collaboration with a Dr. Sequiera and Dr, Bertrand Dawson (later Lord Dawson of Penn, Royal physicist to four British monarchs) founded an X-Ray department at the London Hospital. An indication of the unmediated immensity of their task is illustrated by the fact that chosen hospital relied solely on gas for its lighting and heating. "Doc" would occasionally laughingly relate how he used to hire a hansom cab to convey his heavy electrical accumulators to hraun crossman's brewery for re-charging. The radiation risk was an ever-present menace, and undoubtedly he received fairly large doses over the years; unhappily, the effects are cumulative. Just as controlled radiation is now extensively used to destroy cancer cells, uncontrolled it equally destroys the cells in healthy human tissue; and that briefly is how "Doc" became crippled. It would be difficult to
find a more modest and unassuming man, but I'm sure he would have been gratified to recognize today's advanced (and
manifold) radiological techniques, which have all sprung from the almost insurmountable difficulties of the original
research and development. It is doubtful whether anyone in this highly specialized branch of the medical world would
deem it inappropriate to mention Jenner Lister, Pasteur and Harnack in the same breath. His tremendous contribution
to medical science was suitably recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund, which helped him to spend the last twenty years
of his life in the tranquil surroundings that matched the remarkable serenity of his mind. We were very proud to have him with us.
Gus, Edna & Dr Ernest Harnack, sailing in the Blackwater, probably in the 1920s.
On seeing Lord Dawson's full title in a reference book, it was also there recorded that he was the
first physician to be honoured by being raised to the peerage (in 1920). As our two ex-ministers had finished up with
a viscountcy, one couldn't help feeling whilst the healing profession struggles consistently to cure us of all our
"plagues", politicians fare much better in persistently plaguing us with all their "cures One day, cycling leisurely
west-wards along the coast road, with its wide open vista southwards across the tidal river to the flat, unbroken
skyline of the mainland; the reflected sunlight dancing impishly on the incoming tide, without a sail in sight except
for the expansive brown spread of a well laden barge making for Maldon, the need arose for a little prompt bladder
relief. Dismounting horridly, I divided to use the lea ward side of one of the oystermen's storage huts. Leaping
nimbly down the weedy bank, then stopping suddenly; "Oh hell - isn't it marvellous", I mumbled, for one could
normally guarantee a bit of privacy here - but not today, for there's Arthur Briscoe squatting on his small
collapsible stool intent in capturing on canvas the movement of a couple of fishing smacks making for their
There are some things that one realizes instinctively, artist - like most writers don't like being distracted. There
weren't the romantic or tightly colourful scenes here that one could so readily find along the Devon or Cornish
coastline, so painters were rare birds to us. Doubtless, familiarity tends to breed indifference, so the sojourner is
often aware of the quiet beauty unapparent to the more phlegmatic inhabitant. Silently peeping over his shoulder as
he assiduously and smoothly applied his brush, I pondered on the thought of how such folk managed to live whilst
indulging their particular fancy. "Must have money - couldn't do it otherwise", thought I, completing my own mission
against one of the turned wooden supports of the raised timber structure. For we naturally thought it strange when we saw someone perusing some painstaking activity that seemed to play no part in sustaining one's day to day existence. Remounting I continued towards the tight cluster of weather board clad fishermen's and yachtsmen's cottages, which some long-departed salty old jester had flippantly christened the "Old City" equally humorously the name (and the jest) has been perpetuated by naming a traversing lane "City Road" with their continuing loss in the true value of paper money, paintings have now become one of the more popular forms of "real" currency, so it was scarcely surprising to find three of Buscoe's landscapes being offered at Christie's the famous auctioneers, one afternoon recently. Not that his works are not well- known there. Half a century seems a long time to wait for success, or at least, there recognition and tangible rewards that the saleroom can bring. It seems ironic that only the fortunate few can hope to achieve distinction in their lifetime.
One of the "migratory" families I regally delivered to had a modest semi-detached country home close to the seafront. It was nearly two miles from the harbour, so its particular location was unlikely to have found much favour with the son of the house. His father, Mr. Kennedy Scott, was a musician of repute, and conductor of the London Philharmonic Choir. His fleeting sojourns here must have been a restful change indeed, for the only music he would be likely to encounter would be mainly from the perpetual motion of the sea, with the manifold motion of its moods appropriate to the prevailing weather. Nature's melodies have inspired many of the world's greatest composers, so it may well have charmed, or perhaps just soothed him. For there is little more spirited swish of deceptively gentle waves on the foreshore; the subdued cadenza of an ear caressing liquid sound followed instantly by a softly-fading diminuendo, the rustling murmur of unresisting land and pebble cascading once more down the shelving beach, coming to rest once more with a faint hiss of seeming annoyance at this monotonously eternal disturbance by its tidal tormentor.
Not that young Charles was likely to have viewed it in a poetic light, he probably thought practically of our river as something that provided a deal of pleasure in his sailing dinghy. He was a personable young man, about six years my senior, over six feet tall and of fine physique. His light brown hair tended to appear slightly sparse, being kept short and meticulously tidy. Strangely enough, nature had provided him with the same "lucky gap" in his upper teeth that I had. He was the 'bail fellow-well met" type that one instinctively liked, and reputedly had done some boxing at college. Being keenly interested in this manly sport, this at once made him a figure of interest to me. Though quite well-known by our boating enthusiasts, he really made his mark locally by winning the "greasy pole" event twice at the annual highlight of local festivity, the regatta.
The pole was usually a ships mast extended in the horizontal position from the side of one of the larger sailing
vessels, with a small flag inserted in the vertical position at its furthest extremity. Trying to progress along the
terribly slippery timber after it had been liberally "anointed" was extremely hazardous, particularly if one gingerly tried to traverse it after the style of a tight-rope walker; for if one's legs splayed it would result in an extremely painful physical mischief, apart from perhaps ruining one's prospects of parenthood. The only really practical way, if one could retain one's balances was to slide one's feet sideways over the thick grease; then if fortunate enough to get within four or five feet of the end, to dive sideways with arm outstretched in the optimistic hope of grabbing the coloured token of success whilst still in mid-air It was a difficult feat, but one that went down well with the mainly seaborn multitude. Being fairly heavily built, Charles did have an advantage (apart from a good sense of balance) that was his weight; for as he slowly edged with great determination to within the last few feet of his target, the harrowing mast would gently begin to bend under his twelve stone plus, allowing him to actually slide a very helpful two or three feet, so that he could scarcely miss the fluttering bunting as he made his final lunge. As you can always reckon on a "good gate'' for a free show, the spectators, including visitors, would number from four to five hundred, which certainly didn't help to ease a participant's naturally nervous tension in the first place.
This competitively minor achievement quite impressed me for as Charles was concerned - not that either of us knew it
then. As the years dragged on, news of his progress filtered through to me by one means or another. During my last two years at school, he was levitating it out on a sugar plantation in one of the world's most aptly named place, demerara, in British Guiana. Little did I know that I'd be just as hot in an adjacent area myself, but in more transient capacity. Where he was bedevilled with sugar cane, I was to be surfeited with bananas. On leaving school, I learned that he had returned to London and joined the Royal Air Force to train as a pilot. Apparently this was with a four year "short service" commission; in the light of later events, it proved personally advantages that he was not accepted for a permanent one. Of his own admission he was rather headstrong in regard to the restricting nature of the consequent discipline; and to such a sturdy individualist, there were undoubtedly times when service life would be as stodgy as cold porridge. Even so, whilst at flying training school, he continued boxing, and became the heavyweight champion of the R.A.F later successfully defending and retaining his championship.
This probably encouraged me to "have a go" once I became settled into Army life
(dad's "Army life" was the Coldstream Guards and he did win some gold medals for boxing. We still have his boxing
boots!). Back in civilian life, and still fired with the same adventurous spirit; Charles took up commercial
flying with what is now one of the best known trans-world airlines, "Qantas". Though of the time I write its full
name was "Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Services Ltd." So no one could blame them for abbreviating that
one. This was around July, 1927, when I was trying to add a bit of colour to the fašade of either Buckingham or
St. James's Palace.
My boyhood idol was "taken" with him; he reckoned the Aussies were grand people. There's more than an iota of truth
in the old French proverb that one must have merit oneself before being able to recognise it in others. His ready acceptance was not surprising, for his entirely
natural disposition of friendliness would immediately endear him to these manifestly forthright folk. One can
readily appreciate that there is a considerable difference between the obsolescent planes he was flying over the open
and often barren wastes of North-West and Central Queensland and those in use today. Near half a century is a
very long time in terms of aeronautical progress; but as far as the particular terrain is concerned I doubt
whether it looks much different from the pressurised window of a modern jet air liner than it did from the open
cockpit of his slow bi-plane. But time was taking Charles into the era of the intrepid "earth-shrinkers", fliers of
the calibre of Sqdn Leader Bert Hinkler, Charles Kingsford- Smith, Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison. Undoubtedly the
exploits of such as these fired his unbounded enthusiasm. In spite of almost unsurpassable difficulties, financial
and otherwise, he finally made his play. With total disregard for the omen of the date, April 1st 1931,he took off
in a tiny De Havilland "Moth" from Lympne in Kent, to break Kingsford Smith's "England to Australia" record of just under ten days by nearly one day. A magnificent solo performance, and Queensland showed its appreciation accordingly; not only of a man who'd made the worlds headlines that week, but practically as "one of us". It was a noteworthy compliment, for Kingsford Smith was Australian. Suitably encouraged by the now more forthcoming financial and the sweet smell of success, he landed back at Lympne within two months in another Gipsy Moth, having broken another of Kingsford-Smith's records by two days. Soon after this, he was slightly chagrined to learn that a practically unknown flyer named Butler had broken Scott's first record for the flight to Australia (in a faster machine) by a mere hour and forty-two minutes. Typical of the latter's grim determination, he at once resolved to try and re-establish his personal supremacy, and what is more, in his admittedly slower aircraft; in spite of inevitable setbacks - precious hours wasted waiting for oil and petrol at Allahabad dust storms, and frustrating headwinds for
much of his gavelling journey, he regained his place in the 'league table'' by a fair margin of six hours.
Understandably, needing a restful change he decided to return to England by ship. He related what a mental scourge
the six weeks journey was; I could but indulge in a little commiseration. It's a long, long way at 15 to 16 knots,
day in and night out, particularly when one had recently flown out in about 28 hours. But it was the valiant effort
of the early aerial travel - blazers that made such a swift uneventful possible; in their small, cramped,
single-engine planes, open to everything the elements could swale them with.
Finally, I was to be completely overawed by my hero's culminating exploit, this had to be his zenith three
days, in October 1934. Before the event it is very doubtful; whether any really rational aeronautical expert would
have accepted the possibility that the trip could be done in that time, especially in such a comparatively modest
plane; and particularly, not if one tired engine was to peter out over the dreaded Timor Sea. This was the winning of
the 15.000 pounds Macpherson Robertson air race, with Campbell Black as co-pilot. That pronounced gap in Charles's
front teeth had stood him good stead, for undeniably there was an element of luck involved but no man could have
accomplished a succession of records in such a short space of time without possessing every human quality the feats
demanded. There are times when a being has to help create his or her own luck. Was it Shakespeare who said
"There is a tide in the affairs of man, which if taken at the flood leads on to fortune - but neglected and life's
voyage is set in the shallows and miseres of life"? In spite of all the feting feasting and
worldwide acclamation, Scott still found time to return to our humble little village, its people gratefully jubilant at this unique opportunity of basking in a modicum of reflected glory;
To be drawn (doubtless, very reluctantly) along our equally modest main street in triumphal procession in an extremely rickety plywood model of his Gypsy Moth. Regretfully, I was ploughing a lone furrow in more mediocre circumstances elsewhere at the time, but at least, in a quiet well-known uniform of rather sombre hue. (Coldstream Guard)
[ In 2019 the plane in which Charles Scott made his 1931 flight to Australia was restored and flying again - see Appendix I ]
Renown can be so remorselessly fleeting in our fast growing world that if I stopped a local adult villager tomorrow
and asked, "Do you remember Charles Scott'? the ready answer would be "No! Who's he?" True fame, like good health and
happiness, cannot be bought; but, like the latter, it can be just as ephemeral; though there is always somewhere it will be recorded, for some future historian to unearth for the enlightenment of his particular band of seekers after knowledge. In this particular instance the task has already been lightened by the dedication of the supporters of the Shuttle worth Collection of old "aircraft of historical interest at Old Warren Aerodrome in Bedfordshire. For their Scott's sleek De Havilland Comet , that he so nearly failed him in his most memorable and spectacular exploit, rests; occasionally to fly again for the appreciation of the aero-phial the incredulous, and the merely curious.
Dad enlisted with the Coldstream Guards on 3rd Febuary1927 at the age of eighteen. (The majority joined because of the scourge mass unemployment)
Dad was part of the Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards Parade June 3rd 1929, No. 1 Guard (Escort for the colour) 3rd Bn. Coldstream Guards.
He enlisted in the R.A.F 14/01/1941. In 1944 as SGT of the R.A.F. Police Special Investigation Branch at Iceland, he was Chosen as right hand man in R.A.F Guard of Honour to welcome Sir Winston Churchill on landing at the docks of Iceland.
Even though we have his R.A.F number we have not been able to find out what he did in Iceland. On his Service, Release book it looks like he changed his name from G Smith to S.Smith. He never spoke about it, only it was cold and on one of his note books he commented about the American soldiers "Iceland, appalled by the poor standard of marksmanship American Army."
We have looked through countless photos of people serving in Iceland and not found Dad on any. Could he have been what they called "a spook?"
George and Winifred Smith née Povey. They married at All Saints, Deptford in 1933
Appendix I Charles W.A. Scott, Aviator