When my father, who was quite a colorful character, died in 2007, he was the subject of several obituaries in the UK. This one, from the local newspaper, is my favorite because it’s the most personal and tells the most stories. Most of them referred to a verse from 1 Peter 2:17, which Dad, who considered himself an old-fashioned High Tory, was fond of quoting: “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.”
Dad had a vast reservoir of sayings and quotations that could serve as a road map to his life. When one apposite to a particular occasion didn’t spring into his mind, I have a strong suspicion he simply made one up (you couldn’t tell). And over the source of an eventful life, he even became the subject of a few himself. A great many of Dad’s favorite touchstones are not suitable for rendition here, but all of them–including his regimental motto, Loyauté M’Oblige and the mock-Latin “illegitimi non carborundum”–speak to his sense of honor, his sense of self, his sense of purpose, his determination, and his sense that he was put on this earth to serve others besides himself.
Growing up in Dad’s shadow was sometimes tough. Learning from him and applying some of his lessons has sometimes been even tougher. But no-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever found himself less of a man or woman by emulating Dad. So, “little by little,” (another one, from an almost unreadable Victorian children’s book about a young and inherently noble boy who falls into folly and wickedness until he reconnects with God) his children do their best.
My father was born on March 6, 1919, barely four months after the Armistice. In a wonderfully entertaining monograph about his early life, he described the circumstances thus:
I was born, so I am told, over the shop of S. Ward Ltd. at 222 Broad St. Birmingham, on Thursday 6 March 1919, when Mother had ‘flu – not the 1918 variety but bad enough. Ergo I must have been conceived in August 1918 or thereabouts for Mother said I was a “prem” who was so small that I “would have fitted into a quart pot.” Since I grew to be the giant of the family, I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that I fooled them all!
It’s a lovely few pages of reflections on early childhood experiences and musings on life from the perspective of his old age. And so we have reminiscences of Nellie, Dad’s first Nanny, who married Harry a “pattern maker at Sentinel Steam Engine Works in Shrewsbury,” and who moved there to live with him after her marriage. Occasionally, Dad and his sister Isobel (bearing bags full of sausages and pork pies from the family butcher shop) went to visit:
Nellie had a permanent lodger. She was a Mrs. D’eath, though whether the Mrs. was actual or honorary I never knew. She was a dear old soul well into her eighties, who had been a Nanny herself for a lifetime to a prominent Shropshire family called Piggot, the last born of which (and clearly the darling of her heart) had been killed at Ypres a mere decade before, when he was not yet twenty. He was never out of her thoughts and I don’t think I fared very well in her mind by comparison.
Harry used to take me birds’ egging, sometimes on quite long trips, mostly in the area of Bayston Hill. We got there by way of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway from Shrewsbury Station and then walked. We had some happy times together. One thing that I learned in particular then were the dialect names for many birds. Dabchick for Grebe and Rosserette for Lesser Redpoll, Merle for Blackbird, Yaffle for Green Woodpecker etc.
I particularly enjoy this story about Nellie’s hat:
Nellie always wore a black straw hat as part of her uniform and periodically this had to be cleaned and rejuvenated by being washed in beer. One of the men brought a bottle back from The Granville and the operation always took place in the bath. I was, of course, avid to watch, but mother was always convinced that even the smell would debauch me and I was invariably shooed away with dire threats if I so much as sniffed! The bath was afterwards cleaned as if it was poison that had been put down the drain, instead of a pint of bitter!
It’s very clear that Dad was fortunate to be raised in an exuberant and boisterous family which had fun together and loved each other very much. Still, there were poignant moments:
One day when I came home from Mrs. Turley’s (school) I went into the dining room, where the crystal set made for us by Billy Pitt, the factory electrician, with its bank of multiple headphones was installed, I found Mother, with a pair of headphones over her ears, in a flood of tears. I said “What’s the matter Ma?” She replied darkly “They’ve given the Flappers the vote!” That must have been March 7, 1928, which was the date the voting age for women was lowered from 30 to 21, so I was just nine, the day before. (The bill was given Royal Assent in July of that year, at which point it became the Law of the Land.)
And life lessons from Mr. Nairn, manservant to Aunt Kate and Uncle Laurie, who lived in Oddington, Gloucestershire:
I went with him across the road to the village store as he wanted some tobacco. While we were in the shop a tramp came in: heavy corduroys strapped at the knee, waistcoat only – no jacket, flannel shirt, red and white spotted bandanna round his neck, scarecrow hat, no collar but the collar band fastened with a stud, bundle tied on a stick, the lot.
He was a big man who carried himself well. He wanted a loaf of bread – they made fourpenny loaves then – but as he had only got thruppence the shopman was going to cut a piece off one. Nairn, however, stopped him. He bought the Tramp the loaf – and half a pound of cheese to go with it and shook his hand.
When we got back in the trap, he said to me “never despise a countryman down on his luck – especially tramps! They are the salt of the earth.”
When Dad was fourteen, he was sent to Sebright School in Wolverly. (I doubt very much that he’d have been a good fit at King Edward’s in Birmingham, where his more academic brothers excelled. Dad, even in his youth was a bit of an iconoclast.) He writes:
The first couple of years or so are best glossed over. Apart from making the Under XV (rugby) in my first term and then the First XV in my second, I got nowhere fast. Indeed, one of my school reports was a gem. All the subjects were bracketed together and sideways across the bracket was written “He has no pretensions to any interest in any subject whatsoever.” Fortunately Mother saw the funny side!
I wish I had known my grandmother Louise, who died when I was six months old. She must have been a pistol. A tiny woman, and a pillar of the community’s good works, she married before World War I, bore six (ultimately) very large, very loud and extremely rambunctious children, stood by her husband and family through thick and thin (and there was plenty of both) and seems to have ruled the domestic roost with a firm hand and an unfailing grace. A strong woman. Unflappable, as it were (you can clearly see “the giant of the family,” center, back row).
Dad’s two greatest friends at Sebright were the school’s handyman:
who doubled as gardener, hedger, path maker, stone waller or just plain odd-job man. I do not know his name, nor can I find it out now, try as I may! He was known universally as “Not ‘Arf.”
He was Worcestershire born and bred and many would say he was a simpleton – or at the very most an unlettered, inarticulate country bumpkin. But when you got to know him and he trusted you, there was an enormous fund of wisdom to be tapped and a knowledge of the countryside and its denizens such as I have never seen before or since.
“Not ‘Arf” taught me how to set a snare, catch a mole, divine water and locate water pipes and drains, “swap” a hedge (and he threw great light on Hamlet as he did so!), dig a ditch, slake lime, lay a drain, stretch a fence wire, weave a hurdle (so that when I went on a Course in Field Engineering at the Royal Engineers’ Depot at Basingstoke in 1939, I knew more about reveting a trench with hurdles woven to fit than the Instructor did!), splice a rope and countless other things as well. He never could teach me to scythe, however.
. . .
He did have one eccentricity and that was his total aversion to any bicycle other than a Raleigh. When discussing the demerits of “them thar ‘ercules” (the products of the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company, Ltd., Birmingham) which were his particular bête noir, he often did appear to verge on dementia. His final peroration, which never varied, might well have given rise to his nickname. “They’m jus no bloody good. Not ‘arf’!”
And Dad’s other great friend was:
Chief Petty Officer (Stoker) John Church. As a young sailor he had survived HMS Hampshire which in June 1916 had struck a mine off the Orkneys when bound for Archangel and sunk with Kitchener on board. When I left Sebright, Church gave me a little wooden cross beautifully fashioned in teak which had been made for him by a ship’s carpenter friend from a bit of the decking to which he had been clinging when he was picked up. I kept it with me until it was lost in a fire in our house at Katabu in Nigeria.
John Church had an inexhaustible fund of naval stories ranging from the China Station to Spithead and back. All his service had been on the big ships and without doubt his favourite was “Spite” (HMS Warspite). I spent hours sitting on the enormous pile of coke in his superbly kept and polished boiler room listening to him. He was all rather like The Boyhood of Raleigh!
John Church must have fed Dad’s fascination with all things military, and as soon as he had the opportunity, Dad joined the Sebright Cadet Corps, an informal outfit that was sanctioned by the government as an Army Officer Training Program sometime in 1935. Meanwhile, Dad’s academic studies continued apace under the gifted F.E. Borland M.A. (Oxon).
Freddie Borland drank: we used to say that if you lit a cigarette lighter outside his mouth when he belched (which he did with an astounding frequency) it would “burn with a blue flame.” He smoked like a chimney. His hand shook in the mornings as if it was palsied and he cut himself shaving so often that we used to take bets on how many little tufts of cotton wool he would be wearing on any given day to stop the bleeding.
He was the most magnificent teacher I have ever met. He was only with us for two terms in 1936, but the following December, when I again sat the Cambridge School Certificate Examination, instead of failing it for a second time – as everybody expected – I sailed through with six “credits” (including Chemistry) and a pass in Maths, which meant that I had matriculated! I was seventeen and nine months old.
From that moment, Dad devoted himself almost single-mindedly to the pursuit of his real goal: a commission in an infantry regiment, and by the Fall of 1938, having successfully completed all his training, he “applied for a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Supplementary Reserve of Officers of a County Regiment.”
The Worcester Regiment having no commission vacancies at the time, Dad was sent over to the Warwickshires, and from thence to the 47th Foot, The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) where he was recommended, accepted, and commissioned on October 31, 1938.
Dad’s recounting of the home front training and exercises is amusing, and rather sad, as his dreams of a “soldier’s life” were deferred in the face of interminable tactical exercises and seminars. The home front alarums and excursions ended abruptly on September 3, 1939, when Dad and his mates listened to Neville Chamberlain declare that Britain was at war with Germany. His life in combat commenced shortly thereafter when he was sent to France.
Dad’s regiment was, it turned out, a perfect fit for him. Amalgamated from four other County regiments in 1881, its storied battle honors stretched across America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Crimea. And its motto, Loyauté M’Oblige, is another quote that could have defined his life.
It’s Old French. And it means “Loyalty binds me.” Quite similar to Semper Fidelis, but I like the very personal touch. Loyalty binds me.
Dad was the most loyal person I’ve ever known. To his family. To his country. To his God. To his men. And to his friends.
I learned so many things from Dad during the fifty-three years we shared on this earth. But if you were to ask me which are the ones that have most affected the way I live my life, I’d say they were probably:
- Don’t do things by half-measures. Throw yourself into life, and never lose your zest for it. Take risks. Give it your all. If you’re going to make a mess of things, make sure you make it by standing for something, and not by folding your cards. hiding from it, or running away. Whatever it is, face it. (Dad never knew when to fold his hand. A charming, sometimes very touching, but sometimes uncomfortable, infuriating, and even dangerous trait. Wonderfully reassuring, though, when Dad was in your corner.)
- Have faith. Faith in yourself. Faith in others. Faith in your God. Stand up for yourself, because you’re worth it.
- Take people as you find them, regardless of what you or others perceive to be their station in life. Value everyone you meet. All people bring intrinsic dignity and worth with them. Treat them fairly. Expect a lot from yourself. Expect a lot from others. If they disappoint you, or turn on you, don’t allow yourself to be used, and see #2. (That will happen far less often than you might think.) Forgive each other and mend fences whenever it’s possible; move on when it’s not. (It wouldn’t surprise me, knowing Dad, that like General Mattis, he had “a plan to kill everyone he met.” Lord knows, throughout his life, there were many who tried to kill him, sometimes in bizarre and extraordinarily unpleasant ways (not messing). But he never talked that way, and didn’t let that define him or the way he lived his life.
- No job is beneath your dignity. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Your personal worth, and your value as a human being are not diminished by performing the least skilled or muckiest of tasks, nor are they enhanced by your accomplishments at the top of the elite career scale.
- Loyauté M’Oblige. My loyalty binds me. Speak your mind, but make sure, at the end of the day, that you can live with yourself, that you did your absolute best, that you did what you promised, and that you stayed true to yourself and those you love. (Cue Polonius, not behind the arras, for once.)
- Keep your sense of proportion, your sense of humor, and your sense of the ridiculous in good order. Along with your faith, they are the things that will save you at life’s darkest moments. “Laughter is,” indeed, “the best medicine.”
I’ve told a few stories, here on RWKJ, about Dad’s further adventures in life, and many more of them are ably recounted in the obituary I mentioned above. Suffice it to say that Dad went from strength to strength after the war, in the Colonial Service, in academia, and in politics. Never, ever did he let the “unforgiving minute” go by without getting in his “sixty seconds worth of distance run.” Never. Not once.
God bless, Dad. You were a Dad for the ages. You were a “man for all seasons.” The mold is broken. I miss you, Daddy.
I found the following poem neatly typed out on an index card (remember index cards?) and saved in one of Dad’s many shoe boxes of such things, after he died. Until then, I didn’t know where the title of his first book (Concerning Brave Captains) came from, and I never heard Dad quote anything else from it. Still, it must have meant something to him. It’s by Rudyard Kipling, and it was written on the death of Teddy Roosevelt. Similar in many ways to If, but much less-well-known.
“The interpreter then called for a man-servant of his, one Great-Heart.” — Bunyan’s’ Pilgrim’s Progess.
In purpose unsparing,
In action no less,
The labours he praised
He would seek and profess
Through travail and battle,
At hazard and pain. . . .
And our world is none the braver
Since Great-Heart was ta’en!
Plain speech with plain folk,
And plain words for false things,
Plain faith in plain dealing
‘Twixt neighbours or kings,
He used and he followed,
However it sped. . . .
Oh, our world’s none more honest
Now Great-Heart is dead!
The heat of his spirit
Struck warm through all lands;
For he loved such as showed
‘Emselves men of their hands;
In love, as in hate,
Paying home to the last. . . .
But our world is none the kinder
Now Great-Heart hath passed!
Hard-schooled by long power,
Yet most humble of mind
Where aught that he was
Might advantage mankind.
Leal servant, loved master,
Rare comrade, sure guide. . . .
Oh, our world is none the safer
Now Great-Heart hath died!
Let those who would handle
Make sure they can wield
His far-reaching sword
And his close-guarding shield:
For those who must journey
Have need of stout convoy
Now Great-Heart is gone.–Rudyard Kipling