|My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories|
|Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018|
|He was concerned now. Not just concerned, he was worried. His eyes flicked to the fuel gauge, now firmly in the red zone, from which the needle had not moved for some time. He cursed himself for not buying petrol at the last town. The unfamiliar car lurched to the right as he over steered and the front wheel bumped over the grass verge.|
“Damm it.” He hadn’t seen another car, in either direction, for about twenty minutes. Worse, the mists were swirling all around the car. His headlights alternated between lighting up the road ahead and bouncing off a thick wall of gray cotton wool.
Fergus stopped the car and switched on the interior light. He studied his map of California. After a minute or so he tossed it angrily into the back seat. “Bloody waste of time, that was,” he snarled.
He got out of the car and stared around. The mist curled around the endless vista of trees, caressing them and mocking him. There was nothing to see. He didn’t know where he was and he could see nothing which could pinpoint his present position. He used his mobile phone to call the motel at Reston. “Shit. No signal”
He needed to get to that Motel, needed to get a good rest before meeting Lee Rowan. Just needed to. What do I do now? Katie, where are you when I need you? She would have known what to do. She would have bought petrol at the last service station. She wouldn’t have embarked on this trip so late in the evening on a road never travelled before. He restarted the car and listened intently. Did the engine cough just then? He revved gently and, yes, there it was again.
He moved off again, his right foot simply touching the accelerator as gently as possible. About two or three miles further on the fog descended in a great cloying blanket. He stopped and sat for about five minutes, his mind feverishly examining the options. There appeared to be only two; stay where he was or get out and walk. He got out.
It was cold and clammy, enveloping him in its evil clutch. The fog seemed possessed of a life of its own. There was total silence. No, not quite total. Over to his left he could hear something, a low sound, somewhere between a rumble and a muted growl. It took him some time to identify the sound. It was the sea. OK, the Pacific Ocean. He stumbled through the trees in the direction of the sound. He could see nothing but after ten minutes the waves were rolling in at his feet, almost unseen. He turned right. Reston was on the ocean and was out there somewhere out to the north. How far? God, I must get there; I can’t miss that meeting. Fergus walked for over an hour, parallel to the water, once tripping over a small rowing boat turned upside down in the sand. The shoreline began to curve around to the right. Was there a bay at Reston? He couldn’t remember.
The sand made walking difficult, so he removed his shoes and somehow lost them. He was cold and the bloody fog was all around He walked for hours. What time was it at home? Must be about seven in the morning. Kate would be stirring, thinking of getting up, and would normally turn to him for a cuddle before they left the comfort of the bed.
The ocean went on and on, he grew weary and disoriented. The fog mocked him, laughing at his impotence. Then he came to the river.
“Oh my God, no.” Reston, Lee Rowan, the chance to make a deal on a joint venture; all seemed a million miles away. He sat down on the sand, his arms wrapped around him for warmth. The fog was in his mind now and he shook his head angrily, trying to clear it. He was tired, he couldn’t think anymore. He lay down on the sand.
The light was shining in his eyes, but was partially blocked by the figure of a man, a big man. “Mr Richards? Fergus Richards?”
“Yes. Who are you? Where is this?”
“I’m Sheriff John Miller, sir, and this is the Reston County Hospital.”
“How did I get here??”
“You were found on the beach, sir, just outside the town, on the other side of the river. When you didn’t turn up at the motel, the owner asked me to start a search for you.”
“God bless him, sheriff. Please thank him for me.”
“I will, Mr Richards; but it’s a her, she’s my wife.”
“I’m very lucky.”
“Yes, sir. Luckier than you know. We found your car. I don’t know how you got on to the old road; it hasn’t been used in years. If you had driven another two or three miles you’d be dead now. The old bridge over the Reston River was swept away in the storms last year.”
Fergus lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes. “Jesus, thank you.” He thought of Kate. She had been on his shoulder when he abandoned the car. He would be going home after all.
|In 1812 France ruled Europe, from Spain to the Russian frontier, from Sicily to Denmark. The Emperor Napoleon’s word was law. Only Great Britain among the nations of Europe opposed her, as she had done, more or less continuously since 1792. Britain, had a population of 15,000,000 less than half of France’s 31,000,000, but was an immensely powerful trading nation. In the Iberian Peninsula, the Duke of Wellington, with his Allied Army of never more that 80,000, and their guerrilla friends, kept 300,000 French soldiers engaged. Wellington added the acid of defeat to Napoleon’s Spanish ulcer.|
In 1941, Hitler’s Germany ruled Europe from the Atlantic coast to the plains of Russia, with a ferocity and evil unknown even to Napoleon. Again, at that time, only the British and their Empire opposed him.
Both Napoleon and Hitler had concluded treaties with Russia, and both were to breach them, but for different reasons. Napoleon, hamstrung by the power of the Royal Navy, had attempted to impose a Continental blockade on British trade with Europe. Russia needed trade with Britain to live, and tore up her agreement with France. Hitler believed he needed ‘lebensraum’ to enable Germans to achieve their God given place of pre-eminence in the world.
On 22nd June 1812, Napoleon declared war on Russia, and his troops crossed the border two days later. On 22nd June 1941, German troops, without a declaration of war, crossed into Soviet territory.
Napoleon had an Army of some 600,000 men, drawn from not only France but also from the conquered nations and states, like Holland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Austria and the various German States. The Emperor led this huge host in person, with many of the heroes of the Empire with him, Murat, Ney, Macdonald, Bernadotte and Prince Eugene, Napoleon’s stepson by Josephine.
The French streamed across the rolling Russian plains, the blues, scarlets, greens and whites of their uniforms contrasting with the waving yellow wheat fields, the leathers of their horses creaking, the men grunting as they heaved the guns along the few primitive tracks which existed. Napoleon was anxious to bring Barclay de Tolly, and Kutuzov, the Russian commanders to battle. The Russians were not so minded, and retreated eastwards, leaving the scorched and blackened earth of their homeland in their wake
On 7th September, over six weeks after the invasion had begun, Tsar Alexander ordered his forces to stand and fight, and for two bloody days they did just that, at the small village of Borodino, about 70 miles west of Moscow. The battle was indecisive, the Russians taking some 40,000 casualties, the French between 30 and 50,000. The Russians recommenced their retreat.
The French entered Moscow, Russia’s second city and religious capital on 14th September, the Russians withdrawing as the enemy took the city. On the following day, those citizens remaining set fire to the town, destroying three quarters of it. Napoleon sat in the blackened ruins, the wood smoke in his nostrils and composed an ultimatum to Alexander. There was no reply, and some five weeks after their entry, the dirty, hungry and dispirited French began the long withdrawal to the Polish frontier.
The retreat was over much of the same ground that the advance had followed, past the putrefying remains of the French dead. The Army was laden down with plunder from Moscow; furniture, paintings, silks, icons and just about everything that could be transported. The Russian armies came back, spearheaded by the much feared Cossacks, to snipe at the French flanks and to eliminate without mercy the stragglers, who included many women and children.
It rained, and rained, turning the fields into muddy troughs, trapping the artillery and wagons filled with looted booty. Early in November the snows started and the French, in summer uniforms, tried to warm themselves with furs, curtains and even women’s gowns. The soldiers’ boots disintegrated. Food had all but disappeared and the horses were killed to feed the men. Sometimes the hungry tore at the flanks of the unfortunate beasts even as they lay dying in the snow.
The temperatures plunged to their lowest levels in living memories and hundreds, then thousands of French troops fell asleep on the icy ground, never to waken. The wolves prowled all around the long straggle of the rout, tearing at the bodies of the living and the dead. The peasants, accustomed to the cold, preyed on the French, horribly mutilating them. Here and there women lay frozen to death, sometimes with a dead child clinging to the breast.
The towns the French had garrisoned en route to Moscow were now attacked and sometimes over run by the Russians and the remnants of the defenders joined the long retreat. At the end of November at the River Berisina the French Army and civilians tried desperately to cross over the one remaining bridge, attacked by three Russian Armies. In four days some 30,000 French were killed at this one point, the river being blocked for weeks by bloated bodies. Marshal Ney commanded a fighting rearguard, reputedly being the last man out of Russia. Napoleon made him the Prince of Moscow.
The Emperor Napoleon took 600,000 men into Russia. Only 50,000 came out. These losses take no account of the huge numbers of civilians who died perhaps 30,000. In 1943/4 Hitler fared even worse. In 1812 the Tsar remarked, “Of all my generals, General Winter is the best.” Stalin might have made the same remark in the following century.
In winter quarters in Portugal, Wellington read of Napoleon’s defeat, and handed the report to his Spanish liaison officer, General Miguel Alava, “That must have been a bit of a disappointment for Boney.”
|A fussy, enquiring wind whipped in over the sand dunes, bringing a North Atlantic chill to the little huddle of spectators gathered on a small hill, causing the men to shuffle deeper into their overcoats and to pull their collars around their necks. About fifty yards away, a smaller gaggle of men in overalls tended to a strange machine, a contraption of wires, wood and canvas. At last they declared themselves ready and one attempted to start the engine by hand. Several attempts were needed but eventually it fired, shrouding the machine and its attendants in blue smoke.|
A ragged cheer from the hill struggled against the rising wind from the ocean; the watchers having witnessed the failure of this event too often this cold day to be truly excited. This time was different. The machine lumbered forward over the rough ground, lifted into the air, crashed down again and finally became airborne and stayed that way. The flight lasted a staggering twelve seconds and covered 120 feet. History had been made, and the world would never ever quite be the same. This was Kitty Hawk Springs in North Carolina and the date was 17th December 1903.
Orville Wright, a 32 year old cycle engineer from Dayton, Ohio, had been at the controls of the first powered flight in a machine designed by Orville and his 36 year old brother, Wilbur, his partner in the cycle business. The Wright brothers could not know the enormous power for both good and evil that their invention would unleash.
Man had long dreamed of emulating the birds by flying in the air, untethered by the restrictions of gravity. From the Icarus of legend, through the prolific, multi-faceted Leonardo da Vinci to the balloonists of France in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dream had been cherished. The Wrights were not the only people working on heavier than air flight; others in France, Germany, England and other parts of the United States were only months behind them.
It did not take very long for Governments to decide that the new toy could have a military application. British military history was well established, the Royal Engineers having operated balloons since 1863. In 1911 they took delivery of their first aircraft and the following year received their Royal Warrant as the Royal Flying Corps. The age of relative innocence, which was the Edwardian era, was soon to die in the bloodbath of the Great War.
By the time of the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, Britain had nearly 500 aircraft in action in France, a number to increase several times over by the end of the War. The British, French, Germans and Austrians, and later the Americans all became deeply involved in the skies about the slaughterhouses of France, the pilots behaving with an almost medieval chivalry to their enemies. Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Empire pilots. My own particular here is Major James Byford McCuddon who had 57 victories and who died in 1918 having been awarded the VC, DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, the MM and the Croix de Guerre. He was only 23 at the time of his death. McCuddon just had time to serve in the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world, but not time to exchange either his military rank, or Army uniform before he crashed to his death in Picardy.
Warfare, as it usually does, had improved immeasurably the effectiveness of the aeroplane. It also, in 1918 released thousands of young men into civilian life, young men incurably smitten by a virus, the virus of flying. There was not sufficient employment in the infant airline industry to accommodate these men, and increasingly women, who wanted to fly. And so, for a period of less than twenty years, they created their own jobs, in a circus, a flying circus, or more accurately, a series of circuses throughout the world. The phenomenon was primarily an American one; the huge, often unexplored country lending itself to aviation. Apart from the airlines, the US Post Office employed aircraft to deliver the mail. In the early days the pilots followed a road map, looking out for features such as railways, towns and rivers. Fog often meant a lonely death.
Over the high Rockies ice formed on the wings of their craft and the pilots perished.
The circus developed with ‘hoppers’, people who paid two dollars for trips around the airfields in rickety, dangerous ex Great War machines, and frequently the passengers arrived back on Terra Firma earlier than anticipated. In time, this became safer and blasé and the customers demanded more. Pilots began to perform stunts, spiralling the aircraft towards the ground only to pull up into level flight just in time. And sometimes they didn’t pull up in time. They also buzzed the airfield, doing rolls and loops as close to the ground as safely permitted and sometimes safety did not permit.
Mock dogfights were re enacted, with Sopwiths, Bristols, Spads and Fokkers reliving the days of chivalry, this time in American skies. As the parachute developed, professionals and sometimes thrill seekers jumped from perfectly airworthy machines, a practice which to this day is regarded as very strange by Air Force personnel. Wing walking was popular for a time, with stunt men and girls standing and later walking on the wings of aircraft in flight. The girls were generally very pretty, bare legged, and wearing a wide smile and flimsy clothing. I wish I had seen it. The flying circuses were much-loved features of events like State Fairs.
At the same time the infant industry was growing up and pilots turned their skills to bush flying, delivering supplies to Arctic stations in Canada and Alaska, or fighting fires in the Californian hills. The Flying Doctor Service in the Australian outback brought succour to sick people and sheep stations did the round up in their flimsy aircraft and not solely from the back of a horse.
Alcock and Brown had flown the Atlantic in 1919 in a wartime Vimy bomber, and Charles Lindbergh, a strange and tortured man, crossed it on his own. Amy Johnston ands Amelia Earhart proved that women could also perform feats of endurance. As the thirties stretched towards the forties the popularity of the circus paled. It would soon be extinguished by the Second World War when aircraft were used to bring destruction to cities and death to the citizens.
As the RAF destroyed Dresden and the USAF devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it must have been difficult to recall the carefree, innocent and frankly dangerous days of the Flying Circuses, gleaming from the past like a dimly remembered glimpses of Camelot.
|He stood there, a short, stout figure, balding, with small, penetrating eyes set in a podgy face from which the lower jaw was aggressively thrust out. His hands rested on his hips, pushing back the sides of his jacket and forcing his upper body forward. The lights glinted softly on his watch chain, stretched across the waistcoat and ample stomach. Over the top of his spectacles he surveyed the mass of people seated before him, and began to speak in that familiar mix of a growl and a lisp. |
“The Vichy French say that Hitler will wring England’s neck like a chicken.” He paused for effect, glowering at his audience. “Some chicken! Some neck!”
The combined Houses of the Canadian Parliament rose as one in thunderous applause. This was the man of the moment, the man of the century and certainly a man who would be recognised as the greatest Briton ever.
It was December 1941 and for nearly eighteen months the United Kingdom and her Empire had stood alone against Nazi Germany. That situation was about to change, but as Wellington had remarked over a century before, it had been ‘a damm close run thing.’
In June 1940 France surrendered shamefully to the Germans, a shame that still rankles in French hearts. The little democracies of Europe had been swallowed up, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Poland was even now feeling the oppression of German rule. The cowardly Italians declared war on a dying France and Greece and Yugoslavia would soon disappear into the maelstrom. Fascist Spain and Portugal watched silently and the neutral countries fearfully.
Several things saved Britain, some recognised at the time, some acknowledged only years later. Churchill, his courage, his faith and his inspiring oratory shares equally with the will and the spirit of the British people in bringing this situation about.
The quiet dignity of the King and Queen, refusing to leave London and seeing their own home bombed was an example of this spirit. As Queen Elizabeth said when asked if the two little princesses were to be sent to Canada. “Oh no. They wouldn’t go without me and I wouldn’t go without the King, and he will never go.”
The presence in Britain of the Poles and Czechs, the Danes and Norwegians, the Free French alongside the British and Empire troops reassured people. The supreme efforts of the Few in the Royal Air Force won the battle for control of the skies and so prevent Hitler’s planned invasion. Significantly, a lone aircraft of Bomber Command had much to do with winning the Battle of Britain. It bombed Germany, causing no injuries and little damage. The Fuhrer flew into a rage and called off his attritional offensive against the radar sites and airfield of the RAF and ordered that London be bombed.
By the time Churchill spoke in Ottawa, Britain was safe from invasion; Hitler had followed Napoleon in invading Russia. Like the Corsican, it would prove his undoing. The war was won half a world away from Europe in the Hawaiian Islands on 7th December 1941 on the ‘Day of Infamy.’ The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour dragged a reluctant USA into the war and ensured the defeat of the dictators. In Britain, the task was to continue to survive and to provide an unsinkable offshore battleship from which the invasion of Europe would be launched. There were many contributions to this objective, and the humble tunnel played its part.
London was the most heavily bombed city in Britain, with some 80,000 casualties and 1.2 million homes damaged or destroyed. People sought shelter where they could find it and one of the best places of sanctuary was the London Underground. Here tens of thousands of Londoners would gather each evening, deep in the earth, while the Luftwaffe pounded their city. They would emerge like rabbits, blinking in the morning to see if they could still recognise their surroundings. Sometimes these surroundings were simply piles of smoking debris. In the tunnels of the Tube, people slept and talked, ate and drank and children played and did their homework. Lovers met, kissed and perhaps found opportunity to do more. Eternal love was promised, marriage proposals made, and the WVS served tea. For some nine months between September 1940 and May 1941, this subterranean city provided a home for men and women and their children, who never knew if their real home would still be standing when they got back to ground level,
Not far away from Westminster Underground station a whole series of interconnected tunnels held the apparatus of the British Government. Here, in the Cabinet War Rooms, Churchill and his ministers and military advisers planned the survival of the nation and the conduct of the war. In addition there was a hospital and living quarters for hundreds of personnel. During the blitz Winston, a man of no little physical courage, would climb out of the tunnel and watch from St James’ Park the battle criss crossing the dark night skies, doubtless vowing vengeance.
The evacuation of 338,225 British and French soldiers from Dunkirk was directed from the myriad tunnels in the white cliffs under Dover Castle.
The brave people of Malta spent three years in tunnels during the siege by the German and Italian Air Forces. The King awarded Malta the George Cross.
On balance, tunnels played an important role in the war and should, perhaps, also have been awarded the George Cross.
Brave Men’s Blood
|Reynolds straightened. His back hurt, his head spun and his eyes were gritty and painful. Worst of all he was filled with a sense of frustration and anger, anger at what he had been forced to do for the last nine hours. He looked at the bloody figure on the crude operating table in front of him. “Finish the dressing and then see if you have room for him with the others.” The orderly nodded and took the surgeon’s place at the table.|
“Oh, and scrub the table down and try to clean the place up if you can. God knows when we will have our next lot.” He glanced around the small room, lit flickeringly by the light from a failing oil lamp. There was blood everywhere. It had stained the storeroom table, hastily pressed into service when the hospital had burned down. It lay in pools on the floor, slippery underfoot or blackly congealing, depending on the length of time it had been there. There was blood on the white painted mud and stone walls and on his own apron and clothing. It was on his skin and under his eyelids. It was all around him.
James Henry Reynolds was not unaccustomed to blood. He was a Dubliner, ten days short of his 35th birthday and had served the Army sufficiently long to have become a Surgeon Major. Throughout this long night he had cut and probed, stitched and clamped and reset broken bones, with the thought that not ten miles away over a thousand of his fellow countrymen were even now stiff and cold in death. The next few hours would determine if he and all the patients he had laboured so tirelessly to save would suffer the same fate.
“I’m going to visit the ward.”
Ward? It was not a ward but a cold, dirty store house and draughty corridor. He picked his way through the prostrate men, some moaning in pain, others crying feverishly.
“Steady, lads, hang on. It will be over soon.” He realised what he said and swore softly under his breath. “Easy, boys, easy now.”
Reynolds nodded to his two medical orderlies and went outside into the compound. The first silver fingers of dawn were beginning to lift the dark veil of an African night. He leaned against the wall and, for the first time, saw the carnage that his night’s work had only permitted him to hear. Off to his left the hospital still burned, silhouetting the weary soldiers, leaning on the wall of mealy bags and biscuit tins which had protected the little garrison from the wave after wave of Zulu attacks.
God in heaven, was it really less than twenty-four hours since he and the chaplain had climbed the Shylane Hill. They had heard the gunfire from Isandlwana, had seen the smoke arising from the Camp. Something dreadful was happening. Then they had seen the riders galloping towards the river and splashing across the ford. The two men scrambled down the small hill. With Chard and Bromhead he had listened to the riders. Disaster. All massacred. Lord Chelmsford dead. The Zulus are coming. Thousands of them. Run for your lives. The Natal Native Horse had ridden off as had the Natal Native Contingent taken to their heels. Was that only yesterday?
Now the two lieutenants stood together facing south towards the Drift; Chard bandaged in the neck, Bromhead hatless with his dusty red jacket open to the waist.
“How are you, Chard?”
“I think I’ll live, doctor.” He scanned the veldt with his glasses. “At least for the moment.”
Lieutenant Bromyard offered the surgeon the tin mug from which he had been drinking. “How are things in there?”
Reynolds drank deeply. “I’ve done what I can, but we will lose some of them.” He went to the improvised wall where a weary soldier started to get to his feet. “Stay where you are, lad.”
Even in the early light of dawn the sea of black bodies shocked the surgeon. Here too was blood, rivers of it. Men lay in all kinds of grotesque attitudes, some with gaping chest wounds, others with stomachs ripped apart, entrails spilling out. Some of the Zulus moaned or cried out.
“Oh, my God.” At the wall the bodies were two and three deep, and the black tide rolled as far as he could see. He glanced back at the two officers. “Will they be back?”
Chard rubbed at his bloody bandage. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “I just don’t know.”
“Can we stand?”
Bromyard spoke. “One day. Possibly two. No more. There are less than five hundred men between here and Durban,”
The surgeon looked away, searching the horizon, lightening by the minute. He crossed himself. The stench of blood was in his nostrils, the blood of brave men, black and white. Within days the same stench might cover all of Natal. “God preserve us.”
Good Day To Bury Bad News
|Reynolds straightened. His back hurt, his head spun and his eyes were gritty and painful. Worst of all he was filled with a sense of anger, anger at what he had been forced to do for the last nine hours. He looked at the bloody figure on the crude operating table in front of him. “Finish the dressing and then see if you have room for him with the others.” The orderly nodded and took the surgeon’s place at the table.|
“Oh, and scrub the table down and try to clean the place up if you can. God knows when we will have our next lot.” He glanced around the small room, lit flickeringly by the light from a failing oil lamp. There was blood everywhere. It had stained the storeroom table, hastily pressed into service when the hospital had burned down. It lay in pools on the floor, slippery underfoot or blackly congealing, depending on the length of time it had been there. There was blood on the white painted mud and brick walls and on his own apron and clothing. It was on his skin and under his eyelids. It was all around him.
James Henry Reynolds was not unaccustomed to blood. He was a Dubliner, ten days short of his 35th birthday and had served the Army sufficiently long to have become a Surgeon Major. Throughout this long night he had cut and probed, stitched and clamped and reset broken bones, with the thought that not ten miles away over a thousand of his fellow countrymen were even now stiff and cold in death. The next few hours would determine if he and all the patients he had laboured so tirelessly to save would suffer the same fate.
He nodded to his two medical orderlies and went outside into the compound. The first silver fingers of dawn were beginning to lift the dark veil of an African night. Reynolds leaned against the wall and, for the first time, saw the carnage that his night’s work had only permitted him to hear. Off to his left the hospital still burned, silhouetting the weary soldiers, leaning on the wall of mealy bags and biscuit tins which had protected the little garrison from the wave after wave of Zulu attacks. The two lieutenants stood together facing south towards the Drift; Chard bandaged in the neck, Bromhead hatless with his dusty red jacket open to the waist.
“How are you, Chard?”
“I think I’ll live.” He scanned the veldt with his glasses. “At least for the moment.”
Lieutenant Bromyard offered the surgeon the tin mug from which he had been drinking. “How are things in there?”
Reynolds drank deeply. “I’ve done what I can, but we will lose some of them.” He went to the improvised wall where a weary soldier started to get to his feet. “Stay where you are lad.”
Even in the early light of dawn the sea of black bodies shocked the surgeon. Here too was blood, rivers of it. Men lay in all kinds of grotesque attitudes, some with gaping chest wounds, others with stomachs ripped apart, entrails spilling out. “Oh, my God.” At the wall the bodies were two and three deep, and the black tide rolled as far as he could see. He glanced back at the two officers. “Will they be back?”
Chard rubbed at his bloody bandage. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “I just don’t know.”
The Zulus did not return. This place was called Kwa Jimmy, Jimmy’s place, by the Zulus and was known as Rorke’s drift by the British. Built as a farm by an eccentric Irishman, James Rorke, about half a mile from the Tugela River and the Natal border with Zululand, the little farmstead had been a mission station since Rorke died in 1875. The date was 23rd January 1879 and Jimmy’s place had just taken its place in history.
In 1879 the Zulus were the most warlike and organised tribal group in Southern Africa. They had twice invaded the British colony of Natal and Briton and Boer alike went in fear of them
The British picked a war with their troublesome neighbours and the Boers were happy to let them do so. However things did not go to plan and on the 22nd January the British Army suffered their greatest defeat of the 19th Century at the hands of a non-European force. At Isandlwana some 1329 British, Colonial and native forces died. Their victory cost the Zulus the grievous loss of 3000 dead and a similar number wounded.
The right wing of the Zulu Army, not engaged at Isandlwana, and anxious to wash their spears in more British blood, went on to Rorkes Drift, ten miles distant, to attack the small garrison there. The mission station had been turned into a hospital and had less than 100 fit men available for its defence. The Zulus numbered between 4000 and 4500 warriors.
The Zulu was fanatically brave, suicidally determined and supremely strong and enduring. The British soldier was also stubbornly brave, stoically determined and possessed several weapons to make up for his inferiority in fitness and stamina. He was better trained, hugely disciplined and possessed of massively superior firepower. The overwhelming number of the Zulus, their advantage at Isandlwana proved a disadvantage at Rorkes Drift. The British, the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Regiment, the Warwickshires, could not miss with their Martini Henrys.
Between 4.30pm on the 22nd and 4.00am the following morning wave after wave of attacks were launched on the post. The perimeter was cut to a third of its size and the hospital was burnt down, forcing Reynolds and some of his patients to evacuate to the storehouse, where the surgeon carried on without stop.
In the morning it was estimated that Zulu losses were about 600 dead and as many wounded. British losses were 15 dead, the majority of whom were in the hospital when it was stormed by the Zulus, and 12 wounded.
King Cetawayo’s losses in the two battles were crippling and even his victory backfired. British honour required revenge. The bloodletting at Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift was not the end of it. Lord Chelmsford’s forces licked their wounds for some weeks, received reinforcements and regrouped. In March they again invaded the King’s territory. At Kambula in March they lost 29 while inflicting 4000 casualties and at Ulundi, the Zulu capital, the war ended with the final battle. Thirteen British soldiers died and 1500 Zulus.
The blood spilled in the earlier battles was just the forerunner of much more as the British conquered Zululand and deposed Cetawayo. Reynolds was not there to witness it. He was being feted in London. The Conservative Government of Benjamin Disraeli had their own version of spin. The loss at Isandlwana was played down and the success at Rorkes Drift given prominence. Reynolds, Chard and Bromhead all received the Victoria Cross, as did eight members of the garrison.
|He was tired now, more weary than he had imagined he would be. He should have known better, especially at his age. Well, that was what Sarah had told him, and she was always right. George Martin reflected without rancour that children, especially daughters, assumed the role of parents as those parents got older. Still, he knew that he had wanted to be here, for the Queen, to pay his respects, even if it killed him. And it probably will, you silly old fool, Sarah had scolded as he set off, fussing over his coat and scarf, and straightening his cap.|
Women could be a real pain in the arse he said to himself as he left Victoria Station, blinking in the strong sunlight. He stopped and bought a newspaper. “How much?” he queried the boy. Blimey everything had gone up. He looked at the front page. “Queen’s Jubilee”. The Queen stared at him unsmilingly from the front page. Perhaps she hasn’t got a lot to smile about George thought to himself. He shuffled across the street in the direction of the Palace.
He glanced down at the medals clinking on the breast of his coat. They had been polished the previous night by Sarah. Ah, Sarah! Where would be without her, good daughter that she was. Well at least he knew the answer to that one. He’d be in that dammed old hospital in Chelsea, dressed up in that silly blue and red uniform, with the dammed stupid cap. No, Sarah had enough of her own to look after, without her old Dad being such a miserable bastard.
Bloody trains! They were slower than they had been thirty years ago, and dirtier than he remembered. And the passengers, motley bunch they were, not half of them English. He’d never heard so many different languages in his bleedin’ life. There was so much traffic in the street and all moving so fast. A man had to take his life in his hands to cross the road. And London was so dirty, rubbish everywhere. No one seemed to care any more. Where were the standards? They should have done some time in the Army. That would have given the spineless sods some backbone.
He went over the street, almost getting under the hooves of a brewer’s dray. Dammed horses, too big. They frightened the life out of him, just as they had done all those years ago when he had run away to join the Army and found himself in Belgium. The British, the Germans and the French, fighting and killing each other, and killing the horses, too. The smell was everywhere, blood and guts and sweat. Oh yes, and fear, mostly that. George had never seen a horse until he went to war, well not really, not close up, and not on its own. Bloody big.
He put the newspaper in his coat pocket. Time to read that going back on the train. He looked again at his medals, reflecting the sun, and he touched them.
There was a large crowd of people, even now, three hours before the carriage was due to leave the palace. He ambled along in their wake. No one seemed to be in a hurry, and that suited George. God, he did feel tired. On the Mall he found what seemed to be a good spot and sat down on the edge of the pavement. All around him the people came, young and old, the children chattering excitedly, their parents laughing and joking.
He pulled a packet of sandwiches from his overcoat pocket, and a bottle of beer from the other side. He ate and drank slowly, watching with interest as the guardsmen arrived, lining the route, directed with pompous efficiency by their NCO’s. He watched with special interest, as an ex RSM himself, as the Guards’ sergeant major marched along, moving a man here an inch, and another one there two inches. George approved. Bags of swank, that’s what you needed as a sergeant major.
As he munched the bread and cheese, he drifted in the warm sunshine to his first battle, in Belgium, with the immense slaughter which went with it. Running away to join the Colours had seemed an adventure until then. Still he had survived and had stayed on, fighting the country’s little wars until the next big one. He had been retired by then, but they needed good men, they said, men with experience, they said. So he went back. She hadn’t liked it, his Alice, but she knew her man well enough not to argue. Waste of time she had said. Anyway, it would be all over by Christmas, they said.
George chatted with the other people, enjoying a little surge of pride as the young ones looked admiringly at his medals. He explained what they had all been for. Around him the crowd filled and pushed in on the spectators in front. The police had arrived, standing between the Guardsmen and the crowd. They exchanged good-natured banter with the watchers. Then it was time; the rumble of noise welled up from his left, from the direction of Buckingham Palace. He was pleased that he had arrived early enough to get a good place. The noise increased and he could hear people calling out individual messages. ‘God bless you, ma’am’, ‘well done’, and there were little choruses of ‘God Save the Queen’.
And there she was, an old lady, waving with one gloved hand, perhaps smiling a little as if the reception had surprised her. ‘God bless you ma’am’ he called out.
It was some time before they realised that he was dead, only when the crowd began to disperse did George’s 87 year old body slide sideways and slump on the roadway in the Mall. The policeman noticed that the old man was smiling. George Martin, veteran of Waterloo and the Crimea, had done his duty, and paid his respects to his sovereign, Victoria, on her Golden Jubilee.
|This was not happening! She had made a mistake, had wrongly interpreted what he had said to her. It was the effect of the operation, and she was still groggy. She smiled weakly.|
“I’m sorry, can you say that again?”
“I said that you have cancer. I am sorry, but you need to know.”
The smile was back. “No, I’m in here for a broken leg.” An icy chill gripped her heart and her stomach knotted into a tight little ball. Her mouth was suddenly so dry that the words rasped in her throat. It was the voice of someone else, some person she did not know. She was almost unable to speak. The young doctor cleared his throat, his Adam’s apple jerking. He looked at the papers in his hands. He didn’t, couldn’t look at her. She knew then it was true.
“You probably remember we took some upper body x rays, before the operation to set your leg. This is normal routine.” He hesitated. “Well,” he still couldn’t look at her.
Inside Eva a deep anger welled, and from somewhere a silent scream burbled up. “Look at me, you bastard, look at me. You owe me that. It’s bad for you, is it? It’s a damm sight worse for me. Look at me.”
No sound came, however, and he continued, his eyes still on the paper in his hands.
“Well, we found a spot on your lung, and we know it’s cancer. We see from your medical history that you were diagnosed with skin cancer in 1993.”
“Yes, but that was cured.”
“No, I’m afraid it wasn’t. It has spread. We can try chemotherapy, of course. Your fair skin and blonde hair, you understand, they make you more susceptible.”
The silent inner voice shrieked again. What does he mean, ‘try’?
“I’m truly sorry, believe me I am. Your parents will be here in a few minutes time. I will discuss your case with them when they get here.” Awkwardly, he touched her hand, smiled a frightened little smile and scuttled away.
No, dear God, no. I don’t want this to happen. It can’t, it mustn’t happen. Not now, not now. Who will tell Chris? She couldn’t do it. Could they still have a baby? A further thought struck her like a blow on the head with an iron rod. Perhaps she was going to die! Was that what the young doctor was trying to say? No marriage, no baby, no painting, no music. Nothing. She would know the answer when her parents, Hugh and Barbara came in. The message would be in their eyes.
She lay in the bed, her nerves raw, her senses screaming. From outside her door came the low murmur of the hospital going about its business. Out beyond that door, people went about their lives, living people, loving, hating but living. There was a slight antiseptic smell in the air and her sheets were cold to her touch. Eva shivered. Oh, please God, let it not be true.
She knew the moment Hugh and Barbara came into the room. She saw it in their eyes. It was true.
Eva fought her cancer for just over three months, continuing to paint, even to go on stage. Eventually the effect of the chemotherapy and the medication, the loss of weight, and of her hair, and the increasing bouts of vomiting confined her to the house and then to bed. More and more she found some peace in drug induced sleep, until at last, she slipped into her final coma.
Eva Cassidy died on the 2nd November 1996. She was thirty three years of age. Her parents, sisters and brother were there at the end. Chris Biondo, her bass player, manager and fiancee, wasn’t; he had not been able to bear the pain of this final farewell.
In life, Eva had been a little known country singer. In death, due in no small measure to Paul Walters and Terry Wogan in this country, her pure crystal clear voice brought, and still brings, the joys of love, and life, to many. In 2002, six years after her death, Eva Cassidy’s album, ‘Imagine’, became number one in the British charts.
I close with the words of the haunting, traditional, Ulster folksong, ‘The Londonderry Air’, better known as ‘Danny Boy’.
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Then come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an ‘Ave’ there for me.
December 7th 2004
|The autumn was sliding peacefully towards winter in a kaleidoscope of colours. It would be the fourth winter of the War for Britain, a War that seemed endless, even if defeat no longer appeared probable. The blitz which had so devastated London, and other British cities, in 1940 and to a lesser extent in 1941 had almost ceased as the bulk of the Luftwaffe moved to the east to support Hitler’s following in Napoleon’s footsteps by invading Russia. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had dragged a reluctant United States into the war in Europe and the great battle of El Alamain was still in progress in late October 1942. El Alamain would, in Churchill’s stirring words, reflect the glint of victory on the helmets of our soldiers, and become ‘the end of the beginning.’|
Violette was upstairs attending to her four-month-old daughter, Tania, when her mother, Mrs Bushell, answered a knock on the front door of the family’s quiet London suburban home. It was a telegram boy carrying what so many families in Britain between 1939 and 1945 would come to experience, bad news. “I regret to inform you that your husband, Captain Etienne Szabo, died of wounds on 27th October.” That telegram would, as with so many others, change totally the life of the recipient, but in a more dramatic and poignant way.
Etienne Szabo, aged 32 at the time of his death, had been a career soldier who had seen fighting in Indo-China, North Africa and Norway before declaring for Charles de Gaulle in June 1940. That choice may have been simplified by the fact that his unit was in England when France surrendered. Born in Marseilles of Czech parents, Etienne had been an orphan since the age of fifteen. The Foreign Legion was his home.
Violette had been born in 1921 in the British Military Hospital in Paris, the first born of five, to a French mother and a British soldier. She was equally at home in France or England, and completely bi-lingual. She left school at fourteen and was working as a shop assistant in 1940 when the Free French forces paraded in London on Bastille Day. Violette’s French mother sent her nineteen-year-old daughter to find a French soldier and bring him back for a home cooked meal. She returned with the captain in the Legion. They were married five weeks later in Aldershot and General Pierre Koenig, the Legion’s charismatic commander, kissed the young bride.
Etienne left soon afterwards for Africa to persuade, with a great deal of British help, the French colonies to declare for de Gaulle. They were repulsed with a bloody nose at Dakar, but those territories closer to British colonies were more circumspect. The French troops joined with British and South African forces in occupying Italian colonies in East Africa and liberating Abyssinia. Etienne returned to Britain in September 1941 for a short leave, during which their daughter was conceived.
Their time together was brief and Etienne was soon back in North Africa to take part in the first Battle of El Alamain in July 1942. The Free French occupied the southern flank of the allied line and at Bir Hakeim held up Rommel’s Panzers for fifteen days. It was the first time in two years that France’s tattered flag could be held proudly aloft. Etienne’s and Violette’s little girl was safely delivered at this time, but the legionnaire was destined never to see his daughter. Wounded on the first day of the second Battle of El Alamain he died on 27th October.
As the fact of his death seeped into her being, Violette developed a great anger and a burning hatred of the Germans and determined to find a role for herself in the War. Early in 1943 she was recruited by Special Operations Executive. SOE had been the child of Churchill’s fertile brain and was tasked with ‘setting Europe ablaze.’
Violette Szabo trained for over a year for her role as an agent in occupied France. All her trainers commented on her intelligence, her pleasant nature and her attractiveness. She was required to master a number of skills, parachuting, hand to hand combat, use of weapons and explosives and disguises. Her training took her to Surrey, Scotland, Cheshire and finally Beaulieu, in Hampshire. Violette missed her baby daughter hugely, and saw her but rarely at her parents’ house.
On 6th April 1944 she was landed by Lysander in France and spent nearly four weeks in Paris and Normandy meeting Resistance contacts and gathering intelligence. Her feminine side was revealed when she arrived back in England at the beginning of May with her case packed with Parisian fashions.
Still only 23, the young woman had little time to enjoy her new clothes, jumping into France with another agent on D Day plus two. The pair suffered great ill fortune in running into the SS Das Reich Division moving north towards Normandy. Das Reich are infamous for the murder of 642 French civilians, men, women and children in the small Limousin village of Oradour sur Glane. On 10th June she was wounded and captured in a shoot out with German troops. Violette Szabo was taken to Limoges prison and then to Gestapo Head Quarters in Paris, and brutally tortured. Her legend says she told the Nazis nothing, even though her interrogators knew her real name and family details.
In August, Violette was taken by train to Ravensbruck concentration camp. The train was attacked and derailed by RAF Typhoons and the journey to the camp was completed in trucks, taking over three weeks. In January 1945, Violette Szabo was executed by the Gestapo, even as the 1000-year Reich fell into ruins around them. She was still only twenty-three and her daughter, Tania, two years and seven months.
The following lines, used as code by Violette, are a fitting testimony to her memory:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
This poem was written by her Controller, Leo Marks in memory of a girl he loved, killed in an air raid.
Violette Szabo was awarded a posthumous George Cross by the King.
|“I will never, never take that part. Never. I don’t want to make a profit from a saint.” The speaker was Audrey Hepburn in 1955. At the time Audrey was a huge star in both Europe and the United States. She could command up to $US 2,000,000 a film and was already a Broadway success as Gigi on stage and the possessor of an Oscar for Best Actress in Roman Holiday. |
Although then only at the start of her career, Audrey could already boast of Gregory Peck, William Holden, Humphery Bogart and Henry Fonda as leading men. She would go on to include Gary Cooper, Anthony Perkins, Peter Finch, Burt Lancaster, Fred Astaire, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Sean Connery as co-stars. More than her professional success, Audrey’s was the face of the 1950’s and 60’s. She was a slim girl with a small breasted boyish figure but her face was of a delicate exquisite beauty with doe like eyes framed by her famous cropped hairstyle. Millions of girls copied both her appearance and her elegant fashions. More than that, to my mind, she exuded charm, elegance and femininity which seems missing in modern Western women. I was in love with Audrey in the 1950’s, I still am.
She would go on to appear in the much loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as Eliza in My Fair Lady and in the bittersweet romantic comedy Two for the Road. Effectively her career finished in 1967, when she was 38. Despite her success in films, Audrey was a deeply unfulfilled woman. She desperately wanted to be happily married and have a family. Suffering several miscarriages during her first, eventually unsuccessful marriage to Mel Ferrer, she finally gave birth to a son, Sean, just before appearing as the delicious Holly Golightly in Breakfast. She married, secondly, Andrea Dotti, an Italian doctor in 1969. They had a son, Luca, in 1970 when Audrey was 40. The second marriage also failed and Audrey lived the rest of her life in Switzerland, where she died in 1993 from cancer. She spent her last years working tirelessly in Africa for UNICEF.
But to return to Audrey’s vow, we must go back to her childhood. Born in Brussels in 1929 of a British father and Dutch aristocratic mother, she lived a happy, conventional life with her two half brothers until her father walked out on his family when she was six. It would be over thirty years until she really saw him again and in the intervening period she knew very little of his whereabouts. It is now known that Audrey’s parents were Nazi supporters and Joseph Victor Hepburn-Ruston had been invited to leave by the Dutch Government. He was interned by the British for five years during the War.
These events left a great scar on her, but worse was to follow. Throughout her life Audrey Hepburn carried a British passport and in 1940 she was at school in Kent. With a German invasion of Britain threatened, Baroness Hepburn took her daughter back to neutral Holland. This proved to be a major misjudgement as the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. They lived in Arnhem in increasingly difficult circumstances. The young girl, no doubt influenced by her mother’s change of heart on National Socialism, carried messages for the Dutch underground. Audrey’s uncle was executed by the Gestapo. In September 1944 the Allies launched Operation Market Garden. The British Airborne fought for mine days in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to hold the town. As General ‘Boy’ Browning famously remarked, “It was always a bridge too far.”
After the battle, the Germans expelled all the Dutch from Arnhem, leaving them to fend for themselves in the bitter winter of 1944/5. Many died, and Audrey almost did too, scrabbling in the frozen fields for tulip bulbs to eat. Her life was saved by British doctors working for what became UNICEF. The Baroness and her seventeen year old daughter moved to London where Audrey trained as a ballet dancer, unsuccessfully, as it happened.
Minor stage performances led to small film roles and then selection by French writer Colette to play Gigi on Broadway. The film role she was offered and refused in 1955 was that of Anne Frank, the young Dutch Jewish girl who died at the hands of the Gestapo in a concentration camp. Although Audrey was 26 at the time she was offered the role, her slim figure and youthful face could have passed for a fifteen year old girl. She had read The Diary of Anne Frank when she was seventeen, and saw herself in the tragic Anne.
As Audrey herself said, “I couldn’t act that role, I would live it, and I can’t do that.”
|And then there was nothing but a smouldering pile of ashes, a small pile, it must be said.|
1883, viewed from 2004, is a long time ago. Well, 121 years to be exact, and it was in the 19th, and not the 20thcentury, which we can all remember. And yet, 1883 was only 55 years before I was born, and looking back 55 years, I can recall pretty well what was going on in 1949. All right, I remember a little anyway, and it doesn’t seem like the pre dawn of history.
Victoria had been our monarch for 46 years and still had another 18 to run. The British Empire was at the height of its power and international influence. The European peace achieved by Wellington and Blucher’s great victory at Waterloo was still holding, and would run for 99 years until the world was engulfed by the Kaiser’s War. The Iron Duke had been dead for just thirty-one years. Winston Churchill was only nine, and Hitler not yet a twinkle in Alois’s eye. Gladstone was Prime Minister and someone called Chester Arthur was the 21st President of the United States. Mr Arthur’s great predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, had, like John Brown, been mouldering in his grave for a mere nineteen years.
Europe was more or less ruled by six large empires; France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Turkey, and of course, the British Empire. While the Continent was generally free of overall war, the Prussians had had a couple of overwhelming successes against the Austrians and their traditional enemies, the French. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, with all his uncle’s arrogance, but none of his ability, had invaded Germany in 1870. He lost his crown, his empire and a large part of his country. The British restricted themselves to dust ups with the natives around the world and always won, in the end. The Crimean War, the first to be photographed, and the Boer War at the end of the century, taught our grandfathers and great grandfathers that we weren’t quite as good as we had imagined.
The young United States was still recovering from its dreadful Civil War, called either that, or the War of States’ rights, depending on your viewpoint. Some say the war had been fought to abolish slavery. Probably not. Incidentally, the decadent British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, some 28 tears before the guns roared at Fort Sumter.
The second half of the 19th Century was a good time for millions of people, and not so good for millions more. Many things we now take for granted had not been invented. Cars and aircraft were in the future by about 20 years. Computers were not even contemplated. Trains were clattering around the country, driven by steam and coal and depositing soot on peoples’ skins and stinging their eyes. Electricity was in its infancy, with Thomas Edison in the US and Joseph Swan in Britain, developing the light bulb. Godalming, in Surrey, became, in 1881, the first town in Britain to be supplied with electricity for public and private use.
A Mr J Crapper patented the modern flushing toilet and gave a new word to the English language, an honour he could probably have done without. The telephone had been invented in 1876 and was becoming popular. There was no television, no radio, no CDs or DVDs, and no mobile telephones. So some things were better.
One of the three women carefully stirred the small pile of ashes to ensure the fire was out.
In sport, the first International Rugby match had been played between England and Scotland in 1871, followed by International football or soccer a year later. The Men’s singles had started at Wimbledon in 1877, but the ladies would not put their dainty feet on the sacred grass until 1884. In cricket, the Australians had beaten England, in England, for the first, but certainly not the last time. The Sporting Times carried a mock obituary on the ‘Death of English cricket’, saying that the body was to be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
The women put a quantity of the ash into a small urn and sealed it.
In 1883, the Hon. Ivo Bligh took an English cricket team to Australia, and at the end of the scheduled tour, England led 2-1.
The ‘Three Ladies of Melbourne’, alas identified only as such, presented the urn, with the Ashes to Ivo Bligh, to take back to England. The Ashes were of a cricket bail, and thus was a legend, and many clichés, born.
|‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ These lines open the classic Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.” He was speaking about the French Revolution. I am not sure that his assessment was totally correct. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the time of the Terror, and for what? The freedom of man? The dignity of the human spirit? Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité? Maybe. Maybe not. But more importantly, it worked, didn’t it? Most certainly it did not. In the 217 years since the much heralded, and fraudulent, storming of the Bastille, France has had three monarchies, two Empires, five Republics and one degrading regime of collaboration with Nazi Germany. In the same period, stuffy old Britain has had one constitutional monarchy. So the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands who died in France was really for nothing.|
In a similar way, the sacrifices made by countless numbers of young Americans in the Civil War were not primarily to free slaves, but to prevent secessionist States from breaking up the Union. The ending of slavery in the United States was not the cause of the War, but the result of the Union victory, to put the South into economic difficulties.
This is not to argue that something good achieved, for the wrong reasons, is therefore not something good. Slavery was well on its way out in 1861. It had been abolished 28 years earlier in the British Empire. So, what were the sacrifices of the blue and gray soldiers for?
In the Second World War some sixty million people died. Were the sacrifices of the Jews in the Holocaust, or the Londoners in the blitz all in vain? After all, they didn’t really have a choice.
People make sacrifices every day; husbands for wives, wives for husbands, both for their children and vice versa. However, it must be recognised that the ultimate sacrifice, to employ a hackneyed phrase is to give ones life for a cause, or another person, especially when the choice is available not to do so.
One such person was Squadron Leader Arthur Stewart King Scarf. Scarf was a Wimbledon born lad who joined the RAF in 1936. In 1940, while serving in Malaya, he met and married his wife Sally, who was a nursing sister in Singapore. She moved to Alor Star in northern Malaya to be near her husband who was a squadron commander at Butterworth. On 7th December 1941 when the Japanese carried out their attack on Pearl Harbor, Scarf had been watching events in Europe, unable to assist at Dunkirk, or the Battle of Britain or in the air war against Rommel in the desert. Twenty-seven months after was started, he had never been in action.
On 9th December, two days after the ‘Day of infamy’ as President Roosevelt had described Pearl Harbour, Scarf took off in his Blenheim light bomber to lead his squadron of twelve against Japanese targets in Thailand. At that precise moment enemy aircraft attacked the Butterworth airfield, destroying all the British aircraft except Scarf’s.
He would have been justified in aborting his mission, now reduced from twelve to one aircraft. He didn’t but carried out a lone attack against the original target. His aircraft was badly damaged and he was seriously injured by enemy flak and fighters and crash-landed near Alor Star. His crew was safe, but the critically injured pilot was taken to Alor Star hospital where he was able to speak to his wife before becoming unconscious. Sally gave two pints of her own blood, but Squadron Leader Scarf, died, as it happened in the arms of his wife.
It would be June 1946 before Scarf’s courage and sacrifice would be recognised with the award of the Victoria Cross from the King. At his school, King’s College, Wimbledon, this ‘not frightfully brainy, but fine ordinary chap’ had his VC added to the list of gallantry awards won by the pupils. 6 DSO’s, 7 DSC’s, 23 MC’s, 17 DFC’S and a George Medal. The Duke of Wellington is reported, incorrectly, as having said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Surely the boys of Kings College Wimbledon also deserve a mention.
Of all the thousands I could have written about, why did I choose Arthur Scarf? Well I served at Butterworth, wore the same khaki uniform and cap badge as he had worn, and walked daily on Scarf Road, named after a man who made the ultimate sacrifice.
|The small dark haired man sat alone in a chair, in the middle of a large room. He was almost motionless but his nervousness was betrayed by his constant fiddling with his cap which he twisted in his small hands. Occasionally his dark eyes darted around the room, past the shaft of weak winter sunlight from the high church like window. He rubbed the back of his index finger along his pencil thin moustache and tried to listen for clues in the low murmur of the witnesses gathered in the courtroom. He could make no sense of the chatter and he returned to picking at the peak of his cap.|
“This court martial will rise.”
The accused and the witnesses clattered to their feet and stamped to attention. The seven members of the court strode in a dignified line to their places on the dais, each man resplendent in full dress uniforms, medals and spurs clicking rhythmically.
“Captain Dreyfuss.” The Judge Advocate General spoke in a deceptively soft voice and Dreyfuss, despite already being at attention, stiffened.
“Captain Dreyfuss, this court has found you guilty of treason. The finding is unanimous. You will be dismissed in dishonour from the Army of the French Republic, and will be transported for life to Guiana.”
Dreyfuss closed his eyes and swayed. “My God, Devil’s Island.”
Alfred Dreyfuss was thirty-five at the time of his trial and had been a solider for twelve years. He was an uncharismatic man whose military career had been uneventful, and judged by his rank of captain, fairly unsuccessful. Dreyfuss, a married man with two small children, was a native of Alsace, a racially divided province which bordered Germany. In fact, since 1870, when Napoleon III, possessing all of his uncle’s arrogance but none of his genius, had declared war on Prussia, Alsace had been occupied by the German Empire. It would remain so occupied until 1918 and was again from 1940 to 1945. Tragically, the dreadful massacre of 642 French civilians at Oradour sur Glane on 10th June 1944 was perpetrated by the Das Reich SS Division, most of whom were Alsatian men.
The little captain had a worse handicap than his birthplace and his German name. He was Jewish in a country with a rich seam of Anti-Semitism, something never far below the surface in France. During the Second World War the Vichy Government, without much pressure from the Germans, assisted willingly in the deportation of thousands of French Jews to the death camps in the East.
In 1894 the memory the stunning Prussian victory of 1870/71 was still an open sore, the poison from which continued to infect French life, and particularly the French Army. Though not known at the time the Germans would overrun France twice more in the next forty-five years. Gallic nerves were raw in the extreme in matters of Germany, and Dreyfuss had been convicted of writing a letter to the enemy disclosing secret military information.
He had pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ and had said the letter was a forgery, but the court martial, held in camera without civilian witnesses, was a foregone conclusion.
After his departure to Devil’s Island, his family and friends, and to their credit, a number of middle ranking Army officers, sought a re-trial, without success. As the years dragged on, l’affaire Dreyfuss assumed an importance out of proportion to the trial itself. France, as ever, was a divided society with Republicans, Monarchists, Bonapartists, anarchists, supporters of the right wing Catholic Church, and the left wing successors to the Paris Communards. Each faction took pro or anti stances in regard to the trial, but their real interest was in fighting each other.
Lt-Col Picquart, who had been Dreyfuss’s immediate superior, found evidence that another officer had forged the vital letter, but Picquart was immediately arrested and dismissed for his trouble. Politicians of all shades became involved including Georges Clemanceau, later Prime Minister of France, but the establishment clung together. In 1898, the famous French novelist, Emile Zola, wrote an open letter to the French President, accusing the military and political leadership of dishonesty and corruption. His letter, called ‘J’accuse’, sold 200,000 copies on the first day and sparked anti Jewish riots in many parts of France. Zola was arrested, put on trial, and sent to prison for a year.
But by now the momentum for a retrial was unstoppable. In fact, it was not until September 1899 that this occurred and Dreyfuss was again found guilty and given ten years, the outstanding five of which were suspended. . The captain’s supporters fought on, against bitter opposition both in Government and in the country. There followed a number of re-trials, and appeals until in 1906 Alfred Dreyfuss was finally completely cleared. He was restored to the Army after an absence of twelve years at the rank of Major. He resigned almost immediately, but returned to serve throughout the First World War as a Lt-Col. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the whole sorry business was that the real culprit, a Major Henry, confessed to the treason in 1898 and committed suicide. It took another eight years for the unfortunate Dreyfuss to obtain justice.
The fault lines exposed in French society by l’affaire Dreyfuss had been heightened and led to fatal French weaknesses which developed, in 1940, into the shame of the national surrender.
Lt-Col Dreyfuss died in obscurity in Paris in 1935.
One Was Missing
|It was a world record at the time, and it stood for forty-four years before it was broken. And yet, it very nearly didn’t happen at all, firstly just as the participants were setting out and secondly as they had reached the peak of their achievement. It was in June 1932, in a world which had not yet lost its innocence, a world still in the grip of the great recession, but one at peace. In seven short years that innocence and peace would be devastatingly shattered forever, by the flames of the Second World War.|
The two record breakers were well known to each other and to the English public, or at least to those who followed sport. Herbert Sutcliffe was a tall, well groomed and very professional man, immensely proud of his chosen occupation. It was said that Herbert never, ever, had a hair out of place on his elegant head. He was thirty-seven years of age and had served as an officer of the Green Howards, Yorkshire’s Regiment, in the mud and death of the Western Front.
Percy Holmes was forty-four and almost crippled with lumbago, a distressing ailment which would end his career within a year. He was as tall as Sutcliffe, with whom he shared his birthday, but was an altogether jauntier character. He too had gone through the War, and the method by which he now earned his living had only been a seemingly impossible dream while he was in France. Percy was all smiles, while Herbert was serious. Holmes always wore a Yorkshire cap drooping casually over his left eye, while Sutcliffe went hatless. The great Herbert was too dignified for that kind of nonsense.
It was a warm early summer day, in the unlikely setting of Leyton in East London. The small cricket ground was leased by Essex County Cricket Club to play a handful of games on their summer circuit, or circus, as many of the more established counties referred to the tour. Brian Sellars, the only amateur in the side, and therefore the captain of Yorkshire, walked to the middle with Charles Bray, captain of Essex and also an amateur. The half crown glinted in the sun as it turned in the air. Both men peered at the coin resting on the wicket.
“Get your lads out here, Charlie. I think we’ll have a bat.”
Bray looked at the sun, now climbing in the sky, and then at the hard shaven wicket. “I thought that you might, Brian.”
Ten of the Yorkshire side were England players, the exception being Sellars himself. Essex had only one Test man, Maurice Nichols, and it was he who opened the bowling against Sutcliffe and Holmes. He was fast and accurate, and when the score was only four, he forced Holmes to snick the ball to the wicketkeeper James Sheffield, who dropped the not too difficult chance. Sheffield played nearly two hundred games for Essex and at the end of his career went out to New Zealand and turned out for Wellington. He died three days short of his 91st Birthday, in 1997, but the 15th June 1932 was a day that would haunt him for the remainder of his life.
It was the only chance of a long, long, hot day, as Essex toiled and Yorkshire went on and on to close at 423 for no wicket. Holmes had to be helped off the ground by Sutcliffe and the two sat exhausted in the dressing room trying to remember what day it was. Sellars came in.
“Well done, lads.”
“Have we got enough, skipper?” enquired Holmes hopefully, a beer in his hand.
“Have we buggery, we’ll rub their noses in it.”
The following morning was cooler, some relief to the openers as they walked out, or hobbled out in the case of Holmes.
“Let’s play ourselves in again Percy, and see what happens.”
“Aye, all right, Herbert.” Holmes was not convinced.
The score mounted, 450, then 500. Sellars sent out a drink to his men with a message. “The world record is 554 for the first wicket. Tha’d might as well stay there and break it.” The previous record had been set by two earlier Yorkshiremen, JT Brown and Long John Tunnicliffe.
At 551 Sutcliffe hit Eastman for four to set the new record, flailed at the next ball and was bowled. Sellars declared. Herbert Sutcliffe had 313 and Percy Holmes, now in acute agony, 224 not out. The two batsmen had their photograph taken under the scoreboard showing the new world record, 555, and the whole team gathered in the pavilion for champagne. Even Herbert allowed himself a glass and something approaching a smile.
Dick Harvey the Essex scorer came up to Sellars and said something quietly in his ear. The fiery Yorkshire captain exploded. “What’s that, Dick?”
The smaller, older man stuttered. “I’m sorry, skipper, but there’s one missing. It’s only 554. We checked it twice and we’re sure. It’s only 554. There’s no new record.”
After the initial shock, anger and recriminations set in.
“Tha’s bloody daft, Dick Harvey. One bloody missing! Herbert would never have gone and got out if he’d known.”
There was more of the same, before Tiger Smith, the umpire who had played for Warwickshire and England, intervened. “Let me see scorebook, Dick Harvey.” He examined it for full thirty seconds. “You’ve missed a no ball, Dick, in Eastman’s twelfth over. I remember signalling it. Put it in now.”
“You’re certain, Tiger?”
“I’m bloody umpire, Dick. Tha’ll do as I tell thee.”
And so the record was secured, and stood until 1976 when two young Pakistanis broke it
Ten days later Holmes and Sutcliffe opened for England against India at Lords. They scored 39 runs between them in four innings. It was the last of Percy Holmes’ seven Tests for England. He died in 1971. Herbert Sutcliffe played 54 times for his country, and scored over 50,000 runs in his first class career. He died in 1978. His son, Billy, captained Yorkshire as an amateur in the 1950’s. State Express produced a brand of cigarette in honour of the world record, called, of course, 555.
Oh, yes, Essex lost.
Ol’ Blue Eyes and his Ladies!
|Frances Albert Sinatra was probably, in the view of many, and certainly, in my opinion, simply the best popular vocalist of all time.|
He made around 1400 recordings in his lifetime and to many, especially of my generation, he was the voice they listened to as they were growing up and falling in love.
In addition to his singing, Sinatra was a very fine actor when he turned his mind to it, and in ‘From here to Eternity’ in 1953, he turned his mind to it sufficiently well to win an Oscar. He also appeared in 58 other films.
Growing up in an Italian ghetto in New York, Frank was on first name terms with many members of the American Mafia, although allegations of his active involvements with those folks were often rumoured, they have never been proven.
One thing is certain, however, Sinatra was fond of the ladies. In these days of alternatives, I regard that as a virtue.
Frank was born in 1915 in Hoboken, an Italian migrant area in New York City. His family was from Italy; his father a Sicilian. At birth Frank weighed thirteen and a half pounds. As his mother, Dolly, was a smallish woman, that must have stung a bit. The child appeared lifeless and was ignored by the midwife to attend to his mother. Frank’s grandmother held the apparently dead baby under a cold water tap and the voice which would become famous sounded for the first time.
In 1917, Nancy Barbato was born not far away from where Frankie was growing up. Her parents were also Italians. In 1939 the couple married.
About the same time Frank signed for band leader Harry James and later moved to front the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. This enabled his career to take off. In the middle forties the Sinatras, now including baby Frank, moved to Hollywood. That move enabled the singer to become world famous. However, Hollywood was full of girls, many of them very beautiful and often eager to be seen on the arms of rising stars.
Frankie was tempted and strayed. Strayed more that once and the birth of Nancy junior in 1944 and Tina in 1948 did little to make his marriage stronger. Incidentally, the song ‘Nancy with her laughing face’ was written about his daughter and not his wife, the only song that Frank had a hand in writing. Incidentally again, Nancy senior is still with us, aged 98.
In 1950 Francis fell hopelessly in love with Ava Gardner, a famous actress and one of the most beautiful women in the world.
At the time of their marriage Frank’s career was on the slide while Ava was at the peak of her fame. It was a stormy coupling, to put it at its mildest and the marriage in 1951 ended in 1957 in acrimonious divorce. Many do, I have found. Sadly, for Frank, Ava remained ‘l’amour de sa vie’. I know how you feel babe.
In the early 1950’s, during his time with Ava, Frank moved record labels from Columbia to Capitol. In Capitol he teamed up with a number of excellent band leaders and musical directors like Don Costa, Billy May and primarily Nelson Riddle, whose centenary is celebrated this year.
Together they produced a series of superb albums, in many of which Sinatra opened his tormented soul to the lyrics as in ‘I’m a fool to want you’, and ‘One for the road’.
My friend, Sally, describes his recordings in this period as ‘cut your throat’ music, and I fear she is right. But, late at night, sitting alone with a whiskey in your hand, they seem appropriate.
Ava Gardener subsequently moved to London and one day in the eighties my wife and I saw her shopping in Kensington. By this time Ava was slipping into the half world of dementia and she died in 1990.
After his divorce from Ava Gardener, Sinatra spent time with many Hollywood actresses, including Shirley MacLean, Juliet Prowse and Lauren Bacall, to whom he was engaged. It is said that he also squired Marylyn Monroe and asked her to marry him. She declined which some consider a very lucky break for old blue eyes.
Instead he had a short marriage in 1966 to Mia Farrow who was 23 and Frank 51 at the time. The union failed in 1968.
His next marriage was his last, to Barbara Marx in 1976. They remained married until his death in 1998. Considering the life he led, including smoking cigarettes and plenty of booze, the boy did well to reach 82 years of age.
Frank is survived by his three children, Nancy junior, Frank junior and Tina. Frank junior tried to follow his father as a pop singer but found it too high a mountain to conquer. Nancy junior was more successful with hits like ‘These boots are made for walking’ and ‘Something stupid’ a number one hit with her dad.
Nancy, Mia and Barbara all survive as ladies who were once known as Mrs Frank Sinatra. I believe that, in the eyes of most Sinatra aficionados, Nancy remains the most loved wife and Barbara the least.
Frank was once asked, ‘Where are the most beautiful women in the world?’ His reply, after a few moments thought, was ‘where ever you happen to be at the time.’
Amen to that, I say.
No News is Good News; Sometimes
|The chandeliers sparkled in the lights from the candles and oil lamps, seemingly winking at the dancers who spun and twirled to the music of the red jacketed musicians.|
It was apparently a carefree sight, the young officers smiling at their wives and sweethearts; the ladies in their lush gowns and coiffured hair, smiled back and bowed graciously to their partners before moving on. It was a balmy early summer evening, while many of the great and good looked on.
Yet there was a tension in the ballroom, a heaviness which hung around the dancers like a shroud. The young men knew, and their ladies also knew, with a dreadful awareness that many of those here present would almost certainly be dead within a few days. And the reason for their foreboding stood, his arms folded across his chest, talking to the Duchess of Richmond. The Duke of Wellington was here for one reason, and one reason only, to fight Napoleon and put an end, once and for all, to the tyrant’s rule of fear over Europe.
Holding her fan to her lips, the Duchess whispered, “And what news of the French, Arthur?”
“No news, Lady Fiona, no news at all.”
“And is that good news?”
“Time will tell, Fiona, time alone will, tell.”
The Duke and Duchess of Richmond, as the hosts, and the Duke of Wellington, as the chief guest, accepted the greetings of the Army leaders and the British aristocracy. All had faith in Wellington’s judgement and were satisfied that the great man had deployed his forces judiciously. At around nine in the evening the dancers broke up for supper and during the meal, the 22 year old Prince of Orange entered the dining room and approached Wellington. He whispered in his ear for several minutes before leaving again.
Wellington turned to Richmond. “The French have crossed the frontier and have pushed back the Prussian piquet. Blucher is retiring on Ligny. By God, Bonaparte has humbugged me. He has stolen twenty four hours on me.”
The Duke of Richmond stared at the soldier. “Can I help in some way?”
“Do you have a good map and a room I can use?”
Richmond nodded. “Follow me. You can use my study.”
Wellington rose from the table, catching the eyes of many of his senior officers and he nodded. Most of his senior commanders, Picton, Uxbridge, Ponsonby and Maitland also rose, causing the younger officers to hasten their own departures. It was time; time to join their regiments and time perhaps, time to die.
Wellington spread out the map on the table in front of him. He jabbed his finger on Charleroi. “The French are here, perhaps twenty miles away. We will stop them here, at Quatres Bras and, God willing, by the Prussians at this place, Ligny.”
He looked up. “Are there any questions? Very well, Gentlemen; Go join your regiments. And may God go with you all.”
It was two thirty ion the morning before Wellington went to bed and he slept for three hours. By six he was in the saddle and passed the bulk of his Army en route to Quatres Bras, where the Dutch and Belgian troops had already beater back a weak French attack.
During the day the battle expanded as the Duke’s soldiers arrived and were fed into the fray. Away to the Duke’s left, about three miles distant at Ligny, the French and Prussians engaged in a life and death struggle. The French tried time and time again to take the crossroads, attempting to outflank the British and their Allie, but were checked by the skill of the 95th Rifles with their Baker rifles, so more accurate a weapon that the muskets of Marshal Ney’s forces.
About six in the evening the fighting ceased as both sides retired to lick their wounds and consider their next moves. Wellington reviewed his soldiers, making adjustments to his dispositions. The medical officers tended to the wounded, cutting, probing and amputating limbs were necessary. The wounded were dispatched northwards, towards Brussels, the rickety horse drawn ambulances adding to the agonies of the unfortunate injured men.
By midnight the Duke realised that the Prussians had been severely mauled at Ligny, about three miles distant, losing some 16,000 men to the French casualty total of 12,000. At Quatres Bras the Allied losses were about 4,500 dead, wounded and missing, while the French losses were later shown to be about 4,300. Wellington was on horseback all night, receiving reports from his mounted officers who had reconnoitred the Prussian positions. He knew that he would need to retire to avoid giving Napoleon the opportunity to outflank him on his left.
Breakfast was served at seven thirty in the morning and then preparations began to withdraw. Just after eleven, the crossroads were abandoned and protected by the cavalry the whole Army moved north. The withdrawal took all day, with the Duke staying with his troops, encouraging them and exhorting the stragglers. The French pursued but without great enthusiasm, a pursuit literally dampened by the heavy rain which started in the early afternoon.
About six, Mont St Jean was reached and the wet, hungry and exhausted men were deployed behind the great ridge. Everyone knew that there would be a battle at this place, as no further retreat was possible before Brussels.
The rain continued all night, until about five in the morning of 18th June, soaking the soldiers who were camped in the open. It was not possible to light cooking fires even if the Commissariat had been able to effect supplies. As the sun rose on the rain saturated ground, the Army stood watching the first deployments of the French a mile or away. It was little comfort to the British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops that the French would be just as wet, hungry and miserable as they were themselves.
One thing was certain; this day, 18th June 1815, would be a day to remember for a lifetime, for he who survived.
Dusting Off The Angler!
|“You don’t like me, do you?” The question was put directly and without any preamble.|
Geoffrey Wright was sitting on the bench, sprawled would have been a better word. His boots were on the floor in front of him, and he was wiggling his toes. He looked up, his toes stopped moving and he regarded the speaker with a puzzled gaze.
“Are you talking to me, Harry?”
“Yes, I’m talking to you, Mister Wright.” The last two words were spoken with distinct venom, which even the other players in the dressing room recognised.
“I see. Would you care to explain to me what in God’s name you are going on about?”
“I said that you didn’t like me. I thought that was plain enough.”
Geoffrey sat up straight, his aching feet forgotten. “Harry, be a good chap and explain what it is that’s biting you.”
“You don’t like me, because I’m a dustman. You don’t like me because I ain’t like you, a big company director, with a BMW, a big house and prizes for being the champion bloody angler in Surrey. You don’t like me because I’m only a humble bloody dustman, picking up your rubbish once a week for a living. And you don’t like me because I’m a better footballer than you.”
“Harry, I have never heard such a lot of old cobblers in all my life. I hope you won’t object if I remind you that we are due back on the field in two minutes and we are losing 2-1.”
Harry Brent was not finished yet. “And that’s another thing, why are you the bloody skipper?”
There was a howl of derision from the other players, all busily putting on their boots again, or fixing their shin guards. “Shut up, Harry, you dozy pillock. Let’s get on with the game.”
They trotted out on to the muddy strip of grass which masqueraded as a football pitch, lining up opposite their opponents, the regulars at the Fox and Ferret. Pub football was serious stuff. Harry Brent, still glowering and muttering to himself, wandered down to take his position in goal, while Geoffrey Wright assumed his spot on the right of the back four. It was a hard fought match, and, the Rose, the team that the two antagonists played for, drew level in the 73rd minute with a superb right foot shot from Billy Mills, whose tee total habits made many question his eligibility to play for any football team purporting to represent a pub. Just before the final whistle, Billy was tripped inside the penalty box, and the referee pointed to the penalty spot, amid howls of protest from the Fox. Micky Duff, the local butcher, with a kick like a mule, walked back ten paces, turned, charged in, and scored.
The locals at the Rose, players as well as spectators, were delighted, and began whistling to remind the referee of his duties. In one last desperate attack, the Fox’s forwards swarmed around their opponents’ goal. The ball swung over from the right, and in the goalmouth, the attackers and defenders rose to meet it. As Geoffrey Wright climbed, Harry Brent rushed from his goal to punch the ball clear. The goalkeeper and his defender collided in mid air and fell heavily, the strongly built Wright on top of the slight keeper. Everyone heard the crack as the pair tumbled to earth, everyone on the pitch, and nearly everyone recognised the sound of a breaking bone. The other players hauled Geoffrey off the smaller Harry, who lay still.
The centre forward of the Fox pushed his way through. “Let me past, I’m a doctor.” He knelt in the muddy goal area, the other players standing in silence. The doctor looked up, his face a stony mask. “It’s his neck, it’s broken. Someone get a mobile and phone for an ambulance.”
Blue lights flashing, and sirens screeching, the ambulance braked to a halt at the A & E at St Peters. Some of the players arrived in their cars, still in their mud stained strip. It was too late. Harry Brent was dead on arrival.
Billy Mills and Micky Duff stood in a corner whispering softly, as if out of respect for the dead man.
“Funny thing, Billy, you know old Harry was giving Geoff’s missus one?”
“He was screwing Geoff’s old lady, and here you are, Harry’s dead. Strange, innit?”
“Are you suggesting it wasn’t an accident?”
“I dunno, but Geoff is as jealous as hell where Veronica is concerned, and the word is that he knew all about it.”
“Christ!” Billy had suddenly turned pale. “Geoff has asked me to go sea fishing with him next weekend.”
Micky looked puzzled. “Yeah, so what?”
“Well I’m screwing his missus too.”
Talk Your Way Out Of This
|It was a largish room, with a long table in the middle and a dozen or so chairs scattered around it. The room seemed smaller as piles of signs, bit of piping and redundant furniture impinged on its purpose, that of a meeting room. I leaned back in my chair and could see the front gate and part of tank seven through the dirt streaked window. I looked at the two men sat opposite me, the elder of the pair also leaning back in his chair, viewing the scene with what seemed to be a detached air.|
The younger man opposite coughed unhappily. “Can we break for a smoke?”
“OK. Twenty minutes long enough?”
George nodded and scuttled away.
I looked at my watch. “1020, Steve, interview suspended.”
Steve, sitting to my left, nodded and made a note.
“All OK with you, Doug?” I looked across the table.
The other man got to his feet slowly. “Right, in a moment then.” He went out, followed at a distance by Steve and I.
The cold winter morning was a blessing after the artificial heat of the office and was welcome. It also reminded me that I needed to relieve myself. Doug was at the urinal, his lit pipe clenched between his teeth as he zipped up his fly. He went to wash his hands, a feat achieved with the pipe still in his mouth.
“What do you think, John?” He held the pipe by the bowl and pointed outside the toilets.
I zipped up before answering him. “You’re his shop steward. What do you think?”
“I think the bastard’s lying.”
I nodded. “I agree, let’s see how he talks his way out of this.”
As we walked back to the office he grasped my arm and stopped me. “John, don’t get me wrong. I’ll stick up for my blokes, when they deserve it, but if they have been thieving from the Company, you can fucking hang them as far as I am concerned.”
“No dispute on that one, Doug.”
We reassembled in the stuffy meeting room.
“Right, George, let’s just run over the facts. On 27th you returned to the terminal with one full compartment of 5000 litres. You declared this and said that the foot valve must have stuck. Right so far?”
“So the controller rang Granada to tell them their delivery was short and they said that the same thing happened one week earlier, on 20th when they also had a shortage of 5000 litres. You had done that job as well, but had not declared any product on board on return to the terminal.”
“I didn’t steal it.”
I put two circular flat discs on the table between us. They were about five inches in diameter. “You know what these are?”
“They’re tacho discs”.
“Right, and that is your signature?”
The man hesitated and I thought he would deny it. “Yes,” he conceded reluctantly.
I put two typed reports on the desk and turned them around to face George. “And these are the analytical reports from Aston University on what journeys are represented by these discs. I have also driven the route myself.”
“Yeeeesssss.” Christ, it was like extracting teeth.
“They show you were stopped for 20 minutes at Park Service Station on the evening of 20th.”
“Yes, the dealer is a mate of mine.”
“He says he never saw you.”
“He’s a lying bastard.”
“I thought he was a mate.”
“Not when he’s lying.”
“On 27th you stopped there for four minutes.”
I tapped the report. “That’s what it says in there.”
George shrugged, and looked to Doug for help. Doug was carefully examining his fingernails.
“The report says you also stopped at two other Mobil dealers on the 27th, for short periods. George, I‘ll tell you what happened. On 20th, at Granada, you fooled the nineteen-year-old assistant manageress into thinking you had delivered all seven pots. She is too scared to go on top of the truck to check the dips. You dropped off the spare 5000 litres at Park and came home. On 27th you ripped off Granada again, but this time Charlie Herd at Park was windy and wouldn’t take it, so you tried a couple more Mobil Stations and they were windy as well. So, George, old lad, you brought the full compartment back and gave the controller some spiel about a sticking foot valve. How am I doing?”
Doug, Steve and I looked at George, who was now rubbing his pursed lips.
“I think I’d better tell you the truth.”
“Go on then, we are all waiting.”
“Well, you see, I have a girlfriend, and I didn’t want my wife to know.”
“That’s normal, I understand.”
“Well, I used to meet her at Mobil service stations along my route.”
“Really, and did you meet her on 20th?”
“Yes, at Park Service Station.”
“OK, George, how do I put this? Did you have sex with her?”
“In the 20 minutes you were stopped there?”
“In the cab of my truck.”
Steve, Doug and I all stared at him. I think he was blushing.
“A classy bird was she, then, George?”
“Oh, yes, very classy is Debbie.”
“What’s Debbie’s surname?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s her address?”
He shook his head.
“How did you arrange to meet?”
“She’d phone me at work and we’d meet at a service station.”
“So, she’d phone you, and you would nominate a station and she, the nameless Debbie, would turn up and you’d have a quick bang in your cab. Is that it?”
“Yes. On the following week she wasn’t there so I called at two other sites in case she’d made a mistake, but she wasn’t there.”
“Not very romantic, George, was it?”
“George, your defence is that you were not thieving, but screwing in the truck?”
“George, I have never heard so much old bollocks in my life “
George turned in silent appeal to Doug, who got up and took his pipe from his pocket.
“Listen to what the man says, George. I’m going to have a smoke.”
“Ok, George, let me tell you what is going to happen now.”
|She dove slowly, too slowly for the driver following her on the single-track road. He sounded his horn angrily, but the woman merely looked in the driving mirror and continued on her fifteen-MPH way. “Wait,” she muttered to herself. “I won’t be long.” Finally she saw what she was seeking, a small parking area on her right. She turned into it, without signalling. Her mind was too full to consider such trifles. As he roared past, the man in the car behind leaned out of his window and roared, “Learn to drive, you stupid old cow.”|
The woman shrugged and switched off the engine and sat facing out to sea. Stupid old cow? Yes, probably he was right. Learn to drive? Well, I did that over forty years ago. The sea was calm, little white tops skipping easily up to the tiny beach, just as it had been on the day, what fifty years ago? The clouds drifted lazily, allowing the weak sun occasional chances to peep around them and turn the water from dark to a lighter blue. She sat there for a long time, just staring at the sea, but only seeing that day, that awful day.
After some time, she didn’t know how long it was, she got out of the car and stood for a few seconds, pulling her dark wool coat tighter around her. Was it really fifty years? Yes, 1955, a different time and a different world. She had been eight and Katy six. They had been coming to this isolated place in Cornwall for their holidays ever since she could remember. The long drive from London, the terrible traffic queues in those pre motorway days. Dad’s new Rover 90, the smell of leather and car polish. Those smells were still in her nostrils. She raised her head and sniffed, turning round as if expecting to see her Dad sitting on the car’s bonnet smoking his pipe while her mother spread out the picnic things on the grass.
Mum and Dad, Emma and Katy, a perfect family. Everyone said so, so it must have been true. Well, Katy had been perfect, again they all said so, Mum, Dad and Katy herself. Perhaps you were, sister dear, but it isn’t how I remember it. She walked to the edge of the car park. They have railings here now. That’s new, there hadn’t been any fifty years ago. That was part of the problem they had said, no railings. Emma looked over the edge at the rocks about two hundred feet below, the sea lapping in and out. They had been sisters, but never friends. Looking back it must have been jealousy. Katie had been everything Emma had not been, pretty, slim, blonde and popular. People liked her, especially Mum and Dad. The sisters had fought a great deal, sometimes physically. Most of all they had fought about the radio which her father had bought and given to Katy to take on the holiday. She, Emma, should have had it. After all, she was older. But then, Katy got everything and Emma got nothing. Of course she mused, that was how it seemed. After fifty years she knew it had not been true. A bit late now, you silly old cow.
She hadn’t known at the time what an inquest was. It had been just a big room with lots of people, including Mum and Dad and a man asking questions. “Accidental death,” he had said. Mum and Dad had never been the same and her mother had simply withered away. Her father grew distracted and distant as he saw his wife go into an irreversible and terminal decline. After his wife’s death he had taken to drinking before cutting his wrists at the age of fifty. It had been the edges of the cliff, the Coroner had said. They had been crumbling for years. He ordered that strong fences be constructed.
Emma walked back to the car and took out a bouquet of flowers. Bloody radio, why did they argue so much over it? Roses, not English at this time of year surely? It didn’t matter. She removed the wrapping paper and the rubber band around the stalks. Slowly she returned to the edge of the cliffs, separating the flowers as she went. ‘Brave girl’, the Coroner had said, ‘for being so strong after her sister’s death. You must be strong, he told her, for your mother and father.’
She tossed the red roses high into the air, where they seemed to hang motionless for an eternity before being picked up by the wind and blown away, some back to the cliff edge, some to the sea. “Sorry, Katy that it has taken me so long to come back. I just couldn’t do it.” She checked the pocket of her coat. The letter was still there. Emma slipped out of her coat and put it on the front seat of the car.
She climbed over the railing and stood for a moment looking down. “I’m so sorry, Katy. Dammed radio. I shouldn’t have pushed you.” She stepped forward.
|The Police Captain leant back in his chair, slowly lit a cigar and regarded the man sitting on the other side of his desk. “Mr Reynolds, thank you for bringing this matter to my attention, but I’m not sure what you would like me to do about it.”|
Mike Reynolds spread his hands. “It is just that something seemed wrong, and I had no idea who else I could ask.”
The policeman placed his cigar in the ashtray in front of him, and the pale blue smoke drifted into Mike’s face, it’s direction of travel assisted by the overhead fan, the rusting leading edge of which struggled wearily in the turgid, humid air. The captain picked up the little bundle of clothing from the desktop. “OK. Let me see if I have the story right. You were walking yesterday from the town beach towards Diana beach, and you went across the rocks on the headland. Yes?”
Mike nodded. “Correct.”
“And you found these on the rocks about ten metres from the sea?”
“Yes, ten or twelve yards.”
“OK. So we have a lady’s wristwatch, a pair of sunglasses, and a, what would you call this?”
“I think it’s a kimono, or something like that. It’s what women wear over their bikinis when in the street.”
The captain smiled. “At present in Cyprus many of them wear almost nothing. Well, at least the tourists do. OK, and a pair of beach shoes. Nothing very expensive, and no identification anywhere.”
Mike nodded again. “I’m afraid so. I left it all where I found it, thinking the owner had gone for a swim, but on my return, a couple of hours later, it was still there.”
The policeman smiled again. “Well, no bodies have turned up along the coast, or,” he indicated his computer, “anywhere on the island. There are no reports of any missing persons. So, short of dragging the Mediterranean for a body, I can’t help you.”
Mike got up, stuffed the little pile of items into a plastic bag, thanked the captain and left. He stopped outside the police station, pulled up short by the searing heat and blinding sunlight. Dammit! He had come on holiday to get some peace of mind, after a bitter, protracted divorce. How in God’s name had he become involved in this? Bin the bloody stuff, Mike. If the cops don’t want to know, why should you bother?
He found the nearest tavern, O’Neill’s Irish pub and ordered a large beer from Nico, the owner, whose only connection with Ireland was that he had once drunk a Bushmills. The beer didn’t touch the sides. The four items were spread out on the table and examined more carefully. The watch was Japanese, with no inscription and quite unremarkable. The same applied to the sunglasses except they had been made in China. The kimono, or shawl, had been made in England, but that didn’t help much, as half the tourists he had seen since his arrival had been Brits.
The shoes were different. They were almost new and had a label on the inside in English, inscribed ‘G. Papadopoulis, Made in Cyprus.’ Mike made up his mind to check the various shoe shops in town later in the day when the sun went down. He ordered another beer and a Greek salad and spent the afternoon laying on the beach, his little plastic bag beside him, nagging away at his mind.
At the fifth shop he realised that he was wasting his time. All five stocked the shoes which sold for about ten Cyprus pounds, and no one recognised the kimono. At the last shop the owner looked at him pityingly. “We do have a lot of customers at this time of year.” He picked up the shoes again and examined them. “You know that there is something written inside this left one?”
They examined the shoe closely. Sure enough someone had written K.Lee in blue ink. The following morning Mike presented himself at Larnaca Police Station.
The captain smiled. “Mr Reynolds, kelie mera. Have you found a body?”
“Captain Katsimentes, no, but I may have a name.”
The policeman sat up straight and took the shoe. “Well, now, that’s different.” Over his shoulder he called out, “Sgt Frangakis,”
“Sir?” A large, heavily moustached man hurried into the office.
“Check Immigration and your hotel records for a female, possibly British, in the name of K.Lee. Last seven days please.”
“Last two weeks, please?” Mike interposed gently.
“OK, two weeks, sergeant. Now, Mike, a cup of coffee while we wait?”
The checks were accomplished in fifteen minutes. A Mrs Katie Lee had entered Larnaca Airport from London by Monarch Airlines three days previously and was registered at the Hotel Olympus. Katsimentis stood up and took his black cap off the hook on the wall. “Come on, we’ll do this together.” They walked the ten minutes to the hotel and the hotel receptionist was very anxious to deal with the captain’s request to speak to Mrs Lee.
A young woman of about thirty appeared in the lobby within a few minutes. She was concerned that the police wished to speak to her. She was small, dark haired, slim, and Chinese. She was also very attractive. The policeman introduced himself. “Are you all right, Mrs Lee? No problems of any kind?”
She smiled with relief. “No, I’m fine thank you, apart from six stitches in my right foot.” She pointed to her heavily bandaged foot. “Why?”
Katsimentas smiled dazzlingly. “I am delighted to hear that. Mr Mike Reynolds here has been most concerned about you and he has some of your property, I think.” He touched his cane to the peak of his cap and left.
Mike opened his bag. “Are these things yours?”
“Yes, they are. I gashed my foot on a rock while swimming and came ashore on the beach. I went to hospital and when I got back my stuff had gone. Thank you very much. Ever since I was at school, I have always written my name in my shoes. Childish habit, I know. Look, Mike, may I buy you dinner to thank you properly for your trouble?”
“Yes, fine, thank you. Will your husband come too?”
“Yes, you are Mrs Lee?”
“I still use my married name, but I was divorced two years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be, I’m not. It’s ironic that you took all that trouble to find me and return my shoes. They don’t fit.”
|“Excuse me, sir, may I have a few words with you?”|
“Who, me?” I looked at the speaker. He, well I think it was a he, was a strange looking person, with a trilby hat and wearing an overcoat which bunched out at the back. I was more accustomed to ‘Oy, you.’
“Yes, you, sir, if you don’t mind.”
I went over to this apparition, and as I got closer I saw that he/she/it was wearing an angelic look on its face. “Yes, how can I help you?”
“I’m conducting a poll on education and schooling.”
I was still suspicious. “Who do you work for?”
“I’m with a group called God Inc.”
“Who’s your boss?”
He looked round to see if anyone was listening. “God.”
“What, Tony Blair?”
“No, no, not him, the other one.”
“Oh, you mean God God?”
“That’s right, him. Here’s my card.”
I examined the piece of cardboard. ‘Michael the Archangel, Senior Interviewer.’
Michael held out his mobile phone, “If you have a problem, you can text the office, God is on call at the moment. By the way everybody calls me Mick”
I declined to call God, Mick might just be telling the truth, and I didn’t want to upset the Boss. “It’s OK, what do you want to know, Mick?
“Well,” said Michael, “A few questions about school.” He licked the tip of his pencil and prepared his clipboard.
“School was the last place I wanted to be,” I snarled.
He stopped licking his pencil and looked at me, quizzically. ” And can you share with me why that was?”
“Mostly because I was educated by the Jesuits, a bunch of Fascist swine.”
“Please,” said Mick, “Don’t hang back, say what you really think. All answers are in confidence.”
“I thought God knew everything?”
“Well, he can be selective in what he remembers. So you didn’t like the Jesuits?”
“No, evil, cruel, and vindictive, even on a good day, and part of your lot.”
“Oh, no, we’re non denominational in heaven. Do you mind if I take off my coat and hat, my wings and halo are killing me?”
“Go ahead,” I told him. “Why are you wearing a hat and coat when it’s 82 degrees?”
“We are meant to adopt a low profile.” He struggled out of the gear. “That’s better, I really don’t envy Lucifer.”
“And another thing,” I said. “I was at an all boys school, I didn’t learn about girls until I was in my twenties.”
He was busily scribbling. “Don’t know a lot about them myself, love.” He sniffed. “Anything else.”
“What was the use of trigonometry, or Algebra, or calculus?”
“Beat’s me, mate.”
I was warming to Mick. “And Irish, and Classical Greek, and French.”
He clucked sympathetically, “Tell me about it, dear, we have De Gaulle and Mitterand in Heaven. Right pains in the halo they can be.”
“And RK,” I went on.
“RK?” he queried.
“Religious knowledge,” I said, surprised at his lack of it.
“Ah, indoctrination we call it.”
“Propaganda I call it. As far as the Jesuits were concerned everyone who was not Catholic should have been shot, and many of the Catholics as well.”
“We don’t believe that anymore.” He smiled in a superior way. “Well, not completely. Did you learn anything at school?”
“Well, I learned not to believe anyone who told me that schooldays were the happiest days of my life.”
“Who told you that?”
“People who no longer had to go there, like my Mother and Father. What I did learn was that the best way to learn something was because you wanted to do it, not because you were forced to do it.”
“Right,” he said, closing the clipboard with a snap, and tucking his pencil behind his halo. “We’re going to put Estelle Morris and Sir Richard Stubbs in charge of working up a new programme. We will call it AASA.”
“What does the final ‘A’ stand for?”
“Almost anything you like.”
“I thought you disapproved of hell?”
“Dear God, no. If there was no hell, no one would appreciate heaven.” And he vanished, just like that.
A Modern Day Fairytale
|The scream could be heard throughout the entire building site, reducing the fifty or so workers to a shocked silence. It was followed by an equally agonised, drawn out gurgle of pain. Those who were close saw that a huge slab of concrete had fallen directly onto a bricklayer’s hands crushing them against the wall he had been laying. It took nearly ten minutes to move the slab. Fortunately, the injured man, Jake Ottley was already unconscious.|
At first it was thought that amputation would be necessary for at least one hand, if not both. Jake’s surgeon was a very compassionate man and he worked tirelessly for a year to rebuild the shattered hands. He succeeded, after a fashion. Jake was able, more or less, to use them but without the abilities he possessed before the accident. He was unable to work, and from his own viewpoint something worse, unable to play cricket.
At the start of April 2004, Jake wandered down to the village cricket ground in St Johns in Woking, to see his old teammates.
“Jake, old chap, how are you?” “What a bloody shame, mate.” And so on. Some people, unable to know how to handle the situation, joked awkwardly. “Well, Jake, at least it won’t spoil your fielding; you were no bloody good in the first place.”
He was persuaded to pad up and go into the nets, but it was not a success. His hands were totally estranged from the bat and Jake Ottley knew he would never bat properly again. The club captain, Brian Lee, went into the nets, picked up a ball and tossed it to Jake. “Come on, mate, throw me down a few. Your fielding wasn’t the only thing that was lousy; you couldn’t bowl either.”
“True, true,” Jake muttered to himself, as he came off his short run, three paces, and turned his arm over. The ball pitched outside the leg stump, spun sharply and hit Lee’s off stump.
Brian Lee stared down the track. “You lucky bugger. Bet you can’t do that again.”
“Oh yes, bloody lucky, that’s me all right.” At the same time he could feel that his misshapen hand could impart a great deal of spin on the ball. He tried again and Lee was bowled middle stump by a prodigious off break from outside the off stump. All the players gathered around to watch Jake and examine his grip on the ball. At the end of the evening they all knew, as did Jake, that the 39 year old with the ugly broken hands could spin a cricket ball like no one they had ever seen.
Jake was picked for the first game and took 7-23 as his team romped home by a street. Throughout the summer he left a trail of carnage across the Surrey cricket leagues, taking 130 wickets in 22 games. He even started to practice bowling left-handed. Jake Ottley was famous. His story was covered by all the national newspapers and there was even talk of his being elected Briton of the Year. His damaged hands were featured in press photographs and even on television.
It was close to the end of the season when he received a telephone call at his home. A man introduced himself. “I’m Roger Knight, Secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club. Tell me, please, Jake, where were you born.”
Jake, certain he was being set up, replied, “Guildford.”
“Would you like to turn out for the County in our last Championship match, against Middlesex at the Oval?”
“This is a joke, isn’t it?”
But it was not a joke and J A Ottley, at forty years of age made his debut for Surrey a few days later. He tore Middlesex apart, taking thirteen wickets in the game to give his County an innings victory and the County Championship. The following year, Jake was playing for Surrey from the opening game. Throughout 2005 he wreaked havoc on the cricket grounds of England and Wales, taking over a hundred wickets and heading the national averages. Inevitably, there were calls in the press for his inclusion in the Test team, calls that became a torrent when the Aussies won the Fourth Test to level the series at 2-2.
Jake didn’t believe such a thing was possible, but when Ashley Giles broke a finger, there was David Graveney on the phone.
“Jake, will you join the team at the Oval for the final Test?”
What a question! There was only one answer and so, a few days later, an unemployed brickie arrived in his Vauxhall Astra to meet the others. It was as if the Gods had come down from Mount Olympus as they walked onto the familiar turf. Flintoff, Michael Vaughn, KP, Strauss and Harmie. These were the English players. The Australian Gods were even larger, McGrath, Warney, the skipper Ponting and the batting legend, Matt Hayden. Jake walked several feet off the ground.
It all proved too much for Jake Ottley. Glenn McGrath bowled him first ball in England’s first innings of 368. The Australians powered to a lead of 220 runs with Jake taking none for plenty. His spin had gone, he simply couldn’t bowl. In their second innings England didn’t bat well and when Jake joined Andy Flintoff, the great man needed another 50 for his hundred. The pair added 56, Jake scoring a painful two before Brett Lee took all three of his stumps out of the ground. At least Flintoff had his century, even if England’s lead was only 92. Hayden and Langer moved steadily to 39 off eleven overs before Vaughn called on Jake to bowl. As he started his short run up, Langer at the non striker’s end remarked, “You can’t bloody bowl, mate.”
The ball spun sharply from the leg, took the edge of Hayden’s bat and Trescothick was throwing the ball up at slip. Ponting played all around the third ball and was bowled through the gate and to the fifth Damian Martin gave Jake the charge, missed and Jones whipped off the bails. 39-3. The crowd hummed with excitement; sensing something might just be happening. It was, England’s spinner could spin the ball again. The wickets tumbled, Jake taking six and Flintoff, striving with every sinew, three at the other end. 90-9; the Aussies needed only three runs to win. The Oval was electric, the tension tangible as Jake took the ball for his ninth over. The Australians, the English players, the 26,000 spectators and indeed the whole country knew this was to be the final over. Thirty days of cricket, one hundred and eighty hours had boiled down to this moment. It was not going to be easy.
Shane Warne spent a busy minute of gardening, and, as Jake was preparing to bowl, called for new batting gloves. He took fresh guard, looked slowly around the field and nodded, ready to face. Jake turned quietly to umpire Buckner. “I want to bowl round the wicket.”
Buckner stared at him. “You’s bowling round the wicket now, man”
“Left arm around.”
Buckner stared at Jake, eyes white in his long West Indian face. He wandered over to Rudi Koertzen and the two umpires discussed the unprecedented request. They asked the advice of the third umpire and after some delay, it was decided that Jake could bowl left-handed. Bucknor advised Warne who took fresh guard, shaking his blonde locks in disbelief.
Jake trotted in slowly, and delivered the ball, imparting more spin than he had ever done. The ball pitched on off stump and spun back into the batsman. Warne went down on one knee to sweep, but the ball climbed on him, took the shoulder of the bat and there was Geraint Jones leaping like a salmon to catch it in his left glove. The Oval erupted in a wall of sound, relief, joy and sheer excitement woven into an explosion.
Jake, unable to believe what had happened, stood still as Freddie Flintoff lead the charge of bodies towards him. He lost consciousness as they fell on him. A hand was shaking him. “Jake, Jake, we’ve won the Test, we’ve won the bloody Test.” As Jake opened his eyes he saw his wife and the jubilant scenes on the television. For a moment he could not understand and he looked down at his hands. They were perfect, the fingers straight and unblemished, apart from a little brick dust under his nails.
He smiled. We beat the Aussies. It was too much to expect two fairy stories in one day.