A tribute to my father

20181207_201010My dad – in serious mode one day – told me: ‘I lived for one day in the reign of Queen Victoria!’ (he was born on 2lst January 1901 and she died on the 22nd.) Other than it was a fact, it played no role whatsoever in my father’s life… but, while not destined to shine on the world’s, or any other, stage, for a modest member of the hoi polloi, he was a man to stand up and be counted.

Named Charles Edward, first child of Rose and Charles Mansfield, he grew up in the company of four brothers and two sisters: a Cockney, born to hear the bells of Bow church. Aspiring for better conditions than those surrounding them in the east end of London, not to mention fresher air, the family moved to rural Dagenham Heathway in Essex, and a small villa backing onto verdant fields, leading, eventually, to the River Thames. ‘Little Charlie’ was a nipper in a sailor-suit with golden curls at the time, as recalled in a wall-framed photo, while his hair darkened with the years and even grey was a late-comer.

The whole family worshipped in the Catholic religion: Charles senior threatened to belt anyone who did otherwise, and was a force to be reckoned with. Conversely, he was a giving man with a lively personality and was a Freemason. The whole family – while outwardly a tad arrogant, despite being gregarious and fun-loving – were most charitable and kind. Grandad was one of the founders of The Working Men’s club nearby, and it later amused me to see my other, financially poor, benign Grandad Samuel having a pint under a framed photo of the stern-looking “CM”…

Although all the boys attended state schools, dad’s two sisters were sent to a convent school and both were gifted needlewomen and did “good works.” Dad was a bright scholar, particularly in English and art, received high grades and a few awards, so it was a surprise that he chose to work as a Lighterman * on the River Thames, like his father before him. (While Mansfield senior had chosen to ‘rise in the ranks’ and had a financial stake in the company they worked for.)

As the First World War was then raging and Charles was seventeen, he just caught the tail-end and served as a Royal Air Force cadet, which whetted his desire to fly.
SEPIA DAD – circa 1918

A blue-serge clad, fresh-faced youth,

‘broom-handle’ back,

swaddle-legged “At ease” proud –

gazes at me – unseeing,

from his sepia world.

 

His eyes are filled with

anticipatory excitement:

for he flies in fancy with the stars

by night – gazes with ardent longing

on the winged air-borne phantoms

silhouetted against the moon.
No clairvoyant messenger

foretold the future.

How could he have known that

in but two decades

he would. again. experience the horrors of war;

be captured for posterity in similar stance?
The burning question remains unanswered;

What to do with tyrants?

A dichotomy…

Could genetic engineering one day hold the key?!

Joy Lennick

 

Familiar with the lively personalities of brothers ‘Prince,’ (named after a tug!) Harry, Basil and – the younger, much quieter, Bernard, I’m sure Charlie enjoyed the years between 1919 and 1928, around the time he met his future wife. The Mansfield brothers sparred and boxed, fished, and played raucous games of cards, in between cutting up many a rug in many a dance-hall, and downed many a pint too. Charlie, being the eldest, was often taken to the Opera by his father (much to his dismay…) but he enjoyed fishing with him on many a weekend morning, and it remained one of his favourite hobbies, of which there were many. Charlie also played cricket now and then, and enjoyed a game of football.

One night, while dancing in The Cross Keys Public House in old Dagenham,. he caught sight of a beautiful young woman called Lila, and was soon enamoured. They danced well together and that was the beginning of a loving romance which lasted fifty-five years.

Much to the chagrin of his parents, Charlie married his sweetheart, Lila, in a Registry Office instead of the Catholic church, and they settled for a VERY mock Tudor house in Rush Green, Romford, Essex where I first aired my lungs – moving to a newer house in Dagenham to be nearer the railway station and shops, where they remained throughout their long, happy, marriage. Dad eschewed cars, preferring cycling and enjoyed walking, and soon proved to be a dab hand at gardening. Being a plotter and planner, and a great lover of roses, he soon had his pride and joy mapped out on paper and in fact.

There were climbing roses, gloriously abundant and draped over fences, standard roses and bush roses in various shades and aromas: a favourite the yellow ‘Peace,’ and many other flowers vying for attention. He also grew beans, carrots and potatoes for a while, plus tomatoes, and we had wild loganberries growing over the back fence, which we drooled over. He loved pottering in his shed and cosseted a modest lawn. I can imagine how he swore when that nasty, infamous man with a moustache waged war on the world and he had to dig a huge crater in the middle of his precious plot for an air-raid shelter to be erected!

I was the eldest and only daughter, to be followed by three brothers. Terence John was born two years after me and Bryan Charles four years, while Royce Kenneth arrived just before the end of the war. Dad was an ethical, fair-minded man and only ever smacked me twice. Once when I beheaded his prize tulips (aged two) and mum warned him “Don’t you EVER hit her again!” but he was obliged to when, as an ardent reader, and teenager, I ignored his plea to help my mother one Sunday morning. He pulled me out of bed with such force, I hit my head on the door and vowed to leave home. But it rained, so I didn ‘t… We always knew when we had displeased dad by the stern look on his face, and quickly behaved as we were all a bit afraid he might erupt. He had that sort of strong presence we respected, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Although fairly self-contained, he could and did wax lyrical now and then and wrote strong letters to the local paper on subjects he felt passionate about, but also loved a good, earthy joke.

During his leisure hours, my father was always busy as he enjoyed hooking rugs with my mother (they made several) and was drawn to making model aeroplanes. He had a small table in his bedroom and I can still conjure up the strong aroma of dope**… When complete, we often went to the local park to send them airborne. They didn’t always survive!!

Apart from reading a lot, being artistic, dad loved to do Calligraphy, of which he was a dab-hand. He also collected stamps and his decorated books were a joy to behold. And he loved words…Whenever the family joined in a Christmas or birthday celebration, he carefully planned party games, often including “Truth or Lie?” or some other word teaser.

Charlie editedIn 1939, while already serving in the Air Force Reserves, dad was one of the first to be conscripted when World War II started. After seeing us safely evacuated to Wales (Merthyr Tydfil), he then left for ‘parts unknown – probably France,’ he told Mum. There were tears and anxiety before we received two letters, from France, as suspected. In one letter, he told us (having thoughtfully packed a teapot! And tea…) after a long train ride: ‘Guess who went up to the train driver for some boiled water?!’

They called the first part of the war, “the phoney war” as there wasn’t much action in the UK or France, but it soon hotted up after dad had a brief spot of leave. Decades later, I was to read his diaries kept at the time (excerpts of which I re-recorded in my memoir My Gentle War). While out walking at dusk in the countryside… “Searchlights picked up a Jerry bomber and a Bofors gun was letting rip. Suddenly, a ball of fire headed towards me as a shell left the muzzle- It seemed to approach me at zero feet at about 400 miles per hour!! Needless to say, I dived smartly into a ditch. The shell was later described as a “Flaming onion”. It reaffirmed my belief that life is very precious.” He saw plenty of action after that incident and he and half a dozen of his fellow airmen were machine-gunned by a low-flying German aircraft but luckily escaped injury. Apparently, their ‘digs’ were in a huge, abandoned, farm building near Merville, and dad came upon a small café/homestead run by an attractive woman called Clemence, whose husband was in the French army. (Reading between the lines in his diary – maybe because of his very blue eyes and charming manner – methinks she fell in love with him!) He drummed up business for her café, urging her to cook egg and chips for the Brits and hamburgers for the American soldiers camping nearby. A firm friendship was formed, until the Germans advanced and Clemence begged him to: “Stay with me, Sharlie. I am frightened of the Bosch. We can live in the South of France.” He gently explained that he loved his wife and children and there were many tears before he left. The Germans were, by then, unstoppable and he and his unit were lucky to escape by ship to the UK before Dunkirk. He wrote in his diary of how terrifying was the bombardment by the German aircraft the night before they were shipped back. Many boats and ships were blazing out of control and he likened it to “Dante’s inferno!”

Clemence wrote to my parents after the war, and on my first holiday abroad, I spent several, memorable and enjoyable, unique days with my Godmother in her home just before I left school, when I was spoiled a treat! Clemence remained in touch with my parents for many years and even sent us a food parcel when things were a bit tough before rationing ended.

In the latter part of the war, luckily, dad was stationed mainly in Essex, so was able to spend short leaves at home with mum. My youngest brother, Royce was born in this period, just before the “all clear” sounded. Naturally, at the war’s end, we were all ecstatic to, again, be settled in our old home. Our head count was complete, unlike in our paternal grandparents’ house. My sweet, shy, Uncle Bernard, aged 22, (Dad’s youngest brother) a navigator in the Royal Air Force, went down with his plane, and plane and crew were never found. Grandma never wore black and always lived in hope he would return one day…

Dad soon adapted to “civvy life” and again working on his beloved River Thames. Our house was within “hooting” distance of the river and when I was curled up in bed at night and he was working late and it was foggy, I would listen out for his tug’s mournful “fog-horn” and hope that he was safe.

When he retired from work, dad embraced it with enthusiasm. He and mum had a few, enjoyable holidays abroad, and there wasn’t an hour that he didn’t know what to do with…We bought him a sheep-herding-type-dog – not much called for in Dagenham – he called Whisky as he was black and white, and they became good pals. There was a small lake at the end of dad’s street and it was arranged, through his love of fishing, that he kept it stocked with fish and an eye on it; like a Bailiff. He had a punt, and he and Whisky, I’m sure, spent many happy hours there.

Sadly, in his early eighties – having smoked a lot in his younger and Air Force days – dad’s lungs gave up. Mum was bereft and we all missed him and his very strong presence. Dad acquitted himself well while on earth and was always happy to help his fellow-man, especially in WW II when he came upon a poverty-stricken French family and gave them a Christmas they never forgot. As I grew older and thought more on the subject, I realised that dad, while not in the least ambitious, was one of the most contented men I ever met. He knew exactly what he wanted from life and it was kind enough to give it to him on a plate: a loving wife and children, enough muscle, brain and good health to work hard, and to indulge in many hobbies to his heart’s content. RIP dear dad, I always imagine you in your gum-boots, carrying a watering can… I bet your garden is the most beautiful.

© Copyright Joy Lennick 2019
*Lightermen transferred goods between ships and quays aboard flat-bottomed barges called “Lighters” in the port of London. Because of the many fogs in the early days, the river was a treacherous place at night and I recall dad telling mum on a few occasions: “We fished another poor sod out of the river last night!” when they chanced the narrow, slippery path leading from several pubs… There is a “Waterman’s Hall” in St.Mary at Hill, Billingsgate, London dating from 1780 and it is the only surviving Georgian Guild Hall.

** Dope is a chemical lacquer used in model making, not to be confused with the ‘waccy baccy’ variety.

“MY GENTLE WAR” is available from Amazon and Kindle, Apple, Nook (Barnes & Noble). Scribd, Kobo, 24 Symbols, Tolivo and Page Foundry.

 

A tribute to my dear mama/mum

Until I went to school aged five, I called my mother Mama. Her birth name was Lila Elizabeth Havard, after a Fairy Queen her mother had seen in a play! ‘Mama’ was my God-mother, Aunt Doris,’ suggestion as she had grandiose ideas as to my up-bringing and saw me as a little lady of breeding who would doubtless learn to play the piano beautifully, knit Fair-Isle sweaters, blind-folded, embroider as if to the manor born, and POSSIBLY end up marrying someone higher up the ladder (and I don’t mean a window-cleaner.) As it transpired, while I may have mastered Chopsticks, and The Bluebells of Scotland, sewed a fairly neat hem, and even made a peg-bag, and a few cushion covers, etc., I’m afraid I disappointed in all other areas. And, because a strange, deranged little man with a moustache wanted to dominate the world and promote a “Master Race,” I didn’t attend the Convent School my aunt had mapped out for me. Meanwhile, I enrolled at the local, Dagenham village school, before being whisked away to live on a Welsh mountain when war was declared in the September of 1939. Then, realising I just belonged to the hoi polloi, I thereafter called my mother mum.

The Mansfields (my paternal relatives), needed to “set the scene,” thought they were a cut above. There was Royal Doulton china and crystal cut-glass in the display cabinet and a framed picture of Churchill on the wall to prove it!! The ladies of the family also bought glossy periodicals which “the toffs” purchased; and shopped in the very best West End stores whenever possible. Oh, and both Dad’s sisters owned FUR COATS, and wore Perfume by COTY… But I mustn’t give the wrong impression as, with the (later) exception of one of their number, they were consistently kind, caring, charitable and generous. But quickly back to mum…

Lila - editedSo, what was she like, my pretty, loving mum? Imagine a blue-skied and sunshiny day, with a soft breeze blowing and birds wheeling in the sky… That was my mum. She epitomized Spring and was blessed with a sunny, happy personality. (On later reading Laurie Lee’s book “Cider with Rosie,” mum put me in mind of his quirky mother as their sense of fun were similar!) She was a perfect foil for Dad’s no-nonsense: a spade is a spade, sterner make-up, although he had an earthy sense of humour, was as reliable as the clichéd Rock of Gibraltar and loved her to bits… Around five feet two inches, with a slender figure, mum belied an inner strength which repeatedly revealed itself.

Born in 1906, she lived to experience the Great Depression in South Wales and helped look after her two younger sisters. Grandad said she had ‘Dark brown hair like fine-spun sugar…’ A brick-layer and later, shop-keeper, he may have been, but he was a gentleman and charmed the ladies. Mum had left school at fourteen and worked selling ribbons and cottons in the market and in her parents’ greengrocer’s shop/and on a pony and trap serving customers living in the mountains. Too soon, everything was ‘on the slate, please, mun’ because of The Great Depression, and money was fast running out. Aged seventeen, mum begged to go to London to work but Grandma was convinced it was worse than Gomorrah. ‘Duw duw, you could be murdered, or worse.’ she cried. But, when feeding her family became critical, Grandma relented. Mum pointed her “winkle-pickers” in the East End of London’s direction and worked as a Nanny for the two children of talented Jewish tailors in Stepney.

Soon Lila was not only a Nanny, but taught how to cook Jewish dishes and do intricate beading work. Linking up with her best friend, Edna, the pair went dancing on their one day off and, as she said ‘The streets weren’t really paved with gold,’ as promised… but the lights were brighter and you could have ‘six-penny-worth of fun’ and watch American pictures too. She saved hard and soon had the requisite ten pounds to add to her mother’s hard-saved purse. Her family: Mam, Dad and three siblings, caught the train to Dagenham Dock station with packed suitcases and little else and were given a new Council house in Becontree, which her enamoured mother announced, was ‘Like a miniature Buckingham Palace!’ Mum said that was pushing it a bit… But it had a new roof which didn’t leak and a bathroom downstairs, three bedrooms up, and a proper garden at the back. ‘Not like that old slum in Dowlais,’ Grandma was heard to say.

Leaving the Soloman’s employ with regret, Mum then became a cinema usherette, also working part-time in the building’s café with her sister Peggy. She found life fun as she loved to dance and, being pretty, caught the eye of many a would-be suitor. One in particular pursued her and they became engaged, but he spent too much time on his motor-bike and Mum wasn’t cut out to play second fiddle to a bike! The move couldn’t have been luckier for another dancer and natty dresser (first in his crowd to wear plus-fours, it is said… ) called Charles (Charlie) who quickly stepped into the breach. He and Lila won a few prizes for their prowess on the dance floor – including “The Black Bottom’”- of the Cross Keys public house in old Dagenham and were soon seriously courting.

Lila and Charlie - editedEager to show off his new girl-friend to his family, Charles invited her to tea, much to the delight of his father, also Charles: a well-heeled Freemason, who had a penchant for pretty faces… The females in the family, however, on being introduced to an uneducated girl “from the Welsh valleys” almost had them reaching for their smelling salts… but Lila was polite, friendly and possessed a winning smile and they gradually accepted the inevitable. Charles was smitten, but found it difficult to ‘write my own life script’ as he later discovered. The happy pair were married in a – horror of horrors – Registry office, while the Mansfields were staunch Catholics, a fact the Father of the local church found difficult to comprehend and led to harsh words being exchanged. Although to keep the Mansfields’ happy, when I arrived on the scene, I was Christened by a Canon, no less. (Dad said ‘She should have been fired from one!’ when I decapitated his row of red, soldier-erect tulips, aged two.) After the birth of my second brother, the Priest visited our house and tried to persuade Mum to marry “in the church,” but went beyond the pale when he suggested all three of us children were illegitimate, and was quickly shown the door.

Like most working-class women then, mum was familiar with the Monday-wash-boiler, the scrubbing board and the outside mangle. Although we had indoor plumbing, we had no central heating until the mid/late 50’s – and only had a gas-fire for warmth on in the bedroom if we were very ill (once with measles). The stove in our tiny kitchen was much cosseted, as was the rare fire in the lounge fireplace. And the telephone, also installed in the 50’s, was almost revered, as was the “new-fangled” TV set.

Meanwhile, mum – by then a trained hairdresser – crimped and cut hair to help expenses go further, cooked delicious meals for the five of us and was everything a good mum should be. Then – wouldn’t you know – the lunatic little man mentioned above, started strutting his stuff and war, an incomprehensible state to us children, was declared. When rationing was introduced, Mum made all sorts of filling dishes, using more potatoes and vegetables from our garden, bread and fruit puddings and ‘apples in blankets’ (pastry) to fill our corners…she also made sure we had concentrated orange juice, cod-liver oil (ugh!) and Virol to keep us healthy, as – in due course – did dear aunt Sal. If any of us children received a B or C for our school-work, she’d give us a hug, sympathize and say ‘Never mind, you’ll get an A next time…’ while dad was the opposite of impressed…

paul-jespers-114448-unsplash plane - editedDad, having been an Air Force Cadet at the end of World War I and in love with aeroplanes, re-joined the Air Force and was one of the first wave of airmen to be called up for duty. After hastily digging a huge hole in our pristine, green lawn, he erected an outdoor air-raid shelter, as instructed, and then accompanied us three children and mum to South Wales. We were to stay in the relative safety of her cousin Sarah Jones’– Aunt Sal to us – tall, thin house, set into the side of Mountain Hare, just above Merthyr Tydfil. It didn’t have all ‘mod cons’. like ours, but I was enchanted with gaslight and candlelight… not so with the outside “lav,” with squares of the Merthyr Express on which to wipe one’s bottom!

Mum stayed on awhile, but dad had to join his unit in France. Having entrusted brother Bryan to the loving care of another aunt in Ebbw Vale, as Aunt Sal couldn’t cope with three children due to a badly ulcerated leg, mum left to stay with her mother and do “war work.” As mentioned above, Mum wasn’t very tall and quite slender, and we were surprised when next we saw her, as she had developed muscles…after working on a moving assembly belt of Army lorries at Ford’s Motors. She later moved to another company, where she was taught welding and became even stronger. Fortunately, during the first part of the war, it was fairly quiet, so we were transported back and forth a few times, especially as dad was given leave from France before things hotted up. Thereafter, Dagenham, and more specifically: our house became a dangerous place to live in as it was near the River Thames; Ford’s Motor works, churning out war machines; a huge drug factory and a railway – all likely targets for the German planes. A land-mine fell at the end of our street and demolished many houses and killed several people, but our house was only marginally damaged. In all, we were evacuated three times: to Merthyr, Neath and – with my secondary school, to Derbyshire. Towards the end of the war, dad was stationed near enough to visit our home and mum gave birth to my third brother, Royce (despite being warned about the aphrodisiac quality of eels to which he was partial). As mum was unwell, the doctor advised her to stay somewhere quieter, and the most generous family, who lived in Neath, Wales – and had two children of their own – took the five of us in, as aunt Sal was ill. You can imagine our sheer joy when peace was declared and we were all able to return to our own home: shaken and stirred but still intact, and dad was, at last, demobbed.

Lila 2 - editedDuring our absence, we soon discovered, Mum had re-decorated several rooms herself. There was a shortage of wallpaper, so she had “stippled” the walls with a design in a contrasting colour and I spent many odd times imagining all sorts of animals and magical “objects” floating up to the ceilings… It seemed, Mum was able to tackle most things, and a great advocate of “make do and mend.” She was always darning socks, turning shirt collars and bedsheets, and aware of the hard times, often said “That will do…” if an item of clothing had a vestige of life left. A keen dancer herself, she encouraged me when I reached my teens and joined the youth club. Mum and her father both won prizes for dancing and she played a mean piano. I recall her pounding the ivories in our Welsh centre during her visits. “Amapola,” “The Seigfried Line” and various popular tunes and songs were requested during her time with us, and she urged me to take ballet and tap lessons, which I adored.

As far as “lessons subtly-learned” while under my parents roof were concerned, Mum in particular emphasized that I should ‘show willing and be helpful to others’ as she did…and, while sex was never actually discussed, whenever I went out with a boy, she always told me to ‘be good now!’ which I interpreted as ‘keep your legs together,’ which I dutifully did, much to their annoyance. Every week, Mum and I went to the local cinema to see the latest British or American film and lapped up all the glamour and fantasy and she loved reading “Nell’s Books on Wheels” delivered locally every week She was particularly fond of romances and favoured medical tales. Mum had a knack of bringing sunshine into the house with some of her embroidered tales of people she worked with and even when it rained for a few days, managed to lift our spirits. Fortunately, both my parents were able to enjoy several holidays abroad as we children grew older, and still managed to impress on the dance floor!

As time wore on, and after I married, mum took advanced cooking courses and learned “Silver Service Waitressing,”securing an excellent post in the directors’ canteen of a large company nearby: May & Bakers, and worked there for several years. When she retired, she hated it, so arranged wedding functions and 2lst birthday celebrations and the like, with the able assistance of one of my sisters-in-law, Doreen; and made beautiful, iced celebration cakes. She also did flower arranging and made bridal bouquets, buttonholes and the like… (and even won prizes for her arrangements at the local Town Show.)

When my parents celebrated their Golden Wedding, as my husband and I were then running a hotel, we were able to entertain them with family and friends, for a fun weekend. It was so good to be able to make a fuss of them for a change! Sadly, as dad approached eighty, his lungs started letting him down – he was a heavy smoker when young and in the war, apart from working for so many years on the river. But he made it to eighty-three. Mum was, naturally, at first desolate at his passing, as were we. But we sold her house for her and bought her another, smaller one, just around the corner to ours.

Her hands were rarely still thereafter. She made delicious petit fours and boxed them up as gifts at Christmas time, still made large and small assorted cakes, and embroidered many pictures which my husband framed for her. She also knitted toys, covered coat-hangers and sewed lavender bags. We were able to take mum and a friend on two continental holidays – which she loved, and we spent many happy hours together. She so enjoyed being in the company of our three sons and her other grandchildren, was alert and keenly interested in them and what was happening in the outside world. She only went on one “Old people’s outing” as she termed them (aged eighty) but said: ‘I shan’t go with them again…Some of them clicked their teeth and talked about their operations all the time’

It was tragically ironic that mum – apart from a worn heart – and comparatively healthy for her age, was struck by an unlicensed car a few inches from a kerb, while out visiting a relative, suffered a broken hip and lapsed into an unconscious state for six, long weeks before dying. It was the most cruel blow of my life and I was bereft, but I still carry her treasured memory in my heart, as I will until I fall of my own perch. Mum loved all us four children unconditionally and, despite our faults, thought us “the bee’s knees…” and, as we thought she was too, you can’t ask for more than that. Can you?

If you’d like to read more about Joy’s life during Wold War II, order her book: “My Gentle War” which went to No.1 on Amazon Kindle in the Social history and memoir category.

© Copyright Joy Lennick 2019

Plane photo by Paul Jespers on Unsplash