BEFORE IT ALL, AND THE WAR YEARS.
During the spring of 1940 Britain's war with Germany was escalating when Mr. Winston Churchill, a leader of the same ilk as Captain William Bligh RN., became Prime Minister and Britain’s few were soon to have their finest hour in the Battle of Britain fought in the skies over Croydon and the southern counties during the heatwave of July 1940 in the south of England when I was born.
Being oppressively hot, the nights were blackest because of the ‘Blackout’ which prohibited the showing of any light which may have guided enemy night reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead. In every house windows were hung with heavy black drapes reminiscent of a Transylvanian Castle, but with the effect of not only keeping in the light but the heat of the previous day as well. Such night driving as was allowed was by the sole aid of small fluorescent discs put in place of vehicle headlights. It was on such a night that my mother started the labour which was to produce her first-born with the coming of dawn.
Seeing the light of that first day, I have been told at the Mayday Hospital near Croydon, just south of London on the twenty fourth of July during that hot summer some eleven months after the declaration of the Second World War, supports my having been conceived in the middle of the month of October 1939; when the Allies’ clash with the German Third Reich was less than fifty days old and Gordon and Mollie Fosbery my parents were in Liverpool, visiting his brother Desmond - always known as ‘Pat’ in the business, on Fleet Street - and Mary his wife, where my subsequent God-Parents were temporarily residing due to his work in the newspaper business, specifically, Beaverbrook’s ‘Daily Express’. Mr. Neville Chamberlain was still Prime Minister and had just rejected a peace ‘proposal’ from the German Chancellor Adolph Hitler, in retaliation for which action the Fuhrer had ordered a ‘U-Boat’ dispatched which, having managed to enter the fortified British Naval Base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, had torpedoed the British Battleship HMS ‘ROYAL OAK’ sinking her with the loss of 833 lives, officers and men, including the Admiral Commanding the Second Battle Squadron - that was on October 14th 1939.
Two days later German Grossadmiral Raeder, on Hitler’s behalf, announced that "All Merchant Ships, including those of Neutral Nations, excepting those flying the American Flag", would be "torpedoed without warning" if they were "known to be heading for British Ports". This was of course in direct contravention of the ‘Hague Convention’ which specifically prohibits such attacks on passenger and freight ships. At that time the German Pocket Battleship - ‘GRAF SPEE’ was still several weeks away from becoming the scourge of Merchant Shipping in the South Atlantic.
Following these developments, grain ships from Canada would be unable to deliver flour to the distant British Islands in the Caribbean, but centuries of trade within the ‘British Empire’ had tended to create and to sustain ‘exotic tastes’ in His Majesty’s subjects living in widely different climatic regions of the globe but all living under the same ‘Flag upon which the sun never set’. The result was that the exotic but hitherto humbled breadfruit would once more come into it's own in the lands of it’s trans-plantation, the islands of the British West Indies.
Indigenous to the tropical islands of the South Pacific, the breadfruit has always been recognised as a delicious food, being prepared in a variety of delectable ways - variously cooked as a vegetable, made into sweet dishes with coconut, spices and sugar syrup, even buried until fermented then served up as a heady concoction called Poi-poi and the large trees, once established, bear throughout the year. Consequently the British Empire builders of the 18th Century had been quick to realise breadfruit’s potential as a constant and ready source of food for the hungry slave-populations working the plantations of the West Indies.
In 1787 His Majesty’s good Ship ‘BOUNTY’ under command of a valiant young Captain - William Bligh, was commissioned to collect breadfruit saplings and seed from the Island of Tahiti in the South Pacific, to transport them safely to London and thence to the West Indies. The first half of the expedition went well but the homeward passage was long, and in order to preserve his precious living cargo Bligh had to ration the water allowed to the men under his command during the crossing of the Pacific Ocean. This constraint led to the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ in which Bligh and a party of 18 of his officers and men; those who had not been party to the mutiny, were ‘put over the side’ by the mutineers into a leaky 23 foot ship’s longboat and cut adrift.
Ever since, storytellers have usually made Bligh the villain of the affair whilst his surviving mutineers have been looked upon as the poor sufferers driven to extreme deeds by an obsessive and brutal Captain. It is however clear that Bligh was one of the best Royal Naval Officers of his own or any other day. Yes, he was a disciplinarian, but a fair one. In fact he was far less harsh than most Captains of those days when dealing with insubordination and worse. He was an officer thoroughly mindful of the responsibilities of his commission, one who demanded much of himself and would tolerate no less from his subordinates. It is the result no doubt of his ability to bring the best out of himself and his fellows that he and all those with him, save for one man, survived under his leadership, while he managed to navigate and sail that open boat across 3,618 miles of the Pacific in 41 days to safety, a record never again to be matched, while his mutinous crew aboard the ‘BOUNTY’ hoped and believed them all to have been sent to their watery doom.
Captain Bligh having eventually returned safely to England, the Admiralty mounted a second expedition from London in 1792, again under Bligh’s command, which was that time successful in conveying young breadfruit trees directly to the West Indies where they were established first in the island of St. Vincent and later carried to all the neighbouring islands of the Caribbean. Thus breadfruit became the humble staple of the poor West Indian slaves’ diet. But no wonder it was such unpopular food once ‘Massa dey’ was done some forty years later. Yet still, the trees thrived, planted in groves in the ghauts and wet gullies around the Estates and they continued to flourish right up until the present day.
In 1940, the shipping blockade of the North Atlantic freighters by the German Naval-Warfare machine being almost complete, breadfruit was again to become a staple in the Caribbean, when it was dried and ground into ‘flour’ to substitute for the missing North American variety, and throughout the coming years, so it would be used during those times of hardship in the Islands. Small wonder though that it again fell foul of the inhabitants after the war when the freight ships returned and living conditions in the islands reverted once more to ‘normal’.
It might seem nowadays that it is often the foraging pigs who enjoy most of the breadfruit those trees go on producing - but who can say - when we remember the intoxicating Poi-poi of the South Pacific islanders, perhaps gorging on these richly fermented fallen fruit lessens the pangs of torment in even a piggy's life?
My birth having occurred in time for breakfast, the family matriarch proclaimed that I should be endowed with a ‘healthy appetite’ which seems to have been the case then and ever since. However, later personal enquiry into family history revealed a defunct great-grandfather, late father of the same matriarch, of whom it was then said "He enjoyed nothing better for his breakfast than a dish of curry", a habit according to family accounts that he apparently acquired during the Crimean War in which he had served as a veterinary surgeon looking after horses. That being the case one suspects hereditary factors at play to boot, for though I do not personally aspire to quite that extreme for breakfast, I was indeed subsequently to pursue my studies in medicine and specialise in Surgery - of the Human species and developed a strong liking for Indian food. All this concerning my birth has to be taken on trust from the others who were there, my corroborative memory having failed in regressing that far.
So said, and having accepted those facts, from what I believe to be credibly reliable sources, it comes to a matter of personal recollection that a sister arrived into our family circle, having been borne-to and carried-from the same Maternity Hospital by our mother in February 1943. This, it is said, was some two and a half years after my birth. One must however again assume that there was no mixing up or switching of infants at that time, and the large nurse who came through the ward, during Nanna’s and my first visit, distributing two armsful of infants into the expectant arms of the no longer expectant mothers did seem to know ‘which one’ was ‘ours’ in response to my eager enquiry. Nevertheless, despite entreaties and arguments of childish logic I was unable to get my coatless mother and my new sister to accompany Nanna and me home that day. Disappointed and dressed in a velvet trimmed coat, gloves and leggings against the February chill I waited hand in hand with my equally insulated, but considerably larger paternal grandmother for the tramcar which was to take us two or three miles back home, to arrive, hopefully before the next air-raid started, in time for tea and secure in the knowledge that both mother and new baby were as well as they were supposed to be, save for the fact that they had no over-coats.
The ‘trams’ were of course the electric variety running noisily and inevitably on rails set in the middle of the road, with overhead wires to which reached up long spindly metal arms from the roof of the upper deck and from which contact there would emanate from time to time great showers of electric sparks. Inside the tram-car there was a prominent notice - ‘No Spitting - Penalty 40 shillings!’ - Imagine! Horses would have been nicer, but by then there were not many of these noble beasts in our part of London. However I had noticed that any ‘manure’ dropped by the occasional passing cart-horse - of course Police Horses seemed much better behaved in that respect - would be quickly gathered up by one householder or other, armed with bucket and shovel, to be put ‘on the garden’- apparently in some mysterious way to ‘help’ the Rhubarb - I was never quite sure, at that age, just why or how this should occur, but so long as one didn’t think of it too closely stewed rhubarb was very nice - with custard that is !
Nanna, the family matriarch, had been born in Thaxted Essex, a daughter of John Richard Lewis, veterinary surgeon, in 1871, and once upon a time she’d had a husband, my Grandfather. He had been Irish, as was my own father, and he had died a few years after bringing his family to London from Dublin in 1917. At that time he had been working with the National Bank in Dublin. Later, once he was in London, he apparently had a number of different business ventures. The story goes that at the time of ‘The Easter Rising’ in Dublin in 1916, grandfather was away from home and missing for about three days. Nanna had convinced herself that he must be lying slain in some street, caught in the crossfire between the English ‘enforcers’ and the Irish ‘rebels’, however, upon his safe return home, it transpired that he had been safely ensconced in an on-going poker game with friends in a basement and quite safe, with the phones fortuitously ‘out of action’.
That Grandfather, George Francis William Fosbery, was his father’s tenth child but first son. He was born in Dublin in 1869 and was the first child of Francis George’s second wife, Margaret Anna, daughter of Doctor Langer Carey, Physician and Surgeon of Tipperary and his wife Margaret. George and Vivian de Burgh Lewis, my Nanna, whom he always called ‘Bea’, married in September 1897 at which time she and her sisters lived with their parents, at Larne Harbour in the county of Antrim in Northern Ireland, where Great-grandfather Lewis was again in charge of the well-being of horses, this time the Larne Harbour Tramway Company.
Returning to Dublin with his bride, the newlyweds lived at the National Bank House at Baggot Street Bridge, where all four of their sons were born, and where, in Dublin they were educated. In 1912, my father’s elder brother Francis, called Frank, died from meningitis contracted whilst on a Boy’s Brigade camping trip at the age of twelve. Nanna told us, the Doctor had said that if he’d lived his head would have grown enormous and he would have been crippled, and so, she confided that, she ‘prayed for God to take the boy, and He had’. Thus, my father became eldest of the two remaining boys, himself and my uncle Norman.
Grandma Lewis, as she was called, also lived in the house when the young Gordon and Norman were growing up and she would walk along the corridors with the aid of a walking stick which she used to bring down across the backs of the boys whenever they were unlucky enough to get into range. "They deserve it," she’d say to their mother, "and if they don’t they soon will! Wretched boys!"
One extraordinary thing about Nanna I found, was that she had a missing left middle finger, it’s place was filled by a short fleshy nubbin surmounted by a minute nipple-like scar, the whole thing looking like a little miniature breast. Apparently, during her young married life, she had pricked the finger on a needle which had fallen down in the side of an armchair and the doctor ‘Had to cut it off! On the kitchen table!’ on account of ‘Blood poisoning!’ which otherwise would have ‘taken her whole arm’, or even maybe ‘killed her’! Mother said Nanna had ‘taken to bed for a year’ following that dreadful trauma as for one thing, ‘she could not wear her wedding ring’! The imagined detail of it all fascinated whilst at the same time horrified me as a youngster.
Nevertheless Nanna must have managed her household well from such a vantage point, with house-maids and all. I am told that, one day my father and his young brother Norman, dressed in Edwardian Sailor-boy straw-hats with Ship’s names on the tally band, were taken for a walk by the River Liffey by their Nanny. My father, reportedly, being a smart sort of fellow, pushed his head through the railings of the bridge the better to see what was going on down below, but of course when pulling back his head, the hat sailed down into the river and was lost. Poor Nanny took him immediately to the shop where the hats had been purchased and, no doubt pledging her wages, replaced the lost item - or so she thought - Upon returning to the Bagot Street imagine her dismay at being found out - upon the instant - The name of the Ship was different! Nanna apparently seldom missed anything so obvious as that.
When my father and Norman were still small boys, so the story goes, they would go up every Sunday morning to visit their Grandfather, reclining in his bath-tub with a full beard floating on the water around him. Upon the side of the bath would be placed a newly shined-up penny for each of the boys and father apparently used to pinch his younger sibling on the way up stairs to make him cry. "What’s wrong with the boy?" his grandfather would ask. "Oh I don’t know" my father would say innocently, "he’s always whingeing". This no doubt in hopes of getting both pennies for himself, being the better behaved of the two. One day, the Grandfather got back at Gordon, no doubt for Norman’s sake. On the edge of the tub, was a shiny penny as usual, and a smaller and less shiny threepenny piece; "I’m sorry" said the old man to the boys, "but I don’t have two shiny pennies today only these. Which one will you have, Gordon? You’re the oldest, you choose". Well, according to the uncle who related the tale to me, young Gordon was nothing if not smart and he knew well the value of a shiny penny. But he was not a gambler it seems, for he fell for the old man’s ruse and took his penny, leaving poor Norman, whingeing as usual, unhappily to receive his just reward, at three hundred percent!
Having recovered from the loss of her finger, about a year later, Bea’s fourth son Desmond Fitzgerald Alexander Lewis Fosbery was on his way to complete their family, but while Nanna was ‘expecting’ the same child in 1911, - the old ladies, my Great aunts and Nanna used to call it ‘enceinte’ having finished their schooling in the French Pyrenees, at a place called Po, which name later always made us, my sister and I, as children laugh enormously - she tripped and fell one dark night over the shafts of a cart and into a trench at some road-works’. In this accident she suffered a terrible tear to her upper lip which apparently was repaired by the surgeon using some of her own long auburn hair to stitch it. She made a good recovery but carried the faint scar the rest of her days. At the time, she was terrified that the unborn child she carried would be disfigured by having a cleft- or harelip (at my young age I thought it was a Hair lip of course - there were to be many more such disillusions as I came to terms between my English tongue and the strange spellings that went with the English language). The result of this accident was that she elected to sue the Dublin Bay Tramway Company whose unlit road-works had caused her disfigurement, and went to Court apparently much against the advice and pleadings of both my Grandfather and his superiors at the National Bank, of whom the said Tramway Company was a major client, she eventually won her case and was awarded damages, reduced, it was said, ‘On account of her being a Mature woman, and Married with children’. Whilst the few thousand pounds she was awarded provided her with a cushion of independence which in those days was not usual, it was whispered by the Great Aunts, that Grandfather’s transfer to London may have been associated with the civil case settled in Nanna’s favour in about 1916.
In a similar but unrelated vein Grandma Stringer, my mother’s mother, had been frightened by a runaway horse and carriage when she was ‘enceinte’ with her son Andrew , my uncle Andy, and he had been born subsequently with a brown mole on the side of his neck shaped like a running horse, due it was said to Grandma’s having put her hand up to her neck in horror when the frightening incident occurred. Such mysterious happenings! To me as a small boy, it was all fascinating stuff especially if, like me, you overheard some things which perhaps were ‘not for the children’ as in the case of Nanna’s lawsuit!
My Grandfather, George Fosbery unhappily died in London in 1922 at the age of 52, some said ‘of his liver’, some ‘of his stomach’, while others, and I would rather believe them, maintained it was ‘of a broken heart at leaving his beloved Ireland’. So it was that my father at the age of 17 assumed the responsibilities of man about the house to his mother and two young brothers. The youngest, being only 10 years old when his father died, was sent back again to Dublin, there to complete his schooling, ‘in the old country’; Gordon started work in London, and Nanna let some rooms in their large town house in Maida Vale to students. Some of these were, I was told, from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts - RADA - and they used to stomp up and down in their garret room on the bare boards acting Shakespeare’s plays and so on. Later, some of them became famous household names, including, the later to be knighted thesbians Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.
Father eventually met Mollie Stringer, and wooed her away from an exciting young life in which she had a Blue MG car and used to fly aeroplanes at Brookwood Aerodrome, and though I never knew her to play golf again, her old Hickory Sticks remained stacked in the corner of closets and garages throughout my childhood ‘just in case’. She met his Mother and his brothers, but Nanna of course didn’t want anyone wooing her eldest son away, so the courtship went on for some years it seems. Daddy’s brothers Norman and Desmond were each very fond of Mollie; and as she told me in later years, she could have had her pick of any of the three of them. The youngest, Desmond, was just a year older than mother, and they stayed very close for the rest of their lives. Gordon of course would brook no competition, and finally persuaded Mollie to marry him. A French Aunt of his, Eva, married to Nanna’s brother Limbury, reportedly said to her, " Ma cherie, ‘ave ‘eem forr a loveur, oui, but for ’eaven’s sake do not marry 'eem’. But it seems love was deaf as well as blind and Mollie and Gordon were married in October 1936 at Paddington Registry Office. After the wedding, both Nanna and Gordon suddenly suggested that mother should adopt a baby girl, my father’s child of a former yet seemingly concurrent romantic liaison. This I learned many years later as a confidence from mother herself. She of course adamantly refused such a proposition, for she wanted her 'own' children! My parents (to be)eventually moved away from Nanna’s house in North London to a newly completed block of flats in Warwick Road Thornton Heath, built by the company for whom my father then started working, founded by former school chums of his when he had first come to England at the age of twelve, and attended Streatham Grammar School - Wates’ Limited in Norbury, whose directors were Norman, Alan and Ronald Wates; and that’s how I came to be born there in England.
At this stage, it is strange to think that there is probably a sister somewhere, a few years older than I, now that most of the old family have passed away.
It is now August 2007 and two months ago my half-sister and I spoke to each other on the telephone. The world wide web had enabled her to find our family. We are both now grand-parents but the excitement of our first contact was like that of youngsters. We live thousands of miles apart but our birthdays though three years apart in time are only 2 days apart each year. We certainly intend to meet up as soon as we can make the necessary journeys. Few people can be given this opportunity in their seventh decades. It's all very rewarding.