It seemed to me my grandparents had not really recovered from the effects of the Great War before the Second World War arrived.
Grandpa had been discharged due to shell shock and the effects of being gassed. He spent over a year in hospital and used to say he was the only sane one in the family as he had a certificate to prove it. A few years ago found a box of letters he had sent to my grandmother during his time.
Grandpa sits in silence twisting threads on a white
wooden frame with rows of neat nails on each side
weaving patterns with silky thread recovering
from the Great War and comrades lost on the Somme
forbidden by Grandma from talking
of gas, madness or months of recuperation.
Memories fall into the safety of the sitting room
shiny bodkins glint in the sun like bayonets
his fingers unroll a length of gold as tales of the dead
suddenly return and his eyes fill with tears.
He whispers to me about a hospital ship blown to pieces
and jabs a line of blue twine into the emerging mat.
A screech from his green parrot breaks his sombre mood.
He smiles and ties a golden knot in triumph.
Polly pads along his arm, sings ‘Roll out the barrel’.
I gather up Grandpa’s wayward threads.
When he sufficiently recovered he went back to work part-time in the family’s fruit shop in Goodge Street in London. He was a good humoured but he suffered terribly all his life as a result of the war. The sound of his cough at night could waken the dead as my grandmother was fond of saying.
Like many he was forbidden from talking about the war in case it made him ill again so I treasure the memory of our secret conversations but he very rarely made one of his mats after his release from hospital. But he did love his very affectionate parrot that he taught to sing ‘Roll out the barrel’ much to grandmother’s annoyance!
This is a brass tin issued to soldiers by Princess Mary in Christmas 1914, originally containing chocolate & cigarettes, and a pencil in a bullet case. The card inside reads ‘With best wishes for a victorious New Year, from the Princess Mary and friends at home. I believe they were made as a result of public donations
A few weeks after my birth in 1940 in Middlesex Hospital during the blitz, we came to live at our grandparents’ house in Dartmouth Park Hill in London. By the time my sister arrived nine months later, my father was away on active service. I did not see him again until I was six
When he finally came home he really could not settle and with my mother started making and performing with their marionettes!
Luckily grandpa was still alive when my parents were invited in the early 50s to perform with their marionettes for the HRH The Queen, Prince Charles and Princess Anne at a private party. My mother decided grandpa could go too to pull the curtains after each act and meet the Queen. I was most indignant although a child I had often pulled the curtains for the show and grandpa had never pulled a curtain in his life!
However in later life I realised just how lucky I had been to have been lived with my grandparents for most of my childhood
My parents made several marionette soldiers over the years, but their most famous ones were when the whole family were involved in making and performing with our marionettes in the feature film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ in 1968 on Brighton’s West Pier’
I took my mother on a visit to The Somme a few years before she died. We got Grandpa’s service records and drove to many of the places where he had served.
If you go to Imperial War museum it is well worth visiting the gallery on the top floor to hear some of the voices of ordinary soldiers and civilians from that time.