We’re all merry and bright at Seaford

I have many happy memories of childhood visits to my grandparent’s house, idyllic then, and still so now in recall. Among the pictures on the walls and bookshelves was a studio-taken photograph of a proud man wearing medals, who I would later learn was my great great uncle. I met him once when I was very young, and have a hazy recollection of him laughing and that he gave me a little bit of pocket money – I still have the small picture I bought with it as a souvenir of meeting him.

I would later learn more of his story, and that he was a professional soldier who had joined the army while underage and before even the outbreak of the First World War. As a result he was in the first group sent to France in 1914 right at the outset, he was in the Battle of the Marne, the retreat from Mons, and somehow survived the whole war while working in the incredibly dangerous role of being a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery, at some point earning a medal from the King of Belgium too. There’s a photograph of him somewhere in France or Belgium with his friends, a chalked sign in front of them declaring them the “Hell for Leather Drivers”, and he’s the youngest by far in a group of some impossibly young looking men. Not surprising as even after a couple of years on the front line he was still too young to officially be there.

Later I’d be given his brother’s – my great grandfather’s – medals from that same war. His story and that of his family is incredible – the type of extraordinary heroes who like so many of that generation survived adversity after adversity in a way that’s nearly impossible to imagine now.

Photo courtesy of Ian Cumming

Photo courtesy of the wonderful Ian Cumming

I think of them often, never more so than Remembrance Sunday and during the Remembrance moments of Bonfire, not just in Lewes on the 5th but elsewhere too. The Remembrance at Firle Bonfire in 2015 was one of the most poignant I’ve witnessed, and I’ve rarely been more emotional than when I had the honour to carry the “Lest We Forget” at Lewes in 2014, the regimental badges of these ancestors on my bag as always, the brass band playing Elgar’s Nimrod and a full moon bright in the sky.

I think of them too when I’m in antique shops and junk shops and see photographs of anonymous soldiers in piles of old images that once meant something to someone. Those millions of young men who went off to war, nervously, proudly, having their photograph taken before they went, and so many not returning, or returning broken, and every single one an individual story we’ll almost certainly never know anything about.

Front of the postcard

I normally see these photographs when I’m on the lookout for interesting local memorabilia. A few months ago on one of these searches on the internet I came across a vintage postcard from Seaford, and as that’s where my parents live I bought it for them as a curiosity.

When it arrived I discovered it was older than I’d thought, and that it had been sent by a solider stationed in Seaford at the start of January 1916, as many soldiers were before going to France. The note on the back is typical from that period – full of the everyday, with thoughts dominated by those at home and expressions intensified by absence.

My dear Florrie” it begins, “I got home quite safe 1130 Seaford. My God it was dark. We could hardly see our hands before us but we managed it somehow.”

I’ve often walked across unlit Sussex hills and streets at night and can imagine this only too well.

It continues, “I hope you got home quite safe dear. The weather here was awful Sunday so they say. I will send you a letter Tues dear. I expect we shall go for a route march Tues if fine. Tell mother that the rolls are lovely. I hope she is quite well.

Rear of the postcard

It is past 7.30, think of me about 9.45 because I will of you, so good night duck. I am writing home Tues so I must close with heaps of love and kisses, from yours forever Reg x x x x x x”

Reg clearly missed Florrie enormously and just like those photographs of anonymous men in uniform and their families it jarred with me that this postcard so lovingly sent was now just a curiosity, disconnected from context and people.

Who were Reg and Florrie? And what had happened at 9.45, a very specific time to remember?

I started looking for clues and drew a blank, reassured at least that the Commonwealth War Graves website didn’t find a Reg who was likely to have been the sender of the postcard. My Mum then turned detective using her vast genealogy experience and found him: Reg was Reginald Brockett, born in Chelsea in 1883, so 32 at the time he sent the postcard. Florrie Siillitoe who he sent it to, was Florence, born in 1887 in Lambeth.

It turns out that Reg survived the war and lived until 1950, marrying Florrie in the summer of 1919 and having a son, also Reginald, in 1921. I’m sure they sent hundreds of postcards like this during the war, from home and from danger overseas, yet there’s a chance that if there’s no surviving family Reg and Florrie would have entirely disappeared from memory had I not bought the postcard for a pound or two. While that’s not unusual of course, something about that possibility is sad.

For me the history of big events – and current events – is all about the individual stories, the people like Reg, like my ancestors, and it’s important that their stories continue to be told, and that wepostcard stamp angled with meaning don’t let anonymity become a reason to forget.

Since getting this postcard I’ve got some other abandoned letters I’m researching to find the people and stories behind them, but with this one my favourite part is actually unwritten: my Dad pointed out the angle of the stamp, and remembered from his youth that this had meaning. Sure enough, looking into the “hidden language of stamps” I found that Reg had positioned this one to mean “accept my love”.

I can only imagine what it meant to Florrie to get this card in London in January 1916, and now it’s back in Seaford I’d like to think that Reg and Florrie wouldn’t mind a little bit of their love story being told 100 years on.

A frayed collar

A couple of people have told me I don’t post frequently enough and they’d like more, but I’ve taken on quite a lot recently which together with the day job is limiting the time I have to finish up the half written posts I’ve got sat in my drafts folder and the many that are in my head waiting to be typed up. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon, but here’s something I wrote a few years ago.

This comes from the habit I’ve got of quickly writing down experiences and emailing them to myself for future reference, like a diary, or sometimes just because I find them worthy of noting down for no reason other than that they affected me in some way. As a result my inbox is full of small rapidly typed vignettes of (mostly Lewes) life, the majority of which – even if I polish them a bit – will just be filed away and never go anywhere else. I was in two minds about sharing this but I think it happened long enough ago now that it’s OK to:

Afternoon drags, time stretches through a day heavy with heat and uncomfortable brightness, traffic shackled through the bottleneck and down the High Street, choking it’s way past pavements thick with snatched songs and sounds of cricket commentary and indistinguishable voices pulled through car windows opened in hope of relief.

In the Grange children are tying together transient moments forever as triggers in minds still uncluttered by memories: they are tasting ice cream for the first time, noticing the hum of bees between flowers, playing beneath a sprinkler as the water catches sun-scattered diamonds and rainbows…and down the hill into town the Ouse sparkles too as it is pulled through Lewes, through Landport, Malling and Cliffe, past yellowed grass and trees that seem wearied by the effort of growth.

And in Cliffe, near the river, an elderly man is walking with a faded green suitcase. He wears a tie and a jacket despite the sun.

But I don’t notice him when he comes into the charity shop where I am looking at old books.

A few moments later though I am behind him in the queue for the tills. I see how he is holding the suitcase off the ground even though he could rest while he waits, and how it is heavy, or at least uncomfortable because he is easing the weight off his fingers one by one, taking them off the handle in turn and flexing them then putting them back again almost as if counting.

Finally he is at the front and I see how he visibly readies himself, how his hands shake as he props the suitcase on the counter and talks to the lady who stands behind the till.

I have here some of my wife’s clothing and I didn’t want to throw it out if someone else can get some benefit and

His words rush out each propping up the next until he catches himself and slows down, and he has the case open now too, pausing as he looks at the carefully folded blouses, skirts and hand knitted tops.

and

a deep breath, as if stifled

well,

his hand is now laying on top of the fabric. I feel my breath catch.

well, I don’t suppose you can make use of everything

and he picks up a blouse with a collar frayed at the back of the neck and runs his thumb across it. There’s a history of touches in that collar, that thumb,.that momentarily breaks me.

but maybe someone can get some use?

He looks at the shopkeeper with a look that hopes she says yes and hopes she says no.

Now the lady speaks, softly, judging the moment perfectly

 – this is all lovely, thank you. I am sure we will be able to use it all…

and she continues talking but even as I listen I’ve stopped hearing, my mind racing, until I register his surprise at suddenly having to consider the future, his reaction almost like a sleep twitch when he is asked if he’d like the suitcase back.

This brings a pause, and with both hands he returns the carefully refolded blouse to the case

  – I don’t think I’ll be needing it no, thank you

He appears momentarily detached, then he pulls out a silk scarf, white with a pattern of blue wildflowers and birds and butterflies and he holds it as if weighing it

 – I think maybe I’ll just keep this though if that’s alright

And he closes up the case, sighs heavily, and takes his hands away, hesitatingly

– she would have been very pleased

Then that visible steadying again but this time marginally more confident, slightly more set, and he walks out of the shop, into the heat and the bell above the door tinkles briefly before disappearing in the noise of a passing lorry.

The lady tenderly picks up the case and puts it behind the till before turning to me. There’s a silence as we look at each other, struck dumb until she asks me for the money for the book I’ve forgotten I’m holding, and so paying, I leave.

Later on my walk home I need space so I go through the Grange and there he is, sat on a bench with an ice cream., by the trees, by the wildflowers where butterflies dance between petals away from the children whose shouts and laughter blend into the background..

I think about asking him if he’d like company but he looks peaceful, almost happy even.

So I go past, making sure I give him a friendly smile, a comment that might bring further conversation if it seemed appropriate

 – what a lovely afternoon

and he smiles back and agrees

 – yes, yes it is. A lovely afternoon

And he’s back in his own world, watching two birds sing to each other in a tree.

I say I hope the weather holds nice a little longer, but he doesn’t hear, so absorbed and cheered is he by the birds, and then I see where he has one arm folded across his chest, under his hand and in the front breast pocket of his jacket, very neatly folded and over his heart – of course – is the silk scarf.

 

Red ink

Sometimes we don’t even realise we have memories until they are triggered.

“Red ink”.

Such an innocuous thing to overhear, walking through Cliffe just after a rainstorm.

Two words, but feelings and memories come back strong. Funny the words that ambush us in familiar streets, fall into our thoughts, bloom and break against us.

“Red ink”.

It’s what my piano teacher used to say when I’d made a mistake so often that corrective notes in pencil were no longer deemed enough. In saying it her normally impeccable English became heavily French accented. She’d come to England as a war refugee and had told me once about seeing a U-Boat as they crossed the channel. Hundreds of children lining the deck, looking over the railings into the sea in silence at this threat to their existence.

And yet it’s not red ink for myself I remember most though it happened often. What I remember most is sitting in the side room reading Beano and Dandy albums from before I was born, left there to entertain children amongst all the antiques while their siblings had their lessons, and how I’d sit there hearing one of my brothers playing arpeggios, gradually increasing in complexity, until inevitably fingers tripped on keys and I’d hear them restart and restart. Then there’d be a pause while advice was given, more false starts, a longer pause and then I’d know it was coming: “red ink”. Heard through heavy closed doors and walls dense with old paintings.

My brothers and I would leave and walk home together, when we were old enough to do so without a parent, myself being younger trailing slightly behind, crunching and kicking up autumn leaves, constantly distracted then as I am now. Sometimes we’d cross “the field”, a grassy area that acted as a short cut (long since built on) but our lessons finished late enough that for probably half the year the darkness made the hidden hollows and trenches best avoided. It wasn’t far from where our teacher lived to our home, yet I remember walking home almost as clearly as the lessons, going in through the back gate of our house into the narrow alley between us and the neighbour’s house, the kitchen windows misted with condensation from cooking, my mum a blur behind, busy making sure everything was just right for us in one of those selfless acts of parenting we often don’t even realise is a constant of our upbringing until long after we’ve left home.

Two words and so many memories firing off at unexpected tangents. The smell of old pencil shavings in a desk, the rough feel of leather inside a school satchel when pulling out a conker hardened to unbreakability by age and playground recipes, of walking alongside my dad, not tall enough to reach his waist, the laughter as he gradually increased his pace so I had to run to keep up, memories of perfect days with beloved grandparents, and with my parents who continue to be inspirational in so many ways, and now after that Cliffe rain memories of running home in a summer storm, breathless, laughing with clothes wet-clinging tight as skin.

I walked on through Cliffe and up Chapel Hill, and sitting at the top looking over Lewes I watched as a rainbow stretched from the castle and arced to nothing in a still-bruised sky, and I realised stronger than ever before that we are all the product of our memories, both conscious and unconscious, the apparently small and inconsequential just as much as the obvious.

“Red ink”.