Much Ado about Nothing - Part 3
By James Lester SOLE MBE
Abridged by Bob Sheldon
This article was originally published in the April 2004 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Jim arrived home after twenty months RAF service in Australia to find his wife Grace ‘standing on the threshold and already holding back the tears. She looked very thin, very tired but, so beautiful. The next few days I spent finding out exactly how badly Grace was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. If only I had known just how bad Grace was I could certainly have got a compassionate posting home, but my obstinate wife had refused [to tell me]’.
With Grace now in a wheelchair the house in Margate which stood on a hill was not suitable and the family moved to Birchington. This gave Jim a five mile journey four times a day to and from his former job at the Margate Borough Council. Unfortunately for him after only one month he was knocked off his cycle by a taxi and he broke his collarbone and injured his leg, but ‘I did not have to miss any work time.’
Living at the seaside the summer holidays were the focal point of the year. ‘Nephews and nieces descended on us in force. What did it matter if some beds were makeshift or if meals were taken at queer times and in queer places. Every year a Carnival would take place, and many large floats would parade round the town in a very long procession. On some memorable occasions there would be a circus visiting town at the same time and the atmosphere was wonderful. I am writing this on my eighty-seventh birthday and can close my eyes and bring to life those halcyon days of which time has improved the memory.’
‘During 1947 some Royal Air Force head-hunters called on me. The Government was setting up what they called Fighter Control Units, one for each county, . . . and they wanted me to start as Training Officer for the Kent unit. Expenses were paid and these would help appreciably as Grace’s treatments were quite expensive. So I went ahead and agreed. I often had misgivings after that as to whether . . . I should have devoted more time at home. I was promoted to Squadron Leader, and when the Commanding Officer left a year or so later, promoted to CO and made Wing Commander.’
As the RAF became more and more demanding, Jim’s employers were extremely good in letting him take time off for his duties both home and away and for the growing number of social functions which as CO he was obliged to attend. ‘Grace went with me to all these affairs she could attend, though some of them – such as visiting ships where physical activity was concerned – had to be avoided by her. I , too, had to hold some social functions, and at these she acted as hostess, which she did graciously.’
There was one social function which Jim recalls with some humour, this was a fancy dress ball. ‘I took my staff car with Grace and two other officers and their wives and we hadn’t gone more than a mile when the car broke down. I was Wee Willie Winkie with long flannel nightgown, long tasselled night-cap and candleholder with lighted candle. Grace was a witch with long black dress, tall pointed hat and false long nose with wart and hair! Henry Sowerbutts was dressed as Beau Brummel and his wife as Nell Gwynn and Leslie Rose was dressed as Norman Wisdom (a film comedian) and his wife as Little Bo Peep. We could not turn the car round so we began to push it backward. Henry lived close by so we decided to push the car to his house and take his vehicle. . . . we heard a car coming towards us. The car stopped and two big policeman got out and came over to us. They listened very politely to our explanation . . . we all had the giggles trying to explain . . . and in the end one of the policemen drove his car in front of us and the other gave help in pushing the car. Two or three days later I received a letter from the Chief Superintendent of Police warning me he was sending the papers on this case to the Director of Prosecutions. Charges pending were reversing without lights; driver seemed incapable; inadequate lighting of vehicle (my candle was on top of the car unlit). I replied to the letter and told the Chief he would never be invited to another cocktail party.’
A CAT CAN LOOK AT A CANARY
‘Then occurred something which caused quite a stir in all our lives. We had been away for a few days over Christmas, staying with Grace’s sister. When we arrived home we found a lot of telegrams and letters on the hall floor and I discovered that I had been awarded the MBE. Sir Anthony Eden was then our Honorary Air Commodore and he had wired asking me to see him so that he could congratulate me personally. The award was in the Military Division and very rare to regular officers let alone reserve personnel. I was completely taken by surprise and had no idea or hint of what was coming. A ridiculous fuss was made in the local papers and I received a lot of mail from all over the country. The award was really earned by my Unit, and I had a full parade and told them so. Grace and I found ourselves being invited to all sorts of affairs and turned a lot of them down. It was a lot of baloney really and eventually the dust settled.
The day came for Jim to receive his MBE from the Queen. ‘I was only allowed two guests to attend actually inside the Palace and inevitably decided that Gina, being the eldest daughter, and Grace should be the two. The room in which the ceremony was to be performed was called the Blue and Gold Ballroom. The band was playing on one of the balconies. We were lined up, in full uniform and medals, and one at a time taken to the Queen, who stood with her attendants and officers on a large stage at one end of the room. Eventually it came to my turn and she presented the award and had a very short conversation with me. The Commanding Officer of Manston had lent me his staff car for the occasion, as it was larger than my own. About a fortnight later I received an invitation to a garden party at the Palace and took Grace and several of my officers with me.’
BACK TO NORMAL
‘Responsibility for the Unit had been heavy. During 1954 I was taking part in an exercise over Kent during which we were intercepting heavy bombers. It was 2am when I was demonstrating to a group of officers how interceptions were carried out when my fighter, which I was using to intercept a target, vanished from the air and from the screen. Shortly we had news of a crash on a hill in north Kent. Both pilot and navigator were killed in a horrendous explosion. About seven days later a Board of Inquiry was held at Manston and I was duly called . . . this was only one step below a Court Martial. When one is the chief suspect (as I obviously was) one gets all kinds of morbid thoughts. However I was able to prove, by means of radio telephone logs that I had warned the pilot he was too low several times and he had ignored my instructions to climb higher. Result (as far as I know) pilot error.’
Life for the family continued uneventfully. Both daughters attended grammar school in Canterbury, a seventeen mile journey each way and Jim tried to help with their homework ‘but it was obvious that I would soon be left far behind in the intellectual stakes. But I was able – by considerable bluff and clever evasion – to conceal my ignorance of physics and algebra, etc., for a reasonable period.’ The family acquired a dog Bessie (an Airedale bitch) who eventually had seven black and tan puppies ‘all over the house . . . none in the snug home we had prepared under the stairs.’ Despite the growing weakness and frailty of Grace she surprised them all when she insisted on going on a camping holiday touring Devon and Cornwall. Despite the bad weather most of the time it was a successful venture and they went camping in tents and motor campers many times after that.
‘We were now well into the late fifties and the Unit, along with others throughout the country was due to be disbanded in 1957. In a way I was not sorry. I had felt for some time that I had too much on my plate and was neglecting my family to some extent, so this news pleased me.’
MY FIRST CAR
‘Grace was as stable health wise as she would ever be. Susan was doing well at school and Gina had got her first job. The dog was well and I had been truly bitten again by the fishing bug. To add to all this we had decided to move back to Margate in 1959. Gina had developed a deep friendship with Anthony and they suddenly sprung the news on us that they wished to get married and emigrate to New Zealand. It sent us into a turmoil and . . . at once the whole tenor of our lives changed. After a hectic few months Gina and Anthony got married from our home and within eight months left England for New Zealand . . . among the first emigrants to fly to their destination.’
‘Then I took what was, for me, a momentous step. I bought a car. It was a Hillman model called “Gaylook” and was miles ahead of its time. The engine was marvellous and the bodywork good, the only fault being a lot of small rust holes round the bottom of the body and doors.’ Jim did his own repair job and ‘we were all thrilled with it. About a fortnight later I . . . left the car in a parking space whilst I did some shopping. I went back and found that a very large lorry had backed into the front of my car. The body work was not damaged but the lorry had got its front bumper over my back one and the driver could not get them apart. Eventually he did . . . cause it to jerk itself free . . . except the sudden jerk caused all the fibreglass to fall out, leaving clean bright holes giving the impression that the car had had all its teeth extracted. The firm who owned the lorry sent me a letter of apology and a cheque for £50.’
They decided to drive in their new car to Spain for a camping holiday. By this time Susan was going steady with Rod and all four of them for the ferry journey to France. They had an exciting journey through France and over the Pyrenees. They had a bit of trouble making themselves understood for example in buying milk. ‘I shall always remember how Rod and I charged around the shop with our fingers alongside our ears, trying to imitate a cow. To make it more lifelike we mooed!’ They eventually arrived at the Barcelona camp site only to be ‘eaten alive by mosquitoes’ but it was an enjoyable holiday despite Jim having a slight altercation with an officer in the Spanish army at a bull fight. ‘This lad got fed up with my reluctance to enthuse and finally asked me outright what I thought of the bullfight. I told him that we had a much quicker, and my opinion, more civilised way of killing bulls. He was furious . . . and studiously ignored me for the rest of the tedious and cruel performance.’ They went for many holidays after this one but with the pulling a caravan with the improved comfort compared with the tents.
Sue and Rod were married and as Rod had joined the Police Force and was stationed in London Jim and Grace were left in ‘what seemed an empty house. We were hearing frequently from Gina and always her letters assumed we were going to join them after my retirement.’
‘Fishing was my overwhelming interest . . . and three of us founded a new fishing club . . . which after a few months attracted about three hundred members with something like forty boats between us.’ I was President of this Club for six years and we had a very successful time . . . and gaining a national reputation.’ A founder member of the club was Felix the owner of a large fresh fish shop in Margate. He died and in his will he asked to be cremated and his ashes strewn on the sea at his favourite fishing spot. ‘Arrangements were made. I was to say a few words and then deposit the ashes in the sea. On the day the weather was dreadful . . . I was tempted to cancel the whole affair . . . but we decided to carry on . . . and after a few minutes most of the mourners looked as though they wished they had never started. I shouted a few appropriate words and threw the ashes all over Felix’s wife and family – in generous though not equal portions. Just as I had lifted the small urn . . . a huge gust of wind had swept the remains inboard. When we landed and all adjourned to our headquarters I apologised to all concerned. I even helped brush the remains of Felix off his wife’s dress. Ted (my fishing crony) remarked very unkindly, I thought, “That’s not the first time Felix got the brush off from his wife”.’
Changes were happening at work with the restructuring of Margate Council in readiness for the planned amalgamation of all local authorities in the early 1970’s. ‘I came out of it with a very nice salary increase and an enormous widening of my responsibilities. I changed my car for a more powerful model and also bought a small caravan. They were wonderful times and Grace’s handicaps and pains often faded into the background as we went everywhere we could, and did everything we could together. Suddenly I found myself considering my retirement in months. We had always assumed we would go to New Zealand . . . and it hit us that we were proposing to leave our younger daughter and her family . . . not to mention Grace’s sisters and relatives. We both began to wonder whether we were doing the right thing.’
However, after Sue and Rod had stated their intention to also emigrate to NZ in due course, plans proceeded and there were a succession of farewell parties and some pressure from his employers to stay on a few years. ‘It was too late to make alterations, and in any case we would be silly to miss the chance of what would be a new life. I will not deny I was disappointed not to be able to take a plum job at the council, but then thought of the sacrifices my wife had made all her life . . . and it seemed paltry to even consider going against her wishes.’
‘We hired a large car and Rod and Sue drove us to Southampton where we embarked on the “Australis”’ en route for New Zealand.
NEW ZEALAND (To be concluded)
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