Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Tiny stories from my dad's youth

My dad shared very few memories with me of his younger days so I could hardly write a biography. What he did share, however, was usually very funny, tragic or interesting...

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My dad was the fourth child of five. His older brother, George (first-born) was nearly nine years older than him - old enough to have fought in the second world war and have a uniform so he only looked up to him with admiration. His younger sister he also adored. However sisters number two and three gave him a lifetime's scar. The story goes that my dad was about four when he was trying to get into his sister's bedroom. They were not going to let their irritating little brother in so they slammed the door on his face - so hard, his nose was completely broken. This left him with a 'nose' that in effect was completely flat until you came to the nostrils. He had this 'deformity' until at the age of twenty one, when he had his nose reconstructed using a piece of bone from his elbow. It always looked a little wonky!

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My dad never had an easy relationship with singing! (The irony was that his son grew up to make a living through singing and playing music). His adverse reaction was simply a result of an unfortunate event in his middle childhood. When he was at school, the boys in his class were lined up and asked to sing. The teacher kept stopping the song because 'someone was singing horribly out of tune'. The boys were then asked to sing alone, one by one so that the perpetrator of disharmony could be discovered. It did, of course turn out to be my dad and he received a ruler over the knuckles for his incompetence but the public humiliation was clearly more damaging. When I was a child, highly aware of his inability to find a tune, he would sing loudly and laugh a lot - probably only took him four decades to comfortably own his 'shame'.

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Another school story my father told me ended up with him being frog-marched to the headteacher's office to be greeted by the headteacher, a boy and the boy's two parents. Apparently my dad had been bullying the boy. The parents and the headteacher, up until that point were unaware of who 'Charlie Potter' was exactly so when this tiny boy walked through the door and stood next to his victim that towered over him, there was considerable awkwardness in the room! I believe there was laughter and words to the effect of 'don't be ridiculous' but we know more about bullying now don't we!?

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My dad lived in Wimbledon as a child. He was not evacuated during the war and once described it as 'a really exciting time'. Being eight years old at the start meant he had little sense its terror and as far as he was concerned, there were overhead planes to look at, bombs to collect and crashed aircraft to forage (one particular one on Wimbledon Common kept him fascinated for some time). When his dad discovered his incendiary bomb collection under the stairs, he wasn't too pleased.

My dad's parents ran businesses. In a place called Pott's Corner, there was a cinema, a cafe, a fish and chips shop and a dance hall (I am a bit vague here). Before the war, the 'main' Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) frequented the dance hall. Just before and during the early war, the hall was used to build a prototype aeroplane. My dad had tales of how the engineers put him on the payroll for fishing out bolts and anything their relatively large hands could not retrieve. Very early on in the war, four bombs were dropped very close to Pott's Corner: three in a straight line and had the plane not veered off, the fourth would have landed directly on the dance hall. Speculation at the time was of course that this was something to do with Lord Haw Haw and his shifted loyalties.

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My dad was a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF from about 1950 - 1958. He spent one of those years stationed in RAF Coltishall which is only about ten miles from where I live. On one of his visits to Norwich, we went to visit the cemetery at the 'end of the runway' (he remembered flying over it to land). I was surprised to find he knew a couple of the people buried there. Then he explained. In the fifties the RAF was nothing like the professional organisation it became from about 1960 onwards. What became the 'cold war', was perceived as a real and immediate threat and having had little time to reflect since the last war, the mentality was: even if a plane isn't working properly, you still flew it. My dad witnessed several people die including a man burning to death after crashing in an orchard near Coltishall. He also escorted the body of a friend to hand over to his widow at the train station. He said he would never forget the look on her face. There was a general feeling of 'it could well be me next but we just have to get on with it'. Most men went down the mess and drank their trauma away but not my dad, he never really was a drinker.

And I think, that's all I have before my mum came along. Sad huh?

6 comments:

  1. It's a shame that you don't know more but at least you have some stories!! I should really ask my Dad about what he was like when he was growing up...I don't really know many stories about him (I do however have a couple of really embarrassing ones but he would kill me if I shared them!!)

    C x

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  2. One day I expect I will also be reduced to a handful of stories and a few saved objects like my favourite enamel teapot and my last shopping list. I've told my son so many bloody pre-him stories that he now rolls his eyes if I embark on another, so it may have actually had the reverse effect! xxx

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  3. Your father led a colo(u)rful life, that explains much.

    My mother's father was an immigrant from Ireland who ran away with a carnival when he was 13 before he became respectable and settled in Morgan Mill, Texas.

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  4. I like the RAF bit, I live in Norfolk because my mum and dad were stationed at RAF Swanton Morley in the fifties. Funny how many people I've met over the years who live in Norfolk for the same reason.

    It's strange too, how these stories become so much a part of who you are, certainly my mum and dad's identity and teh world they lived in is ver important, as is my grandparents. Maybe it's a weird atheist form of ancestor worship.

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  5. Carol - I squeezed my head hard and I am pretty sure that's all I have. He didn't ever appear comfortable talking about his youth.

    Claire...a teapot and a shopping list...I suspect you'll amount to a little more. I'd throw in a miniature kitchen and a few articles about crazy things you can do with your kids at least. Maddy still likes to hear my childhood stories.

    Eric - running away with a carnival - I would love to have that in my personal history....in fact I might just lie....really cool!

    Nickster P - Strangely I have ancestral links to Swanton Morley too...my great, great grandfather was born there. By chance the school I went to today (Tunstead Primary) is really close to the cemetery..I popped in...and found an A Towle (d 1953) that I remember my dad pointing out because they called him 'Soapy'! He was 24 when he died. Most were not buried there, they were sent home. All felt a little poignantly weird/sad.

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  6. I missed a post - you are a diligent blogger :p

    Was it called Potts' Corner 'cos the Potters did all these things there?

    It's a shame not to know more but at least you know these things.

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