As it’s now officially Remembrance Day in what has been, at best, a very strange year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to give you a bit more detail on the Granddad book, now that it’s a year old.
I figured that it could serve as an introduction for those of you who haven’t read it, and a bit of extra information for everybody else.
With that in mind, here’s a little bit about how I met each of the men, and how we sat down for Other People’s Granddads: Stories from the Legion.
I met Ivor when I worked my first Sunday lunchtime shift behind the Legion bar. After a very brief chat, he invited me out to lunch, took me under his wing and referred to me as his honorary granddaughter.
A true gentleman, he was crisply-spoken, kept a millimetre-perfect beard, always wore a suit and had a special silver clip for his napkin. He was the first person in my life to pronounce and spell my name correctly first time.
When we sat down for Other People’s Granddads, we sat across the corner of his dining room table at home. He showed me his photograph albums, with snaps from his service career – pictures of his friends, the ships they sailed on, maps of various parts of Greece.
I think it’s fair to say it took Ivor’s participation in the project to convince the other chaps to sit down with me. In all honesty, Ivor was my champion. We lost him three years ago and I miss him more than I can say.
Although I’d spoken haltingly to Ted – little more than ‘hello’ and ‘what can I get you?’ at branch meetings and village fetes for a few years, it was only when we sat down for the book that we spoke more than half a dozen words to each other.
We met up in the snug bar at the Legion. He waited patiently while I set up my recording equipment. We ordered drinks and he pulled out a list of places he’d travelled during his military and civilian careers.
We spoke for about an hour and a half, during which time, the Legion filled up and we wound up joining the rest of the crowd and finishing our talk a week later. However, on that first night, Ted offered to give me his list of places he’d lived and worked and I, like a fool, thanked him but told him I’d be fine.
I spent hours, hours, on Google, trying to find various places all around the world – some of which had changed names in the years in between. After I emailed him the transcript of our chat, Ted got back to me and said, although I’d spelt the locations correctly, I’d misspelt his wife’s name. I was mortified, he was beyond gracious about it.
(Those of you reading the book now, Dorn is short for Doreen.)
I maintain that Fred is the handsomest man in Devon, if not the world. He’s also the most laidback person I’ve ever met in my life. I can well imagine that Fred would be exactly the sort of person you’d want around in a crisis, because you’d never know anything was happening at all.
Fred is one of only two of the chaps I knew before I got to the Legion, and Fred is the reason I went there.
I’d been working in the village shop for a couple of years and when Fred came in to put a poster up on the community board, advertising for bar staff, he asked if I’d be interested. I don’t think he knew my name or much about me at all, save the fact that I lived down the road from him, but from that day to this, I’ve always said that I was head-hunted by the Legion.
I’ll say this: I’m not a natural journalist. I don’t have questions. Generally, I think if someone wants to tell me something, they’ll find a way of doing it without me prodding them. As such, when Fred and I sat in the snug, with Clive leaning over the bar, every bit as interested as I was, the whole thing came to a halt when Fred who, if he were any more relaxed, would be a puddle, shrugged off a major act of dentistry on a war criminal and I, fool, had no follow-up questions prepared.
Luckily, Clive recovered the power of speech long enough to ask, ‘How did that happen, then?’ and thus, prevented a disaster from setting in three chats into the project.
Sid is a wonder. He reminds me very sharply of my dad. A friendly chap with an open face and a kind heart, Sid would do anything for anyone, but he’s no fool.
When he retired, his doctor asked him if he smoked. Sid replied that he did. A dozen cigars a day, two of which came before breakfast. His doctor nodded and asked if he could cut back to which, Sid replied, “No. But I can stop.” And he did. You have to admire that kind of willpower.
Sid has been known to walk me halfway home after meetings at the Legion. Having spent his early life in the Navy, he follows the stars and knows exactly which one to follow to get to his front door without falling in a ditch. He also taught me how to hold my thumbs when marching, because if I’m going to do it, I might as well do it properly.
(I should point out to the non-Devoners, we have a small stretch of pavement on one side of the road, but not for the whole road, and very sporadic streetlights in this part of the world. The edge of the road isn’t marked by a camber, so much as a decent depth ditch in which you could lose a wheel from a car, and our houses have names, not numbers, so when you’re lost in Devon, you’re lost.)
Mike has a very fine, almost reedy speaking voice, a little bit like John Gielgud. It’s worth remembering, at this stage, that I’d had the first interview two and a bit years prior to publication. The interviews ran in the order you find them here, and in the book, but by the time I got to Mike, I was running out of time if I wanted to publish in time for Remembrance. And, let’s face it, it makes more sense to publish a book of military reminisce at this time of year than any other.
Apart from Ivor, I met with the other chaps on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Legion and, just by luck, the club was quiet until I clicked ‘stop’, whereupon, the village appeared.
That is, until I got to Mike’s interview.
As had become my practice, we met in the snug bar – it’s comfortable, small and intimate, nicely upholstered, not up on stage – but, within a few minutes, a group of young people appeared. I’d been transcribing furiously and was just getting over a bout of the ‘flu, which might explain why I lost my patience and raised my voice when the kids started bellowing, somewhat inexplicably, about Tracy Beaker and condoms.
(I promise, I haven’t ruined the young people. Before lockdown, they were still coming in, making a lot of noise and spending a shocking amount on lager-tops.)
Getting into the final stretch, by the time I got to Keith, I’d started taking an awful lot of the process for granted. As such, when we agreed a time, I forgot to suggest meeting at the Clubhouse so, on the appointed evening, I was standing at the bar, twiddling my thumbs until my partner phoned the Legion.
Keith was on his way; he was sorry for being late, but he’d assumed we were meeting at my house. Also, my partner lowered her voice, he was bringing his wife.
When Keith arrived, I’d set up my equipment and set our drinks on coasters. As it turned out, he had typed up his own story. He’d done it years before for his children and just – handed me a copy. We sat down anyway, Keith on one side, Lilian on the other, and they showed me their scrapbooks. Indeed, as I learnt that night, Lilian had been a WREN.
Fascinating lady. If there’s an Other People’s Grandmas, she’s first on my list.
I’m not sure what it is but somehow Ray always reminds me of Jack Nicholson. He’s charming and witty and puts me in mind of the sort of chap who might do anything.
Although Ray has been there almost every night I’ve worked at the Legion, we needed two meetings to get his story down. This was, in no small part, because we met on a Friday and then a Saturday night.
On the first evening, there was a lot of chatter, loud rambunctious stuff, plus a Dads’ night (curry and beer), and a skittles match (chanting and singing) going on in the main hall. As such, we couldn’t really hear ourselves think, much less speak.
On the second evening, one of the finest local characters in all the land came in swaying and started flirting both loudly and unsuccessfully.
The great thing about Ray is that he’ll tell you if you’re being foolish, without a moment’s hesitation, but you’ll never find a more loyal friend.
I’m pretty sure I remember Peter driving my mother to the nearest, and largest, garden centre as an act of kindness, little realising that a trip to the garden centre with my mother was not complete without two full trollies and several overwhelmed shop assistants.
When we sat down, it was directly after a rugby match which had been shown on the big screen on a Saturday lunchtime. I’m a night owl and had, therefore, stayed up in order to avoid sleeping through the appointed hour. When I got to the clubhouse, whoever it was (possibly England?) had won, and the building was emptying rapidly.
When Peter appeared, I got the keys from my boss, served Peter an ale, myself a Guinness, and plonked myself back on the fun side of the bar. Within a few minutes, there was the first of a handful of power cuts. My recording equipment was unaffected, being battery-powered, but with the building empty, apart from the two of us, Peter’s story was by far the easiest to type up because I could hear everything – including when the power came back on and the cordless phone started bleeping.
Also, as I’m sure you can tell from the transcript, we had a good giggle that Saturday afternoon.
When I sent Other People’s Granddads to the Queen (indeed, the Queen has her own copy), I did point out that there is a modicum of strong language in the book but, as each of the men gave their time for free and all money raised is going to the Poppy Appeal, I hoped she’d forgive us.
We got this in reply:
As you read Other People’s Granddads, you’ll see how some of the men served on the same ships, or worked in the same institutions, two of them even worked on, or in the cell of, the same criminal – until they read the book, some of them didn’t know they had so much in common.
It just goes to show, you never know who you’re drinking with. But if you’re lucky enough to spend time with other people’s granddads, get to know them, they’re amazing.