My father was born three years after WWI and I was born three years after WWII. As a child I recall seeing this as a good sign as if my son was to be born three years after WWIII then it meant I would have survived it.
Both my grandfathers had died before I was born so my backward extended family consisted of Nan Denton and Nanny Dilling. Nan was sixty when I was born, Nanny just forty-nine, but both were appeared as kindly little old ladies to me.
I had more contact with Nan who provided me with one lasting attribute – a love of playing cards. She taught me cribbage at the age of five and I spent hours playing with her, loving all the exotic terminology – ‘fifteen for two’, ‘one for his nob’…
I saw Nanny rather less often in part because she had re-married Fred Dilling, so I did have one step-grandfather. He was a dour and remote character who repeated the same anecdotes at every visit. He had a deep depression in one side of his skull, something from one of the wars that was never explained. I recall an old artillery shell sat in their fireplace, leading my imagination to connect the two but without any evidence this was the case.
My dad had a recess behind his ear too, a relic of WWII. The family suggested this was while serving in Eritrea Africa where he had additional salt pumped into his system via this point, which conjured many strange pictures while I was young. Now I know this was a cavity created by a mastoidectomy removing the honey-combed mastoid bone that drains the middle ear.
Post WWII jingoism and comics tended to define our fathers and grandfathers as heroes, victors over a clear fascist evil. They spoke little of their experiences and it was these physical signs that we children had to use as pointers for our imaginations – to run riot!
I never worked out whether Dad’s generation was truly reticent about war stories because they were truly shocking or if they were merely carrying on the folk myth of remaining silent. In my teenage years he did speak of the one bit of action he saw. In the RAF as a ground-crew LAC he was on an aircraft carrier that was being convoyed past Gibraltar in heavy fog. This suddenly lifted and sitting right in the middle of the convoy was a German schnellboote, or E-boat. Before it could react the convoy’s destroyers surrounded it and forced its surrender.
While talking of physical flaws, I remember early in our relationship telling Jane that a scar on my thumb was a parrot bite and I extemporised upon this traumatic event. Jane was very sympathetic. It was years before I ‘fessed up that I had no idea what had caused the scar.
Through step-grandad Fred I had a step-uncle Frederick, aka Freddie. He lived in, what was then for me something of a mystical concept, London. On the few occasions he visited Bristol I had to be in my Sunday best and on my best behaviour to enter the presence of this family demigod. I learned later he was an air traffic controller, a role probably derived from something to do with the aerospace factories at nearby Filton.
I attended Nanny’s funeral, at age ninety-one, and heard several young nieces commenting on me ‘talking nice, just like a doctor’. I lived in London and realised that somehow I had become their generation’s Uncle Freddie.
ASIDE: Back then Bristol jobs were primarily in aerospace (British Aircraft Corporation [now BAe] and Bristol Siddeley Engines [now Rolls Royce]), cigarettes (WD&HO Wills), chocolate (Frys) or printing and packaging (Robinsons and Mardon Son & Hall).
Nanny and Fred had two boys of their own, John and Richard, also step-uncles of course. They were both Teddy boys, with bright drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, brothel creeper shoes and remarkable hairstyles sweeping high above their heads and swooping into a DA (duck’s ass) at the rear.
On balance, having two step-uncles who walked around like colourful tropical birds was a lot more interesting than the occasional visits of the demigod; although John and Richard both hung on to that fashion statement far longer than the fad deserved.