Saturday, 30 December 2017

A View Not Universally Shared

I have learned that it isn’t yet fashionable to be supportive of Nazi war criminals, or those accused of inclusion in that category. There are not that many of them left to support in any case but demonstrating a modicum of concern for those that do still remain is much like showing unease about the ongoing denunciation of Harvey Weinstein and his acolytes. It simply isn’t playing the game and akin to ending a relationship with a text message – just not acceptable in polite circles and definitely not in politically correct circles! I know this for sure, not because I have ever used text messaging irregularly but because I was soundly and surprisingly castigated quite recently for showing disquiet about the fact that the baying for blood re historical incidents of sexual molestation simply wasn’t dying down. Three people advised me that they `Had thought better of me’- one person felt I had personally let her down by holding such views…..she would need time to come to terms with it. Quite sobering comments really but ones that sharply reminded me that the society in which we live is still placed uncomfortably close to those witch hunts of the middle ages where simply owning a black cat might be cause for rumour and tittle tattle. And furthermore and more simply, if people find that they like or agree with some of your views then they expect you to think as they do in most respects.

But to get back to Nazi war criminals for a moment or two – and let me say quite categorically that I have no German blood whatsoever as far as I am aware and that most Germans I have known over the years would not seem to have made very dedicated Nazis. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling some alarm that it appears that Oskar Groening will in all likelihood serve a four year prison sentence at the age of 96. There is a touch of farce about sending a man of his great age to prison especially since his War Crimes are said to have come to light only because he lifted his head above the social parapet in order to remonstrate with today’s Zionist Haters and Holocaust Deniers. Oskar’s mistake was pointing out that these groups of Doubting Thomases are sadly in error – The Holocaust DID take place and he knew this for a fact because he played a minor role in it! If he had shut up and got on with attending to his window boxes and collecting stamps, said to himself that it was none of his business what the Great Uninformed believe then he would still be a free man.

Oskar Groening was born in 1921 in Hanover and was hoping for a job in the local bank when war started and he found himself stationed at Auschwitz Concentration Camp for a period. He was known as a Bookkeeper and his duties revolved around itemising and sorting the personal belongings of incoming prisoners. He was not a decision maker of any kind and in fact by October 1944 he had been transferred to a combat unit so his direct input into The Holocaust then ceased. Of course it was always possible that during his time as Bookkeeper he could have gone to his immediate superior and said something like, `I’ve been meaning to explain Sir that I’m personally not at all keen on what we seem to be doing in this place – Genocide has to be taken seriously.’ But of course Oskar didn’t do that and that was his mistake because there was always an outside chance that his seniors might just have given him a sympathetic hearing. On the other hand, depending upon the mood and the workload he might simply have been shot – who knows?

After the war he seems to have led a quiet life and more than forty years went by before he chose to expose his own link with Auschwitz because he found it impossible to remain quiet in the face of ongoing and irritating Holocaust denial. It would be true to say that he is the only person responsible for the position in which he now finds himself. Groening was charged in 2014 as being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people. There is something distinctly absurd about such a charge, it harks of paunchy film directors who may or may not find themselves starring in a media circus for unwisely touching the breast of a would-be starlet visitor to their hotel room decades ago, a miscarriage of justice of medieval proportions. At least that is my opinion which will of course not be shared by all readers.

Monday, 25 December 2017


Those of us attending St Botolph’s School in the latter part of the 1940s were particularly familiar with The Hill, always rightly regarded as the old centre of Northfleet undoubtedly because of the Church that had been first erected there as far back as Saxon times. As I grew older I realized that originally the area around the Church would have fallen gently towards the Thames on one side and the Ebbsfleet on the other but of course I did not realise that as a child, neither did I understand that it was the concentrated excavation of chalk during the nineteenth century that left The Hill I knew standing cut off, stranded on a summit like a man-made industrial mountain peak. I thought things had always been as I knew them to be even though my grandmother spoke from time to time of the green fields present in her own grandmother’s time. But then she also spoke a lot of nonsense as I well knew and little heed was generally paid to her comments.

Old Maudie who lived in one of the now long gone cottages on The Hill and whose full name we never knew was once heard in conversation with Mr Will Clarke who had come to the school to teach us in about 1947, telling him the history of the place. He had been a Japanese POW and therefore was the kind of man who would be interested. She maintained that until the 1830s there was a pound and stocks where the Catholic Church then stood and still does. Originally these sites of medieval punishment had been on the Village Green in front of St Botolph’s lych gate. The pound was a small building made of the new-fangled bricks with a tiled roof and the stocks were somewhat closer to The Leather Bottel pub which was where the Parish Beadle doled out suitable punishments to those who deserved it. Old Maudie said that foul mouthed women were often put in the stocks and passers- by threw unmentionable objects at them. My friend Molly said that although people were said to throw eggs at those they disapproved of, it definitely wouldn’t be eggs because they were too expensive. We decided it was probably stones although Siddy Ribbins suggested dog turds. I wondered if my grandmother would have been considered foul mouthed enough to qualify for the stocks but didn’t like to ask anybody’s opinion. We learned that you also headed for the stocks if you misbehaved in Church although none of us could imagine what that misbehaviour might entail. Giving trouble in the Workhouse also might see you end up there if you weren’t careful . None of us in Mr Clarke’s class were sure if the Workhouse was still in existence. It was David Reynolds whose father had something important to do with Northfleet Station who finally asked him the question and we were told that the Workhouse in nearby Gravesend had been closed for almost fifty years and was now St James’s Hospital. However, at one time Northfleet had boasted its very own Workhouse nearby at Granby Place, and probably built in about 1700. Originally a Mr Crakelt lived there and ran a boarding school for a while. Later a Mr Hewetson took the building over and by 1820 it had become the Northfleet Workhouse, its very own, which it remained for about twenty years. The building had disappeared completely by the late 1880s and the grounds had been incorporated into the churchyard.

We learned that in 1860 a tollgate was erected adjacent to the Leather Bottel and this had come about because of the railway. David Reynolds nodded and we felt that his family was more important than ever. The Turnpike Commissioners after long discussion decided that an additional gate was needed in an effort to boost funds which had been decreasing since the advent of the train service. The gate house was almost directly on the site of the Catholic Church and the siting itself infuriated local shopkeepers who were forced to pay a toll every time they ventured onto either Dover, London or Springhead roads. It only lasted a decade and was finally closed in 1871 when the office of the Turnpike Commissioners was itself disbanded. Local women heaved a sigh of relief because even those who could easily afford the toll were more than vexed by the fact that the gate was too narrow to easily accommodate their crinoline skirts.

These days the Roman Catholic Church stands out as a prominent feature on the local landscape. It was erected in 1914 on the site of the tram depot with a Mr Alfred Tolhurst providing the considerable sum of eight thousand pounds needed. Although I went to the church regularly once my father returned from the war, I always saw it as a grim and gloomy place and much preferred the welcoming warmth of Anglican St Botolph’s. Sometimes Molly and I went into the place simply to dare each other to touch the cold and dark statues without exhibiting fear. Once, accompanied by Kathleen McCarthy we were astonished to see her do so without a qualm and decided that being possessed of red hair was an advantage where courage was concerned.

Just beyond Mr Tolhurst’s forbidding religious structure was Penny, Son and Parker’s grocery, a place frequented by us all on a regular basis, a place where we queued patiently at least twice weekly to buy sugar to be weighed out into cones and broken biscuits and bacon. On one momentous occasion Molly and I dancing together along Springhead Road, she as Doris Day and me as Ginger Rogers found that the one pound note that had been at the bottom of the shopping basket when we set out had now disappeared. In total panic we searched each side of Springhead Road twice before returning to 31 York Road in terror to report the loss. And Molly’s long suffering mother with a shake of her head and a tear in her eye searched her purse and along the mantelpiece for replacement coins. We returned to Penny, Son and Parker’s in a more sober fashion, Molly clutching the coins in her right hand. It was shortly after this episode that the shop that had been serving the public for five decades, closed its doors for ever.

Once there had been old weatherboard cottages at 5 and 6 The Hill but they were demolished in the middle of the nineteenth century and replaced by two purpose built brick shops, one of which was a newsagents. My mother said that she remembered it being a Fancy Bazaar years before but I had no idea what a Fancy Bazaar might be. As well as newspapers and comics you could buy sherbert dabs and liquorice wood and acid drops in this particular establishment and Cut-Out Doll Books which were expensive at one and sixpence each but which I longed to own. Mrs Bassant, our neighbour said that years ago you didn’t need to buy your daily newspaper if you took The Times because you could borrow it for a penny and take it back when you’d finished reading it. When I asked her how long you could have the loan of it for she didn’t know but I thought it a very odd arrangement because news very soon became out of date even back in those days.

On the south east corner of the area that was once the Village Green and is now a car park, was a butcher’s shop that had been there for more than a hundred years and boasted its own slaughter house. The building had first been owned by one Mr Holker who did a great deal of upgrading and made improvements in 1790 and replaced the old fashioned weather boarding with smart new bricks. Old Maudie made mention that there had at one time been talk of the slaughter house harbouring a number of murdered bodies that turned out to be untrue when the suspected victims turned up again after months and said they’d simply been visiting relatives in Sheffield. Nevertheless Molly and I still shivered theatrically whenever we passed the place, especially as the old hooks and rails for hanging carcasses were still in evidence. These days it is a pharmacy and last time I was there I could not help but notice the implements remain still.

There were a number of cottages facing The Green on the south side and Mr Clarke said that Billy Skews, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo had lived at No 10. He had lost an arm in the battle and for many years had a stall in Gravesend Market selling confectionery. He also sold his wares at the Easter Fair held on The Hill each year. When I was a child, however, No 10 was an undertaker’s and apparently still is. There had been more than one annual fair in the old days and originally they were so busy they had been held in nearby fields big enough to accommodate the many amusements and sideshows. The busiest fair was usually that held on St Botolph’s day in mid-June and attracted visitors from far and wide. By the time Billy was selling his sweetmeats such fairs were already diminishing in popularity. In many ways this was again the responsibility of the Railway, transporting people as it did so effortlessly to the delights of places further afield like Southend and Margate. And there of course were the more technically advanced attractions of Dodgem Cars and Ferris Wheels courtesy of Dreamworld and The Kursaal. You could quite understand why the families of Kent were no longer as enthralled with the idea of home- made confectionery and bearded ladies. Personally, however, I was not particularly fond of the more up to the minute seaside funfairs and nursed a deep fear and suspicion of the technology involved in lifting paying customers far from the ground and flinging them around in garishly decorated pseudo-vehicles. I would have infinitely preferred a decorous saunter through a field of Two Headed Babies and Three Armed Ladies. This was not something I shared with my peers as I had no desire to be jeered at or bullied by neighbourhood children and classmates. Any child between the ages of five and fourteen will know how preferable it is to have to same likes, dislikes and desires as those around you.

On the opposite side of The Green there was once an Inn called The Dove, apparently one of the most ancient in Northfleet but it had been burnt down in 1906. Behind the Inn was a huddle of old cottages in Dove Yard still standing in the 1940s. Just to the right, The Coach and Horses, dating from 1572 still stands and I have a memory or two of under- age drinking of gin and tonic there as a teenager. Adjoining it were a number of 17th century cottages that were apparently demolished in the late 1950s. In one of them lived a woman most of us had decided was a witch and I recently learned was actually the mother of Ron Hull, local poet who wrote so eloquently of the area. Directly behind the pub was the site of Northfleet’s very first purpose built fire station. Originally it was a Volunteer Service but at the beginning of the second world war had become incorporated into the National Fire Service.

On the final side of The Green triangle the Queen’s Head pub stood and was run when I was a child by the McCarthys parents of the red haired daughter called Kathleen and were said to be well off. The place had previously been called The Crown and at the time had extensive grounds to the rear of the building including a bowling green. After a disastrous fire in 1830 the building had to be renovated completely and the bowling green disappeared in the incessantly urgent quest for chalk. The Post Office stood adjacent to the pub and there was still a sub post office there when I was a teenager. Next door had once been a grocery store but when I was growing up had become a second hand book shop, run largely I believe as a hobby as it only seemed to open sporadically.

At the turn of the 20th century The Green was at last paved over and after the first World War a Memorial was erected from Portland Stone to commemorate those local servicemen who lost their lives during the conflict. Today the monument has become hemmed in on every side by vehicles that nudge each other for space and the area has changed completely. St Botolph’s school disappeared some years ago and on my last visit a temporary garden centre had situated itself in the Infants’ Playground . The Church lych gate still stands defiantly, harbouring the memory of those mothers of the 1940s who sheltered there on rainy afternoons whilst waiting to collect their five and six year olds from the clutches of Miss Honour who was young and pretty with long blonde hair and Mrs Johnson who was short and dumpy and always wore a flowered smock to protect her twin set.
I am reliably informed that there is now a new St Botolph’s School nearby but as yet I have not investigated it, so wedded am I to the idea that there can really only be one – the one on The Hill, or as Ron Hull describes it `Northfleet Village Green’.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Approaching Christmas Rationally

I’ve never been able to Do Christmas in a sensible manner and my brother used to maintain that it was because of our father electing to die so very inconveniently close to the festive season at the end of 1951. Following his own inconvenient death in April 2016 I no longer have a listening ear with which to discuss such matters. My own children, growing up in Auckland, New Zealand always felt they were trapped in a Dickensian novel at this time of year as I trawled suburbs, and more latterly the internet, for those providing geese for Yuletide eating. Let me tell you it isn’t easy to buy a goose in this part of the world but then again not completely impossible. What the kids really wanted to do, of course, was have barbecue on the beach like other people – normal people.

Now they have successfully escaped my enforced December traditions they are slightly less critical and Seamus, in Taiwan has even admitted to making his own Christmas Pudding from time to time which is courageous since the Taiwanese do not seem naturally drawn to Christmas Pudding. Sinead, in London definitely opts for a heavily decorated tree every year and is happy to admit it. Patrick still living close by in Auckland is perhaps the most traditional of the trio enjoying all the trimmings and also liking to incorporate as many German traditions as possible simply because his father was German.

For me, like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was certainly not a time for being showered with expensive toys and more a time for church-going, early evening carol singing under lamp posts and partaking in seasonal treats such as mince pies, tangerines and candied pineapple. By mid November at St Botolph’s school we turned with great determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the excitement of this most important Christian festival of the year.

I loved going into the adjacent church each afternoon in order to practice the order of carols chosen for the end of term service. We sang the same pieces each year - `Once In Royal David’s City’, `The First Noel’, `It Came Upon The Midnight Clear,’ `Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, `Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, `While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ and `Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem’ and there were times when one or more of the traditional carols were also sung at the end of year concert also. The Christmas concert I remember best is the one where Betty Haddon sang `Alice Blue Gown’ and Pearl Banfield and I headed a group dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe paper costumes to dance a waltz. Both my parents were there which made me enormously proud even though my brother got bored and began to cry.

Then quite suddenly school was finished and it was home to new Council Houses with fires in `tiled surrounds’ for the luckiest among us and back to the tiny workmen’s cottages where the heating was pre-Victorian for the rest of us. Strangely we did not seem to notice how poor we were at Christmas, theoretically the time when it should have been most obvious, so powerful was the excitement of the impending celebration. On Christmas Eve the Salvation Army Band toured the streets for the final time and we donned coats and scarves and stood under the lamp on the corner of Springhead Road to listen before being ushered indoors once more for mince pies with cocoa for the children and a tot of cherry brandy for the grown-ups. Later my father would take me to Midnight Mass at the Roman Catholic Church where I happily shunted off my term-time St. Botolph’s Anglicanism and once again became a devout Catholic child both fascinated by the high drama of the Mass but bored at the same time because it went on far too long. He in his overcoat, demob suit and white silk scarf intent upon appraising any woman under thirty attending alone, was always in a good mood whilst maintaining an air of studied piety. At this time of year both the Parish Priest, Father O`Connor and a clutch of black-clad nuns made a fuss of me and told me I was a good child, hoping to lure me back to the school in Springhead Road and on one occasion I was given Rosary Beads, ebony and silver. At the end of the mass there was generally a little Yuletide conversation between the attending parishioners during which my father was able to chat with the piano teacher from the top of Springhead Road and both the Murphy sisters who ran the Brownie pack and laugh too loudly at their jokes.

Of course all children woke at dawn next day feverishly excited at the thought of what Father Christmas just might have brought with him and we were never let down because he always did bring something. Usually I became the proud owner of a pile of second hand books. Breakfast on Christmas Day always began with mugs of sweet tea, laced with whiskey even for the children though I have absolutely no idea how and when this particular tradition began and it was certainly not present in all local families but I do know that each of my own children still follow it.

Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was always a stuffed and roasted chicken, mashed and roast potatoes, sprouts and a salty brown gravy followed by home-made Christmas Pudding and a white cornflour sauce heavily sweetened. My parents drank beer with this repast and my brother and I were deliriously excited to be given lemonade, exactly as if we were in the children’s room at a local pub. We stayed up late and listened to the radio and on Boxing Day we went visiting either to Crayford to my mother’s family or to Waterdales to my father’s, either way it was something I looked forward to because among my many cousins there was sure to be one who had been given a second hand bike or even a passed on china doll as Connie-on-my-father’s-side was one eventful year.

Although my relationship with my father was still fraught with difficulties, these were largely happy festive seasons during which we sensibly drew a truce. Now of course I realise how difficult I must have made his life upon his return to his family after the war when I so very much wished he would return to the Eighth Army and that The War would simply resume. I found the war years strangely reassuring and rarely felt in any danger. Life certainly changed a great deal when he returned in 1946 and was to take an even more dramatic turn following his sudden death on 12th December 1951. Our future Christmases were to be sombre affairs and treats were few. I was no longer required to go to Midnight Mass and found I missed the tradition and would sometimes insist on going alone.

I think I must have been a particularly contrary child. I certainly grew into being a particularly contrary adult and as I said previously I have never been able to approach Christmastime in a rational manner in my frantic desire to become knee deep in conventions and traditions. On the other hand maybe I’m slowly learning – I haven’t even attempted to track down a goose this year! So far anyway.....