“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday 31 August 2014
A hundred years ago… following the terrible first British defeat at Mons, in Belgium, near the French border, the BEF continued its retreat. It fought rearguard actions at Le Cateau August 26 (13,000 wounded and dead, British and German) and Etreux August 27 (three companies of the 2nd Royal Munsters, outnumbered 6-1, delayed the German advance for 14 hours). But the 28th saw the first British victory – in the first naval battle, at Heligoland Bight (six German vessels sunk, 712 dead, and 35 on the British ships).
Meanwhile, war swiftly circled the world in ways I never heard of till I edited and researched around my father’s Memoir: on the 27th, Japanese and British fleets attacked the German-held port of Tsingtao, China; today, the 30th, is the centenary of New Zealand successfully invading German Samoa.
And, back home, in the small world of a individual London working lad, Sam Sutcliffe, 16, hoped he might continue to be just a boy for a little longer – learning about life, playing practical jokes…
As an office boy at a mining company’s City HQ, Sam’s immediate boss was known as “Sergeant”, because he’d served in the Army from boyhood. Memory photographic as usual, Sam describes him:
“Back straight as a ramrod, legs slightly bowed, clipped moustache iron-grey and hair about two inches long, oiled, parted in the middle, his eyes dark, sharp, penetrating – almost black – with bushy, grey eyebrows above them, and complexion sallow, parchment-like from service in India; he could cause trepidation with a look. He wore a black uniform of quality cloth with some gold-braid trimming and three gold stripes on each arm, lacquered buttons, and several medal ribbons on the left breast. His shoes shone.” (The uniform came from the Corps Of Commissionaires, not the Army.)
Sam notes how, often to his shame, he felt in thrall to this imposing, yet somewhat unsavoury man – not only a groper of the poor girls who came by selling carbon paper, but a bitter behind-the-hand gossip about his “superiors” in the company. Yet Sam, too, frequently remarked on how that society in 1914 delineated social difference and ensured that people like him – from a poor family in Edmonton, left school at 14 – knew where they stood and stayed there. Here’s a scene from the end of the working day (bearing in mind that Sam wrote the first section of his memoir in the third person and called himself “Tommy”):
“The old boy’s train home went from Liverpool Street too so Tommy… was permitted to walk with him… Tommy strode out to keep step. Comical he must have looked in his skintight trousers and short, bum-freezer jacket, topped off with the square, bowler hard hat.
The gentry favoured a different bowler with the brim curled up at the sides and a half-spherical crown. Thus one could easily distinguish the officers from the other ranks – though a closer look would further reveal jackets of fine-quality cloth, more fully cut too, and trousers more fully shaped from the top to the narrow bottom (permanent turn-ups had not been heard of; a man turned up the bottoms of his working trousers only if they were too long for him).”
Tommy/Sam noticed all this, but didn’t torment himself about it. On the other hand, he saw the apparently staunch Sergeant twisting himself into knots over his lifetime of diverse servitude:
“Men like him knew and maintained an expected code of conduct – although, curiously, they had, and they showed, contempt for anyone of their own class who attempted to improve their status by study and hard work. Yet these old and trusted servants also felt they were themselves aping the gentry and becoming traitors to their kind thereby — if one can follow that line of thought.
Many a tirade on these matters assaulted Tommy’s ears. Sergeant in his lunchtime strode the office floor: a bite of his sandwich, a champing of the jaw muscles, a long swig from a tankard of beer, and out flowed the bitter words. [Company Secretary] FCB, and Sampson, head of accounts, and Otley, the top draftsman, all came in for it, the last classed as a ‘homo’ as well as an upstart.
But the upper classes, equally, could bring on a rant. The very men with whom Sergeant shared a number of confidences on a servant-and-master basis, who trusted him – rightly so – were, apart from business considerations, enemies of his class. Wont to growl, ‘God bless the Squire and his relations/Long may they keep us in our stations’ – probably the only couplet of verse he knew – he repeated it endlessly in the course of his lunchtimes orations. The boy listened, but kept his own council.”
Still, Tommy/Sam remained eager to please – to which end he would deploy his own ribald sense of humour. Especially in August, 1914, when his every other waking minute turned to wonderings about the war and what he should do and when…
“On one occasion, Tommy tried to introduce a little fun into the now gloomy life at the office. On the street outside the company building a newspaper deliverer stopped him – they dashed about the City on bikes with high handlebars and low saddles.
The chap said, ‘Like to buy one of these for a penny?’ He held out what appeared to be a small booklet. Tommy opened it to find it comprised just two pages. The first thing he saw was a piece of sandpaper glued to the inside of the back cover. Then he noticed a rhyme printed on the inside of the front cover. Somebody had cudgeled his brains to work this thing out and come up with the following: ‘As times are hard/Please buy this card/Dame Fortune I can’t make her/But let that pass/Just wipe your XXXX/Upon this piece of paper.’
The painful consequences… poor humour, coarse humour. Tommy laughed heartily. But he had to tell the man, ‘I’ve got no money, I can’t buy it’.
However, at home that evening, he found a piece of sandpaper and a piece of card, pinned them together, wrote this elegant rhyme inside, and took it to the office next morning.
He showed it to Sergeant who roared and, in his usual way, passed it round the various parts of the office. Under cover. Later though, crestfallen, Sergeant reported scarcely a grin, scarcely a chuckle, everyone apparently so borne down by the weight of the war they didn’t have a laugh left in them.”
Sunday 24 August 2014
A hundred years ago yesterday… August 23, 1914, three weeks after Britain declared war on Germany, the British Expeditionary Force – the nation’s established professional Army – fought its first great action in defence of “little Belgium”: the Battle Of Mons. They fought valiantly, they deployed their brilliant 15-aimed-shots-a-minute marksmanship so skillfully they often fooled their opponents into thinking they had adequate numbers of machine guns. But they lost and a two-week retreat began.
Back home, boys like my father, Sam Sutcliffe, 16 – living with his family in Edmonton, north London, working as a junior office boy in mining company Lake & Currie’s City HQ – heard little of this bad news for some while. However, he writes, they “all felt the same – that life as they had known it was finished, big things looming”.
So, during this interval of worrying and wondering, a look at the life my father saw around him as he traveled daily from a poor family home into the wealthy heart of London.
Not surprisingly, given he’d grown up hungry, in his Memoir he constantly wrote about food. On the one hand, he recorded his own quest for whatever came cheap – and his almost loving appreciation of the places that provided it (again, for new readers, I need to clarify that my father wrote the first part of his story in the third person, calling himself “Tommy”):
“… a chain called Lockharts (bless the promoter of them), where just buying a mug of tea entitled you to sit there and eat the sandwich lunch mother had prepared for you. Rest and refreshment for a penny…
Another place [his friend] Reg introduced Tommy to was known as the Alexandra Trust [near Old Street bus and tram depot], where hundreds of people went for cheap food. And it was cheap – apart from the tea, a large, toasted teacake cost a penny too.”
But Tommy/Sam’s unenvying eye also observed a rather different level of lunching. One of his office-boy duties entailed delivering the food orders for “small, intimate groups” of his bosses’ business associates:
“A day or so beforehand, Tommy had to visit the supplier to hand over the order – often at a famous restaurant and bar over in Cheapside called Sweetings [Queen Victoria Street] where he observed really prosperous City businessmen, bosses all, who wouldn’t even spare the time to sit down to have their lunch. These toffs, as Cockneys called them, clad in fine morning suits, lined the long counter, munching, and drinking their ale or whatever they favoured. The smell of all these delicious foods pleased Tommy; he loved to stand there and look and breathe it in. White-hatted waiters dressed up as chefs carved succulent slices of beef or ham.
When the customers finished eating, they would just throw down some silver on the counter and walk out – no question of bills or talking about the cost…
In addition to the special drinks and foods the restaurant supplied, Tommy had to buy certain cheeses and a special type of coffee. This task took him to a shop of the old style where soft cream cheeses hung from the ceiling in muslin bags… Fortunately, in due course, Tommy would get the chance to do more than look at all this enticing provender.
When one of these feasts had concluded, the bosses would take their guests to a club… Often, when they left Mr Lake’s office – the temporary dining room – Tommy went in to clear up before the caterers came to collect any utensils and crockery they had provided. But he’d pause to inhale the fumes of cigars and cigarettes, the aroma of all this good food, and of an appetising cocktail they regularly took called gin cup which they drank from small, silver tankards, a sprig of a small, mauve flower with a yellow centre floating in each one.
And, until the men from Sweetings arrived, Tommy could eat and drink anything left over —often quite a lot. Quickly as he could, he’d run through the menu. The lovely cream cheese, the crisp little rolls, some meat, ham or tongue or beef, a little salad, and then, of course, the gin cups had not always been emptied so he sampled them as well. It was very good. And one further pleasure he would save for later; some of the senior partner’s Turkish cigarettes – made for him by a chap in Burlington Arcade – would be left lying on the table and Tommy, who sometimes collected parcels of them from the tobacconist, felt free to take some of them if he wished. For a brief while, the boy would think of himself as a man. And fare like a lord.”
Imagine him remembering all those gorgeous smells and tastes 50 to 60 years later, when he wrote his Memoir… However, he also recalled the more frequent occasions when he and his older brother Ted enjoyed less opulent dining:
“If they had no money spare, the brothers would go down to their favourite wharf on the River Thames and sit on the wall with their legs dangling while they ate their sandwiches and watched the seagulls. From time to time they’d throw these birds lumps of rather hardcore cake – their mother’s speciality, nourishing one assumes, but not too appetising… Threw the cake at them more than to them, in truth. They never registered a hit as far as they could see, but they felt sure that, if they had done, the effect would have been pretty deadly.”
Thursday 21 August 2014
Out Now! Nobody Of Any Importance: A Foot Soldier's Memoir Of WW1
A hundred years ago… And two weeks on from the German invasion of Belgium, Great Britain's immediate declaration of war on Germany, that lights-out night, hardly a shot fired in anger for another few days, and meanwhile the country seethed. Every head full of heroic fantasies or terrible fears, the former much talked about, the latter less so.
My father lived through that strange period of wondering and worrying and, much later, wrote it all down from his own point of view; Sam Sutcliffe, 16 that July, son of a poor family living in Edmonton, north London, out at work for two years by then as a junior office boy at the City HQ of a mining company called Lake & Currie...
To make sense of this blog, new readers need to know that my father set out on his memoir writing in the third person, telling the story of "Tommy Norcliffe", a thin disguise for himself, of course. In the following passage, F.C.Bull, is Company Secretary — that is, a very senior executive – at Lake & Currie, a man much admired by Tommy/Sam:
"Workers went on with their jobs, but it was obvious their thoughts were on other things. Each day, the younger men either moved nearer to volunteering for military service or worried about the possibility of being conscripted as soon as a law to make service compulsory passed through Parliament. However, that did not, as one might have expected, happen immediately*…
Company Secretary F.C. Bull, with knowledge to back his forecast, made no attempt to conceal his pessimism with regard to those companies owning property in Africa and Asia whose affairs he handled. German submarines would cripple our sea transportation, said he, sagely.
Most people thought it would be a short war, 'all over by Christmas'. The minority, like F.C. Bull, who read and listened to those with some real knowledge of the situation, knew the struggle would probably be long and difficult. Pessimists even gave reasons why, if we weren’t careful, we might lose this war. They reminded one that the royal family bore the German name Guelph, their origins Hanoverian. And they would argue sarcastically that the Army was all ready to fight… the Boer War again! Such opinions, of course, offended the loquacious patriots — 'Treasonable,' said some."
Schools were mid-holiday that August as now, but the authorities issued new regulations about one aspect of their conduct when the new year started in September – an example, my father felt, of how some of the radical changes taking place could seem rather comforting:
"Schools now had to teach children the anthems of Britain’s allies — in English, except that, in grammar schools, they sang The Marseillaise in French. The Belgian national anthem became familiar to all. So did the Russian. Gradually a feeling grew that we were one of a group of nations and this gave a sense of confidence.
Rumours of large numbers of Russian soldiers seen on trains travelling through the English countryside spread and reinforced this optimism — the joke was that Russia had dispatched these soldiers so quickly they still had snow on their boots."
But every one of the country's young men had decisions to chew over. The "four lads" my father refers to here, travelling in to work by train from Edmonton to Liverpool Street, are his then 18-year-old brother Ted, and Ted's two friends Len and Harold:
"On the train each morning, the four lads discussed the latest news, telling each other about chaps who had either been recalled to their units or had volunteered to go. They talked with both excitement and unease. Confused emotions pervaded them and everybody around them.
One morning when Tommy got to work he heard that young Breeman had joined up – the chap in the accounts office he admired so much. Tommy thought what a splendid officer he would make, a good physical specimen, mentally alert at all times. But the gap in the ranks at the office only increased that sense of unease, that something was wrong somewhere…"
* In fact, the Government did not introduce conscription until January, 1916; the extraordinary wave of volunteerism met the war's demands until then. Next week (probably; there's a lot going on): some FootSoldierSam verbal snapshots from brink-of-war London life 1914 – for the workers and the wealthy.