An Ordinary Man (1) by Dennis hamley

I started thinking about this blog two Sundays ago, August 30th. The date seemed to ring a bell. Why? It wasn’t a birthday I should have remembered, it wasn’t a deadline date, there wasn't anything which I’d forgotten to do or go to. Then I realised. It was the anniversary – the 76th – of the great Luftwaffe air raid on RAF Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britainthe defining event of my father's life.

Biggin Hill today

Four days later came his birthday, September 3rd.  A few weeks before that, my brother had passed over to me a box containing memorabilia to pass on to my grandson Joe, the only one who will carry on the family name. And what is in the box? A Silver Oakleaf lapel badge denoting outstanding civilian bravery, a British Empire Medal, an Imperial Service Medal, a badge to mark thirty years service to his Trade Union, a letter from the Postmaster General dated 16th October 1940 outlining what he did on that fateful night, various cuttings  from the London Gazette  marking the gallantry of CR Hamley, skilled workman class 2, and - to delight this strong Labour Party man with republican tendencies - a letter of apology signed by the Queen.

Surely stimulus enough for my blog subject for September. I would  celebrate the life of my father, Charles Richard Hamley, BEM. An ordinary life well worth  remembering.

Dad was born in 1903, in Newcastle. But he was no Geordie. His father was Cornish, from Lanivet, near Bodmin, and his mother was from Hampshire. Grandad Hamley was a regular soldier. He had been in the Boer War and he would live through and survive the First World War, finishing up as a sergeant- major. After the war, they settled in Hampshire in the tiny village of Dean, a few miles from Bishops Waltham. Grandad and Grandma Hamley were strict Methodists and signed the pledge so theirs was a fairly restrictive household. I don't think Dad took to this very well. As far as I can see, the only sign of any  religious affiliation that I noticed in forty-two years was a team photograph taken in 1924 of Twyford Avenue Wesleyans football club, for whom he played at right-back. Sadly, this photograph has long disappeared, otherwise it would definitely have been in this blog.

It was at about this time that his life started to take some extraordinary turns. He was an apprentice electrician on Portsmouth dockyard, where he started his lifelong passion for Portsmouth FC, a passion he passed on to me but, sadly, not to my brother or my son. However, the end of his apprenticeship coincided with the lead-up to the 1926 General Strike and suddenly there were no jobs going in the dockyard or anywhere else in the city.

So he did something which in many ways was rather heroic. He'd got his electrician's ticket in his pocket so he started walking to London, taking any job on the way, labouring, crop-picking, and keeping his eyes and ears open on the road and in pubs for anything interesting which might be worth staying for. Which is why he eventually turned up in Oxted in Surrey and found a long queue winding round the outside of the Post Office. 'What's this for?' he asked. 'They want telephone engineers, mate,' was the answer.

Well, he'd got his electrician's ticket, so he joined the queue, was taken on and so in one morning the entire future course of his life was laid out. His first action was to join the Post Office Engineering Union, a preoccupation which gave him two parallel working lives. He was a strong, deeply committed Labour and Union man - and as I look back over the work he did for members in difficulty when he was secretary of the Chiltern branch of the POEU - working as an unpaid welfare officer as well as a full-time engineer - I realise how actually evil the neutering of the unions inflicted by successive governments from 1980 onwards has been.

Anyway, he met Doris, a telephone operator, and they were married in 1932, I appeared in 1935 and now the countdown to the Second World War began. Being a Post Office Telephone Engineer definitely counted as a reserved occupation, so I was spared the terrible six years of waiting for a stranger to come home. By now, we had moved to Edenbridge in Kent, very close to RAF Biggin Hill. Dad was sent there to look after the station's telecommunications. Fateful decision.

In 1940 I became used to vapour trails making strange patterns in the sky, the constant roar of planes, the peculiar throbbing noise German bombers with their unsynchronised engines made as they flew over us every night. 
I couldn't understand why the grown-ups were so frightened of air-raid warning sirens. They sounded quite cheerful to me, and besides, nothing ever happened and then it was all-clear again. So I just went on making funny noises inside my Mickey Mouse gas-mask and thought that, all in all, life was really quite good, in fact, rather exciting.

It was obvious that the Luftwaffe was targeting airfields. Kenley in Surrey got a real pasting one night and a week later Biggin Hill suffered the same. I’m not going to describe here what happened that night. But on October 16th a letter was sent to Dad from the Postmaster-General in Churchill’s coalition government, WS Morrison (not, sadly,  Herbert, as I had fondly believed for many years).

Dear Mr Hamley
                   It has been reported to me that on the evening of the 30th of August an intense air raid was made on the Royal Air Force station at Biggin Hill and that you were sheltering in a trench some ¾ of a mile from the Biggin Hill exchange; that you  were blown out of the trench by a bomb which fell near-by;  and that although suffering severely from shock you proceeded  of your own accord to the Exchange while the raid was still in progress, and took over the operating of the switchboard, on  which several important Royal Air Force circuits are terminated and which had been temporarily abandoned.
                   I wish to express my appreciation of your courage,          initiative and outstanding devotion to duty.
                                                                  Yours truly

No, not Biggin Hill, but a similar attack on RAF Henlow in September 1949. From an original painting by David Rowlands, by kind permission of the artist.

Well, that’s about it – though two important circumstances aren’t mentioned. The first is that the main airmen’s air raid shelter was completely full and the door was finally shut just as Dad was getting there, leaving him out in the open.  The second is that the shelter received a direct hit and everybody in it was killed. A few days later, Dad was very embarrassed by a WAAF who ran up to him and planted kisses all over his face crying, ‘Oh, Charlie, Charlie, I thought you were dead.’

The aftermath of the raid on Biggin Hill as it affected us was something I didn't understand for years. I remember soon afterwards my mother running downstairs distraught, crying ‘He doesn’t know me!’ Then I suddenly found myself on a train which was taking us a very long way, almost beyond imagination, and depositing us for a whole month in this mystical place called the Lake District. Then we came home – and then, mystifyingly, we went back for two weeks. I had no idea why. It was some years before I knew that a grateful Air Ministry had sent him there to convalesce because they wanted him back at work.

Of course, in 1940 nobody had heard of the initials PTSD.  But, the more I look back and ponder on what I saw but didn’t understand, the more sure I am that he suffered from post-traumatic stress and it never really left him until the day he died. Even at five, I couldn't help but notice how angry he could be, anger which could flare up out of the blue, how we had to tread on eggshells  to keep the peace, how he and Mum could have blazing rows which made me scurry up into the bedroom to avoid having to listen to them. I'm sure he was never like that before. But he was never violent.

It seemed the same with his dealings with people outside the family. But by then we had been moved to Winslow in Bucks which was - and still is - a small town filled with notoriously stroppy people, and all the better for it. Winslow then was a tiny place, population during the war about 1500, very jealous of being a market town and not a village, with, in 1941, ten pubs. I can remember their names. Get off the train and you'd be faced by the Station Hotel. Out into the High Street going south and you could choose from the Swan, Stag, Chandos Arms (destroyed in the Winslow air disaster of 1943 when a Wellington from RAF  Little Horwood crashed on it), Windmill, George, Bell, then turn into Horn Street for the Crooked Billet, back to Sheep Street for the Nag's Head (note the names of the streets) and down the Granborough Road for the Boot. That was, until the air crash, one pub for each 150 of the population, including nonagenarians and new-borns. All full. Dad would drink at one particular pub for years on end, then suddenly move to exclusive use of another one. 'Who has he fallen out with now?' we wondered.

But I never saw him drunk. Indeed, when he came home he was always happy, mellow, gently laughing, and there was a sudden glimpse of another person altogether. And, in spite of an uncertain temper, he was hugely respected in the town. Secretary of the football club, town councillor, a generous man who helped people. Often, he would invite someone down on their luck and lonely to spend Christmas with us and when, in later life, he and Mum had  a caravan down at Pevensey Bay in Sussex, they would give needy people free holidays.

From when I was sixteen through to eighteen, he and I had some titanic rows. The worst was when I was eighteen, when he accused me of stealing razor blades from a stock he had bought in bulk on a cheap offer. I had done no such thing.  I still remember that dreadful day. The row flared up as I was shaving in the bathroom before I went to school. I was severely shaken and dreaded coming home that evening . But I found him quiet and contrite. He had found the razor blades, his apology was deeply felt and from that moment we became not just father and son but good friends and I started accompanying him on his tours of the Winslow pubs.

And then came the second great event of his life in 1966, the year he retired from the Post Office. His name was on an honours list. The British Empire Medal, the working-class award, for twenty-five years as secretary of the Chiltern Branch of the Post Office Engineering Union. BEM recipients didn't get Palace garden parties. Instead, he went to the still-new Post Office Tower. Still, the Queen did apologise for not turning up. And an Imperial Service medal arrived soon after. I never sussed out what he really thought about being feted by the Establishment.

 Mum and Dad at the Post Office Tower, June 1966

He died in 1977. His last years were not good. In 1974 he was taken ill and ended up in Stoke Mandeville Hospital having a particularly unpleasant stomach operation. This might not have been so bad had he not stubbornly refused to let Mum call a doctor. He had, for some unknowable reason, an almost pathological hatred for and distrust of them. When he came home, tired and weak, he seemed to be losing his grip on reality. He had some minor strokes and developed a deep pessimism and cynicism which I'd never heard before. I was aghast and incredulous when I heard him praise Enoch Powell and remembered a scene in better days in the George when someone objected to the presence of a black man, probably the first to be seen in Winslow since the GIs were in town during the war, and Dad spoke up so eloquently and full-heartedly on his behalf.

Then the stomach trouble flared up again and he had to be taken back into Stoke Mandeville. He died a few days later in hospital. 

Dear Dad. Dead thirty-nine years and still remembered in Winslow.

This month I'm giving two blogs for the price of one. In 2008, Walker published Divided Loyalties, set in the Second World War and written to make a comprehensive and final statement about something I've been drawn to writing about, sometimes through choice, sometimes by request, for nearly half a century. The 30th August raid on Biggin Hill is important in the book. I found I could not write it without introducing Dad as a character (anonymously of course) and a slightly edited version of the sequence of events. And in the little blog which follows this, you'll find it reproduced.  It serves as both memory and tribute.

Coming soon on Createspace: 
Yan Tan Tethera: five stories and a very tiny novel
Bright Sea, Dark Graves 2: The Nightmares of Invasion

To be republished in paperback next year:
The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay
        Of Dooms and Death
        A Pact with Death
        Hell's Kitchen
        A Devil's Judgement
        Angel's Snare
        The False Father

The Joslins will appear simultaneously. And I might even do some boxed sets. I've always wanted to have a boxed set and here's my chance.


Dennis' second blog will appear at 2pm this afternoon. Don't miss it! - Editor.


Jan Needle said…
Thanks for that, Dennis. Truly wonderful.
Bill Kirton said…
This brought back so much, Dennis. It's obvious even to youngsters how different the world is from what is was then, but to those of us who lived in it (and despite the huge 'advances' that have been made in so many areas), it still has a vibrancy and character that's been lost. Your Dad would have fitted in well with those who peopled my own upbringing. Thanks for a lovely nostalgic trip.
Susan Price said…
Wonderful blog, Dennis. Thank you.
glitter noir said…
Wonderful post, Dennis. And I salute your groundbreaking nerve in publishing it in two parts...on the same day.
Dennis Hamley said…
To start with, thank you Sue for putting this one. I thought i had schedulkd it and was horrified when I found it hadn't published. But we were away - in Lyme Regis, as it happened, on the last day of our quick tour opf th Jurassic Coast, from which we've only just got back. And I thought I'd planned this scheduling sequence so carefully too. What happened?

Jan, Reb and Bill, old friends who always know exactly what I'm talking about - and Sue, who does too - thank you all so much for such reactions. It's wonderful to stay in touch and connected with the past but appalling to live in it!
Dennis Hamley said…
Sue, my first sentence was nonsense. I meant,' thank you so much for making sure that my second blog was actually published and not left for me to muck up even further.'
julia jones said…
Thank you Dennis for an honest affectionate unadorned and therefore deeply moving portrait. One cataclysmic night marked, not just your father but all of you, for ever.
Dennis Hamley said…
Thanks, Julia. Very, very true.
Dennis Hamley said…
Sorry, made a silly mistake. Dad retired from the GPO in 1968, not 1966

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