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Feather's Miscellany: Memories – Part 2

...I went to an international camp hosted by the mayor and citizens of Brouages not far from La Rochelle in Poitu. Brouages was a village built inside a huge eighteenth century fortress erected by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Richlieau in the eighteenth century to house munitions and his troops fighting against the French Hugenot Protestants holed up at La Rochelle on the coast.

Our job was to cut away the thick brushwood from the walls of the castle and around it, which had accumulated during the war; to make the site attractive to tourists once more. We came from many parts of Europe: Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Yugoslavia and, notwithstanding the Cold War, Russia. Unlike the politicians we all got on well, and I remained in contact with some of them for years afterwards. In honour of what we did, the French government struck a postage stamp showing the cleaned up walls of the fort...

John Waddington-Feather brings another chapter of memories accumulated during a well-lived life.

Among many benefits Keighley Boys’ Grammar School gave me was a taste for travel. The school widened my horizons in every sense of the word, for at the age of fifteen in 1948 I travelled with a fellow student and friend to this day, Peter Spencer, to the south of France, to Valence, where I lived for a month with my French correspondent’s family, the Cochets. It was a ground-breaking experience in my life for I never travelled further than thirty of forty miles before outside Keighley; certainly never as far as London and still less France. It was post-war Europe and the war had been ended only three years.

My French Master at school, F.S.Catley , Mick Catley to us boys, arranged the visit, which cost my parents and sister, Rene, some sacrifice to send me. Only when I arrived in Valence did I realise why Mick Catley had found me a correspondent there to improve my French. He’d lived there before the war as a young teacher and during the war he’d been sent back in the Intelligence Corps to liaise with the French Resistance. When I learned this he became my hero and we remained good friends till his death years later. That experience of living with a French family also cemented my love for France and its language.

I remember well leaving home for the very first time with my heart in my mouth. I suspect my parents half-thought they would never see me again when I said goodbye to them at the station. I was told to write as soon as I arrived and given strict instructions by my father not to put my suitcase down on the wet pavement for it was made of cardboard, a cheap utility product of post-war Britain. We were escorted across London and Paris by an Old Keighlian who put us on the train for Valence at the Gare du Lyon. He also gave us a tour of Paris while we were there including a memorable trip up the Eiffel Tower. As we journeyed across France, evidence of the war was all about us: ruined towns, patched up railway stations which had been bombed, and at Valence a memorial to those in the Resistance who’d been executed by the Nazis. Mick Catley was lucky.

I was treated right royally by Monsieur and Madame Cochet and their two sons, Yves and Francois, who were about my age and became like brothers while I lived with them. The family so bonded I was loathe to leave when the time came to go and a very tearful Mme Cochet saw me off at the station, hugging me till the last moment. She’d been like a mother for a month. I visited Valence with my wife many years later, but it wasn’t the same. The Cochets had moved away and their big house in its own grounds demolished to make way for a block of flats.

My next trip abroad was at the age of twenty in 1953, just the right age to visit Rome and soak up its atmosphere, its art, architecture and music. That trip was also organised by a KBGS school-master, my old art teacher and good friend, the Revd Hildred Harpin. By that time I’d been studying Italian language and literature for two years as a subsidiary subject at university and Hildred booked me into lodgings in Rome and took me round all the notable sites which included an audience with Pope Pius XII at Gandalfo Castle, his summer residence in the hills. Perhaps I ought to add there were several hundred more people there including many young nuns, who screamed and shouted like so many adolescent pop-fans when the Pope appeared. Quite an eye-opener.

I also went to a full blown open-air Italian opera production there at Therme Caracalla; Verdi’s “Aida”, which had me spellbound, as did the visits to famous art galleries and the Sistine Chapel. More horizons opened and more impressions made on my youthful mind. Hildred became a Roman Catholic parish priest after teaching many years and ended his days a saintly man as chaplain in the great cathedral at Assisi, his spiritual home. He became a painter of note and his work, some of which he sent me copies of, is much sought after in the States.

My three years at Leeds University studying English were years of more horizon-stretching. Although I studied a great deal of English literature, the main thrust of study was language and I specialised in dialectology, doing some research into my local dialect with a B.A. thesis on the terminology of dry-stone walling up the dale where I lived, Airedale. My professors at Leeds were Bonamy Dobree, Wilson Knight and Harold Orton, who edited a dialect map of England. I studied Old and Middle English literature with Professor Arthur Cawley, and I still read extracts from time to time in the original.

I also wrote a great deal of poetry at Leeds as I had done at school and started my first novel, which in time became part of the “Chance Child” trilogy. Alas, original works of fiction did not count towards degrees and not being very academic I ended up with only a pass degree from Leeds.

Perhaps my undue interest in sport at the time also contributed to my pass degree. I also had to live at home for the first two years before going into digs in my third year; and that meant I had to travel daily by train and tram to reach university. Accommodation was tight when I started university, needed for overseas students who constituted a high percentage coming to study for engineering and textile degrees. And in my case I was short of cash, although I had a scholarship from my local education authority; just £50 a year with fees paid. My mother was working in the mill to feed and clothe me and my younger brother, George, still at school, and my elder brother, Harry, had just left home for his first job as a farm manager. He, too, graduated at Leeds and had travelled in daily. He’d served in the navy during the war and went through university on an ex-serviceman’s grant. All of us had to take jobs, well paid heavy labouring jobs in the vacations to eke out our money and ease the burden on our parents.

Nevertheless, although I travelled daily into Leeds for two years, I did manage to take part in several extra-mural activities. I acted in a production of “Patience” by Gilbert and Sullivan, produced by Professor Freddie May, my Italian tutor. He had a real feeling for drama and translated the works of the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello, giving them their first staging in Britain in Leeds at the university and at the Leeds Civic Theatre. I also took a small part in “Henry IV (i)” while at Leeds.

Perhaps my greatest achievement was in the literary field, founding and co-editing a new student poetry magazine called “Poetry and Audience” which sold for a penny and is still being published after fifty years. It was funded by my co-editor Ralph Maude, who sold a letter he’d received from Dylan Thomas while studying in the States. Ralph’s family were Keighley Mormons and had emigrated to Salt Lake City after the war. Ralph and his brother were at KBGS where Ralph went through the sixth form before doing his National Service in the RAF and then joining his family in the States. He went to an American university before returning to Leeds to study for a post-graduate degree. Later, he became Professor of English at a Vancouver university.

I was in the University Training Corps, too, which stood me in good stead when I entered the army after university – two gap years doing National Service! And in the UTC, I was in a guard of honour for the Queen Mother when she attended the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Leeds University in 1953.

I mentioned vacation jobs earlier and did a variety of them. These also were part of my general education – an education in life. I worked at Grimsby in the fish trade; long hours as a ‘sunshine boy’ in a foundry, mixing sands for the master moulders and pouring molten metal into moulds from a crucible; I worked as a labourer at Keighley’s sewage farm and on a farm near Grantham in Lincolnshire lifting potatoes, and on another farm near Doncaster.

However, my final job, working as a ward orderly in a T.B. sanatorium at Middleton above Ilkley, just before entering the army in September 1954, filled in the three-month gap after graduating in June. I got the job because I spoke Italian and had to work with Italian ward orderlies, who’d come over on contract, as all overseas workers had to do at that time. They were mainly graduates like myself who’d come to Britain to improve their English before returning to Italy. It was a salutary experience nursing very ill patients, many of them my own age suffering from tuberculosis, which was then rife. When they died I had to prepare their bodies for the mortuary, as well as the messy business of emptying sputum cans and bed pans each day. My first few days at work were spent dashing to the sluice room to throw up!

I have much to thank Leeds University for even if I could only muster a pass degree at the end of my time there. I played rugby and boxed, and made many friends; and in my final year I acted in a medieval Nativity play, The Wakefield Shepherd’s Play, in the church on the university campus. However, most of my social life was in Keighley where I played rugby regularly for the town team, and on the odd Saturday morning I drank with my father and his cronies at the Conservative Club, and in the evenings at the Cycling Club; listening to their tales of long ago and their grim experiences at the Front in World War One. My verse-play “Garlic Lane”, being staged at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington in January 2010, is based on a rugby match and the doings afterwards in Keighley one Saturday near Christmas.

During a two-week break from nursing at Middleton, in the August I went abroad to France on a trip I’d arranged some time before. With five friends from university, I journeyed across France by train to Brouages under the auspices of Concordia, an organisation set up by General Montgomery after the war to promote friendship between the youth of erstwhile enemy nations in Europe. Students did all kinds of voluntary work together: re-building bomb-damaged schools and hospitals; restoring ancient buildings which had been neglected after five years of warfare; building new social housing for the homeless. I went to an international camp hosted by the mayor and citizens of Brouages not far from La Rochelle in Poitu. Brouages was a village built inside a huge eighteenth century fortress erected by the Roman Catholic Cardinal Richlieau in the eighteenth century to house munitions and his troops fighting against the French Hugenot Protestants holed up at La Rochelle on the coast.

Our job was to cut away the thick brushwood from the walls of the castle and around it, which had accumulated during the war; to make the site attractive to tourists once more. We came from many parts of Europe: Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Yugoslavia and, notwithstanding the Cold War, Russia. Unlike the politicians we all got on well, and I remained in contact with some of them for years afterwards. In honour of what we did, the French government struck a postage stamp showing the cleaned up walls of the fort.

I remember well the jolly nights we had round a camp-fire in the old pouderies (gunpowder vaults) chatting and singing in French. In my final ‘Chance Child’ novel I try to capture this atmosphere, in the episode where John Greenwood and Ann Clemence fall deeply in love, helping in an international camp in France. I went back to Brouages many years later with my young family and thankfully the fort and village hadn’t changed – only my daughters didn’t like oysters, so my wife and I ate their share!

One final comment on my university days before I leave them. A tutor of mine in the English Department was Dr Arnold kettle, then secretary of the English Communist Party. He tried his damndest to get us to join, but although Leeds then was a hotbed of Communism like many universities, I don’t recall anyone joining the Communist Party from the English Department. Far from it. Some of us finished up in the Intelligence Corps for our National Service. I once told Dr Kettle, when he was on his high horse about Communism, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. He hadn’t come up from the Working Classes like most of us, and I asked him if his mother had had to go out to work to raise him, and if he’d had to work in the vacations to clothe himself at university. He’d no reply and never brought the subject up again.

And while we’re on the topic of Communism, a prominent member of the British Communist Party, Bert Rammelson, used to come ranting to the Union debates, drumming up support for the Communist cause. On one occasion, the debating hall was packed with mature Polish students; men who’d suffered at the hands of Stalin when they’d been part of the Polish Army captured by the Russians. Stalin executed many of them and would have exterminated them all had not Churchill bargained with him and had them transferred to Montgomery’s 8th Army in North Africa.

They’d fought in bitter battles throughout the desert campaign, up Italy and entered Germany with the allied armies. Those studying at Leeds after the war had ended up in Displaced Persons Camps in Yorkshire, before finding work in the mills which were short of manpower. They were all studying hard for Textile Degrees or Diplomas at Leeds University on day release from work. I became friendly with one of them who lived in Keighley, George Wesselowsky, who went on to set up his own mill, and my cousin Doreen married another, Zenek Konrad. As Rammelson got into his stride, they howled him down and finally as they surged forward he had to be bundled off the stage. If they’d have got their hands on him, they’d have lynched him! I don’t remember him ever returning to the university after that.

I graduated at university in June 1954 and in the September entered the army to do my compulsory two years’ National Service at the height of the Cold War.

**

To read the first part of John’s autobiography, along with many other stories and articles, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/feathers_miscellany/

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