4th January 1948
Well I can’t say I’m pleased to be back in Walmington. The place seems to have gone to ruins since 1945. When I walked along the promenade this evening it looked like the Germans had landed after all – a disgraceful mess of broken concrete and rusted wire. Still none of my business to sort it out. And I have plenty to do for the time being.
I find myself a little melancholy this evening – not like me at all. But to be alone, in a cheap hotel in deep winter is rather glum. Still tomorrow I shall start to put a little order to my affairs.
5th January 1948
It’s disgraceful! I’ve never been so incensed in my life. This morning I called at the bank – my bank – to arrange an interview with the manager. I was greeted by some rouged and powdered female who claimed to be the clerk.
On informing her that I wished to make an appointment with the manager she replied that “e’s gorn to Londin to ‘ave ‘is ‘air cut – give us a call this arternoon”.
6th January 1948
A long and tiring day, not helped by my boots starting to leak. Damned foreign rubbish. I shall have to get a new pair made by Mr Sedgewick – just as soon as I can sort out this confounded bank business.
I arrived at the bank promptly at nine-twenty five to find a gaggle of staff waiting outside. It was quite like old times. Nobody seemed to recognise me, nor I them. I waited for ten minutes wondering what sort of clown this manager must be when who should wander up but Wilson.
“Oh, am I late?” he mumbled, “I’m so sorry you fellows.”
I asked him what he was doing there, and he replied:
“Good heavens, Mr Mainwaring, what a surprise. I thought you were in – umm where is it?”
I informed him that I had been in Delhi but I was now back in Walmington for good – he seemed rather taken aback by this and mumbled and stuttered a good deal. Conscious that I was embarrassing him in-front of his staff I suggested he open the door and we go inside. His whole manner was extremely odd – he didn’t seem to know whether to treat me like an old friend, a customer or an inspector from head office. Eventually he ushered me into his office. It was a sheer accident that out of old habit I sat in the manager’s chair. It seemed to affect him a good deal, and he hopped about on one leg mumbling ineffectually “Oh I say, look here, really you know its, its – well that’s my chair”. Typical of a public school man to behave like that – why can’t he say what he means?
We exchanged a few pleasantries – he asked me about Elizabeth and feigned sympathy when I told him of the sad circumstances confining her to an Indian sanatorium. I asked about his, er, friend Mrs Pike who I was surprised to hear has returned to Weston-Super-Mare – he seemed disinclined to go in to details.
By now Wilson’s manner was beginning to approximate that of a bank manager (at least of the lesser type). He remembered to offer me coffee and ask me what he could do for me. I informed him that I had come to finalise the details for transferring my assets from the Imperial Punjabi Bank to Swallow’s Bank. He was mystified.
This is very vexing – I must have sent five or six letters to the manager of the Walmington branch of Swallow’s Bank, requesting the appropriate accounts of be set up, and my entire funds (such as they are) to be transferred. Now I find myself in England with two hundred pounds in cash and a suitcase full of clothes more suited to the sub-continent than to England in January.
I was quite sharp with Wilson on the subject and after umming and aaahing some more he called in his chief clerk (a larcenous looking individual with the unlikely name of Homer – a Greek partisan no doubt) and enquired after my letters. This fellow Homer cast me a furtive glance and replied (in Harrovian tones – this old school tie nonsense really is the limit) that he had put them in the ‘special’ file.
Wilson, looking thoroughly embarrassed, demanded them to be brought to him at once and immediately started to stutter a stream of broken apologies. I said nothing – I was too angry to speak. I don’t know if this chief clerk of Wilson’s knew that I was the former manager of the branch. But the special file was something I had Wilson establish in ‘thirty-six to keep the voluminous correspondence from our most difficult customers.
I shall not record the remainder of the interview – it was far too vexing to detail here. Suffice it to say that by the time I left the bank I had expressed clearly my view that in three years Wilson has reduced the proud efficient financial institution which I once had the privilege to call my own, to a shambolic and tawdry counting house.
I replied that I could not telephone as I had no phone and she replied – “aaw, I wouldn’t bovver then. We don’t do charity cases.”
I shall visit the bank at nine-thirty sharp tomorrow and give this dandy of a manager a piece of my mind.
7th January 1948
The shambolic goings on at the bank have really made life very difficult. It had been my intention to spend today visiting the offices of local property agents, as I cannot live in this hotel forever. However until I can access my funds there seems very little point in doing this.
I returned to the bank to ensure that they are putting the necessary arrangements in place – Wilson is not to be relied on. For now things seem acceptable but I will have to keep a close eye on things in the coming days.
However something most pleasant did occur in the afternoon. I popped into Ann’s Pantry for afternoon tea and who should be there but my old friend and comrade, Mr Jones. It quite brought back those three years we spent together in the Home Guard. Chatting and reminiscing with Jonesy reminded me what a very special time that was, and how important to me personally.
It seems Mr Jones has retired now. After the war ended and the emergency was over he decided that it was time to spend more time with his wife – the unforgettable former Mrs Fox. I wonder if he isn’t regretting it now – he seemed most disinclined to go back home and kept me chatting over a rapidly cooling pot of tea for more than an hour.
I wonder where one can purchase meat in Walmington now? I must stroll up the High Street tomorrow and see what has become of the tradesmen and shopkeepers who used to be there.
8th January 1948
It’s outrageous! The High Street has changed beyond recognition. Jones’ shop has been bought by that man Hodges who has installed his cousin behind the counter. It is most off-putting to watch the fellow chopping meat and see that he too has dirty fingernails. He also has a surly and belligerent attitude. I asked him if he had been long in the trade and he looked me straight in the eye and said that his father had been proprietor of a slaughterhouse. His actual words were: ‘My bleedin’ old-man ran a knackers yard ’til they shut ‘im down.’ I shan’t be buying my meat from there.
Not only that but young Walker has acquired a prominent premises in the middle of the high street with a gaudy sign over the door proclaiming it “Joe’s Emporium – off-ration scarcities and high class dry-goods a speciality”. He was standing in his doorway with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, but I pretended not to see him. Frazer’s business still seems to be flourishing I’m pleased to say. I thought about dropping in, but reconsidered. Frazer is not a man I could call a friend and I’m not sure how he would have received me.
I was distressed to see that they’ve not put the railings outside the Town Hall back yet – I would have thought they could have melted down all those surplus tanks and given us a bit of our civic dignity back, but no. We shall see on Sunday whether the vicar got his bells back.
9th January 1948
This morning I arose early and after washing and taking my meagre ration book breakfast went out. I was determined to make the most of the day and the fact that for the first time since my return it was not raining.
By eight o’clock the light was just enough and taking my umbrella I stepped out into the street. The waves were pounding the sea wall and the promenade was wet and slippery. I put up my umbrella and looked out over the sea. Thirty miles away, somewhere beyond the grey, was the coast of France.
In May 1940 our boys waited patiently on the beaches of Dunkirk for that marvellous fleet of little boats. Four years later they were back – with our American comrades – landing on the beaches, terribly pounded by the German artillery, always moving forward, not stopping, never faltering – remorselessly pushing back and pushing back the enemy who had so threatened our land.
And in between we had stood on the beaches of England, with knives and staves, and Great War uniforms. We sacrificed our time, our energies, our hopes and dreams, and if necessary would have given our lives. We were poorly armed, had to train ourselves, and received precious little support from the War Office. But we were steadfast and we were ready to fight. What did that chap Dickens say? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness”. It was my best of times, no question, my season of light. For those few years when we stood between the enemy hordes and this dear land I felt alive as I never have before or since.
As I was standing there remembering those four years in the Home Guard I heard a shout from somewhere behind me – it was that damned man Hodges. He called out in his usual offensive manner:
“Oy, Napoleon – if you stand there any longer the pigeons’ll take roost.”
He was his usual swaggering overbearing self, but there was something different in his manner. Before he was aggressive and petulant because he felt inferior and undervalued – but today he was different, condescending. It is astonishing but I believe the wretched man thinks he has scored some sort of victory over me.
Speaking of victories, I returned to the bank this afternoon, as I have still had no word about the transfer of my effects. Wilson was hiding in his office of course, but I soon by-passed his foreign flunky and went in. His behaviour is really quite intolerable. The ‘vital’ meeting I interrupted proved to be Wilson, and a rather heavily rouged female clerk sitting side-by-side examining a large book which Wilson snapped shut as I entered. Judging by the giggling I heard from outside the door, and the glances they cast each other as I entered I have no doubts that Wilson was up to his old tricks. Of course he excused himself, saying that he undertook regular staff training on a Friday afternoon – though I doubt the bankers code of practice was today’s class.
I soon made by presence felt, and after the girl had simpered-off I gave Wilson several pieces of my mind about his choice of staff (in response to which he mumbled), his moral standards (he blustered) and his ability as a bank manager (whimpered). I think it fair to say that, metaphorically, I tore-off Wilson’s epaulets today and that the rogue most definitely marched.
He conceded that the bank had blundered badly so far in its handling of my affairs. In compensation he agreed to open a checking account immediately and authorise an overdraft. I have never been in debt in my life, notwithstanding that embarrassing episode with Elizabeth and the greengrocer. However it seems I have no choice. Wilson has also wired the manager of the Delhi branch of the Imperial Punjabi Bank and finally started the process of transferring my assets, which should have occurred weeks ago. I tried to insist on his calling the Delhi branch but he reminded me that overseas telephone calls can only be authorised by Mr West in person and in writing – and unfortunately I know this to be the truth.
So, the end of a tiresome first week back in Blighty, and little to show for it. I really cannot look forward to the weekend without having something more challenging to occupy by working hours – that is my next task.
10th January 1948
Unspeakable. I have no words to describe, so I will refrain from trying.
11th January 1948
Worse – much worse. I have absolutely nothing to do this afternoon so I shall spend time putting my thoughts down on paper – in time I may be seen as the Pepys of the twentieth century.
I have never been much of a one for religion but I thought I would take a stroll along the front to St Aldhelm’s in time for Matins. That blasted verger, Mr Yeatman, who caused so much trouble in the Home Guard days, met me at the church door. He was handing-out hymn books as though they were death warrants. I felt it was time I announced my return to Walmington and marched smartly along the aisle and sat in the pew at the front. A sharp tap on my shoulder proved to be from Mr Rees who, in a highhanded manner, told me that the pew was reserved for the mayor and his family if they should choose to come. I told him that we are all equal in God’s eyes and would have gone on to say a few words about the mayor showing humility in God’s house when we were interrupted by a violent wheezing noise.
I thought at first that an elderly member of the parish was expiring in the back row, and was just wondering how good my Home Guard first aid training had been when the wheezing was joined by warbling tone and the congregation commenced singing Immortal, Invisible, God only wise.
It is such a dreary dirge of a hymn, but I piped-up and endeavoured to put a bit of backbone into the feeble congregational singing.
The vicar, who was now standing in the pulpit, led the singing in a reedy voice and a look of intense suffering – as though our efforts offended him. After the hymn had finished and we had indulged in a bit of kneeling and mumbling of platitudes he started his sermon. He took for his text the parable of the prodigal son. I find this tale of a tiresomely irresponsible youth who swans-off with the family fortune to return with his tail between his legs decidedly irritating. If I’d had a son like that I would have had him working in the fields – never mind all that fatted-calf nonsense.
I don’t know if it was my imagination or not: as the vicar warmed to his story of the profligate irresponsibility of the youth I’m sure the kept glancing at me. When he finished his homily with a resounding, if smug, call for the forgiveness of sinners the verger most definitely looked me straight in the eye with a complacently superior look on his face.
After the service, as we lined-up to shake hands with the vicar I made up my mind to go on a tour of inspection of the town – with the intention of drawing up an itinerary of items to present to that insufferable old bore Mr Rees for some action. The town hall railings need fixing for a start.
However because I had sat in the front pew I was the last to leave the church and that fool Farthing tried to engage me in conversation: he asked how I was, and enquired after Elizabeth (I dodged this question to avoid embarrassment). He rather impertinently asked if I had anything to do at the moment and must have interpreted my pause (in which I was articulating a concise summary of my plans) for indecision. He grasped me by the shoulder and before I knew it he was leading me into the church hall.
It was very strange – I had not been in St Aldhelm’s Church hall since that night in December 1944 when we fell-out for the last time. It looked exactly the same – the wooden floor polished and swept. The same pictures of Their Majesties hanging either side of the doors, the same smell of beeswax and damp. But although it looked the same it felt like a different place. When we paraded there was a sense of urgency and threat. The hall was our centre of operations, almost one of the platoon Now it seemed just a hollow shell – a place for bible classes and rummage sales.
And it was precisely the latter that confronted me as I entered the hall. Row upon row of trestle tables being laid out and heaped high with all sorts of rubbish. One of the Misses Godfrey (I forget which) catching sight of me bustled over bearing a very large plate on which stood a very small bun.
“Mr Mainwaring” she simpered, “would you like to try one of my upside-down cakes?”
It would have been impolite to refuse, though the thing looked dry and unappetising, and so it was. The rationing is worse now than it was in forty-five when I left and I would judge there was very little fat or sugar in the leaden thing.
I enquired after her brother, Charles – I must confess I had feared the worse as he was very frail in the last days of the Home Guard, and eventually we had to give him a permanent first aid post in the hall just so he could remain near the conveniences. However it seems that his spirit is undefeated, though he has been laid-up for the last few months with a rather severe case of lumbago. Miss Godfrey tells me he has taken to jigsaw puzzles with great enthusiasm which have seen him through a rather trying time – Though where he gets them I can’t imagine. So I promised to pay him a visit next week.
I was not altogether clear of the vicar’s motives in bringing me to the hall and rather feared he hoped to get a donation for the church roof fund – which in my current situation would have been highly embarrassing.
It was a relief – though, as it happens, only a slight one – to discover that his motives were not pecuniary. It seems that there is a most terrible developing problem with ex-servicemen who, deprived of their uniforms, their billets and their incomes have become homeless, and without employment – often taking to drink and crime as a result.
I would have thought that the lessons learned fighting to bosch would have taught these men a little discipline and self-reliance. On the other hand it is typical of this socialist mob we have for a government to abandon the men who fought for their country while pursuing their grandiose Bevanite dreams.
So when the vicar told me that the church is raising money for an ex-servicemen’s appeal fund – hence the rummage sale – I was not unsympathetic. What he sought from me was a little of my flair for organisation and leadership that got us through the war years, but which now seems to be in such short supply in Walmington.
In short I have been offered the chair of the Walmington-on-Sea ex-Servicemen’s Relief Fund. I have accepted, but with reluctance. On the one hand I am not sure that my personal plans will allow me too much time to spend on committees. On the other the cause is such a good one that I really cannot refuse. The first meeting will be on the afternoon of Thursday next.
Fooling around in the church hall like that meant that I was unable to take my tour of the town as it was almost lunch-time. Consequently I returned to the guest house where Mrs Gippings greeted me gloomily and served me with the smallest, driest lamb chop I have ever seen, two over-boiled potatoes and a grey sludge which purported to be some sort of cabbage.
I do think this rationing has gone beyond a joke. When Hitler was just the other side of the channel I could understand it – the shipping was disrupted, our farm hands were all in the army, and there was no metal to make machinery. But the war has been over for three years now, and still it seems impossible to buy food, clothing, furniture, or practically anything else. When I think of the meals I used to get in India I wonder why I ever left. It’s high time someone sorted it out – we should never have got rid of Winston, that’s when the rot set it.
Having eaten my meagre lunch, and conscious that England is more than ever in need of men of vision and ability, I set out to inspect the town. It was not possible in the time available to review the whole town, so I confined myself to the major public facilities: the promenade, Victoria Park, and the town hall. And so I find myself in possession of a sorry catalogue of dilapidations, evidence of slip-shod workmanship, and the general impression of a job being very poorly done by the town authorities. Having written my diary for today I shall now set to compiling a letter to the town clerk’s office detailing my findings and recommending some action to be taken immediately.
12th January 1948
I received a letter from Elizabeth this morning. I had hoped it would contain news of her recovery. However the contents were most peculiar, combining eastern mysticism with a tersely worded request to send woollen socks and Vicks chest-rub. I cannot imagine what use she will find for such items in Delhi but it seems a harmless request. I suppose that even in the tropics one can catch a chill; Elizabeth has always been very delicate.
13th January 1948
I have decided today to commence searching for somewhere permanent to live. This shabby hotel is draining my sprits and I cannot countenance staying here much longer. As Elizabeth seems unlikely to return from India for the foreseeable future I shall find a flat, if possible overlooking the front – perhaps with a small garden. Although I never considered myself a gardener I found in India that I missed my patch of green. It was impossible to cultivate any English plants in Delhi and no-one does their own gardening – there are teams of native gardeners to do all that. I should like to get my hands dirty with good English soil once more and feel I have done an honest day’s work.
I went out this morning to purchase Elizabeth’s socks and chest-rub, and to visit the letting agency – a most disagreeable experience. From my days at the bank I recall Barkers Lettings as a rather genteel place where landlords of the better type sought tenant’s of the right class. Although outwardly the same the place has changed beyond recognition. Old Mr Barker, it seems, passed on in 1946 and with no successor to take over the business was sold as a going concern by his widow. The new proprietor seems most disreputable – his name is Hopkiss and he wears a light grey suit with wide lapels, a black tie with white patent shoes – and no hat. The office decor, too has changed. Where Barker once sat behind a mahogany desk with green leather inlays and brass handles Hopkiss contents himself with a cheap grey war surplus desk. Sensing my military bearing, no doubt, he tried to convince me it was from Churchill’s war office. However when he opened a draw I distinctly saw a label proclaiming it ‘Property of the Stationary Office’ – I somehow doubt that Winston ever dropped in to count the paperclips.
It seems that there is only one flat available on the front at present and Hopkiss tells me there are unlikely to be more – and I’d better ‘take it quick cos it won’t last long at that price’. I have fixed to see it tomorrow at nine-thirty.
Then on to Woolworth’s for Elizabeth’s socks and the Chemist for the chest-rub.