When Alan punctually appears on my doorstep, I’m once again intrigued to be interviewing someone I know nothing about. He’s carrying a laptop and a folder, and his manner is efficient. So it’s only as the conversation warms up that I realise that I might actually be interviewing the world’s closest facsimile of Father Christmas. Meaning, dear reader, that this is a blog post written by a writer who might have fallen just a little bit in love…
I was born in what is technically the Lower Tything of Piddletrenthide, in Providence Cottage, on the corner. I used to insist on this, but of course everyone now just calls the whole area White Lackington and sometimes I think it’s not worth fighting it any more.
I’m 77 now, 78 in November. Same age as Joe Biden, although I have no desire to be President of the United States. I’m retired, and delighted to be so. I’m not the slightest bit bored, and wouldn’t want to be taking on a job as onerous as that. Really, can you tell me that in the whole of the United States you cannot find two better, younger people than Trump and Biden? It’s just not credible that those two are the best candidates.
My father was a Sapper in the army and my mother was what they’d have called a housewife. Some time later they needed someone to be the school caretaker at what’s now Piddle Valley School, and she said she’d do the job until they could find someone else. Then she did it for 25 years. I went to school there, passed the 11+ and went to Thomas Hardye’s. They, or we, had pretentions to grandure in those days – it was very much a public school ethos.
After that I joined the police. I would have joined the local force but they said I was too short – they couldn’t do that now. So I went to London for 11 years, as a beat policeman in Brixton. After that I wrote to Dorset again, but their answer was, ‘You’re still too short’ so I went to Somerset and Bath. (And interestingly enough, when they measured me they made me the height that would have been eligible for Dorset.) He chuckles.
I was in the police for over thirty years, doing lots of different jobs, from race relations officer to Chief Inspector, then working as a fire arms officer when I semi-retired. When I joined they said sign with your first and last name, and I was an obedient sort of chap back then, so I signed Joseph (which is my first name), so all my police career I was called Joe.
Watching the demonstrations on the news now, I don’t think Covid means law and order is breaking down any more than previously. I’ve always had bricks and bottles thrown at me. I was at Grosvenor Square when the anti-Vietnam war protests were taking place and we battled with the crowds all day – it literally rained pennies from heaven. It was pre-decimalisation and they’d throw them in the air – and of course we had no protective equipment then.
After I left working for the police full-time, in 1993 we moved back to Piddlehinton. I didn’t know a lot of people in the village at that point. Of course I do now, although I didn’t have a clue about the WhatsApp group until you just told me. But when we returned, people thought my wife, Mary and I were incomers, even though Mary lived for a while in London Row and other places too, and I was born here. They’d known Amy Neades had a son who was a policeman, but that was about it.
The vicar at the time decided he wanted to start a children’s club – a weeknight Sunday school – and asked us to help. We’d run those sorts of things in London, so we said yeah, we’ll help. Well, turned out there wasn’t anybody else, so Mary and I started this thing. And of course, lots of people, like dear Sara M, were like, who are these people? What do we know about them? Sara and I are great friends, but at the time she was a bit suspicious. More chuckling. But it certainly took off. At one stage, half the children in Piddle Valley used to come to it.
Mary and I met when I was… probably sixteen? She used to sit opposite me in the choir stalls of Piddlehinton Church – that’s where young love blossomed. I guess we’ve now been together more than sixty years.
As he talks about his wife his face literally lights up and I suggest that he’s just as in love with her now as he was back then.
‘Yeah, yeah…’ He beams, and his chuckles slide into giggles. ‘Look, let’s not say we haven’t had a few rocky moments along the way. This sort of Darby and Joan image – “We’ve never had a cross word” – no, no, that’s rubbish.
But lockdown didn’t really make much difference to us. We’re pretty self-contained. We didn’t go walking along the beach as much as we did, well in fact we stopped. But we spent more time working in the garden. We’ve got almost half an acre stretching along the road, and I’ve got another bit of field that I bought from a neighbour, a farmer. He’s died now, but we were boys together, and I used to visit him twice a week. And we couldn’t see the children – we’ve got three – but they could still telephone.
The one thing was that they closed the church. Which made a big difference to me.
If you’d asked me, when I was growing up, if I went to church, I’d have said yeah, I’m a Christian. But I don’t think I lived or thought much different than anyone else. But when I was in Brixton I met someone – another policeman – who’d got faith of a different dimension. It wasn’t just something you occasionally thought about, this was something that became an integral part of your life, every moment of every day, affecting everything you did. And as I worked with him I thought, I’d like some of that.
We didn’t work on the same shift so our opportunities to talk were somewhat limited. But just before Christmas we had this thing called Turkey Patrol, where we patrolled the stalls in the Brixton market late in the evening. They asked for volunteers and I thought, yeah, I could do that and said to this colleague, “D’you fancy doing it?” and he said yes. And so we worked together for three weeks. And during that time I had the opportunity to catch his faith. I must have been what… probably just 21 when I caught it. And afterwards, my wife caught it too.
What does it mean to me? Well, we talk about peace. I feel fairly laid back about most things I suppose. But for me it’s about trust in a person – well Jesus. God in Christ. I’m sort of what they would call, I suppose, evangelical, so I identify with Jesus as Saviour. But of course Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit: they’re all one.
I’m a church warden and Mary and I have cleaned it for the past few decades. On Sundays I sometimes used to do the sermons and I also played the organ; although regarding that you’ve got to go even further back.
There was a lady in Church Hill who was the assistant teacher when Piddlehinton had a school. She taught music and was an old-fashioned sort – if you got the wrong note she wrapped you over the knuckles with a ruler – so my lessons frequently ended in tears. But I learnt the basics. In my teens they needed someone to play the organ at Piddletrenthide and I was paid six shillings a quarter to play every Sunday. That’s where I really learned, practising furiously each week.
When the church closed this March, well you find other ways to express yourself don’t you? I thought, this is a bit miserable for everybody, so I started a thing on Facebook – The Consolation of the Scriptures. Every year I read the bible from cover to cover and I’ve got one that’s set up with daily readings. So from these I’d select a verse or two that would stand alone and make some sort of sense.
I just put it on my Facebook page – with the privacy switched to Public. I don’t know how many views I’ve had, but people I’ve never heard of have contacted me – dozens I suppose, just to say they like it.
After a while I thought, it’s a bit boring just having print, I’ll put on a picture I take from the garden. So every day now I stick a picture of a flower or something – although I’m running out as we move towards Autumn.
I ask if he’s had a low point during lockdown, although I’m beginning to suspect not. For instance, hasn’t the thought of catching the disease worried him?
Oh, I’m not worried. When you get to my age you feel your mortality anyway. Let’s be honest, I’ve had prostate cancer for ten years. When I was diagnosed they said, “You’ve got six months to live”, but I had an operation and you know… It’s one of those things. I can remember asking my grandad when he was about my age, “Does death seem nearer to you than when you were young?” and he said no. I understand what he meant now. In a way, you always know that it’s there, and although intellectually you can know that, clearly you’re not going to live that many more years, it doesn’t feel like that in my head. In my head I don’t feel any different than I did when I was thirty or forty – it’s just the old bones. My PSA levels do fluctuate and, again, mortality, you’re aware of it. But it doesn’t really worry me.
So, your lowest point, I ask. He thinks for a few seconds, then chuckles guiltily.
I can’t think of a low point, to be honest.
So, on a scale of one to ten, how happy are you?
Yet again, he laughs. ‘Oh. I’m very happy. One hesitates to say a ten…’ He crosses his arms, smiling broadly.
When I say it’s a little like sitting opposite Father Christmas he laughs, gently rocking back and forth.
Oh, the joyfulness of this man… World, we need to bottle him.
How can he be so unshakeably happy, I ask, wondering out loud whether it’s because he and Mary are so secure in their little bubble (of love); while, quite frankly, many of us are beginning to feel like we’re falling apart.
‘Really?’ He softly hoots. “Doesn’t worry me at all!’
Because of your faith or personality?
‘Faith must be important, uh…. Yeah.’ His eyes twinkle.
But then his expression becomes more serious.
I suppose I’d say, with St Paul, that with whatever situation I find myself in, I’ve learnt therewith to be content. But of course I’m very much aware of what’s going on in the world, and empathise with those who are losing their jobs, who’ve lost relatives.
And it’s hard to see the world coming back to anything like we’ve perceived as normal, for a long time. Mostly because of the national debt. Once you get to over a trillion pounds, that is serious. Let’s face it, Rishi Sunak has been spending money like the Labour party could never have envisaged. Sadly, I think that there’s going to be a lot of unemployment. I remember when we had the financial crisis, saying to Mary, “It’s gonna take ten years before we get out of this”. And it did. Then this came along. So just as we’re crawling out on one hole, we’re into another. I think the economy is the biggest problem.
No, I’m gonna be a heretic here, but I’m not completely convinced by global warming. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist but I’m not convinced that human agency is the main driver. When I look back through the eons of history, even in this country I know that we’ve been through many ice ages. There have been times when it covered the whole of the south of England, and there were clearly other times when it was fairly tropical.
I think I’m a bit of a contrarion. If the general herd want to go in one direction, I tend to question, are they going in the right direction, or are they just lemmings?
An interesting angle for a former policeman. Was he a rebellious one?
In some ways I suppose I was. Although rebellious is probably the wrong word. I’ve just always liked to say, let’s stop and think about this. I’d always be sending memos up to my bosses.
Which leads us to the discuss the reason I contacted him in the first place, because during lockdown Alan was on the news, talking about his father, who died in the war.
My father was originally from Bridgend, Wales, I think he must have lied about his age when he signed up; a lot of them did. He’d been in the army for four years when he died, been through Dunkirk. I think he must have met my mother when he was stationed at the camp in Piddlehinton. There used to be lots of Americans stationed there too.
They got married and he went back to the front line as a Lance Corporal – he would have had a little team of mine layers working with him, so he was nominally responsible for them. On this particular night they’d already laid the best part of 2,000 mines in no man’s land and I think my father probably died in a tragic accident. They’d been doing this for a month – every night… thousands of mines.
So, Harry’s story about my father dying in his arms? I’m not saying he’s wrong, but as a policeman, I have to say that the facts don’t quite add up. Other people who were there wrote to my mother at the time of my father’s death, and I still have all their letters.
I wouldn’t say it’s not true, and it might well be. After all, I’ve not been in a war.
I can remember an occasion when we had a bit of a riot after some sort of party at the fire station in Taunton. And I went along with my shift that I was in charge of that night – all three of us – and there were people punching each other and everything was going mad. We arrested a load of people – some would go in one side of the car and out the other and there was all sorts of chaos, absolute chaos. But anyway, we ended up in the police station with all these people, and it was like, well, “Who is he, and, and, why is he here, what do we know about him?” So I went around saying, “Well you know why you’re here, don’t you?’ “Yes”. “Well, tell me what you did.” And they’d each tell me their story and then I’d be able to piece it all together and charge them!
And maybe that’s what it was like in the war. Stories get muddled, and things might be misremembered. And I have far too much respect for Harry to say he’s wrong. He might well be right. And it’s nice, that my father’s being talked about. To be honest, I never knew him, and nor did my mother, not that well. They had so little time together. But you sort of wish, don’t you, as you get older, I wish I’d asked my mother things…
I can remember Remembrance Services as a child, thinking, well I’m supposed to think of my dad, and almost trying to force a tear, as it were. I suppose you look back on all these things and almost stand aside from yourself, observing what was going on at the time and what you felt might be the appropriate action. It sounds terrible to say so, but it’s difficult to feel an emotional attachment to somebody you didn’t know. I had my grandfather and two uncles, one of whom lived with us for quite a while. And what you’ve never had, you don’t miss.
Maybe, however, I got it from my dad: this part of me that always thinks optimistically. And right now, what I think is that, whatever we have now, however bad things are; as Tony Blair would have said: things can only get better. And in the meantime, I’ve got plenty of hedges to cut. They’ll carry on keeping me busy.”