One Damn Thing After Another By Terry Wilson
Some Wilson History
The best factual information that I have about the Wilsons goes back to James Wilson who had a chain of ironmongers shops in Halifax. My father told me that Jas. Wilson, his grandfather, was to some degree a pillar of the local Halifax society, mainly due to the urgings of his wife. After he retired he decided to trace back his family origin. He did this very thoroughly by going through local records of births and deaths all the way back to records of the Wilsons in Scotland who were members of the Gunn clan, I think somewhere in the Aberdeen area. Unfortunately one branch of the worthy Wilsons were travelling tinkers who roamed the Highlands repairing kettles, sharpening knives and axes and any other form of metal work beyond the skills or the equipment of the average crofter. It seems, however, they got a bad name due to the frequently repeating coincidence of the lairds deer or sheep disappearing whenever the Wilsons happened to be in the area. Sheep or deer stealing in those days was a capital offence and this thought significantly increased the mobility of this branch of my family. In fact “go south young man” became their motto and they ended up in Halifax where they changed tinkering into ironmongery and finally produced a pillar of the local society, James Wilson himself.
James Wilson, my father said, carefully organised all his genealogical research and eventually showed it to his wife. She was horrified to discover the family links to a somewhat shady past and insisted the documents be destroyed before anyone in Halifax and its environs could get wind of it. However James Wilson told his son Robert Henry Wilson and he told his son, my father, Eric Langdale Wilson who told me. I remember my grandmother, Ada Wilson, the wife of Robert Henry, telling me when I was a small child that my ancestors were the Gunn clan who wore a black and green tartan. Father tactlessly said ‘They were probably black and green so they could not be seen in the night.’ His mother ticked him off right roundly and said ‘Some matters are best forgotten especially in front of a child.’
Anyway Robert Henry inherited the Halifax business from James and, by his wife Ada, produced two sons. my father Eric L Wilson and my uncle Arnold Wilson.
My father was a gentle man in the true sense of the word. He had the Yorkshireman’s sense of humour, usually applied as a brief one liner, but his pointed remarks were never malicious. He was a small slender man, generally self effacing and not ambitious. A quiet life was all he hoped for.
It therefore seems to me to have been quite out of character for him, at the age of about 20, to go to Africa as a trader in copra and palm kernels. At the time he had not completed his training as an architect and, if he had to go, with all the British Empire open to him, why go to Portuguese Angola? He was located there in a small town on the coast called Ambrize just south of Cabinda. Many years later in England he built a house in Herstmonceux in Sussex where I lived as a small child and he called the house Ambrizette. In portuguese it means little breeze. When the RAF sent me abroad, I wrote to him explaining that I was now in West Africa not far from where he had been as a youth. He replied with the only advice he ever gave me on how to behave on this planet. He wrote, ‘Now that you are in Africa you will probably find that the longer you stay there the paler the natives become. This is especially true of the women. If this happens, don’t tell your mother.’
I do not know how long he stayed in Africa but when war occurred in 1918 he still suffered from malaria so he did not join the forces. Instead he worked as a structural engineer in drawing offices. An occupation he pursued for the rest of his working days. My mother, who he first knew as a secretary in one of the companies he worked for, always said he was an architect. But mother was like that. He lived to the age of 98 offering wit and kindness to his dying day.
My father, therefore, had nothing to do with the ironmongers business in Halifax. His brother, Arnold Wilson, inherited that when Robert Henry and Ada retired to 14 Jameson Road Bexhill. Arnold however had no great interest in, or acumen for, running a business. At the time he held the record for the greatest number of consecutive visits to the local theatre without actually seeing a performance. He never got past the bar.
He solved his inheritance responsibility by marrying Aunt Clara. She, as an employee, had virtually run the business during his father’s last working years. Who better to carry on and leave him free to pursue less demanding pursuits? Clara took over both the son and the business which she eventually sold. With the not inconsiderable proceeds they retired to Somerset where Clara concentrated her energies into trying to turn her husband into a teetotal citizen. Towards the end of their days they reached the compromise of one small barrel of cider in the garden shed.During the 1914–1918 war Uncle Arnold served in the Royal Army Service Corps. He suffered a leg injury and also received a military medal. Being responsible for military stores he always managed to keep his water bottle well topped up with rum or some other alcoholic beverage officially designated for the officers mess. On the occasion of his heroism, his stores received a direct hit from an enemy shell. Without hesitation he dashed in to extinguish the fire that at any moment might have caused dangerous munitions to explode. By a coincidence his cache of booze was hidden amongst the ammunitions.
During the 1939–1945 war many of the old cotton mills and other buildings dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution were needed to house equipment for the production of armaments. Huge lathes and other heavy equipment had to be installed, and rapidly got into production, to support the troops and defeat the enemy. The weight of these steel presses was known but the strength of the internal structures of the buildings was not on record. Would the buildings be strong enough to stand the load and the vibrations of the new equipment? Sometimes the operating floors of the buildings were supported by cast iron posts. Sometimes the cast iron was encased in concrete. No drawings could be found and early in 1940 my father, as a structural engineer, was asked to state what modifications to the buildings, if any, were needed to get this particular part of the war effort rolling.
He visited the proposed buildings. He measured the supporting structures. He took out his slide rule and did numerous calculations that involved stresses and loads. He then went back to his office and produced drawings that indicated every area that needed strengthening complete with an exact specification of the necessary materials—steel, concrete etc. His company, the War Office, all parties concerned were delighted. He was the only person they had found who could accurately determine the strength of their old buildings to enable them to be sufficiently reinforced to be safe. In his own little way he became famous.
But he was a very honest man and years later, after he had retired, he told me that he had always worried about supplying that vital structural data.
“Why,” I asked.
“I cheated,” he said. “I had no more idea of the strength of those old pillars and beams than anyone else. I just assumed their strength was zero and drew up a structure that would do the job even if they did not exist.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We won the war.” I think this was the most dishonest act of his whole life.
My mother’s maiden name was Ruby Alice Serth. I know little about her family except that her father drowned whilst on a fishing trip and her mother supported her and her three sisters by operating a sweet shop somewhere in London. Mother, as a child, used to dance and sing on the shop counter to amuse the customers. Throughout her 97 years she never quite came to terms with the fact that being a professional singer and actress was never going to be compatible with being married to my father and bringing up three children. The big city, the bright lights, the taxis and obsequious waiters were as attractive to her as they were repugnant to father. But despite such fundamental differences they got along quite well. Certainly we, as children, did not suffer even though our childhood encompassed the depression years of the nineteen twenties and thirties.
I know even less about my grandmother’s side of the family. Even before her husband, Robert Henry, retired she was the dominant figure in their household. After he died she was joined by her two maiden sisters, Edith and Emily, known as E and M. They continued to occupy the house in Jameson Road Bexhill and, when we visited them as children, we had to be on our best behaviour. Mother was always in awe of Grannie Wilson and Grannie Wilson who, with typical northern bluntness always called a spade a spade, had little respect for Mother’s tendency to turn any simple activity into a theatrical event. My mother never quite grew out of the desire to sing and dance on the sweet shop counters of her life.
It was some months before D-day before the Allies landed on Normandy beaches. I was working at the RAF’s Photo Reconnaissance Main Interpretation Unit. Here we made untold thousands of photographic prints. Sometimes, from these, models of enemy targets were made and these models were photographed from above from different angles. Prints of the photographs were given to air crew to take with them on sorties. This to make it easier for them to identify specific targets. This was most useful on low level small target bombing raids.
One day when I was filing away some negatives the CO came round with two visiting US military men. They seemed to be interested in the number of negatives we had and how we identified each one as to its location, date of sortie, and rate of retrieval of any particular image. These were not matters of any significance to us. We had lots of files, lots of people, considerable diligence and lots of time. You want a print, we’ll get you a print, even if it takes us half a day to locate the right roll of film and the right negative on that roll. They soon left and, as ever, being inquisitive I asked the Flight Sergeant in the office who were our visitors. He looked at a paper on his desk and said, “Two Yanks. One called Donovan and the other Casey. Both of the OSS what ever that is.”
I learned many years later that the OSS was the Office of Strategic Services commonly known as the Department of Dirty Tricks. Donovan was known as Wild Bill Donovan and Casey was William J Casey, a New York lawyer who later became head of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later still head of the CIA.
Many years later I became involved in the microfilm business with particular reference to microfilm cards. These were IBM tabulating cards that at one end supported a 35mm chip of microfilm. Such punched cards could be sorted and retrieved mechanically to enable any one out of hundreds of microfilm images to be found quickly. The man who invented the microfilm cards was a clerk in the OSS. He later patented the invention and his ex boss W J (Bill) Casey looked after his legal matters including his frequent divorces. The patent rights were eventually bought by 3M Company and were sold as film cards until electronic data made them obsolete.
But the coincidence does not end there. A company called Kalvar Corporation in New Orleans had invented an ultraviolet sensitive film that created images by releasing small gas bubbles in the film coating. The development company who employed me in England was interested in this film for use on the ultraviolet microfilm equipment they were about to put on the market. I visited Kalvar Corporation in New Orleans and was intrigued to learn that W J Casey had an interest in Kalvar Corporation. He had helped refinance the company with public funds. ‘Going public’ was a much favoured form of fund raising that sometimes needed the skills of knowledgeable and preferably significant people.
Then when our equipment was marketable I was sent to New York to run the USA subsidiary of the UK Company and W J Casey, through his law firm, became our corporate lawyer.
He had some useful connections. To look after the USA operation I needed a USA work permit. He got on the telephone to someone he addressed as ‘Bunny’. Appropriate forms were filled in and later when I went to the USA Embassy in London to collect my visa a note was attached to it saying ‘Interested party Secretary of State Rodgers.’ It was ‘Bunny’ Rodgers that Bill Casey had spoken to.
As to USA visas there are several alternative categories that, if fulfilled, enable one to work and pay taxes in the USA. One is a Treaty Trader Visa whereby if 50% or more of your business is conducted in the USA you can have a work permit. Another is if you have skills that are needed in the USA and no one else in the USA has such skills you also can partake of the American Dream and the Pursuit of Happiness. World record breaking athletes or rocket experts like Werner von Braun or rich newspaper Barons are admitted for their unique attributes. In the case of the Barons I assume their uniqueness is relative to the size of their assets.
In my case I was admitted as a Photographic Scientist with expertise in ultraviolet optics with the Secretary of State as an interested party. This ‘over-kill’ was a little embarrassing on one occasion as I returned through New York customs. At that time Ronald Regan was president and Russia was an Evil Empire.
“You into this Star Wars thing?” the immigration official said.
Quickly I tapped a finger to the side of my nose and said, “Easy. You never know who is listening.”
He nodded, stamped my passport with a flourish and said, “Glad to have you with us. You can’t trust those Commies.” Actually I was out of work at that time.
But back to coincidences. From 1944 to about 1969 William J Casey’s name or presence or influence occurred at various times and like most coincidences there is no significance to it. He and I were on totally different paths that just happened to cross three or four times in our lifetimes. I cannot use the simile of ships that pass in the night. More like a warship and a canoe sharing the same period of time and places. It is more likely the canoe will remember the warship than the warship remembering the canoe.
Eccentrics—Some That I Have Met
John Liston attended to his duties as an RAF clerk in a normal manner. He was neither brash nor diffident, neither smart nor drab. His boots did not shine, but nor were they dirty. He was, in fact, middle-of-the-road ordinary in every respect except one. His eating habits.
The routine procedure in the airmen’s mess was that one lined up to get to the food counter and eventually one held out a plate and the cook, behind the counter, anointed it with a dollop, or several dollops, of things nourishing. Having consumed, or otherwise disposed of this first course, one returned to a different counter to get a plate full of the second course, the sweet course.
This procedure was too laborious for John. Having got his plate full of first course he would continue along to the next counter to have his due portion of sweet course added on to his first course. All on the same plate. Then he would sit down and stir together a mix of perhaps beef stew and rhubarb tart and consume the resulting mess with every indication of enjoyment. He claimed that by these means he got more variety of flavours and every day was a surprise to his taste buds. On leaving the mess he would revert to normality.
What seemed so strange to me was not just his bizarre eating habit but the fact that he was so normal and average in every other respect. Most eccentrics seem unable to prevent an element of unorthodoxy appearing in most of their daily activities. But not John, he had but the one aberration.
I observed another eccentric eating habit when I was running a manufacturing operation in Pennsylvania. There were several cafes within close driving distance but most of the staff who worked on the shop floor brought sandwiches to eat during their lunch periods. Then some brought more perishable delicacies and requested that the management supply a refrigerator in which to store such titbits and to keep cool their cans of coke. I agreed to this and a large fridge-freezer was installed and the staff were happy.
Some months later I happened to go to the freezer section to get some ice cubes and I noticed that it contained several TV dinners. TV dinners were precooked frozen meals in a sectioned foil tray, each section containing a different ingredient so that together they supposedly represented a well balanced meal. Meat and two veg for example. All frozen solid. At that time there were no cooking or food heating facilities in the factory. Microwave ovens had not been invented. So I asked why they were stored in the company freezer.
“Oh they’re Phillip’s,” was the reply. “He has one of those for his lunch each day.”
“But how does he heat them?” I asked.
“He doesn’t,” he said, “he just chews through them frozen.” They breed them tough in Pennsylvania.
Then there was Ernest. Ernest had worked in the laboratory at Kodak for many years. He was a good employee. Always punctual. Did the job and never caused any trouble. At least not until he became involved with a religious group.
Ernest was not a thief in the sense of the normal understanding of the word. He did not burgle people’s houses or pick their pockets but during his years of employment he had, almost by accident, taken home the occasional company issue pencil. When his drain had blocked up he had scrounged a small quantity of caustic soda. When the photo lab had to test film batches or competitors’ products they were supplied with two or three films of each batch for evaluation. But sometimes, if all went well, they used only one or two of the films to complete the tests. Sometimes Ernest would get a few left over films that officially no longer existed. He might take the occasional handful of ammonium sulphate to feed his pot plants. Technically it was theft but he did not think of it as a crime and there was certainly no measurable loss to his employer. But his attitude changed significantly when his new religious associates urged him to confess his sins. His problem was that, because he had led an almost sinless life, he could not think of what to confess. He went through a list of the ten commandments and drew a blank. He hesitated a little over ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Not that he had come even near to an adulterous act but he vaguely wondered if the occasional thought might count as a sin. Then he suddenly remembered, with a feeling of relief, the odd minor items of company property that he had acquired or used for his own private purposes.
That weekend he listed down all the items he could find or recollect. He labelled each one with the estimated date of each tiny crime and the name of his accomplices. The man in the photo lab who had given him the film. The man in the stores who gave him some bicarbonate of soda. He sifted through his house collecting what was left of his illegal trivia. He packed them, each neatly labelled, into a suitcase. This he took with him to work on Monday morning and, with a feeling of relief, confessed his crimes to the Managing Director to whom he presented the evidence ensconced in the suitcase.
It was an embarrassment to the Managing Director.
No action would condone the offence however minor it may be. Any action would make a mountain out of a molehill. As Managing Director he was more concerned about sales and production figures to be sent back to his parent company in the USA. He told Ernest to go back to work whilst he considered the matter. He then forgot about it. This left Ernest in fear of just retribution for the next six months and his previously cooperative friends at work became markedly uncooperative ex-friends.
I do not know if there is a moral to this tale. Perhaps there is. Stick to adultery. It involves fewer people and is more universally understood if not envied.
Another eccentricity I came across was when I was in Africa. It was not an eccentricity of behaviour of an individual. It was an eccentric convention that in the past had been adopted for purposes of convenience and economy but was no longer adhered to.
There was a Syrian trader who had a ramshackle store and outbuildings along the coast road facing the Bight of Benin. His family had owned the store for many generations. He claimed that his grandfather had bought it from Lever Brothers at the turn of the century. At that time it was both a general store and the area trading post for palm kernels used by Lever Brothers in Liverpool as the basis for their margarine production. In those days the palm kernels were collected by the local tribes and traded in for useful western devices such as tools and, importantly for them, guns. The guns in those days were long-barrelled single shot weapons made in Birmingham and shipped to Africa, packed butt to muzzle, in well made wooden crates about 5 feet long and 20 inches in width and depth.
This type of trading had long since ceased. The palm trees now grew in plantations owned by multinationals and the trading store sold bolts of cloth and other goods for cash instead of trading them for produce or ivory. However there was a relic of the past that one day caught my eye as I browsed through the store. High up on a back shelf was a group of shiny, black, silk top hats. Not only was I surprised to see top hats there but equally surprising was the size of the hats. The diameter of the opening was at least 12 inches and any normal person who tried to wear such a head gear would end up with the brim resting on his shoulders.
I asked what tribe of giants in Africa went around wearing 12 inch diameter top hats.
“No,” he said “You want to buy one? Very good hat. No make um like that now.”
He poked one down with a broom handle, dusted it off and gave it to me to try on. Jokingly, to make my point, I dropped it over my head and as I anticipated the brim rested on my shoulders. He laughed as I removed it and went on to explain that in his father’s and grandfather’s days empty gun cases were used as coffins but they had one limitation. The gun cases were only 5 feet long whereas the corpses were usually somewhere between 5 feet and 6 feet long. They solved this problem by sawing a circular hole in one end of the gun case. The corpse was then slid into its adapted coffin with its head sticking out through the hole. Over this head the outsize top hat was fixed into position by nailing the brim to the end of the coffin. The silk top hat being in deference to the departed.
He did not expect to sell any more hats but he did not like to throw them away.
“Where did they come from?” I asked.
He shrugged and looked inside the head band and read out “L-U-T-O-N. There used to be an expression on the West Coast” he said. “If you said someone was going to get a gun case and top hat you meant he was dying.”
I wonder if he ever managed to get rid of those top hats and how many people still understand the expression gun case and top hat.
I heard of another African eccentric as I travelled to Freetown in an old coaster.
She was a rust-bucket of a tramp steamer that plied her trade along the West African coast, probably Belgian in origin and went under the name of Thysville. Her home port was in the Belgian Congo but the skipper picked up and dropped off cargoes all along the coast as he saw fit. He would berth in the major ports where there were docks and other facilities and here he would pick up information on cargoes likely to be ready in coastal towns where there were no docking facilities. There he would anchor outside the reefs and shallows and native canoes would bring cargoes and passengers out through the surf.
In the heydays of the colonial empires the Thysville had been a small floating island of civilisation in this land known as the White Men’s Grave. But now all that remained of her past opulence was the cook and the food he produced. He was a tall thin man with a lugubrious expression denied by his twinkling eyes. He had left Antwerp many years ago. Jan was his name. Most of his time was spent in his galley from which delicious smells of fresh baked bread would waft upwards to entice the passengers to their next meal. He personally went ashore, sometimes in canoes through the surfs, to select local fish and other supplies. Although everything else about the Thysville had deteriorated since her halcyon days, Jan defiantly maintained his standard of cooking. He made his own pates. His West African curries with dozens of delicious little side dishes were memorable events.
I boarded her at Port Harcourt and enjoyed his food all the way to Freetown. One evening he joined me as I leaned over the rail watching the phosphorescent stream from the ship’s bow wave. He started reminiscing about the old days, when he catered for colonial officials and plantation managers and mining executives who would make a point of coming on board the Thysville whenever she was in their port. Not to travel but to exchange gossip and news and be sociable when enjoying one of Jan’s meals. During his discourse he referred occasionally to his friend Doc—usually in the past tense, so I deduced Doc was no longer with us.
“Was he a medical doctor?” I asked.
“Yes. He was the ship’s doctor more or less.”
I did not understand how one could be more or less a ship’s doctor so I persuaded Jan to tell me more. Why not? We had nothing to do and it was a warm night.
It seemed that Doc—Penfold by name—had been a qualified general practitioner in England but some problem, variously thought to be social, legal, moral or ethical depending on whose gossip was preferred, had caused him to leave England and he ended up in West Africa. It was never quite clear to me whether he adopted the Thysville or the Thysville adopted him. He had one cabin that he used as a consulting room cum treatment room and he was known to be a good doctor especially when he was sober and not otherwise busy playing cards for higher stakes then he could afford.
“He was a loser then?” I asked.
“Well not exactly” said Jan. “When he occasionally suffered moments of financial extremis he had a fool proof way of recouping his losses. He would challenge a passenger to a drinking competition. He would adopt an aggressive attitude and claim he could drink anyone under the table. If he was fortunate enough to find anyone foolish enough to accept the challenge he would raise the ante as high as possible and make side bets with all comers. He never lost.”
“Why was that? I asked.” “Was he a large man?”
“No. Skinny as a string bean and not tall,” he said. “After four or five quick pink gins that his opponent had to match, he would excuse himself, ostensibly to go to the toilet, but actually to go to his medical kit that included a stomach pump. Then he would retrieve and dispose of most of his pink gins, swallow a glass of water and then return to the competition with relatively little alcohol absorbed into his blood stream. He would now have some more pink gins at a leisurely pace. This gave his opponent plenty of time for his first five to have full effect and be topped up with the steady flow of more gin as the Doc enjoyed the one or two he intended to keep and savour. “But Doc was a gentleman” he said. “He never charged his opponent for treating his hangover the next day.”
“Do you have a doctor on board now?” I asked.
“No,” said Jan with a grin. “Plenty of doctors ashore now but I usually help with emergencies at sea. Care for a night cap?”
I accepted and, as we went down to the galley where he kept a bottle of brandy, for culinary purposes of course, I wondered, unkindly, if he had inherited Doc Penfold’s equipment that might be useful to him with more affluent acquaintances than I.