Tag Archives: prisoner of war

Touch

21 Jan

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There is nothing quite as empowering as having a beautiful woman slip her arm into yours whilst going for a stroll in the park.

My daughter Polly is named after her grandmother, Adriana Van de Poll. It was mam’s nickname when she served as an air hostess in the 1950’s with KLM.

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Mam passed away on the 7th of January 2015, aged 83. She had led a most eventful, some might say remarkable life.

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Like the Lockheed Super Constellation she flew in with her glamorous crew in the 1950’s, she was an elegant, long distance flier.

I can tell you the facts. Mam was born in Leiden, Holland, to Haartje (nee De Boer) and Cornelius Van de Poll on Valentine’s Day 1931. She grew up in the jungles of Sumatra on a rubber plantation with an older brother, Henk and a younger sister Heleen. Then in 1942, on her eleventh birthday, the Japanese invaded what was then, the Dutch East Indies. Mam became a prisoner of war. She spent four years supplemententing her family’s meagre diet by chopping wood and digging graves in the most appalling conditions. Her dad survived the Burma Railway line, her mam another camp, her brother Henk, torture. After returning to Holland at 15 she had a patchy formal secondary education and eventually graduated to Domestic Science College in her late teens.

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Henk, her brother died aged 19 whilst her parents were abroad. Mam attended to his funeral.

One day in Amsterdam whilst she was at Domestic Science College she was inspired by the sight of a KLM Air Stuardess in uniform, she decided that was the job for her, and spent the next three years as an au pair learning new languages: English in Surrey with a Vicar and his wife, German in a ruined Berlin with a Count, French on a farm with a huge family and a smattering of Italian. She flew long haul flights to Jakarta, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and, in Lagos, bumped into a Yorkshireman, David Littlewood on the dance floor.

They married in Jos, Nigeria (her given name was ‘Jos’ – a story for another time perhaps) and I was produced on July 22nd in Kano, northern Nigeria in 1958. My brother Tim was born in 1961 in Ghana. Mam and Dad were a popular couple, throwing fantastic parties (like ‘Spend a night in Gaol’, or ‘Launching a new Newspaper’).

Mam came home on leave with Tim and I to a house in Matlock in 1964. Dad stayed in Ghana. She had to bring me back to England for my health – I had contracted cerebral malaria twice, typhoid and rheumatic fever . I would not have survived any longer in the Gold Coast. Dad needed to work and had a very good job with UAC in West Africa. They separated and then divorced.

Mam managed to blag her way into Teacher Training College in Matlock in 1965 having had very little formal education thanks to the Camp. She trained for three years as an Art/Textiles teacher, becoming Head of Textiles at Mortimer Wilson School two years after qualifying supporting Tim and I through school and University.

The last thing Mam said to me as I held her hand was; “Henk, you have to decide what you are going to do, and what you are not going to do”.

It is a sweet irony that in the last years of her life, blind and succumbing to dementia mam sometimes confused me with my dad calling me David. It was in those last, close, intimate moments of her drifting in and out of the world that I realised how deeply she had loved him.

So what I have decided I am ‘going to do’ is this sort of caper:

Sewing

What I have decided I am ‘not going to do’, is not bother you, dear reader, or anyone else with trivia. We don’t have enough time – just touch.

Down Under

Fell

2 Dec

I felt pretty lousy yesterday having spent a week in limbo with my wife moving house, moving workshop and setting up in Sheffield. So it was a pleasant and restorative Sunday 1st of December spent in the fresh air of Grenoside woods. Glorious winter sunshine found us amongst the Scott’s pine, self-set birch trees, oak trees, bracken and heather at the invitation of the excellent Sheffield Wildlife Trust, the Working Woodlands Trust and a handful of doughty Sheffielders – we joined together to gather winter fuel and build a cord to store and dry wood for fuel.

A cord is literally a stack of wood 8 feet long by 4 feet deep by 4 feet high. About a ton in weight – an ancient standard used by woodsmen of the past and present to calculate value of wood fuel (cord wood). Nowadays a cord of high value hard wood logs (like ash) will set you back about £150 in the USA it is cheaper at a dollar equivalent. The rise in cost is directly linked to the rising popularity of solid fuel burners. Three years ago you couldn’t give the stuff away.

On the day we used both modern methods (chainsaw, felling lever and timber tongs) and traditional methods (bow saw, bill hook and axe) to put down selected trees for the benefit of the woodland, to generate some winter fuel and stimulate the interest of the community.

I persuaded Fay, an Ecologist by profession, and a keen environmentalist in her spare time to ‘have a go’ with my small felling axe. Here she is putting down a self-set birch tree for cord wood.

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She overcame her initial slight reluctance to swinging the axe at a tree after I told her a story about my mother. My mum (a single parent) used to say “I can do any bloody job as well as any man. I was a wood chopper and a grave digger in a Japanese prisoner of war camp from the age of 12 to 16 in Sumatra. That is how I earned a bit of extra food for my family, so don’t bloody well tell me how to put a shelf up Henk!” That was me told.

I have always admired women with a steel core in their back bone; I guess this comes from being brought up by such a tough, uncompromising parent. So I really enjoyed watching Sarah, of the Sheffield Wildlife Trust make short work of a Scott’s pine with her Stihl 260 chainsaw, and Fay, fell and sned up a birch tree with my axe.

Fell means many things:

From the old French ‘fel’ meant cruel, fierce or vicious: in Latin fello is the root of fellon or villain as in Macbeth’s ‘one fell swoop’. Faelan or fyllan from Mercian or Saxon means to cause to fall. Think of Lizzie Borden who, according to the nursery rhyme, took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. A nursery rhyme based upon a true story of the Sunday school teacher accused of killing her mother and father at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Not that I have ever been tempted to copy her actions of course…..

Mr. Osborne has been wielding his metaphorical axe to the detriment of local government, charitable institutions and the general public for the past few years. He and the government he represents is our modern day fellon. It is good to see the real thing put to good use in the hands of people giving up their free time for the sake of their woodland and community.

They say a woman’s work is never done, all fellons should remember who wields the axe and ultimately who tends the hearth.

Pride

4 Apr

Image“I’d like to go to the opticians again, these specs are useless” mother

“Its your eyeballs that are knackered Mam” son

“Yes, but if I could only get rid of the mist, its so misty” mother

“Its a clear sunny day” son

“Don’t be silly” mother

Age related, wet macular degeneration. It has taken my mother’s eyesight in small leaps as blood vessels burst and retinas detached; in bounds as helpful Opthalmologists spot welded the damaged parts back in place, causing yet more blind spots. It has played tricks with her perception; “Why is there a boot on the wall?” and it has made a tough old bastard very vulnerable. It has supported various opticians income as, annually, they fitted her with very expensive and totally useless varifocals – when they knew she had only very limited peripheral vision.

This woman survived four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp as a teenager, chopping wood and digging graves to survive. She is of a stoic tradition which will disappear when the last of her generation passes on. Women like her possess an indomitable spirit worthy of the hardest, toughest warrior. But cellular degeneration, old age, too many fags over the years and, probably a truly crap diet as a youngster, threw her a curve ball to which she was not able to adapt.

If she had been weaker, she might have accepted all the help we tried to arrange, instead of telling the cleaner “You can sod off, I don’t like your attitude”, or squirrelling all the ready meals in a deep freeze “for a special occasion”. Like eating.

As the gangster says to Butch in Pulp Fiction “Its your pride fucking with you”. I know, I’m her son.