Myparents got together (not in the contemporary sense, I hasten to add) on New Year’s Eve 1940. The Blitz was in full swing in Manchester and, having met at a dance, they were later forced to take shelter from the Luftwaffe’s incendiary bombs in the old Exchange Station. They were there for hours, and I remember Mum telling me that there were no loos available and she was far too inhibited to go for a pee. Major romances start on a lot less than this.
Mum was a middle class Anglican and Dad a working class Catholic, so the relationship wasn’t particularly welcomed in either family. But the week following their meeting, the couple arranged to go to the Premier Cinema in Cheetham Hill. My mother was a Junior swimming champion who had damaged her ears diving, and so was already a little hard of hearing . Her condition was described as a ‘perforation of the inner ear’. As usual when they took their seats in the cinema, there was one of those wartime Mr Chumleigh-Warner information films on before the main movie.
It was about the dangers of clap (the 1940s version of chlamydia, minus only the penicillin) and at the end of the short, the voice-over intoned solemnly, “This girl is easy enough alright…but she might have gonorrhea”. My mother heard the last word as ‘inner ear’.
“I had that last year,” she told my startled father.
The rest of the date was somewhat frosty, and the next day Dad approached his employer – an upmarket former tennis champion who was something of a mentor – and said he was very keen on this posh girl, but she’d had, you know, the, um…etc etc.
“That’s what war does,” said his boss, “It allows otherwise well-bred girls to run riot. Whatever you do Bernard, don’t go near her”.
But Dad was in love, so he arranged another liaison with Mum, raised the issue, and the misunderstanding was sorted out.
They were married in October 1942 at St Patrick’s church in Higher Broughton. My mother didn’t convert, and so there was no music, no flowers, and not that many family. But Dad’s boss Stanley Stewart (well connected to the black market as a big-league cloth merchant) supplied the reception with real Champagne and, as not many folks in those days were used to rivers of 13% fizzy alcohol, the wedding reception turned into something of a riot. My father’s brother Frank – already building a well-earned reputation as a sexual stallion – made a play for Mum’s best friend Marjorie, whose boyfriend and later husband Les responded with the fisticuffs solution. Not for the first time, Frank was nursing a black eye the following day.
They had to delay the honeymoon as Dad was doing basic RAF training at Kirkham near Blackpool, but there were a few stolen weekends here and there, from which my brother resulted on May 11th 1944. When the baby arrived, my father asked permission of the Flight Sergeant to get a weekend pass to Manchester, which was duly turned down with the usual sensitivity shown by the armed forces to all signs of interest in anything beyond killing people. Dad ignored the ruling and went over the wall.
He saw his new son Michael for half an hour in Crumpsall hospital, and then caught the next train back to Kirkham. But as he dodged through a well-worn hole in the camp hedge, he noticed that huge lorries full of men were leaving in convoy. When he got back to the mess, Dad found his mates busily stuffing meagre possessions into kitbags.
“Eh up Bernard,” said one, “Gerra move on – it’s the invasion”.
Within two hours, Pop was boarding a ship docked in Liverpool. It struck him that, as Liverpool faces towards America and the invasion was due to take place in France, this was either the most cunning feint in military history, or not the invasion at all. In fact, their first port of call was Agadir in North Africa. Rommel had recently been ejected from the area, but his retreating forces were being harried by the RAF. As an armourer, the job of Aircraftsman First Class A B Ward 709364442 was to check the bombs and guns on each plane before take-off. He excelled at this, and as Sergeant Armourer A B Ward 709364442 was transferred to Mombasa in East Africa. From there he went to Delhi, Burma, Malaya and Singapore. There he learned of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
During the influx of new National Service recruits that followed, Sergeant Ward spent his time as an instructor. He took over this task from an old RAF hand who, as they used to say back then, “knew the ropes”. Acutely aware of the large gaps in his technical knowledge, Dad asked the retiree for tips about how to answer difficult questions.
“When harsked hennyfink as to the function hov an object,” the old boy replied, “Simply say ‘That, aircraftsman, hizz designed for lightness and heaze hov manufacture'”. My father said that this gambit never failed.
It was November 1946 before Dad arrived back in Manchester. His two-year old son not only didn’t know him, he hid from this stranger in the understairs cupboard for some time afterwards. I cannot help but think that such an equivocal start to the bonding process explains a lot about why my brother Mike and my father had a frequently stormy relationship during the 66 years that followed.
I arrived in February 1948. Dad went to the local priest and pointed out that, at this rate, he’d have a football team by 1959. The priest suggested he should trust in God, a recommendation that flew in the face of events to date. Instead, my father began taking the hairdresser up on his “Anything for the weekend?” offer. It was the end of a Catholicism that had been massively important to him. Even today, I admire the decision as that of a rational man who loved a heathen, and refused to be cowed by a dominant influence. There is a lesson in that for all of us today.
Dad last year