Thursday, 24 February 2011

To the power of 8

This piece has been written today at the request of a member of our local amenities society, who is most kindly putting the sundial on our house forward for a prize for the best recent embellishment of the town of Buckingham.

At the beginning of 2008 I started looking forward to a milestone birthday – my seventy fifth – which would fall on the eighth day of August. I began to think of ways that this event could be suitably celebrated.

The number eight is a lucky one in China because the word eight sounds similar to the word which means "prosper" or "wealth", and therefore the date 08.08.08 would be a particularly auspicious one in that country. After arranging that my birthday be marked by the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, I tried to think of an equivalent event at a parish pump level.

Our house comprises a couple of old two-story cottages with a third floor probably added shortly after the canal arrived in Buckingham in the early nineteenth century and with a Georgian façade put in front to give the once-humble building a suitable aura of gravitas. Above the front door and between the two windows on each of the upper floors were a couple of niches, doubtless put there to resemble the blocking-up of windows done on more stately houses to avoid the eighteenth century Window Tax. The lower of these, I thought, would be just the place for a sundial.

I began the search – online of course – for a suitable builder. I found a handful of craftsmen who seemed to offer good work and good value, but I was deterred by the fact that I would have had to do the measuring of the alignment of the façade and the determination of latitude. I felt that, if a mistake were made, it would be better to have somebody else than myself to blame.

My search increasingly centred on one David Harber, particularly because of the excellence of his website: for me, as a one-time website developer, this was an important factor. His list of commissions was impressive, too: Oxbridge colleges, stately homes and international corporate HQs featured prominently on the site. Obviously expensive, but probably worth it, I thought.

My initial contact with David's company confirmed the likely expense but also reassured me about quality and service. The latter included Latin motto translation, provided by a retired bishop, the Right Reverend Stephen Verney, who lived near David's workshop. On the strength of his reputation as a classicist, the bishop – as he then was not – was enticed into the SOE during the war and spirited into Crete, where he formed a partisan unit whose success led him to being awarded the military MBE after the war. David would exchange a bottle of fine claret for devising or revising a suitable Latin motto for a sundial.

I wanted a motto to do with the house, which stands at the foot of Bristle Hill. I thought of the words in the funerary mass, Lux eterna luceat …, "Let light eternal shine …", and transformed this into "Let the sun always shine" (Semper luceat sol …), ending (or beginning) with "upon 7 Bristle Hill". This was the tricky bit. I looked up "bristle" and got saeta, so I submitted to the bishop Super collem saetae ("of the bristle") septem … I got back Super septem (before, not after, the street name) collem saetigerum ("bristle-bearing").

Happily, we were about to set off on a trip to Naples and I believed that I could find the correct position of the number seven during a visit to Pompeii. Alas, the citizens of that town didn't apparently use numbers at all for addresses: this was a new-fangled Greek idea, which might be all very well in Alexandria, but really wouldn't do for us Romans in Campania. Therefore, on the basis that the modern Italian method of putting the number after and not before the street name was probably based on some form of Roman precedent, I defied the bishop and did likewise.

On the matter of "Bristle", however, the bishop was supported by an American foster great-nephew of my wife who had just won a classical scholarship in his second year at his Oxford college. This forming of adjectives from nouns by adding "-bearing" in cases such as this was, apparently, common and was based on imported Greek practice.

So we arrived at a reasonable Latin motto, but I felt that, because the good burghers of Buckingham would not be able to understand it since the Royal Latin School had stopped teaching the language some while ago, a translation should be included in small print at the bottom. Here I used the desire to produce a rhyming couplet my excuse to render semper ("always") as "still" (=continuing until this time), thus enabling "Upon Seven Bristle Hill // Let the sun shine still".

The reason why I chose the typeface Trajan for the wording on the dial, and what I did about the absence of small caps in that font, will be obvious to typographers and need not be said. To non-typographers the matter is unimportant and can therefore be left unsaid.

The day for installation finally arrived. David attended in person with his team. Afterwards, chatting, he told me of a recent unveiling at which his young daughter had been selected to offer a bouquet to the Queen. The little girl approached Her Majesty and said "You're not a queen: you're a granny!" "You're quite right, my dear," said our sovereign lady, "I am a granny – but I'm also a queen."

I asked David whether he has customers or clients: I enjoy teasing tradesmen who try to pass themselves off as professionals by talking about their clients rather than customers. David side-stepped this trap adroitly. "I have patrons", he replied.

We all looked up admiringly at the sundial before it was draped to await the official unveiling. "It looks great", I said, "but it really shows up the empty niche above it. Any suggestions?" He thought and then said "I could build you a weather cock on the chimney which would link through gears to a pointer on a compass rose in the niche. This birthday you're tracking the sun: the next big one, track the wind!"

Roll on my eightieth: only some eight hundred and eighty eight days to go!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Legend in his Lifetime

This was written to go on the back of the posters supplied to the Horse & Groom and laminated together, so that they could be handled by customers in the bars of the pub where I met the colonel in 1956: see West Malling Revisited.

Colonel Wintle was a legend in his lifetime. He appeared on the two famous celebrity programmes of the '50s, television's This is Your Life and radio's Desert Island Discs. The highlights of his long-running legal battle with a Brighton solicitor were reported in The Times. His death on 11 May 1966 resulted in obituaries worldwide: that in the New York Times was headlined Eccentric English War Hero Dies.

This legal struggle demonstrates the colonel's three salient characteristics: resourcefulness, courage and tenacity. The issue was the legality of the will of a feeble-witted female cousin of his by which the solicitor, who had drawn it up and had had it witnessed by two of his clerks, would be the major beneficiary of it, instead of the colonel and another cousin.

The colonel's first attempt to have the will overturned on his cousin's death was unsuccessful. He took drastic action to keep the cogs of the law turning. Under an assumed name he invited the solicitor to a hotel room whereupon he announced that he was going to place a dunce's cap upon his head, debag him and then take photos of him. This he did. The solicitor sued for assault and the colonel was jailed for six months. On finishing his time as prison librarian he resumed his attempts to overturn the will, all of which failed before successively higher courts until only the House of Lords was left. By this time the costs of earlier actions had so impoverished him that he could not afford to retain barristers when bringing his case to the highest court in the land.

Colonel Wintle conducted his case alone and unaided. He won it. He was the first layman to do so. Barristers at the Middle Temple gave him a champagne reception to celebrate.

This was not the only occasion on which his impetuousness had landed him in serious trouble. The colonel, a fluent French speaker, had been an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre before the war and was friendly with several airmen who were in 1940 senior officers in the Armée de l'Air.

He was in London in May that year when the German panzer divisions sliced through the allied front line, resulting in their armies withdrawing in confusion to Dunkirk and the French government fleeing from Paris to Bordeaux. With the capitulation of France imminent, Wintle saw an opportunity to persuade some of these officers to fly their squadrons to England and continue the war against Germany from there.

To do this, though, he needed an RAF plane to take him to France, something which an air commodore he approached refused to provide. At this he drew his revolver and aimed it at the stump of the thumb of his left hand: he had lost the tip of it (along with three fingers, a kneecap and an eye) in action in the First World War.

"Give me a plane at once, or I'll shoot this off!" The air commodore thought that he was being threatened and raised the alarm. The colonel was seized, thrown into the Tower of London and court-martialled. He was reprimanded, but the high command decided that this enterprising and audacious officer could indeed do valuable service in France whither he went on clandestine operations a year later.

Inevitably he got captured by the Vichy French Milice but astonishingly was not shot out of hand but was incarcerated for months in Fort Ste Catherine in France. There he treated his gaolers as if he were their commanding officer and reprimanded them mercilessly for their poor turn-out and slovenly behaviour until he succeeded in sawing the bars of his cell and escaping by jumping into a rubbish truck conveniently below.

Some of the stories in his so-called autobiography, assembled posthumously from his writings by an unreliable journallst, may be economical with the truth. I believe that the true story of this remarkable Englishman should now be told.

West Malling Revisited

We had to go on business on our daughter's behalf to Hastings, so this was a perfect opportunity to visit West Malling, the town by the North Downs near the colonel's last home. This would be a trip down memory lane for me and would also enable me to seek to get in touch with people who knew him.

Before going I prepared some A4 posters, half in portrait format and half in landscape, which I would seek to have displayed in prominent places in the town. These briefly explained who the colonel was, why I was interested in him and how to contact me.

We approached the town from King's Hill on the downs on which the airfield at which I had been briefly stationed had stood. Of what had been RAF West Malling I could see no sign: all had been replaced by housing estates and light industrial buildings. I later learnt that the control tower was still standing and that there are moves to turn it into a small museum.

There is also a new pub on King's Hill appropriately called The Spitfire, as the airfield was one of those in the front line during the Battle of Britain. The pub is owned by the great Kentish brewer, Shepherd & Neame of Faversham. One of their beers is also named Spitfire. I remember their splendid posters for it, which showed a Spitfire beer clip on a hand pump and the simple message "Downed all over Kent, just like the Luftwaffe". The killjoys at the Advertising Standards Authority made them pull this inspired advertising campaign.

Down the hill and into the High Street, bags dumped at our B&B and immediately across the road is my first port of call, the local library. "Good afternoon! I was last in West Malling in 1956 and I've come back because I'm writing a biography about a local war hero. I want to meet people who knew him. I've prepared these posters asking people to get in touch with me. Would you be kind enough to display one?" "Certainly!" The good lady takes one of the portrait-oriented ones.

A few steps back down the High Street and then left down Swan Street, following the sign to Tourist Information: closed. Back up Swan Street and notice a sign saying Malling Club. It's busy, though still not yet five o'clock – lots of chaps drinking beer (but not Faversham's finest) – attractive woman behind the long bar – same sales pitch, but with different close, the Bogus Alternative. "Which of these two posters [i.e. portrait or landscape] would you like to display?" This close is bogus because it suppresses the third choice, which is of course Neither. But it works. "I'll take both", she says. Time and money spent by me in the past at the Tack School of Salesmanship had not been wasted.

Back into the High Street and left towards Tesco Metro. Inside there's a West Malling Community Board. I go to the woman behind the check-out nearest to the board. "Who do I speak to about displaying a notice on that board?" "Me", she says and I go into my last sales pitch. "I think it'd better be the narrow one", she said, "the wide one would be harder to fit in. I'll put it up when I go off duty in an hour's time."

Up and down the High Street, looking for other outlets for my wares – see a notice about the lectures being given weekly by the Malling Society – could offer to give one entitled "Colonel Wintle: the Maverick Hero" in the spring, if response to poster campaign underwhelming – pass premises of parish council – note contact details.

Part two of mission is of course the return to the pub where I met the colonel – Horse & Groom now a gastropub – unrecognisable – chat with charming Gallic patron – "Could I have two of the landscape ones, one for each bar?" "Bien sur", I respond and (still in salesman mode) I add "And I tell you what I'll do for you, m'sieur, I'll knock up a mini biography to go on the back, laminate a couple of them and send 'em to you." See my upcoming post, "A Legend in his Lifetime".

Part three of mission is to try and find Coldharbour, the colonel's house – it's behind the gastropub somewhere – set off towards it following morning with image of photo in autobiography in head – getting nowhere – stop – Mondeo Man stops – "Lost?" – "Yes. Looking for Coldharbour." – "You mean, Colonel Wintle's house?" – "Yes" – directions given – anecdotes related – call alas postponed till next visit (shortage of time). "Time spent on reconnaissance", the Iron Duke is said to have said, "is seldom wasted": how true!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Next Steps

This is out of sequence with recent posts, but is designed as a preliminary thesis proposal, appraising my potential supervisor of what I am currently thinking.

On the first three of the four terms that make up the full-time Biography course at the University of Buckingham, we examined a number of different genres of both autobiography and biography: we read – or skimmed – paradigms of each and then in weekly seminars discussed their salient features. We did not however discuss works in which the autobiography is the most important source of information for the biographer, as would be the case with Colonel Wintle.

In such cases it would seem to me important to select a number of episodes related by the autobiographer, particularly those which show him in a good light, and seek to compare what he said happened with what other people may have said. The degree to which the accounts of the autobiographer and other people tally would then be an indicator of the reliability of what he says about himself.

So one of my first steps must be to skim The Last Englishman and to look for a handful of episodes that can be checked. At the same time I should look for those aspects and incidents in his professional and personal life which could form part of an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, since there is not yet one for my colonel. The first paragraph of such an entry must include brief information about both parents and all four grandparents, so I need to research this on or

Other steps, but of lower priority, are these.

  • Obtaining a CD containing the hour-long television programme about him mentioned in the Wikipedia entry and attempting to get interviews with the actor who played him and the author of the script.
  • Recontacting the friend with whom I saw the colonel in 1956 to see what he remembers of our meeting
  • Visiting West Malling, the nearest town to his last home, to seek to contact people who knew the colonel
  • Tracing the records of The Shop ('Sandhurst' for gunners and sappers) to c heck claim of rapid pass-out
  • Looking at service records, in particular commanding officers' assessments of someone who must at times have been a difficult subordinate and what is known about his time at the Ecole de Guerre
  • Finding out whether there might be a record of his court martial
  • Finding regimental histories to seek to cross-reference actions in which the colonel took part
  • Visiting the French embassy to see whether it would be possible to check his claim to have been top of national primary school exams in 1909
  • Looking at his will, both to satisfy ODNB requirement to give value of estate at death and to identify some relatives
  • Seeking to contact relatives to see who has the MS of the autobiography and other any personal paper, perhaps using telephone directories

Monday, 7 February 2011