Wednesday, 9 February 2011

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 Of what had been RAF West Malling I could see no sign: all had been replaced by housing estates and light industrial buildings.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!

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