Authors: John Healy
In 1935, the previous German embassy stood at Nine Carlton House Terrace, just off Pall Mall. This was when the Nazi Party was in full swing in Germany. Dr Leopold von Hoesch was the ambassador to Britain. When his German Shepherd dog Giro died, Hoesch had him buried under a tree just outside number nine. After World War I, the Americans and the British refused to call the breed a German Shepherd, so the authorities reverted back to the place from where the animal originated, namely Alsace. Hence, the German Shepherd was renamed the Alsatian. As for Dr von Hoesch, he was never a Nazi sympathiser. The dog's tomb stone reads, âGiro, Ein Treuer Begleiter.' Translated it reads, âGiro, A true companion.'
People still call his pet âthe Nazi dog' and even now there are remnants of the Nazis in this old embassy. Top Nazi architect Albert Speer redesigned some of the interior and a marble staircase was said to have been donated by the evil fascist Mussolini. Apparently there is a mosaic of swastikas on the floor of one of the public rooms. However, Hoesch was so well respected in London that in 1936 they gave him a full state funeral with a nineteen-gun salute.
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I have just returned from a weekend in Folkestone, where I met a man from Redcar who said he lived in a council house opposite Sir Stanley Matthews (1915â2000). He told me that when Mr Matthews got his invitation to Buckingham Palace to collect the gong that would make him a Sir, the locals had to have a whip round to buy him a new suit for the occasion.
I find it extremely difficult to believe this story, especially when Sir Stanley had played football all over the world. He was one of England's greatest players and was known as the âwizard of the dribble.' I know that footballers' wages then were only a tiny fraction of today's earnings but if he was living in a council house I am sure that Stoke City or Blackpool would surely have looked after him. I wish I knew the true story.
That weekend at Folkestone included a coach tour. We were passing Beachy Head in East Sussex when the driver told us this was one of the United Kingdom's favourite suicide hotspots. He went on to say that up until about two years ago, the suicide rate was about sixty sad people every year but because of the recession the numbers had risen to 160 jumpers per annum, although I can't confirm this. Beachy Head is rated number two in the world's suicide count. The world's number one is the Golden Gate Bridge in California.
The coach driver took us to a tiny old church in Winchelsea called St Thomas the Martyr, where he pointed out the grave of Spike Milligan, who started the Goons with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine. These words are written on his tombstone in Gaelic, âDuirt me leat go raibh me breoite'. It translates in English to, âI told you I was ill'. The Diocese of Chichester insisted that the inscription should be written in the Irish language. I think they did it so that visitors to the graveyard would not be able to understand the words on Spike's gravestone and therefore would not laugh in this solemn place. Milligan sure had a great sense of humour. There is a blue plaque to him in a street just off the Bayswater Road.
Our tour coach then went to the ancient village of Ditchling, home to Dame Vera Lynn, the Forces' sweetheart in World War II. Dame Vera is now ninety-five and still going strong. Ditchling dates back to the year 765
and is only nine miles from Brighton. They have a wonderful male and female choir called the âDitchling Singers', formed by the brilliant Herbie Flowers who I mentioned earlier and who also lives in the village.
We also took a trip to the East Sussex village of Peasmarsh. It suffered from the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century. In the eighteenth century there lived a vicar in this village who had a son called Charles Dodgson, better known as the author with the pen name of Lewis Carroll, who wrote
Alice in Wonderland
. Apparently the Alice of the title was a local lass. Sir Paul McCartney owns a large estate nearby.
When I first came to London from Ireland as a qualified radio and television engineer in the late fifties, I was offered a job with a hearing aid firm in Acton. I actually repaired the hearing aid that belonged to the fifties singer Johnnie Ray, who became almost completely deaf after surgery in 1958. He could have fixed the hearing aid himself as all that was wrong with it was wax blocking the tube that enters the ear hole. It was a horrible job, as human wax smells. Ray had hits in America with âJust Walkin' in the Rain', âThe Little White Cloud That Cried', âSuch a Night' and lots of rock 'n' roll music in the fifties and sixties. I never met Johnnie Ray as I left the firm the day before he came to collect his deaf aid. To this day I still love his music.
There was an experimental factory next door and I was invited in to see their brand new invention, a computer. They took me into a room that housed the device, which took up every available space in the room. There were banks of small glass valve-operated equipment everywhere and the heat was unbearable. This was one of the forerunners of the modern day computer.
Eventually the transistor was invented, and I even remember the number on that small device, the âOC7O'. It was used mainly in the new portable receivers called the transistor radio, affectionately known as the tranny. A changing breed of kids emerged during that era. They found a new freedom, and took these small portable radios with them everywhere they went, mostly tuned into Radio Luxemburg. All the teenagers adored this new listening apparatus. It's strange to be able to remember the number of that first transistor device, especially now that fifty-five years have elapsed.
The old fashioned thermionic valve radios and televisions had had their day, they went to museums and were put on display so that future generations could stare and say, âLook at the size of those tellys and radios'.
After the transistor came the solid state silicon chip. Today's computers can be put into a pocket and you can hang fifty-inch television sets on the wall that are just two inches thick. Years ago you would have to go into a phone box to make a call, nowadays the phone âbox' fits in a handbag. That's what you call progress. There is no limit to man's creativity. I suppose the term, âBeam me up, Scotty,' is not as daft as it sounds and one day it may become a reality. I was born fifty years too soon.
All those years ago, I remember converting a hearing aid into a small transistor radio that fitted into a fairly small soap box and worked with a tiny ear piece. I lent the device to an employee in the factory. He never gave the radio back but a month later I saw a very similar radio in a gadget shop window in Tottenham Court Road. It was a copy of my radio. I am convinced my idea was stolen, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I also recall the time I was approached by one of the union leaders at the factory to bug the manager's office. I was reluctant to do this but I did show him how to do the bugging. For some reason or other the guy was sacked a week later, which I was quite pleased about. Apparently the union chap never got around to fitting the bug in the manager's office. It would not have worked anyway as I did not tell him the proper way to install it, deliberately leaving out a few details. This was to protect myself from an expensive prosecution should I have been found out.
As I got older, everything started changing at an unbelievable rate and I lost the will to keep up with the new technology. It was obvious I did not have enough brain capacity to keep pace with all the new equipment that was appearing on the horizon and that's when I decided to become a black cab driver. I soon found
out that I would need twice the brain capacity to complete The Knowledge of London. I have written about that episode in previous pages.
Now I must take a quick mental trip across the Irish Sea. For some unknown reason my parents decided to set up home in Belfast. I still had a few years to go to become a teenager. Northern Ireland was not a good place to be at that particular time. World War Two was close to its final conclusion. Victory was imminent, but at a great sacrifice. I remember the extremely large barrage balloons in the sky, and the batteries of very noisy ACAC guns that were trying to shoot the last remnants of the German Luftwaffe out of the sky. I have a vivid recollection of the gigantic search lights illuminating these remaining bombers. I have actually seen a rare flying boat land in what I think was Belfast Loch. What a sight to behold.
And then the war was suddenly over. Hitler was dead. Suicide it was called, and well overdue if I may say so. I remember the street parties, we were actually given real food. I still cannot forget the flavours of all that meat, ice cream, plus the odd banana or orange â remember, we had very little to to eat then.
The streets of Belfast were packed with well heeled, and well polished American soldiers, there were air men and navy men, mostly in civilian clothes, looking like film stars. They were all up for a good time. The streets of Belfast looked just like a 1940s film set, but these were no actors, this was the real thing. They had the cash, the nylons, the chocolate, the chewing gum, and the overwhelming desire to mingle with the local women. This caused a little friction with the returning British servicemen. The Yanks had all the glitter, and the locals did not have the flashy uniforms or the sheer nylons to charm the starry-eyed ladies. I,
as a young lad, felt sincerely sorry for the British Tommy, who could not compete with all this overwhelming Yankee glamour.
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Eventually my parents made the decision to return to the Republic of Ireland. We settled in one of the most beautiful towns that I have ever lived in. It was a place called Malahide, just nine miles from Dublin. It had its own castle, its own beach, and three pubs. I spent my time swimming every day, climbing trees and fishing. We had real summers then that lasted from April through to September.
One day a dead body was washed into the bay. He was naked, but my great pal and I noticed he had a gold ring on his finger. We were determined to steal that beautiful piece of digit adornment. Apparently, the poor old deceased guy had been to the Baldoyle races, and had lost all his wages on the gee-gees. So, with the usual help of alcohol and depression, the fellow jumped into the sea to end it all. The undercurrents of the sea were deadly around that turbulent coast. This poor man would not have lasted very long in those churning waters. And so he ended up being washed ashore on the Malahide coast.
In those days there were no such things as mortuaries in Malahide. So the cadaver was laid out on an old wooden table in a disused garage behind the police station. This was called temporary storage. My friend and I were present at the overnight interment. The two Garda Siochana (Police) did not even tell us to get lost.
In the dead of night, my pal and I crept towards the makeshift mortuary. The scene was extremely eerie. Slowly we opened the door. It was then that the full moonlight shone directly on to the pure white face of the deceased. Well, what was left of one eye was hanging from its socket and down the side of the poor fellow's face. I do believe it was the crabs that had eaten most of it. The other eye was wide open, and staring directly at me and my friend. It was the horrible stare of death.
We were frozen stiff with fear. It was just like a scene from one of the Hammer House of Horror movies. Eventually, when we were able to get our legs to move, we ran like swiftest deer in peril, just to get away. You know, I can still see that poor man's face to this present day, but that awful image no longer bothers me. How stupid we were then.
There was another time when my pals and I foolishly decided to remove the flag from the battlements of the ever so beautiful Malahide castle. We all met after dark and trekked through the woods to the castle. Luckily there was scaffolding going up the side to the flat roof. So up we went. At the top we made our way towards the flag pole. It was then that a door opened, and a very threatening voice shouted âWho's there?' The man then let off two barrels of a shot gun into the air. It was very dark but we all made it in quick time back to the scaffolding, shinnied down the poles, and disappeared into the woods. The next day we were called to the police station to receive a good telling off. I believe that one of our gang was recognised, and must have divulged all of our names to the police.
My mother or father had never physically punished me up until then. A very strong glare was enough to put me back in my place. But that was the day they gave me a good hiding to remember. It was then that I grew up mentally. The worst thing was that my mother was a regular chatter to Lady Talbot, the lady of the castle. This genteel woman always took her daily walk past our house, and always passed the time of day with my mother. My mum was very embarrassed by my crazy actions on the castle roof. But that's all part of growing up. It's strange to think that one of my Christian names is âTalbot' but I'm definitely not related to the Talbots of the castle.
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My parents are buried in the local graveyard. Just a few graves along lie the victims of a terrible mass murderer. Six in all were brutally attacked and slain in what was known as the La Mancha
murders. Two brothers, two sisters, and two workers in this large mansion house were all beaten to death. The jury found a man called Henry McCabe guilty of this evil crime. He was eventually hanged at Mountjoy jail. It's sad that whenever I visit my parents' grave I always have a walk along to the La Mancha mass grave, and give a little thought to those poor souls who violently lost their lives way back in 1926.
We used to drink in a country pub in Kildare which had a very long glass display case that contained a gruesome severed human arm. It was black from age, and belonged to a seventeenth century pugilist. He had the longest arms in the history of boxing. This man could tie the laces of his breeches without even bending. Laces in those old type breeches were always below the knees. His name was Dan Donnelly, he was never defeated in any of his heavyweight fights. It appears that this was due to the unusual length of his arms, because no one could get anywhere near him in order to smack his jaw. After his death, one of this man's arms was removed by a surgeon, pickled in alcohol, then varnished and put on display. âWhat a finish the arm had' (in more ways than one). The local constabulary were not very pleased. All fights were bare knuckle then. Soon, John Douglass, the then Marquess of Queensberry, endorsed the new rules of boxing. This meant that from then on boxers had to wear gloves, thus reducing the possibility of brain damage. To this day the Marquess of Queensberry Rules still apply to all boxing. Dan Donnelly's time was 1788 to 1820.
I hated going to church on Sundays. It was the odour of unwashed parishioners at the time. Few people had baths, although we did have a bathroom. It was that time when things were beginning to get better for everyone. I remember the priests used to preach âHell and Damnation' in the pulpit, and later they could be found in the Grand Hotel downing double whiskies and eyeing up the women guests, whilst the men of the parish would mostly head to one of the three local pubs, and by the time they went home for their Sunday dinner they were mostly three sheets
to the wind. They just fell asleep. Those days are gone now, and men are more respectful to their spouses. I do believe there is more harmony in the home. I do hope that I am correct on this fragile marital subject, after all, âI was married twice'.
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I suppose I am lucky to be alive after I relate the next incident that happened in my past. I was always a bit of a beachcomber in my youth. The best time to walk and comb the beach was just after a great storm, as this was usually followed by a very high tide that washed all sorts of flotsam and jetsam on to the sandy beach.
After one particular stormy evening I headed for the shore line and started my search for whatever the waters had thrown up, and there it was, just lying there. It was a World War Two German incendiary bomb. I did not know what I had found at the time, so I picked up the device and took it straight to the police station. I walked in to the cop shop, and put the bomb down on the desk. Well, I have never seen policemen move so fast, they even dragged me into the street with them. Apparently the bomb was live, and had to be disarmed by the bomb squad. They told me how lucky I had been that day. I could have been instantly roasted like an ox.
I am now nearly finished my Irish contribution to this book, so just a few more words and then I'm off back to the place that I love best, London.
I really remember Dublin in the rare old times. Nelson's Pillar was a great meeting place for all Dubs. It stood like a giant obelisk in the centre of O'Connell Street, which is one of the widest city streets in Europe. Incidentally, the longest street in Europe is in Muldova near Romania. âWhat a piece of useless information,' ah, but not on a quiz night. The Pillar was a great place to be, it was the national landmark. When the IRA blew it up, it fell straight down the middle of O'Connell Street with very little damage. A stump was left, so the Army blew that up,
apparently causing a lot of collateral damage to the surrounding area. The council installed a beautiful bronze statue of Queen Maeve, a legendary Iron Age warrior queen, nearby; she is lounging, semi-naked in a fountain, and of course, the Dublin wits nick -named her âThe Floozie in the Jacuzzi'. Not too far away there is a lovely bronze statue of Mollie Malone with her cockles and mussels cart, and of course she got the nickname of âThe Tart With the Cart'.
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I feel compelled to write a few lines about the sad story of the âRose of Tralee'. Her name was Mary O'Connor and she was a maidservant who fell in love with a rich man in the town. He also loved her, but both families objected to the union. The lover, a certain William Pembroke Mulchinock, was broken hearted and wrote a beautiful song to win her heart. The song won her over but she would not split him from his family, so she declined his love. He emigrated to far away places but he could not get Mary out of his mind, so years later he returned to Tralee to try to rekindle the painful romance. On his way to see Mary, William decided to have a drink to give himself âDutch Courage'. The publican drew the blinds as a funeral procession was passing outside, and William inquired as to who the deceased was. The landlord replied, âIt's Mary O'Connor, The Rose of Tralee'. Poor old William was speechless.
A few years later William married an old flame and emigrated to New York, where they produced a couple of children. But as the years sped by he could not get Mary out of his mind, so he returned to Tralee alone, just to be near the grave of his long lost sweetheart. He died when he was in his forties and is now interred in a grave next to his beloved Mary. Would that bring a tear to one's eye or not? This happened in the 1800s, when the Great Famine in Ireland was then in progress. William's time was 1820 to 1864. I feel compelled to write the first verse from that most beautiful poetic song, âThe Rose of Tralee':
The pale moon was rising above the green mountains,
The sun was declining beneath the blue sea,
When I strayed with my love by the pure crystal fountain
That stands in the beautiful vale of Tralee.
Just think of those beautiful words that paint a most vivid and colourful picture in the mind. You do not need a brush or paint to create this scene.