Arthur Charles Dickens

In Arthur's own words:"In 1874, my grandfather (John Dickens) was an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery and in charge of forts in general and, in particular Dartmouth and the Plymouth Harbour. These, and other forts, were his training grounds.

"In 1942, when Churchill met Roosevelt on a warship in Plymouth harbour, my father, Charles, then 70, talked his way into the fort where all the guns were laid on the warship and saw the historic sight through the bore of a gun barrel. It had taken an hour for the officer in charge to search the records and verify my father's right of admission.

 "I only met my grandfather once," said Arthur, "when he was nearing 80; towards the end of his life. By all accounts, he would rise at 6.00 a.m. and potter around the garden and at 6.00 p.m. he would pot around the village pub".

Arthur was equally proud of his father, Charles Henry who, it was said, was an expert horseman - equal to any circus clown at acrobatics on horseback. At over 50, he was still doing cartwheels and handsprings. At tentpegging, he could take the peg with the lance in either hand, but what was more fascinating was the Victoria Cross Race. The object of the exercise was for about ten riders to gallop 100 yards, dismount, pick up a dummy wounded man, throw 'him' over the saddle and beat it for home. Sometimes, as a gag, Charles would bend over sideways at full gallop, pick up the dummy and when the others came in, he would be calmly smoking a cigarette, waiting for the rest of them to come in. 

His activities did not end there. Dan Leno, the fore-runner of Jack Hulbert and Fred Astaire, taught him to tap dance. Of his own accord, he could play any instrument, excelling on the banjo and piano. He would appear in shows doing his own song and dance routines plus accompanying himself on the banjo to his own compositions. "I," said my Dad, Arthur, "was the make-up man who burnt the cork and handed him his straw boater."

Margaret, Arthur's daughter takes over the narrative...

Dad, like his father and grandfather before him, was yet another strong military man. He 'regimented' us, his offspring, until we threatened to run away. We didn't have math at school in those days but Dad was a mathematical genius. He could add up row upon row of £.s.d. (pounds, shillings and pence, as the currency in South Africa used to be) just running his eye down a column and pencil in the answer in seconds. In those days, one would first add up the row of pence, remembering that 12 pence made one shilling, and then add the shillings, remembering that 20 shillings made a pound - all the while doing the conversions along the way and coming up with one total. Dad could do this in one scat. Many years later on the Mine where he worked as Chief Surveyor, a member of his staff challenged him to a race with an adding machine. He was sorry he did that.

Aside from his job on the Mine, Dad also worked after hours as a Math Lecturer a the local Technical; he understood figures like few others. His prowess intimidated us to quite a degree and it frustrated him vastly that not one of his children had the slightest inkling as to how to perform the most simple fractions - or fractures!

He could also recite endless passages of Morte d'Arthur and Shakespeare, not to mention his never ending fund of jokes. When he and Mum had guests, we four would sit outside on the paving beneath the open window listening to his jokes and stifling our giggles. He was a very funny man and a brilliant raconteur.

Nonetheless, he must've been quite proud of us, as this photograph took pride of place in an album; he had done the printing himself. He loved his Dickens heritage. (So much for his classic calligraphy which I have 'adulterated' by revealing the nicknames of the four of us in place of the more dignified Anthony, Margaret, Rosemary and Felicity...see below the photograph)


                                     Bunny, Mrs Strauss, Big Toe and Tissie

Coming from his mother's strong Irish Catholic influence, we always said Grace before and after meals. Dad, however, had his own version which made us feel very, very bad!  And Mum would always sigh: 'Oh Arthur....'

When making the Sign of the Cross, he would say:

Comb, knife, fork, spoon, pocket knife and razor
followed by the 'prayer':

Dearly beloved brethren
Isn't it a sin
When people peel potatoes
And throw away the skin;
The skin feeds the pigs
And the pigs feed us
Dear beloved brethren
What a lot of fuss!

I hope we don't all go to that Other Place.

He was a happy minstrel, was our Dad - when he wasn't giving us a hard time for making 'bugles' out of the stalks of his pumpkin plants. Or not doing our  homework or either him or Mum being called in by the nuns to 'have a word' with them. Come to think of it, it was always me. They never had to 'have a word' about Rosemary and Felicity.Tony, at Christian Brothers College in nearby Boksburg was another who had 'words' said about him.

There was much singing and tap dancing around the dining table and frequently he'd have at least one or two followers; copying his dance routines. We would tap to 'This is the Army Mr Brown, Me and my lady went to town......', and 'In My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown.'  Since Mum's mother, Granny Crumplin, had nicknamed me Bunny, it was inevitable that we also had to sing that other old war-time faithful, 'Run Rabbit, Run Rabbit, run, run, run....."  And for Tony, we also sang 'Oh, Oh, Antonio, he's gone away, Left me alone-eeo, all on my own-eeo ....'

Washing up time after dinner was the worst. Or the very best. Everyone would join in, hollering away at songs like 'Bless This House',  'La Donné Mobile', 'Ave Maria'....oh Deanna Durbin and John McCormack ... 'The Last Rose of Summer', ... and Strauss' 'Wiener Blud'. (Rosemary got her nickname of Mrs Strauss because she was always singing Strauss music). Oh, and we went mad on Funiculi Funicula-a-a-a-ah!  We made a terrible noise.It was wonderful. Dad saw The Merry Widow about eight times, he told us, which meant we were always singing songs like 'Velia, Oh Velia ...  the Witch of the Wood', and 'The Merry Widow' itself.

At such times, Mum would lose her sense of occasion; with aplomb she would fling the odd knife or fork into the washing-up water, causing it to splash up into my face as I was washing the dishes. I begged her to just 'place' the things in the water but she would laugh and sally forth tidying up the dining room after the meal. And I waited, in dread, for the next missile which most assuredly would come.

After dinner, we would congregate around the dining room table, knitting scarves, gloves and socks for the soldiers in Europe and then put them (no, not the soldiers) into boxes which we covered with unbleached calico and stitched closed by hand. The stitching that went into closing those boxes was fine and strong; something one doesn't see today. In those days, the boxes could have been opened (with some difficulty) and some of the contents removed - today, the whole box disappears! We also collected silver paper and rolled it into big silver balls; I forget what it was used for but apparently it was very important for the war effort. With Mum smoking like a trooper, there was always a good supply of Westminster 85, C to C (Cape to Cairo) and Dad's preferred brand Player's No.1 or 2. Can't quite remember.

Frequently, Dad would sing his mock-maudlin songs which he sang into Mum's ear and she would shoo him away with: 'Oh, Arthur!' We all loved this one as we could give vent to all kinds of dramatic weeping and wailing:

Only a bunch of violets, she pressed them to her heart
And vowed beside what e'er betide, she'd keep them to the last
The volley was fired at daybreak,  just at the dawn of day
And whilst the echoes lingered, a soul had passed away.
Into the hands of his Maker, there to hear his fate...
A tear, a sigh, a sad goodbye; the pardon came too late.

"...and there wasn't a dry eye in the house," Dad would laugh.

And then there was the other one which would cause us to indulge in even more snivelling: (He used to tease us that he had made it up but Mum said he did not. We didn't care who was responsible for it. We loved it. I later discovered it had been written by an Australian). The Springboks would not be happy knowing that:

The Boers have got my Daddy; my soldier Dad
I don't want to hear my mother sigh;
I don't want to see my mother cry
I'm going in a big ship
Across the ocean main
I'm going to fight the Boers I am
And bring my Daddy home again.

Sniff!

Dad's father, Charles, meanwhile, was over 70 was back in uniform; a sedentary job but still throwing his weight around and giving orders. The job of O.C. Artillery Records at the War Office pleased him.

At age 80, in 1952, Charles died of a heart attack; a soldier all his life and a blythe spirit to the end. (Dad's words)

Mabyn lived on and died in the mid to late 1980's at a grand old age.

  ...and I only want One!

In 1915, there were posters all over the British Isles of Lord Kitchener pointing a finger, with the caption: 'Your King and Country Need You'. Some may remember the famous cartoon of an old washer-woman looking at the poster, saying:

'100 000 Men Wanted', and her exclamation: "And I only want One!'"

You didn't have to have been there in 1915 to know about the poster. It still appears in books, periodicals or whatever from time to time. It is probably one of the most well-known posters of all time.

Which reminds me of a day many years ago (I'd then been on my own for at least 15 years and was no spring chicken!) when I was waiting for an elevator to take me up a few flights. I was the only one waiting. As the descending lift reached the ground, the doors opened to reveal a glut of well-dressed 'suits' as we call them today. As they started to emerge, I smiled and sighed: 'And I only want one!'  With many being contemporaries, there was the odd smile of recognition and we all went on our way, lighter in spirit than before and with minds preoccupied as, doubtless, they recalled the days of rationing, blackouts and, to children, the scary sound of low flying aeroplanes.  (Yes, we had them too, in South Africa. No bombs, thanks goodness, but every night there would be a rush to get the blankets up to cover the windows; not a chink of light was allowed to show).

Oh gosh ... now that brings back the memory of Tony, my brother, slipping outside the back door in the dead of night and going round to the front door of the house and knocking loudly. Mum, ever the pragmatist, went to open the door. Me, ever the dramatist, cried out: 'No! No! It's the Germans. Mommy you'll get killed!

Mum opened the door but the three of us girls were well hidden. Tony stomped in shouting: 'Achtung! Achtung!' and from the bedrooms there were wails of terror. Dad gave Tony a good talking to ... and sent him to bed without any supper. (Well, that's what we heard him say!) I can still feel the hollowness in my stomach from that awful night.

Speaking about rations and rationing, we used to have what was called The Mobile Cart, where one member of a family was allowed to queue at the top of the road and get something like 10 lbs. potatoes, 1 lb. butter and 1 lb. margarine which we had to mix together. The margarine in those days was snow white and really ugh! We wished we were in England then, where the marge was yellow; which we saw in overseas magazines. I loved the Kraft ads ... so enticing. Sometimes, Tony would go to the top end of the queue and I would be at the end with a scarf over my head and bending just slightly enough to look older and, if we were very lucky, we would go home with 20 lbs. potatoes and more butter and marge. Mum said we were not good Catholics but she was sure the good Lord would understand but we had to confess this in Confession on Saturday. There was always something to spoil things we thought.

Better get back to Dad's story:

In 1904, when Dad was six or seven, his family of May Agnes and father Charles crossed the Irish Sea en route to Connemara and a few years later, were in Geordie country. 'I was there in 1910 when Newcastle-on-Tyne won the F.A. Cup. Home matches used to attract 60 000 spectators and kids were allowed into St James' Park free of charge for the last ten minutes.

It was at Newcastle that Dad had to go to an Anglican school; there being none of his persuasion, he said. It didn't hurt him, he said, except that on one occasion, instead of the usual form of punishment - lines - he had to learn by heart the 13th Chapter of Corinthians. He never forgot it, he told us.

In 1911, his father Charles was stationed on Salisbury Plain and they lived within a stone's throw of the hangars of 'those magnificent men in their flying machines'. Bleriot, the Wright Brothers, Claude White, the Farman brothers. Dad said he was known to them all as he was forever hanging around, as young boys do. One day, he was asked if he would like to go for a flip, sonny? Dad replied, 'No blooming fear'! He said he would rather have been a hero in the ox-wagon era. (He never did enter an aeroplane. He always joked that he would fly just as long as he could keep one foot on the ground).

They were like gypsies, always on the move. Those were stirring times. Bleriot flew over the Channel, the unsinkable TITANIC sank, Haley's Comet appeared and Dad was appointed official scorer of the Regimental Cricket Team of which he was Captain and a leg-break bowler of some merit.

In 1912, the family returned to Ireland and Dad attended Rockwell College, run by the Jesuits) for four years. He was a brilliant student.

Came the day in 1916, when he went up to Dublin and sat for the Army Entrance Exam for Sandhurst at the Custom House ... which was later destroyed by fire by the IRA in the Civil War of 1921-1922.  The Post Office had been gutted in the 1916 Uprising with Dad's father, Charles, being the one firing his 18 pounder field gun at the rebels inside the building. Nelson's Pillar was partly destroyed much later in 1966 by a branch of the IRA on the 50th anniversary of the Uprising. The authorities decided to remove the rest of it with dynamite and did much more damage to O'Connell Street than the IRA had done before.

There was a  joke doing the rounds in South Africa and Rhodesia at the time.  Nelson's Pillar in Dublin was blown up by two Irish patriots who then demanded compensation from the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Mr Ian Smith who sent them off with a flea in their ear: 'You idiots!  I said Wilson, not Nelson!'  (Harold Wilson, at that time, was Prime Minister of England and was making life very difficult for Ian Smith's U.D.I. Government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Arthur passed for Sandhurst but, on learning that an officer in the British Army started at five bob a day less than in the Indian Army pay, he naturally chose the latter. 

"In June 1916," he said, "my mother and I took a boat to Liverpool and went to town with the R100 grant from the Indian Government for incidentals. A dress suit for the sons of gentlemen was the equivalent of R3 today, a lounge suit R2, shirts 35 cents and ties 15 cents. Money went a long way in the 'good old days'."

                         Arthur Charles - Rockwell College, Ireland

"The next day I embarked on the City of Marseilles with 50 cadets on board, bound for Quetta. As potential pukka sahibs, we had to dress for dinner and my blue-blooded cabin mate generously gave me the necessary guidance in tying a bow tie.

"When the ship steamed through the straits of Gibraltar, all were surprised by the antics of the boat; describing figures of eight, wandering off course, weaving and veering close to land. All got the wind up and decided to sleep on deck. It appeared that the Captain on the previous voyage had rammed a submarine for which he had received R1400 prize money. We were not amused.

"Quetta, originally in Baluchistan and now Pakistan, was a huge military centre, complete with a Military College for aspirants to the Indian Army. Amongst the things taught were Army Regulations (most important) tactics, strategy, drill, field sketching, riding, shooting and hunting (the latter in the town after dark!)

"In due course I was commissioned and posted to Rangoon and immediately sent on an assignment to upper Burma.

                          Arthur Charles, front row, third from the left.

"One day, remembering the song, 'On the Road to Mandalay', I borrowed a bicycle and wended my way to this City of temples and pagodas; the religious capital of Burma, a distance of 54 miles. The great item of interest was the Reclining Buddha, hewn out of one piece of rock and bigger than the Spinx in Egypt.

"The population of 40 Whites was made up of a Resident Commissioner and a staff of ten, whose job it was to run up the Union Jack; a few officers, military and police warders and Public Works Department with their necessary personnel. There was no doctor, no Minister of religion, no sex; nobody came or went. And the only connection with the outside world was when the steamer called twice a month, anchored outside and sent in a boat in with the mail.

"Life consisted of parades in the morning, hockey with the troops in the afternoon and drinks with the boys in the evening. This kind of life continued for four months, when I got my marching orders but shortly before that, we had great excitement with the visit of the Prince of Wales.

 

                         Visit of Prince of Wales - Lucknow 1921

Obviously I didn't know it at the time, but in 1924 when I was in Barberton, South Africa, I would once again enjoy a Royal visit, with the arrival of the Duke of Connaught, and then, in 1925 the Prince of Wales followed me to Barberton for yet another visit. It was rumoured that I had princely qualities, in that I could certainly hold a good single malt".

 

                     Visit to Barberton by Duke of Connaught - 1924

Suffering splendidly from a surfeit of Royalty, Arthur, my Dad, embarked for Calcutta, en route for Egypt and Palestine:

 

                   2nd Royal Jats, Ludd, 1921  ('Custer's' Last Stand)

"I thought I had landed in the promised land, though to whom it had been promised, was not quite certain. Up to June 1917, outside of two abortive attacks on Gaza, there had been little activity on the Palestinian front. Memories of the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia were still fresh. The Turks, led by German officers, were almost invincible.

"Then came General Allenby as Commander-in-Chief. Gaza fell at once and within six months, Jaffa and Jerusalem had been occupied. By May 1918, the line had reached a point ten miles north of Jaffa to about 20 miles north of Jerusalem. Under General Allenby's command were seven infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions plus detachments of French and Italians called 'The Mixed Vermouth Brigade'.

                           C.O. Lieut. Arthur Dickens - Palestine 1918

"There were the 38th and 39th Jewish Royal Fusiliers and South Africa was represented by a Field Artillery Brigade and one battalion of Cape Coloureds. The pattern of the campaign was the usual trench system - wire entanglements with gaps for returning night patrols which were frequent. In the 19th Brigade, near Jaffa, were the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, 28th and 92nd Punjabis and my regiment, the 125th Napiers Rifles.

Silver Cigarette Case (with insignia)  - 125th Napiers Rifles

"The founder of this regiment, General Napier, was credited with the most famous military pun of all time. He was commanded by Queen Victoria to annex to the Crown the province of Sind.  Bringing the campaign to a successful conclusion, he wished to inform his wife but was subject to the usual censored restrictions in wartime. He sent her a telegram bearing but one word: The Latin word 'peccavi' meaning: I have sinned.   (Oh, brilliant, we thought. This was one of our favourite stories).

"On the Coastal sector, round Jaffa, the Turkish trenches were at some parts less than half a mile away and the set-up was such that each battalion did three weeks in the front line. Every morning at 4.00 a.m. 'stand to' took place, when every man jack lined the trenches in readiness for a likely dawn attack. Then came three weeks in immediate reserve; usually preceded by a heavy bombardment of 5.9's. The Turks always knew when a battalion was being relieved. This was followed by three weeks in general reserve.  This was the occasion to slip up to Cairo for a weekend where the great meeting place was 'Groppies' by day and by night; the 5-storey edifice called the 'Ex-Continental', the home of 'fallen' women.

"These women used to frequent the dance halls and functions at Shepherds Hotel, attended and unattended, and it was difficult for the ordinary man to distinguish between those who had fallen, those who were about to fall and those who never had a chance!

A Well Planned Hoax

"In August, preparations were started for a general advance. Divisions were by turn withdrawn behind the Line and put through three weeks of intensive trainIng. An overwhelming force of six divisions was concentrated on the Coastal sector and the Line held thinly towards Jerusalem. The fact that the advance was coming along the Coastal sector was successfully camouflaged and the enemy was led to believe the 'push' would come up the Jordan Valley. The hotel at Jerusalem was closed, ostensibly for occupation by GHQ. Empty lorries were run up and down the Jordan Valley; tents were left standing and dummy horse lines arranged to convey to the enemy aerial observers the impression that cavalry was still there in strength.

"All the movement round Jerusalem was by day; all the marching to positions on the Coastal sector was by night and by day these troops were hidden in the olive and orange groves that abound in that area. The whole of the operation was a triumph of secrecy and oranisation. So much so, that the Turks expected an attack to come up the Jordan Valley and therefore they prepared accordingly.

"By the night of 18th September, six divisions were massed on the Coastal Sector about ten miles north of Jaffa and, at 4.30 a.m. the following day, after an intensive bombardment by artillery mortars and machine guns, the infantry moved forward and after determined resistance, the enemy's front line positions were taken. Thereafter, the defence was spasmodic and the enemy were on the run. The cavalry passing through the gaps pushed rapidly to the North; closed all roads and cut off the retreat. Three Turkish Armies were destroyed and 100 000 prisoners taken, plus much war material.

"On 31st October, the Turks laid down arms, on which date my brigade was 70 miles north of Beirut and there we waited for the General Armistice.

"At ll.00 a.m. on the 11th November 1918, the balloon went up and the greatest war in the history of the world was brought to a close."

Romance and Religion in World War 1

"In the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, I was sent to a hospital in Jaffa. Because of the over-crowded conditions, I was taken to Gaza and then ten miles south to Belah. At this time, I weighed 95 lbs. but thanks to a beautiful nurse, I regained my health. She told me her story and it appeared that on the way out from Scotland, her ship had been torpedoed. While it was sinking, she was baptised into the Catholic Church (the nurse, not the boat!) and was one of the few people who survived. She wanted to carry on the good work and become a nun. I sought to dissuade her but her mind was made up and that was that.

"The next two years were spent travelling O.H.M.S. (On Her Majesty's Service) to India, Egypt on five months home leave and back to Egypt."

(The family always knew of Dad's devotion to the Rosary, probably for many reasons but the best known was that when he left England to join the Indian Army, his mother, May Agnes, had given him her Rosary - probably telling him to pray hard and 'be a good boy.') 

Here, he takes up the tale once more: (We are fortunate that he spent so much time in his retirement, making notes of his life past).

"A true story concerns my mother. In 1920, we were all seated around the kitchen fire (seven of us) on a cold winter's night when suddenly our cat stretched itself out and died.

My mother said that that meant a death in the family within three days.  Being accustomed to her Irish predictions and superstitions and second-sight, we all laughed.

On the third day, she was taken to a nursing home with a bad cold. At evening visiting time, something prompted me to give her my Rosary which I always carried with me.

Early next morning, a nurse came to our house and said that my mother had died during the night as a result of double pneumonia.  The nurse handed me my Rosary, saying: 'I took these beads off your mother's neck'.

"Throughout my war days and throughout my life, in good days and bad, my Rosary has been an influence and an inspiration - so much so that I find it a source of strength and comfort simply to place my hand in my pocket and finger the Rosary; like taking one's mother's hand - something to hold onto".

(When Arthur died in 1977, the Rosary was entwined in his fingers. He had a peaceful death).

 

                    Embarkation Papers - just in time for his visit home.

Brothers Arthur and Louis Dickens circa 1920

(Thanks to Maureen for photograph)


"In December 1921, I was seconded for three months to a British Regiment, (South Lancs) stationed in Jerusalem. This enabled me to have a good look at the Holy Land, and among the historic places I visited, were:

The Mosque of Omar - the most beautiful building in Jerusalem.

The Wailing Wall, with its great courses of stone where the Jews, according to an ancient custom, wet the stones with their tears on the eve of their Sabbath and other festivals and filled the air with their lamentations bemoaning their departed kingdom and glory.

The Church of Our Father - so named because of the tablets round the church where this prayer is translated into 39 different languages.

The Church of the Nativity - the oldest church in the world,built on the site of the ruins of the old Inn where Christ was born. Queen Helena built the Basilica over this.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the large dome of which is said to cover the actual shrine of the tomb of Christ. Here I attended the midnight service on Christmas night. The basilica holds about 10 000 people. There was standing room only, with the usual concrete floors and here I rubbed shoulders with Jew, Syrian, Arab, American, Lebanese and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Outside, the carol singers were chanting 'Oh, come all ye faithful,' and other Christmas carols. The service was conducted by Greek Orthodox priests, so it was all Greek to me but a wonderful experience.

This should have been the end of the saga but in March 1921, on the eve of rejoining my regiment, I wondered what had happened to my nurse friend. A priest gave me a list of likely places and suggested a visit to the Carmelite Monastery at the top of the Mount of Olives.

One morning, some time later, I wandered through the Garden of Gethsemane, with its 1 000 year old olive trees, and made my way along one of the ancient paths to the summit of the Mount.

Interviewing the Mother Prioress at the Monastery, I asked if she had a sister whose name was Norah McCall. She replied that it was a very unusual request but that she would search the records. After a short time, she returned and said: 'She is here'.  Asked if I was a relation, I replied that I was nearly a very near relation!

When I spoke to her through the grille, she remembered me.She told me that during her three years at the convent, her mother and father had been converted and she was praying hard for her brothers and sisters.

This is not propaganda or sales talk, but it may be that Tennyson had known a thing or two when he said: 'More things are wrought by prayer, than this world dreams of'."

Reminiscences of my Mother:

"The first memory I have of my mother was at the turn of the Century in the West of Ireland, where she was born, careering around the countryside, up hill and down dale, without a care in the world, on a Rudge Whitworth bicycle, which was all the rage.

She would mount this popular form of transport wearing a blouse, an ankle-length skirt and an outsized hat, which was perched on the top of her jet-black hair - for the beauties of the West had all the characteristics of the Spaniards who settled there in 400 B.C. and left their mark.

Some may remember the old rhyme,

"Ireland was Ireland when England was a pup
Ireland will be Ireland when England's beggared up". 

(Oh Pa!  I am writing up this family history where everything is 50-50 ... most of our family is 50% English and 50% Irish ....if I'm going to get it in the neck, at least I'll still have half a neck...after saying a thing like that!)

"It was an age of blouses, skirts and costumes. I remember my mother, early in 1916, in such an outfit on the eve of my embarking for the East. Returning in 1919, I found her still in the same costume. There was no crimplene then - clothes were meant to last - and did!  Ordinary blouses would cost about R1 but the frilly, lacy, ornate ones which my mother loved would cost as much as R8.  (Funny thing, I have a sister who has exactly the same penchant - Felicity)

Skirts were long and trailed the ground - on a wet day, the lady would gather up her skirts gracefully, clear of the mud and the wet. All my mother's actions were graceful, dignified, stately. She was a lady; she wanted to look like a lady. And she did.

 

                      May Agnes Thomsett Dickens (1876-1920)

There were no hairdressers, except for the idle rich. My mother 'did' her own hair - she spent time on hair, not money. Her hair was high on the head or low on the neck in a bun. The Eton Crops, the bingles, shingles and waves had not yet come in.

I can recall her dressing her long hair, which reached below her waist; the combing, the brushing, the inumerable hairpins - as many on the floor as in the hair,until some bright spark invented the hairpin with a wriggle in it and made a fortune.

At night, in front of the fire, she would wash and dry it - there was ceremony with curlers, curling irons and lots of clips. The back hair was plaited into a pigtail.

She spent little time on cosmetics - no woman 'put on a face' in public. She used little makeup. She did not change from blonde to brunette; she did not do dye.

She stuck to her own colour and, for her teeth, she used soot out of the grate to clean them and seldom used soap other than Pears.

My mother was a wonderful cook - as ladies without servants had to be. For anything special that she prepared, we had a gag: 'Mrs Beaton beaten.'

In Ireland, we enjoyed the traditional potatoes in jackets, cabbage and a chunk of boiled bacon The bacon came from Limerick where my mother was born.

In England, she would frequently settle for the proverbial roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I remember a young boy, about ten years of age, who spoke for the first time in his life, to say: 'Puddin' rotten'.

His mother, delighted to hear him speak, passed up the criticism of her famous Yorkshire pudding and rushed to call the neighbours. One man asked the boy why he had never spoke before and he replied: 'Puddin' alright'.

Which reminds me... I must get a packet of Pollyfilla - there are a lot of dents in the dining room wall caused by some of my chance remarks of 'not the way my mother did it'!"

St Bartholomew to the Rescue

(This was written way back in 1974, when, presumably, the Springboks were not in very good form!)

Johan Claassen, coach and convenor, is partly right when he attributes the Springboks' poor showing to a lack of international competition, lack of experienced players and being up against the greatest teams in the world.

Other factors are lack of imagination, leadership and not having a Van der Merwe in the side. Some time ago, a Van der Merwe captained a victorious cricket Springbok side ... are there none left to inspire our rugby Springboks?

(We're doing just fine now, Dad!  We have Morné Steyn - what a boot! It is now August 2009 and last month the Boks beat the All Blacks twice in a row; the latter game won by 31 points;  all of them contributed by this Steyn fellow. A single try and the rest in penalties. What a thrill! He beat N.Z. single handed ... or should I say single-footed?)

The time is opportune to tell a story about Van der Merwe, one of the greatest rugby internationals. In his life-time, he was also a great surgeon and, in the fullness of time, he arrived at the Pearly Gates.

The Keeper welcomed him and said, "Ah, the Professor! The late Prof. van der Merwe - we know all about your wonderful service to mankind and your prowess on the rugby field. Tell me, is there any small indiscretion that may have worried you and which we may have overlooked?"

"Funny you should ask that", replied the Professor, "there is one little thing that has been on my mind for many years. It was like this .....

"As a youngster, I played rugby at wing three-quarters, gained my Springbok colours and played in 20 tests. As you know, it is hard to get into a Springbok side, but even harder to get out.

"After a time, I left Johannesburg to become a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London.

"It was not long before I was snapped up for the First Team and had the honour of playing in the final of the Hospital Cup against Guys. It was a needle match and the score was nine points all when we reached injury time. There was a scrum in their 25 yard line - a quick heel and the scrum sent out a beautiful pass to his fly-half who broke, drew a tackler and whipped the ball out to one of the centres.

"As the cover defence came across, he slipped a pass to me and I went full speed for the corner. I was grassed by the opposing full-back inches from the line and it was then that I showed my imagination.

"As the referee came racing up, I inched the ball over the try line and the try was allowed. The conversion didn't matter. Bart's had won the cup.

"I have never told the truth and it is a load off my mind. I am deeply ashamed and I hope it will not count against me," said the Professor

The Keeper of the Pearly Gates gave a kindly smile and said, "I do not think it was such a terrible crime, done as it was in the heat of the moment. Come right inside."

"Oh, thank you, St, Peter," he said.

"No, no!  Not St Peter," came the reply: "It's St. Peter's day off today. I am St. Bartholomew and I am very glad we won the cup that day."

On the sporting field, Arthur was a canny player. Playing hockey for his Province; running full speed down the length of the field, carefully balancing the ball on the edge of his hockey stick to score magnificently on a number of occasions, Mum was so annoyed because the Captain of the opposing side approached him at half-time and told him it was not fair for him to do that all the time; it didn't give the other chaps a chance and he had better stop!

He also played tennis for his Province - as did his son Anthony. Anthony was an excellent player himself and when Dad requested a match when he was about 73, we all felt sorry for Pa. We knew he would be annihilated. But we were wrong. Dad beat Tony - not because he was better but because he was more wiley and was able to 'cut' the ball so sneakily that it would bounce on the correct side of the net and then bounce right back over to the other side again. He would win at all costs. Tony was to follow in his footsteps; playing golf to a 6 handicap and now, at almost 75, Tony is still a prize-winning lawn bowler. We used to play tennis together in our young days; he would always beat me because he had more physical strength and he was a really good player. But he laughed when I became the town's singles winner - not because I was that good but my opponent - a well known champ - complained that no matter what she did, I always returned the ball no matter how, and it drove her mad and caused her to slam it all over the place thereby making me the winner.

 

Arthur -  Transvaal Hockey 1922 - Front Row, Right

                                     ...and his son Anthony Charles (below left)

In 1922, Charles (50) married Mabyn Robertson (28) a highly accomplished Albert Hall concert pianist. There is a slight parallel here, in that Charles' father, John Dickens, had also lost his first wife at age 50 and then married Annie Robinson aged 32. They liked 'em young which is not very surprising, since it was said that Charles, like most of the menfolk of the family, was still very fit and able to do cartwheels and handsprings. (Very important for a successful marriage!)


            Charles Henry Dickens' marriage to Mabyn Robertson - 1922

In 1973, I won a trip to Paris for writing a limerick and went to England to
meet Mabyn. (The first time I had left South African shores). We hit it off immediately, even if she did ask me to go and visit Gordon (Charles' friend) at his shop in Aylsham whilst she completed her piano lesson. Gordon told me Charlie had been a frequent visitor to his shop and even showed me the hiding place of the bottle he kept under the counter for when Charlie popped in. In our chat, I did a sort of soft-shoe tap routine, which Dad had been wont to do, and poor old Gordy nearly fell off his chair: 'That's Charlie!' he gasped, 'that's exactly what Charlie used to do."

On another occasion, in the 1980's when my late and dearly departed Leslie and I visited Mabyn, we had a lovely afternoon chatting but when we were about to take our leave, she took Les aside and  told him to keep a firm hold on me. She didn't know that I heard her say that, but I did.

Finally, Arthur, our Dad,  was an extremely gifted artist; he did numerous sketches; pencil and charcoal being his chosen mediums. This one, a copy of Roberto Feruzi's Madonna and Child he did in his mid 70's. He used only pencils and a clean handkerchief and was known to sit at his desk sketching hour after hour. I have the picture hanging in my living room.

This sketch which has been in various family members' homes (my own for the past ten years) has drawn wide acclaim; particularly the eyes of the Madonna. An astonishing piece of work by Dad; but with all original credit going to Roberto Feruzi himself. I think he would have approved. Mabyn lived a long life; outliving Charles by many years. She was born in 1894 and died in 1991 at a grand old age.


 

Dickens-Crumplin



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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