Denise – Losing a loved one

“It’s very sad, but at the same time, to work together, then you fight together and then you die together, there is something poetic about that”.

When Denise started writing a story set in World War I, she couldn’t have anticipated where the journey would take her. There was something intriguing about that particular war that really resonated with her. She then discovered two great cousins and a great uncle had died in World War I. “It was almost like fate or an omen and it made the story more profoundly powerful and personal”. The protagonist in Denise’s novel is killed on the Somme; in real life, one of her great cousins, Clifton, was injured in the Battle of Pozieres in July 1916 and sadly died from his injuries. Clifton’s younger brother Hamilton was 18 at the time of his brother’s death. Two years later the same fate befell on the family, as Hamilton was reported Missing In Action after the Battle of Soissons; his body was never located. When Denise conducted further research, she discovered there was a war memorial in Apsley. It commemorated those who had worked at John Dickinson’s and had died in the war, including her family members. She located the memorial hidden behind the undergrowth on the Paper Trail Trust site and visited it one night, by herself. “I felt scared.. but I thought I am with all these men, with all these brave souls. I didn’t feel alone.”

Shining a light on those who were previously hidden in the darkness.

Not one to forgo a challenge, Denise felt she couldn’t leave the war memorial garden in its neglected condition, so she enlisted numerous volunteers and solicited generous donations of materials from local companies to enable her to restore and landscape the garden around the war memorial. “We had giggles and laughter and blood and sweat and bruises!” Even her mother, who is in her 70’s, helped by bringing sandwiches and drinks for the volunteers. The transformation in 19 days was astonishing and the design has been carefully thought through; a gravel path, a small stone bench and some wonderful small metal sculptures that represent the army, the navy, the air force and the paper mill workers. At night the memorial, and the names of the deceased, are lit up, shining a light on those who were previously hidden in the darkness.

The doctors said when he turned 16, they would be able to give him a new heart.

Denise has more in common with some of the soldiers that survived, and the families whose children died, than I first realised. At the age of five, her older brother, Carl, was diagnosed with a narrow aorta. It was the late 1960’s so initially there wasn’t the technology to perform any surgery that would help. When Carl was around 12, he had an operation to open up his aorta, which gave him more oxygen. “Once he had the operation he shot up, he got taller and could do a lot more things, he had the energy”. As his heart was so stressed, the doctors said when he turned 16, they would be able to give him a new heart. Weeks before his 16th birthday in December, he died. Denise was 14 at the time.

It was an extremely difficult period in her life, “so profoundly painful”. People around her, especially her parents friends, said she should be strong for her mum and dad,. “I felt I couldn’t mourn in front of my parents”. Her only place of solace was her bedroom. “If my mum came in, I would be begrudging her, as it was my isolated domain, that was my time to grieve. I would be wiping away my tears.. I didn’t know how to handle it really”. She could talk to Carl’s friends, and they were supportive, but when they came to the house she felt it was to see how her parents were coping, rather than how she was. She felt her parents grief was overshadowing her own grief.

“I think, is that what they really thought of me?”

She admits that she went off the rails, “I was a horrible teenager, not very nice”. She found her old school reports from the year before, and the year after, Carl’s death. The year before his death, her reports described how well she was progressing, noting how she was focused and keen to learn. The year after Carl’s death, her school reports describe how she was not learning and was being disruptive. In those days there wasn’t the counselling that is available now or the understanding of a student’s behaviour due to their circumstances. She sounds slightly bitter when she thinks of those reports, as it showed the lack of empathy from her teachers. “I think, is that what they really thought of me?”  She wonders how different her life would have been if her brother hadn’t died. “It took a lot out of me, psychologically scarred me”. To make up for her lost education, she went back to night school in her late twenties and studied for her English and Maths GCSE’s. She then went on to obtain a degree in Molecular Biology.

It took her twenty years to seek professional counselling. She felt that for the best part of that time she had lost so much of herself. “I needed to close one door..not on my brother. I closed the door on the pain and the confusion”. Like some soldiers who have lost friends in battle, there was also an element of Survivor Syndrome. “You start saying to yourself ‘You were so much brighter, why did you go?’ .. It’s almost like you feel guilty for living”.

“You could I say I am living for my brother, for them (the fallen soldiers), but I am living for myself ultimately.”

She now feels she is catching up on her missed opportunities. “You could I say I am living for my brother, for them (the fallen soldiers), but I am living for myself ultimately.” She recently walked the Three Peaks Challenge, over six days. She tells me this as if I shouldn’t be too impressed, because it wasn’t in the prescribed twenty four hours that climbers normally aim for. I am still impressed. She still walked up (and down) each highest peak in Scotland, England and Wales. And the first two peaks she went to alone. She initially embarked on the challenge to get herself both mentally and physically fit, as she would like to attempt Everest Base Camp. However she decided to do the challenge as a fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation, in memory of Carl. In May she participated in Women V Cancer – Ride the Night, a 62 mile bike ride. The other catalyst for Denise’s change in lifestyle was seeing her parents grow older and suffering from heart disease and diabetes through lifestyle choices. Sometimes parents become our role models in terms of what not to do.

Denise is still writing her WWI novel and I am keen to read it when she has finished. She understands the emotion of losing a loved one in the prime of their life, and a community who are unable to understand the pain that those who are left behind, are going through.

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Eve – Life in the 50’s

85 year old Eve once performed the Can Can at Claridges, for the launch of the comic Swift. “I can still high kick,” she says. I watch amazed as she demonstrates in her living room, with a perfect pointed toe. It was 1954, in the days when job descriptions for women were quite fluid. The bosses at Hulton Press on Fleet Street were looking for female staff who were “fairly tall and slim”. Her and four other work colleagues were deemed to fit the bill, so they downed tools and were sent by taxi to a dance studio near Piccadilly to learn the Can Can. They were fitted out with dresses, petticoats and frilly knickers from the west-end theatre costumier Berman’s. Each pair of knickers had one letter sewn on the back, for the final climax of the dance, when they turned around and bent over to reveal the word SWIFT. “It was great fun!” recalls Eve. She was actually a Lettering Artist on Fleet Street, in the days before computers revolutionised the industry. She would be given the final comic strip drawings the artists had sketched and had to fit the script in to the speech bubbles.

Eve has numerous strings to her bow and her creativity is the thread that pulls everything together. When I visit her at her home in Boxmoor, her living room is littered with all of her work – lace she has made, pictures she has painted, a photo of one of the many wedding dress she created, patchwork cushions, knitted hats and silhouettes of fashion designs she has sketched for talks she gives about fashion and costume. Keen on art, “I always loved drawing, even as a little girl”, she left school at 13, when she won a scholarship to the Watford School of Art and Music. “We did millinery in the morning and dress making and drawing in the afternoon”. At the age of 16 she attended an interview for a job in the art studio at John Dickinson’s in Apsley. “Mother came with me (to the interview) as one did in those didn’t go on your own”. Although she landed the job, when she first started, the lady she was meant to replace decided to stay on a bit longer, so Eve was given administration work in the office for a short time. She was told to do some typing. I guess at the time the feeling was that as she was female, surely typing was in her genes. “I said ‘I can’t type’. ‘Never mind, you’ll learn’ and they gave me an old typewriter”. She also had to answer the telephone, but was clueless as to what to do; she didn’t have a telephone at home. “I pretended I didn’t hear it!”.

At home her toilet was down at the end of the garden. “We use to call it the Thunderbox”.

It was also the days before soft kleenex toilet paper and inside toilets, so she was delighted that John Dickinson’s had an inside washroom. At home her toilet was down at the end of the garden. “We use to call it the Thunderbox”. Curious I google the term Thunderbox and I find out its a slang term for an outside toilet, so called because if you fart in the small box that the outside toilet was, it sounds like thunder. One of Eve’s chores at home was to tear up newspaper in to squares and put string through it, so the paper would hang up like a toilet roll. Apparently though the best toilet paper was tissue paper and when you bought fruit from the grocers this was what it came wrapped in. Eve and her mum would keep the tissue paper for themselves as a special treat, whilst the rest of the family and lodgers had to do with the newspaper.

John Dickinson’s was where she met her husband Peter, at one of the many departmental dances. “He asked me for a dance, I wasn’t too sure,” she chuckles. Luckily she accepted and they have now been married for 61 years. You can see they still have a real affection and admiration for each other. Peter proudly shows me a watercolour Eve painted of The Railway Hotel (now The Mallard) where they held their wedding reception all those years ago.

Geoffrey was thrown the other way in to the traffic. It is the nightmare that all parents dread.

Eve and Peter had three children – a girl and two boys. Tragically their eldest son, Geoffrey, died in a motorcycle accident, just before Christmas 1979. “Christmas will never been the same for us because we always think of Geoffrey”. It was a stormy, windy Saturday night and Geoffrey was taking a friend back to his house to get something he had forgotten. Geoffrey lost balance and both boys came off the bike. His friend was thrown on to the grass verge, but Geoffrey was thrown the other way in to the traffic. It is the nightmare that all parents dread. “They came and told us at 4 o’clock in the morning, on Sunday morning, and it was three days before his birthday. He would have been 18… He was a lovely lad”, she sighs heavily.

One of the things that clearly angers Eve about her son’s death, was other people’s reaction to her. “It’s awful because people ignore you, they cross the road, they don’t want to talk to you..they don’t even say anything, and that hurts, so I’ve got use to that bit”. Eve found relief talking to others whose loved ones had died suddenly. She shows me a school photo of a smiling Geoffrey. He didn’t normally like having his photo taken, “he would put his tongue out or turn around,” so she treasures this photo. “He had beautiful brown eyes and black hair”.

Eve comes across as a strong woman in many ways. She didn’t give up on her creative desires in an age where women were obviously sidelined. She studied for a City and Guilds in Fashion and Drawing as a mature student, when her youngest son, Stephen, started school aged five. Familiar to many mothers at home looking after little ones, and at a time when there was not the availability of childcare facilities most people take for granted now, she felt that “now I want to be me”. As part of her course work she was given the designer Thea Porter to research. Porter was credited with bringing the kaftan to the London catwalks and dressed stars such as Elizabeth Taylor. Knowing nothing about Porter at the time she started investigating. She found out Porter operated from a small shop in Soho, next door to a sex shop. “I didn’t dare wander up and down looking for the place as they might think I was on the game!” However she summoned up the courage and found the shop. Porter was in Paris at the time but the staff were happy to show Eve around the shop and the workshop downstairs where the clothes were being made. “The shop was like an Aladdin’s Cave. The fabric, good lord, was absolutely out of this world”. In the workshop she was stepping over pieces of discarded fabric strewn all over the place. She grabbed as much as she could off the floor to use as illustrations for her course work. She shows me the portfolio she made, with all her drawings, fabric designs and black and white photos of Barbara Streisand dressed in Thea Porter for the film A Star is Born. Eve also made a dress in the Thea Porter style, which she shows me. It is exquisite.

Eve would love to find a photo of that night in 1954.

I can’t even start to do justice to Eve’s story with this short piece, but she has started writing her memoirs. Although she is already a published author with a number of books that document the local area, at the moment her memoirs are “just for family and friends who want it”. Her publishers are keen for her to publish them but I will leave it up to Eve to decide whether she fills in all the many gaps for a broader audience. For her memoirs she would also love to obtain a photograph of herself and her friends dancing the Can Can at Claridges. I did to try to track one down, but Hulton Press has been sold quite a few times and is now owned by Time Inc. They couldn’t help me and suggested I contact Getty Images, who own a lot of their archival photos, but no luck there. So if anyone is a better investigator than I am, Eve would love to find a photo of that night in 1954.

RAW’s publishes a new interview every Friday. To keep up to date with RAW’s interview’s, click follow at the top of the page and you will be notified each time a new one is released.