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Christopher's Story Part 2

In this photo, Christopher is in the 2nd row from the bottom, and is 2nd from the right.

In the second photo he is in the second row, on the far right
In the third, back row, far right, already showing the proud posture that would stand him in good stead as a soldier.

Fourth, in his early teens, taken in the mid 1930's

At 17 (1938)

I am curled up very comfortably, in a wing backed reclining armchair and waking up from a delicious afternoon nap. My eyes register movement from outside the window. The branches of the Magnolia tree, heavy with luminous pink blossom, are nodding in the afternoon breeze. The clock ticks away seconds and minutes, a comforting sound when there is no rush to do anything in particular.

It is Mother's Day, in May of 2009 in North America, but my mind is drifting back, far back across 8 decades to the 1920's, 30's and early 40's and to England, the place of my birth. It is time to pick up Christopher's story where we left him two weeks ago, with his mother Lucy, a virtual stranger to him when his Auntie Agnes took him from Birmingham to live with her, in a farm cottage in Wassell Grove.

Christopher's life changed in a moment at 4 years old. Up until then, he had known only the close knit community of the back streets of Hockley in Birmingham, with uncles, aunts and grandparents. Now it was time for Lucy to care for him.

Lucy could not even care for herself. She had been thrown out of her home in disgrace when she became pregnant and given up her baby to her parents to care for so that she could work in a sanatorium for T.B. patients in order to survive. She had married a much older man, who was now widowed, and at 21 she was destitute and scratching out a meagre living working for the village rector.

Lucy had a streak of cruelty running in her veins. She insisted on calling Christopher "Leslie," his middle name, even though he disliked it. It was the name of the man his Auntie Agnes told him was his father (Leslie Holland, a jeweller in Birmingham,) although Lucy steadfastly to her death refused to tell him who his father was, never confirming it.

They were so hungry that Christopher pulled carrots from the farmer's field to eat, even though there was a good chance of getting caught by the local policeman.

Soon Christopher and Lucy moved from the cottage into Hagley, and the schoolhouse in Hall Gardens. It was there that Lucy met and married another older man: Peter Thornburgh, one of the most feared men in nearby Stourbridge. Options were few for a woman in her situation. Violence became a familiar pattern, and beatings for both her and Christopher. She had three children with Peter: Patricia, Sidney and Frank.

Peter kept pidgeons and would sit on his doorstep with a timer, waiting for them to come back. If they landed by mistake on a neighbour's roof, he would shoot them off.

One day Lucy sent Christopher to look for Peter in the hide when he was out hunting and when he called for him, he was terrified when pellets whistled over his head.

Peter used to put a net over the holes leading from rabbit warrens, and send his dog down, to chase rabbits into the net. He shot his own dog with a 12 bore shot gun because it came out with nothing.

He once showed Christopher a ferret in a cage, and encouraged him to touch it, saying that it was lovely and cuddly. When it bit right through Christopher's finger, Peter laughed and said, "You won't do that again, will you?"

Childhood was a time of poverty, fear and cruelty for Christopher, who was a sensitive child with a love of music, singing and art. He sang in the church choir, and loved poetry and literature. At the same time he had a deep sense of inferiority and shame; a message communicated since birth, and which never left him.

As soon as possible, Christopher left home for Smethwick/Oldbury on the outskirts of Birmingham, where he apprenticed as a glassblower. He was sent north to Lancashire with a young friend for more training.

The second great war of the century had begun in Europe and Britain had declare war on Germany in 1939, but glass blowers were a "reserved occupation."

(To explain: From Wikipedia)
"A reserved occupation (also known as essential services) is an occupation considered important enough to a country that those serving in such occupations are exempt - in fact forbidden - from military service."

"World War II in the UK, in 1938, a Schedule of Reserved Occupations had been drawn up, exempting certain key skilled workers from conscription. This was as a result of the problems from World War I, when too many skilled workers were allowed to enlist, thus creating serious problems in certain key industries. The reserved (or scheduled) occupation scheme was a complicated one, covering five million men in a vast range of jobs."

Lancashire, however, was traditionally a big recruitment area for the Brigade of Guards, and eventually, Christopher did manage to enlist, in spite of being officially prohibited from doing so, on the 22nd of May, 1944.

The firm he worked for was very unhappy, at his enlisting, but did not stop him.

Chris was 23 and the next 8 years would have a profound affect on him, changing him forever...

Christopher's Story, Part 3, will continue in two weeks. Next week: Pieternella's Story, Part 2.


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