Friday, 3 February 2012

Marriage and Return to India

During the long leave period which fell between 1931/1932 my father courted and married my mother. He was able to give her all his attention, at least for the period of several months that was the duration of his leave period, and they were very happy. Had he been able to continue to devote himself to his wife all would have been well, but once leave ended, the army, and the life in India, claimed him. The shy and retiring, Mary was unsophisticated, having had a sheltered life. She soon began to find that married life was not the bed of roses she had imagined it would be. Perhaps she thought it would be an escape from a dominant father? What my mother had yet to discover was that for my father a commitment to life in the army was a powerful influence. When she discovered this she also found that it was going to be impossible to change him. Looking back over the events of this history it is possible to see that my father’s instincts were geared to his future. He had learned to become a survivor, and it would be a long time before he would be able to put the welfare of others before his own.
In appearance my parents looked an ideal couple. Mother was now almost twenty years of age, and she was physically attractive, a presentable young lady. She was medium height, which made her about as tall as her husband, and she was fair with grey/green eyes. They looked a well matched couple, but appearances are one thing, temperament another, and in this respect they were as different as two people could possibly be.
Mary had her mother’s colouring and her gentle nature; a further influence on her nature was the effect of an upbringing that was both strict and religious. Her life had been a sheltered one, and the religious influence had been strong. This was inevitable when you consider the dominant character of her father. He had strong views on all things, and knew only too well how dangerous life could be. He knew about temptation, vice, and corruption and he had been determined to protect his family from such things. In other words he had the typical Victorian view on life, and times might change but he certainly had no intention of doing so himself. Many of the old values are good ones, and there is no doubt that my grandfather's intentions were good. But with the advantage of hindsight it can be seen that his rigid and sometimes harsh views and methods did more harm than good. It could almost be said that most of the problems and tragedies in his children's lives, and they were many indeed, stemmed from the effects of the life they led under his domination.
Like many girls brought up in such circumstances Mary was shy, ignorant of the ways of the world, and mostly unprepared for the responsibilities that marriage would thrust on her. She lacked confidence and just about all forms of education; at this period in time it was still considered unnecessary to educate women. The life she was soon to embark on was going to be completely outside her experience, and she was ill equipped and totally unprepared to deal with it. In addition it is easy to imagine just what effect another strong male personality was likely to have on her. To be fair to my father it must be said that a man in his position needed a strong wife, one that could adjust and fit in to the ever changing circumstances she would find in the military. In retrospect it is easy to recognise that Mary Jones did not have the right qualities to meet this challenge, and inevitably her life was not going to be a happy one.
All newly married couples have varying degree of friction in their lives, and looking at it from that perspective the troubles that my parents had did not seem unusual. What does seem apparent however is that they did not really know each other very well, and the march of events did not allow them enough time to find out what a life together was going to be like? The pressures and changes that were to make them unhappy did not manifest themselves immediately, their first few months together may have seemed a massive change to Mary, but at least she was still in her home town environment, and she had the comfort of having her parents and other relatives around her.
I imagine that my affinity with my mother, the similarities in personality, allow me to understand her feelings, and write accordingly. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible for me to understand why my mother was so unhappy in the early years of her marriage. To a lesser degree I can also recognise the problems that my father would have had dealing with married life, and the difficulties created by my mother’s sensitive nature. Sheltering children too much is not helping them at all, just as too little protection and care can be harmful. It is ironic to think that my father had almost no care in his early life, whereas my mother had too much.
My mother had a soft heart, and tender feelings; such a person finds many of life's normal every day events difficult to deal with, and sometimes they appear insurmountable. Not the least of the difficulties that confronted her was the question of sexual relations. For her generation the subject of sex was always ignored, never spoken about a subject never raised, especially between men and women. In later years my mother made enough comments to indicate that for her sex had been an unhappy experience. I can well imagine that when the period of leave ended and her somewhat demanding husband was about to depart for India, she would have probably felt nothing but an overwhelming sense of relief. Eventually she was to have three children, but to the day she died, she never allowed her husband to see her undressing, or to see her naked. It was a family joke that my father never saw his wife in the bath, and never had the pleasure of washing her back.
Married life had hardly begun when it came to an abrupt halt, and my mother was able to return to the comfort and protection of her parent’s home at Fenton. My father was the tough one, the strong one, but even for him it must have come as quite a wrench when eventually his leave came to an end and he had to go through the metamorphosis of once again becoming ' Chota Bishop' a pukka sahib. Of course he had known that he would be unable to take his wife with him to India immediately. Such matters always took considerable time, and in this maybe the army showed some wisdom.
While Mary returned home, her husband presented himself to the regimental depot at Whittington Barracks. This return to army life may have been hard but it would not have been anywhere near as difficult as his first experience some ten years before. Now he had some service in, he was no green recruit but a soldier with some seniority and authority, and this must have made returning to army discipline easier to bear. After a delay of some weeks awaiting the next sailing date for his passage to India, eventually a time of departure fell due and after a short week-end leave to say farewell to his new wife, my father caught the train to Liverpool. There could not have been a worse moment for the malaria in his system to strike, but that is what happened. He had been feeling ill for a couple of days and under any other circumstances would have remained in bed and taken advantage of some medical treatment. There was no option, or so it seemed, he simply had to travel. - This was an army that put a man on a charge for falling out without permission if he fainted whilst on parade. - The army regulations make little allowance for illness, and after a very long leave Dad realized that to fail to present him for departure would not be viewed without very much sympathy at all. On the train his condition worsened and by the time he reached the ship he had to be assisted aboard in a high fever and in a semi-delirious state.
Many of the ships sailing for India carried a large contingent of military personnel at this time, usually an officer and a senior NCO were put in charge of all things military on a particular voyage, on this occasion the senior NCO to whom this duty fell was my father. In a situation such as this there is no room for excuses, the fact that my father was very ill did not seem to carry any weight at all. For most this passage of some six weeks or more was a time of relaxation and pleasure; the degree of both being directly linked to ones rank, in particular officers usually had a very enjoyable and socially active life aboard ship. Officers put in charge of a draft did not expect this duty to bring any work or inconvenience. An officer and a gentleman did not expect to dirty his hands, he had a chain of command at his convenience and in accordance with tradition, and it was the NCOs that did the work. It is none commissioned officers that run an army; this is their lot in life.
If the officer in charge on this occasion had been a decent sort he would have probably taken care of what was a distressing situation for my father, but as it turned out he was anything but a decent type. Even in the 1930's some of the old traditions still prevailed in the British Army. An officer was also automatically considered a gentleman, and as I have said, such people did not expect to be bothered with the routine and mundane affairs of military life. After all a gentleman did not take a commission in His Majesty's Armed Forces as a means of employment, that was not the idea at all. Such attitudes were largely traditional, and though they were changing slowly many of them still exist to this day.
Life in general is never fair, and life in the army is even less so. Some who had a position of authority took advantage of their position, and fairness and decency were not on their agenda. Under normal circumstances most of us would not accept such a state of affairs, but this was the army, and the golden rule was and still is that no matter what treatment you receive, complaint and protest are not an option. How ironic it is that we, the English, pride ourselves on our adherence to the highest virtues, and the most important one of all of them is fair play. My recollection of my father’s experience, when he was suffering from a serious bout of malaria, makes my blood boil. Dare I say it! The English are the most misled and deceived race on the face of this planet. How brain washed we have been, and still are, we grow up in a constant atmosphere of - England, our Jerusalem --- Built in England's green and pleasant land.' --- ‘Britons never shall be slaves. ---- ‘play up Play up and play the game.' - We fight, we sacrifice, we carry a greater burden than any other people would accept, and for what? At the end of the day nothing ever changes; the privileged few continue to have all the advantages, and we should acknowledge the fact that we are indeed deceived. There are others worse off you might say, but is that any reason to accept the unacceptable?
It is with a sense of relief that I express my feelings and thoughts on these pages. So much of what I have felt over the years has remained hidden away, things that one did not want to recognise, or admit. It is never easy to accept the unpalatable, and wishing something was not so does not make it go away. In the end the truth though unpalatable must be confronted. If I write of things that do not meet with approval, I hope the reader will accept this as a difference of opinion, and to accept that to discover another aspect of a thing is to add to one’s own perspective and understanding. It is not my nature to 'Hold the candle to the Devil', and yet that is what I have done for much of my life; which is why I now feel such a sense of liberation in being able to voice my feelings. To me, what happened to my father on this voyage back to India was a despicable injustice, and I must describe it accordingly. .
Following the thread of this story I am tempted to describe how my father must have felt about the events described, and if I give in to this temptation I must remind the reader again that the memories I describe and not even mine. I believe that for my father the voyage back to India was mostly a blur of fever and pain, and he confessed to me that he could recall very little about it. But it is certain that the voyage of six weeks was a period of utter misery for him; an experience that left him with one of a very few bitter memories of his time in the army.
It was typical of life in the British Army that officers, NCOs, and other ranks all lived lives that were completely segregated, apart from the occasions when the needs of duty called all ranks together. On board ship it was usual for the different groups not to see much of each other, though it has to be said that there were some officers who showed a little decency and common humanity by attending to the needs of their men. The occasion of my father’s illness was not one of those times. Apparently it came to the attention of the officer in charge that duties were not being attended to. He did not know why, and I imagine he never considered it of any importance to find out. To him the only thing that mattered was that the tranquillity and trouble free existence that he was enjoying had been disturbed. The cause of this irritation was some apparently incompetent NCO, and once the opportunity presented itself this backslider would be punished for his dereliction of duty. On arrival in India the matter was duly placed in the hands of my father’s regiment, but here he was known and his true character was recognised. The charges against him were dropped, though army justice would not have resulted in the officer being charged and punished for his dereliction of duty.
I suppose it is understandable that officers must always been seen as being without fault. In my short time in the army, some 25 years later, I can recall an officer who was without doubt extremely unstable, to the point where his actions would have been judged insane by any one qualified to judge. I can remember watching a company inspection being made by this officer, during which he ordered a man to hold out his hands for examination. Seeing dirty finger nails, he screamed out his discovery, and the unfortunate soldier had to stand at attention while this mad individual chewed his fingers. On this occasion the army had the officer subjected to a mental examination, and the joke that did the rounds at the time, was that we were the only regiment in the British Army that had an officer who could produce a certificate confirming that he was sane.
Having tied ones future to a life in the army there was little prospect of changing it at this point, and the only sensible thing that my father could do was to make the best of it, and accept that sometimes life could be unfair. Maybe such a life did generate a feeling of loyalty, maybe the inherent qualities in his character were responsible, but whatever the reasons his decision was to soldier on. I must also add that he has always defended the army way of life and insisted that he has no regrets in the choice that he made. He was always quick to point out the advantages and the beneficial aspects of such a life, and he appeared to take the injustices in his stride. It was this attitude which enabled him to be philosophical about the situation that arose during the voyage to India. Under normal circumstance the inequalities of army life would not have been an issue, but the fact remains that the situation had not been normal. My father’s malaria had been a serious illness, and the fact that he was shown no sympathy or understanding was an occurrence that he never forgot. At the time malaria was the scourge of India, and once you had it, bouts of fever could reappear at any time, and many times they did over the years. In time the severity of these attacks declined until finally they ceased entirely.
I don't suppose many people have heard of Secunderabad, the garrison town to which my father was returning. Nor would it be generally known that it was there that Sir Ronald Ross carried out research which identified the source and the cause of malaria. Central India was the logical place for such research as it was rife with the disease, which of course was why my father had contracted it there. Malaria can be a killer, some strains producing a fever so severe that death from the resulting exhaustion is the inevitable outcome. Once the infection has established itself it is very difficult to eliminate, even with the assistance of modern drugs.
In the 1930's there were few drugs with which to treat malaria, though it had been discovered that quinine was of great value in helping to suppress it, or at least the symptoms. When Dad became ill on the way to Liverpool there had been no immediate help, and he was much too stubborn to put his own health before his duty to the regiment. The sensible thing to have done would have been to return home or at least to the barracks at Whittington, but then in a soldiers life 'Duty' was the God that ruled. Duty for some is a disease more powerful than malaria could ever be. So had my father died in his little cabin on that ship sailing to India, one might have said that it was the disease called duty that killed him more surely than did the Malaria.

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