60s Teenage Angst 3 – Workplace

Little Town Blues – or why I became a science teacher.

Little Town, Essex. Real name – Stanford-le-Hope. Better named back then, Stanford-no-Hope. A just reminder that the ‘good old days,’ were actually, crap! The pictures of it look great, now! Put Stanford-le-Hope Fertilizers into your search engine and check out images. Not so pretty!

It felt like 400 souls (it’s actually much bigger) and an ammonia oxidation plant, with its own water tower, to defy the flatness of the North Thames mud. Little Town nestled on that mud, due south of Billericay and west of Foulness. Where was the swinging London, just 30 miles away? I think it was a figment of media imagination.

The ammonia was purchased from the Shell Haber Process, a few miles upriver, oxidised in Little Town, on a platinum catalyst to form nitrogen oxide, washed with water and sold as nitric acid to the fertiliser plant in Barking, just behind the Crooked Billet, which itself nestled under the towers of a Lead Chamber Sulphuric Acid plant. Presumably, the Crooked Billet had an alkaline front door, acidic back and the ridge tiles might have been neutral.

I had been promised, during O-level chemistry lessons, that the Lead Chamber Process was of historical interest only, and there was one, spuming sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and occasionally oxidising a molecule to sulphuric acid.

The nitric acid from Little Town sometimes managed to react with more ammonia to make ammonium nitrate – a first world war explosive – and when damp, a modern-day fertilizer. Some ammonia was reacted with sulphuric acid to get ammonium sulphate, which is used to keep the worms off putting greens. It was nice to know I was making a difference.

But Barking was in the future. Back to Ammonia Oxidation.

The reactor was the size of a small car, hexagonal, with a hood and a pipe in and one out. Several dozen stainless steel nuts held the hood in place and tried to prevent the high-pressure gasses from escaping through the flange. It sat above the compressor, which was the size of a bus, and squeezed the air/ammonia mixture to about 30 bar. The gas mixture was blown over a platinum gauze catalyst and the exothermic reaction soon heated the gauze to around 1000oC. The flange was no match for these forces, and leaked, almost as soon as it had been reassembled with a new gasket and much straining, with long-armed ring spanners. The rule is, to tighten in a sequence that prevents distortion. No one did.

The idea was to get the gauze to a fine cherry red. The colour could be studied through a small window in the side of the reactor. The temperature was controlled by altering the ammonia/air ratio, of the gases entering, with a wheel, attached to a valve.

Harry, was the master of redness. One can’t easily measure high temperatures, so the operator had to learn which redness gave the optimum conversion. Harry had the redness! During his shifts, the efficiency of the reaction peaked. He tweaked the mixing wheel to perfection. He knew the red he was looking for and how to get it. I never spoke to Harry. Occasionally, he would by chance, look at me when I came in with an evacuated flask and took a sample of exit gas, to see if Harry had the mixture right. We sent our hourly figures to Harry, but he never looked at them and certainly never turned his wheel on our account.

The compressor made conversation impossible and anyone working on the reactor had to wear ear-protectors. So, Harry spent an eight-hour shift, in silence, communing with a red gauze catalyst, through a tiny window.

His wife, Sharon, was a typist. They copied handwritten notes from bosses, and made them presentable, using a typewriter. She wasn’t on shift work, so they didn’t meet that often. She went home for lunch and he stayed with his platinum gauze.

Frank, the tanker driver, I was told, parked his tanker, every lunchtime, outside Harry’s house, and went in.

Everyone mocked Harry. If the other process workers bumped into Harry, when he didn’t have his ear-protectors on, they would say to him, ‘Frank’s got it in for you.’

It’s a joke that is barely funny once, but after several months, only amuses the teller. Harry ignored it. I wondered why, until Alf, my boss told me to cut across to the typing pool and give Sharon a report to type up. Thus, I met Sharon, and learned why Harry communed with his gauze, rather than go home for lunch, which left me with the Frank-conundrum. What sort of bloke would park his tanker up daily and spend his valuable lunchtime, with Sharon? There must be libido limits.

One day, I went into Little Town at lunchtime to run an errand. I saw the tanker stop, and Frank more wobbled than climbed down, and with difficulty. There could be no doubt, Sharon had to go on top. Smart move, Harry.

Alf was the chief chemist, a post everyone assumed I aspired for. I knew the truth. I couldn’t do dire boredom, so Alf spent much time repeating my analysis. They were rarely in spec. There were two reasons for my poor performance. Firstly, I wasn’t that committed to standing under a 10m scrubber, spewing not-so-dilute nitric acid over me, while a wrestled with the corroded valve on the sampler tap, or injecting high pressure gas mixture into a pre-weighed evacuated flask, in a din, way above the pain threshold. I could do the ammonium nitrate water content. If one took too much water out it exploded. I was finally motivated even though our oven couldn’t dry it sufficiently. And then there was the Keljar test. I was clueless until I read the word. The man’s name was Keldahl. That didn’t worry the independent state of Essex. Pronunciation was as random as doing the football pools.

  Assuming I did get a decent sample, which was rare, I wasn’t very good at the analysis. Alf would pretend every day to repeat the test, but in fact entered the required value so the process didn’t have to be interrupted. Occasionally, Alf had a result so bad that he phoned across and warned the chief engineer that he would have to consider a shut down. That was a big deal and the process took several days to restart, so the chief engineer would tell Alf to keep repeating the analysis until he got it right. On such occasions, Harry wasn’t in the control room. Harry had the redness.

One day, as the Thames mist settled across the mudflats, obscuring the top of the water tower, I was told that Legionnaire’s is a bacterium that grows in warm stagnant water and it was some time since we tested.

‘But the water in the tower is about 8 oC and not stagnant,’ I protested, but was told, that was the moment we needed a Legionnaire’s test on the holding tank. I wrapped up warm and began the 100 or so steps to the top of the tower. Already at the base I was aware of a strange noise from somewhere unidentifiable.  I think I had reached around step number 70, when I connected the noise at the tower bottom with the awful wailing noise from above. Macbeth’s witches couldn’t have been more convincing, in the mist. Show no fear, is the Essex mantra, so it was onwards and upwards, but by then the penny had dropped and I had identified the noise. It was Jock on the top landing, struggling to get a scale out of a trombone. Jock and his trombone were legendary. He wasn’t expecting a visitor to come out the mist, any more than I was expecting a novice trombone player on the top landing. Jock jumped out of his skin and dropped his instrument, denting it and then called me all the daft effing Sassenach bastards, ever to crawl across the Essex mud flats.

Why are you up here, Jock?’ I asked when he had his heart rate under control.

‘I tried practicing at home, but the landlady threatened eviction. I tried practicing in the disabled trap at lunchtime, but the boss threatened the sack. Can you hear me at the bottom of the tower, Clive?’

‘Not really,’ I lied.

‘That’s good. Obviously, I’m not supposed to be up here at 3 in the afternoon. I should be licking the chief engineer’s arse, but it’s so boring. Clive, you have no idea!’

‘Oh, I have,’ I assured him. ‘Gruesome is more accurate than just boring. Why did you come down to Essex from Glasgow, Jock.’

‘I can’t tell you, Clive. You’d disrespect me for ever, and rightly so.’

‘You fell in love with an Essex Girl,’ I yelled with mocking delight. ‘You dozy pillock, Jock.’

I think I saw a tear in his eye so I took my water sample. No one wants to embarrass a bloke, who already has the ultimate cross to bear. He was suffering enough.

As I turned to descend, he stopped playing and asked, ‘How do you survive the evenings, Clive?’

‘I’m the only unmarried person on site and the only worker under 32 years of age,’ I told him. ‘This leaves me with two options. Adultery – there ought to be room for a toyboy among the typing pool, or celibacy. I chose the latter and solve my financial and human contact problems with an evening job in a pub in Southend.’

‘Wise move,’ he assured me, with envy in his voice and picked up his trombone. ‘I miss the Highlands of home.’

That was not the time to ask how Glasgow was suddenly in the Highlands. He had enough problems with nostalgia so I left him to his scales.

I lay in bed one summer morning, window open, birds giving the dawn chorus beltissimo, when I heard the best noise ever. The hum of the distant compressor gave way to a long release of steam as the turbine wound down. Finally – shut down. Harry had failed to save the night shift.

There were people in Southend-on-Sea and the sea. No one would notice I skipped off, apart from Alf, who would tell me what story he had made up on my behalf, in case some busybody asked after me. So, as the steam hiss gave way to the birdsong, I leapt from bed, dressed and hit the A13. A prophetic number for the main road through South Essex.

Southend has one of the longest piers in the world, complete with its own railway. This was necessary, because without the pier one would only see the sea for about 30 minutes a tide. It races across the mudflats, turns and disappears. I hadn’t the price of entry to the pier and so have never seen the sea at Southend-on-Sea. I had just 2/6 in my pocket and invested that in a Joseph Conrad novel, to read on the mud. By 11.00 I regretted not having gone to work. I had no sunglasses so couldn’t read and for how long can you stare at mud?

I couldn’t go back to my digs because Digger’s wife was there and she would tell Digger, who loved sucking up to the boss. He would have grassed me up, sure as eggs are eggs. I hated Digger. Hate is not a word I lightly use, but I really hated Digger. He was the lowest form of lumpen proletariat and his type had been the natural fodder for Hitler, 35 years earlier. He was a natural born snitch, my landlord and the company health and safety officer. His main job was to make sure we wore the safety clothing the company refused to provide, but insisted we wore. One ordered through Digger, who had the cost deducted from our wage packet, and took a commission off the supplier. Alf Garnett’s script writer had Digger in mind when he created, Till Death do us Part. Digger taught me my first piece of Essex. ‘What you getting out yer pram for? You can get straight back in, wiv yer dummy in yer gob,’ he told his wife, when she mentioned a TV programme she would like to watch. I learned to love the radio in Digger’s house. His grandchildren went on to vote Brexit and hate Poles, but by then the ammonia didn’t need oxidising. Poland did it for half the price after the company was taken over and shut down by its new Swiss owners.

Alf went on to be a hater. He already disliked anything that didn’t begin in Essex, especially if it had a non-white skin. I was lucky. My South London accent adapted easily to Essex. There is no th in Essex. I sat in Essex meetings and made up imaginary th conversations, while everyone else denied its existence.

‘Firty free fousand fevvers on a frushe’s froats frottle, Keef,’ was my favourite.

And then there is the k-ending.

‘Ain’t nuffink der ma^er wiv ‘ow we speaks. We ain’t go^ anaccent, ‘ave we?’

 Thus, the glottal stop is a moveable feast and can appear anywhere in a sentence. Beginning, middle and end!

‘Oi! Clive! Got dem anali^icals yet?’

Not quite in the same league as Beethoven beginning his Vth with a rest and then …- , but I admired the effort and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one says.

The pub in Southend where I worked is another story, as is Barking, which I nearly was, by then.

 And there was worse to come. I went on to Kodak in Rickmansworth. 8 hour shifts in total darkness, staring at a luminous clock dial. But that had compensations, when Vasenti, the lovely Ugandan Asian woman, from upstairs, came down for a cuddle.

My Grandma was a most amazing girl – part 1

 My grandmother, Aunt Joan and father. (1932)

16 Apr 2016 by 6 Comments  © Clive La Pensée

There is a much-loved German children’s song. It starts, ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’. Translated freely one gets ‘My Grandma rides her Honda in the henhouse, and the chorus is, ‘My Grandma is a most amazing girl.’ It has other classic verses such as ‘My Grandma has a radio in her molar,’ and ‘My Grandma takes a tank to see the tax man.’

This song reminds me of my grandma. She was a most amazing girl, and her bicycle technique was the talk of the village. The milkman climbed down and calmed his horse when she rode by. There is no record of anything in the henhouse.

My grandmother once described her first radio experience. She called it a wireless to distinguish between a telephone and radio. Suddenly she could have continuous noise, which I’m surprised was a positive, considering the number of children in the house. It was only for an hour a day, as my great-grandmother was unsure how the voice inside the box worked and was worried about its longevity.

A decade before the wireless entered my grandmother’s life, something more important crashed its path through the lives of the young women in that sleepy hamlet, which is now part of the sprawl of London Town. Soldiers! And lots of them and they didn’t come in belligerent, but rather in loving mode. My grandmother never told me how it all worked so I have pieced bits of the story together as best I can. It will have to go down as fiction though, not as historical fact.

All the young men from that hamlet and thousands like it across Europe had been taken off to war, and by 1916 many of them had been taken by the war and were laid to rest, young faces barely old enough to support a whisker, rotting somewhere in Flanders.

My grandfather had a better fate: he survived the war, but he relived the curse of those years forever.

In 1914 he lived in Canada, probably in Montreal and one day was told he was to fight for King and Country, although he could only have had a vague notion about which country. French Canadians feel more attached to France than Britain, although it was GB that had the biggest Empire and that’s why he was put into a commonwealth uniform. He and his chums must have been confused. I’ve deduced that he was in France from 1915 because I can be sure my aunt Joan was born 1916. It is a mystery how he became my grandfather, as Canadian troops suffered terrible losses in some of the stupidest early attacks of the war. But he survived and met my grandma.

He was due leave, but it was several weeks by steamer to get back to Canada and then a long train ride to his hometown. The war was deeply resented by French speakers in Canada so these poor lads were shipped off to England for their holiday, possibly because one knew they’d never get them from Canada a second time.

There was a sleepy hamlet, with a fine country house in its own grounds. That was where the soldiers were billeted for a well-earned rest.

After the soldiers realised that the noise of exploding shells had disappeared, they were able to settle down to the most important task in any man’s life, especially a man who knows he will probably die within the year. He has to get himself laid! He cannot die never having known the touch of a good woman. That would be too cruel.

These young Canadians must have pondered the effect the language barrier would have on their efforts with the local talent. They should not have been concerned. The girls in the hamlet had their share of problems too. Every day, another of their school chums, who would normally have become their beau by then, was listed as missing or killed in action. I imagine the lasses talked among themselves and wondered if there would be a good man left standing in the village. And suddenly a bunch of likely lads from Canada were billeted there!

I know not what they said, but language was not the problem. The girls were horny as hell and the lads were shagging as though it were their last chance, which for many, it was.

My grandma got pregnant by one Jean Louis La Pensée – well he agreed to own up to paternity. Whether Joan was his we shall never know nor is it relevant. Maybe he just wanted something left on this earth, which his mum could call “my grandson or granddaughter”. Daughters were more popular as, “they were less likely to get slaughtered in the next insane war that has nothing to do with us and is 3000 miles away”. Of course my great-grandma said that in French.

Grandpa Jean went back to France, survived, returned to Cheam and sometime in mid-summer 1917 my father was conceived. My grandmother said some wicked things to my father from her deathbed – indicating that my grandfather probably wasn’t my grandfather. That I could have guessed. It is unlikely the local lasses would only bestow their favours on one group of Canadian soldiers.

Whatever the paternity, my grandparents were married by 1918. Before the war ended, my grandfather returned by troopship to Canada, presumably in late 1917 or spring 1918. He was no longer fit for purpose because of shell shock, which we know was a problem the rest of his life.

Old Jean Louis took paternity of both children. My grandmother followed him to Canada. She caught the train from London to Liverpool and left Liverpool on 6th June 1918 on the SS Olympic to Nova Scotia. The reason for travel is given as “to join husband, Jean Louis Lapensée; brakeman, CPR.”

We can be certain of this as the records for the shipping line still exist.

Once in Nova Scotia, there followed another train journey to Montreal. A hamlet south of London to Montreal, she did with a three month and a two year old, but with no pampers or other disposables. I have no idea how she did her laundry. She had her 20th birthday three weeks before she left Liverpool. Believe me! That woman could have ridden a Honda in the henhouse!

My grandmother May and grandfather Jean, never had a common language except the language of love or lust or whatever it was. They could only communicate through their children, once their children could talk. The kids were hardly mature enough to translate the nuances of married life and so they translated the strife instead. For example, my grandmother always accused the old man of going to prostitutes (he was Catholic after all). He presumably would have accused her of keeping him short and doubtless let the paternity issue surface a few times. That’s no mean translation task for children not yet in double figures, but my father had fond memories of his Canada years. The old man had a good job with the Canadian Pacific Railway as a brakeman; the kids had a warm apartment, food on the table and shoes for their feet, which was by no means the rule in Canada or England, in working-class families between the wars.

So, Jean Louis senior was back in Canada by 1918. What did he hear when the shelling stopped? More exploding shells perhaps, their ripping, screaming, detonating sound indelibly etched upon some part of his brain, ready to haunt him for the rest of his life. What did he hear in the moments when silence returned? A wife in his country, talking a strange language and wondering why a tumble in the hay had left her attached to a good man, but one who could offer her nothing – no companionship, no love that could be expressed, a meal ticket and plenty of misunderstanding.

How did my Grandma know about her mum’s first radio? Her mum sent her a letter complaining how hard life was and how much she missed her daughter. Her daughter wrote back, ‘I’m coming home.’ She arrived in 1926 at Tilbury before her letter, knocked on the door of the tiny terraced house with an 11 and 9-year-old and they became numbers 10 to 13 in that house. It must have been hell. My father was permanently damaged and until his death 80 years later, worried he would get something to eat.

Things got better when his uncles, one by one, emigrated to Canada to find work and a place to live where they didn’t have to share a bed with four others.

I remember that radio. It was a beast – the size of a sideboard and the thermionic valves heated the parlour – nothing with molars. But every time I hear my daughter sing ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’ to my grandson, it reminds me that we all have a migrant background.



My Grandma was a most amazing girl – part 2

My aunty Joan, dad (Louis) and great uncle Ray (ca. 1930)

Aunty Joan – #metoo – nothing new!

That summer’s day, I saw my great uncle Ray for the last time. I knew I would never see him again, so it was a chance to get a few questions answered. The one I chose to open with received such a baffling and horrific answer, that I forgot to ask the others. But first the background to the question.

When my gran died, my dad was overawed by the stuff he found in her house. It was mostly junk and had to be thrown away. He couldn’t get a price for any of it. So, he stored much of the contents of my grandmother’s house in his. After his death and when my mother knew she was going to move out of her house after 66 years, she asked me to empty the loft. In one suitcase I found, among other things, a small handbag, more an evening bag, and in it were letters, written in pencil by my aunty Joan, and her husband Foggy, to her mother, my grandmother May Lapensée.

Here they are, unedited, in order.

Hotel Manchen                                              Guatemala 29th May 1934

Jorge Mann

Antigua G

Guatemala C.A.

Dear Mrs. Lapensée:-

Just a few lines to let you know that Joan arrived safely on the 23rd May and we were married last Saturday morning at 11.30 A.M. of 26th May. In the meantime Joan stayed with Mr. & Mrs. Vintner until we were married. Unfortunately we were only able to have a honeymoon of about 4 days as I have to return to work again. The whole affair has been so terribly hard on Joan, Mrs. Lapensée, but I must say she has been the sweetest girl I have ever known and she has been so nice to me. I can only speak good of her in every way, naturally though, she is homesick, which she may get over or may not. Joan has had to meet so many strange people & in a strange country, besides which I guess I have not been as sympathetic towards her as I might have been.

So far, Joan has behaved like a brick & I’m really proud to be able to call her my wife. All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice & my every wish is for Joan’s future happiness. As soon as we are settled down here I shall write you again & advise how Joan is getting along. In the meantime I must thank you for all you did for Joan and myself knowing fully well that nothing could have been accomplished without your help in this matter.

                   Love Foggy

I nearly fell out the loft in my hurry to get downstairs and ask my mother how my aunt ended up married in Guatemala in 1934. She was just 18 and it must have taken her at least six weeks to travel there. And “All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice”? What was that about? My mother sighed, then explained.

Joan (or her mother) had seen an advertisement in a London newspaper, put there by a rich English banker from Central America who had returned briefly to London to find a wife. Joan had been the successful applicant.

My mother knew why it had all gone wrong. Joan had been told to take a solicitor’s signed copy of May Walter’s and Jean Louis La Pensee’s marriage certificate and her own birth certificate. These had been produced for scrutiny just prior to the wedding, whereupon it emerged that the birth certificate predated the marriage certificate. That was no rarity between 1914 and 18. The wedding went ahead, but Joan was persona non grata among the UK expats in Guatemala.

I asked my mother about the interview for the post of banker’s wife. She said she knew next to nothing about it, which was to be expected as she met my father, Christmas Eve 1939 in the Spring Hotel in Ewell, Surrey- a long way from, and a long time after, Guatemala. I don’t know how long Joan stayed out in Guatemala but she was back in England before the chance rendezvous that Christmas Eve in the Spring. My question, “how the applicants were vetted,” was answered firmly.

“Oh, they went up to town, to a hotel, The Dorchester in Park Lane I think, and there was some sort of interview. The mothers of the girls were expected to be there too.”

 My next question was, “Were the short-listed girls invited behind a screen in the hotel room, where a waiting doctor and nurse established virgo intacta?”

My mother denied any knowledge of such detail, but I know that she and Joan were great buddies during the time my mother and father were courting. She knew alright, and her face said more than her words. Pity Foggy wasn’t so careful with the certificates as he was with the vetting process!

Foggy was a master of the euphemism. Let’s have a look at a few.

“The whole affair has been so terribly hard on Joan”  =  I was less than honest about what she should expect and should have checked her birth certificate in London.

“must say she has been the sweetest girl I have ever known and she has been so nice to me” = we consummated.

“naturally though, she is homesick” = the other expats have behaved shabbily.

“she is homesick, which she may get over or may not” = The people here will continue to behave shabbily and will never accept her.

“I have not been as sympathetic towards her as I might have been” = How did I end up with your bastard for a bride?

“So far, Joan has behaved like a brick” = I was economical about the realities of life her,e but she hasn’t held it against me.

“I’m really proud to be able to call her my wife” = I’m a patronising arse of a man.

“All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice” = We are all patronising arses around here.

“advise how Joan is getting along” =  We’ll see how she shapes up. When you write, make sure she doesn’t go flaky on me.

“nothing could have been accomplished without your help in this matter” = thank you for convincing your daughter that she wasn’t the victim of sexual coercion.

Or was the whole thing May’s idea in the first place. She wouldn’t have been the first mother to prostitute her daughter. Those were hard times. I don’t sit here in judgement! And rumours have surfaced about May’s methods of accumulating her savings for a comfortable life.

May was a rich woman when she died and was always generous to her grandchildren, but she never had been more than a single mother and cleaner; a cleaner for the rich and famous however, who lived south of the railway line in Cheam. She was also a stunning beauty as a young woman! Work it out for yourself!

Here is Joan’s first letter home.

Hotel Manchen etc.


Dear Mother,

Just a few lines hoping you are well. We got married on 26th May and we are staying at this hotel for a few days. I don’t like it here much as it is raining nearly all the time. I don’t like Guatemala very much  there are to many policemen about and they are very strict on what you do. When I first arrived I had to stay at Vintners (that is Foggys manager) house and they were very nice to me they had a wedding cake and champagne and they gave me a lovely wedding present it is a coffee heater, jug and bowl. also mr Townson gave me a tea set on a tray. We had a lot of flowers given to us. I am lonely without all of you and I will not be sorry to get back, which seems a long way off.

I hope you will answer as soon as you can as I haven’t heard from anyone for such a long time. You had better write to the bank but just put mrs Fogg and Foggy will give it to me in case you have forgotten the address I will give it to you it is. The Anglo South American Bank Ltd.

Republic of Guatemala

City of Guatemala

  Central America

I cant think of any more to write so I will close

Love Joan

PS How is Will as I hope he is well and give all the family my love.

And finally

The Anglo South American Bank Ltd.

Guatemala City



Dear Mother

          Just a few lines hoping you are well and that your new bike is OK. It will be a month tomorrow since I was married. I hope you do win the sweep as you deserve it. I wish I could win a sweep or someone leave me a lot of money I would get out of here as the place is a rotten hole so if you do win only come for a visit but don’t ever stay here             I am going to mrs Vintner to help her make a dress tomorrow. she has a lovely electric machine but she always works it herself.

How was your dress alright I hope. I have not received my belt or photos yet still I suppose they are still on the way. Have you had the cake yet    I hope its alright. I have started playing golf and I like it very much and I am going to learn to ride soon. How is everyone as it seems as if I have been away years instead of two months   I have never been so lonely in all my life. How is dave and Grandma. I still cant believe about mrs Parfitt. I think Foggys sister was telling a lie about the present because she came down the Tuesday night while I was playing tennis with dave and she knew I wouldnt have time the next morning. I cant think of any more to write so will close.

With love


The sleuths will notice that these letters are in the wrong order from their dates, but when I put them round the other way they made no sense. I think Joan was confused.

It is odd that Joan expected, as a matter of course to return to England. Perhaps she was only supposed to produce an heir for Foggy and would then be given an allowance and a ticket home. Did she have a child by him? No one mentions it.

Incidentally, The Anglo South American Bank Ltd. went into liquidation in 1936. Joan’s gravy train would have stopped there anyway! I think she was back in England by then.

Joan was not a great letter writer and maybe a bit of a moaner. Golf, riding and tennis were not her normal entertainments. Maybe she was suffering from too much cake. (She appears to have sent some from the wedding to England).

Mrs. Vintner treated her like a domestic, which wasn’t surprising as Joan was an illegitimate working-class girl. My mother told me that Joan was as stunningly beautiful as her mother. But when you compare Foggy’s and Joan’s written English, it is apparent she would never belong. She was Foggy’s appendage at worst and trophy at best. She showed that Foggy could get the best even if the best had no breeding. Did Foggy ever expect things to work out? It’s as if he’d read Pygmalion before seeking a wife and thought he could turn his Eliza Doolittle into a lady. But then the illegitimacy problem doomed that dream.

To be fair to Foggy, he never deserted Joan and as far as we know, never reproached her. He paid the trip home and for the divorce.

So far we have had my interpretation of my mother’s account.

I knocked on Ray’s door. Short and very stout Ray opened.

“How the hell are you Ray?” I grabbed his hand and pumped it vigorously.

“Fine!” he answered. “Who the hell are you?”

His eyes were dim.

“Clive,” I replied. “Louis’s boy.”

My elucidation did the trick. (Louis’s boy – I was 60 at the time).

“Good Lord. I’m sorry. Do come in, I’ll put the kettle on straight away.” He scuttled off to the kitchen. “Take a seat. You know your aunty Glad passed away.”

“Yes.  I’m so sorry.”

“Oh well. She was 92, couldn’t move for arthritis and could neither see nor hear in the end. Clive; what’s the point?”

He returned with tea with milk and sugar although I use neither.

“You’re visiting your mum. How is she?”

“Fine. She is moving up to Yorkshire to be closer. Probably in the next few weeks.”

“Give her my love.”

“Will do! I wanted to ask you something. I found some letters from Joan in an old evening bag belonging to Mapier. Written from Guatemala. Can you tell me anything about it?”

Ray went silent for some time. Then he erupted in glee as the old memories returned.

“Oh, crikey Clive. How long ago was that?”

“1934 it says on the letters.”

“Was it really? I bet it was. That was a circus I can tell you. I don’t know what happened in America but it was bedlam here.”

“Do go on.”

“I know nothing of the early stuff. I think May got hold of this idea that Joan could use her good looks to get a rich husband. There was plenty of that sort of thing going on in those days. Joan wasn’t interested – I don’t think she was. She was just a sweet kid who wanted to please. Your dad and I got involved after May had set it all up. What was the bloke’s name?”

“He signs himself Foggy.”

“Really. I’d forgotten that. Well, he went on in advance, but booked Joan a sailing from Cherbourg. So, Joan had to get to Cherbourg. Foggy booked her a hotel in Dover. She was to get the ferry from Dover to Cherbourg. Joan was scared stiff. She’d never stayed in a hotel in her life nor caught a ferry to France. None of us had, not in them days. So instead of taking the train we borrowed old Honeyfield’s van and the four of us went down to Dover. 1934. You can imagine; cars weren’t like now. Ruddy thing boiled on every hill. No motorways of course. 90 miles sounds nothing now but it took us over 6 hours. Lou and I had put all our spare cash in the petrol tank and when we got to the hotel, of course, we were starving, but we had no money. We ordered a cup of tea and we were cleaned out. Been better if we’d gone straight down the chippy. Foggy had forgotten to leave any spending money. Joan didn’t get a meal until breakfast and after that, until she got on the ship in Cherbourg. Then it was luxury all the way. We expected to drop Joan off, turn around and come straight back home, because we had nowhere to sleep. But Joan begged us to stay, so we sneaked upstairs and we all bunked down in her room. May and Joan had the bed and Louis and me slept in armchairs. It was bad, but Joan was desperate. She said we had to see her on to the ferry so we did. I remember she stole some breakfast for us, wrapped it in a serviette and brought it up to the room. She told us that it was the first time in her life she had stolen something. I’m sure that was true.”

“How long did she stay in Guatemala?”

“I can’t remember, Clive, but it was months rather than years.”

“Did she have a kid out there?”

“No idea! No one ever spoke about it.” He paused, letting the memories surface.

“I remember when we got back, Louis and me got in a dreadful row with Honeyfield for staying away with his van. He would have sacked us, but he didn’t know who to fire first and he couldn’t afford to lose two grease monkeys in the same morning. He’d had to have got his own hands dirty. So, he thundered and we sloped off and got on with some work before he had chance to make up his mind.”

“But you and my dad could only have been 16 and Mapier never drove.”

“Didn’t worry about things like that. We probably only saw about three cars there and back; no one had a licence.”

“How or why did May change to Mapier?”

“I think big Louis called her that and it stuck. Maybe a French-Canadian nickname?”

I assume Ray has died by now. No one has informed me.

Joan is long dead. On her return to England she met a feckless spendthrift radio engineer who liked the good life. I think Joan encouraged him after her experiences with the stuffed shirt expats. My father always said “he pissed the profits up against a pub wall.” They ran out of money so the business was sold off and they, with their three very young children emigrated to……. Canada. I’m sure she took up contact with the old Jean Louis when she got there. From about 1955 onwards, May wouldn’t talk to Joan.  I think May was worried we might learn Jean Louis’s side of the marriage story.

Joan and her husband George died in their early fifties in Canada. I never had another chance to meet them or my cousins, apart from an evening spent in London, around 1972, entertaining cousin Jane, who was over here – looking for a rich husband. I don’t know if she was successful. I doubt it. She didn’t have the guile of my grandmother.

Chara-bang to Margate 192? My grandmother 3rd from left.

Wetlands – Or how not to translate Feuchtgebiete


The Mersey, trying to hide its innermost thoughts by reflecting everything.
Unlike Roche and Newman, who bare their souls, or me who hasn’t quite the courage yet to really write what he feels, but is getting there.
As a bloke, I’m always a bit afraid of straight out chick lit, but then again, I find it difficult to resist. So here are my newest confessions.
I’ve just finished reading Feuchtgebiete (Charlotte Roche) and Leftovers (Stella Newman). Are they so similar that they can stand comparison? Not really, but I’m going to do it anyway.
But “vorweg,” as Charlotte would say, Wetlands as an English translation of Feuchtgebiete is rubbish. It misses the intended meaning of Feuchtgebiete by a mile. The novel is obviously about the wet areas of the female anatomy and not some term from a geography textbook. It deals with the hang-ups about our wet areas and Roche has got over hangups although the need to write in such intimate detail about them may show they are still residing and troubling her somewhere deep down where she lives.
I give the book 5 * even if I hated some intimate areas. It reminded me of a Julian Clarey stand-up routine. You may hate the content but you love the outrageousness of the whole thing. Charlotte has put the wet areas where they belong – right out front. They need to be out front because our wet areas govern the bits of our lives/loves that are most important to us – sex, eating, defecating, sex and defecation, sex and eating. But it is much more than a treatise on the things we never want to mention. It liberates to read her descriptions. It will liberate more when I can talk about my Feuchtgebiete the way she does. At the moment I’m still trying to hide their impact on my life. Give me time! My finger hovers over the <publish> button for my new novel, Goddesses – 49 1/2 shades of charcoal.
Stella Newman takes a much more traditional view of hang-ups. She deals with the hang-ups caused by being jilted and by working with arseholes. I prefer the modern word for jilted – dumped! It covers the feeling so much better. And she analyses that feeling with great knowledge and empathy. A must read for anyone recovering from being dumped.
But as if being jilted isn’t bad enough – you are down at your lowest point – the bastards of this world take the moment to kick you, too. And her description of your average actor, advertising scripter, and fashion follower, and the hang-ups these people can cause in us, are terrifying. Never has a light-hearted read made me so furious. Great stuff Stella! I love the use of food as a metaphor for…….everything!
The nicest part of both books is the understanding our victims get from their friends. Gives you hope.
I shall keep reading both these authors.
OK. The truth. I have published my confessions too. They are not entirely honest. Who ever is? They are embellished (never spoil a good yarn) and censored, (some revelations I’m not quite ready for). But I hope to soon publish “Confessions of an old man in a dry month.”
Nice title? Stolen from a genius of course. I’ll let you know when to check it out.

Out Now – My Berlin Thriller – Suspense suspended by comedy.

The Last Stop – A Berlin Story

Endstation – Eine Geschichte aus Berlin – jeztz auch auf Deutsch.

Clive’s latest thriller. Get the videos from YouTube

The BNBS cover to look for!

Sample Pages

Chapter 1

‘The bus or train?’

Jack Precious was not ashamed of talking to himself. After all, a simple decision can change a life, and discussing it, even as a monologue, often clarified things. He wanted nothing but a speedy transfer to his hotel.

Jack was the wrong side of sixty, comfortably plump round the middle, thinly thatched on top, spot on the median height for a north-European white male and uninteresting to members of the opposite sex, unless they were widowed or divorced, in which case his more than useful pension as a retired tax inspector would make up for physical shortcomings.

He knew the bus would be quicker, but it was also riskier. Buses always are. They get held up in traffic, are subject to unknown deviations and, as a stranger in town, he hated the pressure of wondering where the next bus stop would be. Furthermore, this particular bus journey would involve a change. Always tricky in a new city. So he did the steady-Eddie routine and headed off, under the sign of a train, towards the station. At heart, that’s what he was – a steady Eddie.

Jack still doubted the wisdom of this move. The bus stood panting and hissing right outside the airport exit – the station was a full five-minute drag of a heavy case, followed by stairs down and up, in order to get to the trains. He could take the ramps, but they seemed endless. However, the weather was bright, cool and fresh so the walk seemed good.

Had he chosen the bus, he later reflected, the following months of his life would have been so different. No! That was wrong. The rest of his life altered the moment he rejected the bus. He was to be thrown from his predestined orbit like a meteor that had come too close to a star. The star was a woman. He would have missed Maria, twenty something, high cheek bones showing an eastern European origin, medium height, dark blue, darting, observant eyes, dressed in a tatty overcoat, despite the fine weather, sitting on her tattier suitcase, in the shadows of the entrance to the station, looking with imploring eyes at passers-by.

If a girl stands in the shadows, then the imploring looks do not attract much attention. He would have overlooked her, too, but Jack was a face person and noticed Maria’s face. Although not pretty, it was interesting. It looked puffy from old tears and the eyes were reddening in preparation for new ones.

Awesome 19th Century Gyles

One of the major contributions to craft brewing


Pale Ale played a pivotal role in the development of commercial brewing. As such it was the beer that defined the industrial revolution. It began the search for industrial, mechanised brewing. It was where modern brewing began. It gave us the discipline we now call biochemistry.
Scientific advances during the early 19th century revealed the folly of dark beer brewing. Business demanded optimisation, but for a short time around 1840 quality was still the number-one consideration. It was the moment in history when the very best beers were brewed – Pale Ale for the domestic market and IPA for the overseas Empire. Essentially the same beer but with a different destination.
Clive La Pensée set out to see if these super-pale beers could be recreated.
He describes what drove the charlatans and the honest brewers, how they prepared liquor, mashed, sparged, what hops they used and how much, how the yeast was pitched, fermentation and conditioning were carried out.
25 classic gyles are described in detail, with Imperial, US and metric units.
Critical notes are included. Everything is ready for you to step back in time and brew some awesome historic ales.
Clive La Pensée has been brewing for 40 years, and his first book – The Historical Companion to House-Brewing was a watershed moment in modern homebrew. He helped the name-change to craft brewing along with his second book, The Craft of House Brewing. Now, Craft Brewing is an internationally recognised concept. Craft breweries abound. You can have one, too. Clive adopted House Brewing to describe the macro-breweries we now have at home, where we hand-craft beers of about 10-gallon length.
This book is a major input to the genre, was first published by CAMRA books and is now home again in a fully revised form.

Gift – Or imagining the dark side.

We are writers. Imagination is our most powerful gift. Imagine the impossible – being a Spitfire pilot in a dogfight, being your sister, especially if you don’t have a sister. Then you have to imagine her brother or sister, too, who isn’t you.

And you can safely imagine your dark side. Crime writers imagine the illegal, without fearing arrest. A vivid imagination keeps one out of trouble. You don’t have to live the risk of a bungee jumper or have the bravery of a gay man coming out to his family at Christmas.

I can imagine things too awful to contemplate, such as now, when I’m imagining a Christmas gift – a very special gift, given to the world Christmas 1941.

The German word for poison, is Gift. Exactly the same spelling and etymology, both words, English and German, come from the Low German, or Dutch word for ‘to give’.

To give a present – to give poison. Giftgas – poisonous gas, such as mustard gas or chlorine, used in the trench war of 1914-18. Gift – a poison or a present.

Hamlet knew! Claudius killed King Hamlet by pouring poison into his ear. Shakespeare continually illustrates that words can function as poison in the ear as well. As the ghost says in Act I, scene v, Claudius has poisoned “the whole ear of Denmark” with his words (I.v.36). The running imagery of ears and hearing serves as an important symbol of the power of words to manipulate the truth.

It’s easy when a gift doesn’t have to be a joyous event.

I know men and women who, when standing under the shower, suddenly imagine it to be the outlet in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. They are jammed in the shower with hundreds of other naked men and women. Intimate body contact is unavoidable. Someone begins to scream. Sobbing can be heard along with clueless questions of little children to their parents.

‘What’s happening daddy? I can’t breathe.’

‘It’s alright my darling. Just remember we have always loved you,’ comes the answer and a tight cuddle.

It’s too late to fight, or even struggle. One wants to live, but considering the terrible things going on around, maybe the end is acceptable. They have walked by the heaps of charred bodies bulldozed into a pit. Is death OK, after that view of death?

The gentle hiss of Giftgas begins. Hands reach up trying to block the jets. Panic sets in. The noise is deafening, the jostling of bodies unable to escape, causes fear to spread. They lose control as the gift wrecks the nervous system, causing them to piss, vomit on each other and defecate. Slowly the panic ebbs and peace sets in. It’s over. 

But not in my imagination. I know the Gift wasn’t quick. If exposure is slow, such as the gas diffusing through a packed room, it took a while. Death, from Zyklon B, preceded by painful convulsions, could take 20 minutes or longer. When used to gas prisoners on Death Row in the US, in a small room, only one victim, times as long as eleven minutes were recorded. That’s a long time to prepare oneself or a child for the worst. For the first time I wonder why they used a cyanide compound in Zyklon B. Carbon monoxide would have been cheaper, more effective and less painful. No convulsions – just gentle sleep.

I’m going to guess the answer. Carbon Monoxide leaves a period of several minutes, in which the victims can still reason and fight, scream, beat the walls of the van, as they did, when it was tried, by diverting exhaust gases into the chamber behind the driver. This upset the perpetrators and their henchmen. The fight for life distracted the driver. They quit after one journey.

With cyanide, there is no way back. By the time you realise, the nervous system is out of control and it is too late.

There probably is another reason I don’t know about, but in that moment of wondering why, I have reduced genocide to an intellectual exercise.

It was a day at the office for someone, when he dealt with that question. Can I imagine being a perpetrator? I just did, when I asked the question about Zyklon B and carbon monoxide.

This is how it works. Someone asked the question, ‘What are we going to do with the Jews?’ Genocide was a solution. That someone sat down and imagined mass murder, ignoring the moral implications. They probably called it ‘planning’.

This planning process happened just after Christmas – January 1942, in a beautiful villa on the Wannsee, outside Berlin. The house still stands and is now a museum to that planning conference. The state needed to know that its various institutions were on board, so that they would commit to their part in the genocide. No opting out, like the drivers.

The so-called ‘Wannsee Conference’ was opened by Reinhard Heyderich, who had already decided the parameters for the mass murder of Jews. He defined, what was a Jew, what exceptions were to be made to Jewishness and that, in the first instance (he still needed to build the infrastructure), Jews would be transported to the East where they would carry out forced labour. He knew this labour would result in the death of the workers, due to the extremity of the work conditions and because he didn’t plan to feed them. He openly spoke about the murder of the Jews. We know all this, because an American soldier found a protocol copy of the Wannsee Conference in a drawer. It was the one that didn’t get destroyed in 1945, when people were covering their tracks. But for that copy, we wouldn’t know there had been a conference, or its outcomes.

I have read the protocol. It is short – barely 1½ pages long, typed on a typewriter, well beyond its sell-by date. What did the typist say when she reached home that evening, when her husband, boyfriend or dad asked what sort of a day she had?

I know that in quiet moments, men imagined committing mass murder. Heyderich mentions a ‘final solution.’ Historians assume the conference members understood what the final solution meant. They imagined death in a gas chamber – not with horror – but with satisfaction. Suddenly, my dark-side imaginings seem sane!

I left the S-Bahn at Wannsee, and because I stood on the wrong side of the road waiting for the bus, I missed it. The next was in 20 minutes but at -15 deg, I figured it better to walk the few kilometres along the lake. I passed the Liebermann House, with a collection of his impressionist paintings. Worth a visit! He was a rich Jew, who died in 1935 and thus avoided deportation. Then I arrived at the villa where the conference took place. I look around, am brave, and go in.

The most awful part of the exhibition is the section on the ones who got away – that was pretty much all of them. A few died as the Russians advanced in 1945 but 90% lived out their lives, post-war, in peace, as respected members of the community, some practicing medicine. That was the State’s gift to men, who had put their imagination to the final test, then shrugged their shoulders and moved on, when it was advantageous to so do.

The state had sanctioned it and the state forgave it.

I wrote in my Berlin novel – The Last Stop.

 ‘He kept listening to it, discussing it, listening to others discussing it, and soon daftness disappeared and lunacy became reason. That’s how propaganda works. If one tells the same lies often enough, one’s brain accepts them as the truth. He had undergone the process.’

 This process was the purpose of the Wannsee Conference and I just imagined, being there. A writer’s imagination can be a curse, as well as a gift.

View from the Wannsee Villa.

Why is this blog under Family History?

I know so many people, who 50 years after the cessation of hostilities, were still so effected by those terrible events.

%d bloggers like this: