John Robert Derbyshire was born July 12, 1899 in Westhoughton, Lancashire. His parents were Robert and Elizabeth Derbyshire.
Dad's father, Robert Derbyshire, is listed on Dad's birth certificate as "Colliery Fireman." Westhoughton was a coal-mining town. In fact the third-worst mining disaster in British history occurred at Pretoria Pit in Westhoughton during Christmas week of 1910. There was an explosion underground, killing 344 miners. Dad's family had left Westhoughton by then, though. Some time in the early or middle 1900s, they moved to Oakengates, in Shropshire.
John Robert seems to have been a difficult child, unruly and willful. He did not do well at school. In his own stories of his childhood he roamed free and wild in the lanes and hedgerows of Shropshire, some of the most beautiful countryside in England, celebrated by (amongst others) the poet A.E. Housman. Like Hednesford fifty miles away, Oakengates was much more rural than industrial, in spite of the collieries.
Dad had just turned fifteen when World War One broke out. In the enthusiasm of the time he ran off to Shrewsbury to enlist, lying about his age (the minimum was sixteen, I think). His father brought him back; he ran off again; was brought back again; and when he escaped a third time, Grandad gave up and let him enlist.
Dad joined the King's Shropshire Light Infantry — this was some time early in 1915 — and was sent to Ireland for training.
Ireland at this time was part of the United Kingdom; but the Irish Republicans had been agitating for separation, and had been on the point of success (or thought they had) when the War started. The British government put its Irish policy on hold for the duration of the war, to the great frustration of the Irish, thousands of whom none the less enlisted in the British Army. This frustration boiled over in the Easter Rising of 1916, though I think Dad was out of it by then.
He often spoke of his spell in Ireland. He was too young to see the larger picture, of course, and I think never really grasped it. His talk was all impressionistic, and strongly prejudiced against the Irish. "They lived like animals," he would say, "in filthy cabins — pigs, poultry and people all thrown together." There were some clashes with the extreme Republicans: "They shot one of our lads coming out of church."
Yet his main prejudice was not against the Irish people so much as against their religion. Dad was an atheist of the militant sort, who believed that religion was all nonsense; but he had a special loathing for Roman Catholicism. Often he would say: "The Irish are all right, till their priests get at them. We used to see them going to mass of a Sunday morning. They'd smile and call out to us as they passed by. Then they'd go into the church, and the priest would whip them up, and they'd come out howling blue murder." Dad's anti-Catholicism was a bit odd, considering that his own mother was a Catholic; but he sorted it all out in his own mind somehow.
After his training Dad was sent to France to fight in the trenches, in what — like most of his generation — he always referred to as "The Great War." He must have spent at least two years on the Western Front, but spoke little of it to us. From the little he did say, I believe his most enduring impressions were:
- The randomness of death in the trenches. See the penultimate paragraph in
this letter, for example, where he reflects on having been spared when others, who he
thought were better men with more to offer the world, were shot down a few inches from him.
- The stupidity of the general staff. "Bloody fools," he used to say with great bitterness, sixty years after the event.
"They made the same damn fool mistakes over and over again, thousands of men dead each time."
- The cowardice and venality of the French. In this he was surely very unfair. French losses were terrible; but that all happened hundreds of miles from Dad's sector of the front. All he saw of the French were the peasants who sold bad wine to the troops, brothel-keepers (I suppose), and the kind of civilian riff-raff that will attach itself to an army in wartime. Whatever the cause, he carried a deep detestation of the French with him to the end of his life. Contrariwise, he rather admired the Germans, who fought bravely and (he said) with much better leadership than ours.
Dad seems to have deserted at the end of the war — not an uncommon course of action in the allied forces. I think he actually decamped from a field hospital, where he was laid up either with wounds (he had white knotty shrapnel scars up the side of his leg), or from the influenza epidemic that raged through 1918, seeing off more people than the war. He found his way back to England with some comrades, and demobilized himself. He was, however, awarded the standard medals for all who served in the armed forces during WW1: the Victory Medal and the British Medal. These are recorded on his card in the files of Britain's National Archives, now online.
After the war Dad could not settle to anything. His own father set him up in a trucking business for a while, but it seems not to have been successful. Dad thought of joining the Shanghai Police, which was recruiting from ex-servicemen, but decided against it. (If he hadn't, the family's Chinese connection might have started up sixty years earlier than it did.)
At last, in 1925, he set off for the colonies, as footloose young Englishmen used to do in those days. He was in Australia for a while, writing home for money all the time, according to Auntie Cissie. Sometime in the late 1920s he found his way to New Zealand, where he worked as an orderly at a mental hospital outside Christchurch.
(This may have been the Sunnyside Hospital in south Christchurch, which would have been on the outskirts of the city back then. Sunnyside was established in the 1860s. Or Dad may have been working at the mental hospital in Templeton, a small village about 20 or 30 miles from Christchurch. Templeton opened in the late 1920s, just about the time Dad showed up.)
This time he always looked back on as a golden period in his life. Some photographs survive of Dad with his colleagues at the hospital — a bunch of single young guys with money in their pockets and undemanding work.
Added March 2019: As is evident in those pictures, Dad was a keen tennis player at this time. He once told me that when a new set of tennis courts was opened in Christchurch, he played in one of the inaugural matches, and this was commemorated by his name, among others, on a plaque at the courts.
I wondered aloud in some later commentary whether that plaque has survived. A reader in New Zealand contributed the following.
"Mr Derbyshire: I grew up in Christchurch but currently live in Wellington, 200 miles further north … The centre does still exist. It is called Wilding Park after Anthony Wilding, who was the best tennis player NZ ever produced … He was part of a team which won the Davis Cup before World War One a few times. The team was named Australasia (probably because the other team members were Australians, I would imagine). He was killed in WW1 and the park was opened in the 1920s, which would fit in with your timeline. The park has reopened fairly recently after being refurbished following an earthquake a few years ago. Its official name has changed a little but is still known as Wilding Park I think. No idea re the plaque you mention — it may not have lasted the earthquake and/or the refurbishment — but I may take a look one day if I am down that way."
Thank you, Sir.
At about this time Dad had an affair with one Jean Pepper, whose family farmed in the Christchurch area. The result was a son, Roy Noel, born January 6, 1930. Nobody really knows what happened at this point. Noel's birth certificate shows Jean as married. (Her maiden name was Goddard, year of birth 1910.) Whatever the case, Dad was left with the baby. It can't have been a very satisfactory arrangement; Dad wasn't the type to raise a child by himself. Still, it seems that for a few months he did just that.
When Uncle Tommy died in May of that year, the family back in England put a lot of pressure on Dad to go home. His mother was distraught, probably having some kind of breakdown, and perhaps his father couldn't cope. Probably the burden of the child on Dad was getting to be too much at this point, too. So he went home, by steamship through the Panama Canal. Auntie Cissie told me that when she first saw baby Noel he was in "a scandalous condition." She and Grandma took him in hand.
Dad had landed back in England right at the start of the Depression, of course ("the slump," we called it in Britain). There was no work. I really have no idea what he did for the next few years. The only documents that have survived are his 1931 driver's license, showing his parents' address in Oakengates, and his certificate of induction into the Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (a friendly society) dated August 23rd 1934.
Noel: "Well before the war Dad worked at the sugar-beet factory on the old Wrockwardine Road, half a mile from the Marsh Farm. Sometime before 1939 he started at Sankey's Castle Works in Hadley. It was there he got involved with the A.I.D. — the Aeronautical Inspection Department of the Air Ministry. Dad loved a pint of beer and a game of bowls at the Bird-in-Hand on the Nabb. I could never understand why he didn't take up bowls in Northampton. It may be that the greens he was used to in Shropshire were crown greens, while the ones in the parks in Northampton were all flat. He loved his tennis, too, and was a member of the St George's Tennis Club."
[Bowls is a game played on grass. A small white ball is rolled out to be the "jack." Players then compete at rolling their own polished, biased wooden balls across the green to end up as close to the jack as possible, knocking competing balls out of the way as necessary. The "green" on which the game is played may be either flat or "crown," i.e. having a rise towards the center. "The Nabb" was then a patch of woodland (now a street) behind Grandad's house in St George's, at the southern end of Wrockwardine Wood. The bowling club was still in operation during the late 1990s, though the Bird in Hand is gone. You can still walk up from where Grandad's house was, over some open country, to the bowling club and the Nabb.]
When the second war broke out Dad was too old to fight. He got a job with the Aircraft Inspection Department in the Air Ministry. Each inspector specialised in a certain class of production items. Dad's specialty was air flaps. He had to check that the correct number of rivets were placed in the correct positions. This was the work he was doing when he met my mother, in 1942. It involved a lot of traveling, which I think distressed my mother. I have two railroad tickets for Carlisle, in the far north-west of England, dated March and July 1946.
Sometime soon after the end of the war Dad left, or was retired from, the Air Ministry. He tried to go into business with a man named Smith, but the enterprise failed. He had a number of jobs, none of them for very long. I have memories from our earliest years at Friars Avenue (which is to say, the late 1940s) of Dad coming home in the daytime, slumping down into his chair, and Mother bursting into tears. He had resigned again, or got the sack. "He couldn't take orders from younger men," was Mother's explanation. I don't think Dad could ever take orders from anyone, actually. "A difficult man," was what everyone said about him.
Sometime in the early 1950s Dad got a job as a repo man for Jay's, a furniture company in Northampton's Gold Street. People were just beginning to buy furniture on the installment plan (called "hire purchase" in England). When people applied for this kind of credit, someone had to check out their references, which were usually local tradespeople. And when they defaulted, someone had to repossess the furniture, and go to give evidence in court.
This work suited Dad, as much as any work could have done. He got a little car and spent all day driving around the countryside of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire checking out people's credit references. He was on his own and set his own schedules. The repossessions satisfied his taste for physical violence. Many of the defaulters were farm laborers — strapping great beef-fed men who did hard manual work all day long. To get into the house of one such, grab a large sofa, and remove it, required courage and strength. Dad was, I think, perfectly fearless in matters physical. (He had assistants he could call on to help with moving the furniture out.) The work was badly paid; but then, Dad was over fifty and without marketable skills. He did this work until he retired in 1964. But when he had to fill out the "occupation" box on a form (when I applied for a government grant to go to university, for example), he always wrote Retired Civil Servant. In Dad's own mind, the Air Ministry job was the summit of his working life.
John Robert Derbyshire was not only a person in the world, he was also my Dad. I recall him with the usual complicated set of filial emotions: affection, resentment, respect, anger, etc. What follows is a sketch of the man, seen through a son's eyes.
Habits: Dad was almost 46 when I was born. By the time I could observe him and begin to collect memories, he was in his fifties, and settled into pretty regular habits.
Dad was an early riser; I have no recollection at all of him ever "sleeping in." Nor have I any memory of him moving around the house in his pajamas; he dressed at once. He read the morning newspaper with his breakfast, and was vexed if it hadn't arrived. He especially liked to do the crossword. In spells of dementia in his last few days on earth, my sister and I saw Dad sitting up in his bed in St Crispin's making small movements in the air with his hands, as if holding something, looking at it, and marking it up. "What's he doing?" whispered Judith. Me: "His crossword puzzle." That's what he was doing.
Dad took his meals at regular times and never snacked. He had a sweet tooth (metaphorically speaking: he had not an actual tooth in his head by the time I was born). There was usually a jar of humbugs or barley-sugar candy on his shelf next to the fireplace.
He had given up tennis by the time I knew him, though he kept his racquet — I still (2011) have it. His only regular form of exercise was walking. He loved to walk, and would get up and go for a one-hour walk if bored, sometimes taking myself or my sister with him. An early memory: Dad put the kettle on for a cup of tea. Then he decided to take a walk. He wanted me to go with him. Before setting out, he turned the gas as low as it would go under the kettle, so the tea water would be ready when we got back. We then walked to Hardingstone, then south out of the village to the Newport Pagnell Road, then west past the barracks to the Queen Eleanor, and back home. That's about three miles — say an hour or so of walking. At home the kettle had not yet boiled, a thing Dad remarked on with surprise and interest. I didn't understand his point, not yet having figured out the mechanics of kettles boiling — I suppose I was only five or six.
This was the Age of Tobacco. We lived among clouds of tobacco smoke. Dad was, by the standards of the day, a moderate smoker. He only smoked cigarettes, and I think never more than ten or fifteen a day. (Forty or fifty was not uncommon.) I think he smoked Senior Service mostly; but at some point I remember him rolling his own cigarettes, from Old Holborn tobacco and Rizla cigarette papers. He had a little rolling contraption to shape the cigarettes. Dad quit smoking in 1972, aged 73, while I was in the Far East. He had a chest X-ray, and there was some slight shadow on the lung. Given my mother's close acquaintance with all the town's hospitals and doctors, I suspect she may have "fixed" this result in order to get Dad to quit, but she never admitted it.
In his younger days Dad was a moderate social drinker. (Noel: "He liked a pint.") By the time I knew him, however, he had no social life, and drank little. There was a home-delivery service for bottled beer that we patronized. They used to deliver a crate with twelve bottles in it. I'm not sure of the delivery cycle, but I suppose it was once a week; and twelve bottles a week seems about right for Dad's beer intake, if not a little high. Perhaps deliveries were once a month. Certainly I never saw Dad drunk, nor even tipsy. He kept scotch in the house, Johnnie Walker Red Label, and sometimes had a shot before going to bed, but I think only when he had a cold.
Speech: Dad spoke ordinary lower-middle-class English with a faint Shropshire accent. He used very few dialect words. The only one I can recall is "clemmed," for "starved," in the idiom: "'No thank you' clemmed to death," addressed to a child who had declined an offer of food. Since presumably Dad got this from his own parents, it may be Lancashire rather than Shropshire. Likewise with some of his oddities of grammar and pronunciation. The imperfect tense of the verb "sit" was, as far as Dad was concerned, "sut."
Dad's usual exclamations were "Strewth!" when surprised, "Bloody hell!" when vexed. I never heard him use a four-letter word, either sexual or scatological.
Humor: Though not constitutionally a very happy man, Dad had a sense of humor. I remember him often laughing and smiling. He liked TV sitcoms and variety-show comedians. By early-21st-century standards his preferred style of humor was unsophisticated, but that was just a consequence of his age and background. Here is Dad telling a joke:
A feller and his girl were walking out along a country lane. They came to a field where a bull was serving a heifer. They stood and watched for a while. Then the girl said: "Would you like to do that, George?" "My oath I would," said George. "Go on then," said the girl, "I'll wait here for you."
There is another specimen of Dad's humor, in his own handwriting, here.
Politics: Dad was a regular Labour voter. That really doesn't capture much of his political sympathies, though. It would be hard to think of any point of late-20th-century Labour Party policy he agreed with. He detested the trade unions, which he thought were holding back industrial progress. (Well, they were.) He thought mass Third World immigration was gross folly. (Right again.) He thought the U.S.S.R. meant us no good. (That's three.) To the union-sponsored multi-culturalist socialist Sov-symps who actually ran the Labour Party, he was from Mars: but he voted for them anyway.
Dad's own father was a Lloyd George Liberal — the nearest American equivalent would be a TR Progressive — and Dad never advanced much beyond that point of view. His Labour vote was really more anti-Tory. He saw the Tories in terms of the effete landed classes practicing a mixture of stupidity, sentimentalism, and self-interest. I once heard him say the country should be run by a committee of successful businessmen.
I think Dad probably approved of Hitler when the dictator first showed up. (Dad would have been 33 when the Nazis came to power.) No real disgrace in that: many other English observers felt the same. Like those others, Dad changed his mind when Hitler's program bumped up against the traditional English fear of any one power dominating continental Europe. What Dad would have admired in Hitler was his "businesslike" getting of Germany into shape after years of chaos and dissension, his kick-starting of industrial production, his standing for no nonsense from mischief-makers (labor unions, traditionalists, intellectuals, communists), and so on. That's how it would have looked — that's how it did look to the largely Germanophile, rather depressed, class-ridden and inefficient England of the early 1930s. Once patriotism and the ancestral memories of Philip II and Napoleon kicked in, people swung round.
Like most early 20th-century liberals and progressives, Dad believed in eugenics. At any rate, he believed that the mentally defective and criminally inclined should not be allowed to breed. He took in the crude Social Darwinism of his youth, hoping for the "fittest" (which in his mind would have meant the healthiest and cleverest) to inherit the Earth.
Nation and race: Dad was, as Boswell said of Johnson, "a stern true-born Englishman, and fully prejudiced against all other nations." He believed that one Englishmen was worth any ten foreigners.
Dad's experiences on the Western Front left him admiring the Germans for their courage and organization, detesting the French, and wary of Americans. (The American soldiers who began to show up in 1917 got a reputation as ill-disciplined and foolhardy. The latter was likely just from their being new to the war. The Tommies, after three years in the trenches, had learned caution. The former is a long-standing prejudice, pre-dating WW1 I think. Dad said that the watch-word among Tommies was: "Never mind about Fritz [i.e. the Germans], just keep a look out for those bloody Yanks.")
Dad's detestation of the French carried through into the 1970s, when he spent much of his spare time writing letters to the newspapers warning against the "Common Market" (i.e. the European Union). He saw the Market as a French racket. It was in fact, at that point, mainly a Franco-German racket; but Dad's partiality to the Germans obscured this for him.
Dad was, like wellnigh all Englishmen of his time and class, very mildly anti-semitic. He regarded Jews as clannish and of doubtful honesty. This was combined, though, with respect for their intelligence and abilities. On the rare occasions he needed a lawyer, the only one he would use was Max Engel, one of Northampton's leading Jews. When, around age 18, I acquired a Jewish girlfriend, Dad was plainly impressed, vaguely believing I had "done well for myself." (He was perfectly amiable towards her.) His usual term for a Jewish person was "Sheeny," as in constructions like: "You remember Marjorie. She married that Sheeny bookmaker from over Towcester way." I never detected any malice in Dad's attitude to Jews. He regarded the Holocaust as an inhuman outrage.
Towards non-white peoples, Dad's attitudes were primitive. Black people he regarded with loathing and contempt, as subhuman. He seems to have had no strong feelings towards East Asians, probably because he had never encountered any. He did believe that Chinese people were lucky, though. If he himself had a stroke of luck, he would say: "Well! I must have shaken hands with a Chinaman."
Religion: Dad was an atheist. He did not believe in an afterlife, and regarded organized religion as a power- and money-racket based on absurd superstitions. The only time I ever saw Dad in church was at Aunt Polly's funeral in 1978. He did not bow his head for the prayers, nor join in singing the hymns.
Of Christian sects, Dad particularly detested the Roman Catholic church. In part this was just his general anti-religious outlook compounded with the traditional English distrust of Roman Catholicism. Part also seems to have come from his experience doing his army training in Ireland. Since his own mother, to whom he was devoted, was a Roman Catholic, it all seems a bit odd; but somehow it made sense to him. Watching TV news at Easter, when they showed a clip of the Pope blessing the crowds in St Peter's Square, Dad would shake his fist at the TV and call out: "You bloody fools!"
Dad none the less conformed to the English religious/cultural stereotype as defined by George Orwell:
And yet they [i.e. the English] have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.
When I got my first substantial weekly paycheck, as a construction laborer in my 1964 college summer vacation — it was around £25, a staggering sum for unskilled work at that time — Dad suggested I give my mother £5 to help out with the housekeeping. Reluctant to part with any of my hard-earned cash, and stuffed to the gills with late-teen selfishness, I asked why I should do so. Dad: "Because it is better to give than to receive."
Though having no scientific training, Dad had a strongly empirical cast of mind, and wanted to see plain evidence for things. He encouraged me to read popular science books, and was pleased when I did well at school science. He disliked most kinds of traditionalism, not only religious ones. When the opening of parliament was televised, he would offer scathing remarks about the antique robes and costumes worn by the various participants — Black Rod, the lords and judges, etc. He thought things should be brisk, businesslike, and up-to-date.
Dad's anti-religious prejudices were directed at Christianity, the only religion he was acquainted with. I never heard him say anything about Islam or Judaism. He had a vague notion that "Eastern religions" were possessed of worthy mystical insights, but I don't know what he thought those insights actually were. Probably he didn't know himself.
Attitude: Paradoxically, in view of all his spoken "progressive" enthusiasm for businesslike efficiency, and his scorn for sentimentality and traditional forms, Dad disliked the modern world. He nursed a powerful nostalgia for the time "before the Great War" (that would be World War One), the time of his childhood, when food was natural and nutritious, beer had some taste to it, Britannia ruled the waves, and women (see below) knew how to behave. Dad's progressivism, like the American sort (but minus the religion) contained an odd, contradictory streak of conservatism: a preference for country over town, for the past over the future, for traditional sex roles …
Not all of this was paradoxical. For one thing, it fitted with Dad's Social Darwinism. He thought that modern medicine allowed too many of the "unfit" to survive, to the general detriment of the human race. Probably some of it was the natural reaction of a man who had had a happy childhood but had then been not much of a success in life.
This nostalgia was strongly at odds with my mother's outlook, and the contrast was a sort of continual dialectic throughout my childhood. Mother heartily approved of the modern world. In her nursing career (1928-1972) she had seen the immense improvements in public health brought about by medical advances. She was also much more aware than Dad of the more general social improvements in these decades, mainly just because her family had been poorer than his. And as a housewife, who had started her working career in domestic service, she had a keen appreciation of things like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and steam irons. She could give detailed instructions for grueling chores like how to black-lead an old-style fire grate — things I am glad I shall never have to do.
So this was the dialectic: Dad grumbling that food nowadays had no taste, and the authorities didn't know how to deal with criminals, and things went much better Before the Great War, Mum replying scornfully that Before the Great War little children had been running around barefoot in winter and suffering from rickets, poor men were sent to prison for a little poaching, … etc., etc., etc. It equipped me, at least, with a fully three-dimensional perspective on 20th-century English social history.
So far as his fellow human beings were concerned, Dad was, at any rate in his fifties and sixties, antisocial and rather suspicious. He had few friends: Ernie Padmore from his Shropshire childhood, Dicky Dent from his WW2 days at the Air Ministry, … That was about it. In old age he mellowed somewhat, playing cribbage with Bob Longdon next door, walking up the street to sit and chat with another old fellow up there whose name I forget. ("They just sit there and talk about their bowels" — Mum.)
Women: Born an actual Victorian, Dad was Victorian in his attitudes to women. Broadly, he regarded them with suspicion, as always trying to lure men into marriage. His letters to me are filled with warnings about the sinister schemes employed by women to snaffle men. He made no concessions to my mother's wishes or desires, causing her much distress. He was, though, perfectly monogamous (as was my mother). Loose women he regarded with a peculiar mixture of scorn and pity, believing I think that they had only, from moral weakness, given in to the low, carnal nature that they shared with all other women. He was amused, but contemptuous, towards a neighborhood wife widely rumored to have "a fancy man." Homosexuality he thought unspeakably loathsome. At the time of the Liberace trial I recall Dad saying disgustedly: "They should never have let him into the country."
Music: Dad's musical taste was mostly limited to the human voice as displayed in the middlebrow concert repertoire of the 1930s and 1940s. He seems to have had no taste for instrumental music.
Of male singers his great favorites were the Irish tenor John McCormack and the Australian baritone Peter Dawson. He told me that once, I think when he was in Australia or New Zealand, he had attended a Dawson concert and met the man himself.
Dad had a pleasant baritone voice himself, and would sing Dawson numbers when taking his Sunday bath; or, when we were little, to us children sitting on his knee. The song we liked best was "The Floral Dance," which I believe I could sing myself before I was five years old. Other Dawson favorites were "The Miner's Dream of Home" and "Simon the Cellarer."
To be bounced on Dad's knee, the only song that would do was Fred Leigh's The Galloping Major, made into an early-20th-century music-hall and early phonograph hit by Stanley Kirkby (and nowadays of course on YouTube). This is the perfect song for knee-bouncing, the Platonic ideal. My own kids were knee-bounced to it, and I hope my grandchildren will be.
Mum told me that John McCormack's lovely song "I'll Walk Beside You" was played at their wedding, though whether live at the piano or from a record, I don't know. I imagine it was a favorite at weddings in those years.
The only female singer that I recall Dad being fond of was Vera Lynn. Mum used to tease him that he had a crush on her.