Doug Sandle

Tales from a Manx Boarding House


Doctor Who and the Birth of the Universe

Dr. Who got drunk at my christening - quite drunk according to my dad. I like to think it was because he had some inkling of the problems he would encounter and the responsibilities he would have to bear as a future Time Lord – for to be honest he was still in mortal form and was yet to become one of Dr. Who’s alter egos. Jon Pertwee was stationed at the navy shore station HMS Valkyrie on the Isle of Man, as was my dad, and the inebriated celebrations in 1942, which accompanied my being the first child born to any of the serving crew, was probably more Navy Lark or Worzel Gummidge than intergalactic warfare. The shore station was an experimental radar base and my dad a wireless and communications Chief Petty Officer (Telegraphy). The story of Jon Pertwee’s celebration was one of the few things he told me about his war experiences – one of the few things he shared as a rudimentary filial intimacy. My mother was a little more forthcoming (and no doubt the use of ‘dad’ for one and ‘mother’ for the other would be a rich vein for some psycho-analyst to probe). She particularly liked to tell the self depreciating story of when having lost her home in the Plymouth blitz, my dad who had been on naval duty sailing in the Far East telegrammed instructing her to join him in the Isle of Man, to where he had been transferred; a location free from German bombardment and a safer place for her and my older brother and sister. Accordingly, she recounted how she spent some time with a map of the world scrutinizing the islands of the China Sea for one called the Isle of Man.

A lack of paternal intimacy, the rarity of shared communication and the lost opportunities of confided hopes and fears, appears to be a common experience among my male friends; especially those now well into middle age or beyond. The idea of father-son bonding, the sharing of human failings or the mutual celebration of success, was not fashionable before the more touchy-feely free expression of the sixties. The complaint of an absence of father-son communication appears a common one – one expressed with sadness, a frustration, resentment even, and often with a hint of lamentation.

It was not that my dad was altogether without social skills or was chronically shy; he had a good voice and had been a ship’s broadcaster. And while his most frequent expressive moments were usually one of frustration or anger (even fearsomely so at times), there was sometimes a glint of character, an assertion of playfulness, a reaching out of humanity – such as an after meal expression of satisfaction, regularly and cheerfully voiced as   ‘that was moreish’. And then when I was ten or so, and after I had remonstrated that unlike other dads he never made me anything, he delighted in unveiling the Christmas present of a wooden toy fort, complete with many interlocking turrets and battlements covered in red and grey stone coloured wallpaper –  the making of which had taken several weeks hidden away in a temporary workshop in one of the fourth floor bedrooms of our boarding house. There was also the obvious delight and interest shown when as a student I introduced him to a Walkman for the first time. A few years later there was intimacy of a different tone, but an expressive coming together none the less, when I actually struck out and pushed him over, and as he got up slowly from the floor he smiled at me in reluctant recognition that the balance of power of our physical relationship had changed. 

Occasionally too, he could strive to be the life and soul of the party with an enthusiasm not always shared by my mother who tenaciously liked to be the centre of attention. At one of our many popular children’s parties, organised with military precision by my mother, my dad suddenly appeared lipsticked and dressed in high-heels, black skirt, bodice and a bonnet – “guess who I am kids, guess who I am”. My mother, incensed at this challenge to her position, dismissed this intrusive charade of Old Mother Riley with a seething silent anger. While smiling at the children she slowly reached out to the array of trifles topped with hundreds and thousands, the overloaded piles of tomato sandwiches and the paper dollied snow dusted raspberry jam sponge cake until her hand searched out a stack of shiny side-plates, which she then lifted one by one and uttering under her breath, “you stupid bugger, you stupid bugger” proceeded to systematically smash them over his head. Defeated, he left the room to a lingering atmosphere of both horror and amusement at what was perceived by the assembled children as some kind of Punch and Judy performance. My mother cheerfully and with maternal beneficence began to serve the sausage rolls.

Although my parents were closer in their later years, their relationship was not always a good one, and arguments were frequent. My mother could be sneeringly incisive with her sarcasm and put- downs and her taunts would often elicit his anger. While I can not recall direct physical violence, there were moments of high drama.  The image of flying dinner plates is one that comes to mind. During a Sunday dinner, taken out of season in what was the visitor’s front dining room, a fierce argument erupted and soon a full dinner plate was hurled against a wall. Yorkshire pudding, beef, cabbage, squashed potatoes, peas and dark brown gravy slowly oozed their way down the papered wall like a slow moving gastronomic landslide. It was a difficult marriage - a difficult family history with a young baby boy’s sudden death during the war, a daughter with cerebral palsy, severely disabled from birth and my father’s war time absence. Possibly too, the fact that my parents were related as second cousins may have heightened a family short fuse tendency. Several years after his death I used to visit an elderly lady, who had been a close neighbour of the family, then bedridden and dependent on daily visits from the social services. Among the trays of medication and infusions, the wilting flowers, powdery smelling soap and left over dinners, she would talk about better days and her friendship with my parents. During one of my visits she suddenly looked up and informed me that as a matter of fact “the problem with your parents Douglas was that your father was over-sexed.”  That intriguing comment was offered without further explanation or elaboration. While no doubt a critical observation, it was not altogether a condemnation, as almost immediately after the words were spoken there was a flicker of a half formed smile and a just perceptible knowing nod. It would be too simple however to imply that my dad with his temper was an unloving man. He was very caring and close towards my disabled sister. There was also another rare moment of family intimacy when I was in my late twenties and he took me aside, and in a genuinely concerned voice, told me that my  mother was unhappy  because she had no grandchildren; the implication being clear that perhaps it was time I got my own act together.

My dad was a complex person, very intelligent and perhaps more sensitive than he cared to display. And while I have learnt many things about him, most have been from other people. My brother for example recently told me of my dad’s musical expertise in playing the harmonica and that he was once in a mandolin band during the navy – a musical side that I cannot clearly recall. He also had the patience and steadiness of hand to be captain of his naval rifle team, a skill he continued for some time in civilian life when as I used to eagerly await the Green Final Saturday sports paper to see his name in the weekly results of the Isle of Man rifle club league. He could however become agitated and easily frustrated with the routines of a domestic life and he had an almost phobic regard for the risk of fire. He became angry if gas fires were left on unattended or visitors left cigarette stubs still alight in ash trays. Such an obsessive concern was ammunition for my mother’s taunts. However, it was only long after they had both died and at my sisters 70th birthday that my brother revealed that such obsessive fears about fire were an outcome of a wartime incident when my dad witnessed the death of a friend engulfed in flames. At the same event, a  cousin also revealed that my sister was called Pamela after one of my dad’s navy friends, whose nickname was Pam, on account of his fair and rosy complexion. My brother’s middle name is Leonard, which was ‘Pam’s’ surname.

However in spite of these occasionally scraps of information, my dad and his wartime experiences remain largely unknown to me.  Although I have an old tin box of fading documents and musty smelling certificates, I know little of his life and next to nothing of his experience of it. Among the documents is a garish piece of paper entitled ‘South China Navigation Certificate’ that proclaims  that having sailed the seven seas and succeeded in a list of naval prankish achievements he “has safely reached his goal –The Red Lion Inn, Kowloon South  China, where he is now expected to RIP”, signed 28th July 1939 by the Chief Pilot. Also in the tin box a yellowing Christmas and New Year card of 1927 features a fading photograph of HMS Cockchafer on the Yangtze River. Another folding card from China reveals a picture of my dad sitting Raffles-like in a wicker chair complete with Panama hat and a large pint of beer. The card’s front imprint proclaims it as from Stonecutters wireless station, which I now know to be near Hong Kong and part of the Kowloon peninsula. As a child I loved to play with a big box of foreign money that belonged to him –odd shaped coins, some with holes through them, paper notes of all sizes and colours proclaiming their value in numerous languages and strange hieroglyphics. I would imagine how my dad had obtained them from his travels in the navy, but while many stories could have been told, I heard none and I never knew anything about his life in China, - it was never the subject of conversation or reminiscence between us. To be fair, for many years my dad suffered from deafness, and a clumsy and humming deaf aid was not conducive to close conversations. Yet at his funeral, the young apprentices and radio engineers who worked with him in Bristol during in his part time retirement told me that to them “he was just like a dad”, entertaining them with many stories of his adventures in the navy.

There was however one act of special communication of a sort. When he left the navy he became more of an electrical repair engineer, servicing and fixing radios and early television sets, and as a consequence during the fifties we were one of the earliest families in our town to have a television set. Two of my strongest childhood memories are of the black and white and mostly gray images of the televised Queens’s coronation in 1953 when neighbours packed into our back living room. The same room earlier in the year had been equally packed with school friends, somewhat more rowdy and agitated as we watched the famous Stanley Matthews cup final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers.  Early model TV sets were common in our house, and often he would bring them home from work to fix. Some of these times, he would huddle into the backs of the TV sets, cigarette in mouth, glasses at the end of his nose and smouldering soldering iron in one hand, adjusting his deaf aid with the other. I would be summoned to hold a mirror in front of the screen so he could tune the picture as he fiddled and poked with a surgeon’s concentration among the innards of the TV. Occasionally he would shout at me to hold the shaking mirror still, as fascinated by the changing images on the screen my own attention was more retinal than physical. Often the screen would be a mass of flickering white blobs and spots with greenish tinted shadows quivering in various states of unfocussed form. However, the white flickering interference or ‘snow’ was itself a compelling fascination for me with its buzzing abstract patterns that fed my imagination. I would glance from the face of the set to the mirror. There my dad could be seen head bent down into the back of the depths of the TV manipulating the changing array of buzzing and crackling patterns, until magically, he brought forth form and meaning in both light and sound. It seemed like we were both engaged in some kind of electrical alchemy, and in its way it was a special intimate moment of bonding. Not many years ago, a friend of mine told me that the interfering ‘snow’ and its white noise were manifestations of energy that still filled the ether from the Big Bang and the beginnings of the universe. If only we had known – that my dad was communicating to me the beginnings of the universe. What a conversation. Undoubtedly, Dr. Who would have been impressed.