Barbara Helen Newman was my grandmother. She died aged 99. I would like to write a few things down to celebrate her life, keep her stories going and tell you a bit about her. Of course her personality and presence is what really counts, but I’m not sure I have the ability to adequately distill a description of her character out of the day-to-day interactions I had with her. Her quips and word-play were quick off the tongue but just as ephemeral. She was a linguist and a musician. She played the piano and was particularly fond of Schumann. She had a fierce intelligence and quick wit, a playful relationship with words and bags of character. But rather than attempt to describe her character I shall relate character-forming stories that I remember her telling me.
She had a particular peculiarity which I have inherited: a keen appreciation of the utmost importance of occasion and ceremony, but without a trace of seriousness. She was always the first to raise a toast at any meal. Her favourite, which she inherited from her mother, a Scot from the Clan McInnes, was:
Here’s to you and your Tam. And here’s to me and my Sam. Us fair [four] nae mair [more] aleliuja, Amen.
She had a sense for the ridiculous. She was unable to attend our wedding, but, I think, would have approved of our inclusion of a diesel engine in our marriage ceremony to raise the flag, and would have enjoyed the Royal Animal Race.
At school she concentrated on languages, and studied French, Latin, Italian and German in 6th form. When the war started she joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Navy Service) and was stationed at an outpost of Bletchley Park, intercepting German radio transmissions. She would sit listening to a radio receiver all day, scanning the tuning needle back and forth. For the most part, nothing happened. On one occasion the building she was in was bombed. The tension of sitting all day, on a hair-trigger, waiting for something to happen must have been unbearable. She did once hear something and raised the signal. A flurry of activity, and the messages was passed on to higher-ups. I don’t think she ever found out what happened.
The Bletchley Park website has a roll of honour that records the names of people who served there. Her entry, which you can view here, reads:
Name: Barbara Helen Dew Jones (Newman)
Rank: PO Wren
Summary of Service: Withernsea from 1940. Intercept Operator against German E-boats and shore batteries.
Beyond the monotony, they were cold, tired and hungry all the time. When things became desperate she and some friends decided to strike. This did not go down well and they were read the Riot Act. I have heard this used as a metaphor, but in her case it was for real. A quick glance at the Act indicates that it’s pretty serious business, and she was terrified.
During the war she met a dashing Czechoslovakian officer by the name of Ladislav. He fought in the tank regiment. I regret never having had the chance to meet him, but he sounds like a formidable and warm person. He was a superb violinist. More than once he escaped Prisoner of War camps. During one escape he was stopped and searched by German guards. He survived only because they didn’t find the phrasebook hidden in his shoe. Later they married and after the war she followed him back to Czechoslovakia. Being a linguist she studied the Czech language in readiness. On arrival, she realised that she’d learned the wrong language, as he was a Slovakian. Luckily the languages are not too dissimilar.
Ladislav was keen to introduce her to his army friends. Slovakian is not an easy language, and he taught her her first phrase, an introduction. She proudly introduced herself to all of his friends and was met with smiles and laughter. Thinking that she might have got some of the more complicated consonants wrong, she asked him how she did. ‘Perfect pronunciation’, he said, ‘but the phrase I taught you was “My name is Barbara and I have green eyes like a pussycat”’.
At Christmas they made the journey to the home of a relative. Trudging through the snow in the Slovakian mountains, they eventually arrived at a house. They sat round as the great patriarchal figure got the giant Bible. With great gravity, the lengthy story of the Nativity was told in a booming voice. She sat tight and didn’t understand a word.
Army tradition was to take a shot of Slivovica when greeting a friend on social occasions. She was not a big drinker, but did what was needed and drank a shot with each of a worryingly large group of friends, getting through quite a quantity of spirits. Somehow, in those freezing mountains, it was fine. Years later, a Czechoslovakian army reunion in back in London, someone managed to find a bottle. After a single shot she was under the table. Somehow, in rainy London, one was enough. She always kept a bottle and a little Švejk figure.
They stayed in Slovakia and had two children there. She might have lived there her whole life, but when the Communists took over she fled with two babies under 15 months old. Lacking a passport, Ladislav was unable to leave. After 8 months, during which she thought herself a widow, he managed to escape. He turned up at her front door and said ‘Of course I came.’.
After the intense camaraderie of the war it must have been an anticlimax. In England, Ladislav was now regarded “just another bloody foreigner”. She became a teacher and taught at a school in a deprived area of the Old Kent Road. One thank-you letter, which she never forgot, said “To Mrs Newman, without whom I wouldn’t have learned to write good”.
I think she must have been a very good teacher. When I was a child she taught me various things and was never afraid to get philosophical. I remember her explaining the subconscious with great clarity. She described it as a fluffy pink cloud that closed up as soon as you asked it direct questions, and which never gave direct answers. But it could tell you things that your conscious brain couldn’t. One must approach it sideways, kindly, and be patient for the answer. My childhood was sprinkled with this kind of wisdom. She encouraged us to learn poems, some of which I still have.
She was the last survivor of her siblings. As children Barbara, Ronald, Athol and Teddy had an eponymous, acronymic boat, the BRAT, which they used to sail in Blakeney harbour. Our family has connections there, and her great-grandfather, Thomas Dew was the harbourmaster when Blakeney was a busy bustling harbour. Her uncle Bunny was a friend of the king of Egypt, and was accustomed to sailing on the Nile. No doubt he was used to hotter weather than anything Norfolk has to offer. She told the story of Uncle Bunny preparing to swim in Blakeney harbour. He emerged in his Victorian bathing suit, ventured to the edge of the water, stuck one toe in and with the words “Good God!” hurriedly retired back indoors to nurse a whisky.
Hers was a generation that learned and recited reams of poetry and she retained a large quantity of Shakespeare well into her later years. Goethe in particular seems to have been lodged deeply. After a surgical operation on her leg, on coming round from general anaesthetic, she asked the surgeon how the procedure went. “Well,” he said, “but you recited German poetry the whole time and it was very off-putting!”.
In her lifetime she saw unimaginable contrasts: war time, bombing and Soviet invasion, xenophobia, morphing into the modern life familiar to most people living in the UK. In the year when we mark 100 years since the Armistice Day, when talk of “bloody foreigners” isn’t far off, and hostilities persist in much of the world, we should be careful not to forget that 1939 wasn’t all that long ago.
It’s important to preserve that continuity when where we can. My wife and I took Ladislav as the middle name for our son in memory of the grandfather I never met. And we will pass on Granny’s intangible influence and keep telling her stories. And if I can bring an ounce of her intellectual courage to my life, I hope I will keep some part of her spirit alive.