A Letter From the Dead

Two weeks ago, I received a message on my blog:

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Seeing as my blog seems to be so hard to Google, let alone be found by some sort of relative, I proceeded with caution.

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Turns out this dude is the great-grandson of Thomas Tozer – my great great uncle – and his cousin has been doing a lot of research into his family. He wanted to find out if I had any more information about Thomas Tozer,  but unfortunately, the information I received was from my dad’s cousin who also has been researching the Tozer family tree – and probably got his information through this guy’s cousin. I knew that Thomas was a member of the TA, and that he died following the Battle of Passchendaele – though there seems to be a discrepancy about his death date. We never knew how he died.

He found a blog post about the time I visited Thomas Tozer’s grave with my sister and friend on a WWI trip.

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His response:

Email 2

Whaaaaat? A letter?

Thomas-T

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So it was a gas attack that killed him. Did he die by gas or just during an attack? Of all the ways to die in the First World War, to most of us in the present day, this seems the most daunting. Mustard gas, for example, caused people to die a very slow and painful death; their bodies broke down both inside and out, with the skin turning into the most painful blisters and their lungs slowly eroding, effectively causing the people to drown. But that would be the worst possible conclusion.

A family letter from the war seems to be some of the most treasured possessions a modern person can have, and I have never known of any in my family, so this was very exciting for me. I asked if he would send me a copy of the letter. It’s a photocopy of a photocopy so some of it is a little illegible. It was sent to his sister Alice from Zonnebecke, which is where his grave is. And here it is (see further down for my transcription):

Thomas Tozer Letter 1 Thomas Tozer Letter 2 Thomas Tozer Letter 3

I’ve tried to write out what it says as best I can – I’ve added punctuation to make it easier to read:

“Sun 25/11/17

Dear Alice,

I now take the pleasure to write you these few lines hoping that they will find you and Albert and children in the best of health. I am fairly well myself considering the time that I have been through. I have just come out of the line. I were only in for a few days. It was my first time [illegible] and it was quite enough I can assure you. It was not being in the trenches but to get there we had to pass through a barage of shell fire to get there and the same coming out. We had several casualties but thank God I came through all right and we were told that we were heroes [?] every one. We simply followed one another like sheep going to the fold but it was a very trying time I can tell you. I have been out here a month now and the different places that I have seen are terrible to see  nothing but ruins everywhere. It is heartbreaking to see them and the sooner this terrible carnage is over the better.

Harriet* and the children are all fairly well at present but they must be feeling absence and I hope God will spare me to return to them as soon as possible but at times I dread to think of the future. Life out here is very trying at times what with the lice and the noise and the former, well, I have to have a roll call every night or else I should be overrun. Keatings powder** they seem to like for they sit upon their hind legs and ask for more and they get quite fat. Polly sent me some different stuff so I am just giving that a trial and I hope that I shall feel a bit easier.

Polly tells me that Albert was up in London the other week and that he has got a further extension and I am glad and I hope he can keep out of it. I suppose Bert is getting quite a young man now and the baby quite a big girl. My address is Pte T Tozer 38996, 2/5 East Lancs, B Coy, 8 Platoon, B.E.F. France***.

I think that this is all I have to say dear sister so hoping to have a line from you. I will close with best wishes to you all from your

affec brother Tom”

*Harriet was his wife. She remarried in 1947 and died in 1953. She’s buried with her second husband Charles John Wing in Gunnersbury cemetery

**Keating’s flea and lice powder was the staple powder the British soldiers used to try and kill off their lice – but to little avail

***B Coy = B Company, B.E.F. stands for British Expeditionary Force

Princess Margaret and my Granddad

 

This week my mum told me about a Radio 4 programme she happened to listen to featuring a recent breaking story about some of Princess Margaret’s letters that have just been released for public viewing at the National Archives in Kew. If you haven’t heard what has happened, like I hadn’t, you only have to type it into Google, to find that actually it was all over the papers a few days ago.

Basically, the media was raving about the Princess’ “simple tastes” alluded to in these letters – she liked simple meals, not caviar and oysters, suggesting her apparent “normality” (though all of her letters are written on her behalf by some Sir Martin bloke – still seem normal?). The correspondence in question occurred before her visit to East Africa and Mauritius in 1956 (click the link for a breakdown of her visit to the island).

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The reason I’m writing about this random popular story is because my mum told me that my granddad, Grand-pere, who was from Mauritius and worked closely with the Prime Minister Ramgoolam when he lived there.

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When Princess Margaret went to visit, he planned her itinerary, and travelled with her around the island. Though we apparently have pictures of her, we have no pictures of them together. I’ve tried to search online, and managed to find a short archive film from Pathe…which is really interesting. But alas – no footage of him.

I’ll continue to look. I might track down something…

Good Times

Last night a DJ saved my life. I was in a club in Clapham, which in all honesty, I thought was going to be a cheesey music night. Now let’s get one thing straight people, when I say cheese this means the Baywatch theme tune, Ghostbusters theme tune, Grease megamix, 5ive megamix etc. It does NOT include disco. Disco ain’t cheese. It’s dance  music.

I’ve been reading Nile Rodgers’ autobiography:

Nile Rodgers

I’ve gotten a little obsessed with it. I wanted to read a fiction book but my sister put me onto this saying it would inspire me to write music. Not only has it done that but it’s also reminded me of my obsession with disco when I was a teenager. I’ve liked disco since I was a kid. We used to have record nights on Sundays, and my dad would always put on a mix of his “classics”: The Weather Girls, Sister Sledge, The Three Degrees, Yvonne Elliman, Liquid Gold. When I got a little older, I’d listen to more of these old dance tunes. 

I really got into disco when I was about 13. I used to daydream about going to a proper disco – I wanted to live in the seventies and go to a disco, or at least go to a school disco and dance to…disco! I hated most of the stuff in the charts at that time – pop and garage music mainly. Saying that, I did love some modern music, and that was funky house – mainly because a lot of funky house is simply sampled disco with a faster beat. I also got into the film 54, practically fell in love with Ryan Phillippe (Rodgers has some wild stories about that club). The disco obsession was unhealthy. Even more unhealthy than later obsessions with Woodstock, The Beatles, the sixties… Now I’m reading this book, it’s making me obsessed all over again. And I feel like I did when I was thirteen.

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People at school thought I was a bit weird because of it (and many other reasons). But actually, I just really loved the bass and drum grooves, and in fact, disco pretty much made me want to learn how to play the bass. In particular, Bernard Edwards, the  bassist of Chic, made me want to learn. I can’t remember who it was who first taught me how to create that distinctive disco bass sound – the octave run up and down the neck, but that was the start of my bass journey. As a result, I just had to learn how to play Everybody Dance, one of the trickiest basslines I’ve come across. I finally managed to conquer it, but still need to practise it regularly in order to keep my hands from cramping, because it is so fast and I use a different technique to Edwards. It is probably my favourite Chic song.

It was the first song they laid down as well – written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who went on to write many other songs that have inspired songs in all genres, and have been sampled across the board – most notably in The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. I’m pretty sure that even the pop song Stomp by Steps was inspired by Everybody Dance

Rodgers’ story about the song Everybody Dance in his autobiography is the most memorable so far. He writes that a month after they laid down the track, a DJ in a club called Rodgers in the middle of the night. He told him to go  to his club and tell the doormen that he made Everybody Dance. When he got there, the doorman let him in and pretty much congratulated him. When he got inside, he found out that the crowd would dance to nothing but their song. He watched as they danced to it on repeat for an hour.

Which brings me back to last night. I was dancing with my friend, and I said, “I want to request something, but most DJs hate it when you request things.” A DJ got annoyed with me at new year for requesting something. But then I looked at the DJ and thought, maybe he won’t mind this particular request. I asked my friend if she’d ask for me and she said yes. I wrote a text on my phone: It would be great if you could play something by Chic. She took the phone and showed him.

I can’t remember what was being played but then the next song changed to a completely different genre – Chesney Hawkes possibly – and I thought, he’s changing the tempo – maybe he will play something by Chic. And then I heard the bassline and whooped: my first opportunity to dance to Everybody Dance in a club. Most of the people were a little earshocked by the change from a cheesey rock song to an upbeat disco tempo (mainly white people). Think I might have bumped into a few people while I was dancing. I said thanks to the DJ afterwards.

I went to see The Best Disco in Town back in 2004 with my sister and brother in law. A number of disco acts were playing, amongst them Shalamar, Rose Royce, Tavares and headlining them was Chic. I was all ready to watch them play and they came onstage…but no Bernard? I didn’t know that he’d died back in 1996. I was pretty gutted when I found out why he wasn’t there. I’ve yet to read how it happened in the book.

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Still, the bassist in the contemporary Chic was pretty decent, and the concert was great, but as we could only afford seats waaay back in Earls Court, we couldn’t really see much. So I’m going to see Nile Rodgers with Chic again in July and I’ll get the chance to dance to that song again – but live this time. And I’ll see Rodgers up close.

My 2012 in Pictures

My 2012 in pictures:

Early months…

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Churchill-Bedroom Map-Room-phone

100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – and my greatest blog post of the year:

titanic wreck

Trolleybus Anniversary

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Ferris Wheel

View over Business Park from Ferris Wheel

Queen’s Jubilee – my father lighting the beacon at Whitstable

Queen's Jubilee

My first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival

first oyster

Whitstable Harbour Oyster Festival

blessing

The Olympics 2012

Olympic Flame Relay

Brad wiggo

Summer days

Camden Market

SW4

 Holiday in Portugal

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Larry Graham in concert

Larry Graham

Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos Jump – I was obsessed with this event – read here

standing

Bonfire Night

Bonfire Night

Talk with Olympic and Paralympic athletes at work

Olympic and Paralympic Talk

The Thomas Hardy tree

Thomas Hardy Tree

Secret Cinema – The Shawshank Redemption

Secret Cinema November

Christmas 2012

Christmas Tree

A death in the family

Papa passport 3

Christmas party at the Tower of London

Tower of London Christmas Party

Christmas Day on the beach

Christmas Day on Beach

Obituary to a Grandfather: Roger Allier – Civil Servant, Singer, Old Man

On Tuesday last week I got a call from my sister telling me that my grandfather had died. My grandfather, or Grand-père, had lived at my parents’ home, the hospice in Canterbury, the hospital in Margate, and a nursing home in Whitstable  in the past month. He died in the nursing home, comforted by one of the staff members, not choking and coughing horrendously as he had been for the past month, unable to swallow anything. The coughing had been painful to watch. Instead, he fell asleep and slowly stopped breathing.

Only two days before, I’d gone to see him with my sister and mum. He wanted to know where his watch was. Mum said she would bring it to him the next day, but never managed to give it to him – she had it in her bag on the day he died.

As I was leaving, I said,

“Okay Grand-père, I’ll see you in two weeks,” even though I knew it was actually three weeks; I wanted it to be a shorter frame of time to give me a greater chance of seeing him again before he died, even though I knew it would be longer. I said bye, and gave him a kiss, and then I went outside and thought, I don’t think I’m going to see you again. I think I just said bye for the last time.

When I went to see him, he didn’t look like him at first. His mouth hung open. I could see his teeth. They were pretty brown, but still all his own – a grand feat at 91. They weren’t always brown: I remember about 20 years ago, saying to him, “Grand-père, your teeth are so white!”

Surprising he had his own teeth. Also surprising he had his own life for such a long time too considering he smoked most of his life and drank whisky for much of the remainder of it.

And when he was younger, he was stung by a stonefish (twice?) which should have killed him, he was poisoned by cyanide which should have killed him, and he had stomach cancer which also could have killed him in his seventies. Instead, he got the all clear two weeks after his wife, Grand-mère, died suddenly from a ruptured aorta, just a few days before their 50th wedding anniversary.

He always said that had he known she was going to die, he would never have had the cancer treatment. In fact, if you ever asked him how he was, his ongoing “joke” response was:

“Still alive.”

Grand-père was a French Mauritian who moved to England during the 1960s, and took his family with him – a wife, three sons, a daughter, a mother, a mother-in-law and a brother-in-law.

In Mauritius, he jumped a year ahead at school,  became a civil servant, working alongside the prime minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam travelling around the world, studying in London,  negotiating with other countries. He negotiated with Japan over the waters they could fish in, and helped kick off the fish canning industry. He even received letters form the Bank of England right up into his old age.

He also played the harmonica, taught me latin (Amo amas, I met a lass, Amas amat, I laid her flat – that’s the clean version) and also had a great voice, sometimes singing for audiences, his own favourite singer being Tino Rossi.

When I was at uni, I did a journalism course and decided to interview him for an article. I didn’t get a great mark for it, but I thought I’d share it in this blog post to document some of the history of this man…

I’m sweating. Not just from running around, searching for the right adaptor lead for the old tape recorder I am about to use in my interview. But sweating also because it’s 9 o’clock in the morning, after a late night. Not too late, but late enough to have been bitten by a couple of dogs, if you get my drift.

My Mum hastens me along. I’m already meant to be interviewing my 86 year old grandfather, Roger Allier, or Grand-père as I know him, born on the 6th March 1921 in Mauritius. He’s an early riser, and an early drinker at that, which is probably why he’s better with hangovers than I am – he can’t remember them. Soon he won’t remember much of anything else either, which is why I have to catch him early on this morning – my only opportunity for an interview. You see, it’s not a case of a hair-of-the-dog or two for him; he plucks the beast bald, throwing it sugar free biscuits to keep it from whining. Grand-père’s a diabetic alcoholic, you see.

He doesn’t know he’s about to be interviewed. My Mum knows better than to tell him too much time beforehand about such things. He would have been having a nervous breakdown by now, wondering about what I was going to ask him. Does he ponder on such menial things because his whole life he has had to think about much bigger things? I find out once I’ve managed to replace the tape recorder lead and begin the interview.

I’m sitting opposite his empty chair whilst he makes a whisky in his annex at the back of my parents’ house. They built it for him when Grand-mère, my grandmother Henrietta Allier, died at the slightly unripe age of 72. It’s great. A humble bed-sit which has a small bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower, and a living room come kitchen come bedroom. What more could he want? The house he used to live in probably, where he thought he would spend his old age laughing with his wife, had she not died suddenly three days before their golden wedding anniversary. That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy life now.

“You want one?” Grand-père asks me as he shuffles back to his chair, motioning towards the large bottle of whisky. It’s ten o’clock in the morning. I kind of laugh, unsure if he’s joking, before declining the offer. I notice he has two other large bottles behind the open one. He says he got them all for Christmas. I got him some colourful socks. Grandfathers always appreciate socks.

I wonder what he would have appreciated when he was younger, during his life in Mauritius before he moved to England. I want to know why the small black and white photo on the wall above his chair, of him and my grandmother in their early twenties, expressionless, holds more colour than his life now.


“I started as a clerk, a junior clerk,” he tells me, about his job in Mauritius. “I was able to climb up all the ladders…In the end I finished as one of the top civil servants.”

The top of his shiny head faces me as he looks at the floor, while speaking softly in his French Mauritian accent, his slow hand conducting the speed of his words. I begin to understand how successful this old man was. He learnt shorthand, and was a judge’s clerk before working his way up into the government in Mauritius, mixing with the most important people in the world.


He starts to tell me why he left Mauritius which involves the Prime Minister. I interrupt. Did he know the Prime Minister of Mauritius? He seems surprised that I ask.

“Oh yes! The Prime Minister was Dr Ramgoolam.” Lunches with Dr Ramgoolam and other members of the government and their wives were common events, but a certain lunch caused the final push for Grand-père towards England. “The Prime Minister Ramgoolam talked to my own wife after a few drinks, and he was telling her apparently his plans to take me with him on a voyage to the United States of America where I had been before.” My grandmother went mad when they got home. “Rita said, “If you do that again, we are finished. I’m not going to look after the children again!” So the only thing I could do at that time was to leave.”

At this point I look at the photo of the young pair. It’s strange to think that they ever argued. An old couple who had stayed together for so many years – I would assume that their relationship was harmonious, painless…tiffless. I was too young when Grand-mère died to have seen another side. He had travelled to America with the prime minister previously for six months – a long time for anyone to deal with, especially as Grand-mère had four children to look after, a leg operation to contend with, and a Christmas without him.

The other reason my grandfather left was because he was certain that Mauritius was about to get its independence. “I was thinking mainly of the children, of their future.”

These children, now near retirement, are Roger, 61, Gilbert, 59, Yves, 56, and Floriane, my mother, 53. “As long as the English were the owners of the place, there was an English governor, responsible directly to the secretary of state here, but Mauritius was getting independence.”

The independence of Mauritius was a positive thing. But when one dominating group leaves, another takes over bringing much change, and in this case it was Indians. I ask if this was because there were a lot of them. Again Grand-père is surprised. “Yes! Two thirds of the population!” Mauritius also consisted of Chinese, Africans and the French descendents, like Grand-père, not to mention the English and Dutch. In fact, the island is so multi-racial, it is difficult to define someone with pure Mauritian blood.

“Mauritius was very close to the island of Réunion – you know that? And Réunion was a French colony…while we, Mauritius, we were different. We had lots of Indians.” It is Réunion which his father Alcé Allier came from, while his mother Athalie Loulié came from Mauritius, and her parents from France. “So in that way I was French, came from French people: Allier and Loulié,” he says. I’ve come to learn that many grandparents love to reel off stories about their past. Some reel off the same stories repetitively. Some can only remember parts of their stories. The latter is true for my grandfather.

I’ve heard so many stories about his life in previous years from him and others, and I want to hear them again. But when I ask questions such as,
“Have you ever been back to Mauritius?” or
“What was the most memorable moment for you in your job?”, the replies are,
“I think I’ve been, I can’t remember,” and
“When Rita was still here we talked about quite a few things like that because meeting people and…but I can’t remember any of it now.” I’m still able to get quite a lot of information, yet later he worries that he’s been of no use to me. I wonder if I should get him a bottle of whisky to show how much he’s helped. I think again; this copper coloured liquid isn’t exactly oiling his synapses.

But his weakening memory doesn’t stop him from telling me about a certain occasion I’ve heard mentioned before and wish to hear about fully. His meeting with Haile Selassie. As it turns out, there’s more to it then just a handshake as I’d originally thought. At first I think it’s another dead end as I ask,
“Was there anyone in particular you quite liked?”
“Not in particular, most of them were very friendly.”
Maybe he doesn’t speak of Selassie because he doesn’t think the event is as important as I do (I’m interested in reggae and its history), or maybe because he just doesn’t remember meeting him or didn’t like him that much, or maybe I wasn’t direct enough. I soon fix that.
“You met Haile Selassie didn’t you?”
“That’s when I went to Ethiopia. He was alright to me.” Another question about Ethiopia to which he answers,
“To me it seemed like a big country being wasted. I mean, there were so many things that could be done.” Then he’s off, talking about the international meeting there.
“But an amusing thing and I always remember, that there were 10 or 12 of us going in there of different nationalities…so they had to take quite a lot of precautions.” These precautions were because of the fear that Selassie would be assassinated. So they all had to enter in the same vehicle, surrounded by guards, and then Selassie was meant to arrive slightly later. But Grand-père wanted a cigarette.
“So I went downstairs quietly, and then I heard somebody laughing beside me and it was Haile Selassie. He had left his guards…We talked and then we went in together, and they were all laughing. Yeah he was supposed to be protected, because one of our lot could have shot him!” My grandfather laughs and looks at the ground. I laugh too, wondering what else I was to find out.

When he eventually moved to England, he had a convoy of people to take with him, all to live in a large flat in Battersea in 1962. And so life sprinted on, as does the interview. We talk about his leisurely life shooting game, and his part as an acting sergeant major in World War II, where he momentarily comes to life, hollering the orders he used to shout when loading and shooting six-inch guns, how he studied at Cambridge, at the London School of Economics, and the many countries he visited, from his forefather arriving on a ship called Le Tigre which sank leaving him stranded in Mauritius, to descendants sailing on a boat to England.

My final question:

“Did you ever meet the British Prime Minister?” and he can’t remember. Luckily, my mother can. She finds a photocopy of a newspaper cutting from the front page of the Washington Post on the day of Ethiopia’s independence. It shows him meeting Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. My grandfather on the front page. I’ll be careful the next time I sign someone off as just an old person. You never know what great things they’ve achieved.

Etienne Amable Roger Allier

6 March 1921 – 4 December 2012