Frederick Seymour – a Memoir

I moved into the top flat of 63 Albert Street, Camden Town, in autumn 1974. My brother Mark was already there. Frederick Seymour lived in the two-room flat below us. He found it extraordinary that a flat which he and his wife had rented, back in the 1950s, for a few shillings a week, was now part of a house in a street where houses changed hands for six-figure sums. His accommodation remained basic. Apart from his two rooms, he had a toilet at the turn of the stairs. He kept his milk in a bowl of water on the landing. His heating in winter came from a paraffin stove. There was electric light, but no power points. He had no bathroom, and he courteously refused the offer of using a bath elsewhere in the house, preferring to go to Kentish Town, to the municipals, where he said hot water was ample. He resisted the installation of gas fires, whose fuel costs, he thought but did not say, would take too much of his old-age pension. He was an independent man, difficult to help.

He had been born not far away, in Somers Town, in 1895. I knew him for the last seven years of his life, in the course of which time I spent many hours in his living room, drinking his tea and hearing him talk. He was a great raconteur, and his speech was full of London mannerisms; not the same as dialect features (which he also used, though occasionally, not the full Cockney), which are easier to record, but choices of vocabulary and phraseology which signalled the pride but also the deference of a certain type of working-class Londoner of his generation: spirited, nobody’s fool, knowing his place. Harold Pinter has caught the tone of these mannerisms in his great early plays better than anyone else I know.

Mr Seymour told me how, when he was a boy, he often ran down in the morning from Somers Town to Oxford Street and queued with other children outside a high-class baker and confectioner for a pillowcase-full of stale loaves and cakes. This cost six pence. His mother, a widow with a large family, found the loaves and cakes useful in her household management. After returning with the pillowcase, Fred did a milk round before school. This work yielded two pence and a free pint every day. On Saturdays and Sundays the pay was double, and the milkman stood him a full breakfast, whatever he wanted, in the coffee house. These weekend rounds were the luxury of Fred’s week. He said he felt stylish up behind the pony. He groomed it in the stable after work.

His first job, after leaving school at 14, was as junior waiter at the Naval and Military Club, Pall Mall, where he helped the senior staff who waited on Churchill, Kitchener, Jellicoe and their like. He was taught about varieties of Havana cigar and different vintages of port. After a year he was promoted to the billiard room, where he kept the score for the waistcoated players. This was his favourite job. It required a good knowledge of the rules of billiards and snooker. He took pride in recording a score before a player had even turned to check that he’d done it. Tips were generous in that room, especially late in the evening.

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Then the war came. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, before conscription, much to his mother’s distress. A day or two after landing in France, he wrote to his girlfriend Dolly in Paignton, Devon. He used a standard-issue French-forces postcard, perhaps because the British hadn’t by then got round to printing their own. I still have that postcard; its image appears here. On the reverse of the card he wrote: ‘My darling Dolly, arrived quite safe in France on Monday morning. Hoping you are well. Yours ever, Fred x x. Goodbye dear’. Censors of course read soldiers’ correspondence, and the censor’s approval mark can be seen on the front of the card, somewhat obscuring the address. The most poignant detail, however, and one which still arouses my anger when I think about it, is that for some reason – possibly lack of familiarity with French money – Fred hadn’t paid enough, or anything, for the postage. Maybe he thought that by comparison with the sacrifice he was willing to make, it would be reasonable for the British government to pay for the stamp. In any case, as may be seen from the mark ‘Improperly Posted. Delayed’ on the left of the front of the postcard, it took fully three months for the card to arrive at Dolly’s house in Devon. Maybe she paid the postage there. For all that time, she had no news of Fred, and of course feared the worst.

He survived in France for nearly three years. Eventually a shell ripped through one of his legs, wounding him badly enough to be transported back to England. He was treated in a hospital at St Leonard’s-on-Sea. ‘Glad to be out of it, I was, I don’t mind telling you. The lovely nurses, clean sheets every day. It felt like heaven after where I’d been.’

Once the simple fact of being still alive had lost its special glamour, he enquired about discharge. ‘No chance of that,’ he was told. ‘We’ll find a job for you.’ He was sent to another hospital, in the Nottinghamshire countryside, by the Trent, which housed some of the mental casualties of the war: men inside whose heads the most unbearable sights replayed themselves, time and again, which their imaginations, as if having eyeballs without eyelids, were compelled to see. On night shift by the telephone, he listened to the damage and the waste, revealed in weeping and howls of madness.

I often thought: to have been one of those to whom all that had happened by the age of 23; an ordinary board-school Londoner, to be plucked up and shown such sights.

His life after the war included: forty years as a bus conductor with London Transport; the General Strike, in support of which, he was proud to say, the crews at Chalk Farm garage were solid; the Blitz, in which he and his wife lost several friends, randomly annihilated by bombs happening to fall on their terraced house rather than someone else’s; a happy though childless marriage; enjoyment of days off from the buses when he and his wife would go to the West End, see a show, eat lunch and tea at a Lyons Corner House; a tendency to move from rented accommodation to rented accommodation because his wife liked a change of scene every so often; the death of his dear wife from cancer a year after he retired and just as they were looking forward to spending more time together; a largely solitary old age, made somewhat sociable by his willingness to serve whoever else was living in the house by giving them tea, cooking them breakfast, doing their laundry, feeding their cats.

‘Funny thing, these nights I find I dream a lot. There was this farm where I was billeted, not far from St Quentin, and a girl called Yvonne. She wanted me to stay and help them on the farm. I think she liked me, you know, lovely girl. But I was more or less engaged to Dolly and, well, it wouldn’t have been right. Anyway, last night I dreamt of both of them. There was Yvonne, crying her eyes out, telling me to come back when the war was over, and Dolly in her wedding dress kept coming in and saying, “Fred, I’ll never be a bride Fred, I’ll never be a bride.” Kept on saying it like that. Makes you think, don’t it, after all these years, to see their faces just as they were then.

And then I saw my sister. She was a lovely person my sister, kind, good hearted, do anything for you. She died of peritonitis in 1935. The doctor said the only chance for her would be a bottle of the best champagne. Course, that was before the NHS. Funny, you wouldn’t think champagne, but anyway, we went to Justerini and Brooks and bought the best. We didn’t study expense. We took it up the hospital, and it worked, well I say it worked, it bucked her up, she lived another ten days, never complained.

Yes, I dreamt about all three of them. When you get to be my age, dreams make you think about the things you done in life, and whether you was right, and what if you had acted different. You know. Here, sit down at the table and I’ll make a pot. You want a piece of toast? No extra charge!’

I moved away from Camden Town in 1979, so I saw Mr Seymour less frequently during the last two years of his life. He died at the good age of 86, of malnutrition, hypothermia, dehydration, gangrene of the right leg and other complications. During the last two weeks he was cared for in dignity and with love by the nurses of University College Hospital. For the costs of his funeral he had paid into a fund. Flowers brought to the funeral were sent to enliven a children’s home. Over refreshments in his room after the funeral, relatives who had made no contact with him for many years spoke familiarly of Uncle Fred. Those with uneasiest consciences gave out most noise.

In memory of Frederick Seymour, 1895–1981

No conversation needed or desired.
I’m in the ward each evening, just to sit.
His occupation is to breathe, and mine
to listen for his voice inside my head.

The voice remembered likes to stick to facts.
He made a choice quite easily one day:
I went down to the office to recruit.
Mornington Crescent. Then I went straight back

and told my mother that I’d volunteered.
She was upset. But I was right to go.
If I had waited till they called me up
I never would have lasted like I did.

On Vimy Ridge, the doctor’s orderly,
he sewed them into blankets, corpse by corpse.
We took their boots off, and their I.D. chains,
that’s all. I saw their faces. Bits of boys.

The voice resists grandiloquence. It speaks
of perks and pains – I got the better food
’cause I was looking after officers.
The tin hats made my hair fall out in weeks.

He lasted till a shell undid his leg.
The wound was bad enough to bring me home.
They drained the pus for ages, bowls of it
from where the shrapnel nestled in the thigh

and lodges there tonight; a flake of iron
which cooled first in a factory in the Ruhr
now shivers with the rest of him inside
the shiny silver bag he’s swaddled in.

Not long ago, at home, he handed me
a standard issue army greetings card,
address and message legible but faint,
the Allied flags still bright in coloured inks.

My darling Dolly, my first chance to write.
Arrived quite safe in France on Monday last.
Am hoping you are well. Yours ever, Fred.
Goodbye dear – like an afterthought, beneath.

The censor had approved these sentiments
and left his purple mark accordingly
but insufficient postage had been paid
by sender, and the message was delayed.

Poor thing, she had to wait three months for this.
I kept it when she died. Look after it.
No conversation needed or desired.
I’m in the ward each evening, just to sit.

John Richmond