A guest post from our Writer-in-residence, Kate Monro, featuring Chelsea Pensioner Chris MeliaThere are so many points of interest in Chris Melia's story that it's a nice challenge to know where to begin. Let's start with some historic detail. The Welfare State in the UK didn't exist in quite the same way when Chris was a boy. Born in 1927 and growing up in the 1930's, most British people had to manage on what they had, even those who couldn't work, who were sick or caring for family. Consequently, a different climate existed, particularly amongst the working classes. One where people looked out for one another and pulled together in tough times. Chris summarises the idea thus: "if your mother and your father had gone out, your next door neighbour would ask 'what d'ya want lad?' and I'd say 'I want a jam buttie' and they would give you a big jam buttie. See what I mean...?'
I like to think of this as the era of community parenting. Because by the same token, if said neighbour saw you misbehaving whilst your parents were out, you'd be just as likely to get a clip around the ear and for better or worse, Social Services would not be beating a path to your neighbours front door! A community parented a child and as such, a child sat up and paid attention to their elders. All of their elders.
On a personal note, this explains the plethora of elderly people waving walking sticks and shouting 'your generation have no respect. We fought a war for the likes of you' at children like me in the 1970's. Times had changed and with the best will in the world, we weren't really sure what they meant when they said this. The war might have been present in our parent's minds. Everything got eaten in our house for instance. Nothing was wasted and we were given frequent reminders of a strange concept called 'rationing'. But we grew up in a more constricted environment where we reported in to biological parents only - and the welfare state was up and running. It was difficult to understand what our parents meant when generally speaking, people appeared to have what they needed by the 1970's. Chris's generation, on the other hand, had to get extremely creative with the weekly 'shopping' out of sheer necessity. His neighbours relied upon him for it.
What I also like about this story is that despite the hardship - and the heartache - Chris tells us a story about the war with an unexpected perspective, that of excitement. I'll leave it to him to explain how, for him and his brothers, all was well, not only with the world, but also with the war.
Chris Melia, born in 1927.
'I grew up in the docklands of Liverpool and it was a raw old place in those days. You had to be a bit hard to survive but it was a marvellous place to be. You got so many different types of people and influences. I knew those docks like the back of my hand and I could get into any of them because as young lads we were always mischievous. We were always down there and we knew exactly what ship was carrying what.
|Copyright of Liverpool Records Office|
But they were great days. Fortunately for me, our school got bombed during a raid in May 1939. One of the good things about school was that at 12 years old, I had already had as good an education as these children get today. They insisted upon the 3 R's. Reading, writing and arithmetic. 'Get those three and the world's your oyster' they used to say - and I did. But when the school got bombed , they lost all records of who was supposed to be there. As far as I was concerned, that was me and education finished. The truant masters were being called up, the police were thin on the ground and the teachers were changing week by week. They didn't know me from Adam.
By this time, my eldest brothers were away at sea and there was only my older sister Agnes, myself and my two younger brothers at home and on 3rd September 1939, we sat in the front room with a couple of neighbours listening to the voice on the radio telling us that war had been declared. Frank and Tony, my two little brothers were out in the back garden digging trenches because they were so excited.
They used to test the air raid siren before the war began and we used to love that too because it stopped school and you went down to the basement where we used to have punch ups and god knows what until the teacher told us to go back up. The girls were just as bad! Alright; from the grown ups point of view, there was a different atmosphere but we thought it was the best thing ever. So that got me to the beginning of the war. Slip trenches were dug in the back garden by Frank and Tony and everything was alright.
The camaraderie and the way that normal people in the street used to help one another in those days sticks in my mind. We used to have what we called the 'Aunty Mary's'. They were old ladies with handcarts and they used to go round gathering clothes and redistributing them. If they saw a child with no shoes or coat and they had something in their cart, they would take it off and put it on the child. That was the atmosphere of the time. They were marvellous people. You were looked after. You could play in the streets. You could go all over the place and you were always OK. There was no luxuries or anything but you didn't miss them because you never had them to miss. All the help in the world was there for you if you needed it because of your neighbours.'
Tragically, just before the war began, in 1938, Chris had lost both his mother and his older sister to illness, leaving his father to care for Chris and his remaining siblings.
'It's a funny one but just shows you the type of man a Liverpudlian is in adversity. When mother died, I was about ten years old but I had been a nosy little buggar you know. We had three aunts and they used to come around every Friday to see my mother and of course when my mother died, they were there with father and they were sharing the children out between themselves. Well, my father hit the roof. He said to them 'there's the front door, get over it and don't ever come back again' and they didn't! Despite this, I decided from a very early age that because of the way the family had gone and the loss of our mother, there was only one way to get what I wanted and that was by my own efforts. That gave me a sense of independence from there onwards; I rolled with the knocks. My father made it quite clear. He said, 'where your life is concerned lad, you have got to make up your mind and if you make a mistake it's your mistake, nobody else's and you take the knock'. I used to go up to the country and go pea and spud picking to make some money. I used to get 2/6 pence a basket so it was well worth it. 2/6 was a lot of money in those days.
In fact, I did odd jobs all over the place just waiting for the day when I was 17 and a half and I could go down to the recruiting office and join up. By then my elder brothers were all in the services of some description and my father was quite happy to see me join up because he'd been in the Army too and that's the way we were in those days. I wanted to get in to uniform as quickly as I could.
Eventually the day came and I went to Lanark to report to the 10th Field Training Regiment. That was another education. Because asides from a day trip to the seaside, I'd hardly been out of Liverpool. And they'd put me in this foreign country called Scotland. When I landed on that dank March day with all these people wearing kilts and shouting a foreign language, I did think 'Where the hell am I? I've landed on the moon!'
It was exciting and daunting at the same time. But it suited me. It was the sort of life I wanted because we had it rough growing up and all these so called brutal Sergeants and Sergeant Majors. Well, they were pussycats really. When you consider some of the characters from our past, the policemen and the priests, relatively speaking, it wasn't a stretch for me. It wasn't easy. But I adapted. Others couldn't. I did and as far as I was concerned, that was home. It impeded my independence a little but the hard work and the training you did - and doing something different every day, that really appealed to me. I took straight away to Army life.
At that time, the war was coming to an end and the people that were training used to fill the gaps of lads that were being demobbed. So we went out as replacements to Italy. That influenced me. I had seen hardships and problems. I had seen hunger; particularly in the 1930's around Liverpool but Italy was an absolute shambles immediately following the war. In actual fact, they were starving. Our task was to 'aid the civilian powers' - very nice term that one - and we were there to help them as much as we could. What we were doing was bringing in supplies. The food was being unloaded in Venice and distributed out to the rest of Italy. There was an awful lot of fighting going on because of the factions too. There were the fascists, the Communists, there were about 15 or 16 different groups that wanted to take over power so consequently we had a fairly tough old time. Because, as the German's withdrew, they blew virtually everything away: bridges, rail-tracks, everything, so there was no infrastructure. It was an enormous task. And it never stopped. After Italy, we went to Palestine. As we'd finished in Palestine, Malaya blew up.
Those first years in the army were really the learning years and as I went up in rank, I implemented what I'd learnt. I found I could implant that into the younger soldiers that were coming through. Eventually I made Sergeant and then Sergeant Major. I was going on a lot of courses, drill courses, small arms courses, signals, you name it and I took those in my stride because of the education from my early years.'
With tours of Germany, Palestine, Cyprus and Hong Kong amongst others, Chris spent a total of twenty-nine years and nine months in the army. At which point, and wanting to settle in one spot after his wife became ill, he decided to leave and go back to civilian life. He had ideas about opening a bed and breakfast but with impending recession, a friend advised him against it and instead, offered him a job as a bursar at London University, a job that Chris felt, justifiably, he could do 'standing on his head'. Eventually he joined the London School of Economics where he really came into his own.
'It was the late '70's. It was the time when we were having an awful lot of problems with the students. We were having sit-ins and stand-ups. You name it. Everything as going on. I was in my element. I'd only been there a few months... did you ever hear of a student called Tariq Ali? He was the Student Union's rep. He was the one who was always bringing them out on strike. I arrived in Houghton Street and there they all are out in the front.
|Tariq Ali at a demonstration in London in 1973|
'Oh no you're not'... and I'm thinking, yeah alright. Fair enough, I've been down this road before. So I go upstairs, pick up the phone and shut down the catering organisations. Six hours later I get a call from Tariq Ali saying 'Would you mind coming back and opening up with catering? They're all starving.' And I said 'Well I don't know. Do you think I'd be safe?'
From then onwards, whenever something was going on, they did in actual fact leave me alone so I was quite content and of course the whole thing settled. He was a nice lad Tariq, very sensible, very intelligent. He wanted his own way but when he found out he couldn't have it ALL his own way, he was prepared, not to back down but to back off.'
Becoming a Chelsea Pensioner
Eventually Chris decided to retire and move to the coast but sadly, after battling with illness, he lost his wife. 'That was hard, I must admit. There's things that happen to you throughout your life and you think you can handle anything and I thought I could handle this, but I couldn't. It was difficult. But you know, like everything, you get through it in the end. I stayed in Hove for about ten years, but after that I had the urge to move, to get back to my roots. So I booked a holiday back to Liverpool and I went up there and thought 'Absolutely no way am I going back there! No no no no no. So where shall I go?' My step daughter and I moved to the same town for some years which was lovely but eventually the time came when I'd had enough of civilian life. As soon as I heard I could go to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, I applied and got in. The first thing they did when I got here was to give me a job.
I wouldn't say they were in a poor state, but there was room for improvement when I took over as Assistant Protocol Officer. There was only one computer and, over time, I computerised the entire booking system for Founder's Day which up until that point had been done by hand. I enjoyed a good six years of that job but I gave it up when my powers of concentration waned. I was 82 years old by then. I said 'I am sorry but you need to get somebody else'. That was Nick Clark (who has just completed 5 years in the position).
This was the picture. I was sitting in my office. Nick popped in and I said 'Yes?' And he said 'I believe this job is now becoming vacant'.
I said 'Yes, Why? Are you thinking about it then?' He said yes.
I said 'Have you ever done anything like this before?'
The look of sheer terror on his face... now, as soon as I got that reaction, I knew I had the right person. So we sat down and discussed it and he took over just like that and he's improved on it.'
'When you are a soldier, you become a Lance Bombardier where you have a little section and you have five men that you are responsible for. And you've got to think about what's affecting them and as you go up the ranks it gets bigger and you begin to be able to read people. You know when someone is pulling the wool over your eyes and when someone is being really serious about something. It comes naturally to me now. It's an instinct that has been a great help to me in my time.
I also think back to my father. He was a tough old cookie. When the first major raid came in Liverpool, he said 'I don't care what you do; I'm going to bed. If they couldn't get me in the first war, they can have a go at me now'. So we never went to the air raid shelter after that. Oh no. Unless you were out in the city and a policeman would grab you and throw you into one but at home we didn't bother. That was another funny thing. We were always told where we lived we were safe because there was a battery of guns just down the road from us in a park. Only the military could get in there. Well, towards the latter end of the war, we broke in. The guns had never fired a shot. They were dummies. It relieves the tension of the population you see.
But my father had decided that because they'd had a go at him during the first world war, let them have another go now. We took our lead from him and didn't worry about it. He was a very wise old bloke. An awful lot of them were like that in those days. They had a hard life but by god they knew what life was all about.'