Tuesday, January 25, 2011
The King's Speech and my grandfather's brush with George VI
I’m excited that the King’s Speech has been nominated for 12 Oscars.
Well at least I’m as excited as anyone can be on another cold gray January day. As we say back in Blighty “Mustn’t grumble. At least it’s not raining.”
I’m not even sure Brits do say “mustn’t grumble” a lot, even if Bill Bryson says we do.
It’s often the most unusual ideas that make for a good movie and you don’t get much more unusual than a movie about stuttering, even if it is about Royal stuttering.
I have decided I must see it, even if that entails waiting for it to go onto Netflix. I am an admirer of both Colin Firth and King George VI, the former because of his acting skills and the latter for overcoming a stutter and a marriage to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who perfected the expression of a bulldog chewing a very prickly wasp.
Of course it’s typical of the deluded British public that they took the good old right wing Queen Mother to their collective bosoms in the same way as they were fooled into thinking Princess Diana was Mother Teresa’ s attractive twin.
My grandfather who also spent most of his life ducking the verbal brickbats of overbearing women, mainly my grandmother, used to tell me a tale about George VI when I was knee high to a grasshopper, to use an inexplicable cliché.
It seemed he was in the Army, although the historical context has been lost in the telling. I still remember the soft light that filtered into the scullery back in those days from a garden fragrant with hydrangeas and the swarms of wasps that my grandmother attracted with open jam jars in the dubious belief that this method would trap and kill every wasp in suburban Birmingham. Time seemed different back then as did the light as if it has been diffused in a sepia filter. And the smells of roast beef were the smells of my childhood.
My grandfather's tale was from either between the wars or some time during World War II in a remote Army base somewhere in England. A bully boy Sergeant had been on my grandfather’s case, hurling insults and taunting him for days. He reacted by doing what you aren’t meant to do in military establishments; namely punching him in the chops.
My grandfather told me how he was paraded in front of the Regimental commander who at the time was the King; or the future King. I can’t recall now if George VI had yet ascended the throne.
My grandfather waited for the commander to hand down his sentence; and he waited. George started and he stopped. He muttered and he stuttered. His stutter was so bad he couldn’t even get the words out to reprimand my grandfather. In the end his features twisted in frustration and he gave up. Instead of sending my grandfather to a military jail he was given unpleasant duties for a couple of weeks; latrine cleaning, boot polishing and the like.
I haven’t thought of this story for years. Not until I heard about the film The King’s Speech.
This made me research George VI’s life to try to find out when he was a regimental commander. But his military service mainly comprised being in the Royal Navy, although in February 1918, he was appointed Officer in Charge of Boys at the Royal Naval Air Service’s training establishment at Cranwell.
I know my grandfather was the co-pilot of an Avro 504, but in 1918 he was headed to Russia to fight the Communist revolution, only to arrive on a ship full of fur coats in fly infested Murmansk where the temperatures were in the 80s.
So I’ll never really know any more about the tale beyond those skeleton memories of childhood and everyone who would help me find out is dead. All of which is rather sad really.