Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Jack Stoodley
John Riminton.

The sign above the little shop read "J. Stoodley - Boot and Shoemaker", but Jack always referred to himself as a cobbler. The shop was one of a row of small businesses, a Newagent/Sweetshop; a bakery and a dairy which, in those days, meant milk and cream sold by measure.This row looked out across a road which was bordered by the edge of the little fishing harbour of St. Aubin. None of those businesses long survived the war, all demolished to make room for hotels and bars, frequented by tourists awed by the fact that the boats in the habour, which once included Jack's, would be settled in the mud in the morning and floating almost level with the road in the late afternoon, lifted by a 35 foot tide.
Jack had started his business early in the 1930s when St. Aubin was little more than a fishing village and a station on the railway that ran from St. Helier to
Corbiere. Then the station burnt down and the railway closed soon afterwards, making St. Aubin even more of a separated village at the western end of St. Aubin's Bay. Our home was about a mile east of St. Aubin, so our visits were quite frequent and usually included dropping in to see Jack who was well-known for making childrens' sandals.
At that time, before the Occupation, Jack was in his mid-forties. Not very tall, medium weight and muscular. His passion was fishing. Right up to the time that I last saw him in 1948, I never knew whether he had married, but had he been, his wife would have been well supplied with mackerel, mullet, conger eels and the various shellfish abundant around the rocky coast.. Somehow, however, my childhood and youthful impression was of a bachelor. As I grew into my pre-teens, I occasionally used to ride my bicycle out to St. Aubin and spend time sitting in his workshop, looking out over the Harbour while he told me about the best way to catch mackerel when they were shoaling or how to avoid getting bitten by a conger eel. He also told me how to tie knots to secure a boat "two round turns and two half-hitches" and where to dig for worm bait, all the while hammering on a sole or stitching a welt. At that time I think Jack was a deeply contented man, respected by his community, satisfied by a life that allowed him to do what he loved.

All that changed on 1 July 1940.

After the spate of Proclamations and Decrees that followed the arrival of the Germans, two things profoundly changed Jack's life. All fishing from boats was banned and leather was no longer imported to the Island.
It took some time for us all to come to terms with a new way of living. All private cars (with few exceptions) had been requisitioned within the first few weeks and, for adults, acquiring a bicycle became a matter of urgency. Anyway, it was probably a year or more before I saw Jack again, riding out to take a pair of school shoes for re-soling. Already the changes were marked. No longer the proud row of made-to-order shoes and sandals behind the work-bench awaiting collection. Instead a few pairs of shoes awaiting repair and a pile of leather off-cuts carefully stored in one corner. Jack no longer the hearty man that he had been, confiding in me that he did not know how he was going to manage without fresh supplies of leather, glue and waxed linen thread, while facing an ever-growing demand for repairs to ever-deteriorating shoes: "and these bloody Occupation Deutschmarks - you can't buy anything with 'em anyway. I'm going to have to close down to three days a week".
That was the first of many rides to St. Aubins over the next four years. As my feet grew, my shoes became more odd - hand-me-downs from recently-widowed friends of my mother's; a rare importation of shoes from France with split wooden soles for flexibility and cardboard tops. Jack and other small cobblers found a way to resole shoes with rubber cut from old tyres, but each visit showed Jack to be thinner and less responsive to my chatter. Being a teenager, I did not ask him how he spent the days when his shop was closed, or about his home life, but I could register his delight if I was able to bring him a small bag of haricot beans from our garden. Once I arrived when he and others had got permission to go draw netting at low tide in the Bay and he invited me to join them - a huge thrill, bragged about at school and from which I proudly brought home two flounders.
Then 7 May, 1945 and a British frigate stood out in the Bay, signalling the end of the Occupation. My mother and I rode out to a friend in St. Aubin and joined people gathered on the harbour wall with some of the old men and boys who represented the German Occupying force mingling with the civilians. Some of them spoke English and expressed envy at our jubilation and anxiety about their futures. Jack was in the crowd, smiling and shaking hands all around. "Back to it now Jack, you'll have your boat in the water next week and god help those mackerel" but the spirit seemed to have faded in him.
Many things happened to me over the next two years that left no time to follow Jack's fortunes. In fact, by the time that I saw him for the last time, I had qualified for admission to the Medical Faculty at Bristol Universiy and was working as an unpaid supernumary in the grossly understaffed General Hospital in St. Helier. One day, when I was helping out in the Out Patients Department, Jack came through from the morning clinic. I hardly recognised him; thin, stooped and grey of skin, he had some serious problem with his jaw that was beyond the skills of the two nurses and myself dealing with the patients. Instead he had a card instructing a dressing for a badly-grazed hand. I think that he had difficulty recognising the white-coated young man who chatted about old times and fishing as he dressed the hand. The last time that I ever saw him he was shuffling out through the OPD door into the main corridor.
I had never thought about what Jack's private life might have been like, but with hindsight, I have wondered whether the buoyant action man of 1939 had lost a girl friend/fiancee during the evacuation immediately preceding the Occupation and had later received one of the brutally short 25 word Red Cross messages to say that she had married someone else in England. That, coupled with the struggle for financial survival and the frustrations of a fisherman, near starvation, unable to fish in the waters on his doorstep, whether these were the factors that turned Jack Stoodley into another of the unsung, tragic victims of that war.

But that is just speculation.


1 comment:

  1. john this is such a poignant story...I am wondering how much is true life?