In an endearing audio interview—available in full on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website—centenarian Bill Lawson from Ilminster, recalls being dragged into school by the ear. As incentives go, that’s not quite how children expect to be introduced to education these days, but Bill remembers ‘the headmistress taking me by the ear and telling me I had to go in whether I liked it, or whether I didn’t.’ No doubt times have changed but what’s hard to comprehend is the fact that Bill’s school memory comes from over 95 years ago.
Interviewed by Seth Dellow as part of his series Past, Present and Future Bill Lawson’s memory is not only as sharp as ever but he recalls a selection of the moments of his life with a twinkle in his eye and a ready laugh at the wonder at what life has thrown his way.
Born in Hartlepool in 1920 he recalls his father as ‘fairly strict’ while his mother was petite. He remembers when he was misbehaving she would ‘hammer me on the back and I recall saying “now mother you’re going to hurt yourself if you’re not careful.”’
After school he tried to get a job as an apprentice engineer in the shipyard and also applied for a job with an estate agent. He got both job offers but though he wanted to take the apprentice option his father said he should do the estate agent job. He was there for a couple of years and then worked for the local council before going to war.
Like many men his age, the war changed his life—literally overnight.
Bill had been out celebrating his 21st birthday and when he got home quite late his father told him not to get too settled. ‘I had to catch a train at six o’clock the next morning to go and get equipped to sign on for the airforce’ recalled Bill. It was January and he remembers that it was ‘damn cold’. Each lad was given a sheet and a blanket and allocated a Nissen Hut.
He went by boat from Liverpool to Glasgow then on to India. His first posting was on a piece of land with a date plantation on one side, a swamp on another and a river on the third side. He remembers the swamp was full of noisy toads ‘We were there for a year’ he says, ‘and it was damned hot’.
Temporary showers were a bucket of water with holes in. He remembers that two or three people with ginger hair were sent home because of the heat. ‘We all wished we were ginger haired’ he says. Then it was on to North Africa and following that he joined the sea rescue service and also spent time as a wireless operator.
One time in transit just outside Cairo, there was a dance on in the army barracks. ‘That was where I first met May’ he says. ‘I asked her to dance and she didn’t show any enthusiasm at all. She thought I was a scruffy old devil.’ Perseverance proved beneficial, and scruffy devil or not, May agreed to marry Bill and they eventually got married in the Church of Scotland in Alexandria in 1945. It was a big wedding. ‘We had the army padre, the RAF padre and the civilian church of Scotland minister at the wedding’ said Bill, ‘to say nothing of all the lads from the unit.’
Whilst war had it’s ups and downs, de mobbing when it was over brought its own challenges. He remembers thousands of men being given new suits and trilby hats but there were few jobs. ‘I was very lucky’ said Bill. Having been in local government before the war he was able to get his old job back. ‘It was everybody for himself. You either waited for dead men’s shoes or you got on.’ May had twin boys and he remembers having a whisky with the doctor after they were born ‘which he seemed to enjoy as much as I did.’
His job in Yorkshire was as deputy chief of finance and soon after taking it the chief decided to leave. However the job became so hectic that May complained that Bill never had enough time at home. ‘It was a seaside authority’ remembered Bill ‘and it was really hectic—couldn’t get a weekend off, hardly.’ So that was what brought him to Ilminster in the west country.
He remembers how it was a change to come from a seaside authority to what was then ‘a quiet little place’ He remembers how all the councillors were Somerset and he was north country and laughs: ‘so we got on well together, they couldn’t understand me.’ In the end Somerset became home and now that he has reached one hundred years of age he thinks he may stay. ‘Here I am still and here I’ll stay I expect.’
Not one to sit back, after retiring from council work Bill was offered a job to help with a new fruit farm venture. When the owner was sadly killed in a car accident, Bill continued to help keep the business going, getting involved in the farm, the farm shop, a factory and a frozen fruit business. He spent fifteen years travelling around the country and only retired from that when his wife May’s health deteriorated. ‘So I worked really until I was nearly ninety’ says Bill. ‘That’s why I’m still here I think’.
After May’s death, Bill, in his retirement, suffered two strokes and battled pneumonia and delirium before having a bad accident. He describes ‘dashing across the road—which was stupid at my age, 94—caught my toe on a kerb stone, shot across the pavement and hit the wall.’ He fractured his shoulder joint, his elbow and his jaw bone. With cheerful understatement he says: ‘My face was a bit of a mess’. He finished up in hospital. ‘In fact I think they thought that was my lot’ he said.
But Bill is made of sterner stuff. With men of his calibre it is difficult not to ask the obvious question—what is the secret to his long life? ‘I have no idea’ says Bill. ‘Genes, and some degree of contentment. I’ve always enjoyed my work, the beginning and the end’.
However, he admits that every day isn’t easy. Laughing, he says he wouldn’t recommend the position of not being able to do the things he enjoys doing any more. ‘I’d love to just go and get in the car and drive off, probably up to the Lake District or something like that—but I can’t do it now’.
Bill eyes the futire with the wisdom that comes with age and perhaps dreams of the things that others may experience in the future. ‘Science has advanced so much’ he says, ‘you can nearly go to the moon now, on holiday.’
But future travel options aside he has concerns for the future of those generations coming along behind him. ‘I’m not an eco warrior’ says Bill but he says we’ve really got to think about global warming ‘because that is a serious problem at the moment. I think probably I won’t have to worry about it but the children and grandchildren will.’
Seth points out that listening to Bill and taking stock of his experience over one hundred years is inspiring. ‘When one thinks of the impact that Bill has had’ says Seth, ‘ranging from friend, husband, son, father, grandfather and even great grandfather, it is impossible not to be filled with admiration for a man whose life shall continue to inspire those who are lucky enough to listen to him.’
The full interview with Seth Dellow is available to listen to on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website. Visit www.marshwoodvale.com.