Grandpère Sans Pareil

TSS Demsthenes

TSS Demosthenes

I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather lately, with this year marking the Centenary of the Western Front. I often wonder how he felt leaving a young wife and baby son, not knowing if he would ever see them again. (And, of course, how dreadful it was for my grandmother.)

He left on the T.S.S. Demosthenes, a steamer commissioned in 1861, described by my grandmother as a ‘leaking old tub in which the bilge pumps worked 24/7 just to keep it afloat.’

He was a remarkable man, belonging to a generation who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for ideals of freedom and justice for their loved ones. Truly, to quote one of my characters (and perhaps countless others) they were God’s finest sons.

In 1900, at age eleven, he was apprenticed to a Master Baker because, he reasoned, people would always need bread and he would always have a job. I still have his cake scales that he bought second-hand, at this time, and used right up to the end of his life. They take pride of place in my kitchen.

In the depression of the 1930s, his business went broke because he would not see people go hungry and always gave them bread whether they could pay or not. Unfortunately, the flour mills did not feel the same way about him. But he worked hard and finally opened another bakery with enough turnover to survive his generosity.

Every year, on Anzac Day, he marched with his mates in the morning; got drunk with them in the afternoon; and, in keeping with others of his generation, never mentioned or referred to the war at other times or in any other way. He also looked after Percy, his friend debilitated on the Western Front, until Percy’s last illness took him to hospital. Percy, who suffered from shell-shock(PTSD) and lung complications, was homeless after being thrown out of his accommodation because he was a hopeless alcoholic.

My grandfather was quick-tempered; proud and independent; took no nonsense from anyone; and called a spade a shovel, offending some. On the other hand, he had a wicked sense of humour; was loyal, kind and generous; a man of both physical and moral courage; and a man of honour.

The maxim: If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing properly; and if you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all, was his rule for life. He set a high standard.

To his grandchildren, he was Farby; and he spoilt us with ice-cream and sodas from the Greek café up the street; to everyone else he was Jack: and you could take him or leave him.

In my dedication, I refer to him as a patissier sans pareil and so he was: It is many years since he baked his last batch of pies, but there are still people today who remember them as the best ever.

In keeping with his maxim, it took me three years to write this book. I worked hard on my research, as did my wonderful editor, meticulously cross-checking my references.

And so I am proud to dedicate Angel of Song to Jack: Grandpére sans pareil.

Hidden Inspiration

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

My life had been turned upside down. I found it difficult to function. This morning, everything had gone wrong and I hadn’t even dressed for work. I rushed to the dressing table I had inherited from my grandmother.

Stressed, I pulled on a drawer too hard and it fell out upside down, emptying its contents onto the carpet. This was the last straw and I burst into tears.

Then, I stopped. Folded many times and tucked between the bottom and the back of the drawer, only visible from this angle, was a tiny, yellowed scrap of paper torn from an exercise book.

I prised it out and opened it. In my late grandmother’s handwriting was a message from beyond the grave. Stunned, I read these beautiful words:

In the dark night of the soul,

Bright flows the river of God.

A message reaching out to me in perhaps my darkest hour. I dried my tears, put the drawer back and made it to work on time.

I have never forgotten this beautiful message and say it to myself whenever things are grim. I often think of my grandmother and what may have inspired her to write this verse on a scrap of paper and tuck it in the back of a drawer where I would find it decades later. Yet it was only recently that I thought to wonder where she had found these glorious, inspirational and healing words.

This was how I discovered the heart-rending story of Saint John of the Cross; his love and piety; his evil treatment at the hands of so-called men of God. Part of his story can be found here.

Sometimes, when I come upon the dark things of History, it is good to remember that there are wonderful treasures there, too.

Words to inspire your life: From a man who should know!