My Grand dad was a coal man in the years between the two world wars. He went by the name of Ernest and delivered coal with his horse and cart in and around our Northern English town. He was six foot tall and built by the same people who did Stonehenge. His wife, Maria, was a diminutive five foot nothing on a warm day. He had a metal plate in his head, three bullet holes in his back and lungs that never truly recovered from that green gas at Ypres.
If you flew up in a plane and peered down to look at the country side he lived in, it would have resembled a tapestry or quilt; a panoply of small towns, insulated against the world by myriad fields, hedgerows and occasional outlying farmhouses. All of which were stitched together by ribbon threads of meandering narrow roadways.
The smaller integral pieces of that quilt were people who were born, grew up and died all within that same small area. There were others, foreigners, Frenchmen and even German prisoners who had elected to stay instead of returning home. They were treated quite reasonably by most people. They fitted comfortably to the quilt as farm hands and labourers.
There were also a lot of “tramps”; “Gentlemen of the road” to give them their correct title. They wandered around the countryside doing odd jobs. Many of these men were soldiers who had come back from the war in pieces. Whatever it was that the seamstress had cut from them in the trenches, they never really managed to sew it back together. They slept in hedgerows and empty barns and if they needed food they simply knocked on someone’s door. They would take off their hats and say something as benign as “Good morning Lady”. The response would be just as benign and non judgmental,
“I’ve just cut bread, would you like some?”
It was quite common to see one of those men sitting on a front porch step, with a mug of tea in one hand and gnawing on a sandwich with the other. They were lost stitches that everyone tried their best to push back into the tapestry.
There weren’t too many other men around. Husbands, brothers, fathers and sons were in short supply. The country was in a state of flux. The old order had crumbled, traditions had been eroded and the countries’ faith in empire, royalty, loyalty and other such abstract and ethereal social concepts had all but evaporated in the bomb blasts and carnage of the trenches. The new social tenets and mores were based on what worked locally, individually and for the immediate community. The stitches in that quilt of this new “modernity” were small and sewn much closer together.