George Johnston was born before the First World War and grew up in the back streets of Portsmouth. Now on the cusp of 99, he tells Chris Owen why he has written his first book about youth in the city nearly a century ago.
Time is such a peculiar thing. Here we are 13 years into the 21st century and I’m chatting to a man who remembers a woman born well before the middle of the 19th.
George Johnston has vivid and happy memories of his grandmother. Nothing unusual there, apart from the fact that she was born in 1837 – the year Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.
One of his older brothers was born in 1899, the other two in the early years of the 20th century. They are all dead, as is a younger sister.
His parents, George and Lydia, were married on Christmas Day 1894 at Trinity Church, Gosport.
He was a 24-year-old soldier, she was a 17-year-old barmaid who helped behind the bar of his grandparents’ pub, The Old True Blue in Bemisters Lane, Gosport.
He went in one day for a drink, was immediately smitten with her, and they fell in love. He was posted to India, she went with him. Then she followed him to Canada where George’s brothers were born.
George, who is just short of his 99th birthday, was born in May 1914 in a tiny but happy household in Clarence Street, Portsmouth. It was one of those cramped streets of terraced houses which are long gone. It adjoined Charlotte Street.
George’s memory of his life is sharp as a pin, especially growing up in the ‘rough’ streets of Landport.
It’s so sharp that he felt he had to get it all down on paper. It’s taken him about 15 years, but the fascinating story of his early life in Portsmouth has now been captured in a semi-autobiographical novel.
George devoted his life to teaching in many Portsmouth schools, but now lives in Chichester.
‘I started writing it about the mid-1990s,’ he says as he sits back in his armchair surrounded by his collection of books. He is fortified by regular deliveries of coffee from his wife, Jackie. He likes an occasional nip of whisky in them and enjoys cheese and a glass of wine at lunchtime. The coffee comes in a Play Up Pompey mug. He’s been a lifelong fan and reckons he’s probably the oldest.
‘I wrote it to pass the time and because I felt like it. I thought it was important to leave something behind of what it was like to grow up in Portsmouth from the start of the First World War until I joined the army at Hilsea Barracks in 1934 when he was 19.
‘I always enjoyed writing and my dad used to encourage me.
‘I’ve got a sequel ready to be published which will cover the Second World War and my teaching career in Portsmouth.’
He looks back fondly at those days in Clarence Street. ‘My dad was out of the army by the time I was born and working as a chargehand in the Dockyard. I came along in May 1914 and I’ve always claimed I started the First World War because when the Germans heard I’d been born they thought ‘‘oh God, that’s it, let’s go to war’’.’ George is not short of self-deprecating humour.
‘It was a very happy home. Yes, we were poor and didn’t have much, but the atmosphere in the town then was special. There were so many characters.
‘Yes, it was rough and I grew up with a lot of rough lads. I could fight, but there were many that I couldn’t beat.’
He went to the old Bell School, remnants of which can still be seen behind the Sainsbury’s store in Commercial Road. Then St Agatha’s and finally the split-site Northern Secondary School in St Mary’s Institute, part of which was in Fratton Road.
‘Because there was such a difference between me and my older brothers, two of them served in the First World War,’ he recalls.
‘Fred, who was 14 years older, was gassed on the Somme. Mustard gas. Fred got a whiff of it and I remember as clearly as anything my dad taking me to a lot of tin huts which were Queen Alexandra Hospital, to visit him.
‘He used to come out in the hospital uniform – a blue coat, red tie and white shirt.’
George’s book, Puppy Dogs’ Tales, traces his adventures while growing up in Clarence Street and paints a vivid picture of what life was like for a working class family in the First World War and beyond. He writes with affection of the colourful and thriving Charlotte Street market which put food on the family table.
But many were not so fortunate. He recalls classmates at St Agatha’s School without shoes and eating apple cores from the gutter.
‘They were hard times and most people will find it hard to believe that this was Portsmouth just 100 years ago, all within my memory. I just felt I had to get all my memories down for posterity.’
n Puppy Dogs’ Tales by George Johnston is published by Country Books at £5.99 and can be ordered by calling 01243 779664.