George Johnston sits back in the armchair in which he spends most of his time these days. He sips coffee from his Play Up Pompey mug, a reminder of the beloved club he has supported all his life.
When the chimes struck 12 on Tuesday night they held a special significance for this former soldier and Portsmouth schoolmaster, for they ushered in the year of his centenary.
George will be 100 in May and although his body might no longer be able to do what he once commanded, his mind is razor-sharp, his memory remarkable.
‘I can’t remember what I did this morning, but what happened 70, 80 or 90 years ago is as clear as a bell. It’s all as if it happened yesterday,’ he says.
Born three months before the start of the First World War, he has vivid memories of how it affected him, especially now as its 100th anniversary approaches.
‘Two of my brothers were in the trenches. One was gassed and I shall never forget visiting him in hospital in Portsmouth,’ he says.
He continues: ‘Because there was such an age difference between me and my older brothers, two of them served in that war.
‘Fred, who was 14 years older, was gassed on the Somme. Mustard gas.
‘Fred got a whiff of it and I remember 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.’
He is surrounded by his vast collection of books and papers. One of the volumes is his own, published at the age of 99. It sits alongside the first.
Both are semi-autobiographical and tell the absorbing and colourful story of his life, from growing up in a tiny but blissfully happy household in Clarence Street, Landport, Portsmouth (‘they were rough streets’), to becoming a soldier at Hilsea Barracks and then a teacher at a variety of schools in the city.
Just published is Puppy Dog On Parade the sequel to Puppy Dogs’ Tales. That first volume – an autobiographical novel which covered the period from his birth to the moment he joined the army as a 19-year-old – did so well and he received such fond tributes from people around the world, that he was motivated to continue the story.
‘It seems to have struck a chord with so many people from the Portsmouth area who grew up in Landport like me,’ he says.
‘Amazingly, I’ve sold hundreds of copies and lots of people wrote and asked when I would continue the story, so that’s what I’ve done now.
‘This one takes up the story in 1934 when I set out on my bicycle one sunny morning to seek employment, but within hours I found myself at Hilsea Barracks, a new and very raw recruit.’
He now lives at Parklands, Chichester, and is somewhat bemused at the success of his books, both liberally sprinkled with his keen sense of humour, epitomised by the recollection of his army basic training days at Hilsea, as a teacher with the Army Education branch and then during his time as a master in various Portsmouth schools, a career which started at Arundel Street Junior School.
‘I’ve always enjoyed writing and started jotting down the story of my life back in the mid-1990s. I never intended to get it published, but when my wife Jackie read it she encouraged me to find a publisher.
‘I wrote them to pass the time really and because I felt like it.
‘I thought it was important to leave something behind in the 21st century of what it was like to grow up and then work in Portsmouth in the early and mid-20th.
‘I suppose I’ve been very lucky to have reached this age and still be able to write, let alone remember.’
This graphic passage from George Johnston’s Puppy Dog on Parade recalls the time he returned to the family home at Landport on leave for Christmas during a bombing raid on the city. Throughout both books he refers to himself as Frank Jackson.
Frank paused from his book for a moment – distant explosions, but nothing very near.
He later described a soundless judder followed by an indescribable stillness.
He watched as a wave of soot snaked out of the chimney and landed smack on George’s face.
‘What the hell!’ exclaimed George.
The glass in the window came tumbling into the room, the back door flew off, the door to the passage only flew open, yet the heavier front door ended up in the street.
A bewildered Emma came in from the scullery, a knife in her hand.
‘What was that?’ she said. She was covered in dust and plaster. Not surprising as the scullery now lacked a roof.
Frank went into the street where chaos reigned.
He noticed Mrs Martin standing at her empty doorstep wringing her hands.
Strangely, the gas lighting seemed to be still working, but poor Clarence Street was in a sorry state piled with timber, slate glass and brick rubble.
Presently a warden called up the passage, there being no door to knock.
‘Everyone down to Charlotte Street where buses are waiting to take you to safety.’
They made their way down what was left of Clarence Street, the pub flattened, the vicarage and gymnasium likewise, yet the slaughterhouse on the other side of the street was untouched.
‘Protected by the spirit of dead animals?’ Frank mused.
All the shops were gone in Charlotte Street, butchers, fishmongers, grocers and greengrocers – all gone.
They crowded on to a corporation bus and drove up Commercial Road towards Lake Road. The big stores had suffered like the little shops, Woolworth’s, Boots and bookshops, all gone.