The person I would most like to sit down and have a chat with in front of a roaring log fire is: Herbert Brush. And he’s not even a real person. Or rather he was a real person; Herbert Brush was just not his real name.
It may be partly the name. My grandfather was a Herbert. At his funeral service the lady vicar, never having met Grandad and assuming that Bert was short for Albert, referred to him Our Brother Albert throughout. I should have stood up for him. I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t. I should have stood up regardless of the embarrassment to myself, my parents and the lady vicar, and screeched HERBERT, HERBERT, HERBERT. But you don’t, when it comes to it, do you?
Herbert Brush, almost certainly, was the pseudonym attached to a gentleman called Reginald Charles Harpur, from Sydenham, South East London. He kept diaries for a UK wartime project known as Mass Observation, submitting his daily life “observations” each month. Today, I suspect, he would be an enthusiastic blogger.
Mass Observation was an eccentric anthropological study, run on a shoestring by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. ‘Herbert’ was one of approximately 500 volunteer wartime writers. Even more famous than Herbert is the redoubtable ‘Nella Last’ (also a pseudonym) from Barrow-in-Furness whose later life was dramatized in 2006 by British comedienne, actress and writer Victoria Wood.
Nella wrote and wrote – and wrote – approximately two million words between 1936, when she was aged 49 – hence Housewife, 49 – and 1966. She used her diary to counteract the depressions to which she was prone and also to ‘vent’ a side of her personality that her gloomy, awkward husband suppressed. Her diaries – unintentionally – follow her partial emancipation from the stereotypical ‘housewife’ she sees herself as at the beginning – to a much stronger, feistier woman by the end. She was so prolific, so idiosyncratic in character and power of expression (and punctuation) that she has books all to herself:
- Nella Last’s War (Ed: Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming)
- Nella Last’s Peace (Ed: Patricia and Robert Malcolmson)
- Nella Last in the 1950s: Further diaries of Housewife, 49 (Ed: Patricia Malcolmson)
- She also makes brief, early appearances in Our Longest Days: a people’s history of the Second World War (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing).
Nella Last has her dark side, and her tragedies, though on the whole reading her observations is pure delight. She loves cooking, and details all the crafty ‘dodges’ she contrives to whip up meals of some sort for her family during the worst years of rationing. We also hear how she goes about making clothes, saving money and sewing her ‘dollies’ for the hospital.
Herbert Brush is, if you like, Nella Last’s southern equivalent and he is an extraordinary character – lighter, more comic than Nella Last although, living through the same war and at a more advanced age, his life had its difficulties too. I do hope that someday there will be a ‘collected’ Herbert Brush, since at the moment his entries are dotted about, mixed in with all the other published observations and therefore a pain to locate. It takes a while to build up a ‘flavour’ of Herbert.
Reginald Charles Harpur (almost certainly Herbert Brush) was already 73 years of age in 1945 but lived on until 1959. He lived in the same house in Sydenham from 1939 to 1959, sharing it with ‘W’ (thought to be Winifred Gunton), ‘D’ (thought to be Dorothy Woods) and a cat. This is a mystery in itself. What was the relationship between these three people (and the cat)? We will probably never know. He was a retired electricity board inspector and wrote for Mass Observation between 1940 and 1951.
He is a master of the non-sequitur, of po-faced inconsequentiality, and the joy of him is that you will never, ever be entirely sure that he intends to be amusing. It’s those killer final phrases, those bathetic endings. He also writes poetry to rival that famous Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, originator of the immortal lines:
- Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
- Alas! I am very sorry to say
- That ninety lives have been taken away
- On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
- Which will be remember’d for a very long time
- On yonder hill, there stood a coo…..
- ….It’s no there noo,
- it must have shifted
Apparently students used to bang on poor McGonagall’s front door in the middle of the night, to wake him and tell him how bad a poet he was.
Impossible to choose which of Herbert’s many utterances to include so here are just a few, taken from wherever Our Hidden Lives happened to fall open. Best really to get copies of the books in which he appears (eg. from Amazon) and meet Herbert for yourself.
- Our Longest Days (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing)
- Our Hidden Lives (Ed: Simon Garfield)
7 p.m. I have been on the plot most of the day. I believe the judges in the competition come round for their first visit before the middle of May, so I have been busy trying to make the plot tidy. I have fixed up another seat at the end of the plot close to the hedge so that I can sit in the shelter during showers. This was the spot where I pressed myself into the hedge with the bucket over my head when a rocket burst overhead and bits of it came down all round me.
Wednesday 9 May, 1945
I have been reading about Harry Price’s book on poltergeists in England and it makes me wonder whether it was a poltergeist which worried me when I lived in Rose Cottage, River, near Dover. The noises got so bad that I was glad to leave the house.
I never managed to explain the things that happened to me there. I might be reading a book by the fireside in the evening, when suddenly my back hair would seem to stand up, a cold shiver would run down my spine and I felt sure that someone or something was behind me in the room. I asked a local spiritualistic medium to come and investigate, so he came with others, and presently he went into a trance, or seemed to, and said that a man who used to live at the house, and who committed suicide years before, objected to me very much.
Wednesday 21 November, 1945
I went to Hyde Park to see the captured German aeroplanes which are parked there, surrounded by a fence. I noticed a few bullet holes in one of them and wondered whether the German who flew the machine had died there. I hope so.
There were hundreds of people walking about, with little crowds near each plane. One young man brought his chair close to the fence, and with his face pressed close to the railings was staring in a sort of fascinated way at one of the planes, as though he wanted to memorise every detail. I watched him for some time but he never moved a muscle.
I got a seat under a tree and ate my lunch, and I forgot to look for the young man when I came back. Probably my thoughts were on the chances of a ticket collector coming along and charging me 2d. for the chair.
Monday 17 September, 1945
The BBC news at one o’clock said that there was quite a pea-soup fog in some parts of London, but in SE26 it was quite clear, so I went to the plot and sewed a row of broad beans. I had only just finished when I smelt fog, and, looking up, saw a wall of it coming my way. Very soon the sun was yellow and then vanished, so I came home as I don’t like the taste of London fog.
I thought I’d see what sort of verse came out of it if I put pen to paper.
- Sometimes I sit and think
- Sometimes I only sit
- And do not even blink
- For quite a bit
- Is this a sign of age
- Does life just flow
- Like turning on a page
- I’d like to know.
It sounds morbid, but after my exercise on the plot I’m feeling very fit.
Tuesday 21 January, 1945
I think I probably feel an affinity for Herbert because he reminds me so much of my own grandfather. It’s more than just the coincidence of the name. In all the time I knew him I don’t remember Grandad smiling once, yet he somehow managed to make people laugh. If we children were chattering too much he’d sit in gloomy silence for half an hour before intervening, in his creaky old voice: Can I say something now?
If anyone asked his opinion, he’d say: You do what you want – you usually do.
And if he was asked what he was going to do tomorrow, he would provide a gloomy summary, finishing with: IF I’m spared.
A visiting daughter-in-law presented him with a huge cake once, and his response was: How am I going to get rid of all that?
And yet this was the man who, as a teenager, liked to sit with his mates in the upper tiers of the music hall, peeling oranges and dropping the peel down the necks of the people sitting below.
For further information on Herbert Brush and Sydenham visit:
PS: I recently discovered an old blog called Blue, with Stars, and discover that I already posted about dear old Herbert there and even used the same title for the post. And I thought I was being so clever inventing that one. So here, for comparison, is my Blue, with Stars post for: Saturday, May 21, 2005
- A Brush with Herbert
- Still reading the book of post-war reminiscences (Mass-Observation Project). It’s surprising how they do come out as characters, even though no one is ‘writing’ them. Each person is just rambling on happily through his or her diary, commenting on everyday things, and yet you can almost see them. Pensioner Herbert Brush is the best – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally funny. He is greatly concerned about his health – his piles, a lump on his back which the doctor charged him 5/- to tell him was harmless, the purple marks appearing on the backs of his hands. He wonders about things. He spends a long time playing with numbers and searching unsuccessfully for a book which gives all the prime numbers up to some huge amount. He writes dreadful poetry. He does a lot of travelling about on buses, changing of library books, growing of vegetables in his allotment, and always seems to be creosoting his fence.
- I am enjoying it because that’s when I grew up, and yet I don’t remember. I didn’t enjoy being a child. Didn’t understand why people were the way they were, and things were so drab and dreary. This book has explained why to me. And I envied in a way their modest expectations. They accepted their everyday lives, even when they complained about them. They didn’t expect anything exciting to happen. I suppose they were just relieved to be still alive. However, that lack of aspiration, that dulling of everything – suburban England in the 50s was not a good time to be a child, not a good start for a dreamer.