A Stratford Story: Including The Dillen and Mary, After the Queen
Imagine warming yourself round a log fire, flames flickering, sap hissing, wood spitting and being carried off to another world on the rustic dialect of a withered little man with a gleam in his eye and the gift of the gab.
George Hewins is The Dillen, the runt of the litter, a born storyteller who lived in such straightened circumstances that he and his wife had to share a bed with his mother-in-law yet still managed to conceive eight children.
The story of his hardscrabble life in my home town, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, covers the period between 1878 and the 1920s and is derived from a series of audio recordings made by his grandson’s wife, Angela Hewins, over a three-year period.
As she says, she’s added some h’s and omitted some repetitions but the grammar, the contractions and the speech patterns are still there and if you’re familiar with the Stratford accent, you can almost hear George speaking.
It’s this, George’s voice, George’s perspective, that give power to the narrative. It’s part oral history, part social history, and part memoir of poverty by someone who lived it, not just witnessed it. Above all it’s a thoroughly absorbing read.
From the off George relates how perilous his start in life was, how an old chap had told him of a man called Womack: “‘E sold your mother some medicine to get rid o’ you.”
Womack was “an ordinary working chap who made up pills and medicines for folks as couldn’t afford the doctor or chemist.”
George’s mother Emmie, then 18 and unmarried, was sent to him by her lover Tom Farr and “as soon as she’d took a couple o’ swigs of Womack’s medicine Emmie stopped fretting. She knowed it would work, like a spell, make the babby vanish; that’s what Tom said and he was always right.”
Not this time he wasn’t. He didn’t hang around and nor did Emmie, leaving George to be brought up by his mother’s aunt Cal.
What follows is a life of grinding poverty. George and his family live from hand to mouth. Work is scarce, wages are depressed and earnings sporadic. Rent arrears and eviction are ever-present fears surpassed only by the terrifying awfulness of the workhouse, the last port of the utterly destitute, where even dignity is taken.
It’s grim, for sure, but in the telling it’s not depressing. George the raconteur laces his tale with bawdy anecdotes and black humor. The story of how Tommy Taters got his nickname had me laughing out loud and George even manages to make light of a war wound he suffered after going over the top in 1917.
Caught in No Man’s Land, wounded in the hip by a shell burst, his officer also injured, George tells how a German came up behind them: “They was coming from behind! Captain Edwards saw him and shot him with his revolver, shot him from where he lay. He fell dead on me. But not afore he’d stuck his bayonet in my arse.”
George lost his ‘crown jewels’ in that encounter but not his sense of humor. His cheerful optimism lifts the book from being a bleak plod through the worst of times to an important record of life among those on the bottom rung of society, an authentic voice that is seldom captured.