Springingtiger's Blog

No More Sand in My Shoe – Remembering Jack Roberton.

My uncle died this week, he was ninety-five. When I suddenly realised he was only thirty-five years older than me I was a little surprised, he had always seemed so much older, and in terms of experience, I suppose, he was much older. If he was thirty-five when I was born, then in his early twenties he was an artillery officer covering the retreat of the Eighth Army across North Africa to El Alamein. Shortly thereafter he fought his way through France and Germany.

His family had progressed from Gentlemen farmers to the East India Trade. Unfortunately my grandfather lost his business interests during the Depression, however my uncle got a position with the Assam Frontier Tea Company. While he was working as a Planter the Second World War broke out and he volunteered for military service in the Indian Army and, I believe if the stories are true, started in the Assam Valley Light Horse. He fought his way through North Africa – where his love of practical jokes earned him the name “Sand in My Shoe” – and Europe. He had several amusing tales of his army days, the one that comes immediately to mind was the time when, jealous of the rations supplied to the “Yanks”, my uncle and his friends offered to supply the Americans with a sack of fresh meat in exchange for a sack of tins of baked beans. The exchange was agreed and the swap was made, Uncle Jack and his pals then beat a hasty retreat before the Americans discovered the “fresh meat” to be a recently killed German soldier.

After the war Uncle Jack returned to The Assam Frontier Tea Company now part of the Apeejay Group until his retiral in his fifties. I used to love his stories of India, many at second-hand via my mother. I used to have a tie with a decoration made of dyed human hair, or so I was told, but it was made by the Naga hillmen and they did used to keep the heads of their enemies. I loved that he had a servant whose job was to water his dog’s bed so that it remained cool. I was excited by the tale of how, when his workers were being attacked by a leopard, rather than wait for a professional hunter, he went in alone, with his own gun, and dealt with it. When the Chinese invaded Assam the company Superintendent fled south to Calcutta, my uncle remained, intent on fighting, and so was promoted to Superintendent himself. He spoke several Indian dialects and used to fascinate me by identifying the source of a tea by its flavour, although I realise I would not have known if he were playing a joke on me. One Christmas we visited Sussex while he was on leave and were amused to learn that every year he bought all the records in the Top Ten at Christmas and took them back to India so that his friends at the club could laugh at contemporary British culture. When he retired his workers were fulsome in their valedictions, for years my grandmother had a framed address on her bedroom wall that the company presented to him on his departure.

Uncle Jack’s day had certain moments which were sacrosanct and observed with absolute silence, his afternoon nap – a practice – he brought back from India, and the early evening news during which interruption was forbidden. He was devoted to my grandmother and she doted on him, she never had a problem with his name, but addressing me she would start by calling me, “Jack” then, “Barry” (my cousin) and finally, “Rory” – my younger brother was the next in the list.
He had a mischievous streak, when my brother was small he used to hit my father, who was well padded, but when he punched Uncle Jack’s stomach he hurt his hand and complained, “Why can’t you go soft like Daddy? On another occasion he and my father were making a car journey when my father needed to go to the toilet, “We’ll stop at the next pub.” said my uncle, as they came to the pub my uncle pulled up just long enough for my father to open the door at which point he accelerated away, he did this at several pubs, I’m not sure my father ever saw the funny side. My mother and my uncle were once when he was on leave driving through Rustington, both the worse for wear when they came upon a road lined with traffic cones. My uncle proceeded to zigzag along the road knocking over all the cones, until stopped by a policeman on his bicycle, back in those days before Breathalyzers the guardian of the law merely suggested to my uncle that perhaps he should go home and sleep it off.

My Grandmother and her children, Uncle Jack, my aunt Barbara and my mother remained close, and were only separated by death or old age, Uncle Jack and Aunt Barbara eventually moved into different retirement homes. I used to love my summer holidays in Sussex at first in Milton Avenue and then at Forge Cottage – a beautiful thatched cottage my uncle bought – especially when Uncle Jack was there, he was a funny man with a dry humour. He was a tough old chap and just this year won a fight with a wheelchair company to get a refund on a deposit withheld when he cancelled an order because they could not meet his requirements, if they’d known him as we did, they’d have known better than to cross him. There are so many stories, so many memories, whatever else he has left, he has left us plenty about which to smile.


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