John was a brave and remarkable man...there is real vision in his poems
- Kathleen Raine
Forever Endeavour - a synopsis
Widowed in the first war, with two children and no money, John's mother settled in a tiny one-bedroom terraced house in Newcastle with her mother. She had to become a prostitute to earn her living as her earnings in the factory brought little. Her mother slept on a chair by the coal range in the kitchen. John slept in the big bed with many different "Daddo"s. Cold, with skimpy clothes and sometimes no shoes John would roam Newcastle, happy and free: several times he was returned home by the police. When he was five, and after the arrival of several more babies with whom he shared the big bed if they lived to be old enough, John's mother packed him off to an orphanage.
Here again John was often cold, always hungry, and was sexually abused by the staff. But here was sport and companionship, and though lonely he felt safe. He missed his mother badly. No one ever came to see him and he had no parcels or post.
He left as soon as he could, taking any job that would have him. He joined a mobile boxing booth and for the first time in his life was fed a good meal 'to build him up' as his employer would say. His boxing skills improved greatly. At the start of WWII the booth closed down instantly owing to the imposition of blackout.
John told lies about his age and immediately joined up in the Pioneer Corps, and was straightway sent to France to help combat the advance of the German armies. Within two months he was taken prisoner, and after a long march and transportation in a crowded cattle truck with little water, and even less space to pee, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Poland. He was very angry, blaming himself for the situation, very fit and weighed ten stone. Five years of terrible hardship, cold and at times only 200 calories a day took a heavy toll of his health, and his morale dipped. To keep the German guards occupied John made six escapes, one of which lasted six days. The guards vented their fury on escapees, and made life even harder, throwing cold water on the floor of their underground cells: by morning this would be frozen. One old blanket was all he had to combat the cold.
One morning, with thoughts that life was not worth living, John glanced up at his tiny cell window. All he could see from this window was the roof and gutter of the adjacent block. But from this window came a shaft of sunlight. Through this sunlight John could see a small pink flower growing out of the gutter of the roof. Immediately his spirits were re-charged: he reckoned that if a flower could blossom without soil, and the sun could still shine then he could pick himself up and face the world and all its problems. He watched for the sunbeam every day.
He wrote these poems:
One shaft of sunlight to a captive brought
Time does remain free of fear
After years of captivity, John weighed only 6 stone, but held his head high and worked to start a new life from nothing. He held no hate for his captors.