Mark Vine tells just a tiny portion of the extraordinary life of his grandfather, Tom ‘Cider’ Vine
Published in April ’12
My Nan in common with all ‘Pooleites’ as we prefer to be known, liked nothing better than to reminisce about the old town, the way it was before the demon planners ran riot. Poole before those dark days was a warren of wonderful old streets, lanes and alleyways, spreading inland from the vast harbour at its heart. Many buildings were medieval, Tudor, 17th- or 18th-century, architecture; in these more enlightened times they are to be prized, but to those at the town hall determined to work from a ‘clean sheet’, they were nothing more than a building site in waiting.
The recurring theme that always ran through her stories revolved around my granfer, Tom Vine, whose nickname ‘Cider’ pretty much summed up his main interests in life. He was a true Pooleite, born and bred in the town, privy to every nook, cranny and scam that existed there. He was not married to my Nan, nor anyone else for that matter. He was the original free spirit who lived alone, drank when he wanted to and asked no one for favours. The fact that my Nan was married to someone else at the time, didn’t seem to bother him either. Lots of Poole men in the first half of the 20th century were known more by their nicknames than by their given Christian names. My Nan’s real husband, for example, was called ‘Hardflesh’ Gleed, presumably because he was so skinny and ‘Silent night’ Williams didn’t have too much to say for himself.
At the time of the Great War Cider was at the optimum age to fall victim to the frenzied jingoistic fervour, so he duly joined up to serve his King and country in their hour of need; in fact Cider felt so patriotic that he joined up about half a dozen times more; each time that he ‘kissed the flag’ he received yet another King’s shilling as a reward. Eventually the recruiting team wised up and Cider was despatched to the front with the rest of the ‘Dorsets’. He was decorated for his bravery and eventually invalided out after losing part of one buttock and likewise part of a heel through being blown up, and almost buried alive by the explosion. On his return, he found work was so hard to come by that he decided that the burgeoning tourist trade in nearby Bournemouth was a viable source of revenue. To this end, he used to set out at dead of night in his ‘Poole canoe’, a sturdy flat-bottomed type of rowing boat peculiar to the town, and especially designed for use in the shallows of the harbour. His destination was the ‘forbidden island’ of Brownsea, then owned by Florence Bonham-Christie who did not welcome visitors to her island and employed gamekeepers, whose duties included the apprehension of anyone foolish enough to try and land there. Cider’s motives for these nocturnal expeditions was simple: Brownsea was one of the very few places in the area that had an abundance of ‘lucky’ white heather, a crop that sold wonderfully well when offered to gullible holidaymakers in Bournemouth alongside the appropriate amount of local folklore. For several nights Cider crept on to Brownsea Island and off again with his precious cargo, unseen and un-apprehended by the keepers, who knew that something was going on, but just couldn’t catch the culprit. Eventually though, Cider was ambushed and caught, but not before knocking out three of his six assailants; his other sideline as a fairground boxer had not been wholly wasted. In fact, the constabulary of old Poole used to pay him to venture down the dark old alleyways that ran in to the town from the quayside, and once there, to subdue, then drag out the various drunks that had spilled out of the pubs to settle drink-fuelled scores in their shadowy recesses. Sailors from all over the world congregated in the Poole Quay pubs and Cider was quite happy to hit all of them for a price.
In the 1930s, he gained employment of a more conventional nature as a docker on the busy quayside, which opened up a whole new world of opportunity for him. Anyone who knew Cider was suddenly likely to get all manner of useful and unusual goods; it was at this time that he became the father of my Nan’s third child: my mother. At the outbreak of the World War 2, Poole was in the front line and endured several bombing raids; shelters were hastily dug throughout the old town and my family, who lived in Lagland Street near the quay, used a shelter there.
Cider though would never make use of them. He never really recovered from his experiences in the trenches of the first war where he was almost buried alive, and preferred to take his chances up top amidst the falling bombs and the constant machine-gun strafing. On one occasion, a bomb dropped near to the John Collier men’s outfitters shop in the High Street, and soon after, as Cider made his way around in the blackout, he thought that he had stumbled across a veritable massacre. Inanimate bodies, some with limbs, some without, were strewn all over the old street. It was some time before he finally realised that the ‘bodies’ were mannequins. Needless to say, several of Cider’s more intimate friends were suddenly in receipt of brand new, though slightly soiled, overcoats and suits.
Possibly the most memorable of his wartime exploits happened during another air raid. He had just turned up at my Nan’s house because he had heard a rumour that she had managed to get hold of a whole barrel of scrumpy, and he hoped to relieve her of a good portion of it. It was then though that the sirens sounded. My Nan immediately gathered up her kids and headed for the quayside shelter, but of course Cider refused to follow her. Instead he decided to do a spot of ‘house sitting’, and soon he was helping himself to the contents of the barrel and drank copiously as the bombs fell all around.
Two hours later, dazed and weary Pooleites emerged into the darkness and returned to their homes. Lagland Street had received a direct hit and as my Nan stood outside her house she cursed as she realised that all of her windows had been blown in. Ushering the kids inside, she began to clean up the debris; it was only then that she noticed an unfamiliar shape on the floor of the front room. She realised that it was a person, whose body had been showered with deadly, glistening shards of glass. Screaming, she ran outside and called to a passing policeman who rushed to her assistance. The pair gingerly approached the inert, spread-eagled form on the floor and the officer shone his torch over the ‘corpse’, which caused my Nan to let out a scream of horror as she realised who it was. As the policeman tried to comfort her with such clichés as ‘It must have been quick, he wouldn’t have suffered…,’ the ‘body’ was suddenly possessed of a new lease of life and groaned profusely as it first rolled over on the crunching glass, then attempted, unsuccessfully, to rise, and finally, demanded to know ‘what all the bloody noise was about’.
My Nan and the Policeman looked on in a confused stupor. ‘He’s not dead at all, dead drunk more like!!’ cried the astonished officer. He trained his torch on to the face and once more the pair recoiled in horror at what they saw.
Cider, blinking painfully in the glare of the beam seemed completely unable to comprehend what all the fuss was about. My Nan, horrified, pointed at him. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out. Aghast, she was finally able to splutter: ‘Tom, look at your face. It’s covered in beetles.’
Sure enough, Cider seemed to have acquired a beard constructed entirely of writhing cockroaches. He wiped a fistful of the invertebrates off of his face, and looking at them proclaimed: ‘They’re all right, they won’t hurt you. They’re lovely,’ as, without further ceremony, he proceeded to stuff the luckless creatures into his mouth and chew them up, their crusty legs spilling out with every munch. They had seemingly been attracted by the sweet residue of scrumpy that had trickled on to his lips and chin as he drank and then collapsed on to the floor.
The bomb blast had occurred after his lapse into unconciousness, which had in all probability saved him from serious injury or even death. The Policeman dolefully shook his head and made his excuses to leave, but my Nan, her sorrow now firmly replaced with a rising storm of anger and, also noting that the scrumpy barrel was virtually bereft of its original contents, chased Cider from her house with a broom, and it was weeks before he dared to venture back there again.