Gordon Frank Canning (1918-2012)

Happy New Year!

In the history books 2012 will be remembered for the Olympics and British sporting triumph. For me, it marked a big change in my life following the death of my grandfather in March, just a couple of weeks short of his 94th birthday. Like most men of his generation he fought in the Second World War, mainly in North Africa and Italy. This fact about him humbles me; most of the men (and women) who fought in the war were not professional soldiers who had chosen the Armed Forces as a career path—they were in every sense ‘ordinary people’. Grandad was one of these ordinary people able to do something extraordinary when it was required of him.

I’ve reproduced a slightly edited version of the eulogy I gave at his funeral here:

Almost ninety-four years he lived. I knew him for just 36 of those years. He was always there. As a child he and my grandmother visited each Saturday, almost with fail. Special childhood memories include the three generations of our family watching snooker together –it was something we all enjoyed. Holidays together in Cornwall, Devon and Wales. Recent memories of visiting him in his home in Bishop’s Cleeve and latterly in his room at Orchard House. His body becoming more and more frail, but his mind as sharp as ever.

As a young child.
As a young child.

Gordon Frank Canning was born on 3rd April 1918 to Ralph and May Canning. Unusually for his generation he was an only child. In the absence of brothers and sisters it seems to that the lodgers who stayed with his family provided the sibling bonds and the sibling conflicts. When he arrived at school  the teacher asked him if he had any brothers and sisters. “Yes” Gordon replied, “ I have a brother”.

“What’s his name?” asked the teacher.

“Mason Price!” said Gordon

The teacher was slightly puzzled. “How old is he?” he asked.

“Ninety!” said Gordon.

A second lodger was a blacksmith who my Grandad always referred to as Birdlip, so called because he came from the village of Birdlip not far from Cheltenham but worked in Evesham during the week. Birdlip was a noisy eater and would make slurping noises as ate. Throughout his life if anyone at the dinner table made any untoward noises he would call out “Oi! Birdlip”, then he would make a noise which sounded something like this – [I’m not sure how to put this in writing]. Birdlip’s table manners extended to not washing his hands before eating, a fact made obvious by the dirty nature of Birdlip’s job. Eventually Gordon lost his patience and bought to the table a bowl of water and some soap for Birdlip to wash his hands. The indignant Birdlip soon sought alternative accommodation “It’s not you I have a problem with Mrs Canning” he said to my great-grandmother. “It’s the boy!”

During the Second World War

Like most children of his generation he left school at fourteen and was apprenticed to a grocer. Hours were long. On his first day he father arrived at the shop at nine o’clock in the evening wondering where Grandad had got to.  “He’s got another hour to do” explained the grocer. “O that’s all right” said his father – just checking I know where he is.

It would be hard to understate the influence the outbreak of the Second World War had on his life. A young man who had travelled very little saw his chance and joined the army. Following various training and assignments in this country he boarded a ship not to be told where he was going. He found himself in North Africa then in Italy. His stories of this period are more reminiscent of a student gap year than a war. One story he told was driving his lorry somewhere in North Africa accompanied by just one other driver. His lorry broke down and despite his best efforts to attract  the other driver’s attention his colleague just carried going. Soon he found himself surrounded by a crowd of locals. With any mutual intelligible language he managed to get one of the men to sit in the cab and press down on the accelerator. He managed to fix the truck, but the crowd remained. Unsure quite what to do Gordon picked up a tin of cigarettes and threw the contents out the window of the cab. The crowd quickly dispersed and Gordon went on his way.

His stories always had a humorous edge to them. Looking back I suspect that he saw many things he did not want to talk about. The one very frightening moment he did talk about actually happened in Falmouth in Cornwall. He was at the cinema when he heard a bomb go off. After leaving the cinema he learnt that the bomb had hit the chapel in which he was billeted.  His friend to whom he had been talking just a few minutes previously was killed in the attack.

On holiday in St Agnes, Cornwall, May 1981

Despite this experience, the war was also the beginning of his love of Cornwall notably because it was there that he met my grandmother Doris to whom he was married for 61 years. After the war my father Philip and my Auntie June arrived. Gordon went to work for British Rail* for a few years before joining Dowty’s in Ashchurch making roof supports for mines, a job in which he remained for the rest of his working life. Much of his retirement was spent caring for my grandmother Doris who had many struggles with her health. He was greatly devoted to her and you could always see how much they loved each other. He missed her greatly after she died in 2003.

So how will we remember him? I will always think of him as a man who did what was required of him, whether than was going to war, providing for his family or looking after his wife. I greatly admire this quality in him. He was never a man who sought to run things or to be in charge – if anything he resisted attempts by others to encourage him to take on leadership roles. Grandparents, of course are always the good guys. One side of my grandfather I did not see was the 1950s father. Like most fathers of that age he was a strong disciplinarian and my dad says that he could be very frightening at times. However, as adults they got on very well together.

I suspect that I am not the only one here who experiences ever possible emotion on occasions such as this. Today, there have been, and will be, tears, laughter, good memories, sad memories, questioning and trying to comprehend the fact that someone we knew so well is no longer with us.

Nostalgic memories at the Winchcombe Railway Museum.
Nostalgic memories at the Winchcombe Railway Museum, 2004

I will finish by quoting from the hymn “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, in a believer’s ear”. I feel I have my Grandad’s blessing for quoting this hymn as he chose it for my grandmother’s funeral. It speaks of the believer as he thinks to the day when his own earthly life will end:

Weak is the effort of my heart

And cold my warmest thought

Be when I see thee as thou art

I’ll praise thee as I ought

*Towards the end of his life Grandad shared some of his memories of working on the Honeybourne Line with an author writing in the Great Western Railway Journal. I think the article appears in it is Edition 79 (Summer 2011)., though it could be Edition 80.

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