Eminent Bilstonians

The Life of Trevor Bilston

UNITED

The last known photograph of Trevor Bilston, taken just minutes before he spontaneously combusted.

Pele, Puskas, Best, Cruyff, Maradona, Messi, Bilston; the names of the beautiful game’s most beautiful exponents trip from the tongue with a reassuring readiness, a revered roll-call of ever-presents across a hundred silverwared seasons of schoolboy dreams.

But there is one name on that list which, for many, remains a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma which has been inserted into a conundrum buried underneath a puzzle which, to its own surprise, has found itself wrapped up in a riddle totally different from the first riddle which I talked about at the beginning of this sentence.

For, had it not been for his premature death at the age of nineteen, from spontaneous combustion, Trevor Bilston would have been, perhaps, the greatest of them all.

Trevor Kicks Off

It was no surprise that Trevor was to grow up to ply his trade as a professional footballer. His mother, Winifred, guessed that would be his destiny before he had even emerged out of her metaphorical tunnel; for her womb seemed nothing more than a stadium in which the embryonic Trevor could hone his basic skills. The regular kicks were one thing but, as the months wore on, it felt as if Trevor’s repertoire of tricks was growing: headers, bicycle kicks, tackling, even throw-ins.  When he did finally enter the world, on 30 July 1945, swiftly followed by the afterbirth (also 30 July 1946), Winifred was to find that he had run the placenta-back ragged.

Trevor found himself born into a family large enough to field a few football teams itself. He was the twenty-ninth of thirty-two children that Winifred was to bear (although if truth be told, she actually only could bear three of them – Clarence, Cedric and Shaznay) and it was this busy, bustling environment which surely nurtured in him his strong competitive streak. He was to win his first Plimsbury Competitive Streak at the mere age of three, fighting off stiff competition from Archibald Proctor, the village blacksmith, and then won the race for the next six years before the necessities of schooling intervened.

Years later, much would be made of Trevor Bilston’s educated left foot and not without good reason. At the age of nine, it left the Bilston homestead of Bleakstone Hall, having received a junior scholarship to study music at the Sorbonne. Trevor’s right foot, along with the rest of him, became enrolled at local Plimsbury Grammar School, where he was to enjoy a solid if somewhat perfunctory education. His feet were not to be reunited for four years.

It was shortly after this pedal reconciliation that Trevor Bilston brought himself to the attention of local scouts. Plimsbury Grammar were drawn against public school, Cholmondeley College, in a regional cup competition. The Chummies, as they were known, were a formidable outfit with an impressive tradition, having seen no fewer than twelve pre-war England captains come through their ranks, including such amateur greats as Pongo Liddell and Walter S. Harbinger. But that day saw an unlikely narrow 1-0 victory for the Plimsbury team, powered by a masterful performance in the middle of the park from Bilston. It was a performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that Bilston did not touch the ball once during that game (in fact, he was only to touch a football once in the whole of his career). But such was the doggedness of his general play, the continual cajoling, closing down, pressing and pressuring, combined with the occasional mild threat of thuggery, it was Bilston and Plimsbury who prevailed.

Standing next to the troop of boy scouts who were looking on that day was Jimmy O’Grady, world-weary, wizened wizard of the touchline, who waited for the game to finish before hurrying off to make an urgent phone call:

“Arthur, I think I’ve found the boy who’s going to put Dudley Albion on the map.”

Newbold’s Nestlings

When Arthur Newbold had stepped through the doors of Dudley Albion in 1959, he found a club in turmoil. Lying bottom of Bird’s Custard League Division Four and without a win for six years, Dudley Albion were at an all-time low. The players were inept, decrepit and disinterested, the backroom staff were disept, increpit and deinterested, and the fans de-ept, discrepit and ininterested. Even the famous Dainty Park, home to many memorable league and cup clashes down the decades (and, incidentally, the only football ground with a haberdashery on every corner) was in a state of disrepair. Attendances had dropped down into single figures and the legendary Bell End Bellow which had inspired so many stirring Dudley Albion performances over the years, had become reduced to a mere wisp of a wind-carried whisper.

But Newbold was not a man to be deterred by such surroundings and quickly set about restoring pride about the place, like a restorer restoring things to a state of restoration*. In the tactics he employed to do this, he was to live up to his name (new and bold, I mean, not the Arthur bit).

In particular, he invested in youth. The new squad that he assembled was to have the average age of just fourteen years old – and included players as young as seven. Indeed, some of the squad had been even younger before they signed for the club. Many of “Newbold’s Nestlings” were to go on to achieve recognition way beyond Dudley itself, stretching far into the neighbouring Sandwell area; exciting centre-wing-side-forward Owen Quincy-Jones, flamboyant custodian Kenny Chigwell, enigmatic engine-room stoker Len Pastry, overlapping substitute Billy Laces and, of course, libertarian left-back Bobby Birtles.

image1

Dudley Albion skipper Len Pastry stares at the goalpost whilst the game continues around him.

Perhaps Newbold’s master-stroke, though, was the signing of the mercurial flanksman, Leighton Buzzard, on a free transfer from the West Bromwich Building Society. At fifty-eight, many said that his career was on the wane but through a combination of Newbold’s tactical astuteness, Buzzard’s own innate ability to kick a football roughly in the direction he intended, and a series of brylcreem-related bonuses, these years were to prove the crowning moment of Leighton Buzzard’s career.

Results improved quickly and dramatically. Just fifteen games into Newbold’s tenure, Dudley Albion were able to carve out a draw at home to Cannock Ladies, followed by maximum points away to Stourbridge Academicals in a game which was to see Bobby Birtles stretchered off with a fractured perm.

But in May 1962 there was still one piece of the jigsaw missing. This was a matter of considerable frustration to Newbold, having invested several evenings in the puzzle (it was of Constable’s Haywain), ably assisted by his wife, Marjorie, and, as a consequence, he decided once more to focus on football. It was then that Jimmy O’Grady was to make the call that changed Arthur Newbold’s life – and, indeed, the life of a young, precocious talent called Trevor Bilston.

*Note: originally I was going to rewrite this sentence as it seemed there were too many variations on the word “restore” but in the end I retained the original wording because of its undeniable purpose and power.

Trevor Hits the Big Time

Although his potential was clear, Trevor Bilston didn’t walk straight into the Dudley Albion first team; he had to bide his time like any up-and-coming youngster. But in September 1963, he got his big chance, following a marmoset-related injury to doughty midfielder Wally Grout picked up on a team-building exercise at nearby Dudley Zoo. Local newspaper, The Dudley Echo, sent their football correspondent Bunny Beardsley to interview Bilston who goes on to describe how he learnt of his first-team call-up:

Well, obviously, I’ve gone out there and gone and done a training session with the lads and the gaffer, you know, obviously, the usual kind of thing and then I’ve gone and jogged off the pitch and gone and found my way back to the dressing room, having gone and lit my pipe on the way, obviously. But just as I’m obviously about to go inside, I’ve gone and seen the team sheet on the door, which has only gone and got my name on it! And I’ve gone in that dressing room and I’m obviously over the moon and I’ve gone and got myself changed as I’ve only got to go and see my nan and I’m already thirty minutes late, obviously.

Alongside the calm self-assurance that is on display in this early interview with Trevor Bilston, we can also see how quickly the sixteen year old has picked up the lexicography, semantics and syntax of the footballing world: the use of the present perfect tense, the repetition of key archetypal phraseologies such as “obviously” in order to reinforce a shared realism and explicit understanding between speaker and audience, the sequential structure based around a chronological narrative.

If his linguistic talents were up to scratch, the Dudley Albion faithful were soon to see his footballing talents were equally so. His debut was against high-flying Sandwell Town and, to everyone’s surprise, Dudley Albion were to run out 2-0 victors with Trevor Bilston taking centre-stage. Bunny Beardsley’s Dudley Echo match report highlights his key role:

The centre of the park saw a performance by 17 year old Trevor Bilston which was almost Joycean in its complexity, richness and diversity of thought. He strode around the centre-circle like a modern day Ulysses whom, upon returning from distant lands, surveys his homeland and says “I have come back although I never left. I was here even when I was not. And forever will I be so. For I am as old as the game itself , as old as the grass upon which I tread, as old as the country upon which I stand.” Curiously, Bilston didn’t touch the ball once during the ninety minutes but his presence alone seemed to subdue the Sandwellians; sometimes it is not the deed but the intent that provides the eternal triumph. The only shadow in an otherwise impeccable Dudley Albion performance was my half-time leek and potato soup. Very poor – 4 out of 10.

Further victories followed against Rowley Regis Rovers and Tipton Terriers and suddenly the Dudley Albion supporters began to dream of promotion, something they had only achieved once previously in 1916 (when, controversially, they were the only team to continue playing through the First World War and declared themselves champions in lieu of any recognisable competition). Buzzard and Quincy-Jones had begun to find the net with regularity, Chigwell, Birtles and Boot had formed an impenetrable back line, whilst Bilston provided the glamorous glaze to the pasty-faced Pastry in midfield.

Leighton Buzzard comes close to scoring for Dudley Albion versus Halesowen Meteors. Trevor Bilston (not pictured) was busy refilling his pipe during this goalmouth scramble.

Leighton Buzzard comes close to scoring for Dudley Albion versus Halesowen Meteors. Trevor Bilston (not pictured) was busy refilling his pipe during this goalmouth scramble.

Finally, on 21st April 1964, Dudley Albion had a date with destiny. A point at near neighbours, Smethwick Casuals, would see them secure a place in the the Bird’s Custard League Division Three for the first legitimate time in their history. The game was not going to plan, though, a goal down with three minutes to go and their dreams lay in tatters, like a ribbon emblazoned with the words “Dudley Albion FC”, which has been torn up into tattery shreds and left fluttering in the gloomy goalmouth of despair. But those tattered dreams had not banked upon the presence of Trevor Bilston. The Smethwick goalkeeper, Alec Diggle, had just collected the ball securely in his hands when he received a look of such psychotic malevolence from Bilston that he had little option other than roll the ball out to the ever-alert Leighton Buzzard who proceeded to toe-poke home the equalizer and, with it, promotion.

The final whistle blew shortly after and the twenty-six Dudley Albion supporters ran onto the pitch to greet their heroes and hold them triumphantly aloft upon their Black Country shoulders. The future for Dudley Albion looked bright; a young team full of promise and flair, one of the league’s most innovative managers and, in Trevor Bilston, a talismanic footballing genius.

Little did they know that, just nine months later, Bilston would be dead*.

*No longer alive.

The Spontaneous Combustion of Trevor Bilston

Promotion only served to raise the profile of Trevor Bilston further, who came to be a regular feature of the local and slightly-further-afield-than-local-but-still-pretty-local press – and not just for footballing reasons. Like any teenager in the 1960s, Bilston was intent upon having fun and became a stalwart of the Dudley and Sandwell popular music and nightclub scene, for a while becoming known as the “sixth Herman’s Hermit”. The newspapers became full of late night / early morning photos of the young star emerging from salubrious discotheques, a local beauty on each of his arms (he had two in total). He was romantically linked with Miss Wolverhampton, Miss Stourbridge, Miss Walsall and the slightly more aloof Ms Cannock, sometimes all in the same evening.

As the new football season ambled its way around the corner of summer boulevard and turned into autumn avenue, Bilston worked hard on his game for the challenges ahead. Despite his undoubted raw talent, some of the more vocal critics of his debut season had berated Bilston for the fact that he never seemed to touch the ball in the course of any game; there were suggestions he might be a flash in the pan, a one-trick wonder, a mere conjurer of cheap footballing tricks. On the training ground, he set about addressing these criticisms and added feints, side-swerves, step-overs, step-unders, shimmies, side-shimmies, side-steps and shimmy-side-step-feints to his armoury, which sat alongside his existing weapons of intimidation and a borderline psychotic thuggery.

But it was in a game against Willenhall Wanderers in January 1965 that he first introduced what was to become know as the “Bilston bluff”. When the ball broke loose in the middle of the pitch, Bilston and the experienced Willenhall midfielder Jack Mudgrove advanced towards it. Bilston, though, got to the ball first and unleashed a dummy of such great artifice and illusion that Mudgrove and, indeed, the rest of the Willenhall team had no idea where the ball had disappeared to for the next fifteen minutes. During that period, Dudley Albion racked up six goals without reply with Buzzard, Quincy-Jones and Preedy all adding their names to the scoresheet.

An early advertisement featuring Trevor Bilston, feeling confident in his shag choice with Miss Smethwick 1964.

An early advertisement featuring Trevor Bilston, feeling confident in his shag choice, with Miss Smethwick 1964.

Bilston’s off-the-pitch interests continued to grow and in February he signed a contract worth £1/19/11¾d a week to become the face of Prince Albert pipe tobacco. His pipe was a notable accompaniment on the pitch and Bilston himself favoured the Briar bulldog pipe, which had the durability to see him through ninety minutes of uninterrupted footballing action. Following Bilston’s premature death, aspiring young footballers everywhere were to take up the pipe in homage to their hero and it wasn’t until it was outlawed by Sir Tony Woodcock in 1986 that it came to lose its association with the game.

But few could have seen how the bowl of Trevor’s Bilston’s faithful Briar was to run dry so quickly.*

Dudley Albion were having another good season and looked set for their second successive promotion. It was 6th March 1965 and the fixture was a tricky one, away to Tamworth Park Rangers, one of the footballing giants of the time. Bilston was putting in one of his archetypal performances – running, chasing, scrapping, snarling, shimmying, shammying, shillying, shallying, dillying, dallying. The game was poised perfectly at two goals a piece and one more goal would surely be enough to see Dudley Albion up.

In the final minute, Dudley Albion won a corner. Usually, this was an excuse for Trevor Bilston to refill his pipe, but to the crowd’s astonishment he decided to make a foray into his opponent’s penalty area. The Dudley Echo‘s Bunny Beardsley takes up the story:

Life’s perennial substitute, Billy Laces, slowly runs up to take the corner, with a Proustian nonchalance that belies the bench-warming of a thousand numb-filled hours, all remembrances of things now past for this, too, is his moment. The ball makes Euclidean arcs through the tattered Tamworth skies, awaiting the ending of the match and, perhaps, time itself. But how does a thing end? With a bang? With a whimper? Or with a Bilston? A Trevor Bilston. For he sees the ball spinning and turning, like the planet he is barely from and upon which he soon will be no longer, and it is aimed straight at him, a meteorite heading to an appointment with fate. It is a time for Reckoning, for the Truth, for the Great Reveal; no more the spherical avoidance, the global eschewal. The ball lands upon the forelock, the fire burns within him, and he bursts majestically into flames. He is the Footballing Phoenix, he gives his life so the game can continue, renewed, reborn. His team-mates look back from the leathered sphere, which nestles unassumingly in the back of the net, to Bilston No More, and they see his pipe and they see his ashes. But not ashes of tobacco. Ashes of Trevor.

The funeral took place five days later. All of the Dudley Albion players, staff and supporters turned out, as did the Bilston family (his siblings outnumbered the Dudley Albion contingent). Prayers were read, bells were rung, and life went on. Dudley Albion, after their season or two in the sunshine, soon returned to their customary level and it was many years before they won a game again; Arthur Newbold continued for two more years but he was a sad and broken man; Leighton Buzzard returned to the West Bromwich Building Society; Len Pastry retired to become a publican; Bobby Birtles was to have a surprise hit in 1968 with the Hungarian Eurovision Song Contest entry Po Po Po Po Po Po Pi Po.

A silent stillness swept around Tamworth the day Trevor Bilston spontaneously combusted and some say it remains there today. Emerge from the tunnel to the left and walk across the pitch towards the penalty spot and there you will find a plaque inlaid in the turf, which reads:

In Affectionate Remembrance
of
TREVOR BILSTON,
who died in Tamworth
on
6th March 1965,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends, acquaintances and staff at Prince Albert Pipe Tobacco, (available at all reputable tobacconists. Prince Albert gives you Pipe Appeal!)
R.I.P.
N.B.—The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Dudley.

 *This is a metaphor. Please substitute the words “days” for “bowl”, “life” for “faithful Briar” and “end” for “run dry” if you struggle to understand my somewhat refined writing style.

The Life of Oswald Bilston

The only surviving photograph of Uncle Oswald. He was later to be savaged by stoats.

The only surviving photograph of Uncle Oswald. He was later to be savaged by stoats.

One of the most famous members of the Bilston clan, Oswald is now perhaps remembered more for his unfortunate end than for the contribution he made to academic life throughout the twentieth century. A scholar, a thinker, a poet, a dreamer, Oswald was, in many respects, the most eminent Bilston of them all.

Beginnings

Oswald’s precocity was manifest from the moment he first coughed and spluttered his way into being on February 12th, 1911, equalling the record for the world’s youngest living person. It is a record he still holds jointly to this day. Later that morning, Oswald created what was to be one of his first oral poems:

Waaahhh
Waaahhh
Wah wah wah wooh
Waaahhh

It’s a construction that bears all the hallmarks of Oswald’s later, more complex pieces; the short, insistent phrasings, the alliterations and repetitions, the rhythmic cadences, all feeding the fury that lies within. It’s a fury that seems somehow infinite in its duration, as if Oswald is saying that in the beginning is the end and in the end is the beginning. To this day, scholars have disputed the poem’s provenance; some claiming that it represents Oswald’s first howl of protest against the horrors of the Great War which was just a few short years ahead, whilst others maintain Oswald was merely hungry for more milk from wet nurse, Nanny Newbold.

By the age of five, Oswald had devoured the complete works of Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Zola and Vialli. Later, having learnt to read, it was something he came to regret bitterly. It wasn’t until ten years later when his father, Edmond Bilston, returned home with the spoils from the infamous Stadhampton Public Library Robbery of 1926 that he was able to familiarise himself with the literary greats.

One of thirty-two children and of an insular disposition, Oswald must have struggled to make his voice heard in the Bilston household in the interwar years. From one of his poems at this time, we have a glimpse of what his life must have been like at Bleakstone Hall:

Cedric got more potatoes than me
Clarence got buttered scones for tea
Spencer got to play with Daddy
But nobody noticed Oswald.

Celia got a new shinty-stick
Lisbeth got a fine tooth-pick
Shaznay got a five-card trick
But nobody noticed Oswald.

Oswald set fire to the potting shed
Oswald tortured his tortoise Fred
Oswald dirtied his parents’ bed
But nobody noticed Oswald.

But whatever archetypal agonies of adolescence Oswald may have gone through, he was not an unhappy child, and, thus far, there was little intimation of the stoats which would blight his later years and be the cause of his hastened demise.

University

It was 1929. With such obvious intellectual capabilities, it was clear that university was the next step for Oswald. But this route was not without its setbacks. He passed the Oxbridge examinations with flying colours but, as chronicled in his famous poem Oxford Cambridge Blues, he soon ran into difficulties:

I had hoped to go to Oxbridge
But could not find it on the map
So I ended up here in Uxbridge
With nothing but a dose of clap.

Undeterred, Oswald enrolled himself at Uxbridge Technical College that September on a joint honours course of Systolic Dysteleology and Woodwork. It was there he came under the thrall of controversial thinker and pedagogue Professor Arnold Battle. Although many of his theories have since been discredited, Battle at that time was regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of his generation, particularly for his theory of Indeterminability. This was the belief that in the world there existed some things that it was impossible to quite put one’s finger on and which sometimes looked or felt like one thing but were not necessarily that thing although they might very well be and in which case perhaps it was best not to commit properly to one thing or another for fear of appearing foolish. This powerful credo made its way into Oswald’s poetry of the time:

I must go now to the shops
And get myself one of those things
That are handy to have around the house,
You know the kind of thing I mean.
It comes in a variety of colours
Or maybe just the one.

Although intellectually he was making huge strides, his progress was to become almost completely derailed in his final year at Uxbridge as he developed an addiction that almost destroyed him and one which he was to destined fight for the rest of his life: queueing.

Queueing, for Oswald, was something that he came to see as quintessentially English; as English, say, as cucumber sandwiches on a summer’s day or a pleasantly unexpected conversation about Sir Jack Hobbs’ batting form with a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman on a doorstep in Croydon. Like many addicts before him and since, he had stumbled into it inadvertently. One morning in February 1931 he stooped to tie an unruly shoelace outside the doorway of a haberdashery shop on Uxbridge High Street. Upon righting himself, he glanced behind to see two women standing in line behind him, waiting for the shop to open. He stood there for some more minutes and was interested to note the arrival of two more people, again standing patiently in line. Standing there, he felt a reassuring sense of order and, with it, an inner serenity the like of which he had never experienced before. He returned to the haberdashers the next day.

Over the coming weeks, Oswald found himself joining queues whenever and wherever they presented themselves: at the post-office, the butchers, the betting shop, the launderette, the Women’s Institute. He began to form one-man queues in the middle of the university library and would stand patiently for hours waiting until the feeling subsided. One estimate has it that Oswald was spending 16 or 17 hours a day queueing during this period. His studies began to suffer as a result and it was no surprise when he received notification of his third-class degree.

There is one interesting footnote to this period in Oswald’s life; the first appearance of the word “stoat” in his poetry. The reference itself appeared innocuous enough, almost hidden away in the middle of his lyrical composition, Upon Awakening to the Sound of Tubas:

But you, as submissive as a trilling stoat,
Listened deeply to the tuba’s song,
One hand upon your milk-white throat.

There is little indication that Oswald knew at this time how important stoats were to become to him, and how unsubmissive they really were.

“The Lost Years”

Oswald was later to refer to the interwar period as “the lost years”; not without truth, as he mislaid both 1933 and 1935 and wasn’t to discover them again until after Attlee came to power in 1945. In many ways, though, this period was to lay the foundations of his future acclaim and many of the famous poems written in the final years of his life drew heavily on his experiences during this time.

His first move after Uxbridge was to find himself a job – and in a hurry, too. Upon graduating, his father Edmond had cut off Oswald’s allowance upon finding that he was spending it on a weekly diet of stilton, Vimto and zithers. Oswald had first learnt to play the zither when eight years’ old, accompanying his brother Clement on the bassoon and his sister Theodora on the flugelhorn at local music recitals in Plimsbury. He took to the zither like a natural (he was chief secretary of the Plimsbury Zither Club for thirty years) and, as his poem Whither the Zither shows, it had a profound effect upon his state of mind:

Whither the zither?
I am in a dither.
Ah, it is thither.

Oswald would zither with zest and zeal but suffered from a tendency to get carried away with his own strumming, frequently breaking strings and, on occasion, smashing the entire frame as his performance reached its frenzied climax. Twice a week, he would make the fifty-mile round trip to Purlows the Zithermakers to order a replacement.

Oswald looks on as Peter Purlow assesses the zither damage.

Oswald looks on as Peter Purlow assesses the zither damage.

The necessity to finance his zithering led him to take up a position at Henry Finch & Co, a renowned outfitters specialising in tastefully selected attire for the country gentleman. His first six months were spent predominantly working in the socks and stockings department but it was not a happy experience. Oswald showed little natural aptitude for the role and once even made the mistake of offering a pair of Hedley Argyle partridge-hunting socks to a client about to embark upon a pheasant shoot. The embarrassment surrounding the hapless Oswald was palpable and hung in the air for several weeks.

It was clear that Oswald was unfit for the world of outfitting and he then embarked upon a series of positions over the following three years, none of which he remained in for more than a couple of months: hospital porter, sewing machine salesman, chicken sexer, human cannonball, scullery maid, whittler. And so it was, in October 1937, that he was to find himself walking through the door of J.D. Batterby’s, the academic and scientific publishers, with low expectations of retaining his new position even until Christmas. If he had been told that he would spend the rest of his working life there, he would have been astonished.

It was during these turbulent times that Oswald was to pen his most famous poem, Stoats. It was a poem that when published in 1950 was to make Oswald Bilston a name in most households (whether furnished or unfurnished) across the land but it also represented the first firm footstep on the march towards his own unfortunate end:

Why should I let this stoat, work,
Invade my life?
Can’t I use my zither as a scimitar
To drive the vermin off?

For the time being, though, it was not to be the stoat but the vermin of Nazism that was to emerge as the biggest threat and the country drifted slowly to war.

The War Years

J.D. Batterby was just twenty-one when he formed the publishing company that was to make both his fortune and his reputation. The natural charisma and zeal of Batterby was such that very quickly he was able to convince many of the leading intellectuals of the day to write books for him; highlights of these early years included Sir Grenville Proom’s Origins of the Specious, Edmond Pennington’s History of Belgium Shipping 1782 – 1803 and Yevgeny Denisov’s The Empty Cutlery Drawer and other Philosophical Re-Imaginings. Although he’d retired by the time of Oswald’s arrival, Batterby’s presence still clung to the Clerkenwell offices like the scent of a beautiful actress lingers in a provincial theatre dressing-room after the final curtain has come down and audience, cast and crew long since departed.

Sir Grenville Proom, author of The Origins of the Specious

Sir Grenville Proom, author of The Origins of the Specious

Oswald was flung into an office alive with the fervid fever of earnest academic debate and he was soon making his mark as the dynamic commissioning editor for Batterby’s history list. He quickly built up the publishing programme in areas which he considered had previously been under-represented, particularly in the fields of Macedonian coinage and Guatemalan-Portuguese relations.

He also began an ambitious reference project An Encyclopedia of Everything that has Ever Happened in History Ever. In this Oswald attempted to catalogue everything that had ever happened in history ever in order to create the definitive reference work for future generations of scholars and students alike on everything that had ever happened in history ever. It was a massive undertaking and by the time of Oswald’s death, 7,422 volumes had been published but coverage had still only reached as far as Charlemagne’s twelfth birthday party (a somewhat dour affair enlivened only by his father, Pepin the Short, performing his wonderful impression of Great-Aunt Swanhild’s wolfhound, Toby). Six volumes alone had been devoted to Nero’s love of biscuits. Although work continues on the Encyclopedia by other members of the Bilston family, it seems unlikely that it will ever be finished.

Oswald received his call-up papers in May 1940 and it looked as if his promising start in academic publishing was to be curtailed by the “damned inconvenience”, as he called it, of having to fight the good fight against fascism. Oswald the Warrior was never to transpire, though, as he failed his medical three weeks later. The reason for this failure remains shrouded in mystery; some biographers have ascribed it to a congenital weakness of the heart, whilst others claim that Oswald deliberately sawed off his own left leg to avoid conscription. Whatever the reason, Oswald was to soon make his own contribution to the war effort, following his appointment as Official War Poet of the British Empire (Home Front only), a position from which he wrote some of his finest verse:

Let’s have some fun
And shoot the Hun.
Do not set your gun
To stun.

The self-assured, jingoistic Do Not Mess With The British:

Do not mess with the British
For we are not so skittish,
Nervous or easily scared.
You’d better be prepared
In the upcoming fight
To deal with the might
Of the world’s greatest nation.
Await your annihilation.

The mocking savagery of Hitler Has Only Got One Testicule:

Hitler has only got one testicule,
The other he left in the vestibule.
Goebbel’s are the size of gerbils
But Himmler’s belong at a festivule.

And, of course, the graphically savage What Kind of Creature is the Nazi?:

more vicious
and pernicious
than even the stoat,
he would cut your throat,
slit your gizzard
and drown you
in a blizzard
of blood.

The savage imagery of the stoat had returned to Oswald’s writing again. But it was in the years immediately following the war that stoats began to take on a broader significance in Oswald’s life, and would lead to the gradual disintegration of his mental landscape.

The Years That Came After The War (more…)