Naomi Cleaver has been a familiar face on our screens…
At 94 years old, Tom King, MBE and recent recipient of the French Legion d’Honneur, lived through World War 2 serving with the Royal Air Force and travelled extensively as a horticulturalist for the Imperial War Graves Commission. I’m keen to find out what he thinks of the way we live today.
Tom welcomes me into his home in Sidmouth that he shares with his wife of over 70 years, Madeleine. He met his Belgian bride when liberating her village during World War 2. Neatly turned out and with a twinkle in his eye, he sits with his wife in the comfortable front room, while the well behaved dog sniffles around trying to work out what’s going on.
Tom and Madeleine lived abroad for many years before retiring to Sidmouth, including France, Italy Belgium and Germany. He admits they all have their bad and good points. I ask which was their favourite country and Tom’s answer makes us all laugh. ‘Politically perhaps Belgium or Germany. But for the love of a country and for the people – the Italians. They say – ‘yes we tell you lies, but we only tell you lies to please you!’
Starting in 1946 with the Imperial War Graves Commission and finishing his career as senior horticulturalist, Tom enjoyed the job very much. He had some rough times too. For example beyond the iron curtain people were a little bit dubious and suspicious of what he was doing. And once in Algiers he had all his belongings stolen. Then the commissar of police suggested Tom should head to the Kasbar immediately where he might be able to buy his own stuff back!
I want to ask him about the challenges he has faced and his thoughts on the youth of today, Brexit, Donald Trump, and how to get to 94. I’m hoping for some straight talking and I won’t be disappointed.
So, how does he view the world today? ‘Organisations seem more corrupt. You loose confidence. I have no interest in any politician irrespective of party. And, in terms of Brexit, we are in a terrible mess and don’t seem to be able to sort anything out.’
I ask if the Kings will be happy to leave Europe? Madeleine responds, ‘We saw what was going to happen if we came out’ and Tom adds, ‘I’m a Brit, but we’re Europeans, as we’ve lived so long in Europe and we understand the Europeans a lot more than many people in this country. A lot of older people think we’re a powerful nation like we were in the British Empire, I say we haven’t got the power or the influence that we had and we have to accept we are just another European country like any other.’ Madeleine reflects ‘They wont make it easy for Britain to get out because if others see we are getting something out of it then they may want to follow. We were disappointed and I blame Boris Johnson.’
I’m wondering how the wealth of experience and wisdom garnered from 94 years can be passed on to the next generation. Tom’s response leaves me disillusioned ‘I’m not terribly convinced they’re interested. Youngsters have a totally different life to lead. Things have changed out of all recognition. The man was the bread winner and the wife and mother looked after the home and children. Now you need two salaries for the standard of living [the young] demand today. Back in our day we went without.’ As Madeleine points out, ‘credit wasn’t heard of in those days, it’s too easy for youngsters to make debt.’
We discuss how living through war affects how you approach the rest of your life.
‘We can’t agree with the attitude of younger people today, maybe we’re envious that they have an easier life,’ Tom admits. ‘When you are younger there is always that hope,’ Madeleine says, and I ask if she has become less trusting. ‘Yes, of course. I seem to be expecting something that’s not nice to happen.’ But Tom feels he has a more optimistic outlook.
So what about the challenges we face now?
‘Wars today are more conflicts which is a great difference. We’ve had this recent skirmish with North Korea. And Trump – well everybody seems to hate him but he’s done something that no-one else has ever done, you have to give him credit for that.’ A note of caution from Madeleine – ‘We don’t know what he promised.’ Only time will tell.
However, for the Kings, war was not the only or even greatest challenge they faced over the years. Very sadly, they lost one of their daughters. Tom recalls ‘it was sad, she was a lovely girl, the saddest moment, it happened after we retired. Other than that, the job was quite strenuous and quite frightening.’ He looks rueful as he tells me that one of his colleagues was murdered for which he felt terribly responsible. I ask him to explain and the dreadful story unfolds.
“‘There was a cemetery just outside Tunis. A boy who was working there was not playing the game. We got fed up with his attitude so we had a report written in French for the Minister of Works and as a result this boy was suspended for 6 months. In the meantime I went on tour with The Superintendent of Horticulture covering all Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and then I left him in Casablanca and he took the car back to Tunisia. Just before Armistice in November he rang me and said, “I’m going down to see if this boy has retaken his job” as he was due back.’
‘The boy was there and convinced my colleague to go to the back of the cemetery to look at some weeds or something in the turf and while he was bending down he decapitated him. This man was responsible to check he’d returned to work, but had nothing to do with the suspension.’
So was the boy brought to justice?
‘He escaped over the Atlas mountains into Algeria and they eventually caught up with him but the life of a European wasn’t thought to be worth much. These were the most difficult cemeteries to maintain because of the misunderstandings between the Europeans and Arabs.’
And finally to the secret of long life? ‘Luck, love and be happy’ says Madeleine. Yes, that seems to have worked for the Kings and I think it’s a pretty good motto for life today.