In the middle 1930s my father gave up his studies at evening classes to take up pencilling for a bookie at the local greyhound races, most evenings at the big Hackney Wick Stadium. My father was quick at figures, and the money enormously increased the family income. After my father had got a little capital together, he decided to set up as a bookie on his own. He had a flamboyant brass name-plate made with the words “Harry Foxon” printed across it in red, and he ordered a large, multicoloured umbrella. Now it was he who was the boss, and he employed someone else to do the pencilling for him.
That first season it seemed as if his luck had really turned. Nothing he could do was wrong. Every night my mother and we children would wait up for him. And when she asked him in that Cockney voice of hers: “‘Ow did you go, ‘Arry?” he would smile and reply with that Yorkshire accent which he never lost: “We’ve woon.”
Every night he won. He hardly had a losing meeting. He bought himself an expensive suit and my mother had a new frock. That summer we, who had never had a seaside holiday before, went to Jaywick, a new resort close by Clacton-on-Sea, in a hired car. We spent a fortnight at a bungalow that cost my father twelve guineas to hire. He had four hundred pounds in the bank, and was opulent, for remember, those were the days when four hundred pounds were really worth four hundred pounds. In all my life I had never had such a marvellous holiday, neither had my mother, neither had my brother nor my two sisters. We basked in my father’s glory, and for fourteen wonderful days the sea piled itself unceasingly upon the shore while at night the lights of the bungalow colony rivalled the stars in the blue-black sky.
My grandfather had struck a bad patch and lost his “float” with which he bought his stock of meat. My father “staked” him to begin anew and gave him a little extra on top.
It was when we came home that my father’s luck turned for the worse. Before he had been able to do nothing wrong, but now he could do nothing right. One losing meeting followed another. He managed to pick up a little towards spring, and the following summer he hired a very inferior bungalow at Jaywick for a week only. But the holiday was a gloomy one. It was impossible to capture the carefree happiness of the previous year. Bookies were going broke one after the other at the stadium, and my father knew he had not enough capital behind him to see him over this run of bad luck. Why didn’t he quit? Well, hope springs eternal.
Shortly after we returned home he went to his final meeting. He was in debt and had to borrow to extricate himself. He had made his last throw to beat poverty.
He now made occasional visits to “The Dogs”, as a punter, in the hope of a big win which would put him on his feet, but had little success.
A worse misfortune was to follow, however. A safe at my father’s firm was robbed – a safe to which my father had had access. The police were called in, and when my father’s circumstances were known, the inspector in charge immediately decided that he was responsible. In vain my father protested his innocence. The police had solved the problem to their satisfaction, and seemed content to leave it at that.
For days an atmosphere of gloom pervaded our house. My grandfather was earning little money, my uncle was out of work, and even my grandmother’s charring seemed to have fallen off. Now it seemed certain that my father would be sacked, if not prosecuted. After many anxious days, however, it turned out that there was not enough evidence to prosecute and that my father, in view of his previous good record, would be allowed to continue working. We were still in debt, but at least the breadwinner was not in the unemployment queue.
My father was then in his late thirties. He eventually became Assistant Personnel Officer of the firm and Councillor in the Borough of Hackney. Did he rob the safe? Of course he didn’t. I know because he and my mother were struggling to pay off debts for long months afterwards. But more than that, and notwithstanding the bookmaking interlude, my father was such an honest man and so much of an idealist that such a deed would have been beyond him.
Another memory of my father is that eventually, after many years of loyal service to the Borough of Hackney as a Councillor, he became Mayor. On one particular occasion he suddenly realised that the Annual Mayoral Reception clashed with the Jewish Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and fasting. He immediately set back the Reception so that the Jewish members of the population should also have the opportunity of participating. Knowing my father, I can state categorically that this was not done out of political motives – he was not that kind of man. Rather his action came from his own innate sense of what was fair and just. Nevertheless, he was pleased when subsequently the Jewish Community presented him with a medallion, struck to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of the resettlement of the Jews in England at the time of Oliver Cromwell. On one side of the medallion is a seated woman holding in one hand a scroll reading “1656 – 1956”. In the other hand she holds the Tablets of the Law. On the reverse of the medal are portraits of Oliver Cromwell and Menassah ben Israel, the Dutch Jew who helped negotiate the resettlement. On this side is also depicted the Seven Branched Candlestick or Menorah, the logo, if you like, of all things Jewish. The medal was presented to my father by Rabbi Lehrman at a reception following a service of thanksgiving and dedication held at the New Synagogue, Edgerton Road, London, N.16, in the middle of April, 1956.
I have written about my father at some length and am hesitant about how to conclude. I can only say that he loved me dearly, and I loved him in return. I have met many men in many walks of life, but I have never met one man anywhere who could hold a candle to my father. My father did not reveal himself to people easily. But once you knew him, you could only admire him. After my mother died, my father and I struck up a correspondence, he in England and I in Australia. I visited him twice in England, once with my wife, Irene, and he visited us twice in Australia. We both had a compulsion to write, and through our letters we became very close. It was a late flowering of a wonderful friendship that I shall never cease to treasure in my memory.
As I related previously, my paternal grandparents were up in Yorkshire. As we lived in London when travel for the working man was an almost impossible luxury, we rarely got to see them. My Yorkshire grandfather, James, after whom I was named, actually saw me when I was young and visited Yorkshire, but I cannot remember him. They tell me that he created a tremendous scene on a bus on one occasion when my Mum was carrying me in her arms and nobody would offer her a seat. After my grandfather had finished lashing the passengers with his tongue, several seats were offered. This would be the kind of man he was, from what my father has written about him. A photograph I have shows a firm jawed man in a cloth cap and a substantial moustache looking unflinchingly at the camera. The eyes are smallish, but set fairly wide apart and quite unwavering. Some fairly wide set frown marks show faintly above the level eyebrows. Here is the face of a stubborn Yorkshireman who thinks about a problem and then, having come to a conclusion, sticks with it to the bitter end. No need to wonder from where my father inherited his stubborn streak.
Although my grandfather spent his young years in the army and then a lifetime of hard physical work in the coalmines, he had a heart murmur and should have been permanently on light duties. Nevertheless he lived an active life until his death at the age of sixty-five. I have visited his grave at the village of Grimethorpe, in the churchyard and hope to pay my respects several times in the future before I, too, pass on. My Yorkshire grandfather was a dark, swarthy man. He was well known as a “stirrer” who never hesitated to tell the mine bosses what he thought of them if he believed he wasn’t getting a fair go. In later years this prejudiced his chances of being taken on in the local coal mines. James Foxon’s father, William Foxon was also a miner. When James Foxon was twenty-seven years old, he married Fanny Sanderson, twenty five years old, from the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, whose father was also a coal miner.
A photograph I have of my Dad’s mother when both she and my grandfather must have been close to sixty shows a no-nonsense woman who still retained her black hair without any grey, with a fairly rugged cheek structure such as I recall in my father.
I have personally but a single recollection of my father’s mother. It is a memory of a dark haired, elderly woman in a long Victorian dress, rolling me on the grass, bending down, tickling me, and laughing as I laughed. A vivid recollection is that she had a “wall-eye”. I was not sure for many years whether this was a true recollection or a dream. But checking with my father when the subject came up in conversation during one of his visits to Australia, he confirmed that my grandmother did indeed have a “wall-eye”, the result, apparently, of a stroke she had suffered.
I must have been about ten years old when my mother approached me quietly and told me that she and Dad would be away for a short while. Dad’s mother had died, and they had to travel up to Yorkshire for the funeral. I was alone with my maternal grandmother for a couple of days. When Mum and Dad returned, Mum confided in me that Dad had wept at the graveside. As I had not known my Yorkshire grandmother closely, I could not feel deeply about her, but I realised that if my Dad had wept he must have been very upset.