Robert Edward Gordon; my godfather. Of course he wasn’t born Robert Edward Gordon 104 years ago today. He was born Zbigniew Szczepański, in Poznań, I believe, 6 days after Poland regained her independence after 123 years of partition. I imagine his mother must have been thrilled to give birth to her first and I believe only child in a free state. And for 21 years he was a studious, thoughtful and musical youngster, devoting himself to his family and his music. How do I know all this? I actually know very few facts, but I was thinking about him today – as it would have been his birthday – and realised that although I have known him all my life, he was always very curious about me (in a nice way) but gave very little away about himself.
But the musicality was always the most important thing. He attended the Poznań conservatoire, but at the outbreak of the war he found himself in Eastern Poland – possibly on a holiday with his mother and then was deported to Siberia , as were many of his and my parents’ generation. That’s all I know of his early days. He rarely spoke of them except to tell me that his mother did not smoke while she was pregnant with him. (I think this must have been apropos of my pregnancies. This was a significant observation because at the beginning of the twentieth century many people thought that smoking was good for you.)
After the war ended he found himself at university in Rome, just like my father, studying some economics related subject. Here they became great friends, both learning Italian very quickly and beginning to learn English, as they both soon realised that staying in Italy, despite the wonderful weather and the beautiful Italian girls and the delicious red wine, was not going to get them anywhere. Actually it was my father who appreciated the wine,women and song. Zbyszek – still Zbyszek, was studying feverishly and earning a bit extra by playing in dance bands.
Eventually they came to England with the Polish Resettlement Corps , and as soon as they could they left the displaced persons camp in High Wycombe and came to London. I believe they both started at the London School of Economics and lived together in digs in Royal Avenue in Chelsea.What wouldn’t I give to live there now? But then it was just another post war dump. Their landlady was probably charmed by their Polish manners but not by their limited housekeeping skills or their lack of money.
So, Zbyszek continued to add to his coffers by paying in dance bands including in the Hammersmith Palais. He didn’t like to spend his earnings , and was always encouraging my father to save. This was to become something of a theme.My father, however, preferred to go to the Palais, but preferably to the Polish Hearth – or Ognisko Polskie, to dance and generally enjoy himself. He earned his extra cash as a porter at Paddington Station or in the Lyons Maid Factory.
But Zbyszek concentrated on money and music. And that is how I remember him. My very first memories are of Christmases – that was the only time he would play for us.Every Christmas Eve after we had finished our barszcz and pierogi, he would bring out the violin
and play Christmas carols, both Polish and English and German, and we would all sing. I have to say the cacophony was dreadful – the Wysoki family has not been blest with lyrical voices, and it must have been hard for the truly musical man to bear. But for years he did.
Eventually Zbyszek got married. By then he had changed his name to Robert Edward Gordon, or Reggie for short. That is what he preferred. But actually only his wife Jean ever called him that. Everyone else seemed to know him as Gordon. Always. or at least, until he met his second wife, and she was Polish. And she called him Zbyszek again. He did not seem to mind. In fact he married her when he was about 96 or 7 ( he had divorced Jean quite a while before and then she died. She had been unwell most of her life, but was always in love with him. They had sort of remained friends to the end. Their wedding is one I shall never forget. It was in Palmers Green in North London. My father was best man. Luckily I was not a bridesmaid, though I was very disappointed at the time.
We went from West Kensington by bus. Two or three buses – my father. Seven or eight buses – my mother and I. My father got to the church on time. We did not. I was travel sick all the way. In one bus. Out as soon as possible. Onto the next one and so on. iI imagine my mother was very fed up. She never travelled anywhere with me after that without bagfuls of preemptive towels!
We arrived at long last , at the reception. I was entranced. Jean was wearing a shiny blue dress with an enormous satin bow at the back. Short, fitted and very glamorous. She had shortish red hair; this must have been about 1958, and a lacy birdcage veil. Oh so elegant. And then it came to the food. I can’t remember anything except for the icecream cake in the shape of a doll or a bride. The crinoline was the ice cream. Nothing else has ever matched up to it. Her bridesmaid was very pretty too. Marion Tait. She became a famous ballerina I believe. Even at the age of six she had a certain grace that I envied (She wasn’t travel sick for a start!) She wore a pretty white dress and a little pancake affair on top of her head tied under her chin with satin ribbons. Sounds silly, but was in fact very stylish.
So, my godfather got married. He had a house ( he was a good saver) and a wife but then no children.
Therefore he and Jean diverted all their parental instincts towards me. I’m not complaining. They were both very thoughtful in their own ways.
But, as I said, he was widowed and married again. Very late. And sadly I was unable to recover any of the photographs and films he had made when I was small. He was always the one with a camera and a car and then a cine camera. I actually hated having my photo taken at the time – but now I would very much like to have access to all those visual memories.
When he died I did in fact ask for the violin, which I received. I always intended to ask for the photos but somehow it never seemed possible.
But the fiddle is mine – it is split and can’t be played – he never had it mended – too expensive, and I shan’t either as no-one can play it. It’s not quite a Stradivarius, and not worth anything to anyone except me.
But as you can see, it set me off thinking and reminiscing and rambling a bit.
Shall I spray it and the case gold and treat it as a sculpture? Answers on a postcard please. Or here below!