My Grandad: Working Class Hero

Two people died last week. One was Amy Winehouse, the other was my Grandad. I’ll explain the significance of this at the end.

My Grandad was everything that Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party, and Tony Blair and New Labour, despised. He was working class through and through, and he was proud of it. He grew up in the harshest of circumstances: born in Castleford in Yorkshire, his impoverished family moved to Brighton and spent the rest of their lives there, on a tough estate in Whitehawk. They were so poor that his mother, employed at the Workhouse, would steal scraps of food to supplement the scare supplies they had at home.  His dad was horrible, a violent drunk who treated the family brutally.  Despite this troubled background, Grandad was an exceptionally intelligent young boy, and got a scholarship to a fee-paying grammar school in Brighton.

However, when he was just 17 years old he enlisted into the Marines, with the Second World War ravaging the European continent – his first active service would be the bloodbath known as D-Day. He remembers waiting at Portsmouth to set sail to France, and being absolutely terrified. He was to sail a landing craft back and forth, deploying men and equipment to the beaches. On his second journey his landing craft caught an underwater obstacle which destroyed his landing craft. He thought he was going to die, but somehow waded ashore (he couldn’t swim). The only survivor from the wrecked craft, he spent the next 24 hours cowering in a crater on the beach.

He was eventually picked up by an American company, and worked for them until he was re-assigned to a British battalion and then joined the Allied push through Western Europe, liberating the territories from the Nazis. This included arriving at Belsen concentration camp soon after it had been liberated. He never discussed this much with us, but when we were able to get some words out of him, Grandad just described witnessing walking skeletons, barely human in appearance, and piles upon piles of dead bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. The rest, of course, is history, and Europe was liberated from the Nazi war machine. However, during this time, word had gotten to his mother that her son’s boat had sank and he was declared missing presumed dead. Imagine then, my Grandad’s mother, outside the family house  and seeing a young Des Haywood strolling up the road. The best Hollywood script-writers in the world couldn’t come up with something as beautiful as that.

After this truly traumatic experience, Grandad embarked on a life of happiness. He joined the Co-op as a milkman – the primary reason being that he could join their football team, and he did, playing for them every Wednesday afternoon and for Whitehawk every Saturday. He was renowned locally as a very good player, as was his brother Ken – one of the few siblings he got on with. He soon supplemented his milk-round also working the afternoons for the Evening News- collecting the newspaper delivery from Brighton Station and distributing it to sellers around the city. Despite his Grammar school education, he was perfectly happy and content with working manual jobs, whilst continuing his intellectual interests in art and culture.

Ten years later, he met my Nana. She was an Italian immigrant, and had only recently entered England, barely speaking a word of the language. Despite his quiet and introverted nature, he worshipped the ground she walked on. When he proposed to her, she stated that due to her family background she could only marry a Catholic, so he promptly went away to church and converted to Catholicism. Soon afterwards they had their one and only child, my dad. Despite the couple both working manual jobs, they saved money to regularly go travelling abroad, a rarity for working class people at the time. My Grandad loved other cultures, especially Italian and American, and his love for travelling no doubt came from the war, as his career in the Marines had ended in him stationed in Sri Lanka for a time.

As I said before, he encapsulated everything that the Tories and New Labour hate. He was proudly working class; he didn’t ‘aspire’ to a posh, high-paying job and infact he spent the rest of his working career as a janitor at the Brighton Polytechnic University. Instead, he aspired to live a happy, comfortable life. He wanted to see the world, appreciate art and culture, to be with his family, and follow his passion of football – he was a devoted supporter of Arsenal.  He loved music, art, and was an avid reader – from fiction books to history. We even found an LP of Martin Luther King speeches in his collection. And in the height of racism towards Irish people in the 1970s, he was building an impressive collection of Irish rebel music. He also loved films and ended up accumulating a huge library of videos and DVDs.  He also adored my Nana and my Dad, and later my Mum too, who he effectively emotionally adopted as his own daughter. And then me, my brother and sister came along. Again, I cannot begin to describe to you how much he showered us with love and affection. To this day we cannot recall a single unhappy moment spent at their house.

So there is Desmond Hugh Haywood. Unlike Amy Winehouse, there was no live coverage of his simple terraced house in Brighton when he died. There were no outpourings of sorrow from celebrities. There’ll be no full-page obituary of him in the broadsheets. Yet at 18 years old he had sacrificed everything to help liberate the world from what has to be one of the most horrendous regimes humanity has ever bore witness to. As he became mentally ill by the end of his life, we began to realise how much his experiences at D-Day had effected him. I remember him saying that it was worse than anything we could imagine, young dead boys, blood and guts, absolutely everywhere on that beach. At that tender age he was seeing thousands of his peers mowed down in the space of a few hours. And he had helped liberate a genocidal death camp.  Just a dozen of us at his funeral didn’t seem right, given the enormity of his sacrifice for humanity. Yet this was exactly how he would have wanted it. After the trauma of WWII he had made the decision to live a simple life of happiness. He didn’t have many friends, he enjoyed his own company, and loved his family very much. That was enough for him.  What a wonderful example in contrast to the consumerist, celebrity-obsessed, fragmented, society we live in today; where being working class is something to be despised and feared, not cherished and appreciated.

You won’t find me quoting American army generals often, but this is a bit of an exception. It is Eisenhower’s speech just before D-Day, and was read out at Grandad’s funeral. If nothing else, it accurately portrays the unbelievably huge sacrifice that these youngsters gave to free the world of barbaric racism and oppression (a fight on-going to this day). I have nothing but pride to know that Grandad was one of those brave heroes.

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “My Grandad: Working Class Hero

  1. Nadia

    Absolutely Beautiful and heart touching

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us, James. He sounds like a quite remarkable individual and I am sure that he is endlessly proud of your same valiant vigour and quest for justice. I hope he rests in peace.

  3. Jen Izaakson

    Fantastic post James. Sat here wishing I was more like your Grandad!

  4. allinthepast

    In many ways this is so much better than a full page obiturary in the broadsheets. What a great tribute to who was obviously a great man. The kind of working class gent who built this country and who so often go without praise. I think he would be proud of such a eulogy. There is so much that someone can learn from his life afterall it is a wise man who chooses happiness over power and wealth. Great post James.

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