Dr Charles M Lansley & Claire Lansley: “Pon my Puff!  A Childhood in 1920s Isle of Wight”

Report of the talk on 12th October at Hampshire Writers’ Society written by Sarah Noon

Dr Charles Lansley talks about his recent publication of a lost book originally began by his father, Peter Stark Lansley, in the 1960s, when he was in his 40s.  Pon My Puff was written about Peter’s childhood home on the Isle of Wight.  Dr Charles and his wife Claire are currently doing a tour in which Dr Charles explains how the book came about, and Claire reads some extracts.  

The book describes Peter’s life as a child in 1920’s Isle of Wight.  The period covered is from around 1924, when Peter was about four years old, up to 1929 when his grandfather died.  There is also a short period written in the 1940s when Peter goes back to revisit his childhood home.  The title, Pon My Puff, is an old Isle of Wight expression meaning “Goodness Me!” (Although Dr Charles tells us that he has since been informed by his cousin, that it is also used in Scotland).  Apparently, Peter’s grandfather frequently used it.  Other old phrases which frequently appear in the book include “Oh my Godfathers” and “That beats cockfighting!” – phrases his grandmother was frequently heard to say.

Dr Charles’s talk begins with him showing a photograph of his father in the 1950s, sitting at his desk (possibly the one where some of the notes were written).  He recalls how as a child his father talked about writing his book and would read extracts to the family.

When Dr Charles’s mother died in 2013, his dad’s notebooks were found in an old trunk in the garage.  Dr Charles recalls that the notebooks “weren’t in any great order and some bits were missing”.  He felt it was his job to put all the work together.  Originally, he was planning on typing up the notes for family members.  However, he then realised that there was a potential broader interest and value to his dad’s work – and it having a “much wider appeal” – especially regarding its historical context.  Dr Charles worked on the manuscripts, made notes and annotated the books, and in April this year, sixty years after it was first written, the resulting book was published.  It is a testament to the accuracy of the notebooks – written in a time before the internet and social media – that Dr Charles was able to corroborate everything his father wrote about, through records and visits to the island.

Peter grew up on the lsle of Wight.  Until the age of four, he lived in East Cowes with his grandparents, in the shop owned by his grandfather.  His formative years were spent in a house called Woodside Villa in Wootton (Dr Charles showed us a picture of the house which still stands proud today).  Here, he was largely brought up by his mother and grandparents as his father was away at sea most of the time  (we later learn that the sea had a huge influence on the Lansley family).  The book largely explores the relationship between him and his grandparents – especially his grandfather (known as “Gramp”).  Peter lived there until he was eighteen when he came to Southampton to study Radiography.  Dr Charles talks about radio being his father’s main interest (he later became a radio operator in the Merchant Navy, and he was also an amateur radio enthusiast).  As a result, Peter’s writing talent was largely undiscovered.

“I was always interested in his family history” says Dr Charles, but he didn’t know much about his family tree.  It was, he explains “… a bit thin.”  He found reading the notes and researching the book very interesting – discovering that the people he had been reading about were real.  He found cousins he never knew existed.  Sadly, he says, there seem to be no childhood photos of his father, and he is not sure what happened to them.

When asked whether he contacted any of the people mentioned in the book and whether he felt the need to ask permission to use their names, Dr Charles replies that by the time he had begun working on the notebooks, the people his father had written about had all passed away.  He checked records as well as speaking to locals and people that remember the family.  With no surviving characters, Dr Charles felt it was safe to progress with publication, but it does beg the question: Could the book have been published at the time?  Dr Charles adds that there is nothing negative written about any of the characters.

One of the most surprising notebooks Dr Charles found, was a selection of letters written by poet Laureate John Masefield, to a Mrs Gwyneth B Edwards at Southampton Writers’ Circle in 1958.  These letters were copies that were handwritten by Peter.  The letters were also included in Masefield’s biography.  Dr Charles says he is currently undertaking further research into the connection with both Masefield and the Southampton Writers’ Circle.  He visited Southampton Writer’s Circle recently and says he was “fascinated” by their scrapbooks and references to Mrs Edwards.

Dr Charles says that a recurring theme throughout these letters was one of “Seeking the Magical.”  He claims, “One must always seek the magical adjective.” This is something Dr Charles feels his father took on board when he began to write his book.

We see an image of Mount Joy, a cemetery in Carisbrooke, which Charles describes as “like heaven”.  Peter’s maternal grandparents are buried there.  At this point, Claire, Charles’ wife, reads us the first of several extracts from the book:

Extract #1: A Little Piece of Heaven.

Gramp tells Peter what it will be like when he dies and goes to Mount Joy.

Extract #2 – What it’s like to be someone else. 

Peter and his cousin Barry discuss what it would be like if they were born again as animals (and indeed, animals being born again as people!).

Extract #3: The Magic of a Family Christmas

Peter is waiting for his family to arrive at Christmas.

Extract #4: The Magical Innocence of Childhood: The Earwig

Peter and his four-year-old friend Victoria, talking as they are helping Gramps sort out his apples for storage.

Dr Charles goes on to talk about the “significant influence” the sea has had on his family, showing us pictures of Peter’s father Percy, his Uncle Will (who was sadly lost as sea in 1917), and Peter himself, who was in the Merchant Navy (his ship was sunk by torpedo in 1940, but he and his crew miraculously survived).  We are shown a picture of an etching made by George Brannon in 1832 of Ashey Down sea mark which was built in 1735 as a landmark for ships.  Gramp took Peter there as a boy.  Brannon, Dr Charles points out that interestingly, lived in the same street as Peter did in Wootton). 

(Extract #5) Peter & Gramps’s walks to the seamark

Grandfather and Grandson talking about men going to sea to fight for their country and the possibility of not returning.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a memoir set on a tiny island, Pon My Puff has attracted overseas appeal – even from as far away as Japan.  There are many people who have connections to the island, whose family left for shipbuilding or to join the navy.  Many left to go to Portsmouth to find work.  As a result, people with connections to the Isle of Wight can now be found all over the world – just take a look at the Isle of Wight Facebook group!

Dr Charles Lansley

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