Last month my family and I took part in a beach clean-up in Seaford. It was a beautiful, balmy autumn morning; the white cliffs were so bright they made our eyes water and we wandered across the shingle with our black bags looking for all those ghastly things that David Attenborough tells us are killing marine life all over the world.
My seven year old daughter announced suddenly she’d found a jellyfish. There was a bright blue thing like a burst balloon about the size of a slightly squashed kiwi fruit (her description) on the pebbles. I prodded it with my gloved hand and recoiled; it was like one of those joke toy slugs that you use to freak out squeamish friends - with a crimped edge and a stringy appendage that tailed off to nothing. We’d seen Autumnwatch that week and they’d shown a picture of a Portuguese Man O’War washed up on Brighton beach: the colour and that gently yielding texture made our find unmistakeably the same animal. We were pleasurably horrified.
Claire, the lady who’d organised the beach clean, confirmed our identification, and we had a nice chat with her. She’s one of those infectiously positive people who just get on and do the things that the rest of us know we should be doing and after we’d enjoyed our free cup of tea and gone home, I looked her up on Instagram.
I’d been working on the third edit of the book (first draft: vomit, second: mild indigestion, third: vaguely chewy), writing about Morris’s time with No. 39 Squadron, a unit that became synonymous with home defence in the Great War, providing no less than three Zeppelin wreckers. The first, and most famous of these, was William Leefe Robinson, a David Niven lookalike whose courage in shooting down army airship SL11 won him the Victoria Cross, and boosted the confidence of the nation coming to terms with sudden vulnerability after centuries of splendid isolation.
A Pathé reel on Youtube shows him arriving at a children’s home in Essex, surrounded by hankerchief waving girls, cap-waving sailor suited boys, and jubilant brass bands. A small dog careers after his car as if it was caught up in the excitement. He receives thanks and adoration and nervously plays with his moustache, the only feature that places him as a contemporary amongst the round-collared gentleman and the peekaboo hatted ladies; the utility of his Flying Corps uniform marks him as weirdly timeless.
Robinson’s story is tragic ; shot down in France by Richthofen’s Jasta 11 in 1917, his notoriety amongst the enemy guaranteed him a terrible time as a P.O.W. in the same camp that Morris’s surviving C Flight colleagues of 11 Squadron languished in. Weakened by brutal treatment, Robinson’s repatriation in December 1918 had an unlucky denouement when influenza killed him before the month was out.
A few weeks after meeting Claire, on Remembrance Sunday, I saw one of her posts on Instagram – a photograph of Leefe Robinson which she had captioned:
“Lest we forget his efforts and bravery. #family.”
Breaking out in goosebumps, I messaged Claire; Leefe Robinson was a distant cousin of hers, not someone she knew much about, but whose memory was still treasured by her family.
It’s moments like these that bring these long dead young men back to life in an instant – and what a strange coincidence that a relic of an appropriately named jellyfish (correction: genus of Physaliidae, not strictly a jellyfish) brought together two families in the same town, not only sharing a sad heritage, but an almost exact contemporary connection to the same remarkable squadron.
Claire’s great work in helping keep our Seaford beach clean can be found on Facebook and Instagram at #zerowastemaman.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
Archives By Date (For Archives by Topic , click here.)