'Big' John Armstrong is a familiar face at the Evening News' offices in Norwich. In fact, he's written hundreds of letters and poems to the paper. Reporter DAVID BALE met him.
PUBLISHED: 09:24 01 April 2013 | UPDATED: 09:25 01 April 2013
'Big' John Armstrong knows more about Norwich than most, and is a familiar figure at the Evening News.
He has been writing letters to the paper for more than 15 years, and has composed hundreds of poems. He calls the reporters and staff his “family”.
And if you just sit down with him for a few minutes, you will learn more about life in Norwich in the last 80 years than from reading a dozen books.
To anyone living in or with any interest in the city of Norwich, his conversation is illuminating.
He has been a boxer, soldier, fireman, poet, author, atheist, sportsman, family man, humanist, pacifist and thinker. And he added: “And to my dear partner and sweetheart, I was a ‘bloody nuisance’.”
But he’s not done yet. As well as poems he also writes thoughtful essays on a variety of topics, from space to local history, and he has a knowledgeable opinion on virtually everything.
He was born in 1933 above his father Thomas’s butcher shop in St Augustine’s Street. His father’s father Frank Armstrong, an Irishman, came to England in the 1890s as a cavalry officer to fight in the Boer War, and on his demob he settled in Mousehold Street.
Mr Armstrong had seven siblings and attended Dowson Infants School. He remembers carrying a gas mask to school and lessons being interrupted by air raid warnings. “We sang ‘Ten Green Bottles’ and prayed – Dear Jesus save us.”
He remembers the ‘Friendly Invasion’ when the Americans arrived during the war.
“The ladies and young girls loved them. The Lido on Aylsham Road and the Samson and Hercules were packed out with jitter-bugging and Glenn Miller songs. Many a young lady was left with a ‘bump’ by the time they left.”
His father was called up in the Royal Norfolk regiment and was killed in an explosion at Liverpool docks.
Memories of childhood have been forever clouded by the terrible treatment he received at two Catholic schools in the city.
Aged nine, he became a pupil at Willow Lane in the city centre. “From the day I started at that school, the caning started. You wouldn’t be able to write or use your hand for days sometimes because the bruising and pain was so bad.”
Aged 12, he moved to Heigham House School, near Pottergate.
“I’d thought Willow Lane had been harsh, but I didn’t know I was born until I got to Heigham House. Dogs were treated better at that school than we were. If a day went by when I wasn’t caned, slapped, punched or humiliated, I was incredibly lucky.”
Having survived the war and tortuous schooling, he left Heigham House at 15 and vowed never to go to church again – a view which remains unbroken.
He completed National Service as a firefighter in Manchester, Germany and Holland, and was a bricklayer and a circus hand.
A fan of poetry since he was a boy, he said: “I’ve always had that swimming round my head. I sat on my mother’s knee, and she read to me, the Grimm fairy tales.
“I went to school in 1939 and I could read and write by then. At home there was a tin bath in front of the fire, and we had a bath once a week, even if we did not need it.
“I love the classics, Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy is my favourite. What I like about him, is that he wrote of his time, the same as I do. I only write about what I know.
“We lived the war, the poverty. When I lost my dad, we were bloody hard-up.”
He had a wide range of jobs before settling in a role as a housing officer at City Hall, where he stayed for 27 years.
He contributed to a book ‘Norwich Memories’ a few years ago, and says that while he enjoys life, not a day goes by without him missing his partner.
“We had 50 smashing years together. We never got married. I had been married and divorced before. She had family of her own. She was Chris Sutton’s grandmother. Chris was so good to us. We went to see him play in Glasgow and Blackburn. I loved her family.”
He said one of his favourite places was Norwich market. He said: “You can stand on Norwich market and have a jaw with anyone in the Norfolk dialect.
“Looking back on my life, I would not have changed it for all the tea in China.
“We owe it those who died in the war to make this a better society. I’m glad we have not got the poverty now. In my day if you had a pair of shoes on your feet you were lucky. I remember one kid wearing his mother’s shoes to school, because he did not have any others.
“I enjoy life. I swim. I have hundred of friends. I love poetry and writing, and I’m proud to be a citizen of Norwich.”
‘Big’ John wrote me a ‘short’ history of his life, which covered about 15 pages, so you can imagine that most of it has sadly been left out of the above. But he’s planning an autobiography, which will give him more space.