The Tail-Gunner’s Gift : John Holman’s Picaresque Odyssey Down Under

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820In the turbulent weeks before D-Day—the massive allied coastal invasion that heralded the beginning of the end of WWII—a Royal Air Force Stirling bomber was surprised by two attacking German Fokker Wolfe 190s, and shot to fiery pieces. As the crippled bomber fell 11,000 feet into occupied France, four of the RAF flyers managed to scramble out of the plane into the screaming air and deploy their parachutes, landing safely, going into hiding, and eventually being spirited out of the area by the French Resistance. Rear-gunner Johnny Grantham went down with the plane, though; killed instantly in his turret by the initial fusillade of German bullets.

Johnny Grantham’s story ended there. Mostly. Human life is a crazy filigreed map of possible paths and outcomes, a dense thicket of lines that spark at the intersections; a “tangled up necklace of pearls” as the great New Zealand songwriter Neil Finn has written. Johnny Grantham’s line ended that day over France, but imagine a faint second line arcing out from Johnny’s falling airplane to touch, some years later, a kid in West Sussex, England; at the time of Grantham’s early demise, his sister’s unborn child.

In Which Happenstance Seals Holman’s Unexpected Fate

“The pilot who parachuted to safety was an Australian named Noel Eliot,” says John Holman today. “When he was repatriated to Britain after D-Day, he confirmed to my grandparents that their youngest son had been killed. So, in the wake of that tragedy the Australian connection with my family was forged.” The “Australian connection” would prove central to the direction of Holman’s life, whose contours would be substantially molded by the downing of his uncle Johnny’s bomber, and by the family’s subsequent lifelong friendship with the plane’s pilot, Flight Lieutenant Eliot.

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left to right: Charles ‘Jock’ Weir RAF, mid upper gunner of Scotland; Ted Hawkins RAF, flight engineer of England; Paddy Clayton RAF, wireless operator of Ireland 415242 Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Noel Stirling Eliot RAAF, pilot; 429068 Flying Officer Kevin John O’Neil (Jack) Lynch RAAF, bomb aimer; Johnny Grantham RAF, rear gunner of Sussex, England; Jack Hassett RAF, navigator of England.

Holman, an English fella, is today a retired IT specialist and longtime Santa Barbarian. And an author. His charming and completely immersive memoir, titled Pom’s Odyssey, details in musical, laugh-out-loud prose the leap-before-looking solo journey he took at the age of 17 (and not exactly a worldly 17, it must be said), from the pastoral family homestead in 1960s England, to a still-unformed Australia that threw him for a complete loop. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more engagingly hapless young man.

Holman’s book, some fourteen years in the writing, is the unsentimental but stirring true story of a bewildered kid in search of something he couldn’t name, on a frankly ill-advised journey to a country still stumbling through its own self-amused infancy. Holman would find his true north Down Under, not to mention his True Love and ticket to Paradise—bemused American and Santa Barbara expat Martha Cooney.

Americans assume all Englishmen come to us from quaintly-named hamlets replete with birdsong, men in caps, and rolling green countryside stitched with low cobbled walls and filmed through gauze.

Talk about your paths crossing in out of the way places. John and Martha would eventually leave Australia for England together (two years after John’s Aussie landfall), return to Australia for 8 more years, marry, and finally be drawn back to Martha’s homestead, an unassuming little seaside village called Santa Barbara, where they’ve lived for more than 35 years, raising two kids and returning regularly to the Land of Crocodile Dundee and Vegemite.

In Which Holman’s Destiny is Steered by the Fates and Australian Marketers

John Holman grew up in West Sussex, England, in circumstances that will be familiar to habitués of PBS. Americans assume all Englishmen come to us from quaintly-named hamlets replete with birdsong, men in caps, and rolling green countryside stitched with low cobbled walls and filmed through gauze. These anglophiles will have their deep feelings for England affirmed by Holman’s story. He grew up on Bowshott’s Farm, a country idyll whose anchoring domicile was (and is) Bowshott’s Cottage. Holman here throws a bone to the turtleneck-sweatered PBS set.

“Bowshotts Cottage was built originally for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mother, a spiritualist who conducted séances in the living room. My grandmother swore she saw the ghost of Mary Doyle’s dog floating above the stairwell. Personally, I think she’d been hitting the dandelion wine, but who knows?” Holman laughs. “I do know that Sir Arthur wrote some of the Sherlock Holmes novels in a wooden shed at the bottom of the garden.”

Ferry Exported Larger?
Among Holman’s jobs down under, his work for the Sydney Harbor Ferry Service was the first he grew to love.

Holman’s grandfather Tommy Grantham (Johnny Grantham’s father, you see) owned and managed a horse-dealing concern – Bowshott’s Farm, whose proud animals have featured prominently in racing, show-jumping, the Trooping of the Color, the Changing of the Guard, and other such crypto-British traditions involving horses, plumed hats, and pomp. One of Grantham’s horses, an historic pony named Stroller (whose discovery is family legend) took the silver medal as part of the UK’s Olympic jumping team in ‘68, and with rider and constant companion Marion Coates won 61 international competitions all told.

“My grandfather, Grampy, as my brothers and I called him, sold every type of horse,” John says, “…from a thoroughbred to a donkey, from a hunter to a Shetland pony. His customers ranged from the local farmer to royalty, from the international show jumping set to the Horse Guards regiment.” Into this happy equine dream Australia would begin to suggest herself, singing like a siren. Thanks in part to former Flight Lieutenant Eliot and his wife Enid.

In Which Our Horsey Lad Boards a Ship and Pines for Home

Flight Lieutenant Noel Eliot would stay in touch with Grantham’s family after the war, periodically visiting Bowhshotts with his family, wife Enid and daughter Lindy, the trio wowing young Holman with their brash, unbridled, and very refreshing Aussie-ness; a quality which Lindy radiated in spades on her boisterous visits to Bowshotts. She would be one of the earliest entrants on John’s list of youthful fleeting crushes.

Holman today

By the time Holman was a day-dreamy 10 year-old, Eliot and his wife Enid were mailing copies of Australian Women’s Weekly to Holman’s parents in England, the magazines packed with gorgeous photos of a sun-drenched paradise; just the stuff to dazzle an English boy with an expansive imagination who had never traveled far from home.

By the 1960s, Australia had fully pivoted to England with a deliberate campaign to woo the Queen’s subjects to her shores.

60s-Era Aussie come-on to fence-sitting UK emigrants

“In the 1960s the Australian government targeted Britain with an advertising campaign to attract young people and families by promising an always-sunny paradise, a place to start anew,” John says. “They needed immigrants and the price was right.” The Australian government sweetened the pot by making passage by ship possible for a mere £10, about $26 at that time.

Australia needed people (immigrants, that is) in numbers sufficient to grow the still-nascent continent into a proper country with a proper infrastructure, a proper power grid, and a properly scalloped Sydney Opera House. By the time he was 17, Holman was ripe for the sun-soaked adventure and reinvention Australia promised. He couldn’t wait to inhabit the beautiful pictures he’d been pasting into classroom reports and scrapbooks since a wee lad. The phrase “hook, line and sinker” seems appropriate here.

Having endured ceaseless bullying at school (by a sadistic jerk with the Dickensian name of Dashwood), a brutal job in a brick-making factory, and a general weariness of British manners—and weather—John energetically embraced the opportunity presenting itself, and with the poignant blessing of his parents, and sponsorship of the Eliots (and their promise of lodging) down there in Australia, Holman packed his things into an outsized WWI steamer trunk and booked passage on the RHMS Australis with hundreds of other souls in search of new horizons.

In Which Our Hero Encounters Rough Seas, Gentle Souls, and Holman Himself

Following an eventful voyage on the huge ship, a voyage typified by mostly lovable berth mates from Central Casting, toe-tormenting attempts on the ship’s dance floor, tentative flirtations, devastating homesickness, routine regurgitation on the high seas, and (as if to put a gloss on Holman’s on-again-off-again doubts) a rogue mid-ocean wave that nearly rolls the massive ship on its side, Holman makes landfall. Terra Australis.

John Holman and Gampy Grantham, Bowshotts Farm 1951
The adventurer and Grampy Grantham

Holman’s perfect-pitch memoir takes the reader gently by the hand and runs harem-scarem through a Candide-like landscape of boarding rooms, hard-as nails landladies with well-hidden hearts of you-know-what, and clouds of enormous south seas insects that have no problem entering the young Englishman’s sleeping quarters at night and dining on his flesh. His various jobs there, from raking grape skins to picking fruit, were not always soul-nurturing. When finally he begins working for the Sydney Harbor Ferry Service, Holman feels his feet touch down on something like terra firma, and begins the cultivation of lifelong friendships.

The book is also threaded with the somewhat mysterious particulars of a hushed Family Shame, a WWI-era sex scandal whose reverberations would banish a good woman to her own self-imposed exile in Australia, where she would finally reveal to Holman the whole of the story, and her own healing heart.

Pom’s Odyssey is rife with instances of discovery and wonder. At one point Holman writes (and this is typical of the manifold revelations awaiting the naïf from W. Grinstead and Sussex), “…Vick’s Vapor Rub could be bought in little blue bottles at chemists in England, but in Australia it evanesced from trees!”

Pom's Odyssey by John Holman

The extraterrestrial environs of this lost continent, principally begun as a penal colony when the 18th century loss of her American holdings cost England her prime criminal warehouses in Maryland and Virginia, never cease to stun the young Holman.

He also grew to love the unbuttoned Aussie bravado and sense of humor, a national character he indeed pins to Australia’s European origin story, and to the definition of a criminal in that colonial setting.

“I think that the differences in the way Australia developed as compared to the U.S., for instance, can be traced to the fact that the United States was founded by elites,” he says.

Santa Barbara Expat Down Under- the former Martha Cooney in late sixties Australia
Santa Barbara Expat Martha Cooney in ’71, Surfers Paradise, Queensland.

“But Australia was founded by convicts. Many of those early convicts were Trade Unionists like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of agricultural workers from Dorset who for their sins of protesting against the constant lowering of their wages were sent to penal servitude in Australia.” Incidentally, the penal colony birth pangs of the young country are inherent in the title of Holman’s memoir.

“We were called Pommies, or Poms; for the P.O.M.E. imprinted on the uniforms of the convicts indicating Prisoners of Mother England,” Holman explains with a grin. “Hence the title of my book, Pom’s Odyssey. I would occasionally be called a Pommie Bastard, which can be a term of endearment depending on how it is said.” His grin blossoms sheepishly. “But if you are called a f****** Pommie bastard, or a stupid Pommie bastard, well, that is an insult. Or worst of all, a Whingeing Pom, used to describe a Brit who complains about Australia all the time, constantly comparing it negatively to England.”

In Which Holman Reveals His Epiphany

The much-loved farm kid whose heart initially seized up at the very thought of home, would come out the other side of his Aussie odyssey sure and complete and whole [if not quite employable in the larger world—that would come later!], all this found treasure precipitated by an air crash in the north of France, and an uncle he would never know, but whose tragic early demise gave John a life less ordinary.

These things do happen. It’s good to be reminded of that once in a while, and to be swept away by a writer able to convey the completely nutty facts of whimsical, incandescent life. But was there a moment of epiphany when Holman realized the whole “Australian” thing just might work out after all? Stupid question, answered without hesitation.

“It’s when I met Martha. Oh, we were just friends at the beginning,” Holman hurries to add, and I catch a glimpse of the stammering teen who found his life at the bottom of the world: and lost his stammer. “We’d go out as a group. It was later it turned to romance. But Martha was the turning point.”

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John Holman will be speaking and signing his memoir Pom’s Odyssey on Saturday June 24, 1 – 3pm at The Open Book, located at the Oaks Mall, 350  W Hillcrest Dr., Thousand Oaks…