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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: George Bennett

George Bennett is the father of Beverly Bennett, for­mer owner, along with Monika Fuchs, of the Philo Pot­tery Inn. While the Inn no longer operates in that capac­ity, Beverly and Monika still live there and a couple of years ago, following the passing of George’s wife, Sheila, he moved here from London, England, to live with his daughter. We sat down in the lovely garden, with a cup of coffee and some delicious cookies, and began our chat.

George was born in India, in the East Bengal city of Calcutta, the oldest child of Sidney ‘Ginger’ Bennett (he had red hair) and May Carvey. Both the Bennett’s and Carvey’s were originally from the south east English county of Kent where the Bennett’s worked in the fruit and vegetable business before Thomas Bennett, George’s grandfather joined the British Army in the 1920’s and went to India, which was under British rule at the time. When he retired from the service, he decided that he liked India so much that he stayed. “My grandfather had a great long handlebar moustache and went everywhere with this large drake, a male duck, who was like a dog in the way it followed him. He married my grandmother, Sophie, and they started a family. My father grew up to be a train driver, or engineer as they called them, on the Indian railroads. His route went from Calcutta all the way up into the Himalayas that took one-and-a-half days each way with an overnight stop up in the mountains. He’d take me when I wasn’t at school and we’d be gone for four days before arriving home with a loud hoot on the train whistle as he pulled in near to where we lived on the railway company’s property. That was the sign for my mother to send a servant to help him with his lug­gage.”

George’s mother was born in India to parents of Portu­guese descent and was one of several siblings and George spent a lot of time growing up with this side of the family.  His parents met in Calcutta, were married as teenagers, and started their family in the suburbs. George had two brothers and three sisters and just he and the youngest, a sister, are alive today, with two of them dying as teenagers from the plague (cholera) and menin­gitis. “We lived in a very nice house with marble floors, a large and beautiful garden and several servants. Mother had a ‘bothey’ — a cook; a boy to run errands; an ‘ayaia’ — a nanny; a gardener; and there was a tool boy for both valet and maintenance work. Yes, the railway company certainly looked after us... The social side of life was mixed with both Brits and those who were half English and half Indian, railway people, and retired military peo­ple. My parents were in a social club and I spent a lot of time there. It had tennis courts, swimming pools, cricket and field hockey pitches, and a nice restaurant. Soccer was also popular and my interest in that sport began at an early age. My father loved boxing and that became my other favorite sport.”

The family generally ate Indian food — curry and rice — apart from when around his grandmother when a sort of Portuguese/Indian culinary mix would be served. “We seldom ate English food apart from the boiled sweets (candies) we’d get every evening after dinner from two big jars on the table from which each of us kids would take four each. I loved exploring the neighbor­hood and there was a large rice field behind our house that was infested with water snakes. Fortunately I had Freddie — a mongoose who loved killing and eating snakes. My father found him one day in the garden as a little, pink, mouse-like creature. My father was a sweet-hearted and compassionate man and he loved animals, often rescuing stray dogs. He fed and raised Freddie and the mongoose behaved like a dog, rather like my grand­fathers drake. We also had cows, a goat, several chickens and a couple of dogs.”

Up to the age of 13 George attended a private school for boys and girls with teachers and students that were both English and Indian. Then he was sent to an all-boys Catholic boarding school, St. Paul’s, where he was to spend the next five years, high in the Himalayas, for nine months of each year. “It was very strict and my parents visited me may be just once in each nine month spell for a couple of days. I did not go home at weekends and lived in a dormitory with 16 other boys. I played lots of soccer and table tennis and did lots of walking. We had very little contact with the outside world except to go to a picture show (movie) once a month in the town about an hour’s walk away, if you had been well-behaved.”

George was an average student and never liked school. Following each visit home during the school holidays he did not want to go back. “There was lots of bullying at school and I loved being home for the holi­days, exploring the City and visiting the restaurants and cinema by tram and bus. I was not shocked by the pov­erty I witnessed every day as it was part of life in Cal­cutta. It hit me many years later when I returned for a visit with Beverly. My family was quite well off; my mother’s grandmother owned a few supermarkets and had a silver Rolls Royce with red leather upholstery and a chauffeur and the whole family was expected to go to dinner at her house on Sunday evening. My parents were strict with me — ‘George, you are here to listen not to be heard!’ And when I graduated from school it was decided that I should follow my father’s footsteps in the railways, which was a common thing for families to do. However, my Dad thought I could do better and one of my Aunts had some connections and got me an appren­ticeship in the air conditioning business — a big and important industry in India, as you can imagine. Well, I really liked it and did very well, and it became my job until I left India.”

“I had never had any girlfriends, in fact, I was a bit of an idiot around girls. I had three Uncles who were always getting me into trouble in various ways and one of those ways was when they encouraged me to lift up schoolgirls’ skirts! I was easily led and a bit stupid and did what they said and then always got into trouble of course. I was a little mischievous, out of boredom I think, and sometimes stole from the ice cream man, but nothing that serious. World War 2 saw my father join the British Army and he was stationed in Egypt where he ran a supply train for the British 8th Army. His train was blown up and he went missing before turning up a week later with a temporary loss of memory. He was dis­charged and returned to Calcutta a different man - very bitter and angry. He began to drink heavily, had a habit of playing darts with real knives. I had to go and fetch him his beer on my bicycle and it was tough time and he and my mother nearly got divorced but eventually, fol­lowing psychiatric treatment, he came round and returned to being the good old ‘Ginger’ Bennett once again.”

After making good progress at his job for a year or so, George fell into bad company. He started drinking a lot himself and hanging out with five buddies who just wanted to get drunk and make fools of themselves. “We’d go out at 7pm nearly every evening and not get home until the early hours, meaning I’d sleep off my hangover at work. My mother became very worried about me and I was getting into trouble at my job...As George was growing up, a girl of his age called Sheila Osbourne, had become a neighborhood friend. The families were friends and she attended the girls’ school equivalent of St. Paul’s up in the mountains. Now in his late teens, George asked Sheila out on a date. “She had many boyfriends and I thought I had no chance but she said ‘Yes’! Her mother, Biddie, did not approve of drinking and I’d sometimes pick Sheila up when I was half drunk so eventually Sheila gave me an ultimatum to ‘smarten up.’ I said I’d try and gradually I changed. I stopped drinking, told my friends I was happier being like this, and became a good boy. From that day on Sheila and I were never separated. Our relationship was simple, very sweet; very, very loving, and it grew stronger every day.”

George moved out of his family home and lived at Sheila’s family — “where they could keep an eye on me.” We dated for a year or so before getting engaged, which was sealed with a kiss at the cinema, and then saved money for a year to buy a wedding ring. We were married in 1950 and moved into a rented one-bedroom apartment with Beverly being born in 1951. I had moved to a bigger company and was in charge of the air condi­tioning for a whole large factory and building, with a driver picking me up for work every morning. I wore a shirt and tie, which was strange as I would be working on machines most of the day, although my paperwork had increased with each promotion.”

George and his new family were very happy for sev­eral years but India was changing following independ­ence form Britain and partition with Pakistan. “They were dangerous times, India was becoming very corrupt, but Beverly was settled, the job was good, and we had a good life, so I wanted to stay in India. However two incidents occurred that changed my mind. There were roving gangs of students on the street, Hindus out for revenge on the British for the two centuries of colonial­ism. One day about twenty-five guys surrounded me and asking questions and jostling me. They ordered me to take off my tie, a symbol of the British, and wear my shirt outside my trousers like Indians did, warning me to never dress like that again. Then a while later, when Sheila and I were going to the cinema one evening, we had not gone far when someone threw a small bomb towards us. We were not hurt but it was the final warning and despite the fact that we had many Hindu and Mos­lem friends the extremists were getting more daring. My father’s family left for England but we couldn’t afford it. Then I was also faced with some passport complications that meant I would have to leave too or be possibly stuck there in India. I left for London alone with plans to set things up and to send for Sheila and Bev as soon as pos­sible. It was a very hard decision. I arrived in London in the autumn (fall) of 1955 with five pounds in my pocket and just four days before my passport expired. The very next day I was working at a foundry as I wanted to start earning money so my Sheila and little Beverly could join me.”

George had never worked pouring metal in a foundry before but he kept at it and a year later had saved enough to pay for Sheila and Beverly to join him. For three years they lived in the attic of his parents’ house in Edmonton, North London. “It was a tough time and I felt we were in the way living there. Bev had arrived knowing very little English as the nanny she’d only spoke Hindustani. My Sheila got pregnant but lost the baby - I believe it was due to the stressful situation. We eventually found a two-bedroom flat nearby and moved out, which resulted in my mother not speaking to me. ‘I’ll never stop at your house and you never come to mine’ she said. It was very strange and I never really understood why. She had be­come a changed woman, very greedy, very bitter, and she often clashed with Sheila, who was very distressed with living there. The Doctor suggested we moved out for Sheila’s health and at one point Sheila asked me to take her back to India. Fortunately my Dad continued to visit us and we stayed.”

George moved to night shifts in the machine shop at the foundry. “England was very cold at night — I slept in my coat - and then the night shift nearly killed me it was so cold. I was not used to such temperatures. The people were very friendly though. Sheila had never cooked in her life but she soon learned and became a very good cook after her mother visited and taught her and then when Bev started school she got a job as a shorthand typist and secretary... We soon had quite a lot of friends at the local Working Man’s Club, a social club with bingo, dancing, darts, and a pub/restaurant. We both loved to dance the jitterbug — we were quite with it I must say. We took Bev everywhere we went and she always had her pacifier with her. She was addicted to it and we still couldn’t get her to stop even when she was six or seven! She was very close to Sheila’s Mom and when Grandma took it off her and threw it out of the window she finally got over it. Grandma used to say to her, ‘You’re my heart’ and as a little girl Bev would reply ‘Heart, too.’ She always called Grandma ‘Heart-too’ after that.”

George stayed at the foundry, Mains Limited, getting his first watch at ten years service and a gold one at twenty-five years by which time he had about thirty people working under him in the machine shop, working on cast iron for cookers, heating appliances, water heat­ers, gas fires. “I never left. I was loyal to the day I retired. Never late, rarely absent — even when I was sick they would send someone to see me and ask what I needed them to do... I continued to play soccer and field hockey when I was young enough and got into watching professional soccer in England, supporting a top team, Tottenham Hotspur, whose home stadium was just down the street, although the first time there I was so cold I didn’t go for another year! Then I went all the time for many years.”

George bought another flat and then a modern three-bedroom house in 1961 for four thousand pounds ($8,000) and was to live there until 2008. “We were always busy socially and when I wasn’t working or socializing I worked on the house, something I really liked to do. Over the years I learned lots of handyman and home decorating skills, although in the early days I manage to hang some wallpaper upside down, I must tell you.”

George and Sheila had friends whose daughter lived in San Francisco and Bev visited her there. She loved it and wanted to stay. “We were very hurt and angry at first. She came home for about six months but we knew she was not happy in England. She left for the States permanently in about 1970, living in S.F. and working as a nanny. We visited a couple of years later when I got over my fear of flying and then we’d come once every year, sometimes twice... I finally retired in 1984 at sixty-five and never worked again. Sheila couldn’t do that though; she couldn’t sit around doing nothing so she found a part-time job in a catalog shop. I never told her what to do. I was happy for her to do this for a few hours a week, every morning, and I’d meet her for lunch every day and then we’d go to a movie or for a walk or go shopping. She taught me how to cook and left me instructions on what needed doing every day. I kept myself busy with cooking and various projects around the house.”

In 1995, after a period of 40 years, George returned to India with Sheila, Beverly, and Beverly’s partner Monika, visiting his old haunts in Calcutta and the Himalayas to seek out old friends but they could not find any relatives anywhere. “Every last one of our relatives was gone. The school was still there but everything else had changed so much. Sheila and I cried to see it all gone. I had had a great time in India and we were very sad to see how it had become. The poverty was much worse than I remembered it although that may be down to me having been away for so long. Bev in particular was very upset at all the poverty. We saw one guy lying on the floor, down to the bare bones, panting, seemingly about to die. We called the local council and asked if they could do something. They just said that if we couldn’t help him he’d have to stay there until somebody helped or he’d die. He died on the street a few hours later.”

Beverly and Monika moved to Anderson Valley and took over the ownership and running of The Philo Pot­tery Inn. “Sheila and I visited the Valley every year and when Sheila retired in 2005 we began to make plans to live here. We loved the people we had met here and the slower pace of life suited us after so many years in Lon­don. Bev was Sheila’s life and she’d go anywhere to be near her. We were here for Sheila’s 80th birthday and returned with plans to sell our house in London and move over. Then Sheila had a slight stroke, not life-threatening, and was in hospital for a few days where she caught a bug and three days later she was fighting for her life. Bev flew over and saw her but she died on the third day.”

“It is like it happened yesterday. My life went with her. I stayed at the house alone. I lived in one room and apart from getting clothes I never went in our room again. I dreaded every night, being alone with my thoughts and memories. I would sit for hours every day in the dining room with my head on the table and lived on takeout food as my health declined. My family told me I should go to America but I could still feel Sheila there and I wanted to be there with her. I gave up and almost committed suicide twice. We had been as one; we always knew what the other was thinking and we slept together holding hands. Friends said we were welded together. My Sheila was a lovely, lovely lady.”

After a year, Beverly persuaded George to move to Anderson Valley and in 2008 he sold his house and made the big move. “I watched the house slowly break up as I gave everything away and then sold it. It was very hurt­ful to see everything we had worked for just go. All I bought to the States were some clothes and pictures of Sheila. I moved into a room with my own bathroom at Beverly and Monika’s. I’ve been very mournful and dif­ficult I’m sure; I’m not really interested in anything and am very quiet and not easy for Bev and Monika to deal with. They have tried their best to make me feel at home but I haven’t cooperated much. I just have been going through long periods of wanting to be alone, talking to Sheila in my room. It’s my fault I’ve not been more social but I can’t seem to get out of it. I can’t explain it but I’m now trying my best to move forward.”

George has been getting out on occasions to the Trivia Quiz at Lauren’s or to the Senior Center some­times. He plans to go out more often and he does like to follow the English soccer on television and the World Cup that is currently taking place.

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “I have this cloud over me but I do like to get up and make my own breakfast and sit outside in the garden. Watching sports cheers me up, soccer and boxing mainly. I suppose I’m a bit of a bore these days.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Not having my Sheila around.”

What sound or noise do you love? “Music — opera, classical, country, English comedies, musicals.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Well over here it would be a hamburger; in England it would be chicken curry and yellow rice with an Indian salad of cucumber, Spanish onions, lime, vinegar, and sugar.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Max Bygraves, an English singer and comedian.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, with unlimited provi­sions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? —“A photo of Sheila, a sports encyclopedia, and some country music by Johnny Cash.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A film called ‘Broken Arrow’ with Jimmy Stew­art; a song would be Tony Bennett’s ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’; and a some books by Mickey Spillane.”

Favorite hobby? “It used to be working in the house. Sheila would mention that something needed doing and I’d be working on it the next day.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fan­tasy job, perhaps? “A professional soccer player. I wish I’d been good enough. I was quite good but there were few opportunities in India for that.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A deep sea fisher­man.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? “The day I married Sheila.”

What was the saddest day or period of your life? “The day Sheila died.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physi­cally, mentally, spiritually? “That I am modest and often think of others first. Sheila taught me to be like that. She also turned me on to religion and we never missed mass every Sunday at 9am.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome home... Your Sheila is waiting for you.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Winemaker Tex Sawyer.)

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