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West End Extra - The Xtra Diary
Published: 18 April 2008
Veteran Jack Askham at St Pancras town hall to see the plaque of his likeness'
Veteran Jack Askham at St Pancras town hall to see the plaque of his likeness‘
Plaque for Jack, poster boy of war campaign

PRIVATE Jack Askham was a schoolboy when the Second World War broke out.
But as soon as he was old enough to join his local Home Guard unit and be trained to defend his small Northamptonshire village of Raunds, he answered the call.
His contribution to defeating Nazism was much more than guarding the village railway station armed with a 12-bore shotgun and just two cartridges.
In 1942, the 17-year-old farmhand was unwittingly to become the public face of the British Army – and a vital tool in raising morale during those dark days.
Jack, now in his 80s, was the model for a series of posters explaining how our boys were getting on in their fight against the Nazis – and his likeness was made into a plaque that graces the entrance of former St Pancras town hall in High Holborn.
With the help of Jim Murray, of the Bloomsbury Association, whose father sat on the benches in the building as a Conservative councillor in the 1960s, Jack travelled from Northamptonshire this week to see the plaque – and reveal the remarkable story of how a he came to be the figurehead for Britain’s fighting men. Jack joined the Home Guard as he waited for his call up papers to join the Royal Artillery.
“We were kitted out with broomsticks to drill with and villagers of every age joined up,” he recalls.
But then one Sunday morning his contribution to the war effort was to take a bizarre twist. His troop were ordered to put on full battle dress and march to the home of their unit commander, a Lt Col VH Sykes.
The colonel was an old family friend of Jack’s, whose father and uncle had both seen active service during the First World War in the Northants Royal Artillery and served under the colonel.
Jack recalls: “He lined us up and then inspected us with another officer who was an American.
“None of us knew why and we didn’t ask. They stopped by me a couple of times and then later I was pulled out of the ranks and asked to go into the colonel’s home.”
A strapping six-footer, Jack was the youngest member of his Home Guard unit, and it was his striking figure that had made him stand out. Inside Lt Col Sykes’s home was the famous war artist Bruce Bairnsfather and he asked Jack to pose while he rattled off a series of sketches.
A few weeks later Jack became the face of a government advertising campaign to raise awareness of the sacrifices the services were making.
He was featured in 12ft posters sent around the country, newspaper and magazine adverts and then plaques – which is how his likeness came to grace the front entrance of St Pancras town hall.
He said: “I was later told the pictures would be used right across the country. Seeing this plaque for the first time, and still in the place it was put all those years ago, brings back so many memories for me. I’m proud to have done my bit.”

The lads from down our street’

THE advert featuring Jack was used to promote the ‘Salute The Soldier War Savings Campaign’, a government push to raise funds for the war.
It was published across the country, and underneath the image of Jack ran a poem. It read:
“The men who fought at Narvak, at Bruneval and at Crete, They were youngsters from village, and lads from down our street, The men who followed Monty, the deathless Desert Rats, Once played round here with sticks for stumps, and lumps of wood for bats. A day will come when bells will ring and flags will be unfurled, To cheer the British Tommies who helped save the world. Great men will tell how once they snatched high victory from defeat, But to us they will always be the lads from down our street.”

Writer’s cemetery inspiration

AWARD-winning Amer­­ican novelist Audrey Niffeneger was in town this week to put in a shift as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery.
The Chicago-based writer, who travels to London every eight weeks to work at the rambling Victorian burial grounds, has used her experiences for two novels.
But could any writer come up with a yarn as good as her favourite tale to tell visitors?
She told Diary: “Perhaps my favourite is that of George Wombwell.
“He ran a travelling menagerie and his grave is marked by a sleeping lion.”
The story of Wombwell features an unlikely career which started when he bought two boa constrictors from a sailor in a Soho pub. He toured the inns of the old West End and charged a penny a peek. He began a travelling menagerie which brought him great riches.
One of his charges was a lion called Wallace, and Wombwell was given a wager by a hunting squire; he bet his dogs would tear the lion to pieces if they were put in a cage together.
But instead of a bloody set-to, the lion simply went to sleep, and the dogs followed suit.
Ms Neffeneger added: “It is stories like this which show the richness of the cemetery and fascinating lives of the people who are buried here.”

One borough under CCTV?

BANKSY tapped into an election issue this week with his homage to Big Brother Britain in the heart of the West End.
The street artist painted “One Nation Under CCTV” in huge letters on a wall in Holborn (see news page 3).
The huge increase in CCTV cameras in central London was debated at a mayoral hustings in Friends Meeting House. Brian Paddick and Boris Johnson took part in a debate organised by NO2ID, which campaigns against the “database state” from its Marylebone HQ.
Mr Johnson attacked the culture as “morally and economically bankrupt”.
And Mr Paddick told the meeting he would rather go to prison than carry an ID card.
Phil Booth, NO2ID’s national co-ordinator, said: “Londoners in the West End are among the most watched people on Earth. It is encouraging that the majority of those running for London mayor recognise this.”

Cane for ‘enable’ at academy!

LOOKING at the recently launched website for the new Pimlico Academy, I discovered a section called “Enabling Young People”.
Enabling, Diary imagines, is precisely what is needed for pupils after 18 months of upheaval and with their school building being demolished around them.
A passage in the section reads: “Pimlico Academy will devote considerable energy to building the social capital of its students, enabling them to access opportunities which may be unfamiliar and intimidating.”
One of the more liberal fears over the academy was that handing over Pimlico School, with its fine history as a music school and specialising in the arts, to a venture capitalist was that pupils might be swayed into similar careers.
I can almost feel parents’ spines tingling with rage on hearing their children’s potential being described as “social capital”.
The Campaign for Plain English phoned in this week to warn about obsessive use of “management speak”, particularly around young minds.
A spokesman told me: “I can understand that the new academy wanting to spread its new ethos by using new terminology. But they should remember that you have to make a connection with their audience.”

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