Salt of the Earth

Argus title : Seasoned pair live to serve

Writing this column is always a privilege, sometimes good fun and on occasion an opportunity for pure self-indulgence. One of the best aspects of it is that it gives me the chance occasionally to write about people whose stories are not usually found in newspapers.

A letter to the Times newspaper recently set out the rather snobbish definition of a “lady” as one whose name is printed in the newspaper just three times in her life, at birth, marriage and death. This elitist definition of a woman of the upper classes, blithely ignores the fact that most people in this country never make it to the newspapers at all.

June and George Austen are no exception. June turned 65 last Saturday, but there was no bidding war between Hello and OK as to which magazine should photograph her party. June spent her special night out watching Sleeping Beauty on Ice at the Theatre Royal with her family. After that, it was fish and chips at Bardsley’s and a walk along the seafront.

June tells me she did make it into the Argus once when, at the age of 13, she won a prize in a “window-spotting” competition. Apart from that, she and George have lived their lives well away from publicity.

I first caught sight of them two years ago when I started attending St Peter’s Church. I learned that they had been servers there for years, assisting a succession of priests during services. I later discovered that George had served for over 50 years and June for almost 40.

These were the days before the nave was closed off, so I was able to sit right at the back. I’d watch them in the distance, robed in white cassocks tending the altar, carrying the great brass cross or candles when the Gospel was read, laying out the order of service for the priest.

At that time I was in awe of them, thinking they knew all there was to know about the church. Later I came to learn they were two of the most unassuming people anyone could wish to meet.

I enjoyed watching them, working together quietly at the altar, anticipating each other’s every move. Later, I’d see them walking out together, looking remarkably youthful and often spectacularly dressed – with June in short skirts and both in bright colours. I noticed they tended to move in unison. It was only much later I learned that they are keen ballroom dancers.

I still smile to see them, laughing and gently squabbling – obviously delighting in each other’s company. At times they seem almost magical. More than once I have sat in church imagining them as the artist Marc Chagall might have painted them, taking off and flying round the interior of St Peter’s Church in their white cassocks, heading off up into the rafters and then swooping past the stain glass windows for the pure mischief and joy of it.

George’s parents were Londoners. When the war came, they moved to Brighton where in 1941 he was born. He can remember the guns being fired from the seafront – and D Day, when military vehicles packed the area outside the family’s flat in Sillwood Place. His father was an air raid warden.

He was very close to his mother whom he remembers as immensely kind and a member of Max Miller’s wife’s knitting circle. It is the stuff of family legend that the famous “cheeky chappie” spoke to him when he was a babe in his pram.

George’s father had no religious faith, losing it after the devastating flu epidemic which followed the First World war and resulted in millions of deaths worldwide. George’s mother however was deeply religious and introduced George to St Peter’s Church, where aged 14 he became a server. While she served in various guilds and the mother’s Union, he played badminton and made friends in the church’s youth club.

George’s grandmother died of cancer when his father was only 18. He later told George that his father would not pay for a taxi to take his mother to hospital and so she travelled by bus. George expressed no bitterness towards his grandfather. However, his neglect of his grandmother may be one reason why George decided that whoever his wife might be, he wanted to “spoil” her and “give her things”. June recalls that in the early days George would give her small presents every week – usually a carefully chosen bangle or another piece of jewellery.

Like so many Brighton couples, George and June met at the old Regent Ballroom, which used to stand at the top of North Street on the site now occupied by Boots. June was 18 and George was 20 when they were introduced by George’s friend Freddie. “She looked lovely” George told me “A real cracker”. They went out for 11 days running. George mused “She wouldn’t let me kiss her that first night”. They married at St Peter’s Church 3 years later and have two children and 4 grandchildren.

George carried on as a server at St Peter’s and June joined him in 1970 when women were finally permitted to serve. They have been actively involved in the campaign to save St Peter’s Church from redundancy. As June says “They are taking all our happy life. They’ve taken the Regent Ballroom where we met, the West Pier where we used to walk and now they’re trying to take our beloved church.” She adds “We built our lives around that church. So many people have.”

June was born in Brighton and lived in Goldstone Villas in Hove. She had a very difficult childhood, not least because her mother was often in poor health and needed her to stay at home. As a result June’s education was disrupted. She loved drawing and was very good at it, but there were no opportunities to develop her skills. Like George – and so many others of her generation – she went to work at an early age.

Most of June’s employment has been as a shop assistant, often selling shoes. She has worked for the same company since 1972, and is now based at Debenham’s in Churchill Square, selling ladies fashions. A few years ago, she began piano lessons, which she loves.

Supervisor Cathy Panther described June as “very good with the public, kind and patient”. Her colleague Jackie Stocken said “June’s a lovely person, always very positive and happy. She has one of the kindest hearts. If she has problems she comes up smiling. There’s such a close affinity between her and her husband I think it helps.”

Certainly, their married life wasn’t always easy. George did factory work and was twice made redundant. Eventually, in 1991, he began work for the Brighton& Hove’s City College, first as a caretaker and then as the “post man”. It is a job he loves, because it allows him to meet people.

Phil Frier, the Principal of City College, describes George as “a key member of the City College community.” He comments on his “cheerful smile” and adds “He knows everybody and is a brilliant example to us of someone who is always positive about life. He always has a different story to tell us every day!”

George refuses to let things get him down. Even a diagnosis of prostate cancer was not enough to defeat him. City College’s Facilities Operations Manager Tony Toynbee commented:

” George has soldiered on through a recent bout of illness and other difficulties such as the closure of the College’s local Post Office and still managed to remain a very positive and focussed person.” He added “He can also be fastidious and has been known to reject five post trolleys before he found the one best suited to his deliveries – he made the right choice though as it has served him well ever since.”

The choices they make are important to George and June. Jackie Stocken said of June “Once she makes up her mind to something she gives it 100%.”. She could just as easily have said this about George. Every day of their lives, George and June renew their commitment to each other, their work, their church and their community. And they do it without fuss, pretension or pride.

The “salt of the earth” is how Jesus referred to his followers, none of whom had much power or wealth. It is an overworked phrase, but one that suits this loyal and faithful couple.

They are two of the best.

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