John Verney, painter, illustrator, author and inventor of the invaluable maverick desk diary, the Dodo Pad (‘to stop one becoming extinct from the pressures of modern life’), loomed large in my childhood. Apart from being among my parents’ closest friends and neighbours, and paterfamilias of a large brood of children, Shetland ponies, chickens, cats, cows and bees, all of which somehow became inextricably mixed up in my memory, he was always there. Most fathers were away somewhere doing a job, but whenever we went to Runwick, the Verneys’ rambling farmhouse on the edge of Farnham in Surrey, he was always to be found wandering vaguely around in his shapeless jacket, or making paint-spattered forays from his studio in the barns, or presiding laconically over whatever rabble-rousing meal was in progress.
He was also, much to our delight, an inexhaustible source of surprises, jokes, pranks and discoveries, for under his mild and somewhat melancholy demeanour there lurked an irreverent wit and a sharp sense of fun. He was continually coming up with stories, puns and sketches to amuse us (many of which he transmuted into material for The Young Elizabethan, the children’s periodical he edited for more than a decade), and as author of the enthralling Friday’s Tunnel he occupied a particularly key position in my firmament.
Friday’s Tunnel is a children’s adventure story about a scatty family of six children who dig a huge tunnel under the South Downs, set against the sinister backdrop of dastardly goings-on on the Mediterranean island of Capria. Little did I know then how imaginatively this story was grounded in Verney’s own hair-raising war exploits, and how many narrow escapes he had had. Not until I was an adult did I first read Going to the Wars, his memoir of his time in the loosely camouflaged Special Boat Service during the Second World War and in particular their mission to blow up German airfields in Sardinia, to pave the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily.
Later I came across a second volume of memoirs, A Dinner of Herbs, which is a sequel of sorts to Going to the Wars and which is illustrated with equally enchanting sketches. Verney picks up the story in 1943
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