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The Life and Times of Dick Ruggles: The Disappearance of the Squire's Ham and Other Village Stories

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Lanham, Neil 


Dick and Dolly Ruggles live in a thatched cottage in the centre of the Essex village of Toppesfield. The cottage belonged to Dick's grandfather and it was here that Dick's mother was born and it was here that she died 72 years later. Dick was born on 2 February 1923 and started work at the age of 14 as an apprentice carpenter at Whitlocks, just down the road at Gt. Yeldham. At the age of 17, in the early years of the war, he went to help install Searchlight Sites on farms in East Suffolk where Whitlocks held the contract. On becoming eligible for war service at 18 he joined up as a Naval Gunner on DEMS - Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships to go on the Atlantic Convoys. In civi-street once more, Carlton Whitlock said “poacher’s make good gamekeepers so I’ve got a job for you”, and gamekeeping then became the lifestyle that Dick revelled in for many years until the death of his governor. He then went to work as gardener for the ‘wiley’ Lord Sainsbury. Dick has always been at the heart of village life. He was Parish Councillor, Treasurer of the Village Hall and Church Warden for many years. He played for and then helped run the village football team. As a stalwart member of the choir, on becoming landlord of The Chestnuts Public House he combined his duties by seeing that the choir practices were held in the bar instead of the unheated church. ‘A sensible thing to do’ says Dick. It is hardly surprising therefore with such a deep rooted background that Dick continues the traditions of the past as a natural part of life. Storytelling is a gift and Dick has the gift to see the jest in the ‘thousand opportunities that occur every day for humour and simile’, to quote Adrian Bell. I find his natural ability to turn the smallest adventure into a drama quite fascinating. He will subconsciously convert everything possible into a dialogue so that the parts of all of the performers are brought forward, and then to slowly drop in information as the plot is revealed. But his stories are not reminiscences that go nowhere. They all have a conflict, a punchline, a point to be made, a principle of understanding that passes ‘hilarious wisdom’. As a professional storyteller said, ‘it encapsulates the wisdom of generations’. This in a technological age where speech now carries little more than information. Dick’s mother’s story about the disappearance of the Squire’s Ham could equally have come out of Katherine Brigg's Dictionary of English Folk Tales, but who needs books and ’staged’ performances—this is real time from real life—the life of Dick Ruggles.
This, however, is just the introduction. Future volumes will feature: Sailors Yarns and Pranks, aboard ship and in bars from Buenos Aires to Karachi where Dick would play the bar piano, his gamekeeping exploits including when loading he potted his governor’s pheasant after Royalty down the line had missed it and he still had enough guile to retain his job. Whose garden is it? The gardener’s or the governor’s? Lord Sainsbury, a man who Dick had respect for, was always going to be one ahead - if he could!


MP4 video, 1 hour


storytelling, oral tradition, Sussex, life story, personal history

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