Those of you who find these blog articles interesting to read may find it hard to believe that as a 7 year old David was struggling to read and write. Having recently changed from a Primary School which concentrated on numbers, David was top of the class in maths but bottom in English at Easington Colliery Junior School. Easington was the location for the Billy Elliot film, however, there were no Ballet Dancers there in the 1960’s.
David’s Teacher saw something in him that he couldn’t see in himself, but the Teacher put a lack of progress in English down to a lack of application rather than dyslexia that wasn’t known about in schools in the 1960’s. So frustrated was the Teacher with David’s lack of progress in reading that he contacted David’s Dad at work, who had to miss part of his shift at Easington Pit and come to school. In hindsight it is evident that the Teacher had David’s best interests at heart, however, he had a strange way of showing it.
With David’s Dad standing alongside David in front of the whole class the Teacher said, ‘Unless this boy learns to read and write he’ll only be fit to sweep the streets of Easington Colliery.’ David was shocked and he didn’t know who was more embarrassed, him or his Dad.
Coming from a very humble background there was no books in the house and when the Teacher asked what David was interested in, his Dad said ‘Football’. The Teacher replied, ‘Get him some books on Football!’
Football was important to David’s family because his Dad’s cousin had married the Brother of Bob Paisley, who was then the Trainer and subsequently the Manager of Liverpool F.C., winning 3 European Cups. The relationship may appear to be distant, however, it was close enough for David to be invited to watch Liverpool play in the North East as Bob Paisley’s niece wanted some company of her own age. David once asked Bob Paisley for some tips about how to improve his game. Bob said, ‘Davey when you are on that field always believe that you are going to get hurt and it will be the last game you will ever play. Be first for every ball, don’t let the ball bounce, win every tackle, use the ball well, be determined to win. Never come off that field feeling that you could have done any more.’
50 years on, some of David’s compatriots in Alternative Funerals find it strange that he spends many hours building flower displays and Themes. Some think that David is daft and that he should have no contact with a family, turn up two hours before the funeral put on the coffin and flowers, get his cheque and leave the crematorium as soon as the coffin and flowers are off the lorry. David reminds these people that although some people get a number of chances at a marriage they get only one chance at a funeral and David always follows the philosophy of Bob Paisley and does his level best in everything that he attempts. David adopts the same approach whether he is creating a display of Floral Tributes on his lorry or arranging vegetables in an attractive pattern as he serves the Sunday lunch.
Another important influence on David, when he was 7 year old, was Dennis Donnini V.C. who was born on November 17th 1925. David was very small for his age and having changed school at 7 years old he was regularly picked upon by taller boys. David noted in The Victor Comic a story about the heroic actions taken on January 18th 1945 by Dennis Donnini who won the Victoria Cross fighting German Troops in Holland towards the end of WWII. David may have had trouble reading out loud from a book, however, he was very sharp mentally and he noticed that the Ice Cream Shop in Easington Colliery was run by an Italian family called Donnini, could this be the same Donnini? On a Monday dinnertime David left the school walked down Seaside Lane and entered the shop which was deserted. David looked around and saw that a medal was in a case on the third shelf, he couldn’t see the medal but noticed the purple ribbon. A lady then came through the curtain and asked if she could help David. David pointed to the medal in the glass case and asked if that was the Victoria Cross won by Dennis Donnini.
The lady then stood on a stool, took the glass case from the shelf, opened it and put the Victoria Cross in David’s hands. She then went on to explain that her Brother was 19 years old and was in a troop tasked to take positions fortified by the Germans. With heavy rain limiting the use of tanks the infantry was asked to attack initially two machine-gun positions. Dennis Donnini volunteered to lead the charge and took out one machine-gun with a grenade thrown from close range. During this action Dennis was shot in the head and he fell on the ground. He came to and crawled into a barn dodging the enemy bullets.
After a short time he heard one his comrades crying for help in no man’s land. Donnini then put down his rifle, ran into no man’s land, under a hail of bullets, however, as soon as he started to lift the wounded soldier Dennis heard, ‘Nicht Schiessen’, the shooting stopped and Dennis dragged his comrade to safety.
At this point Dennis was bleeding profusely from his head and it is thought that he knew he had been fatally wounded. He took a bag with grenades ran down the street throwing grenades into three houses before he was killed when a bullet hit the bag with the grenades which exploded.
Any of the three events would have merited a Victoria Cross, however, perhaps, strategically the most import thing Dennis did was draw enemy fire and divert it from his comrades who attacked on the flanks and captured 30 Germans, including an Officer.
It is understood that the Wehrmacht Officer who witnessed Donnini’s actions recommended that he should by awarded the Victoria Cross and the citation bizarrely only mentioned two of the four acts of a valour and even left out perhaps Dennis’ bravest feat which was rescuing a comrade from no man’s land.
Dennis’s Sister explained that both her Mum and Dad were detained in UK camps during WWII and there was a problem in the presentation of the medal because his parents were interned and even if they hadn’t been, no Italian was welcome inside Buckingham Palace. Dennis’ Sister showed David clippings from the local papers which told how King George met with Dennis’ parents in a pub to hand over the Victoria Cross and the King made arrangements for his parents to be released and to re-open the Ice cream shop in Easington Colliery.
David saw from the pictures that Dennis was very small, only 4ft 10 inches and David suddenly thought that being small never stopped Dennis Donnini so David vowed that he would stand up for himself and use his brains to outwit people rather than no mans land his fists.
1964 was the first year not to have 11 plus exams and pupils were sent to Grammar School solely on the recommendation of a Teacher. The seating plan in the class was for the brightest pupils to sit in order and David was number 22 in the class, however, his name was included in the list for Grammar School even though all the boys sitting near him weren’t. David was summoned to the Headmaster’s Office and he was worried as corporal punishment was the central dogma on which the discipline system was based. Canings on pupils hands were common place in front of the class and the Headmaster dealt with repeated offenders by a very severe beating across the buttocks. With fear and trepidation David knocked on the door and he was told to come in. The Headmaster leaned towards David and using his index finger prodded David in the ribs in the same place with one prod between each of the following words, ‘Now then young Hall you have got to Grammar School by the skin of your teeth do not let me down.’
By this time David knew that he had difficulty reading out loud, not being available to pick out the next sentence in the text. He worked very hard often spending all the evening doing his homework. He did quite well at Senior School but was never able to read out loud from a book. When David in later life was asked to speak at functions he would learn the speech off by heart, practicing many times and often at conferences David was voted best speaker with comments like, ‘This bloke never looked at his notes once!’
At the age of 15 Football nearly changed the direction of David’s life when a scout from Huddersfield Town showed interest having watched David play for his school team. David’s Dad said that his son didn’t have enough skill to be a footballer and apparently the Scout agreed that David’s skills set could be improved by the club. However, it was the young lad’s leadership skills, will to win and determination that had caught the Scout’s eye. David’s Dad & Mum bought him a desk and encouraged him to stick in at school and become the first member of the Hall family to go to University.
David will never forget the influence of holding Dennis Donnini’s Victoria Cross had on his life
and it always made David sad that there was no lasting memory of Dennis in his village. David felt that if Dennis had lived in Esher and not Easington Colliery there would have been a blue plaque on the wall. When David was 20 years old, his Dad found out that a picture of Dennis Donnini was on the wall at the local Miners Welfare Hall and David and his Dad went to investigate. They found a picture of Dennis and a copy of the Citation on the wall behind some men playing dominoes. David asked one of the men if he could move along the bench seat so that he could read the Citation. The man was reluctant to stop the domino game and David explained that Dennis Donnini was one of the youngest recipients of the Victoria Cross and possibly the smallest and definitely the only Italian. The domino player shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Never heard of him.’
Fast forward now 45 years, David was pleasantly surprised to find that a Mural had been painted to commemorate Dennis Donnini, bravest of the brave, and a Memorial Garden had been planted just up the road from the former Colliery site. David was also relieved that in this area that was devastated when the pit closed, no one had attempted to deface the mural.