Those who knew David Muffett will have no illusions about the title of this post. Dad was impossible to forget. A huge, lumbering, bear of a man with a razor-sharp wit and a childlike sense of fun, Dad bestrode the world like a colossus, joyfully embracing life, making his mark, and cheerfully mowing down the opposition, no matter what form it took.
He achieved a brief posthumous celebrity on the blogosphere for having jailed the tribal chieftain who ate the local tax collector, and he was beloved by his students, his family, and his constituents (who re-elected him with thumping great majorities after he abandoned the Conservative party in disgust and began running as an Independent somewhere in the early 90’s).
Those who did not love Dad (and there were many) were exactly the sort of people you should want as enemies. May I always be so fortunate in my friends, and not my friends.
Dad was the fifth of six rambunctious children, born in Birmingham, England on March 6, 1919. His father was a managing director of S. Wards, Butcher and Purveyor of Fine Meats. His mother was tiny, less than five feet tall, a pillar of the Birmingham Horticultural Society, and a tireless organizer of good works. She was reputed to have introduced the fashion of bicycling to Birmingham, and was perhaps the first person in the area to order, and actually wear in public, a pair of bloomers. All six of her children were highly individual—affable, bright, successful, loud, boisterous and opinionated.
Dad was no exception and as soon as he finished his schooling at Seabright School in Wolverhampton, he joined up with his chosen regiment, the 1st Battalion, Loyals (North Lancashire), where he was rapidly promoted, becoming a Major at the young age of twenty-two.
A couple of years ago, my family received an email out of the blue from the daughter of one of Dad’s Army buddies. She was sorting out her father’s effects, and found the following description of Dad in his diary: “I’ve never heard anyone so noisy from the time he gets up to the time he goes to sleep . . . and after!”
Good to know that Dad never changed.
Dad’s Army career spanned the Middle East, North Africa and Italy (including Anzio and Monte Cassino). But it was on June 5, 1944, the day after Dad marched into Rome with Mark Clark’s army, that one of the most extraordinary episodes of Dad’s war took place.
You see, Dad was fascinated with history. And he loved pomp, circumstance, and costumes (a favorite story of Dad’s teenage years was of his role as the Pirate King in the school operetta, during which he swung his cloak with great abandon and knocked all the footlights into the orchestra pit, this being a prime example of my oft-held contention that things didn't happen to David Muffett--David Muffett happened to things).
Anyway, Dad decided that he wasn’t leaving Rome without seeing the Swiss Guard in their funny costumes and finery, and being Dad, he led an expedition of himself and a couple of his buddies to storm St. Peter's and live his dream.
We’ve known the story that follows, apocryphally, for decades. But, some time after Dad’s death, my brother, sister and I were sorting out his ‘stuff’ and we came across a heavy envelope containing a couple of letters and a rosary. The letters were to my grandmother (Dad’s mother, she of the bicycles and bloomers). The rosary was blessed by Pius XII).
So I’ll let Dad himself tell the story of the day he gatecrashed the Pope. (h/t to my brother for this, for interpreting Dad’s execrable handwriting, and for posting it, along with images of the letters, and some other Dad stories, here)
Capt. D J Muffett
1Bn Loyal Rgt
My Dear Mother,
Well well things have moved haven’t they? I suppose you hear quite a lot these days from the air force. However we will hold off from the Second Front a bit and see how it goes and I’ll tell you instead of a remarkable experience that I have had.
On Monday I went into Rome to see the sights and have a look round. Unlike most Italian towns it is quite remarkable and reasonably clean (which is surprising) and doesn’t even smell (which is more surprising). Well I and another chap had a look at the Coliseum and the Temple of Vesta and the Forum and then wandered into the Palazza Venetzia where some Jocks (Scots) were playing themselves in as the massed pipes and drums. We were standing around watching when a lady (about 38-40) came up and said “Excuse me but are you English” we said “yes” and she said “oh I am so pleased, ten years ago I married an Italian and have been here ever since. I used to live in Barons Court.” She took us round the place and showed us the Tiber Bridge, etc.
Well we left her and chuntered into St Peters. Now comes the joke. We wandered around a bit and looked at the ceilings (Michael Angelo) and the statue of St Peter. Then I said I want to see a Swiss Guard. So we wandered outside and had a look at one (in his utility Blue uniform and got a [smashing] Present of a pike!! Well he said “straight up those stairs sir” and shot us inside where there were a couple more. (This time in full dress) who passed us up another flight of stairs, and a third lot shot us into a room where there were some very comfortable chairs so we sat down. Then a very charming Irish Priest came in and said “His Holiness will receive you in a few moments” – I could have dropped dead!! There were three of us in there (one was the doc) so we went into a huddle and worked out the drill.
About ten minutes later there was a crashing all along the corridor and in he came surrounded by the noble guard (magnificent uniforms). He came to each of us in turn (the correct thing is to drop on one knee and and kiss St Peter’s ring on the 4th finger R hand.) It is an enormous stone fully 1/2 inch sq. and Blood red. (I was quite adept at this.
The narrative will now be continued in another letter which I will send off at the same time as this.
* * *
Captain D J Muffett
1st Bn Loyal Rgt
Well to continue. He spoke to each of us in perfect english and asked how we were, and had we heard from our families and were they well, were we married and had we been particularly uncomfortable and then we fell out after he had given the Papal blessing. Incidentally he gave each of us a rosary which I will send you as a memento by sea. It really was a memorable experience. What with the Coronation and that, I do [clock] for State occasions don’t I.
Well I am sure that you will be glad to know that I am unscathed and sound in wind and limb. A certain inevitable impression will indelibly remain but on the whole I have been very lucky.
The weather has been very good to us and is still boiling hot. I am working up a nice tan and am unfalteringly healthy. Will you please send me some Dettol. A tin if you can get it rather than a bottle. My love to Barney I suppose he looks grand. Encourage him to bring you things and perhaps about Sept Pa could arrange for him to go to a keeper for a month or so to finish off his training. Perhaps Mr Morton will know someone.
My love to Arthur and Joan and Maurice. Is he in the second front yet and haven’t they landed yet. Whatever happens you must keep your chin up and keep smiling. I am quite sure we will both be OK and anyway why worry.
I hope that the weather soon tunes you up and that you get fit and able to go out.
My only worry so far is that I have smashed my watch up which is a pity. However I will soon get another out here.
Well I have exceeded my quota this week by quite a lot this week and the well is beginning to run dry. So TTFN
All my love
It’s Memorial Day, Dad. We'll always remember.