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Temps perdu in Hoylake

23 February 2024

A feature about a Merseyside school sparked childhood wartime memories for the retired illustrator John Finnie, reports Sarah Meyrick

John Finnie



WHEN John Finnie opened an issue of the Church Times last September, he was surprised to see a photograph of his old school. Kingsmead School, Hoylake, in Merseyside, which closed in 2020, featured in a piece about the charity Oasis, which was making use of disused schools to create centres for children who need specialist support to stay in education (Features, 22 September 2023).

Mr Finnie, who is 90, and a retired illustrator, was intrigued. He and his twin brother, Guy, were sent to Kingsmead during the Second World War. They were eight: their father had been called up, and their mother was preoccupied by his other siblings: an older brother who had a serious chest condition, and their baby sister. Originally, only Guy was going to go — “They didn’t think I had the brains,” he says — but an uncle intervened. “He said: ‘You can’t leave him. He’s got to come, too.’”

The brothers were at Kingsmead for three or four years, until the war ended and the family moved. It was a formative time. The Finnie-twins gang built a den in the trees and scrubland bordering the school, using old tram seats, grass cuttings, and other bits and pieces. Access was through a grassy tunnel.

The war was ever present. The boys could hear the bombs dropping on Liverpool. “It was horrible,” he says. He remembers buying sweets with his pocket money, only to find a swastika hidden in the wrapping. He gave it to his headmaster, who passed it on to the police.

The boys went for walks to Sand Hills near by, part of which was closed off because of the mines laid, and also to the seafront, which was covered in barbed wire. “It was there on the seafront that I leant on the side of a pillbox, unaware that the gun that it contained was primed and about to fire,” he recalls. There was an almighty bang and flash above his head.

He also remembers an American jeep appearing unexpectedly in the school field. The boys hoped that this might be Glenn Miller and his band. “But no. They’d come to play baseball and wind themselves up like clockwork to hurl the ball at each other,” he says. “One gave it a mighty swipe and put it through the headmaster’s window, to our uncharitable delight.”

One memory in particular stands out. Mr Finnie was on the playing field. “I was running up towards the buildings when I had a premonition, real and visual, of the future — my future,” he says. He had a clear vision of what he calls “a lifeline to the Almighty”, and a certainty that, otherwise, he would be alone for the rest of his life. “That has been the reality,” he says. “I never quite fit in. I don’t have chums.”

School was not a happy experience: the word that he uses is “embarrassing”. He struggled academically, although he was always drawing and painting. Some years later, as an adult, he took evening classes and “sailed through” his exams.

Mr Finnie had to do National Service, but eventually he went to art school, in Leicester. He worked as an illustrator and designer all his life, mostly freelance. “It’s been very, very tight, and there have been times when I’ve had nothing, and people who knew me pretended they didn’t,” he says.

He has worked in ink and acrylics, watercolour, and oils. His career included drawing posters for London Underground. (His numerous designs are easily found online at the London Transport Museum.) He also recalls a sudden summons to Hong Kong, in 1962. “I was on the station platform at Leicester, going to London, and from there I was going to Guernsey to visit a friend. And, on the Tannoy above my head, they called my name, and asked me to go to the stationmaster’s office.”

Mr Finnie had no idea what to expect, but soon discovered that, instead of his planned journey, he urgently needed to go and get a yellow-fever inoculation so that he could travel to Hong Kong to do some drawings of a government redevelopment project for Sphere magazine. Geoffrey Fletcher, a well-known cartoonist on The Daily Telegraph, had been asked, but had turned down the commission because he had a book coming out. “That was smashing,” Mr Finnie says.

Mr Finnie was also intrigued by glass. He trained as a engraver, and worked for some time for Webb Corbett, the glass makers. He was offered a permanent job in the company, but, in the end, agreed to a consultancy position, so that he was not tied down to one art form.

A job that he particularly enjoyed was his appointment as artist-in-residence at Leicester Cathedral, for 17 years, from 1985 to 2002. “I loved it,” he says. “The Provost, as he was then, said I was one of the team.”

Faith has always been part of Mr Finnie’s life. “I was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, and I’ve got a lot of admiration for that,” he says. His brother Guy became a Baptist minister (“He’s much nicer than me”). He himself regularly attends a Bible-study group.

After the death of his mother, whom he cared for, Mr Finnie retired to Norfolk, at the suggestion of some friends who already lived there and helped him to find a house. In 2015, an exhibition of his lifetime’s work was put on in Norwich Cathedral.

He has no television or computer, but is always occupied. Is he still drawing? “If I stopped doing my work, I would cease to exist.” His work is stacked up “all over the place, including in the bathroom”, he says. “What am I going to do with it all?”

His friend Ann, helping with our Zoom call, confirms this. “I love to visit John, as his living room-studio is so fascinating,” she says. “There is always work in progress.”

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