For someone who will turn 100 on June 30, Horrace Oddie Barnett looks barely a day over 60.
Leeds born and bred he has led an interesting life and still walks a mile a day, swears by chicken soup and did not own a television until he was given one by his carer five years ago. He grew up alongside his seven brothers and three sisters, several of whom are still alive, including his little brother, Phil, whom he refers to as “the young one”, even though he is 90.
Speaking to Times Past, he said: “I came from a large family and where we lived it was three to a bed. I can remember going to sleep with our Jack’s feet round my head. It was a great childhood, we played whip n’ top and kick-can, skipping and more.
“I had to leave school to start work to earn money as we had nothing, I went into the upholstery business and eventually started our own business with my brother Mani (Emanuel) and another chap. I remember one particular flyer we produced had a picture of a chair on it and the words ‘Deep Rest’. When we got to an exhibition, the organiser came up and said: ‘Are you depressed.’ Then I realised how it looked.”
Oddie, as he likes to be called, has always had a comedic flair. As a young man he toured local working men’s clubs as one half of minstrel act Silver and Blake.
However, it was his theatrical talent which would define a large part of his life. When he was conscripted into the Army aged 26 in 1940, he was assigned to the 160 Field Regiment, part of the 14th Army, the so-called ‘forgotten army’, which fought in Burma.
It was on the ship to India, he got himself noticed when he took part in a stage show to entertain troops.
Oddie took up the story: “When we were in Calcutta, the adjutant spotted me walking across the drill square and said he wanted me to apply for a new entertainment group they were setting up called BESA (Bengal Entertainment Services Association).”
Oddie became part of a group called The Mosquitoes and, although he was unaware of the similarities (having not watched television up to five years ago), his life was similar to that portrayed in the comedy It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
“Whenever I got to a new place, I would go and see the cook and ask who were the main characters no-one liked and I would work those into my act. I never used to have a script as such but I always got a laugh.
“I would open by saying: ‘Are you sad?’ They would all cheer. ‘Are you hungry?’ They would cheer again. Then I would say, ‘Well go and chew some mukherjee nuts and paint the town red.’
“I’d do the news headlines; there was once an admiral who gave up his bed to a private and so I did it as ‘Admiral Anderson gives berth to young boy.’ That sort of stuff.”
But it wasn’t all taken in good part. “Once I took the mick out of a staff sergeant, he had a really long chin and I went on with a coat hanger and my mate asked me ‘What’s that for?’ and I quipped, ‘So Colonel Brown can keep his chin up.’ It brought the house down but later in the canteen he collared me, putting his hands around my throat. I had to tell him I was sorry if it upset him but it was my job to entertain his men. He still wasn’t happy.”
After one performance in Quetta, he wrote of the troops: “These lads of so many different dialects have suffered the trials and tribulations of fierce jungle, scarcity of water, lack of good food... long weary months of vigilance they have lived like cave dwellers in holes in the ground... and as they listen they are taken away from this grim reality for perhaps 100 minutes.”
He married his childhood sweetheart, Hetty, a school teacher and who died 10 years ago aged 86.