Ernest Charles Apps
A Rye Character
by R Wylson
Irascible, intelligent, cantankerous, scurrilous, interesting, perverse, opinionated, cultured, argumentative, frugal, irreverent. These are all adjectives used to describe Ernie Apps, who, by universal agreement, was indeed a Rye character.
As the Vicar remarked in his funeral oration, everybody has his own story about Ernie, most of them unrepeatable. There was the incident to the man struck down by a heart attack on the pavement outside Ernie’s shop; observing a scene of furious resuscitation attempts by primitives, Ernie was overheard to remark “Why not let the poor bugger rest in peace!” And there was sighting of Ernie in his back garden, busy with secateurs, but clad only in a beret, oblivious to his neighbours’ sensibilities.
Ernest Charles Apps was very proud of being a true “Ryer”; he was born in 1927 at School Cottage, School Lane, Lion Street, Rye into an old Rye family, to George and Marjorie (nee Bannister) Apps.
The Apps family lived in a very epicentre of Rye, within the shadow of St. Mary’s Church which crowns the town. They were used to crowds jostling outside their door, waiting for the Church Quarterboys to strike their irrevocable warning “For out time is but very shadow which passeth away”. Growing up amongst the cobbled streets and timber-framed houses of the citadel imbued Ernie with a profound sense of place and a love of the surrounding marshland, hopfields and orchards.
The family home, distinctively clad in dark weatherboarding, was overlaid by the centuries, part Tudor and part Victorian. The older part was massively timbered with oak floorboards worn with age, steep winding stairs and a huge fireplace. The house also embodied two of the principal livelihoods of the town, fisherman and merchant.
The fisherman who once lived in the house had built a brick tower for smoking fish in the old fashioned garden, where it still stands amongst a tangled medley of rhubarb, wild strawberries, perennial sweetpeas and daises. The ghost of the fisherman, called Arch Hatter, continued to patrol the upper floors of the house, to Ernie’s mild vexation.
The Apps family business, a Greengrocer’s, faced onto Lion Street. Friends and neighbours often dropped in and clustered around the old dark brown cross-legged table (now displaying antique glass in the High Street) piled with fruit and vegetables for a chat or friendly banter.
Ernie Apps helped his parents with the business, cycling off to the family allotment, then wheeling his bicycle back through the cobbled streets, with a huge box strapped to the back, loaded with produce and his favourite wild rose “Mrs Perkins”. He was also responsible for home deliveries, each customer having a small book to record their orders.
Although they ran a successful business, the Apps family favoured a frugal style of living. Their home remained resolutely un-modernised, the young Ernie performing his ablutions at a Belfast sink in the kitchen, standing on a duckboard. Fruit boxes were broken up to repair the attic floor, and the tissue paper used to wrap oranges was carefully husbanded for blowing noses. This spirit of thrift coloured the whole of Ernie’s life; no insults, entreaties or cajolings of friends and neighbours could persuade Ernie to abandon his Summer Winter coats, both consisting predominantly of lining and scraps of flapping material. And there was the time he purchased a replacement pyjama cord; deciding at the last moment not to use it, but save it as a spare.
Ernie and his mother did indulge their great love of classical music, holding season tickets to Philharmonic concerts in Hastings Whiterock Theatre, and travelling frequently to London musical productions. Mr and Mrs Apps were keen horse fanciers, Ernie acting as errand boy to place their bets.
“Dictatorial” letter from “Officials”
In the 1960s, an “impertinence” occurred which made the Apps family seethe with indignation. George Apps had only just repainted his shop the traditional “Greengrocers Green” (Farrow and Ball would have approved) when he received a “dictatorial” letter from “Officials” demanding it be repainted white! Much local sympathy was proffered and the saga was reported in the “Rye and Battle Gazette”.
Emboldened, at last, by his inheritance of the family business after his father’s death in 1987, Ernie, then slightly over retirement age, started to use the shop window as a showcase for his passionate interest in the affairs of the day. One of his favourite topics was Britain’s relationship with Europe; foreign visitors strolling down Lion Street were stopped in their tracks by a copy of the letter to the Telegraph which read, “I am 97 and have considerable experience of the modern customs of Germany, France and Belgium. I can only conclude that any Briton in favour involvement in Europe should seek medical advice”.
Far from being repelled, the overseas visitors crowded eagerly into Ernie’s entertained and delighted to have stumbled upon a true English Eccentric. Ernie rubbed the large blackboard clean of vegetable prices and chalked up inflammatory statements. He quoted Churchill about the Germans, “They are either at your feet or at your throat”. A more contemporary quote summed up; “Ein Volk, Ein Euro!” Similarly he wrote of the French, “The Greatest cross I have had to bear in my life has been the cross of Lorraine.” His general political conclusion was that, “The pursuit of democracy does not end in perfection but in chaos from which dictatorship is the only escape.” Ernie’s pugnacious defence of the realm may have been fuelled by his longstanding service of 43 years in the Royal Observer Corps.
Those who dared to engage in debate with Ernie quickly recognised a fierce intelligence. Ernie expounded his news in strong language in male company, for whom he reserved his ribald sense of humour. The mildest of his jokes was one that went. “Did you hear about the Irishman who was asked to be a Jehovah’s Witness? He refused because he had not seen the accident”. Insulting banter apart, he held treasured friends and neighbours in very high esteem.
In his later years, the Greengrocer’s shop transmuted into a sort of “General Store”, displaying a wide range of eclectic objects for sale (including the chimney pots off the house and his dead mother’s slippers) at fairly outrageous prices. This brought Ernie even more attention and an even larger fan club of intrigued customers.
As Ernie’s health failed, he let out his shop premises to a Bookseller. He was knocked down by a hit and run driver at the zebra crossing in Cinque Ports Street, leading to a hospital stay and thence to a nursing home in Hastings, where he died. Ever a man of contradictions, he had been a canny investor who left a substantial estate. With characteristic perversity he made unexpected bequests, to surprised but grateful beneficiaries.
His funeral took place at Hastings Crematorium on a bleak January day last year. Picture a motley collection of mourners muffled up against the cold. But not for them the customary droning platitudes of remembrance; instead a vivid and humorous account of a man, who far from living quietly and anonymously, had made his mark upon town life… Ernie berating unsuspecting tourists, selling outrageous items at outrageous prices, digging up his beloved Jerusalem artichokes (preferably clothed), listening entranced to Rachmaninov, bustling with expletives, always ready with a jest, a barbed comment, and intelligent exchange…
It could be argued that such an individual character as Ernie Apps could flourish only in such a place as Rye. As Patrick Dickenson remarked;
“The Town keeps whispering Its history – fisherman, merchants -lifetimes that have been built from unimportant scraps to construct to clement enclave and sanctuary”
They say that Rye has a timelessness that nothing can break. Certainly, Ernie has been dead for a year now, and life in Rye continues much as before; those cheeky little quarterboys continue to strike the quarter with incouciant glee; the shopkeepers in Rye continue to ply their trade; and the fishing boats still set out on moody early-morning seas.
But Ernie is not quite forgotten. In the timbered Rye hostelries his name is sometimes heard on the lips of a reveller, always accompanied by a pithy story and a peal of laughter; please raise your glass to salute and lament the passing of a roguish and timeless Rye character.