GROWN UP WAR
for my children and grandchildren
|1 On the Beach||2 The Promised Land||3 Up West|
|4. Gas||5 Common Ground||6. Battleships|
|7. Blackout||8. Necessary Fictions||9. Love and Lust|
|10. Our Finest Hour||11. Pyrrhic Victory||12. Uncle Joe and the Neighbours|
|13. Ancestral Voices||14. Good Friday||15. Sticks and Stones|
|16 The fez and the khukuri knife||17. Yakusu||18. Teachers|
|19. In the Gutter||20. British Bulldog||21. Sins as Scarlet|
|22. Jane||23.Rabbits||24. Personal Remarks|
|25. Stanley Gibbons||26. Friend or Foe||27. Spitfire|
|28. Mass Production||29. Cobber||30. Ice Cream|
|31. Miners not Pirates||32. Losses||33. 11 Plus|
|34. Circumcision of the Heart||35. Guilty Men||36. Wintry Journey|
It was late August and I was building a sandcastle on the beach at Sandown in the Isle of Wight helped by a small blonde girl with a pageboy haircut wearing a pink swimsuit. Behind me, in a line of deckchairs with their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs on their sunburned heads, a number of men including my father were discussing the possibility of war. Usually I didn’t listen to grown-ups, whose conversation was difficult to understand, but these were only a few feet away and their voices were loud and emphatic.
“It’s all talk, newspaper talk.”
“It’s not us Hitler wants to fight, it’s the Russians.”
The sea splashed in, filling the moat with satisfying realism. Dad and I had spent much of the afternoon building the castle with a red metal spade purchased at the shop on the promenade, where he had also bought me four paper flags that decorated each of the plump towers: the red cross of St George, the blue flag for St Andrew, the red diagonal for Ireland and a scarlet dragon with its tongue branching out in flames for Wales.
“He wants to be friends with us.”
“We have a lot in common.”
“Say what you like, the Germans make wonderful binoculars.”
“ Best in the world.”
Mum waded into the surf holding her box Brownie in its scuffed leather case.
“Hold hands,” she said to me but I didn’t want to hold hands with the little girl, who obligingly took mine. Mum snapped us and later mounted it in her snapshot album with “Sandown, 1939” written underneath, the last photo before six years of filmless war.
“And cars. Mercedes-Benz and Opel. ”
“Best there are except for Rolls Royce.”
We didn’t have a car but one of Dad’s friends had driven us to Portsmouth where we caught the ferry. It was the first time I had been in a motorcar.
The little girl and I were decorating the castle with seashells and seaweed but I was becoming irritated with her because she was dumping armfuls of seaweed indiscriminately over the walls. I pushed her and she ran off then returned with her wooden spade.
“I don’t like all those uniforms.” Dad said, “All that marching and swastikas.”
There was a general murmur of agreement that the marching and swastikas were unfortunate blots on an otherwise admirable civilisation.
“Hitler’s done a lot of good. You’ve got to hand it to him. He solved the unemployment problem,” another deckchair put in. “More than we could do.”
There were more murmurs of agreement. The sea was flooding over the tops of the moat into the central courtyard. If there was one satisfaction greater than building a sandcastle it was watching it being swept away. The towers started to slip sideways. The little girl hit them with her wooden spade and I pushed her so she’d stop. The deckchairs retreated up the beach another few yards and re-arranged themselves in line.
“Roads too. Autobahns straight as a die. Not twisting and turning like ours.”
“Best roads since the Romans.”
“It’s the Jews he doesn’t like, not us.”
There was silence
“My brother’s been to Germany. He says there’ll be war.”
That was Dad talking about Uncle Norman, his younger brother. Uncle Norman was the voice of authority in our family and if Uncle Norman said there was going to be war there was probably going to be one. Uncle Norman had studied chemistry at the John Cass Institute and had a first-class degree with letters after his name. He spoke French and German and any other language he wanted and had brought back a metal knife from his camping and walking tour in the Black Forest with Zimmerman stamped on the handle which was in our kitchen drawer.
There was a murmur of foreboding.
“Let’s hope not. The last one was bad enough.”
“We don’t want any more wars.”
There was general assent as the sea swirled around their ankles and one of the towers slid into the foam, the four paper flags plunging into the waves. I scooped them up and put them in my metal bucket. The little girl in the pink swimsuit was picking up all the shells and putting them in her bucket, an appropriation I decided was unfair. I gave her another shove and she brandished her spade at me before running off for ever. The political commentators folded up their deckchairs and stacked them against the wall as we climbed the steps to the promenade. The tar was so hot I could feel it burning through the soles of my sandals. The men said goodbye to one another and Mum, Dad and I walked back along the promenade to the boarding-house.
One of the balconied hotels facing the sea was on fire and there were red and gold fire-engines in the road with hoses trailing across the tarmac. I had never seen a real fire before and it was frightening; the policemen were ordering the crowd to stand back and I realised anyone inside would be burned to death. A column of black smoke was pouring through the roof into the blue sky and the long windows on the front were exploding with the sound of falling glass; the road was full of broken panes and water from the hydrants. A fireman in a brass helmet was standing at the top of the turntable ladder aiming a jet of water into the flames. It was exciting but Mum didn’t want to stop so we walked on back to the boardinghouse.
At tea in the dining-room a man dropped five cubes of sugar into his cup and winked at me. I was only allowed two; we didn’t have cubes at home only the boring, granulated kind. I was told off for stirring my blackberries-and-custard round and round until it looked like the purple and yellow patterns on the covers of exercise books. There were so many rules and regulations connected with eating that it was difficult to survive a meal without getting into trouble. I was not allowed to spin my knife to see who it pointed at to be shot in the morning or to make faces in the back of the dessert spoon like a fairground mirror or put my elbows on the table. Everyone in the room talked in whispers as though they were in church.
Afterwards we went into the next room where there was a tall picture of a nude lady with long hair holding a jug of water on her shoulder. I pretended not to take any notice because nobody else did. Everyone talked about the war.
“The Royal Family’s German,” Mum said to a woman in a green dress from the next table sitting on the sofa. “They changed their name to Windsor because it sounded more English.”
“Let’s hope they won’t fight one another if they’re relatives.” said the woman,
Mum was an expert on the aristocracy and the royal families of Europe. “Queen Victoria married a German, Albert, the Prince Consort,” she informed the woman.
“ That’s right. They named the Albert Hall after him.”
“And the Albert Memorial,” Mum said, “Queen Victoria never got over his death. I used to walk round it on my day off when I worked in London. I knew every blessed camel on it.”
“Hitler’s not royal.” said the woman. “It might be better if he was.”
“Then there’s the Prince of Wales,” Mum said, “He was friends with Hitler. He went to see him with that woman.”
I knew who that woman was. It was Mrs Simpson, beside whose potential for destruction Hitler’s almost faded into insignificance.
I sneaked another look at the nude lady with the jug.
“And the old Queen, Queen Mary of Teck. She’s really German.”
“Well,” the woman in green said, getting up from the sofa, “I lost my fiancee on the Somme last time. And I wasn’t the only one. It wiped out a whole generation.”
We travelled back to Portsmouth on the paddle-steamer. I held Dad’s hand and we climbed down the steep stairs to the engine-room to look at the pistons driving the paddles because Dad always wanted to look at engines. We stood on a perforated metal gangway and watched the steel pistons leaping backwards and forwards like fairground horses. There was a strong smell of oil and the long shining steel rods shone in the sunlight. Through the spokes of the paddles I could see blue sky with the gulls wheeling around. It was exciting watching the water boil up underneath us but frightening too and I knew I’d be drowned and disappear into the green whirling pool and waves of foam if I fell. I gripped Dad’s hand tight. The steel rods under our feet bucked and reared driving the paddles and the foam boiled white; the smell of oil made me feel sick so I was glad to climb up to the fresh sea air on the top deck, where Mum was knitting.
My skin started to peel like a snake’s with the sunburn and I pulled it off in strips, playing a game to see how long I could make each one. “Don’t do that!” Mum said and dabbed white camomile lotion out of a bottle on me. But I couldn’t stop pulling it.
When we reached Portsmouth harbour there was a newspaper boy waving a paper in the air shouting. “PM to address the nation tomorrow! Chamberlain to address the nation!”
The next morning was Sunday and I was outside on the path with my red tricycle when I was told to come inside. We sat in a row on the couch in the dining-room with Bob lying on the carpet in front of us, his brown and white woolly ears spread out on either side. I loved Bob and told him all my secrets. Dad had his rubber boots on; he’d been digging the rockery in the back garden; Mum was wearing an apron because she was cooking the Sunday joint and there was a smell of fat that I didn’t like, coming from the kitchen. The yellow arc on the radio with its names of strange places on the dial was lit up in the corner of the room where it stood on a small table above a photo of Uncle Norman in his black gown. Chamberlain’s was explaining that the British ambassador in Berlin had handed the German government a note which said that unless we heard by eleven o’clock that Germany had withdrawn their troops from Poland there would be war.
I looked at the electric clock with the difficult Roman numerals on the mantelpiece. I could almost tell the time. It was past eleven.
“I have to tell you,” Mr Chamberlain said, “that no such undertaking has been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
Through the open front door I could see my trike on its side where I had left it on the path in the sunlight. There were some words like ultimatum I didn’t understand but I knew something momentous was happening. I had seen a photograph of Chamberlain in The Daily Express holding up a note in front of a metal aeroplane.
“Poor man,” Mum said, “he does his best. I wouldn’t want his job.”
It is what she often said about politicians. Dad walked across and switched off the wireless as if he were switching off something important. “We shall see,” he said grimly.
Later that morning an air-raid warden cycled past blowing a whistle, then the sirens sounded, up and down like a snake for the Alert, a clear steady peal for the All Clear. But they were just practising. The war didn’t start although I thought it might. Nothing else happened.
It never did on a Sunday.
My father loved engines and machines, an aesthetic of stainless steel and chromium that found its expression in streamlining, those modernistic curves that emerged in seaplanes, racing cars and cinema balconies of the 1930’s.
I was aware growing up that my father was more modern than I was. I enjoyed prowling around country churchyards reading inscriptions on the decaying tombstones. For him few pleasures were more satisfying than the Crittall’s metal window-frames in the Capthorne Avenue house which he and Mum had purchased in 1933 for £615. “Look at that!” he’d exclaim, opening the bay window and swinging it back and forth, “Look how it swings open!” It looked like an ordinary window to me, but I had never dealt with sash windows and was not to encounter them for many years. In Bow sash windows were universal. The family house in Athelstane Road had sash windows that, according to my father, stuck in their grooves, broke their sash cords, squashed his fingers and threatened to guillotine him every time he leaned out to tell the cat’s meat-man to leave the meat under the knocker. The metal window-frames put Rayners Lane at the cutting edge of modern technology. Sash windows were part of a left-behind Victorian culture which included jellied-eel stalls, public-baths and music halls. It was an environment that my father viewed with some affection but which he had no desire to return to. He regarded the East End as a place to escape from, a claustrophobic existence where it was necessary to have lodgers in order to survive. One possessed a wooden leg and stamped across the floor above their heads keeping them awake at night. The rooms were over-ornamented and over-furnished. The velvet cover along the mantelpiece had silver balls dangling off it. Above all the East End was poor. Malmesbury Road School which Dad reluctantly attended until he was fourteen, considered itself superior to the Roman Road School because its pupils wore shoes.
From this economic cul-de-sac, stuck as fast as a sash window, Dad was determined to move. Symbolically he constructed, at the age of seventeen, a thirty foot aerial - the highest radio mast in Bow at the time - to receive the voices of the outer world. The programmes from 2LO, the pre-BBC transmitter, crackled into his bedroom. A few years later marriage to my mother provided an opportunity not for only him, but also his brother and sister to escape. Norman and Doll moved with the newly married couple to Rayners Lane, a far-flung suburb to the northwest of London advertised on the Underground posters as being in the deepest and greenest countryside. Dad and Norman piled the horsehair sofa, the velvet mantelpiece-cover and other remnants of Victorian furniture into the small yard at the back of the Athelstane Road house and set fire to them. Only one piece of furniture passed the Rayners Lane test – the couch on which we were to sit in a row listening to Mr Chamberlain some six years later. The rest went up in smoke.
But modern living meant more than electric lights in every room and walnut-veneered furniture. It meant owning a home, a financial piece of wizardry that mystified Mum who couldn’t understand how it was possible to spend £615 on a house when neither of them possessed such a sum. Dad found out about mortgages and the builder’s promise that £25 deposit down secured a home of one’s own. Landlords, universal in Bow, disappeared with the Victorian furniture. “You pay rent all your life and have nothing to show at the end of it,” was the collective wisdom on renting. Rayners Lane meant freedom from peg-leg lodgers and shuttling relatives who exchanged living spaces every year like musical chairs. Rayners Lane meant no more trips to the public baths with a bar of soap and a towel under your arm. The upstairs bathroom in Capthorne Avenue had hot and cold running water, black and white modernistic tiles and a lavatory with a chain.
To be sure Rayners Lane houses were not as modern as the purists might have dreamed. There was the splendid new Underground station designed by R.H.Uren at the top of the small hill in the centre of the shops. There was the white modernistic Odeon with its curling top and powder-room and there was the brick and metal window-framed Roxbourne School that I was to attend. But the rest was all pseudo-Tudor with pebbledash, imitation timbers, bow windows and a spray of stained glass in the front door. The thousand houses a year erected by a young builder, Thomas Nash on a tract of land purchased from Christ Church, Oxford for £60,000 and marked on 19th century maps only by marsh-signs was about as unmodernist as he could build them. The Devonshire street-names – Exeter and Lynton Road, Widdecombe and Lulworth Crescent, Torbay and Newquay were rurally romantic, although as my parents spent their honeymoon at Lynton in Devon they probably appreciated them. On the outside the houses had pitched roofs and beams but inside there were newly-plastered bare walls with smooth ceilings, decorated by a hanging marbled light-bowl supplied gratis.
But if the exterior didn’t resemble an ocean-liner, the interior might. Dad set to work papering the walls with oatmeal paper and a thin dado strip of sober autumn leaves. Otherwise there were no ornaments on the mantelpiece, no statues or pictures, no photographs except Uncle Norman in his gown under the wireless. Plainness was the watchword and although Dad never actually banned porcelain shepherdesses and alsation-dog table-lamps it was understood that ornaments were part of the old, overstuffed Bow world that had been left behind. He fitted a stainless steel letter-box on the front door and installed a bell, that harbinger of modernism, to replace the brass knocker that the cat’s meat had been left under. Everything was new: the shops, the streets, the red letter-box at the corner of Capthorne Avenue, the 114 bus, the streetlights, the sycamore trees planted at fixed intervals, the newly-weds, the families.
The families were as slimmed-down and modernist as the Odeon. Gone were the sprawling broods that filled the backstreets of Bethnal Green and the Commercial Road. We came mostly in ones, occasionally in twos, rarely in threes. I was one, born in the front upstairs bedroom and according to later reports followed by my mother’s pronouncement, “I’m never going through that again”. Whether this was because I was male, a gender that my mother always had reservations about, or whether it was because my mother had little desire for motherhood and felt that one child was the minimum she could get away with is uncertain. Four years later the onset of war supplied a rational reason for not having another and postponed the decision for the duration and in effect for ever. Dad in his democratic fashion stated that it was up to Mum. But Mum had had enough. One was more than enough, since I didn’t require dresses or embroidered frocks which would go some way towards justifying my existence. “It’s all men,” she said, referring to the world at large or to the fact that Norman had moved in and the two Daniel brothers naturally formed a bond. Or perhaps because her sister Marjorie had also given birth to a boy, my cousin Michael. Motherhood was not my mother’s dream of identity. Doll, was only sixteen, but Mum had no intention of extending her mothering to all and sundry. When I was born two years later Doll was required to move out of the house to make space for the new baby.
I was an only child, that problematic being who inhabits the grown-up world without being part of it, who misses the rough-and-tumble sharing of siblings and who is both in the limelight and out of it, the focus of parental attention and yet unable to share opinions with anyone else on the subject. I have always felt that brothers and sisters complete the family picture and there is something lacking in those who didn’t possess them. And although those with siblings assure me that not all problems are solved by their presence, I remain unconvinced.
In her desire to restrict her family to one my mother was quintessentially modern but otherwise her aesthetic tastes were not as uncompromising as Dad’s. One afternoon she brought back a reproduction framed print of a vase containing a bunch of red and yellow dahlias. “It’s a splash of colour,” she exclaimed to my father in self-justification, “I think it would look nice on the wall.” It was a revolutionary statement given the bareness of the walls, but Dad was not a tyrannical man. It was her home as well as his. The picture was hung on its small chain over the light oak dining table. Perhaps my mother appreciated his forbearance because she never bought another and the pot of red and yellow dahlias remained the sole representation of western art in our house.
But the breach had been made and in later years Uncle Norman sent back two brass storks with inlaid enamelled wings from India and Auntie Doll six ebony men paddling a dugout canoe from the Congo. Over the years the bare rooms gradually succumbed to the clutter of school-photographs, music-box chalets and cork-pictures that made the place look, as they say, like home. But my father never needed ornaments to express his feeling of home. Plain walls and metal window-frames that swung open to the touch were his idea of utopia. He’d grown up in a Petticoat Lane of artefacts. Rayners Lane was his dream of Eden where everything was new and there were no neighbours knocking on the back door for half a cup of sugar. He had never heard of the Austrian architect Alfred Loos but he would have agreed with his pronouncement that decoration is a crime.
The onset of war and the Luftwaffe effectively stopped the spread of suburbs like Rayners Lane encircling London from Watford to the north, Brighton to the south Reading to the west and Southend to the east. After the war the Green Belt of the Underground posters and Metroland become a reality, at least for a few more miles and a few more years. Many heaved a sigh of relief and thanked God that Nazi bombs called a halt to the unstoppable march of the speculative builders. John Betjeman famously implored friendly bombs to fall on Slough and he might have added Rayners Lane. But John Betjeman was no modernist and had never lived in Bow.
There was a political dimension to modernism. Dad always voted Labour unlike his brother and his wife. He believed social life would get better and better given free education, clean air and the widespread use of stainless steel. It was a belief he never abandoned. Rayners Lane was the first step to the Promised Land, and he had taken it.
Mum took me on secret trips to London – Up West as she called it – and we walked through Hyde Park where there were anti-aircraft guns sticking out of the newly dug earth surrounded by sandbags and the hawsers of barrage balloons anchored in concrete blocks. Long cables were attached to the silver balloons that floated in the sky with floppy fins like elephants’ ears. They were supposed to stop the Germans bombing us, but I couldn’t understand why the German pilots didn’t just fly around them. It was years later I discovered it was the wire hawser that was the deterrent not the balloon, which was only there to hold the wire up.
I was not sure why we had come up to London, particularly as I was instructed not to tell Dad about our visit but it was an exciting place with statues of soldiers on horses with plumes in their hats. “London always gives me a lift,” Mum said. “It does me good”. We walked through the park to where there were cream-coloured houses four storeys high with long windows and black railings that had not been taken away as they had in Rayners Lane. We climbed up a flight of steps and Mum rang the brass doorbell. The door was answered by a maid in a white cap who led us into a large room with a high ceiling and tall windows. I was instructed to wait there and not touch anything. There were tall vases and shelves of leather books and long, dark-blue velvet curtains and bunches of flowers and a large mirror in an ornate gold frame. I stood in the middle of the thick carpet looking around until Mum reappeared holding a brown paper parcel and the maid opened the door for us. We walked back down the steps across the park to the Underground and then home, which we reached just before Dad came in from work. I wanted to tell him about the barrage balloons but I kept Mum’s secret although I didn’t like doing so. She told Dad we had been shopping but didn’t say where.
Mum often talked to me about her life as a lady’s-maid before she was married. “It was the happiest time of my life, “ she said, I didn’t have a care in the world.” She told me her ladies took her to Scotland when the families went grouse-shooting and the South of France where she stayed in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes and saw the Battle of the Flowers in Nice. She had lived in big houses in London in Hans Crescent and Sloane Street and Eaton Square.
“It was all wonderful,” she said, “Rayners Lane was a comedown but I wanted to marry and have my own home and you can’t do that and stay in service.” The Rayners Lane neighbours didn’t know about the Season when there were parties with champagne and oysters and the debutantes were presented at Court, or Cowes Week when they raced yachts at the Isle of Wight. The neighbours only knew about the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race when they wore dark blue or light blue badges in their buttonholes.
Mum loved to talk about her life in service. Her first job was as a children’s maid with Lord Rayleigh, a scientist who had discovered argon in the atmosphere. “All one wing was laboratories,” she said, “and the drive was a mile and half long.” Lord Rayleigh employed a staff of fifty on his Essex estate and engaged my mother as a children’s maid at £16 a year, a modest salary even for the time. “Bloodsuckers” was Dad’s opinion of Mum’s employers but Mum won’t hear a word against Lord and Lady Rayleigh though she agreed that £16 as a yearly salary was not much. “ I wanted for nothing” she declared, “I had free board and lodging and the lady’s clothes when she’d got tired of them.” She even claimed she saved on her annual salary. “But you had to do as you were told,” she would say, with the implication that my father would not have survived.
All Dad’s arguments were outweighed by her love of the life in Kensington and Chelsea. Dad only knew about the East End. Mum had taken him on a tour of the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane when it first opened. “Do people live here?” he had asked, not being sure what such an enormous building was for.
My mother had escaped from what she regarded as the dreariness of country life as my father had escaped from the East End. “Bread on bread” was her opinion of existence in her Essex village. “We walked backwards and forwards to church twice on Sundays. That’s all we did. “ Her dislike of the countryside was long-lasting. “Once I’d been to London I never wanted to go back,” she told me on numerous occasions and as she moved up from children’s maid to lady’s-maid she received the status accorded her position. “All waiting on one another” was Dad’s verdict when Mum explained that she had all her meals cooked for her and one of the house-maids made her bed each morning. “I couldn’t boil an egg when I got married,” Mum would boast with pride.
I was told stories about the sub-culture below stairs which set out to imitate the festivities above in a succession of balls and parties. There were the footmen, the first always called James, the second Charles, whatever their real names were. There were Christmas and New Year parties when the valet dressed up as a ghost in the cellars and terrified the parlour-maids. There was a scandal when one of the footmen taught a parrot to welcome her ladyship in the drawing-room with an hilariously obscene greeting. There were numerous invitations from chauffeurs to drives in the Rolls Royce around the country lanes.
“They thought they were the lords and ladies” Dad observed, but Mum passionately defended her years in service. She followed the activities of the gentry in “The Graphic” re-living the debutantes’ presentation at Court for which she dressed her ladies in three-feathered headdresses and made their silk underclothes by hand and copied Parisian fashions from photographs in “Vogue”. “You don’t seem very interested in looking after children,” Lady Rayleigh had observed to her one day with some insight, “You seem more interested in dressmaking.” So Mum was enrolled in the Regent Street polytechnic on her afternoon off each week to learn cutting-out and sewing. She had discovered her natural talent. She left Lord and Lady Rayleigh and remained in London at an annual wage of £50 a year.
But the households were never as numerous again and the great establishments began to disappear. The First World War killed off most of the large households as it did their subalterns. Mum’s wages went up but her career as a ladysmaid followed a downward spiral into four and three-servant establishments. She lived in Cadogan Square and Hans Crescent and finally in the Hyde Park hotel. The establishments declined but her loyalty remained unswerving. In the 1926 General Strike she made tea for those aristocrats who volunteered to drive trains and buses. “What else could I do?” she would say in answer to Dad’s charge that she helped the strike-breakers. “I had to, or I got the sack.”
One of her employers was Lady Diana Manners, aged twenty-four, the same age as my mother. The two young women became as close as their social positions allowed and when Lady Diana’s engagement was announced my mother was responsible for her elaborate trousseau - underclothes, going-away dresses, evening gowns. She was given an invitation to the wedding in St Peter’s Church, Knightsbridge, a rare honour for a servant. And when a month later, the news reached her that Lady Diana had been killed on honeymoon in a car crash in India my mother shut herself in her room for three days and wept. “I thought I’d never get over it,” she said, showing me the yellow newspaper cuttings and embossed invitation, and perhaps she never did.
Her knowledge of the landed aristocracy was extensive and her allegiance unswerving. She knew about the Princess Louise, Princess Victoria and Princess Maud and she passed on news of their engagements and marriages to Dad and me who received the news in respectful silence. She was ecstatic about the beauty of Princess Marina who married the Duke of Kent and devastated by his death in a plane crash during the war. She felt compassion for King George currently reigning over us “because he never wanted to be king.”
We listened to King George making his Christmas broadcast the first Christmas of the war, which we celebrated with Uncle Paul and Auntie Marjorie at their house in Beckenham. The king stumbled and stammered as he talked of the dark days ahead. I prayed that he would be able to start up again and negotiate the hurdles of consonants. It was an agonising performance “Poor man,” my mother says, “He never wanted to be king. If it hadn’t been for that woman.”
I knew it was Mrs Simpson again, appearing like Banquo’s ghost at our Christmas feast. I felt that Mrs Simpson was responsible for the king’s speech impediment.
Uncle Paul was a socialist. He didn’t approve of the Royal Family. “They wouldn’t wait in the rain to see you, Vi,” he said to my mother. “ Why should you wait in the rain for them?”
“You and your old Labour,” Mum replied. “They’ll always be rich and poor, whatever you say.”
At last the King reached the end of his speech with his “God bless you all.” Uncle Paul continued to tease Mum. “Don’t forget,” he says, “only four inches in your bath, Vi.”
Everyone laughed again but Mum didn’t care. The king only has four inches of water in his bath because of the war and everyone was expected to have the same. The broadcast ended with the national anthem as if to celebrate the fact that the king had managed to get through his speech. When Grandad and Grandma were with us we all had to stand up and toast the King, including Uncle Paul, but as they weren’t, we stay seated. Some years we stood up and some years we sat down. “If he could have continued as Duke of York he’d have been happy,” Mum said, “He likes being at home with his family doing jigsaw puzzles.”
“I’d like to stay at home with my family doing jigsaw puzzles,” Uncle Paul snorted, “but some of us have to fight in this bloody war.” He was angry at being called up into the Tank Corps especially as Dad was in a reserved occupation because he was a toolmaker. “What do I know about tanks?” Paul asked everyone, “I’m a journalist.”
Uncle Paul was sports editor of the Daily Express and earned a lot of money. On the wall was a drawing given to him by the cartoonist Giles showing a troop of soldiers sitting on the grass by a tank. One of the soldiers was holding up a loose tank-track saying, “He says there’s a ticking somewhere”. Giles had given it to Uncle Paul because he was waiting to be called up in the tank regiment.
Mum envied her sister because Marjorie didn’t have to make her own dresses but could go out and buy them from Marshall and Snelgrove’s or Swan and Edgar’s. But she didn’t envy the fact that her husband was being called up.
Shortly after our secret trip to London Dad found out about Mum’s journey because she complained that the lady hadn’t paid for the work she had done. This confirmed Dad’s belief that the aristocracy had always made its money on the principle that employees should work for nothing. “It’s exploitation,” he said. He sat down and wrote a postcard in bright red ink demanding prompt payment – “so all the servants can read it” he explained.
“I’ll never get another order,” Mum wailed but Dad sent it and the lady sent a cheque by return.
But perhaps Mum was right too, because that was the last of our secret trips Up West.
Gas. The word had a terrible sound as if terror was built into it, like Berlin or Germany. It was a word which carried a legacy from the First World War which was almost as vivid in the popular imagination as what was actually happening. My grandfather, George Daniel, died before I was born but I felt I knew him because we possessed his mahogany writing-box with rolls of Italian lire and his medals on orange and blue silk ribbons. The writing-box contained his diary of the war, written in pencil in a red book that opened from bottom to top secured with a wide black elastic band of the sort I used to hold my socks up. One entry read:
“Piave 20/10/18 heaviest shelling either France or Italy lasting from 9 pm 20/10 to 4am 22/10
We were to be gassed from the air as the soldiers in the last war were gassed in the trenches. Nobody would survive. The trench-war was out of date; the new war would be fought from the air and civilians will be gassed in their millions. Every man, woman and child in the country would be issued with a gasmask. Strangely enough there was little panic at this prospect of mass-destruction although it seemed credible and possible. As with so much else, we accepted it with that equanimity and fatalism which greeted so many drastic changes in the opening stages of the war.
I was summoned to be fitted with a gas-mask in a church hall staffed by women of the Voluntary Service, wearing bottle-green uniforms and hats like Girl Guides. We were instructed to stand in a large circle and were each handed a mask in a cardboard box while two WVS women patrolled around the outside of the circle, pulling us about like rag dolls.
“How old are you?” one asked me.
“Six,” I replied with my fingers crossed behind my back to protect myself against the sin of telling lies. The fires of hell were less fearful than having to wear a Mickey Mouse mask, which was the prescribed issue for under-fives. Apart from the grotesque ears and wobbly nose it stigmatised its wearer as an Infant, only one step up from a Baby. The WVS lady looked at me with suspicion but finally handed me a box with a grown-up mask inside.
“Put that on!” she ordered, tugging it out and holding up in front of me like a bedraggled octopus.
I pulled it on. The inside smelled rubbery; the heavy green metal end to the short trunk weighed it down so that I was unable to breathe. The transparent visor misted up. I couldn’t see and was close to panic.
“You’re to carry this at all times,” the distant, muffled voice of the chief WVS officer commanded.
I felt I was drowning. I dragged the short snout skyward and succeeded in pulling the rubber above my upper lip and sucking in the cool, life-giving air. I was immediately seized by one of the green-hats. My head was jerked back by my hair and the mask replaced, the WVS lady running her finger round inside the rubber to make sure that I was perfectly sealed inside. She then yanked at the straps behind my head so that I was buckled into the mask and unable to escape. I gasped for breath while she placed her hand over the top of my head and produced an oblong piece of cardboard which she held against the base of the perforated metal trunk.
“I want you all to breathe in and hold the cardboard on the end of your gas-mask,” the chief green-hat announced.
My cardboard fell straight to the floor. I felt as if I was about to expire. It was like being gassed.
“You tiresome boy!” my WVS advisor shouted giving my hair a violent tug. She stooped down, picked up the cardboard and rammed it against my short trunk. “Now breathe in properly!” I gasped for air since there was no alternative and the cardboard oblong clung to the end of the mask.
“Remove your masks like this!” another green-hat ordered and we were given a demonstration on the correct way to slide our thumbs under the straps and extract our chins. I was trembling and the inside of my mask was wet with sweat and smells of rubber.
“When must you wear them?” the chief WVS person demanded. We knew how to reply because grown-ups frequently asked questions to which they had just given us the answer. “At all times,” we chorused.
“Gas can kill you,” the WVS lady goes on, “We are expecting it at any time and if you leave your gas-mask at home it will be your own fault if you are killed.”
As everything was our own fault already, there was no reason to think that being gassed would be an exception. We re-packed our masks in their square cardboard boxes and marched out of the hall in the double-file we moved around in on these occasions. Once outside we broke into anarchic violence, the boys whirling the boxes around their heads and charging at one another like mediaeval knights. But the gas-attacks from the air forecast by the authorities never happened and no gas-canisters were ever dropped on England. After a few months we began to leave the cumbersome boxes at home. The girls or their mothers stitched linen covers on their boxes and embroidered them with their initials and elaborate daisy-chains or strings of blue forget-me-nots. The boys kept the raw cardboard but they were not useful even as weapons. When I ran they bumped awkwardly against my knees, entangling my legs and bringing me crashing to the pavement. I dumped the box in the cupboard under the stairs with the piles of old newspapers and the shilling-in-the-slot meter.
The popular explanation was that the Germans were frightened to use gas because they knew we would retaliate in kind. “Jerry knows what will happen” everyone said. “They’re scared to use it.” There were memories of blister gas and mustard gas and chlorine but gradually everyone realised that it was not to be one of the weapons of this war.
My childhood experience with gas was also traumatic albeit on a smaller scale. I developed a technique of clambering up the stairs rapidly on hands and knees, only to slip on one occasion so that the edge of the step crashed into my mouth and knocked out several front teeth. They dangled up and down like yo-yos on strings of blood. It was not a spectacle that my mother could easily cope with. For her the first-aid aspect of motherhood was the most appalling part of an unsatisfactory role. Mouthfuls of blood, a wailing child and bouncing teeth compelled her towards the front door and out into the street where she seized the first passer-by – an elderly woman on her way to the shops. Mum dragged her back into the kitchen where I was sitting on a chair, conscious that I was at the centre of an important drama. But the woman was capable and efficient, and with the help of scissors and a bowl of warm water, my injuries were soon staunched. The stumps of my teeth remained a problem however.
“ He should see a dentist,” the woman said.
I have never been to a dentist before and was unprepared for what happened. “I think we should use gas,” the dentist, Mr Sutterby said, producing a black rubber plunger, not unlike the one used by Dad to clear the kitchen sink when it was blocked with tea-leaves. Mr Sutterby approached me holding the plunger in one hand with the clear intention of clamping it over my nose and mouth. I moved the other way and was held as I rose upwards, flailing my arms in a desperate attempt to escape through the ceiling while Sutterby pursued us both around the room waving the black rubber plunger, attempting to cover my nose and mouth. Eventually he cornered me and I succumbed to what was a terrifying attack, slipping into a blackness, which did not expunge the trauma of the experience. I made sure I never had gas again.
Gas was regarded as the unused weapon of the Second World War and the gas-masks issued to all British citizens were seen as totally separate from the gassing of six million Jews in the Nazi death-camps. But the decision to use gas was taken by men who fought in the First World War and were familiar with its effects in the trenches. Hitler himself was gassed by the British. Five weeks before the end of the war near Werwick, south of Ypres, the British released canisters of chlorine gas. Hitler lost consciousness and by the time he reached the hospital at Pasewalk near Stettin he was completely blind.
Twenty-three years later, in 1941 in Chelmno, Poland, 700 Jewish people a day were being gassed in specially fitted furniture vans. Gassing was more efficient, cheaper on ammunition and less demoralising for the soldiers than pulling triggers all day. The furniture vans were succeeded by Zyklon B manufactured by I.G.Farben with assistance from Siemens. “Ein Tag, ein tausend” – a thousand a day - was achieved and by the end of 1941 there were death-camps at Birkenau-Auschwitz, Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. A further hundred concentration camps including one at Alderney in the British Channel islands were established by 1942, the year in which the allied governments release a statement condemning the cold-blooded extermination of the Jews. Anthony Eden read it to the House of Commons, which stood in silence for two minutes, although only two weeks later Eden insisted that Britain could not admit more than one or two thousand extra refugees.
Gas was a major weapon of the Second World War as it was of the first.
The shelters went up, overnight it seemed, along the street - raw-brick oblong blocks without windows but with flat tarred roofs and a single entrance with a slatted wooden door that was always padlocked. Mum flatly refused to use them.
“I’m not going to sleep in those,” she announced, “They’re common.”
“Everyone’s supposed to sleep in them,” Dad said, “That’s what they’re for.”
“You can sleep in them if you like,” Mum declared, “I’m staying in my own bed.” Mum made where she slept a personal vendetta against Hitler. Hitler was a common little man, no more than a corporal in the last war. “He’s not going to make me get up in the middle of the night. I’m staying in my own bed.”
I began to realise that common was a complex word with a multitude of meanings. The shelters were common not only because everyone could use them but because the inside was full of stagnant water and the outside walls were decorated with the figure of Chad, a bulbous-nosed character peering over a wall with Wot No Butter? or Wot No Bombs? painted underneath. It was common to write on walls or to say What and even more common to spell it that way. Common was something you had to protect yourself against because it was everywhere. Mrs Beeson, only three houses away, was common, although Mum said she had a heart of gold. Mrs Beeson worked in the off-licence, which was a bit common and wore trousers and a headscarf, which were also common and smoked as she ran along the street and shouted “Hullo Vi!” to Mum over the hedge, which were the most common things of all, especially shouting over the hedge.
Common or not, Mum’s dislike of the street shelters was shared by everyone else in Capthorne Avenue so that they remained virtually unused. There were private, uncommon shelters on offer for those who could afford them: the Anderson, named after John Anderson a Cabinet minister and the Morrison, named after another Cabinet minister, Herbert Morrison. The Anderson was designed for the back-garden and had a two-step entry into a semi-circle of corrugated iron covered with soil. The Morrison was an indoor heavy steel structure with zoo-like square mesh down one side. Both had their uses for us. My cousin Michael possessed an Anderson in his back-garden which served as an authentic underground headquarters with rusty water dripping through the roof and John Brown had a Morrison in his dining-room, providing a vast flat surface which could be used as a race-track for metal cars or an aerodrome for Dinky planes. There were also school shelters at Roxbourne, long concrete tunnels under the dug-up playing fields into which we were herded when the Alert sounded. We sat facing one another across the slatted walkway with our hands on our knees singing a medley of songs as orchestrated by Miss Jessy. The sound wavered up and down the long tunnel disappearing into the small circle of light at the end. “D’Ye Ken John Peel” and “The British Grenadiers” were my favourites with their rousing choruses, followed by “A Froggy would A-wooing go” and “”Bobby Shaftoe’s Gone to Sea” with “While the Moon Her Watch was Keeping” as a plaintive, lyrical finale. Even though my musical sense was not of the finest, I enjoyed these sing-songs in the shelters more than any other lesson.
There were also the Underground stations which were used as shelters in the centre of London, immortalised in the drawings of Henry Moore, but these, too, were regarded as common by my mother whom I could no more imagine lying down on an Underground platform than I could her lying on the track.
Mum fought her personal war by staying in her own bed while the house rocked with the noise of shelling and Dad, Bob and I crawled into the cupboard under the stairs. It was our compromise shelter although not a very comfortable one. We dragged our blankets, sheets and pillows into the narrow space with the sloping roof and attempted to make our beds between the gas-meter and the empty beer-bottles while Bob shuffled around in a circle on the newspapers. “He’s trampling down the grass to make a bed,” Dad explained, ever ready to make an evolutionary point, “that’s what he would have done in the wild.” But Bob was not happy with the sudden shafts of bright light from the searchlights and the crash of exploding shells. He threw back his head and howled with a strange eerie sound I have never heard him make before. I held his head under my arm and stroked his forehead in an effort to calm him.
Rayners Lane was not a target for the German pilots although there were munitions factories a few miles away at Park Royal and Acton. There was more danger to us out on the streets from the shrapnel of exploding British shells; in the morning after a raid we patrolled the gutters collecting pieces of the grey, jagged metal which we valued as highly as marbles or fag-cards. After a night of raids Mum would come down the stairs announcing triumphantly “I didn’t lose a wink of sleep,” with a touch of superiority for those of us who had crept under the stairs. Sometimes Dad tried to recreate the dangers of being bombed – incendiary sticks that fell on the roof spouting fire and going through the floors of the house like a knife through butter, or the power of a blast that blew out all the windows and carried the heavy Victorian sideboard in my grandparents’ house in Ipswich the length of the garden. But Mum refused to give in to such scares. “It’s best not to think about it,” she maintained. Her attitude fitted in with the nation’s stoicism. “Britain Can Take It,” was the watchword exemplified by the Queen’s comment that she was glad Buckingham Palace had been bombed because she could now look East Enders who had lost their homes in the face. Much later I heard of incidents such as that of a young woman hurled into the air by blast, coming down skewered on a broken-off lamp-post where she hung in the air like a piece of burning meat. But such incidents were never reported - hysteria did not officially exist and even if I was not terrified, I was happy to sleep under the stairs with Bob and Dad, although it meant dragging our blankets and pillows up the stairs again in the morning.
One afternoon John Brown discovered that the shelter in King’s Road had been left open and invited a select audience of his friends to view his younger sister, Sally’s genitalia at a cost of threepence entry-fee. The three of us paid and stood in the semi-darkness between the unpainted wooden bunks to enjoy the spectacle. It was a thrilling moment. Prompted by her brother, Sally lifted up her skirt, pulled down her dark-blue knickers then lifted up her skirt again so that we could all inspect. We peered through the gloom at the small triangle at the top of her legs. It was not sensational.
“There’s nothing there,” John Martin said eventually.
He was right. There seemed to be nothing there except Sally’s five-year old legs. Although I’d not known exactly what to expect the result was certainly anti-climactic.
John Brown said nothing and Sally continued to stand there holding up her skirt with her knickers around her ankles. We leaned forward to examine the situation more closely but even in the gloom of the shelter it was obvious that a small white triangle of Sally’s anatomy was all there was to view.
“It’s a swiz,” Brian said, directing his criticism at the showman rather than the show. “It’s not worth it.” We all agreed. We had been led to believe that our threepences would introduce us to something sensational but John Brown was a natural showman and he stood there with the silence of an impresario who did not need to justify himself.
“I want my money back,” Brian said.
It was a decisive moment. We all wanted our money back. Threepence was not a negligible sum to be wasted on such a spectacle. John Brown, however, refused to give us the refund we demanded He clearly felt he had justice as well as nature on his side. “It’s not my fault,” he said. Sally dropped her skirt and pulled up her knickers as the disappointed customers were ushered out.
The shelters remained remote and unused, too high to climb and their flat, tarred roofs held our balsa-wood gliders, parachutes, cricket balls and other treasures as securely as if they had been confiscated by teachers. Only in the last months of the war when the heavy iron demolition ball crashed down on the flat roofs reducing them to rubble did we glimpse our treasures from the past six years slide momentarily into view before plunging into the dust and bricks of the unloved shelters.
Six months younger, my cousin Michael was my superior in everything that mattered, climbing trees to a height where they started to bend towards the ground, building intricate dams that created lakes, hammering the lids on treacle-tins filled with water and hurling them into the bonfire so they exploded with exhilarating force. Michael was resourceful and anarchic, my ally against the grown-up world and my most treasured visitor especially since his father has been called up into the Tanks and posted to North Africa.
“I don’t know how I’m going to manage,” Marjorie complained to my mother, “If ever a child needed a father, it’s Michael.”
They were visiting us from Beckenham in Kent where we had spent the first Christmas of the war and where our alliance had been forged. On Christmas morning we had sat up in bed on either side of Uncle Paul who tilted a tray full of toy cows and sheep up and down on his knees, making mooing and baaing noises in his Devon accent with great gusto as they slid from one end to the other.
“There you go me lovers!”
He often called us me lovers or me darlings.
The war news was coming in all the time. The German battleship the Graf Spee had been cornered by H.M.S Exeter and other British battleships at the mouth of the River Plate in South America. After a few days of mounting excitement it was announced that the Graf Spee had been scuttled, a confusing word that I associated with the coal scuttle. The Graf Spee was a pocket battleship, another confusing word which the Germans used to evade the restrictions on battleship-building laid down at the Treaty of Versailles. It was the first great sea victory of the war and we all thought the war would soon be over. Michael and I woke up at four o’clock in the morning to empty our bulging pillowcases, much to Uncle Paul’s annoyance who swore and shouted “Bloody Christmas! Why does anyone have Christmas!”
Now he was in North Africa and sent us two metal cap-badges of flat, silver tanks with pins in the back that we pushed through holes in our caps. Michael came to stay in his pink preparatory-school cap and blazer, and discovered in the first few hours that it was possible to climb out of the bathroom window, along the drainpipe and into the back garden.
“What can I do with him?” Auntie Marjorie asked my mother “He’s like this all the time. I don’t know which way to turn.” Life became much more thrilling when Michael was around. A pale-faced, frail-looking boy he seemed practically indestructible. I was inclined to be cautious and fearful of physical injury. Michael invented a new game of jumping off the shed roof, a bone-jarring leap that took all my courage and one I would never have performed without his example.
The war was becoming more dramatic. Hess, Hitler’s second-in-command, flew to Scotland to meet with the Duke of Hamilton and other aristocratic friends he had known before the war, allegedly to conclude a separate peace between Germany and Britain. But he lost control of his Messerschmitt, crash-landed and was arrested. The incident was treated as evidence of Hess’s instability. “Hess is mad” was the verdict in our kitchen where Mum discussed the news with Marjorie. Peace was now beyond the realms of possibility. If Hess had brought an offer of peace on condition that Britain’s empire remained untouched in return for German control of Europe it was inconceivable that our government would accept such a proposal and Hess remained a silent, enigmatic figure from the day of his flight to the day of his death. Churchill’s war-speeches were characterised by a powerful pro-war rhetoric and Hess served as a focus for the madness of stopping the conflict, a solitary figure in the years that followed who appeared in the Nurenberg trials after six years confinement when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau prison until, at the age of 93 he hanged himself, as he had attempted to do a number of times previously.
Michael and I were committed to hostilities in our own fashion. It took the form of building elaborate wooden battleships, specifically H.M.S Hood and the Bismarck which we constructed in the shed at the end of the garden. We slept in the same bed, head-to-toe, and rose at dawn to begin hammering nails into long lengths of wood that were the hulls of our battleships. Our naval construction consisted chiefly in banging several pounds of nails into each vessel then arming them with brass corner pieces, bolts, nuts and any other fixtures that my father kept in round tins on a shelf over the bench. By the time we had finished, the battleships exhibited a porcupine appearance bristling with masts, gun turrets and lifeboats. With reels of cotton we created ship’s railings and wireless aerials; finally we painted each ship in a grey-and-black-camouflage that we were too impatient to let dry. The paint dribbled across the bench, our hands and our clothing.
“We should sail them,” Michael proposed.
“In the bath.”
We carried H.M.S Hood and the Bismarck into the house. Michael had brought a tin of blue paint from the shed with which he proceeded to paint the bottom of the bath to give it a fjord appearance, he explained. The paint floated to the surface in oily circles, mixing with the grey and black of the hulls as we launched them down the sloping back of the bath.
Unfortunately both the Hood and the Bismarck immediately turned upside down, made top-heavy by the heavy armament of their superstructures. “They need keels,” Michael said decisively so we carried the boats back to the shed, hammered a few pieces of steel underneath the hulls and brought them back to the bath. This time they listed heavily to one side. It took a number of trips, trailing water and paint, before we achieved upright stability. “The Hood gets sunk,” explained Michael. “It blows up and the Bismarck escapes.” We enacted the salvos from the Bismarck and the sinking of The Hood with considerable effectiveness. “Then the Bismarck gets bombed by Swordfish from The Ark Royal and sinks,” Michael informed me and we improvised a variety of bombs and depth-charges.
Our war-games were interrupted by Michael’s mother who emerged from her bedroom and began shouting at she opened the bathroom door and discovered the mayhem of the battle-scene. “We’ll clear it up. It’s only paint,” Michael protested but Marjorie was in no mood for negotiation and my cousin was dragged around by his hair and scrubbed at the kitchen sink.
It was perhaps his experience of violence with the scrubbing brush at the kitchen sink that a day later prompted him to hammer a nail through a caterpillar as it crawled across the wooden surface of the bench.
I shouted but it was too late. The body of the caterpillar twisted convulsively on the nail and a yellowish-green liquid spurted out. It was not a species of caterpillar that I was particularly attached to, preferring the bushy, white-haired ones that shuffled endearingly along. This was a black, stick-caterpillar with feet at either end of its arching body.
“Why did you do that?” I demanded.
“It was disturbing me,” Michael grinned, giving the head of the nail another thwack. “It won’t now.” The caterpillar went into its final spasms on the nail.
I was undoubtedly influenced by my father’s instructions not to kill anything and in my righteous, non-violent anger I launched myself at Michael, twisting his head under my arm and trying to bang it against the sharp edge of the bench. Michael responded by kicking me as hard as he could on the ankles so that I was forced to continued my campaign against violence by wrestling him to the floor where we rolled back and forth until separated by his mother who dragged her son from the shed, locking the door and forbidding him to enter it again for the duration of his visit. We were instructed to sit down and read a book.
Reading books was not Michael’s forte, but he disappeared into the house and eventually reappeared with the unlikely choice of The Life of David Livingstone, proposing that we sit on top of the shaky pergola trellis which had been constructed to carry the garden roses. We sat precariously on the topmost cross-trees among the thorns to read the story of the Scottish missionary and explorer that Michael passed me to read; it was the only skill in which I had some measure of superiority and although a low-level activity it did have its occasional uses. I began reading aloud, beginning with Livingstone’s birth in a Scottish village and continuing until I reached the moment when he said goodbye to his family to sail for Africa. Michael’s eyes were suddenly full of tears “What’s the matter?” I asked but he was too upset to explain. His father’s departure had been triggered again by the story, which was perhaps why he had chosen it.
We abandoned reading and several days later found our way back into the shed and unearthed a large can of geranium-red paint from under the bench. Michael levered the rusty lid off with a screwdriver and we probed the surface which was covered with a thick, rubbery skin that could be pierced with a screwdriver, cut round the edge and lifted out. It was glutinous scarlet paint of a vivid hue that had a hypnotic quality about it and we sat on either side of the can facing each other, plunging our hands in, squeezing the skin and daubing it over our arms and faces. By the time we had finished no amount of scrubbing and turps could remove the paint; the scarlet traces remained under my fingernails for months, and I felt a mysterious kinship with it, long after I have walked with my parents up to the Underground station and said goodbye to Michael. I treasured it as a blood-bond with my cousin and was sad when finally it faded into ordinary boring skin.
We were ordered to black out. Mum made the blinds on her sewing-machine and Dad constructed the wooden grooves in which they ran up and down. This parental cooperation was a triumph and produced a blackout definitely superior to the neighbours, whose slivers of light shining through their curtains and tacked-up blankets attracted the air-raid wardens like moths to the flame. We were in total darkness.
It was a Stygian world. The lights in the street lamps were switched off or painted black so only a yellow spot the size of a sixpence shone through. On the Underground platform lamps were dimmed and inside each carriage dark blue bulbs made the seated passengers look like a row of corpses. The few cars on the roads were restricted to slits of yellow in their headlights. Dad cut out a circle of black paper and inserted it into his bicycle lamp as instructed by the Ministry. Torches and flashlights were similarly masked and the names of Underground stations reduced to minute letters, a tactic that irritated my mother who was unable to read them in the dimmed platform lamps.
“How am I supposed to know where I am?” she demanded.
“You’re supposed to know where you are already,” Dad explained. “It’s so the German pilots won’t be able to read them from the air.”
“I never heard such nonsense. They know perfectly well where they are. They have their maps and instruments. They probably know every town in England.”
Seeing in the dark was not one of Mum’s natural abilities. On the walk from the Underground, she bumped into trees, stumbled off the curb and crashed into the pillar-box at the corner of Kings Road and Capthorne Avenue. “This dratted blackout!” she shouted. It was the nearest she ever came to swearing.
The lights may have gone out in 1914 as the Foreign Secretary Viscount Grey, is supposed to have said, but they had been relit in the 1920’s with a brilliance Mum never forgot. She loved the lights of London and adored window-shopping in the illuminated displays of Harrods and the new wrap-around windows of Peter Jones in Sloane Square. She talked of the pre-war decorations in Oxford Street and Regent Street with heartfelt nostalgia . London was a world of light that had been snuffed out with brutal abruptness. Whatever the historians may say about the poverty of the 1930’s they were the diamond-glittering years for my mother, as light-studded as a dance-sequence by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, glitzy as the mirror-balls she danced under at the Lyceum in the sequin dresses she made, (“I sewed every sequin on by hand myself” she told me) and the shoes and headbands she wore. Now it was all gone. Not only the physical lights but the theatrical shows that were festivals of light – “Showboat”, “The Student Prince” and “The Merry Widow” which my mother considered peaks of perfection never again to be equalled. They had all been plunged into blackness.
Dad’s attempts to be philosophical only made matters worse. His suggestion that we should walk along the cliff-top by moonlight when we were on holiday she considered absurd and dangerous. He would theorise about our ability to see at night as we were walking back from the Underground.
“When all this was swamp,” he’d say, “and we were out hunting at night, we found our way by the stars. Look!” He pointed out the North Star and the Plough. “ We’d know where to go without any lights at all.”
Mum wasn’t interested in the constellations.
“I’m not out hunting,” she’d say, “ I just want to get home.”
But Dad was endlessly intrigued by our animal qualities.
“We’ve lost our ability to see in the dark,” he’d declare, “Modern civilisation has blunted our faculties. We need to relax with the darkness, then we can see as clearly as other animals.”
His speculations about our affinity with animal-life were of even less interest to Mum than the position of the stars.
“We’re really animals with clothes on,” he’d say. “Look at babies in their prams. “You can see by the way they clench their hands above their heads they’re trying to reach for the branches.”
“I never heard such nonsense,” Mum replied.
“It’s the same with our ability to see at night. We’ve evolved from animals who found their way at night instinctively.”
The word evolved implied the works of Charles Darwin, a writer whose books Dad had never actually read but in whose theories he devoutly believed. But evolution also incited Mum to indignant protest:
“I’m not an animal,” she retorted, “You may be but I’m not.”
“We all are,” Dad insisted, “I can’t understand how you can believe all those stories about Adam and Eve.”
“Lots of clever people do,” Mum would reply, “You and your Darwin.”
At such times I thought my mother associated Darwin with the blackout as surely as she associated God with Genesis and light. Sometimes I thought she blamed Darwin for the blackout and the war.
It was not just the blacked-out lamps that Mum disliked but the colours of war, the drabness of khaki uniforms and the dullness of ration-books. She hated the sandbags that were banked outside buildings and the camouflage scrim draped over pill-boxes. For her the war was the absence of colour and light.
One evening when I was alone in the house I heard a warden shout, “Get that light out!” I rushed around the rooms checking the blinds were down, then ran upstairs and observed a sliver of light underneath the door of my parents’ bedroom. But I hesitated before bursting in. The parental bedroom was not just another room into which I could charge whenever I felt like it. It was hallowed ground that I trod on only once a week on Sunday mornings when I carried my parents a morning cup of tea and the Sunday Express. And the sanctity of Sunday and all it stood for hung over it as well as a mysterious, erotic air. Stockings were draped over the backs of chairs and there was a scattering of powder on the dressing-table and a seductive trace of perfume. A dressing-table with three full-length mirrors captured me from the sides in a disturbing fashion whenever I ventured near. The double bed and the wardrobe were of figured walnut veneer with a swirling grain that was more expansive than anything else in the house. It was not a place to be violated without penalty, but the situation was extreme.. “Get that bloody light out!” shouted the warden emphasising his words with a thundering kick against the front door. I abandoned my hesitation and rushed in, spotting immediately the offending light dangling above the bed. To reach it I would have to climb up onto the bed and march across the billowing eiderdown. “Get that bloody light out!” bellowed the warden’s voice again accompanied by renewed kicking at the door. I launched myself, jumped on to the eiderdown, marched over the soft waves in time with the beating of my heart and clicked the switch off, relieved to hear the warden’s retreating feet in the darkness.
Next morning Dad discovered the line of dents caused by the warden’s steel-capped boot in the painted surface of the door.
“How did these get here?” he asked me.
I decided it was simpler to deny all knowledge of the incident than go into involved explanations.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You must know. You were in the house last night. These are the warden’s hoof-marks.”
I was intrigued that he called them hoof-marks as if the warden was a horse and peered at them thoughtfully.
“You must have left the light on, ” Dad says.
I decided that it was too late to attempt an explanation and said nothing. .
“Why would he kick the door otherwise?”
I remained silent, aware that my non-explanation compounded my guilt. Dad filled the toe-marks and repainted the surface, but I could still see the faint indentations under the surface.
The blackout seemed at one with the black-and-white images of the war years. The Gaumont newsreels at the cinema presented us with images of convoys steaming across a grey Atlantic to the final black-and-white stick figures bulldozed into black holes in the death-camps. The patriotic photographs that captured the spirit of resistance – the dome of St Paul’s rising from a pall of black smoke and the milkman picking his way through the rubble, delivering the morning milk were in shades of black and grey. The grainy texture matched the grimness of the period and when coloured film of Spitfires or of Hitler with his dogs at Berchtesgaden was shown much later, it seemed inauthentic. Goebbels used colour for photographs published in his propaganda magazine Signal but our most memorable images were of a Junker twisting down in a spiral of black smoke or thousands of grey prisoners coming in holding up white flags.
The black and whiteness emphasised the nature of the war. Earlier conflicts with their red uniforms, flags and horses were painterly pageants by comparison. Even the First World War, for all its mud and trenches had its red poppies. But we were fighting the forces of absolute darkness and the fact that so much of the conflict took place in the snows of Russia and northern Europe gave the black and white contrast greater validity. How could Auschwitz ever be in colour?
There was one exception in our monochromatic world. The London blitz was a great firework display, full of bursting stars, tracer bullets and huge flares. Dad woke me up to see the spectacular forest of light in the night sky. “It’s the end of the Blitz” he informed me, as if it was the last night of a theatrical performance I shouldn’t miss. Later I wondered how he knew but at the time I accepted it, as I accepted all statements made by grown-ups.
On Saturday mornings before eight o’clock the four of us were despatched by our mothers to Lakins the greengrocers to queue for vegetables. We had become a group - John Brown with his curly hair and red cheeks, the eldest by a few months and our natural leader, John Martin rather sallow and strained, Brian the youngest with an infectious laugh and me the tallest. We set off at half-past seven in the morning when it was still dark, clutching the lists our mothers had supplied and wearing knitted balaclava helmets and gloves tied on a tape that went up one sleeve of our coats and down the other. When it snowed we dragged a homemade sled on which to load our purchases.
Outside the shuttered greengrocers there was already a forlorn-looking line of women with red, windswept faces bundled up in headscarves, gloves and winter boots. As there was half an hour to wait before the shop opened, we employed the time pushing one another and/or reading comics that we bought at Farquarsons the newsagent next door. The head-scarves made continuous disparaging remarks about our behaviour.
“It’s kids like this who are going to grow up and run the country.”
“They’re allowed to do what they like.”
“I blame the parents.”
“We never behaved like this.”
“We‘d’ ve got a good hiding if we had.”
“Sunny Stories” edited by Enid Blyton was our first encounter with the world of reading, a small pink-covered booklet with a riddle inside the front cover and a series of stories inside printed on grey wartime-standard paper that seemed to have small lumps of porridge embedded in it. But in spite of its dismal format, Enid Blyton was a magical writer for us and we became addicted to her tales of happy middle-class children exploring caves with lanterns by the sea-shore, or discovering hoards of gold coins under the floorboards of country cottages.
From “Sunny Stories” we moved - downwards perhaps - to “The Dandy” with Korky the Cat on the cover. Our favourite was Desperate Dan a cowboy with a stubbly chin eating enormous cow-pies with the tail hanging out of the pastry at one end in Cactusville, a town that combined stage-coaches, sheriffs and British policemen. The surrealistic humour of these comics was even more compelling than the fables of the Famous Five. In our puritanical and war-obsessed society the comics and radio offered a world of anarchic comedy if a politically incorrect one. “The Beano” portrayed a piccaninny eating a melon on the front cover and another favourite character was Keyhole Kate, a girl with plaits obsessed with peering through keyholes. There was Lord Snooty, an upper-class hero in a silk top hat offering leadership to his working-class pals. The war itself became an extravaganza with Musso the Wop (‘he’s a big-a-da-flop’) and ITMA, the high-voltage radio programme that we listened to compulsively every week, where Funf the German Spy whispered “Funf Speaking,” a catch-phrase that became as fascinating Mrs Mopp’s “Can I Do Yer Now Sir?” or Colonel Chinstrap’s “I Don’t Mind if I Do.” It was a British surrealism that stood the war on its head, although it was invariably patriotic. It linked back to the music-hall and McGill’s seaside postcards and forward to Spike Milligan and Monty Python. And to us queuing outside Lakins at half-past seven in the bleak winter half-light it was life itself.
We were fiercely loyal in our comic-choices. Brian and I were devotees of “The Dandy” and John Brown and Martin “The Beano.” Strangely enough we didn‘t exchange comics but clung to our own pages, re-reading them continuously. From “The Beano” and “Dandy” we graduated to the “Hotspur”, “Wizard” and “Champion”, with their densely-packed columns of writing that required considerable reading-ability to follow the weekly exploits of record-breaking athletes, acrobatic fighter-pilots and murderous commando-raids. Here was hyperbole of a different order, intensely male and more closely linked with the war, lacking the anarchist humour of “The Dandy” and its rivals. The serials celebrated militarism and heroic daring-do but they were, in Wallace Steven’s phrase, necessary fictions, as we waited in the freezing cold until at long last, Mr Lakin emerged with a long pole with a hook at one end which he hooked into the black shutters and rattled up.
The interior of the Lakin shop did not appear at first sight to be worth the wait. A series of wooden partitions on the right-hand side housed a narrow range of vegetables that looked as if they had just been hacked out of the frozen ground - earth-clogged King Edward potatoes, frostbitten Brussels sprouts the size of marbles and disfigured, grotesque parsnips. Large clods of earth clung to the produce which was nothing if not organic. Mrs Lakin, a grim lady in her knitted fingerless gloves, armed with a brass scoop burrowed into the piles of potatoes and hurled them into our shopping bags. The only colours in the shop were the pre-war posters pinned to the walls or hanging banner-like from the ceiling advertising Cape apples and Jaffa bananas with brown-faced, white-teethed laughing women in spotted turbans holding up bunches of fruit we had never seen and never expected to see. The only real fruit on offer were sticks of unpleasant-looking pinkish rhubarb and apples of a hard green variety.
It was a green apple that I decided to steal as I stood in line for my potatoes and parsnips. It was my first public, deliberately criminal act and I am not sure why I attempted it. Perhaps it was simply experimental. I sneaked it from the pile as I was leaving the shop, fled down the alley behind the Kings Road, and bit into its sour flesh before hurling it high over a garden fence to destroy all evidence of my crime. But throwing the apple back was easier done than said. My crime would not disappear. I had still stolen the apple and I realised what it felt like to be an outcast from society. Guilt about the theft and a fear of being caught continued to haunt me. I had crossed some dreaded Rubicon that divided law-abiding people, such as I had previously been, from pariah-like outcasts. I experienced a physical sense of alienation that was impossible to expunge, on top of which there was no doubt in my mind that Lakin would take the necessary steps to track me down. Retribution was inevitable; there was no way I could wind the film back and for several months after my apple-stealing I was haunted by the fear of sudden arrest. Whenever I spotted a policeman walking towards me I crossed the road and vanished down a sidestreet. Revisiting Lakins for the Saturday morning shop became an unnerving experience. I kept my head down and muttered my requests for frozen parsnips in a disguised voice. Gradually the realization that I had successfully accomplished a crime and escaped the punishment of society dawned on me, but this did not alleviate my guilt at having committed it. I was branded and the stigma would never disappear although it grew less vivid with time. Strangely enough this guilt did not extend to stealing apples from the Bulls’ back garden where we clambered over the fence one afternoon to pick their crop which was even harder and greener than that in Lakins. Scrumping was legitimate and perhaps my violent vomiting and the spectacle of bright green apple-skin floating in a basin as I lay prostrate and retching until my chest ached, struck me as punishment enough.
After Lakins we stopped at Pheasants the bakers, where Brian’s mother, Lena, gives us uncooked crumpets which we ate with enormous enjoyment. Then we reported back to our respective homes for our change to be carefully checked against the pencilled list of prices before setting out again to the Odeon, where the Saturday Morning flicks were about to start.
This was the high-point of our Saturday mornings and our week. The Odeon was one of Rayners Lane’s architectural triumphs, a splendid building with a vast auditorium and a background of ever-changing satin curtains looped in swags of purple and rose and orange. We drummed our shoes against the seats in front, hurled paper-darts into the projector-beam and sucked on sherbet packets through a liquorice tube. It was unalloyed delight. The manager, a large man with bryllcreamed hair and a double-breasted suit appeared on the stage in the spotlight holding a microphone and asked us if we were happy. “Yes!” we shrieked hurling another forest of paper darts and drumming our feet continuously. Apparently not satisfied with our level of response, he repeated his question, exciting us into a frenzy of acclamation which only died down when the curtains swung open to display the Saturday Morning Song which we sang following a ball bouncing along the top of the words on the screen.
The films begin, short black-and-white movies mostly from America. My favourite was Hopalong Cassidy, a cowboy encased in black leather with silver trappings who seemed infinitely more glamorous than the Lone Ranger on his too-shiny horse Trigger with his guitar. The Three Stooges lounging around on street corners in Brooklyn wearing reversed caps and speaking an almost incomprehensible American urban dialect were nevertheless as acceptable as if we saw them in Rayners Lane. Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion, waddling about with guns and handkerchiefs under their caps in imitation of Beau Geste were one of the high points of film-comedy as far as we were concerned, funnier than Laurel and Hardy. But no one was as hilarious as Will Hay, the teacher in gown and mortar-board outsmarted by his pupils or as the stationmaster assisted by Fatty Arbuckle growing cucumbers across the railway tracks. The final offering was always a serial, ending with a cliff-hanger when the ceiling slowly descended on the hero in a windowless room or he gradually lost his grip on the steel girder of the bridge in the path of an oncoming train. We came out of the Odeon emotionally exhausted by these spectacles although the episode the following week was inevitably an anticlimax: there was a concealed trapdoor in the floor enabling the hero to escape or he leapt safely on to the roof of the train. The magic of the Saturday morning flicks never failed. It was America’s greatest export to us, supplemented with occasional feature films – “The Scarlet Pimpernel” starring Leslie Howard as the English spy in the years of the French Revolution who had us shouting “Zounds!” and running around with curtains round our necks for a week afterwards and “Black Swan” with Tyrone Power, a pirate-epic in fantastic colour, bursting with red cannon-fire and dazzling blue seas, the first technicolor film we saw. The Saturday Morning flicks were never about the war but occasionally we went to a feature film that had been advertised as exciting. “In Which We Serve” earned a grudging visit but turned out to be boring with airmen in lifeboats bobbing up and down on the black Atlantic waves. Other grown-up films that we were occasionally trapped into seeing always seem to show a man opposite a woman at a round restaurant table with a lamp in the centre talking earnestly for hours while they held hands.
American comics completed our cultural fare although they were disliked by teachers and parents. They were our introduction to the war in the Pacific which was unknown and far distant. Terry and the Pirates appeared in bright green uniforms hacking through impenetrable jungle which concealed yellow-faced men with fearsome swords and their teeth sticking out. Dick Tracey with his crackling, lightning-style wrist-watch radio seemed to embody the future as English comics never did. Superman hurtled among the skyscrapers and scooped up criminals with exploding streaks of white light that careered across the differently-shaped frames of the comic in a way that never happened in “The Beano” or “The Dandy” and we had to learn a different visual language as strange as the U.S. servicemen who had started to arrive, handing out flat packets of chewing-gum as they come out of the Underground in response to the mantra, “Got any gum chum?”
American comics were impossible to buy and acquired rarity status in addition to the immense prestige of being disapproved of by grownups. They circulated clandestinely, luridly coloured and often with an erotic content. One I saw depicted a curvaceous woman hanging by her wrists from a roof-beam while three men in striped suits and trilby hats stood around her. Her clinging dress had been ripped open revealing her breasts and one of the men was holding a long whip. Another held a glowing cigarette against her nipple while he questioned her. It was clearly extraordinary territory and we crowded around, staring at the vivid images as if our future depended on them, as perhaps it did.
Victorine - Mrs Smart as I called her - was our neighbour on one side. “Geev eem to me,” she would say, “’e is my sweet’eart !” Nobody else called me her sweetheart. Mum thankfully handed me over. Mrs Smart had bright red cheeks like apples and plump arms with dimples at the elbows and an apron with flowers to which she clasped me.
“’E is my darling” she said, giving me a hug.
“Victorine is Belgian,” Mum explained, as if that explained her irrational display of enthusiasm. “She escaped from Liege during the First World War in a sack.” The sack intrigued me. What kind of sack was it? Was she loaded on to a ship like a sack at the docks? Was the sack thrown on to a cart pulled by a horse past the German lines?
Mrs Smart took me inside her house which although next door, was another country. There was a large leather sofa pinned by metal buttons with crocheted lace doilies draped over the back and two oval, sepia photographs in deep mahogany frames on either side of an upright piano with candlestick holders. She had two boys, one grown-up who had done something wrong – married a woman his parents didn’t like or not married her, I was uncertain which. Now he was in the army wearing a uniform buttoned to the neck and a forage cap, in the oval frame, brown with clouded edges as if he were going to float away. He was called Laurie, which seemed a strange name for a boy. Perhaps it was Belgian and perhaps Mrs Smart had come to England in a sack loaded on to a barge because she gave me a wooden barge with a dark red triangular sail that I sailed in the bath. One day, she said, she hoped to see her two sisters again. They had been left behind in Liege. “After thees terrible war,” she said. Everything was always after this war.
“We bought thees ‘ouse because we saw thees two young men digging in the garden next door and I said to Lionel, “They look like nice young men. We must buy the ‘ouse.”
The two young men were Dad and Uncle Norman. Dad liked Mrs Smart a lot and called her Vicky. Mum said she could always tell foreigners because they waved their hands about but Dad waved his hands about too. He said perhaps it was because he had grown up in the East End where there were a lot of Poles and Armenians who waved their hands about. Dad was dark-skinned with black, shining hair that he combed back in imitation of Georges Carpentier, a French boxer who had been popular when he was in his twenties. Some people thought Dad was Italian but he had never been abroad, although he said he would when the war was over. He liked foreign things including wine although there was no wine in Rayners Lane during the war. I had never seen a bottle of wine.
“I can get you half a dozen bottles,” Mr. Smart said to Dad over the garden fence. Lionel Smart was a butcher in Finsbury Park and claimed he could get anything. He had a shining bald head that looked as if it has been polished with lard and short plump fingers like sausages.
“Anything you want,” he insisted, “Just name it. Wine, beef, a crate of whiskey, nice leg of lamb.”
Dad wasn’t interested in Mr Smart’s proposals but Mum was. She saw it as a way of supplementing the meagre rations.
“It’s all right for you,” she said to Dad when he objected to Mr Smart’s offers, “You don’t have to queue two hours for a pair of kippers.” Mum hated all the queuing she had to do. If she heard from a neighbour that kippers or liver or rabbit, which were all off the ration, had suddenly appeared, she rushed to the bus-stop and waited in a queue outside the shop for two hours. Then she queued for the bus to bring her home again. Sometimes it took nearly all day to buy a pair of kippers. But Mrs Smart never queued and the Smarts had all the luxuries they wanted; Dad was still against Mr Smart’s offers. “We don’t want any dealings with the black market ” he said. I didn’t know what the black market was exactly but there was a lot of talk about it and it sounded exciting. I imagined it might be like the market opposite South Harrow Underground station which was built under the railway arches and was always so dark the lights were switched on all day. Once Mum bought me a clay pipe there to blow soap bubbles, but I dropped it, so we went back and bought another and I dropped that too so we went back and bought a third. But the real Black Market was everywhere: there were posters telling us not to use it because the merchant seamen were risking their lives to bring food in convoys across the Atlantic while the U-boats were attacking every week. Dad explained that the Black Market meant that people with money could buy extra goods but rationing ensured that we all had the same, which was fair.
“It’s all right for you,” Mum said again, “You don’t have to do the shopping.” Then she added, “You don’t know half the things I do.
Sometimes I run up a dress for coupons instead of cash so we can have something extra.” Mr Smart talked to Dad about things falling off the back of a lorry and I imagined parcels bouncing along the grass-verge by the road as the lorry rattled along.
One day Mrs Smart said, “We’re thinking of moving.”
Nobody else moved during the war except the Smarts. “He can fiddle anything,” Mum said. I had never heard of anyone moving before and I didn’t want Mrs Smart to go because I was her sweetheart and she was mine, but suddenly she had gone.
After a few months we visited the Smarts in their new flat which was on the first floor and had windows with diamond-shaped panes of glass. We travelled to Cockfosters, the last station on the Piccadilly Line and I counted twenty-nine stations; Mr Smart met us in his new car.
“I’d like to know how he gets the petrol,” Mum said, “I shouldn’t ask if I were you.”
One afternoon Mum and I had gone to visit Mrs Smart and were having dinner when the Alert siren started to wail. I ran downstairs to look out of the door up at the sky. There was a doodlebug, the first I have seen, a black, pilotless rocket gliding silently across the sky, flames spurting out of the black cylinder mounted on top of the fuselage like something from another planet. We crouched down in the bend of the stairs because Mrs Smart said that was the safest place to be; she held my head tightly under her arm and I heard her heart thumping while I listened to the engine. There were three deep thumps before the engine cut out. I counted up to ten because I knew it took that time to explode. Later I heard it had blown up over Amersham and killed ten people.
The doodle-bugs were more frightening than the V2s which came soon after because the V2s were giant rockets that struck without warning. We couldn’t see or hear them and the first we knew about them was that a street of houses had been destroyed.
A few months after the doodle-bug I was with Mrs Smart listening to the one o’clock news when it was announced that Paris had been liberated and the Free French and American troops were entering the city. The Marseillaise was playing. Mrs Smart stretched across the table and held my hand. Tears were pouring down her cheeks as she dabbed at her eyes with her lace handkerchief. “Now I can see my sisters again,” she says. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s going to end. This dreadful war is going to end. I thought I’d never see them again.”
For the first time I realised what the war meant to those trapped in Europe.
The neighbour on the other side was Mrs Bridges, a large lady who walked with a swing of her hips that we found irresistibly amusing. At first she was on good terms with my mother and asked her to make dresses and petticoats from parachute silk which was available without coupons.
Mum had begun dressmaking for women in Rayners Lane and was developing a small business although she refused to regard it as such. She insisted that she didn’t go out to work as the other mothers did. “It’s a hobby,” she maintained, “I enjoy doing it. Of course the money comes in useful. But it isn’t much.” This was true, particularly as she adjusted her prices according to what she thought the customers could pay. It meant that most paid no more than two pounds for a dress and a shilling to have a hem turned up. “It’s all they can afford in Rayners Lane,” she said.
Mum loved her dressmaking and said repeatedly she would sooner cut out a dress than do housework. But in spite of her professed amateurism, she was meticulous in her approach. Every afternoon at two o’clock she went up to the small front bedroom where there was an ancient Singer sewing machine with a foot-treadle and a large cutting-out table my father had constructed and there she worked until six. She kept an appointments book in which she wrote down all her orders and prices and the customers’ measurements. Her business expanded over the years without advertising. She was obviously a good dressmaker although she never viewed it as having any social status or as being as profitable as the job of a typist or telephonist.
She fitted her customers in the front-room and I was strictly forbidden to play in the vicinity. One afternoon I wandered around to the front bay window where the curtains were drawn and discovered that by pulling myself up by the windowsill and standing on the edge of the concrete surround where it joined the brickwork, I could peer through a crack in the curtains and see Mrs Bridges without her clothes on. Mrs Bridges was a large, curvaceous lady, who had stripped down to a pink, multi-strapped and boned corset with suspenders holding up her stockings and cups full of her overflowing breasts. I clung breathless with excitement but the exertion of hanging on to the windowsill was considerable and I dropped to the path after a few minutes before clambering back up again. Mrs Bridges had moved around and had her arms raised in the air while my mother knelt in front of her with a tape-measure and her mouth full of pins. I felt my heart beating furiously as she swung around displaying her shining corset to my view, looking straight towards me. I realised this spectacle was connected with sex, but was unsure what that was all about. John Brown stated categorically that babies came out of women’s stomachs, a plausible explanation and one I accepted as superior to fables about storks and gooseberry bushes. On the other hand, Brian Hartel’s assertion that babies were ordered and collected from the hospital seemed equally probable. John Brown also claimed that a man put his tool into the woman to make a baby but this seemed too ludicrous to accept. John Brown said a lot of silly things and this was clearly one of them. Yet his obsessive interest in tits and bums was obviously connected with Mrs Bridges’ anatomy and here I was in the front seat of the show. Mrs Bridges’ large tits were bulging out of her shining pink corset. Her bum’s two shining globes were displayed as she moved around to allow my mother to take her measurements. I held on as long as I could squinting through the gap in the curtains.
Mrs Bridges’ endowments were the topic of conversation when we met in the alley. We took to goading her, following her at a distance imitating the swings of her anatomy until she turned round, when we dived into the nearest gateway. We christened her Jumbo, following her down the street, giggling and pushing one another until she stopped and looked behind her.
One afternoon disaster struck. She abruptly turned around and marched back to the front door of my house, rang the bell and spoke to my mother while we watched from a distance. “You’re for it now,” my friends said, melting away and in the evening I was confronted with my behaviour.
“Mrs Bridges says you’ve been laughing at her,” my father said accusingly.
I denied it. I claimed we had been laughing at each other and she just happened to overhear us.
“She says you’ve been following her along the street.”
I denied it again and started to believe my own story becoming more inventive as I did so. I explained that we had been playing a game called shadows where we stamped on each other’s shadows and this had resulted in Mrs Bridges’ mistaken belief that we had been making fun of her. I implied she was a victim of her own paranoia and that we were blameless. It occurred to me that Mrs Bridges might have glimpsed me spying on her through the curtains and I become even more insistent on my version of events. My explanation was grudgingly accepted and I was let off with a warning.
The upshot was that the unfortunate Mrs Bridges felt even more persecuted and snubbed my mother whenever she passed her, a treatment that my mother found painful especially from the next-door neighbour. If Mum had been able to move she would have done so but it was impossible. She was stuck with the oppressive presence of Mrs Bridges who made her hostility felt every day on every possible occasion. I felt guilty for the lies I had told but the feud now had a momentum of its own and it was too late, I told myself, for me to do anything about it.
Mrs Bridges continued to inspire my erotic fantasies however. I followed her in my imagination, undressing in her gleaming corset in our front room until the scene became part of that stock of fantasies that males, young and old, carry around inside their heads.
We had just finished listening to Mr Churchill on the wireless.
. Dad wasn’t so sure about Churchill. “He says ‘that though the Empire lasts a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour,’ but it isn’t going to last a thousand years. Look at India. India has to have its independence after the war.”
“I don’t like that Ghandi,” Mum said, “You’d think he’d wear a proper suit to come and see the Prime Minister, not that nasty old robe.”
“It doesn’t matter what he wears.”
“Yes it does. He’s all skin and bone.”
“He wants to dress the same as the poor people.”
“You’d think someone would lend him a suit to come to England.”
Mum was an Imp when she was growing up in Kelvedon. It was the junior branch of the Conservatives. Imp stood for Imperialist.
“Churchill’s no friend of the working man ”, Dad said.
“Of course he isn’t, he’s a Marlborough.”
Dad wasn’t sure who the Marlboroughs were but Mum was.
“He’s a descendent of John, Duke of Marlborough who won the Battle of Blenheim. That’s why they built Blenheim Palace. Churchill was born there and proposed to his wife, Clementine, in the gardens.”
There was a Blenheim aeroplane in my cigarette card collection. It was a small bomber with a long cockpit and yellow wings.
“He loves fighting,” Mum said, biting off the darning thread.
“I know,” Dad said.
I hadn’t been able to follow Churchill’s speech very easily because there were long gaps between the phrases so by the time he started one I had forgotten what the last one was. It was like slipping about on ice, trying to jump from one phrase to the next.
“War’s in his blood,” Mum informed us, “He wants to be like his ancestor, the duke.”
Dad mentioned the siege of Sidney Street where Churchill was in charge and people were killed but Mum ignored him.
“His mother was a rich American,” she said, pushing her hand up into the sock and twisting it round to see how well she had darned it. “That’s how he got America to join the war.” Mum liked Churchill’s mother even though she was American. “The American heiresses wanted to marry into our aristocracy. We had the titles and they had the money.”
“They always get together,” Dad said.
After Churchill’s speech, Dad started writing to his brother Norman, who had been sent to India as manager of British Oxygen in Calcutta. I missed him because it was always exciting when he came to see us. The letters we received were very small, photographed on special paper so they don’t take up much space in the plane.
When Dad wrote a letter it was an elaborate performance. I had to be quiet. He commandeered the whole dining-room table and laid out his writing paper, the pen with a special nib, a bottle of blue-black ink and a large sheet of blotting paper. He always wrote a first draft and then copied it out in his sloping copperplate handwriting, with thin and thick strokes and curly flourishes on the capital letters. It looked very elegant, especially the capital D’s and G’s which were like swans’ necks, bowing their heads in the water. It was very different from Mum’s handwriting which was round and quick. Dad had written the first draft and was copying it out, checking the spelling.
“How do you spell necessary?” he asked Mum.
“One C and two Ss.”
“How do you spell until?”
“One l. How is it I can spell and you can’t?”
“I don’t know. Does margarine have an a or an e in the middle?”
“It’s because I stayed on at school until I was sixteen and you left at fourteen.”
Then the bomb fell.
There was a deep, violent thump and the dining table rose up into the air and half turned, coming down on its side. The bottle of ink shot up towards the ceiling and emptied its contents on the wallpaper, running in black rivulets down the oatmeal surface. The pens and blotting paper and first draft skittered across the room. I was thrown to the floor and pulled Bob towards me putting my hands over his head. We were all on the floor.
I had never heard my father swear so vehemently before.
We lay on the floor waiting for the next crash but there wasn’t one. I didn’t know what to do except cover my head and listen to the ink dripping from the edge of the table. I looked up and saw the ink running down the wallpaper on to the carpet. I was trembling but stayed on the floor until I heard whistles and a violent banging on the front door and a voice shouting through the letter-box telling us to stay indoors. I could only think that Dad’s letter had been ruined and there was ink staining the carpet. Slowly we got to our feet and begin to clear up the mess. Mum was upset about the ink and started sponging the carpet with a basin of water. After a while an ARP man came to the house again and said, “Jerry didn’t want to take them back. He just unloaded them.” Later we were told that a stick of five bombs has been dropped in a line across Rayners Lane and Ruislip.
In the morning I went to look at the house that had been hit in Capthorne Avenue on the other side of the Kings Road. The front wall was ripped away, and I could see inside as though I was looking in an open doll’s house. The bed was tilted at an angle and a chest of drawers had slid across the room and looked as if it was about to fall. Nobody had been killed but the boy who lived there came to school next day in his sister’s cardigan, buttoned up the wrong side.
The war was coming closer. A week after the bomb dropped I heard Hitler’s voice coming through the wireless, a violent, hysterical screeching. He was giving one of his speeches and the crowd roared their approval. It was the first time I had heard another language and the German words sounded strange and terrifying like barbed wire. Hitler’s voice rose to a crescendo and I suddenly imagined he was next door and about to burst with his troops through the wall. I ran out of the room, terrified. “It’s only the wireless,” Dad said, but that didn’t make me feel any better. The sound of Hitler’s voice was more real than his photographs. I was more scared than I had been when the bomb dropped.
The wireless was more real than any other form of communication.
“This is the six o’ clock news, with Alvar Liddell reading it” became the comforting mantra of the BBC news that we listened to every night. We never questioned the truthfulness of the BBC or whether any news-items were censored. Occasionally we would hear Lord Haw-Haw broadcasting from Berlin telling us stories of British ships sunk at sea and towns bombed, but we didn’t believe his stories which we dismissed as Nazi propaganada, even though we knew some of them – such as the continual raids on Ipswich where my grandparents lived, were true. Lord Haw Haw was the nickname of William Joyce that made him seem like a comic character out of “The Beano”. Later I learnt he was an Ulsterman, a violent anti-semite and a dedicated Nazi who was executed after the war although he had taken official German citizenship in 1939, a fact that was concealed from us.
Throughout the war the BBC was our guardian, guide and friend. The Royal Family addressed us in their strange voices at Christmas and other great events. Government officials lectured us in stern accents on what to eat and how to cook it. The Radio Doctor Charles Hill persuaded us in avuncular tones to keep as fit and bouncy as he was. The Brain’s Trust with Dr Joad intoning, “It depends what you mean by…” was surprisingly popular and I listened to it before I could understand either the questions or the answers. Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields sang “We’ll Meet Again, Sometime, Somewhere”, “Sally” and Al Bowlly’s “Goodbye Sweetheart” which became national anthems of the war. “Workers’ Playtime” was designed to speed up production in the munitions factories and “Children’s Hour”, one of the few programmes I actively disliked, signed off every evening with Uncle Mac’s “Goodnight children, everywhere.”
But the most important function of the wireless for us was that like our comics, it offered uproarious satire. ITMA, “It’s That Man Again,” which originally referred to Hitler but came to stand for the comedian Tommy Handley himself brought popular, demotic speech into our homes in contrast to the ponderous upper class voices of the establishment. We repeated the catchphrases endlessly and the acronyms that parodied the new fashion for initials in government administration (TTFN – Ta-ta for now) or the spread of government bureaucracy such as The Ministry of Aggravation and Mysteries at the Office of Twerps. ITMA was only one of a series of radio programmes in the long parade of British comedy which included Gert and Daisy, the subversive Cockney girls with their working-class, female perspective on society, Arthur Askey and Richard “Stinker” Murdoch in “Bandwagon,” another high-speed show that undermined pomposity with its Hullo Playmates” and a stream of comedians from the music-halls– Sandy Powell (“Can You Hear me, Mother”?), Cyril Fletcher with his doggerel rhymes and Murgatroyd and Winterbottom in “Much Binding in the Marsh” with their pattering lyrics that summed up the week’s news at the end of each programme. And there were the Western Brothers that I particularly enjoyed with their parody of cawing upper-class accents that were not so dissimilar to the Oxford accents of the BBC commentators.
How one spoke was clearly important, although parents and teachers in Rayners Lane only touched the edge of an English obsession. I was aware that Uncle Norman spoke differently from my father even though they were brothers and had grown up in Bow together. I was aware that Uncle Norman pronounced “coupon” and “restaurant” with a nasal intonation at the end of the words whereas my father sounded the final consonants. “All educated people speak the same way,” Uncle Norman explained to me, and I decided that I too would honk at the end of words like coupon because I want to sound educated.
There was occasionally talk of girls who took elocution lessons to speak English properly, but it was never suggested that we should take any. My parents made occasional sorties into pronunciation emphasising that there were definite rules. “H”s were never to be dropped and “t”s were always to be sounded and as I habitually referred to Brian Hartel with a dropped “h” at the beginning and a dropped “t” in the middle, I was often attacked twice for my pronunciation of one word. There was a total ban on “ain’t” and “wotcha!” our greeting to one another, was regarded as vulgar although I discovered later that it was a contraction of “What cheer?” the Elizabethan greeting that opens “The Tempest. A teacher at school explained that the “h” in “whale” should always be pronounced, an eccentricity that greatly amused us. Otherwise we were left alone. Churchill seemed to have his own growling intonation which was different from that of the announcers and other politicians. He pronounced some words with a particular emphasis of his own as when he said “Nassy” instead of “Nazi” but I had decided by this time that I didn’t want to imitate Churchill.
Much of the time the war did not affect us directly. We were not Channel Islanders with the Gestapo standing on every street corner and after the Blitz there was a three-year lull before civilians were attacked from the air again. But the war continued to affect us in subtle ways. I got up at six in the morning to see Dad, since otherwise I should never have seen him except at weekends; he was working a sixty-hour week and arrived home at eight after I had been sent to bed. Being up, I volunteered to cook his breakfast which invariably consisted of a fried egg, two fried rashers of back bacon, a slice of fried bread with fried tomatoes or fried potatoes and occasionally fried mushrooms.
This fry-up was not as straightforward as it seemed and frequently resulted in disaster. First of all the egg has to be cracked into a glass tumbler and held up to inspect for purity. I never discovered a bad egg; we were registered for eggs with Mrs Henderson, four doors along Capthorne Avenue and the eggs from her ducks and chickens, which walked about in the kitchen, were invariably fresh. But the inspection has to be made; I then had to crack the egg, a tricky feat as my fingers were not long enough to hold the egg securely and it was often a leathery-shelled duck-egg which bounced back unbroken or slipped out of my fingers on to the black- and-white tiles of the kitchen floor. But if the inspection was successful, I prepared the frying pan. This battered utensil was never cleaned out and the layer of fat in it appeared to be as ancient as the pan itself which had been transported from Bow in the 1930’s. If yet more fat was needed, I added a lump of dripping prised from the basin holding the residue from the Sunday joint. This precious substance contained a rich brown jelly concealed at the bottom of the basin like a hidden treasure. I was careful not to disturb this because it was an exotic gastronomic treat, spread on bread with a sprinkling of salt. The fat in the pan, I waited until it was sizzling and when I judged it to be at the correct temperature, dropped in two rashers of back bacon which immediately went into convulsions, hunching their rinds up and down like the Loch Ness monster. I was required to snip these so they lay flat, a tricky operation because the rinds were thick and the sizzling fat sprayed burning globules on to my wrist. I then added tomatoes; mushrooms were an expensive rarity and only occurred once or twice a year.
But there was always fried bread, an item that drew on all my culinary skills, for Dad insisted on the exactly the right shade of amber, neither smoking black which happened if the fat had over-heated, nor white and sponge-like if I dropped it in too soon. Next came the egg, the most challenging of all. I poured it slowly from the tumbler into the hissing fat, splashed the yolk with a teaspoon until it reached the required shade of orange and then removed it from the pan by sliding the slice underneath and lifting it towards the waiting bread. As there was so much fat in the pan, the egg was liable to skate around as though on an ice-rink and on several disastrous occasions it slid off the slice, disappearing into the space between the cooker and the wall. But when I did manage to manoeuvre the egg on to the plate the whole oeuvre had to be arranged attractively and served simultaneously with a cup of tea that has its own strict rules of engagement - the pot taken to the kettle, the three minute wait for it to brew, the milk poured into the cup before the tea and not after.
My failure rate was high but every so often I produced a breakfast that earned my father’s commendation. Then we’d talk about matters of the moment prompted by the headlines of The Daily Express which has been pushed through the letterbox while I was dealing with the egg and fried bread. Every morning we played a game of trying to guess what the headlines would be before I opened the paper. There was the progress of the Eighth Army through North Africa, the Burma campaign with the Chindits and the invasion of Sicily. Sometimes the headlines got stuck as they did with the battle for Monte Cassino. The monastery on a high hill blocked the allies’ advance up Italy to Rome. It was the most important monastery in Europe but the Flying Fortresses bombed it continuously while the German paratroopers dug into the mountain and became impossible to drive out. The allies landed at Anzio north of the monastery but the Germans bottled up the troops who came ashore there. The headlines in “The Daily Express” were about Monte Cassino week after week as the allies tried to capture it and the German paratroopers under General Kesselring hung on. The monastery was shelled into oblivion and the Italian refugees from the town who sheltered there were all killed. The Americans attacked it over the river then the New Zealanders, then the Ghurkas, then the British Eighth army, then the Poles. There were four battles and it was six months before the allies captured the hill and by then there was nothing left of the monastery except piles of stones. “It wasn’t worth it,” everybody said.
When Dad had gone to work there was still another hour before Mum got up. I made jigsaw puzzles, sticking pictures of Hurricanes winging through blue skies or Lancasters on night bombing-raids on to plywood and cutting out the pieces with a fretsaw attached to a large motor. The fretsaw produced a loud clattering noise like a Lancaster taking off and taxied across the kitchen floor but I steered the plywood around the blade in jigsaw shapes and managed to avoid sawing my thumbs off. Making jig-saws rather than solving them became an obsession.
One morning, as a temporary respite from the manufacture of puzzles, I entered a painting competition in Mum’s “Daily Graphic”. The wartime quality of the newsprint made the colours run into each other like blotting paper but I posted my entry, a windmill in a field full of tulips, to the newspaper. A week later I received a prize: a large hardback book of animals that leapt up as the book was opened - lions, zebras, elephants and camels. It was my first prize and the first book I had seen where the pictures stood up.
Dad devoted Sunday evening to playing games with me. We played billiards, shove ha’penny, draughts, darts and finally chess. Billiards was the best but had a limited life. We acquired a half-size billiard table which was too long and too wide for our front room, a substantial Edwardian piece of furniture with turned mahogany legs and an emerald green cloth over a slate bed. The ends of the cues banged into the wall producing a white line of plaster against the wallpaper that Mum objected to. As we also had to stand on the sofa at one end, there was very little space left for my mother who complained that there was no point in having a front room if there was nowhere to sit down. The billiard-table had to go, but it was a sad loss. I never forgot the delight of coming down in the morning and practising alone on the green expanse of felt with the luxury of its trappings, the inlaid cues and the brass and mahogany scoreboard.
The inferior shove ha’penny board took its place but it was not in the same league as the billiards table and I never acquired the same affection for it nor the finesse to shove the ha’pennies into their respective beds. Dad was skilful and won nearly every game. Draughts was even more of a catastrophe for me.. I lost continuously, Dad leapfrogging his king backwards and forwards across the board, leaving my pieces decimated, and laughing as he did so. My blood boiled at this injustice and I was close to tears.
“Any fool can win,” he’d say, “it’s losing that’s difficult.”
This was cold comfort for me. What was the point of playing if you didn’t win? I tried to pretend that winning or losing were a matter of indifference, but without success. Winning was what it was all about. The competition was heightened by our games of darts. We played 301, Round the Clock, and Cricket nearly all of which Dad won. He was particularly skilful at hitting double 19 and finishing on that number, with the accompanying laughter that made me want to hurl my remaining dart into his back and run out of the room.
It was only later with chess that the tables finally turned and I gradually began to win, exacting revenge for my years of defeat at billiards, shove ha’penny, draughts and darts. But our Sunday evening games together were coming to an end. And my father’s laugh was still there, win or lose, in defeat as in triumph. I was left with a pyrrhic victory, the oedipal contest that can never be won.
We sometimes called middle-aged men uncle even though they were not members of the family, so it was not unusual when Josef Stalin was presented to us as Uncle Joe, the avuncular gentleman who wanted our salvage. The fact that he had executed dozens of his own generals who had the misfortune to lose a battle and connived with Hitler in the mass murder of 15,000 Polish intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk in 1940 was effectively concealed from us. Uncle Joe’s beaming face with its handlebar moustache shone down from scarlet banners decorated with the gold hammer and sickle. We were exhorted to collect salvage for the Sword of Stalingrad, a huge Excalibur-like shining silver sword that was to be presented to Uncle Joe by Churchill to commemorate the Russian victory of the Battle of Stalingrad.
For months we had seen the news photographs and films of white uniformed soldiers fighting in the snow, of partisans hanging from beams and of German tanks abandoned in snowdrifts. Every shop, basement, and street had been fought for. There were two million casualties before the Russian counter-attack led by Marshal Zhukhov defeated von Paulus.
Uncle Joe was a friend of Churchill and the saviour of the Russian people. Now the sword was being made by Wilkinsons and inscribed to the “steel-hearted citizens of Stalingrad” by King George the Sixth. Before Churchill presented it to Uncle Joe it would tour the country – Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast, Coventry and London. It was a big event.
We pulled our trolley from house to house along Exeter and Torbay Road, banging on doors and demanding salvage for Uncle Joe with all the ideological righteousness that was our due. The residents did not have much to give. The spiked railings that swung from post to post outside the hedges had already been removed. We were lucky to receive a pile of Everybodys, a battered aluminium saucepan or a buckled bike wheel. One householder gave us a dartboard made of brown paper which we unrolled the length of Exeter Road into Widdecombe Crescent, amazed at how far it stretched. There were rumours of housewives being asked to contribute wedding rings, bracelets and necklaces but wisely they did not give them to us.
Collecting salvage for Uncle Joe merged into collecting bonfire materials for Guy Fawkes which we celebrated by burning Adolf Hitler on November 5th. The absence of fireworks did not spoil our enjoyment in the least. We dragged our guy around Rayners Lane asking for pennies and constructed a large pyre in the alley opposite John Brown’s house, perilously close to the fences on either side. My mother contributed an Aunt Sally that she no longer needed, a large statuesque bust of stuffed canvas with no head or arms but breasts resembling the Venus de Milo with a lower half of wire squares. She was a magnificent guy. We decorated her female form with a Hitler mask and set fire to the pyre we had built; the blaze roared skyward with a high tunnel of flames and sparks; the wire squares turned white-hot and we were besieged by neighbours threatening to call the fire brigade. We threw water on to the fences and as the flames subsided roasted potatoes in the embers and consumed their blackened cases with relish.
The Brown garden was the centre of our activities, halfway along the alley which ran between the back gardens of Capthorne Avenue and Lynton Road on one side and Kings Road on the other. The Brown gate was always open, jammed against the concrete of the alley, the lawn a flattened mud expanse where we met naturally without making definite arrangements. Unlike other gardens the Brown garden was democratic territory and Mrs Brown, who had been to Grammar School - uniquely among our parents – did not care that we tramped in and out.
Beryl Brown was manifestly different. Her dining-room possessed a set of Dickens novels in blue leatherette binding with gold lettering and there was a carelessness about her domestic arrangements which bordered on the bohemian, heightened by the suspicion that her beds were never properly made or the furniture polished. The Browns possessed a telephone and Beryl phoned her friend Hilda Martin across the alley, a wanton extravagance that shocked my mother. She also wore a headscarf and slacks and smoked in the street and had taken up with Cobber, an Australian air-force sergeant who was in the kitchen every day, his blue tunic with three stripes hanging over the back of the chair. He and Beryl went on holiday to Cornwall together and held parties on Saturday nights where there was dancing and games of musical chairs. “Beryl doesn’t care what anyone thinks,” Mum said.
The Brown garage, set back from the alley with its peeling blue doors of corrugated metal served as our goal for football, each goal registering with a metallic crash as the tennis ball hit the metal. We peered through the crack in the doors at the Brown car, set up on blocks in the darkness, the only car in the alley and like Mr Brown out of circulation during the war. Cobber had taken his place. Ron Brown had been commissioned into the air force and appeared from time to time in his neatly-pressed officer’s blue uniform. He was, the neighbours said, too good for Beryl who was no better than she should be.
I was sent over to the Browns when Mum and Dad went to the pictures on Saturday nights and slept on a mattress stuffed with straw that squeaked like mice whenever I turned over. The mattress smelled like a hayloft but Mrs Brown said it was healthy. What irritated Mum was that Dad enjoyed Beryl’s company so much. He had found a job for her at Electroflo, the factory where he worked and they walked back together from the station every evening.
“I don’t know what you see in her,” Mum complained, “You wouldn’t like it if I wore slacks. She doesn’t even wear make-up and her frizzy hair’s all over the place.”
Dad said he didn’t mind what she wore which only made matters worse. “All the men like Beryl,” Mum confided to Lena Hartel.
Mrs Brown was a forceful mum. She shook John until his teeth chattered when she suspected him of telling lies. She had a directness of attack that was formidable and I stayed out of her way when she was on the warpath.
For us the chief attraction of the Brown garden was the tall silver birch that overhung the fence, the only tree in the alley. We climbed it, swung from its branches, collected catkins and peeled its bark in long strips. Every summer we built a tree-house dragging up planks and hammering them into the branches. We hauled up a square of old carpet, and comics and sat reading. No other garden could compete with the idyll of the tree house.
Certainly not the Martin’s. Hilda Martin in her tight curls and striped nurse’s uniform with wide waistband and watch pinned to her lapel was the antithesis of Beryl Brown, even though they were friends. She was always in a hurry and wouldn’t allow us inside the house, although we occasionally ventured into the garden. John Martin’s sister Anne had blonde, shining hair and I was half in love with her but she treated me with distain, copying her mother’s manner. The youngest Martin, known as Podge trailed behind us in spite of numerous rejections. John Martin’s chief claim to fame was that he has been fed on 120 bananas a day as a baby because of a life-threatening disease. As none of us had ever seen a banana this gave him considerable prestige. What his mysterious illness had been we never discovered but his skin retained a yellowish hue and I imagined the bananas had permanently coloured his skin from the inside.
Although we were never allowed inside the Martin house we knew that Mrs Martin entertained Jan, a Polish air force officer stationed at Northolt. Jan was quiet and and dignified. We felt sorry for him because Poland had been invaded by the Nazis; the Free Polish Airforce flew from Northolt and I associated Jan with news-photographs I had seen of the Polish calvary on horses charging against German tanks.
Mr Martin was away in the army. He had worked at Harrods before the war, “but only as a counter jumper” Mum said. I imagined him leaping backwards and forwards over the counter like a rabbit. “The Martins think they’re somebody but they’re nobody really,” was Mum’s verdict.
Brian Hartel lived towards the end of the alley in a house that was different from ours. It had a dining-room-cum-kitchen and the bathroom was downstairs. On the wall of the bathroom was a long line of golliwogs cut from Robinson’s marmalade jars, pasted on the wall. His mum was very houseproud. I was allowed into the kitchen but had to take off my shoes and leave them at the door. Their taps had red rubber extensions which hung down like cow’s udders. Intrigued by these, I turned the taps on, squeezed the udders and squirted the spray around the sink managing to splash halfway up the wall. For this offence, I was banished for several months.
The Hartel’s back garden was like a Dig for Victory poster with lines of runner beans on criss-cross poles like wigwams, rows of lettuces, tomato plants bulging with fruit and, near the house, a cluster of tall hollyhocks that intrigued me with their violet and pink flowers and cushioned leaves. Bill Hartel worked for the Gas, Light and Coke Company and was, like my father, in a reserved occupation. He was very political and given to reading aloud paragraphs from “The Daily Worker” which he considered Lena and Brian should listen to. Lena giggled while he was reading, a response that goaded him into further lengthy political explanations.
Lena was my idea of a sex symbol, a glamorous mum with shining black hair, long legs and a film-star smile who cuddled Brian on the sofa. The two of them formed an alliance against Bill who sometimes stomped out into the garden and revved up his motorbike with a noise as angry as his comments over the newspaper. I envied Brian. I couldn’t imagine having a Mum like Lena.
In the Hartels’ front room there was a cream-coloured plaster bust of a bearded man with flowing hair.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s Brahms,” Brian informed me, “he was a famous musician.”
At the base of the bust was a thin strip of Elastoplast which I peeled away. Underneath another name was incised in the plaster : Karl Marx.
“Who’s Karl Marx and why is he covered up?” I asked, intrigued by the concealment.
“He’s German, “Brian explained. “Dad covered him up because he’s German.”
The rich have their portraits and family trees. The less rich are lucky if they have a few names in a family bible. We had no family bible and everyone before my grandparents had vanished into oblivion. Even my grandparents were shadowy figures, although one set was still alive.
We visited both sides, the Daniels in their grave in Bow, the Turners at their small house in Ipswich. The Daniels lived in the East End where they had arrived via Harlesden in north London from Devon about 1900. Dad’s birth certificate records that he was born in Harlesden, a respectable Victorian suburb but why Harlesden nobody knew, least of all Dad. The Turners were rural, living first in Kelvedon, an Essex village, then later in Ipswich in Suffolk. There were rumours that the Daniels came from Appledore in North Devon but these were never substantiated. The Turners, like many English families, were definitely of Irish ancestry although whether John Turner, Mum’s grandfather, came the south or the north, whether he was Catholic or Protestant is not recorded. Presumably he was not Roman Catholic or we should have heard although given the archival enthusiasm of the record keepers, it might have escaped their attention.
A few fragments remained. Mum’s Irish grandfather John Turner was a retired sea-captain who was apparently walking from London to Southend in the days before the railway was built. Whether he was walking to get anywhere or for the good of his health is not known. Perhaps he was walking towards the coast to reach his boat. The story was that he stopped for the night at The Angel pub in Kelvedon and bought it. Being a sea-captain, he naturally carried a parrot with him which was installed on a perch in the bar and managed to outlive everyone else in the story. On one occasion the parrot is said to have seized a customer’s nose and wrung it until the blood gushed out. The only other fact passed down about John Turner was that he decided one day to cut off his long red Irish beard, caught pneumonia and died.
The pub was then run by his wife, Violet Turner, after whom my mother was named. Violet Turner had six children, five girls and one son, my grandfather, James Turner. John Turner’s widow was obviously a capable woman who turned the pub into a successful business but when she died leaving the hotel to her only son, James, he refused to have anything to do with it. “I don’t want anything to do with business,” he is supposed to have said.
However, it was in The Angel in Kelvedon that my mother’s mother, eighteen-year-old Jenny Morgan, stopping one day on her way from London, met the handsome but unambitious young James behind the bar and became engaged to him.
“If Dad had kept the pub we’d have been rich,” Mum often complained. Grandad has let go the family fortune because of his irresponsibility. This was Mum’s version and it seemed essentially accurate. Mum’s analysis was that her father had been spoiled all his life by his five sisters and his mother and had never lifted a hand to do anything. He even had a special cricket bat made for him because he was left-handed. “He couldn’t change a light-bulb,” my mother would say. “He’d hand his wage-packet to his wife, who took all the money except for one-and-six. ‘There, Jim, that’s for your haircut, the only thing I can’t do for you,’ she’d say.”
Grandfather Turner was a ladies man, handsome, well-dressed and useless. He couldn’t even find a house for himself. Everything had been done by his wife’s brother, Uncle Jim, a successful auctioneer and estate agent and the dynamic tycoon of the family. He found Grandad a job as a clerk with Shell Oil on the basis of Grandad’s fine handwriting - his sole accomplishment apart from his fine bass voice and his left-handed cricket bat. The five sisters married local farmers and Indian army officers and left Kelveden or went overseas. Uncle Jim bought a house in Ipswich, filled it with furniture and pictures and installed Grandad and Grandma in it.
Grandma’s father had been much more successful than her husband; he was one of the founders of the Religious Tract Society, publishing translations of the Bible and sending them to remote outposts of the Empire. It was a profitable business in Victorian times and with the profits he bought a large, pillared house in Brixton, owned a pony and trap and sent Jenny to school until she was sixteen. Grandma came down in the world when she married Grandad without The Angel pub, and spent much of her energy trying to get back up again.
“She’d only talk to the doctor and the vicar,” my mother admitted, “Nobody else was good enough for her.”
Dad was more caustic.
“They spent all their lives social climbing and got nowhere,” he said of his in-laws.
Grandma and Grandad had been literally blown out of their home in Ipswich during the bombing. The Victorian mahogany sideboard was hurled through the air to the bottom of the garden. I found it difficult to imagine such a violent catastrophe in the small, dark dining-room in which they lived. There was a heavy, green velvet cover on the dining-table and a large, black wooden clock with brass numerals and a long pendulum hanging on the wall in one corner, ticking monotonously in the muffled atmosphere.
Every morning after breakfast, Grandad shaved with a cut-throat razor that he stropped on a leather strap hanging by the window. He sat at the green velvet table in front of a shaving-mirror, soaping his face with a large brush then drawing the steel blade down his cheek, stretching the skin with his fingers. Every afternoon Grandma Turner slept with her grey stockinged feet on a footstool.
I examined my face in the shaving mirror, small on one side, enormous on the other. Grandad was good-looking with pink cheeks, bright blue eyes and a white moustache. He wore rounded collars and chucked shop-girls under the chin when we were out shopping, a practice my mother disapproved of. She respected her mother as the real source of energy in the house. Grandma made brawns and parsnip wine and cured hams and organised jumble sales at the church and turned the front parlour into a committee room for the Conservatives at election time.
It was a small, dark house. The coal was kept in a cupboard at the end of a corridor and the vegetables in the bath. But there were pictures.
Above the beds were embroidered biblical texts and a picture entitled “Pale Hands Beside the Shalimar” with an Indian maiden beside a river and a turbaned Indian prince kneeling above her. Downstairs there was a large sepia photograph of a ringlet-haired girl washing a dog in a tin bath with “Tomorrow Will Be Sunday” written underneath and above the sideboard that had been blown to the bottom of the garden, was a large drawing of two pale horses looking over a fence.
But the painting which hypnotised me most was in a gold frame which, Grandad informed me, was called, “Nelson’s First Encounter with the French.” I looked at it for hours in the dark room while Grandma was having her afternoon nap and nothing was moving except for the pendulum under the black-faced clock ticking in the corner.
Nelson, a young boy of about fifteen stood in a classroom holding his books in front of a silver-haired, silver-moustached master in a white frock-coat with leggings buttoned up the side. To his right was a wicker waste-paper basket with every strand vividly painted. Nelson had wavy, tousled hair and an expression of confidant superiority over the French teacher who was sitting down. Behind, in the middle distance, some schoolboys were fighting on the school benches while a ray of sunlight shone diagonally through the long windows on the left illuminating the scene. Nelson was clearly going to grow up and defeat the French. It was a painting of heroic disdain and adolescent ambition. I was transfixed and studied every detail. Years later I discovered that the painting was actually entitled “Wellington’s First Encounter with the French.” Grandad had managed to get the title wrong but it didn’t make much difference to me. They both fought the French.
The Daniel grandparents died before I was born but in a way they were more vivid than the Turners perhaps because they were involved with the First World War. They were buried in Bow cemetery where every year we attempted to find them among a large number of angels, caged tombs, obelisks and urns. The November fog swirled around, hiding the tops of the tombs and giving the whole place a gloomy, desolate air, not to my mother’s liking.
“They lived in crowds and they died in crowds,” she said walking backwards and forwards, banging her gloved hands. For some reason it was always difficult to locate the plot, a symbolic hunt for our family history as entangling as the briars and bushes that had overgrown it. But at last we found it and my father unwrapped the paintbrushes, newspapers, sandpaper, rags and tin of corporation green paint he had brought with him, cleaned up his parents’ grave and repainted it. Then he placed fresh flowers in the pot next to the stone headstone with two lines of poetry cut into it:
Ships That Pass in the Night
Underneath was written Longfellow. I thought it was very moving.
“We found it in Mum’s diary” Dad explained.
George and Lucy had obviously loved one another in spite of George’s erratic career, which followed his return from the war. There were two photographs in the family album, one taken on Armistice Day showing the family outside the railings of their house with a line of triangular flags fluttering above them, the other a studio photograph with George in his artillery bombardier’s uniform, protectively sheltering his delicate-faced wife, Lucy, who is holding Dorothy the new baby, while the two boys, Len and Norman in sailor suits, stand on either side.
The war was the great event of his life. In addition to the two photographs there was his mahogany writing-cabinet containing medals with blue and gold ribbons, a roll of Italian lire and the red notebook bound with black elastic of the sort I used to hold my socks up. Inside the notebook was the diary of George’s war. Laconic, consisting chiefly of dates with the occasional exclamation in brackets, it gave the impression of someone endlessly moving around on the battlefields of the Somme and the Italian front:
left Folkestone 5pm
arrived Boulogne 8pm
St Martins Camp Boulogne midnight
left Boulogne 3pm arrived Etaples 7pm
left St Etats 4am
arrived Poperinghe Belgium midnight
transferred to 237 Battery as reinforcements
in firing line Ypres front
4 casualties. First time in action.
Big push commenced 5.30 am
Ypres Menin Tower Hamlets Ridge
all day and night
heavy bombart. by enemy
4 of us on gun trail
3 knocked out
left me unscratched
The nights of shelling and bridges blown up are recorded as simple facts in George’s neat, pencilled copperplate hand. He was an educated but not a literary man, uninterested in describing his feelings, a pawn in the trenches, shuttled from training camp to the front, then back to Blighty with a shell-wound, then back again to Belgium and finally to Italy and the Piave river. He was keeping track of himself. The record of troop movements, casualties and bombs is interspersed with drawings of artillery-angles and very occasionally enlivened with a comment on the beauties of the mountains or the colours of a sunset.
There was too a thick scrap-book crammed with sepia and black- and-white picture-postcards he sent back to his children from the Italian front. The wonders of Florence and Venice and Bologna were one of the compensations for a man who could never otherwise have afforded to travel outside England. And on the back of the cards in his sloping hand, were the affectionate messages to his family in Bow with occasional scratchings out in the censor’s indelible blue pencil where he had mentioned a battle or a troop movement.
George was apparently a loving and generous man - “He would give away his last ha’penny,” - but not a successful one. After a war which clearly disrupted him, he worked in Spitalfields fruit-market, then at the Board of Trade , then as a private detective keeping a crate of Guinness under the bed “in case he was called out in the middle of the night”.
“You children get proper jobs,” his wife Lucy instructed her three children. And so they did.
When we had tidied up the grave and put fresh flowers in the metal vase with holes in the top, we went to Aunt Nell’s and Uncle Jack’s in the Peabody buildings. Uncle Jack was Lucy’s brother, a Spurgeon, a docker who rose at four o’clock every morning. He sent me a postal order for half-a-crown every birthday. We were served tea with sweetened condensed milk poured from a small can but didn’t stay long. For Mum it was a trip to the underworld.
The family had come down on both sides, for a grandmother Spurgeon was said to have owned the Queen’s Hotel in Lincoln, although we never visited it. The stories of lost hotels were as phantasmagoric as the Flying Dutchman, haunting the ancestral imagination.
“What do you want to know that for?” was a frequent response to my historical enquiries. The past had passed. And the objects have all disappeared as completely as the actors. “Wellington’s First Encounter with the French” has vanished as totally as the green velvet tablecloth, the ticking black clock and the horses above the sideboard that was swept to the bottom of the garden by the bomb-blast.
In the future the volume of written and visual evidence records should provide us with infinitely more material from which to reconstruct our histories. But too much evidence may be as frustrating as too little. An avalanche of material may hide our ancestors almost as completely as none at all and as our records become increasingly electronic we may discover that we have failed to keep track of them or have insufficient space in which to store them. If we press a wrong button they could disappear. Saving letters and other documents in a computer may be less reliable than storing them under the tablecloths in the sideboard-drawer.
“It serves us right, going to the pictures on Good Friday,” Mum said.
I had been escorted in fear and trembling from “Arsenic and Old Lace”, purportedly a comedy but one which left me petrified with terror. It was the moment when Raymond Massey flings aside the curtain and reveals his grotesquely scarred face to the audience.
It wasn’t even a film with Ingrid Bergman in it. Dad liked Ingrid Bergman so we normally went to every film she was in. I had some terrifying moments in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” where the spine-chilling music starts up whenever black marks are inscribed on white - the ski-marks in the snow and the black marks made by the tines of a fork on a white tablecloth by Cary Grant, the phoney-psychiatrist who is being treated by Ingrid Bergman. In a flashback to childhood a child is pushed over the spikes of black railings. I was paralysed with fear as I now was with Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre.
“We should never have gone to the pictures on a day like this,” Mum repeated.
We were walking back from the Odeon along the Kings Road.
“Good Friday’s the most important day of the church year, a holy day when you’re not supposed to go to the pictures,” Mum informed us.
Dad didn’t defend his choice of Good Friday but I was more concerned to know about the possibility of being murdered by a psychopath like Raymond Massey in Rayners Lane.
“Are there many men like that about ?” I asked Dad.
“There are bad men everywhere,” Dad admitted, “They’re sick really.”
I thought everyone in “Arsenic and Old Lace” was sick especially the two old ladies who stowed corpses in their window seat.
“How many men like that are there?” I asked.
Not many wasn’t good enough for me. It only needed one Raymond Massey in the next street for me to be in mortal danger.
“How many?” I persisted.
“Not one in a thousand,” he conceded.
One in a thousand! That was enough to put my life at immediate risk. I could see the psychopathic killer opening my bedroom window, climbing in and hiding behind the curtain, bursting out like Raymond Massey.
“Are there any round here?”
“I shouldn’t think so.”
Shouldn’t think so! The lack of certainty in my father’s opinion was no reassurance. There were more than a thousand people in Rayners Lane, probably several thousand, so the chances of a killer prowling around Capthorne Avenue or the back-alley were statistically high. There could be two or three killers out to get me if one in a thousand was an accurate estimate.
“We should never have gone,” my mother repeated, “I might have known this would happen.”
She didn’t say it was God’s punishment on us for going to the cinema on Good Friday but that is what she meant.
I had been led out of “Pinocchio” when the whale swallows the heroes, and terrified by the black trees with grasping fingers in “The Wizard of Oz” but Raymond Massey was a step beyond fairy-tales. He was part of the real world. There were psychopaths walking the streets and it was only a matter of time before I met one. Nobody, not even my father, knew for sure where the psychopaths were and when they would strike. I couldn’t understand how he could be so unconcerned about them.
I was haunted by the fear of being murdered, especially in my bed at night as I was saying my prayers, with no faith they would ward off the killer who was concealed somewhere on the premises. I was not allowed to keep the light on and the downstairs hall light was switched off as Mum descended the stairs, leaving me lying rigid with fear in total darkness awaiting my violent end. Every creak in the woodwork registered the slowly ascending footsteps of the killer. I could see him pausing as the stairs turned towards the top. Some nights I could hear him breathing.
How was I to survive in a world of psychopaths?
I imagined living inside a glass dome surrounded by another dome then another, a triple insulation against the terrifying world. There were creaks everywhere. The darkness was malevolent. I was alone and didn’t stand a chance.
I had a terrifying dream, a nightmare. A large man wearing a check coat was swinging around a lamppost. For some reason this was horrific and its realism forced me out of bed and sent me trembling along the landing to my parents’ bedroom.
“What’s the matter?”
“I was having a bad dream.”
“A man swinging round a lamppost.”
I wanted to climb into bed with them. I didn’t want to return to the fat man who might still be swinging around the lamppost.
“Go back to bed.”
“Can I stay here?”
“Don’t be silly. Go back to your own bed.”
I crept back to my bed, frightened to go to sleep again because the image of the man in the check coat was so vivid.
The fears, engendered by or reflected in the films persisted. “It’s only a film,” they said but that did nothing to help. Horror films were horrifying. People coming home to empty apartments which I knew were not empty sent me shaking into the foyer. I avoided films with a reputation for suspense, gruesome killings and psychopaths.
Michael and I were taken to the Chamber of Horrors in the basement of Madame Tussauds where we gazed at small wax figures being pulled apart by horses, broken on wheels and roasted on gridirons. These were fascinating and not as scary as the films.
“Let’s look there,” Michael said, pulling me behind a curtain marked Adults Only where a young woman was hanging in the market square with a giant steel hook through her body and blood dripping out of her mouth and down her sides. The severed heads of the guillotined aristocrats with their eyes rolling down their cheeks and their bloody necks were watching from a nearby shelf.
“They pay £1000 if you stay in here all night by yourself,” Michael informed me but I knew I would never be capable of staying alone. There was the real bath in which the Brides of the Bath were murdered.
The torture room in the Tower of London was another source of intrigue and horror. There was a wooden rack for making you confess and for pulling your arms out of their sockets, a black iron thumbscrew for squashing thumbs and a pincer for tearing out your tongue so you could never speak again. Most frightening was a large, body-shaped case, hinged so the two halves could be closed with a series of iron spikes inside that came together when the lid was shut on the victim. I always imagined myself the victim.
But I was fascinated as well as scared. Michael and I constructed a small guillotine with a metal razor blade that rattled down and beheaded lead soldiers whose heads had already broken off but which we replaced with plasticine for the purpose of carrying out revolutionary justice.
Strangely enough the war did not supply us with many images of horror. Instead it was presented with gung-ho simplicity ; films like “In Which We Serve”, “The Dam Busters” and “Cockleshell Heroes” were masculine epics, worlds away from “Arsenic and Old Lace.” The presentation of the war was devoid of the sadism and psychosis that it encourages. I heard a story of a German pilot stumbling clear of his crashed, flaming aircraft only to be flung back into the flames by Australian soldiers. Significantly, perhaps, they were Australians. The British never behaved like that. German naval commanders machine-gunned survivors of torpedoed ships struggling in the Atlantic, but we always picked them up. Much later I learned from a survivor of Dresden, a woman librarian, that the saturation bombing raids were timed for the seven o’clock rush-hour when crowds of civilians were pouring out of the subways, offices and factories. But the war was presented to us without the horror that Raymond Massey’s stitched face awoke in my imagination. The British seemed capable of suppressing the reality of violence more completely in the Second World War than in the First. War became a daring-do of commando-raids and gallant Spitfire pilots racing to their planes, not very different from the stories we devoured each week in the “Hotspur” and “Champion”.
Our militarism was more subtle than Hitler’s and has survived more completely. While Germans have had to come to terms with their past, we can continue in a chauvinistic fashion as uncomplicated as Henry the Fifth’s exhortation to the English on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. It was, significantly, to the film-version starring Laurence Olivier, made to reinforce patriotism on the eve of D-day, that we went to see at South Harrow Odeon in 1944 - the only Shakespeare play my parents ever attended. Henry’s passionate rhetoric was given full rein but the other half of the play’s argument: the doubts and fears expressed by John Bates and the common soldiers that their severed limbs will unite on Judgement Day to confront the king with the justice of his cause was not emphasised.
It was left to Raymond Massey in a classic English comedy to awaken in me the real horrors of the subconscious which kept me awake at nights and made me terrified of the dark. As a Good Friday message it was perhaps more appropriate than my mother realised.
I was embarrassed by my name.
The John wasn’t so painful. Dad wanted to call me Peter only to discover that a large number of cats in the neighbourhood were called Peter. The chief drawback with John was its blandness. Three out of four of us in the alley were called John. We preferred to use surnames or some corruption of them among ourselves in contrast to the practice in school, where teachers addressed us by our first names in a spirit of friendly intimacy. John was acceptable, although meaningless.
I also had a middle name, Turner, my mother’s maiden name which she had given me in the cause of aristocratic rather than feminist solidarity. The gentry, she informed me, always included the mother’s maiden name. I should have preferred another first name like everyone else but the Turner rarely surfaced so I was not unduly disturbed by it.
It was the Daniel that was alarming. In Sunday School a hymn regularly popped up with the opening lines:
“Dare to be a
At this injunction all heads swung round and stared at me while the music thundered on and I descended into a mist of self-conscious agony. It didn’t stop there. Daring to be a Daniel returned as a refrain following each verse, producing a variety of smirks and elbow nudging. I didn’t want to stand alone. I didn’t want to be a Daniel. I wanted to lose myself in the crowd and merge into anonymity. Instead of the intended effect of the hymn I felt I was being pilloried as a freak. Nobody else suffered like this. Nobody else had a hymn named after him.
The hymn was inspired by the story of Daniel, the Hebrew prophet who confronted Nebuchadnezzar and was consigned to a den of lions. Daniel in the lions’ den was the usual comment when I was in trouble. I began to dislike my heroic namesake and to dread his unexpected appearance at any religious gathering. I monitored the readings of lessons from the Old Testament with neurotic care and discovered that there was no assigned text from the Book of Daniel in the entire liturgical year. But worse was to come. Daniel-spaniel was a frequent nickname but I managed to ride this out. Sometimes we chanted:
stones can break my bones
How wrong we were. What was much more difficult to cope with was the emergence of a gifted gorilla named John Daniel. This animal was quite remarkable with an IQ well above the gorilla norm. He could dress himself, make a cup of tea and on good days operate a typewriter. My classmates discovered the existence of this exceptional beast and lost no time in making enquiries about our relationship. Compared with lions in the bible, a gorilla was a heaven-sent gift for them. I was repeatedly asked if he was a cousin or an uncle and was it on my mother’s or my father’s side. There was even a postcard picturing my namesake who seems to have started life in Sloane Square where he lived a near-human life with his keepers. Later he was sent to America where he became part of the Ringling and Barnum Circus. Even more incredible was the emergence after his timely death of John Daniel the Second, a French Gabon monkey, nicknamed Sultan whose girl friend Jenny Lind, was a Kevu gorilla. In their heyday, sometime before the war, they were a popular couple in the media, much talked about on both sides of the Atlantic. I had no idea whether John Daniel the Second was still alive and dreaded the appearance of John Daniel the Third, thinking the line of gorillas bearing my name might go on for ever. But fortunately John Daniel the Second died and was taken into the American Museum of Natural History from which he still emerges from time to time, most recently in a long, centre-piece article in “The New Yorker” which an American friend sent me, thoughtfully underlining those passages in red ink he considered most relevant.
Running alongside the lions’ den and the gorilla was a more serious comparison that also caused me unease. I was often taken to be Jewish particularly as I grew older and the Daniel nose, a prominent feature in both my father and uncle’s physiognomy, begins to assume a more pronounced shape. The culture in which I was living had a legacy of anti-Semitism that was widely accepted. My father has grown up in the East End which was home to a long-standing population of Jews who emigrated from Russia and Poland in the 1890’s and early 1900’s, in addition to those who had come from Portugal and Spain two centuries before. But he had little knowledge of their traditions or respect for their way of life. His dislike was largely based on economic grounds; he viewed Jewish employers in small workshops as paying low wages and exacting long hours. His dislike of what he took to be typical Jewish employment practices extended to the point where he refused to shop at Stones, a chain of electrical shops in north-west London. He had no knowledge of the contribution Jewish people had made to left-wing politics or to European intellectual life in general. My mother’s prejudice was very similar. “Never work for a Jew,” she said, “They expect everything and they’re never satisfied.” These views, and worse, were widespread and I was brought up to believe in them as truths although there were inconsistencies. My mother maintained that the best lady she ever worked for was Jewish - kind, generous and a giver of holidays on a scale unknown among the English gentry. And when my father visited the Daily Express exhibition of photographs taken at the opening of the concentration camps at the end of the war in London, he was profoundly shocked. But their prejudices were not greatly changed by these exceptions. There was a strong legacy of hostility towards Jews even if it did not take the murderous form it did in Nazi Germany or in the Russian pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century or in England during the Middle Ages. Hitler’s was only different in that it used the latest technology; his racial theories were a modern successor to the religious intolerance of previous eras.
Whatever we fought the Second World War for it was not primarily against Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. As early as 1920 he had decreed, “We will carry on the struggle until the last Jew is removed from the German Reich.” There is a photograph of the English football team with Stanley Matthews giving the Nazi salute at the Olympic stadium in Berlin as late as 1938. Until 1991 when the War Crimes Act was passed, ex-Nazi criminals who fled to Britain could live here unmolested. Britain eventually became the safest country in Europe in which ex-Nazis could hide. Even after the War Crimes Act only one – Anthony Sawoniuk- was convicted of ordering 18 Jewish women to strip before shooting them in the back before an open grave. Out of 400 suspects he alone was tried and sentenced. It has been estimated that if only 20 % were guilty at least fifty of those responsible for similar brutalities lived out their lives peacefully in Britain.
In Rayners Lane we did not know but neither did we care what was happening to the Jews in Europe. Hitler was evil; there was no doubt about that, yet the source of his evil, Nazi racism, remained uncondemned. It was never brought forward as the chief reason for the conflict or even a secondary one. I heard the sentence, “The best thing Hitler did was to get rid of the Jews” uttered during the war years. I was profoundly upset by being taken for a Jew.
Daniel can be a Jewish name. It can also be Welsh. There was a fashion for biblical surnames at the time of the Crusades as there was for saints’ names in Welsh and Cornish villages. If the Daniels have lived in Britain for centuries, as they seem to have, they would certainly have been Catholic until, like almost everyone else in England during the reign of Elizabeth 1, they became Church of England.
My mother’s prejudice was not confined to Jewish people but extended across a range of other countries and cultures. There was the Catholic lady, Mrs Phipps, at the corner of Kings Roads. Catholics were undesirable on a number of grounds – for their religion which allowed them to commit all manner of sins from drunkenness and adultery during the week only to be exonerated on Sunday by the priest in the confession-box; for their too-large families (although the respectable Mrs Phipps had no children) and for their connection with the Irish. “They’ll pull one another’s coat-tails to start a fight,” my mother said. The Irish were Catholics and Catholics were for the most part Irish, except for their leader in England, the Duke of Norfolk, whom my mother excused on account of his aristocratic lineage.
The Northern Irish were totally different: Ulster was ours as were India, Australia, Canada, South Africa and the rest of the British Empire in which Mum so fervently believed. Ulster was Protestant and British, almost Church of England.
My mother was suspicious of Catholics but even more prejudiced against Baptists, Methodist, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and other dissenting sects, whom she lumped together as Low Church and whose members she characterised as dowdy, unfashionable women, who didn’t believe in wearing make-up and whose religious services were incomprehensible because you never knew when to stand up or sit down. The prayers of these strange people, uttered sitting on chairs instead of kneeling were liable to go on indefinitely because there was no reason for them to stop.
My mother’s dislike of Low Church services was especially directed at the communion service where she alleged, they would cut up half a loaf of bread instead of using a communion wafer, a barbaric ritual beside which the wars fought over transubstantiation faded into insignificance.
Even lower than Low Church was Chapel, with congregations dowdier and more grotesque, shuffling about in dusty halls on the outskirts of provincial cities. The Welsh were Chapel and my mother’s dislike of the Welsh was given additional emphasis by the way they spoke, a prejudice similar to her prejudice against all northern dialects, particularly those of Yorkshire and Lancashire. “Ee by gum, “ she’d say “Shoot door.”
To this list may be added the Americans: vulgar, boastful and the homeland of Mrs Simpson; the French who waved their hands about and messed about with their food, (although Parisian couture designers were exempt) ; the Scots with their dreadful bagpipe music and their history of creating trouble characterised by the House of Stuart, for which my mother had as little attachment as she had for Irish jigs or folk-songs.
The extraordinary thing was that this catalogue of prejudice was universal among almost everyone I knew growing up. My father shared the dislike of bagpipes and Americans although he had less to say against Catholics, Irish or Presbyterians and nothing against the House of Stuart, about which he knew nothing.
In his essay on anti-Semitism Sartre argues that the stereotype of the oppressed is created by the oppressor. He prophesises that the Jewish people in the new state of Israel will not be the same as the centuries-old Fagin-like stereotypes created in the past but even fair-haired and blue-eyed. One of the functions of war is to fix stereotypes as an immutable part of nature. I was as categorised by my name as every German was by his nationality.
Teachers were marginal influences compared with the gutter and the playground. The gutter ran down Lynton Road where it was interrupted by an island of almond trees in Lulworth Crescent. It continued along Widdecombe crossing Exeter Road, finally turning into Torbay where the school stood, a distance of about half a mile but one which could take hours to traverse.
Sometimes we called for one another on the way to school I called for Brian; John Brown appeared like Pan out of the bushes at Lulworth Crescent; Martin was more erratic and showed up less regularly.
The gutter was our thoroughfare for marbles, cigarette-cards, spinning tops, flying aeroplanes and conkers. There were non-competitive pursuits that existed outside the gutter such as cat’s cradle and twiddling y-shaped sticks in spiders’ webs on autumn mornings to hold against the sun, but the gutter was our major arena and marbles our premier game. It was impossible to buy marbles in the shops but there were sufficient in circulation from before the war. We carried our collections in draw-string bags: one-ers, small clouded marbles with a white whorl on the outside, two-ers, slightly larger, three-ers which were bigger and rarer; four-ers that were highly prized and sixers, whoppers beyond price. There were also ball-bearings that some misguided souls regarded as the most valuable of all, although it was never clear to me why they should.
We usually played longsy shouting “Lardy!” for the other person to start. The bowler who hit his opponent’s marble collected it. There were a few variations: “bombsy” where the marble was dropped vertically and “tipsy” where a hit was disallowed if the shouter called immediately. But although the rules were simple, it required considerable skill to play and we spent hours straddling the gutters and sighting the marble. We collected sets of colours and exchange four-ers for four one-ers; we traded continually, since there was only a finite supply. Our bulging marble bags were precious possessions and looking at our collections and counting them took up almost as much time as actually playing with them.
Cigarette-cards or fag-cards as we always called them, were equally popular, a major-league gutter road sport. . The cards dated from the pre-war years and were no longer obtainable since they were no longer given away with cigarettes. Their commercial function had disappeared and they evoked a more exotic period which we only knew through the images they conveyed from that magical time. There were two types: plain and sticky-backs; the plain-backed were of older vintage dating from the 1920s and generally more highly prized because they were more substantial and more carefully coloured.. There were regimental badges from the first world war and early racing cars and film stars of the silent screen. The sticky backs were more flimsy and more recent: there was the Coronation series, featuring archbishops and princes and earls and barons, arrayed in their robes with elaborate orders and stars on their chests; modern Hollywood stars with blonde bobbed curls and pert mouths and the men with slick shining hair; tips on playing professional tennis and a series of modern cricketers. The sticky backs had a tendency to stick together on hot summer days and were liable to tear. The older cards were heavier and cut into the air more efficiently when licked along the leading edge.
As with marbles, the basic game was ‘longsy’ when one player shouted “lardy!” and the other had to start. One player flicked a card into the air, followed by his opponent; the one that travelled farthest won. But fag-cards contained a potential for more dramatic contests than marbles. There was a game where three cards were propped against a wall and the players tried to knock them down by taking turns to flick another card at them. This took time, skill and a vast quantity of flicked cards. A large pile, sometimes over a hundred, could build up on the pavement. The winner was the person who knocked over the last propped-up card and he collected all the cards that lay scattered on the ground. It was a heart-stopping contest since it was possible to lose one’s entire collection of cards in a single game. The scramble that followed the winning hit when the victor endeavoured to scrape together his winnings as fast as possible and the loser debated with himself whether it was worthwhile to try and recoup his losses by physical violence, gave fag-cards an edge that marbles lacked. It had all the suspense of a casino, as card after card fluttered on to the pile.
A simpler game was ‘topsy’ where one player flicked a card on to the ground and the next player tried to cover it with one of his cards. Again this could result in a vast number of squandered cards and again there were dramatic contests where whole collections were lost.
Fag cards produced more aggression than marbles. We collected sets, swapping cards fanned out in our hands. Often a marauding colleague who had lost all his cards, would smack underneath our hand sending a cascade of cards skyward.
The playground took over where the gutter ended. It was the arena for gladiatorial combats, hour-long fights between battling pugilists, slugging it out surrounded by a huge whirlpool of shouting kids. A teacher would try to force his way through the twenty deep circle but be unable to reach the centre. When a truly classic match occurred, as it did between Blakey, a squarely built boy with a back like an ox, and Quick, a tall, stringy thug, the crowd reached fever pitch and the fight became epic. . The whole school was deserted. No other activity was visible in the large playground except the shouting, revolving crowd with two struggling figures at the vortex, shirts ripped open, blood streaming from their noses.
Such combats were unforgettable but rare. More normally we played peacefully. In summer the boys sat around in small groups of four on the perimeter of the playground playing fivestones. This was an elaborate game, requiring considerable skill where we took turns to throw up the five square blocks and catch them on the back of the hand. Those caught were set aside and the remainder picked up, first singly, then two or three at a time. The sequence had to be worked through: two thrown in the air while one was picked up, then three, four and five. There were further variations: lamp-post where four stones were piled on top of each other and picked off one by one, while one fivestone was thrown in the air. There was horse-in-the-stable where stones were knocked through outstretched fingers. A failure at any step in the sequence meant the next player took over. Dad made me a set of five aluminium cubes with my initials stamped on the side of each one, which was useful when they were nicked, as they frequently were. We played for hours, sitting crossed-legged in the dust.
The playground was the most important space in the school, bounded on one side by heaps of coke for the boilers and at the far end by the brick walls of the lavatories against which the girls hung upside down like fruit-bats, their skirts tucked into their blue knickers.
The girls were a race, almost a species apart. Every morning we passed them as they bounced tennis balls against the wall juggling three or four in the air, calling out rhymes. Sometimes they skipped singly, twisting the rope into patterns and criss-crossing their ankles. Or they skipped in groups with a long rope while two or three of them jumped backwards and forwards chanting “I like coffee, I like tea/I like you, you like me.” Or they played hopscotch, chalking numbered squares on the ground, throwing a pebble and hopping on one leg with their skirts tucked in to pick it up. We never played with them and had only a vague idea of what they were doing. The only game played by both boys and girls although not together, was cats-cradle but here the girls were more skilful at transferring patterns of string off one another’s fingers. I got as far as fish-in-the dish but it was elementary compared with the elaborate string-designs that the girls transferred from one another’s fingers. So cat’s-cradle was regarded as not a proper boy’s game.
Bash-ups on the other hand was completely the preserve of boys. In terms of violence and disruption it was second only to the playground fights. Two boys with arms crossed behind them charged around the playground knocking over any smaller bodies in their path. Additional pairs lined up behind the leaders creating a formidable multi-paired machine like a stretched Roman chariot that swept across the playground, around the edges and down the centre, sweeping all other activities out of its way. The exhilaration of bash-ups lay in its communal strength so that by the end virtually every boy in the playground was a member of its collective power.
In autumn we played conkers. There were few horse chestnut trees in Rayners Lane so conkers assumed a rarity value equal to fag-cards or marbles. Conkers took the form of personal tournaments. To produce warriors of steel-hardness they were soaked in vinegar overnight and then roasted in the oven. The rules allowed the victor to collect the lives of the defeated conker so if a fiver smashed a tenner it became a fifteener. John Brown was good at conkers as he was at all sports; he stretched the drawstring tight over his thumb and released his conker with deadly accuracy, smashing his opponent which was dangling passively in the air like a hanging man, into yellow pieces. Conker collections were carried in long strings. It was a short but vivid season which the girls ignored.
The boys seemed more subject to fashions and crazes, switching rapidly from one obsession to the next, trading Dinky toys for weeks then abruptly fighting each other piggy-back for several days before becoming obsessed with paper-aeroplanes or tops. Girls were more consistent, playing the same games year round.
In winter we created playground slides, sliding the fifty or sixty feet of their length, trying to stand upright. It was a fearful and sometimes dangerous activity. Often one boy would crash into another and there would be a pile-up of bodies sliding collectively along.
Occasionally during air-raids we failed to reach the school at all. Our instructions were to turn back home if the sirens sounded the Alert and we were less than halfway to school. We obediently turned back as we heard the siren wail. Then the All Clear sounded its melodious note and we turned back again only for the Alert to start up a second time, causing us to turn round again.
We didn’t mind this yo-yo journey backwards and forwards. Neither school nor home were particularly attractive compared with the journey between the two.
The four of us joined the cubs in a pack, an appropriate grouping for an organisation which modelled itself on a combination of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” and Baden Powell’s experiences in the Boer War. We joined the Second Rayners Lane pack, which met in a dusty hut behind the Baptist Memorial Church, Imperial Drive, off the road to North Harrow.
“The Jungle Book” was one of my great treasures, a large hardback full of coloured plates describing Mowgli’s upbringing with the wolves, his adventures in the jungle at the edge of civilisation and his friendships and feuds with wild animals. There was a coloured plate of Mowgli ramming a flaming branch into the face of Shere Khan, the tiger and another of him flinging a sceptre across the white cobra which guarded the royal jewels. There were wonderful poems at the end of the stories
I had no idea what a tush was but there was a glamour in Kipling, a hard, thrilling alienation from human kind that appealed to seven-year-olds who would much prefer to be brought up in a cave by wolves rather than by their parents.
Not that the Kipling glamour completely transferred to the Second Rayner’s Lane Pack. Akela was a plump, middle-aged man with red cheeks and spectacles, about as far from a mother wolf on the outskirts of an Indian village as it was possible to imagine. Bagheera was closer: an eighteen year old Kings Scout with tough, panther-like legs and hair on his knees, plus an impressive array of badges, plumes and silver wolves dangling from his uniform. Between the two of them they controlled the group of noisy cubs that met every week and tied knots, played games, and passed those tests in tracking which Baden Powell considered essential for his scouts in the colonial war fought against South African Dutch farmers at the beginning of the century.
It was a successful recipe: the British Raj in India and British Imperialism in Africa, a combination of patriotism, trek carts across the veldt and rough-and-tumble male physicality which was just what we craved.
If Kipling supplied the mythology, Baden Powell provided the uniforms, every item of which became talismanic. Our mothers knitted us bottle-green jerseys on which they sewed wolf’s head badges and small triangles denoting which Six we belonged to. Our 2nd Rayners Lane scarves of red and grey, expertly rolled and secured by an elaborately plaited woggle of leather were evidence of our skill. We wore green caps with gold braid decorated with a wolf’s head, and one or two silver stars on either side depending on our success in passing an array of knot-tying and other tests. We secured our trousers with snake-belts from which hung a sheath-knife in its leather sheath. We carried staves of ash five feet long for probing swamps, thrashing through undergrowth, killing snakes and tripping each other up. We wore green tabs affixed to elastic to hold our socks up. Our uniforms transformed us.
Every week we bobbed on our haunches in a circle around Akela, shouting that we will dob, dob, dob in reply to his dyb, dyb, dyb, acronyms that declared we would do our best in answer to his command that we do so.
We were deliriously happy. The 2nd Rayners Lane patch of dusty ground was an arena with which neither school nor home could supply. We could be wild. Our favourite game was British Bulldog, a special treat overseen by Bagheera, who started the game by standing in the middle of the dry mud patch while we raced across it from one side to the other. Bagheera would snatch up a racing cub, throw him into the air, and shout, “British Bulldog!” The cub joined Bagheera in the middle and the two of them pounced on another boy as he raced across, hurled him skywards and shoued “British Bulldog!” again. It was not a complicated game. Its fascination lay in its physicality, the triumphant cry of capture and, for those left in the middle, the thrill of evading the hunters. It had all the ingredients of a classical circus. At the end everyone was in the centre of the arena except one boy, a bullet-headed, torn-jersied, flailing-arms cub who was compelled to run against hopeless odds into the arms of his captors, to be hurled up into the air to a universal shout of “British Bulldog!” Baden Powell and Kipling would have been proud of us.
In addition to “British Bulldog” we strove to gain a variety of triangular-shaped badges, divided into sets of different colours for a variety of accomplishments. There were twelve badges from swimming to stamp-collecting, each triangle decorated with a symbol - a frog for swimming, a magnifying glass for stamp-collecting, a watering-can for gardening, a needle and thread for sewing and so on. I set out to collect all twelve, and dutifully polished windows, maintained a garden plot for three months, planted lettuces and radishes, tied tourniquets, swam fully-clothed, picked up a brick from the bottom of the swimming-pool, made my bed for the requisite period and lit the fire in the front room with rolled-up newspapers and one match.
I assumed that we were supposed to gain the complete set of badges if we possibly could. In a culture obsessed by collecting marbles, shrapnel, radar strips, matchbox-tops and cigarette-cards, the cub badges seem to occupy a natural place. Most cubs had only two or three badges on their left sleeve but this did not unduly disturb me. I collected my badges with enthusiasm and my mother sewed the small triangles on to my sleeve until the wool threatened to come apart under their collective weight. I was not especially proud of my achievement, nor did I feel that my competence in, say, window cleaning was superior to anyone else’s. I simply assumed that the game of collecting stamps or marbles had been transferred to cub badges. But Akela had a different perspective on the whole process. Mindful perhaps of the one and two-badged cubs or believing that there were more important activities in life than aggressive competition, he took the opportunity to deliver a mini-sermon to the assembled pack as he awarded me my climactic twelfth badge. Collecting badges, he said, was not the whole aim of the scout movement, which was primarily concerned with those more enduring moral qualities of brotherhood, co-operation and courage. Badges were all very well, but a good cub could not be judged on badges alone. A good cub was one who conducted himself with discipline and integrity. There was more in a similar vein, which I did not disagree with but which I felt was definitely undermining my achievement in gaining the whole set of badges, a feat unique in the 2nd Rayners Lane pack. His comments were, I could tell, meeting with agreement among the rest of the cubs, especially the one-badgers who were grinning and nodding their heads although, in my opinion, not notable for the moral qualities Akela was listing. I felt I was being put down publicly, even humiliated among my peers. I wished I hadn’t bothered to get so many badges, and as Akela pursued his theme, I began to wish I hadn’t got any badges at all. What had been planned as a triumph was turning into a disaster. I wanted to rip all the badges off my sleeve, but it was too late. They were the mark of someone who had pursued the narrow path of selfish competitiveness. I felt I was a pariah in the pack with my armful of badges. But I was stuck with them.
Shortly after this, I descended into delinquency in a way that demonstrated the superiority of the moral qualities Akela has emphasised in his peroration. The four of us were returning from a cub outing brandishing our staves in an abandoned manner on the 114 bus as it ran along the Kings Road. We were clearly not behaving as the responsible passengers we should have been, according to the cub code when in public. The bus conductor stopped the bus, and ordered us to leave his bus in the threatening manner that bus conductors assumed when they addressed us. We exited in some haste and I managed to get my stave entangled in a half-open window so that it swung against the branches of the trees that lined Kings Road as the bus started up again. After a short, clattering journey, the bus stopped a second time. The irate conductor jumped off, yanked the stave out of the window and hurled it with evident disgust as far as he could from his bus before jumping on board and vanishing into the distance. I prayed that he would not report the incident to Akela but my prayers were in vain. I was arraigned before the pack on a charge of being a public nuisance, a disgrace to the cubs, scouting and those qualities enunciated by Baden Powell which had been emphasised by Akela in his talk the previous week.
I felt deeply ashamed at my disgrace and attempted to regain some of my lost ground by offering to read the lesson at the monthly Scouts Parade that took place in the Baptist Memorial Church adjoining our hut. The cub reading was never popular and there was always some difficulty in securing volunteers. But it was not as successful a move as I had hoped, partly because I had forgotten the self-consciousness that descended upon me whenever I had to appear before a public audience. The Baptist church was considerably larger than the Roxbourne assembly hall where I had performed as a Wise Man in the Nativity Play and the audience more intimidating. Hundreds of grown-up scouts with huge knees and wide-brimmed hats adorned with green plumes assembled in a forest of flags on a Sunday morning once a month. There were motherly Guides in their blue uniforms surrounded by dozens of thin-legged Brownies in their brown tunics. The whole assembly was awe-inspiring in its ceremonial grandeur even before they lined up and marched into the church behind the leading scout beating a drum as large as himself mounted on a leopard skin, bugles blowing, flags waving, and last of all, the line of cubs, dwarfed in comparison with the rest of the procession.
Inside the church we were met with a high, cream walled interior decorated at one end with a round blue window showing uplifted hands and “Underneath Are The Everlasting Arms” and at the other end, the altar with a stone plaque incised with the paragraph from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress” which from repeated re-readings I know by heart:
I felt like Christian at the end of his journey as the hymn faded into a yawning silence, and I realised by a curt nod from the minister that my moment of truth had arrived. I walked across the polished floor to the pulpit, opened the small door at the back and climbed up the stairs to emerge before the congregation with the demeanour of a convicted felon coming out on to meet the crowd assembled for a public execution.
The church was full, crowded to the back with hundreds of uplifted faces and watching eyes. I clung to the edge of the pulpit for support while the scene wobbled and swam below me. I found it almost impossible to look up from the large bible opened on the lectern in front of me with its red ribbon and red arrow pointing to the text. I felt that if I looked too closely at the audience I should immediately dissolve inside my skin and turn into a puddle on the floor. I could already feel the sweat trickling down inside my trousers on to my knees. The whole congregation was undulating in front of me like a roller coaster. I announced the book, Isaiah and the verse, discovering that my voice was beginning to disappear too, making me sound like a small bird squeaking over the edge of a nest.
“He was wounded for our transgressions,” I informed the congregation. “He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him” I croaked. “And with his stripes we are healed. We are like sheep who have gone astray.” I stumbled on, clutching the lectern, keeping my head down, concluding with the grateful Amen and shuffling back down the stairs of the pulpit, across the brightness of the polished floor to the relative safety of my chair. It had, I knew, been a disaster. One or two worshippers gave me a disinterested glance but I was convinced everyone in the church was aware of the woeful inadequacy of my performance and had stored up in the knowledge in their hearts. My attempt at penance had only increased public scrutiny of my lot. I was not only a failure as a cub but a calamity as a reader. I felt dizzy, unable to hear the minister announce the next hymn or realise that the congregation was standing up to sing. It seemed inconceivable that they were actually going on with the service. I wanted nothing more than to curl up with a cave full of friendly wolves far away from the unfortunate world of grown-ups and failure.
I was despatched to Elm Road Sunday School, a Plymouth Brethren institution halfway between Rayners Lane and North Harrow but definitely towards the bottom of the low church league as far as my mother was concerned. I assume that she considered any instruction in the Christian religion was better than none at all.
The Churches of England - St. Paul in South Harrow, and St. Alban in North Harrow, were some distance from Rayners Lane, and held their Sunday schools in the morning rather than in the afternoon. This timetable did not fit in with our domestic ritual, whatever the Victorian practice of attending church on Sunday morning may have been. Dad worked in the garden on Sunday morning; Sunday dinner was followed by his two-hour nap under the Sunday Express in the front room and it was this custom that was the crucial factor in determining the nature of my Christian indoctrination.
He required a peaceful, unlighted interior for his snooze, a requirement that reduced my mother to sitting in the dark darning socks until she could no longer see. The heating arrangements - an open fire - mean that she was unable to escape to a lighted room during the winter months. And as the only Sunday school that functioned at the same time as my father slept was the Christian Brethren, this became the natural choice for my religious instruction. Dad was undogmatic about the nature of the instruction I received but definitely favoured the afternoon sects.
The Christian Brethren were a friendly, generous group, less awesome than the Baptists farther along Imperial Drive where I had had my disastrous experience with the Church Parade lesson. Elm Road Hall where we met was plain and dusty with wooden chairs, bare walls, plain glass and at one end, a raised wooden dais with steps on either side that served as altar, pulpit and lectern. The organisers of the Sunday School were cheerful in their religious enthusiasm. We sang
Jesus loves me
and other rousing mid-Victorian ballads.
We then separated into small groups where a pleasant young woman in a printed cotton frock read us a story, usually a New Testament parable about the Good Seed or the Lost Sheep and then explained to us what it meant. It was reasonably interesting, not as gripping as Mowgli and Shere Khan but when supplemented by frequent Sunday school teas of jam tarts, lemon-curd sandwiches and Swiss rolls, at the end of which we received a handsome book prize for attendance, it was definitely worth attending. I received R.M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island , a tale of three children wrecked on a tropical island who created a self-sufficient idyllic life before being rescued by missionaries; and Mr. Midshipman Easy by Captain Marryat. Brian was awarded Children of the New Forest, also by Captain Marryat, a story of children in the New Forest whose house had been burned by Puritans but who were working to restore the King.
Into this pastoral Eden, however, the serpent intruded on a regular basis. Sin was an obsession with the Christian Brethren in a way that has passed out of our culture. Sins were impossible to avoid and we committed them all the time. They were the bedrock of the religion and without them there would not have been very much to talk about. Sin was linked with Salvation and the two together supplied the dynamic for our weekly meetings. As an evangelical, proselytising mission an outpost of the faith has been instituted outside Rayners Lane Underground where a preacher harangued the travellers on their sinful ways as they went in and out of the station. Nobody paid much attention to this and I did not associate the fiery speaker standing on a small ladder with the Sunday school that presented me with prizes for attendance.
It was only when he appeared on the wooden dais in Elm Road that I recognised him, and perhaps it was this moment of recognition that made him crook his finger towards me and say “You, young fellow, would you mind coming up to the platform?”
I did mind, but there was no alternative. I went up and stood beside the preacher who explained that our sins were scarlet, and that scarlet was the most difficult colour to paint over, even more difficult than black. He had discovered this when painting his kitchen wall as he attempted unsuccessfully to paint over a scarlet patch left by a previous occupant. With a theatrical flourish he then produced a large reel of red thread from his pocket, and held it aloft. In the manner of a conjurer performing a trick, he bound the thread around my arms which he placed down my sides, shouting, “Break that!”
I raised my arms, snapping the red thread.
“That is one sin,” he informed the audience.
“Now,” and he twirled the reel round and round my arms some fifteen or twenty times, “Break that!”
I tried to raise my arms without success.
“You see!” he shouted to the congregation. “You see how binding sin is. One sin we can escape from, but one sin leads to another. There is no end to sin. How many of you have sinned today?” He paused, while various members of the Sunday school raised their hands.
“We have all sinned today,” he shouted. “We cannot avoid it. Sin binds us as we continue in our sinful lives.”
He proceeded to pass his reel of thread round and round my body another dozen times.
“Now we are paralysed with sin!” he exclaimed.
“We are like a fly wrapped up, waiting for the spider devil to come and consume us. We are flies in the devil’s web, waiting to be dragged into his power.”
I felt distinctly uncomfortable, unable to move, and conscious of his loud voice.
“And that is our life, full of sin condemned to eternal death in an everlasting hell.”
He said more on the same lines. I could feel my fingers starting to go numb.
“Unless,” he shouted, “we ask the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness, unless our scarlet sins are washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Then we are set free.”
He produced a large pair of scissors from his pocket.
“Oh Lord, Jesus Christ, free me from my scarlet sins and give me eternal life.”
And he snipped the thread, and pulled my tingling arms up into the air, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” he shouted.
I escaped down the steps to rejoin the congregation as they started singing “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”
Being saved was the most important aspect of being a Christian Brethren. You were either Saved, or you weren’t. There was no in between. It was a momentous decision, and there was no one I could discuss it with.
After another preacher two weeks later had harangued us on the choice between eternal damnation, lakes of fire, agonies of guilt and peace and freedom in sunlit heaven, vouchsafed by the Lord Jesus Christ, I decided to opt for the latter.
But it was not as straightforward as it seemed. I was apprehensive.
“All those who wish to be received by the Lord Jesus Christ, stay behind afterwards,” the preacher requested.
I wanted desperately to be Saved, but I dithered then sidled slowly out of the door, collected my bicycle and pedalled along Imperial Drive with a fearful apprehension that I was pedalling away from Salvation into Hell.
At the bottom of the hill leading to the Underground, I reviewed my decision, stopped, turned my bike around and began pedalling back again to Elm Road, hoping that the preacher would still be there in time to save me and hadn’t departed leaving me damned for eternity.
But as I approached the hall again, I had doubts for the second time. Did I really believe? Wasn’t I pretending to believe, and God would know I was pretending to believe in him, and know that I was an even more sinful person than the unbeliever?
I hesitated again and decided that I should defer my decision for another week. I turned my bike round yet again, and cycled back, but not with a clear heart or conscience.
. “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” we sang in Elm Road while outside Rayners Lane station every other Sunday, the Salvation Army in their blue and red uniforms toot tooted and tromboned against the devil.
The nature of the choice presented to me by the Christian Brethren produced a degree of emotional trauma but did not affect my belief that we were fighting a just war and that God was on our side. The concept of the just war is a convenient one for Christians since it makes war possible. Christianity is manifestly a religion devoted to peace, where turning the other cheek is offered as a way of breaking the cycle of violence, yet neither the Baptists nor the Christian Brethren nor anyone else responsible for my religious upbringing ever suggested that Jesus might have been a pacifist. The crypt of St. Paul’s cathedral that I was taken to visit about this time was like an annexe of the Imperial War Museum, packed with the marble tombs of generals and admirals engraved with eulogies to their military prowess.
We were lucky. The Second World War probably came closer to being a just war than any other in history.
We followed Jane’s adventures in ‘The Daily Mirror’ in John Brown’s garden - the frilly-knickered heroine with Fritz von Pumpernickel, her dachshund, presented to Jane by a German count when she first made her appearance in the newspaper in the 1930s.
Jane dashed in and out of bedrooms in constant danger of seduction by RAF pilots and wing commanders. She always preserved her virginity and patriotism but managed to shed most of her clothes in the process. Her characteristic movements were at top speed, slamming doors, escaping from villains, running at a rate that guaranteed her skirt lifted to expose her suspendered stockings or her blouse burst a revealing button.
There was no one like Jane in the ‘Daily Express’ or ‘The Graphic’. John Brown had secured a dozen valuable copies of the ‘Daily Mirror’, as he later obtained copies of ‘The News of the World’ and ‘Forever Amber.’ Jane imprinted herself on our imaginations as she did on the nation’s.
There was no one like her in real life, not even Miss Jessy the gym teacher. Miss Jessy was muscular but not feminine. Jane was the essence of femininity, a dizzy glamorous blonde in a froth of lingerie. The war may have given women a new independence in the work place but it also ensured they presented a grim utilitarian image: headscarf, long brown overcoat and in winter, ankle boots trimmed with fake fur and woollen mittens. Even in the summer months women were rarely frivolous. Hats and gloves had largely disappeared; trousers for women were normal for those working in factories but the fashion was spreading to include housewives. There was a fashion for military-cut jackets, large square pockets, padded shoulders and box-pleats. Wartime women’s fashions were not sexy or provocative
But there was a compensating universe and Jane was at the centre of it. Legs were sensational and nylon stockings acquired a rarity value that became legendary. Those unable to buy stockings on the black market or persuade American servicemen to supply them, painted their legs golden with a provocative black line at the back for a seam. And the American pin-up was everywhere. Spawned by the Hollywood chorus lines of the 1930’s and Busby’s Babes in their human kaleidoscopes, the pin-up re-emerged in American Coca-Cola ads, Schweppes posters and as icons under the cockpits of Flying Fortress bombers and Mustang fighters.
Film stars became leggier and sexier with an erotic impact that was greater than ever before., reaching down to us in the back alley at Rayners Lane. Betty Grable and Jane Russell exemplified the new style, extravagantly inviting, with wide curving lips and split skirts revealing their thighs. My mother particularly disliked their lips. “Such great big mouths,” she complained comparing them with the rosebud lips of the film-stars of the Twenties, “You can’t call them beautiful.”
Beauty was changing its shape. The long legs of the pinups, together with their projecting breasts, flowing hair and pouting lips heralded a new image, a seismic shift in popular desire. Never before and rarely since have women’s bodies been so shaped by graphic design. The drawings of pinups lolling on black satin imprinted our minds with fantasy images of female allure: unreal, distorted but immensely powerful. The pinup was the opposite of the factory worker or service woman, languorous and passive, in tight, revealing blouse or swimsuit. Jane was definitely not an American pinup. She was too lively, too English and she talked too much. Significantly she worked for the secret service, unmasking spies, helping Britain defeat the enemy. But she was related to her American sisters and an important icon of the war. It was at Boscombe of all places that I met up with the real life Jane.
We continued to take a week’s holiday every year of the war, at Charmouth, Lyme Regis, Boscombe and Weston-super-mare, showing our passes to the sentries with fixed bayonets who stood by a gap in the barbed wire facing the sea. Taking a week’s holiday became an all-important ritual during the war years, a way of escaping the dreariness of what had become known as the Home Front. Only one year did we patriotically forgo the annual holiday, encouraged by the government’s Holidays at Home propaganda, but this was a dismal failure and we did not try it a second time. Before the war my father had not been paid for his week’s holiday but now he was paid, even though he was not working, a revolutionary change. The holiday was a great event. We queued for several hours at Victoria station for the steam-train which started and stopped all the way to the south coast. On our arrival at Boscombe, we were greeted by banners advertising Jane at the local theatre.
“We must see that,” my father decided. He loved the theatre with a strong preference for the music hall, usually involving a series of vaudeville acts including a conjurer, a juggler, a stand-up comedian and a singer. In the war it was difficult to find music halls around London. The Windmill theatre near Leicester Square stayed open with the boast “We Never Closed” written on a board outside, popularly transcribed as “We Wear No Clothes”. We visited Chiswick Empire but there was a distinct feeling that it was the end of an era. The seaside seemed to be the last outpost for Variety and Jane was here to give it the necessary contemporary relevance.
Mum wasn’t enthusiastic, but we went. The preliminary acts included a conjurer who suspended a silver-spangled woman in mid-air by pulling away the table on which she was lying and then (a never-to-be-forgotten gesture) passing a hoop outside her body to show there were no supporting wires and casually throwing it to us in the audience to examine.
For me, this trick was much more memorable than Jane, but I could sense the hushed anticipation in the air as the conjuror withdrew and there was a pause before the red velvet curtains slowly drew apart to reveal Jane naked except for a tin helmet, standing on a pile of bomb rubble. Behind her was a painted panorama of the Blitz. The audience stared for a few minutes until the curtains closed, then slid open again to reveal Jane standing motionless on a rock, naked except for a sailor’s hat, looking out to sea through a telescope while a naval signal fluttered overhead. The audience watched in hushed silence until the curtains closed. I tried to pretend it was normal but I avoided meeting Mum’s eye.. The next tableau was of the North African desert with Jane naked on a tank. Behind her were palm trees and pyramids. The curtains closed and opened to reveal Jane on the wing of a Spitfire gazing into the clouds, wearing nothing but a pilot’s helmet. This was followed by Jane in a munitions factory, holding a spanner in her hand. The final tableau showed a nude Jane clasping her two dachshunds under a giant Union Jack on a saluting base while the music plays “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. The curtains closed for the last time.
“She’s not allowed to move,” my mother whispered, as we filed out of the theatre. “If she moves, she’s prosecuted by the Lord Chamberlain.” It was her main observation and she repeated it several times. I imagined that the Lord Chamberlain or his representative was somewhere on the premises.
The spectacle of a naked lady was I realised, a valuable trophy to be taken back to the alley. I had not been especially aroused. Jane’s shapely white body shaved of all hair, lacked the vitality of her “Daily Mirror” original. Still, I realised what a coup it was to have seen a naked lady on stage. No one else’s father had taken them to such a spectacle, and I treasured it as a unique event to be exploited among my peers. At first they didn’t believe me.
“You wouldn’t go with your parents.”
Eventually they did believe me and their questions became more specific.
“What was it like down there?”
The Cinderella pantomime that we went to see that year at the Harrow Coliseum, was for me a much more erotic event although it was intended to be wholesome family entertainment. I was acutely conscious of adult sexuality as Prince Dando, the Principal Boy in fishnet stockings, high heels, white cravat and short scarlet jacket strutted across the stage towards the anaemic Cinderella whose foot happens to fit the missing shoe. High heels were obviously much more exciting than Cinderella’s crystal slipper. I was sexually aroused, six years before puberty, without knowing any more about sex than John Brown had told us in the dampness of the Kings Road air-raid shelter. Prince Dando impressed herself on my pre-pubescent sensibility with all the concentrated power of the new pinups.
Sex pursued its separate, anarchic path. Love was more reliable. I fell in love with Doreen, fair-haired with a clover-leaf pattern on her sandals and ran after her after school every day to where she lived in Torbay Road, not intending to catch her but as a sign of my devotion that was frustrated only by her garden gate. Running was my main courtship activity. I chased Doreen home whenever I could, making sure that I never caught up with her for then I should have had to say something.
Paddy Russell was my next obsession. I considered her the most beautiful girl in the school, which she may well have been in her gingham skirt, white ankle socks and shining blonde hair. But she was a goddess in transit, cruelly removed by her parents from Roxbourne to North London Collegiate School, an institution that earned my undying hatred for years after.
Sheila Goodman, olive-skinned with black bobbed hair, was my next passion, a magnetic girl who attracted suitors by the score in a way that made me aware of the essential hopelessness of male ardour. I accompanied her home in a protective pack of suitors, jostling for position, knowing we were all equally doomed by her arrival at the garden gate where she dismissed us with a dazzling smile and a wave of her elegant hand.
It was all very confusing but we weren’t confused. Fragments of American comics, Jane in the “Daily Mirror”, the Principal Boy in Cinderella, pinups and the girls I fell in love with at school, floated in and out of my life. They were heart-stirring or arousing, but the violent catastrophic weather-systems of adolescence were not even clouds on the horizon. Cubs and the stamp-club were more important.
We rushed around the playground, shouting, “The Second Front’s opened, the Second Front’s opened!” The news spread like wildfire. I joined in with the rest, although I had little idea what the Second Front was or why it wasn’t the first front, or what was actually happening.
It soon became clear. The wireless bulletins supplied continual commentaries and photographs of beach landings appeared in the papers and news films showing dark flotillas of ships massed off the French coast. The amphibious DUKWs crowded with soldiers charging into the white surf with their rifles above their heads became symbolic of the invasion. There was news of beachheads with strange names like Omaha and Utah; the allies had towed a harbour across the channel called Mulberry.
We knew it was the beginning of the end, although we were more optimistic than we should have been. The allies didn’t sweep through the French countryside as easily as we anticipated and there were incessant battles over every town and village. Caen was shelled into ruins and there was little to take when the troops finally entered. But we knew now it was only a matter of time. The word liberation began to acquire a new meaning as pictures of tanks covered with cheering soldiers and flag-waving women appeared. Against a backdrop of shelled villages, there were carnival images of rejoicing, kisses and waving arms.
The Yanks were in charge although we played that down. General Eisenhower was viewed as a fatherly, kindly man unlike General, “blood and guts” Patton, who it was said, forced his men off their hospital sick-beds into the front line with inhuman brutality. “Ike” as he became affectionately known, was the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord and although lacking the charisma of Montgomery he presented an amiable, genial face which we trusted. For the first time in the war American and British forces were fused into one, as they stormed the Normandy towns and drove through French villages. The alienation we had felt towards Americans began to soften.
For my ninth birthday I was given two rabbits. Dad had told me intriguing stories about the rabbit he had as a pet in Bow when he was a boy. It was called Victor, and he carried it around with him inside his shirt when it wasn’t at home in its wooden orange-crate. Victor was a Belgian hare, a large purple-haired animal that was his inseparable companion when he was a boy.
I wanted a pet along similar lines, but instead I was presented with two pedigree, highly-strung butterfly rabbits more suitable for winning prizes at rabbit-shows than as pets. And instead of an orange crate, Dad constructed a large residence designed to keep the rabbits in the style to which they had been accustomed. It was a rabbit-residence over six feet long: at one end were the sleeping-quarters filled with straw, leading via a pair of bat-wing saloon-doors into the main reception space where there were a variety of ladders and shelves and, at the other end, the dining-area where a brass basket held whatever was on the menu that day. To ensure cleanliness Dad made two metal tools, one resembling a croupier’s rake, the other a scoop which were presented to me with the rabbits.
Unfortunately these animals were as unlike the legendary Victor as it was possible to be. They were highly-strung, twitchy animals whose brown splodges on either side of their white coats resembled a Rorschach test. For a time I was impressed with their thoroughbred status but their frenetic nervous systems, encouraged by the size of the hutch, made it impossible to be on intimate terms with them. They didn’t want to be picked up or cuddled. They didn’t want to come anywhere near me and our relationship soon cooled into indifference if not hostility. They became aggressive and I discovered they could inflict serious damage to the ends of my fingers with their chisel-shaped front teeth whenever I waggled them through the wire netting. When they weren’t trying to bite me, they hurtled away at my approach, crashing through the batwing doors in a frenzied escape.
Faced with such behaviour, our relationship deteriorated rapidly. I forgot to feed them and neglected the cleaning of the hutch. Jack and Fred - the homely names I had optimistically given them – became even more neurotic and spent most of their day dashing through the batwing doors from one end of their residence to the other. They were athletic and scrawny beasts, not the soft cuddly animals I hoped for. There is a wild side to rabbit life: they eat their young; they grow vicious claws and possess a kick like the starting handle on a car. The rabbits and I began to live separate lives. I would hurl a few cabbage leaves into their brass trough on my way to school and clean them out at irregular intervals but there was always a strong stench of urine when I opened their bedroom apartment to throw a handful of fresh sawdust on the floor.
Winter arrived, a particularly cold one that produced patterns on the inside of the window panes and a urine-smooth skating rink for Jack and Fred. In such weather conditions they discovered that their hectic rush through the batwing doors at my approach was difficult to stop and they slid the length of the living-room floor and crashed into the opposite wall like cartoon-rabbits.
“Don’t forget to feed the rabbits,” was now the parental cry every day. The crisis came one Saturday evening, when I entered the house to be met with the announcement that the rabbits had not been fed. Relations had reached such a low that my indifference to the rabbits’ fate was now obvious to my parents, who had taken the rabbits’ side. I was informed that I would not be fed until the rabbits were.
“I’ve run out of food.”
“Then go and find some,” my father ordered.
“I’ll feed them tomorrow,” I replied, although I was aware that finding rabbit food on a Sunday was even more difficult than on a Saturday night. I was led to the kitchen door by my father, who was clearly in no mood to accept my promises. He opened the door and I was ejected into the snowy night.
“Don’t come back until you’ve fed the rabbits!” he informed me, shutting the kitchen door and turning the key in the lock with dramatic finality.
I set off down the garden path. Snow had started to fall in whirling flakes. It was freezing cold and the path was slippery and uneven with ice. I could see the white shapes of Jack and Fred gazing hungrily through the wire of the hutch but I had little sympathy for them. They were the instruments of my oppression. Where would I find cabbage leaves on a night like this? It would serve my parents right if I was found huddled in the Kings Road, a frozen carcass like those soldiers in the snow I had seen in news photographs. Perhaps they would be sorry then for the way they had treated me. I imagined my coffin being carried through the snow by ragged-coated mourners. I walked up the alley looking at the lights in the houses. No one was out on the streets and the Kings Road was white and deserted. No shops were open. At Lakins the black shutters were down and there were no lights to be seen. My parents were more interested in the rabbits’ survival than they were in mine.
I walked back along the start of the Kings Road and turned into the alley at the back of the shops. A single strand of barbed wire like a prison camp ran along the top of the feather-board fencing. Inside the Lakin back yard I could spot various sacks and wooden boxes covered with a coating of snow. The flakes were still swirling down, giving the whole place a lugubrious and dismal air. But something had to be done. I pulled myself onto the top of the fence. The barbed wire was more difficult to negotiate than it seemed, but I wriggled underneath scraping my knees on the top of the fence and dropped down into the yard. The sacks of rotten cauliflowers and yellow sprouts were frozen solid but I managed to prise a cabbage head and some icy leaves out with my chilled hands, throw them over the fence and clamber back under the wire again.
Outside my footprints were clearly visible. I would probably be arrested for stealing but I was too cold to care. I ran along the Kings Road, clutching the leaves and the cabbage head. The brittle leaves were still frozen when I flung them into the hutch; Jack and Fred fled to the other end, less than grateful for their sustenance but I had accomplished my mission; whether they ate their frozen food or not was immaterial. I banged on the kitchen door and was readmitted. Soon after the rabbits and the hutch disappeared but I did not regret their absence and hardly noticed that they had gone.
The war took an unexpected reverse. General von Rundstedt counter-attacked in an action that became known as the Battle of the Bulge and General von Manteuffel made a desperate attempt to cut through the American and British troops to reach Brussels and Antwerp. There were sub-zero temperatures across Europe and 80,000 American troops were killed but the Germans were finally defeated and the counterattack repulsed. Day after day there were pictures of blackened tanks in the white snow. General Omar Bradley and Patton were said to be quarrelling with Montgomery but we remained fiercely loyal to Monty who always appeared wearing two cap badges on his beret. There was a story in the newspapers that American regiments were falling ill because they drank milk in Normandy farms straight from the cows when back home they had only drunk pasteurised milk and we took this as an indication that the Americans, in spite of their military successes, were really softies incapable of real toughness.
Divorce was not on the agenda in Rayners Lane. The only person we ever talked about who had been divorced was Mrs Simpson and she had been divorced twice, chiefly because she was American where such goings-on were commonplace. Of course there were film stars who got divorced but their lives were not seen as models and there was Henry V111 who was the inventor of divorce, which he had instituted for the laudable purpose of creating the Church of England, but Henry V111 had not made divorce respectable and as far as Rayners Lane and my mother were concerned, it never would be.
Families were seen as immutable facts of life not to be analysed although there were of course some very odd ones about. But the word relationship was never used in my hearing and the idea that the marriage vows might be subject to the same scrutiny as other concerns was not one that was ever raised. There were things that you talked about and things that you didn’t and relationships between husbands and wives, like the English class system or religion were definitely taboo. Families were taken for granted, and that was how they should be taken. Dad kept in close touch with his brother and sister and Mum with her sister. Even though husbands were away for six years, marriage was still inviolate. Jan in Mrs Martin’s kitchen and Cobber in Mrs Brown’s were temporary disturbances, which would naturally fade away when the war ended. As a result there was even a certain indulgence towards such affairs. The brief encounters and poignant meetings were part of the bittersweet atmosphere of wartime that became one of its dominant characteristics. Chance meetings and sudden departures were not however, the same as the cataclysmic upheavals of divorce. Divorce was the ultimate selfishness and that was how it was usually viewed.
Lily was married to Dad’s best friend, Ted Winter, and was regarded as somewhat selfish by my mother. “ She’s a fashion plate,” Mum said, not without a touch of envy in her voice. Lily wore expensive linen dresses; she walked elegantly in high-heeled blue and white court shoes and wore broad brimmed floppy straw hats that looked more suitable for pre-war Ascot than wartime Rayners Lane.
“ Lily’s full of herself,” Mum declared when Ted and Lily came over for Sunday dinner. Lily was slim and painted her nails bright red, a fashion that fascinated me as I watched her at dinner. Lily fancied herself as Rita Hayworth whom she resembled.
Ted Winter was Dad’s closest friend. They had known each other since their East End days when they were both members of the Balham Cycling Club and Dad won a silver medal for cycling 186 miles in 12 hours. He and Ted had raced at Herne Hill cycle track and toured England together. They had learned dancing, quicksteps and foxtrots and Ted had won “Evening Standard” competitions. They have been best man at each other’s weddings. Dad respected Ted immensely as a toolmaker. “One of the best in London,” he said. Ted, like most toolmakers was quietly spoken and slow, considering any subject carefully before he gave an opinion. He sat cross-legged on the lawn and played fivestones with me. Ted and Lily came over on Sundays about four times a year. They arrived at eleven in the morning for coffee, talked until the Sunday dinner was served, then after washing-up they sat in the garden until tea. It was always high tea with a salad, sponge-cakes, sardine-sandwiches and trifle. Then came the evening entertainment. The table was cleared again and set out for playing cards, always Solo. There were clouds of smoke and drinking and the chink of coins in the kitty and laughter.
I liked company. It lasted all day and next morning there was the lingering smell of tobacco and drink to remind me of the laughter. Ted and Lily were favoured guests. We fetched out the white starched tablecloth and the Bravington cutlery arranged in black velvet in its oak case and Mum dressed up to rival Lily.
But one Sunday Ted came over alone and a tense atmosphere descended on the house. There was whispered talk in which I was not included, with none of the previous laughter. I hung around the edge of the conversation to see what I could discover. A favourite place was sitting at the top of the stairs where I was out of sight but could hear what was being said below. Ted came and went more frequently than before but always without Lily. I tried to understand what was happening but it was like putting together a jigsaw. There were words I didn’t understand. Ted spends hours talking with Mum and Dad and didn’t play fivestones anymore. I discovered that Lily was having an affair. That was a new word that didn’t mean what I thought it meant. She had been having an affair with a policeman. I found it difficult to imagine Lily with a policeman whom I envisaged in uniform wearing large black boots. John Brown explained that an affair meant people slept together in the same bed but this didn’t seem an adequate explanation since I couldn’t understand what was wrong with two people sleeping together: I slept with Michael in the same bed. John Brown said if a man and a woman slept together it didn’t mean sleeping, it meant they were having an affair. Ted had found a note from the policeman to Lily in an air-raid shelter and that was the topic of endless debate. It was as though a bomb has dropped. I imagined Ted finding the note and unfolding it. Perhaps the policeman and Lily had slept together in the shelter during an air raid. It must have been an Anderson shelter with a dark, corrugated iron roof and seats inside where the note has been found. It wasn’t clear to me in spite of all my listening whether Lily had written the note to the policeman or the policeman had written the note to her but it was Ted finding the note that was explosive.
“Poor Ted,” Mum kept saying, “He’s such a good man.”
She always suspected Lily was unreliable, a gadabout, not to be trusted. I imagined the policeman in uniform with his helmet and Lily with her Ascot hat. Why was the note Ted found in the air raid shelter so important that Ted and Dad and Mum talked about it Sunday after Sunday? I learned of further developments. Ted had discovered she has been meeting the policeman secretly for a long time. She has been telling lies to Ted and the policeman had been telling lies too. I found it shocking that the policeman had been telling lies because I had always been told to trust policemen. Lily had said she was in love with the policeman.
“She wants a good shaking,” Mum declared.
“I shall have to get a divorce,” Ted announced sadly one week. That was when the word was first mentioned. It was even worse than affair. There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask but I could guess that nobody was going to answer them. Ted was very upset, I could tell that.
One Sunday I asked him why he had grey hair. He didn’t have much, just a few wisps over his ears but Dad didn’t have any. What made hair go grey?
“It’s a wonder I don’t have more,” Ted said.
“Why does it go grey?”
“Worry, they say.”
For some reason I found myself in a question-asking mood. I asked Ted why he had ears that shape.
“We’re all different.”
“Your ears are bigger than Dad’s.”
I found it difficult to halt my enquiries. Ted’s features seemed suddenly fascinating.
“Why is hair growing out of your nose like that?”
I could tell that my questions were making me unpopular with Dad but that didn’t stop me.
“That’ll do,” he said coldly.
There was a definite chill in the atmosphere although Ted didn’t seem offended. It was time for me to go to Sunday School. Dad accompanied me down the path with the key to the shed. He didn’t say anything and I was suddenly frightened at how angry he was. He gripped my arm as he opened the door and threw me inside. Crash! His open hand struck the side of my head, sending me reeling against the wall. “Don’t you ever let me hear you talk like that again!”
Crash! His hand hit me a second time.
“You don’t make personal remarks. Understand?”
“Yes,” I blubbered, “I didn’t mean to.” I wasn’t quite sure what personal remarks were, but I knew now. He raised his hand to hit me again but I put my arms over my head.
“Is that clear?” he shouted.
“Yes” I wailed.
He had lost his temper, and threw the shed key on to the bench, storming out, leaving me shaking as I dragged my bike out of the door. I had never known him so angry.
The phrase personal remarks was branded into my consciousness as if with a hot iron. It meant I mustn’t comment on people’s ears or the hair growing out of their noses or anything to do with their appearance. It was as bad as telling lies, maybe worse. I vowed never to mention anybody’s ears or hair ever again.
Ted was divorced and there was a gap in his visits.
Then one Sunday he appeared with Brenda. Brenda was younger, a slim, brown-armed woman who was a good athlete and had won races at the White City stadium. She had curls and a snub nose but I was careful not to remark on these. She sat on the lawn in her cotton dress, and talked excitedly about athletics and was quite different from Lily. She and Ted got married. “ Only in a registry office,” Mum said. Mum didn’t approve of registry office weddings but if you were divorced that is what you had to do. Ted and Brenda came over for Sundays again, staying for Sunday dinner and Ted played fivestones with me again. In the evening there was Solo and smoking although Brenda didn’t smoke. The gap was healed and it was as if Lily had never existed.
Then one Sunday Brenda announced she was going to have a baby. Dad and Ted had always done everything the same. Now Ted was going to be a father too. “Brenda’s much better for him,” Mum said. ” He always wanted a family. That other one was no good. She was too selfish to have a baby.” She never mentioned Lily by name.
So perhaps divorce was good for Ted after all, but nobody said so.
No toys were manufactured during the war years. This provided the excuse for Dad making them. In a previous century he would probably have been a toymaker working in wood but he was born into an industrial age and compelled during the war-years into making fuses for shells and bombs.
After a short period as an office boy in Limehouse Docks in London when he left school at 14, he moved into toolmaking. This was before the days of formal apprenticeship but he was a natural craftsman. Mum had only a hazy idea of what he was doing. “I thought when we first met, he made hammers in a shop,” she explained, “because he talked about a shop, and said he made tools.” Such a mistake was understandable. In fact the tools fitted into giant presses and stamped out hundreds of thousands of copies. He fashioned the steel from the draftsman’s drawings; it was skilled precision-work with tolerances of a thousandth of an inch and toolmakers regarded themselves as the elite of the factory’s work force even though they were required to start work in the morning an hour earlier than the typists and compelled to punch a time-clock as they entered and left the building. The time- clock was an object of resentment for my father and many of the other toolmakers who felt insulted by its assumption that they would not be on time. As a result my father was often deliberately later than necessary in the mornings because fifteen minutes pay was automatically deducted after six minutes lateness.
Perhaps it was the same resentment that was responsible for the toolmakers making a variety of ‘foreigners’ as they were called: cigarette lighters, spare parts for cars, or in Dad’s case, toys. How many thousands of hours were lost to the war effort by the manufacture of toys and cigarette lighters is impossible to estimate but it must have been considerable. Only the presence of bright wood-shavings rather than metal waste in the toolroom made the subversive activity observable, but this does not seem to have deterred my father, whose toys involved a substantial amount of wood-turning.
His first two Christmas presents were Short Sunderland flying boats for Michael and me in 1940. Silver-hulled with maroon floats and underbodies, they were handsome planes even if they failed to stand up on their floats and sank to the wings - an ignominious position for a sea plane in our critical five-year-old eyes. They had perspex front windows, an aerial from cockpit to tail-fin and transfer markings which included our initials and the date.
The following year Father Christmas produced two anti-aircraft guns that could be loaded and fired, emitting a blue cloud of smoke and a whiff of cordite as the shell shot out with sufficient force to topple a lead soldier over. These guns were a great advance on the passive flying-boats. The firing mechanism was activated by a plunger on the breech which released a lever that struck a knurled knob filled with the heads of red matches. The gun barrel could be raised and lowered with a worm-thread and the body was painted in khaki and green camouflage; there were rubber tyres on the large wheels. Our names and the date were inscribed on each breech-block.
Why my father, who disliked war, should have spent so much time making war toys was a question that was never raised. The idea that boys should be brought up to play with weapons was so deeply ingrained it appeared natural. Only Brenda, Ted Winter’s new wife, proclaimed that she would never buy her son a toy pistol. But she was generally regarded as an eccentric idealist. It was as natural for boys to play at killing as for girls not to.
However, the gender divide exercised my father’s skills since he clearly felt he could not make anti-aircraft guns and Short Sunderland flying boats for my cousin Sally. So for the following two years he concentrated on less militaristic presents: a large double-fronted dolls’ house with fir trees in tubs at the entrance, hall stairs, wallpapered rooms, and tiny light switches in every room that illuminated the hanging bowls. Then he built a sewing machine that was all metal and was manufactured entirely in the factory. In man-hours it must have been the equivalent of several bomb fuses. It operated a running stitch and a chain-stitch and was a working miniature version of its grown-up counterpart.
The following year he returned to war toys inspired by the doll’s house and constructed two mediaeval fortresses with prisons, barred windows and studded doors. There was a ratchet-operated drawbridge, underground cellars, and above each entrance arch, a metal shield bearing a dagger dripping three drops of blood gules with our initials and date. These came to us via Father Christmas in whom I fervently believed and to whom I wrote a list of requests every year addressed to Father Christmas, Greenland which I posted in the letterbox at the corner of Capthorne Avenue. I clung devotedly to my faith even though I knew in another part of my mind that my father was making the forts in the kitchen which was full of smoke in the evenings as he burned the masonry joints of the round tower into the wood with irons heated on the gas ring. It was impossible for me not to know what was going on, but I persisted in my belief not only because the goods arrived on Christmas Eve but because it was impossible not to believe. Belief seemed natural and I found no difficulty at all in reconciling my awareness that the forts were being constructed in the kitchen and that Father Christmas existed. There was some talk that Dad sent them to Father Christmas but this was hardly necessary. What was important was the fact that all grown-ups told me that Father Christmas was real. It was inconceivable that there could be a universal conspiracy to deceive me. It would mean all the grownups in Britain getting together and hatching a story, which covered every manifestation of Christmas - every department store, every book and every mention of Santa Claus. So I believed with that trust in the honesty of grown-ups which is instinctive. I believed as I believed in Jesus and in the way babies were born. Christmas brought all three together in one festival.
The final toy was the Spitfire, the ne plus ultra of British wartime glamour, the plane that had single-handedly won the Battle of Britain, inseparable from the young men who ran across the grass to take off against the German bombers. It was impossible to be too patriotic or sentimental about the Spitfire. Small, defiant, agile, it twisted through the sky symbolic of our stand against Goliath. My father set out to reproduce the Spitfire with as faithful an accuracy as he could manage. With typical care, he wrote to the War Office asking for an exact sample of the blue for the underbody and the camouflage markings for the fuselage. The War office replied by despatching an official to our house, clearly suspicious that there might be an underground cell in Capthorne Avenue sending coded messages to Berlin about the colours of the Spitfire four years after the Battle of Britain was over. I listened to muffled discussions in the dining-room. Satisfied that my father was more in touch with Father Christmas than the Luftwaffe, the official departed. Dad set about the serious business of designing an undercarriage mechanism that would retract and lock when the wheels were down, in the wing-thickness of half an inch. It was a taxing problem that was finally solved after several hundred more hours of the firm’s time. The Spitfires were made and delivered to our pillow cases by Father Christmas in elegant plywood boxes lined with dark blue velvet.
The Spitfire was the last of the war-toys. Forts and guns returned to the shops after the war but Father Christmas never returned. I was finally forced to admit that he might not exist. For me he was a major casualty of the Second World War.
Inspired by the praise lavished on his Christmas toys, my father turned his thoughts to toy-making on a grander scale. He would mass-produce toy trains which would sell in their thousands and free him for ever from the drudgery of the factory system. Mass production was the key to wealth and happiness. “Where will you do that?” Mum asked. She was apprehensive that the house might be taken over as the front room had been taken over by the billiard table.
“In the shed at the bottom of the garden.”
“All right then,” she agreed reluctantly.
Dad set to work installing two large upright drilling machines and a circular saw on the bench. He ordered a supply of wooden crates, which filled the bottom of the garden and reached up over the alley like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. From these he would fashion the wheels and make the carriages. Each train set would consist of a bright red engine, shaped like the Coronation Scot with a sloping front, pulling three open carriages with a guard’s van. He started an account book detailing his materials and expenses.
“Mass-production’s the answer,” he declared.
I was familiar with the concept of mass-production because it formed one of the ongoing debates in our house in which my parents took opposite sides as they did on practically everything. Mum was a devotee of work done by hand.
“Any work done by hand is superior,” she insisted, “That’s why ladies want their underclothes made by hand.” This was an end to the matter as far as Mum was concerned.
But my father believed equally strongly in the superiority of machine work.
“Stitching by machine is neater and more accurate,” he pointed out. “Stitching by hand can never rival that done by machine.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mum replied.
Sewing was one of the few topics about which she was confident she knew more than Dad. “The best clothes are always made by hand. Look at Savile Row tailors. They make all their gentlemen’s suits by hand.”
“That’s because customers are individually fitted,” Dad pointed out, “Not because the actual stitching is superior.”
For Mum this was a ridiculous absurdity..
“Handstitching is what customers pay for,” she said, “They don’t pay for machine-work.”
“What they’re paying for is the individual attention,” Dad insisted, “not the workmanship.”
My father’s logic carried no weight at all with Mum. “Anyone can buy clothes run up by machine,” she answered. People in Rayners Lane buy all their clothes off the peg.” My mother always managed to get considerable disdain into the expressions run up and off the peg, implying a level of workmanship so low it was not worth consideration. But Dad believed in his position with equal sincerity.
“The workmanship at Fords is better than at Rolls Royce” he informed us, “because at Rolls Royce the components can be fitted individually by hand, but at Ford they have to be accurate to a thousandth of an inch. At Rolls Royce the parts can be bodged. With mass-production everything has to be spot-on.”
This example also left my mother unmoved. “Everyone knows that a Rolls Royce is better than a Ford,” she responded triumphantly.
As we didn’t possess either a Rolls Royce or a Ford, I found this discussion rather theoretical.
The debate had many ramifications and took a variety of forms including the political. “Mass production means more people can have a car if they want one, and not just the rich,” Dad said. For Mum this was proof positive that mass-production was inferior.
“I don’t envy the rich their money,” she replied, “It means they can employ people like us to work for them.” She would like to have been driven around in a car instead of waiting at bus-stops, especially a Rolls Royce like the one in which she has been photographed wearing a white fur-collared coat sitting beside the chauffeur in the South of France.
For Dad the machine offered hope, specifically the machines he had installed in the shed at the bottom of the garden. The process of tooling-up began, with the manufacture at the factory of special steel chucks for drilling out the wheels. The painting of the train sets, each carriage a different colour, was to be carried out by spray-gun and he devised a series of experiments with different thicknesses of paint, grey undercoats followed by bright pink, blue and yellow gloss finishes, squirting them on to prepared surfaces. Mum’s fears of domestic invasion began to be justified. The smell of paint permeated the house. The upstairs rooms were fitted out with drying racks and we experimented with transfers for the front of the engines, leopards and flying eagles.
The additional labour-force required for the move into mass production was recruited from my friends in the alley. John Brown, Brian Hartel, John Martin and I were hired at sixpence an hour rising to ninepence if we worked satisfactorily. We were shown how to operate the tower-drill and given a training session for which we were paid the same hourly rate, since Dad believed in strict trade-union principles. A sales-force was recruited from friends and relatives including Auntie Marjorie, Beryl Brown and Lena Hartel. Auntie Marjorie arrived with a large suit-case into which the completed train-sets were loaded, each one carefully wrapped in tissue paper ready for the waiting world.
The train-sets were popular and demand outstripped supply. The labour force worked happily for three hours every Saturday afternoon in a shower of golden wood shavings, only marred, as far as I was concerned, by the promotion of my friends to ninepence an hour while I languished at sixpence because, in my father’s estimation, I was not such a dedicated worker.
Each locomotive and carriage was sprayed with grey undercoat, sandpapered and then given two top-coats of gloss paint. The wheels were left plain and varnished. The front room was full of red locomotives, ranged in rows like marshalling yards and each bedroom assumed the appearance of a goods yard of small trucks waiting to be connected up. I discovered a certain facility for transferring the eagles and leopards on to the fronts of the engines and was promoted to ninepence an hour. Dad meticulously checked the workmanship of his labour-force, examining the wheels on the axles and handing back anything below standard. We took turns at the drilling machines, lowering the chuck into the wood, watching the curved shape of the wheel emerge from the flurry of shavings. The suit-cases were filled again and again.
“Five shillings isn’t enough, Len,” Auntie Marjorie said, packing another suitcase full of trains. “It’s giving them away. I can get seven and six.”
“If you can get more you keep it,” Dad replied, “it’s your commission.”
“Don’t be silly Len, it’s yours. You made them,” Marjorie insisted.
In this atmosphere of ruthless capitalism we produced trains all summer into the autumn. At every level the project was a resounding success except at the level at which it was intended. We never made enough profit to enable my father to retire from factory-life.
“You must charge more,” Beryl Brown told him forcefully. Everyone agreed Dad should charge more. But Dad wouldn’t charge more. The toy-train market wouldn’t stand an increase in prices and he refused to cut down on the quality of the product by using only one top-coat of paint or leaving one carriage off the set. He had a touching faith that the public would eventually recognise the quality of the product and sales would increase to the point where he could quit factory-life for ever. But although demand never slackened, the costs of production absorbed all the profits. As winter approached the cost of heating the shed tipped the balance. The mysterious power of economics exerted its sway and the project that was to liberate him from factory oppression came to a close. He was forced to admit that the toy-trains, although successful, were not going to deliver the goods. Decisions were taken and we abandoned mass-production. The last train was packed into the last suitcase. The drilling machines and circular-saw were advertised for sale in “The Harrow Observer” and the pile of crates in the back-garden were sawn up for firewood.
But my father was resolved to escape from factory life by one means or another. He had become progressively disillusioned with his work-life. The rigid hierarchy of workers, clerical staff and management with separate canteens for each, reinforced his sense of immobility. He had no desire to become a foreman in the toolroom although offered the position a number of times. A thankless task he called it and there was no other career ladder available for toolmakers, although a very few including Ted, were offered jobs in management.
His dream was not to become a manager but to run a boarding-house by the sea when the war ended, at Hastings or Brighton or on the Devon coast. It was a utopian plan. He loved the seaside; he enjoyed meeting people; he liked food and drink and he was capable of keeping a house in good repair, fixing the plumbing and heating. It was time for a change of life when the war was over and before it was too late. It was simply a question of selling up in Rayners Lane as soon as possible and moving to the coast.
There was only one snag. Mum was against it. The boarding-house as she saw it, would involve endless cooking and bedmaking while Dad chatted to the guests. The more she considered it, the more she was opposed to the whole project “I hate housework,” she said. This was undeniably true. Mum’s dislike of dusting and polishing was frequently articulated; she disliked ironing and only tolerated washing because it made her hands white. Cooking was the only household skill she enjoyed but the prospect of doing that every day for a large number of people appalled her. Worst of all, though, was the housework. “Who’s going to make all the beds?” she asked after one of the tea-time discussions about the boarding-house project. “I don’t want to spend my life making beds.”
“We can employ a maid,” Dad suggested but Mum was sceptical.
“Servants cost money,” she declared. “You have to be businesslike to afford help.”
Dad’s reputation as a businessman, never very high, had reached a nadir with the toy-train venture.
“I run a dressmaking business, I know.” Mum said with authority. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life cooking and washing up. You’ll spend your time talking to guests in the bar,” she said again, “I’ll have to do all the hard work.” Her opposition was implacable.
The boarding house dream, beloved by Dad, was doomed. His vision of financial independence and freedom from factory life after the war had to be financed in other ways. He tried a series of further projects: glass-topped telephone tables which held the London directories and I traipsed around the streets with him, posting handbills through the letter-boxes, but although we received about a dozen orders the venture never took off. Too few residents possessed a telephone and those who did seemed content to pile their directories on top of one another on a shelf. The telephone tables were followed by a wire figure of a Chinese man pulling a rickshaw which held a small flower pot, but this was undercut by a similar figure which appeared in Woolworths containing a flowering cactus for less than half the price. Escape from factory drudgery was more difficult than it appeared. Dad returned to the factory-bench with his dreams of living by the sea restricted to his annual summer-holiday.
A failure on the larger scene was the battle of Arnhem, which dominated the headlines every morning and filled the skies with thousands of gliders and 30,00 airborne troops. The paratrooper’s maroon beret with the silver Pegasus became another icon as compelling to us as the Desert Rat of the Eighth Army.. The plan to capture the bridges over the rivers and canals on the Dutch-German border was thwarted as the bridges were blown up before the allies arrived. The paratroopers were blown to pieces as they tried to cross the Rhine. Over a thousand paratroopers were killed and six thousand taken prisoner. Like Dunkirk it was a failure presented as a success.
We visited Portsmouth, where small boys were standing in deep mud below the pier shouting to us to throw pennies, which they scrambled for. I was fascinated by their appearance, more completely enveloped in mud than any boys I had seen before. “They’re mud-larks,” Dad told me. We threw them pennies then stopped at a restaurant and ate whale-meat for lunch. It looked like beefsteak and had no bones but tasted fishy. The government was encouraging us to eat whale-meat because there was a lot of it. After lunch we toured Nelson’s flagship, The Victory and I dreamt of applying to join the navy when I was thirteen. The first step was to acquire the admiral’s hat with a curving prow that I had seen in a second-hand shop in Harrow for £8. Like other visitors I read the shining brass plate on the scrubbed deck where Nelson had been shot in full-dress uniform. I marvelled at the myth and accepted it unquestionably although I later learned that more sailors had been killed under Nelson’s command than under all the other commanders put together. But I lived by myths, and Nelson at Trafalgar was as important to me as the Battle of Arnhem.
Because of the war the years in Rayners Lane were a time of stability. No one moved house apart from the Smarts. In contrast with the years before the war we lived in a static community with few disruptions. Most of the men had been sent away for six years or if they were in reserved occupations were working such long hours they were rarely seen on the streets or in the homes. The women had greater independence and managed their houses, shops and schools efficiently on limited budgets and few resources. There were few changes from month to month or year to year. The streets were empty of vehicles and safe places for us in which to play marbles and cigarette-cards. Workmen rarely dug holes in the streets or pavements; no new houses or office blocks were built; no new shops opened or old ones closed; there were no ads on the billboards exhorting us to buy cars or even toothpaste. There were only the small posters put out by Ministry of Information asking us Is Your Journey Really Necessary? the opposite of all advertising since. There were no neon lights and hardly any traffic lights. Food was rationed and healthy, clothes endlessly mended. Mum turned sheets top to bottom, made new collars out of shirt tails and re-hemmed cuffs. Socks and stockings were always darned and Dad mended my shoes on a last in the shed banging steel tips into the soles so that I clattered like a tap-dancer as I ran down the street. Nothing was wasted and throwing anything away apart from fish-heads wrapped in newspaper was considered an unpatriotic act. The Squander Bug and the Litter Bug appeared on posters, unpleasant-looking beasts shaped like hairy potatoes. Apart from extravagant stories about American food-parcels there was no fresh fruit from overseas - no bananas, oranges or grapefruit. It was all very puritanical. Compared with previous decades, the war years were a stopped clock, a six-year pause while time stood still. But we could sense that the conflict was coming to an end and the clock was starting up again.
The race was on for Berlin, producing the first stirrings of rivalry between Russia and the West. The Russians, advancing swiftly from the East under Marshal Zhukov, were depicted in the newspapers as savage in their revenge against the Germans. There were stories of brutality, rape and revenge, likened to the barbarian hordes from the east sweeping across the steppes engulfing civilisation. We were light-years away from the days when we dragged our trolleys along Exeter Road collecting salvage for Uncle Joe and the Sword of Stalingrad. The power-play of international politics began to replace the certainties of war. We started to realise that the easy simplicities of conflict were not as permanent as they seemed.
Cobber and Beryl Brown had been together for several years and Cobber was a familiar sight in the small kitchenette in the Brown house with his Australian air-force sergeant’s tunic slung over the back of the chair. He and Beryl had been on holiday together to Cornwall but now as the war was coming to an end, it was generally assumed that real life would start up again. Cobber would return to Australia and Ron Brown would be demobbed, as Hilda Martin’s Jan would return to Poland and Mr Martin would come home and take up his old job at Harrods.
Cobber had helped us organise tug-of-war contests in the garden and showed us how to make an anchor-man by tying the rope around his waist and facing the opposite way. He had helped me erect a tent for the Punch and Judy glove-puppets that Mum made so I could give a show to the alley. But now he was going. Then came sensational news. Beryl, John and Sally would emigrate to Australia to join him when the war ends.
“Ron’s the one I feel sorry for,” Mrs Phipps said to Mum “fighting for his country for six years and then this happens.”
“I blame her. She knew what she was doing.”
“Of course she did. She led him on.”
“And her husband an officer, She doesn’t deserve him.”
“It’s a good job not everyone behaves like she does.”
I knew Mum was thinking of Auntie Marjorie and Auntie Phyllis, whose husbands had been away for six years. They hadn’t run off with other men. The gossip circulated up and down the alley. One afternoon Mr Brown came home in his neat blue pilot officer’s uniform but after six years none of us knew him and he didn’t know us. He walked about with a frown on his face and unlocked the green garage doors to inspect his car, which had been standing on wooden blocks throughout the war. Then he went away again and there was more gossip about what was going to happen.
Dad reported what Beryl Brown has said to him about her marriage on their walks from the station. “It’s no good trying to go back. It’s finished.”
“We couldn’t afford to get divorced,” Mum said at one stage, “even if we wanted to.” There was discussion about the cost of fares to Australia but Beryl Brown paid no attention to cost and did what she wanted to do, as she always had done.
“It’s the children I feel sorry for,” Mrs Phipps said.
I couldn’t imagine the alley without John Brown who had been the leader of our group, the best at football, the one whose house and garden were always open, the acknowledged expert on babies and sex, the owner of the silver birch in which we constructed tree-houses.
“Cobber’s going to get a divorce so they can get married,” Dad reported.
“He’s probably got children already,” Mum said.
“He has. Two.”
“What’ll happen to them? What a mess.”
That was the general verdict. And then there was Hilda Martin, no better than her friend Beryl but Jan departed for Poland and there was no talk of Hilda and the children following him. Nobody wanted to go to Poland. Australia was full of blue skies and sandy beaches.
“I don’t suppose you’ll see John again, “Mum said.
In the Brown hallway the trunks were packed, roped and labelled awaiting collection from Carter Paterson. Ron Brown made another visit to the house and opened the flaking blue and green corrugated iron garage doors again. The car was still inside on oil-stained wooden blocks. We stood and watched him while he knocked the blocks away and tried to start the engine by swinging it with a handle; there was a lot of blue smoke but the engine wouldn’t start. He padlocked the doors and left. The Brown house was put up for sale and the estate agent’s board erected in the front garden. I couldn’t imagine anyone else living in the house. It meant we wouldn’t be able to play in the garden.
Then there was more devastating news. A telegram suddenly arrived from Cobber’s brother in Australia, saying that Cobber had been killed in a violent accident while working on a circular saw in the mill. A piece of the circular saw had snapped off and hit his head. The funeral had already taken place.
After the initial shock there were murmurings about the accident. Then people started to say that the telegram was probably a fake.
“ Very convenient. He’s gone back to his wife and kids, I expect.”
“ Beryl’s a silly woman, believing all that.”
“Ron won’t have her back now.”
“She’s only herself to blame.”
The divorce was going ahead and the house remained up for sale. Beryl and her children were to go to Lincolnshire where her parents lived and start a new life. It didn’t make any real difference to me because they were still going away.
The alley was beginning to break up as the war came to an end. The static years were finishing as the armies entered Berlin and it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again. The Russian forces met up with the Americans on the Elbe and circled Berlin; there were rumours of Hitler’s suicide and pictures of Mussolini who has been captured near Lake Como fleeing with his mistress. Mussolini and his mistress were shot and hung upside down. A woman fired five rounds into his body and screamed, “That’s for each of my five sons”. Every day there were executions. In France women who had slept with German officers had their hair cut off and swastikas painted on their shaven heads while crowds chased them through the streets. Unconditional surrender was the slogan. This time there would be no mercy. The Russians raised the hammer and sickle over the skeleton building of the Reichstag. The concentration camps were opened and there were pictures of bulldozers shovelling piles of stick-figures wearing black-and-white striped suits into pits. The women guards of Belsen were called wolf women.
As long as I could remember everyone had talked about the end of the war. Now it was actually happening.
Mum wanted to move house. She’d always talked about getting away from Rayners Lane. I didn’t want to move, but whether I wanted to or not, I knew that I would have to. Everything was in the process of change and I didn’t want anything to change. But that was impossible for me to say because the end of the war was what we had all been fighting for for six years. The war had to end, but I had not anticipated the changes that would follow and were already beginning to happen. I wanted the war to end but I didn’t want my life to change. I realised there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The grown-ups would do what they wanted. They would move house and take my friends away. They always did what they wanted. It was their life, not mine. They had started the war and now they were going to end it and there was nothing I could do about it.
General Montgomery signed the surrender documents in a tent on Luneburg Heath and Admiral Doenitz surrendered to Marshal Zhukov and the American, British and French representatives. It was May 8, VE day. Dad came home from work and said, “Let’s go up to London.” With Brian and his parents we joined an ocean of people flowing down Whitehall, the Mall, around Trafalgar Square breaking out into spasmodic dancing and cheering, shouting for the king and queen and Churchill who all duly appeared on their balconies. Everyone was deliriously happy, waving scarves and flags. We were a huge united community, dancing the okey-cokey one behind the other, arm-in-arm outside the park gates, singing the war songs of the blitz, “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” and “Knees Up Mother Brown” determined to stay in London until it was dark, returning home by the last Tube, feeling we had finished with war for ever and had only just begun to celebrate the glorious peace.
The festivities continued for the next two months. We went to the Victory celebrations at the Albert Hall, a triumphalist procession of all the allied nations, uniformed soldiers and sailors and airmen and nurses, spot-lit, marching down the long line of red-carpeted stairs holding their national flags while each country’s national anthem played and we stood up and cheered for each one – Australia, Canada, China, France, India, New Zealand, Russia, the United States, ending with Great Britain, the architect of victory and host to the world. It was a patriotic extravaganza. Mum took me to the Victory Parade, a march-past through the streets of London. We arrived at eight o’clock in the morning – we were always five or six hours early for a kerbside seat at any royal procession, and although this was not technically royalty it counted as such. She was a little disappointed with the grey and camouflaged columns when they rolled past – tanks, armoured cars, bren-gun carriers – but brightened up as the uniforms did - the soldiers, sailors and airmen appearing in full-dress uniforms with drums, holding their colours. We clapped and cheered the Indian regiments with their turbans, the white-helmeted marines and the Scots regiments with kilts and bagpipes. It took three hours to pass.
I bought an ice-cream, my first for six years. I could just remember the Stop Me and Buy One man before the war with a white coat and peaked cap who pedalled an ice-box along Kings Road and whose ice-creams were creamy, tasting of delicious fruits. The one I bought now was a grey warm scoop, the texture of porridge, speckled with lumps wobbling uneasily on a soft cone. Was this what I had waited six years for? Ice-creams were as colourless as the real eggs which we began to scramble, pale yellow in place of the rich, chrome yellow of the dried eggs that came out of packets.
Dad went up to London to see “The Daily Expres” exhibition of photographs on the opening of the concentration camps and came back severely shaken. He could not believe the atrocities he had seen. Another, darker chapter of the war was opening, which no one had suspected. The newspapers were full of Belsen every day then Dachau; gradually other names were added, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Stories of Japanese prisoner of war camps began to fill the newspapers, with unbelievable tales of beheadings and railways of death. We knew little about the Japanese. There had been the sudden invasion of Hong Kong and the sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales by a single bomb dropped down the funnel which blew up the ammunition magazine. 50,000 people had been interned in Java but we heard nothing about them. Apart from General Tojo, a leader we imitated by sliding a cut-up piece of orange peel under our top lips to resemble his protruding teeth, we knew the names of no other Japanese commanders. There had been the kamikaze attacks on American ships and we were familiar with the names of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines but we are not sure where any of them were. Chamberlain had not even included Japan in his broadcast declaration of war.
Out of a cloudless blue sky the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, killing 80,000 people and flattening four square miles of the city. We realised immediately it was a new dimension of horror; a photograph in “The Daily Express” showed a body silhouetted against a stone wall with the intensity of the heat. Another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later killing 40,000. The Japanese surrendered to General MacArthur in his white uniform on board an aircraft carrier. Pearl Harbour had been avenged many times over.
Science had ended the war and suddenly science was more talked about than the military. There were extensive reports of the Manhattan project and I was fascinated by a photograph of Robert Oppenheimer, a slim figure wearing a pork-pie hat striding along the streets of Los Alamos in New Mexico. He seemed a heroic figure who had made generals out of date. The word fallout entered the language and there were explanations of how the atom was split, of a mineral called uranium and heavy water. There were also sinister rumours surrounding the pilots of the planes dropping the bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” and one of them was said to have gone mad. A magical genii has escaped from the bottle in the shape of a vast, mushroom cloud that became the dominant image of our time and of the future.
VJ Day was not accompanied by the same ecstatic rejoicing as VE day. We didn’t go up to London and dance the okey-cokey. The United Nations Charter was signed and there was a sombre relief that finally it was all over and we could turn our attention to the peace, but already peace was turning out to be more complicated than I had suspected. Like my ice-cream it was not quite what I had dreamed about.
A Victory party was held in Lynton Road, with a long red tablecloth over trestle tables covered with plates of homemade cakes, sandwiches, sweets and large teapots. After the tea there was a fancy-dress competition followed by games and dancing for the grown ups until midnight.
I decided to enter the fancy-dress competition, inspired by Tyrone Power in Black Swan, which I had watched at the Odeon in the new technicolour, a swashbuckling drama set against the bluest of Caribbean seas. I announced my intention of going as Black Swan himself, the pirate leader. Dad made a metal cutlass at work to complement my costume, the blade a throat-slitting curve, the protective shield over the handle decorated with a stamped out skull-and-crossbones. I experimented with various skin colourings, settling on a thick paste of cocoa powder, milk and water, which gave me a fierce, mulatto pirate-tan. I tied a triangle of crimson silk around my head, large brass curtain rings on my ears and wore a torn white shirt that billowed out like a galleon sail. To complete the picture I wound a broad red sash around my waist, decorated my face with a burned cork moustache and held a kitchen knife between my teeth. Surveying myself in the mirror I felt Black Swan himself would have envied my appearance.
John Brown appeared forlornly in our kitchen doorway as I was putting the finishing touches to my brilliant costume.
What are you going as?” I asked.
“Dunno”, he said. He had a grizzled look on his face but I felt no sympathy for him and continued preening myself with the callousness we exhibited towards each other on such occasions. His mum was out at work and his dad still in the RAF.
“Come on, we’ll find something for you,” my father said and led him down to the shed, from which he emerged fifteen minutes later as a miner, his face covered in coal dust, a pair of my father’s baggy trousers tied with string below his knees, a helmet with a torch taped on top, holding a pickaxe and a miner’s lamp made of a cocoa tin with a strip of gauze and a candle inside.
“The Bevin Boy,” Dad explained.
I was unconcerned. His outfit had obviously been thrown together at the last minute and he looked grimy and disreputable. He was not in the same sartorial class as a pirate.
After the tea the fancy-dress competition took place and some twenty of us paraded in front of the judges who went into a huddle by the teapots. The senior judge stood up with a sheet of paper in his hand.
“Third prize, the fairy,” he announced. There was loud applause from the surrounding parents and comments on how pretty four-year old Pamela from Lulworth Crescent looked.
“Second, the Land Army Girl.” This was Sally Farmer, dressed in britches with a yellow headscarf. There was more cheering and clapping, especially from the women. Then there was a long pause.
“First prize the Bevin Boy,” the judge announced and John Brown, with a big grin on his face, held up his lantern. There was prolonged cheering and clapping. I couldn’t believe it. They must all have gone mad. How could anybody in their right mind prefer a miner to a pirate? Or a Land Army girl? Or – most humiliating of all – a stupid fairy with gauze wings? I was not even second or third. Black Swan had been totally ignored.
“It’s because Bevin Boys are topical,” Dad said, trying to comfort me. I had difficulty not bursting into tears. Not only was it unfair, but my father was guilty of treachery - he must have known what the judges would choose and he had deliberately not told me. Topical was not a word I was familiar with but now I knew it would stick in my mind for ever. I wanted nothing more to do with the metal cutlass and plunged it into the front hedge and left it there. I didn’t care, I desperately told myself. What could be more boring than a stupid Bevin Boy? But I also realised with a sinking, hopeless feeling that miners were part of a different postwar world. Pirates were not as important as miners to grown-ups; miners were the new heroes not pirates.
I tried to conceal my feelings for the rest of the afternoon. There were games for children, then grown-up games. In one contest Dad raced for the same chair as Beryl Brown, who got there first and collapsed onto the road, legs and skirts flying in the air. As it grew dark there was dancing with music from a gramophone, playing waltzes and quicksteps in an upstairs window. “Your mum and dad are the best dancers in the street,” Lena Hartel said, as the moon rose and the lamps came on.
I was proud for them but it didn’t make up for Black Swan’s defeat by a stupid Bevin Boy.
Fifty million people were killed in the war: twenty million Russians, ten million Chinese, five million Germans, five million Poles, two million Japanese and a million Jugoslavs. In India four million people died as a result of famine caused by the war. The French and Americans lost half a million, the British three hundred thousand. More than half of the dead were civilians.
Bob was put to sleep and I was heartbroken. He had been my confidant, sitting on the mat by the kitchen door listening to me with his sympathetic brown eyes and his tongue lolling out, seeming to understand everything I told him. Bob was more beautiful than anyone else I knew. He had a handsome head and a coat of brown and white curls with a smell that was comforting and reassuring. I used to bury my nose in his coat and sniff him. He had been there, patient and eternal, since before I could remember. In his younger days on walks near the river Colne at Rickmansworth, I would throw a stick in the river and he would leap in to retrieve it, his head pushing through the water with the stick in his mouth, making a V-shaped wave then scrambling up the bank to shake himself over everyone. He sat with me outside the pub at Sarratt when the grown-ups went inside and left me with a bag of crisps and a bottle of lemonade. He never growled or showed anger. He was always pleased to see me, his short tail thumping on the mat. I would brush his curls until they shone, and once, when a tin of white paint fell on him as Dad was painting the house, I combed out the lumps of paint for weeks afterwards, while he sat there, uncomplaining and unresentful. When I was younger I had ridden on his back but he had become fat and waddled about with his tongue hanging out. He would eat porridge and everything else that was offered to him. He lost his game-dog elegance and spent longer on the mat, suffering in the heat of summer. Now he was gone for ever.
Dad was upset by the loss of Bob too. He had lost his night-time walking companion and cried when he returned from the vet’s without him. I was not consulted or informed about Bob’s disappearance. He simply vanished without explanation.
My bear, Cubby, vanished in similar manner and at about the same time. I had slept with Cubby all my life. His blue hair was almost scuffed off and there were bald patches on his stomach and back but like Bob, he was an inseparable companion, always on my pillow with a fidelity I took for granted. Suddenly there was only the blank whiteness of the pillow like a snowfield.
I did not enquire about his disappearance. It was something I did not wish to broach with the grown-up world because I knew what the answer would be, “You’re much too old for a teddy bear.” A judgement had been made that was beyond my power to change as it had been decided that Bob was too old to continue living. Like Bob, he was loved, especially at night when he was my companion against creaking stairs and crouching intruders. I drifted off to sleep with him pressed against my chest. Now there was only myself to sleep with and no Bob to tell secrets to. It was a bleaker existence.
Father Christmas also disappeared completely. Michael informed me on one of his visits, that he didn’t exist and that the whole story was an elaborate concoction on the part of the grown-ups. He assumed that I had known for years that Father Christmas was a grown-up fabrication and that he was merely restating an accepted fact. I was shattered but I went along with his grim news and pretended that it was already known to me because I was clearly too old to believe in such things as I was too old to have a teddy bear. To continue to believe in Father Christmas was childish.
“I knew that,” I said.
But if Father Christmas didn’t exist how had I been so completely fooled for years? I had been taken to shake hands with him in Sopers department store in Harrow and although I never believed there were reindeers pulling sledges through the sky my ardent faith had transcended such literal details. If he wasn’t true, what else might be called into question? I assumed a mature indifference to hide my loss. My father had made the forts and the sewing-machines - I knew that but there were many inexplicable things in the world and Father Christmas’s relationship with presents and my parents was not something that was more mysterious than many others. What hurt was the knowledge that I had been lied to for years and I felt resentful; a part of me would never believe grown-ups so completely ever again. They were obviously capable of deceit over a long period - all my lifetime in fact. . What else had they lied about?
John Brown produced a condom, dangling it in the air in front of us. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.
I thought it was a balloon.
This was greeted with a knowing smirk.
“No, it’s a spunk bag,” he announced, “the man puts it over his tool before he puts his tool into the lady. It’s to stop them having a baby.”
This was too much information for me, coming as it did on top of the Father Christmas collapse. I felt the world was caving in.
“I found it over the fields,” John Brown went on. “It’s where they go to shag.”
I realised my lack of knowledge was devastating. What John Brown was saying seemed another flight of absurd fantasy but on the other hand John Brown was the acknowledged expert on all matters sexual and always had been. He was our oracle of forbidden information, but in spite of this I felt impelled to question him.
“How do you know?”
He swung his evidence back and forth.
“See, that’s where the spunk goes,” he said, squeezing the condom so that the liquid inside it – whatever it was – bulged ominously into the teat at the end. There were too many questions to ask. Unlike Father Christmas, who had disappeared leaving a vacuum, this new revelation ushered in a universe of further enquiry.
But I felt disinclined to continue.
“That’s what your Dad and Mum do,” John Brown continued. That was something else I didn’t want to think about. It was inconceivable that my parents would have anything to do with such things; certainly they didn’t go shagging over the fields where we collected frogspawn. It was impossible to imagine my parents using the rubbery thing John Brown was dangling up and down in front of us.
“They’re durex,” he informed us. “You buy them in packets of three at the barber’s.”
“I’ve never seen them.”
“ You haven’t looked. They’re next to the mirror behind the green bottles of hair-oil.”
I remembered the green bottles of hair-oil but why would they be there? What did having babies have to do with the barber’s? Was there some connection I’d missed? One part of me didn’t want to know any more about SB’s as he called them but another part of me wanted to know everything. John Brown, however, had exhausted his fund of information. The condom was his great exhibit and it was not until some time later when Brian discovered “Sexual Techniques for Married Couples” underneath the ironed sheets at the top of his parents’ wardrobe that we were able to pursue our research. Meanwhile the condom was real enough and the precursor to others we found scattered over the fields. It had many of the qualities of the grown-up world – colourless and heavy and rubbery. It clearly wasn’t a balloon. It wasn’t as much fun and it seemed to have less to do with parties than with an ominous future which I would have to engage with whether I wanted to or not.
I was in D4, the top class at Roxbourne, which in its anti-elitist enthusiasm had decided to reverse the accepted categories and make A1 the bottom group in the school. Miss Drew was the class mistress for D4, a formidable, silver haired middle-aged woman with bulging forearms whose method of punishment was to bunch her fist and swing it like a pendulum against the back of a recalcitrant pupil, propelling him (it was invariably a he) towards the blackboard at the front of the class. Miss Drew stood for no nonsense and was in no doubt that her pedagogy was a successful one. Every morning after we had sung a hymn about how we ploughed the fields and scattered the good seed on the land, Miss Drew would take us for Mental Arithmetic standing in front of the class with her large arms crossed in front of her as a warning to the inattentive and the idle.
“What will five and a half pounds of tomatoes cost at threepence a pound?” she demanded. We were given two minutes to compute this and to write the answer down on out numbered sheets of paper. “How long will it take to fill a 200 gallon swimming pool if the pipe pumps eight gallons a minute?” Miss Drew proceeded. The penalty for slowness, poor hearing or wrong answers was to be punched on the spine by Miss Drew’s clenched fist at a velocity of about sixty miles an hour. Miss Drew was a dedicated teacher who regarded D4 as her personal fiefdom; she prowled between the desk like a lioness, cuffing pupils who had failed to catch the details of the mental arithmetic problem or whose pencil was not properly sharpened. Miss Drew had her favourites, all girls, who habitually occupied the first ten places in the class order and whose hands shot up to answer her questions with an alacrity that seemed to us boys disturbing and treacherous. At times the class threatened to become a dialogue between Miss Drew and Shirley Richardson, a small girl in a red cardigan with pigtail plaits and glasses who consistently came top of the class and was so far advanced in knowledge and enthusiasm that it scarcely seemed worth bothering to compete with her.
But Miss Drew did not allow us to congregate at the back of the class and dip the girls’ plaits into inkwells. We were under close surveillance and our essays and sums were continuously assessed with Miss Drew’s red pen and an array of gold and silver stars or blue and green spots which appeared every day in our exercise books as indicators of our intellectual progress.
Then one afternoon Mr Harvey appeared. Why he did so was a mystery. We were not told and we didn’t ask, for the replacement of Miss Drew was a stroke of fortune that we did not wish to tempt. Mr Harvey was a dashingly handsome young man who had served as a pilot officer in the Fleet Air Arm and whose notion of teaching was to explain in fascinating detail the missions he had flown. He covered the blackboard with elaborate diagrams of radar beams and fuselages and talked about the raids he had taken part in. We were captivated and questioned him with genuine curiosity about his adventures. For a week we discussed the battles for Malta and Crete, U-boats and depth charges and the difficulties of landing on an aircraft-carrier in a force seven gale. Young Mr Harvey was eloquent and enthusiastic and treated us as if we were civilised human beings. He enjoyed our attention and we adored him.
Then one morning the following week Miss Drew reappeared to reclaim her class. Mr Harvey was never seen again. “ You don’t appear to have learned anything” Miss Drew informed us acidly, “I don’t know how you’re ever going to pass the examination.”
But we were loyal to our hero. Not a word was uttered which might suggest that Mr Harvey’s teaching skills were not of the finest. He had come and gone over the distant horizon like one of his silver-bodied planes and we never forgot him.
Miss Drew proceeded to launch into an intensive campaign to make up for the days wasted by Mr Harvey, talking more and more about the exam. What exam was this? We have no idea what an exam was. One afternoon as we were about to go home, she produced a sheaf of papers with the three curved scimitars of Middlesex County Council emblazoned on the front. “Give these to your parents,” she commanded us. Our parents would select which school they wished us to attend in the event of our passing the examination that was now being referred to as the eleven-plus by the school and the scholarship by our parents and neighbours.
Our knowledge of what was to be a watershed in our lives was as meagre as our preparation for it. We were aware that the pupils at Harrow County wore dark blue blazers and the pupils at Pinner County wore brown blazers with a gold stag on the pocket, but apart from the design of the blazers no other information was available on which a rational choice might be made. Harrow County was popularly regarded as superior to Pinner County but nobody quite knew why. My father, never averse to undertaking research with discussion groups in the toolroom, took the papers into work and returned in the evening with the startling news that the schools whose names were printed in bold typeface under the heading of Independent Grammar Schools were superior even to Harrow County, and of this small group, Merchant Taylors’ School was the best and the one I should aim for.
Mum’s attention picked up at the mention of Merchant Taylors for it clearly had something to do with tailoring and dressmaking. Subsequent research however, established that it was not a trade school but an institution similar to Cooper’s School that Uncle Norman had attended in Bow, founded by a London livery company that was no more associated with sewing gentlemen’s suits than Coopers was with making beer-barrels. Mum’s interest was sustained however. Merchant Taylors’, whatever its associations with tailoring, was a fee-paying school, a public school. After further discussions it was unanimously decided that it should definitely be our collective choice.
But the examination had still to be passed.
On the appointed day we waited in line outside the school lavatories, fluttering our hands underneath our jerseys in imitation of our palpitating hearts, although we are not genuinely apprehensive having so little idea of what awaited us. Finally the doors were opened and we were allowed inside. The white booklets lay folded on our desks looking important and official with printed writing on the covers. We were instructed not to touch them until Miss Drew gave the word. I realised it was like a race. We read the instructions on the cover and then, at Miss Drew’s command, “Start now!” opened them like large white butterflies. I discovered that it was the English paper, the first of three, and that I was
required to write an essay about a foreign country I should like to visit and explain why I wanted to go there.
I took a deep breath. Foreign countries were not high on my list of priorities. I had never been to one and knew little about them, apart from what I have heard and read during the six years of war. This I realised fairly quickly, was not a great help. What did I really know about France or Italy in spite of my reading about them in “The Daily Express” for the past six years? Practically nothing; war was an inadequate source of information and I knew as much about the West Indies from the placards dangling in Lakins as I did about the countries of Europe in which we had been fighting. Anyway I didn’t want to go there from the pictures of shell-torn villages I had seen. I tinkered with the idea of Switzerland, where I imagined myself skiing down the Matterhorn, twisting through dark pine-forests past wooden chalets. But I realised that was about the beginning and end of my knowledge of Swiss life and culture and was not likely to impress the examiners. We had not been taught anything about Switzerland, or any other country for that matter. Geography as a separate subject had not existed and I sat chewing the end of my pen searching for inspiration when it descended on me if not from Heaven, at least from a closely related source. I remembered the Holy Land or Palestine, that mystical country illustrated in pink and yellow maps at the back of my bible which I have been hearing about on and off since I was five years old. I had little desire to visit the Holy Land but that was irrelevant. The important fact was that I knew a lot about it, certainly more than I did about Switzerland. Between skiing in Switzerland and walking around the Holy Land there was no competition. I launched into a heartfelt account of my desire to visit Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Calvary, the Dead Sea and anywhere else I could think of that would assist my religious and literary pilgrimage. There was even the Old Testament that could be plundered – the walls of Jericho, Caanan and the Red Sea. I was surprised to discover how much I remembered from my Sunday afternoons with the Christian Brethren and church parades with the Baptists. I was a fund of information about lost sheep, good Samaritans and foolish virgins. I allowed myself dramatic moments with the Garden of Gethsemane and the road to Damascus and when I laid down my pen I felt a sincere if hypocritical satisfaction in having covered so much ground in the Holy Land, a place I now felt more benign towards than ever before and which one day, I might even consider visiting. Such was my power of self-persuasion
The following day was the arithmetic paper which Miss Drew had prepared us for with her back-thwacking morning routine of questions. But arithmetic was not my strong subject and although I was capable of dividing and multiplying and even of elementary percentages, I had little idea what the factors of 51 might be and no idea about how to set about finding them. Only after we came out of the exam did I discover that 17 and 3 were the correct answers, and that I had been familiar with them from my Sunday evening darts games where treble seventeen had been an automatic score I had known from my earliest years.
But it was the third paper, General Knowledge, that proved the most calamitous and convinced me I had fallen down the elephant-pit of failure. There were puzzling diagrams of Scottish kilts with missing oblongs and underneath a range of kilt patterns, one of which I was required to select to fill the missing space. These were followed by sequences of squiggles and curves in boxes, which I was required to add to by placing similar squiggles and curves in empty boxes. I had never met exercises like this before and they seemed bizarre and confusing. Slightly more familiar was a paragraph about Tom being taller than George but shorter than Henry who was taller than Fred. This information was followed by a series of statements about their respective heights which I was asked to classify as true or false. Then there were baffling lines of letters, A E F H..... where I was asked to supply the next in the sequence with no guidance apart from my knowledge of the alphabet.
After an hour of this I began to feel distinctly woozy and retraced my steps through the questions, altering almost every one of my answers and then losing confidence in my alterations. What did they want? The whole paper started to swim in front of me as I realised that either my original answers were wrong or my alterations were wrong. It seemed a precarious performance and I felt I had lost my bearings completely and was wandering without a compass in completely strange territory. But somehow I passed. So did Henry Goldberg who had also elected to go to Merchant Taylors’ and John Brown who had opted for Pinner County but was destined for Lincolnshire once the divorce came through. John Martin disappeared into a fee-paying school that was planned to lead him towards being a doctor. Only Brian, my best friend, had failed.
“Poor Brian,” Mum said. Brian would have to spend the rest of his school life at Eastcote Lane Sec Mod next to the fish-and-chip shop until he was fifteen when he would leave and seek employment as a plumber’s mate or garage mechanic. He came round to see me and shrugged his shoulders. We would all be scattered to the four winds. But I was excited at passing and could only think of a future that had suddenly opened out before me without my doing very much at all.
My parents and I were summoned to attend an interview at Merchant Taylors’ School in Moor Park and Dad took the day off work. We dressed in our Sunday best and began the momentous journey from Rayners Lane to North Harrow, then by train to Moor Park then a walk through a small woodland copse and along a road to tall wrought iron gates decorated with the school motto, Concordia Parvae Res Crescunt, which I subsequently discovered meant little things grow great together. And there, a mile away across a sea of green grass, on which dozens of boys in white flannels were playing games of cricket watched by others lying in the shade of the trees, the school was visible like a ship on the horizon. Overawed we began walking up the long drive as cars drove past us.
“It’s a long way to come each day,” Dad said, “It’ll be good exercise.”
We walked along in silence until we reached the clock tower where there was a master waiting to meet us, clothed in a long black gown which opened out behind him as he strode swiftly away with my parents, leaving me in the care of a grey-suited boy who led me up stairs and along corridors lined with photographs of Greek buildings and Greek sculptures. I followed meekly, climbing the squeaking wooden stairs to the library where another gowned master with a reddish face and glasses was seated at a table holding a photograph in front of him. He shook my hand and I sat opposite him.
“Perhaps you would look at this,” he instructed me without any further discussion.
It was a photograph of an aircraft factory. There were workers climbing ladders and standing on the wings of partially constructed planes. On the floor were engines that other men are inspecting. I stared at it for several minutes until my examiner whisked it away and placed it face down on the table.
“Now describe it to me,” he commanded. It seemed a familiar scene, although I had never been inside an aircraft factory. I had little difficulty recalling it, including the name of the firm written along the upright of the ladder in small letters, a detail that seemed to impress the master more than it deserved. Next he produced a square of cardboard cut into eight or nine sections which he proceeded to shuffle about on the surface of the table. “Now reassemble these into a square,” he ordered. It was not as complicated as similar puzzles I had encountered and I managed it after several minutes.
“Which books have you read lately?” he asked. I mentioned Kipling’s Jungle Book and the William books by Richmal Crompton which I had recently discovered and was reading passionately and threw in John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress for good measure, on the same basis as I had written my essay on my desire to visit to the Holy Land.
“Which clubs or societies have you joined?”
I gave an edited version of my involvement with the Cubs and Sunday School, explaining my reading from Isaiah as though it had been a valuable and interesting experience. The interview concluded, he stood up and shook my hand; I noticed there was a smell of tobacco from his jacket and gown and that his forefinger was stained bright yellow.
The boy who had led me up to the library reappeared and I was told to follow him down the squeaking stairs to where my parents were waiting. We walked back along the drive where the boys were still lying under the trees watching cricket in the sunlight.
“I had to promise that you’d join the Army Cadet Corps when you are fourteen if they accept you,” Dad said. “Of course I said yes. They seem very proud of their cadet force.” I felt sorry for Dad having to agree about the cadet force because I knew he didn’t like uniforms or war.
“The headmaster seems a very nice man,” Mum said.
A week later a letter in a thick, cream envelope addressed to me arrived. It had a dark blue embossed coat of arms at the top, showing two camels holding up a shield with three tents on it.
I could hardly bear to open it and my hands were shaking as I did so. I had been accepted and was to start in September as a day boy. My parents were overjoyed but I tried to pretend that I was not especially thrilled when talking with them but when I was alone, I allowed myself to go into spasms of excitement.
My world was going to change for ever. There was an immediate flurry of preparations and endless speculation on the exclusive nature of the school. Long typed lists were sent stating that I was to wear a No 77 Daniel Neal’s grey flannel suit, a white shirt with a detachable collar and collar-studs, house tie, a black school cap adorned with a silver lamb holding a flag, black shoes and in winter black and white striped scarf. My games kit was to include rugby shirts, shorts and boots, cricket flannels and a blazer, with a straw boater as an optional extra.
“I don’t know how we’re going to manage financially,” Mum said .
I was presented with a Norman two-wheeled bicycle for my achievement, which was rapidly becoming the centre of neighbourhood and family discussions. “It’s a very good school,” everyone said. “Which side of the family does he get his brains from?” was a topic of frequent speculation with the honours divided between Uncle Norman and Mum’s family. “It’s a chance we never had” was the universal comment. I was part of the new post-war era, sent to a public school by a Labour government that was committed to paying for everything except my lunches, school uniform and sports-clothes. There was a report in the Harrow Observer where I saw my name in print for the first time. I was a neighbourhood success.
Brian came to see me. I was embarrassed to detail all my plans and arrangements for the new school; a gap had opened up but we weren’t going to talk about it; we continued to make our arrangements as if nothing had intervened to separate our lives.
It never occurred to any of us to question the judgement of those authorities who classified us with such certainty and who sifted what they regarded as the wheat from the chaff with such a consummate sense of their own infallibility.
It was no more thinkable that we should question the educational experts that than it was to argue with Miss Drew about how long it took a pipe pumping eight gallons a minute to fill a 200 gallon swimming pool.
We all knew there were certain indisputable facts in life and the rightness of the decisions taken by those in authority was one of them.
“Come out to the front Daniel!”
It was the Divinity class, taken by the headmaster, Mr Elder. We were studying the circumcision of the heart from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, an intellectual argument that seemed of greater interest to Mr Elder than it did to the rest of us but this was not Mr Elder’s immediate concern.
“The way to salvation,” expostulated Mr Elder, who was as new to the school as I was and had come from Scotland as his strong Scottish accent indicated. “Not the why to salvation!”
I stood despairingly in front of the class.
“Say after me: the way to salvation!”
“The way to salvation!”
“That’s better. Keep saying it.”
“The way to salvation, the way to salvation, the way to salvation!”
I remembered doing this once before with Geography at Roxbourne, but this time it was different: this was an onslaught on my accent which encompassed every word I spoke in my suburban north London dialect. Way/why was only this morning’s target. It could be any word at any time. I had already been indicted for the glottal stop in film and milk bottle and spent some time in practising lifting my tongue off the floor of my mouth; I had been ridiculed for saying “He didn’t ought to be in the team,” which seemed to me a perfectly correct use of grammar and publicly castigated for saying laying instead of lying. It was unnerving. I was conscious that I was becoming too terrified to say anything. I had always been fearful of opening my mouth to sing, but now I was scared of opening my mouth to speak.
It wasn’t only pronunciation and syntax that was inadmissible but my vocabulary as well. “When is it playtime?” I had asked Mr Dutton, our form master at the start of term. His lip curled in disgust. “We don’t call it playtime ,” he sneered. “We call it The Quarter here. Don’t let me hear you call it playtime again.”
I was in the Third Form, a new class especially constituted for the ten boys from Middlesex and five from Hertfordshire selected by the state, plus ten fee-paying boys to give it respectability. The Third Form was the school’s first concession to state education and the shock waves were still being felt.
I seemed to be unsuccessful at every subject except History, where I discovered a facility for drawing medieval siege instruments and Norman soldiers in suits of chain-mail. Even here I had fallen foul of the history master, Mr.Bass , who said to me one morning , “You don’t seem to be good at any subject except mine.” I felt this was a below the belt comment, since I was good at his subject and his remark revealed that he had been talking about me with the teachers of other subjects. .
Apart from History I seemed to be incapable of understanding anything. Mathematics was turning into a sea of incomprehensible facts in which I was in danger of drowning. Mr. Parsons, the teacher who had interviewed me with the photograph of the aircraft-factory, seemed less impressed with my knowledge of compound fractions than he had been with my memory of the aircraft-factory. His teaching method was to stand on the dais at the front of the class and avoid eye-contact with his pupils while delivering a mathematical monologue to the opposite wall. As there was no possibility of halting his flow of information I sensed my hold on the subject slipping as he moved from one concept to the next, leaving me floundering in his wake. Mr Parsons did not encourage questions and as he moved on I realised that certain basic mathematical concepts were being left behind and that I should never be able to catch up.
Latin too was becoming impenetrable, although I had started with considerable excitement, chanting the declensions from my Latin primer half-aloud on top of the 230 bus as it took me homeward from North Harrow station to Rayners Lane. “Puella, puellam, puellae,” I murmured to myself in mantra-fashion. There was something therapeutic about declining Latin nouns, “Puellae, puellae, puellarum”. In my new intoxication I decide to launch into Latin poetry inspired by Macauley’s The Lays of Ancient Rome, a poem I had recently discovered and opening lines of which I knew by heart:
Lars Porsena of Clusium
Into this hypnotic rhythm I tried to weave the meagre lexicon of my Latin primer penning some dozen lines of the words I had learned so far. I showed them with some pride to Mr Sherrett, the Latin teacher, who took the opportunity to deliver an address on the correct nature of Latin scansion, “We do not rhyme like this in Latin, Daniel. Classical verse moves by quantity, not by syllable. I’m afraid you have completely the wrong end of the stick. Don’t try to run before you can walk, “
This encouragement heralded the end of my career as a Latin poet and my involvement with Latin prose was not much more successful. I found it difficult to unscramble the knots into which Latin seemed to writhe like a wounded snake. I gradually became alienated from the Romans and whatever it was they were trying to tell me about their villas or the invasion of Gaul. There was clearly something congenitally wrong with me. It was a mistake that I had ever been allowed to pass the eleven-plus.
French was equally catastrophic in its own way. Mr Dutton, our form master, had launched a pedagogic experiment by teaching us the phonetic alphabet ab initio so that we would possess a solid foundation on which to build our linguistic competence. Unfortunately he neglected to explain to us that French was not written in phonetic symbols and I assumed it was a language akin to Arabic or Hindu, written with a variety of squiggles and flourishes. It was only after six months that I discovered French words were spelled with the same letters as English. We spent hours intoning the nasal sounds and trilling r’s, pronunciation, feats I was unable to perform with the necessary competence. And when I proudly informed Mrs Smart that I was learning French and showed her the linguistic symbol for chat, she was mystified, feeling that this was not her native language as she knew it.
Geography, like History, was taught by Mr. Bass from a book chiefly remarkable for its ink-blotted pages and out-of-focus black and white photographs of women with headscarves picking tea in Ceylon. Interspersed with these images were line-drawings of ox-bow lakes and interlocking spurs. I was not captivated by Geography except for colouring blue sea around the edges of islands and as a result sank even further in Mr Bass’s estimation.
I enjoyed songs but was aware that accurate musical sounds and notation were beyond my skill. Mr. Tompkin, the music teacher, struck a note on the piano, asked me to sing it and when he heard the result shunted me to one side where I joined the crowd of rejects on the musical scrap-heap. Music lessons were held in an attic room where the walls were painted with half-finished murals of band-stands and the ceiling was full of holes where tone-deaf pupils had poked their fingers into the soundproofing, a muted, windowless cube that did little for my musical education.
Gym was another ordeal: I found climbing ropes almost impossible and leaping over wooden horses a dangerous practice. My body seemed too gangly to swing over bars and too tall to squat cross-legged with my knees flat on the floor as required by Mr Brown the gym master who had his acolytes – nimble, fair-haired boys whose locks he stroked and whose bottoms he caressed. I was too unappealing to be cosseted in this way. My troubles were more mundane: I found the process of undressing and dressing at high speed fraught with difficulty and was usually the last to leave, struggling to pull my collar on to the collar-stud as I rushed out, with my tie untied, shoelaces undone and shirt hanging out of my trousers.
Art was the only subject in which I was not subject to criticism. I splashed about with the poster paints on blue sugar paper, painting a rendition of Black Swan on his pirate galleon surrounded by blue smoke and cannonballs of fire. Mr Witney was not prescriptive and we were allowed a large measure of freedom. I enjoyed carpentry too, although this was conducted by Mr Dawson with military precision and discipline. Planes had to be held in the correct manner; chisels carefully sharpened, benches swept from left to right. Every tool had to be replaced in its correct position. We began our carpentry curriculum with a lapped halving joint, progressed to mortise and tenon, then on to toothbrush rack, key ring holder, teapot stand, ending with an inlaid chess board of sycamore and mahogany. It was work I enjoyed but Mr Deacon was not a man given to the pleasure-principle and as neither art nor carpentry were held in high esteem by the school authorities my success in these areas brought me little prestige. I felt myself sinking gradually down to the bottom of the class in competence, confidence and reputation.
The grim truth, I decided, was that I lacked not only intelligence but physical agility and dexterity. I was clumsy and incapable of understanding mathematics or pronouncing foreign languages or unravelling dead ones. I couldn’t even trill an r. I was no good at games and was attracting the hostility of those who ran the place. I was constantly in trouble with the monitors, senior boys with green striped ties, and the prompters, who wore red striped ones. Both patrolled the corridors and grounds as part of their duties in search of malefactors. A week never went by when I was not given a hundred lines, forty letters to the line, for not wearing my cap properly, for having my hands in my pockets, for sitting on the radiators where only the sixth formers were allowed to sit, for talking in prayers, for running down the corridor, for walking on the grass, for wearing my tie at the wrong angle or for writing the previous hundred lines in a slovenly fashion. I felt trapped, defeated and in despair.
Mr. Bass considered he would assist my development by caning me as a corrective for what he conceived to be my general degeneracy. He summoned me to stay after class and after delivering a short talk on the school, its traditions and the need to uphold them, he lifted the lid of his desk, took out a length of bamboo cane and bent it backwards and forwards in the classic manner in front of me. I seemed not to want to fit in, he said, not to want to take advantages of all the opportunities that the school had to offer. Mr Bass had thick lips and I disliked him but in spite of this I felt there was considerable truth in what he was saying. He was right and I was wrong. He was going to cane me to show me that the school was not to be trifled with and that it was a serious place where I must apply myself seriously or take the consequences. Did I understand? He then instructed me to lean over the front desk, lifted the tail of my jacket and began to hit me with the cane, pausing between each stroke. It was the first time I had been hit with a stick. I gritted my teeth and clung to the far side of the lid, determined not to yell but aware that he was hitting me as hard as he could. He hit me six times, breathing heavily, then said “You can go now.” I staggered out.
In spite of Mr Bass’ s efforts I still seemed unable to make myself liked by those in charge. A few weeks later, five of us were scrimmaging in the classroom when Mr Dutton walked in and demanded that we see him after the class. He offered us the choice of fifty lines or the cane.
“ Fifty lines sir,” each one of my co-delinquents replied, as Mr Dutton walked along the row. It was a theatrical impulse based on memories of a film I had seen, where French resistance workers were lined up by the Gestapo, that made me say, “The cane, sir.” Mr Dutton laid into me as if choosing the cane in itself was a form of insubordination, as perhaps it was.
There was very little I enjoyed in my first term. Sometimes I would stop and wonder how I would get through the next seven years which stretched into the endless distance. There were elements of rugby I liked: the cold mud of the field followed by the hot bathwater in the long tiled troughs, the satisfyingly aching bruises as I trudged home in the November greyness. And there were the reproductions of paintings in the Third Form classroom that I stared at for hours when I had given up hope of pleasing Mr Dutton with my understanding of phonetics or French pronunciation: Rembrandt’s Man in a Gold Helmet, his high Spanish helmet embossed in gold disappearing magically into the darkness; Vermeer’s Girl in Ermine, holding a bead necklace proudly in front of her; De Hooch’s Card-players, with the black-and-white tiled floor and the cavalier with his plumed hat holding up a wine glass and, on the back wall, Holbein’s Merchant in the Steelyard, with his inkwell and piles of coins on a thick Turkish carpet, every detail hypnotically fascinating. These were my real instructors, beautiful and wordless.
The Nuremberg War Trials were held. There were photographs showing white-helmeted, white-gaitered American police in the panelled courtroom, with Hess, Goering, Doenitz and others sitting in long rows in the dock.
But the main actors were absent. Hitler was reputedly dead with Eva Braun, shot in his Berlin bunker, although there were rumours that he was still alive; Goebbels had killed himself and his wife and family of six children; Himmler committed suicide with poison before the trial opened and Goering, the chief representative of what remained of the Reich, swallowed a cyanide capsule he had smuggled into the prison the night before he was due to be hanged. Hess sat alone and uncommunicative. All the major criminals were gone. We felt we had been cheated.
But it was the country that was on trial as much as individuals and everyone believed that Germany was collectively guilty. The photographs of the death camps proved the country’s guilt beyond any doubt and the plea that the accused were only obeying orders was never accepted, although obedience to orders had traditionally formed the basis for every army in history. Nor was there any right of appeal. Only much later was this challenged.
Germany’s guilt was absolute although racism itself was not on trial and was not a concept we were familiar with. The government of the United States, the organiser of the Nuremberg trials, maintained a segregrated army abroad and a system of discrimination amounting to apartheid in many states at home with separate drinking fountains and lavatories for black Americans, separate balcony seats in cinemas, separate restaurants and separate seats for blacks at the back of every bus that ran through Washington, the nation’s capital. Americans of Japanese descent had also been persecuted although we did not know this. Two thirds of the 127,000 living in the States had been born in the US, yet in 1942 President Roosevelt ordered them to move from California to camps in the desert, and two years later the Supreme Court ruled that the evacuation was constitutional. The Japanese Americans were compelled to sell their homes at low prices and forced to work harvesting crops in the fields, returning to their barracks in barbed wire compounds every night.
The British had their racism too. Survivors of the Japanese camps in Singapore, Hong Kong and Java were paid £10,000 each after their five-year imprisonment, providing they were able to prove that their grandparents were British. If not, the fact that they had been imprisoned as British was discounted. But we were not told about this either. The Ghurka soldiers were paid less proportionately for their military pensions than British soldiers. There was apartheid in British South Africa, India and other British colonies. Genocide, perhaps the chief justification for the Second World War in retrospect, was not the chief reason for going to war. But this was not debated and genocide, like racism was not a familiar concept.
On St. Barnabas’ Day, the members of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors, wearing long, ermine fringed cloaks, attended a service in the Great Hall, holding small nosegays of flowers to ward off infection from the plague. The school was founded in 1561 by Sir Thomas White for merchants’ sons; the phrase grammar school occurred in the original descriptions but Mr. Elder made it clear on more than one occasion that we were not a grammar school and had little in common with such institutions. Merchant Taylors was on Mr. Gladstone’s celebrated list of nine public schools, which was regarded as definitive. We wore suits and went to school on Saturdays. I discovered that there was another Merchant Taylors’ School in Lancashire, founded at the same time by the same company for the same purpose, but this institution threatened our uniqueness and I was told never to mention it again.
The first headmaster, Richard Mulcaster was a man with Renaissance ideas on the teaching of English as a creative medium as well as conventional Greek and Latin. His illustrious pupils included the poet Edmund Spenser, six translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible, the chief physicians to Queen Elizabeth and James 1, Thomas Lodge, the pamphleteer and Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, the most popular play of its time,
Such glories were long gone. Mr.Elder’s chief enthusiasms, were for the army cadet corps, divinity classes, Gilbert and Sullivan and the novels of John Buchan. The cadet force was an institutional obsession with parades every Friday and a special defaulter’s parade on Tuesdays when the defaulters were required to parade in full uniform with shining boots and gleaming brasses. Divinity was compulsory at every level. The production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience” involved twenty boys with oranges inside their shirts and large sandalled feet protruding from their white robes coming on stage singing, “Twenty Lovesick Maidens We.”
Our public school status was drummed into us continuously by Mr Elder who enjoined us to display our superiority to the rest of society. “Walk about as if you own the place,” he advised us after morning prayers. The age of the school was constantly invoked although the architecture did not match Mr Elder’s vision of a traditional public school. The l930’s brick buildings, designed by Giles Scott, evoked the local golf clubhouse more than it did Tom Brown’s schooldays. Moor Park, where the school moved in 1933 from central London, was on the borders of the Hertfordshire stockbroker belt, studded with large, seven-bedroomed detached houses. The school buildings harmonised with a local culture of gravel drives and suburban garages. There was not a spire or stained glass window in sight.
I sought refuge in the William books and poetry. At the end of the first term, “Winter,” a poem I’d written inspired by the cold winter was published in The Taylorian, the school magazine:
A driftless grey cloud
There were seven more verses in similar vein, culminating in,
A heavily timbered
Stagecoaches were not common in Rayners Lane, but I had been inspired by the work of Masefield, de la Mare, Alfred Noyes and local Christmas cards. My literary effusions did not save me from being ranked 22nd out of 25 in the class order, an ignominious position for one selected from the whole of Middlesex. I was ashamed of my pathetic performance, but worse was to follow.
The first report arrived with the Christmas morning post, a delivery aimed at delivering last minute presents and turkeys to waiting customers who usually received the deliveries with rapture. We were in the midst of family festivities with Uncle Paul, Michael, Auntie Marjorie. I knew immediately what the long envelope contained. It was the verdict on my first term’s work and I knew it would be damning as my father opened it. “Now we’ll see what someone else thinks of him,” Dad said ominously.
He slit open the envelope, unfolded the report and began to read, then lowered his voice as it became apparent that the verdict was not favourable. I had come top in the class in History but this had not prevented Mr. Bass’s withering criticism: “He has some aptitude for this subject” he wrote “but this does not mean his general attitude is acceptable. I lacked concentration, attention, and diligence. The atmosphere of Christmas festivity began to cool. Dad turned the report over to the back, where there were three longer paragraphs, the first by the housemaster: I certainly hope that his conduct and general demeanour will improve next term, an optimism followed by Mr. Dutton’s disapproving paragraph ending with: His one aim seems to be to make the class laugh. I thought this unfair since I could recall virtually no laughter during my first term. And finally there was the headmaster, Mr. Elder’s magisterial summing up in his small, meticulous handwriting: I must warn him that he cannot make bricks without straw for ever. This reference was initially lost on my father who knew that I was not at the school to make bricks, but its general import was clear enough. It is my duty to warn him, Elder stated, that he should not squander his opportunities indefinitely.
Dad folded the report and slid it back into the envelope. He was tight-lipped. “We’ll discuss this later,” he said.
Uncle Paul chipped in helpfully with, “Michael’s had some bad reports, but none as bad as that.” Michael smirked in the background but I was glad he was with me.
I tried to pretend the catastrophe had not happened but it had and my parents were completely on the side of the teachers who were authoritative and prestigious figures. I too was on their side. They had taught me, weighed the evidence and given their verdict. I had nothing to say in my defence. I was worthless, stupid, delinquent, inattentive and lazy. I was squandering my parents’ and the taxpayers’ hard earned money and there was clearly something wrong with me, a near-criminal streak running through my character like streaky bacon. I felt like a condemned man standing in the dock, sentenced to be transported for seven years. I should have been sent to the Secondary Modern School at Eastcote Lane, next to the fish and chip shop. Instead I had been granted all the privileges that my parents never had and was throwing them away. The school verdict was virtually unanimous. There were no dissenting voices apart from the art teacher and I could tell my parents were shocked and disappointed. I had let them down and I was ashamed.
There was nobody on my side except Michael, and he was going away. Over Christmas dinner Uncle Paul announced he had been offered a job on a newspaper in Johannesburg in South Africa which he had visited during the war. He had decided to emigrate there with Marjorie and Michael. It was another devastating announcement.
“England’s got nothing to offer me,” he said.
I didn’t feel it had much to offer me either but I was sentenced to stay.