THE WAR - POST-WAR AND EARLY SCHOOL DAYS.
My earliest recollections started during the early years of the 1940's, the arrival of my sister being a clear event which happened in February 1943. Night air-raids with searchlights lighting up the south London skies are all part of those early memories. Nights spent in the communal air-raid shelter, I remember one night telling my father who was outside watching the ‘display’ "Come in (to the shelter), you’ll be killed!" and the sounds of the Warning and All-clear sirens now being easily brought to mind.
After getting used to my mother bathing the infant Carolyn in the kitchen sink, it was not long before I attempted the same with my beloved teddy-bear. The results of this exercise were unfortunate, for his ‘growler’ stopped working and then there appeared on his belly a nasty rusty stigma. The diagnosis was obvious, and recourse to surgery was the only possible route to take. Thus it was that in ‘my third year as an independent’, I undertook a ‘laparotomy’ on Edward Bear Esquire, at which a badly deranged ‘growler’ was indeed discovered and successfully removed. The residual cavity having been reconstituted with cotton-wool, a ‘standard needle and thread closure’ was performed. From all of this, the patient made a rapid and complete recovery, and has remained well, with successive generations of his adoptive family, ever since. Though now quite advanced in age, and somewhat thread ‘bear’ in terms of his fur, he has grown old in the Welfare State he has had the advantage of new eyes and new paws as and whenever the need arose. A well loved ‘creature’ who has been a constant, if silent, witness to the joys and sorrows of the four generations from my grandparents down.
Death had not at that time entered my sphere of comprehension, but disability came in the form of recently maimed, one-legged man who began to be seen on the road in which we lived at Thornton Heath ‘a wounded soldier’ they said, and that seemed quite natural to me. One summer we went to stay at the home of some of my parents friends in the country down in Surrey at Cobham, we were to look after their house while they themselves went away a few days later. The most memorable thing about that event was the fact that their small daughter had an arm that had been paralysed as a result of Polio - whatever that was - and she used to shake it around like some rag doll’s flail arm. She didn’t seem overly concerned about her awful affliction, but I was aghast at the prospect of Polio, as seemed to be the grown-ups! Another time, on holiday in Devon when my sister was an infant I remember a blind girl at the farmhouse where we stayed and watched fascinated as she wrote in Braille script using a sort of spiked implement and read with her fingertips from the large sheets of thick paper thus embossed . Her name was Dorothy and I seemed to realise sadly that she would never see, amongst all the other things, the colour of her long chestnut coloured hair. The following year we stayed at the seaside, again in Devonshire and I recall one overcast afternoon being taken to see a big shark displayed on the quayside with it’s mouth propped open and a collecting-can placed before it - ostensibly for money to help repair the damaged fishermen’s nets in which it had been caught. ‘Would it bite your leg off?’ I anxiously asked the fisherman on watch, ‘Noooa sonnee, but eee’d giv’ee a naaasty nip!’ replied the old man with flashing eye and all the authoritative guile of ‘Long John Silver’. In my mind’s eye I still can ‘see’ that huge sea-beast so ignominiously set up before the ‘ooohing and aaahing’ public, and me, the small boy pulling back on parent’s hand to keep from falling-in as I peered between those awesome jaws.
In 1944, due to the increasing air-raid activity in our area of the South London suburbs, we, that is mother, my sister and I, went to stay with my maternal grand-parents in a more rural setting north of London in Pinner. Grandma Stringer was from Suffolk and had been born in Lowestoft, while Grandpa was from Norwich in Norfolk, where as a boy he had attended Norwich Cathedral School as he was a chorister, and had sung a duet once with Dame Clara Butt for King Edward the seventh.
While there, we went one day to visit mother’s elder sister Lily, and our uncle Bill, who had a small farm. It must have been Springtime, because I went to see lambs being born. Dismayed by the position of a new-born lamb and seeing a certain amount of normal gore, I rushed in breathlessly to tell mother, "Mummy, I’ve just seen a lamb born this very minute, and all his legs are broken!" This the grown ups found quite amusing, and taking me back outside a few minutes later, showed me that the little creature had managed to extend his legs and was even then standing on them in a wobbly kind of way. Just before we left for home, I had to go and see the pigs and somehow I managed to fall into the pigsty - covered from head to foot in mire - oh mother’s horror, she had to take us home on the bus!
Mother’s family was remarkable in my eyes in having three sons, my uncles, each one of which was in a different branch of the services fighting the war. During that stay, I remember playing a game in the garden with a heap of sand and an old shop-keeper’s weighing scale, which is my sole remaining memory of mother's youngest brother Sam home on leave from the Royal Air Force, who was, a short time later, killed when he was shot down over Burma by the forces of the Emperor - of Japan.
Grandpa, having served in the army in France in the First World War had by then taken up the uniform of the Ambulance Service and the Air Raid Patrol which I found fascinating along with Gas-Masks, stirrup-pumps and the other paraphernalia of those hazardous times on the home front, and I began a collection of various old brass buttons, shoulder flashes, and brass cap badges which kept being added to by various ‘old soldiers’ of Grandpa’s acquaintance. All of this was of course the norm to such as I who had not known the pre-war era.
Along with most of his generation who had survived the holocaust of the Great War, Grandpa used not to recount the horrors of that era, save for some humorous episodes such as lying in wait one night to see who was stealing eggs from their billet stores at a French Farm only to see a party of rats - of the furry variety - pulling away one of their number lying on it’s back clutching an egg securely and safely to it’s stomach. The only macabre tale he told - then only it seems to the ‘grown ups’- was of one of his pals going to change his boots for a better pair seen atop the farm midden. Picking up the first one it came up complete with the leg bones of the still current owner inside. He apparently kept to his old pair, with a muttered oath and a prayer. Grandad fought through the fields of the Somme, Passchendale and Ypres coming home unscathed except for the scar on a finger cut whilst opening a can of Bully-beef. Hundreds of thousands were not so fortunate.
For me, a life-long romance with the sea and ships started about the time my sister was about eighteen months old. I found the photograph of my Naval uncle to be far more awe inspiring than those of the equally smart and handsome army and air force types on both sides of the family, my father in army uniform, uncles Norman and Desmond in RAF uniforms included. The War ended and I started school, or perhaps it was just the other way round. Anyway, I well recollect a ‘crocodile’ of youngsters, being marched to a central hall early that summer of 1945 to receive our ‘Victory Medals’, shiny gilt with a Red White and Blue Ribbon. Everyone had hung out flags when Hostilities had ended. At home we had two flags flying. The Union Jack and for some reason the only other flag in the house a ‘Blue Peter’ - much later to become familiar to me as the ‘Departure Imminent’ flag flown on both Royal Naval Ships and Merchantmen at the appropriate times. Peter, being the name of my favoured Naval Uncle, perhaps in some way it was mother's salute to her menfolk.
War was over and Peace came. There were still convoys of military trucks passing up and down the High Road near home, their tyres making an unforgettable sound on the tarmac, somewhere between the noise of bees and the loud angry ‘ssshh’ that would be heard whenever the silence of aged Victorian great aunts’ post-prandial reverie was broken no matter how slightly on a Sunday afternoon, by children who were still supposed to ‘be seen and not heard’. Then came the Victory drive-past along our High Road and the unforgettable Winston Churchill complete with cigar and famous salute standing in a large open car waving to the crowds to cheers and shouts of ‘Good old Winniee-ee’. Alas, this popularity was to be short-lived and was not to survive the first post-war General Election when Clement Attlee became Prime Minister in the early post-war years. The ‘British Bull-dog’ of the war years was then truly in the ‘Dog-house’ with a disenchanted British public whose memory likewise was as evanescent in the hard times still with us following the immediate euphoria of an almost pyrrhic victory.
As a five year old of course I found it all very exciting and for a long time would take any visitors to our home across the road to see the repaired hole in it’s surface, which had been a bomb crater one night during the blitz, and then we’d go up to the bombed-out ruin of a bank at the corner on the High Road. On our mantelpiece was displayed the brass nose-cone of a ‘shell’ - which had landed beside my sister’s recently vacated pram and over the next few years it acquired a high shine being polished along with the other brass ornaments and fire-place implements. There were also several pieces of ‘shrapnel’ some of which had come in through various windows in the house, with some even having landed in the - again fortunately empty - bath! Such had been the proximity of the ‘war’ in Warwick Road, Thornton Heath between 1940 and 1945 - from the days of the ‘Battle of Britain’ fought in the skies overhead, through the height of the ‘Blitz’ and latterly the ‘Doodle-bugs’ the sounds of which are even now redeemable from deposited sounds in the bank of memories.
Sometime later I seem to have learned one of those most important of English refinements, the fact that ‘Horses sweat, human beings perspire!’ and thereupon had to enlighten my young sister when she, quite erroneously, claimed one day to be ‘sweating’. Whilst I supposed it to be in the natural order of things for a brother to have to thus educate a little sister in all sorts of ways, none of my early chums having a ‘little sister’ I was not in a position to compare notes and to verify such a profound supposition - but that’s how it was, and we grew up closely - ‘big brother’ and ‘little sister’ - for the next several years, and I being the fount of all knowledge to my friends upon the subject of sisters.
A new neighbour came home to the flat below us, Mr Bill Bailey ex-RN, returned from the sea and the Royal Navy - the Senior Service - he informed me. His wife, Mrs Bailey, Ruth, was remarkable in that she had a powerful singing voice that seemed ever-ready to exercise its right to be heard, and cleavage that visually followed suit. From my early recollections of her, I found her enthralling. Now there was another reason for my frequenting the area in and around her back-doorstep to meet with Bill. He and Mrs B. having, at that time at least, no children of their own, he appeared to have endless time to devote to my introduction to all things nautical. He became my mentor in fascinating practices such as splicing rope - a length of old car tow-rope had appeared for this purpose - tying knots and lashing pieces of wood that must be called ‘spars’, exploring the wealth of practical matters contained between the covers of his volume of the Seamanship Manual, learning about Port and Starboard, and Hammocks, the parts of a ship, Signal Flags and the like and the uses of a Seaman’s knife with its Marline Spike and heavy Blade, useful for cutting all sorts of things, like string and apples! All this in and around the back-garden and doorstep whilst eating those apples fresh off the fruit trees whenever they were in season, which at that time of life seemed to be for most of the year, and listening to and watching the Junoesque Ruth about her wifely kitchen chores. I used to have the feeling that the ‘grown-ups’ in the block did not entirely approve the melodious Mrs B. who was probably just busting out all over with joy at the return of her man from the sea. To a six to seven year old she represented indeed a fascinating and sensual infatuation. and I now realise that Bill was probably making up for all the time he was ‘lost at sea’ as well - Ruth certainly seemed to have plenty to sing about.
I had already, before that fallen in love with my Infant-School teacher. It had to be the sort of ‘love’ into which one ‘falls’, for though I lacked nothing in the way of females in the family, with a mother, a young sister, two grand-mothers plus several aunts, both Great and I supposed small - rather like the ‘All creatures..’ in the hymn we sang at school, and simply ‘loads’ of girl cousins and finally a girl playmate up the road, Miss Neale still filled some primal niche in my young and scholastic existence. Perhaps such as the relationship which exists between the Queen Bee and her adoring workers in the hive which necessitates her constant presence amongst them to bestow her beneficence, and so long as I was able to get near enough to her for those necessary and repetitive ‘reinforcements of bonding’, my daily life at infant school was complete. A school visit to London Zoo was a bus-ride in Heaven my being able to sit beside that epitome of women on the way there, unfortunately I could only sit on the one side of her and command half her attention before taking in the amazing sights and sounds of the zoo, but a certain sadness pervaded the return journey when two others were the favoured recipients of her radiance.
Reflecting now at this stage of life I imagine she may never have known what effects she had on five to six year olds. I can only hope she continued so to sustain others after I moved to the next school and that she gained the eventual glories that were her due and just reward. Some are just created to be teachers and inspirers of mere mortals. Every child should have his or her Miss Neale at that age.
Shortly after that I and my homogenic class-mates moved up to the Boys’ school and segregation of the sexes had begun. There we were, six to seven year olds suddenly in a class apart, and at last able to begin the development of all those features of malehood and dominance to be found prevalent in the male orientated society into which we were even then being moulded, without the supposed cloying effect of girls ‘hanging round’. I well recall the only Black-boy at that junior school. He was there when I joined as a boy of six and his most impressive feat, apart from being swift in the various playground running games, was his ability to jet his piss high over the ten foot wall into the Girls’ school yard on the other side. For this alone if for nothing else he was lauded and applauded by all his paler chums. Of course as days and months passed by the girls became magnified in their especial mystique and attraction to us by virtue of that enforced separation. Taboos began to be indoctrinated, on both sides of the wall presumably. Yet we Philistines had our Goliath who could so well and secretly invade their private domain and thereby magnificently demonstrate ‘our’ collective male superiority. Luckily, in retrospect I had a sister at home so hopefully my further development was not too deranged as a result of that element of Chauvinist ‘Education’.
The summer of 1946, I caught the measles and it was miserable, for it coincided with the family summer holidays. We were all going down to Cornwall, where a friend of my father had been ‘stationed’ during the war. He had apparently given such an account of the wonderful place that it seemed we should go down there to experience it for ourselves. In those days we would travel by train, and luggage would be sent on ‘in advance’ having been collected from home by a van called ‘Carter Paterson’. Imagine my utter chagrin when mother and I were left behind! I was apparently ‘in quarantine’. As Mother sat by my bed one afternoon when I was recovering, we started playing a game of finding names beginning with the different letters of the alphabet all went well until we reached the letter ‘Y’. I racked my poor brain - suddenly I had it! "Yurin" I exclaimed - mother laughed so much she must have almost wet herself - that’s ‘wee-wee’ she said between sobs of mirth. I had of course mis-said Aneurin the name of the Minister Aneurin Bevan architect of the National Health Service just formulated, and whose name I would have heard on the ‘wireless’. Then the days of ‘quarantine’ ended and mother and I were off to Cornwall! We left early one gloriously sunny day, and took the train from Paddington Station. We travelled a long long way, arriving at Perranporth in the late afternoon. Nanna of course said I looked dreadfully weak and thin, but assured mother that some good air by the sea and wonderful Cornish food with Eggs, and Cream and Strawberry Jam would soon have me back in shape. Carolyn and daddy took me and mother exploring and I felt rather saddened that for once my little sister should be the one with all the secret knowledge which she could impart or keep to herself - what power, I felt it just wasn’t fair! Then one morning it happened - Carolyn had the measles! - she was taken away in an ‘Amberlance’ on a stretcher wrapped in a scarlet blanket to the ‘Fever Hospital’. Her ‘quarantine’ was going to be worse than mine.
Mother cried, and we all got on with enjoying the wonderful sea and beaches and the sand dunes - still strewn with barbed wire against ‘Invasion and the Hands of War’ - ‘Infection’ though we had right in our midst. The holiday was of course prolonged a few days for apparently Carolyn was ‘quite ill’ with her measles - mother used to confide that my sister invariably got a worse bout of those things than I - that’s because she was chubby, and I was so skinny I thought - there was more of her to get sick!
It was again at about this time that light-brown skinned people began to move into the neighbourhood. of Thornton Heath. The womenfolk were noticeably dressed in an unusual way, being wrapped in ‘Saris’. These newcomers were referred to by the grown-ups as the ‘Anglo-Indians’. That was 1946-7 when the British were preparing to quit India after some two hundred years of administration. These new arrivals, the vanguard of subsequent waves of immigrants from India and Pakistan, and preceding those coming later from the Caribbean region, must have felt that by virtue of their ‘English’ blood, their future in Post-War Britain would be better than it would be in Post-Independence India and the two Pakistans, East and West, which were to become the unhappy legacy of the Partitioning of the Sub-continent. But was it so, or were they - Heaven forbid - to become the new ‘Untouchables’- Out of India but not In of England - by virtue of their mixed heritage?
During and after the war there were shortages which to us as children of that era were the norm, so an announcement of a school ‘Waste-paper’ drive was a great challenge. We were instructed to start collecting waste-paper for a period, and upon a certain afternoon were to bring it to school to amass our collective effort. Somehow, perhaps because of the Irish in me, I managed to charm a neighbour into donating all the waste paper from his place of business. My contribution arrived at school on the appointed afternoon in a van. The whole class was marshalled to carry in the bundles of paper in a repetitive procession with increasing excitement all round and my stock rising higher together with that pile of variegated coloured bundles of paper which my benevolent sponsor had elected to lay upon the ‘altar of national economic recovery’ - in our assembly hall.
I joined the ‘cubs’ at that time and was initiated into the wolf pack with its symbolic signs and utterances. Ordered by grown-up leaders, men and women into whom the very spirit of Kipling's jungle creatures must have descended together with their pack names - Akela, Bahloo and Sheer Khan, we learned various skills, tying more knots, climbing ropes and indulged in a variety of traditional pack games designed to develop stamina, our powers of observation and recall, and so forth, as well as keeping us true to the Oath and promises elicited at our induction.
When the first Boy Scouts Bob-a-Job week was introduced some time later this again gave opportunity to my begging skill. For although I was prepared to carry out any ‘Job’ solicited on the house to house calls during that special holiday week, smartly dressed in cub uniform with job card and collecting can, I was equally prepared to charm any housewife, who had absolutely ‘No job today thankyou!’ to offer, into paying a fee to the small Boy Scout Movement representative standing before her just in order to get him off her doorstep - a Lamb in Wolf cub’s clothing no less!. This tactic usually worked and the consequence was that at the end of the week I had netted far more funds than could have been possible working for a shilling a chore from dawn ‘til dusk for the entire seven days allotted to the task. Once again having reached the top of the collective heap, the reward was a trip to the exciting Boy Scouts’ Gang-Show in company with the District Commissioner and his party. ‘Don't take no for an answer’ was the motto. At least, not if there’s any Irish in you!
In November 1947, I watched the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on black and white televisions set up in the window of an electrical shop on the High Road, along with some friends, we were all on our roller skates so were able to see over the heads of the little old ladies in the front of the crowd which was quite large, while the televisions, and there were several of them, I now realise were very small. On that occasion I had been on my way to do Nanna’s shopping, part of which was for middle neck of lamb, for my favourite dish for dinner, Irish Stew, I suppose I was late back with the provisions that day.
Nanna was father’s mother and she made wonderful stews, Irish- being my favourite. When on her own, she would brew her tea in a saucepan, "that’s how the Irish do it" said mother, and that’s because Nanna was almost Irish. She had her superstitions too, and dire warnings were frequently offered for the benefit of the unwary or unwise. Do Not cross knives on the table, Do Not spill salt without throwing some over your shoulder - to hit the Devil in the eye of course - I understood; Beware looking at a new moon through glass and then be sure to Turn any money in your pocket and Wish upon first seeing it - hopefully not through a window and with some ‘pocket money’ in the appropriate place. I used to earn my weekly stipend from Nanna running her ‘errands’ with a little list, to the butcher or grocer which she always signed at the end with ‘And Oblige’ then, ‘V. de B. Fosbery’ which I understood was very polite, and the right thing to do. Then there were also the better known ones about Not walking under ladders and Not putting a pair of shoes on a table, and her constant injunction "Don’t annoy your father when there’s a full moon about!" - a funny one that - but we never did if we could help it, my sister and I. Later it was just shortened to "There’s a full moon!"
Nanna had, I realised, had a husband once, my father’s father and he had been real Irish, as was my own. He had died a few years after coming with the family to London from Dublin in 1917. So it was that my father at the age of 17 had assumed the responsibilities of ‘man about the house’ to his mother and two young brothers in 1921. His elder brother Francis, called Frank, had died from meningitis contracted whilst on a camping trip at the age of twelve when they still lived in Ireland.
The winter of 1947, was very cold and it snowed and snowed. In the middle of it all, one morning the ambulance came again, and mother this time was rushed away to the hospital. Carolyn and I were packed off to Grandma and Grandpa in Pinner and heard nothing more of the condition of our mother. Eventually in January she came back to us with father and we went home. When eventually we heard what had been the trouble, it turned out that mother had lost a ‘baby’ associated with a lot of bleeding (which the grown-ups called ‘hemorridge’ to rhyme with ‘porridge’). Fortunately she had survived and we were all together again.
As we grew up, St Patrick’s day always saw the arrival in some magical mysterious way of the Shamrock - ‘which only grows in Ireland’ moist and green and smelling, one imagined, of the very essence of the Emerald Isle, to be pinned to the lapel of our jackets father and son. Thus adorned I would set off proudly to school, elevated and separated for the day from all my friends who were merely English through and through, that is except for one boy, named Lal.