TOWARDS PREP SCHOOL DAYS.
After the war, occasionally we used to visit my uncle Norman, Auntie Betty and my cousins - there were four of them, later to be five. Two ‘big’ girls Vivian and Maureen, then Frank who was my age and a baby sister, Jennifer. It would be longer before John was born. They lived down in Hampshire, firstly at Gosport and later they moved to the Isle of Wight following which I used to find the ferry trip over to the island to be a very exciting event. The road in Ryde, where they lived was a hill and I was amazed one day upon hearing one of the girls referring to their going ‘dane the road’ in typical Hampshire accent, quite different to that of ‘fornton eaf’ where we were growing up, and there were certain ‘boundaries’ in the neighbourhood which as children we were not allowed to cross on account of the people there ‘not speaking properly’ and now even my cousins had a ‘funny accent’!
During one visit, uncle Norman made a cardboard fort for Frank and me into and around which we deployed our ‘tin’ (really made of lead) soldiers. I had a number of red-coated guardsmen with black bearskins - busbies - they were called. These would often get broken as the top-heavy heads snapped off at the neck. Fortunately, they were hollow, and a piece of matchstick sufficed to render them intact again, then with a rotatable head - much better! When we had grown tired of that game, uncle made each of us, one night, a stamp album listing lots of countries from Abyssinia to Zanzibar. The next few days were spent in finding old envelopes and soaking the stamps off which we then stuck into our albums with ‘hinges’. It was thus that I started collecting stamps seriously for the next few years.
I found out that my father had quite a stamp collection which he had put together as a boy. Then came the prize - Great Uncle Limbury was a keen ‘philatelist’. Years earlier he had been an ‘equerry’ to King George the fifth, himself a keen collector with whom he had compared and ‘swapped duplicates’ I of course imagined that having been king, he would have had all the stamps in the world and must also have ‘swaps’ for most of them! Great-Uncle allowed me to go through his ‘duplicates’ album with him - you can imagine the treasure trove in there, of many of which I was allowed to have my pick.
Walking with ‘uncle’ Limbury in his garden by the apple trees one afternoon and having been impressed by the different clocks and watches which the old man seemed to have, I said "I don’t suppose you have an ‘old watch’ that still works that you don’t want do you?" To my joy, a few days later a small parcel with my name came in the post. Inside was a very handsome wrist watch - which sadly was to mysteriously disappear the very first time I wore it out with some friends. Mother was always convinced that a ‘horrible fat boy’ who had appeared from somewhere and was never seen again was responsible and had purloined it. I could never be sure. It was certainly a lesson in ‘easy come, easy go!’
Before I was much older, Uncle Limbury died, and around the same time Nanna’s two sisters our Great-aunts Gwynne and ‘Cissy’ also passed away. They must have been in their late sixties or early seventies, but to us children they were all very ‘ancient’ indeed.
Uncle Limbury passed his ‘duplicates’ album on to me, and a pair of gold Chinese cuff-links which having been shown, were thereafter locked in father’s desk until I should be ‘much older’!
In the summer of 1947 my parents again had a car, it was a pre-war Ford, and that vacation we were going to drive down to Cornwall, but break the journey for one night staying with friends of my parents who ran a country pub in Dorset at Plush, which was near to places with extraordinary sounding names like Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton these names did make us laugh. Anyway, we arrived there just about dusk, and the hillside when we turned off the main road was alive with rabbits scampering about, quite an amazing site for two small Londoners. The ‘Hankey Arms’ - another funny name, was a wonderful old thatched building with whitewashed exterior and old dark rickety wooden stairs, and the floors upstairs that went sloping in all sorts of directions while the ceilings were very low. This, we were told was because of the great age of the place - it was hundreds of years old! I couldn’t imagine anyone living in such an old, old place. During the evening we children could here sounds of merriment coming up from the ‘taproom’ it was called. We had of course not been allowed there when we arrived, but next morning we had free access to go in and explore. The place smelled strangely pleasant, old smoke and ale being the main ingredients I suppose. There were various ‘penny in the slot’ machines on the walls, in which you had to try and flick a coin across various hazards to retrieve the same penny at the end if you were successful - it was obviously more a game of skill than a vice, as there were no winnings to be made at all. For these, we were each given a handful of pennies to amuse ourselves, Carolyn and I. Before breakfast we had walked along the road to collect a can of fresh milk from the cows being milked at a nearby farm. All wonderfully exciting.
Having had a good breakfast, we set off once more for Cornwall. Around eleven o’clock in the morning, we stopped for a while at a roadside inn for some refreshments. Setting off again, I sat in the front seat while mother and Carolyn were in the back. A short while later my father said to me, "that door is not shut properly". This led me on the instant to open it slightly in order to slam it in securely. Unfortunately, that model car had doors which opened at the leading edge, into the wind. The door was grabbed by the wind, hauling me with it, and I have a clear memory of sailing under the door and bouncing for some distance along the road before grinding to a halt. Imagine my dismay upon getting up, seeing the car disappearing, I thought, into the distance. It was in fact only within my father’s reaction time and then stopping distance perhaps a hundred yards, following my mother’s gasp from the back, having seen the whole thing, "My God, he’s gone!" she cried. Father reversed and I trotted, somewhat dazed and grazed until we met up once more. I was thoroughly checked over for anything serious having occurred and mother had a good capful out of daddy’s medicinal brandy flask! At the next town, we stopped at a Chemist’s and bought amongst other things Dettol Ointment and bandages with which I was then swathed. The smell of Dettol, even today evokes that episode of trauma in my young life! The sea and sun, not to mention the sand, eventually healed my various abrasions, leaving only a scarred right ankle as lasting testimony to the event. There was never even a thought of going to a Doctor or the Hospital at that time.
There are however, several events in my early life relating to Doctors and hospital, when we were staying at Pinner both Carolyn and I had whooping cough, and I remember the Doctor listening to my chest with his stethoscope, and the teeny white pills I was given along with some ‘medicine’. When we lived at Warwick road, our Doctor was Doctor Appleyard - which name intrigued us as usual - my sister and I. Mother used to ‘faint’ sometimes upon seeing or suffering accidents - perhaps that’s why she had the swig of medicinal brandy when I fell out of the car - once when we were at friends’ she struck her shin on something hard and was put to lay back in a large armchair by auntie Kathleen, whereupon she ‘passed out’ - I saw it and thought she’d died for a terrible minute or two.
It was a day or two before my fourth birthday, we had gone up the alley behind our flats to visit Auntie Polly, an old friend of my parents. She had a Scottish Terrier dog, named Brandy and we took the meat bones left over from lunch to give him. Going in through Polly’s back gate, I threw my bones to the Dog, not much caring to go close to him. Carolyn took her’s right to him, then turned around to pick my tossed contributions and take them nearer to the dog, whereupon, he leapt at her face and bit her badly over the face and neck, mother by that time already passing in through auntie’s kitchen door. Carolyn was taken to the hospital for treatment and stitches. She came home later covered in antiseptic paint and so on. Poor thing, she looked such a sight, and when my birthday party occurred, not one of our friends wanted to sit by her, one even burst into tears and had to be taken home. "Never mind Pet" said I, "I’ll sit by you" and did. Carolyn never quite lost the many little scars from that dreadful afternoon and continued to love dogs. My father on the other hand was a confirmed canophobe. Fortunately for the dog Brandy father didn’t get his hands on him. When I was six, Carolyn and I were taken one day to hospital, to have our Tonsils taken out. I remember being wheeled along a corridor and into a small darkish room, where I was shown a black ‘balloon’, which a man, I now know to have been the anaesthetist, bet me he could blow the balloon harder than I, seeing his demonstration, I accepted his challenge and blew as hard as I could. Nice ruse, the next thing I recalled was lying in a bed with no pillow and a sore and bleeding throat. Next day we both went home minus our ‘Tonsils’ which I assumed was part of ‘growing up’ but I was not quite sure why Carolyn should have ‘caught me up’ for that momentous event!
I was almost eight when I had to sit the entrance ‘test’ for my next school - Dulwich College Preparatory School. Always afterwards just called ‘the Prep’, and having apparently ‘passed the test’, I was to begin attending the school as a ‘day boy’ in the ‘Michelmas Term’.
That summer vacation we again drove down to Cornwall via Plush. The journey by now was becoming familiar, but always had great excitement to it as various ‘milestones’ and county boundaries were passed. Having passed out of the London suburbs, we were soon in the countryside of Surrey and later into Hampshire, where roadside hoarding would proclaim "You’re in the Strong Country!’ - pertaining to a brewing company it transpired. We thought it was related to the strength of the Hampshire people of course. A one stretch there was what we were told was an old Roman Road, as the main road went on for miles up and down hill in a dead straight line. That was very interesting. Then there was the New Forest, where William the Conqueror’s son Rufus had been killed in a hunting accident hundreds of years earlier, and with the New Forest Ponies seen all along the roadsides - that immediately led to a ‘count the ponies’ game, me for my side of the car, Carolyn for hers. Then we would count cows, and by the time Carolyn had fallen asleep, or felt car-sick, I would continue with Father’s help to ‘spot’ sequentially numbered licence plates of other vehicles we encountered. That was an on-going game which could be started and left off at any time. We would drive in through Winchester where a great statue of King Alfred stood, sword in hand proclaiming ‘They shall not pass’.
Next day after spending the night in Dorset, we knew when we had entered Devon because the earth suddenly was deep red in colour, from the sandstone of the county and we would stop for a Devonshire Cream Tea, and delight at the notice displayed out back at the ‘rest-rooms’, in Devonshire dialect - "Yer Tez". Then the road would wind down a valley and cross the river Tamar whereupon we would be in Cornwall! Still a long way from our sea-side destination though. Soon we would be climbing up onto Bodmin Moor with it’s bleak expanses, and standing far off, the characteristic China Clay heaps like pyramids, some of them so old that they had become covered in vegetation, while others were sparkling white in the afternoon sun. Up there there were sheep grazing along the roadside and cattle roaming.
Some time later we would see the sea to a great shout of delight and soon would be winding down towards the small town of Perranporth where we would stop initially again at an ‘auntie’s’ store, Crin Letcher and her husband Ted. She was real Cornish, tanned, tall and lithe with long dark hair with some greying streaks. She was a keen ‘surfer’ too. In those days they only had body boards, held into the midriff before launching oneself in advance of the approaching ‘comber’. At Crin’s shop, we would have our first taste of Cornish Ice Cream for the holiday, delicious, thick and buttery yellow in colour. Then we’d go out to the back of the shop to find some suitable surf-boards for the holiday. "My, how ‘ees grown" she would say in her Cornish way to my parents and looking at me, "I don’ think last yerr’s boarrd’ll be any good for him this yerr. Still I have a very good ‘un for ‘im, a bit weighty but long enough to give ‘im some good rides, an’ ‘ees quite tall enough to ‘andle it. Now which ones’ll you have my dears?" to the parents, "I know which one Gordon’ll ‘ave, same as always I’m sure. That nice broad one you liked last yerr Mollie, well someone managed to split it in half - sitting on it on a rock for ‘eavens sake!’ Can you imagine ? - some ‘o these ‘furriners’ my dears, (she in keeping with all her ‘countrymen’ used the term to describe anyone from beyond the bounds of her native county) you jus’ c’aint trust ‘em. There were two drownins’ last week up Bude way they say, furriners again, jus’ won’ listen to us locals some ‘o them. They should never go near the sea some ‘o them, the tides have been bad a while but they should be fine now for your stay with us. How about a cup of tea my dears?"
"Perhaps not," Mother would say , "we’d better be getting up to the Hotel to be in time for the children’s supper - then bed!" with a long look at the two of us. "We’ll come by later" meaning she and father, "and perhaps we can go over to the Club".
"Oh’" said Crin, that boarrd I wus sayin’ Mollie, well ‘tas beeen fixed but it may not be so fast as beforre with those two strips o’ wood on the bottom. Anyway, try it and see, if’n it don’ suit you we’ll ‘ave to find you a better’n. Well off you go now, my dearrs. See you little daarrlins’ tomorrow", to us littl’uns, I’ll see if ‘we’ can find some Cornish Pasties for you to take for lunch". Crin made the most sumptuous pasties as good in their way as Nanna’s Irish Stew!
That summer, the Olympic games were held and there were stamps issued to mark the event, up in the sand dunes I started a ‘natural history’ specimen collection, starting with a sea-gull’s skull, several pieces of ‘copper ore’ and various other rocks and shells. After one night ‘at the Club’ my parents bought home a large and very weighty piece of ‘silver lead ore’ it had been a doorstop at the said nightspot and my father had successfully begged it off the proprietor, it far outweighed all my other specimens, but being mobile in the box on the way home broke most of the shells. It was however the prize piece of my collection. Later that year Prince Charles was born.
After the holidays it was time to get kitted up for the new school. My parents had a list of items which would be required from everyday wear, to sportswear, and so on. I had my first pair of soccer boots, how the smell of Dubbin comes now from the depths of the ancient 'smell brain' to some recognitive higher centre somewhere in the brain and appears as fresh and new-leathery as it did more than fifty years ago.
Eventually the first day of Michelmas term arrived and I was off to a new and exciting period of my life at Dulwich College Preparatory School.
The Prep also had boarders, most of whom kept to themselves, but I quickly established a few friends amongst them and one of these was Lal. He arrived at the school, about a term after I, in early 1949 and on the day of his arrival the Head-Master addressed the assembled school whilst standing upon a chair in the dining hall - he, and the Assistant Head, used always to address us on special occasions standing on a chair in the dining hall - that’s the way it was. We were to welcome a new boy to our midst named Lal who came from India. He was of course again the only ‘coloured’ boy in the school. As we sat together that first day at lunch, I asked him why he used only a fork, held in his right hand, to eat, when ‘everyone’ knew the correct way was to hold a knife in the right and the fork in the left. "Maybe one day I’ll have only one arm, so I am practising" was his smart reply. I liked that, and him, we both laughed, and from then on became good friends. Not least of the reasons for my having friends amongst the boarders was that it became known that I carried a sandwich to school each day to eat during the mid-morning break together with the bottle of milk which was provided - a third of a pint. Mother would prepare a sandwich to my daily wish at first, usually Peanut-Butter or Date and Apple, Marmite, occasionally jam - raspberry or apricot, sometimes plum. Gradually my ‘group’ of friends became a ‘pack of wolves’ attacking at each break time and then preferences began to be stated - ‘I want Peanut-Butter’ said one, ‘Date ‘n Apple’ said the next. ‘Half jam and half Marmite’ another called out. ‘Half Peanut-Butter and Jam, half Marmite and Peanut-Butter but don’t let them touch!’ another specified. By now boys at the back weren’t even acquaintances, let alone chums. The orders became so complicated over the course of the term that I began writing them down. Poor mother, unsuspectingly increased ‘my’ ration of mid-morning fare, pleased no doubt at her boy’s ‘Healthy appetite’. One morning one of my ‘regulars’ asked ‘Would your mother make toast?’ ‘Of course’ said I, always willing to help these starving boarders. ‘Good, can I have Toast and Marmite then?’ Gradually half the group wanted their spreads on toast, half on regular bread. By now mother must have been getting suspicious but said nothing. One evening I saw she was talking earnestly to Nanna, apparently about me. Next night I was given ‘Worm Medicine’! They had obviously reached their conclusion about my apparent ‘wasting disease’. ‘All that food, and he’s not gaining an ounce’! mother had worriedly confided in the ‘matriarch’.
Though ‘Manners maketh Man’, sometimes they’re the undoing of small boys. Visiting the school sports function some time later, mother was approached by a boy of the ‘boarding set’. Politely raising his cap he said, ‘Mrs Fosbery, we want to thankyou for all those Super Sandwiches!’ a significant number of boys had marshalled themselves behind him as he delivered their thanks - and Oh Mother! did I get a stern look once they had gone? But mother wasn't really averse to my large group of friends, one birthday I remember she took us all off to see John Mills in the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ a really stirring tale which was to come more to life in the months that followed. Upon the wall in one of the corridors at the Prep was one of the ‘Sleds’ which had been used by Sir Ernest Shackleton in his South Polar Antarctic expeditions, he apparently having been an ‘Old Boy’ of the school. It certainly took on more significance after seeing that film. The school had it’s own troop of Sea-Scouts and these I joined when old enough to move up from the ‘Cubs’. So began my pursuit of ‘things nautical’ in earnest. The leader of the troop was a Mr Williams, one of the Masters. After one school holiday he came back sporting a heavy black beard which fitted him well. We were all sure one of the younger Mistresses was ‘head over heels’ in love with this ‘seafarer’, his main interest however seemed to be the Sea-scouts luckily for us, and we had plenty of adventures in the course of time. Mr Williams had an old Army Lorry to carry us all around which we called ‘Annie Lorry’- after the song of course - with apologies to Scots men. Another of his ‘accoutrements’ was the pack mascot ‘Chris’- a St Bernard Dog a huge lovable creature who travelled with us in ‘Annie’ whenever we set out on any of our ‘expeditions’. The greatest thing of all was that Mr Williams also had an old M.T.B (Motor Torpedo Boat) moored on the Thames up-river from London and we would have weekends aboard this doing all those ‘pioneering’ things that young Sea Scouts do. I can recall the first night aboard redolent with the smell of the Paraffin lamps - a special smell which even now always evokes that particular time. No matter that there was a leak over the bunk I slept on. The mornings were spent doing chores about the boat and then we would go ‘learning to sail’ in a Navy Cutter. We made more than one visit to Scott’s ship ‘Discovery’ permanently moored at the Thames Embankment in London. It was open to the public and guides take visitors to see all the quarters and the equipment used by the famous explorer and his men on their way to the Antarctic and their heroic and fateful journey to the South Pole. One visit we made was an all day event during which we were allowed the run of the ship, without the general public. We were allowed to climb up the ‘ratlines’ those ‘ropey’ ladders stretching from the ship’s side to the masts, made up on the shrouds. Reaching the first upper level, there was an ‘overhang’ to climb around before reaching the next upward section. At this point there was a brass-handrail upon which one had to hang to climb up onto the platform. It was bent, probably by years of use by scores of men heavier than, and in worse weather conditions than I, there, steadily in the ‘Pool of London’, but in no way could I induce myself to swing my whole weight on this ‘flimsy’ bar and so gain the upper level and the prized views up and down the river and the adjacent environs. Fear held me at the lower level, and there was no way I could overcome it, that time. That was the second time I was scared. Fortunately I was able to ‘back down’ on that occasion. The first time I had been scared I had not been so fortunate. Following an older friend down a steep hill on my small two-wheeler bicycle one summer afternoon, fearful of the increasing momentum I pulled both brakes. As the front wheel locked I ‘flew’ up and away, ahead of the cycle to land, a sorry and sore heap on the road ahead chest first. It was a long walk back up the hill for my friend who then went home to tell, and an even longer walk home for me with a broken bike! But I had met a very friendly lady who had taken me indoors, bathed and dressed my scrapes and provided cake and lemonade to sustain me for the walk home.