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    November 30. Susan, Christine and I saw two of three new Italian plays at the Cherry Lane theatre. I actually thought I had booked the third offer which was a Pirandello revival but we were all glad that we did not miss “The Journey I Never made” and “Story of Love and Soccer”. Both excellently translated and powerfully acted. The first is a thought provoking and somewhat unsettling portrayal of the current social turmoil and the second is modern thriller about corrupt sport and the triumph of evil over good. We were able to chat with one of the actors about the plays after the show. Before the show we ate lobster and oysters at the  “Fish” restaurant which was only two blocks from the theatre!

     

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Ch 6. Growing up in number 57 (1st installment)

My recollections of growing up in Seven Kings are of a succession of victories, defeats, and embarrassments, interspersed with moments of glee, and wild parties. The adversary in the conflicts was most often my mother; the embarrassments were largely my own; and the parties were occasions when the Thompson tribe felt the need to let its collective hair down! 

 The joy in having a house of our very own was modified at the beginning. Les had been born with Rickets disease and suffered from a hair lip, cleft palate and weak leg bones. I couldn’t play with him as an ordinary younger brother. His condition required numerous operations at the Children’s Hospital at Great Ormand Street in London. And he would have to wear iron and leather leg-braces for a long time. I remembered, though, that he was the least concerned and took it all in his stride. Naturally, he received the lion’s share of our parents’ attention. On the other hand, Rickets was caused by a vitamin C deficiency in the mother’s diet and, when I was older, I suspected that my mother felt, perhaps, some guilt for his condition. I kept these suspicions to myself. But, in later years, I told myself that this might explain her unpredictability. Another explanation was that she suffered with, what would now be diagnosed, as post-partum distress disorder. Anecdotal proof of this was current when the twins were born. I was ten years old at the time. The twins were a boy (Ronald) and a girl (Rita) and Ron chose to emerge first. When it was announced to my mother that she had produced a bouncing baby boy, she famously declared: “I don’t want it—Put it back!” The implication being, of course, that the two she already had were more than she could handle!

 Whatever the diagnosis, mother called it her “Palpitations”. Les and I never could understand what this meant but we, sure-as-hell, recognized the signs of their coming on.  And it seemed to us boys that she got more unpredictable as we got older. If we came home from school wet and muddy, we focused on her face when she opened the door. If it were soft-looking, we knew we were in for a coddling by the warm fire in the kitchen and a treat or two. If she had the ‘hard’ look on, we were up the stairs and under the bed like a shot. I was fleeter than Les by a long way and tucked myself into the farthest corner away from marauding broom or whatever weapon she had grabbed in her chase. Les, in front of me, bore the brunt of the onslaught but I didn’t forget to let out a yell of pain occasionally so as to appease and pacify the ‘Palpitations’ as quickly as possible.

       I had two bouts in hospital myself about this period. It was customary for parents to have their children’s tonsils and adenoids removed at an early age. Why? I have never discovered. The hospital experience, though, began my education of the harsh lessons life had in store. I awoke from the anesthetic to a painful slapping being administered by the caring nurse—I had, apparently, soiled the bed sheets while I was unconscious and she felt mightily aggrieved at having to clean up the mess.

The injustice of it! I felt I was innocent of all blame, yet, here I was, being punished!  That’s how socialists are made.

A year or two later, I contracted scarlet fever. I vaguely remember the doctor coming, the curtains being drawn and being carried down the stairs in my father’s arms to the waiting ambulance. Subsequently waking up in a darkened ward in the local hospital with other young patients. The darkened room was necessary because it was thought that scarlet fever might affect the eyes and cause blindness. I remember clearly, that, during one of the anesthetic twilight periods, I had, absent-mindedly, shredded the board game lent to me by the patient in the next bed. I was so embarrassed by my loss of control, that I felt no sense of loss when his keeper confiscated my favourite toy in recompense—only a welling sadness.

 Mother

We are moulded by our parents. A great deal of the lore they instill in us remains with us for the rest of our lives, and is only modified by constant intellectual self-examination.  My mother was the intellectual one in our family. But, she was a woman, and in those days, was expected to be a mother and a housewife first and an intellectual later, if at all. She was familiar with the work of the cartoonist and illustrator, Heath Robinson, and was possibly aware of the art scene of her day (unusual, to say the least, for a working-class woman). And, I am fairly certain, she was responsible for the classical disc or two housed in our record-player console. One of which was Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony, which, by some trick of memory, I came to attribute to Mendelssohn. Whatever! I played that vinyl record to near extinction with a steel needle—I learned every chord and could whistle it in its entirety—which I did ad nausiam. This was one of my victories—my mother couldn’t stand my whistling in the house!

I don’t remember that she read books very much but she must have educated herself somehow. We took no magazines so I suppose her learning was largely gleaned from the daily newspapers. Paradoxically, although my father worked for the arch-establishment newspaper ‘The Daily Mail’, my parents subscribed to the Liberal/Labour newspaper ‘The Daily Herald’, for their enlightenment. They also subscribed to the seedy ‘News of the World’ on Sundays.  Even then it was known as a scandal sheet but, in addition to the centre-fold bathing beauties (fully covered to comply with the law of the land) it did have a broader news coverage and a decent racing page.

 I began my own serious reading with the ‘Herald’ when I began to grow up’. Until then, I had spent my pennies on comics and tuppenny bloods. (Weekly booklets for boys depicting, mainly, the swashbuckling exploits of the numerous pirates troubling our seas at the time). These were proscribed by my mother and had to be smuggled into the house. If she caught me with one, the victory was hers!  She did, however, encourage me to join the lending Library. That is, she took the advice of cub-scout leader of the troop she had enrolled me in and directed me to the Library

 building where I filled in a card with my name and address and my mother signed it. And so began, for me, the great flights of imagination that book-reading engenders in youthful minds. Away with the tuppenny bloods and comics! They were fluff compared with the real adventures of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Alan Quatermaine, Beau Geste and all the other heroes yet to be discovered.

 Actually it was not quite the beginning. That, I owed to one of the Miss Fennels, our next door neighbours. There were two. I have forgotten their names but the younger of them gave me a gift of a booklet, fully bound, entitled “Up the Waterslide”. I was fascinated, not only by the story, but even more by the words which conjured up the images in my mind. I read it again and again.  When I was a little older, I discovered that the short story was abstracted from Blackmore’s ‘Lorna Doone’—a tale I found just as fascinating as the extract.

 “Up the Waterslide” was the first book I owned. I treasured it and began to yearn for a library of my own books, but pennies wouldn’t buy them and the family’s enlightenment hadn’t gone as far as the Fennel’s next door. It was still felt that book-reading was alright in its way but not as satisfying as, say, playing dominos, or a game of Snakes and Ladders or, riding a bicycle! But my parents’ escape from their parents’ mindset freed us to find our own independence. My father helped by taking us up to London to visit the museums and historical buildings from time to time. Neither parent took religion very seriously. My father had gone through the hell of the first world war and felt very little allegiance to a God who arranged that massive atrocity. When I was small, my mother invoked a revengeful God who would do dire things to me if I didn’t obey her wishes but it wore so thin that neither of us took it seriously by the time I was five or so.

 It was due to this burgeoning independence that I felt able to start my own little library. The “Daily Herald” was an enlightened paper, well written by educated socialists with contributions by stuffy Trade Union leaders. It employed a political cartoonist whose work I followed, sometimes comprehending, sometimes, not. Quite often, it included short stories by well-known authors of the day and touched upon art and music which didn’t interest me very much. But, glory of glories, it did run promotions to help keep up its circulation and  one of these was a complete set of Dickens’ works, fully bound in maroon cloth and printed on bible paper! If I collected a token each day for a month and sent them off with just the cost of postage, they would reward me with a volume of the set. In addition, the first volume would be accompanied by a bound quarto volume of ‘The Tale of Two Cities’, which was too short a story to be included among the octavo set.  Over the succeeding months, I had collected nearly all the volumes in the set. I remember that I failed to obtain the last volume but I now have no idea why.

I steeped myself in Dickens’ world.  The sacrifice of Sydney Carton astounded me. The chivalry of a man who deliberately went to his own death in order to save another, scared me—would I be up to it when I was a man? I identified most with Oliver Twist—here was an urchin after my own heart! But David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers were equally well-thumbed over the following years. The books were well sewn into their bindings and the paper turned out to be acid-free and very good quality. After nearly eighty years these books are still in good shape. My younger daughter has them in Scotland where she lives.

At some point the BBC began to educate us too. Radio was in its infancy and required heavy glass ‘accumulators’ to be charged every week in order to maintain the flow of   disembodied, but never-the-less, interest-forming news, talks and music issuing from the small speaker attached to the wall in the dining room. It became my weekly job to haul the battery up to the oil shop in Seven Kings and return with a fully charged one. The acid in them had to be avoided at all costs—If it spilled on your skin it caused painful blisters and if it spilled on your trousers it would make holes where none were intended and cause a painful hiding. A victory for mother. BBC broadcasts introduced me to the D’Oyly Carte and their performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas. I soon added the tunes of ‘The Mikado’ to my whistling repertoire.

 Les and I were not the only ones to feel the force of mother’s ’Palpitations’.  She was becoming very sparing with the truth. We cringed sometimes when we overheard her arguing with the Co-op milkman or baker when they came to collect their weekly dues. She invented ever more complicated scenarios to prove that the number of bottles of milk or number of loaves received was less than that shown on their order books. We came to think that she really believed her own inventions but that nobody else in the world did!

Her aspirations to upper-class status included the hiring of a maid. She dressed the maid in a black dress with lace cap and pinafore and had her answer the door bell when it rang. The young girl of about 14 years had little else to do and the charade didn’t last very long. We little ones barely understood what was afoot, but it appeared that the maid had become very unhappy with the arrangement and was sent back to her parents.

The acquisition of the maid was an intriguing story of which I have only the sketchiest of details but which raised a, vaguely understood, doubt in my mind of the ordained stability of our family!

 My parents had come to be friendly with a family of Scottish origin, living then, in the posher part of Ilford overlooking the park. Their house was double-bow fronted and was semi-detached! A result of this friendship was an invitation to visit their relatives in Aberdeen, Scotland, where, apparently, the parents of a young girl were anxious to widen her education by sending her to work in London, and were looking for a reputable family to take her in. I was old enough to pick up the general idea of the visit from overheard conversations between my parents. I was not yet old enough to be included in the discussion. I became aware of a harsher note in their voices and even loud shouting coming through their closed bedroom door. And I felt a strange unease because of it.

In the result, my mother took Les and me to Aberdeen by train on the Royal Scotsman and my father reached the place where we staying, some days later, having travelled up the east coast on a freighter.  Very strange!

I am left with a kaleidoscope of memories of the visit. Just snippets. I recall being taken to see the Highland Games and being impressed with the caber throwing; the excursion to Banff  where my father did some fly fishing; the lad of the family we were visiting, jumping onto a deceptively solid sack floating down a narrow burn, and finding himself up to his armpits in icy water; an older lad from the suburbs, having put his sixpence into one of the cigarette vending machines, which were to be found on every street corner, noticing that he was pulling the wrong drawer for his brand and rapidly pushing it back in. His howls of indignation at the loss of his sixpence have stayed with me all my life; I remember porridge made with salt. Urgh!  And I remember the Edinburgh Tattoo and its galloping horse-drawn cannons.

I also recall a trick that some of the local lads played on Les and me—Dad had given us dead-lines with hooks and weights so that we could amuse ourselves; while the adults were doing something more adult, I suppose. He and one of the Scottish relations showed us to an old mill, whose, now placid, race was reputedly, full of eels. In retrospect it seemed a somewhat risky thing for them to do since the fishing line had to be dropped from the mill balcony, high above the water and we were not the most unadventurous of little boys. Be that as it may, we suffered no physical harm. But, we did suffer ennui after a little while standing there with the end of the lines in our anxiously expectant little hands. No slime-covered, writhing eels came near our hooks—If they had, we would have been prepared for them–Dad had shown us how to wrap and old rag around the slimy delicacies and extract them from the hook. It was not long, though, before our patience ran out–We tied the ends of the lines to the balcony rail and cavorted up and down the wooden steps and around the old mill with all the exuberance of boys of our age left to their own devices. When we realized that it past time to return for tea, we pulled up our lines, wrapping the cord around the rectangular frames as we were taught.

Lo and behold! There was an eel on each! Eureka! Not only had our fishing succeeded beyond our dreams but the catch had already partially severed itself into one inch sections in the manner that fishmongers display them in their shops. It took a long period of argument to overcome Dad’s ridicule and for me to convince him that we really had caught the fish that way!

We did not bring the maid back with us but she appeared at number 57 shortly after we had returned there.

Mother’s other tangible demonstration of higher-classness ended in tragedy. She acquired two Pomeranian puppies. A breed much favoured by the Royalty of the time, I believe. They were happy little dogs. We boys had little to do with them—they were Mum’s pets. She washed and groomed their fine long-haired coats and showed them off constantly. She doted on them.

As I described in Chapter 5, the drainage pipe from the copper led through the kitchen wall and emptied the waste water into a drainage sink-well built immediately outside the kitchen window. Unbeknown to my mother, the dogs had formed the habit of descending into the sink-well to lick the water dripping from the waste pipes. They were doing this one washing day, when my mother pulled the plug in the copper and released the near-boiling suds and soda to gush into the sink.  The hair of the poor little dogs was instantly removed and they died shortly thereafter! I was in the kitchen at the time and Mother’s screams were horrifying!

By way of explanation, I should qualify, what I intend by ‘upper-class’. At the time of these early chapters. Britain had three distinct classes: the working-class members who received a weekly wage when they had a job and nothing at all when they did not; the middle-class which included monthly salaried professionals and independent professionals like doctors, lawyers, civil servants and, perhaps small–business people (Shop-keepers for the most part); the upper-class which was composed of the property owners, titled and newly wealthy families and hereditary land owners (the aristocracy, which was already on the wane).

One was born into a class and very few moved upward. Each member knew his or her place in society. Professions of the middle-class required high school and university education, unobtainable by a working-class expected to start earning its living at 14 years of age. And the only entry into the upper-class was by marriage or birth. It had become possible to buy a title and so join the upper class through the back door but it was an expedient not readily accepted by the bona fide upper-class families. It follows that mother’s aspirations were to be considered as membership of the middle-class, not the impossible upper-class.

But “middle-class” in the United States has a different connotation. It includes working people of all kinds. In the US, class is designated by the size of the family fortune, no matter how industriously or ill-gotten, the gains. Whereas, in Britain, it used to be by the accident of birth only.

There were two family myths concerning my mother which could bear examination. The first was that she was a good cook and baker and the second was that she was expert at knitting.  She certainly did a great deal of both.  In fact it was when she was engaged in the former that we boys had some of our happiest times. She would let us shell the nuts, add the spices, sprinkle the raisins and sultanas and crystallized fruit, stir the mixture to our hearts’ content and all the while sample little bits on the tips of our fingers. She even trusted me to spread the icing when her cakes were ready for it. By grown-up standards, however, the end result was often lamentable; raisins rose to the top and were burnt to a cinder by the ill-adjusted oven temperature and the nicely convexed top of the fruit cake converted itself into a miniature caldera immediately after being removed from the oven. Les and I saw this latter flaw as fortuitous, however–Before the icing coat could be spread, the cake had to be reasonably flat, and mother achieved this by filling the caldera with extra marzipan paste made, in those days, with real crushed almonds. We loved it. The burnt and soggy cake could be secretly discarded and the inches-thick iced marzipan enjoyed with gleeful relish!

Her roast beef was always overcooked and I have never lost my taste for its carcinogenic quality—I always order the ‘end cut’ when roast beef is on a restaurant’s menu. Her cabbage and Brussels sprouts were mostly boiled to a mush and I never lost my distaste for overcooked greens.

Her knitting projects were ambitious–Well beyond her talent, but the myth persisted in the family. Knotty ‘Fair Isle’ pullovers flew off her single-wire needle at a prodigious rate. No male family member was to be left behind! I had to spend interminable hours with skeins of wool between my hands, trying, desperately, not to let my tiring arms fall, and so show a weakness, while she wound the unraveling skein into balls. When the twins were born, she was in her element. Little vests and knickers, wooly hats, coatees and cot blankets in pink and blue versions began to fill every room in the house. She obviously derived a great deal of pleasure from the activity. But, before the twins arrived she practiced on me and Les, and for us, it was a murderous practice that she engaged in.

It was her habit, in keeping with her upward-mobility ambitions, to dress me like a little Lord Fauntleroy (complete with patent leather shoes and bows) whenever she was dressed up and was taking me with her.  Perhaps to visit a friend or, sometimes, shopping in Ilford market with Dad. My tender feet, enclothed in a pair her socks and stuffed into those tight shoes with the aid of a shoehorn, suffered fearful agony.

There is a technique in making socks; it’s called “Turning the heel”. In knitting terms it means slowly reducing the number of stitches on two of the four needles while increasing the number on the other two. Tension is of paramount importance. If carried out well, the result of this procedure is a garment in which the foot part smoothly (and knotlessly) transitions into the leg part. In my mother’s terms, it meant doing whatever it took to make the thing to look like a sock on the outside. If the spare loops had to be cut and tied and the occasional extra row consolidated into a ridge, nobody would notice if it was on the inside!

I recall returning from an evening shopping expedition. Hobbling home from the bus, I was crying in agony. Under the light of a street lamp, my father saw that both my heels had blistered and had been rubbed raw. He put me on his shoulders and carried me all the way home while poor little Les had to trot along holding mother’s hand!

The wearing of torture socks was not the only cause of inadvertent injury I received during my boyhood at number 57.  We owned, as did almost every family in our street, what my mother called her “mangle”. Appropriately enough as it happened. The ‘mangle’ was, in fact, a clothes- wringer. It was built with a cast-iron frame and reversing gears which caused two large-diameter wooden rollers to revolve against each other.

A leaf spring was mounted on the top of the machine to enable the pressure between the rollers to be adjusted according to the thickness of the material being wrung out. A fly-wheel, equipped with a long handle, powered the rollers. When I became big enough, I held on to the handle with both hands and turned the rollers with boyish enthusiasm and watched with satisfaction as the laundry, fed into the maw by my mother, emerged on the other side, flattened to a wafer, before it dropped into the drying basket. The rinsing water, squeezed out of it, gushed down a channel and into the garden. It was far too large and heavy for indoors. Eventually, I thought I might enjoy feeding the brute while mother turned the wheel. She agreed and allowed me to feed in the handkerchiefs and small garments for which the spring was tightened to its maximum.

She worked-up a good head of speed and exhorted me not to waste her efforts by dawdling. I quickly fed in a pair of knickers to which my little hand was still attached. Upon release of the spring, I retrieved the hand, but the second finger on it was truly mangled and has remained in its twisted state all my life.

The hurt to my hand was of passing moment compared with the ultimate embarrassment my mother once inflicted upon me. It took place when I was between ten and eleven years old. This, I know for certain because the twins were born ten years later than I. I had become something of a rebellious urchin. Probably not the easiest kid in the world to bring up. But, I tell myself, my defiance was a reaction to my mother’s ‘Palpitations’. On a summer’s weekend in 1931-2, the family, including aunts and a grandmother, was in the garden enjoying an afternoon cup of tea and biscuits. I noticed that one of the twins had filled its napkin (diaper) to overflowing. Anxious to gain a point, I lifted her up and pointed this out to all and sundry.

Everyone present, not least I, was dumfounded by my mother’s speed of retaliation—she jumped up from her chair, whipped the napkin from the baby’s bottom and wiped the contents all over my face. I ran indoors crying with shame and embarrassment. As I ran, I thought I saw the nausea on my aunts’ faces and that much of their sympathy was with me. The incident burnt itself indelibly into my memory—my mother was never, ever to be forgiven for it!

 

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One Response

  1. Enjoyed reading this chapter. I bet you buy comfortable socks now, LOL, but your mom had sweet intentions.

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