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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 (2nd installment)

Dad

The memories I have of my father are considerably less focused than those of my mother. I see them through a distant and pleasant haze. The following two incidents will, perhaps, explain the contrasting natures of each of my parents and my reaction to them. They both occurred when I was ten or so but I have no idea in which order.

The first taught me the serious consequences which can stem from ignoring the wisdom of my elders. It happened whilst on holiday with Les and my parents at Southend-on-Sea.  The incident is burned into my memory because, although there was some humour in its outcome, it was a much closer brush with disaster than my foolhardiness has ever allowed me to admit to myself.

Southend is a workingman’s resort on the mouth of the river Thames about twenty miles east of London. Its main feature is a pier one mile and an eighth in length stretching out into the river. There is a small railway running along its length upon which one could ride, in my day, for a penny or two. The reason for its length becomes clear when the tide recedes and exposes a vast expanse of black alluvial mud. Only the end of the pier then has its feet in water deep enough to allow the cross-channel steamers to dock. Which they used to do with great frequency– a day-trip to France was an adventure for Londoners to boast about at that time. Amazingly, I remember the shipping line’s advertisement poster proclaiming: 10 shillings for the journey! (10 shillings was half a Pound Sterling—worth about two dollars at that time).

One side of the street along the sea (river) front was filled with pubs, cockle, pie-and-eel shops, candy floss booths and amusement arcades. At night, the Front was hung with coloured lights and animated figures. Across the road from the shops was a long promenade terminating at the far end with an indoor amusement fair called ‘The Kursall’ with its great collection of ‘Skeeball” games and slot-machines. The Kursall was also home to a row of machines equipped with magnifying viewers and handles at their sides. My father and uncle used to spend hours with their eyes glued to the viewers while frantically turning the handle. On occasion, I would ask Dad to lift me up so that I could see the wonderful views of the countryside they were describing. My pleas, though, were always answered with a ‘NO!’ much more emphatic than usual.

 In front of the promenade was a strip of sand about five yards wide running along its length. The sand was imported seasonally by the Local Authority so that the town could boast a beach on its holiday brochures. The beach was replete with deckchairs and tea- and ice-cream booths which doubled as naughty postcard emporia.

‘Twas against this idyllic background that the perilous adventure unfolded. Dad warned me in very severe tones about venturing too far out on the inviting black mud; the tides were treacherous and could race in along channels between little boys and the shore and cut them off before they knew it. He had had first-hand experience of the treachery. I took Les by the hand and we were immediately absorbed in the examination of the crabs and shrimps in the tidal pools, and the winkles trailing their way through the mud. Oblivious to the outside world, each pool further out became an objective of our interest and curiosity. I looked up and a vague disquiet entered my soul—my parents, in their deckchairs, looked like specks on the beach and we were much nearer the end of the pier than the beginning! I suppressed the nascent panic, grabbed Les’s hand and began to haul him towards the shore faster than his shorter legs wanted to take him, keeping, at the same time, a wary eye on the tongue of water which now appeared bent on intervening between us and the safety of the sand. The going was not easy—cockle shells had compacted much of the mud but, in between the mounds, we sank in up to our ankles. Ordinarily we would have enjoyed the feeling of mud oozing through our toes but in the circumstances it only increased my concern. Les was completely unaware that I was about to drown him.

We trudged on and now the water was up to Les’s neck and swirling fast. I lifted him on to my shoulders and hurried on. I was close enough by now to see a very agitated father on the beach giving instructions to a small gathering which surrounded him pointing sea-wards—I soldiered determinedly on. About ten yards from the shore the river bed dropped a foot or two and I tasted the salt water in my mouth. Anxious but still not panicked, I watched as my father dashed, fully-clothed, into the sea to wrest Les from my shoulders just as my options were about to run out.

There were no recriminations—the relief I saw in Dad’s eyes overwhelmed any anger he might have felt. But, I really did deserve a good-hiding for my disobedience.  A couple of thoughts have remained with me: the first is that I kept my head throughout as my father had taught me, and second, when I analyzed my feelings during the incident, it was not one of anxiety that I might drown and take Les with me, but embarrassment at the notion that if I did, it would be a direct result of ignoring Dad’s warning.

The second incident took place at Burnham-on- Crouch, another working man’s holiday resort. But this one had nowhere near the extent of Southend-on-Sea,  in fact, it was hardly a resort at all; just a few enterprising ice-cream and candy-floss vendors plying their wares on the meadow along one bank of the river Crouch, about 25 miles north-east of number 57. The river Crouch is tidal and, I guess, about 400 yards wide, at high tide, at the point where the resort is situated. When our parents had settled back in their deck chairs for an afternoon’s snooze in the fresh air, Les and I took our buckets and spades to the meagre strip of imported sand to build sand castles.

The sand was mostly mud and impossible a medium for proper castle-making. Alternative amusement was near at hand—the river. I decided that I would show off my swimming and diving skills, the teaching of which was part of the curriculum of elementary-school I was now attending.  Les was not allowed in the water without a parent, but I was not bound by such a restriction and already had on my bathing trunks. I jumped off the bank into the gently flowing river below and was mightily surprised to find it only knee-deep! I expected it to reach up to my chest at the very least—It was nowhere deep enough to show off my cub-scout award-winning breast-stroke! I made my way towards the middle of

the river where, logic told me, the water would be deeper. My logic failed me; the nearer I got to the middle, the shallower the water became. In fact, by the time I reached it, the mighty stream was no more than a yard wide and six inches deep!  And behind me was a long trail of footsteps in the mud.

Determined not to waste the opportunity to show-off, I lay on my belly in the trickle and simulated my fastest, but somewhat erratic, over-arm stroke. I looked towards my parents for approbation and was flabbergasted to see my mother, quickly followed by Dad, dashing towards the river bank!  I jumped to my feet to witness the phenomenon, startled. At this point mother collapsed and Dad beckoned me in with aggressive gestures.

When I reached the bank, they both lay into me with a vengeance. Mother had persuaded Dad that I had deliberately feigned drowning in order to give her a “Palpitations” attack. Sobbing, I retreated to a lonely spot seething with outrage. Here, yet again, I had been utterly innocent both in deed and thought, but suffered punishment never-the-less!

ben_20

This photograph was taken in 1932 when I was about 11 years old and the twins were in their first year. It was probably taken by my aunt Doris because her lifelong friend appears in it  (Second from left). Les is on the left of Doris’s friend, Emily, who we boys called aunt Em. Our parents are in the middle.To their right is Nana Hobbs and I am next to her holding on to my  fishing line. The venue is either Southend-on-Sea or Ramsgate.

Dad’s spirit was Peter Pan-ish. During his stint in the army, he was nicknamed ‘Tommy Thompson’ by his comrades, an indication of their regard for him as a boy soldier to be protected rather than a veteran who could look after himself as an equal. He probably became aware of this when he was older and more sophisticated because he used the same nickname as his code name when he was telephoning racing bets to his bookmaker. I believe he did this as a self-confirmation of his manhood.  Mother thought betting was low-class and didn’t like him doing it at all, so he waited until she was engaged elsewhere. But, the telephone was at the top of the hall and, from our vantage point at the upstairs banister, Les and I could hear every word. We listened in wonder at the strange jargon Dad used to communicate his wagers.

 He excitedly sought out new experiences, as a man would, when released from the straight-jacket of his working-class upbringing. The awakening was probably triggered by his war-time travels. He fought in Egypt and Gallipoli and was lucky that he received only minor wounds. Also, he was now a newspaper man, exposed, daily, to the changing state of the world around him and the increasing pace of the change. He dabbled in everything he took a fancy to but took nothing too seriously, except, perhaps, his gardening. He and mother often went to see plays at the Ilford ‘Hippodrome’ and the Hackney ‘Empire’ theatres. When I became a teen-ager they would occasionally take me with them to see thrillers, like ‘Gaslight’ and ‘The Rat’. They took me to the Hackney ’Empire’ to see and hear Gracie Fields sing the lead in the musical, ‘Sally of our Alley’. For this, I was forever grateful to them–to this day, I remember the haunting appeal of the theme song and Gracie Fields became my heartthrob until replaced, many years later, by Judy Garland.

They made the mistake of taking me to an old-fashioned Vaudeville once. It was playing at the Ilford ’Hippodrome’ and did, indeed feature mainly, conjuring acts, ventriloquists, and dancing and singing troupes. However, it also included an act in which an artist drew coloured faces on ladies‘ bare backs. The faces were funny and I could see both my parents laughing and enjoying the skill of the artist.

Mother’s visage turned to thunder, though, when two of the ladies turned to the audience. Faces with big droopy eyes had already been drawn on their bare fronts! I was staring in wonderment but she had me out of there in a trice. How could they expose her upper-class son to such low-class lewdness? My father got an earful on the way home.

While we were In Aberdeen, Dad made a brief attempt at fly-fishing. He couldn’t have had a great deal of time to practice the difficult skill of casting a fly-line, but, on the evening he took me down to a nearby trout stream, I was proud of a Dad who could handle a fly–rod as well as he seemed to be doing. I was not a competent judge of the art at that age but I was mightily impressed by the line snaking backwards and forwards above me. I did have a sneaking thought that it ought to have been nearer the water from time to time, but it was only a passing one. No trout came within a yard of his fly, but a bat, in the evening light, took it on one of his casts and flew heavenwards with it.

He indulged himself in little excesses at party times and occasionally, on the annual outings with his brother Compositors. These outings went by the strange name of “Wayzgoose”—a derivation of some ancient Guild ritual, I imagine. There was an equally strange name given to the passing-out ritual which completing apprentices had to endure. The name escapes me now, but I remember newspaper pictures of the procedure; the freshly graduated journeymen were pushed into the street by their colleagues, stripped to the waist and pelted with inky balls!

But, back to the wayzgoose. In the modern version of the ritual, the Chapel piled into a char- a-banc (coach) and sang rowdy songs as it motored along the Southend road. The songs got rowdier

after the refreshment taken at ‘The Halfway House’ and rowdier still after that taken at ‘The Quart Pot’. When it eventually reached Southend-on-Sea, the Chapel members broke up into familiar groups and drank the rest of the day away in convivial companionship until pub closing time (about 10 p.m. in those days). Then they would pile back into the bus for the ride back—the upright ones taking good care to see that their more lighthearted colleagues were safely in their allotted seats.

Dad was to be numbered among extreme light of heart on rare occasions. I remember mother opening the door to his ring once, to see him slumped on the door step, stinking of vomit and hardly able to stand. She ran back from the spectacle and shouted up to me to look after him. I must have been around fifteen years old at the time and managed to get him upstairs to the bathroom. I remember getting his clothes off, helping him on to the toilet and cleaning him up as best I could. When he was sufficiently stable, I helped him across the landing to the bed in the ‘box’ room, which had now become called the ‘spare’ room. Our bonding was already tangible.

Dad was not a very effective ‘Do-it-Yourself’ house-repairer. He didn’t have the patience to learn the minimum precision necessary to do a good job. However, he always quoted the adage: “A poor workman always blames his tools” when I failed in a project! He used hammer and nails with great enthusiasm, though, and this generally sufficed. He bought himself a do-it-yourself manual and consulted it when doing house repairs, following its instructions as he went along.

He was good at wall-papering. The halls and downstairs living rooms of suburban houses all had a patterned chair-rail running round their perimeters at about three feet up from the floor. As its name indicates, it was installed to protect the plaster wall from damage by carelessly placed chair-backs. Above the chair-rail at about one foot down from the ceiling, an ovolo moulded picture-rail was installed. This, of course, provided for the framed pictures of family members and prints of popular artists’ work, like that of Gainsborough. Small, flat, ‘S’-shaped hooks fitted over the rail so that the strings attached to the picture-frames could be looped over the upturned ends and moved along the rail to whatever position was desired.

 Ceilings were generally whitewashed (distempered) in those days and around the perimeter of the room at the juncture of the ceiling and wall, a frieze was usually pasted. The frieze matched the wallpaper which filled the space between the picture-rail and the chair-rail. Between the chair-rail and the base board, it was customary, in suburbia, to glue on a heavy paper, embossed with a repeated pattern, called ‘Lincrusta’. This was painted with a lead based paint. Several coats were applied not only in order to make the expensive ‘Lincrusta’ last for decades, but also to prevent little poking fingers from squashing-in the embossed pattern. Dad accomplished all this by himself—hiring the trestle table for pasting and the step-ladders needed for the work, from the local Co-op. He did allow me to help him with the pasting of the wallpaper when I was old enough and he had me stirring the paint when he was busy painting the surface. Paint ingredients precipitated out very quickly and stirring was a continuous necessity.

The undercoat was heavily pigmented so as to fill the grain of the porous paper and the soft wood of the door-frames, rails and base-boards. He mixed some of this himself in order to cut the expense down a bit. One ingredient was highly toxic red lead, of which, he kept a supply in a sack stored in the tool-shed at the bottom of the garden. The combined effect of using this stuff and the lead-laden atmosphere of his typesetting office, probably caused the destruction of his lungs at the end of his life, but we were all ignorant of the danger then and didn’t give it a thought!

The nadir of his ‘do-it-yourself’ endeavours occurred many years later, after I had moved out of number 57. I interpose the story here so as to give further insight into Dad’s character–try everything once, even though the outcome might be less than certain.

 I was introduced into the unfolding drama by a frantic phone call from my mother pleading for my help. In my late twenties, she had come to regard me as a more down-to-earth force and, when necessary, an ally. She tearfully explained the sequence of events which were evolving as she spoke. She feared that worse was to come and that her ‘Palpitations’ would reach explosion point. I lived only a mile or so away at the time and readily agreed to dash back to the house to help Dad with the problem.

I mentioned, in chapter 5 that the house plumbing was carried out with lead piping. Since the walls in the house were of solid brick, the lead pipes were not hidden inside them but ran up the face of the wall, through the ceiling, to the hot water tank in the airing cupboard and the gravity storage tank in the roof, making suitable diversions in order to serve both the bath and vanity basin in the bathroom on their way.

Apparently, my mother noticed that the cold-water pipe above the kitchen sink had suffered a pin-hole leak and that a tiny spout of water was issuing from it. My father bustled to the task and consulted his manual. The manual was quite clear in its diagnosis. Pin-hole leaks such as the one now encountered were the result of aging material and the long-term cure for them was replacement of the length of pipe. However, it went on, a temporary repair could be accomplished by tapping the pipe lightly with the ball end of a ball-peen hammer. It was here that Dad hit a snag—he didn’t own a ball-peen hammer. He did have a regular claw-hammer, so he gave it a good whack with that.

The pipe caved in at the point where he first hit it and the tiny spout of water became a fairly substantial gush. Undismayed, Dad gave the pipe another blow a little further up and continued until it was shattered all the way up to the ceiling while my mother looked on in horror and the kitchen began to fill with water. He had turned off the water supply at the gravity tank but in order to expose the remains of the offending pipe, the floor-boards of the bathroom had to be lifted. Before this could be attempted, though, the ceramic pedestal of the vanity basin would have to be unscrewed from the floor. The screws were large and somewhat stubbornly rusted in. He attacked them with his heaviest brace-and-bit and used all his weight to gain purchase. Unfortunately, the bit slipped from the screw under the pressure and penetrated the pedestal which immediately shattered into a pile of chards. Leaving the basin hanging precariously from its attachment to the wall. And, at the same time, putting kinks in the two pipes feeding it!

It was at this point that my mother called me. Dad was now about to take up the floor boards. I arrived post haste on my bicycle and was in the kitchen listening to mother’s tearful pleading when there was a fearful crash above us and both Dad’s legs appeared through the lathe and plaster ceiling! They dangled bizarrely from the ceiling, showering us both with white dust and bits of wood! When Dad eventually retrieved his legs, we could both see and hear him through the gaping hole in the kitchen ceiling—He was at pains to explain that the expletive boards had not been properly anchored and had upended when he stood on them!

A workmanlike job was all that Dad ever aspired to. During the war years, his optimism and can-do enthusiasm kept the spirit of the Thompsons alive.

And what, you may wonder, did Dad think of me? When I became old enough to defy my mother and laugh at her feeble attempts to punish me for transgressions of her rules, she would make her complaints to Dad. He, on rare occasions, saw the justice of her complaint and punished me himself. But, for the most part, he saw through her exaggerations and this led them to argue behind their bedroom door. The arguments got quite heated at times and  he showed his frustration by raising his voice. It was on such an occasion that Dad blurted out his thoughts of me in a line which I have treasured all my life and kept at the forefront of my mind like a pennant fluttering in a stiff breeze. I was about fifteen and Dad shouted: “Leave him alone, Em. He will probably turn out to be the best of all of us!”. When I heard these words, a euphoric adrenaline glow spread through my teen-age frame and I still feel the echo when I am reminded of them. Dad was proud of me!

 

 

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2 Responses

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying your auto biography, Ben. For a classic British movie comedy about an amusement pier somewhere in England. Have you seen Alec Guiness in,”All At Sea”? I have an off the TV, dvd that I cherish and enjoy everytime I view it.

    • John. Delighted you are enjoying my old memories. But I can’t remember having seen ‘All at Sea’. What was the plot?

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