Schooldays and the education of B.W.T.
The state elementary school which I began to attend when I reached five years of age was to be found in a thoroughfare called Downshall Road, about four blocks from our house. Appropriately, It was called ‘The Downshall Road Elementary School’. Our caps and blazers were brown and yellow and the pockets of the latter were emblazoned with the school crest and motto. The motto was deliberately written in a code called Latin so that young minds would not be unduly distracted by its message. The building was solidly constructed of the usual yellow brick and it had a quadrangle. The playground was enclosed by a high brick wall capped in slate into which two iron gates with spikes on top were hung, allowing ingress and egress to the two streets running each side of the school. The building was split into two mirror-image parts. The other half was the Girls’ school. There was no communication between them, and the high brick outer wall continued so as to separate the two playgrounds. Boys were forbidden to enter the girls’ playground under any pretense whatsoever. Recovery of wayward balls required the written permission of a teacher. Even going up the road a bit to look through the Girls’ gate was discouraged. We little boys understood that girls were fundamentally different and whatever it was they had was very, very, contagious.
My schooldays generated few incidents worth archiving. I remember being lifted onto the classroom mantelshelf by a red-headed Irish teacher grabbing the front of my jacket with one hand. The shelf was at least a hundred feet from the ground and only three inches wide. I hung on like grim death not knowing then or since what the punishment was for. Probably inattention, from the little I knew of myself–I was ever the daydreamer. I was sent to the Headmaster for caning once—two strokes on each hand. I was now old enough to have picked up some survival skills–I knew how to spit on my hands and slope them downward so that the blows were glancing rather than straight on. Once again, I had no idea why I was being punished. While I was waiting outside the Headmaster’s room, I noticed the remains of a broken bottle and the unmistakable smell of whiskey which I knew because my father drank it at Christmas time and Ginny put some in her afternoon tea sometimes. Recounting this to my classmates enhanced my fame considerably as I proudly displayed the cane marks. I hoped that Headmaster would get into trouble somehow because of it.
The same Headmaster dealt the death blow to my musical career: My mother and father had bought me a violin and a course of lessons, at one shilling per week. The course was run by the Local Authority, at the school, in an attempt to encourage democracy in the arts. At the end of the year, they were disappointed in that, after all that expenditure, I had yet to reach virtuoso status. Persevering, they had me try out for the orchestra which would represent the school at the annual music festival at The Royal Albert Hall. Apart from his cane- and whiskey bottle-wielding activities, the Headmaster was also leader of the school orchestra and wielded the baton. I am persuaded that neither animosity nor alcoholic fumes influenced his judgment, but I had hardly applied bow to string before a look of intense agony, even horror, spread across his blotchy face. He didn’t wait until I reached the pizzicato passage (which I liked best of all) before he pronounced that I was so far out of tune that he could not possibly include me in the orchestra. The violin was consigned to the attic.
My parents were not deterred by this set-back. They were convinced, as all parents were, that their child was destined from birth to become a famous virtuoso. Since music seemed to be out of the question, they went slightly down-market and tried to make me into a tap-dancer. It turned out that one of Dad’s work-mates had a daughter who ran a dancing school from her family home only a short cycle ride away from our house. The black patent leather tap shoes and the portable dancing mat were a once-only expenditure, unlike my violin which required constant restringing, or the bow, which need the services of a new horse every few months because of its propensity for getting over-wound. The dance teacher, called Mae Amos, was a thoroughly nice person. She was lively and outgoing and treated us pupils as equal conspirators. We took our lessons, individually, in the front room of her house; in the back room kitchen she kept a sister of about the same age as herself and a mother. She pressed along with our instruction so that all her pupils would be able to perform in some way or other at the show which she put on annually at a local hall for the benefit of the parents. Parents were in invited to buy tickets for all their friends and neighbours so that they could point out how much more talented their kid was than the rest.
My first accomplishment in dance was the schottische. Don’t ask! It was, apparently, a routine which could be absorbed quite readily by the novice and was the first Mae taught her new pupils. I had reached such a proficiency in the schottische that I was to perform it at the annual show that year. The show was a full-dress affair and for my debut I was dressed like a cut-down edition of Fred Astaire in top hat and tails and carried a silver-headed walking cane. While waiting to go on, I become very nervous and had to make an emergency trip to the lav before making my entrance. The audience received me with great acclaim. At first, it seemed to me that there was more humour in their applause than the seriousness of the act warranted but, never mind, I was dancing confidently and my little feet clicked me from side to side of the stage with enthusiastic flair. Throughout my performance the applause continued unabated. I saw, even, a few (my mother included) stand up to point out the finer parts of my artistry. Alas! Much of the acclaim was misplaced, in my hurrying back from the bathroom, I had neglected to do up a single fly-button and, as the act progressed, my enthusiastic performance caused more and more of my over-sized shirt-tail to protrude through the front of my pants. Only my mother was embarrassed by the event. Everybody else thought it funny. I shrugged it off as being of little importance compared with the tea and cream buns shortly to follow the show.
I followed my dancing career almost until the age of leaving school and I remember most of it with pleasure. Leslie joined me at a later stage and we often rolled down our mat and performed impromptu double acts in the living room at number 57 for the entertainment of visiting aunts and uncles. Les, however, had a much greater aptitude for the terpsichorean art than I and, would give a spirited demonstration at the drop of a crutch. His schottische was a joy to behold.
But my dancing career ended quite unexpectedly. It was not the Headmaster who put an end to it this time but an attack of the wind. The religious instruction which mother imparted to her sons to guide them through life’s vicissitudes was not entirely orthodox. She tended to personalize the Lord’s dictates and her list of deadly sins could not be found in any Bible. True, it included: ‘honesty always pays’ and ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ but so was ‘ Thou shalt not contradict me!’, and high on the list was ‘not making rude noises in public if she could be associated in any way with the perpetrator’.
It happened, then, on my way to what would be my last lesson, I began to feel the distress of having eaten something really dangerous. By the time I stood on the dancing mat and Mae was asking me to begin a practice routine, I was in agony. The deadly fear of making a rude noise kept my legs tightly closed and they refused to budge. I remember teacher trying to cajole me into action and her taking me stiff-legged into the kitchen to talk to her sister but I escaped somehow and never returned to that house again.
In the nine years I spent in Downshall Elementary, I learned nothing. I was not just a late starter; I didn’t even break out of the gate! All my education was gained outside the school’s premises—either by self instruction, or, as the result of the often, harsh, lessons of life’s haphazard experiences, i.e. reacting to events affecting me directly. It was not that I had no concern for academic achievement. On the contrary, like Archimedes before me, I remember having a ‘eureka’ moment when I was in the bath once. From an early age, I found a warm, comforting tub to be conducive to rumination. On that occasion, I was idly splashing bubbles when I was overtaken by a wave of deep anxiety and my mother came in to the bathroom to find me in inconsolable tears. After some pleading, I was able to articulate my fears: “How will I learn how to spell all those long words?” I cried. I am not sure how she answered but she did call in my father for consultation. Standing there, the two of them discussed the sagacity of their diminutive offspring with undisguised pride, (at least on my father’s part) wondering, no doubt, what manner of prodigy had befallen their lot. Looking up at my adoring progenitors I knew exactly how Jesus felt when he was in a similar situation.
Another lesson I learned in the bath was of more practical application. I found my father’s safety razor once, left carelessly within my reach. I had been intrigued previously by the scraping noise it made when my father rubbed it over his face. I tried it on mine but there was no response. On the back of my head, however, I heard a slight rasping. As a sound it was not all that exciting and after three or four flourishes I gave up the effort. The really exciting sound came from my mother when she stepped into the bathroom and saw all the hair which had recently been attached to the back of my head now floating in the water behind me. The shriek was deafening.
A fundamental lesson in morals was taught me just outside of the school premises. Opposite the gate in Downshall Road was a row of shops. There was a bakery and a shoe mender’s among them but the most important was the sweet shop. It was the habit of all the school-boys to drop into the sweet shop on their way to the classrooms if they were in funds. On this occasion, one of life’s odd coincidences played itself out. On a Monday, I feel sure, because on no other day would I have had such pocket-money left, I started out to school with a silver threepenny piece in my trouser pocket. On the way out the door, my mother instructed me: “Here’s sixpence, bring a loaf of Hovis bread back with you after school”. I gaily entered the sweetshop and, after long deliberation and a warning from the shopkeeper that the school bell was about to sound, I chose my pennyworth of sweets, took my change and dashed into school.
While the red-headed man in front of the class was droning on about some totally irrelevant theme of his, I felt in my pocket and lo! There was not only the two pennies that had a right to be there but an added sixpence as well! There was only one way it could have got there—the lady in the sweetshop had given me too much change. As soon as the gate was opened for the lunch-time break, I dashed across the road to return the sixpence to its rightful owner. “What a good little boy!” My head was patted by several beaming adults and the shopkeeper rewarded me with a tuppenny bag of my favourite toffees.
I basked in the glow of my downright honesty for the rest of the afternoon and as I pressed the doorbell upon reaching home, my halo was still firmly attached. But I owed it all to my mother’s teachings, I knew. “Where’s the bread?” She demanded as I stepped lightly inside. “Bread?” I countered. “Yes. Bread. I gave you sixpence this morning to buy it with”. My intuitive sense told me at once that the explanation I was about give was not credible. She could see my bulging pocket and knew exactly how I had spent her sixpence. Before the first blow fell I was up the stairs and under the bed before she could get the broom out of its cupboard. As I have mentioned in previous chapters, the bed was placed against the corner walls so that my redoubt could only be assailed from one side. The broom assault was always haphazard and quickly tiring. Occasionally a blow would land where it was intended but most times it was a wall which suffered. As usual, I did not neglect to yell out in pain whether it hit me or the wall so that her feeling of injustice would be assuaged at the earliest possible moment. I learned from this incident that honesty always pays somebody—but not necessarily the one doing the honesty bit; and therefore, to temper any future feeling of honesty with a measure of circumspection.
Disobedience taught me well and sometimes painfully! Little boys must not climb trees—Les and I were out in the countryside conkering one autumn. Conkers are the shiny nuts of the Horse-Chestnut tree much prized by little boys for their game of ‘Conkers’. To play the game, the nuts are drilled through by their owners and threaded with a length of string knotted at one end. The owner then holds his conker at arm’s length on its string and invites a challenger to take a swipe at it with his similarly threaded missile. Turns are taken until one of the conkers is defeated and falls to the ground in sad pieces. The winner is a champion conker and, if it survives a number of such battles, it becomes a “Two-er”, “three-er” etc. Perhaps even a “ten-er” and quite valuable—worth any number of toffees. Secretly, knowledgeable conkerers, worked on their conkers in mysterious ways—like boiling them in vinegar, for example. Anything likely to make their champion tougher without it being obviously fiddled with. Les and I knew a pristine source of the precious nuts–off the beaten path.
As we were making our selection of the crop on the ground, I noticed a particularly fine specimen peeping from its husk, hanging from the end of a branch higher up the tree than we could reach with our sticks. Undaunted, I climbed the trunk until I reached the branch supporting the fruit and began to crawl along it to capture the prize. I had not gone far, when the branch snapped off at the trunk and threw me some ten feet to the ground.
I always remember the beatific feeling I experienced, looking up at the sky with Les’s anxious face intervening. I will always remember also, the oddness I felt when nothing would move! Not a finger, even. I have no idea how long the state lasted but, as it faded, the beatific feeling was replaced by an excruciating pain in my left wrist. The same wrist began to swell alarmingly on the way home and, to the pain, was added the anxiety of explaining it to our mother. Any suggestion that we had been anywhere near trees would have been fatal. We made a pact to swear that I had tripped on the sidewalk. I camouflaged the wrist as we entered the house hoping that the swelling would abate so that it would not be necessary to make any explanation.
The next morning, however, I was running a fever and when mother saw the wrist, we were on the way to the doctor’s surgery before I could say “Horse Chestnut”. The doctor diagnosed a severe strain and prescribed a course of aspirin. I had fractured the wrist, of course, and have carried the distorted bone around with me ever since.
On another occasion, my inquisitive mind led me to blow Les’s eyebrows off.
He and I were pottering around in the back yard when we came across an empty petrol can left in the open air for safety by our father. Petrol was probably very expensive in those days. It was purchased one or, perhaps two, gallons at a time and a supplementary half-gallon was kept on hand for emergencies. I had learned from other boys, the interesting effects which could be produced from the fumes left in old fuel cans and decided to verify the knowledge on my own account. Breaking another of mother’s commandments, ”Thou shalt not play with matches”, I snuck into the kitchen and borrowed the box of Swan Vestas matches kept by the stove. We huddled over the can to observe the effects as I struck a match and dropped it in.
The resulting flash exceeded our wildest imaginations. Les covered his face, but not in time to save his eyebrows. I was immediately assailed by the stink of burning hair which I knew very well, because I had smelled it many times when one or other of my aunts had overheated her curling tongs—only, this time, it was my hair that was alight!
I learned an early lesson in charm when I was ‘gleaning’ once. ‘Gleaners’ was the name given to locals authorized to go over the growing fields, after they had been harvested by machines, to pick up what they could find to supplement their own larder.
On my way to Hainault farm, I passed a field of what, eventually, I observed to be garden-pea plants. At each pass throughout the growing season I checked their progress through my hole in the hedgerow until their pods were bursting with fat peas. I was not exactly authorized and the field had not yet been harvested, but given my diminutive size, I thought It would be wise to get in early while there were still peas to be gleaned. My playmates and I ate the sweet raw peas from the moment they could be discerned in the pods, but there is a strict limit to the number of raw peas individuals can consume. What, I thought, if I bring a sack next time and fill it with pea-laden plants? The fresh produce would surely bring joy to my mother?
As I was emerging with my sack from the strategic gap in the hedgerow, I encountered a pair of very large and highly polished boots. Upon further examination, I saw that these boots, enclosed the feet of a policeman some eight or nine feet tall! “What” he bellowed down at me “do we have here?”. “I just picked up a few loose plants left along the hedge.” I replied hopefully, but with youthful charm. “And you happened to find a convenient sack along the edge to put them in?” he countered. “Yes, someone left it behind”, I said with relief. “And did someone conveniently leave behind that little gardening fork I see poking out of the top?” I felt myself blushing from head to foot–my game was up! My crime was obviously premeditated, and I would be for it. I looked up at him with misty eyes. “Run along sonny”, he said, giving me a light clip round the ear. “And don’t let me catch you here again!”. I jumped onto my junior bike and sped off home–taking good care to toss the sack into a neighbouring garden. There was no way I was going to admit that I had had an encounter with the law! That would have been fatal.
It was the result of a foray in Hainault Forest that I learned abject remorse. The majestic copper beeches of Hainault Forest were home to the enchanting Red squirrels of the British Isles (They have now been overrun by the American Gray squirrel, a species more than twice their size). The parent squirrels used to make their nests of twigs high up in the canopy where they were safe from marauding schoolboys and the like. But my hunter’s eagle eye noted one day, a nest which had been built with less caution, on a branch lower down. I climbed the tree and determined that the branch could support my small weight. I bellied out to the nest and took one of the three baby squirrels nestling there and put it into my pocket. I clambered down and took a look at my prize, cupping it in my hands. I was overcome with emotion. It was perfect! Its little, curled–up, bushy tail and its big bright appealing eyes melted my boyish soul and I vowed to take care of him for as long as I ever lived.
I popped him back into my pocket and cycled home as fast as I could. It was a weekend because we had visitors staying. I found an empty shoe box and filled it with straw to make him feel at home, then proudly presented him to our guests. Aunt Doris was the most doubtful, “What will you feed it on?” she enquired. I was completely taken aback—it never occurred to me that baby squirrels needed special food! What did they eat? Chewed up acorns or beechnuts? No. Warm cow’s milk was the answer. I had seen baby kittens being fed with it through tiny tubes before. I set to work making a feeding tube from a fountain pen reservoir.
In three days my little squirrel was dead and I cried over his tiny stiff body for days. I felt my culpability with a painful intensity; why hadn’t I left the poor little thing in its cozy nest! The episode bookmarked itself as one of the self-recriminatory flashes which recur whenever the memory is triggered. I have many of them.
The two previous incidents occurred during my Junior Bicycle period–between the ages of eight to twelve years or thereabouts. Long before I started work and my parents had presented me with my beloved ‘Raleigh’ cycle, they had, one year, bought me a junior bicycle for Christmas. It had a crossbar like a full-sized bike but the frame and wheels were more suited to my diminutive stature.
Hainault Farm and Hainault Forest, a little further to its north were my favourite haunts. In Hainault Forest I, and my friends, would hunt big game with spears fashioned from stripped and sharpened willow saplings; all the while shouting Tarzan calls to entice the animals from their lairs.
The crossbar was handy for giving my friends rides. Especially the ones who didn’t have bicycles of their own. I used to give rides to little Mary across the road. She would sit on the crossbar keeping her leg braces well away from my churning pedals. Quite often, we would travel to Hainault Farm in this fashion—an undertaking that would have been quite daunting to less innocent mortals. First, it was a grueling mile-and-a-quarter away, and secondly, it could only be reached by crossing the Southend Arterial Road, a four-lane Highway! This, in itself, was fraught with danger. There were no traffic lights allowing safe traverse for pedestrians except by cycling hundreds of yards out of the way. The alternative was to wait until a suitable gap appeared in the traffic then run like the wind to the island in the middle; repeating the procedure for the other side. This was no easy task with Mary sitting on the crossbar—she could hardly walk! Also, of much more serious consequence, crossing the Southend Arterial was high up on my mother’s list of: ‘Thou shalt nots …..’.
Once there, however, we were in heaven. The kindly farmer would allow us to play in his old barn and picnic in his meadow. And sometimes he would even bring us all fresh milk to drink. And it was on his patient old cart-horse, who seemed to like little kids as much as his master did, that I received my first riding lesson. The horse, oblivious to the poking and stroking of the crowd of noisy kids around him, wandered from grass patch to grass patch, munching contentedly when he reached a particularly luscious one. At one of these stops we wondered if we could get up on his back and let him take us for a ride? But, how to get up there? As in one of our boisterous games called ‘I Jimmy Knacker’ (for no reason that I have ever been able to discover) one of the taller boys stood facing the horse’s shoulder while another bent over and grasped his waist. I was the smallest and therefore the first up. I climbed onto the second boy’s back, then stood on the shoulders of the first boy and hoisted myself onto the great expanse of the horse’s back by means of its ample mane.
I was just savouring my accomplishment when my mount moved on to another patch of grass. He was completely unaware that he had a passenger! Each leisurely step he took felt like an earthquake and, having no purchase, I bounced further back with each one. It didn’t take many steps before I reached the tail-end, as it were, and the last bounce sent me, all akimbo, to the field below. I jumped up completely unhurt and, after the initial shock, we all burst into joyful laughing.
The little squirrel’s demise was the second close encounter with death that I had experienced–I wrote about my reaction to my paternal grandfather’s corpse in chapter 2. But my first real lesson in the ephemeral nature of humanity happened when I was about seventeen and was more adult. Our neighbour, Mrs. Fennel, had come down one the morning to find Mr. Fennel dead in his armchair. She knocked on our door to ask if I would help move his body upstairs to the bedroom where he could be decently laid out. I was secretly scared; I had not touched a dead body before. But I was also quite proud to be considered adult enough for the task. My cycling and outdoor activities had made me fit for my age so I had no problem with the weight. I supported the leg end while Mrs.Fennell and one of the Misses Fennel maneuvered the head end up the stairs.
I had seen Mr.Fennell in his garden and heard him conversing with Dad over the garden fence throughout my young years and had come to regard him, somewhat remotely, I recall, as a kind of sage who didn’t waste too much time with untutored minds. But, dead, he immediately became an impersonal lump. The only thing which surprised/shocked me was the pale greenishness of his skin and its iciness. In relatively few years, I would be encountering piles of dead bodies and I would be immune to horror of their demise, but, in the end, there was one that I could not bring myself to contemplate and opted out with shame.
I learned many of life’s harsher lessons when I was first apprenticed as a boy of fourteen. It was the habit of the Compositors to have fun at the expense of each gullible neophyte entering their realm. The first trick could only be played only once. A Comp engaged in the process of ‘dissing’ (an operation described earlier) was at the stage of soaking his galley of ink-black type with paraffin oil when he invited me to view the ‘type lice’. My boyish interest was instantly awakened. I had no idea that lead type could provide a home and larder for an insect which, to my knowledge, inhabited only the hair of the heads of the dirtier boys at school. I should have noticed the warning sign—all the other Compositors were away from their frames and gathered around that of the disser. The lice were very small it seemed and required really close inspection. At the moment I thought I saw something moving the disser rapidly squeezed his type together squirting multiple jets of black ink into my face. The uproar was tremendous. I failed to join in it because my eyes were stinging horribly and I couldn’t tell whether I was crying or not. Lesson—Adults are treacherous and not the nurturing beings they profess to be—never trust another one.
The Father of the Chapel was an avuncular sole. His rank obliged him to play some kind of trick on the new apprentice; otherwise he would lose the respect due to him. But it would not be a cruel one. One lunch-time, he added to the order of food items I was to buy for the chapel’s members, a pint of pigeon’s milk and gave me half-a-crown with which to pay for it. I was truly amazed at my ignorance. Who would have thought that pigeons could supply milk enough to compete with cows? I didn’t question it–this was before the type-lice episode. I went to the usual grocery nearby to fill my order. When I got to my last item, it was as much as the shopkeeper could do to stop bursting into guffaws, but he held them back long enough to tell me they were fresh out of pigeons’ milk. Goodness! What a dilemma confronted me; it was the head man himself that I had let down and if I returned without his special order of pigeon’s milk, what would become of me? My enquiring mind had previously led me to discover a little grocery shop owned by a kindly old lady in one of the back streets and it was to this dark, but interesting, establishment that I made a detour. “Do you have any pigeons’ milk?” I asked of the rather simple proprietor. “No sonny” she replied. “But we do stock “Goat’s” milk and it is just as good”. “I had seen Goat’s Milk” on labels before—it was the brand name of the condensed milk my mother used when she was out of the fresh kind. “Ok, I will take that”. “How many?” she replied. “A pint”. I said. “In that case you will need four tins”. She wrapped them up and gave me my change. There was very little left of the FOC’s half-a-crown.
Returning to the workshop, I found the chapel gathered in a ring of amused anticipation. “Did you get my pigeons’ milk?” The FOC demanded with mock sternness. “Well”. I replied. “They were out of pigeons’ milk so I brought you goat’s milk instead–which is just as good”. I delivered this information with assurance and handed him the bag and his few pence change.
Instead of the expected appreciation of my resourcefulness, I saw his grin turn to dismay. What on earth was he going to do with four tins of condensed milk? He turned away in confusion while the lower orders slunk quietly away to their frames and machines. Lesson: Adults are unpredictable and mostly, stupid.
I learned much of the basis of whatever social skills I possess during our family parties. They were a tradition persisting from the poverty of the old East-end days. Christmastimes, weddings and births were all occasions to celebrate with a rousing party. My parents hosted their share but there were several family venues on the roster. The main ingredients were beer-drinking, conversation, dancing and the stuffing of bellies with fine food. It is hard to believe that we ate a great deal better then than most do now. Oysters, mussels, crabs, winkles, whelks, cockles, kidneys, liver, sweetbreads. brains (cervelle) and even roast beef were cheap and plentiful and regarded as working-class. Chicken was comparatively expensive and appeared only rarely on our table. As did oranges. The old tradition of a fat goose for Christmas was being replaced by the turkey.
In preparation for the festivities, trestle tables and forms were hired from the Co-op and party room doors were removed so as not to interfere with the flow of goodies to the tables or the energetic dancing after the eating. Paper hats, noise-makers and balloons added to the joy and, at the height of the evening, line dancers equipped with them would snake their boisterous way all around the house; sometimes, even into the street! Little ones were allowed to join the fun as best they could but were cautioned not to get under the pounding feet of the serious party-goers.
In my toddler days, I would enliven the guests by placing rubber spiders into ladies’ beer- glasses and gather much kudos from the subsequent screams (many feigned). Later, I graduated to the more sophisticated humour of placing whoopee cushions on ladies’ chairs just as they were about to sit down. This palled after a bit, though.
Some of my party recollections have remained in my archives. I remember once, lying on the floor with all the other kids on makeshift beds and seeing a pair of drunken legs make their unsteady way along the passage to the front door rather than to the back door to the yard as was the intention of the owner, and hearing his stream of pee into the busy street.
I remember my Dad returning, in his most flamboyant mode, from the pub with my uncles, sitting down at the piano and, as was his wont, simultaneously pushing open the upright cover as soon as he began to play—completely unaware of the two rows of trifles in their decorative paper cups which my mother had placed on the top of the piano to set. These affixed themselves firmly to the wallpaper behind the piano and their disposition inspired a row that could hardly be laughed down by the assembled guests.
I remember an incident at the house of Emmy, Aunt Doris’s friend. She was leaning out of the window screaming for the police because she was being threatened by a neighbour brandishing a wicked-looking carving knife. The neigbour had, apparently, taken exception to the loudness of our jazz band—probably being played by my uncle Charlie, or uncle Jimmy Kelly.
These shindigs taught me that when adult men dropped their armour, they were little boys at heart and just as vulnerable. Listening to (but not fully understanding) their uninhibited banter, I began to understand how humour was an essential antidote to the dire uncertainties of working-class life in a war-torn world.
My early education in the matters of sex was bizarre in the extreme. Largely due, I think, to the obsessive fear which Mother had that one of her boys would prematurely put a bun in the oven of some girl—and of the dreadful shame such a disaster would bring to her Upper-class aspirations.
Dad acquiesced in the plot—never once did he explain to me what it was the birds and the bees got up to. I remained in ignorance of their wanton ways until I was an adult myself! As to where babies came from, the subject was utterly taboo in number 57. ‘Sex’ was a voodoo word, heard only in the whispered conspiracies of my aunts; if I listened carefully enough!.
Naturally, I began to build my own explanation of my provenance as I grew up. My sources of information were largely other schoolboys and, later, the Cubs and Boy Scouts. But, by nine years of age, I had picked up a little knowledge on my own account. On one of my rounds of discovery in the forbidden precincts of my parent’s bedroom, if found my mother’s douche and her handbook on breast-feeding hidden in the bottom of the built-in cupboard. I had no inkling of what use the douche, with its big red rubber bulb and black Bakelite tube, could be put to, but I knew instinctively that it had something to do with the forbidden topic. The handbook was another matter. The pictures in were explicit and in some ways disturbing. I had long known that cows gave milk, but I had no idea at all that women could do it too!
It was about this age that I burst into my parents’ room one morning to find them in the throes of a quicky. (Poor Dad worked nights, so he had to take advantage of every opportunity and hope that his rotten kids weren’t awake). I felt a sudden outrage—“I know what you’re doing” I burst out before I fled the room. Of course, I had not the slightest idea what they were doing, but I had a vague notion that it was connected with baby-making.
In this, I could very well have been right, because, some nine months later the twins were born. And I have wondered in later years if the shock of my interruption had thrown them off their cautionary routine, and so bore some responsibility in the matter?
Between ten and twelve years of age the mixture of myth, wild invention and fact which was the stock of my sexual knowledge grew apace—fed mostly by the older schoolboys and the errand lads on their rounds. Some of their explanations were horrendous—I refused, utterly, to believe that I had originally popped my head out of my mother’s wee-wee!
Some years ago, a movie was released entitled: ‘Chitty, Chitty Bang-Bang’: a story about an old, but faithful motor car—I expect most of you will remember it. When I saw the advertisements, I was struck by the extraordinary coincidence that Les and I had invented the onomatopoeic, or something remarkably similar, many, many years before!
It happened that one of our older cousins was staying over one weekend and was sleeping in our bed. The early morning found us peeping under the sheets to look in wonder at our cousins’ enormous erection. He pretended to be in a deep sleep. We giggled with glee at the sound it made when we lifted it and let it slap and rebound against his belly. One of us put the sound into words—‘Ditty, Ditty, Bang-bang—and we took up this chorus as we giggled.
We soon tired of the game and went on to our next mischief, but we were aware that we had been in the voodoo zone and never again mentioned the incident to anybody, not even to each other. I have since marveled at the heroic control our cousin mustered during his ordeal!
At thirteen, I was aware of condoms/sheaths. We called them ‘French Letters’—I wish someone would tell me why. Again, I had no real idea of their function. They were certainly not to be mentioned in mixed family gatherings. And thereby hangs a tale: During one of our parties, my mother was haughtily describing a missive she had received from the Continent. She meant to say that it was written in French but, in a very rare slip of the tongue, she described it as a French letter! The shock of the gathered throng was palpable. A deadly silence ensued and I watched as my mother’s face turned a brilliant red.
The Scoutmaster lectured us on the evils and health hazards of masturbation–advice so intriguing that we all immediately determined to ignore it. I knew of the ‘F’ word and roughly what it stood for but never, ever, articulated it, even to myself. Poor Les suffered this fate, though. I was two years older than he and could have warned him, but, it didn’t occur to me the he would have picked up knowledge that I had only just acquired myself. Where he heard it, I never knew, but in a fit of attention-deficit bravado, he shouted it out at one of the family weekend gatherings– A special gathering it was because I seem to remember one of the venerable members of the family paying us a rare visit at the time. The effect was electrifying! In the shocked silence, I saw our mother dash across the room, pick Les up by the seat of his pants and carry him all the way upstairs. Silence still reigned while we listened to the muffled sounds of the punishment being meted out
At fifteen, I was a working lad and I have described my encounters with the lamp-packing girls and their rude language. But, although my manhood required me to pretend to a much greater understanding than I had in reality, I knew from talking to her, that my cousin Minnetonka, of approximately the same age, had a much earthier knowledge of sexual affairs and even, perhaps, some experience.
The last time Dad struck me was due to ‘sex’. My mother had raided my trouser pockets and discovered in one an erotic poem which had been copied for me by one of the other apprentices. “I am disgusted” she screamed, and went on to lecture me on the enormity of my sin and, where I would wind up if I didn’t obey her commands on the subject. But, I was already too grown up to accept her strictures and told her so. I remember telling her that it was natural for young lads to start feeling urges! She complained to Dad that I had been very rude to her and that she shouldn’t be spoken to like that. Dad agreed, and tackled me. I refused to give in and, I regret, made him so angry that he lashed out at me.
The blow was a glancing one but I was standing at the top of the stairs at the time and, in an effort to dodge it, tumbled backwards down the flight. I saved myself from harm by grabbing the pilasters, two of which snapped off in my hands. I was completely unhurt and, when I jumped up to see the look of shocked horror on Dad’s face, I burst into laughter. His shock faded and he began to laugh with me—From then on we were man and man.
At the age of sixteen or so, I was given a humourous lesson in the cloak of decorum which adult society had invented to disguise the natural desires of humans. An adventurous young woman owned and published a weekly political newspaper out of a converted terrace house. I am sorry to admit that I was not savvy enough to enquire into the paper’s content. Patriotism was running very highly between the wars and dissent was not without its danger. Black Shirts and Red/Brown Shirts were skirmishing often while the rest of us looked on uncomprehendingly. So, I considered our newspaper lady to be very brave and stalwart.
The ground floor of the house had been stripped to accommodate a large flat-bed printing machine similar to the one I described in chapter 1. The office and Linotype machine were on the second floor but, since the stairway
had had to be removed, access to them was now effected by means of a wooden ladder affixed to the wall. A ‘Weekly’ needed the services of a compositor and machine minder only on publishing day, so the newspaper lady made an arrangement with Pickett Bros., where I was apprenticed, to supply the help she required. This perk was the gift of the senior apprentice—Now, me!
I took along a machine minder and was amused to see him open the large sash window then go out into the front garden with his pallet knife and ink in order to work up the ink flow on the ink slab which reciprocated in front of him. The slab would have cut him in two if he had attempted to stand in the room so his only option was to lean in the window and minister to the slab as it came within reach at each cycle!
When we arrived at the newspaper office we were greeted by the sound of a hand bell. This was the signal that the owner was about to descend from the upper floor and that we must retreat to the outside. This strong-minded woman, vitally involved in the turmoil of the day, had one overriding priority—We must not see up her skirt as she descended the ladder!
At eighteen, I had already camped with Rita, my fiancée to be. But, so great were the fears of consequence instilled into me, we only petted. We were discovered in our tent by the farmer whose field we were camping in. He registered amused shock and quickly retreated and obviously thought that we had been having an orgy. I should have been so lucky!
Given my constant and eclectic reading on such subjects as, sardine labels, horse-race meetings, shipping and train schedules, financial forecasting, local newspaper articles, theatre programmes and posters, Local Government publications, political treatises, advertising pamphlets and the occasional short story, augmented by my avid library reading of adventure stories, my education continued apace. The nature of the education and the fact that circumstances had made me senior apprentice and was shortly to become the FOC, gave me a vast advantage over the common crowd. I was looked upon to make the decisions in the Chapel and to collect the Union dues of sixpence each from the junior apprentices and take official time out each week to travel to Headquarters to pay them in. By the age of seventeen I was an insufferable prig, and I was ready for the independence I deserved.
From my extensive reading of Scott and the like, I gathered that boys had mostly run away to sea by the time they were fourteen—I seemed to be leaving it little late. Rebellion against parental authority was certainly stirring within me but I was not quite sure that the sea was where I wanted to go. I certainly knew how to get there. All I had to do was catch the local train from Seven Kings to Liverpool Street station and from there I could catch trains to the coast. In Britain, after all, one cannot be more than 75 miles from it. Or, I could just get on my bicycle and pedal to Southend along the Southend Arterial road; a journey I had already made many times.
Instead, I decided that I would join His Majesty’s Armed forces—it would be a lot easier to do since the recruiting office was at Barkingside, only about a mile from Seven Kings.
It was not the real Army, of course; that would be a full-time occupation and I was bound to Pickett Bros. until I reached my 21st year. Also, I was not about to give up my bicycle and camping and the family parties! It was the Territorial Army I joined, equivalent to The National Guard in the US. We were known to the permanent forces, somewhat contemptuously, as: “The Weekend Warriors”. But the TA was rebellion enough for me. Even in this venture, I struck a couple of snags; the first was that I didn’t realize that I would need my parents’ consent to join the force. This was explained to me by a kindly sergeant-major on the night I presented myself to the Royal Artillery recruiting office. He gave me the forms to be signed and told me that when I returned with them he would present me with the King’s shilling. A shilling a day was the Army pay for a private soldier.
My parents signed the forms with mixed expressions. My father’s was one of pride mixed with apprehension; my mother’s was one of resignation—perhaps realizing that my fledgling wings were maturing rapidly.
A few days later, I returned to the recruiting office and at this point I encountered the other snag, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
In the interests of economy, the Royal Artillery office was also used by another Corps on certain nights and on the particular night that I returned with my papers, the recruiting office was occupied by the RASC. Obviously a branch of the RA and its big guns? I accepted the King’s shilling and found myself a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, a unit whose purpose was to supply transport to the fighting regiments and had very little to do with guns. Furthermore, the uniform still included puttees (leg bindings) since the Army had not yet got around to recognizing that transport was no longer horse-drawn!
Footnote: At the same recruiting office and in the same Corps I first met up with Peter Feloy, the life-long friend who figures greatly in my later chapters. He and his Local Authority colleagues, however, were joining for less patriotic reasons. They saw that war was imminent and decided that valour was best served by volunteering for a behind-the-lines outfit rather than wait to be called-up and directed to a combatant one.