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Chapter 6. Growing up in number 57 (Third installment)

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.

Ch.6 Growing up in number 57 (2nd installment)


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!


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!



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.


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!


Ch 4. The Hobbs

As a child, I believed that, in addition to their venerable founders, all families comprised a multitude of aunts and one or two uncles. In later years, I came to realize that this gross imbalance of the sexes was not the natural order of things but a consequence of the terrible slaughter in the trenches of the Great World War. My parents’ generation began redressing the balance.

The founders of my maternal family were Charles Edward Hobbs and his wife Virginia. They both hailed from Bethnal Green, a Borough contiguous with Hackney. Bethnal Green must have been in the heart of the Jewish and Cockney East End district but the Hobbs were neither. Social class-structure and the tribal belonging it generated had an infinitely greater hold on 20th century British minds than people of today can believe. The lower orders well knew their place. But, already, some families were starting to be upwardly mobile and beginning to deny their working-class origins. Charles Hobbs was self-employed and the Thompsons were top-wage earners. Both families maintained the traditional parlour, complete with piano, aspidistra and caged song-bird, but the life-style they led was beginning to be disparaged by diehard Cockneys as one of ”spats, pianos and poverty”. (‘spats’ were a stylish gaiter of grey cloth worn over the ankle and instep by flashy gentlemen of means).

The Cockneys, cheerful as London sparrows, it was said, were a dying breed. All over the East End one could  and still can hear their distinctive accent. Dropped ‘h’s and ‘t’s and mangled English were marks of membership. Even today, Ethel  (my Brooklyn born travel friend) remarks upon it when we visit London. But, one heard, less and less, the rhyming slang which was their main badge of belonging and which kept them so close-knit. I was told that it had its origins in London’s prisons, invented by the inmates to prevent the guards from knowing their intent, but I have never been able to verify this explanation. Today, it is rarely, if ever heard but, in my young days, I picked up many examples of the slang while playing with local kids; such as, ‘up the apple and pears’ = upstairs! Or, ’favourite round the Obadiah’ = best place is near the fire! Naturally, I learned the rude ones first—mainly because outsiders didn’t have any idea what insults were being thrown at them and this was very amusing to the cognoscenti. For example, the word ‘Berk’ is often used to disparage another ’bloke’ and it has moved into fairly common usage today. Few of today’s users, however, realize that the word is short for Cockney rhyming slang: ‘Berkley Hunt’!

The other distinguishing ritual of the true Cockney was the ‘Pearlie King’ tradition. Men, women and children would dress themselves up in black suits sewn all over with ‘pearl buttons’. Pearl buttons are the small shirt buttons made of some synthetic, nacre-like, material which are still in use today. The Pearlie Kings sported the most complicated patterns and, like the Scots and their kilts, the pattern distinguished one Cockney family from another. I remember being taken occasionally, by an aunt or parent, to watch their full–dress parades. They could be seen individually at all times of the year, though, mainly in Petticoat Lane or one of the other open markets.

Petticoat Lane (Middlesex Street) was one of the open markets essential to the lives of the London poor. It still exists, but it has taken on the gentrified trendy look admired by today’s ‘in’ crowd. In my day it was filled with vendors selling absolutely everything from fruit to monkeys. Most of the vendors were regulars and were probably licensed, but a great many were itinerant and not necessarily trustworthy. It was said that a lady could have her handbag lifted at one end of the lane and buy it back, emptied, at the other! One had to use extreme care and smarts in order shop successfully down the Lane. The odds of a non-Londoner coming out with a bargain or a white elephant were about 50/50. I have a vague memory of uncle Nart once taking me to one of the permanent stalls to buy budgerigars for his aviary—but this may have been on an excursion to Brick Lane, another open market which, I seem to remember, specialized, at that time, in pets of all kinds.

In my late teens, I was visiting my mother’s family and was walking down the street near their house accompanied by one of my cousins, Kitty. It was winter and I was dressed in a black Melton overcoat, quite usual in the suburbs where I then lived, but I had added a white silk scarf around my neck for a bit of sophistication. As we progressed down the street, I heard the Cockney grapevine whispering; “toffs abaht!’ “toffs abaht” and suddenly, I became aware that I was no longer part of them. “toffs abaht” can be roughly translated: “rich gents in the offing and money can be wheedled out of them by judicious servility or by more direct means”. The fact that they were fooled by a simple white scarf, caused me to examine my own conditioning and I began then, I think, to question the tenets of class distinction which were still totally unquestioned by my parents’ generation.

Mixed in with the Cockney areas were the Jewish ones. Communication between the two was very limited, however. Both were extremely traditional, insular and intolerant of other groups. Charity started and ended at home! No self-respecting Jewish or Cockney family would allow one of its members to live on the street—the shame of such a thing! He would have been taken care of somehow, even if it meant impoverishment for the remainder of the family. I had no inkling then of what the Jews thought of us, but Cockneys often spoke disparagingly of them on one level. On a more intimate level each respected the others’ talents and craftsmanship. My family’s suits were always hand-made by Jewish tailors—they lasted for ever, so good was the cloth and workmanship. Curiously, the more I earned in later years, the less I could afford to purchase hand-fitted suits of the quality I wore as a kid! And, the Jewish bakeries! There was nothing in the world as fluffy and tasty as a chocolate cream puff from Monicadam’s! One or other of the aunts would bring in a dozen every Sunday.

The east end of London bore the brunt of Hitler’s bombs during WWII. Its rail yards and docks were annihilated, together with most of the wall-to wall housing in which the workers lived. The post-war diasporas, Jewish and Cockney, spread out as far as Australia.

My mother, Emily, Emmy or simply Em, was the third youngest of five sisters and one brother. Thanks to the researches of my niece, Gillian, I can now put names to them, but at the time I began to be aware of my surroundings, only Aunt Doris, the youngest, had not gone off to found a family of her own. She, it was tacitly understood, had lost her love on the fields of Flanders and had resolved never to be reconciled to the loss and (oddly) never to be photographed. Most of the satellite branches of the Hobbs were living within walking distance of the founding home as was customary—the extended family flourished on close personal contact. There were no telephones for the lower orders yet, and letter-writing was not encouraged, except for official purposes.

Tilly in the backyard of the Scawfell Street House

The Hobbs’ family home was a rented house in the middle of a row named ‘Scawfell Street’—an ugly name for an ugly neighbourhood, I thought. Scawfell Street was still within of the borough of Hackney but was three-quarters of a mile away (as the little boy dawdles) from the Thompson residence. The houses were similar to those in New Street, but smaller, and each had an area in front of its downstairs window enclosed by a cast iron fence. A few householders had a struggling plant or two within the fenced space but the majority used it to store their dustbins. Poverty was just as prevalent here as in London Fields but a somewhat elevated air of working-class snobbery showed in the meticulously lime-stoned steps and the black-leaded railings of Scawfell Street. The required aspidistras could be seen peeping between their white lace curtains but close scrutiny was foiled by the fence.

I have included the picture of Tilly not only to give an idea of the young lady herself, but also to show the barren dinginess of the East End back yards. Space between the back-to-back houses varied from street to street. Scawfell street’s was average.

For almost the full length of the street, the houses faced a high yellow brick wall with a narrow iron-barred gate let into it. This wall enclosed the playground of the district’s municipal school. The school itself was contiguous with the wall at the lower end of the street where I was not to venture. During my early childhood visits to the maternal homestead, I would listen for the school bell which signaled the opening of the gate in the afternoon and watch in awe while millions of ragged boys would explode through it and spread like a wild-fire into the street, shouting and cavorting as they went.

Entering the gate in the morning was a much more sober affair. The boys (schools were not to be co-ed for generations yet) dragged themselves into the compound as if they feared the gate would never open again. Going in, their failing spirits matched their mended hand-me-down clothes and heightened the aura of real poverty surrounding them. Although Dickensian London was transforming itself, some kids still went without boots.

As I remember it, the Hobbs household, consisted of a very severe giant of a grandfather, a tiny, loyal, but sometimes conspiratorial, grandmother and Aunt Doris. Doris would have been in her late twenties. Grandmother Virginia, “Ginny”, to the adults, and Nana Hobbs to us, was always kind to me. She fed me bread and jam for my tea when she had care of me. There was no butter on the bread to keep the jam on top as I had become used to in our suburban house, but I kept my faint disgust of the soggy offering to myself for I vaguely understood from my mother that there was no money for butter. I am not sure that I knew at the time what that really meant but I was impressed with the seriousness of not saying anything about it.

Ginny and I must have developed a close rapport by the time I was nine or ten. Of a dark evening, she and I would be by ourselves in the kitchen completely at ease with each others’ company, possibly listening to early radio broadcasts because I remember a small speaker fret looking down at us from one of the walls. She would hand me her ornamented beer jug with its large handle to one side, rather like a smaller version of the water jugs in the wash basins in the bedrooms upstairs. It held about an imperial quart, I imagine. I would trot this jug up to the “Off-license” next to the pub at the corner of Scawfell Street, about fifty yards up the road–Ginny, herself, was having trouble with an infected leg during those years—something to do with an oyster, I understood. Whether it was because she had eaten a bad one or had scratched her leg while opening it, I was not aware.

In spite of the strictures upon entering public houses which I mentioned earlier, it was quite in order for children to enter the “Off-license” premises which most pubs had attached to them, and even make purchases. The Off-licenses sold beer and spirits for consumption “off” premises, that is, alcoholic beverages purchased there were not allowed not to be consumed within the precincts of the pub itself. Hence the sporadic trail of little boys and dear old ladies making their way up the street in the early evening with an assortment of jugs and bottles in their hands. Upon arrival at the off-license, I would stretch up, put Ginny’s jug on the counter and say, in the deepest voice I could manage: “Milk Stout, please!” As always, I would add a small lemonade and an arrowroot biscuit to my order and pay with the exact coins my grandmother had given me. When I returned with the jug of stout, Ginny went through a truly amazing ritual. She put the poker deep into the kitchen fire and we would sit in front of it and wait. In a while, she pulled out the poker, now glowing red-hot at the end, and plunge it into her milk stout! The resulting hiss and burst of steam was wonderful to behold. Tan-coloured froth burgeoned forth like a mushroom cloud in a panic to escape the heated iron below and overflowed the rim of the jug! She would put the jug to her lips with infinite relish as we settled down for our evening round the fire.

Next to the Off-license was the source of one of my fondest memories. The Brewery stables. On winter’s evenings, under the glare of the gas lamps I watched the dray horses, great Clydesdales with be-ribboned manes, being led up the cobbled slope to their first floor bedroom. The power of their massive hind quarters and the slipping of their iron-clad hooves on the cobbled surface fascinated me and impressed my boyish imagination. I have never lost the image.

Scawfell Street had another happy attraction for pre-teen me. On the corner opposite the stables there was a Jewish grocery shop where one could buy all manner of exotic things out of barrels. I had no interest in these. My total interest was concentrated on the home-made ice-cream sold there. Nana Hobbs was able to spare me a coin occasionally. It was probably only a ha’penny or even a farthing. Whatever it was, it would only buy me a small newspaper cone of strawberry flavoured crushed ice. The real ice-cream was made by constantly turning and stirring the ingredients in one churn which was placed inside another filled with ice. If I stared longingly enough, the proprietor’s wife would ask me to volunteer with the turning and, as a reward, would give me a taste in a small cone. Haagen-Dazs would probably have rejected it—to me it was nectar!

Ginny and Grandfather Hobbs

Little boys were never to be heard by Grandfather Hobbs unless spoken to. And I don’t remember that he ever did. He did, however, hold some kind of office in the local working men’s club and it was through him that I and some of the Hobbs cousins, perhaps, were able to attend the annual children’s party. I remember only a stage on which people, dressed as clowns, did some magic tricks; a forest of chairs and tables and a mass of bellowing kids, among whom, I was alone.

Grandfather Hobbs was a master cabinet maker. Perhaps it was from him that I inherited my developing craftsmanship? He had a workshop at the lower end of the street, beyond the school. I did peek in at the door once when I was older but fear that he would be upset, prevented me from entering fully to see the machinery working. In our suburban home in Seven Kings, we had many fine examples of his inlay work.

Aunt Helen married George Hayday and they had lots of children together, one of whom, aunt Helen designated ‘her fire watcher’ for some strange reason. George was a skilled engineer and was famous in our family for having installed the elevator in the Princess’s doll’s house. The Princess became Queen Elizabeth II and her doll’s house is still on display in Windsor Castle. George was not so lucky. The between-war period was especially hard on the working man; jobs were in short supply and the “dole” (unemployment pay) didn’t last long. When I first became aware of Uncle George I thought him a tall, kindly man with a shiny red smiling face. He was, by that time, a road-sweeper for the local council. This was a vastly better outcome than being sent to the “Workhouse” which was an institution for the indigent run by the Local Authority. It was a solution of the very last resort for extended families unable to muster enough between them for one more mouth to feed and house. I gathered from the family whispering (not meant for children’s ears), that a certain ‘Uncle Johnnie’ was an inmate. But, whatever connection he had with the Hobbs, I never learned.

Aunt Till, “Tilly” to the adults, and both short for Matilda, was the naughty one. I don’t really know what her family offence was, she was often the subject of whispered exchanges and oblique references which my straining ear failed to interpret. I think it had something to do with ladies things—even abortions. Anyway she married and moved far from the family nucleus to Burnt Oak in north London. Les and I visited her there once and we spent two or three days with her son Charlie. How we got there and back and how the visit came about, is a complete blank. But I do remember having uneasy feelings about it and winning a coconut at the local fair! She then moved to Oxford where her husband, Charles, worked for a printing Company associated in some way with the Bodleian Library. During a visit there, my proud father sprung a surprise; he had Uncle Charles question me on my knowledge of printing. I was attending The London College of Printing by that time and fancied myself reasonably-well up in the subject. In the event, I made a complete idiot of myself and let my father down badly. Aunt Till remarried and finally moved to Aldershot, a garrison town in the south of England. I know she was reconciled with the family by the time I was fourteen because my brother, Les, and I had, reluctantly, to include her son Charlie in our cycling adventures while the four parents went for drives in my father’s car.

After Doris, Mary was the Hobbs aunt I had most to do with in the pre-war years. This came about largely because of the rapport I had with her son, Teddy, but also because Aunt Mary was the designated Christmas pudding maker for the Hobbs family. Decent Christmas pudding making was a fine art and few could spare the time or the dedication. The ingredients were largely the secret of the maker but they would certainly have included dark rum for preservation and dark beer for colour. They were made the year before consumption and issued to family members in the size appropriate to his or her rank. My entitlement was one of the smallest, about six inches across at the widest part. Mixing and boiling began when the seasonal ingredients became available in the shops; about the first week in December. Before the mixture was put in the bowls, children from all around were invited in to have a lucky stir. Thereafter, the mixture would be sprinkled with silver thrupenny bits (threepenny pieces, coin of the realm at that time) and thoroughly stirred in. The mixture would be spooned into various size bowls and an inch-thick layer of dough would be placed over the top of the bowl reaching a little way past the rim. This was keep to out the boiling water whilst cooking. Lastly, to keep the dough in place, a piece of torn-up linen was placed over the dough and tied tightly in place around the rim. The torn-up linen had to be white so it was mostly provided by discarded bed sheets or underwear. The bowls were then piled into the copper filled with water and boiled for 12 hours or more non-stop.

A little ceremony always accompanied the eating of the Xmas pudding on Christmas Day; brandy would be poured over it, lit and then carried into the dining room ablaze. A rousing spectacle!

My entitlement continued even after I had returned from the war and was married. But my undiplomatic tongue ruined it forever. I was enjoying a spoonful of delectable, aged, pudding, well sauced with brandy butter, when I chomped upon a suspicious button! I was aware that bed sheets rarely had need of buttons and so concluded that it had previously been attached to a pair of long-johns. I told Aunt Mary this, thinking that she would be amused. She wasn’t! I never received another one.

Aunt Mary and her quiet husband, Ted Bradshaw, held their fair share of family parties in their flat and, as a boy, I marveled, not without fear, at the visible movement of the upstairs floor as the guests danced a “Knees-Up-Mother-Brown” on it in unison. The upstairs, was, in fact, sublet to Tommy and Alice Nunn, but although I vaguely remember their faces, I cannot recall their connection with the Bradshaws, which was obviously very close.

Teddy was quite a few years older than I and he shared, with a friend, a camping cabin in Epping Forest in Essex, a county on the eastern fringe of London. He was, naturally, already “in the Print” that is to say, employed in the printing industry in some capacity. I persuaded my parents to allow me to camp in my little tent at the edge of the forest under Teddy’s cousinly eye. I have never lost the taste for camping since. The fresh smell of the dew; the heady sense of freedom which lying out under the stars can bring; the companionship of the blazing log fire; the patter of rain on canvas—I am still enchanted by it all. Seventy years later, my daughter Susan, who was indoctrinated as a baby, brought her grandson, (my great-grandson), on camping trips. (Latterly she has even brought her horse ‘Playdoh’!)

One of my most shameful memories concerns Teddy. Through my father, young Teddy was persuaded to lend me a set of bound volumes of instruction, about the time I became an apprentice. These were relatively expensive text books essential for the aspiring Printing executive. As soon as I saw them I perversely decided that I would keep them and repeatedly delayed returning them on some pretence or other until war broke out, when they were lost forever.

After the war, Teddy and I completely lost contact.

Teddy had a brother Chris–short for Christopher I suppose, although he was always Chrissie to Les and me. I had little to do with him as a boy. We must have met at family parties but I can’t recall any encounters. Immediately after WWII however, I contacted him through the family grapevine and asked him to make me a set of loose-leaf binders–he had become a skilled book-binder and owned a small business. I needed the heavy-duty binders to start my scrapbooks.

I next heard news of him, some years later, when he, like Les, had emigrated to Perth, Australia. Australia had need to populate its vast empty spaces and was providing irresistible incentives to immigrants from Britain. Perth was rapidly becoming a duplicate East End.

Nearing the end of his life, I invited him and Les to join me in New York for a visit. We drove to Maine to stay with some old travelling friends; then took the ‘Blue Nose’ Ferry to St. John and on to the Gaspe Peninsular and round to Quebec City. Chrissie had some bladder problems so the drive was not without its anxious moments, but, in general, we three old codgers had a glorious time together and I was so very glad to be the catalyst that made his last excursion possible.

Of the other two Hobbs aunts and one uncle, I recall only Nellie’s name.

Ch 3. Uncle Nart

Uncle Nart (Cockney-short for Arthur, I believe) blotted his copybook early on in his married life—he cocked a snook at family tradition and named his first-born Benjamin. In the Thompson clan tradition, only my father, the eldest son, possessed that right. It is true that he did not compound the atrocity by adding the traditional middle ‘William’ to his son’s names as well, but his transgression was enough to marginalize him somewhat. He was still included in wider family affairs but never, it seemed to me, to be in the main stream. He was talked about in family gatherings somewhat remotely. He was very fond of his beer and consumed it as if he were concerned that the world’s supply would shortly run out. Which, I suppose, earned him his reputation for the occasional unfamily-like behaviour.

I became extremely fond of him from the outset. He always made us laugh and often astounded us with his magic tricks—he could make a sixpence drop out of your nose or ear! On our annual fortnight holidays in Ramsgate, a seaside town on the east coast, he delighted us kids with giant Toblerones and gave us unlimited pennies to spend. He seemed to us to share his money with great generosity—the adult family thought– recklessly. In my boyhood mind, I associated him with jellied eels, cockles, whelks and horse- and dog-racing. I recall him taking me to the Hackney Wick and Romford dog-racing tracks on several dark winters’ evenings and being enchanted with the flares of the vendors and the excited shouting of the punters. I suppose my father would have accompanied us but I only recall uncle Nart. He would ply me with copious draughts of lemonade and jellied eels or cockles as I watched the races. Sometimes, he would ask me to choose from a long list, one of the strange names in his newspaper. He would then go to one of the colourful gentlemen standing on their boxes with their chalkboards at the ready, and make some transaction. I was very pleased with the trust he placed in me. I have no doubt that he was genuinely fond of children. To tell the truth, though, those fierce giant dogs, with their bloodthirsty tongues hanging through their wire muzzles, scared the living daylights out of me each time they thundered by. But, by that time, I had learned not to show it.

He could also spin a great yarn. He told us of his visit to Dr. Jellie, an eccentric old medical man who looked after the sick poor in the Hackney area. Few of Dr. Jellie’s patients could afford to pay him in cash. Occasional eggs from their chicken coops and some seasonal vegetables from their allotments were the best they could manage. Dr. Jellie was of the old school, he was convinced of his vocation. He carried on his practice in complete disregard of the financial consequences. Among the first of these was the Gas Company’s arrival to cut off the supply of gas to his house and, therefore, his source of light.

It was about this time that uncle Nart consulted Dr. Jellie one evening about a severe case of hemorrhoids. He found the good doctor at his desk illuminated by a number of lit candles in those saucer-shaped candlesticks fitted with finger holders for carrying them. The doctor ordered Nart to drop his trousers and bend over for examination. It so happened that the aging Dr. Jellie suffered a shortsightedness which required him to wear very thick spectacles, and so, as the candle approached closer  to Nart’s exposed flesh than comfort would allow, he, Nart that is, began a cautionary retreat. Nart described a wonderful scenario in which he, with his trousers around his ankles, buttocks thrusting heavenward, shuffled around the consulting room at an ever-increasing pace, while the myopic Dr. Jellie, pursued him, candle to the fore, intent upon examining his rear at closer quarters! My uncle’s narrative was a good deal more colourful than mine. But, I loved the imagery, and have happily re-told this story many, many times!

On an occasion much later on, Uncle Nart was invited, after a great deal of family heart-searching, to my sister’s wedding. The family’s trepidation appeared justified when Nart arrived at the church. It was patently obvious from his uncertain progression and his very loud congratulatory and sexually explicit pronouncements, that he had commenced his celebration somewhat earlier in the day. The assembled congregation fell to whispering among themselves. All was well, however, until the Vicar arose from his knees and pronounced: ”We will now sing verse twenty-four from hymn number 13, book number 2”. At this point, Nart shot to his feet, finger aloft, no doubt having in mind his bet for the day, shouted: ”And what’s the trap number mate?” I was told that a distinct shrinking could be observed on the Thompson side of the aisle as members attempted to make themselves appear less visible. But this was only one facet of a complicated being.

Nart also had a passion for budgerigars. He bred them in a large aviary set up in the yard of his house in Broke road. There were hundreds of them, pairing off and twittering happily. Occasionally, I would be allowed to open the door of the nesting boxes to see the brooding hens on their eggs and, sometimes, their little fledglings. He won many a ribbon for his prize birds. But this too ended in tragedy. In the winter months it was necessary for the aviary to be heated in order to maintain a proper environment for the sub-tropical birds. Nart’s solution to this problem was to place an oil lamp in their compound each evening—ensuring that it contained enough fuel to last the night. The wick, of course, had to be adjusted precisely. In spite of some dark suspicions, (the exact cause was never found) the lamp accidentally malfunctioned and sent out searing flames in all directions. A great many birds were instantly roasted where they sat, sleeping in serried rows on their roosts. Others panicked and spread the fire to the wooden nesting boxes. All were lost.

Nart left the scene of the tragedy exactly as it was for some time and we children got to see the aftermath of the fire, the charred nesting boxes and the little blackened corpses, all in a row. And to wonder about our sad emotions. They were not the same as watching a chicken getting its neck wrung for Christmas! As far as I know, Nart never looked another budgerigar in the eye from that time on.

—An interesting footnote to this story: I was walking in Hyde Park in London last year (2011) and was amazed to see groups of budgerigars twittering in the trees! Apparently the climate in Britain is now warm enough for sub tropical birds to live in the wild–No winter heating necessary!

It was Uncle Nart who scrounged two gallons of black-market petrol for my motorcycle after the war when all non-official vehicles were at a standstill—there was nothing he couldn’t fix. Except, perhaps, his own family affairs. I understand that his wife, Minnie, had left him at some time and taken Minnie Tonker, their daughter, with her. His son, Benny, had had a chequered war-time career in the Army. Later in life, Nart had sired another son, Arthur, whom I have met once or twice, but who now seems to have dropped out of the family circle. Minnie Tonker, by routes unknown to me, eventually settled in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury is way up in the north of Canada. Its surrounding terrain is so bleak that NASA used it as a proving ground for the Moon Landing mission. For entertainment, the population turns out in their cars on dark nights to watch the rail trucks, atop the massive slag heap, dump their fiery loads over the man-made cliffs.

This picture of Minnie Tonka and me was taken in her house in Sudbury in 1985. This would make me about 74 at the time

Many years ago I called in on Minnie Tonker on my way back from a fishing trip in the north of Canada. She greeted me with instant recognition even though it had been well over fifty years since we last had met. “Oh! Ben!” she exclaimed with welcoming arms outstretched. But it was not me she thought she was greeting—it was my father! She could hardly have retained an image of the little boy’s face she knew in her childhood, of course, but my father was her uncle and therefore memorable. I appeared to her now, so like my father looked then! Such are the vagaries of the human mind’s recall—it made no difference that my father would have to have been a hundred or so years old. Minnie Tonker was not her real name—she loathed it, she told me. I had always had the idea that her parents had given her it out of a misreading of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and were thinking of Minnehaha, but I never really knew. So engrained is it in family lore, that I have forgotten her real name again.

My daughter, Susan, and I have arranged a number of family reunions in London during the past several years. I dearly wished that Minnie Tonker could have participated and so enjoyed the reaction of our remaining aunts and their progeny. She was invited, of course, but, sadly, her emphysema got the better of her and she became too ill to travel. She died shortly thereafter–a year or two before Ada, the last of the Thompson aunts.

By good fortune, these reunions have allowed me to become close friends with Ian Thompson and his beautiful wife, Pam. Ian is the grandson of Nart and he possesses all the caring attributes of the uncle I loved.

Ch 2. 13 New Street, London Fields, Hackney

I began this story with the events of my apprenticeship years. An earlier event had a much greater impact on the chance progress of my flutter through life. It took place round about the beginning of August in 1920 and involved the very issuance of my lottery ticket. One can only speculate where it took place–times were very difficult for young married couples then. Urban dwellers were huddled together in mean rented housing, and wedded couples, dictated by the economics of the time, had no option but to live with one set or other of their parents until the young husband earned enough to afford a modest rent of his own.

By which time there was nearly always an offspring in the making–there was no magic pill or patch in those days to hinder the process. My parents began their married life in my paternal grandfather’s house which was thirteenth in a short row called New Street in the Borough of Hackney. Hackney is one of the eastern boroughs of London within hearing distance of Bow Church. Its location is of note, because, if one was born within the sound of Bow Bells, one was born a true Cockney rather than a common Londoner. “New” Street must have been more than a hundred years old at the time and its condition showed every minute of it. Number thirteen was overrun by people and bed-bugs. The extended human family living in it included my grandparents, my parents, an uncle, a young man called Johnnie, whose antecedents were never explained to me, and eight assorted aunts, some with their beaux visiting.

Given the public circumstances of number thirteen, it would, I imagine, have needed a great deal of ingenuity to find the necessary privacy. But, while one is most reluctant to admit that one’s own parents could even indulge in such things, I should mention that New Street dead-ended onto London Fields, which was a public park supporting a copse or two, some shrubbery and other likely cover. Maybe it took place on their honeymoon but I have no knowledge of where that was celebrated or, if they had one.

Be that as it may. Proof of the event was demonstrably apparent when, on the fifth day of May, in the year of 1921, Emily Rebecca Thompson (nee Hobbs) was delivered of a boy; one Benjamin William Thompson! Whether bouncing or not, is not recorded on the birth certificate.

As far as I can tell, little fanfare accompanied the event. No wise men were in attendance (unless one includes my uncle Nart—and he was only there because of the free booze). Nart was to become my favourite uncle and our lives touched along the edges a few times over the following sixty years–But more of uncle Nart later. Naturally, the impressions of the place where this momentous happening occurred were gathered during numerous return visits over the early years of my youth. My parents had moved out of the house to a flat just round the corner by the time I was one or two years of age and to the suburbs by the time I was three or so. But, extended-family bonds were strong in those days and my parents returned to their nests often. I will have been fifteen or sixteen years old when the last of these return visits was made.

Following the fire of London, it was ordained that housing could no longer be constructed of wood, but of fire-resisting brick or stone. For the poorer housing, yellow brick of the cheapest quality sufficed. New Street was built of such material although one would have been hard pressed to have noticed it. Londoners burned soft coal by the hundredweight in their grates, in order to keep their domain marginally above the outside temperatures of the English winter as well as to cook their roast beef and Yorkshire pudding throughout the year. The coal burning in multitudes of grates produced a thick sulphurous fog, so dense at times, it was impossible to see more than a yard or two ahead if one dared walk in the streets. The particulate fallout from the fog was enough to bury St. Paul’s cathedral annually. I saw this theoretical scenario depicted often in the newspapers of the day and, in my youth, I wondered, naively, whose job it was to uncover the church and shovel all that soot away! And where did they put it? I should have realized that they brought it all round to Hackney and neighbouring boroughs and plastered it thickly over the yellow brick so that, never again, could it express its lowly origin.

Here I am (bottom left) next to Minnie Tonka and Benny. The new bride is my aunt Rose and the bridesmaids include my aunts Maggie and Julie. I would be about four years old at this time.

But a coal economy was not without joy for us children. Black-faced coalmen, who were supposed to bring luck to anyone who touched them, roamed the streets selling their wares. Every so often they would shout “Coaaal! Coaaal!” and this would sometimes bring one of the housewives to her door to signal ‘one’ or ’two’ with her fingers. Whereupon, the coalman would bring his horse to a stop to deliver her order. The coal for sale was contained in one hundredweight (112 lbs) sacks, open at the top and stacked in rows along each side of the horse-drawn dray. The coalman would then don his cowl which was fashioned from an empty coal sack folded in upon itself to form a hood for his head while allowing the rest of the sack to hang down his back. With his back to the dray, he would lift his arms above his head; grab the ears of a sack of coal, then bend forward to take the weight on his angled spine. He carried it like this into his customer’s house where he would lean further forward to allow the coal to tumble out of the sack, over his head, into the coal cellar. We were fascinated by all this. The coalman’s clothes were awesomely stiff and shiny with coal tar like a suit of armour and sometimes, where a coal-hole was provided in front of the house, we got to kick any lumps remaining on the sidewalk into the hole. And, as we became a little older, another benefit accrued: we stood around the horse hoping that the urge to defecate would come upon it while it was in our street, its droppings were much prized by my grandfather who used them to fertilize the rhubarb growing in his allotment, and he would pay us by the bucketful. And, if the horse only peed we were not entirely disappointed.

So, in this sooty-black wall of acid-eaten brick there was placed, at regular intervals, a sandstone step surmounted by a painted door with a customary black-lead polished door-knocker about two-thirds the way up from the bottom. Next to the door there was a sandstone sill supporting a double-sash window looking out directly on to the sidewalk (‘pavement’ in Britain). Each house was indistinguishable from the next except for the number on the door; each sill and step was religiously whitened every day by the lady of the house or one of her daughters, using a lump of limestone purchased for the job; each window pane was maintained at high transparency. Some doubted whether this latter ritual was carried out with the object of allowing a clear view out from the inside or an unspoiled view of the aspidistra from the outside—but certainly, the neighbours’ impressions were a most important consideration. (‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is not a modern conception).

First-hand evidence of the ritual’s hold on East-end society was available to the observer each Monday when a row of animated female behinds overlapped the white sills while their associated upper parts attacked the glass before them with rags, polish and gusto. When they were satisfied with the results, they would lift the lower sashes off their laps and pop back in to their respective parlours. There were windows higher up—the houses boasted two full floors and an attic–but I do not remember ever looking above the one on the ground floor.

The houses were designed (it that isn’t too ambitious a verb) in the style called railroad apartments in America. That is, they were built on narrow lots with a front door opening on to a long passageway stretching to the rear. One side of the passage held doorways opening into the ground-floor rooms and the other side formed the wall separating one house from the next. This passage narrowed about half way along its length to accommodate a flight of stairs leading up to the first floor.

The first door along from the entrance admitted important visitors such as the insurance man or, perhaps, the vicar, into the ‘parlour’. The parlour was a curious adoption of the working class. I suppose it mimicked the drawing room of stately homes and represented a bit of Cockney nose-thumbing. For those overcrowded families, however, it was a costly gesture. Inexplicably, the parlour became a sanctum and the space was practically unused—entry was forbidden to children except by invitation of one of the family founders.

Daylight dimly filtered into the parlour from the window—the one overlooking the sidewalk. The glass was clear enough, but the light coming through it was filtered through a substantial white, patterned-lace curtain which, itself, was flanked by drapes and matching pelmet. The drapes and pelmet were made from a heavy maroon velour and had ecru tassels sewn all along their edges. These drapes were partially held back with similarly tasseled ties. Light was further reduced by the prized aspidistra plant in its pot standing on a pedestal immediately in front of the lace curtain. It was strategically placed so that its magnificence could be viewed from the outside and yet not get too much sunlight on its susceptible foliage which, I am told, was lovingly washed at intervals by the man of the house who sacrificed some of his favourite beer for the purpose—it was another symbol of Cockney one-upmanship.

The total effect was eerily monastic. I was sure that people lowered their voices as they entered the parlor. There was a piano in the room but I never heard anyone play. We grandchildren dare not even peek inside the keyboard cover. The room also contained some dead birds chirping their hearts out on dead branches under a glass-domed display case; Victorian furniture, and, on the walls and low table, heavily-framed sepia photographs of uniformed family members lost in the Great War. The black-leaded fireplace was always laid with fresh newspaper, kindling wood and coal but I never saw it lit. On the chimney breast, above the mahogany mantelpiece, were two gas sconces which provided the nighttime light. Most intriguing for me, though, were the cupboards on each side of the chimney breast. They contained, totally unexpectedly, my grandfather’s collection of National Geographic magazines. On my very best behaviour, I was allowed to sit, deep in one of the Victorian armchairs my legs dangling in the air, absorbed in the graphic stories of real adventure. Only one sticks in my mind now, and that was a harrowing account of an adventurer in Africa who was stung to death by a swarm of killer bees!

The next door along the passage was always wedged open and through it one entered the most exciting room of the house—the kitchen. The kitchen was the largest room and was where everyone lived! The furnishings were simple; a great pine table almost the length of the room, butted up to the back window which overlooked the yard; a bent-wood armchair for my grandfather, next to the fire; assorted dining chairs around the table and the great black, cast-iron stove, in its alcove, stretching half the length of one wall. The atmosphere in the kitchen was always warm and lively. There was always a kettle boiling on the hob and the luscious aromas of baking and cooking and there were frenetic comings and goings every minute of the day—the table to be set for meals or cleared away, dresses to sew, stockings to mend, wool to be wound, hair to be combed and set and dried, beaux to be greeted or rejected and stand-up rows to be resolved. I often sat, insignificant, in a corner pretending to be absorbed in a comic book, enthralled by the unguarded tongues of my numerous aunts. I didn’t understand a great deal of what they were saying but I knew that I should not have been listening to it. I remember a great affection for that kitchen. My hair was often tousled by my congenial grandfather.

From the kitchen door, the passage continued past the stair cupboard until it encountered the ‘washus’ where it took a sharp right and exited into the back yard. The door to the washus was lightly built and had a pane of opaque glass for most of its upper half. It served more as a screen than as a door because the room behind it contained an enormous free-standing bathtub. This bathtub was covered with a custom made wooden lid most of the time and doubled as an ironing-board but, on bath nights (usually Fridays), the cover came off and it was filled to the brim with steaming water ladled from the ‘copper’. A copper was an insulated cast-iron cauldron, heated from below by a coal-fire with a flue into a chimney built onto the outside wall of the house. Its main purpose was to boil the dirty linen for the weekly wash but on bath nights it provided the hot water for the family’s ablutions. I remember once, being bathed in the tub by my aunts. I was too young, obviously, to do the job myself but not too young not to be embarrassed by the procedure. Looking up at the sea of faces arrayed in semi-circle, leering down at me, I was fearful that their intention was to drown me in that fathomless hot water!

With all the aquatic activity going on in the washus, it should have occurred to me earlier. But a number of mystified years passed before I came to understand that ‘washus’ was Cockney-speak for ‘wash-house’. At floor level, our wash-house had a fist-sized hole driven through the brick wall. Its purpose was to drain, into the yard, the soapy water splashed everywhere during bathing and laundry operations. A shallow gully carried the suds in a slow and never-ending stream down to the end of the yard. I don’t remember where it went after that but, I do remember that every time I observed that trickling runnel with its gray-green slime trailing in the downstream flow, I was reminded of my own runny nose—I was plagued with continuous head colds in my early years. Soggy handkerchiefs were a constant concern. I was secretly ashamed of mine and often thought what a disgusting chore it had to be for the women who laundered them. But women took such things in their stride; they were used to nappies and things. My hankies always came back, without comment, perfectly starched and ironed.

Once outside, the passage broadened to the width of the kitchen and became the yard. A brick wall about six feet high separated our yard from the one next door. And, at the end of the yard, this wall joined a similar one at right-angles’ separating the backyards of New Street from the backyards of the street running parallel to it. To add some relief to the dreary soot-blackened prospect, my grandfather, like his neighbours, whitewashed the walls periodically, up to the height of about five feet.

Proceeding down the yard past the wash-house, a step led up to an open doorway into a dank cavern with a wash basin attached to one wall. The purpose of the room was another mystery I never solved. A little further on, though, another step led up to the most important room on the property—the ‘lav’. ‘Lav’ is short for lavatory and was the contemporary euphemism for water closet. Our lav had a dark green, tongue-and-groove, wooden door which was hung so that a three-inch space remained below the bottom edge. When it was opened, it revealed a wooden plank set across its width. Upon mounting the step, however, one could see that a bottom-sized hole had been cut into the middle of this plank and that this hole coincided with a modern toilet bowl beneath. Above the sitter’s head, was a cast iron tank from which hung a chain terminating in a wooden handle. The walls of the lav were clad in the same material as the door and this not only added a little comfort to the room but also facilitated the driving-in of the nails upon which to hang the newspaper, torn into six inch squares by the aunts and sewn through with a loop of string at one corner; as well as some current magazines for leisurely reading. The wisdom of allowing the three-inch space below the door was amply demonstrated when, upon reaching the step, one’s view encountered a pair of feet. One instantly knew not to step up and press the latch—especially if the feet happened to be female! I should record that during daylight hours only wet weather impeded the enjoyment of the facilities. But the yard and the lav were completely unlit so that a visit there in one’s night-dress on a cold winter’s night must have been a prospect daunting in the very extreme. The ones in authority had chamber pots under their beds—so they didn’t have to worry.

The only other feature of note in my memories of the yard was the roosting sheds and chicken-wire enclosures which my grandfather had installed at the back of it. It was in these he kept his Rhode Island Reds and his White Leghorns. I remember being called upon, occasionally, to muck-out the dank and smelly runs (for a small fee) while my parents were visiting with their parents. Apparently, they were all under the impression that this was what little boys loved to do. But I held the work in small regard—I often recalled that one of the beasts had, unprovoked, bitten my finger at an earlier age. I do remember one awesome sight, though, when I was in that yard. I have no idea what age I was at the time, but, prompted by a droning sound; I looked up, open-mouthed, into the sky and saw the huge bulk of the R13 floating just above our chimney tops! I had never seen an airship before and, in all my years since, I have caught a glimpse of only one other—the R101.

Back inside the house and looking up the staircase, I can recall little of the upstairs rooms. I do not know, even, how many there were—only one impressed me at all. This was the front room immediately over the parlour where my mother led me, fearfully, by the hand, into its darkened interior. The blinds were drawn and the only light was provided by two large candles burning one each side of a mahogany coffin which rested, incongruously, I thought at the time, upon a bare trestle table. Under the table was a dish containing an onion peeled and quartered.

In the coffin, was my grandfather and he appeared to be dead. I was not knowledgeable about such things at the time, but my mother said he was and that we should pay our last respects. I said something respectful like “Hello! Granddad” and tugged fiercely at my mother’s hand to get me out of there! I have few recollections of my grandfather I regret to say. I recall him as a kindly old man–he would cut off illicit slices of the raw, smoked herring, which was a favourite snack of his, and feed them to me while I wa sitting on his lap in the glow of the kitchen stove on a winter’s evening. He used the same penknife to cut his tobacco. But I was wrong about his age—he was only 53 when he died.

Johnnie (if that was really his name) lived in the attic, and the enclosed stairway leading up to his room was dark and mysterious, just wide enough for an adult to navigate. I vaguely remember Johnnie as a young man and therefore he would have been in his teens. I also remember that he was very high-tech. It was he who taught me how to make radio sets from crystals and “cats’ whiskers”—the reception was never very good—mostly wails and ghostly voices conjured from nowhere—but impressive enough in those days. I don’t think he was a member of the immediate family, but an orphan, perhaps, of the wider Thompson clan. He was, none-the-less, treated like family. His stairway and his room were lined with the ubiquitous tongue-and-groove boards, painted cream. It was also Johnnie who taught me how to squash the bugs as they crawled up the wall beside his bed. I was important not waste one’s time on the flat ones for they were almost impossible to squash and, even if one did, the effect was minimal. The best results came from the fully bloated ones—they provided a very satisfying squash and quickly produced a red polka-dotted effect on the cream paintwork. I remember that the tips of my fingers retained a very odd odour afterwards.

With one exception, I do not have individual memories of the Thompson aunts. I remember them as I perceived them when a child—a bunch of frenetically active, mischievous females, flitting around like Matisse’s dancers. Oddly, I have seen much more of their children and grandchildren in the last few years than I ever remember seeing of them. We must have had innumerable contacts on visits, and at parties and the like throughout the years, but my mind recalls few details to speak of. I do remember attending some of their weddings and I remember winning much approbation at one or other of them by my judicious placement of a “whoopee” cushion and for secreting a rubber spider in the ladies’ beer. The approbation came mostly from the guests at large, and not, I must say, from the victims, who showed no appreciation whatsoever.

The exception was Ada, the youngest. Ada was tall and slim and extraordinarily beautiful. It was she who awakened my early chemistry and I fell head-over-heels in love with her when I was about twelve or thirteen. Her rendering of “Just my Bill” from the musical “Showboat” tore at my heartstrings. Over the following few years I learned that she and her heart-throb husband had divorced and that she was remarried to a tailor called Harry and had emigrated to America. I met Ada and Harry for the first and last time some seventy years later in Las Vegas where they were then living. They have both since died.

Strangely, I never associated my paternal grandmother with 13 New Street. I remember her as the doyen of the bungalow in Wickford, Essex which she owned (probably jointly with her husband), and where she spent most weekends entertaining family visitors. Owning real estate was an extraordinarily rare occurrence in working-class families in those days. She must have been something of an entrepreneur, but remember that her husband as well as her two sons were National newspaper printers and therefore among the top paid workers. Carl Marx’s traitors!

I remember her organizing the early morning sorties into the fields near her bungalow to gather the day’s crop of mushrooms before it was all snatched up by the locals. We kids: I, Les, Benny and Minnie loved these outings. We would vie with each other to find the largest and fattest specimens and we became quite expert at recognizing where they would most likely be. The provenance of the mushrooms was a worrisome mystery to us–having picked the field clean one morning, there they all were again on the next? Benny, who was a few months older than I, and, since he lived full-time in Hackney, was a lot more street-smart, told us with the authority of his father (Nart) that the cattle which spent their lives in the fields did their breeding thing in the evenings and it was the overflow which gave rise to the mushrooms! This explanation did nothing to stop us enjoying our succulent beefsteak fungi with our breakfast bacon and eggs!

I also remember Nana Thompson as a fearsome soul—justifiably, as I now understand it. She owned one of the first phonographs. Not one which played discs but one which used Bakelite cylinders as the recording media. One slipped on a cylinder, placed the steel needle on the start groove, wound up the spring and moved the “play” lever to one side to hear the recording.

The recordings were mainly voices of contemporary movers and shakers of nationalistic bent commenting on the current situation. The voices included those of politicians, Admirals, Generals and sometimes literary personages. Grandmother owned an impressive collection of cylinders, of which, her utmost favourite was that of Nurse Cavell encouraging her wounded soldiers on the battlefield s of WW1. Les and I had listened to it many times under her supervision and also felt terribly moved by it. One evening, Les and I were left in the bungalow to fend for ourselves while Nana and our parents repaired to ‘The Quart Pot’ (the local pub). for a little relaxation and, while they were gone (from experience we knew it would be for a considerable time), we hit upon the brilliant idea of passing the time by playing the old phonograph.

One of the mechanical shortcomings of the old technology was that the wound spring rarely provided sufficient energy to complete the play of a cylinder. If one only half wound it up, the cylinder would slow down and the voice would slur and deepen into a caricature of itself. We lads found this very amusing and well worth imitating when the voice was Ramsey McDonald’s for example. But not for Nurse Cavell! For her, we made sure the machine was fully wound. Both Les and I tugged on the handle to make absolutely sure. We carefully slipped the cylinder onto the sleeve as we had been shown, placed the needle exactly in its appointed place and moved over the start lever. Horror of horrors! The over-wound cylinder revolved at the speed of light, struck the steel needle and shattered into a thousand bits!

Quick as lightening, Les and I were out the front door and hiding in the fields. It was dark outside but we must have waited until the adults had returned and surveyed the havoc. The conclusion of this episode has faded from memory—probably because it was too painful?

Around the corner from number 13 was a pub called ‘The Padget Arms’. Why it was so-named I never really knew but I remember being puzzled at the time by an image of Mr. or Mrs. Padget having mislaid their upper limbs. It was there my father, uncle Nart and possibly my grandfather and some of my aunts’ intendeds did their social drinking. I became aware of the establishment during my parents’ subsequent visits to the family home. The pub, for me, was a porch bounded by two pseudo Doric columns, an overhead gas jet and a painted sign swinging in front of it. This was all I ever saw of it because we children were strictly forbidden entry as provided by the Church-sponsored ‘Alcoholic Beverages Act’—Parents (mostly fathers) could drink themselves silly inside but their offspring were not allowed to observe it happening–only the end result when patrons were turned out at closing time. Today’s generations, with their embedded images of cowering, brutalized, women of yesteryear, will be surprised to learn that my Cockney aunts needed none of their liberation—they had already taken every liberty there was to be had–one of them was about to become a Labour Party official even. They knew instinctively, how to manipulate their men-folk. One of their liberties was to send their men off to the pub after supper while they did their thing. (Men never discovered what their thing was). But the men were to take the walking kids with them—no leaving them behind to get under the women’s feet. As time went by, I was joined on these pub nights by my cousin Benny, and, later on, his sister Minnie Tonker and my brother Leslie and we played tag games together. The first two being uncle Nart’s children. Every so often, one of the men would poke his head around the door and distribute a glass of lemonade and a large round Arrowroot biscuit to each of us. As the evening progressed, the distributions became less frequent until it reached the stage where we thought we may have been forgotten altogether, at which point we would open the door a crack and make a row of hungry faces though it, hoping to attract someone’s attention. And so was generated one of the most enduring memories of my childhood—of being bored to death for hour after hour in the Padget Arms porch—confined within that cone of yellow light carved through the enveloping fog by the gas lamp overhead!

Several years after world war two, I made a nostalgic pilgrimage to New Street. It was gone! The whole area, like much of the East End had been bombed out of existence and the area now sported brash new public housing in an entirely foreign configuration.

Ch 5. 57 Kimberly Avenue

Ben and Emily Thompson (my parents) were pioneers. They and their generation were the first to put a crack in the mould of the cloth-cap-touching working-class. My father did not entirely escape his roots but my mother certainly did. In fact she had upper-class aspirations. They graduated from the family home in New Street and moved into a rented apartment of their own a few blocks away. It was there that I archived my first memory—I was traumatized by the event.

From economic necessity, theirs was not the most desirable of residences; it was, in fact, a so-called ‘aerie’ flat. That is, half of it was below grade; the front door was approached through a gate in the cast-iron railings guarding the sidewalk, down five or six stone steps to a narrow paved area. I can only think that name ’aerie’ was a bit of cynical Cockney humour.

The front door led immediately into the bedroom and, maybe, the only room they rented. (There were no bathrooms in those houses). The bed-head was butted up against the window, the middle of which was level with the roadway just across the narrow ‘aerie’. As a toddler I would be tucked into the bed during the day while my parents went about their business. From that position, I could look up towards the ceiling and, at the same time, see the top half of the window behind me and the shelf, high on the wall in front of me. On the shelf was a row of “Palm” toffee tins, printed with the coconut palm logo and hinged along the top. I don’t remember having seen the like since, but, in those days the famous toffee-maker produced his wares in the form of rectangular slabs about four inches wide by six inches long and three-quarters of an inch thick! Only adults could afford a whole slab let alone a whole tinful! Slabs were broken up for children by the sweet-shop keepers and sold in ha’pennyworths or pennyworths. Each tin must have held eight or more of these slabs! In later years, I wondered who it was that had such a sweet tooth—I concluded it was my father’s young bride, my new mother, who had the addiction and he was indulging it. At the time, of course, I didn’t care—I could only dribble with delight over the awareness that I would be included in the treat when the time came. I seem to remember that the evening darkness heralded the opening of the toffee tin.

Lifting my eyes, I could see that the top half of the window was partially open. Suddenly, the room darkened and the window was filled with a terrifying apparition; piercing black eyes bulging larger than saucers; great flaring nostrils wider than a baby’s head and dripping slime; gigantic curved horns stretching beyond the width of the glass! I still hear myself letting out a maniacal scream–left defenseless in an empty room with this baby-eating monster! Then, blank–nothing more. Such is the stuff nightmares are made of.

The explanation was simple. Milk was delivered in those days, fresh each morning. It came in tall silvery churns which were carried round the streets on a chariot-like dray drawn by a powerful bullock. Around the rim of the churns hung ladles of different capacities. Housewives, my mother among them, took out their milk jugs and bought the amount they would need for the day. Over-ordering would risk curdled waste on warm days—there were no refrigerators, only larders. While the milkman was serving his customers, the bullock would offtimes assuage his boredom by swiveling on to the sidewalk in order to peer over the railings. A bovine voyeur, perhaps?

I do have another memory of similar traumatic impact but the details are less defined. It was inflicted by my young father. We, (my parents and Les and I) were visiting a festival fair-ground in London. I have forgotten what the occasion celebrated but I believe it was a national anniversary of some sort. It was nighttime and I have an impression of being caught up in noisy, holiday-making crowds, dancing coloured lights and the deafening roars of the fair-ground rides. One of these rides was entered through the enormous maw of an artificial elephant complete with an ominously raised animated trunk and frightful trumpetings. Why adults are convinced that only a perverse nature causes their child to refuse to be delighted by whatever thrills them, escaped me–until I became a parent myself. My father was determined to force me into the mouth and I protested, screaming and kicking. Les, I remember, remained tranquil in my mother’s arms. Dad dragged me as far as the pay booth before the embarrassing stares of the passing crowd became too much for him and we all beat a hasty retreat. Once again, I have no recollection of a sequel but I bet my father was not all that proud of his senior offspring at the time.

What is of interest to me, perhaps more than the incident itself, is the reinforcement it gives to the monopoly of my earliest memories by my father rather than my mother. The thought occurred to me while writing these notes. It is contrary to what one would expect, surely? Perhaps the reason was that, as a newspaperman, he always worked at night and so saw more of his family during the daylight hours than most fathers did? I can, in fact, remember Dad’s young face as well as his old one but I remember only mother’s old one.

Incidentally, readers may wonder what renters did to maintain a respectable state of bodily cleanliness in those bathroom-less digs (rentals)? The Local Authorities provided bathhouses for such citizens. I remember being sent to the Baths in Haggerston once or twice while I was staying with my grandmother, Nana Hobbs. I would have been about twelve at the time when I was first sent and found the experience quite frightening. At that age, I had become used to the human-size bath in our suburban bathroom, so when I had paid my small fee and swaggered in with my grandmother’s towel under my arm, I was surprised to be confronted with a row of booths each fitted with an enormous bathtub twice the size of the monster my aunts had tried to drown me in when I was a baby!

Infinitely worse, there were no taps on the baths with which one could keep control of the flow and temperature of the water! When the latch on the door of the booth was closed, a great gush of steaming hot water began filling the tub at an alarming rate, controlled by an anonymous dictator in the hidden depths. How did one stop the flood in time before it reached drowning depth? And how did one control its steaming temperature? I learned very quickly. Each booth was numbered and the number of the one occupied was clearly marked on the entrance ticket. So, it was a matter of shouting over the top of the door: “More cold–number 6, please!” or “hot” according to one’s requirements. A “Number 6 full, thank you” sufficed to stop the flow. Respectable people bathed and changed their underwear once a week in those days. But they still smelled a lot.

My next embedded memory is of brother Leslie and I romping through the chest-high grass of a suburban garden. Two or three years must have passed since the bullock incident. The grass was an over-grown lawn of fine fescues and I recall the delicate bunches of seeds on the tops of the stalks making a fascinating swishing sound as we brushed our joyful way through them. And if you grabbed the stalks fairly tightly in your fist and pulled sharply upwards, the seeds would all come off in a friction-held bunch and you could throw them up into the air as you ran. The joy was being transmitted through our parents’ excitement. They were, I think, probably viewing the house they were about to purchase—a great adventure for all of us.

Purchase it, they did, and that is how we came to acquire the address of: 57 Kimberly Avenue, Seven Kings, Ilford, in the county of Essex. The multiple kings included in the address intrigued my infant curiosity. Britain did, I knew, have just the one. He was King George V and was in charge of everything. I had seen him in his gold carriage drawn by lots of horses. My father was a great patriot. He used to take us up to the city in the dark early hours of the morning in order to reserve a good space on the sidewalk when the king had a special occasion. This was to ensure that we would be able to see the king passing by and he would be able to see us waving our Union Jacks. For me, the long, long wait tired me to distraction and I was always secretly glad when all the bobbing busbies and flashing swords had rounded the corner so that we could all go home. But I did like the anticipation–of being set down on folded newspapers, half asleep, on the sidewalk, and of being warmed with hot cocoa from the Thermos flask. Even at that age I felt the intense fellowship of the Brits during those hours of discomfort, borne with stoicism and good humour. It was the same human fellowship which transcended all classes during the war years, and I felt it again among New Yorkers after 9/11. But, Britain had only one king whereas Ilford had seven! This seemed, to my youthful understanding, to be excessive.

The Kimberly part of the address did not interest me until I had spent a year or two at school and was told of the Boer War. History taught in elementary schools was mostly about the battles fought by the Brits since King Harold lost an eye at Hastings. My ears perked up, though, when I learned that one of the battles had taken place in my very own street and that the street running parallel to ours, Mafeking, had got into serious trouble during the conflict as well! I remember a sense of deflation when it was explained that our street was named only after the Boer War and that this applied to all the other streets in our development. Subsequently, the only use I found in the information was that it dated our house.

What would there be of interest in the date of a terrace house? In England, nearly all such houses were built on land still owned by the great landlords of the earlier centuries—The Church Commissioners being among the largest. Thus they were ’Leasehold’. That is, the owners of the houses paid a nominal annual rent to the landlord for the use of the land it stood on. The leases ran for a period of years, usually ninety-nine. And here was the rub. At the end of the lease, the land and everything on it reverted to the landlord. So, on the downhill half of the lease period, house-owners would begin to see their equity diminish each year. Who would want to buy a house which the law required to be relinquished to the landlord within a foreseeable number of years—except at a give-away price? Although my father died well before the lease would have been up, it worried him a great deal towards the end of the1940’s. I found it disturbing that this patently un-British anomaly had been allowed to endure. One of the most far-reaching social changes made by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government redressed this unfairness. It passed a law requiring all landlords to offer the ‘Freehold’ of their land to every house owner at a price mandated to be within the pocket of wage-earners, so Dad’s worries were over and house-ownership began its inflation-fed frenzy period.

57 was an immediate upgrade in our lifestyle—it had electric light! The conversion had been made just before we moved in, for the blocked ends of the gas pipes were still protruding through the wall paper in every room. Direct current was supplied at first, but we knew very little about the mechanics except that we could now go into a room, press up a little switch and, lo! There would be light! Even in the outdoor john! Not too much of it mind! 15 watt lamps gave off a yellowish glow. But, no more would we have to stand on a stool and, ultra-gently, remove a mantle from its cardboard container and place it on the gas fitting without it suffering the slightest knock or shake—either of which would have caused it to disintegrate and to evoke choice language from an adult or a clip round the ear even. Some years after we were living in the house, the supply of electric current was changed, nationwide, to alternating current and we became better lit and owned an electric vacuum cleaner.

Kimberly Avenue was formed by two facing rows of terraced houses separated by pavements and a road wide enough to accommodate passing horse carts. Each house was identical except that they were constructed left and right. This enabled the savvy builder to provide only one chimney for each pair . The four end houses in the Avenue had a slight advantage in that a privacy wall of brick, about six feet high, stretched along the length of their back gardens and continued along the back garden of the house behind it. The gardens of the end houses were, consequently, a little wider and had additional access through doorways let into privacy wall. Each house had a small front garden enclosed in a low brick wall topped by a black-painted cast-iron fence. Most householders cultivated a privet hedge up to the height of the fence in order to give a little privacy to the front-room window and also to give a home to the wonderful chrysalises and caterpillars which fed on its leaves. We boys really appreciated our father’s foresight!

There were double windows on each storey, built out from the front of the house by about eighteen inches. Narrow sash windows on each side of the front windows filled the resulting space. This configuration gave both the ‘Front’ room on the ground floor and the master bedroom on the upper floor, a small recess from which one could see up and down the street. To the left of the double windows and above the arched doorway, was a single window which provided daylight for the ‘Box’ room.

The front door was approached via a wrought iron gate in the low wall and a terrazzo pathway. The cover of the coalhole was visible in the pathway near the doorway and to one side. The door itself was set back a foot or so to provide callers shelter

The “maid” and me, about five years old, outside number 57

from the rain while they were transacting their business, or, just waiting to be let in. The attention of the householder was attracted by pressing a bell-push which activated a bell hanging inside just above the door. The bell was of a type one can still see around today on top of wind-up alarm clocks. The bell was electrically operated and the power was supplied by two enormous, round, dry-cell batteries (about 40 A’s I should guess) which were stored in an open box fastened to the wall next to the bell.When the door was opened, one was faced with a staircase on the left leading to the upper floor and a narrow passageway about fourteen feet long. This passageway was called the ‘hall’ in our household. Ten feet along the hall on the right, a white-painted paneled door opened into the ‘Front’ room. Suburbanites didn’t have ‘parlours’ or aspidistras but they did have wind-up record-players in polished hardwood consuls with storage space for vinyl records beneath! And these were placed in the ‘aspidistra’ position, at the centre of the bay windows, visible to passers-by. The ‘Front’ room contained the inevitable upright piano (against the wall opposite the windows), tiled fire place with brass ‘tongs’ set and surround, and a mahogany mantelpiece surmounted by a large mirror. An overstuffed lounge set—couch and two armchairs–filled most of the remaining space. The stained wooden floor was enlightened by numerous rugs. One was placed in front of the fireplace and was continuously at risk from the sparks given off by the fire in winter.

At the end of the hall there were two doors at right angles. The one facing the front door led into the kitchen, and the other into the dining room. The dining room was miniscule, perhaps not more than ten feet by six feet, and most of this space was occupied by the dining set (table and four chairs), the fireplace and the Cocktail Cabinet. To conserve space, the table was placed against the wall opposite the fireplace but, even so, the backs of the two chairs on the long side of the table were too close to the fire to be used in the winter if all four of us ate there at the same time. We two boys would be awkwardly placed at the corners of the table next to each parent.

But it was rare that our father ate his meals with us except on weekends, he travelled to his newspaper office, The Daily Mail, in the evening and returned to sleep at breakfast time. When, later,

AC current was installed, he resolved the fire problem by fitting an artificial fire in the grate. It gave off no heat but it did add a little cheer to an otherwise drear and wintery-cold grate. It brought with it a problem of its own, though—Smokers, and they were legion in those days, were often deceived by the “flames” and discarded their cigarette butts into it. And, in the rheumy winters, elderly relatives were known to spit in it!

The ‘Cocktail Cabinet” was a suburban status symbol—it came with the shiny dining set. I am sure that it was my mother’s idea to buy it–it suited her upwardly-mobile ambitions. I am equally sure that she had no idea what a cocktail was. She drank little, if any, alcoholic beverage and my father was content with his working-class pint except at weddings, births, deaths, and Christmastimes, when he would take a tot or so from the one bottle of scotch which the cabinet guarded. The cabinet did have its uses, however; the side cupboards were ideal for storing the large number of beer mugs needed at party times and my mother kept our cutlery in the green felt-lined drawers in its front. And, If one lifted the top up on its hinges, two shelves dropped down to reveal a space fitted with all manner of chrome devices which, if one only knew how, would help produce the exotic tipples for which the cabinet was named. Not knowing how, my mother kept the bread in there!

At the far end of the dining room, a glass-paneled door opened into the ‘conservatory’. This was a sloping-glass-roofed and glass-fronted structure the width of the dining room, protruding about six feet beyond the back wall of the house. The brick side walls of the ‘conservatory’ served as the back wall of the larder and our outdoor loo on the left-hand side and the neighbour’s conservatory on the right. Another glass-paneled door opened onto the back garden. Mimicking the stately homes of the rich and powerful, the ‘conservatory’ was, I suppose, meant to be a sunny haven with potted palms and lounge chairs, but it was far too small, even for the illusion. My father did his best with window boxes in which he propagated his geranium cuttings, but, over the years, the space was used for whatever the needs of a growing family were at any time, until it finally deteriorated into an haphazard storage place.

The back garden was my father’s domain. He loved it. It was his haven from the madding strife of family turmoil. As a night-worker he did his sleeping in the mornings and was was able to spend more daylight hours pottering in it than could most working husbands. He laid out two, full-length, paved paths at either side of the garden leading to his rock garden along the back fence. On the outside of the paths, he planted herbaceous border plants in marvelous profusion and on the inside he cut diamond shaped rose beds with trimmed-grass walkways between them. He soon acquired some expertise and used it to impress me when I was old enough to be taken into confidence and help him with the plantings. He would point to some blossom or shrub and say “That is my hybrid – – – – – – “rattling off some exotic Latin name that he had just learned from the seed catalogue. One of these was: Cupressus Macrocarpa which did impress me, so much that I have never forgotten it. As for the rest, I was sure that he made-up most of them! However that may be, I think it must have been his enthusiasm which sparked in me the thirst for knowledge of the plant life and animals living beyond the concrete and cobblestones of London town and for that I thank my lucky stars. Incidentally, Dad’s expertise was less than fully developed since he cultivated, at the end of the garden, a Laburnum tree. In summer, this tree produced a mass of beautiful hanging blossoms. As the season progressed, the golden yellow blooms gave place to bean pods which, in turn, opened and showered little brown beans to the ground. Fascinating to small boys. I am convinced now, that he didn’t know they were deadly poisonous!

The garden extended 30 feet or so from the concrete slab of the house. It was separated from the neighbours’ property by picket fences on either side. It was the envy of all, neighbours and visitors alike, but the garden’s fortune followed the family’s and was destined to become a hostage to the threatening WWII.

The kitchen (accessed through the door at the far end of the hall) was the same length as the dining room but twice as wide. On the left-hand side there was an alcove which had previously housed the coal-fired oven range. The range had been replaced (probably by the previous owners) by a coal fired water heater and an electric oven and range top, which included a grilling element at the top of its back plate. The front door of the water heater could be let down when required, to expose a nice comforting glow and to warm the kitchen. It also toasted the morning crumpets very nicely. Next to the oven was the “copper”, so named, I imagine, because the originals had been made of the metal. Our cauldron was made of cast iron, round, with a domed bottom. It hung by its rim in a brick and concrete structure in such a fashion that a fire lit underneath it would surround it and most efficiently heat the water poured into it. It had a small concrete hearth in front of an igloo-shaped entrance at floor level which gave access to the fire grate. A flue led out of the top into the alcove.

Next to the copper was the kitchen sink. Its porcelain was crazed and chipped in places but it was still serviceable. Hot and cold water was available at the sink. The unaccustomed boon of running hot water depended on the capacity of the storage tank situated in the bathroom cupboard upstairs. The hot water in it was replenished constantly by the water heater when its fire was lit. But a bath or two, or a heavy washday would overwhelm the storage tank so that its content had to be used with discretion.

The water supply for the house came from the gravity tank in the attic. Every house had one. These tanks were open at the top and were fitted with a ball valve just like the toilet tanks had then (and now!). The ball valve controlled the intake of water from the water mains of the Local Authority. Some householders, my father among them, covered the open tanks with a wooden lid in order to prevent insects and birds from contaminating the supply. He also covered an area of the rafters around the tank with tongue and groove boards. This was to provide a platform, safe from the danger of slipping a foot between the rafters, through the flimsy lathe-and-plaster ceiling, into the room below! The attic was accessed, by our father, from the upstairs landing by means of a step-ladder normally kept in the garden shed. Access for we two boys was attained, when our parents were out, by means of two chairs placed, with care, one upon the other. Our father would have died if he had seen us trip lightly from one rafter to another in our quests for dead birds, old nests and intriguing insects.

Above the sink, a casement window allowed in the daylight and could be opened to let out the steam on wash days. In the summer, it was often left open on its latch during daylight hours in order to allow the outside air to cool the kitchen. A door, wooden paneled and painted white, with a pane of opaque glass let into its top half, gave access to the garden and the outside lavatory (the “lav”). To the right of the kitchen door was the, now door-less, opening to the pantry. The door had been removed since it obviously took valuable space out of the kitchen’s small reserve and really served no purpose. The pantry space was part of the brick addition to the house which also housed the ‘lav’ and provided the left-hand wall of the ‘conservatory’. A small fanlight let into its left-hand wall provided a meagre light. It was fitted out with the customary concrete and marble shelf at waist level and white-painted wooden shelves above. The marble kept the perishables, like milk and meat, cool in the summer and the other shelves were for storing the groceries. We boys soon learned my mother’s strategy. The higher the shelf, the more delectable the prize—she kept her chocolate biscuits, treacle and condensed milk on the very highest shelf. Oddly, she also stored there, the family’s supply of ‘Cod Liver Oil of Malt’. She was right to do so—How could she have learned that we had come to love the treacly medicine? The potato bin and other vegetables were stored underneath the concrete shelf.

On the upstairs landing, the first door on the left opened into the bathroom. Behind the door to the left was a floor–to-ceiling airing cupboard. It was immediately above the water heater in the kitchen below and contained the hot-water storage tank. Lead pipes from the storage tank led down through the kitchen ceiling to the heater. It was only partially insulated with plaster and canvass because some residual heat was needed to ‘air off’ the sheets and clothes after they had been dried on

the clothes’ line in the garden. Especially on damp days, which, in Britain before global warming, were the majority.

Butted up to the airing cupboard was the rounded back-end of our cast-iron enameled bath tub, standing on its four animal-claw feet. The once white tub was now displaying an elderly cream tinge and the areas below the taps were circled with rust and lime. The water in our district was very, very hard. The floor was covered in a green-patterned linoleum showing evidence of cigarette burns here and there. Especially around the toilet area to the right of the bath. Between the bath and the toilet, a large sash window gave a wide view of our garden and (through the fruit trees) the back of the houses opposite. If you pushed up the bottom sash and poked head and shoulders out, you could see all the way to the intersecting streets at the ends of Kimberley Avenue.

In spring, the heady scent of lilacs was overwhelming—one grew profusely below our bathroom window. And, in the balmy days of summer, the roses and the annuals took over the perfume and insect-attracting duties. Butterflies, mostly of the ‘cabbage’ variety flittered from garden to garden; dragon-flies hovered; bees buzzed, and all the sparrows were a-twitter. Summer brought wasps too, though. In the damp autumn, the sad smell of burning leaves bade a nostalgic farewell to the freedoms of summer—But! Guy Fawkes Day and Christmas were coming! In winter, the window was rarely opened, except, perhaps, when a guest or family member had encountered a bowel problem.

One could also see the clothes-line post which my father had installed at the far end of the left-hand garden path and the rope which stretched from its top to a pulley attached to the brick wall just outside the bathroom window. His thinking was masterful—the path was narrow and he didn’t want wet sheets and combs (long johns) flapping about among his delicate plants. So, he installed the pulley high up so that the wet clothes could be hoisted up, well away from his precious flowers. The pulley had to be accessible, though, in case some stupid kid let go of the clothes-line, precipitating all the clean clothes to fall to the earth, while our mother was in the process of un-pegging them! The rope would have to be re-threaded through the pulley when fray was over and this needed two people; one to throw the rope, lasso-style, to another leaning out of the bathroom window.

The bathroom included one more fitting. It was a small pedestal hand basin against the wall opposite the bathtub, bolted to the floor planks. My father had had it installed. Above it was a small mirror and a narrow glass shelf for shaving things.

The back and front bedrooms each had their fireplaces, which, I am fairly certain, were never lit. They were equipped, however, with metal flaps like all others. These flaps were kept lowered, covering the chimney opening when the fire was out of use, to prevent soot, generated by other fires in the house, from blowing into the room. Les and I did, from time to time, retrieve some interesting dead birds from behind them. Otherwise the bedrooms were unremarkable, except that ours (the back bedroom with a window overlooking the conservatory and the garden) contained the triple-fronted mahogany wardrobe made by our maternal grandfather. I came to appreciate the wonderful workmanship of its inlays in later years. This leaves the ‘Box’ room. I have no idea why it was so named. I thought, maybe, it used to be a place where a family would store seasonal things, like overcoats or eiderdowns in appropriate boxes. Or, perhaps, my parents had so named it because it was not much bigger that a box? In any, event, a single bed could be squeezed into it, under the window overlooking the street, and the maid slept in it.

A creosoted clapboard fence about six feet high and eight feet long separated our house from the Fennell’s on the left. It provided privacy for the patrons of the outdoor lavs on both sides. It joined up with the low picket fence where proper neighbourly converse could be pursued without fear of embarrassment. A similar, but shorter, fence extended from the two conservatories on the right-hand side. Against this one, my mother kept her monstrous clothes-wringer. Better known as: ’The Mangle’.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, in that old house lead piping was used in the plumbing, Including the large diameter waste pipes which led from the copper and the sink through the outer wall into a drainage-well built below the kitchen window. And thereby hangs a dire tale which I shall relate in its context later on.

Ch 1. 26 Soldiers of Lead

Here, then, are the sketchily remembered events shaping the passage of an ordinary man who has reached the years of reflection. A man who, not so very long ago, would have been described, perhaps with some deference, as an elderly gentleman, but nowadays, has attached, the faintly amusing label, ‘senior citizen’—complete with politically correct care instructions on the reverse.

Not that this is of any moment. I mention it only as an explanation of a certain disjointedness one may find in the following narrative; of the occasional square word jimmied into an otherwise reasonably rounded sentence. We elderly are subject to an acute feeling of combined dismay and angry impotence when the mind, after years of effortless retrieval, begins, inexplicably, to draw blanks. When, having had revealed to us in a blinding flash of understanding, a universal truth, distilled like a dying star into its very essence, it slips from the grasp of memory just as it was about to be immortalized—To hover for a moment or two, tantalizing, fractionally beyond memory’s reach, before going off to play hide-and-seek among the myriad piles of dusty trivia stored in the attic—rarely to be recaptured. The problem, I have concluded, stems from an unwonted development of an over-inquiring mind at an early age. Such a mind sooner or later overloads its memory banks and whatever is selected for archiving today pushes out some other record further upstream. What is so disconcerting about the process is that it is totally beyond the control of the one in charge. Happy are the incurious.

This is what I looked like at 14 years of age

However, my difficulty with letters and words began a long time ago. It started with what, in those poetic days, were called ‘The twenty-six soldiers of lead’. It is not clear to me now who coined the phrase—one of the newspaper barons, no doubt—but it symbolized the crusading power of the printed word. The twenty-six soldiers were, of course, the lead-cast letters of the alphabet which Compositors of that era lovingly formed into words and paragraphs in their composing ‘sticks’. Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, I was apprenticed, as a Compositor, to a Mr. Handley, proprietor of Pickett Bros., a local printing company in an eastern suburb of London, near where my family was living. The title ‘Compositor’ was a relic of the typographic guilds dating back to Caxton perhaps, but even in my day, it was indicative of the jealously defended craft secrets and privileges of a craft Guild. It denoted, at once, the pride of craftsmanship and the superiority of its members in the printing trade. The term ’typesetter’ into which it later evolved, merely described the mechanization of the work– A process which quickly stripped the craft of its art and, therefore, its intrinsic value.

One only became a Compositor after seven years of practically unpaid bondage to a Master and those who had suffered through it were certainly not going to give up the mystique of initiation easily. Sadly those Compositors who refused to acknowledge that the privileges of craft had become an anachronism in our mass-consuming world, discovered, with bitterness, that the ever-increasing pace of change had by-passed the need of them–and had left them with an unmarketable skill.

I should mention, before the chronology becomes impossibly entangled, that the firm of Pickett Bros. was not the first establishment into which my father attempted to place me. Taking the advice of his peers, he found me a job in the office of a prestigious Printer situated within the one square mile limits of the City of London. His object was to have me working there in any capacity so that, on the off-chance of an apprenticeship becoming available, I would be on the spot to seize the opportunity. Alas, it was not to be. The job of work I was to perform was not exactly in the office, but in one of the corridors leading up to it. There, a table and chair had been set up for me by the side of two enormously fat and intriguing pipes. One had an opening cut into it and the other was fitted with a narrow door.

My basic work was to interleave countless sheets of black carbon paper between equally countless sheets of white letter paper—“SHINY side down and NO smudges, mind!” commanded the twenty-year old wardress. But the really important part of the job was to watch the pipes. Which I did with mounting anticipation. Sure enough, a great ‘swoosh’ and a ‘plunk’ heralded the arrival of a leather tube at the opening of the first pipe. My task at this point was to remove the tube, undo the end, take out the papers secreted therein, smooth them out and place them carefully into the tray marked “IN”. I would then have to take the papers from the tray marked “OUT”, stuff them into the tube, replace the top and, with a frisson of excitement, open the narrow door in the other pipe and pop it in. Where it went and on what mission, I know not, and, while I cannot remember being overly concerned with the condition of my memory banks at that time, I did not inquire.

Fascinating though the job was, I wished fervently that that my fortune had been to be apprenticed to that particular printing firm. By reason of its location within the city walls, I would have been entitled to become a freeman of the City of London and in that capacity entitled to carry a sword within its boundary. The hoi polloi would have to leave theirs outside the Bar of London and would be at my mercy.

I did not own a sword at the time and, to tell the truth, did not know anyone who ever did. But I had seen the movies and knew the deportment. I imagined myself swaggering through the Underground; hand on hilt; my blade protruding from the back of my Compositor’s apron. Hearing the feminine cries of admiration and the masculine cries of something less than admiration as I wended my jaunty way through the forest of thighs and buttocks, which is mainly the view of the traveling public my short stature allowed me in those days.

Sadly, my employment with the prestigious firm came to an abrupt and ignominious end less than two weeks after it began. And, once again, fate played havoc with my less-than-towering stature.

It was the duty of all employees (some two hundred souls) to record the time of their commencing work and of their leaving it. This process was known, appropriately enough, as “clocking-on and clocking-off”. It was achieved by means of a time machine which consisted of a huge circle of numbered holes, each one sacred to one employee, and a pointer which swung from the center of the circle. Attached to the end of the pointer was a stud which fitted neatly into the holes around the perimeter. The stud emitted a satisfying ‘ding’ when pressed into one of the holes.

One would think it a trivial matter to swing the pointer round to an assigned number and press the stud into its allotted hole? Not a chance! My number was at least twelve inches beyond my outstretched fingers and there was no way I could use the clock in the overly-disciplined manner my employer had prescribed–But honour forbade I be denied my duty.

I selected holes near the bottom of the circle—not the same one each time—I didn’t want to appear discriminatory. In fact, I lightheartedly put in one or two extra “dings” on occasion just for luck and to show that I felt at one with the world.

They had no need of a detective agency to discover who it was had thrown their accounting system into complete and utter disarray. The chaos erupted immediately after I began my labours there and my assigned number was the only one free of any blemish whatsoever. My father was asked to take me away as soon as possible.

My new master, Mr. Handley, had two attributes as far as my father was concerned: He ran a unionized printing house and he was short of twenty-five quid (Pounds sterling, that is). Being “Union” was important because the indenturing of apprentices was governed by an agreement between the Federation of Master Printers and The London Society of Compositors. An agreement which not only ensured the control of labour into the work force but also ensured the adherence to established practices in the trade.

Being short of money was equally important at that time because, in spite of the Trade Agreement, which limited the intake of labour to the sons of journeyman Compositors, places were almost non-existent. Masters were allowed only one apprentice for each six journeymen employed by them and at the end of each school year, Compositor fathers began a frantic and mostly futile scramble to put into bondage their utterly mystified offspring. The sons of the unsuccessful ones did not have a trade and were left beyond the pale—perhaps, to languish for ever in a dead-end job!

A slightly unethical solution to the dilemma was for the parent to find a small printer without a quota of printers’ devils or, indeed, the slightest desire to be encumbered with one, and to persuade him, with a premium (as an under-cover bribe was known), that the short- and long-term benefits of taking on his son would be to his advantage. If successful, the lucky son would emerge seven years later with an unanticipated advantage over his rivals. For, although he would not carry the cachet of a renowned printer’s product, he would of necessity be a master of the whole trade rather than the narrow specialist which the large establishments tended to produce. As a result, he would later find himself able to exploit a much wider field than his specialized competitors. Mr. Handley was disposed to be persuaded.

For me, Mr. Handley had one remarkable and all-absorbing attribute—his teeth. He was not blessed with a full set but the ones he did have were absolutely fascinating. They hung down from his upper gum like a row of yellow-brown twiglets and, marvel of marvels; he could move them in and out at will with the tip of his yellow-brown tongue! This is what he did when he caught me staring at them in goggle-eyed, open-mouthed wonder. I remember being scared out of my youthful wits–scared of the awesome power this super-human was going to wield over me for the next seven years! I was, after all, brought up in a thoroughly British family where the most one did with one’s teeth was to put them into a glass of water at night. Upon further reflection, however, I did have an obscure uncle who played tunes on his with a pair of spoons. I do not remember, though, that he took them out or otherwise displaced them while doing so.

Mr. Handley was a tall, spare man of some five and a half feet. All men were tall in my eyes. Women too. But they were my aunts and mother and didn’t really count. The impression that I was a rare shrub, blossoming among a forest of towering trees remained with me for many years—modified only when I met the Japanese—but that was some years off yet.

In the meantime, my new Master’s first obligation was to assign me a ‘frame’. A frame was a wooden structure built to accommodate about twenty ‘cases’ on runners within its carcass. Cases were shallow trays, the width of the frame, divided into forty or more boxes in which to accommodate the letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, spaces and accents of a single font. The boxes varied in size according the frequency of appearance of a character in the printed page. In addition, the boxes containing the most frequently used characters were placed nearest the compositor’s hand. The “e” box was the largest and enjoyed pride of place, top dead centre. Cases could be slid out to reveal the glittering twenty-six soldiers of lead in all their wondrous designs–But it had to be done very carefully! Otherwise, the weight of the lead might be too much for young hands and would result in the horrified inquirer contemplating a mountain of hopelessly mixed-up, and possibly damaged, type at his feet. And, worse, to add to his excruciating embarrassment, the noise of the disaster would bring, rushing, a ring of jeering apprentices and lower-class machine minders to watch the Master reprove the culprit. My cases contained the most exotic of type faces—the ones least used, but, to me, the most beautiful.

My frame, like the others, was surmounted, at suitable working angles, by a ‘lower case’ (at my eye level) and an ‘upper case’ (completely beyond my reach). The Master was a perceptive man. He saw at a glance that his new bondsman was not to be the productive profit center that he had hoped without some immediate modification of the environment. With puckered brow and incisors at right-angles, he studied my diminutive frame and the wooden one before me. Then, with an imperious wave of his arm and several flourishes of his teeth, he commanded a small dais to be constructed. One which allowed me to stand, feet apart and firmly planted, with elbows at the optimum position: level with the edge of the lower case.

I loved that frame. Tucked away at the back of the composing room as it was—rejected by the journeymen because of inadequate lighting—I made it my home from home; away from beck and call and from prying eyes. It was there that I hung the badge of office, my yet pristine apron, at the close of the working day, and also the hand-me-down composing stick given to me by my father who had, in his turn, been given it by his father. Behind the upper case I kept my own cocoa mug with its small chip on the edge–given to me my mother. And between the top cases, I secreted the tuppenny comic books that she forbade me to read at home. Many are the happy lunch breaks I spent behind my frame, sitting on my upturned box, with my sandwiches and cocoa carefully set out on one of the type cases higher up, reading proscribed comics. For every-day use, I would pull out the twenty-four point Gill Sans Outline, but for special occasions like my birthday or Christmas Eve, I would grace my repast with an Imperial Script or, perhaps, Perpetua Shadow. What freedom! My very first taste of independence. If I had had any hand in the framing of the “Declaration of Independence” I would certainly have included the inalienable right to read tuppenny comics while washing the down the midday sandwiches with cocoa!

It would not be too difficult, with our current understanding, to diagnose a form of dyslexia as the cause, but, at that period I could not, for the very life of me, distinguish p’s from q’s or b’s from d’s. To add to my difficulty, compositors were required by the mirror-image nature of their work, to set and read words upside-down and back–to-front; thus confounding an already fearful problem. I did not want to appear to be different from other mortals (although I was sure I was) so I kept the knowledge to myself. In retrospect, I find it extraordinary that my father was not aware of the problem. Otherwise, a compositor son would surely have been the last venture upon which to have risked his twenty-five Pounds sterling? I did make some inquiries of the more junior journeymen but they seemed to be quite confident: “In the setting stick” they said “the strokes go to the left or right and the rounds go to the north or south according to whether it’s a ‘d’, ‘b’, ‘p’ or ‘q’”. Another thing I had kept to myself was that concepts such as ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘north’ and ‘south” as well as a.m. and p.m. were giving me almost as much trouble as the ‘p’s and ‘q’s.

I am, of course, writing of the time when type was composed one letter at a time, the so-called ‘hot-metal’ era. Laymen would be forgiven for thinking that compositors spent most of their time bent over their cases setting type. Not so. At least for the junior ones. Cases, both of the upper and lower variety, had limited capacity and, if the Chapel (compositors of the printing house) was maintaining the standard of good craftsmanship—setting clean copy at the rate of one thousand characters per hour—the boxes in the cases soon became too sparsely occupied for efficient typesetting. Skilled fingers could more easily separate a character, simultaneously turning the identifying nick outwards, from a pile of type than they could from scraping on the bottom of the box among the lead dust. Thus, the boxes needed to be constantly replenished. This was accomplished by a process called ‘dissing’—short for ‘distributing’. It follows that one who ‘dissed’ in those days was not a ‘disrespector’ but a ‘disser’.

The office cat and I shared approximately the same position in the management hierarchy at that time and, as befitting, I was the disser of very first resort. Everybody hated the job. Unlike setting type—a noble pursuit, at once satisfying in its timely accomplishment and educational to boot (one read as one typeset)– dissing was a slow and messy process giving rise to much negative thinking about Masters and the owning classes. The unfortunate disser received the type after it had been used for printing, most often covered with black ink left there by a disgruntled machine minder angry at the twist of fate which had cast him inferior to us compositors. The process of preparing the type for dissing began with the vigorous use of a stiff brush liberally charged with paraffin oil (Kerosene). This brought the type face up like new. Shiny and bright and a pleasure to read again. While achieving this desirable result, however, the black carbon ink, now suspended in copious draughts of paraffin oil, redistributed itself in spots of assorted sizes over many square yards surrounding the place of operation. The nearer the center of activity, the greater the concentration. The disser was, of course, dead centre.

Tears welled into my ink-bespattered eyes when I saw what had befallen my pristine apron. Not so much because of the desecration wreaked upon the virgin cloth, as the thought of what my mother would do to me when she saw it. I resolved, upon reflection, never to take it home to be washed. After all, it served most of its purpose, inky or not, which was to hold in its front pocket, the tools of my trade, my inky handkerchief and, on occasion, a toffee or two to which I had treated myself from my hard-earned pocket money. After a few weeks the apron became rigid enough to stand up by itself. Thereafter, I wore it only when the outside of my working clothes was less grubby than the inside of the apron.

Having prepared the type, I was ready for dissing. An expert disser lifted several lines of type from the galley on a brass rule the width of the column, and balanced them on the thumb and first two fingers of the left hand (The more expert, the more lines). From the uppermost line he gingerly removed seven or eight characters, depending upon the sizes of type and thumb. These he dropped off one at a time into the appropriate box, having first memorized the layout of the case. The layout of the case followed the aforementioned general rule: The more frequently used the character, the larger and nearer to hand the box. The ‘e’ box was largest and was in the center of the case. The ‘d’ box was considerably smaller and the ’b’ and ‘p’ boxes were half its size. The ‘q’ box was only half the size of these and was tucked away in a remote corner.

Expert, I was not–even with the diagram of the layout pinned in front of me by my attentive Master. This inescapable fact was brought home to me with something of a shock when I saw the diminutive ‘q’ box overflowing into the surrounding characters while the ‘d’ box languished with only a character or two in its much vaster space. Even the ‘p’ and ‘b’ boxes appeared strangely anemic. I was puzzled by this at first. Had Caxton got it wrong? Perhaps there were more ‘q’s in the English language than he had thought? One word sprang immediately to mind—‘queue’. A word which played a large role in my life of servitude then—there was no ‘p’ or ‘d’ in that word I felt sure! But doubt began to assail my confidence. I examined the overflowing ‘q’s more carefully. North, south, left and right. Who could tell? These directions seemed to change with every turn of the type in my fingers. Caution and my sense of uniqueness prevailed. In the interest of good order, I sprinkled the overflow equably among the other characters, giving a nicely balanced look to the whole case which I then replaced in its rack.

I, as indeed, did the rest of the workforce, became aware of something seriously amiss when a great roar of anger emanated from the frame of the Father of the Chapel (The senior compositor). It seemed that his fast and faultless typesetting had produced nothing but strings of mindless invective! I shrank behind my comforting frame, for the invective appearing in his setting stick was nothing compared to the pithy epithets exploding from his mouth. And they were all aimed in my direction!

This event took place when psychiatry was still a working-class joke (‘anyone who went to a psychiatrist needed his head examined!’) and I knew I would not be able to plead a broken home. Summoning my resources, I pondered my options; whether to quickly don my apron and so put an extra layer between my tender behind and any boot about to connect with it, or, slip out the back door to give reason time to prevail. I opted for the latter, but resolved that my uniqueness had better not include the confusing of ‘p’s, ‘q’s, ‘b’s and ‘d’s in the future.

I was not alone among apprentices in my distaste for dissing. It is said that an island which appeared just below Blackfriars Bridge was made of lead type–thrown there secretly by students hurrying home from The London School of Printing which was housed just south of the river Thames at that time.

But soon, setting words into type and composing them into pages became my passion. My fingers were nimble in spite of a nail-biting habit which, I was convinced, was inherited from my mother’s side of the family. Very shortly, I built up a speed of accurate typesetting and began to take a great joy in drilling the twenty-six soldiers into ideas and information. I began to compose advertisements in ever-inventive ways so that the Father of the Chapel (FOC) himself began to require that I assist him on the cream of the Chapel’s work which was his privilege. The advent of cheap, mechanically set type and layout specialists were shortly to put an end to the Compositor’s craft but, in our small printing firm, we hung on to it longer than most.

Craftsmanship is not a word which could have described the tasks required of me during the beginning years of my apprenticeship. In the early days, I swept the shop floor clear of dust and paper

cuttings, cleaned the type cases, fed paper into the hand presses and, indignity of indignities, made deliveries to local customers on a bicycle fitted with a great wicker basket over the front wheel–Something I hated as passionately as dissing—most especially those trips to the electric light bulb factory. For there, I was required to deliver newly printed cartons directly to the bulb packers at their benches. These workers were nearly all elderly women of eighteen or so years of age. Experienced and brash, their language fell upon my innocent ears like a load of jagged rocks. Their descriptions of the private parts of my body, which I thought they were not supposed to know about, had me blushing from head to foot and the swagger I affected as I wheeled the bicycle through the factory gate turned into an embarrassed shuffling before them. I swore they deliberately asked the Master to send me on their down days so that they could have their fun at my expense and add cheer to their dreary lives. I was not too embarrassed notice, though, that while the packets of cartons I distributed were of different designs and blazoned with different brand names, the packers seemed not to be able to tell the difference—they packed the same bulb into whatever brand of carton I left in front of them. I wondered about this for many years thereafter.

As the months went by, I gradually got the upper hand of the packers. I came to realize that I had a powerful weapon in my grubby little hand—the printed word! A weapon which had brought down many a haughty lord or lady in their day. In truth, it was not so much the actual words which I enlisted for my defense as the condition of the ink in which they were printed–I learned that by giving the wettest cartons to the sauciest women I soon had them all vying for favours. They hated, more than anything, to get their manicured fingers begrimed with the stuff which, to me, had become life’s essence. They would mouth their appeal to me: “dry ones?” And upon my nod, would indicate with a glance their offering. Many’s the toffee or cream bun I came away with later on. But it was still a chore I was glad to pass on to the junior apprentice. Being very careful, in doing so, not to explain about the ink.

There was one job, however, which excited me a great deal and my heart leapt for joy when Mr. Handley first ordered me to perform it (and, later, left it up to me to repeat it as necessary). It should be understood that the equipment of the grossly under-funded Pickett Bros. was far from the cutting edge. In those days, I hardly knew one kind of factory from another, but I had been taken on a visit to the Ford motor car factory in Dagenham, Essex, when I was still at school–I think that the idea was to get the next generation of factory fodder used to the idea of the mindless automation which was beginning to be developed by big industry. And, by comparison, I gathered the impression that Pickett Bros.‘ equipment was downright Dickensian. I would not have mentioned it to anyone, other than my father, perhaps. I was too proud of my indentures (Contract of Apprenticeship) and my printing office was better than anyone’s!

All the firm’s hand-fed printing machines were placed in a single row along the back wall of the building. This format was necessary because they were each driven by a continuous leather belt running around a long shaft, situated above them, and the drums attached to their driving shafts. The long shaft ran the length of the wall and was driven by a large electric motor. The shaft and the motor were permanently coupled by a wide leather belt so that the shaft was always turning when the electric motor was switched on. The drums on the individual machines, however, were split—half fixed to the driving shaft and the other half free to idle. A fork-like gadget fixed above the drums allowed the running belt to be coaxed from the idling drum to the fixed one when one wanted the machine to operate and vice versa to stop it. Each machine was fitted with a heavy flywheel, commensurate with its size, to even out the speed of operation. The momentum of the flywheel kept a machine running for some time after the power was removed so that the larger ones needed to be braked with a lever and leather pad running against the edge of the flywheel. For the smaller machines, a calloused hand on the flywheel would suffice. The unevenness of the power supply was largely caused by the leather belts misbehaving in some way. They would stretch or tighten according to the humidity in the atmosphere, or would just plain tire and lose their grip. They would whine and squeal and often snap themselves in two and leave their machine powerless.

The cure for all this nonsense was a measured dose of treacle. I don’t think it was treacle, although that’s what my Master called it. It might have contained some molasses but there certainly was included some natural oils and soaps to replace those lost by the leather in its hot run around the shafts and to help it regain its suppleness. As soon as I heard the squealing, my job was to run to the ‘treacle’ tub, dip the dolly stick into it and apply a liberal dose of the sticky stuff to the offending belt. It could only be applied to the ‘up’ belt, mind! If, by accident, the dolly touched the down belt, the belt would grab it out of your hand and chew it up between the drum and itself. The result of this would be a broken belt whiplashing everything in sight and the possibility of a severe injury. But not to worry, I had become a master trainer of belts and brooked no bad behaviour on my watch. What was fascinating to me was the pattern of the sticky sound, which was not unlike that of modern Velcro when it is ripped apart. One could alter the sound by daubing smaller or larger amounts of the substance at smaller or greater intervals. The first daub was silent until it reached the upper shaft which picked up diminishing amounts around its diameter and transferred them to the ‘down’ belt. A pattern of ripping sounds delighted the ear as the ‘down’ belt began to transfer its daub pattern to the lower drum. But music was not the objective as Mr. Handley so often pointed out. Saving the belt from breaking, was–so I continued my daubing until the sound was continuous and even.

The printing machines fascinated me too. Although it was unthinkable that I would become a “machine-minder” (synonymous with “lower class” in the printing trade), the Master had no compunction but to use me in any capacity he thought I might manage. As a result, I spent more time in the machine room in the early years of my apprenticeship than I did in the Composing Room, which, by the way, was situated along the opposite wall of the building and separated, in part, by the boss’s office, which was a wood and glass structure rather like a gazebo on stilts. The later gave the Master a superior 360 degree view of the work going on in the place. But, conversely, it gave us young printers’ devils the ability to know when he was out of the office and could safely continue our war with the ‘machine’ side. For ammunition, we used torn up pieces of old inking rollers, preferably still carrying their coating of sticky black ink. Great wars we had, dodging behind frame and machine!. But only pride, aprons and overalls suffered because the rollers were made of a soft and resilient material. It became my job to re-cover the worn out ones.

Each of the platen machines both the hand-fed and the two automatic ones was equipped with a spare shaft for its inking rollers, no two alike. In addition, the manufacturers supplied a bronze tube the diameter and length of the roller required by the machine. Under the scrutiny of the Master, I would centre the shaft in the tube, melt some blocks of a hide-glue and oil concoction and pour it into the tube. When the substance had solidified, I would slip the newly minted roller out of the tube and present it to the appropriate machine-minder, hoping that all had gone well. If the shaft was only a tiny fraction out of centre, the roller would quickly disintegrate in use and unpleasant consequences would ensue. The job of the ink roller was to pick up a supply of ink from the ink duct, transfer it to the ink plate and spread it with an even coating. The ink plate rotated or reciprocated with each pass to facilitate this task. When the ink plate was evenly coated, the machine-minder would lock the machine ‘chase’ in place and the inked roller would ink the type ready for the impression cycle. In theory!–Owing to the very cautious nature of the Master, I was not allowed to use 100% new material to re-cover the rollers. Instead, I was to augment it with cleaned up pieces of used rollers. These had a different melting point from the virgin material and hardened at a different speed, resulting, often, in ugly, indented rollers which hardly rolled at all! Far from the ideally smooth-skinned ones which routinely produced a clean printed page, they left patches of un-inked type and their useful life got shorter and shorter the more often the old material was used in their making.

The ink rollers of the one flatbed machine the firm owned were far too large for amateur re-covering and were sent away at intervals to a printer’s supply shop to be done. This machine was a lumbering ‘quad-crown’ monster. It could print a sheet of paper up to 30 x 40 inches in size and as many as 32 pages at one pass! It was the first machine in the row, next to the drive motor and its belt was wider than all the others. Its flywheel must have weighed several hundred lbs. and the rumble of its operation as its massive cast iron bed moved backward and forwards, followed by its five foot wide inking plate, was awe-inspiring. It was not used all that often because Pickett Bros. had already begun to specialize in carton printing for gas mantles and electric light bulbs and smaller advertising work rather than booklets and magazines. But we did have a contract with the local cinemas and the machine was ideal for short runs of posters. This was another source of joy for me because I was allowed to compose the great wood-letter types for overprinting the film titles and dates when the film would be showing. I used a 20 inch long wooden stick for this work and was encouraged to use my imagination so that succeeding posters didn’t become a bore to read. Some of these wonderful wood-letters were ten inches tall; some fat; some thin; some ornately carved with squiggles and dots; some morose; some light-hearted. But all malleable to my idea of the mood of the film which was to be shown the following week. I loved manipulating them. I could put spacing material between them to emphasize freedom of spirit or squeeze the narrow ones together for tension—when I was working with wood-letter I felt nearer to Caxton than I ever did with the single nicked machine-cast type that the Master was beginning to out-source!

But I digress. The flatbed machine could print paper or board at more than 1,500 sheets an hour, but output was limited by the skill of the feeder. A ream of paper would be placed on a flat board at the end of the machine. From the edge of the flat board, a feeding board sloped down to the bottom of the impression cylinder and it was the feeder’s job to waft a sheet accurately down to the front lays (Protruding guides) before each impression cycle. If the feeder was not satisfied with the lay of the sheet, she could depress a pedal and the impression cycle would be aborted. If a sheet was not placed accurately at the front lays and the grippers of the impression cylinder grabbed it out of line, it would be creased on its way round at the very least. Worse, it might be mangled on the type and cause an unscheduled cleanup by an offended machine-minder.

I say ‘she’, because feeding was a delicate job and it was though that only females could master it. Feeders equipped themselves with coveralls to ward off the paper dust and rubber thimbles to ensure a grip on the stock; they would fuss over the ream before starting to feed the machine. Making sure the edges were properly broken after being cut to size and, ever so slightly, bending the nearest corners upwards so that the air needed to waft the sheets down to the lays would flow underneath them as each was lifted. When the feeder had found her rhythm, the sheets would flow effortlessly and match the rhythm of the machine.

The rhythm of the machine was echoed in the movement of the feeding board which rose to the grippers and fell on each impression cycle. The weighty feeding board needed to be removed on occasion, when, for instance, the minder wished to examine the type below it. To facilitate this, the board was equipped with four phallic handles, two on each side. It follows that the foremost handles moved up and down with the rhythm of the machine. The Journeymen, ever delighted to see me blush, were quick to point out that the feeder always stood in a strategic position when the machine was running smoothly. After all, there were no I-Phones to divert the ladies in those days!

The next machines in the row were four or five platen machines of various sizes. A platen machine has an upright type-bed of cast iron and a padded platen hinged along the bottom so that it can close up and press the padding lightly against the type at each impression cycle. The movement is called “clam shell”, but the machine, when it is running, looks more like a gasping fish. All the apprentices were trained to print customers’ leaflets and cards on these machines. First, one would take an impression of the type form on the padding in order to see its position, then insert three bent pins into the padding so that the paper would be centered over the type. In operation, the machine opened during the inking cycle allowing time to remove the printed copy with the left hand while, simultaneously placing a fresh sheet up to the pins. Before printing, however, the platen had to be dusted with talcum powder so that the impression on the platen would not be repeated on the backs of the copies. I found this job exciting. It wasn’t in any way creative but it did have an element of danger. The machine operated at about 1,000 impressions per hour and every time the platen closed, a bar would rise smartly from its top edge to displace any fingers which might be lingering there. But there was always the temptation to rescue an errant sheet and many’s the time a wrist or finger has been trapped between the safety bar and the top of the platen on its downward journey.

The last hand-fed platen in the row had its own power—a treadle. It was the smallest and not only sported a finger guard but a toe guard as well. The only limit to the output of this machine was the stamina of the treadler. I often worked it up to manic speeds with no hope of stopping it in time if things went awry. Ah! The foolhardiness of youth.

Next to the treadle platen were the two automatic machines. They were of little interest to me because they were jealously guarded by their minders and I was not allowed near them. I was intrigued by the mechanics of the ‘Kobold’ automatic, though. It used a kind of windmill feeding system. Rows of suction pads on one arm lifted a blank and held it high, ready to plunge it into the platen when it opened, while the other arm retrieved the printed copy. It was used mostly to overprint the pre-printed and pre-shaped cartons. Die-stamping had filled the crevasses of the cardboard with paper dust, and faulty creasing often allowed ends to flap. This machine could produce at a rate of 5,000 per hour in the ordinary way but this stock required frequent stops and must have been a nightmare for the minder. Fascinating to watch, though.

Last in the line was the guillotine. Placed along the end wall, at right-angle to the other machines–it needed space all around it. I feared it more than any of the other machines. Its maw was five feet wide and a great razor-sharp blade was locked into it with a row of wedge-headed bolts. I always had the feeling that this system of securing the blade was intrinsically unreliable and that there was a good chance of the massive blade dropping out and chopping off my hands the moment I put them into the maw to place or retrieve a ream of paper. Fortunately, the Master rarely trusted anyone but himself to cut stock to size. It was too valuable to risk careless trimming—most customers were quite satisfied with perfectly square work. Few, preferred the quadrilateral shapes that the lighthearted work of the apprentices so often produced. The guillotine had its own source of power and, at that time, it was me! I transferred the power of my bulging muscles to the flywheel by means of a handle attached to a point near its outer edge. It reminded me of my mother’s wringer and the time when she trapped one of my fingers between the rollers–scarred, both physically and emotionally for life. But that is part of another story. When the Master was satisfied with his placing of the paper, he would lower the great clamp by means of a threaded stock surmounted by an iron bar with a heavy iron ball at each end. The purpose of these weights was to give the clamp momentum when it was lowering so as to pin the paper piles tightly between it and the machine. When he gave the word, I would apply myself to the handle with such gusto that in short order, I could feel the flywheel getting ahead of me and pulling me around. Once, the out-of-control handle caught in my apron and tossed me clean over into the cuttings pile! During the waiting times I would often daydream. I associated the guillotine with the French revolution, not just because of the name but also because I was avidly reading Dickens at the time and “The Tale of Two Cities’ affected my youthful emotions immensely. When the squeal of the sharp blade sliced through the innocent paper, I imagined, instead, a row of heads dropping to the floor!

The building Pickett Bros. leased was not the most suitable one for a Printing Office. It was part of an old livery establishment and we occupied the space that had originally housed the horses. The floor was cobbled and sloped downwards from each long wall to a runnel the length of the building. This was bad enough for the Compositors who had to make sure that their frames and ‘Stones’ (Flat cast-iron tables) were reasonably level and secure, and had access to ‘chase furniture’ and ‘quoins’ (Wooden wedges) to correct the levels in their domain. But the machines had to be treated seriously. If their bases were not anchored to a level surface, the vibration they generated would soon have them shifting their weight dangerously. In fact, I was astounded, one day, to see one of the automatic machines, a Heidelberg self-feeding platen, lose its automatic feeder completely. The feeder could be swung away from the platen half of the machine on a very substantial cast iron hinge at the back of the machine and a steel ball-bearing wheel at the front. The wheel ran on a semi-circular channel attached to the floor and bore the weight of the freed feeder. Vibration and the uneven floor caused the channel to slip lower so that, when the minder threw back the feeder to change type, the cast-iron hinge snapped like a carrot under the weight and the feeder continued its way down the shop damaging itself and everything in its path.

I was growing up. No longer the butt of the Journeymen, I became the senior apprentice and was producing stylish work. My life outside the office was changing, too. My trusty Raleigh bicycle was proving a vehicle of independence. It allowed me to start camping away from home on the weekends and even, to my mother’s horror, at Christmas time! I joined a cycle Club, The Hackney Wheelers’ I think it was called and, on Club outings, sported the uniform of black shorts and red and black striped socks. A uniform which made me look younger than I already was and once shocked Mr. Handley when I had to cycle to work directly from one of the outings. He said he was afraid of being accused by the authorities of employing an under-aged child! Places like Southend-on-Sea, a cockles and mussels resort at the mouth of the river Thames, and Epping Forest, where my camping friends and I could practice our Robin Hood skills, were within easy reach. Incidentally, there was (still is, maybe) a pub in Epping forest called “The Robin Hood” much frequented in those days by professional boxers. Many of them famous, but my memory doesn’t recall any of their names, I’m afraid. And at sixteen, I had a girlfriend—here is a photo of us together at Ramsgate, a sea-side resort on the east coast.

Her name was Peggy. How we met and parted I have no idea.

Mr. Handley was falling upon hard times. His management style of delivering a small portion of a customer’s order, collecting the charge for the whole job, then spending the proceeds on the paper and electricity necessary to complete other customers’ work was pioneer pyramid accounting. It endeared him to fewer and fewer customers. The Electricity authority discontinued his credit service and installed pay-as-you-use meters for the machinery and lighting circuits.

I was nearing eighteen, wise in the ways of electric light bulb packers and Father of the Chapel lording it over two junior apprentices. For the Master had gradually to let all the journeymen seek employment elsewhere. War was looming and I had joined the Territorial Army. The end was nigh for Mr. Handley’s Pickett. Bros. In the dead of winter, we remaining employees were huddled dispiritedly around the single stove, feeding it with pieces of rubber cut with a hack-saw from discarded car tyres—tyres filched from the garage next door. There was an order to be to be worked upon and paper enough to complete a fair portion of it. We had hoped that the Master would be able to wheedle a substantial advance upon it so that we would be paid our meagre wages, but gloom pervaded all. With lamentable timing, the shilling in the machinery meter had run out and the press was forlornly silent. Mr. Handley had, by this time, lost his fearsome authority and most of his remaining dentures. He could still wiggle a tooth or two but the result was no longer awe-inspiring and hardly worth the effort. As had become his customary ploy in such circumstances, he whispered in the ear of each of us in turn to enquire whether he could borrow a shilling until he went to his bank. We watched as this played out—knowing full well the outcome. We had not only become wise to the ways of light-bulb packers but also to the Master’s empty promises to pay back his debts. Disappointed, he had gone off to tap an unsuspecting victim among his acquaintances.

Our first indication of impending trouble came as the winter’s early darkness fell. The strident bells of multiple fire engines came nearer and nearer and now were at our very entrance! We threw back the sliding door and, to our utter dismay, there faced us, an array of determined firemen, hatchets drawn and hoses at the ready. Beyond them the atmosphere was black with an impenetrable oily smoke which, we were led to understand by the outraged firemen, covered the greater part of the township. Explanations were short—we were merely trying to keep ourselves warm. But the threats of official retribution against us and the firm for safety violations were very loud and, perhaps, real? About this time Mr. Handley returned, his face a contradiction of triumph and hurt. His hand held up a triumphant shilling but how could we land him in a soup so thick that it might take all the shillings in the world to extricate himself from it? His troubles were only just beginning.

He was placated somewhat when we told him that we would work overtime for no extra pay for as long as it took to complete the order in hand. This was not unadulterated altruism—we wanted our wages. With humour restored, we slipped the shilling into the meter and the press began to purr, preparing to get on with its job. Joy marked each anticipating face, master and servant alike, as the first copies of our wages provider came off the press. The joy was short-lived—the shilling in the light meter ran out!

Pickett Bros. of Ilford, Essex was sold for its debts; I was called up by the Armed Forces; I never saw Mr. Handley again!


The Memoirs of: bwthompson@lifeline/nr.end/hom.sap

(Full chapter index below right)

What manner of ego motivates an autobiographer, I wonder? Is there any justification for encumbering the minds of unsuspecting readers with memories of events which shaped one’s own life? Certainly, yesterday’s movers and shakers were confident that their successes improved the fate of mankind; that their failures were the fault of others; and thus owed posterity a duty to set down their version of history before the revisionists of the next generation got at it. My own view is that the passing decades, centuries and millennia will prove them wildly mistaken. Winston Churchill, for example, would he have waxed so eloquent if he had foreseen that the net result of his successes would be the impoverishment of Britain? That Germany and Japan, the very enemies the Brits expended so much of their wealth and blood to defeat, were soon to become the its economic masters, second only to the United States? And take Karl Marx and his monumental effort to devise a perfect social system which would function without the aid of human nature–would he have bothered if he had known that his most famous disciple, Joseph Stalin, would use it to murder a million of his own people and grind the rest into fearful poverty? Or would give rise to a Pol Pot or a ‘gang of four’?

But, what of the mass of ordinary people? Without them, the movers and shakers would not have much to move and their shaking would be fruitless. Tiny, as they may be, the contributions each of us makes, become the totality of the history of man’s existence, and the absence of even one alters the end result! Are the lives and tribulations of the common man of any interest though? They determine Homo sapiens’ path to glory or extinction, so the answer ought to be “yes”. But the common man has rarely been able to express his innermost thoughts in the past, let alone commit them to paper. He agonizes inwardly over his failures–“If only” starts many a long train of introspection. He is secretly proud of his successes; the little manoeuvres he performed in order to improve the lot of his family and himself; the backing he gave to friends and family in times of stress; his passing-on of his values and his pride of craftsmanship; his survival even; all give him a feeling of inner satisfaction. A feeling that he has, after all, changed the cutting-edge direction a little.

Why, then, should his flower be left to blush unseen now that technology has given him the chance to set down his thoughts with ease? The computer, chat rooms, web-pages and e-mail have released him from the bondage of silent acceptance–He may not command the attention of the masses but still, the satisfaction of engaging in the dialogue, even if it is only among his intimate circle of friends and family, is much the same as that of those power-wielders monopolizing the headlines. It may be a matter of degree, but, in the end, it is the individual’s own ego which senses achievement and failure.

In my case, my memories and perceptions are my very own. I have disdained all research—I like my memories and conclusions as they are. In putting them to paper, I have been guided somewhat by the adage: ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts–my memory is already made up!’