- Published: 28 January 2013 28 January 2013
I have always been proud to have ‘Brocket Hall’ on my birth certificate, as the London Hospitals were all occupied with casualties after the war and the Wartime Maternity Hospital system was still in use when I was born in late 1946 so my mother was shipped out from London by bus to arrive at this wonderfully splendid stately home. I have returned since and located the exact spot from my mother’s description. She remembers coming out of her trauma staring at the paintings of cherubs and angels on the ceiling of the salon as she gave birth to a somewhat mis-shapen child that had been sharing her womb with a large fibroid growth. I still lack symmetry at time of writing 66 years later, but I was glad to survive the experience and start my life in this world. It was just unfortunate that my arrival coincided with the loss of my mother’s womb, a hysterectomy, which trauma for her might have affected how she viewed me subsequently for my arrival was a very mixed blessing.
My earliest memories as a child was playing on the front step of No 60, Napier Road in Tottenham, London, N17 with a toy train and tricycle. I was a toddler and the junior member of our family, us all living in the top floor of this small terraced house in quite cramped but, for me, convivial enough conditions.
Play at this time consisted of games in the road and adjacent tiny front gardens. I was tall for my age and so played with boys slightly older than me and so I was devastated when they started school before me and I had to stay at home, gazing out of that window as I watched them walk to school. So there I was on finer days, on that step watching them go off in the morning and waiting for them to come back in the afternoon, when play could resume. About this time, I had a series of excruciating tummy pains which were not taken seriously until I collapsed on the sofa, ashen and sick, when I was rushed off in an ambulance with acute appendicitis. My memories of the hospital stay were dominated by my separation from my favourite cuddly, a one eyed scruffy and once furry ‘white’ stuffed dog euphemistically called ‘Snowball’. The ward sister had banished this disgraceful and dirty possession until I had screamed and screamed for him until they had to relent. When I was convalescing afterwards, and whenever home or ill, I lay in bed to the sound of those house sparrows chirping in the eaves and this sound has always been of comfort to me for they persist with this 'song' on the hottest of days. The weather in those days in the late 40’s and early 50’s was remembered as being very hot in summer with the tarmac on the road melting in the hot summer sun and cold in winter; with icicles hanging from the gutters and drains and providing free lollipops for us kids. Occasionally the road was made up by spraying tar and then spreading stones and real steam engines rolled the road afterwards, which was a spectacle for small boys and an opportunity to get covered in tar! Another feature of the 50's was the appalling thick London Smog, a mixture of thick fog and smoke that reduced visibility such that you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. You would walk along the pavement, feeling you way along the walls and hedges and literally bump into people coming the other way. You just did not want to look in your handkerchief when blowing your nose as it was all yellow and thick and this pollution must have taken its toll on the elderly and infirm.
Play in the early years was centred on the neighbourhood: kiss chase with the girls; marbles in the middle of the road on our favourite drain cover; hide and seek with them both; antagonising the householders as we hid in their front gardens and behind low walls. It was surprising what nature you could find holed up in a privet hedge, with the stick insects suddenly moving to deny their appearance as twigs! On naughty days, the game of ‘Knock Down Ginger’ was seen as huge fun; knocking on doors and then hiding to see the householders reaction when there was nobody there; the game elevated to an art when a cotton was tied across the street to two knockers so that a passing car could knock on two doors at the same time! Cricket stumps and goal posts were drawn in chalk, stolen from school, so that ball games could be played against the walls of end terraced houses until the owner would tire of the banging and come out and tell you to ‘go and play outside your own house, which was impracticable of course as only the end of terrace would do!
School came soon to us all, but not before we were 5 or 6. The nearby Bruce Grove Primary School was an excellent one, but the boys and girls had separate entrances and playgrounds although that was of no consequence as girls were not interesting to boys who were so young, except as victims to tease and play tricks on. There were one third pint bottles of milk to drink in the morning and camp beds to ‘sleep’ on for an hour in the afternoon when you were in the lower years. * There was just the tarmac playground, and the bike shed of course, but ball games and games like ‘Jacks’ dice, marbles and conkers were allowed and there was the school bell that summoned us in at the end of break times. We walked to school, of course, and I had to take myself there and back as both of my parents were working and, at the age of 7-9, I had to let myself in the house unsupervised. This life as a true ‘latch key child’ could lead to trouble. Once I came home swinging my house key on its string and let go and it landed high up in a neighbour’s gutter. I was sent to try and get it back and was told it would be retrieved by the window cleaner but that was not enough to be forgiven!
In our house, we also shared the same entrance as the Pulham family downstairs, who had the sole luxury of the garden (though we were supposed to share it) and I reacted to this grievance and used to try and ‘get my own back’ by doing things to their flat when I was there on my own. My worst antic was when I tried to burn their bulb catalogue by throwing it on their fire but it did not burn completely of course and I was duly apprehended and slippered. The relationship with the Pulhams family, the couple and their son Jim, was a troubled one. There was the garden issue and also the matter of what would happen in the future. We were both housed there as tenants after our families suffered in the blitz and were ‘bombed out’ (in the local vernacular) and there was the matter of who could take over the house if the landlords waned to part with it or have a single tenant. My family thought that we had an understanding that neither of us would do anything to the disadvantage of the other, but we believed that we had been let down and so I was the source of friction with my bike in the hallway and the source of the aggravation. My best friend Richard (‘Fishface’) Fisher from three doors up had use of his garden and we shared it playing for a while until we dug up his decomposing dead tortoise out of interest to the horror of his mother who banned me from playing there again!
At first transport was in the form or roller skates, that went everywhere with us; just the old fashioned metal ones with poor bearings and straps front and back that just about stayed on. We soon learnt a great trick of finding a plank and then strapping the skates onto it front and back to make a steerable but very unstable ‘scooter’ upon which we knelt precariously and propelled ourselves down Steel Hill, the steepest road in the vicinity. Inevitable we fell off regularly, scraping elbows and knees and ripping jumpers and shorts to make ourselves very unpopular with our mothers. At the bottom of the aptly-names Steel Hill was a machining and metalworking factory and the delivery lorries used to turn into the road and, with no brakes and little steering, I once had to dive straight under the lorry between its front and rear wheels and survived to tell the tale! On another occasion we found a huge tyre, rolled it with great difficulty to the top of the hill and then let it go. Unfortunately we had not spotted a young mother with her child in a pram walking down the hill close to the wall on the pavement on the side. The tyre gathered pace and veered across, mounting the pavement and heading straight for them. Miraculously, it mounting the pavement and just missed them by passing between them and the wall before veering out and carrying on its way. We stood in horror watching all this, failing (for once) to dive for cover in the neighbouring gardens as usual, to avoid detection; and were again amazed that the lady and baby survived but, even more strangely, that she never looked around to see who had perpetrated this sin or where the tyre had come from!
Old prams had a ready use for us as they could be re-engineered and turned into carts which we called ‘Jiggers’ and these could not only form some protection when we hurtled down roads but also could be used as a form of transport. In the run up to ‘Bonfire night’ we made guys and for once my mother was helpful and, not only made a good one, but wrote me a poem which was the ideal text to succeed in automatic begging for a ‘Penny for the Guy’ as we would otherwise ask. I parked my jigger and guy with its poem outside Bruce Grove station once and got a hatful of pennies with which, of course, to buy fireworks. Shopkeepers were not discerning and I was tall for my age anyway, and so we got ‘jumping crackers’ to light and throw at the legs of girls and they would crack and make them jump all over the place as an ideal way of terrorising this other gender that we had not yet found a reason for existing! We could also buy ‘bangers’ to bind into ever-bigger packs and the favourite trick was to tie them together with string, light and lower them down the drain covers and to try and time the explosion to coincide the exact passing of a mother and pram. It was a difficult art to get right so as to time the thing exactly and escape detection but the endeavour was later made easier by the revelation that the use of a neighbouring drain, some distance from the victim, could have exactly the same impact by virtue of the sewer system forwarding and even amplifying the phenomena! I did not get much attention and few possessions and no luxuries.
I had one book, ‘Biggles goes to war’, I think, and when I was professing boredom, I was told that ‘I had not read my Biggles book for some time’ which would be funny if it was not so tragic. I was growing fast and the tallest in my year. I was told off for standing up in the Wendy House at school when sticking my head out of the roof but I was still sitting down. I was very shy and mortified to be chosen to be ‘Joseph’ in the nativity play as the tallest guy next to the prettiest girl who was already named Mary. I soon learned that in any group I would be identified as the ring leader, whether so guilty or not, so I took on the role and habit of leading the naughtiness anyway, as at least I could control the outcome! My parents struggled to clothe me and I was always outgrowing my things, having long term foot deformity from ill-fitting shoes. My biggest embarrassment and humiliation was being fitted out with a blue jumper by my mother for cubs as the shop did not have a green one big enough. The odd one out, I was the only sea cadet in the cub scout troup! I only went to cubs for the pleasure of the penny gherkin and free bits from the chip shop afterwards.
As I grew older, I was given a bike and learnt to ride it. I did not have much contact with my father as he was always escaping the domestic turmoil by working but, to be fair, he was out there holding the saddle and encouraging me as tried to ride as I fell over several times and eventually got the hang of things and set off down Napier Road. He was yelling for me to stop and was very upset that I did not but it was all I could do to stay on the damn thing and so I had to cycle right around the block to get back and he never did understand and forgive me for that; as he was very worried. My dad always struggled to be close to me and it was only much later, when he was dying that we ever really spoke and understood each other. His father died very early in his life and had been badly affected with lung cancer so that before that he could hardly communicate as he struggled to breath and could never show my dad an example of fatherhood. In fact, my dad’s scoutmaster was the role model in his life. However my dad did show me how to ride a bike and how to fish. This mode of transport opened up all manner of opportunities. The older boys had a steady trade of carting luggage from the station to addresses known to them in Tottenham for that was the time that waves of West Indians were arriving and being housed to staff the buses and tube trains. We called them ‘darkies’ and they were quite a rarity and welcomed with open arms but eventually they dominated the council housing lists and became the majority in Tottenham. I remember them being very smartly dressed in their best clothes which contrasted with their seemingly gross habit of vacating their noses by holding one nostril and blowing into the gutter through the other in turn but then, when we challenged them, they felt that handkerchiefs were even more unhygienic! You could tell when they had occupied a house as they painted all of the brickwork bright colours with the intervening pointing in black which we found equally odd. With our bikes, we could now easily access three nearby parks; Downhills, Bruce Castle Park and the Tottenham Recreation Ground. The first two were excellent for ‘birds nesting’ and we each started an egg collection to be expanded in later life before the ‘Wild Life and Countryside Act’ meant that nobody could admit to this hobby anymore; even though it brought with it a very wide knowledge of bird life and the habits and habitats of these species and we all recognise that it is food and habitat that governs bird populations and not the activities of children.
Such mobility also brought with it yet another way of terrorising the girls. The trick was to creep up behind them and drop a blackbird’s egg down their back. It worked best if their blouse was tucked in. Under threat of you slapping them on the back to make an awful mess, they had to freeze for ages and pay some sort of forfeit to escape this destiny. If that did not appeal, we used to catch Great Crested Newts in Bruce Castle park pond and bring them back and, because they looked like little dragons, the girls were similarly terrified with those. Of course these antics were thoroughly disapproved of by the Park Keepers (we called ‘Parkies’) and at that time there were multiple uniformed men patrolling the parks with the aim of deterring us, but the clarion warning call of ‘Parkies Coming’ from the other boys meant that they could never catch us. In the Recreation Ground was a miniature roadway system with bikes for hire and a network of traffic signs, signals and featured like a miniature town. We never had money to hire a bike from the shed but we jumped over the fence with our own bikes and used the place anyway! The route to the parks passed by a pet shop. In those days, they had real pets including parrots and monkeys and, on the stand outside the shop was just such a monkey and I made the mistake of parking by bike against the stand as I went in as usual to look at the pets. I was horrified to find what the monkey had done to on my saddle when I came out that day and I regretted that my saddle had so many ventilation perforations as part of it and that the monkey had been so loose that I had to walk home and not use the saddle. Yet another incident to test the sanity of my mother! If we could find or ‘acquire’ old clothes, the ‘rag and bone man’ would stand near the school with his cart and offer goldfish in plastic bags for them and that was another way of getting into trouble if the family wondered where the clothes went and where the goldfish had come from. When it was wet, we played in the nearby loft of the bakery owned by the Aldridge family where my friend and the son of the family had chores greasing tins and doing other jobs that we helped with until their customers started complaining about the foreign objects finding their way into the bread! Watching those huge dough mixers working was too tempting a sight to restrict the urge to chuck something in and see it disappear! As was the temptation to tear a chunk off of a newly baked loaf.
Saturday mornings saw the exodus along the railway one stop to Silver Street where ‘Saturday morning Cinema’ was the meeting point for all of the boys and girls as we got older. Behaviour was appalling with the host constantly issuing empty threats of not playing the films. Sometimes, it was not an appealing way of spending the money and so we went and bought sweets in Woolworths instead. When the money ran out to buy them, the temptation was to take them anyway and several of us ended up at the Juvenile court as our first (and hopefully the last) brush with the law. It might have been on a Saturday or on one of my mid-week first truanting ventures when I took my bicycle across the Lee Valley fields to the locks to see barges being pulled by straining cart horses. The route took us over an iron bridge crossing the steam railway line and we loved to run and get there just as the train was passing underneath and smelling the steam and smoke all over us! Train spotting was becoming a principle hobby by now and another trick was to get a penny platform ticket at Bruce Grove station and ride to Liverpool Street and take the numbers of all of the trains there, making our return and exit at Bruce Grove with the same ticket later! The railway staff must have known want we were doing but they turned a blind eye. All this when we were only 7-9! At the same age, I used to be sent to the local ‘oil shop’ with an empty can for paraffin or to buy other things as the shops and businesses were all intermixed with the houses.
Back at a school, old Mr Brookes lectured me over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses and took me for Mathematics and I still knew more on this subject than my peers at a country school one to two years later, when they were still learning their tables, which we knew years before. The domestic and family life was a much a nightmare for me as the antics with my friends was a pleasurable escape. The story of Mum and Dad was not a happy one. My Dad was already engaged to be married when he met my mother and came from a relatively better off family with property in the St Pancras area; my mother coming from a huge family in Edmonton and the problems started when his mother disapproved of the match. The problem was compounded when the Second War broke out on the very day my parents were married with air raid sirens sounding for what was initially a ‘phony war’ but was frightening enough on that wedding day reception. This with the blackout and the company running around with the cake trying to find a venue without a glass roof that had been booked for the reception! Soon my father was posted away and my mother, by now pregnant with her first baby, my sister Freda , was living with this disapproving mother in law with father away in the far east as the air raids started. They recalled the ‘doodlebugs’ or V1 rockets launched from Germany and that they prayed that the engines carried on for when they stopped and went silent the next thing was a huge explosion. Their properties in Argyle Street and Argyle Square were situated strategically between Kings Cross and Euston railway stations and on that date in 1941, the properties were devastated. Mother recalls them coming out of the underground stations (where they all sheltered) and seeing the house looking just like a dolls house with the front wall gone. They were then homeless. I will still, to this day, not buy German or Japanese goods when I can avoid it as I also recall hearing friend and family stories of atrocities in the hands of the Japanese.
Mother and Freda were then re-housed in that upper floor of Napier Road as a result of an initiative where victims of the bombings were given shelter and had to share. The war reparations were only made to land owners and my family, being leaseholders, were ruined. My parents were forever working long hours to try and buy a place of their own and the stress of the situation and my mother’s neurotic temperament meant that Dad would take every opportunity to work bank holidays, weekends etc. to get away from the rows and hassle. Sunday lunch was a flashpoint as mother tried to provide a meal from that kitchen based on the upstairs landing and nothing that Dad or us could do was right. I stayed out playing until the last minute and was always in trouble coming in grazed, dirty with torn clothes from my exploits. Holidays were a nightmare for we always booked out of season dates at seaside resorts such as Littlehampton or Margate and, with no money or weather to be comfortable on the beach and with landladies not wanting you in during the day, we were miserable in our knitted swimming costumes! The journeys in our little 1932 Singer Car MV 9404, were a nightmare with Freda and I arguing for lack of room in the back with the luggage taking up space. Mum would tell Dad to turn round and go home several times until we eventually made it to our destination! We did get to Norfolk for holidays much later which was better and we just got used to being in the middle of nowhere with me fishing by walking miles and Freda playing with the field hands during the harvest! In the lack of space at home, Freda and I were also now arguing and, in one incident, she pushed me and I sat on a paraffin stove, burning its contours onto my rump! Eventually, it was getting difficult with Freda and I sharing a room with her being an adolescent 15 and me a very tall and well developed 9 year old and so my parents eventually moved us to the wildest countryside. They were thinking that they were doing this for our welfare and future but, of course, they were separating us from our friends and the life we were used to and loved. I was to arrive by van after dark and then leapt out of the front door in my roller skates in the morning to find myself down an unmade road, with no pavements and not even a paved garden path to get around the garden. This was to be the start of the next chapter in my life with my transition to being a country boy from being a ‘townie’!