For a while in the early fifties a small shop in the village traded as a draper, run by a couple from London. They were Salvationists, the man playing euphonium in the Hereford Salvation Army Band. No doubt attracted by their common origins in the capital, they became friends of my mother and at some point, perhaps when they were packing up to leave, she acquired an upright piano from them. She enrolled in a correspondence course and began to learn to play.
The staff at Reed’s included a music teacher whose principle role was as organist and choirmaster. The school operated with a strong Anglican ethos: we attended chapel on alternate weekdays and twice on Sundays. In addition to leading the singing of hymns and psalms, the choir regularly learned anthems which they performed as part of the Evensong Sunday evening worship.
Dr Forster (doctor of music), possessed a beak like nose and wore pebble glasses. We boys christened him “Peck”. In addition to his work with the choir, he provided weekly lessons – lectures really – in “musical appreciation” whereby we were enabled to learn the evolution of classical music from baroque to modern. And he offered piano lessons. These were, of course, extra-curricula and necessitated the payment of a fee. No other instruments were taught in the school at that time.
Mum decided to pay for me to have piano lessons. I learned scales and by the summer of 1955 I was grappling with the slow movement from a Greig sonata. The problem was that I was lazy and did not practice. Sometimes I would go with another boy to the practice rooms and we would fool about. Once we stuck copper wires into an electrical socket. It was a miracle that we did not electrocute ourselves. We did fuse all the power in that block.
When the time arrived for my weekly lesson, week after week I would stumble at the same place, a chord sequence I was never able to get right. Eventually Peck became so frustrated that he pulled me by the hair and beat me about the shoulders with his arms before running from the room. I was not the only boy to suffer such treatment. These days it would, if reported, lead to suspension or even the sacking of the teacher, followed by claims for compensation from the parents.
The truth is that Forster was basically a gentle man, passionate about music and frustrated by the inability of others to take the same degree of interest. A couple of years later he taught a group of us to play mah jong. We would play the game in his flat in the music block of an evening. At the end of the school year during which I tried to learn the piano (ie. Summer 1955) I was, to my surprise, awarded the music prize at the annual speech day. No doubt this was Peck’s way of saying “sorry”.
Mum enjoyed listening to the playing of a popular pianist called Russ Conway and watched the progress of his records up the “hit parade”. In the summer of 1956 we noticed a record entitled “Experiments With Mice” by Johnny Dankworth. Never having heard it on the wireless, we had no idea what it was or what it could possibly be.
Back in school in September one of the boys who was an enthusiastic follower of jazz had a copy and played it. The theme of “Three Blind Mice” was rendered in the styles of different jazz bands; Glen Miller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others. A number of boys were into jazz by then and had long-playing records featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims and others which I, too, came to enjoy.
One or two members of staff were quite keen on jazz, too, and they encouraged the formation of a jazz club which met weekly to listen to jazz records and discuss the different styles and the evolution of the art – not unlike Peck’s attempts to teach us about classical music, but much more entertaining to our young minds.
In the summer of 1958 the jazz club organised an outing to a concert given by “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in London, a troupe of touring jazz musicians that included Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. Ella took several curtain calls. So many in fact that, crossing London to Waterloo, we were too late for the last train to our part of Surrey. The next train was the so called “Milk Train” leaving at 5am. An alternative was a train that left around 1am but only went as far as Kingston-Upon-Thames. It was agreed that we would take that one and walk the rest of the way, about 10 miles!
Somewhere outside Esher a young man in a Hillman Minx Californian with the top down stopped and offered lifts. About 8 of us crammed into the car, some sitting on the trunk with feet over the shoulders of the boys in the back seat, for the ride to Fairmile where the driver generously turned round and went back to collect the ramaining boys.
At the beginning of 1954 I had chicken pox. In addition there was heavy snow in the hills of the Welsh border. So I did not return to school until about three weeks after term started. I got off the Green Line coach at Fairmile, crossed the road and commenced the walk through the woods to the school. It was a frosty, foggy morning and nothing about my surroundings seemed familiar. I should quickly reach a small lake called Black Pond. Summer swimming parties and winter skating took place on this lake. I knew it well, as well as the route from it to school. Where was it?
I must have taken the wrong path from the road. I returned to the bus stop, sought an alternative route into the woods. Once again it seemed wrong and when I again failed to find Black Pond I began to panic. Had I got off at the correct stop? I mentally retraced my actions. It took a long trime to admit to myself that perhaps I should not have crossed the road. It could do no harm to cross back and try a path in the opposite direction. It was with considerable relief that I came to Black Pond as the fog finally cleared and the sun began to shine.
The previous summer, 1953, a boy a couple of years older than me got into difficulty whilst swimming in Black Pond and drowned. The school management decided that an on-site swimming pool would be an asset. At about this time the trustees were concerned about dwindling finances and made the decision to close the sister school for girls in order to reduce costs and raise capital. For a while boys were assigned to voluntary duties; in the kitchens and undertaking some of the cleaning of classrooms. We already made our own beds and swept and dry mopped the dromitory floors, daily.
Another voluntary task, scheduled to take place at times otherwise set aside for sports, was the digging of the hole prior to lining with concrete to create the swimming pool. The school buildings and grounds had previously belonged to another school and already possessed an indoor swimming pool. This was, I assume, too expensive to operate and had been boarded over to create a woodwork room with an art studio above.
In the summer of 1954 I came down with pneumonia. It began as shivering on a hot summer day. I spent a few days in the school sick bay followed by 3 or 4 weeks in hospital in Kingston-upon-Thames. This lasted beyond the end of term. I remember arriving home to the cottage in an ambulance. I have no particular recollection of the journey from Kingston to Hereford – I assume someone must have put me on a train and arranged for it to be met by the ambulance.
Of my stay in hospital my most vivid memory is of being thumped on the back daily in order to loosen the mucus from my lungs. That and the mound of fruit left by visitors – staff from the school, my mother’s cousin and, I suppose, people visiting other patients who took pity on this sick child a long way from home. When I was due for discharge I remember two women, nurses or nursing assitants, sorting through, removing the uneaten rotting fruit. I well recall their disgust at the waste.
For Reed’s, the new injection of funds arising from the closure of the girls’ school enabled the construction of a new, two storey, teaching block. Once that opened the old classroms became year group common rooms where we stored our books, did our “prep” (homework), read, argued and, occasionally, fought. For lessons we carried our books to the teaching block.
At home in the Christmas/New Year break in the winter of 1954/5 my mother announced that she was pregnant. The father was a local man who was seeking a divorce from his wife. He was 12 years older than she and they were looking for a house in the village where they could set up home. By the time I came home for the Easter holidays he was making weekly visits on Sunday afternoons and evenings, cycling from the village to the cottage. He was still living with his wife who was, we were told, making life difficult for him, refusing to grant him a divorce despite his blatant adultery. This was before divorce laws were liberalised in the UK.
The majority of the other boys in my age group at the school already knew each other. They had either been educated at Reed’s since the age of 7 or 8 or had attended an associated school, founded by the same benefactor, designated the Royal Wandstead School. The rest of us were outsiders, boys with strange accents and, in my case, small for my age. From being the clever child in a small school, I was now just one among a group of boys who were at least as talented. By the summer of 1952 all of the older boys and girls from the village school had decamped to the new school in the big house so I was among the oldest still in the primary school. Now I was one of the youngest in a large school a long way from home.
Those of the boys who had begun their lives at Reed’s before reaching 10 or 11 years of age had been accomodated and taught in rooms in a separate building called The Close. Now all of us ten- and eleven-year-olds were accomodated there but had to walk through the grounds to the school’s main building, which we called “The Shack”, for meals and lessons. I remember the agony of walking with chillblains on toes and fingers. One or two of my fellow pupils even had chillblains on their ears.
We were allowed visits from family members twice each term. My mother arranged for her cousin, Basil, to visit. Other friends and relatives sent the occasional postal order for half a crown (2/6, equivalent to £0.125) to supplement my pocket money which could be used in the school tuck shop to purchase sweets – although, with sugar still subjected to rationing, our pennies had to be accompanied by ‘points’ from our ration books, most of which were, of course, used in the purchase of food for our three meals and one snack per day.
The return journey to Hereford at the end of term was a reversal of the September trip, escorted by my mother’s friend. Arriving at Paddington after the Christmas holidays there was no sign of my mother’s friend. The train’s guard, in whose protection I had been placed on boarding, took me to the station master’s office. I don’t recall hearing it, but there must have been a tannoy announcement. After what seemed like a long wait my mother’s friend arrived to collect me. By this time I was extremely upset and my recollection is that I hardly stopped crying at all until I was on the south bound train the following afternoon. I have no idea what correspondence was exchanged between my mother and her friend in the following days.
When it came to the Easter holidays a new arrangement had been made: Mum’s cousin Basil would meet and accompany me and I would sleep in his sister’s apartment close by in Hammersmith. Instead of the train between London and Surrey I would travel that segment by coach. This arrangement continued for the next couple of years, until I was deemed old enough to travel alone on a journey that did not involve crossing the capital, changing trains at Reading and Guildford and completing the journey in a single day.
At the end of my first year I was rated in the bottom 3 of 33 pupils in the class. I was lucky, because, being born in November, I could start again so I remained in the first class (which was called ‘Remove’) for a second year. Now I was the boy who knew the ropes among a group of new comers. Although, once again, some already knew each other, having previously attended the Royal Wanstead School.
I very quickly formed a friendship with one of those newcomers from RWS. He was a month older than me. I gained the impression that, like me, he was somewhat introverted, not great at mixing with the other boys, even those he had known for several years. It was a friendship which would last throughout the next five years of school, and continue into adulthood.
The cottage did not have a front garden or lawns. It did have a kitchen garden, separated from the cobbled yard by a low stone wall and accessed via a wooden gate. The garden contained fruit trees – apple, damson and greengage; red and black currant bushes. There were purple and white lilacs, a laburnam and a couple of rose bushes. I remember a crimson moss rose with the most delightfull smell.
During the war, and for the long period of shortages that continued in the years afterwards, citizens were encouraged to “dig for victory”, growing as much as possible of their own food. At this distance I would not dare to estimate the size of our garden. I do know that we grew all manner of vegetables.
The fruit from the trees and bushes was preserved by bottling and making jam. Onions and shallots were pickled, surplus runner beans were made into chutney. All of the associated work – digging, hoeing, raking and weeding; planting, harvesting and preserving – was undertaken by my mother.
As I became older I took on some of the work in the garden. But I can only look back in admiration at the way in which this city girl rose to the challenge of becoming a gardener with all of the hard work entailed, beginning with digging the heavy Herefordshire clay. In fact she came to love gardening and gardens, a passion she passed on to me.
Beyond the garden, accesed via the meadow that contained the Dutch barn, was a small orchard. Planted many years before on land that sloped quite steeply towards the stream, the orchard contained several ancient apple trees. But the trees we loved – or their produce, at least – were two that bore, each summer, a bumper crop of golf ball size pears that were deliciously sweet and juicy and to which we were permitted to help oursleves.
The branches hung low, especially when weighed down by ripe fruit. Of course, we were not the only creatures in the neighbourhood to savour these delights. The local wasps loved them, too. We soon learned to check that the ripest seeming fruit was intact, not having been hollowed out by a wasp who might still be present, before grasping it in our tiny hands.
Through the spring and summer of 1952 Mum spent a great deal of time and effort in finding for me an alternative to the Hereford High School. I was due to enter secondary school in September. Once I passed, in the spring, the exam designed to separate those with an academic bent from the rest, it was clear that daily travel to the High School was not a practical option. Whilst there was free transport from the cottage to the village school, this would not get me to the village in time to catch a bus that would reach Hereford before the school start time. The return journey would be similarly afflicted, making the day impracticably long for a ten-year-old.
One solution would have been for me to board out with a family in Hereford during the week, coming home at weekends. A potentially better alternative would have been for me to attend a boarding school, if a suitable one could be found. I remember accompanying my mother on a visit and interview at Christ’s Hospital in Hampshire. I have no idea if they turned me down or made an offer that we rejected.
Reed’s School had been founded in the early years of the nineteenth century as an orphanage. By the 1950s it was a small boarding school for boys, entirely funded by charitable donations and legacies, run along similar lines to much more famous public schools. I passed their entrance exam and entered the school in mid-September 1952.
The school was, and still is, located in Surrey. Rail routes from the West into London terminate at Paddington; those from the South at Waterloo. Thus I would need to cross London. For a ten year old to do so unaccompanied was impossible to contemplate. My mother still had relatives, and at least one former friend, resident in the capital and was able to prevail upon the friend to escort me, providing overnight accomodation en-route.
That first journey is difficult to recall. I guess I was overwhelmed by the experience of train travel, alone, by the noise and bustle of London’s traffic and the strangeness of the woman who had charge of me for 24 hours. I have a more enduring memory of the second such journey, in January of 1953.
When I started school, in 1947, the statutory school leaving age was 14 and the village school catered for boys and girls from 5 to 14. There were about 60 of us, housed in two rooms. A small room to the rear of the building catered to children up to 8, the large main hall was divided by a heavy blue curtain into classes for 8-11 and 12-14. When the leaving age increased to 15 in 1948, a bright new prefabricatred glass and aluminium building was erected behind the school. This then became the infants (5-7) class and the small room that had been the infants class now became the home of 8-11 year olds. This meant that I and all the children my age remained in the same room for 4 years, although we had a change of teaher half way through the period. Morning assemblies and prayers for everyone took place in the large room.
The building also included the head teacher’s home and a kitchen – we were provided with a hot meal at 1pm every day. All of this meant that the school timetable was the same for everyone: 9am to 3pm with a break of 15 minutes at 11am and an hour for lunch between 1 and 2pm.
A large house at the edge of the village had been taken over by the government during the war to provide offices for some department or other. Now it was given to the Education Authority in order to create a Secondary Modern school serving the wider area. All children over 11 who had not passed the entrance exam for the High School in Hereford would in future attend this school.
I did pass the entrance exam but travel to Hereford presented a problem and my mother set about investigating alternatives.
Meanwhile life at home continued to be more or less idyllic for my sister and I. There were exceptions. I remember, when I was about 6 and my sister a toddler, how I almost blinded her. Between our coal heap and the hen house there was a clump of nettles. One day I decided that I was going to chop these weeds down. I had seen adults wielding a sickle – an implement called a “bill hook” in that time and place – to undertake such tasks. No such article being available I took what to me was the next best thing which also happened to be nearby – the small tin shovel we used to shovel coal from the pile into a galvanised bucket to take indoors. Swinging the shovel at the nettles with wild abandon I was unaware that my sister’s curiosity had caused her to come close behind me. So it was that the sharp corner of the shovel came into violent contact with the corner of her right eye.
There followed several moments of uproar during which my mother sought both to calm my distraught sister and treat her injury whilst berating me for my stupidity and thoughtlessness.
I was guilty of another display of the same stupidity on my mother’s 32 nd birthday, a July day in 1949. Because it was her birthday I thought it would be a good idea to rise early and bring her a cup of tea in bed. And, because it was her birthday, I should make it in her best china teapot. At 7 years old, I knew how to set about making tea – I’d probably done it once or twice before.
A concrete apron at the front of the house was separated from the cobbled yard by a concreted shallow channel that allowed rain water to escape to a drain near the gable end of the house. When making tea it was routine to warm the pot by pouring a small quantity of hot water into it, swirling this around, then throwing the hot water into the channel. Imagine my horror when, whilst performing this operation, my mother’s best china teapot, much heavier than the small brown one I was used to, slipped from my hands and shattered on the concrete.
You must imagine, too, as to my shame I never did until recently, my mother awaking on her 32nd birthday. She has lived in this rural slum of a cottage for more than 7 years now. Her mother has been dead for more than a year. She is alone, her friends and relations all many miles away and mostly unconcerned for her plight, stuck here, miles from any source of solace such as a cinema or a shop where she might purchase something other than the bare essentials for living.
There is only the wireless and her library books for company. She has responsibility for two small children and little money. How has she come to this pass? More to the point, how can she find a way to escape from it? She is 32, half her life is over and there is nothing to look forward to with anything like hopeful anticipation. And then that stupid boy smashes one of her few treasured posessions, a teapot handed down from her grandmother. (Actually, I am being fancifull here – I have no idea of the provenance of the teapot.)
She came for me, still in her nightgown, wielding a stick. I ran. Now imagine my own grief on realising that an attempt to do something good, kind and well meaning had ended in this way. I was destraught.
I have no doubt that my mother and grandmother assumed from the outset that the cottage was a temporary home, one they would occupy only for the duration of the war. I can imagine there were occasions when the war seemed to be dragging on and they wondered when they would be able to return to something more akin to what they had been used. Receiving the telegram that announced that my father was missing in action would have been such an occasion. Life rarely works out the way we expect, especially when external events such as a war interfere with its anticipated course. It would be over 14 years before my mother was able to leave the cottage and then only thanks to a kind and gentle, hard working man.
None of the features of civilisation absent from the cottage was remedied during those years. When we left there was still no electricity and water was still carried in buckets from the semi-submerged concrete tank.
The man who rescued my mother in the mid-1950s was not the first with which she had a relationship during those years. One of my earliest memories is of a morning late in March 1946. I was 4 years and 4 1/2 months old and it seems odd to me now that I clearly recollect being on my knees laying a fire in the grate of the small living room. Screws of newspaper followed by slender sticks of wood topped off with small pieces of coal. I heard a sound which I at first supposed was the cry of a lamb. Then the groaning of the hinges in the door at the bottom of the stairs and my grandmother was there.
“Can you hear that baby up there?” she said. “That’s your baby sister.”
I had a vague recollection of my mother leaving the double bed she shared with me at some time during the night. She had, it seemed, gone to her mother’s room when she experienced the first labour pains. I have no idea who my sister’s father was. I like to think she was the result of some over enthusiastic victory celebration that got out of hand the previous June. So far as I was concerned she became my constant companion for the next six and a half years, until I was sent to boarding school.
We invented our own games, taking it in turn to be master/mistress of our “games school”. We created our own radio programmes with interviews and plays we ad-libbed. On holiday in South Wales we produced plays we presented in the front room of Aunty Win and Uncle George’s home. [I’ve written elsewhere about Uncle George, the father of a member of the same bomber crew as my father]
Of course we fell out over the choice of games to be played but it taught us both the importance of give and take in a relationship and the need, sometimes, to relinquish some measure of control over the other.
My mother read to us from the classics and from contemporary novels borrowed from the mobile library which visited every six weeks. She taught us our alphabet and how to translate symbols into sounds so that each of us in turn was already able to read by the time we started school.
I should have begun attending the village school after the Christmas holidays, in January 1947. But the weather that winter made it impossible. My recollection is that snow arrived on the day after Christmas. The met office says it began on Jan 23rd. There is no contesting the fact that it continued, on and off, for many days until the way out of the cottage was blocked by a mountainous drift of the stuff. Temperatures remained below freezing for several weeks.
Deliveries of bread, meat and milk ceased. A farmer neighbour brought some supplies on horseback. Nowadays such conditions would be relieved by air drops from helicopters. A small number of such aircraft had been used in search and rescue during the war but their availability for civilian use was still some way off. Eventually the snow melted and I was able to attend school following the Easter holidays.
Why is it that we mostly remember only the happiest moments of childhood? I am aware, of course, that for some children – those who suffer abuse or grow up surrounded by the effects of war or famine – there are no happy memories to take into adulthood. But for the rest of us, the fact is that childhood consists of a series of events which are capable of creating good and bad memories. Hugs and slaps, pleasure and pain, joy of desires fulfilled and disappointment at hopes dashed. In other words it is a sampling of the real life we will experience in adulthood.
My memories of my childhood in that cottage by the stream are mostly happy ones. But they are, I now realise, coloured by my mother’s response to the changes it represented in her own fortunes.
I imagine that in the first while there was a sense of relief. In part a continuation of the relief that must have accompanied her departure from London a year earlier. London, devastated by then by almost a year of nightly bombing raids by the Luftwaffe. She worked in Air Raid Precautions so would have seen first hand the destruction of homes, the loss of life and the injuries inflicted. She worked, too, in a clothing factory which was also destroyed in a raid.
In Herefordshire she was safe from all of that. And yet, life in other people’s homes would have presented its own problems, problems I tried to reflect in that imagined conversation with her mother as they climbed the hill. Now, at last, they had time and space to themselves. Time to look forward to the possibility, however remote, of peace.
I can’t help wondering at what point the stark reality of life with none of the facilities to which they must have been used sunk in and began to fester. Certainly life in London in the nineteen thirties would have been very different to city life today. But their home would have had electricity and piped water. There would have been cinemas, dance halls, libraries and theatres within easy reach. There were friends, work colleagues, uncles, aunts and cousins a bus ride away.
At the cottage there were none of these things. And, on top of all of that, there were the exigencies of war that effected everyone – shortages of almost everything and rationing of food and clothing.
For a child, however, the things you experience are taken to be normal even though to everyone else they might seem anything but. So for me our days, surrounded by meadows in which we were free to roam and play, often seem idyllic.
I remember making hay. In that place and time horses were still used for some aspects of farm work. Tractors were small, slow and simple, nothing like the monsters that speed around the lanes near my Irish home. Once cut, the mixture of grasses and herbs that grew in the meadows surrounding the cottage were left to dry, a process that might take a week. After two or three days the flat swathes would be tossed and turned manually, using two-pronged forks called pikes, an activity that my mother and I assisted with. This exposed the still green underside so that, too, could dry. Eventually these rows of dried grass were pulled into small piles, called “cocks” in the local dialect. Next a trailer was towed around the field and the cocks loaded to be carried to the Dutch barn. The smell of the new mown hay filled our nights, changing, as the days passed, from the sweetness of the first cut to the mellow dustiness of the final product.
There was, then, the annual pantomime as the mechanical hay rake arrived and had to be threaded through the gate into the meadow. The problem was that the rake, a contraption consisting of a row of metal tines bent into three quarters of a circle and housed between two huge metal wheels, was wider than the space between the walls of the cow shed and the former pig sty we used as a chicken house. The farmer, our landlord, and his son, perspiring in the heat of a July afternoon and accompanied by curses, manoeuvred this beast in a series of arcs, until the machine was translated from cobbled yard to hay meadow where it would be drawn around to gather up all the wisps of hay left behind.
The cattle would have been removed several weeks before, presumably sold to a local butcher. As soon as the sward recovered, a new set of young animals were brought to spend the autumn grazing and the winter consuming the hay.