I took my Harp to a Party, But nobody asked me to play; The others were jolly and hearty, But I wasn’t feeling so gay. They might have said: “Play us a tune we can sing!” But somehow I don’t think they wanted the thing. I took my harp to a party, But nobody asked me to play, So I took the darn thing away.
(Old music-hall song about 1912)
All the best books have an introduction and a preface, which seems a bit long-winded, and anyway introductions are usually done by somebody else, probably introducing the author, which is hardly necessary,so we can do without that.
We are left with a preface, for which there is more excuse; partly because, as A.A. Milne says, “it is a sort of ‘Ahem’ which you use to attract attention before you recite”; but also because it gives me time to think what to say, which may also be hardly necessary, but also it makes time to discuss how I am going to approach this, and where to begin. Well, as Humpty Dumpty said,:“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you get to the end; then stop.”*
Well, part of that advice I can use, but I’m not sure about getting to the end before I stop.
Also, how to approach it is more open to choice.It may have escaped your notice that I began by talking about “the best books”; I don’t know about the best, but I could feel most comfortable if I thought I was writing a book. Not a book addressed to a large, unknown public, but in reality a private memoir to my family. But still a book. As such it will lack the sheer simplicity and naivete of what I read of Phyllis’s pages, but will nevertheless be Me, for all my sophisticated approach. Me and my memories.
And memories must be treated with care. They can occur because prompted by the odd comment, some particular event, or just come. I should say come without being recalled, for it is not the memory that goes, it is the ability to recall them that is difficult, and not entirely in our control. I am beginning to believe that we forget nothing; it is all stored from day one; we forget nothing, but sometimes we can call some things back, sometimes thing occur quite unbidden. In which case those are probably accurate; more are partial, possibly inaccurate, sometimes someone else’s, all higgledy-piggeldy and waiting for a prompt.
So how am I going to control them, in what order am I going to be able to recall them, and what’s the point of all this?
Well, it’s called an autobiography, so it has to be by me about me. And after all, while I am not about to make a clean breast of all the murky corners in my personality, there is a lot of my life before you that yuo don’t know. Even my son didn’t know me before I was 38, and Laura had to wait even longer. And that’s just me.
But I have been on this earth since 1924, when things were very different, in ways you probably could not imagine without these pages (remember, you are still only in the Preface). So this should not be just all about me, but a description of the life I grew up in. So I should attempt to explain myself away, but also to write quite consciously for my grandchildren, and try to describe things as they were, trying to capture the features which made life so different from what is taken for granted today. It’s not easy: I can still remember Dominic’s discovery of a vinyl record and a gramophone pick-up, which I never thought about; though in threes pages there may be places when I can mention how they developed.
This is where a computer, or at least a word-processor, comes into its own, for bits of memory can be inserted in the appropriate place at a later date. Even this preface is largely a revision of how I started. For I made the mistake of thinking:
“The preface is the introduction, the very beginning, and that’s how and where you start. Quite wrong. The Preface is where the reader begins, but is really more an explanation or excuse or apology for what has been set down in the following pages, and right at the particular moment of writing this, I can explain nothing. Right at this particular moment I know no more than you do what’s eventually going to follow.
All I do know, – and I have to admit that I have at this stage put something down for the first two chapters – is that I decided very early on that, in order to have a framework of pegs to hang my recollections on, I would set it all out in historical chapters. Though it seems a rather arbitrary division, the method shows signs of working, at least for early school years. We shall see. You ought to be sitting all agog, for “as of now”, as the horrible expression goes, the author knows as little as the reader as to how it will all end.
Instead of just being asleep.
So now, if you’re sitting comfortably
Chunk 1 – Pre-school
1924 must have been a good year. It seems a bit of a surprise that a mother who could produce six babies should give birth to the last one before 12 o’clock on the 1st. of April, but it probably didn’t do any harm. It helped people to remember it and was a good talking or jeering point. Anyway, there was nothing I could do about it: I arrived, weighing 10lbs, and with a family of six brothers and sisters ready-made.
When I come to think about it, my arrival seems to have wrought great changes in the family. We almost immediately moved from 27, Pall Mall where I was born, to 53, Leigh Hall Road, where my memories start. All I remember of the Pall Mall house is that Jack planted an acorn in the garden, which was showing well above the fence as I grew up, but it never assumed the proportions of a substantial oak. The other change was that holidays changed for the family: my father would take six children to Canvey Island, but not seven, so we never went. Even when he had six he only admitted to five when he booked, according to Mother, and I gathered surprised them with the sixth when they arrived.
Putting the year in perspective, it was six years after the war, and it is difficult to imagine what affect this had. The affect of the huge toll in the armed forces must have been traumatic, and would have differed from the experiences after the second world war, when the deaths were spread between both army and civilians, and seemed somehow more widely spread. In the earlier part of the 39/45 war numbers of civilian deaths were greater than those in the armed forces, as the casualties from aerial bombings exceeded those from battlefields not yet fully active or extended. However, Arthur was born in 1918, and Eileen two years later, so life must have carried on as usual. I believe Mother lost a relative (cousin or nephew) during hostilities. Father, of course, had continued to work at home throughout the war.
People make a lot of the advantage of growing up in a large family, and the concomitant pity of being an only child; of course there are delights in having family parties at the drop of a hat, and Christmases are quite memorable, but as I grew up I was to spend quite a proportion of my time alone. They were all older brothers and sisters, – Jack was to be at sea for a lot of my childhood;
The twins were 8 years older than me; I can remember being picked up by one of their schoolmates,and breaking the gas mantle with my head. I was small enough to be picked up, they were old enough to be at the High School. Arthur was a tease; and the only one I played with ‘Mummies –and –Daddies’ wise was Eileen, and that not very often.
As for the parents, I suppose they were as good, caring parents as most parents think they are, with as little understanding of the true thoughts, beliefs and ways of their offspring as most parents have. I think open love is more easily and frequently shown today, when it had to be understood than outwardly shown. Father, of course, was a Victorian, which was understood as grim and Victorian even in those days, and Father found it difficult to show anything anyway. I think we were all rather frightened of him – not physically, though I understand he was quite prepared to take the strap to Jack, and I think Doris, but he never touched any of us others, either in anger or affection. I suppose I never actually liked him, using the word as the opposite of ‘dislike’, though with passing years one began to see his approach was an attempt to be fair; he always tried to treat us all the same (to the extent that he would never have assisted me to go to college, because he had not done it for the others. There’s no resentment, because the practical issue was never in question. But he was dead against doing something for one that he couldn’t for others.) It’s a bit of a shame, because I rather suspect I was a favourite son, in that Mother gave me to understand I was the only son he had really wanted in the firm (W.Silk). When I left school he found a job for me in a Quantity Surveyor’s office – quite a good one – for which I repaid him by telling him when I came out of the Forces that I wanted to teach. Gwen used to think we were all a bit unfair to him, and she couldn’t see what we were on about; but he was more mellow when she knew him, and he took to her anyway.
And as an outsider (and a perspicacious one) she could see that he was quite an emotional and feeling man with a complete inability to show it.)But I think we were all more understanding and adult in his later years, and relationships were much better
Mother, of course, was Mother, and I think probably a good one, taking things as they came, pretty unflappable, and though not guilty of “smotherlove”, I don’t think I can remember sitting in her lap, but can quite believe I did. All difficulties that had to be revealed to Father went through Mother, – for all the family. She had a good ear, and a good sense of humour. In later years she had a stock party piece – an imitation of her elder sister, who was very frail, coming through the door: first the handle would rattle, and after a time the door would gradually open, and very gradually Aunt Edie would circumnavigate the open door. The whole performance would take about 10 minutes. Like a lot of humour, a little cruel but very funny, and not done with any mali8ce. Gwen was very fond of her, and always wanted to be known in turn as “Nan Silk.” The actual language, of course, changed, but I think the situation was repeated. She helped Gwen a lot, and taught her how to dress-make; the first item was a long dance dress for a smart dance we were going to! Mother’s attitude was : “Yes, of course you can!”, as opposed to Mrs. Harvey’s :”I shouldn’t dear, I should go and have it done properly!”
But I am jumping the gun, though we have set some of the characters.
As far as memories go, of course, this is a pretty barren period. I remember that I thought at an early age that I had one distinct memory of sitting in my pram, but I don’t know if I really did. I was also convinced that I had been able to jump down stairs from top to bottom in one go, arms outstretched, and I do remember Arthur being very sceptical about that, and I don’t remember ever proving it.
And what’s a memory? I can remember throwing stones into the water for a dripping Airedale terrier, as in the well known family photo; but do I remember that event or the photo? I can tell you exactly where it was: on the beach beside the Essex Yacht club boat, and the woolly suit I was wearing, but those memories were probably at least kept alive by the picture. I remember my bear on wheels (also photographed), but I know his name was Bimbo. I can remember having a wigwam constructed from a large camera tripod and old blankets, but I wouldn’t be sure this was at this stage or in Chapter 2. I can’t remember living in the photo of me sitting on Jack’s arm when he came home from sea, which must have fallen in this chunk – just; he was eleven years older than me, and probably went to see at abut 16, so I was probably 5.
There’s another thing about memories: they’re quite unreliable. I was recently sent by Arthur some letters I wrote to him from Malaya when the war was over, and in one of them I describe visiting some film studios to see a few minutes shooting of Robert Donat in a film called “Perfect Strangers”. This I apparently saw when I was on the Japanese course in London. I would have sworn this took place when I was on an insurance visit in about 1951. Which just shows.
There was a Swiss family living next door; he, of course, was a watchmaker.
He had a daughter who was the first girl I was going to marry. She must have been a very nice person, for I can remember talking to her through an open fence for hours,
and she must have been in her late teens or early twenties! Her name was Margaret Hammer, and I have had no contact for nigh on eighty years.
The house in Leigh Hall Road was, of course, much bigger than that in Pall Mall, with a dining room, lounge-cum-playroom, kitchen and scullery downstairs and 4 bedrooms up. I cannot remember now if it had a large attic room, or accurately recall sleeping arrangements. I know I was for most of this time in the girls’ bedroom though I think Doris was separate, and Jack & Arthur presumably shared. All bedrooms, or at least the two main ones, had fireplaces, which were only used in the event of illness.
This was all before fitted carpets; there would have been a carpet square in the dining room, and round the edge the boards would have been stained. I think the playroom must have had rugs rather than a carpet. The hall and staircase would have had long runners, and brass stair rods held the narrow stair carpet in position.
The kitchen had a wide kitchener, coal fired, for cooking and hot water (I suppose), and the cast-iron facia was kept smart with blacklead polish. I cannot see it now, but I think there was probably a copper – a large stone built-in sink with coal fireplace in the bottom. This would have been in a small scullery. Most houses of that time would have had a kitchen and scullery, as I understand your own did originally.
All lighting was by gas, which burnt in small fibrous gas-mantles, which were ignited by match or taper, with the gas turned on by small chain-operated releases. This system did not extend to the lavatory upstairs, where you carried in a small portable oil lamp as necessary.
I have now spent half a page describing the house where I lived, and about six lines on my own life. Yet memories of one’s early life are supposed to be the most vivid. Either memory fails, or life must have been very uneventful. I imagine it implies that it was a happy life, and I certainly cannot recall any dramatic traumas. In the circumstances it is probably best to progress to Chapter 2.
Chapter 2 – At Miss Vasey’s
At about the age of five I was sent to Miss Vasey’s, where the twins, Arthur and Eileen had all been. Miss Vasey was a single woman , then I would guess in her thirties. She lived with her mother and an older brother in Dawlish Drive, off Pall Mall (almost the next road to Leigh Hall, so I didn’t have far to go). The brother had had a good job in the City, but suddenly decided not to work any more, and walked about the home in his dressing gown. I presume Vera Vasey took up teaching to earn her keep. It was a fairly large house, and had a large attic room which formed the schoolroom. There she used to teach beginners – though Phyllis told me she and Marjorie were there until about nine before they went to North Street. This was in the days before school inspectors and Health & Safety, and she had a school of about a dozen children, mostly near neighbours. It was what had probably been known some fifty years before as a “Dame School”, and we learnt our tables, how to read and write and make raffia covers for jam jars, and all the good basic tales of folklore history, such as Alfred and the cakes, Hereward the Wake (a mediaeval king maker about whom I never heard at my secondary school) and so on. Having heard ‘raffia’ explained on the radio recently, I had better mention it was a sort of coloured,strawlike material you could twist and weave and make patterns with.
We sat at long bench each side of a long table, with no back to the bench, so that if one child contrived to fall backwards we all went. Boys and girls aged up to 8 to10, I think. I remember proposing to one girl of five.She had a red knitted wool dress with red knitted wool knickers I remember. I met her may years later – she had been a school friend of Gwen’s at St. Bernards – and was very relieved she had turned me down.
Strangely enough the only other child from those days was a boy called George Goldwin (and nowadays I cannot remember a person’s name from one week to the next) who lived in a nearby road, and I used to see quite a bit. He had the knack of being in such control of his bowels that he could produce little balls of shit about the size of a marble. He was another one I met later in life – in point of fact in Kuala Lumpur in Malaya in 1945 “My goodness, you have changed!” he said when we identified each other.(It’s a useful name – Silk – not that common) He introduced me to a Chinese family he knew, which was interesting, but which may be included in a later chapter.
My life must have been a happy one, as I remember little of it. Eileen was the only one of the family with whom I ever played at home, being the nearest in age, but I must have been approaching the age when at home I played various games by myself,
And was embarking on the years of self containment and enjoying my own company which has stood me in good stead.
As a child of that time, games were either of your own invention (in earlier years I have memories of saying goodbye to Mother at the kitchen door as I was off with a very tiny case round the world (a la big brother Jack, who was now at sea), but as far as public entertainment was concerned, the only home source was the appropriately named ‘wireless’ – the only source of long distance sound produced without wires, though of course the original broadcast to your home was a radio programme from the fairly new BBC. (I believe I shared my birthday – date of birth – with 2LO which became the BBC) This was received by our wireless set which was powered by wet cell batteries. One of my jobs became taking the batteries to a local shop to change them for charged ones.
It is worth mentioning one other significant change from life today: there was an old boy called Mr.Jolly, who was a sort of haulier taking rubble down to the Old Town (Old Leigh) in a horse and cart. The twins,Arthur and Eileen and occasionally myself were all allowed at one time to accompany him for the ride – something it is difficult to imagine happening today.
Amongst the entertainments listed above I forgot to mention our garden gymnasium. This consisted of a swing, a bar and a pair of hand-rings, interchangeable, and all suspended from a very substantial timber framework produced in the works of W.Silk & Son with posts at least 6” x 6”. Requirements of this sort were always produced by W.Silk & son, and were all intended to outlast at least my lifetime. During the war an indoor timber shelter was created in the dining room, under which we could collect in the event of an air raid. I think it would have survived a direct hit.
I also omitted the main item of my home entertainment: I was given a dog! Nipper was a white smooth-coated fox terrier, white with a black spot on his back and some black and brown markings, with a stubby little white tail. He was named after the little fox terrier who graced the record labels of HMV (His Master’s Voice – now E.M.I). From him I learnt the real companionship a small boy can get from a dog that listens and understands everything you say. He could sit up and beg, “die for his country” (Lie down on his side – what a militaristic family we sound!) and close the door – by pushing it shut with his paw, a trick more popular with the children than with Father.
So a quiet, uneventful childhood, fortunately unaware that all around us Ramsay Macdonald was destroying the Labour Party, the Wall Street crash had occurred, and we as a country were not much better off, with the figure of 3,000,000 unemployed approaching and the building industry in difficulties.
Well, not quite unaware. I suppose when I was about 7 or 8 we all moved to a smaller and cheaper house in Chalkwell Park Drive, another turning off Pall Mall.
This, of course, was a smaller house, though still having four bedrooms. This one definitely had a small stone copper in the corner of the scullery, and its sink was used for the weekly wash, which was then passed to the large hand-worked mangle for squeezing out the water. The final ironing was done with small, heavy flat irons, heated on the stove or a gas ring. The custom was to spit lightly on them to make sure they were hot enough to iron efficiently. The garden when we arrived was a mass of golden marigolds which covered beds, grass and the lot.
The move coincided with a change of school for me; I am not sure of the exact date, but I cannot remember going to Miss Vasey’s from Chalkwell Park Drive, or to Caedmon House from Leigh Hall Road, but certainly this takes me to what Gwen used to call my soppy little private school, and the period between 8 and 11, as follows in Chapter 3.
Chapter 3. Caedmon House School
Caedmon House was a small private school in Pall Mall, run by quite a dominant sort of woman, Miss Alice Morris, who came to England from South Africa with her sister Helen, who was a much softer personality, and who wore a leg-iron, presumably following an attack of polio. Polio in those days was a not uncommon disease and the leg-iron a not uncommon treatment. Why I went there I don’t know, as my two brothers had been to Leigh Hall College. It may have been that she knew my eldest sister Doris, who in fact was teaching there when I went. Rather strange having to call one’s sister “Miss Silk”, but we both acted our parts very well. She was totally unqualified of course, but this was in the days before school inspectors. The only qualification Miss Morris had was L.R.A.M.(Music), but she ran a good school, what you would have called a “crammer” and she got me into Westcliff High School as a scholarship boy, so she must have had something. So must I, come to think of it.
And on the whole I think it was quite a good education. We learnt the things we were supposed to, read many of the children’s classics, most importantly staged a production of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (the right choice),in which I took the part of Tweedledee, with another very slim boy as Tweedledum, both of us stuffed with cushions (and the love of my early life playing the White Queen), learnt songs (including Jerusalem, before it was taken over by the proms – she was very insistent that the “Bring” of ”bring me my bow” was a long note, (still persistently sung wrong); taught us how to sing a song simply by reading the the tonic sol fa; also how to behave nicely and talk proper, if possible eradicating the broad Essex ‘a’ – and we really were taught “how now brown cow”!
So there we are: a typical middle class private school education. And I suppose I turned out to be a typical m.c.p.s. boy. The original house, or the school when owned by a previous owner, had a fair sized hall, big enough for a badminton court and gymnasium, complete with wall bars on one wall, from which I fell on one occasion, badly spraining my wrist. We used to play Tarzan and the apes in break times, which we had all had seen in the new talkies.
Well, I think they had been in for some time then, complete with the cowboy films (Tom Mix was the best known one; my favourite was Ken Maynard, who had a lovely white horse.) Not many years before, it was all silent films, when mother had to read me the captions.
It was a mixed school, of course, and it was in these days that I met the real love of my life – a girl called Betty Boff. It was from her that I discovered that a young girl’s cheek is the texture of a peach, when I escorted her home after school, trying to kiss her all the way. I played a badminton match for her against a much older boy and lost, and being very honourable, had to give her up. We lost contact at the High Schools, because she went to the Girls School and I to the Boys, and we were strictly not allowed to mix; we came out at different times to make sure. I found her address in the war when I was in Burma and she was in the Wrens somewhere in South East Asia but it led to nothing. Whether my feelings were reciprocated I never found out, but I never forgot her.
It was about this time that an ambition developed to be a comedian You must remember that in those days all domestic entertainment came by means of the wireless, from where all ideas of humour (and all jokes) were derived. I cannot tell where the ambition came from, except that I enjoyed comic programmes, and I suppose I enjoyed playing the fool, though not necessarily at this stage in front of an audience, but perhaps a child not very macho, not over self-assured, not over-accomplished in physical activity could enjoy the accomplishment of making people laugh, and achieving some sort of personality. I remember at one school lesson, when we were asked to reveal what we might like to do in the future , and I came out with “comedian” one snotty-nosed chap thought it a very trivial pursuit and looked askance at the idea; however, I was to get my own back on him many years later: when we were in the sixth form and evacuated to Belper, we were in a cricket match, and I was asked to umpire. There was an appeal for lbw, and I raised my finger. “That wasn’t out, you know, Ron,” he said as he passed me on the way out. “It is if I say so,”I replied.
I suppose he couldn’t have known that the affect of a chance remark could last so long. Anyway, at the time,Miss Morris came to the rescue: she thought making people laugh, cheering them up and “Spreading a little Happiness” could be quite a noble effort. And “Spread a little Happiness” became quite a mantra for life. The song was sung by John Mills in a musical called “Mr. Cinders” in about 1913, so quite how Catriona managed to learn it at school I am not sure. More will be heard about it when I get to my sixth form life at school in Belper.
In the meantime I learnt my patter and comic songs from the radio, or from gramophone records which I would play over and over until I knew the words. I thus learnt one or two Stanley Holloway works, such as ‘The Lion and Albert’ or ‘With her head tucked underneath her arm,’ describing how Ann Boleyn walked round the Bloody Tower at night. Two of us were going to organise an entertainment for the grown-ups on one occasion, but, as the house was just off Marine Parade, it was put to me that songs about the Bloody Tower were not thought quite appropriate for a nine-year old to be singing. The words of the last verse, for example were:
One night she caught King Henry, he was in the canteen bar,
Said he “Are you Jane Seymour, Ann Boleyn or Catherine Parr?
For how the sweet San Fairy Ann do I know who you are,
with your head tucked underneath your arm
Perhaps not quite the song you would expect from a nicely-brought up 9 year old. Particularly in the Bloody Tower.
I did actually pen an additional verse which went:
She’s seen Belisha Beacons, but she don’t know what they are,
Because, poor thing, she’s never been inside a motor car;
And if she did she’d soon get out, she’d not drive very far
With her head tucked underneath he arm.
Which I still don’t think is bad for a nine or ten year old. Belisha Beacons, of course,were quite a new thing in those days, invented by the then Minister of Transport to mark the crossings, just as they do today having well outlasted his name. But I digress.
Aside from our cultural education, a certain amount of physical activity was indulged in. As I mentioned, the buildings included a large building with a set of wall-bars at one side, and we also had a springboard. At one time a gymnasium instructor was hired – a short, stubby little man probably in his forties and probably ex-service to put us through some rudimentary paces. I remember on one occasion we were all using the springboard for a low high jump over a bar; the boys were sitting at the edge of the hall, and the girls came running towards us to jump over the bar, until they complained we were all looking at their knickers. A rather embarrassed instructor made us all move, though I don’t remember him shifting. I can never think why they didn’t tuck their skirts up, but perhaps that wasn’t done in nice private schools.
As I hinted before, there was room for badminton, and we were taken out for tennis. Somehow and somewhere we played little cricket. We must have had two matches, one Certainly against Leigh Hall College, where Arthur was teaching. In one I kept wicket, but was replaced (b the snotty-nosed boy), and in the second I found some talent for Bowling: I found I could bowl straight (I could then) and at a good length that couldn’t be hit, which is the be-all and end-all. You have no idea how satisfying it is when the no-striker calls to his mate confronted with a straight slow ball: “Hit it! Hit it!” and the batsman says “I can’t!” There are little episodes in life that stay with you for ever – usually the ones that reflect some credit. We never played football.
It was at Caedmon House that the discovery was made that I was as short-sighted as a bat, thanks largely to an excess of reading in bed at night after the decent light had gone, and I was to familiarise myself with sight-testing cards – not the present ones with their lines and dots, but ones that went E – TB – DLR – PTEN that I can still remember today, and were a test of your honesty if you really wanted effective glasses.
As far as life at home was concerned I cultivated my ability to entertain myself and enjoy my own company. The next one up in the family was Eileen, who had her own interests, and Arthur was mainly a tease. I invented several ways of playing cricket on my own, either with a pin and numbers from 1- 6, or sometimes in the garden, kneeling in front of 3 matchstick stumps, lobbing up a small round stone, and hitting it with half a clothes peg (the long ones consisting of two bits of wood clipped together, and scoring runs according to how far it was hit. I did try to play this with a friend once, but as it involved my kneeling in front of him when I bowled and the stone then hit me, we didn’t pursue it.
How I did spend a lot of my time was entering into the world of entertainment. At first I rigged up a cardboard box shape, in the front of which I cut a 3” x 2” hole. I then rigged up a long reel of paper “film” on which I wrote or drew a script and pictures to represent a film.This was then wound through the opening at the front, so that the family could watch a home-made film. It must have been quite impossible to read – Eileen was a great help here –and they were very long-suffering.
It did have the marvellous effect of producing at Christmas the present of a small model theatre It had a roll down curtain, rods across the top from which the back- cloth and scenery wings were hung, and cardboard characters which slotted into little wooden blocks which were pushed onto the stage. It came with two pantomimes, and if I was lucky Eileen took the women’s parts.
This soon developed.There was a little curtain at the front, designed for an orchestra, so I cut out the silhouette of an orchestra, and then I was able to produce my own variety show. I cut out figures of some of the acts we heard on the radio, or at least those 0f whom I had records. At a later stage I produced my own characters and my own scripts. I think other voices that I found I could imitate came later. And now you know why today I spend so much time in the theatre.
So to return to the schooling, Miss Morris got me through the scholarship exam to the High School, where I shall be at the beginning of the next chapter. We are talking about 1935, and in those days, to enter secondary education and the High Schools you had to pass an entrance examination (now called 11+) otherwise you stayed in the elementary school where you had started until the age of 13, when compulsory education finished. If you did very well you earned a scholarship. I did very well, but as far as I know Father never made use of the scholarship. In fact I can remember occasions when I was entrusted with the cheque for the term’s schooling: 4 guineas. (A guinea was 21 shillings, and was still a valid written amount, but guinea coins had ceased many years before.) The scholarship involved an oral exam: about 10 of us at a time were lined up in front of the headmaster and others, presumably some staff and the Education Officer. I don’t remember much about that, except that I was the only one who had not read “Treasure Island”; but presumably they were satisfied with my alternatives.
So there I was: a credit to Miss Morris, who was very pleased; and to the family, who were very pleased; and all set for the Big Adventure of embarking on Secondary at the Big School. Which is sufficiently big to warrant another chapter.
Chapter 4: Christmas.
A short diversion. Writing this particular section round about Christmas time, I am reminded of family Christmases at this time. We had, of course, a Christmas party ready made, and I don’t remember us finding it necessary to ask in outsiders, though sometimes Mother’s brother Uncle Joe would be there. He was married, with a daughter a few years older than me; one of her legs was paralysed, possibly from polio, and she sat in a sort of plaster cast on a cushion to shuffle round on. In her teenage she mended sufficiently to walk, though always with a limp. Uncle Joe used to play the piano – I imagine from ear He played “The animals went in two by two –there’s one more river to cross” which took you through the ark. I never heard him play anything else.
Mother also used to play the piano, also probably by ear, and often on a Sunday we would gather round the piano and sing hymns. To return to Christmas, we used to play various games, probably card games, including one called “Pit”: it involved a lot of shouting, but as it was always played after I had gone to bed I cannot elaborate.
We always had a Christmas tree – a real one in those days, and a tall one, almost to the ceiling, for it had to hold our tree presents: these came out of the Christmas Tree fund, to which we each contributed throughout the year. Contributions were a little graduated according to age, but continued into married life. We then paid a shilling a month, and I remember one of Gwen’s duties was to go with Mother just before Christmas to buy the tree presents.The Christmas Tree thus involved the Christmas Tree List. This was hung on the kitchen wall throughout the year, and recorded your payments, with a space at the end where you wrote what you wanted for Christmas.
We were not always an entirely refined family: there was a lot of ribaldry one year when Doris asked for a tit-box for her blue tits; I think she must have been a better naturalist than the rest of us.
Needless to say, we all went to bed on Christmas eve with a pillow-case hung on the end of the bed, and we never, ever saw Father Christmas! But he knew what we wanted, because he always got our messages, which consisted of little lists which we placed in the coal fire, and watched them go up the chimney.
But the important part of it all was the preparation. Not least was the Christmas Pudding. Mother always made her own with a beautiful-smelling mush in a large basin, and we all had a stir and a wish. She made several, but the one for Christmas Day had two or three little silver threepenny bits (about the size of a 5p piece) inserted in it on the day. And we all listened to the King’s speech on the wireless (yes, the King’s – George V), and stood for the National Anthem at the end. For then, and for many years after the war, the National Anthem was played after the last performance, and for many years nobody moved until it was over. Then there were the decorations. Holly was purchased and distributed round the shelves, and a daring sprig of mistletoe put in the hall. And a lot of work and paste went into the making of great long paper chains, loops made into chains, long enough to cross a room.
A particular Christmas comes to mind when we all listened to a Christmas pantomime on the wireless. It was at Leigh Hall Road, and we set out benches in the playroom (the back room, uncarpeted),turned out the lights and sat in the dark. Doris dressed as an usherette, and showed us to our seats in the dark. Even Father joined in. He always helped Mother distribute the presents off the tree.
Ah, happy days……
Westcliff High School
Westcliff High School: what a dramatic change for a young boy of 11 from a small private school! Two forms of first-years in the new intake were much greater in numbers than the whole school at Caedmon House. Westcliff had a total of some 650 boys from 11 to 17 or 18 While I was there one or two stayed in the sixth form for three, or in one case four years, It was a standing joke that that one was going to stay till they made him head boy; which they eventually did.He was then old enough to drive to school in his car, which he sometimes did.
Class numbering was a little strange: you started in Class 2 (You weren’t known as Year 1, 2 &c., in those days), and I was in 2B. I was always a B, and have been all my days (Hence the title). In B I was in the top 10 for marks; in the fourth form we divided into Arts and Science, and I was with A boys, and was always in the bottom 10.
The school had a bright idea to deal with the August born boys: if you were very young you went into Class 1; in your second year you went into another intermediate class called Remove; and everybody joined up in Class 3. When I went up to Class 3 a new numbering system was introduced: the top two classes were Upper 3A and B, the lower two were plain 3A and B. So psychologically we had no C’s and D’s.
The staff seemed similarly divided into A’s and B’s. In A you had the best teachers, the heads of department and the like; If you were in B you had the second eleven. All in all I think we were taught reasonably well, some taught better than others, some were better disciplinarian than others. For English I had the “Baron” for I don’t know what reason. He was much feared; he had sunken cheeks and a shiny bald head, and used to regret that he was no longer allowed to use the cane. I got on very well with him, but English was a good subject for me. I suppose some of the staff were quite young men, but none seemed so to us. Some had been in the 14/18 war; my history master in the 4th. form onwards used to tell us how warm newspaper was under your shirt in the trenches. He used to clean his glasses on the end of his tie, not that that is connected. Our German master, surprised to find his watch was slow (because somebody had altered it) was very put out, for it had behaved very accurately when he had been timing the artillery in Italy. And the geography master was known as “Moke” because he had looked after a troupe of donkeys during the war.
School day started with assembly, from which Jews and Roman Catholics were excused, as we had a service then – totally non-denominational, but just in case.
Wednesday afternoon was games or sports afternoon (compulsory), so we had to go to school on Saturday morning. It meant we had homework to do on Friday evening, but never had homework to do over the week-end. The games were rugby in the winter, cross-country running in the spring term, and a hotch potch of some sort of cricket in the summer.
The cricket I did play in the two or three years before the war was with a handful of friends, usually in Chalkwell Park in the big field now used for football – we were not allowed to play on or very near the two cricket pitches on the west half I
Was the owner of the stamps, a bat and the ball, and sometimes a pair of wicket keeping gloves, all carried after 1948 by tram from Hadleigh Road, where we had just moved.
Things must have improved when we moved, to a big, four bedroomed house, with a large attic room. We were there, with intermediate departures of those marrying until about 1963, when Mother, then on her own, went to a flat in Westcliff Park Drive.
These were the years when we first had a phone, and the striking clock which has caused so much trouble for Dominic and Sophie was installed in the fairly large hall, Perhaps here it would be an idea to explain again how I acquired it. Mother got much pleasure in marking down which of us was to inherit what when she died. During the war much was made of the strikes of Big Ben just before the 9 0’clock news, as a time when all families could be united in thought right round the world In one letter home from Burma, I mentioned that I heard it, and it made me think of the clock in the hall, so I got the clock.
It was a bit farther to get to school, but as far as I remember I still came home to lunch. By now Eileen and I were the only ones at school, and I think Arthur had already started teaching at Leigh Hall College. I can recall going there one evening, because they had a copy of the first version of King Kong.
Further afield, of course, Hitler was getting busy annexing parts of Europe, and no one was doing much to stop him.
Ron talks about his wartime experiences- follow 3rd link on this page
Photo presentation slideshow (opens in a new window)