first memories- part 4

September 12, 2006

These are a collection of ‘early memories’ rather than the very first.

For most of my childhood, rationing was in force (it only came to an end finally in 1954). This affected food and also clothes, though the clothes thing didn’t bother me as I only ever had 2 of each item and my guardian bought everything in dark gray so that it could be used over and over again before it had to be washed. I later found out that white shirts were on her list of ‘works of the devil’. The most important food item that was rationed was of course, sweets and that only finished in 1953. Of more impact than the rationing, though, were the shortages. Sometimes we made do with powdered potatoes which were lumpy and disgusting. Eggs (which were rationed, an adult was allowed one per week) were also in short supply and replaced by the foul tasting egg powder. The Ministry of Food stated in a “Dried Egg” hand out that dried eggs were “pure fresh eggs with no additions, and nothing but the moisture taken away.” Oh well, they do say that the first casualty of war is truth. Food that was scarce was not rationed- because you never saw it. Whether any oranges and bananas reached Britain depended very much on the German U boat commanders. I saw my first banana when I was about 6 or 7- my guardian had bought one and brought it home for the three of us to share. Most of the time we ate bread (not rationed but scarce), margarine (rationed) a tiny bit of jam (rationed), an equally tiny bit of cheese (also rationed), potatoes when we could get them, sometimes you could find cabbage as well. During the war meat was needed to be saved to send to soldiers; afterwards it was still rationed but we managed to have a small lamb chop on Saturdays and occasionally a piece of chicken on Sundays. Petrol was rationed but that didn’t matter as nobody had a car anyway. Oddly enough, cigarettes and alcohol were never rationed, presumably to avoid completely undermining people’s morale. Lots of things were recycled. Aluminum pots and pans were collected to be made into aircraft engines. Parachutes were turned into underclothes and, I suspect, many parachutes were made out of old underpants. Woolen garments were unknitted to be reknitted into jerseys and socks for soldiers. String was in very short supply, though what particular military purpose that was used for, apart from repairing Spitfires, I’m not sure.
For reasons I discovered only much later, during the school holidays I was dispatched to London to stay with my foster parents. I was seen on to a train in our tiny local station which trundled and shuffled its way to the nearest main line station . There I had to find my way to another platform where I would wait for the unmistakable sight of one of the great steam locomotives approaching (The Flying Scotsman or Sir Nigel Gresley, sometimes the Loch Lomond- I knew all their names) that would carry me to Kings Cross Station where, all being well I would be met by my London family. Imagine letting a six year old boy travel like that on his own these days! I guess there more were choirboys around then. Leaving home was always a wrench but going back after a few weeks away from my guardian’s repressive regime was even more so. If I had been lucky I had been taken to a pantomime or Lyons Corner House for tea and occasionally allowed to press the keys on the accordion. My favourite toy was a tricycle which I would propel aimlessly round the tiny garden. I would rush out of the house in fear every time I heard the signature tune for ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ as I understood ‘diary’ to mean that someone was going to die. The ‘wireless’ was on most of the day so I had regular doses of the BBC Light Programme with announcers with aristocratic accents who addressed their audience as ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. Most of the time it was ‘Workers’ Playtime’, ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘The Billy Cotton Bandshow’, ‘Family Favourites’ and ‘Music While You Work’. The latter usually featured a theatre organist (one of the most played was Reginald Dixon with ‘Oh I do like to be beside the sea-side’). The music had to follow strict instructions issued by the BBC: “There must be as little variation of tempo as possible, the ideal being to maintain the same beat throughout the whole programme. Artistic value must NOT be considered. The aim is to produce something which is monotonous and repetitive. Subtlety of any kind is out of place.” I think they succeeded admirably. For some reason I was not allowed to listen to ‘Children’s Favourites’ with Uncle Mac. My diet would horrify modern nutritionist- breakfast was usually a cup of tea and a Rich Tea biscuit; lunch some fried bread and dripping. I suspected that the money my guardian sent for my food probably ended up in the till of the nearest local, the Woodman (more of which later). There was no bath in the house so I was washed in the kitchen, where I would almost nightly have to endure the torture of having water smeared on my neck and behind my ears. For most of my childhood soap was rationed; water, unfortunately, was not.
Dad had fought in the First World War as a private in the Royal Fusiliers (though ‘fought’ is perhaps overstating things slightly; he seemed to have spent most of the time in the cafes of Cairo and Alexandria hoping that his one phrase of a foreign language ‘Mamzelle, voulez-vous promener avec moi’ would unlock the mysteries of the Orient while others less fortunate were fighting the Battle of Megiddo). He kept a few mementos, including his gas mask, under my bed. I loved trying it on though after a few minutes it got all steamed up and smelly inside. I don’t remember him telling me much about his time in the war though, certainly not any actual fighting, but he would sometimes get out an old scrap album and show me sepia postcards of the cafes and souks where, apparently, he spent his time . As far as Dad was concerned, foreigners came in one single category and were known as ‘wogs’, Most of the things he told me concerned former Tottenham Hotspur players and other greats like Dixie Dean (who once scored 60 goals in a season) or murderers like Dr. Crippen. I could have completed a PhD on Crippen as Dad knew all the details of his crimes and how he was ultimately arrested. I was most struck by the fact that Crippen, who had killed his wife, was caught on a boat to Canada having disguised his lover as a boy and pretended that it was his son. Another of his heroes was the infamous Albert Pierrepont, Britain’s last executioner. Most of the stories used to end with a lurid description of the hanging and he would take particular delight in describing the horrific crimes of child murderers. Not surprisingly, every time I left the brightly lit sitting room for the dark corridor on the way to the toilet I was convinced that Crippen or one of his successors was lying in wait for me. Once he took me to Madame Tussaud’s where we spent the whole time in the Chamber of Horrors so I could see what the people who figured in his accounts really looked like.
When I was about 7 the Franklins were moved out of our slightly less than palatial prefab in Hornsey to a council flat somewhere in the No Man’s land between the Archway and Muswell Hill. In those days it was bare concrete and drab brick and problem families with kids that chased me and called me names. I went back there last year and it is now a yuppies’ enclave with Amazonian creepers and organic peppers hiding the dingy flats from sight. Two or three nights a week the Franklins used to go to the local pub, the Woodman. I would be taken along too, but, obviously I was not allowed inside so I would stand on the pavement by the side door for what seemed like whole nights. Every so often someone would take pity on me and bring me a bottle of lemonade and a packet of crisps- “all right son, are we? burp burp’ as they disappeared back into the public bar from where I could hear raucous laughter, clinking of glasses, often a sing-song with Tom pounding away on the piano. He’d always start with a few effortless arpeggios before going into a medley of anything that was in his head at the time. He had never taken lessons and couldn’t read a note of music but as soon as he heard a tune he could play it, improvise on it and then turn it into Old Mother Brown.
I shared my bedroom with Tom, who was then in his twenties and a postman. Most evenings Tom would be down the Woodman, often playing the piano there or sometimes he would be playing the piano at another pub. He would usually come home drunk . I soon found out his drunkenness took several forms. The mildest was when he would stumble into the bedroom struggle up onto his bed, fart and fall asleep, snoring like the Flying Scotsman pulling out of Kings Cross Station. On occasions he would sink on to the bed, fart, then exclaim ‘Blown a wet one’ and he would show me it proudly before trying to scrape it off the sheet. Other times, he would wake me up and tell me a long rambling story that someone had told him in the pub. Naturally, I understood none of it. Not infrequently he would sit on my bunk and leer lecherously before ’interfering’ with me. I found the experience rather unpleasant, partly because that piece of his anatomy seemed frighteningly large, but mostly because he smelt of beer and would sometimes lean over to be sick in the bucket I used to pee in. It also puzzled me that grown-ups should have so little control over themselves and behave so unpredictably. I can’t say, though, that it scarred me for life. I’m sure that if this had happened more recently I would have been sent for counseling, something  which would have scarred me for life. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t tell an adult. Well, one reason was that if an innocent enquiry on my part such as ‘why did you call Mrs Hardcastle a cow?’ was invariably met with a sharp ‘you hold your tongue’, I could not imagine what verbal darts would be hurled my way if I started describing some of the details of the incidents with Tom. Also I had no friends there and was less than satisfied with the entertainment provided by Dad’s tales of murderers and Tottenham Hotspur forwards of the 1920’s and being allowed to sit with Tom as he played the piano was something I definitely did not want to lose. So it was in my interests to keep on good terms with him. As I recollect, it was also marginally less unpleasant an experience than the torture inflicted on me every time we went shopping by old ladies picking me up and kissing me. How I hated the wizened old skin on their faces, the smell of pickled onions and Craven A in their breath. Going shopping with Mum was particularly painful as I knew we would have to stop while she chatted to every neighbour we met that she was still on speaking term with, each encounter being framed by that dreadful embrace.
Conversation at the Franklins consisted mostly in commenting unfavourably on the goings-on in the neighbourhood which Mrs F had gleaned from her 24 hour surveillance through the net curtains (who needs CCTV?) or from gossiping with the few neighbours she talked to. This was a world of shifting social relationships- in other words one visit I would find her bosom friends with Mrs Annersley at number 11 to the point where the wall between our number 9 and number 11 seemed pointless. The next visit the mere mention of Mrs Annersley or number 11 would bring down on me the swift and merciless wrath of the household. Often I would hear talk of ‘that old cow’s been at it again’, ‘she’s no better than she ought to be’, or ‘that tart’s in the family way again’ , and after sitting silently and trying to make sense of the complex webs of who was talking to who, I would occasionally pipe up with an innocent question. Retribution was instantaneous in the form of the hissed ‘ you hold your tongue’ so I would return to my shell-like observation post trying to work out the why’s and wherefores of this constant adult warfare. My questions were clearly a source of some discomfort as whenever I asked anyone where they were going I was told ‘to see a man about a dog’ or ‘to buy some elbow grease’. Naturally the first few times I was taken in and waited with scarcely concealed excitement for the arrival of the dog. Whenever there was an opportunity I would plead with Tom or Dad to play French cricket or football but they rarely did, though once or twice Dad took me to Highgate Woods just up the road. I think the lesson I learned from watching the adults around me was that the world was a cruel and unpredictable place where nobody, least of all any adult, could be relied on for support.


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