An Interrupted Life – Part One

A human life has many beginnings – birth, conscious memory, communication, and so on – but if asked to recall the first really significant event in my life I always go back to a day in London, in my childhood, when I was walking down Kensington Park Road – and then I am at a loss to go on. For one thing, I can’t be sure when it was and, what’s more, nothing actually happened.

I know I was probably thirteen or fourteen, but it could have been earlier. At any rate it was before the war ended because by then we had moved to the other end of the road closer to Notting Hill Gate, and I had no reason to be walking along it.

I sometimes wonder how people whose lives didn’t include a war find their bearings in time. Every other marker seems comparatively trivial. “I lost my virginity just before decimalisation” – wait, when was that? Or “I got my driving license during the Suez Crisis,” – but that hardly pins it down, although it happens to be true in my case.

The war was a very big deal and nothing else comes close to matching it as a line in time. My war began in 1939 and ended in 1945 when I was fourteen. There was ‘before the war,’ and ‘during the war’, and ‘after the war’, and all three had completely different feelings and tastes and colours. Americans had a different war that began in 1941 and ended with a big bang a few months after ours, but nobody I know in America ever uses it as a marker, maybe because most of them are too young to remember it, but also because it happened a long way away.

My war, on the other hand, came very close and there were manifestations of it everywhere. In Kensington Park Road air raid shelters had sprung up in the gardens, sand bags were piled up outside buildings to absorb blast, windows were criss-crossed with masking tape and the windows of the 52 bus passing by had green mesh fabric stuck to them in case bomb blast should shatter the glass. The red cast-iron pillar boxes where we used to post letters were painted yellow on top and were supposed to change colour in a gas attack. One could almost have wished for a gas attack to see it happen. I was very keen on chemistry in those days and I had a special kit you could get with test tubes of stuff to smell so you could identify whether you were being gassed with phosgene or mustard gas or plain old boring chlorine. I can’t imagine now how it could have helped since our gas masks made no such distinctions.

Everyone in the country was issued with a gas mask in the early days and we weren’t supposed to leave home without them. Just think of that – 45 million gas masks, all in cardboard boxes with a thin shoulder strap. In those days a million of anything was a lot. By the middle of the war most people had lost or mislaid them, and we certainly weren’t carrying them around, but even in the absence of gas masks there was plenty to remind us that there was a war going on.

At the time of the event, or non-event, I am about to describe, all these artifacts of war were as much part of the scene as the plastered facades of the houses, the big pale slabs of paving stone under my feet, and the iron fleur-de-lys railings, the ones that had escaped Lord Beaverbrook’s patriotic melting pot.

Kensington Park Road was, and still is, a residential street, but it was the major thoroughfare of my outdoor life. For years I went up and down it almost every day on my way to and from school, so I can’t possibly know now which was this one day that remains pivotal in my life. I can say that the weather was pleasant – which in England means it wasn’t raining – and I was dawdling. If I wasn’t rushing to Notting Hill Gate to catch the 31 bus for school it was most probably a weekend. Perhaps I was going to visit a friend or run an errand for my mother. There was a shop at the Gate where I sometimes went to get her Craven A cigarettes, the ones with the cork tips and the black cat on the packet, when they were available which was not often. Or I might have been going to the stamp shop on Church Street.

So I was walking casually along the road. Oddly enough, although I don’t know what day it was, I know almost exactly where I was. Having left the undistinguished grey church of St.Peter’s behind me I had just crossed Chepstow Villas and was passing a high brick garden wall with a yellow stone coping. Quite suddenly I had an extraordinary, overpowering feeling of joy. It came in a rush of ecstasy, quite unfamiliar and very strange. For the first time in my life I knew what it meant to be completely at ease for no reason other than that I was me.

For minutes I continued down the road alight with a sense of wonder at the sheer beauty of being alive, and even beyond that I had a distinct impression that this glorious feeling could be reproducible. This is not to say that I was usually bowed down by cares and responsibilities – my mother would have laughed at that idea – but I imagine that I was a fairly normal kid with the usual ambitions, frustrated desires, self-doubt, and anguish about how I seemed to others.

For those short, incandescent minutes all of that was lifted off me and I floated free.

It would be nice to be able to say that from that time forward my life was spent in a state of buoyant illumination, but that’s far from the truth. Although I have had other such moments for the most part it’s the memory of them that I feed on.

That memory has saved me many times from the temptation to burden myself with destructive obligations for the sake of some person or ambition, or some misplaced sense of duty. It has made the availability of drugs quite superfluous, since I could obviously get high without them. Whenever I felt trapped I have always freed myself, whatever the cost, because any price was worth paying to be able to take such extraordinary pleasure in just being alive. This determination to be free has led me through many twists and turns. It may be a story worth telling.



I first saw the light of day in 1931 in a second floor flat in Harburg, which today is part of Hamburg. The flat belonged to my grandmother, Auguste Flügge. Her willful daughter, also named Auguste, who lived in London with my father, had come back alone to Germany to be with her mother when she gave birth. I have never properly understood why. Somehow, during all the years that my mother was alive, I never asked her that simple question. Indeed it surprises me how little interest in general people take in their parents’ stories until after they have died and it’s too late to ask.

Was there something about the way childbirth was managed in England at that time that worried her? I know she wasn’t a huge fan of British medicine. A few years later when I was three I developed rickets and, so I was told, my legs became so bowed that the local doctor wanted to break the bones and reset them to give me S-shaped legs. My mother, horrified, found that in Germany the condition was treated with splints at night, and those I DO remember, but they worked. Indeed they worked so well that in later life I was several times complimented on my legs when I would have preferred to be admired for higher things.

But that may not have been what took her to Germany. Perhaps she was already feeling the first inklings of the antipathy between herself and my father, which would eventually, five years later, bring them to divorce? She could not have made the journey without his help and consent. In those days the man was very much the master of the house and he certainly held the purse strings, but my mother was a determined woman who knew her own mind and wasn’t afraid to express it. She was the only one of five sisters who had struck out to make a life of her own, having left for London in 1928 in search of some kind of liberation, and that was certainly an act of rebellion. Whatever her reason for bringing me to Germany in utero, I have spent my life having to explain why I am British but not English, because you can only be English if you were born in England.

She also contrived to set me apart by giving birth on May Day. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of being born on the First of May, when the whole world celebrates my birthday. Even though I obviously share that privilege with about 20 million others on the planet, it does help people remember and I probably got more than my fair share of presents as a child. Later it always seemed like a great incentive to have a party, and I like parties.

It also gave me a reddish tinge that was not inappropriate. Just when and how it was that my mother joined the Communist Party of Great Britain I don’t know – that’s another of those questions I forgot to ask – but I can guess that it would have been after her divorce. I have always taken it for granted that the divorce was my mother’s idea. I remember something about a compromising letter she found in his trouser pocket when she was doing the laundry. In those days adultery was virtually the only path to freedom. Regardless of the real issue, it was the husband who would arrange to be surprised in bed – Shock! Horror! – with a paid co-respondent in some suitably seedy establishment.

In fact her decision to join the party may have been a last straw that broke the back of the marriage. Her choice would certainly have dismayed my father who had worked so diligently to escape his exotic background as a Romanian Jew and to become a respectable member of a conventional British business community. The references that he offered in his application for British citizenship were all from men of that kind, and they talked about their comfortable social relationships with him. I cannot imagine that he, or they, would ever have been able to accept the idea of his being married to a Communist.

Of course my mother’s decision wasn’t taken overnight. Trouble must have been brewing for some time and I have recently stumbled upon evidence of how it probably came about. I have photographs that were taken of me as a small child, big beautiful glossy prints of obvious quality, and they bear on the back the stamp of the photographer, Edith Tudor-Hart. I already knew, though I’m not sure how, that she and my mother were friends. The earliest pictures show me playing on a beach somewhere, half in and half out of the water. I could only have been two or three years old, and my hair, which later became black, was then a profusion of blond curls like my mother’s. My gender was in no way apparent, and I remember being told that the pictures were offered to an advertising campaign for Pear’s Soap, which declared that I was “Preparing to be a Beautiful Lady.”

Only now, eighty years later, did it occur to me to feed the photographer’s name to Google, and the results were astonishing and enlightening. Edith Tudor-Hart was anything but a friendly local photographer of children. She was in fact a revolutionary firebrand, and I was amazed to learn that her photography has been celebrated in museums in Glasgow, Vienna and Germany as recently as 2013. The exhibition was entitled “In the Shadow of Tyranny” and her pictures on the whole were searing and heartbreaking images of poverty and repression in central Europe and England in the thirties.

She was born as Edith Suschitzky in Vienna in 1908, and she grew up in a city ravaged by the impact of the First World War. Although she was five years younger than my mother, they must both have suffered the same bitter deprivations of the post-war period that my mother described to me so vividly – the constant battle for fuel and food, the angry demonstrations in a completely disjointed society, and the fear of roaming bands of desperate ex-servicemen with nothing to lose. The big difference was that Edith was raised in radical Jewish circles, and her childhood was dominated by social issues in a culture acutely aware of the impact of the Russian Revolution. My mother on the other hand was largely insulated from politics. The only issue she carried with her from her youth was her disgust with the devoutly bourgeois women to whom she and her sister delivered a religious newspaper on Sundays. Not even on the bitterest winter days in Hamburg did any of them ever invite the two freezing girls to come in and warm their hands. That was when God lost my mother.

As girls, both Edith Tudor-Hart and my mother trained to be kindergarten teachers, which I guess was a common vocation for young women in those days. Edith was persuaded to adopt the Montessori method which had recently found favour and I find it interesting that when my mother, much later, founded her own nursery school she also followed the same method although she had been taught to follow a more traditional one named after Froebel. Edith however went on to study photography at the famous Bauhaus in Dessau and then worked as a photojournalist. In her twenties she became deeply involved in the battle, political but also sometimes physical, between Left and Right. In 1933 Austria became, effectively, a fascist dictatorship and she was arrested while working as an agent for the Communist Party. She only escaped imprisonment by marrying an English doctor, Alexander Tudor-Hart, and exiling herself to London.

It is not hard to imagine the impact on my mother of meeting a woman with Edith’s background and experience. It would be like putting a match to an ammunition depot. All the injustice and bigotry she had experienced personally, the obvious gross inequities of the class system, the rampant misogyny of those days, were all simply and lucidly accounted for by Marx, Engels, and the Communist Manifesto. While Edith had her history of what came close to urban warfare in central Europe, England had the hunger marches, massive unemployment, and a crippling shortage of housing that forced working families to live in disgraceful conditions.

In the Europe of the thirties, with the slaughter of a world war still fresh in the memory, and with the misery of the great depression all around, Communism was for some all light and hope. None of the dark and dreadful consequences were yet apparent. Even if there were stories of harsh measures taken in the Soviet Union they were easily accounted for as being necessary to counter the conspiracies, the aggressions and the sabotage carried out by hostile capitalist countries.

The future was laid out like a map for my mother. To survive as a single mother in those days, without the support of a welfare state as we know it today demanded fierce discipline and flexibility. She was competing with millions of unemployed and had to be willing to try her hand at anything. At various times she was a housekeeper, a seamstress, a book-keeper, a children’s nurse, and all the time the pressures on her to conform, the temptation to find security with another husband or perhaps even to do without the marriage certificate, must have been great. Surrounded by evidence of social injustice, being the victim of it herself, the appeal of the Communist philosophy once she was exposed to it was irresistible.

It was so obvious then that if the working class could only gain control of the wealth of the country and its means of production the scourge of poverty and inequality could be lifted. What might seem like naiveté today was beside the point in the context of that time. Nothing could be worse than things as she saw them. My mother took her politics very seriously. She bought and studied the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others. She subscribed to the Left Book Club, whose red faux-linen covers I remember seeing later on her bookshelf, when I first read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. She had complete faith in the Soviet Union as a model for the future, and she devoted her free time to working tirelessly to that end.

But the timing is all speculation on my part. While the squalid divorce proceedings were going on, my mother sent me away to stay with her mother in Germany for three months. I am very glad she did. I benefited enormously. But I have to wonder why a Communist would send her five-year-old son to Nazi Germany, particularly one who’s father was Jewish. Perhaps my mother was not yet quite so politically sophisticated. After all, British tourists were coming back from Germany with glowing reports of the miraculous recovery the Germans had made since the war, how happy everyone seemed to be under Hitler and how the trains – just like Mussolini’s Italian trains – all ran on time.

I have written about this elsewhere but it’s worth repeating because every time that I think about it my sense of foreboding becomes sharper. The journey to Hamburg, which involved a night on an ocean liner, was a brilliant event in my life. I travelled alone, though under supervision, and shared a berth with another boy. I know that the rungs of the ladder I used to climb into my bunk were encased in thick red plush, because I remember bouncing down it in a game we were playing, and I recall that the ship boasted brightly lit shops offering interesting and luxurious items.

Once I got to Hamburg, where one of my aunts probably collected me from the ship, I must surely have had some bad moments, because only my maiden aunt Hanne spoke any English at all, but my memories are all good. There were other children to play with and I learned the language quickly. Aunt Hanne had a smoked fish shop, which I recall as a cavern of delights. She processed much of what she sold and I spent a lot of time playing on the stone floor, saturated by the delicious aromas of smoked herring and eel, and of the big pickling barrels of gherkins and sauerkraut.

In 1936 the Nazis were busy propagating their mythology, and there was Nazi paraphernalia everywhere, which had visceral appeal to a childish imagination. I loved all the fancy uniforms, especially the black SS ones, with their shiny black boots and beautiful swooping military caps, and I raised my arm to them all in my best Hitler salute with much gravity. I enjoyed the marching bands, and, Oh, how I admired and envied the Hitler Youth with their desirable leather straps and holsters and knives. And one night in particular is bright in my memory. My grandmother’s balcony in Irrgarten overlooked a square where Nazi enthusiasts were holding a torchlight procession and I watched them march with huge excitement.

Of course I was quite innocent. Well, aren’t we all?

© Ted Simon 2019



An Interrupted Life – Part Two >



I do have an ulterior motive for engaging your attention – a fairly blameless one, I think.

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Signed copies direct from me cost $79 ($50 + $29 postage, handling and fees). That’s equivalent to approximately £68 (£40 + £28 postage, etc.) or 73 Euros (45 Euros + 28 Euros postage, etc.)





Don't Boil The Canary

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