An Interrupted Life – Part Seven

From 1943 on my life was an explosion of new interests and ideas.

I began reading voraciously, raiding the public library and combing the rows from left to right in alphabetical order, where I would clear one author off the shelf before moving on to another one. I devoured adventure – Rider Haggard was a favourite – and stories about scientific discoveries, and then increasingly novels with a social bent, like Dickens, H.G.Wells, Upton Sinclair, Emil Zola. Remarkably enough, London’s great museums stayed open, the Science museum, the Natural History museum with it’s celebrated skeletons and even the Victoria & Albert, all clustered conveniently together in South Kensington and easy for me to get to.

At a different cultural level I sometimes went to the public swimming baths at the end of Westbourne Grove where the local kids splashed about and yelled at each other, and I was astonished to hear that every other word was the “F” word. It was “fucking” this and “fucking” that with total fluency and it was something I had never encountered before. It made me feel like a foreigner and I couldn’t imagine how it would be possible to talk to them. I knew that these kids probably came from the housing north of us that was little better than a slum and that they were from the working classes who were always mentioned with reverence among Communists. My mother said we were also from the working class but I didn’t feel I had much in common with them.

My mother sometimes went to those houses at the other end of Ladbroke Grove to do what she called “canvassing” though she never explained what it had to do with canvas. She took me with her once too and it made a deep impression on me. Usually she would go down to the basement flats under the stairs where I supposed the poorest people lived and I recoiled from the stench of rancid frying fat issuing from the front doors when they were opened. The sad and rather grubby-looking women who came to the door to talk to her were suspicious but they listened, and my mother gave them what she called “literature” – various pamphlets and usually a copy of the Communist Manifesto. Even I could see that the basements were damp and unhealthy and she told me it was because the landlords refused to do anything about it.

My mother’s politics inevitably seized my attention although she never imposed any ideas of morality or religion upon me. However she answered my questions as best she could and before long it became obvious to me that Communism was the only possible political ideal worth striving for. Nor did I encounter any opposition to this conclusion. The school was Church of England, of course, but there was no religious instruction. Every morning at assembly we recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang a hymn, and I enjoyed bellowing out the songs, particularly when the hymn was Blake’s Jerusalem. It was many years before I learned that his “satanic mills” were in the mind and not the ones that Orwell wrote about.

Anyway, beyond school assembly God didn’t get a word in.

During the latter part of the war godless Communists were almost respectable. The Soviet Union was on our side, bearing the brunt of human sacrifice as it turned the German advances into stalemate at Stalingrad and then gradually forced Hitler into retreat. The Communist Party believed, with some reason, that the Western powers were not unhappy to see Hitler draining the blood of the Soviets. From 1943 my mother was engaged in a furious campaign to bring pressure on our governments to launch an attack on Western Europe and take the pressure off Stalin. She became very busy organising protests and meetings, and her branch had a portable speaker’s platform, a wooden contraption that they set up on Portobello road on Saturdays where she and her comrades would try to draw a crowd for a SECOND FRONT NOW! Of course that became my cause too and I became very interested in these meetings and sometimes went along.

From my point of view the war was a steady state of mild deprivation, interrupted every now again by a violent incursion, or a more than usually stunning piece of news. A bomb here, a military breakthrough there, and life as I had always known it – or so it seemed – just went on. One particularly dramatic event in the summer of ‘42 was when the RAF flew a thousand bombers over London on their way to the destruction of Cologne. The noise was endless and deafening, and very encouraging because for once we had nothing to fear from it. Then in ’43 there were two more huge bomber raids on Germany but we didn’t know until later that they were on their way to bomb my grandmother.

Everyone knew the invasion would have to happen eventually. We saw American soldiers more frequently, and in early 1944 it seemed that something was bound to happen soon, but before it did a new horror engulfed us. Germany sent us the flying bomb. At first it brought all the terror of an unknown threat, as these mysterious objects rained down on London, day and night, causing great damage, but we quickly found out what they were. These strange little planes with stubby wings and rocket engines flew without a pilot, and carried more than a ton of explosives in their noses. Launched from sites on the French coast and later the Belgian coast they were programmed to reach London and drop.

This engine of destruction had several names. The Nazis called it their Vergeltungswaffe or Revenge-weapon, and for a while we even adopted the Nazi name for it, the V1, which somehow helped to diminish it. Soon there were other names, the Doodlebug, and then the Buzzbomb because of the buzzing sound it made when its engine was fully functioning although I never heard that buzzing noise myself. During the day we just became used to them. Unlike the traditional bombing raids there could be no warning and their appearance in the sky was entirely random.

It was at night that they were most frightening. Lying in bed in the dark I could hear them. They made an unmistakable popping sound just before their motors stopped, and then they fell, but you could never tell how far or near they were. First there was the pop-pop-pop-pop sound, then silence, followed sometimes by the loud CRUMP if they fell close enough to be heard. Sometimes they dropped like a stone. Sometimes they glided for a mile or more. It was impossible to tell how close they were but the devastation they wrought when they landed was impressive.

For the first time I had a real sense of life being a lottery, as I lay there, willing the thing to go on popping until it was far enough along to fall somewhere else. Most people slept in shelters. The platforms of underground stations were lined with bunk beds, with mattresses and bedding everywhere. The people in our house used the basement as an improvised shelter, but my mother would have none of it. She said the chances of being hit were so slight that it wasn’t worth losing sleep over. She hated the idea of being crammed into a small space with dozens of strange adults and children snoring and crying, and it never occurred to me to contradict her.

It was the blast from the explosions that was most destructive, and one morning going down Church Street on my daily bus ride to school I saw for myself the devastation and the strange effects that it caused. From the top of the bus the outer wall of a house was simply stripped away. On the second floor I looked straight into a kitchen, apparently undisturbed, with the table still laid for breakfast. And once I actually had a frighteningly close encounter with one just before I arrived at school. The school was on Hortensia Road, a side street off Fulham Road. There is a continuous row of houses on the other side of Fulham road and as I was walking to school a flying bomb appeared, suddenly and silently gliding over the top of that row of houses and to my petrified eye seeming to be headed straight at me. The shock was paralysing. Nothing prepared me for such a huge, menacing object moving so fast. I was rooted to the spot, more in astonishment than fear because it passed me too quickly and it must have been much higher than I imagined because it flew on a long way before I heard the explosion.

At last, in June, the invasion of Europe that we’d all been waiting for began and of course there was the sense of a tipping point. For me the war was only ever a backdrop to the things that really mattered, my schoolwork, my friends, and my other interests, but that summer I got suddenly much closer to the action. Our headmaster organised a trip in the summer holiday for a party of us thirteen year olds to a place in the south, near Dorchester, to pick potatoes on a farm. [I wrote about this more extensively in Rolling Through the Isles]

Our camp happened to be quite close to a huge supply depot for the forces in Europe. Jeeps careered around the narrow lanes, usually driven by black American GI’s who were very generous with their luxuries, and we all amassed hordes of chocolate and cigarettes and whatever else they happened to have as they passed by. I scored a strange inflatable device with a big brass buckle that mystified us all, and I held on to it for many years until it disappeared as a casualty of one too many moves. Only seventy years later did I identify it, wrapped around a munitions canister, floating off the beach in the film Saving Private Ryan.

The RAF eventually found ways to intercept most of the flying bombs and they had almost ceased to bother us when the Vll rocket began to come crashing down from the stratosphere. For a short while they caused terrible damage and killed thousands of Londoners, but the Allies mercifully overran the German lines and put a stop to them. Then, as the war in Europe drew to an end there came another upheaval in our home; the arrival of Gustel Zörner. She was a German refugee of about my mother’s age who came to stay with us for a few months. I knew little about her. She was never in the flat during the day, and hardly ever there before I went to bed, but the main effect was that my mother moved her bed from the living room into my bedroom, and Gustel slept on the sofa.

She was a Communist, of course. All my mother’s friends were Communists and no different from anyone else as far as I could tell, but the ones I knew were very friendly towards me and I knew they had a great deal of respect for my mother. When I was eleven one of them, a tall thin nondescript man called Stan Boucher would have liked to marry my mother and she asked me very carefully what I thought about it. I objected strenuously, because at the time I still retained a vague notion that I wanted to marry her myself. Nothing more was ever said about it.

By the time Gustel arrived, three years later, such an idea would have been abhorrent and I had other interests, one of which centred around the difference between the sexes. Burning with curiosity, and with no other way to satisfy it, finally one night, as we both lay in our separate beds, I managed to ask my mother what a woman’s private parts looked like and she compared them to a box of Batger’s dates, a popular treat at the time. The dates, still on their stem, were packed in a long narrow box with rounded ends. It was such an extraordinary image that it mystified me long after my curiosity was satisfied. In fact it puzzles me to this day.

Then the war in Europe ended just after my birthday and for a short while there was tremendous excitement before it became apparent that for us nothing was really going to change. We had no husbands, brothers and fathers to welcome back. Rationing and austerity were obviously going to continue for a very long time, with none of the excitement of war to relieve the monotony. But one thing changed for the better so far as I was concerned. With the Red Army all over Berlin, Gustel Zôrner soon disappeared to bring socialism and happiness to East Germany. It turned out that she was quite a big wheel in the communist apparatus and she became the personal private secretary of Walter Ulbricht, the new boss. He was the man who built the Berlin Wall and became responsible for inflicting a particularly nasty kind of misery on a lot of people. I later heard that he was also a monumentally boring man, and I never knew whether Gustel survived it.

The main thing, from my point of view was that we had the flat to ourselves again.

The texture of everyday life remained much the same in the post war years but nothing could diminish the dramatic changes in my personal life as I grew up from boyhood into adolescence. The only steadying influence was school, which had to proceed, regardless of turmoil, from term to term through 1945 and 1946 to 1947 when that fateful exam would determine my future. My fascination with chemistry intensified but at the same time we were exposed to some more sophisticated teachers of English and History, and in my case French. They were necessarily older men, very experienced, who began to take an interest in us as individuals, rather than as a herd to be controlled. I knew them only by their surnames and initials. They had black gowns in the ancient tradition which added to their authority and dignity, with the exception of Mr. Nightingale, the eccentric Mathematics teacher who was known to tear pieces off his gown to wipe the chalk off the blackboard.

It was he who astounded us the day after the British forces had liberated Belsen-Buchenwald concentration camp. The horrific pictures that appeared in the papers and in Picture Post of skeletal people on the point of death were imprinted on everyone’s retina. Nightingale was a tall, thin, almost cadaverous person himself. He stood before us that morning, on the dais, and very seriously but quite preposterously, said “Don’t you be taken in by all that propaganda. I can look like a Belsen victim if I want to,” and he sucked in his hollow cheeks to prove it.

Of course none of us took his advice seriously. We thought he was nuts. I never got to the bottom of his strange performance. Did he have a hidden Nazi past? Was he a fanatical anti-Semite? Did he march with Oswald Mosley? Yet this man was a good and revered maths teacher. In this instance we thought he had teetered into madness, but it was an extraordinary object lesson. A person can be off the rails in one respect and still be valuable to society.

Mr Linklater, the French master, was a dapper gent. He wore a pinstriped suit with a waistcoat that sat comfortably over a very well-fed stomach which he referred to as his embonpoint, pressing it into vocabulary-building service. He stood before us as though on a stage, arms akimbo, rolling the chalk in the palm of his right hand and proclaiming impossible words like fourrurrerie with those inimitable rrrrs rolling out from the back of his throat. It was not difficult to imagine him on the boulevards of Paris and his personality went someway to compensate for the drudgery of French irregular verbs.

Unfortunately I found history rather dull and irrelevant at that time and didn’t profit as I should have from Mr. Berkeley, who taught it. He was a much more acerbic character with a thrusting profile and a keen and witty mind, and he enjoyed being asked difficult questions. All in all, as I grew up I came to realise that it was a pretty good school. In it’s prewar days it had had quite an important reputation for putting on excellent productions of Shakespeare, and the headmaster was doing all he could to revive it. Thanks again to the excellent teaching I fell in love with MacBeth. Although we never performed it, there was a time (and I can scarcely believe it now) when I could recite the entire play.

I did perform in some school plays. There was one excruciating comedy called “Browne With An E” in which I played the part of “Ze French Waiter,” and another of which a critic wrote that E.J.Simon gave a thoughtful performance of a character called Butters who was wracked by a guilty conscience. There were concerts, and occasional social events for older boys and their parents, when the assembly hall was cleared of chairs to allow for a small dance floor.

It was about that same time that I became aware of our sister school, called Carlyle, that was just a few hundred yards further down the road, an almost exact replica of our own school, but for girls. Of course I’d known about it for years. At first it was of no interest at all, then there was a period when it became the subject of the sort of dirty jokes that boys make when they don’t quite know how this boy girl thing works, and then came the full blown realisation that the school actually contained a supply of girls who might, if one was lucky, help to resolve the mystery of the sexes. By now, in the fifth form, there were already some bold spirits who claimed to have cracked the code. I noted with some interest that this was a very different elite from the one I belonged to, and rather deflated any sense superiority I might have had. These were boys who seemed somehow to have an instinctive familiarity with the opposite sex. Names were bandied about and a certain Marion was said to be a willing participant in these ground breaking research projects. I on the other hand had absolutely no idea what to do about girls, let alone how to meet my Marion.

For several years, since we were children, I’d had a girl as a friend, a pretty girl with curly dark hair, a snub nose and a few freckles. Her name was Stephanie Bicz, and she was the daughter of Czech refugees from Vienna. My mother knew the parents, probably through the Party, and she must have arranged something with them, perhaps so that she could have some free time. I went over to their home quite often, at weekends and through the holidays. They lived quite a way off in Swiss Cottage, close to where the famous Abbey Road recording studio is today. It meant taking the 31 bus in the opposite direction from school and about the same distance. Sometimes I ate with them as well and I was quite suspicious of the food, which was spicy and red and tasted very different to anything my mother cooked. The father was a short, tubby jeweller who one day invited me to his workshop at the back of the flat. He had a bench littered with all kinds of small, glittering things, and some tools and a burner. It was when I was just getting interested in chemistry and he showed me how he melted metals in a crucible.

Steffi and I played happily together and I was very slow to realise, as I grew up, that she might be anything more than a playmate. When I did, my confusion was paralysing. Whatever it was that allowed adolescent boys to drive through their shy, awkwardness and change the game was lacking in me. I desperately wanted something to happen but couldn’t find a way to bring it about. It was impossible to imagine that a girl would have any interest in touching me or being touched by me. Those few years of unrequited sexual passion seemed interminable, and when my mind wasn’t distracted by other things the frustration bit deep.

Steffi was the obvious target of my desires. When we were sixteen I asked her to come to a school dance with me, and I wanted so much to hold her close and even kiss her. She was a very attractive girl now, it should have been easy, but I was petrified. I dragged her all over the school hoping that somehow something would happen without my having to initiate it. Finally in anger and frustration she burst out, “Why don’t you hold me?” and when I held out my arms she shouted, “It’s too late now,” and swept off. Of course I should have followed her and insisted, but I was rooted to the spot by my own sense of inadequacy. Somehow we got through that evening, frozen in despair, until I put her on the bus. After that night I never called on her again.

© Ted Simon 2019

 


 

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