An Interrupted Life – Part Two

When I got back to England my mother was still living in our house, but my father had left. I visited him once, in a flat somewhere. Oddly I can remember painted wooden surfaces, doors, cupboards maybe, but no more than that. I have a notion that there was a female presence somewhere at the time, but it remains very vague. I spent one night with him there. We slept in the same bed, and we played a hilarious game with the sheets in the morning. Even now I feel a pang knowing that we would never share that intimacy again and that I would hardly ever see him again.

Eventually I suppose the little semi-detached house that my father had bought in New Eltham, a suburb of London, had to be sold. No doubt it was mortgaged but perhaps my mother got some money from that. My father still maintained a faint presence in my life. Probably at my mother’s instigation he apparently offered to pay for my education at a small, private boarding school in Watford called Wynyard House where I wore a cap and a blazer. The school taught Latin, and in a hot classroom where particles of dust floated down through the sun’s rays I declined the cases of “mensa, mensa, mensam, etc” while fighting off a powerful desire to doze and dream.

However the school also required its little pupils to put on puffy leather gloves and hit each other. I found this very surprising and disagreeable. No one had previously disclosed to me that this kind of aggressive behaviour, normally frowned on, was also supposedly a noble art, and inexplicably called Boxing. At any rate, I objected vociferously. It seemed to me that my chances of hitting anyone were very slim, while a bigger boy – and all the boys looked bigger than me at that moment – would certainly hit me and it would hurt. Even so I was persuaded, by force majeure, to get into the ring, and the result was exactly as I had predicted.

I was there for a term and judging by the few letters that survive I was reasonably happy.

“Dear Mummy,” I wrote, “I am sorry that you didn’t come yesterday. I won two races and the long jump. Daddy took a photo of me. My partner in boxing was M. Boxer. With love, Edward.”

The joke didn’t mollify my mother. When she found that I was being put into a boxing ring to be hit she hurriedly took me away from the school and brought me back to Clapham and that effectively put paid to any chance of my benefitting from a glorious tradition of British Public Schools which have bred so many statesmen, field marshals and leaders of industry, not to mention an even greater number of scoundrels and remittance men.

In retrospect I am not sure that she did me a favour. I might have learned that the fear of being hit is much worse than the actual event, and supposedly there is some moral virtue in slugging another person without malice aforethought. I will never know. To my surprise I realise now that in all my long life I can’t remember ever deliberately hitting another person, although I have often wanted to. In fact I have become quite expert at avoiding physical conflict and am certainly afraid of being hurt. Whether or not that is the “better part of valour” I am sure there’s a good measure of cowardice in there somewhere, which I am only able to admit now, having done a few things that did require some bravery.

Soon after I escaped the boxing ring my mother found a job with a family in Hastings, a seaside town on the Channel coast. I suppose she was a housekeeper or governess or glorified servant. I remember nothing about her employers, and that in itself suggests that it was probably not a happy situation for my mother. No doubt I did all the things a six year old would do, but all that remains in my memory was the importance of breakfast. In those days the Kellogg’s corn flakes packets had dotted lines on them and you learned to cut out panels and slot them together to make models of something desirable, but first of course the packets had to be empty and I succumbed readily to Kellogg’s marketing genius.

Being so close to the sea one would imagine that a small boy’s memories would include boats and waves and vaguely nautical escapades but the only residue that seems to have marinated in my mind from that time is a remembered liking for potted shrimp and bloater paste, probably in homage to my Aunt Hanne’s fish shop. These spreads came in jars that were ridiculously small and were made by someone called Shippam, who should have been ashamed of himself for being so niggardly. I also got my first bicycle in Hastings and eventually I did something to one of my knees, which would occasionally lock it up. This was a curious condition that lasted for several years and became a part of my identity until one day when I realised that it had mysteriously vanished.

There was also a short visit to a farm somewhere and what I can recover from that episode is the story I was told later: That I had found a small ladder somewhere and had propped it up against the side of a large, patient carthorse and was found sitting on its back. But I do myself recall that there were many rabbits on the farm, which were trapped and converted into pies. I watched the farmer dispatch the rabbits with a quick twist of the head to break their necks. When I managed somehow to chase a rabbit into a haystack and capture it, I tried and failed to kill it in the same way. The injured rabbit escaped and I was unhappy about that.

In the summer of 1938 I was transported mysteriously by train to a holiday in Cornwall and this again might have had something to do with Edith Tudor-Hart because her husband Alex lived down there. Mysterious because my mother wasn’t with me, so there must have been someone in whom she had confidence, but who left no impression on me. I stayed in a small stone cottage, and while I was there I contracted yellow jaundice and had to spend a good deal of time in bed. The room was tiny, not much bigger than the single bed, with roughly plastered walls, a small bedside table and a few books tucked into an alcove. One of them was Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini, an astonishing work written at the turn of the century but as though it had been written 200 years earlier. What I could have understood about people having to “make a leg” I can’t imagine, but I devoured it, mostly by candlelight as there was no electricity. So I acquired a small cluster of things that evoke happiness: lime-washed stone walls, reading in bed, and the sharp smell of a guttering candle.

 


 

While I was in Cornwall, my mother moved back to London to a flat in Offerton road, close to Clapham Common, and this was where she started to do a lot of work on her sewing machine. The flat was on two floors though the rooms were tiny, and my mother kept her dressmaker’s dummy on the landing between the two floors. There was no light on the stairs, and when I went up to bed after dark this pale human form swam into view, a ghostly moonlit presence. It made my heart stop even though I knew perfectly well what it was, and I used it to create my own horror stories.

Only three streets away was a primary school and in those last pre-war years when I was seven and eight that’s where I walked to every weekday morning, but much more important than school was the square nearby with its swings and roundabouts, and eventually, a bit further away, was the Common itself. It was a wonderful freedom that we kids enjoyed in those days. When we weren’t at school we had the whole of London at our disposal. All that really tied us to our homes was the need to eat and sleep, and particularly so in my case because my mother was often at work somewhere until six or later. Of course the wrath of my mother, wondering what had become of me, also had to be taken into account but this was an oddly abstract sanction. It was wonderful what tricks the mind could play to delay that “must go home” moment, until it was already too late, when the consequences became all consuming and occasionally painful.

Months before the war began, before I was even aware that such a thing could happen, we watched men in uniforms and overalls come on to the Common and fence off large areas of the park. They had lorries loaded with long metal tubes and machinery. A few days later I saw lots of silvery stuff laid out on the ground. Then there were loud engine noises from the lorries and I watched in amazement as the silver material began to rise up off the grass, in ghostly shapeless lumps. Then it gradually assumed the shape of a huge balloon with elephant ears and, as the machinery whirred and clattered, it rose slowly, majestically, into the air.

After a while there were lots of these barrage balloons in the park and I became used to them being there. It was the pond that attracted most of my attention. There were ducks, of course, to be fed and bothered and chased, but it was an especially marvellous place at weekends. Men, who were to me then uniformly old and almost a separate species, would come there to sail their model boats. Some of them were extraordinarily detailed, scaled-down versions of famous yachts, and the bigger ones were often remotely controlled. There were even occasional races, very exciting to watch, as the owners patrolled the edges of the pond, like football managers, twiddling the dials on their little black boxes and waving their aerials.

I was consumed with envy, and at last, on my birthday in 1939 my mother bought me a small boat with one mast to sail there myself. At first I was afraid to let it get way from me at the edge of the pond, but I knew that if I could set the sails properly I should be able get the wind to take it right across. There was the desperate moment when I first let it go free, and after that many anxious moments, when the wind dropped and I watched it wallow in the doldrums, willing it to come ashore.

There were several successful voyages across the ocean pond before disaster struck. It wasn’t just the balloon men who were preparing for war; the fire brigade was getting ready too. One day two of their bright red machines roared up to the edge of my ocean, men tumbled out with much shouting and excitement, unloading hoses and ordering each other about. Then, as they were dragging their hoses to the edge of the pond, I had my first sickening premonition. My boat was slowly and heroically making its way back to me when the first jet of water shot out into the pond and before very long the merciless firemen had decided that a target was just what they needed to sharpen their skills. It wasn’t very long before their powerful jets found my little ship of dreams, and though it fought valiantly to survive in the most violent storm that any vessel has ever faced on the high seas it eventually surrendered to its fate, broken masted, capsized and lost to eternity. So it was that I also, at the age of eight, made the great sacrifice and contributed to Hitler’s downfall.

We were still at Offerton road when Britain declared war on Germany, and I was in the kitchen listening to the radio when I heard the fateful announcement itself. From what I gathered there was every possibility that German soldiers would be parachuted into London, and there would be fighting on the rooftops. I visualised hand-to-hand combat with swords and I looked forward to the drama, but beyond that the prospect of war didn’t impinge much on my eight-year-old consciousness. However it weighed heavily on my mother’s. Long before the government ordered the evacuation of all London’s children she was determined to get me out of the way, and she used her contacts to find me a place in a school for refugee children from Nazi Germany. The school was at a place called Bunce Court in Kent, and I was there through the winter.

It was unusually cold that year, with plenty of snow, and we built igloos in the school garden. That was the winter when Stalin invaded Finland. He expected to meet negligible resistance, but the Fins held out for many months largely because Stalin had crippled his own army with a series of paranoid purges that killed almost all its senior officers. Picture Post was full of pictures and stories about the plucky Fins standing up to the Russian bear in snow and ice, and we children played out the drama in our own way. My mother, of course, was required to bend to the party line, not for the last time, and condemn the Fins as Fascists, but I was happily unpolitical and there were no Fascists in the garden at Bunce Court.

But Kent was not much safer than London, and in 1940 the school was forced to move to Shropshire in the north of England, near a town called Wem. In another book, Riding Through the Isles, have already written extensively about the school, the Kindertransport, and the remarkable story of Anna Essinger, the headmistress, but as an eight year old boy I knew nothing of all that fascinating background, nor would it have interested me in the least. I was simply thrown in among a bunch of boys (I don’t remember any girls) who probably still spoke a mixture of English and German, which was no problem for me. No doubt some of them were still traumatised by the loss of their parents, but small boys are notoriously lacking in empathy. Before long I was in love with Gwynne Badworth, the young blonde woman who looked after the youngest of us. She taught us how to knit woollen squares that could be sewn together to make blankets for our soldiers, and she showed me how to clean my fingernails by hooking my hands together and rubbing the soap into them. I still hold the image of her hands wrapping themselves around mine, and when I wash my hands today, almost eighty years later, I sometimes remember her.

For the first year I was in a red brick villa down the path from the main house and it was possible to defy death by climbing out of one of the ground floor windows and working one’s way around a narrow window sill to come back in through a different window. The drop into the bushes below was a terrifying five feet at least, but I never took the fatal plunge. A year or so later I took to climbing trees, and to my own surprise I was able to reach the top of one of a grove of beeches to gaze out over the world which gave me tremendous satisfaction.

Every week Gwen made me pencil a postcard to my mother, where I usually wrote “I am well. Please send me a shilling,” or variations on the theme. Once it was even possible to talk to her on the telephone, an exciting ceremony because arrangements had to be made ahead of time. They involved something called a Trunk Call, a great mystery to me as the only trunks I knew about were on trees and steamships. I bombarded my mother with requests to bring me back to London and take me to the cinema because I was desperate to see a film everyone was talking about called “Target for Tonight.” Finally, in the autumn of 1940 she could no longer resist and said I could come home for a week or two, so one day at the beginning of September Gwen took me to Wem and put me on the train and my mother came to fetch me at Euston station.

Railway stations were already hugely dramatic elements in my life. First they were the biggest things I knew, bigger even than the department stores, like Selfridges on Oxford street that we went to at Christmas time. Paddington station I already knew from that mysterious journey on the Great Western Railway to Cornwall but now I was nine years old and I saw deeper into the detail. The vast cavernous space of those great terminal stations, wreathed in pungent smoke and steam, was awe-inspiring. The great locomotives were incredibly appealing to young eyes because their anatomy was on display, and one could begin to understand how those pistons drove the huge wheels, where the coal was stored, how it was shovelled into the boilers, and why the body of the machine was a huge prostrate cylinder. Just watching the wisps of steam escaping below you could see how it drove the brakes that brought the behemoth to a grinding, juddering halt.

Then there were all the wonderful noises echoing under those high canopies of glass and steel. The powerful blasts from the locomotives themselves, the shrill whistles and shouts of the guards, the hubbub of people surging on and off the platforms, all created an excitement that could only be rivalled by a circus. And now there was a whole new layer of fascination. Everything had changed. The station was full of people in uniform. There were sandbags and red buckets and fire extinguishers and men in steel helmets. If my mother had known that Hitler’s air force was about to begin the Blitzkrieg on London I am sure she would have cancelled the visit. For the first year of war everything had been uncannily quiet, all through what was called the Phoney War. Then just as I arrived all hell broke loose. The Luftwaffe began bombing London relentlessly, and the evidence was everywhere.

My mother had moved from Clapham and now had a tiny flat in Brixton. It was just down the road from a huge mulberry tree that had shed its purple fruit all over the pavement. It left a big impression on my mind, and it’s all I have to tell me now what time of year it was. Why she moved I have little idea, but it was most probably to save money. She moved again not long after, and this time because she found bed bugs behind the wall paper.

The German bombers came the first night I was there, and from the bedroom window we watched the magnificent fiery red display of destruction over London’s docklands. and listened to the incessant explosions, the roar of aircraft and the wailing sirens which rang out across the city. From then on for an indescribable eight months they came every night, killing some 30,000 Londoners and destroying a million houses.

After much arguing my mother finally did take me to the cinema, to watch “Target for Tonight,” a tense and satisfying story of a Wellington bomber flying a raid over Germany, and I returned to Wem soon after with my childish appetite for drama lavishly sated.

© Ted Simon 2019

 


 

An Interrupted Life – Part Seven >

 


 

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