Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The fifties - we moved house1

We moved house! 

This was the biggest event in my life so far, bigger than starting school or even being born, because I was acutely aware of it and even had some influence over it, rather than it being done to me.  And it changed my life.

It was announced, probably over Sunday lunch.  We’re all going to live together in a great big new house!  Let’s go out and find it!  That’ll be fun!

Our parents had, I believe, come into some kind of inheritance.  My father had been doing well at work and had a significant promotion. His career had been built on scientific capability, but then, as now, the only way to reward someone was to promote them, and the only way to do that was to convert them from achievers into managers.  I don’t know how good a manager he became, but he was certainly happy to take the money.

 66 Watcombe was owned outright by my grandparents.  And the tenant in the Stamford Road house (which had been their first home that they’d somehow managed to retain and let) had become intolerable and had to be evicted, which meant that could be sold too.  So capital was available.

And there were practical reasons too, of course.  We kids would soon each need our own room. (That didn’t quite work out as planned, but that’s for later.)  Grandpa had had his stroke, whilst doing some decorating – it rendered him nearly blind, which we were told was due to him getting a chip of wood or something in his eye – and Granny wouldn’t be able to look after him on her own.  

Monday, 1 June 2020

The fifties, part 2: the bike,part 2

Customisation rapidly followed, of course.  The chain guard was the first to go.  I can’t remember the other tweaks I snuck in behind my parents’ backs.  I do remember the parentally approved water bottles, and I can still taste an aluminium-tinged warm sip through a paper straw.  We discussed the feasibility of taking a hacksaw to those clunky lugs to make them look like cutaways; even, I think, drawing fantasy designs, but it was never going to be the racing bike I craved.  But I can remember, quite vividly, the short and long expeditions it carried me on.  That was my first taste of real freedom, granted me, intentionally or not, I’ll never know, by my parents. 

I’d made a few friends at school by then, some of whom were also into bikes.  I think my most avid co-biker was called Mike Bone, but I’m sure there were others.  The furthest I can remember riding is Badbury Rings, which is about thirty miles from Southbourne.  We must have ridden along Castle Lane, then up past Wimborne Minster to reach this Iron Age hill fort, wandered around and marvelled at it, then ridden back home.  We also took our bikes across the Sandbanks ferry and hauled ourselves across as far as Kimmeridge and Worth Matravers, noticing the landscape and the coast.  These trips were to be a lasting component of my education.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

The fifties, part 2: the bike, part 1

1952.  My father had started to become disappointed in me by then, because I wasn’t becoming him.  It took years for me to escape from that double bind and accept that actually, I was.  So when he tried to teach me something, I automatically refused to learn it, until I was left on my own, when I determinedly taught myself.  

I remember very clearly the afternoon – it must have been during the summer holidays when I was between schools – when I got the old bike out, worked out how to balance (don’t stop), and by the time he came home was proudly doing daring circuits of the back lawn at 3 Stourwood Road.  I don’t know where that bike came from – it was a very heavy black thing - but then, for my twelfth birthday, I was given a proper one, or at least my parents’ notion of proper. There was some subterfuge which somehow meant I had to go down to the garden shed, there to be unveiled this gorgeous Raleigh, in a colour I’d now call magenta but then saw as very displayable red.

It wasn’t, of course, my dreambike.  That would have entailed full drop bars, alloy rims, 10-speed Derailleur gears, many other features I can’t remember:  all mounted on a Claud Butler racing frame with, crucially, cutaway lugs.  These latter were supposedly designed to reduce weight, which was obviously ridiculous – they were an early manifestation of teenage designer bling, and hence heavenly. Ian Kitchen had all of that, but I didn’t.  My bike had semi-drops, chrome-plated rims which rusted if not oiled weekly, a sprung saddle, three-speed Sturmey-Archer, old lady mudguards and, most dreadfully, a chain guard, in matching colour trim!  But it was still near enough to the top of the local game, and I loved it.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Forties: elocution

I'd forgotten about my speech impediment, until I was obliquely reminded of it just now by Z.

Until I was six, I couldn't pronounce the 'th' sound.  This was a serious problem, apparently, because I was sent to elocution lessons at Cranleigh Road school, where I rapidly learnt the trick.  You just put the tip of your tongue behind your top teeth.  (A phonetician writes: there are different vocables or phonemes, nasal or otherwise, of this combined consonant, as in 'there' or 'anathema'.)  (An elocution pupil writes: thuck off!)

So the cure worked, but the damage had been done.  Being told, before I was six, that I couldn't speak properly must have put me off the idea of speaking.  Once I'd got the hang of it, it probably took me quite a while to become brave enough to try it. 

(I also couldn't rrrroll my rrrrs, and still can't, but that's another tongue twister entirely.)

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The Fifties, part 1

The Fifties started in 1953, when several things happened to my life.  I went to a new school, having passed the 11 plus when I must have been only just 11.  We moved house.  And I taught myself to ride a bike.  But before that, the Sea Scouts.

It was a law that boys had to join the scouts, so I did.  We were sea scouts, which meant that we had blue kerchiefs held round our necks by a toggle.  (I'm sure there was more uniform, but the toggle is the only bit I clearly remember.)

The scoutmaster was called Skip.  He was an old man, probably in his forties.  He made us boys strip to our underpants and do exercises.  Some time later I told my mother about this; she was quite sure that it was innocent, because she couldn’t imagine that a trusted person could be guilty of bad things.  Certainly he never made any physical advances, so perhaps she was right in her belief that Skip just liked watching small boys prancing around in their underpants.

My main scout memory, apart from that, is knots.  Skip certainly taught those well.  I can still, in my head, do a clove hitch, a reef knot and even a sheepshank.  But there wasn't much actual sea involved in being a Sea Scout.  We never went to sea, or particularly near it.  Most of the activity was in the All Saints church hall.

The assistant scoutmaster was an irresponsible thug in his early twenties.  One bonfire night, we were taken down to the meadow by the river at Tuckton, where a firework battle was orchestrated – we were issued with bangers and matches, and had to light the bangers and throw them at each other.  It was terrifyingly great fun. 

I was yanked out of the Sea Scouts not long after that.  But something must have rubbed off and stuck, because when i was enlisted into the CCF at Bournemouth School a year or two later, I didn't hesitate or even think - it had to be the Navy section.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Uncles and aunts

Uncles and aunts are yet another source of confusion.  There were no real ones (apart from Ruth and Douglas, whom I’ve already mentioned) but in the forties it was customary for any relative or close friend to be identified as aunty this and uncle that.

To get the relatives out of the way, there countless connections on my mother’s side.  Just a few – the Yeovil people, the Beverly people, and Aunty Phyllis (who used to come and spend some weeks with us most summers: presumably not at the same time as Grandma, I can’t imagine them getting on too well.)  When I went to Leeds for my University interview in 1959, I was lodged with the Wakefield people, who were very kind to this lad they probably didn’t know from Adam.  I know I went out to the local cinema and saw a lovely Norman Wisdom film.  Who were they?  I have no idea.

The close friends were Uncle Jack and Auntie Babs, Uncle Norman and Auntie Marjorie, and Uncle John and Auntie Gracie. 

Jack was probably my father’s only real friend.  They were thrown together by wartime work and the friendship endured for at least twenty-five years.  I loved him.  He told me the first dirty joke I ever heard, when I was about six.  (Here it is: little girl and little boy are peeing in the bushes..  Little girl to little boy: “Ooh, that’s a useful gadget, where can I get one of them?”)  He was a dedicated photographer, and I still have some of his landscape work in Pembrokeshire.  They went on holidays together into the sixties, and he died suddenly at the end of one of those, on the way back from Italy.  Babs was just there in the background, being kind.

Norman and Marjorie were just neighbours in Watcombe Road.  I remember virtually nothing about them, so I mention them purely because I had my first sexual experience with their daughter, Christine, in the sandpit in their back garden.  We showed each other our bits.  Her older brother Derek persisted in riding his bike round the lawn, which precluded any further progress.  We were six years old.

John and Gracie were probably acquired through my parents’ flirtation, in the twenties, with ballroom dancing.  They were rich, by our standards.  I remember Uncle John as a kind, unassuming man with a black toothbrush moustache.  They had three children, of about the same age as us, and we were obliged to be friends with them, but that didn’t work for me: I didn’t start to do friendship until well into my teens, and I’ve still not quite got the hang of it.  But we all rubbed along well enough, I think.  Certainly we went on holidays together, renting and staying in the two adjoining houses at Wisemans Bridge.  

Friday, 24 April 2020

A bit more family

My mother’s parents had more humble backgrounds than my father’s.  

Esmond Lloyd Rea was a Yorkshireman, from Wakefield. I know nothing about his early history.  He was employed by the Inland Revenue, which entailed being sent to wherever the job demanded, which is probably why my mother was born in the Welsh borders and fetched up in Bournemouth to meet my father there. 

Grandpa must have been allowed to stop being peripatetic, or perhaps to retire, because by the late thirties he had settled down and bought 66 Watcombe Road, just down the road from us.  He was a jolly man, who enjoyed his beer and his music.  We’d be taken down the road for Sunday lunches and record sessions, and sometimes sleep over, presumably when my parents had other engagements (which doesn’t feel very likely) or more probably just wanted to be shot of us and have some time together alone (though that doesn’t seem very likely either).  It was presented to the children as a treat – you’re going to sleep at Granny and Grandpa’s tonight, won’t that be lovely? – and of course accepted without question. 

Ethel Jones, Granny, had roots in County Cork, but I don’t think she was Irish.  It’s impossible to find out anything more from the internet – the surname doesn’t help – and no family documents that I know of have survived.  How she met Esmond in the Welsh borders is yet another unanswered question.  I’ve explained what I know of how he got there, but how did she get there?  Anyhow, they were in Coleford, in the Forest of Dean, when my mother (their only child) was born in 1907.