My memories up to the outbreak of World War 1 are few. Most of us have probably tried to recall our earliest memory
at some time in our lives. It's probably a very pleasant or unpleasant one. In many cases it will be the former, for
the pleasanter aspects of our lives tend to surface more readily. Mine had to do with being a first-born, for the
spoiling of number one is proverbial; and differs but slightly, whether of humble or high degree. In the case of the
former, one soon recognises the wisdom of the anonymous philosopher who said "It's important to be born in the right
bed! And, undoubtedly, there are those among us who would like to kick such a sage in a suitable part of his anatomy, given an opportunity/
I am told that I should have remembered the small chamois leather bag of those heavy little yellow coins that dad gave me to jingle (and did his eyes sparkle when he dug one up in the garden about twenty years later, that I'd inadvertently "saved" for him) the cuddly "teddy bear" that groaned so piteously on having it's tousled torso tickled; those fascinating little chocolate animals that appeared so mysteriously by my cot every Sunday morning, and ended up with the recipient looking like a small replica of the "chocolate covered coon". On the contrary, my first memory was of a well-slapped backside. It occurred during the halcyon days while my father could still afford to send my mother as far as Sandown. We were returning from the beach for lunch, when we happened to pass a sweetshop that mother had probably patronised earlier on my behalf. It's surprising how intelligent babies can become when their taste-buds are titillated by thoughts of their favourite sweetmeat. Normally enough, I started to grizzled and yell, "choc-choc-choc-choc"! The further the shop receded into the distance, the louder I yelled. Till Ma decided that it was an appropriate time for the "first lesson". Thoroughness had been part of her training; she turned me over with the dexterity of a chef tossing a pancake, and as daftly pulled down my tiny trousers. I was about two and a half at the time; some kind old lady stopped and remonstrated that "It was cruel to chastise the poor little mite"! I had cause to be gainful, for the sudden intervention rather took Ma by surprise. Her energetic slapping ceased whilst she gave my "saviour" the sharp edge of her tongue. Her brief intensity of the verbal battle apparently cause me to forget both the chocolate and my sore bottom. I "dried- up"; and Mother proudly asserted that I never once cried in the street for sweets again. With a couple of disgusted "tut! Tuts", the dear old soul strode off, probably musing on the problem of heartless parents, provision for starving felines and the manifold evil of unrestricted vivisection.
There are, of course, more expensive ways of dealing with children whose eyes are sometimes bigger than their bellies. This concerned a young police sergeant I knew, whom one would naturally expect to be a good disciplinarian, even with his own brood. He was continually being pestered by the latter for ice cream, as on a day trip to the seaside he experiment with a little parental psychology. He nonchalantly provided the kids with all the "lollies", "cornets", etc. they could cope with-and some they couldn't. It got him "in the doghouse" for the time being as far as his anxious wife was concerned, while he casually encouraged this commonplace form of youthful gluttony. In order to ensure success as far as humanly possible, he deliberately chose a roundabout route home, over some particularly bumpy rural roads. It wasn't long before he had to make some enforced stops whilst the surfeited youngsters "threw up" in turn. He became slightly conscience-stricken when his spouse started to "heave" in sympathy with the children. After all, no-one ever feels more deeply than a mother! He went without cigarettes for a fortnight to balance his personal budget, but he reckoned he'd be much better off in the long run. I only had his word for it, but he swore that it "cured" them.
A never-failing source of wonderment to me is the capacity for storing memories. Though the resource for human
ingenuity is unfailing, I'm sure that man be able to emulate nature in re-producing the manifold functions of that
few ounces of "grey matter". For instance, I can really picture in my mind the first marine engine I saw. The
ferry-boat itself-oh no! Not even the funnel, but I distinctly remember my uncle lifting me up to view the pair of
thrusting piston rods and the hypnotising gyrations of the heavy crankshaft. The thick, well-polished mahogany guard
rail, with its equally highly polished brass fittings is all there. It is possible that this was a special viewing
gallery, as the marine reciprocating engine was still an invention of unusual interest. This little event occurred on
our return from Sandown to the mainland. It is thus only something here and there that one's earliest memory can
pinpoint. The arrival of twin brothers at about this time didn't register, and I scarcely remember them as young
children at all. It's more than likely that their advent pushed me into the background, and being a chastening
experience, was something better forgotten. The recollection here is merely of the daily girl who took either of us
out for "airing", because Mother still had the small shop in the front of the house to attend to. Not that this was
ever what one could honestly describe as busy. It held a meagre stock of sweets, cigarettes, green grocery, wet and
dried fish, and miscellaneous items such as salt nd vinegar. Customers were comparatively few, as one might expect
with a sparse population coupled with the fact that the latter had to almost watch evert penny they spent. The only
time there ever appeared to be ths least sign of a bit of surplus cash was when Barker's travelling fair put in one of its thrice-yearly appearances on the field opposite. With its gaudy roundabout, melodious mechanical organ (usually Italian make), tantalising side-shows, and gallery of paraffin flare lamps, it was like a visitation from another world. It does my heart good when I see the children still enjoying themselves as much as ever on some carefully restored, and now much prized, old roundabout. They always looked remarkably well-cared for, and that is undoubtedly why some in use today have a history of near a century behind them. I don't mind being reckoned as "an
old twit" (I've been called much worse in my time!) when I say that I still thoroughly enjoy a ride on the old
carousel, particularly if it is "belting out" some rousing old march like "Semper Fidelis".
Being fairly astute business-man, the Fair managers decided in due course to change their "stand" to beside one of the islands popular hostelries, they reckoned it would be a bit more profitable. They knew quite a bit about human psychology, without even ever having heard the word. The original "stand' is now occupied by a garage and filling station. The second one is now a car park.
Gradually, the ubiquitous motor-car has completely changed the pattern of life for my generation. For the better?
Not entirely, for with it has emerged a subtle change for the worse in human nature. Should you doubt this, run up a
grass verge or close to the kerb, lift your bonnet as if in trouble, and wait for some "good Samaritan" to pull up
and enquire if there's anything he can do to help. You may be quite surprised how long you'll have to wait; unless of
course, you happen to be wearing a neat mini-skirt, and as you bend over the offside wing to peer querulously into the "works", you display a titillating length of leg and a plump thigh. "Ah! But that's different". You bet your sweet life, it's different.
This was brought home to me more forcibly a short time ago, when an acquaintance of mine was giving me a lift home,
and an attaché case slipped off the back seat and sprang open, revealing a ravishing blond wig, a short skirt, tights
and various other items of female attire. I looked at my driver rather questioningly. He looked nonplussed for a
moment, then giving an "airy-fairy" wave of the hand, said "Don't worry about those, they're only in case I break down on the road"! Australia, America, and South Africa there are main roads, where, if you were unfortunate enough to have a mishap you could find yourself up to thirty miles from the nearest pone. I read in my newspaper recently of an American in such a plight. Hundreds of cars sped past him anything up to eighty miles an hour; in spite of his frantic signals, not one would stop. He tried for eight heartrending, frustrating hours. At last, out of sheer and utter desperation he took a pistol from his car (legally held) and shot himself. What a terrible mistake for an obviously sensitive man to make; plainly, he should have shot a couple of the passing cars. He would have then had the police there in about fifteen minutes.
There I go again, oblivious of the fact I'm still a little toddler. About this time I had graduated from the pram to the push-chair, we received a visit from a very sedate lady, my father's sister Alice; and, incidentally, someone we had cause to be very grateful to later on. She not only looked a lady, but she had the precise and punctilious speech of one. She had been in the service of the upper class from girlhood, and was now paid companion to an old widow of that ilk. Aunt always impressed and over-awed us, she was undoubtedly a personality. In consequence, we usually hung on her every word. She looked at me steadfastly for a moment, then, in her characteristic way, turned sharply to my mother, saying "Look at that pronounced gap in the boy's teeth, he's going to be very lucky and he'll travel widely"! Well, I certainly started to travel young, as you'll read in a moment; usually in the wrong direction. And as far of luck, if you have the patience to stay with me near the end of the third volume (if I have the good fortune to be spared that long) you'll be able to draw your own conclusions.
Like most healthy young boys, I was mischievous and agile. One day, dad had arrived from town with fresh goods;
he'd tethered the horse close to the wooden-paled fence, then nipped smartly through to the living-room behind the
shop for a cup of his second favourite brew. Finding the coast clear, I clambered up the spokes of the wheel till I reached the iron step, then from there up to the footboard. There dad had placed a box of kippers on end, ready to offload. Obviously anxious to show father what a helpful little lad he'd reared, I started to push at the greasy, precariously balanced container. It went alright, so did I, hitting my head on the spear-shaped top end of one of the palings on my "travel down. There I lay, beside the kippers, screaming my "eye-balls" out, with blood beginning to trickle across my forehead on my blonde curls. Anyone who's had the doubtful privilege of rearing children can appreciate my parent's awful anxiety. Fortunately lucky already), it wasn't as bad s it might have been, and I have nothing but a small bump under the skin whereas unconcerned as if nothing had happened.
A few months later, growing more ambitious as I grew stronger, I'm cursed if I didn't try the same manoeuvre with a
small barrel of vinegar, except that the barrel stayed put, and I didn't. Down I went between the horse and the
shaft. Mum and dad were in the small yard at the back of the hose, when an extremely agitated would-be customer
dashed up to them calling almost hysterically. "Quick! Quick! Your little lad's under the horse with his hoof on his chest" father dashed round the corner, then stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the position.
He was scared stiff that something might scare Billy and cause him to change his weight distribution of his hind leg.
So as he wedged forward he called softly to the animal, "Gently Billy; gently boy" till he got round to his offside
leg and carefully lifted it, pushing me to safety with his foot. How dad really felt I shall never know, for he was
usually a placid, unemotional man. But Mother related that as soon as I was safe in her arms, Dad, brushing a tear
from his eye, took Billy's head in his arms and spoke to him as though he was human, "Billy! Oh Billy! You've got more sense than a lot of people I have met". He kept him for some years after he was past his best, till there came a time when he had five of us to keep, and he just couldn't afford to feed him any longer. To ensure that the faithful old animal wasn't unscrupulously sold off to gypsies or shipped abroad, he put a special mark on his hind off-side hoof, telling the slaughterer that he wished this to be returned for sentimental reasons. It was kept on a shelf in the scullery for many years, the intention being that it should ultimately be converted into an inkstand. After my leaving home, it disappeared, and I can well imagine mother in the throes of a spring-cleaning orgy, saying "that'll never make an inkstand!" and out it had to go. Another simple family relic that I would be proud to possess today. They day "getting old and sentimental"; perhaps is getting old one finds just a bit more time to indulge in sentiment.
Apart from nearly chopping off half a finger (optimistically helping with the kindling sticks); rolling off a freshly tarred lean-to roof; setting fire to a haystack (uninsured), which started to ignite the stables as well; taking most of the hair off the cats back by accidentally knocking a saucepan of water off the Primus stove, the next eighteen months were uneventful. It must have been a minor miracle that the stables survived, for, owing to the lack of space the stack had been erected merely three feet distant. The Fire Brigade consisted of a group of shouting, wildly gesticulating men armed with a long ladder and three buckets. Strangely enough, the ladder did come in useful, for the energetic fire-fighters were able to use it like a light battering ram to push the fiercely blazing hay away from the smouldering timber sides of the building, without undue risk to themselves.
When my youngest brother, Frank, was about the same age, I'll be damned if he didn't do exactly the self-same thing. Surprising really for he was quite a quiet, well-behaved little fellow compared to me. But the "old man" wasn't being caught twice; this time the stack had been put well away from the out-buildings and insured.
If one were to ask me what event had the greatest impact in shaping up mental attitude to life, I should say "When
dad smashed his ankle". This occurred in March 1914. He had been on his daily business trip into the town for at this time he had established a reasonable retail and wholesale trade in the supply of locally caught fish, oysters and other shell-fish. He had had a heavy day and driving home in the darkness decided he would get a warm -up and a pint at the Cherry Tree, an inn about three miles from town. As ill-luck would have it, he had just bought another horse, which was inclined to be restive. When father came out of the inn, he grasped the rains, and was in the act of climbing into the cart, by way of the iron foot-step, treacherously smooth by frequent use, and even more so with the thin edge of ice that had formed thereon; he slipped, and in falling violently jerked the rains. This caused his comparatively "unknown" animal to bolt; the heavy wheel went over father's feet at an angle and severely smashed his ankle.
I don't know why he hung onto the rains so tenaciously, but he did, and was dragged about a mile and a half along the
rough, dark road. There he lay for about half an hour, till, by a stroke of good fortune, three soldiers came along
they somehow got him and the horse and cart back to the inn. I don't recall how they eventually got him to the
hospital; this wasn't the age of fast mobile ambulances. As far as farther was concerned, his ill-luck could well have been a blessing in disguise, for as he recuperated the dogs of war were already viciously snarling and straining at the leash. They finally slipped it on the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo (Yugoslavia) in the June of that fatal year. But for that accident, my brothers and I might well have helped to swell the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of orphans to whom "father" was a slowly fading photograph of a self-conscious looking young man in a belted, ill-fitting military uniform. For, as much as the thought revolts me I could no more imagine Dad being able to plunge a bayonet into another human being than I can myself diving out of the window on a self-prepared trip to the moon. One thing is certain, my mother's mind wasn't on the prospects of war, but on how we were going to exist with the breadwinner, physically and financially, flat on his back. For my parents had been managing on practically a day to day basis. The modest amount my father had on him, and the few shillings mother
had, plus the meagre value of the stock in the shop was the lot. They hadn't another penny due to come inform
anywhere. The welfare State was a long, long way off. There were no fresh foods coming in for trading for this
"carrier" was laid low. Mother would not risk any further debt by ordering supplies of "dry goods". The shop closed
in a matter of a few weeks. It was sixteen seeks before Dad could walk tolerably well, and even then with a severe
limp. In tending to tasks the marvels of modern medical science for granted, we usually forget that practically the
only real good two world wars produced was the benefit of a tremendous advance in the treatment of fractures and maimed limbs (among bodily restorations).
Life would be shear hell if there wasn't a time when we're able to sit and chuckle at past adversity. Such a time
came later when Dad was relating his experience in hospital. Apparently, as the badly shattered ankle was mending
with a noticeable twist the surgeon suggested re-breaking the bones, and then re-setting them. Dad said to the
well-meaning surgeon, "Will I be able to walk fairly well as it is now". The medic replied, "Yes, George, but
you'll be left with a pronounced limp". He settled. For the "pronounced limp". There was no prospect of my mother
seeking employment with three young children to care for, even if there had been any available in our remote village. Everything that was available was sold, including the wagonette carriage, and one of our two horses (you can readily guess which one). You'll usually find that when you are forced to sell something in a hurry,, it's almost invariably at the worst price! Firstly there wasn't a vast amount of money in circulation, and people had more regard for the current gold sovereign than they have for paper pounds, which can be "run off" in tens of millions without undue difficulty. Secondly the motor vehicle already began to supplant the horse.
Much against her will, Ma managed to borrow a few pounds here and there; to her high-principled mind borrowing meant
paying back - but when before Dad could properly walk again, we were penniless. Everything that would realise anything had gone.
Humiliating as it was in those days, ma had no option but to apply to the Poor Relief Committee (or whatever it chose
to call itself). In due course, she appeared in person mistakenly, but understandably, in some of her best attire before an obviously prosperous and well-fed foursome. It's easy to be harsh and domineering when one is comfortably situated the right side of the fence. Apparently, they "grilled" mother rigorously for over half an hour after the style of some medieval inquisition. They asked her why she couldn't take in washing. This was hilarious, when one lived in a community where sending out ones laundry would have been considered almost regal. She related that it came to the point where she felt so harassed and embarrassed that she imagined they were going to ask her why she couldn't go out "on the streets" of the town. She eventually became so disgusted with this enquiry that she rose from her chair, drew herself up to a little more than even her normal five foot eight, scornfully regarded each of this "Dickensian" quartet in turn, saying " I'd rather see my family starve than accept a penny from you vicious people"! That was Ma - tact had never been one of her strong points. It made the immediate future very tough for us, but it boosted her ego no end when she re-told this story in the later years. She would add that even the mice would stagger round our pantry disconsolately and with tears in their eyes.
It's odd how seemingly trivial memories survive in a child's mind. For example; a small gallipot (of the type that was used for marmalade) stood in front of the four-legged, cast iron kitchen stove .Not that we had a kitchen, rather a kitchen cum living-room. The jar contained neatly-folded newspaper spills. One match was used each day, to light the stove, then a spill would be used to light the 'primus' paraffin heater and the lamps at dusk. At an early age, I was taught how to carefully tear the out-of-date copies of the "Daily mail" into neat squares, pierce the corner of a thin pile with a bradawl, thread with twine, and hang on a hail just inside the "cludgy". No reflection on this admirable journal, of course. Considering that the " dailies "were widely used as wrapping paper as well, all in all, a newspaper was a pretty good "penn'orth" Whilst staying with relatives at Romford during the war, my cousin and I would augment our pocket money by scrounging papers from neighbours, and selling then to certain shopkeepers for a penny o pound. There seemed something lacking in fish and chips unless wrapped in this popular material. Perhaps it was because the paper absorbed the surplus grease so efficiently, or possibly the printer's ink added an intangible something to the flavour of the chips. They never seem quite the same since we became so hygienic.
In any references I make to war-time scarcity of food, it must be borne in mind that food-rationing was not
introduced until the beginning of 1918, nearly three and a half years after the war had started; and although
conditions were rigorous, it was often much worse in the large towns and cities, where people would often have to
queue for hours just to get a few pounds of potatoes. People who had really experienced the shortages of the
first war hardly noticed the well organised rationing of the second. As a slightly younger acquaintance of mine rather forcibly remarked, "Hardship, Hardship; Why, I didn't even know what a bleedin' orange looked like till I was nearly eight!" This wasn't quite the exaggeration it might seem, for when we found one in the toe of the "Christmas stocking", it was fondled as appreciatively as a miser might a ball of gold. War or no war, Ma, miraculously and unfailingly, managed to lay her hands on a few of the former for the festive season.
After carefully hoarding her meagre purchases of dried fruit, often for months, she would ensure that we didn't go without the customary pudding and cake. If one could obtain an orange or a lemon it didn't require much ingenuity to prepare one's own candied peal; and its surprising how a few chopped prunes and dates helped darken-up the pudding and cake respectively. To her, Christmas was incomplete without an element of surprise, and she would be up for several nights till about 2 am, preparing the eatables, making coloured decorations, and gewgaws for the stockings.
After father recuperated, it was impossible to try to establish himself in business again without capital, so he obtained employment locally as a carter at twenty two shillings a week. This was with a local builder and contractor; a man who religiously toted his bible under his arm to chapel every Sunday, but was not noted for generosity as far as his employees were concerned. Understandably, he died a rich man. Not that I've ever seen much point in wanting to be the richest man in the cemetery
Much to Ma's relief, schooling started for me at the village infant's school about three months before war was
declared. Nothing untoward could have happened here, for I can recall nothing of it. It could be that the arrival of
a battalion of infantry in our midst made a far greater impression; men were enlisting faster than the capacity to
house them. Consequently, they were being billeted in barns, empty houses, and spare rooms, in fact any place where
there was space and a sound roof. We had six privates with us; the shop counters were removed and the men made themselves as comfortable as possible on the bare floorboards. I don't recall them even having apparent luxury of a straw mattress. Their advent was manna from heaven as far as the family exchequer was concerned. Ma received around one shilling per man per day. We hadn't had it as good for some time. We didn't have to feed them, on the contrary, they literally helped feed us. For part of their rations issue was in the form of packets of speckled, light brown biscuits about 2 ½ inches square. They were bloody hard even the neighbour's dogs would disdainfully sniff at them, and then slink away in disgust. They looked like something that Drake shipped on the "Golden Hind" as "hard 'uns". Pa opined that they were minute flakes of bran; "In any case," says he, "they cattle thrive on it". Anyhow, Ma would attack this military fodder with a rolling pin, and soak the resultant pieces overnight in water. Next day she'd strain the water off, knead a little flour, brown sugar and a few sultanas into the soggy mass, which was then ready for the pudding cloth and a good steaming. Oddly enough we found this "biscuit" roly-poly both appetising and satisfying; and as no self-respecting soldier would risk his teeth on this much despised supplement to his diet, we had enough in stock to keep us going on a twice weekly basis for months after our benefactors had departed for France. We knew them all by their first names, and we really missed them.
Whenever Ma read of a major battle in Belgium or France, she would sadly remark 'I wonder if any of 'our lads' were in that". Towards the end of the debacle, it was "I wonder how many came back". Yes, and I wonder, too! For what of the fallen now? Merely part of a conglomerate number in a history book. Three-quarters of a million failed to return! One and a half million returned permanently maimed or weakened by wounds or effects of gas! There's one casualty list you won't find in the relevant history books that of the instigators and politicians involved.
Although it was possible to hear the massive artillery barrages when the wind was right, the actual war was of an
abstract conception to us children. It would only assume slightly more concrete proportions when something occurred
that we could actually see. As in World War II it was scientific progress (?), in the form of aircraft that was to bring realities of modern warfare closer to the civilian population. The terrifying, but extremely vulnerable Zeppelin was the forerunner; though I doubt whether we even heard the first one making a probing mission over our coastline just after Christmas in 1914, we were soon to become familiar with its successors. There was almost death-like quality in the stillness of our locality after dusk. We would be quietly reading or cleaning our shoes (a nightly ritual), when, almost imperceptibly one would hear the "zoom-m-m" of the airborne engines. We'd look enquiringly at father; after listening intently for a few tense seconds, he gave what almost became a signal, "That's them!", and there was a conceited dash for the back door. The enemy nearly always chose bright moonlight nights, which seemed unaccountably obliging to us children. Father reckoned this was because it made for easier navigation in following the Thames. When Ma pointed out that we shouldn't see 'em so plain had they been over the estuary, Dad
tersely replied, "Oh well, they don't want our chaps to know where they're headin". There was more than a grain of truth in this, for the war Office was frantically preparing it's A/A guns, searchlight units, balloon barrages, and ill-equipped night-fighter planes in a supreme effort to protect the main target. Us kids were only interested in the impressive spectacle of the "Zeppe" silhouetted in the moonlight ; floating across the sky like gigantic silver cigars, with the rather inadequate searchlights stabbing the gloom in a seemingly pointless endeavour to excel nature's illumination. There were 52 raids by these monster airships, but our guns and planes gradually got their measure as we overcame some of the tremendous technical problems involved; for we were experiencing the hazy pattern of tines to come.
History records that on one raid in 1917, we shot down seven out of eleven attacking Zeppelins. It is more than likely that I witnessed the destruction of one of these when I was staying with Uncle Charlie at Romford. Sometime during the night we were hurriedly roused to troop down to the rather confined back yard to gaze spellbound at a sceptical I count myself fortunate to have seen at all. There was the familiar shape, seemingly overhead; but this one was blazing fiercely in the middle, and as the flames started to spread towards its two extremities, it slowly started to sag. The silvery ends began to point upwards at a crazy angle as the whole slowly drifted earthwards. In order to improve my view, being somewhat hemmed in by older and taller cousins, I had slightly hoisted myself up on to their old metal dustbin; and as the disintegrating mass was gradually disappearing from view I edged up to try and perch on the handle of the lid, supporting my balance by leaning on the outhouse wall. Unfortunately, the sides of the bin had rusted almost through, and it was only the protective coating of the zinc that held it
together. Suddenly, without the least warning, it collapsed, throwing me and the lid into onto the concrete with a
terrific clatter. The way Aunt and my cousins jumped in the air, one would have thought the house had been hit.
Uncle, cool as ever, (he was employed at Liverpool Street Station, which had already experienced the effect of
"Zepp eggs") picked up the "telescoped" bin, saying, "Bloody hell, where are we going to get another bin"
The doomed airship ultimately landed at Billericay, just a few miles away. A supreme example of man's ingenuity, but
really highly impractical, both for military and more peaceful uses.
There was, however, something magnificently majestic about these intricately framed dirigibles. Soon after, the twin-engine "Gotha" bomber took over the role of the airship, and though more deadly, they didn't have the same fascination for us as the lumbering sky-giants.
My six weeks at Uncle's had taught me that in "tight situations" there is often more than one way of combating scarcity. It happened that there was a huge camp for Australian infantry at Hornchurch on, probably, the site of the aerodrome in World War II. I don't know how the clandestine infiltration of the perimeter wire fencing originated, but I was initiated into the practice of removing a couple of grubby short lengths of board and some rough turfs from under the wire to gain access to the encampment. When I come to look back on these escapades it's a wonder we weren't accidentally shot. This story would probably never have been written had they been A American, with their nervous trigger-fingers. The reason that us kids tackled the task was because adult's wouldn't have "got away with it", at least, not for long. The missions began by my cousin Reg (about my age) and myself being called by my uncle about am. We hurriedly dressed, and carrying a folded pillow-case apiece tucked up the front of our jerseys, crossed the road and entered the extensive allotments which were opposite the long row of semi-detached houses. One kept a wary eye open for any "odd-bod" who might be around at that unearthly hour. We made our way quietly to the eastern side of the rows of well-kept vegetable plots where there was a dry ditch, protected by a scrubby hedge. This gave us ideal cover as we trotted in a half-crouching position along the still spongy water-way. Communication was by hand signals as our route took us closer to the metal mesh fencing meticulously surrounded with four separate strands of treacherous looking barbed wire. There was one long, black hut between us and our ultimate objective, which was a similar building with several metal chimneys belching black smoke in varying quantities. Our potential enemies were the patrolling regimental police. Once we'd cleared this 'burrow" under the wire, we had a short run across open ground to the first hut, a quick slink along its end, and another short run to hut number 2. Reg, being the taller, would hoist himself up to get a quick look through the end window, to ensure that the patrols weren't inside drinking tea. Hissing "all clear", we'd nip smartly round the corner to the side door. The row of swill bins along the wall gave a rather smelly indication of what went on in the interior of our goal. On my initial trip, Reg gingerly opened this door, and quietly called out to one of the cooks, "Anything for us, cookie?" Frankly, I was too damned scared to even try to look in at this scene of early morning activity. As our pillow-slips were passed hurriedly through the door, I stood bolt upright against the wall of the hut with teeth clenched, so that they didn't chatter and scare me even more.. After what seemed a minor eternity, out came the now bulging "bags". With a hurried "Thanks cookie", we tan off towards the fence as fast as our legs could carry us. With my heart thumping against my rib-cage as though it were trying to punch a way out, I don't know how I managed to drag myself and my booty through the "bolt-hole" .Almost collapsing in the ditch, and nearly paralyzed with fear because of the delay while Reg replaced the boards and turf, I can't remember what I may have said then; but I know what my verbal reaction would be now, "Sod that for a lark!" Feeling a bit safer now we the right side of the wire, and being slightly encumbered, we crept more slowly on our return along the ditch. Safely indoors, we tipped the" treasure" on the kitchen table; three loaves of bread, two tins of sausages, a couple of pounds of fat streaky bacon, a small tin of cornbeef, about one pound of ordinary sausages and half a smoked sausage.
My Aunt beamed brightly when she came down for breakfast, saying "Not bad not bad at all this morning". I've never felt more like Oliver Twist".
Like most growing lads, I was a hearty eater, and certainly not of an age where I would be likely to moralise too
deeply on the ethics of any particular situation. Besides, Uncle had seven to feed, and that in itself would excuse a
little bit of chicanery. It may well be linked to the inherent primeval instinct for personal and family survival.
Tactfully, I didn't ask too many questions, but I gathered hat Uncle had met some of the unit's cooks at his usual
tavern, and they became friendly. Having experienced the "matey" generosity of the Aussies, one would almost hear,
"Short o' tucker, me ole cobber, we'll soon fix that" - and they did. Having gained a bit more confidence, I went on several more of the bi-weekly "raids" till one morning we were chased by a vigilant M.P. He spotted us just as we were passing the row of waste bins. We instantly dropped our "bags of loot" like a couple of startled stags. We literally dived under the fence, and dashed straight across the allotments, taking the row of Brussels, cabbages, beans etc. like a pair of training hurdlers. "Enough is enough", and I was due to go home that weekend anyway.
On arrival home on the Saturday, there seemed to be an unusual air of excitement abroad, and after a brief greeting
I mentioned to mother that there seemed to be a considerable number of people coming from town. They were walking, cycling, riding horseback and in every kind of horse-drawn vehicle; even an automobile carrying five people. "Oh, they're all going to see the "Zepp" said Ma and went on to explain that one had come down at Great Wigborough, less than three miles away. I couldn't get out of the door quick enough. One of the neighbours lent me an ancient cycle, and peddling furiously, I was on the scene in just over twenty minutes. There lay the stricken monstrosity, right across a whole field, it's once proud lines now an elongated, shapeless, skeletal mass. Stripped of most of its silvery silken sheathing, its light web-like frame took on the unreal aspect of an immense futuristic sculpture in metal-ribbed crotchet work. The economics of war being what they are, most of it would soon be returning from whence it came, but in a different guise.
To own just a small piece of this would be like owning a bit of the history of one's own time. Not that I thought like that, my covetousness was merely a natural school-boy craving to possess something very unusual to show off to my mates. The crowds of sightseers were milling round in the narrow country road, and climbing on to the ditch-bank in order to secure a better vantage point. No one was permitted to go beyond the roadside hedge bounding the field which contained most of the wreck. A strong army detachment, with a half-dozen policemen, patrolled the area. Since my recent escapades I had begun to realise that if there was something one really wanted, one had to exert oneself that bit extra to get it, even though an element of risk was involved. Keen observation told me that no one appeared fortunate enough to have secured a souvenir, or were likely to in the existing circumstances. The first thing I did was to park the bike on a nearby hedgerow. Then, quickly scouting around I found a suitable hedge-gap in the field to the left of the guarded one. Once inside, using the hedge as cover, I ran about twenty-five yards
to the hedged ditch that ran right under the fore-end of my objective.
My luck was in, for as I slithered through the matted and decaying grass, docks and nettles, my right elbow struck
the jagged end of a piece of bright metal. That was it! I just couldn't believe my good fortune, for the massive
structure was at least fifty yards ahead of me. Though actually shaking with excitement (and fear), I paused long enough to examine the aluminium crosspieces carefully riveted in diamond pattern to the narrow fluted side chamber. Snaking my way back to the hedgerow, and tucking the precious fragment under the flap of my shirt, I stepped gingerly over the brambles in the gap to regain the road. Whilst trying to tuck one end of my find into the front of my trousers to make it a little less conspicuous I was observed by a middle-aged man, who said "Ha ye found a bit, boyee?" Hoping I didn't look as guilty as I felt, I replied, "Yes, I found it the other side of the hedge". Opening my jacket very secretively, my questioner's eyes gleaned as he fingered the obviously useless looking object. "Oi bet there ain't many folk 'as even touched a bit o' one o' they-oi'll give 'ee three half-crown for ut". Seven shillings and a sixpence! It sounded like a small fortune- I really don't know how the temptation was resisted, but it was, and I proudly bore my trophy home: nearly rupturing myself in the process, for I hadn't yet learnt to comfortable guide a bike with one hand. It is with the greatest reject that I have to relate that my valued relic has
vanished - a hapless victim of another of my mother's frantic bouts of spring-cleaning. One of her mottoes should
have been "When in doubt - chuck it out"! Many collectors of militaria would give their eye-teeth to get their hands on such a rarity. In fact, should you perchance know anyone who has a piece of this particular airship, I'd be prepared to make the owner a fair offer.
Meanwhile, the war ground relentlessly on; while the soldiers bore the brunt at the "front". The workers were tightening their belts at home. Food prices of 1914 had doubled by 1917. As a comparison, father's pay had increased
from twenty-two to thirty shillings a week. Apart from the few month's "billeting" that was our gross income, and by
this time there was another mouth to feed, for my sister had arrived, I have no doubt that she was physically the weakling of our family because my mother deliberately went short herself in order that there should be a little more
for dad and the boys. She even gave up taking sugar in her tea so there should be a little more available for other culinary purposes. One could almost judge the passage of the war years as the bread became progressively darker and darker in colour, and coarser in texture. This was mainly because in order to eke out the available supplies, more and more of the "offal' such as bran and middlings, normally to feed cattle, was being left in the flour. Butter was almost unobtainable, except for those fortunate able to pay "black market" prices. Margarine had a peculiarly rancid taste, not so noticeable to those who were really hungry, especially when smeared liberally with that rustic delicacy, blackberry and apple jam. The former, nature provided for the picking and neighbours the "windfalls" for the asking. In time, we became about as partial to this particular conserve as the soldiery were to Tickler's famous plum and apple jam; which many of the troop's sware contained more than a fair proportion of mangold wurzel. This doesn't really surprise me when I recall that Ma used to use portions of one of the beet family to help sweeten her marrow jam. If one had thoughts to pop a sprinkling of ground ginger in, it might have tasted better still; not that our palates really needed any enlivening.
On the contrary, she used to impress on us the digestive benefits of masticating our food properly, probably well
aware that a well chewed meal is much more satisfying. It is a rather unpleasant thought to me that we were actually
rationed to four slices of bread and "mage" at tea time, with whatever else that happened to be going. Often this was
potato cakes; mashed potato mixed with a little flour to bind it, seasoned, and cut into shapes, and fried in beef
dripping. I've often had the same concoction, served in more elegant surroundings, that had been carefully rolled
in artificially coloured bread-crumbs and christened "pomme croquette" (or such name), which weren't in the same
class as far as flavour is concerned. It's all to do with the frying-pan - you must have a cheap, well battered pan with the tinned surface gone, through years of regular use, and about one eighth of an inch of well-burnt fat firmly caked around the sides.
Towards the end of 1914, when it was becoming plain to almost every adult that there was a fair chance of hostilities developing into a long and bitter struggle, ordinary farsighted folk tried to make some provision against shortage of necessities. With some of her "billeting money", Ma managed to purchase a whole sack of good flour and the side of a medium pig (minus the ham), The latter was carefully cured, and hung in portions from a strong iron "butcher's bar" suspended from the ceiling of the living room; and separately covered with muslin. The bacon wasn't up there long, but the reserve sack of flour stood on a thick length of high water, Sunday was always the special day for victuals; and in case you feel that I'm very preoccupied with provender and the preparation thereof, it's merely because as a growing lad I had a voracious appetite which seldom seemed truly satisfied. Again, with the lack of many other diversions, there wasn't much else to take a real interest in anyway.
As a freshly-killed wild rabbit cost about shilling, and was usually readily obtainable, it was cold rabbit pie
(with belly of pork), nicely flavoured with a few bay leaves, for breakfast on the Sabbath. Even farmers weren't
very interested in exterminating anything edible at that time. Fortunate we were indeed where meat was concerned,
for it was of the kind designated by a now obsolescent name "home-killed" for the two local butchers used their own
small abattoirs. I don't think our butchers knew the word "refrigeration" meat. When we were favoured with beef, even
the cheapest cuts tasted delectable. The joint would be places on its steel grid in a fairly shallow roasting tin in
the old oven; always a "slow" one. When nearly cooked, in would go the well-beaten batter of flour, egg and milk;
the exquisite sizzle as the yellow liquid mingled with the hot fat and juices from the joint indeed made sweet
music to our young ears. And the aroma - "Mamma Mia!". As the pudding gently cooked it absorbed the fine flavour that exuded from the meat above. None of these neat, round, tasteless blobs of batter, cooked separately, that we so often get today. The gravy, two-pennies 'worth of fresh meat bones, boiled up with vegetables "off-cuts", coloured and flavoured with a really good gravy-browning, added that little extra touch of culinary efficiency/ "Jazzed-up" cabbage water was out, for what is any main curse without some expertly prepared sauce or gravy. Allowing for the fact that fish often had to take its place as a main course in our type of home. Generally speaking, most of our vegetables were fresh from the garden. We would count ourselves fortunate that Dad liked gardening. Though I've always considered it to be the most mediocre paying hobby that there is, "chacun a son gouyi", Gardening if very much like life, one only gets out of it a return for what one is prepared to put into it,
Another Sunday treat was Ma's home-made bread, which was always of a fine, close texture that crumbled agreeably in the mouth. Some of today's factory product seems so cling to one's teeth like some form of glutinous bubble gum. Sometimes the apparently most insignificant of glutinous can affect the flavour the most, as most, so perhaps the particular chemical content of the yeast used is important. Ma used the hold-type brewer's yeast, heaven knows how it's prepared now. She certainly contrived to make her sack of flour last a very long time. In fact, by the time she got down to the last few pounds, it was a "toss-up" who got the flour, us or the weevils.
Sometime in 1917, there was a "buss" round the class-rooms that sacks of flour were being washed up on the
Apparently, a ship had been sunk at our end of the North Sea near enough to the coast for some of its cargo to be
washed into the Blackwater. One's first reaction is-well, that'll be a fat lot of use, after floating in the sea for several days. Luckily, for some, more than half the content of each bag was perfect, and good white flour at that; for its reaction on becoming wet was coagulate and thus form a protective seal for the inner portion. It's possible that being in salt water helped the process. One of my class mates, a fisherman's son, assured me that my doubts were unfounded because his father had already recovered three complete sacks in his boat. Meanwhile, the headmaster, a worthy, but bureaucratically minded man, named Henry Green, had also had the "buss". He promptly issued an edict that no-one was to go beachcombing during the dinner-hour. In the circumstances, this was like throwing water on a ducks back where a few of the more defiant boys were concerned. Being counted among the latter, as soon as the "termination" bell clanged its welcome notes in the hall I chased home as fast as I could. Breathlessly explaining the facts to Ma, she hurriedly provided me with a large cotton bag and a clasp knife. I caught up with one of my pals, who, conveniently for him, lived nearer the school. We found three plundered sacks at some distance apart, but hurriedly continued our search getting further away from school and home all the time. Suddenly we found what we sought, half covered with seaweed and the usual water's edge flotsam. Quickly ripping the closely woven sack-cloth, we discarded the semi-solid dough that formed the outer layer and scooped the soft powder into our containers with our bare, cupped hands. Between us we had retrieved about twenty-four pounds of meal, and I nearly cried to think that we were leaving as much again to probably be destroyed by the incoming tide. But our bags were full and time was running out, for home was nearly a mile and a half away. It was with more than mixed feelings
that the journey was made, with prospects of Ma's pleasure and Mr. Green's extreme displeasure. Wolfing a hasty sandwich, I ran fearfully back to school, arriving ten minutes after the "starting" bell had rung. After an evasive explanation, my teacher ordered me to report to the head. And when this gentleman administered physical correction, you certainly knew you'd had it, believe me. As I had gone to considerable pains to try and help my family, a keen sense of injustice stirred me; more than a little. Without even showing my face back in class, I tearfully ran back home and told Ma. Normally, if either of us were caned, to have "squealed" at home would have been equivalent to asking for a second "dose". This time she was so infuriated that she scarcely paused to remove her apron; dropping my sister into her rickety push-chair, went back to Mr. Green's office at a very lively pace.
When Ma was really mad it was useless trying to interrupt her rapid flow of words. After several minutes heated diatribe on the manifold difficulties of trying to feed and clothe four kids in wartime on a labourer's pay, she eased off to get her breath back. Patience was another of the Head's sterling qualities, and he quietly replied, "Well, Mrs. Smith, I didn't cane him for disobeying my instructions, but for telling lies; you see, unfortunately for him, he still had some of the flour on his nose". It was an extremely useful lesson, and one that's never been forgotten. I've since tried to maintain the precept. "Never tell a lie when the truth may well suffice"
Should anyone try to convince me that suitable corporal punishment hasn't a place in the scholastic reals, I can but knowingly murmur, "Piffle". For our Head was basically a kindly man, and dedicated to doing all he could to fit us to face the world, both morally and scholastically. It wasn't the first time that he had severely stung my fingers, but I shall always think of him about with affectionate respect.
One thing "old Harry", as we called him, was mutinous about was spelling. In compositions and other written work,
bad spelling meant bad marks. This put me at a decided disadvantage as we hadn't even a shilling dictionary at home,
and my parents certainly didn't realise that education really began at home. Oddly enough, we weren't even encouraged to save our pennies to buy one. As Henry probably realised that this attitude in most of his pupil's homes, he arranged that the Friday afternoon session should be devoted to spelling-bees, whereby the two top of the class would choose opposing sides. Where the results were to our particular teacher's satisfaction, we were the allowed to choose our own favoured literature from the school library for personal reading till the end of the session. It was surprising how this improved spelling standards; though, let's face it, the English language is far from easy in this respect. But it is my considered opinion that basic spoken English is one of the world's easiest tongues to learn. I find that it is the world's most popular "second language", and even the "insular" Russians appreciate this fact, and have recently adopted the principle in their schools and universities. I believe that China will soon follow suit. Esperanto was a brilliant idea, but English was too widely used for the former to stand a chance in the linguistic field. One often wonders what happened to the considerable sum of money that George B. Shaw left for the purpose of improving our awkward spelling. Why "receive" and not "receve" after all, the French have managed quite well with "recevoir". There seems to me much more rewarding ways of exercising our grey matter than having to pause every time you come to words like chief, neighbour, neither, believe, grief or neigh. It's quite likely that if we adopted Shaw's ideas, thereby making written English easier for foreigners, we should ensure that our language becomes the "official" one for the Common Market, and thereby retain our untarnished reputation as Europe's worst linguists,
One thing's certain, "old Harry" and his conscientious staff did their best to ensure that we both spoke and wrote out own language well; even to the extent of having a teacher's rota for staying an extra half-an-hour to supervise those with "lines" to write. Something which benefited no-one but the recalcitrant or lazy pupils concerned.
When I was about ten years of age and in a class with slightly older boys, I wondered why some of these seemed to need as much personal attention from a rather plump lady who
taught us our arithmetic. Later, amid loud guffaws, they would cluster in the playground, and discuss certain
physical attractions of this instructress. In the warmer weather she tended to favour rather low-cut dresses, which
were decidedly "avant-garde" for "school-mars" of that period. Always being eager to learn, I asked her to assist me
with an arithmetical problems one day, and then quickly realised why the others were always calling on her for
assistance. For as she turned my exercise book towards her and bent down to examine my efforts, she displayed a
couple of somewhat pendulous, but well-formed, breasts, unencumbered by any support such as the modern bra.
"It's alright", says she, "You've miscarried a figure"! "That makes two of us thought I", seeing for myself what was slowing our purely scholastic progress.
This came to an end eventually when one of the boys had been fishing for "tiddlers" (minnows), which he had placed in a jam-jar under his desk. During the morning, he sought Miss Brown's usual assistance, and as she assumed a convenient position, he flicked one of his catch right between her bosoms. She leapt up as though she'd been suddenly attacked from the rear, clutching her dress as though she expected to find a conger eel in it. Jimmy was at once practically frog-marched to "Old Henry", for she was a hefty, well-made young woman. Much to our surprise the miscreant didn't receive a caning, but he did receive two hundred lines, "I must observe good manners at all times". Noticeably, Miss Brown's attire from then on became considerably more modest; and we realised that our Head didn't wear spectacles merely as adornment.
To make good any deficiency in the art or biology lessons, one provocative (to the older boys) girl pupil would occasionally attend school bereft of drawers and derisively exhibit herself on teacher's high stool during the dinner hour. Rumour had it that from time to time more advanced lessons were given in a nearby derelict building. As one of the participants remarked, "If you miss anything it often takes a long time to catch up"! As I usually went home for dinner it was many years before I eventually "caught up".
Apart from this, there was no formal sex education, and no decrease in the population figures; so one could but assume that the cycle of human life was progressing unimpeded by merely "doin' what comes naturally".
There doesn't appear to be much difference in the ultimate cause and effect whether one gathers the relevant
information from the school blackboard or the graffiti on the lavatory wall. Except that the latter method was a
little cheaper for the ratepayer. It must strike many rational people as remarkably odd that humanity has managed to multiply (even among the most primitive) very successfully throughout the ages without the aid of textbooks, lectures, and Dr. Martin Coles. Suitable books for these in doubt have usually been available in Public Libraries. Now the psychologists say the onus is on the parents; a theory approved by my daughter, who answers her children's questions frankly, using the proper terms where these are comprehensible to them. On occasion, this can be slightly embarrassing, for I learned recently whilst trying to teach my five-year-old grand-daughter to play dominoes; suddenly she paused, looked at me quizzically, then said, "Grandpop, have you got a penis?" A little taken aback, I kept a straight face while mentally foraging for a suitable answer. My daughter relieved the situation by calling out firmly, "No more questions, Ann, you're supposed to be playing dominoes!"
My mind harked back to my own childhood, where we were brought up Victorian style and even "sex" was an unused word. Even the old cockerel was kept enclosed in a separate pen, ostensibly because he would lose too much fat if allowed free rein to chase the old hens round. According to Ma's book cockerels were for eating. No wonder the poor birds "croaked" round looking so dejected. They were supposed to supplement their meagre diet of boiled potato peelings, mixed with a handful of middlings, with the scraps from our table. What a forlorn hope! They were so emaciated through wandering round looking for food that it was as much as they could do to stagger up the concrete doorstep to see if there was anything edible in the droppings from the poor man's table. If one accidentally laid an egg, it was gleefully borne from the excretes-caked nesting box as carefully as if it had been a jewelled "Faberge" Easter egg. Then usually followed a lengthy discussion as to whose turn it was to consume this rarity. For during the war years, we seldom knew what it was like to consume a whole egg at one sitting. Perhaps we were unique in
this respect, but I think not. When there were five of us and only two eggs available, then the problem was readily
solved. I was usually detailed to patiently sit by the fire making toast, whilst the eggs were "scrambled" and eked
out with a couple of chopped streaky rashers and some mashed potato. When one of the birds looked as though it was
unlikely to ever have enough strength to produce another egg, it was consigned to the pot. That meant an agreeable
gastronomic variations for a couple of days - and chicken soup for the rest of the week, graduating progressively from "cream of chicken" to a very anaemic-looking consommé.