Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Reminiscences - Part One, the early years

REMINISCENCES                    March 2016-03-06

At the grand old age of 72, I have decided to sit down and try and write some memories of my life. This is in no way meant to be an autobiography, but just a collection of episodes that I can remember. I am also going to include some things about the family that I was told by my parents.

In Sudan during the war
My Dad was working for the Sudan government as a liaison officer between the Brits and the Sudanese. There was no radio service there in those days. So Dad scrounged a transmitter from the military (I think) and gave primitive news broadcasts on the state of the war. I remember that he told me that he allowed Michael to read the news when the British forces entered El Alamein, he was about twelve at the time.

It was also around this time that Michael got Meningitis and nearly died. He was at school in Egypt at Alexandria College, and there was a flu epidemic. He was in bed in the sick bay along with other boys when it became apparent that something was seriously wrong as he was barely conscious. There was a new drug from May and Baker called just ‘M and B’ which had been effective against pneumonia, and (so my memory of the story goes) Dad arranged for some to be flown in from England in an RAF plane. Anyway, Michael survived, luckily for him and the world of mathematics.

At home with Mum
When I was about 3 or 4, I can remember sitting with my mum in the kitchen and eating cream crackers with cheese for lunch. To make it more interesting, we used to add salt and pepper to them, and cocoa to drink. Selma of course would be having lunch at school. I used to share a bedroom with Selma until I got too old for that. The room was at the far end of our bungalow, next to the room that Mum and Dad shared. If we wanted to attract Mum’s attention after we had gone to bed, we used to shout out in unison, because it was quite a long way to the kitchen or living room.

Later on Selma and I had a bedroom each, and the room that we had shared was used for visitors, or lodgers. We had a series of lodgers staying with us from Kuwait, Sudan and Iraq. I think this was arranged via some kind of service for foreign students that Dad was connected with.  I remember one from Kuwait who was very quiet, and studied art. We had one or two of his paintings hanging up. Another from Iraq was called Ishaq, and studied child development or something. He gave us some advice when Julian (I guess) was being fussy with his food.

When I was very young (about 4 I think), I came in from the garden trailing something I had found as a ‘tail’, I was high stepping, and trod on the lead from the kettle which was long and dangling down. It had only just boiled, and emptied a stream of very hot water down my back. I ended up spending several days in bed, lying on my stomach, with dressings on my back. Selma used to come and feed me soup or something easy to eat.

Primary School
I went to primary school when I was four. I trotted along with Selma, down Bush Lane (where our house was), up the hill towards Send church, then along the appropriately name Sandy Lane to school.  I was friendly with a girl called Sheila Burns, who lived on the road towards Guildford. We sometimes played in the field opposite her house. I was somewhat miffed that she could run faster than me. One of my other friends was Richard Denyer, who lived in the first house of the council estate up Send hill. His mother used to come to our house and do my mum’s hair. My mother also had a cleaning lady called Mrs. Mussel who had several kids, including Sylvia who had ginger hair and freckles (didn’t fancy her though). Her husband Ken used to work at Unwins the printer’s toward Woking. She had a son also called Kenny who was blind in one eye, and this led to his being killed in a motorbike accident near Send Church, where Christine lived.

I can’t remember a lot about school lessons, though I do remember helping other kids learn to read. I also remember getting a multiplication wrong, and the maths teacher Mr. Donaldson was so surprised that he thought I was having a joke.

Visit of Sayed El Mahdi
One sunny day we had a visit from Sir Sayed Abdul Rahman El Mahdi (a descendent of the Mahdi), along with his entourage. He was dressed in Arab clothes.  We had tea on the lawn (cucumber sandwiches), and he beckoned me to sit on his lap, and gave me a crisp new pound note – a whole pound! That was a lot of money then for a small child – I was well under ten years. My parents later took me to a toy shop in Woking to spend it. At first I picked a large shiny red wooden train, but when I realised that was going to take almost all the money, I opted for something cheaper.

The Peanut King
We used to get various interesting visitors from the middle east who my Dad had worked with. One time he introduced me to someone from Egypt or the Sudan who he called the ‘Peanut King’. He was apparently very big in peanuts, so we gave him some that we had in the house, and he pronounced them as very good.

Real cotton at school
At primary school we were studying how cotton was grown, and at the time my Dad was in the Sudan, so he sent me a box containing some real cotton plants, complete with balls of cotton in them. This caused some excitement at school when I took them into the class, as none of us had ever seen anything like it.

The De Selincourts
My parents had some friends who lived not far from us in Send called Michael and Peggy De Selincourt (actually I’m not sure they were married). They were a very unorthodox bohemian couple, well educated and Oxford English. Michael had worked at NPL (National Physical Laboratory), but, as far as I could gather, been retired early because of his Communist leanings. They lived about a couple of miles away near Ripley in a rambling, home built bungalow (a bit like ours), which was referred to as ‘Hangover’. I’m not sure this was the official address, but it was what I always knew it as. The clue to its name may be illustrated by Michael showing us his private still, hidden away in an outside cupboard, and made no doubt with bits of equipment from NPL. When I first learnt to ride a bike I was so excited by my new freedom to roam (as I saw it) that I rode over to their house. They were somewhat surprised when I turned up out of the blue (I was about nine I guess). I remember a party that I was invited to, full of Oxford educated physicists, and for the first time in my life tasting homemade mayonnaise (after my mum explained what it was). Pretty exotic for the time.
They had a son, Malcolm, who was about the same age as Michael and Patrick, and I remember when he turned up in a three wheeled Bond mini car, and demonstrated why it didn’t need a reverse gear by spinning it round in circles in our drive.

Lyon’s corner house
I can still recall being taken, when I was quite young, by my Mum to Lyon’s Corner House in London. This was considered a big deal – I very rarely ate out until many years later. The various food offerings were presented in little boxes fronted by plastic lift up panels, so you chose what you wanted and self served. I was so excited; I spilled some of the bowl of tomato soup that I clutched at. This was a whole new experience you understand.

Xmas with Uncle Frank
My mum's brother Frank, who was very tall, had a first wife called Vrairose, she was Austrian I think. She was very short, as was his second wife Marie, who was Scandinavian. After Vrairose died Frank visited us at Christmas a couple of times. I remember those as especially enjoyable. He was a very nice man, and brought me presents of the 'Buffalo Bill Annual'. I remember he told my mum that he didn't know what to buy a boy of my age, but he chose just the right thing. I absolutely loved them, they were bright, colourful, and full of exciting stories and articles - useful things like how to chop logs and ride horses.

West Wittering  and Littlehampton
We didn't travel a lot in those days, but sometimes we would take a trip to the south coast. The nearest places were West Wittering  and Littlehampton. Chiefly I recall those visits as excuses to sit on the beach and drink Tizer. Exciting times. I think a donkey ride was involved once. When I was really young my Dad didn't have a car, but a bit later some money must have come in from somewhere because a new shiny green Ford Prefect arrived amid much excitement. Registration TPA 441, it was one of the cheapest cars on the market, but it was amazing to us and enabled trips like those to the south coast to be possible.

The garden shed
Our house had originally been a couple of rough buildings used for working in by the previous owners. My dad and friends joined them up with a veranda in between, so it was a pretty long bungalow – a good 50 feet or so. Behind, towards the rear hedge and between the orchard and the ‘rough’ lawn (as opposed to the smart one with rose borders) was a large shed – I guess also built by the previous owners? This had various uses over the years, as we had quite a large workshop with adjacent garage built at the front of the house. There was also a mini shed at the back of the large shed where the lawn mower was kept. So the big shed was used as a studio flat, with a bed settee, a sink and small cooker, and an inside/outside toilet in a mini porch. Patrick and Christine lived in it for a while when they were first married, and later my mum let it out to a couple called the Birds. I was quite friendly with Fred Bird; he introduced me to some jazz artists like Stan Kenton and Ella Fitzgerald. He also helped me with my model aircraft, and flew my first powered control line plane. It crashed on landing and broke into several pieces, but I quite happily repaired it. It was never quite the same though. The Birds later moved into the flat at the end of our house that my mum had converted after my Dad departed – to provide a bit of income.  When I was about 15 my mum let me use the shed for myself, and at one time I turned it into a chemistry lab full of equipment.

The Lebanon
When I was coming up for 9 years old we went to the Lebanon for about 3 months in the summer. My dad was involved in something there for a while, and I went out with my mum. I can’t remember Selma being with us. We travelled by train to Paris, then caught an overnight train to Venice – no sleeper, just in a compartment. Then we went by boat for 5 days to Beirut. It was an Italian ship, a bit like a modern cruise. The food was good, and I really enjoyed the journey. I made friends with another boy and we spent time together, went to watch a film in the on board cinema, but as it was in French or Italian, we didn’t understand it. We stopped in Brindisi I think, and Alexandria, where we watched ‘gully gully’ men doing magic tricks on the quay below us. We threw a few coins down to them. We went on shore there to meet some friends of my parents, and went to a famous ice cream parlour where I had the best ice cream I had ever tasted.

In Beirut it was hot. When we arrived aunt Najla and her mother were cooking ‘mashei’ – stuffed vegetables. The day after we arrived I was woken early and taken on a scout’s camping trip by ‘Micho’, my elder cousin for a few nights. I recall walking in the mountains with the smell of wild herbs. Because I was missing school, I was put in a girl’s school where they taught in English. The girls were 2 or 3 years older than me, so I was a bit overwhelmed, but got on OK.

After a while, we went up to a house in the mountains, where it was cooler. Outside the house was a mulberry tree, and I used to climb up it to pick the mulberries.

On our return to England we made the same journey, but this time we had a sleeper compartment on the train from Venice.

Boarding School
When I came back from the Lebanon at nine years of age, my Mum and Dad were finding me a bit hard going, so I was packed off to boarding school for two years – at Dane Court, near Pyrford. The original plan was for me to stay longer, but Dad ran out of funds after a couple of years, so I was shifted to Woking Grammar when I was eleven. He had some thoughts of putting me in for a scholarship to Winchester, but I wasn’t that keen on moving again, especially after we visited Winchester and I discovered that it was fairly primitive – they ate from wooden plates! (probably quite trendy now). Also, I don’t think I worked hard enough – everything at school was too easy.
Going to Dane Court was quite a process – we had to go to Harrods in London to buy my school clothes, which included a brown corduroy outfit for winter (shorts and blouson), and red blazer and grey shorts for summer. Also a specified collection of socks, underwear etc. We also had to get the famous tuck box which later led life as my toolbox, and now Bev has tried to resurrect it as a bit of furniture. At school it was used, quite properly, for tuck – sweets and biscuits and a few nick nacks. It was lockable so no other pesky kid could snaffle the tuck. In addition, there was full sports kit including a hockey stick. We played sports every afternoon, and I used to travel to other prep schools to play soccer and cricket for the school (there were only about 70 pupils, so competition wasn’t strong). This was also the height of my athletics career, when I won the under eleven and a half cup (don’t ask me why it was that age). It was touch and go, because I won the sprints, but wasn’t good at high jump. I quite enjoyed prep school, as I made good friends and quite liked sleeping in a dormitory. The worst thing was the food, as we had to eat everything on the plate before we could leave. I have bad memories of sitting alone in the dining hall faced with a plate of congealing fish in white sauce which I hated. Eventually a dinner lady took pity on me and removed it. Although I enjoyed the terms, I did miss home, and was always glad the end of term.

One day I was told to go with another class to listen to the radio
I was very surprised when I found out I was to listen to a broadcast by my Dad about life in the Sudan. I guess my parents must have told the school that it was on, I had no inkling about it.
I was even more surprised when my Dad told an exciting story about having to shoot a troublesome crocodile. Apparently his bearer had packed a shotgun instead of a rifle, so he blasted it with that into its mouth. Well, all the boys were very envious at having such a glamorous exciting father. You have to realise that my main impression of my Dad (who was about 40 when I was born) was sitting in his armchair smoking a pipe, or typing on his typewriter. I didn’t think he knew one end of a gun from the other.

The Sand Pits and our Trolley
Our drive led up to Bush Lane, and if you carried straight on, you were going down a steep path into the sand pits. These had originally been quarried for sand (where Send got its name), but were now disused and populated by trees and bushes among the sand slopes. I used to play there with my friends, and would often meet new friends there; it was a kind of common play area. Rodney and I made ourselves a trolley from some old pram wheels and a plank of wood, and used to race down the slope in it, sometimes alone, sometimes two up. I would often crouch face down, with my knees on the front plank, my hands steering the front wheels, and my face close to the ground. We would often come off at the bottom of the slope, sometimes ending up in stinging nettles, but it never stopped us. We also used to run around the estate where Rodney lived, using the trolley as a form of transport. Health and safety? Whats that? No brakes of course, except by dragging your feet on the ground. We used to climb trees a lot; Rodney was even more of a climber than I was. Once he was bouncing up and down on a branch when it broke off. He crashed down to the ground still on the branch, but wasn’t hurt a bit.

Woking Grammar School
After two years at Dane Court, my Dad ran out of money – he didn’t have a job, and writing and broadcasting were only sporadic, so I was sent to start at Woking grammar (having passed the eleven plus at Dane Court). My Dad still had ideas of putting me in for a Winchester scholarship, so he asked the school if I could skip a year, having done some French and Latin at prep school. So at the end of the first term they gave me some exams to do in French, Maths and so on. I had to sit on my own along the balcony above the assembly hall and do these exams after school, which I was not best pleased at. The only one I can remember was the maths exam, because there was a question using graphs (a quadratic actually). You were supposed to draw the graph and read off some values of y for a given x. I didn’t know what graphs were, but I found a method of computing y using what I later realised to be the method of differences (more or less). So I got fairly accurate answers. The master who marked the paper came and asked me how I got them, and I explained, but I don’t think he understood. He said ‘I see’ and walked away with a puzzled expression.
Anyway, I was moved up at half term to the second year, but in the ‘B’ stream, so I was now in 2B. Most of the boys were nearly 2 years older than me, because, being August born; I was the second youngest in my year anyway. Looking back on it, it seems a bit hard, but I coped OK after a while. It didn’t do much for my sporting activities though as I was so much smaller and younger. And I was decidedly not popular when I came top of the class after my first term in 2B. Happily I was then moved up into the A stream next year, where I settled in quite well.

The Cross Country Run
Every year the school organised a cross country run, split into junior and senior events, which everyone had to take part in. I actually got quite good at one stage. In my first year in the sixth form, when I was 15, I came 21st (out of over 200). But what sticks in my memory was the first time I ran it. At one point there was a stream we had to jump over. Being somewhat small, I didn't make it, and slipped into the stream. Problem was, when I got out one of my plimsolls (no trainers then) had slipped off. I fished around in the muddy stream for a while, but couldn't find it, so I ran the rest of the way with one plimsoll and one sock. My mum was not too pleased, as she had to buy me another pair. One of the teachers said (at the end of the race), that he could have given me a lift in his car. Pity he didn't say that sooner.

The Thin Line and Borehamwood studios
When I was quite young, about 8 maybe, my Dad sold the film rights of ‘The Thin Line’ (his only really successful book) to Associated British Pictures (aka ABP). As part of the deal he had to go to Elstree studios to work on the film script. He met several film starts there, including (I believe), Diana Dors. At one point he was quite friendly with a film director, and we were all invited to go to dinner at his house. I still recall that I ate Gnocchi for the first time in my life (obviously food was already becoming an important feature in my life).

 ABP were soon taken over by Warner Brothers, and they canned the film.  But, as I was to find out much later, the film did get made, both in Japan and France. We saw the French film ‘Juste Avant La Nuit’, directed by Claude Chabrol, many years later, with Bev and Patrick and family, when he was prof at Warwick University. I have a copy of the DVD which was released some time later. Then, a few years ago, Patrick was contacted by an American film director (not well known) who had made a film for channel 4 based on the characters in ‘Fargo’. He was interested in making a similar film based on ‘The Thin Line’ (nothing has come of it so far). He told me that the book had been filmed in Japan years ago (1966) called ‘The Stranger Within a Woman’, or  ‘Onna no naka ni iru tan’ as we like to say in Japan. But wait, there is more, it was remade in Japan in 2004 as ‘Onno no naka no futatsu no kao’. And also, into a Japanese TV film, see for more info. The reason behind all this shenanigans is the strange world of copyright brokers. The film rights had been sold to a Japanese company (I guess because they wanted to film it), and was then hawked around until Claude Chabrol came across it. We actually got a bit of money each because the holding company wanted to extend the copyright.

Rodney Laking

I used to make strong friends with a few boys over the years. For a long time my best friend was Rodney Laking, who lived on the old council estate up Send hill with his mum and dad and two younger sisters. Rodney went to St. Bedes, the comprehensive school at the end of our road (Bush Lane). He wasn’t the brightest of lads, but for some reason we got on well and spent a lot of time together. He was very into aircraft, and we used to go and watch the planes taking off and flying around at Fair Oaks, a local small private aerodrome. We would take sandwiches on a nice sunny day and sit for ages just watching the planes and enjoying the sun. We were also both into making model planes. I made lots, some of which were hanging up from my bedroom ceiling, a Hurricane, DH110, ME109. And I also made ones just for flying, mainly gliders and rubber band powered. One flew very well, and I took it to the local ‘rec’ (recreation ground). It ended up in a tree, and got broken in our attempts to bring it down by throwing things at it. I even followed Rodney in the ATC (air training corps), but I soon decided that it wasn’t for me. After a few years, Rodney’s father moved to a job with a house some distance away, and I lost touch after that. My mum and I bumped into him working at the W.H. Smiths on Waterloo station, he seemed quite grown up, but I never saw him again.

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