Thursday, 7 January 2010

1956 winter - Return to the smoke

Rain was hitting the windscreen, the tiny wipers were flying back and forth, I sat in the front seat of our car, my eyes glued to the back doors of the removal lorry we were following, while my Dad drove through the storm down the A1 back to London. Returning from four years in the infant new town Stevenage, a rural idyll, always sunny, with fields full of poppies and cornflowers, woods carpeted with bluebells and primroses, and me and my cohorts running wild and carefree, well in my mind anyway.

The car is a red Opel Kapitan made in Germany, left hand drive and one in a series of unusual vehicles my Dad acquired, usually on the wrong side of clapped out. My Mum was often needed to give it a push while my Dad sat in the driving seat waiting for the engine to turn over. No wonder she needed a hip replacement.
This was not my first trip back to London, I had been with my Mum a couple of times before on the Green Line Bus which made me luridly sick, this journey was no different. We couldn't stop the car without losing sight of our belongings, so I had to vomit out of the window, making allowances for wind speed and trajectory, I was only a seven year old kid, I wasn't that accurate.
I was already distraught to be leaving my friends, my boyfriend in particular, whose mother worked in the sweet shop and often handed out freebies and as we arrived at our new home in the winter of 1956 in this austere, dark, cold, smog filled London it seemed like a lousy deal to me. Enrolled in a school with grilles at the windows, no playing fields, buildings as old as Dickens, I had been kicked out of Paradise.

You would not believe it, I certainly had no clue, but fast forward a few years and I would be in exactly the right place, at the right time.

The pupils at my new school William Tyndale were surprisingly friendly and I settled in without too much pain. The uniform of brown and yellow was ugly, but not compulsory so no one wore it. I sat behind John Quaterman, who wrote funny poems and made me laugh a lot. Two Geralds sat together, but sadly didn't follow their true destiny to become a comedy double act. One very thin, the other extremely large, whose mother saw fit to anoint his head with lard every morning before he left for school. There was Joey Annerson, David Cook, Maureen O'Mahoney, Roy Trevelyn, Sandra Ratcliff and her friend Susan, a stylish pair along with Jane Stonehouse, the daughter of the infamous Labour MP John Stonehouse, who years later faked his own death, hiding out in Australia, before being caught and returned to England and sent to prison. But for now he was on the ascendancy and Jane was soon moved from our school to the more salubrious Parliament Hill.

Mrs. Reason was my favourite teacher, she taught English and didn't hit us much, which instantly made her more appealing. However, others did with whatever was their favourite weapon of choice, usually the slipper. Some preferred to aim the black board duster at our heads if we were talking or not paying attention. The elderly teacher in need of a regular daily hug, moved slow, so the fast were safe.

Just across the road from the flats was the bomb site that all the local kids played on. A German V2 rocket had hit St. Mary's church school on Shillingford Street near the end of the war and the children and teachers who survived were given space in William Tyndale. We always referred to them as the Marys and it was many years before they had their own premises again. The local sweet shop, right next to the school, missed being hit by inches and was largely unchanged. You entered up some stone steps and in through the door knocked back by the heady odour of paraffin and cats. Mojos, Black Jacks, Fruit Salad, Little Gems, Flying Saucers and that cheap strange tasting chocolate made into shapes of carpenters tools all lay in wait, as did jars of Lime and Cream Soda, Milk Bottles, Cola Cubes etc.

Keep walking, you’d come to Cross Street, and Jack’s dairy, the bread shop, fish and chip shop, Partridge's the newsagents and Al’s record store a place I loved to visit, searching through boxes full of things I wanted but could not afford.

School summer holidays were as long as ever and my parents would usually head south west to Devon or Cornwall. Various family friends would join us and we’d rent a house or a couple of apartments. These were always lively affairs, we would take our record player, sometimes a portable black and white TV and a barrel of Watney’s Pale ale. Although rock 'n' roll was on the go, most of our records were jazz, mainly of the trad variety. There were some Jelly Roll Morton 78s and one of Paul Robeson singing Ol'Man River from Showboat. We played all sorts of games, table tennis, shove halfpenny, board games - ludo, snakes and ladders and of course cards, pontoon and gin rummy were our favourites. My mother of course didn’t actually get a holiday unless cooking and house work in a different venue could be construed as holiday. (The photo is of Mum and me on a Vespa)

We usually managed to get in some kind of minor trouble. One time we liberated a deer’s head from a wall and filmed it riding around the streets of Teignmouth, south Devon, in our car. Some neighbours snitched on us to the owners, who arrived to check on the head and tell us we’d have to leave if we couldn't behave ourselves.

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