My Boyhood

by | Sep 16, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

My mother was an actress, dancer and singer on the West End stage in London. She usually performed in musical comedies which were very popular in those days. This was an era before the invention of radio, television, movies etc. Everybody would go to the theatre. My father was a violinist in the orchestra and I suppose one day when he was playing, he looked up and caught my mother’s eye. They must have met and that was the beginning of their romance. They married a short time after and my sister Iris was born in 1915.

I came into this word screaming and crying on a very hot summer’s day on July, 17, 1921. My mother told me later that it was so hot and there was such a terrible drought that the Royal Artillery were firing maroons into the clouds to try and create rain. Maybe this is why I was destined to join the Royal Artillery at a later date. I was born in a flat over a store in Hithergreen which is a part of Catford which is a part of Lewishem, in turn a part of London.

I apparently enjoyed breastfeeding longer than one should. My mother was advised to put hot mustard on her nipples to prevent me from continuing in this manner. It did the trick and I maybe this is why to this day; I still enjoy milk and mustard.

My first recollection of my boyhood is when we lived in a bungalow surrounded by fields in Grove Park and we would walk through these fields and meadows surrounded by buttercups and daisies as far as the eye could see. We sometimes would do this on a Sunday evening and if I was a good boy, my mom would bring me blanc mange and jelly and allowed me to eat it in my bed before going to sleep.

My sister Iris, what a girl! She was the daredevil in the family. When she was about 10 years old, she and a number of her friends would go and play outside by the frozen pond. I always remember it was Iris whom her friends would get to cross the pond first. They were wondering about the safety of the pond and if Iris was successful then they too would cross. Another example of this is when they would want to climb a tree. They would send their guinea pig, Iris, to climb the tree first to see if the branches were strong enough to support her weight. If so, then all would climb the tree.

One day, a man whose last name was Faraday, a big fat fellow, came by with an enormous boxed kite. He took off his belt, strapped it around the rope near the kite, picked up Iris and slid her into the belt. She held onto the rope and up she went into the air. The kite went up and I could barely see Iris as she went higher and higher. It so happens that some people saw this unusual event took photographs and asked information about Iris. The kite was brought down and Iris demanded that I speak nothing of this event to our parents. I agreed.
When I look back and think of what might have happened if the kite had tilted over a bit or if a gust of wind had come by. What could have happened to Iris as a result? Anyway, the following morning, the newspaper was delivered and on the front page was the photo of Iris up in the kite and her name was displayed under the picture. My parents were furious, shocked, appalled at what or could have happened. Some cousins who were on holiday at a southern English resort also saw Iris in their newspapers and were shocked as well. I still have this photograph of Iris and the enormous kite in my photo album.

I can remember RAF biplanes landing and taking off as they practiced their flying and sometimes doing their looping of the loop. This fascinated me and I can still remember the smell of the fuel as the planes took off. In the fields, we also had visits from the cavalry who practiced their maneuvers and I remember being picked up by a soldier who put me in the saddle of his horse and led me around for a few yards. It was great fun.

Eventually, we got the orders to move from the local counsel who were going to build an estate of many houses for low income families. We then moved to Lee and there I found new friends. Those days my mother had an old fashioned mangle. You would put your clothes through this after laundry to squeeze all the water out. My friend and I started playing with this. As I put the cloth through, he would wind the handle. As we played with this, my forefinger on my left hand went through the mangle.

I screamed and thank God, he had the presence of mind to unwind the handle. I took my finger out and my mother rushed me to the doctor. I was bandaged up for a while and all my life when I pick things up, my forefinger sticks up, out of habit. I have a misshapen fingernail to remember this time in my life.

We later did move back to Grove Park and my parents sent me to a private prep school called Beresford House School. This school prepared boys for entrance into Eltham College which had a very stiff entrance exam. Now you must be wondering if my parents were well off. I must tell you that this was not the case. They were very poor. I do not understand how they could afford this school run by Ms. Smith and Ms. Bones.

One Easter, when I was ten years old, I was on the Chislehurst Common with a picnic with some of my friends and I developed a terrific ear ache and went home crying in agony. About midnight, my parents called an ambulance and rushed me to the Lewisham General Hospital where I was thoroughly examined where they decided to perform surgery on my ear.

Now my parents were devout Christian Scientists and they phoned all their friends at the church and parishioners and got them all to pray for me.

I was rolled into the operating room and as I was about to receive the chloroform, the surgeon said the he did not believe that I needed an operation. He suggested that they try some new drug, so I was wheeled back to the ward and given the drugs. Whatever it was, it healed my ear. My parents were convinced it was because of their prayers not the drugs. When I was in hospital, they did decide to take out my tonsils and adenoids. So I was in hospital for 3 weeks and I did not want to leave as I met so many new friends.

Now it was time to take the entrance exam for Eltham College. To my shock and horror of my parents, I failed so I had to stay at Beresford School for an additional year. The following year at the age of eleven, I completed the entrance exam and this time, I passed and so it was off to Eltham College at the beginning of September.

Eltham College was an expensive boarding school for sons of missionaries. Missionaries were not well paid, but they would send their sons to this College from China, India, Brazil and other places across South America and the fees would be paid from the Missionary Society. They also had a few seats set aside for day boys and I was one of the lucky ones. At the beginning, I went to the junior school. I played football or soccer as you would call it and we had to wear a soccer uniform consisting of jerseys, boots, socks, shorts etc. This was an additional expense along with my school uniform (cap and tie as well). This was at the cost of my poor parents.

The following year, I moved form the junior school to the senior school. The senior school consisted of four houses named after famous missionaries like Moffat, Livingstone, Carey and Chalmers. This meant that you had to wear a house tie instead of a school tie. Our school uniform consisted of a navy blue blazer with a crest on the breast pocket and gray flannel trousers. I also played rugby and cricket, so these were two more uniforms needed which my poor parents had to buy this. Our cricket uniform consisted of white shirts, white flannels and white cap. The general school cap was light blue with a 4 yellowed star on top. As you can imagination, there were strict school rules, regulations and disciplines that were followed at Eltham College; for example, when we passed a master, we had to raise our cap to him. Now keep in mind that all this time, I was growing into a young man and this meant that I was growing out of my uniforms constantly. At this time, my sister Iris was going to high school and she too had to wear a uniform at the cost of my parents.

Just a little side note, in addition to the cricket grounds, rugby pitches, tennis courts, gymnasiums and swimming pool, there were fives courts. I have never seen such a court anywhere in North America. Eltham College must have been a purely English boarding school.

Every house had a housemaster and its prefects and we competed with other houses in various events to see who would be the best of this or that throughout the year. Our morning routine was very structured and routine. It went as follows:

At 8:45 am, we would line up and walk into the consecrated chapel. I was in the choir, a soprano in those days and I would take my place in the balcony and get ready to sing, while the other boys would sit down on long pews in the chapel below. There was a pew for small boys and a pew for larger boys and a pew at the front and back which was reserved for the prefects. They helped run the school, discipline us in addition to the masters. The masters came in next, dressed in their black gowns. Finally, in his flowing robe, came in the head master whose name was Mr. Turberville and we would all stand up immediately as he would walk right through to his position at the end of the chapel.

He would announce the number of the first hymn to be sung. Mr Parkinson would play the prelude on the organ and we would sing a hymn and then we would sit down and the head boy would walk down to where the enormous bible was and read a passage. After that, the head master would lead us in prayer and announce the second hymn to be sung. The headmaster would then come down to the big bible and make certain school announcement, get up and walk out of the chapel. The procession order of the school would then be reversed; all the while Mr. Parkinson continued to play the organ and everybody would file out with military precision.

It was now time to go to school. I never did understand why there were a few Catholic boys who always waited outside the chapel during morning service. They were excused from attending. To this day, I am still perplexed over this as a prayer is a prayer; a hymn is a hymn etc. Anyway, that was how we would start off the day at Eltham College. For your information, on Sundays, Eltham College was open to the public for service just like a church.

Every year before Christmas, Mr. Parkinson would put on a Gilbert and Sullivan opera which would be performed in our very long dining room called the King George the 5th Hall. He selected a cast mainly from his choir and that included me. I was in shows called Iolanthe, the Gondoliers and H.M.S Pinafore. The last one that I was in was in 1936 and I remember going under the stage and hearing that King Edward the 8th had just abdicated the throne to marry Mrs. Simpson. This came as quite a shock to me.

At Eltham College, the dining room was very long and had long tables. We were waited on by uniformed maids who we snobbishly referred to as skivvies. At the end of the dining hall was a stage and there was a table going across the stage and all the masters would sit there having their meals facing us as we had our meals down below.

I would like to talk about my summer months and holidays that we took during my school. We had summer holidays from the 25th of July to the 25th of September. Every year, there was a school camp for two weeks at Fairlight near Hastings and I loved going there where we camped, had fires, sang, climbed cliffs and went to sea and hiked. During the summer evenings when I was not at camp, I would go camping or roller skating with my friend George Helmer. He and some other friends would go into the fields and to the River Quaggy where we would have boat races, taking turns daring each other to jump across the wider parts of the river. Sometimes, they were too wide and we would land in the river. We would get in terrific trouble when we got home. We would, at times, climb or jump over fences into an orchard where we would take some pears or apples. We never called it stealing, but rather scrumbing. It was looked upon as a normal boyhood hobby or sport.

I also remember one other holiday when my father was playing in the orchestra in Ilfracombe, North Devon. One morning, my father woke me, picked me up and carried me to the window. He told me that I did not want to miss what was in the sky. There in the sky was an enormous airship called the R101, passing every so slightly, slowly and silently with the sun shining of the silver fuselage by our window. That was truly a wonderful age of Dirigibles that came to an end with the Hindenburg disaster in the United States.

My father as I said was a violinist and an excellent musician. He had many contracts and when he was in between jobs, he would sit by the phone waiting for a call to do recordings, concerts etc. There was one job that he did for a long time. He played in an orchestra of a musical comedy called The White Horse Inn. Wherever it happened to be the summer months, we would join him for holidays, sometimes in Blackpool, Morecombe, Hastings or Bexhill. We always had free complimentary tickets to The White Horse Inn. I never got sick of it regardless of seeing it numerous times and I loved the music and roared with laughter at the jokes.

Blackpool is where the Illuminations took place and it consisted of hundreds of thousands of lights on every tram, street car, and building and on the Blackpool tower. Red Riding Hood, Bo Peep, Three Blind Mice and all the other fairy tales were moving with the lights and it was a wonderful sight to see. Morecombe also had the same illuminations well worth seeing. In the Blackpool Tower, on the ground floor was a round dance floor with a large orchestra that could be changed into a circus or even a swimming pool where artistic professional swimmers put on a wonderful display. It was a place where we could go to again and again with so many variations. I also flew my kite and ran for miles on the long sands.

When my father was playing in the orchestra in Portsmouth or Southampton, he would take me over to see some of the ships such as the massive luxury liner Leviathan, H.M.S. Hood which was later sunk by the Germans in WW11 and H.M.S. Victory which was in dry dock, but was still officially commissioned by the Royal Navy. This was the ship that Lord Nelson sailed on during the Battle of Trafalgar which completely defeated the French fleet. We also visited an old hotel where Lord Nelson spent his last night and we were showed the room where he slept before sailing away and in the end, getting killed.

The school also had a scout group which I joined, another costly uniform. On May 12, 1937, the coronation of King George the 6th and Queen Elizabeth took place. Prior to that, there was construction of platforms, boards and seats for miles and miles along the coronation route. On this day, the crowds poured in and visitors came from all over the world even famous movie stars from America who paid heavy prices to see this parade. Troops came from all the colonies around the world. There was Cavalry, RCMP on horse back, African troops etc. It was a wonderful sight that lasted for hours.

Holding the crowd back were the police along the coronation route. A foot ahead of the police were soldiers standing guard, at ease holding their rifles. Between the police and the soldiers was a gap that we boy scouts could use to run up and down. We were to sell souvenir programs which were really beautiful and we were given 20 to sell and this only took a few minutes. The rest of the day was ours to enjoy. The crowd could not move around and then began to shout at me to get them an ice cream or lemonade. They would give me the money and one at a time, I would get their order, run through the police and soldier barricade, fill their order and return to the person. I would hand them their change back and each time, they would say to keep the change. It was quite a lucrative business that had been created out of nowhere. This continued throughout


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