Sunday, December 30, 2012

The First Day of War - Evacuation

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I was in a crocodile of children walking with our teachers along the seafront at Deal. It was a crazy place to which to evacuate a bunch of London kids. Deal is but twenty miles from France. On a clear day the continental coast is visible. It would have been about 11.00 a.m. and the air raid siren sounded. This was the first sound of War. The teachers, no doubt flustered and confused hurried the class of young children into the Tudor gun emplacements of Deal castle. There are various narrow passages with openings for small firearms and into such a passage we were led. There was no danger. This was the phoney war which last some months.
But consider the mental torment to my mother! A few days before, it may have been no more than two; I and my next older brother – I had two brothers – were bundled off with the rest of the school into a train. My mother did not stay to see us leave. She had no knowledge whatsoever as to where we would lay our heads that night. Not any idea. Imagine how she must have felt as she returned to our home. She would not know for days where we were living, what family we were with, whether we were distressed or happy. There was no telephone. She laid her trust in the teachers of the school. London had no children. It was as though a Pied Piper had whistled them all away, and gardens and parks and streets between the terraced houses had no sound of children at play.
When we arrived at Deal we were put on a bus. Some previous arrangements must have been advertised in the Town for families who had space to accommodate the Londoners. The bus stopped by a small house, ‘Can you take two boys here?’ asked a teacher. We were the two boys. We were given a packet each of Jacobs Cream Cracker biscuits and ushered into the home of Mr and Mrs Rennie. They were retired and found us perplexing. But every circumstance brought a new expansion of my mind. ‘Would you like to see the goldfish in the pond’ said Mrs Rennie. The ‘pond’ was an old sink in the tiny back garden and in its shallow dirty water swam the imprisoned fish. But kindness was offered and I repaid it by wetting the bed.
We listened to the wireless, powered by an ‘accumulator’ which had to be recharged at a nearby garage. Mr. Rennie had constructed internal shutters to the windows which were effectively airtight. These were mounted in case of a gas attack from the air.
Towards the end of September my parents visited. It was close upon my birthday. They gave me a Rupert Bear annual which is still a precious possession.
This evacuation was the beginning of a torment for my brother who accompanied me. Not at Deal but the later consequence. I was six, and he was ten. His supposed education was at a more important stage than mine and that age in formed in his mind a disturbance which lasted till he died.
But I return to the experience of Deal. As throughout my years of education I recall little of formal lessons, but the other experiences of life left great impressions. I often looked across the sea. Wrecks of boats on the Goodwin Sands were close enough and I made childish sketches of them. War did not impinge itself except for the instance of the ‘Naughty Nora’. This small cargo boat struck a mine at sea and was disabled. It floated on its side into the pier at Deal and demolished the structure. It looked huge stuck into the wreckage. More non-education followed thick and fast; The shoals of sprats which marooned themselves on the stony shore gave us meals of fried fish; The picking of outdoor cucumbers on Mr. Rennie’s allotment; The huge falls of snow which rose above my tiny Wellington boots and gave me chilblains; The smell of dog-shit in a back alley way; The taste of a millefeuille filled with raspberry jam; The watching of my schoolmates throwing a stink bomb into a fish and chip shop.
Life for the Rennies with two street wise boys was getting difficult. We had to go. My brother said to me in bed ‘Let us pray that we can go to Mrs Field’. We were good Roman Catholics! We did so move but with an interim stay with a third household. All this life continued without the knowledge of our parents, who could in no way have an opinion on our lives.
We went to school in some Convent in Deal and some of our lessons were conducted by nuns. Only a few memories remain; The huge fire in a large fireplace in a large stone hallway where some spelling bee on a blackboard was conducted; The single remarkable lesson by a nun who drew upon the board a ladder and indicated heaven at the top and hell at the bottom. ‘If you do something good, then you climb a few steps to Heaven. If you do something naughty (like throwing stink bombs?) you slip down a little towards Hell’. No other memory of the school remains. What can I make of this?
I guess that young boys are rather like young animals, exploring their environment; a kind of Huckleberry Finn experience. At times they need the direction of a firm hand and rules to be laid down. ‘Always use two pieces of lavatory paper’. Said the fifteen year old daughter of Mrs Field. Even this rule I followed for many years. It is the Sound of Music syndrome, where the ex-nun directed the children. By God, we need this direction today in our society.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Life in London 1940 - No schools

Living in Deal just had to end. The school was commanded to return to London in May 1940, after nine months of evacuation to Deal. This time the journey was entirely by bus - or coach – the word used was ‘charabanc’ . The approach to London was memorable. The sky was clear. I saw through the front window of the coach the sky over the eastern suburbs of London decorated with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of barrage balloons – great silvery blimps held fast to the ground with long hawsers. The evening sun shone a golden light on them. They decorated the sky, optically diminishing in size towards the horizon. They were indeed a splendid sight. It was decided that the school would re-locate to Devon, to the town of Torquay. My mother decided that I would not go. I must stay with her whatever the consequences. She felt that my brother’s education (he was 13) was more important than mine. But her baby –me- must remain with her.
For my brother began some weeks of torment. I never knew the reason why he was unhappy. I guess he was ill-treated in some manner, and I believe the hurt was hurt indeed. My mother was deeply angry and her anger caused her separation from the Roman Catholic Church. I remember the meeting with Father McKenna sitting in our front room. The embarrassment on his face was matched with the fury of my mother. We never went to mass again. My mother had been a convert to the Church. That ‘conversion’ must have occurred more or less during the year of my birth. My father was bankrupted. We were penniless. My father had no work and there were three boys to feed. She, at that time turned to pray at the nearby R.C church and sought help from the Church. The Church gave her money. My mother used to say to me frequently, ‘Pray! – more things are wrought by pray than this world dreams of.’ That is a quotation from Tennyson. She loved poetry and she had been awarded a prize at her school at the age of 13 of a book of his complete works for ‘proficiency in Religious Knowledge’.
My brother had to return from Torquay but there were no schools open. I did not go to school for many months, perhaps for a year. My brother also would have no schooling if he remained. It was decided that he should go to live with my mother’s brother in Glasgow. So he was put on a train, by himself, and sent to Scotland. I suspect that he came from Torquay by himself also. From thereon his life was not smooth. To his last day he claimed that his mother had deserted him, had sent him away. A feeling of persecution grew in him.
As for me, I just whiled away the idle hours. My mother tried to teach me a little. I could read from before the age of four. A friendly neighbour had some popular encyclopaedias for children and I was fascinated by the stories of ancient civilisations and much more. But the time of the Blitzkrieg on London was approaching. Frequently we three; father, mother and child; crept at night to try to slumber in the narrow cupboard below the stairs while exploding shells and drones of planes were resounding in the skies above.
The docks at Woolwich were ablaze. It was a September day in 1940. I was outside in the morning and looked to the North and saw huge clouds rising beyond the woods of Shooter’s Hill. My mother came to the door and in astonishment said to me ‘ Can it be gas?’ Her fear transmitted itself to me, but I had no answer. I had no fear in myself. To the young what happens, happens. Fear is frequently (though not always) the consequence of thinking into the future. If pain and misery has flowed from a past experience, then fear may well be engendered if that experience is encountered again. But for me at this time, each new wartime experience was just that, a new experience. I did not listen to the wireless and hear Churchill say ‘whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’. But after that speech my mother expressed her fear to me. I was in the arms of my mother and we sat at the window of the bedroom looking across the road which was the main road from London to Rochester and the Kent ports. ‘What will we do if the Germans come?’ she asked of me. I did not know and gave no answer. ‘I expect that many of them are decent people. They are sons and fathers too. If we treat them well, then they will be nice to us, I expect.’
In time some schools re-opened to serve the increasing number of children who had filtered back from evacuation. I went – possibly as it happened for only a few days – to Deansfield School. No young male teachers existed. Most women teachers were themselves evacuated with their schools. The teachers at Deansfield were elderly and recruited back from retirement. The image of an elderly man with a grey stubbled chin bringing his face within inches of mine as I sat at a desk, trying to make me recite a multiplication table, still comes upon me. That frightened me! This was a new experience which brought immediate dread. That same lesson was interrupted by the wailing sound of an air raid siren. That sound for many years filled me with dread. I did not follow the others to the air raid shelter. I ran home. I did not return to that dread school. I never did discover if the school noticed my absence!
At some time later Henwick Road School re-opened. I joined its classes and some different experiences came with it. I repeat, I have so very few memories of ever having learnt anything in a classroom. The acquisition of knowledge generally has been incidental. Hideous reminiscences as retold above were also rare. As for my multiplication tables, they have always been dodgy. I have had need too often to ask my wife ‘What is six times eight?’ or whatever. Yet my abilities in mathematics is not poor.
It seems to me that a kind heart and love for the child is more important than the impulsion of teachers to impart knowledge. If the child respects and admires the teacher, the child will imitate the teacher. This was my experience at Henwick Road.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

March 6th 1943. The night the bombs fell.

March 6th 1943. Early in the morning I sat at the edge of the Morrison shelter, the rubble of bricks and plaster pushed aside by my mother so that a cleared area of the flat steel top could receive a plate of eggs and bacon. The gas stove was still working. My father and brother had dusted themselves down and were also ready to eat. I recall some hours before the echoing sound of the voice of an air raid warden crossing the back gardens and crying ‘Are you all OK in there?’ . Across the road thirty terraced houses had been flattened or blasted. Six people had been killed, among whom was Mr. Ireland.  He was a quiet man who talked to me , a boy of ten, gently.  Mrs Spinks led her husband, who had long been blind, amongst the rubble.
In our little terraced house the interior wall between the living room and sitting room had been blown down and only the wooden supports which held the bricks in place remained. A column of bricks lay athwart the fireplace in which a fire still smouldered. The small light fitting, fashioned as a bowl, from marble, was shattered on the floor amongst fragments of plaster. All this was caused by a stick of six bombs dropped by the German planes in an attempt to cut the main A2 road out of London towards the Kent ports.
And what followed? We four went to a rest centre, whilst my parents could sort out some place for us to stay. My brother immediately went to volunteer for the RAF. He left that day. For some time he had been training in the ATC (Air Training Corps). He was a young man with personality difficulties, and remained so throughout life. He detested the Germans, and the Jews and the Americans, or said he did. His Britain, in his mind, was a country of quiet ways and peace and changelessness. He went to fight for that England ‘O peaceful England’. ‘A Merrie England’. A gentle England. An England that in spite of the efforts of our generation, seems to have been destroyed. He was not yet eighteen. I was not yet eleven. In two days the scholarship examination for entry to the grammar schools was due to take place. Whatever the destruction around me I still went to school. At the rest centre we slept in bunks and men were separated from their families. And sometimes the children were separated from their parents. We queued for the meals. I recall the time I was queuing alone and the kind woman server said ‘Would you like two pieces of jam tart?’, and she placed two on my plate. At that moment someone told me to go to my mother. I cannot recall why. When I returned, my plate was still there but it carried only one piece of tart. The disappointment stills stays with me.
I still went to school. This school was Henwick Road Primary in Eltham, south east London. The headmistress was Miss McDonald, who was an angel of kindness. ‘You must sleep in my office.’ A camp bed was made ready and I slept. The examination made little impact on me. I passed.

May 1943. The doodlebug phase

Cousin Mabel, my father’s cousin was a spinster and a lonely woman. It was necessary that we lived with her. We had no house. My mother said ‘Be good’. But I was young and foolish and the inner struggles of a ten year boy was not a concern of a weary aging lady. One delight was watching the ants building their nest beneath the flagstones in the garden; it was the sole relief of our stay in that house. I travelled to school, to Miss McDonald’s school daily, by bus, alone, from Bexleyheath to Eltham. The journey was from time to time punctuated with sight and sound of the flying bombs, the doodlebugs. Over Bexleyheath after leaving the bus to walk the short distance to Mabel’s small house I saw a doodlebug close above, maybe no more than 300 feet. It stopped and it glided beyond my view and exploded, no doubt killing more innocents. Sometimes a teacher was with me, who travelled some of the way to care for me. The memory of my unreasonable shame of the poverty of my family came to me on that journey. It was a forerunner of the shyness that plagued my adolescence and young manhood and lasted another fifteen or more years. That shyness stemmed entirely from the shame I felt that my family was so uncultured and poor. It was not financial poverty so much as a poverty of cultural life. This particular instance was when I observed to my teacher companion ‘That lady is wearing the same dress as my mother’. Immediately I recognised that it was a shoddy dress, ill-fitting. I blushed and shut up. I do not suppose that my comment meant anything to the teacher; she who was kind enough to aid the ten year on his six mile journey to his lodging with the aged relative.
I do not recall if it was the same day that I destroyed any peaceful co-existence in that house with ‘aunt’ Mabel. I was miserable and was crying. I tried to hide my misery behind a newspaper which I pretended to be reading. Later I cursed myself. I did not realise that the small long mirror over the sideboard reflected my image and that ‘aunt’ Mabel could see my expression. She spoke to my mother and my mother sent me to bed and later complained to me of my bad behaviour. Our days with Mabel were soon to end.
My father must have had more grit than I ever have credited to him in years to come. The poor chap could only read clumsily. His education had been miserable. He, following his father’s profession of photographer suddenly found himself hitting the sand in 1932 when his business failed. My birth in that same year hardly would have helped and the next eleven years through bankruptcy, the rise of Hitler and the War were years of penury and constant struggle. My parents were soon awarded a property on Shooter’s Hill requisitioned from the owners who had fled from London some years before. It was a cheerful house, a Janet and John house, on a Janet and John estate (I refer to the image of the Janet and John children’s books), an estate of lower middle class, clean living comfortable people. There was a view from the front room of London. The dome of St. Paul’s was there. I found a small skill in making ink drawings. For a short while life was peaceful. I still went to Henwick school, walking across Eltham Common and there discovering one day a stag beetle on a stump. For a short period my mother felt my walk to school was too dangerous and I was re-directed to another school very close to the new home.
But the doodlebugs still flew. One fell close to our house and blasted it. My mother had a severe cut over her eye. A near neighbour lost an eye. It happened at night. My parents were taken to hospital. I was bundled off by the air-raid wardens to a shelter in a nearby house. There I sat, clothed how I know not what. I sat silent between other people, who did not speak to me, and I could not speak with them. I had no idea when my mother would return. And when eventually she did we had no home to go to. Again fast decisions were necessary. Our original home was already being reconstructed. It had received a new roof. The front garden patch was a glorious mass of colour of self seeded antirrhinums. The water, gas and electricity were functioning but most walls needed plaster and it was Spartan. Nevertheless we moved in there and then and camped out in our own house, sleeping on the floor in the unfinished house. I returned to Henwick school, but the journey was now as before it was in March.
These experiences and more to describe, were my education. Schooling seems to play such a small part in education. Other elements of experience matter more. The sight of a beetle, the view of St. Paul’s. Though I lived in a fearful world, I was never frightened. Kindness to children, love and tenderness is worth more than material goods. Adults who cannot respond to the innocence of children are agents of evil. Let the children discover in the world beauty and wonder. The study of Nature face to face is perhaps the most rewarding to the mind and spirit, not just through the banal reportage and its interpretation at second hand through the television. And the most important leader for life, the educator, for me was my mother. The most important education policy for any State is the education of their girls. Indeed, the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Henwick Road School 1940 - 1943

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What it was about this particular school which gave me pleasure? I have disjointed impressions. At previous schools the only formal classroom situation I can recall is that of the Nun and her ladder to heaven. There was one instance of instruction during the short time attendance at a school on Shooter’s Hill which vividly stuck itself in my memory. It was not a formal lesson. It was the only gardening lesson I ever received. The class was asked to plant lettuces. ‘Always break off the end of the tap root’, was the teacher’s statement, ‘It stops the root growing down which would make the grown lettuce difficult to pull up’. Is there some innate love of Nature in me which made me remember?
A very much earlier memory was a nightmare at perhaps the age of five. The detached head of the schoolmarm was below my bedclothes and glaring up at me. I woke screaming ‘Say good-bye nicely and tell them to go’. It stills rings in my head.
All other impressions of pre-War schooling relate to the St Thomas More Roman Catholic School, which is very near Henwick Road.
All these could be called ‘social awareness’. All relate to the poverty of the time, just a short while after the economic collapse of the great depression, which caused the bankruptcy of my father and our own family poverty.
1. The day black boots were brought in on a tray for distribution to certain pupils. I wondered why I did not get a pair. It is just possible that some pupils had no shoes at all!
2. When the daily provision of a third of a pint of milk was warmed on the school room radiator and it tasted foul. Winters always seemed to be cold and the milk sometimes froze in the bottle and the ice pushed up the cap.
3. The appalling condition of the school garden. I remember this area covered in weeds. There were two ornamental pathways with some bird bath at the intersection. Even I, at the age five was dispirited by the condition.
The head teacher was Mr. Mahony. My mother was very friendly with him and his wife. I guess there was some intellectual relationship. We visited their house opposite the church on Well Hall road from time to time.
Henwick school left nothing but cheering memories.
HenwickSchool stands in a Council Housing estate on the edge of a large grass oval, Winchcombe Gardens, The large three storey block (I believe three?) of classrooms faces south and large glazed doors opened from each classroom onto a narrow balcony. The rooms were bright. The playground on the south was originally designed in two parts, for boys to play to the east and girls to the west. But the girls playground was largely occupied with the vehicles of the Auxiliary Fire Service, for very active use in the bombing raids. These vehicles were green. Still today similar vehicles known as Green Goddesses have a similar role. The supply of head-teachers must have been a problem. I knew of three during the two years I was there. The middle one was called Holditch. His stay was short. I remember so well! His departure was prompted by a ‘student riot’, if one could call a load of running nine to ten year olds a riot! I cannot remember why the whole school – perhaps two hundred pupils or perhaps less – was gathered into the main hall. But it was eventually time to go home. Holditch would not shut up. I was restless and some more aggressive boys even more so. Some near the door got up and belted for it. All the rest stampeded and we all left, leaving the Holditch mouthing in despair. That man was soon replaced by Miss MacDonald. She was a small and fairly dumpling shaped women but so very loving.
Two other teachers are memorable and I can recall some instances of their teaching. Mr. Young looked young but probably was not, otherwise he would have been in military service. On one occasion he launched into ‘How Horatius won the Bridge’.
“Lars Porsena of Clusium – By the nine Gods he swore – That the great House of Tarquin – would suffer wrong no more –“
Mr Youngs voice rolled out the verse and I sat in awe. He had drawn a picture of Horatius, in Roman dress, on the blackboard.
The content of a teacher’s knowledge is far less important than the cherishing love of the teacher and the perception of a teacher for the needs of the child. The teacher should encourage the direction of the child’s learning through gaining his/her respect.
Mrs Plummer was another kind teacher. I recall her long legged pink underpants peeping below her skirt. I haven’t a clue whether she taught me anything. I remember a particular moment when she and other teachers were discussing a mathematical question from an old paper from the Junior County scholarship exam. She asked me if I could solve it. I remember I could not and neither could the teachers! At about the same period some friend of my mothers had given me some simple (I imagine it was simple!) arithmetic book. I couldn’t understand it and I took it to school. I got no help. The teachers apparently did not understand it either! There was in it some topic on Compound Interest. It took me years to understand it, but the equation is one of some use to me today! P2=P1(1+r/100)y
Mrs Plummer frequently urged us on to higher goals. ‘My son is at Eltham College’, she told us and showed the class his prefect’s school cap with a bright yellow tassel!
In memory, the moments when the eyes of my brain opened seemed few. Some companion brought in some caterpillars. ‘Where did you find these?’ “On the way to school”. He took me after school and on a privet bush were dozens of them . The Privet Hawk Moth. We kept some in a glass jar on a shelf in the classroom and I suspect that they eventually died.
I recall only one moment of embarrassment in her class. For some unremembered reason, she was talking about the Pope and the Vatican. I was the only Roman Catholic in the class. She asked me some question about the Vatican. I was not even aware of either Pope or Vatican!
I was not an honest pupil. I think I must have lied. A teacher on the echoing concrete staircase, took me aside and said ‘Brian, honesty is the best policy.’ I hadn’t a clue what she meant. The words sounded clever. It was some time before I knew what she meant.
Henwick was one of the very few schools open in 1940. All families, poor or well–off sent their children there. All were white and English through and through. There were the very poor, like the boy ‘Grange’, whose clothes were dirty and even I noticed he was unclean. At the other end was Robin Angel, the son, I believe of doctors or some professional people. He was a great friend and certainly a very able boy. I admired him greatly. But there again I felt uneasy with him. At some Christmas he asked if I would visit him at his house. That house was on Shooter’s Hill and it was a fine middle class home. He had on his bed his presents, numerous presents. One was a copy of Dicken’s Christmas Carol. I remember my sense of deprivation in not having such gifts. I also knew only too well that my parents could not afford such gifts. How I admired his pale blue zipped jumper.
When we both left Henwick Road I seem to recall that he went to a minor ‘public’ school. I believe Whitgift School. [For non-British readers – a ‘public’ school is oddly enough a long established private school, usually of ancient foundation. Well-off parents send their children to such schools. In the post war years, a large number of minor ‘public’ schools accepted pupils from poorer families on a scholarship which was supplied by some local government. This system was discontinued by a future Socialist Government. Such political action stemmed from jealousy and it was retrograde and exceedingly stupid.]
The memories of HenwickSchool are crowded. I list a few.
1. Empire Day.. When children paraded carrying each a flag of some British Dependency in the World. It was May 25th I recall. We were made to feel proud of being British and extolled to feel responsible for our care of the British Empire. This is an example of the brain-washing attitude of some educationalists. True education is the encouragement of children to think for themselves
2. The bread delivery, when a bread man sold freshly baked rolls to the children at the school gate. This was not a proper thing for him to do! He was soon stopped. But I remember well the taste of that fresh bread.
3. ‘Your writing is like a spider’ said Mrs. Plummer. ‘Why do you write so badly when your mother keeps you so neatly’. How little she knew. I did not wear underpants, because we were so poor and could not afford them. There was a day when I sat in a tin of boot polish, which was on a chair at home. I could not go to school because I had no other trousers to wear.
4. The lavatories were in a distant part of the playground. Metal grilled doors separated it from the playground. Some girl came to look through the grill at the boys. Later some boys teased me about it but I never did understand why.
5. Some seafarer, captain(?) Gave us a talk – on what I do not know – but he left a wall hanging with a landscape design in silk which was then hung on the wall of the hall. I admired it.
6. Miss MacDonald gave me a lift in her car half way towards home one day. I was so disappointed that we did not go all the way home. She dropped me at the roundabout near the Odeon cinema. I wanted to get out of the car at home! I was so short that I could hardly see through the front windscreen.
7. The heavy smell of cooking potatoes and cabbage in the hall on the ground floor where we had our midday meal still is with me. That hall was dark and always seemed oppressive.
8. I made some pretend swords out of twigs of lime trees, by shaving them with a penknife, and we boys played with these on the green outside the school.
I remember almost no lessons as such.

London 1944 - The Choice of School

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Before, during and after the War there were in the region of South London a multitude of ‘Grammar’ schools and minor independent schools, where able children could be educated. I could have attended:- Shooter’s Hill School (which my mother considered to be of inferior standard), Colfe’s, City of London, Eltham College, Emmanuel School, Haberdasher Aske’s, Archbishop Tennison’s, St. Olave’s and probably more. These were all for boys only. There were also Girls’ Grammar Schools such as Eltham Hill, and St Saviours – that being the female twin of St Olave’s. All were a channel of improvement for able children from poor backgrounds. Before the 1944 Education Act either one passed the Junior County examination which opened the door to these or if one was of borderline ability one might be able to go to a ‘Central’ school- as was the case with my elder brother. If you did not ‘pass’ then you might stay at school till fourteen and then leave to get a job, or apprenticeship.
This pattern for social improvement or ‘social mobility’ was destroyed by a later socialist Government, in the desirte to promote the impossible, - equality-. The socialist intelligentsia never grasped the notion that equality of ability is unattainable, though equality of opportunity is not.
My mother, with some idea of social enhancement for me, first proposed Eltham College. She and I went along for an interview with the head master. The broad wide acres of playing fields did not appeal to me. I was never a sporting type, indeed my physique was hardly inspiring to any one looking for a sportsman. When I had a ‘physical’ before evacuation, so later my mother informed me, I was described as ‘below normal’. The headmaster turned me down.
I ended up at St. Olave’s school next to Tower Bridge.
Some of the boys who attended with me were from even more impecunious families than mine. Example:- William Ainsworth. It was not until the VIth form (the last two years of schooling) that I understood his circumstances. At sometime around then, the headmaster put his name forward for an adventure holiday, fully paid, to Canada. Jealous, I inwardly wondered why he should be so selected. Later I realised the justification. I invited him to visit me at home and he came. I took him to Oxleas Woods and the long meadow beyond. These woods are the joy of Eltham. He spoke in the same terms that I had used when I visited Robin Angel on Shooter’s Hill. He felt that compared to his family, we were well-to-do. I visited his home. He lived in Peabody buildings. These flats were built by a charity for poor working folk in London. The toilets were on a communal landing, the flats were small and a pervading odour of rot or urine seemed all about. William later won a County Major scholarship to Oxford, where we were for some time close friends.
Now, sixty years later I am appalled at the political jealousy whereby the socialist system destroyed this pathway to a meritocracy which was well on the way to refashioning the brilliance and commanding position of Britain in the World. These accursed politicians still assert that prior to them only the middle classes could aspire to University. It is an absolute lie. In the years after WWII very many poor boys and girls went to the best universities at the public expense.
I digress! And look back in anger.
St. Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School Tower Bridge was sited on a very small patch of ground near Tower bridge. In 1943 the school was for the most part in evacuation but some classes for new entrants had opened. Again, I suppose the staff had in some manner avoided the War. The war was still on. The doodle bugs had been replaced by the V2 rockets. These you did not hear coming. They were the forerunners of space rockets, sent up from Holland or Northern France and took a high parabolic trajectory before coming down vertically on London. There was no protection from them, nor was any warning possible.
I went to school by train from Eltham station to London Bridge station. On one occasion Eltham station had been blasted by a V2 between my going and returning in the afternoon. I saw one explode in the distance from the train window.
Four years of War had seriously modified London. I, with an exploratory mind, suggested to a friend that one day, instead of going home from London Bridge station, we should walk across Tower Bridge and traverse the City of London to Cannon Street Station and catch our train home from there. We did just that, encircling the ancient walls of the Tower of London, and passing across the bombed area of the City, we passed by small rough built brick walls protecting pedestrians from falling into the basement holes of buildings, whose remains had already been taken away. The rosy red fireweed blossomed from all the broken brick and stonework. It was extraordinary that so few important buildings or monuments had been destroyed. The Tower itself, St. Paul’s Cathedral, The single column of the Monument to the 17th century Fire of London are all still intact. Some renaissance churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren were seriously damaged, but he designed a great many, and some few were not missed.
The journey home was nine miles by train. The cost was entirely borne by the London County Council. I had a free season ticket. It enabled me to go to London at any time, and I used it to visit Museums and to go the theatre in later years with my mother.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

London - Bermondsey in 1944

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St. Olave’s School was in the environs of Southwark, in the district called Bermondsey, on the south side of the Thames opposite The Tower of London and the City of London. The nearest church was Southwark Cathedral in which took place an annual thanksgiving service. The school was so close to Tower Bridge that from the chemistry lecture room on the top floor you could see the occasional rising and lowering of the bascules of the bridge as the equally occasional boats passed through to the Pool of London. The name of the school descends from the name of St. Olaf. St. Olaf was one of the ‘Vikings’ – a Danish invader! Since he was the first destroyer of London Bridge in 1009, it always seemed to me a bit much to commemorate him. The school itself was at the eastern end of Tooley Street – the name ‘Tooley’ is also derived from St. Olaf.
Bermondsey in 1944 retained the industry of the pre-war days. It had industries more akin to those of a country town and a country port than a modern city, though the port was even then one of the largest ports in the World. Bermondsey had tanneries and a vinegar brewery. A substantial part of the transport about the port and the industry was by carts drawn by horses (no doubt partly in consequence of the fuel shortage during the war). Electric trams travelled along Tooley Street, the power being provided in a central rail buried in the road. Alleys to the North led towards the river. These were bordered by the tall warehouses which housed the cargoes from the ships which docked in the Pool beyond. The air carried the pungent odours of the tannery and the vinegar brewery. A chocolate factory, which manufactured cocoa, added its perfume. I never pondered on how they obtained cocoa beans at that time – other foods – bananas, oranges did not exist.
These industries needed transport. Lorries and carts occasionally carried the sweaty heaving wet hides from or to, a tannery. Oak bark from the countryside was delivered to the tanneries. Raw hides from cows were soaked in open pits and mixed with the tannin from the bark. The vinegar brewery needed birch twigs carried from the countryside. The process included the brewing in the first place of an alcohol from malt which could have progressed to the making of whiskey, but it was interrupted and the brew was filtered down through tall casks filled with birch twigs. Out at the bottom came malt vinegar. This in turn needed to be transported away. Then whatever entered the port had to be transported. There was, I recall, meat from South America. All this activity went on whilst German u-boats attacked our shipping, and convoys of merchant ships were guarded by the Navy. The German bombing of London concentrated on the City and the docks and relatively little of the inner or outer suburbs were too much affected, except for the south eastern district when the Germans bombed the main arterial roads. The doodle bugs and V2 rockets in the last years of the war were more frightening.
There were some small trees along the pavements of Tooley Street. As evening fell and the boys hurried along the street to London Bridge station, to catch their trains for home in the suburbs, large flocks of sparrows cackled in the trees as the birds settled to roost. They would have fed themselves on the oat grains fallen from the nose bags of the horses. In the daylight hours some of the boys, including me, amused themselves dragging magnets tied to strings in the roadside gutters. When lifted they were covered in iron filings, worn from the wheels of the trams and the shoes of the horses. When the evening came, and so it did by 3.30 in the winter, it was dark. There were no lights. The wartime blackout still was there.
And there were the frequent fogs. Fogs so dense that sometimes you could not see fifteen yards ahead. The trains on the railway crawled. On occasions the fog made the sky yellow. Frequently the air had an acrid smell from the many coal fires in household hearths.
The school itself carried the scars of war. The playground was host to two large emergency water tanks. These circular tanks were about five feet high and many yards in diameter. There were there to supply water to the Fire Service to put out the fires caused by air-raids. In winter they froze over thickly and we used to slide bits of wood across the ice. The five foot high walls made the idea of sliding on the ice but a dream.
Most of the railings which in pre-war times had surround the school had been removed and used to supply iron to munitions factories, but with some foresight, the headmaster had contrived to arrange the removal of the huge and highly ornamental gates and had stacked them in the derelict ‘fives’ courts behind the high wall which bounded onto Tower Bridge Road.