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.