A SELF HISTORY
A series of weekly published chapters by Ken The Pen written in a humerous and informative style.
ADVENTURES AND ANTICS IN LEYTON
There were two associated incidents that stuck in my memory from this time in my life, concerning Babs and then on another occasion, Guy Taplin. The first time was when Carol and Babs had been acting out some silly fairy story where Babs had been captured by a wicked witch (Carol)…and was to be tortured into revealing a secret that the witch would extract by using a wringing machine to force the secret from her. We had an old unused clothes wringer in our garden up against a wall and Carol ordered Babs to place her fingers into the wringer. Babs was sure that Carol would never really turn the wringer handle, but unfortunately Carol was equally sure that Babs would not be foolish enough to actually put her fingers into the wringer! Both of them guessed wrongly, so several screams and many tears later, some workmen from the nearby bakery needed to prise open the wringer rollers with jemmy’s. Babs had to be taken to hospital with crushed and two broken fingers, both girls had to endure a tongue lashing from my mother and Carol’s and they didn’t speak to each other for several days afterwards. Both Guy and I thought it was all rather funny!
The incident with Guy happened only a couple of weeks later, but was even more dramatic. On the top of our shelter was a pole from which hung a piece of cable which led down into the shelter so that people could use it as a wireless aerial while there were bombing raids. One of our gang had noticed a long piece of wire coming out of the bakery and coiled up on the floor outside. Having decided to try joining the two wires together so that we could hang things from it, Guy ran across and got the coiled cable and pulled it over to the shelter cable. All was well until he then picked up the bare end of that cable, where he immediately started screaming and writhing around on the floor; the bakery cable was an earth from the bakery and as soon as he picked up the other wire he became a bridge for the two wires, so that electricity from the bakery went straight through him. I ran off and found a broom and managed to bash the wire out of his hand, before going to see if he was okay. He held out his arms and to my amazement, but also my horror, I realised that I could see straight through the centre of his hand to the grass below! I called for one of the others to run to the bakery for help, then like any good friend would, I grabbed Guy’s hand and turned it over to see if I could look right through the hole on the other side! He was rushed to hospital but somehow was patched up and his hand healed, or he had plastic surgery, I never really learned which, but I did learn that when you see something like that incident you can’t help your morbid curiousity, it’s so exiting to be able to look through someone’s hand. We moved on to other things; a couple of months after my next birthday my sister and Carol had a brainwave, they wrapped me up in a big overcoat, put a mask over my face and plonked me into a pram. When people got off the tube train on our side of the bridge they had to come down some stairs to the exit which was just a narrow pathway leading out onto the pavement. Babs and Carol would push me to block the exitway and then called out “Penny for the guy” as people were trying to come through; some people just pushed them aside or shouted at them, but some people just smiled at their cheek and would drop a penny or thrupence into the pram before passing on through. It was a thing that many children did in those days, and was deemed inventive by a lot of the grown ups, who hardly missed a couple of pence, but it should be explained that you could buy a small bar of chocolate for about thrupence (or threepennies) in those days. On our main road, directly under the bridge on our side, was a chemist’s shop and a newspaper, cigarettes and sweet shop; on the other side of the road was an open air butchers stall and a fruit and vegetable shop. I used to go there with my mother where the fruit man had a big alsatian dog which most people were scared of, he was there to scare off any people trying to steal anything. For some reason the dog took a liking to me and would always come and sit by me to be patted and when my mother bought some things, the fruit man would always take her payment and then say “Here’s an apple for the boy” – or sometimes a banana or orange or a plum. Sometimes when I crossed the road with Guy, but without my mother there, we would loiter around and then pat the dog, then when the fruiterer turned away we would grab an apple or something and run off down the road feeling pleased with ourselves. It wasn’t until ages later that my mother told me that the fruiterer had always been aware of our pinching, and that when next he saw my mother he would tell her, and she always paid him for what we had pinched. So we had our little adventure in crime, but the fruit and veg man wasn’t actually any the worst off. I had also mentioned earlier, the walled and gated garden of a pub near our home, where Guy had burned a hole through his hand and that had been another place where we got a bit of dodgy money. Inside the gate there was a , small brick shed. In those days people bought a bottle of beer or ginger beer which they could drink in the garden or take home if they liked. If they brought the bottle back, they got paid tuppence for the empty, which could be re-used. We had found that one of the shed windows was broken and if you put your hand inside you could take out a couple of bottles then take them round the pub to get the money back for them a couple of days later. That didn’t last long though, one of the pub workers hid inside the shed one day when a couple of children tried the same thing and they were caught. They weren’t in our gang so we weren’t found out, but we didn’t do it again. We then discovered and went into, our own little money making business, there were always horses and carts going along the high street and we discovered that people used the horse manure as fertiliser for their gardens. Guy and I would follow the horses along the street with a bucket and shovel and collect it up, then knock on people’s doors until somebody bought some, generally the whole bucket full for a couple of pennies. Some people laughed at us, but by the time we packed it in for the day we each had about sixpence or even a shilling, and you could buy a lot of sweets for that. Another money maker was to knock on people’s doors and then sing carols, it was hit and miss really, sometimes you did quite well, other times you’d have a penny to share between you, even if there were four of you singing. Some people said we didn’t know a complete carol, others would ask why we were singing Christmas carols in October or November, or even January!
I GET TO MEET SOME RELATIVES
One day there came a big social event, a chauffeur driven car came up our street while we were over by the greengrocer’s stall, so we all went to have a look at it. There were more horses and carts and coal lorries than there were cars in the streets in those days, I doubt that we had ever seen an actual chauffeur driven car so it attracted some attention. The chauffeur stopped someone, who pointed to the nearby newsagent’s and he went in there, a minute later he came back out and went and knocked on the door to our flat! My mother came downstairs to speak to him, then called and beckoned me across and said I had to get washed and tidied up, while she wrote a note which she gave to the chauffeur, then piling me into the car with him, told me to behave and kissed me goodbye and off I went. Having had no explanation, I thought that perhaps I was going back to Manchester without even saying goodbye to my sister, but it was exciting being in a chauffeur driven car anyway! But actually I was driven to a house in a cherry blossom treelined avenue in what I now know was Newbury Park near Ilford in Essex, whereupon the chauffeur opened the car door for me and led me to a large house where he handed me to a girl, together with the letter and in I went. I had never seen these people before, but it turned out later that they were actually my grandparents. The girl was my youngest aunt, the elderly lady was my mother’s mother and the elderly gentleman was my mother’s father. The girl showed me around the garden, naming each of the plants and flowers by their latin names, then played me a few pieces on the piano, before taking me to the grandmother for morning brunch. After talking to me for some time and asking me about my mother and sister (but not my father), she asked the girl to take me to my grandfather. He was seated in a huge laboratory at the end of the garden where he informed me that he was making some kind of a pressure device for a university (I think it was Oxford but can’t be certain). It was all above my understanding, but he made the talk interesting and I really enjoyed his company. My aunt, who I much later came to know as Margaret, played me a few more piano pieces, then showed me how a barometer and a thermometer worked and their purpose after which the chauffeur came to the door and drove me home. My father was athome and in a furious mood, but I didn’t know why, so kept well out of the awkward and tense atmosphere until it was bed time. After he had left the following morning my mother just asked how I had got on and whether I liked the people I had been to see. My friends asked me about the man who had come to collect me and where I went, I just said they might have been the Howells from Manchester but I wasn’t really sure because I had forgotten them; the only similarity being that they were a man and a lady and they had a young daughter. I never knew why at the time, but there were many arguments between my mother and father for days and at one time she left him, and my sister and I used to meet her secretly in a park near our house while he was at work. One day when we were waiting to meet her two boys came up on the other side of the fence and asked if they could have a look at my really nice penknife, so I proudly passed it over. We can all be foolish at sometime in our lives, of course they just ran off across the park laughing as they waved their new gift, which I was never to see again: it did teach me a lesson about trust though. My mother and father patched things up after this though, so something good came of it in the end. Not too long after this incident there were to be meetings between my parents and the Newbury Park people, after which I was sent to see them again several times until I got to know them well, though their intended impact upon me was many times negated by my father’s resentment of them and what they stood for, although I only learned of this gradually as the years passed by. On the other side of our family, my father had two sisters named May, and Emily, the one who was married to Herbert and their son who was also named Herbert, both aunts lived at Haywards Heath in Sussex so were quite countrified compared to us; they also spoke a strange language but they could speak English as well. Some months after my learning about them we went to visit them and my father and uncle decided that since I was so ignorant of the countryside and country life they should take us two boys for a holiday to Kent. Although Sussex is just as rural, Kent is often referred as the Garden of England because of the great amount of fruit and crops that the county produces. Crop pickers were always in demand, and desperately needed in the autumn, so my father and uncle would easily get work in the fields; we children were less useful but could add at least something to whatever our fathers collected. A couple of months later, the two Herberts arrived in London and after a cramped overnight stay in our flat, the four of us set off and walked from Leyton down to the River Thames then over a bridge and down into Kent! The whole journey took about a week; we walked all day and slept where we could at night, sheds, derelict buildings, barns once we got into the countryside, or even under the hedge in a field on one night. Nowadays this might seem unusual, but then, only a few years after the second world war, people were far more friendly and helpful and country people would give you a bowl of water to wash and perhaps a sandwich and a drink of tea or milk to help you on your way. A few days of our journey were broken by the two grown – ups helping out on various farms, in return for a meal and a place to sleep in the barn or outbuilding, then something to eat in the morning before we continued on our way. We boys would have been of little use, so spent the day in the farm house helping clear up or do any odd jobs that could be found, or just giving the housewife a bit of company, since they were often on their own throughout most days. Eventually we came upon a fruit farm that was hiring fruit pickers and we had the luxury of being offered a wattle and daub hut to sleep in each night, we each had a single blanket and could cut our own grass or ferns to serve as a mattress, our outer clothes could be bundled up and then used as a pillow. Most of our days were used up by picking fruit, Herbert Junior and I would easily get sidetracked or just take a break whenever we got tired, but whatever we picked would obviously help fill each sack that our fathers filled, though we didn’t get any of the money. We could eat as much fruit as we wanted to, but when the fruit is there all the time you soon get fed up with it, so it’s true that you can get too much of a good thing! We were each given a tin plate and mug for our food and drink which we collected from a trestle table at staggered times, which meant that some people were always busy working; we’d been warned that you lost your plate and mug at your own risk, so I kept mine under my fern mattress each night just in case! After about a week we headed home, but this time we were given a lift about half way back to London by one of the lorry drivers who was making a delivery and then we walked again, staying at some of the same places we had stayed on our way down to Kent. We arrived home about two weeks after we had started our holiday, then the Herberts stayed overnight before heading back to Sussex; I didn’t see them again for about a year though my father went to visit them occasionally. One other thing I hadn’t really been aware of, was that my mother was pregnant, I had just thought she was getting fatter but in October of 1945 I became the big boy of the family, my mother had a baby boy and my mother and father decided to name him Trevor Mervyn. The biggest thing that happened as a result of our trip to Kent though, was that our father would later decide, though it was actually over a year later, that our bigger family should all move out to the country, because it would be so much better for our health and lifestyle.
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