A SELF HISTORY
A series of weekly published chapters by Ken The Pen written in a humerous and informative style.
LEYTON AND THE SPECIAL CHILD
It was announced on the wireless on the second of September 1939, that the birth of a special child was impending and that bulletins would be released as further information was forthcoming. The child was to be born somewhere in London and people listened with bated breath for any new announcements. On the morning of Sunday the third of September the BBC announced that the child, a boy, had been born in London. Urgent meetings were held in the offices of power and telephone calls were made between London and Berlin. Berlin demanded that the child must be delivered to Germany within days, and that a considerable amount of money would be transferred to London as a payment in compensation. However this demand was immediately rejected by the powers in London; who instead insisted that the child was to remain in England. There followed a series of telephone calls accompanied by demands, threats, pleas and rejections from both countries until at last an emergency meeting was held in London. At 11.15 AM on September third, Neville Chamberlain the Prime Minister came on the radio and made an announcement to the nation, that, “This morning Germany demanded that our special child must be given to Germany. Such a demand was rejected immediately and although diplomatic overtures were made to offer alternatives, no agreement could be reached. As a consequence, Germany made threats against this country and its people. My cabinet and I have decided that such threats and demands for the surrender of our special child were deemed unacceptable and as a consequence, I regret to inform you, that this country is now at war with Germany”.
I must confess that there may be some small fabrication and elaboration of the actual events of that part of the momentous day. I was actually there at the time of the second broadcast but as I had at that precise moment successfully completed a struggle to exit my mother’s womb, I was not actually a party to the broadcast, or indeed its consequences. I do know that a special child was indeed born on that day and in London and that the child was indeed a boy; I know this because I was that boy and I know the story because my mother told it to me a few years later whenever she needed cheering up, or felt that I needed cheering up. My father had a slightly different take on the matter, his version was that England had demanded that Germany should be burdened with me, while Germany had demanded that England must agree to keep me or suffer the consequences. This, he informed me was the real reason for the two countries having gone to war.
The only thing of which I am certain is that I was born in the London Borough of Bromley, and that in my infant years, I and my family, comprised of my mother Mary, my father John, my sister Kathleen Ann and myself, had moved to Number 652 High Road, Leyton. E10. We actually lived in a small two bedroomed upstairs flat although I hardly knew the people who lived beneath us, except in times of impending danger. Years later I found out that Hilda from downstairs, was one of my mother’s best friends though they kept it a secret from both of their husbands, but for what reason I never knew. Upon walking down the stairs from our flat, then out through the front door, one could turn to the right and go past a small tobacconists and sweet shop and thence to a gated fence with steps leading up to the platform of Leyton underground station. A few yards further along was a road leading to the right, which I was later to discover would lead to the school which both my sister and I would later attend. Facing us on the opposite corner from that road was an old furniture store which sold both new and second-hand furniture. The owner of the furniture shop was a Mr Taplin and he had a son named Guy, of about the same age as me, who would not too much later on prove to become my best friend, and companion throughout our many adventures.
If you instead turned left from our front doorway, you would pass a small shop then a house or two, then a little cul-de-sac which led to a bakery and on the right the walled and gated rear garden of a pub, the front of which faced into our street so that the pub was actually in front of the bakery. But the same walled garden also led along the back of the bakery and then curved in a reversed L shape, so that eventually it would come out behind the end of the bakery. Looking directly across from our front door was another road, on the left hand side of which were a block of flats three storeys high, on the right hand side of that road but also abutting into our street which was Leyton High Street, was a fruit and vegetable stall and a shop which were set against and under the buttress of the overhead bridge carrying the underground railway line. Stretching along down the High Street to the right were a hotchpotch of houses, flats and shops with the occasional pub, post office or bus stop. The high Street would be unrecognisable now for though it was always busy and bustling it was also very much of its time, trams, buses, a few cars, trade vans and lorries, bicycles, motorcycles and Steptoe type horses and carts. Many of these vehicles also served quite a different purpose in those days, many lorries were often open-sided with sloping shelves displaying fruit and vegetables, or with a blind that could be raised or lowered to display items on the flatbed of a lorry. The shops themselves were stocked not only with tins or jars and packets of jams and pickles and goodies, but also open topped sacks filled with flour or tea leaves or even sugar. Each sack was also furnished with a cup or ladle, so you could fill the scoop with the dry ingredients or condiments you required and then pour them into brown paper bags, which often hung from clamps or hooks on a post by the side. Fish and eels as well as crabs and lobsters were generally laid out on marble slabs while meat was either on slabs, or often on wooden blocks, to accommodate the sharp knives and cleavers that the butchers used. Most such shops had sticky fly paper hanging from their ceilings in an attempt to control the countless flies or even wasps that tended to gather, especially during the warm weather. Chemists shops were a bewildering array of paper bags or cardboard boxes, while apothecaries overawed, bedazzled and enchanted with every hue and colour and shape of glass containers, some delicately shaped and twisted, others enormous. Horses and carts were used for transporting goods but also quite often to actually carry people’s furniture from place to place as they moved home; bicycles often had a grindstone attached that could be linked onto the pedals in order to sharpen people’s knives or garden instruments. There were ironmongers too and cobblers and in our high Street there was even a blacksmith’s workshop.
On the ground floor at the back of our flat was a small enclosed garden in which stood a half sunken bomb shelter, which I think was called an Anderson shelter and it was to serve us well if sometimes contentiously over the course of the next few years. At the end of the garden was a doorway leading out through the brick wall into an open space which appeared to belong to nobody though it actually had a little mound with a tall metal pole rising from its centre and a thick piece of wire dangling from the pole. This patch of open space led past the back of the shop and small houses and thence to the side of the bakery and up the cul-de-sac lane back onto the high Street. This then was to be the little island of my early youth, the place where my early memories were all to be formed and my later adventures realised, a tranquil little patch in the middle of London at the outbreak of the Second World War. I was to remain here for some years but first there needed to be one little diversion to take me away to safety from the fires and the bombs and the havoc, I needed to go to some place of peace and tranquillity; some administrative genius decided that I ought to be evacuated, the question of course was what was the safest place to send me? But that is a story in its own rights and for another time….Firstly though there were adventures to be had in Leyton.
EARLY DAYS IN WARTIME LONDON
My very earliest memories are of frequently lying on my back and just looking down beyond my nose and through a mist in the distance while watching a young girl walking or running and laughing or crying, or making what to me were unintelligible sounds. They obviously must have had some meaning however since shortly after they were uttered a much larger girl appeared from beyond the mists and came to the young girl’s side, to make similar sounds or to lift her up or take her hand and lead her away back into the mists so that I was left on my own. Sometimes the larger girl came to me instead and picked me up or cuddled me or took off the wet cloth that was draped around me and replaced it with a dry one. If I was crying she would sometimes pick me up patting my back or shove a soft teat into my mouth so that I could drink and that would make me feel better. Then I would go back to sleep or I would stay awake and watch things through the mists until everything repeated itself. After seemingly aeons, but in reality probably only a few months I was sitting up or dragging myself along after the running laughing little girl who proved later to be my three year old sister, the larger girl actually being my mother. Over the ensuing months I became gradually aware of a third person, not soft, much larger and louder but surprisingly gentle on the rare occasions that he handled me. I seldom saw him during the daylight hours but only at night save on the odd occasions when he was with us during the day as well, this I later came to know as Sundays since these were the days that he did not go to work. This then, was my father. Sometimes I would be picked up in the middle of the day and moved from the floor or my cot and placed into another cot which had wheels, then roughly bounced down the stairs like a bumpy helter skelter ride, from our upstairs flat and out through the front door into the noisy world and the bright sunshine or to the cold blast of wind or sprinkling rain outside. My mother would push me while my sister held onto the side of the cot and scurried alongside, occasionally reaching in to prop me up on a pillow or to tuck in the blanket around me. This was an almost daily procedure shared by my sister my mother and myself, but occasionally by my father as well, upon which days our journeys took a different direction, or sometimes a detour to what I was much later, to come to know as a pub. Apart from these little diversions our routine was generally constant, being packed into a moving cot, uncomfortably down the stairs and out into the weather. There followed a fairly consistently timed walk then a rest in the park as my sister played on the swings while my mother and a few other women chatted before we headed back home. Sometimes there would be the sudden sound of a siren, rising gradually until it reached a crescendo which hurt the ears and caused my mother to start running so that we careered along the street dodging between carts and bicycles and people and boxes, sometimes bouncing off the pavement into the road then up again until we got back to our flat. On these occasions however the routine changed completely, for instead of bumping backwards up the stairs we carried on past our flat until we came to the cul-de-sac a little further along the street and turned down here, along past the bakery then around the back until we came to the little doorway in the wall which led into our back garden. Once through the door my mother would pick me up again and run with me to the Anderson shelter the door of which my sister had already opened and we would duck in through the door and pull it closed to surround ourselves with darkness. I would then be thrust into my sisters’ outspread arms and clutched tightly until my mother had managed to fumble her way over to some matches and a candle which were always kept on a shelf nearby; a sharp scratch, a flicker of light, a steady flame and then the candle was lighted and we could all see. My mother then took me back and with one free hand helped my sister up onto a bed at the back of the shelter and then with me held in her arms, lifted herself onto the bed and we all sat there until the all clear was sounded. Sometimes if my mother had thought ahead there was a comic or picture book for my sister to look at or colour in, or a small puzzle for them to do together; otherwise my mother would make shapes with her hands so that the candle cast shadows upon the walls in the shape of birds or of spiders or sometimes scary things. Once we had heard the all clear my sister would open the door, my mother blew out the candle and we all scuttled back through the door and out to my mobile bed, thence back around the bakery to our flat and I was bounced back up the stairs again; the game was over.
Days such as this also brought a slight change in the daily routine, when my father returned home from work he would normally come in and kiss my mother before going for a wash and then coming back to sit down for a cup of tea and a read of the paper. On siren days however, if there had been one near to us, he would come in and hug my mother then hug my sister and I in turn before going for his wash and subsequent cup of tea. This to us was really his only outward display of affection. I never discovered why he did not get called up or go to war like many of our neighbours, but there were whispers I later discovered, that he was actually engaged in some secret work which precluded him from being called up.
My early life because of my scant recollections, was really quite uneventful, save that I was living in London for the first two and a half years of the war and that the heavy concentration of bombing featured London as a prime target, so I think that it qualifies me as a genuine war baby. There were however four related issues all worthy of note, the first being that one intended to be for my own safekeeping; people were all to be issued with gas masks and the children were especially included. Because of my tender age however, it had been decided that I be provided with an all encompassing baby holder which was something like an oversized motorcycle helmet into which the child must be placed completely. I apparently displayed all of the symptoms of extreme claustrophobia screamed unceasingly until I turned purple and eventually the relevant authorities conceded defeat and removed me from the offensive torture device. About a year later they tried again, this time with a Mickey Mouse mask which was the latest “must have” fashion accessory. This turned out to be as pleasant as a bee sting on a baby’s bottom and after several attempts they finally conceded defeat again and no further attempts were made to protect me from any impending gas attacks. Though I apparently exhibited a complete fear of, or hatred for, gas masks however, this did not extend to the far greater danger of visiting bombers! This entirely different kettle of fish though, serves only to bring us directly to the second issue.
Since we were living in an upstairs flat and with no high-rise buildings around us, we were fortunate in having an almost completely unobstructed view of the sky from our living room. My mother had quickly come to realise that a perfect way of keeping both myself and my sister fully occupied while she did the housework and ironing, was to sit us on the inside of a window ledge with our legs hanging outside the window frame and with the sash window then pulled down onto our thighs, thus holding us firmly in place. My mother and her friend Hilda from downstairs could happily sit to chat over a cup of tea while my sister and I could gaze expectantly up at the sky keeping an eye out for any visiting Germans. We could also see the great tethered barrage balloons and on a truly exciting day would see planes passing overhead, though as to whether they were ours or those of the enemy we were probably not aware. These exciting plane spotting experiences were confined almost exclusively to the daytime, which limited our viewing hours since we were generally early to bed. The reasoning behind it was quite practical however since blackouts were nightly and uniformly imposed all over the whole of London. Every window and doorway had to be covered so that once dusk fell no light was allowed to escape from buildings since it might guide enemy aircraft toward targets. Windows were covered by blankets, tarpaulin, sacks or any preferably dark material which could completely cover window or door spaces, people even used coats, boards or cardboard painted black. Doors leading outside must have a double curtain, you got between the two so that one hung behind you while you drew back the one between you and the door, before opening the door and stepping out quickly so that the second curtain also swung closed behind you. ARP wardens were most vigilant with regards to light escaping from buildings and you would be reported and almost certainly taken to court for such transgressions. As I said, this sky viewing, which was our form of TV or going to the pictures, was much better than television especially whenever a building lit up in flames, or the fire engines or ambulances came blaring around the streets. This was mainly a daytime experience but upon a few occasions if we couldn’t get to sleep anyway or it was a particularly dramatic night, we were allowed to sit on the window sills. My mother put out the lights, placed us in position, laid a folded blanket across our legs and pulled it round behind us, pulled the sash window down to hold us into place and then lowered the blackout blanket down behind us inside the room. Now we could watch the excitement outside but without any light escaping from our apartment. This was a real treat, even though the reality was that we would invariably fall asleep in that position having to be drawn back in one at a time very carefully, ensuring that no light was allowed to escape. We both fell asleep while watching an adventure and woke up next morning in the comfort of our beds.
The third issue involved the air raid shelter which had been supplied to our parents because of we children. When the air raid sirens sounded, particularly at night, my mother would swiftly rush us downstairs and into the shelter but upon opening the door, would frequently find that the shelter was already filled with other people. She would ask them to leave so that we could get inside and would sometimes meet with a blank refusal. Without further argument or discussion, she would walk clutching me in one arm and my sister holding her other hand, out into the main street until she found a policeman or an air raid warden. Adopting a terrified face and a quivering voice, she would ask him to “Please help me to get my children to safety.” The person with authority would promptly march around to the Anderson shelter with her and demand that all the occupants leave immediately until we and our mother were safely ensconced on the bed in the back of the shelter. “With the lady’s permission,” he would announce “those of you that are able to fit inside, can then enter the shelter again.” Hilda from downstairs was always spared this ignominy by dint of leading my sister into the shelter, while my mother was carrying myself plus a few oddments in a bag. Five minutes later, with us safely tucked up for the night, the shivering and sheepish interlopers would make their humbled and chastened way back to the shelter. Sometimes when my mother returned with the warden the intruders had rearranged themselves so that the bed was already empty; at such times it was my mother that felt embarrassed and shamefaced. But though nothing could be proved, everyone knew what had actually happened. Life continued uneventfully for almost the first three years of my life, well apart from the Battle of Britain that is, and the Blitz, when bombs were dropped almost unceasingly onto London, just like many other towns and cities of course. Ironically, when upon occasion the opportunity presented itself, my mother and father took my sister and I out into the Kent and Sussex countryside on visits where we were treated to quite a few dogfights. I have only vague memories of them and certainly none of the seriousness of their function, but I can remember running around the fields below with my sister with shrieks of excitement. More puzzling for me, was the reason for our having visited there in the first place, we had two aunties in Sussex, but although we had actually lived in Kent for a short time no direct relatives there as far as I am aware. Of course I have since wondered if it was in connection with my father’s work. Life might well have continued like this, except that after one of these trips we returned to London to encounter issue number four. During our absence a bomb had landed near our flat and although our building was miraculously undamaged, the house to our left and a few others further away, were either destroyed or rendered unsafe. Somebody, somewhere decide that it was advisable for my sister and I to be evacuated, so a genius of the first order put a blindfold over his eyes and stuck a pin into a map; the safest place for us to be moved to, he decided, was Manchester! Outside of London this was one of the most bombed cities in England!
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