Early memories
& student days

 

"Pre-war"

I can't have any real pre-war memories as I was born in May 1939, less than four months before World War II was declared. I do however have early memories relating to a time unaffected or not yet affected by the War.

Perhaps my earliest memory is of being in the pram with my twin cousin Ray (born 25 minutes before me) at the side of the house behind the shed, a sun trap as the back of the house faced south.

I can remember banging my eye on the corner post of my cot.

I had eggy and gee-gees (a soft-boiled egg with bread-and-butter fingers) in a restaurant that was bombed out during the War.

 

The War

Daddy was away in the Air Force so I slept many nights in Mummy's bed curled up together in spoon fashion. There were just the two of us. Auntie Freda joined the WRAF early on and my first and only sibling (a word I learned as an adult), my brother Nigel, wasn't born until I was over eight.

When Daddy came home on 48-hours leave I was jealous of the hugs and kisses he got from Mummy. I remember trying to get between them on one occasion, between Mummy's skirt and Daddy's trousers, so it didn't really make much difference.

Mummy and Daddy wrote lots of letters to each other while Daddy was away in the War. Mummy kept them in packets tied with ribbon in the wardrobe. One Sunday morning, probably after the War, I unusually stayed home while Mummy and Daddy went to church – perhaps I had a cold. I spent the time sitting in the bottom of the wardrobe reading their letters. I learned that I had swallowed a threepenny bit when I was a toddler and Mummy spent anxious hours waiting for it to pass through. I was also able to decipher the code they used to say "I love you" or "I miss you" to each other. It was an easy code based on a noughts-and-crosses grid and an X grid – what as an adult I found out was an extension of the Vigenere code. Of course when they got home from church I was still sitting in the wardrobe and found myself in a lot of trouble.

Daddy was stationed at one time at an Air Force base in Sunderland. Mummy and I went up by train to see him. We travelled from London to Newcastle, the train pulled by the Flying Scotsman, a huge monster of metal, steam and smoke. I was allowed into the mess at the air base, where I 'played' darts, but only managed to bounce one off the wall and stick it into my foot.

We stayed with the Barkers, who lived next to the air base and had been befriended by Daddy. Mummy and Daddy went out for the evening. I wasn't used to Mummy leaving me and I cried a lot. I did however go to the 21st party given for the Barkers' elder daughter. I was dazzled by the bright lights and the colourful frocks, things I hadn't seen before.

My one wartime Newcastle memory is of being in someone's house and drinking, as a cure for a tummy ache, a cup of hot water into which had been plunged a burning coal. At home we had bottles of gripe water and also, as government-subsidized sources of energy, bottles of orange juice concentrate and hateful cod liver oil.

During the Blitz, when the warning siren sounded, Mummy carried me down the garden to the air-raid shelter, where I spent many nights in my bunk. I remember the frog who came to visit us. We had candles for light. It was fun being in the shelter.

One night in the shelter Mummy asked me what I wished for most. I said "Daddy", and just then Daddy came down the steps into the shelter! I have wondered since if that memory is a telescoped one, or if my wish was what Mummy was hoping it would be. But it remains a magical memory.

Sometimes on the way to the shelter, going from the house to the bottom of the garden, I could see lots of moons in the sky. These were in fact shell explosions.

Once, at Uncle Freddy and Auntie Ethel's, we all went for a walk on the forest (you walk on the New Forest, not in it). I realized the reason one of my feet felt pinched was that I was wearing one of Keith's shoes. Suddenly on looking up I saw lots of moons in the sky and Uncle Freddy hurried us home to The Birches and under the big metal desk that was their air-raid shelter.

I always loved going to The Birches as I was not an only child when I was there. There were Wendy and Keith, a bit older than me, Ray, the same age as me, and Deryk, a little younger. On one of the adventurous journeys there by bus, we were stopped about half way as there was a watchout for German infiltrators. There were no sign posts, but we managed to get a ride to Hythe in a little delivery van with horizontal metal slats sticking out from its headlights. Then we walked to Butts Ash and The Birches. To catch the bus there we walked from Maybush Road all the way down Wimpson Lane to Millbrook Pond. The bus sometimes went via the toll bridge at Eling and sometimes via Pooksgreen. In Totton I always hoped the level crossing would be closed so that I could see the train go through on its way to or from Bournemouth.

The wireless was important. Doubtless Mummy listened to Winston Churchill's speeches, but I remember Children's Hour, Uncle Mac and Just William.

Southampton was heavily bombed during the War. People said that if the Civic Centre clock tower was still standing then all was well. I remember being able to see the clock tower from just up the road at Maybush Corner, three miles from the town centre. The clock tower remained standing throughout the War.

I remember parachutes, either British or German airmen bailing out of their planes. And bomb craters, observed perhaps during the War, certainly after it. During the War you could see barrage balloons. There was one floating above the sawmill factory.

An anti-aircraft unit set up in the field just across the road. I was wide-eyed at the huge pile of thick slices of bread and margarine one of the soldiers was preparing, and with friends from Maybush Road accompanied another as he laid a telephone line across the fields.

One night Mummy and I watched through my bedroom window the blaze of the sawmill factory at the back. To me this was better than Guy Fawkes night. It was said afterwards that the factory had been set on fire on purpose, that it was something to do with the War (I learned the word arson much later). We had a beautiful mantel clock with a rotating pendulum enclosed under a glass dome (what, I believe, is called an anniversary clock) – I remember the four rotating balls, the roman numerals on the white clock face and the glass dome. Mummy told me it stopped working on the night of the sawmill fire.

One of the houses on Crabwood Road, the road running off Wimpson Lane parallel to ours, was gutted in a blaze caused by a German bomb. One of my recurring nightmares was of the cobbler's house being on fire. The only things I knew about Crabwood Road when I was a little boy were the cobbler's and the tadpole pond just past the farm. Another recurring nightmare was of the wooden coat stand at the top of the stairs next door at number 20 coming down to get me.

My cousin Wendy came to stay with us when she was ten and I was five. We played school in the conservatory at the back of the house, what we called "under the glass". One day we came upon an American convoy as we walked back up Wimpson Lane from church (Wimpson Methodist). The soldiers threw chewing gum (a strange thing), sweets and chocolate (heavily rationed during the War) to us. We hurried home for baskets to put them in and went back up the road for more.

Another day, some time later, I was on Maybush Corner with some other boys when an American jeep went past. The driver saw us and put his hand behind him to dig in his bag of goodies. Besides the packets of chewing gum and biscuits he threw to us there was a packet of cigarettes. We were chewing these and not liking the taste much when an older, newspaper delivery boy came up and asked us for a cigarette. He then amazed us by putting it in his mouth, setting fire to it with a match, and producing smoke. We gave him the rest of the packet.

I have two memories of doing poo in my pants, either during the War or not long afterwards. The first time was at the seaside, probably Milford or Barton on Sea. We were walking along the front and I felt the need to go, but probably didn't make a fuss or myself heard as we went on walking. I forgot all about it until we were in the bus on the way home. We were on the back seat and I was kneeling up to look out of the back window. I felt Betty Prince (who took me for walks in my pram and taught me my letters and numbers) put her hand on my bottom and I realized I was messy.

The second time I was older. A group of us, boys from Maybush Road, were in Mr. Jenkins' field, where he grew fruit and vegetables for his two shops, one at Maybush Corner and the other in Shirley. We were having enormous fun throwing rotten marrows at each other. I knew I needed to go to the lavatory but was having too much fun to stop. I eventually went home covered on the outside in mushy marrow and on the inside in mushy poo. I went straight up to the bathroom and washed myself and my pants in cold water, hoping Mummy wouldn't find out, but of course she did, as always.

Another 'botty' memory is of going next door to see Auntie Bowyer, Mrs. Vernam and Maurice, who spent the War years at number 24. There was a door in the fence between 22 and 24. I was standing in their kitchen when one of them remarked on the fact that all I was wearing was a vest.

When Joan Bennett and I were four we went, with her two-year old sister Stella, to the "long-grass field" to find out or show (Joan had a brother) the difference between girls and boys. Stella showed us her bottom and Joan showed what looked like a fold in her skin, so I told her to "get it out". That was all there was, she told me, girls had "slits". Later, when Mummy and Auntie Ethel asked me if I knew the difference between boys and girls, I was able to tell them that girls had slits and boys had tiddly winks. I should add that the bits of pastry left over when Mummy made tarts and that were screwed up and baked along with the tarts were also called "tiddly winks".

Mummy got pregnant during the War – I was sure I was going to have a sister. But her football disappeared one day. I got into trouble for going up the road to tell Mrs. Prince at number 10 that Mummy had had a miscarriage (a big word). The Princes figured, and were to figure, large in our family life. There were four children: Maisie, who had already married Cyril and lived in Surrey; John, who played the organ at church and Sunday School, and married Madge Froud, who organized the making and serving of tea at church functions; Douglas, who came back from the War, married Win and took over number 10 when Mr. and Mrs. Prince retired and moved to Pennington; and Betty, who was ten years older than me, a lot of fun and a good alphabet teacher. Mr. Prince took on Daddy at his garage after he was demobbed; when he retired Daddy had to answer to John.

During the War Daddy made for me a scale model of the signal ship Brandaris he was on at one time in the Mersey and one of a choo-choo train, both out of wood. I sailed the Brandaris in my bath, and still have it sixty years later. He brought home with him pieces of parachute silk and several barrage balloon inflation rings, which he turned into picture frames. For Mummy he carved a little heart out of a piece of glass; Mummy wore it around her neck on a fine chain for years and years, indeed until she died.

Mummy and Daddy wrote to each other nearly every day during the War. I quote from a letter Mummy wrote to him on Victory in Japan Day:

    [To] X.T. 99
    1197773. L.A.C. Wooldridge, S.J.
    2 Wing, 36 Squad, 5 P.D.C.
    Blackpool
    Lancashire

    [From] 22 Maybush Rd.
    Southampton
    Hants
    Wed. 15.8.45
    V.J. DAY

    [...] This has been another glorious day in our history. I wish you were here tonight. I feel very lonely & weepy, you know what I am on these occasions. What a tremendous lot we have to thank God for. I have just listened to the King, & now there is a concert of lovely music from an orchestra of 100 players, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. There are fireworks in the distance. The boys are asleep, after a happy day. This morning we went to Shirley. After dinner we went down the town, the Civic Centre was thronged with people & there was dancing in the forecourt. After staying there a little while, we went to the Lido, where the boys thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I didn't go in the water. We ate our sandwiches there, & about 5.30 went to the Civic Centre again, then caught the 6.10 bus home. The "Nut-cracker Suite" is being played, at the moment the "Dance of the flowers". Before this they played Sir Walford Davies' "Solemn Melody".

    At 12.20 last night I was wakened by the cheerful sound of ships' sirens (including the Queen Mary's), & fireworks. I guessed what it was at once, & after offering up thanks to God, I came down stairs & switched on the wireless, & was just in time to hear the grand hymn "Thy Kingdom come, O God", then the National Anthem, then I turned the knob & heard "Through all the changing scenes". Then I went back upstairs & woke Keith to see the fire-works for a few minutes, & so back to bed with a full & thankful heart. They have just played Elgar's "Nimrod". Do you remember we heard it that Sun. afternoon whilst we were washing the dinner things? I am indeed having a treat tonight. How lovely it will be when we can share these joys once more. Now it is Elgar's "Pomp & Circumstance". "Land of Hope & Glory", & so to bed. I had a parcel from Jessie today with custard powder, Horlicks, suet & soap in. [...]

    Thurs.
    I'll add a little more, as there was no post today & I couldn't have posted this. We have been to the Lido again today. Brian came with us, so I had a family. Keith & Russon are still out in the field 9 p.m. A bonfire is just about to be lit. Ray wasn't interested so he is in bed.

    Since the last sentence I have been out to the bonfire & brought the boys in at 10.30. Southampton, like most other towns I suppose, has gone mad since midnight Tues. At 12 o'clock Above Bar was deserted, by 10 past you could hardly move for the crowd, so I've heard. There were bonfires in every street including a big one in High St. on which was burnt everything available, including somebody's car. I've also heard that two Americans jumped from the top of the Bar-Gate. I don't know if it's true, but anything happens on occasions like this. [...]

 

Other little boy memories

After the War, when all the fathers had been demobbed, we had a big street party in the field at the bottom of the road. The men competed in an obstacle race. Daddy, who was only 5'4", was leading when he stumbled at the last jump, so the race was won by Mr. Bennett, who was about 6'.

We went one day to the wartime aerodrome at Stoney Cross in the New Forest. It was where much later I was to learn to drive. At the time there were still two or three aircraft left from the War. One of them was a Lancaster bomber. There was a ladder enabling visitors to climb into the fuselage and explore the cockpit, the gun positions and the bomb bay. I spent several minutes sitting in the pilot's seat letting my imagination run riot. The planes were at some point removed by the Ministry of War. When later I went to grammar school I discovered there was a wartime Hurricane in the school field.

At the end of the War the Shearings returned to number 24 from their wartime lair at Verwood in the New Forest (Auntie Bowyer and the others moved back to Shirley). One day I was enjoying a dish of strawberries and cream taken from the top of the bottle of milk. Michael Shearing came in and Mummy 'kindly' told him that he could have one of my strawberries. Of course he took the biggest one, a crime of greed I never forgave him for.

Joan Bennett was the only girl our age in the road. So when we played postman's knock at birthday parties Joan went out of the room, and Arthur Griffin, Brian Tutton, David Hearn, Michael Shearing and I took turns going out to kiss her.

Joan, three days younger than me, and I had started primary school together, in April 1944. We shared the same desk. Joan cried a lot that first day. Three years later, in class 4, the teacher, Miss Clements, punished naughty children by making them sit under her desk!

For the first two or three years primary school was: screwing up my eyes against the sun in the playground (I had to have my eyes opened for me at home when I woke up in the morning as the lids got stuck with wax; as a child I also had sun ray treatment for my pigeon chest in the outpatients section of the Children's Hospital up Winchester Road, and oil put in my ears for my frequent earaches); coloured stars next to pupils' names on the classroom wall; missing whole terms because of mumps, measles, whooping cough or scarlet fever, one following the other. In class 5 the music teacher, Mrs. Hallett, always dismissed the girls first, then the boys. One day, when she said "Girls, stand!" all I heard was the word "stand", so I stood. "All right, Winnie Wooldridge, you may leave with the girls." For many years afterwards I was called by the new nickname Mrs. Hallett had given me. At first I was ragged about it, and cried, but after that it was just an ordinary name, which followed me, along with some of my classmates, to grammar school. It was at primary school that I found out one day I was colour blind; all I could see on each page of the book was a formless scattering of variously coloured dots.

We boys went scrumping a lot, either in the apple and plum trees in nearby orchards or in the "lotties", the allotments over the back. We knew the seasons for peas and strawberries.

At the top of the lotties were the grounds of the Ordnance Survey, where, I found out later, the O.S. maps are made. Going to the "ordnince" was an adventure, partly because of the climbing trees and partly because we often got chased out and down through the lotties. One of the best climbing trees had an accumulation of leaf and twig debris caught at the base of the out-stretching branches where they met the bole. We had to climb through this to get to our 'domain'. It was our Enid Blyton tree.

Another time we were chased, on tractor, by an irate farmer after we had demolished his hay stack by jumping up and down on top of it.

Besides local childhood words such as "lotties" and "ordnince", there were others used by adults like Mummy: "wireless", "frock" or "brassiere", now fallen out of common use or having a different meaning through technological change.

In the 11-plus year in class 7 at primary school (Millbrook County School in Green Lane) the teacher, Miss King, read Enid Blyton stories to us on Friday afternoons, unless we had been naughty and had to stand outside, a fate I dreaded but had to endure once or twice. Miss King gave an Enid Blyton paperback to the pupil who came top of the class at the end of each term. Wendy Bowman and I both loved Enid Blyton and took turns coming top the first two terms. In the third term we shared first place. We all had to learn a poem off by heart, write it out and illustrate it in our art book, and then go up to the front and recite it to the class. My greatest achievement was learning, illustrating and reciting the whole of Tennyson's wonderful The Brook: "I come from haunts of coot and hern..."

With Keith, Ray and other boys who lived in Butts Ash Avenue we went to watch some workmen who were digging a ditch at the bottom of the avenue. One of them got out, took off one of his wellies and said "There's nothing worse than a welly full of water." "Yes, there is," one of his mates responded, "two wellies." I thought that was brilliant.

One evening Wendy, Keith, Ray, Deryk and I walked the two miles to Hythe to see a film. I don't remember what it was but on the walk back in the dark to Butts Ash, Ray and I asked each other our running joke: had we put marmite on our bottoms recently? The favourite reading I shared with the Nobles was the Thornton Burgess stories about the forest animals such as Buster Bear and Prickly Porky.

We often spent Boxing Day at The Birches. There would be goose for dinner and Auntie Ethel's rock cakes for tea. She had a huge frying pan in the kitchen to cook breakfast for all the family. One year there were bananas, an exotic treat. Like a good boy Ray ate up his bread and butter, but when he realized he didn't have any room left for his banana he cried. One Boxing Day we went out over the snow and ice on the forest and saw a hare.

The New Forest was: gorse, heather and ponies; ponies in the bus shelter at Lyndhurst; lovely cricket pitches just outside Lyndhurst on the road in from Beaulieu, and on Swan Green on the other side of the town; family picnics and games of cricket on any number of natural lawns; pony sales at Beaulieu Road Station; the Naked Man, a blasted tree near Brockenhurst (it looked like that to me, but it is said it derived its name from having been a hanging tree); weekend Cub and Scout camps; ruining a pair of shoes in pig swill mistaken for concrete on Mr. Mansbridge's farm at Longdown; pumping up well water in his kitchen.

The New Forest was the scene of an adventure on one Sunday School outing. We went each year to a beach, usually Milford, Mudeford or Sandbanks. Daddy and Mr. (John) Prince looked after the renting of a double-decker bus and a driver to take us. The bus and driver were often not used to the roads through the forest. We came to a railway bridge and tried to pass under it on the wrong side. I was sitting on the top deck when all of a sudden the roof disappeared, ripped away from front to back like a sardine tin lid, and we were all left in our seats showered in paint flecks and pieces of glass. Fortunately no-one was hurt, and we were taken in by a kind couple who lived nearby and had a huge lawn. While we all spent our outing playing cricket on our hosts' lawn, eating our sandwiches and drinking our lemonade, Mummy sat on the top deck of the now open bus enjoying the fresh air and her knitting.

During the Christmas festivities we all got together as a large family. Sometimes it was Boxing Day at The Birches or else that day or another in one or other of the family homes. There would be Mummy and Daddy, Uncle Freddy and Auntie Ethel, Uncle Cale and Auntie Jessie, Auntie Freda and Uncle Jim and a number of cousins. Daddy would do magic tricks, including the levitating carving knife and another one in which holly berries mysteriously travelled from under one beret to under another. Uncle Cale would do his "Here's a face, two eyes, a nose and a mouth" trick. But the big event, in which practically everyone participated at some stage, was charades, where we ransacked wardrobes and drawers to dress up outrageously, pranced about, and spoke the most ridiculous dialogues. These charades were brilliantly organized and orchestrated by Auntie Jessie.

There were always carol singers in the road at Christmas time. The year I broke my leg when I was eight and my leg was in plaster we heard the sweet treble voice of David Frost who was about three years older than me. To get to the lotties you went through the vacant plot between the Frosts' and the Hannahs'. While my leg was in plaster Mummy had to take me to school on the back of her bicycle, the only time she took me to school apart from my first day there. There were two ways to get to school: either by road, up Maybush Road to Wimpson Lane, then up to Maybush Corner and along Romsey Road to Green Lane; or through the fields at the bottom of Maybush Road, going past the farm and into Mr. Gover's field, then coming out in Green Lane.

A Wolf Cub pack was started up in St. Peter's church hall at Maybush Corner when I was about nine. A sort of totem pole with a wolf's head figured prominently when we got in a circle and chanted something like "A-ke-la, we - will - do - our - best. We will dib-dib-dib, and you will dob-dob-dob."

Uncle Cale and Auntie Jessie moved down South after the War. They lived in the cottage behind Auntie Waterman's house in Roman Road on the edge of the forest near Dibden Purlieu. Uncle Cale let me 'play' his cornet, which he had kept from his days in the Maltby Main colliery band. After a lot of puffing I managed to blow one note.

One of my favourite books – I don't remember what it was, but it was dear to me – got damaged by rain on the window ledge in the dining room and Mummy threw it out without my knowing. I was disconsolate. One Sunday, after we had walked back the two or three miles from Ashley where we often went to visit Auntie Blake and Dorothy, I saw the same book in a shop window in King's Somborne. But of course the shop was closed and we had to get on the bus back to Maybush Corner without it. Mummy wrote to Auntie Blake, who sent it to me in the post! One of the objects that fascinated me at Auntie Blake's was a brass ornament of a stork holding a bell in its beak and a hammer held up by its tail. Dorothy let me have it when her mother died.

The best minister in the Southampton Methodist circuit was Rev. Rudge, who showed us Charlie Chaplin silent films with his hand-cranked projector.

When they were in dry dock I could see the funnels of the Queen Elizabeth or the Queen Mary from my bedroom window – two funnels meant the Queen Elizabeth, three for the Queen Mary. When I was nine a friend of the Sunderland Barkers, who was first officer on the Queen Mary, showed Daddy and me over this wonderful liner that until then had only been the stuff of dreams. It was huge. At the end of the visit we had dinner in the First Class dining room where there was a big wall chart with lights showing the positions of the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. Daddy had more meat on his plate than I had ever seen, more than we got in our weekly ration. (Our ration books had coupons, which were cut out by the grocer, butcher or clothier.)

On the long summer evenings when I was in bed I would gaze at the patterned wallpaper or the curtains and imagine people, landscapes and monsters.

Mummy washed the clothes and sheets in a boiler in the kitchen before squeezing the water out in the wringer, or mangle, outside and then hanging them up to dry on the line in the garden. In the larder was a big bucket where the eggs were preserved in vinegar water. The kitchen was where we ate breakfast. When Daddy left to cycle to work down Wimpson Lane at the garage in Millbrook Road he went out the back door and round the side of the house to the shed where he kept his bicycle. On the way round he would press his nose to the kitchen window and make a face.

Breakfast was bacon, a fried egg and fried bread, sometimes a fried tomato. On Saturdays we had porridge, the oats being put to soak the night before. On Saturday afternoon we often had toast and dripping for tea, particularly when Joan Martin called in with her thick Hampshire accent after shopping in town. My job was to toast the bread on a toasting fork in front of the coal fire. On other days we had buttered bread, jam, honey, and cake for tea, as well as tea to drink. I helped set the table and clear it, making use of the serving hatch in the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, then helped with the washing up. On Sundays we usually had tea in the front room, where there was a lovely Axminster carpet that lasted for years and years. There were always slices of thinly sliced Hovis. Daddy was an expert as cutting thin slices of bread.

One pudding I hated was chocolate semolina. One of the many I loved was rice pudding. As Christmas approached there was the long ritual of washing sultanas and raisins, then drying them in front of the fire. When they were later mixed in with milk, flour, butter and other ingredients we each stirred the future Christmas cake or Christmas pudding and made a silent wish.

Honey was an important part of our lives. Daddy kept bees at Auntie F's, Miss Ferguson's, at the bottom of the road. The day I was born Daddy became not only a father but also the owner of a swarm of bees. As the saying goes, "A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay", since the bees have all summer to settle in their new hive and produce a full crop of honey; 1939 was a good year for honey. Auntie F had a big garden with lots of flowers and fruit trees; the bees could also go to the nearby orchards and the clover in the neighbouring field. She was active in the local beekeeper's association and hosted beekeeping days, when we watched hatted, gloved and netted beekeepers smoking out hives and inspecting frames, and ate cucumber sandwiches and caraway cake, with lemonade or tea to drink. I painted Auntie F's deckchairs and other garden furniture during Bob-a-Job week, which made a welcome change from the weeding most people gave me to do.

I had the opportunity one day of comparing bees to wasps. We had found a wasps' nest in the lotties, and, led on by our gang leader and bully, Roger Hannah, threw stones at it. Roger and the others thereupon ran away, but, curious to see what would happen, I stayed. I didn't have to wait long. Wasps poured out of their nest, surrounded my head, and inflicted about 30 stings on my face and neck. Mummy counted the number of stings while she coated my face and neck with blue.

Another incident in my getting inured to pain happened when Daddy and I were fixing the light on my bedroom ceiling. Daddy was standing on a chair, took out the light bulb – which had been on a moment before – and gave it to me to hold. Unfortunately for me he was holding the glass part and gave me the hot end to hold, which I did valiantly. He immediately realized his mistake, and took the bulb from me apologizing profusely. I received praise for my fortitude from both Daddy and Mummy.

My clothes came mainly from Winter and Worth's in town. I remember being mortified when I was measured for what the tailor called a "knicker suit".

The adults I knew in the road were mostly the parents of children my age. I only got to know Mr. White across the road when he gave me an instruction manual on fast reading to study. Next but one to him lived the Smiths, who had a daughter about Wendy's age. To my knowledge the only time Louellen 'played' with another child was once when Wendy was staying with us. Otherwise her parents never let her out. She was occasionally seen accompanying them when they went out, tall, thin and gawky, dressed in all weathers in a long, thick, shapeless coat and wearing other dowdy clothes chosen by her parents. Wendy made friends with Derek Hannah at number 31, whereas when her brother Keith came to stay he immediately picked on John Bennett, who was his age but as tall as his dad, and beat him up. Peter Frost, of the sweet treble voice when a boy, became the neighbourhood celebrity when he was picked to play football for the Southampton Youth XI, which played home matches at The Dell. There was an older girl, called Thelma, I think, who lived near the top of the road; she invited me one day to a doll's tea party in her garden. She had a beautiful miniature tea set of delicate china.

There were a number of delivery services in the road, as well as takeaways. The milk was delivered in bottles from a horse-drawn milk float. I was often sent out by Mummy or Daddy with a bucket and shovel to pick up the horse droppings, which then went to fertilize the garden. A favourite game was to hop on the back of the float without the milkman knowing. The paperboy or papergirl brought us the Echo (the Southern Daily Echo) each afternoon, and at one point The News Chronicle in the morning. There were also weekly deliveries of The Methodist Recorder, Woman's Own for Mummy, and, when I was in my early teens, the Eagle and Lion for me. The Methodist Recorder had a children's section written by a sort of Uncle Mac who talked about the inhabitants, including a dormouse, of his bushy beard. In the News Chronicle I enjoyed the Colonel Pewter strip cartoon. The postman came twice a day during the week, and once on Saturday. The coalman delivered his sacks when the cold weather started coming on. The coal was kept at the side of the house, the other side from the shed, and one of my chores when I became strong enough was to fill the scuttle and carry it into the dining-room, or on Sundays into the living-room.

Once a week Sutton's delivery van would bring the grocery order. Mummy kept a little book in which she would note down over a period of several days supplies that were needed. Then she would take the book up to Sutton's shop at Maybush Corner, complete her list there, and leave it for delivery the next day. From Sutton's she got staples such as sugar, flour, butter, margarine, eggs, salt, dried fruit, nutmeg, cloves, tea, Camp coffee, rice, macaroni, toilet paper and soap. The salt came in a hard cake and one of my jobs was to grate it into crystals. There was also a van from Sutton's which delivered the bread, twice a week, I think; usually a white loaf and a Hovis. Meat and bacon came from the butcher's in the Coop next door to Sutton's, and fish, fruit and vegetables were purchased in Shirley. Mummy's weekly bill from Sutton's came to about one pound.

The dustmen were a regular feature in the road, but a more striking event, because infrequent and smelly, were the visits from "Lavender Jim". Until the mains were put in when the town boundary was extended west to Brownhill Road in the nineteen-fifties and the housing estate was built at the bottom of Maybush Road, all the houses had a cesspit in the back garden. This was periodically emptied by Lavender Jim via pipes going to a tank in the lorry.

Maybush Road "furniture" included two concrete air-raid shelters, until they were demolished a few years after the end of the War; three gas lamp-posts, with one of which Daddy collided on his bicycle while he was waving to a neighbour (I did the same to another lamp-post while on my way by foot with Daddy to a church service he was taking in Northam or Bitterne; we had just had tea at someone's house where I learned to play marbles solitaire); and many pot-holes and puddles in the unmade road.

The field at the bottom of the road was the gateway to an extension of our play territory. It led to the farm, then to a gravel pit, and all the way to the Nursling Mill "minnow stream" that ran into the River Test. In the field was what we called a "well"; it was in fact, I was told, the exit of a secret wartime underground passage from the Ordnance Survey. It was filled with loose bricks when I knew it, but one day we cleared out some of the bricks, and could indeed see steps leading down to a passage. We often played cricket in the field. The fields starting there and fanning out were also where I was sent sometimes to look for field mushrooms, which Mummy then fried to go with our breakfast egg and bacon. I was always thrilled when I saw white buttons or caps in the grass. I once found a huge horse mushroom in the field, and another time a whole clump of them on the empty lot at the bottom of the road where Betty and Roy built a house when they got married.

Another gathered food was chestnuts. We often sneaked into the grounds of Maybush House to gather chestnuts in the autumn, but I went once with another boy from Green Lane school to Nightingale Wood in Nursling to collect chestnuts. It was a magical place, with beech mast and fungi, and a soft light filtering through the leaves. It had about it the fairy enchantment that I found in children's books.

Other, less friendly fruits were tried out. When very little I climbed the rowan tree in the front garden and got very sick from eating the berries. Later on we boys tried acorns and horse chestnuts but didn't think much of them. Conkers were different. When school began again in September we started gathering conkers (horse chestnuts), sometimes soaking them in vinegar to harden them, piercing them with a meat skewer and then threading one onto a knotted piece of string, putting the others in our pockets as spares. When we got to the school playground we played conkers, until it was time for some other seasonal game to take over.

Granddad and Grandma, Daddy's dad and mum, lived up North in Maltby. We went each year to see them, at first by train, later by car. That journey was an adventure! There were two wonderful smells at 56 Grange Lane: Granddad's pipe tobacco and baking bread; at home nobody smoked and Mummy bought shop bread. I was outside the house in Maltby one day when a boy came up to me and asked "Doost tha play tiggy?" Because of the thick accent and regional words, the only word I understood was "play". I found out later that Daddy used the biblical "thou" and "dost" when preaching, but in the South we played "he", not "tiggy".

Another Northern game was kingy, played with dustbin lids and a tennis ball in the back alleys of Maltby, up near the Crags.

I went once or twice with cousins Pauline and Jennifer to the Saturday morning threepenny specials at the Maltby cinema. We sat near the front on the side. I thought Hopalong Cassidy was well named as he was very tall and thin.

I had started to follow the fortunes of cricketers and their teams when Daddy took me to Bramhall Lane in Sheffield to see a day's play between Yorkshire and the visiting Australians in June 1948. Two of my boyhood heroes were Len Hutton and Don Bradman. I remember seeing Don Bradman bat and hitting a lot of runs.

Daddy was born in Quarry Bank in The Black Country, "a heavily industrialised area where there were chain-makers, glass-blowers, bucket factories, 'Judge' enamelware, brickworks, coal-mines, etc." (from an autobiographical note written for Woolston Methodist Church Magazine, 1979-80). As a girl Grandma, then Sarah Russon, had helped her mother carry buckets to fetch large pieces of iron which were then beaten into links for ships' anchor chains in the forge at the back of the house. Granddad, dismissed from his job in a coal mine for speaking out about abuses, walked all the way to Yorkshire looking for work and found a job at Maltby Main. The family followed him, Daddy being then six years old. After he was obliged, for financial reasons, to leave school at the age of thirteen instead of going to the local grammar school Daddy was miner, bricky, student and trekker at Cliff College in Derbyshire, Methodist pastor and then lay preacher, airman, insurance salesman, and finally stores manager. He was locally famous for his smile and for his sweet voice heard over the wireless when he was on the Brandaris during the War, and later on the phone at Princes' garage.

Mummy's family were woodmen in the Butts Ash - Hardley area on the edge of the New Forest. Mummy excelled at being housewife, mother, cook, gardener, flower arranger, house-to-house collector for the National Children's Home and later secretarial worker at Princes'. She was also a great knitter and an accomplished whistler, and bowled a wicked ball at cricket.

Mummy and Daddy had the house at 22 Maybush Road built for them in 1936. It cost them £750. When Mum died in 1986, the house at Warrys Close (only their second: they moved in 1975) sold for £56,000.

 

Family heirlooms

Besides the usual things, such as photographs going back two or three generations, a 19th-century marriage certificate, a Dibden Purlieu Council School concert programme dated 26 October 1928 or a copy of The Schoolgirls' Own Annual of 1929, I have a few special objects that have been in the family for several generations.

One is the "Shayer spoon" bearing the initials WES of William and Elizabeth Shayer. A forebear, Fanny Pusey, known commonly as "Miss Shayer", was William's housekeeper and close companion during the illnesses of the last decade of the famous landscape painter's life in the 1870s. I also have one of his sketch books.

The oldest family possession is a copy of The Times of 22 June 1815. Typical of the front- and back-page small ads are the following:

    A Middle-aged Man Wants a Situation as UPPER SERVANT, in or out of Livery, or in a small family where there is but one kept. He can have an undeniable reference from the situation he has just left. – Direct to "J.K.," 29, Riding House-lane.

    As WET NURSE, a young woman aged 27, first child; has a good breast of milk, and can be well recommended. Direct to E.R., at 21, Paradise-row, Back-road, Islington.

The two centre pages are filled with reports of the Battle of Waterloo, including an Official Bulletin, which starts:
        DOWNING STREET, June 22 1815.
        The Duke of WELLINGTON's Dispatch, dated, Waterloo, the 19 June, states, that on the preceding day BUONAPARTE attacked, with his whole force, the British line supported by a corps of Prussians; which attack, after a long and sanguinary conflict, terminated in the complete Overthrow of the Enemy's Army, with the loss of ONE HUNDRED & FIFTY pieces of CANNON and TWO EAGLES.
        During the night, the Prussians under Marshal BLUCHER, who joined in the pursuit of the enemy, captured SIXTY GUNS, and a large part of BUONAPARTE's BAGGAGE. The allied armies continued to pursue the enemy. Two French Generals were taken.

 

Early adolescence

I learned to ride on Mum's bike. It was a lady's bicycle without a crossbar, so I could turn the pedals without needing to sit on the saddle, which I couldn't reach. The first hedge I went into was down Wimpson Lane (the best way of coping with an oncoming car). Before Christmas I said I would get some holly with berries in one of the country lanes near us. On the way home, carrying a bunch of holly and trying to steer Mum's bike, my eyes and ears were frightened by the sound and headlights of an oncoming car. In the wet ditch I had the bike and the holly on top of me. When I got home I was allowed to luxuriate in the bath with the latest copy of the Lion comic, which had arrived by the afternoon post.

Uncle Mac and Just William had given way to Much Binding in the Marsh, Jewel and Warriss, and the Goons. Dad and I loved Eccles. At school we talked in goonese, imitating the voices and mannerisms of Eccles and Bluebottle.

In 1951 I went with Mum and Dad to the Festival of Britain. I remember the Skylon and the switchback at Battersea. We stayed in Croydon at Uncle Son and Auntie Betty's, and took my cousin Jennifer with us.

In 1953 we went to London for the day to see the Queen tour the city after her coronation. We also went to Downing Street where I had my photograph taken outside number 10 pretending to be Winston Churchill. Sometime later the Queen came to Winchester, where I went to school. At the time Auntie Blake and Dorothy had a flat above one of the shops in the High Street, so I had a grandstand view.

Scout camps were: nearly slicing the top of my thumb off peeling potatoes near Weymouth; going by tractor, driven by the assistant scout master, to have a monumental farmhouse tea before going on to the Methodist church in the Wye Valley in Wales; throwing up baked beans eaten straight out of the tin in the New Forest; being frightened by a cow who suddenly mooed in the dark by my shoulder on the Isle of Wight. At all locations camping meant telling ghost stories when we were all in our sleeping bags in the patrol tent to see who we could frighten. One morning we found Robert Smith lying in his sleeping bag outside the tent sopping wet; he had been frightened out of the tent, wriggling his sleeping bag under the flap, by our stories of the night before.

With other boys, mainly from Totton, I went to school each day by train. Afternoon school finished at 3:40 p.m. but the train back to Southampton left at 3:56 p.m., so we Sotonians had "early passes". At the end of one school assignment I wrote "Georgy Porgy, pudding and pie, An early pass boy am I", for which I got into trouble. Some lunchtimes we went to the bridge near the school to watch the Bournemouth Belle hurtle underneath. On the way home, if we were flush with money we bought six pennyworth of broken biscuits at the grocer's near the station. The tram lines from Shirley into town had been taken up so I travelled from Maybush Corner to the station on the bus. A term's season ticket on the train cost about three pounds ten.

Sunday dinner was often roast beef, yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and runner beans, with a plum or blackberry and apple pie to follow for pudding. We had other roasts, of course, and the vegetables varied; I particularly liked, and still do, broad beans when they were in season. I always wanted the skin off the custard and, as often as I could, licked the dish out afterwards. My last question before I went to bed was "What's for pudding tomorrow, Mum?" When Mr. Dovey came down from London to do the annual accounts at the garage he stayed with us. One Sunday Nigel had a piece of crackling on the side of his plate that he was keeping for last. Mr. Dovey said "Don't you want that, Nigel?" and swooped it up on his fork. So I had Michael Shearing and the strawberry, Ray had his big eyes and his banana, and Nigel had Mr. Dovey. For my own children, grabbing something belonging to someone else is "doing a Mr. Dovey".

I went one day with Nigel, who was a little boy – it must have been in the early 'fifties – to look at "the housing estate" that was being built at the bottom of the road. The field where Daddy had nearly beaten Mr. Bennett was gone, gone was the long-grass field where I had ventured with Joan and Stella, the puddles of Maybush Road disappeared when the road was paved (I even worked for a week digging ditches; "What are you doing down there, Russon?" one of the neighbours asked). It was the beginning of the end for the little close-knit community of Maybush Road. War and rationing were over, and modern times were about to arrive.

 

First independence

I still wanted Mum's cooking of course but I needed my own life. Perhaps a determining moment was when I very rudely told Mrs. Livitt, who was in charge of senior Sunday School, after she had announced what was doubtless a quite inoffensive hymn: "We don't want any of those mouldy hymns." Dad, who was Sunday School Superintendent, was standing outside the door and heard what I said. He came in and glared at me, and expressed his anger in words, I don't remember what he said. I knew I was "in for it", but it was the shame that hurt me more than anything else. Dad gave me a beating when I got home, the first for a long time, and the last one he ever gave me. I felt more shame than hurt, and was very sorry for him. All I could do was cry to make it mean anything for either of us. I think that was when I decided I needed to grow up.

The first expression of leading my own life was earning my own pocket money. Like other boys and girls my age I took on a paper round when I was 13. Dad would wake me up with a cup of tea each morning at six, and I would go off, at first to Pointon's, later Johnson's, in Mansel Road near Wimpson Methodist. I liked delivering to blocks of flats because I could settle down in a corner in a passageway and read the papers, although most people took what are now called tabloids. There was no page three pin-up then; we learned our female anatomy from Health and Efficiency.

One Sunday a policeman came to the door and told Mum and Dad I had set fire to a flat. I was hauled off to the police station to make a statement. When I asked if I could read the newspaper I saw on a desk while I waited I was told "No!". The policeman came back to the house later and told Mum and Dad it was the milk boy, who had lit the newspaper I had left, pushed it through the letterbox and set fire to the curtains inside. I wasn't keen on bobbies for a while after that.

From the age of fifteen I started doing casual jobs in the holidays. One summer I weeded seedling Christmas trees, getting my hands sore from nettle stings, for a farthing a tree on Uncle Freddy's estate at Furzedown. Later I helped Uncle Freddy's nephew Alan with the pigs at Furzedown. The first Christmas job I had was at the florist's by the bus station in town. After that I worked at the Post Office before Christmas. After Christmas I worked in the January sales at Edwin Jones'. The first time I was a helper in the rubbish disposal unit at the back. One day I slipped on the wet ash and cut my hand on a piece of hidden metal or glass. A week after my anti-tetanus shot my eyes closed from the swelling on my face, and my back came up in itchy bumps. That was when I found out I was allergic to penicillin.

It was through these casual jobs that I came into contact with a much wider and more colourful world than that of Maybush Road, Wimpson Methodist church and Peter Symonds grammar school. One summer, when I was 17, I worked at the Una Star laundry up Winchester Road. From the women who worked there I learned many things including a repertoire of bawdy songs. In turn, like good Luddites, we boys taught them how to screw things up. One of our favourite tricks was to take two sheets at the "in" end of the huge roller ironing machine, put a jelly baby between the sheets, and then hold up the sheets when they came out the other end to show the imprint of a person-sized body with arms and legs sticking out. Of course the sheets had to go straight back to the washing machine.

Another way to show independence – and find oneself in another kind of dependence – was to go out with a girl. Not having any sisters and going to a boys' school I was both fascinated by girls and terrified of them. My first 'girlfriend', certainly the first girl I was 'sweet on', was Judy Dale, at Wimpson Sunday School, when we were both all of thirteen years old. Across the distance separating the boys' side from the girls' side we would send each other silent messages. Finger pointing at one's chest meant "I"; hands held apart meant "long"; two fingers held up meant "to"; thumb replaced by index meant the second letter of the alphabet "be"; hands touching meant "with"; finger pointed at the other meant "you".

My worst experience of agonizing shyness was at the age of 14 or thereabouts when I went to a Boy Scout - Girl Guide dance at St. Peter's church hall. I had dared go because it was announced as an evening of square dancing. I hadn't a clue how to do the alarming one-on-one foxtrot, waltz or quickstep, but I had learned the rudiments of safe, all-in-a-group square dancing at a Hedge End Methodist social evening. So I plucked up all my courage to go to St. Peter's, only to find out that the caller was sick and there would be foxtrots, waltzes and quicksteps instead. I spent the evening turning pages for the pianist, Mr. Smith.

When I was about 15 or 16 I told myself this shyness was ridiculous. So one morning instead of catching the train to school I went up to Southampton High Street, positioned myself strategically, and with a smile greeted each office girl on her way to work with a big "Hello!" It was amazing to find out that girls too could be shy; and some of them gave me a smile and a "Hello!" back. The experience was exhilarating but also exhausting and was not repeated. I did though manage to avoid foxtrots and quicksteps until we had dance classes at school with the girls from Winchester High School. I also managed one way or another to get a number of girlfriends. My canvas school satchel had names inked in and out on it.

Other means of rebelling were tobacco and alcohol. Michael Simmons and I were at his parents' in Hedge End one time, when his father said he was "taking the dog for a walk". I was puzzled by this expression as they didn't have a dog. While we smoked our Turf cigarettes down by the river Michael told me that it meant going to the pub for a drink. Since Mr. Simmons was a Methodist he couldn't say it directly. Of course it was impossible to hide the smell of tobacco on my breath from Mum – mints were useless – so I got into a lot of trouble. The same thing with alcohol.

Terry Conroy was a source of cigarettes and useful information about girls, so he was very popular. He also had two free passes to the Gaumont cinema as his father worked at the hotel where all the show business people stayed. On Wednesday afternoons (we had school half day on Wednesday and Saturday) Terry and the chosen one would sit front centre in the balcony of the Gaumont and smoke while watching Ava Gardner or Burt Lancaster on screen.

Terry had a terrific memory but was not very good at translating Latin. We sat next to each other for most subjects. The chemistry-with-physics master called us Peek and Frean, or Laurel and Hardy, or Fortnum and Mason, etc. In Latin tests I would whisper to Terry where the passage began and ended (it would be from Book II of Virgil's Æneid) and he would then reel off the translation from memory. His elder sister went to Brockenhurst Grammar School and had a copy of the teacher's edition of the maths book we were using one year. So on our way to school on the train we would work backwards from the answer to the question filling in the intermediate steps. We all did very well in maths that year. The master, Harry Hawkins, was sure he knew a relative of mine, and I ended up getting 110% for the year.

Harry was considered slightly mad. We found out early – we had probably inherited the knowledge from the previous year's class – that he could be hypnotized by a swinging light bulb (the classroom was lit by bulbs on long flexes). So we tried it out one day. Harry's bulging eyes were transfixed by the swinging bulb and he walked straight towards it scattering desks left and right. Another day, Harry was bending over the milk crates in the hall during morning break when his balls were grabbed between his legs by a boy who had mistaken him for a tall friend.

The Latin master at the time Terry and I were battling with Virgil was Ponce Cooksey (I never found out why he had that nickname; we just called him "Ponce", except to his face of course). He was a terrific and exacting teacher and, as I found out later in an Old Boys v. Masters match, a very good fives player. One day he was taking a spare and instead of getting on with my prep I was writing a poem about the various masters. I suddenly realized he was looking over my shoulder; I had just finished writing "As I was passing Braithwaite Room I heard the chant of verbs; I op'ed the door and saw instead 'twas Ponce declining urbs." Ponce quietly praised my literary efforts and moved on. My estimation of him soared.

When I started Latin in my first year at grammar school our neighbours at number 20 were the Masters, who came from Dorset. There were two boys, Ron, my age, and David, a few years younger. I overheard them conversing one day. David: "Ay, ni'er, did you know Russon is doin' La'ern?" Ron: "It's not La'ern, you clo', it's La'in!". Our accents had been a cause for concern among our teachers at primary school. Dropped consonants are characteristic of the speech of Southern England, but colloquial terms like "nipper" or "clot" were for the playground not the classroom. Vowels were something else; we all got them wrong. In class a child might prod the one in front who would turn round and say "Ay, you!." The teacher would typically intervene with "Horses eat hay", or more originally "'A-E-I-O-U', Phyllis, dear, not 'A-U'". We all started Masefield's "I must go down to the sea again" with "Oi" and were corrected by the teacher with something like "Remember, an eye for an eye."

Ron and I were good friends; we played headers over the fence separating the two gardens. If the ball landed in a tree or a bush it was a "bird's nest". Neither of us particularly liked Robert Seely, who lived at number 24 (the Shearings had moved to what was then Southern Rhodesia), because he was "weedy" and not good at games. Mr. Seely was considered "eccentric", as he walked slowly down the road coming home from work reading the Times with a rolled umbrella under his arm. I got into trouble one day for falling into step right behind him.

The most imposing person at Peter Symonds, revered by all, was the headmaster, Doc Freeman. He treated the boys as adults until they showed him otherwise, and addressed us individually as "Brother" and collectively as "Brethren". Each morning at assembly when all the boys were standing in the hall with the prefects down one wall and the masters down the other, Doc would walk up onto the platform at the front in his gown, take off his mortar board, and lead the assembly in prayers, hymn singing, scripture reading and announcements. An awe-inspiring, unforgettable event took place each year on Remembrance Day. It was the onerous privilege of the Head Boy to stand at the lectern at the side of the platform, and read from a large book the names of the Old Symondians who had fallen in the two World Wars. Doc, who had been headmaster since the late nineteen-twenties and had known many of these young men as schoolboys, stood at the table in the middle of the platform, head bowed, his arms rigidly extended with the white knuckles of his hands planted on the table for support, and sobbed.

School was a way of leaving home for a while, particularly in later years. Wednesday and Saturday afternoons were taken up with sports. Besides the different inter-house competitions, I was on various school teams for cricket, hockey, track-and-field, cross-country running, fives and chess. The senior art master, Randy Renton, and his wife ran one of the boarding houses. Mrs. Renton was famous for her cricket teas, particularly her rice crispy and syrup cakes, so home matches had a special attraction. We went to play teams at a number of schools including Winchester College, Eastleigh, Brockenhurst, Bournemouth, Taunton's and King Edward VI in Southampton, and Midhurst in Sussex.

Randy, who was Doc's son-in-law, had foibles that were tolerated by the board of governors, and even admired by the boys. We had a double period with him; he would set up a still life at the beginning, tell us to get on with it, then go round to the pub until it was time to collect in our work. Like his father-in-law he had the reputation of being a skirt-chaser. Whether true or not, the reputation was just part of the aura surrounding the masters. Jack Northeast, the junior art and geography master, and Tom Pierce, the junior English and nature master, both worked freelance on The Hampshire Chronicle. Tom's "slipper" was feared, whereas "E.O." Jones' (junior Latin) "Alsatian" had a bark that was a lot worse than its bite, and his aim with pieces of chalk was erratic to say the least. Whynot Woodhouse, noted for his scepticism and the grounding he gave boys in critical thinking, was the proprietor of the Chronicle. Fluebrush Smith had in-laws in France, and the other senior French master, Oink Griffin, occasionally made laconic remarks about his cottage-cum-nature-sanctuary in Chandlers Ford. Fergie Ferguson, the junior chemistry and biology master, favoured experiments that involved lighting a match, so that he could take a drag on a cigarette in class. Cozens (no-one dared give him a nickname), the senior maths master, brought his dog with him to class; the dog was docile, even if his owner was less so, and would lie under his master's desk. Papa Watts bored us in history class, but entertained us as a member of the chorus in amateur Gilbert and Sullivan productions we attended in Winchester.

The school rather went to pieces after Doc died. The senior chemistry master, Sam Simpson, was made interim headmaster. Sam made the fatal mistake of pausing in mid-prayer or mid-sentence when somebody coughed during morning assembly, and had unexpected lorryloads of bricks and sand delivered to his house. The new headmaster, J.S. Shields, had a hard time gaining the respect of masters and boys. We used to play word cricket when he took us for religious studies. Each time he said "orff", it was either a six or a wicket, depending on who was batting. The debating room, where Shields did his "orff"s, was the scene of a balloon debate in which Simon Weir survived, as Brigitte Bardot, by ending each plea with lines such as "I appeal to you."

I had one run-in with Shields. I had grown a beard over the summer during my time on a farm in the Marne and went back to school in September 1957 with it on. Shields hauled me into his office and told me that if I wanted to be a prefect (I wasn't bothered) and to get letters of reference (that hit home) I would have to shave off the beard. So off it came. A bearded schoolboy was a novelty at the time – another boy who did the same thing at the same time as me got his name in the Daily Mail. I found out later, when I was in a lycée in Alençon, that beards were common among schoolboys in France.

Whereas in later years at Peter Symonds Wednesday and Saturday afternoons were taken up with house and school matches, in the early years I was more a spectator. A spectator of films with Terry Conroy on some Wednesdays and often one of football matches at The Dell on Saturdays. In the early fifties football teams, big and small, travelled to away matches third class by train. David Whatley and I left school one Saturday lunchtime to attend a friendly match between the First Division side Middlesborough F.C. and Second Division Southampton F.C. On the platform at Winchester station we watched the Waterloo-Bournemouth train pull in and anxiously scanned the windows for the sticker showing where the Middlesborough team had their reserved compartment. We piled into the open compartment in our school caps, blazers and satchels and eagerly asked the players which of them was Wilf Mannion. They all said they were Wilf Mannion, so it took a while to sort out which one was our England team idol. They were a very friendly bunch as I remember, and the goalkeeper Ugolini initiated a game in which David and I tried to score "goals" by throwing our rolled-up caps at the door behind him as he stood in the central passageway. When we arrived at Central Station we earned ourselves seats in the stands by accompanying the team on foot, showing them the way up Hill Lane to The Dell.

On another occasion my youthful exuberance got somewhat out of hand. A group of us Scouts were sent to Stoneham golf course to man the field telephones at a tournament, reporting scores to the clubhouse from selected greens. My golfing hero at the time was Bobby Locke. I have a vivid memory of one moment: the great man was about to putt, and as silence descended my voice could be clearly heard babbling that "Bobby Locke is playing very well". I did nevertheless manage to get his autograph (my main reason for wanting to go), as well as those of several other players.

The first time I tasted an alcoholic drink (I was brought up in a Methodist home) was when I was working in the Una Star laundry. One lunchtime we went to the Malvern in Winchester Road and I had half a pint of scrumpy. Later that same summer, I went on a cycling holiday youth-hostelling around Dorset, Devon and Cornwall with Gus, Rog and Johnny. In Dorchester I had a pint and a half of scrumpy at the pub and afterwards uncharacteristically regaled the other occupants of the hostel with a piano and voice rendering of one of the Una Star songs.

A year or so later I was working before Christmas in the foreign parcels depot in Redbridge. On Christmas Eve we had a delivery to sort about 6 p.m. and then didn't have another until the last one around ten. So we all spent the intervening time at the pub, where I drank a number of rum and blackcurrants. I cycled home completely steady on my bike and thoughtfully bought some mint chewing-gum on the way, but there was no hiding anything from Mum, so Christmas was somewhat spoiled.

The bike I had at the time was a Rotrax with a Simplex derailleur. At some stage in my teens I timed myself on a three-point circuit from Maybush to Cadnam to Lyndhurst and back home. I went cycling two or three times in the New Forest with my cousin Graham. On our last outing we came to a fork in the track. He went one way, and I went the other, telling each other we'd meet at the other end. It was in fact a parting of the ways; we never saw each other again.

Travel was another way of leaving home for a while. Books of course are a traditional way of entering another world, and I was able to do this sort of travelling from an early age. Under the bed blankets with a torch obviously, but also in my mind's eye during sermons at church. I would imagine I was The Great Wilson winning a test match against the Australians single-handed, or Limpalong Lesley scoring goals for England against Hungary.

Church was also: early on, watching Mr. Sparkman lighting the gas mantles before evening service; much later, trying, with co-tenor Trevor Haynes, to drown out the three basses in the choir; year in, year out, singing "Trust and obey" whenever walrus-moustached Mr. Scott from Totton was taking the service. One-time-only church thrills were: doing the folded-arms-hidden-holding-hands trick when sitting next to Judy Dale; holding hands with Janice Lee in the back row of the marquee during one of the missions held on the empty plot next to the church.

I had learned the folded-arms trick from Sonja Berridge, who came to stay with us for a fortnight when she was recovering from an appendectomy. She was sixteen, and I, Adrian Molishly, was thirteen-and-three-quarters. She was, for a short time, my mentor in things relating to girls. She taught me how to kiss and, on the top deck of a bus, how to hold hands without other people knowing. (I was mortified by a bus conductor when I tried mannishly to pay for the two of us, and he responded sadistically with "But YOU pay children's fare, don't you?!"). Sonja was, remarkably, Catholic. The two families had met and liked each other the previous summer at a caravan camp in Bracklesham Bay in Sussex. So, during my early adolescence, the Catholic girl Sonja taught me first-independence tricks which I later tried out on Methodist girls.

Under-the-desk evasions at grammar school included: early on, reading The Wizard (stories about Wilson and Limpalong Lesley); in later years, playing chess with Dick Barton during Oomph Sykes' Latin and Greek classes. We also took the travelling chess set with us on naval cadet field days to Portsmouth. A desk was the site of a magnificent firework display one time when Martin Smee, the clown of form 4B, decided to set fire to some crackers during a maths class. The master, Biffer Smith, had a good sense of humour, and waited until the banging desk lid and the puffing inkwell hole had stopped doing their stuff, and until the howls of laughter had died down, before with cutting sarcasm thanking Smee for the unexpected entertainment. Another clown was Richard Lonergan, who went around one day at school with a half tennis ball stuck to his forehead by suction, and for the next week with a vivid purple circle. Lonnie managed to fall into the basin while we were spending a week on a destroyer in Chatham Docks. One of the sailors regaled us with tales of old salts sitting on the edge of the basin, picking their scabs and tossing them into the water. We did though have the thrill of sailing a frigate round Land's End from Bristol to Plymouth, of doing speed and gun tests on a cruiser in the North Sea, and of taking part in the Spithead Review on board an aircraft carrier.

My real, geographical and cultural voyages of discovery began when I gave up Scout camps for continental travel. First to Holland in 1955 on the Southampton Youth Exchange programme. A gentle introduction to Europe as it was not much different from England, perhaps a bit flatter and more bicycles, but everyone spoke English. There were however Dutch cigars and ice cream parlours, as well as raw herrings.

France in 1957 was another matter entirely. At Easter I went on the British-French government-sponsored sixth form exchange to Paris. The boys were put up at the Collège Stanislas in rue Notre-Dame-des Champs. Beer and cider on the trestle tables at lunch and dinner time. Red wine had a disappointing bitter taste, not that of the expected sweet grape juice. Three of us took oranges from the lunch table to throw to each other from one bank of the Seine to another on the Île de la Cité. Our French master, Oink Griffin, who wanted to show the contingent from Winchester the Balzacian parts of Paris (we were reading Le Père Goriot at school), had no sense of direction and we ended up showing him the way back to the collège. We did, and didn't do, everything: a visit to Versailles, a non-trip on a bateau mouche (we had misbehaved), lectures and skipped lectures at the Sorbonne, excursions to Montmartre and La Tour Eiffel. Our favourite haunts were the quais at the end of the Île de la Cité and the bouquinistes on the quais. I spent all my pocket money in the first two days, buying Brassens and Hot Five and Hot Seven records (all unavailable in England) and going to the cinema with Tony Askew to see Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu créa la femme.

Summer harvest gathering on a farm in the Marne in the summer of 1957 was another, and greater, cultural shock. Tony Askew and I had to speak a lot of French to the farmer, his wife and their two small children. The farmer's wife was the sister-in-law of one of our French masters, Fluebrush Smith, who introduced us to the songs of Georges Brassens. On the farm I learned to drive a tractor (having, in earlier years, been chased by one and ridden on another). I learned to appreciate French cuisine, country-style on the farm: a huge tureen of soup, pungent sauces with the meat, strong and varied cheeses, a taste acquired for red wine (vin de table), tasty hunks of chewy farm bread. It was while we were working on the farm at L'Échelle that I made a crucial breakthrough. On Saturdays Tony and I would walk the two miles to Montmirail for the weekly film show in a big converted barn. Everyone got there an hour before the film started as this was the big social get-together of the week when everyone could catch up on news and gossip. The second time, I realized at the end of the film (the story was set in a hospital) that I had understood the story as much from what was said as from what was shown!

The big succession of cultural shocks came on 15th August. The farmer told us it was a holiday (we didn't know what it was for; le quinze août and l'Assomption de la Vierge meant nothing to us) and that we were all going to his father's for the day. So the six of us set off in his Peugeot 202. We arrived in a village about the size of Montmirail and went straight to the church. Our farmer spent most of the service (I didn't then differentiate between service and mass) irreverently staring at a mousetrap. At the end we were all supposed to go up to the front and kiss a crucifix, something I hadn't encountered at Wimpson Methodist. Then all out and into the café across the road, where all the church-goers started drinking and playing babyfoot! Anglican Tony and Methodist I didn't know what was going on, so we were thankful when we all went back for lunch on the farmers's father's farm. I realized that just about everyone who had been in church and afterwards in the café were members of the farmer-father's family.

The midday meal (dîner) was quite something. We all sat round a gigantic table in the kitchen and ate and drank for about three hours. I particularly remember the gargantuan omelette. The food and wine fortified me for any new shocks to come. And they weren't long in coming. Five of us, three boys and two girls, climbed into a car and drove off to visit the Champagne cellars in Epernay. We were held up at a level crossing and our driver got out to relieve himself against a tree not more than a couple of yards away. We had two or three dégustations in Epernay, so were in high spirits on the way back. We were shown around the farm: in one barn the farmer-father was relieving himself in the straw, and in another our farmer's little three-year-old girl was doing the same. Then back à table for the evening meal (souper), another Herculean event (fortunately not Augean) that lasted about four hours before our farmer (who must have been used to such excesses) drove us back in the dark to L'Échelle.

 

From school to university

If one stayed on at school in the sixth form it was expected that most pupils would go on to university. My parents knew nothing but hoped I would go to Oxford or Cambridge; I favoured Cambridge for no other reason than that I preferred the Light Blues to the Dark Blues in the Boat Race. The headmaster, Shields, did not have the savvy or the interest that Doc Freeman had had; Doc would have tried to get me in through an entrance exam to St. Edmund Hall at Oxford, where he had an "in".

And so I went, innocently and foolishly, to Cambridge to try for an open scholarship! It was during one of the varsity vacations and I was given rooms at Clare College. After the first day of exams, I realized that I was completely out of my depth, that the open scholarship exams were intended for public school pupils who had been trained for this. Asked to compare various aspects of Virgil and Ovid, I wrote about Virgil and then simply said that Ovid didn't measure up – I hadn't a clue as we had only studied the one author, Virgil, at school. Fortunately I found a soulmate, also called Russ, also doing French and Latin, and also from a grammar school. So we decided together that the exam room wasn't for us, and spent the rest of the week agreeably exploring Cambridge: going to the Fitzwilliam Museum, to Blackwell's, to Indian restaurants, walking along the Backs.

The serious business started when I took entrance exams for King's College London (I was put on the waiting list) and Manchester University. I was given a place at Manchester to do Honours French. Manchester was rated one of the top universities for French, so I was quite happy to go. It meant going "up North", a long way from home, and "leaving home" was the aim of many students. University was considered as much an opportunity to grow up and broaden one's horizons as a time to undertake academic studies, if not more.

This search for independence was made easier for me, as for the majority of my peers, by a grant from the Local Education Authority. The maximum grant at the time was £365, £340 for term time and £25 as a vacation supplement. I was given £340, so as I was going to work for my keep during the vacations, like all my peers, I had in effect the maximum grant. £340 was enough to pay for food, lodging, other essentials and beer (although beer could be considered an essential part of a student's life), and my parents didn't have to make any financial sacrifices. Study fees were paid directly by the LEA.

In those days a student from a less well-off family could be more fortunate than one from a family that was supposed to supplement a partial grant. One of the other first-year students at Manchester, Gail Thompson, had no money for essentials and had to wear her brothers' cast-offs.

 

First year in Manchester (1958-1959)

I started off in digs in Whalley Range. The landlady provided us with bedrooms and two meals a day, breakfast and evening dinner. She also did our washing. I must have had a wet dream one night, because the next day she was very solicitous and said I must be missing my girlfriend from back home. I was in fact quite happy in Manchester, and said to myself "Sod this! I haven't left Southampton to find a substitute mother." and so moved into a flat in my third term.

My first year was largely determined by my upbringing, either being influenced by it or consciously fighting against it. During Fresher Week, preceding the start of classes, there were stalls set up in the foyer of the Students' Union where one was invited to join the various students societies (socs). Thus I joined Meth Soc and enjoyed the Saturdays spent hiking in the Peak district (train to Whaley Bridge), but became gradually disenchanted with the church services. My conscious rebellion took the form of pub crawls, often in the less salubrious districts of the city, but a good introduction to a characteristic slice of Northern life.

Other soc memberships, which lasted throughout my time in Manchester, were Film Soc, which brought me into contact with the full range of the classical cinema, and French Soc, which added a social dimension to the academic one of classes. I remember Fred Whitehouse, who was a terrible lecturer in first year as the shell shock he had suffered in the War prevented him from being able to control the sometimes outrageous behaviour of students feeling their oats. Yet at French Soc evenings he could be hilarious; he had a running, never explained, joke about the 100 daughters of Sanders, Sanders being one of the lecturers.

Pub crawls began when I met up with a trio of first-year students who shared digs: Ron, Dave and "the Twerp". The last-named seemed to accept with great equanimity the role that had been assigned to him and which, on the first evening I accompanied them to the pub, entailed being thrown into hedges on the way there and back. Dave Sale was in my French year, a born leader, with a gift for the gab, a broad Midlands accent, a connoisseur of pub life, and an extremely vulgar streak. His landlady had a car and was learning to drive; Dave had a driving licence, so in exchange for lessons from Dave, he had free use of the car until she got her own licence. According to Dave she couldn't drive for toffee, and we thought we had it made for our pub crawls. She however passed her licence within a few weeks and we had to make do with shank's pony. Dave was just what I needed in first year, a year of being "with the boys" and of getting drunk on Saturday nights, until I had got that out of my system and moved on to more mature and sophisticated society in second year; in Students' Union terms: from the Men's Bar to the Mixed Bar.

I received a big push in this direction from my flat mate in the third term of my first year. Bill Willett was in third year, introduced me to girls in various university and non-university circles, and got me involved in the Gilbert and Sullivan Soc. Bill was not averse however to the occasional pub crawl, and we got back to the flat on my 20th birthday laden with signs we had nicked from pubs and elsewhere. One of the signs that decorated our flat was a typical punning poster from the Hulme Hipp: "Here the Belles Peel".

The flat was in Moss Side, one of the many areas of Victorian terraced housing in Manchester and other Northern industrial cities which were razed in the sixties by "enlightened" city planners to make way for what quickly became vandalized "modern" low-rise apartment blocks. While I was there Moss Side was a vibrant neighbourhood, everyone knowing everybody else and spending a lot of time chatting on their immaculately clean and distinctively painted doorsteps, a feature of the North of England way of life. At the front our flat overlooked Alexandra Park where I learned to play crown bowls, a Northern, democratic variation of lawn bowls.

On Saturdays Bill and I went to the Darrochs' café on Great Western St. for lunch. Soup, meat and two veg, pudding and tea cost us 1s. 9d. The Darrochs had a café and a grocery shop, and catered to a wide range of workers and residents of the neighbourhood. "Miss Edith" (Mrs. Darroch) presided over all the operations; she was a delightful lady with a "posh" accent. Archie (Mr. Darroch) was in charge of the shop, and had a great sense of fun and dry humour. (Once when I went with him to Old Trafford he pretended not to know who the very well-known bowler Brian Statham was; there was no lack of outraged spectators around us willing to put him straight.) Their daughter Shirley ran a hair-dressing business upstairs and had the exotic appeal of being the divorcee of an American G.I. Sally worked in the café, and she and Archie ragged each other a lot. Sally and her French-Canadian husband Bob lived over the road next door to a brothel.

Bill and I spent many evenings with the Darrochs and their friends, usually pub evenings full of good fun. I returned to Manchester several years later to find the Darrochs. Their shop and café were gone, the whole of Victorian Moss Side was gone. I finally found Miss Edith and Shirley in Wythenshawe, a huge suburban housing estate where they and others from Moss Side and similarly razed city neighbourhoods had been shunted by the authorities. There was no community life there, no fun. They both looked sad and a lot older.

Classes were attended, though somewhat sporadically. One big event of the student year was Rag Week. Among the various activities I remember two in particular. Eleven of us, on ten bikes, hit a hockey ball with a hockey stick all the way from the Students' Union in Manchester across the Pennines to the Students' Union at Leeds University. Another equally mad occasion was the Rag Week parade through the city centre. Each soc had a float. The theme of the French Soc float was "Vive la différence"; it featured a Moulin Rouge, the Fresher Queen (who happened to be a girl in the first year of the French Honours programme) dressed in top hat, tights and tails, and several male students dressed as can-can dancers. The unofficial aim of the parade was to get as many office girls on the float as possible. I was one of the few whose grass skirt stood up to the wear-and-tear of jumping off the float, grabbing a girl and hauling her and oneself back onto the lorry. We did quite well, and treated them all to refreshments at the Students' Union afterwards.

My first year was also an introduction to the rich musical life of Manchester. Classical concerts at the Free Trade Hall, jazz concerts given by the greats: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Kid Ory, and others from the old days of New Orleans jazz. England had rediscovered this type of jazz in the Revivalist Jazz movement of the nineteen-fifties, so we also went to concert hall and pub evenings where we listened to Chris Barber, Cy Laurie and a number of excellent local bands. Later on Acker Bilk and the Temperance Seven came to the Students' Union.

In the summer of my first year, I went with Bill, Janice and Gwen to a Last Night at the Proms at the Free Trade Hall. I remember there was a Trumpet Involuntary, the Voluntary with the score played upside down, and a Gerard Hoffnung-type composition scored for orchestra and kitchen sink, the latter being manned by the percussionist, who broke plates in time with the music.

My first summer job was as a vacuum cleaner salesman. I learned a lot of the tricks of the trade, and even sold one cleaner. Targeted areas were of course working-class homes dominated by a large television set. A favourite trick was to put a white handkerchief over the nozzle and suck up some dust from the sofa; after a few seconds the handkerchief was inevitably black... The cleaner had various components and attachments, and when the customer had added up the cost of a vacuum cleaner, a carpet shampooer and a hair dryer, the salesman made the "unbeatable offer": at a fraction of the estimated sum the householder could take advantage of the special concession during the trial period of two cleaners per district. For every sale, the salesman received a commission, as did the team leader and the company boss. In the one week I was on the job, the company changed both name and office.

Frightened by the fact I had assimilated the salesman's pitch I looked for saner employment elsewhere. I found it at the soft drinks company Jewsbury and Brown. There I was normally in the office checking invoices. I dispatched my allotted batch quite quickly and spent a lot of my time composing love poems and typing them out on a typewriter, a good way of learning to type, if nothing else. During my time at J&B, there was a test match at Old Trafford between England and India. I was one of the lucky ones sent to sell soft drinks. I think I sold a lot of drinks but I certainly enjoyed watching the cricket.

 

Dreams of Istanbul

In late July 1959 Janice, Ray, Eddie and I bought a 1937 Morris 10, and set off for Istanbul. We had obtained visas for Albania, in order to go through Greece, and Bulgaria, to get to Turkey. We only made it as far as Zagreb and the Adriatic coast, but we had a lot of fun and adventures on our way through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy and France.

In Belgium we loved the sea and the dunes on the coast just over the border from Dunkirk, to such an extent that we spent three days there and our car didn't want to move; so we had to have it towed out. In Germany we especially enjoyed a picnic on the banks of the Isar near Munich chatting with some local students. In Austria we bathed in a frigid stream in the mountains and ate cream cake walking around Salzburg. In Zagreb we were taken out for dinner in a charming courtyard restaurant by a local official we encountered who wanted to impress foreign tourists (why young, bedraggled us?). In Italy we fell in love with Venice, and in Milan were duly impressed by the Cathedral and the Scala. In France we ate our sandwiches on the steps of the casino in Monte Carlo and on the steps of Sacré Coeur in Paris.

Since we had little money we decided we would have one meal out in each country. Restaurants in Bruges, Aachen, Salzburg and Venice. A restaurant in Zagreb (we were taken out) and in a small Yugoslav village near the Austrian border a tavern where we ate sausage and drank several glasses of slivovitz, all for about a shilling each. We couldn't afford to eat out in France, so while we were in the South we made a point of sleeping in vineyards, so that we could at least have a local delicacy for breakfast. Otherwise we cooked for ourselves.

The car had its own adventures. We had the chassis welded in Belgium, the exhaust pipe replaced in Germany (the garage-man refused payment so we bought him a case of beer), the car just made it over the Austrian Alps in first gear, we ended up putting the headlights on by manually inserting a wire in the battery, and a new half-shaft was welded for us on the Italian Riviera while we spent two nights sleeping on the beach. We had a brutal reminder of the fact that English roads have a lot more bends than Continental ones. The brakes hadn't had much to do on the round trip from Belgium to France, but were constantly being applied when we got back to England. Arriving at a T-junction in Sussex the driver discovered that the brakes had packed up and the car was brought to a stop by the high verge opposite the access road. The car we returned in to England was somewhat different from the one we had set out in. The doors, which we had to either jam shut or keep closed with pieces of string at the beginning of our trip, fitted perfectly by the end.

Besides the car and its passengers there were a number of accoutrements. The driver made a point of wearing a bowler hat (one that Bill had brought back from a drunken Morris dance evening), and, whenever possible, raising it when meeting other motorists. I think the hat got mislaid somewhere in Yugoslavia, probably at the time we discovered that the tents and one of the sleeping-bags tied onto the fold-down platform on the outside of the car at the back were no longer there. We also had an Eccles-influenced "porridge sock" that also went missing. On the other hand we acquired in the Austrian Alps a moss-covered hiking boot which stayed tied to the radiator at the front of the car all the way back to England, despite the interest shown at the British customs in Dover.

Apart from one night in a hostel in Bruges and another in a hostel in Zagreb, we slept out in the open for the whole five weeks. I don't think we even bothered to put up the tents. After one of the sleeping-bags was lost, Janice and Ray slept together in one bag. They were packed in like sardines, so they couldn't do much, but they did end up getting married later. We slept in fields, on road verges, and in vineyards.

On awaking in a field after our first night in Yugoslavia, we found a girl and a boy, brother and sister about 9 or 10 years old, peering at us in our sleeping bags. We offered them chocolate, and took the little boy (the girl was too scared) for a ride round the field in the car. They then ran off, and came back about twenty minutes later with a large basket of plums for us. The Yugoslav people may have been poorer than in other European countries, but they were generous. We stopped at a farm to buy milk, but the woman who gave us a large jug of delicious milk would not accept any payment. We saw a number of women walking at the side of the road carrying large pottery or metal containers on their heads.

We had put a little money by to purchase souvenirs, and decided to buy them in Yugoslavia. I bought a decorated leather-covered flask and had it filled in a shop with slivovitz. I also bought a Tito pipe. Then in Venice I bought a little Murano vase, the only one of the three souvenirs I still have.

We hadn't made it to Istanbul, but we felt that we had travelled far and experienced many things.

 

Manchester: second year (1959-1960)

In second year I spent quite a lot of time in the French Common Room, which was a good place both to do course assignments because of the library it contained, and to chat with other male and female students doing French. We would often go from there over to the cafeteria in the Students' Union, where we could chat, drink coffee and smoke.

One of the female students I got to know in second year was Kay Redhead, whose parents and three younger sisters lived in Wilmslow, a reasonably short distance by bus, train or hitch-hiked ride. The first time I went to a party at her house I received a number of cultural shocks. First of all, not only were we drinking beer but her parents were there chatting away to us! And there was I with my parents at one end of the country and my beer drinking at the other, and, as far as I was concerned at the time, never the twain should meet. But better than that, the beer was being fetched and carried by two charming little girls, Kay's sisters Julie and Elizabeth. I started seeing the world in a different light.

Whereas in the first year Rag Week had been fun, drinking beer during the week and getting drunk at Rag Ball, in second year is was fun and beer, finding a girl to take to Rag Ball, and taking her to Rag Ball. Life was becoming more interesting.

During the second term we attended a series of presentations given by third year students on the subject of where to spend one's third term in France. The alluring charms of Paris, Toulouse, Tours, Aix, and other university towns were laid out for us, but I was struck by the spiel for Montpellier, which was basically sun, sand, sea and sex.

So, after a summary exam on French History we all made preparations for crossing the Channel for the Summer term.

 

Montpellier

The third term was in essence a paid holiday. One only had to register at the Faculté to receive one's grant, and then it was cafés and the beach at Palavas-les-Flots or Carnon-Plage for two months. (It was not until we had become taxpayers ourselves that we looked back and saw how irresponsible we had been.) We hired bikes for the time we were there, not only to go to the beach but also to visit Sète (muscat), the walled town of Aigues-Mortes and the arenas of Arles and Nîmes. We attended a bullfight in Arles, but were not impressed.

There were eight of us from our year at Manchester, two girls and six boys. The six of us boys rented a Simca Ariane for 24 hours and drove to Barcelona to see Real Madrid against Barcelona in the semi-final of the European Cup. It was a pretty hairy ride through the Pyrenees and back, with only the match, a meal and a short sleep to punctuate our long drive. We even had to turn back at the border to return to Perpignan to get a carte verte at the Préfecture. But seeing the magnificent stadium, the huge Spanish crowd and Di Stefano made it all worthwhile.

The eight of us, along with some students from Birmingham and Kay and Carol who came over from Aix, celebrated my 21st birthday on the beach at Carnon-Plage. We all drank quite a lot of wine and thought at one point that Godfrey must have got himself drowned as we couldn't find him. The News of the World headlines would scream: "One drowned as drunk English students party on French beach." We found out the next day that he had decided he wanted his bed and had cycled back to Montpellier. The rest of us slept on the beach, and the next morning danced barefoot in a café to Edith Piaf's Milord.

The six of us boys had started off in pairs in three different hotels and three different hotel rooms. One pair got thrown out of their hotel and moved in with Barrie and me. Then something similar happened to the other two, and for one night there were six of us in one room. I decided it was time to move on.

I had been invited by Kay to spend some time in Aix, and I managed to get there by thumb and bus. During the stay in Aix a group of us students spent a weekend near Apt helping to restore what had been a monastery to turn it into a convalescent home. It was a very enjoyable weekend, my main memories of which are eating some delicious goulash prepared for us by the Hungarian housekeeper, and eating doughnuts at a street fair in Apt.

 

On the buses

Barrie got me a summer job working as a conductor on the Southdown buses at the Bognor Regis depot. The Watsons lived in nearby Aldingbourne. Mrs. Watson was a small woman, an amazing bundle of energy with a razor-sharp wit and a wonderful sense of humour who ran her husband, four children, sundry visitors and household with great efficiency.

Being a conductor in a summer seaside resort was hectic but fun. We wanted either a full bus or an empty one, not a half-full/empty one which was neither here nor there. With a full bus one was faced with the challenge of collecting all the fares – which varied considerably depending on the points of boarding and alighting – and of knowing who would be getting off at the next stop. I earned quite a few tips by having passengers' luggage ready for them when they got off at their caravan camp. The tippers were known as "Londoners", as the practice was quite unusual. With an empty bus the conductor could catch up on sleep. Catching up on sleep was important as the summer conductors often worked double shifts.

The conductor was also in a position to benefit from the light summer wear of the holidaying girls. Glimpses down blouses when collecting fares, or up skirts when checking on the upper deck from the platform at the back of the bus. And of course the conductor was in the legitimate position of being able to chat with them and thus chat them up. I was having lunch at the Watsons' one day when Barrie arrived from the depot in his car bearing one of these girls and her friend. She had been looking for the "bearded conductor" so Barrie obliged. We went back with Barrie and sat on the top deck of his bus for two or three round trips before she had to get off leaving me her telephone number. Taking the station chief's daughter out didn't do any harm either in racking up bonuses by doing double shifts.

I was also involved in a couple of amusing "off the buses" incidents, either amusing at the time or when I was able to look back with some equanimity. Of the first sort was one involving one of my passengers, who seeing me alight from the bus followed suit. The only problem was that I was getting off while the bus was still moving as it came into the depot at Bognor. It was usual, while the driver was driving the bus into its bay, for the conductor to hop off the platform, go through a door, run up the stairs to the canteen, and order two teas, one for the conductor and one for the driver. I later had to fill in a report in answer to a complaint made by the passenger, who had found herself flat on the floor, fortunately with no more harm done than her bruised dignity. My own come-uppance was to follow.

I was standing on the open platform at the back of the bus in the conductor pose, left hand in my pocket, right hand nonchalantly holding onto the bar, watching the world go by. The bus was going slowly through the centre of town. I saw a girl I knew standing on the pavement. She smiled at me and waved to me. I smiled at her and gave her a wave with my right hand. Just then the bus accelerated, and I found myself on my backside in the roadway with coins spilling out of my bag all around me. Too embarrassed to look at the girl, I started to pick up the money, helped by a Good Samaritan who came to my aid. A few minutes later the bus driver came running up, his face as white as a sheet. By the time the story of what had happened had passed from mouth to mouth from the back of the bus to the front, he had visions of my needing a stretcher to the mortuary. One of the other bus drivers had a reputation as a story-teller. And so several days later, when I was at the bus depot in nearby Chichester, an inspector came up to me to ask if I was the conductor who had seen his girlfriend with another man and jumped off the bus to go after him.

 

Alençon (1960-1961)

After second year we had the choice either of going straight into third and final year or of spending a year as an English assistant in a school in France before going back to university for third year. I chose the latter option as up until then French had basically been a "book" subject for me even though I loved France. I was not to regret my decision, either for its beneficial effect on my French or for the many rich experiences it afforded me. I was allocated to the Lycée Alain in Alençon.

At the lycée, a lone anglophone among 1200 francophones, I had to either sink or swim. So my poor French became proficient fairly rapidly. My teaching duties involved spending twelve hours a week running English conversation classes. The potaches, as they were called, were boys and girls ranging in age from about fourteen to nineteen. I boarded at the lycée and had my meals there. I quickly learned school slang. Besides the potaches, there was the protal (proviseur), the head of the school; the teachers were simply les profs; the university students paid to look after the discipline outside of the classroom – refectory, dormitory, cour de récréation, spares – were officially called surveillants, but were colloquially referred to as pions (pionnes at the girls' school); the head of the surveillants, the surveillant général, was the surgé. Meat was bidoche, beans were fayots, and so on. There were a dozen or more pions, all my age, some boarders, some externes. One of the pions, Daniel, was my teacher of argot.

My own principal classroom was the Re (the Renaissance café) in town. There I learned to do French crosswords, counted in French playing billard and keeping score at card games (after 60 standard French becomes quite abstract – soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, quatre-vingt-dix-sept – unlike Swiss French with its septante, octante, nonante), chatted to pions and pionnes, and developed a taste for rugby, shown on the television set and enthusiastically commented on by my companions. Another good school of French was the cinema, attended two or three times a week.

The best school was reckoned to be l'oreiller, as the French say (apprendre une langue sur l'oreiller), though we seemed to spend more time climbing walls at the École normale de jeunes filles, the Lycée de jeunes filles and my own lycée, than sleeping on pillows. At the Lycée Alain, you had to wait for the night watchman, the veilleur de nuit, to open the gates after 10 p.m. One of the duties of the veilleur was to count the number of boys in each dormitory to make sure none of them was elsewhere doing something he was not supposed to be doing. The veilleur, who was fond of the bottle (vin rouge ordinaire), simply counted the beds instead of their occupants, and usually had to start over several times (as we could see from the crossings-out in his book). He would often be away from his office so long that we internes ended up climbing over the wall to get back in. Unwanted pregnancies and back-street abortions were common at that time as contraceptives weren't available in France.

I became acquainted with several aspects of Norman country life through one of the pionnes I was friendly with. One of her friends at school was a girl who lived on a farm. We went one day on the scooter to the farm. Adèle was a slim girl of delicate appearance in Alençon, but she could lead a huge plough-horse round the field, eat strong farm cheese (crottes) and drink even stronger rough cider with ease, whereas all three were beyond me. Janine, my pionne friend, had family friends on another farm. Whereas the stereotypical image of the agricultural worker's morning wash is putting his head under the pump, this farmer splashed his very red face with calvados (apple brandy); babies typically had calvados mixed in with the milk of their bottles. The département of Calvados had the highest rate of imbecility in France at the time.

The man I rented a second-hand radio from had helped downed Allied pilots get home during the War, and was pleased to speak a mixture of French and English with me. One of the lessons my pupils enjoyed was learning the words to top-twenty songs. Reading newspapers and magazines was another popular activity.

I discovered, and liked, oysters (raw with lemon) and champagne at the several celebrations held during the year in the salle des fêtes; I discovered, and liked, the trou normand, a glass of calva drunk midway through the meal at the gueuleton blow-outs organized by the surgé in some country inn or other. Eight or nine of us packed into his deux chevaux rocked the car body from side to side while he imperturbably drove the chassis in a straight line. I discovered, and liked, the subtle way of drinking calva with a cup of coffee (café express) as a digestif at the end of a meal. You started off with a cup of coffee into which you poured a few drops of calva; you drank some coffee-calva then added more calva, and so on until you were drinking a cup of calva with a hint of coffee.

That was near Falaise at a sumptuous farm-restaurant meal I shared with the members of the Falaise football team after a match in Dives-sur-Mer. Barrie was doing his assistantship at a cours complémentaire in Dives, so I went from Alençon with the gym teacher, who was a member of the Falaise team.

Two of the other three English assistants in Alençon schools were sad in a way. After a love affair that went wrong Gloria spent much of the rest of the year in her room, away from the Re. Michael was doing a four-year M.A. in French at Edinburgh University; a year's assistantship in France was an obligatory part of the programme, but Michael hated France (why, one may ask, was he doing French?). At his cours complémentaire he found himself having to mark homework, which was against the terms of our contracts. Part of the way during the year Michael found out he had failed his second-year exams, which meant that when he went back to Edinburgh he would be doing a General degree, for which the year abroad was not required...

The other assistant, at the École normale de garçons, was a quiet Irishman, several years older than the rest of us (assistants and pions). James was a regular patron of the Re but kept to himself seated at the bar drinking his cognac. I sometimes thought he had come to France for the year because the cognac was cheaper than back home. One time Barrie and I went on the scooter to Paris; we went into a bar in the Pigalle district, and there was James seated at the counter drinking his glass of cognac.

The year ended with a carnival, the Corso fleuri at the end of June. It was of course the occasion for much and varied merry-making including the consumption of a lot of wine (French wine having replaced English beer).

I wanted to stay on in France for the summer but had no money.

 

Mont-Saint-Michel

Janine suggested I try to get a job at Mont-Saint-Michel, one of the most popular holiday destinations in France. I presented myself to the head guide at the Abbey and was immediately taken on as they were looking for a guide for the English-speaking visitors. I went to the regional head office of the Monuments historiques in Caen to fill out some forms, and that was it.

I read all the books and accompanied the other guides on their visits, worked out a spiel and I was ready. The best visits were those where visitors were genuinely interested and asked intelligent questions. With other groups I went onto automatic pilot and inevitably experienced the horrible moment when I came back to reality and wondered what on earth I had already told them. There were many ways to amuse. The two huge fireplaces and tall chimneys in the Salle des hôtes where one could talk about the test given to candidates for the kitchen at the Mère Poulard restaurant; passing the test involved cooking an omelette in one fireplace, tossing it up the chimney to turn it over, and then catching it in the pan when it came down the other chimney. The impressive flatness of the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel was the setting for a story about the monks of the abbey raking the sand each day in olden times; one visitor wanted to know how it was that the big rock of Tombelaine out in the bay wasn't swept away by the huge tides. Of a different order was the sight of one of the summer guides, a school chaplain, standing on a stool giving his "Sermon on the Mount".

The only income of the summer guides was the tips given at the end of the visit. One third of these was put in a pot for the permanent guides, who had to find other employment during the off-season. English as I was I couldn't bring myself to put out my hand at the end of the first few visits, but soon learned. I developed a schmaltzy wind-up to the visit and did quite well.

I ate extremely well at midday and in the evening at the Mouton blanc where the summer guides at the abbey and in the museums were treated as demi-pensionnaires. We ate well for a very reasonable price: omelettes, agneau des prés salés (local lamb bred on the salt flats), langoustines (prawns), moules marinière, sometimes a crêpe flambée. When Mum and Dad came to stay at the end of August, the patron offered us a free banquet that included oysters and lobster. And so I developed a passion for sea food.

I had a room at the gendarmerie where one of my neighbours was one of the regular guides (I forget his name), who taught me a number of Norman dialect words and how to drink fine (high-quality calvados). He also had a daughter I was quite keen on.

1961 was one of Jacques Anquetil's years in the Tour de France. I stopped at the end of each day at a little bistro in the narrow street leading down from the abbey to drink a Ricard and watch the summary of the day's stage on television. My drinking companions were Jean-Pierre et Tit Louis, guides at one of the museums and keen followers of the Tour. One night the patron and patronne took me, along with a girl who was working for them as a summer waitress, to the Casino in Saint-Malo. That was the first and last time I wagered money on a roulette wheel. We had champagne and frites in the casino restaurant.

My year in France had been a total success as far as I was concerned. I hadn't done a stroke of academic work but I felt that the French language and culture were now a part of me. I felt confident about going back to Manchester for the final year and final exams.

 

Manchester: third year (1961-1962)

In the final B.A. year tutorials and lectures were attended, and notes were taken. For the first time, what was being said and what I wrote down made sense to me. Fred Whitehead was no longer the butt of first-year pranks but the source of great knowledge and wisdom. Doc Kennedy received rapt attention in class, and amused us at a cocktail party she gave by managing to inhale smoke from a cigarette without her lips touching it. She told us she was the world's greatest authority on theoretical sex. I took my "special subject", French vocabulary, with Peter Wexler, whom I first met at the top of the stairs in the Science Building leaning over the banister and winding up from the basement a long trail of magnetic computer tape that he had let escape from its spool.

We needed to break the tension now and again, relieve the stress of concentrated work. A ping-pong ball bounced on the floor of the library reading room was the sign to go over to the Students' Union. Kay, Barrie, Jenny and I spent a lot of time in the Union cafeteria saying witty things and calling each other by silly nicknames. Kay was Potters, Barrie was Watters, Jenny (Baxandall) was Bedders, and I was Woollers.

Barrie and I had started off the year renting a room in a house in Whalley Range run by a couple whom we goonishly called Henry and Min. Henry and Min didn't take kindly to Kay's staying over one night in a sleeping-bag after a party, so Barrie and I went flat hunting, and were delighted to be able to move into the old Claremont Road flat in Moss Side.

My scooter was popular. I remember bringing home Ant from a party held at the Wythenshawe sports centre; he was completely drunk and sat back swaying with his arms extended to each side. Amazingly we didn't fall off. Another time I gave a non-ride to Barrie: he had hitched his leg up preparatory to getting on the back seat when I took off leaving him standing like a territory-marking dog, or so I was told by friends who witnessed the incident. Acker (ACR60) also took Brian Hooley and me to see Santos play a friendly match against Sheffield Wednesday, and I had the privilege of seeing the great Pele play. So it was in Sheffield that I saw two of the all-time sporting greats in action: Don Bradman at Bramall Lane when I was a little boy, and Pele at Hillsborough when I was a student.

And so to the nerve-racking, adrenalin-pumping fortnight of final exams. There was a break between the first batch of exams and the second, so Kay, Jenny, Barrie and I went to the North of England tennis championships in Didsbury. I was struck by the looks and enthusiasm of teenagers Billie Jean Moffitt and Karen Susman, who won the women's doubles. At one point a newspaper vendor went past calling out "Read all about it! Latest on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton." One of the spectators came up with the comment "I didn't know they were playing in the mixed doubles."

We all survived, received our degrees dressed in mortar-board and gown, celebrated, and made plans.

 

Colgate's

I wanted to stay in Manchester for the summer and found summer employment at the Colgate factory in Trafford Park. We students – I think there were three of us – were put on the night shift from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.; our job was to sweep the factory floor. We found that a concentrated three hours was sufficient to get the job done, and spent the rest of the time playing cards, reading Proust (me), sleeping, and illegally driving the fork-lift trucks. One of the workers was an Indian prince.

During our last week there were so many employees on holiday that we were put on the mind-numbing assembly line. Pete, who was a medical student and worked in a hospital during the day, thought at one point that the stamp pad with which he was supposed to stamp the full cartons of Colgate bleach once he had weighed them (he stamped regardless) was his girlfriend's change purse, and wondered what it was doing there. At another point he thought it was a bar of chocolate, and he had to be restrained to stop him from eating it. So in the end we were glad to leave.

In August Kay and I went on the scooter to visit Jenny at her home in Pickering. It was a trip marked by history. The newspaper was full of the suicide of Marilyn Monroe in America and of the exploits of Geoffrey Boycott on the cricket fields of Yorkshire. On our way back we stopped at a café near Oldham and danced to Frank Ifield singing "I Remember You".

 

Manchester: Graduate Certificate in Education (1962-1963)

I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I enjoyed being a student in Manchester, so I did what a lot of others did and took the Grad Cert Ed course.

The first two weeks were most enjoyable. They involved doing primary school teaching practice in one's home town. I was assigned to the nine-year-olds' class at Newlands School on the housing estate near Maybush Road. What a pleasure to be faced with a class of children eager to learn. I found the conversation in the staff room somewhat infantile though, so was pleased to meet there another training student, from Bristol University.

Back in Manchester, I was in a phone booth following up some accommodation ads in the paper, when Mrs. Pierce went past. She saw me, recognized me, and stopped her car. When she found out Barrie and I were looking for a flat or digs, she said "Why don't you come and live with us?" What a godsend! Mrs. Pierce and her large family lived in a large Victorian house in Scarsdale Road near the university. Barrie had met Mrs. Pierce's eldest daughter, Gay, at a party, and amazingly the next day was able to remember the phone number she had given him. Mrs. Pierce was a very good-looking Irish widow who knew, and was able to charm, all the top policemen in Manchester. All her children were good-looking charmers too. In descending order of age, though no more than a year or so between one and the next, there were Gay, David, Mary, Liam, Madeleine, Richard and Kenneth. And they even had a large room at the back for just Barrie and me. We were inevitably drawn into the colourful life of the family, and appreciated the one meal included in the rent, Sunday roast beef and yorkshire pudding.

The classes at Manchester were on the whole boring, but that was not the main reason I was there. I enjoyed my six weeks in the high-powered atmosphere of the "Oxbridge factory" that was Manchester Grammar School, but did not like having to take a class of thirteen-year-olds at Wythenshawe Comprehensive School.

The most interesting parts of the programme were: the Sports course, in which one qualified to become a football referee and a rugby referee; and particularly Outdoor Activities, which took us, among other places, to Lake Coniston and the Isle of Arran. We learned to map-read, to sail, to canoe, to climb, to hike, to survive with the aid of a map and a compass. We ate haggis and drank scotch on St. Andrew's Day (our directors were both Scots); we rowed over to John Ruskin's house on Lake Coniston one evening to see a slide show given by one of the members of Sir Edmund Hillary's Mount Everest team.

Barrie was doing the Grad Cert Ed programme also, and Kay was teaching release-time apprentices English and Social Studies in Salford. The apprentices had to get credits for these two subjects, but spent most of their time in class listening to the racing results on their hand-held radios. They found out, when they came to do a weekly budget in Social Studies class, that 80% or more of their money went on beer. They were hopeless at addition, multiplication and division, but experts at subtraction, through playing 301 or 501 at darts. Jenny had gone off to teach English in Majorca. So the three of us, and other friends, kept up the tradition of going to the Mixed Bar and the cafeteria in the Students' Union.

Mid-morning breaks in the cafeteria were typically taken up with doing the Guardian crossword, or playing crazy eights. To make the latter more interesting we added a new rule each day, so anyone who didn't attend the sessions every day was lost.

Barrie was in the Varsity second basketball team. One Saturday we went with the first team who were playing in London. I was driving everyone in a hired mini-van, and we drove down the motorway singing "Love Me Do". When we got back in the evening I went to a party where everyone was doing the twist. Since the van wasn't due back until early the following morning, I had arranged with Kay to go up to the Cat and Fiddle Inn, near Macclesfield, "just for a lark". It was freezing, we were freezing, and going back down was for me like floating in a foggy dream as I hadn't slept for nearly 24 hours. We made it back to Wilmslow, where I dropped off Kay, and I made it with the van back to the rental depot.

The end of the year came round. Barrie was off to Algeria to teach English. Kay was off in the autumn to Canada to do an M.A. in Italian at the University of Toronto; her sister lived nearby in Kingston, and one of her profs at Manchester, Dr "Kate" Speight, recommended Kay to a friend and colleague of hers in the Italian Department at Toronto. I had concluded that school teaching was not for me; I had contemplated spending the year in an English school in Santander to brush up my Spanish; instead I decided to follow Peter Wexler's suggestion of doing post-graduate work in Besançon.

 

Mister Softy

I was determined however to spend one last summer in Manchester, and managed to find a job selling ice-cream in a Mr. Softy van.

After a few days training I was mostly on my own, but one Saturday I was put with another man to sell ice-cream in Cheetham Hill. He spent most of the day either going into betting shops or watering down the ice-cream. I thought it ironic when two bleached-haired women, mother and daughter in scarves and curlers, told him the ice-cream had curdled. I thought to myself it was the sight of these two that had done it. This ice-cream salesman wasn't however around the following Saturday. On another occasion, a fat boy, with more money than his associates, asked for a ninepenny special, a cone with as much soft ice-cream as one could put on top. There were a few smirks from the onlookers as the ice-cream slowly toppled over when he started bringing it up to his wide-open mouth.

Kay's mum, Mrs. Redhead, had her strong likes and dislikes, but you could always get round her with ice-cream or chocolate, especially a box of chocolates. I drove my Mr. Softy van one day to Manor Close in Wilmslow to present her with a large carton of ice-cream. A neighbour came to the door to complain about the van, particularly the motor keeping the ice-cream cold. Mrs. Redhead informed her in no uncertain terms that I was no ordinary ice-cream-man but "a university graduate with a B.A." End of discussion.

 

Besançon, 1963-1964

I sold Acker before I left for France. The scooter, purchased in 1960, had taken me and various pillion passengers up and down England, around Manchester, Hampshire and Sussex, across the Pennines, through Normandy and the Loire Valley, and round Place de la Concorde in Paris.

On arrival in Besançon, my director of studies and future thesis director, Bernard Quemada, found me some part-time employment organizing a new library in the Centre de linguistique appliquée. In my first year I took a certificate in applied linguistics and taught intensive six-week English courses to adults, using the "Besançon method".

The applied linguistics classes took place between 4 and 7 p.m. When I was teaching, English classes went from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, with a two-hour lunch break, and 8 a.m. to midday on Saturdays. After my first week of full teaching and linguistics classes, I slept for fourteen hours on the Saturday-Sunday night. I was staying with friends in the Jura, and it snowed during the night, so I slept in a cocoon.

I learned a lot in the linguistics course, but the most interesting part of my work life was the English classes. Since the French students were functioning in English nearly all of the time – we ate together midday and evening in the university restaurant, and often went out in small or large groups at the weekend – they and I could observe their progress from one day to the next, a very stimulating experience.

The students, being French and having more money than their teachers (there were several of us English student-teachers), wanted us to accompany them at weekends on their gastronomic explorations. There were often no more than three or four of us at a time, so six weeks was enough to provide quite a variety of company and food. The military-service-type camaraderie created by our daily contact ensured that each six-week course ended in tears – no-one wanted to leave –, presents for the teacher and a big party. At the party someone, either a group of students or an individual, inevitably did a, usually hilarious, pastiche of the course. I had one student, a sous-préfet normally used to wearing a suit and tie and comporting himself as formally as his dress, who cottoned on the first day. He became a young student again, lapping up everything, enjoying himself immensely, and entertaining us all. At the end of the course Monsieur Henri did a hysterical one-man rendering of the course, playing the role of the teacher (me) and each of the other students, male and female – the shy accountant, the eager engineer, the coy air hostess trying to win over the teacher with a smile while leaning back to get the whispered answer from the student behind.

I lodged with a retired couple in Rue Résal, and it was there I learned about the assassination of President Kennedy. Monsieur Scherler had been a cheese merchant, and it was while staying with the Scherlers that I learned to love comté cheese. For breakfast every day I had café au lait, baguette and comté cheese, made in the nearby Jura. Comté became, and has remained, one of my favourite cheeses.

Kay and I wrote to each other a lot, and it was the sight of an air-mail letter from Canada that brought me early on into contact with a couple who had done their undergraduate degrees at McGill University. Graham and Merirose became close friends, and there were many others met in linguistics classes, in the teaching group, in the foreign students' foyer, or at the university restaurant.

Two organized groups which came into being during the year were the Thursday-night folk song group and the Entente cordiale chorale. A New-Zealand girl was an English assistant at the École normale de jeunes filles and brought her senior students to the Cave (the foreign students' foyer) for folk singing in English on Thursday nights. Two of her pupils lived in Burgundy, and invited all of us – about twelve of us went – to spend the weekend of the annual Fête de la Saint Jacques tournante staying with their families and friends, visiting wine cellars, attending the annual ceremonial meeting of the Ordre du Taste-vin, and partaking of Rabelaisian meals. At breakfast coffee was produced at the beginning of the meal, since that was customary elsewhere, but was quickly replaced by a bottle or two of red or white Burgundy. I think I drank Burgundy wine more or less non-stop for 48 hours (except for two brief interruptions for sleep), and felt wonderful both during and after. So of course Burgundy wine joined Comté cheese on my gastronomical top ten.

A group of ten of us formed a choir, led by a Scot with perfect pitch, who used two fingers of one hand as a tuning fork just for show. Jack (our leader) was small but he had a strong, rich baritone voice that I remember hauntingly singing "Swing low, sweet chariot". We came from many cultures – America, Spain, Germany, Norway, Togo, France, England, Scotland –, and sang songs in many languages.

Kay and I had decided during the course of the year to get married in September 1964. We met up again in London in June, and I went off to Mont-Saint-Michel again to earn some money. The main differences between my guiding in 1961 and 1964 were that this time I lodged at the Maison verte, along with all the other summer guides, and ate at midday on the patio with the others. In the evening we all ate at the Mouton blanc as before. Mum, Dad, Nigel and his girlfriend Brenda stayed with us briefly before heading off in their car to go round Brittany. I still have, and use constantly, some Quimper crockery they brought back for me.

 

Ireland, September 1964

Before we could go off to Ireland on honeymoon there were a certain number of formalities to go through including instruction, for me, and of course the wedding. As a Methodist marrying a Catholic I was obliged to undergo three hours of instruction in the Catholic faith. The first hour was provided in Wilmslow by Father Mooney as we paced around his lawn our hands behind our backs. That was in June, and I was off for two months to Mont-Saint-Michel, so Father Mooney wrote a letter which I was to give to the parish priest on Mont-Saint-Michel. The latter was far more interested in my religious upbringing than in indoctrinating me with his own brand, so we spent two hours talking about Methodism.

The wedding was to take place on a Saturday in St. Teresa's Catholic Church in Wilmslow. My best man, Barrie, and I stayed at Kay's Great-Aunt Belle's in Timperley. Auntie Belle was curious about everything, was interested in all that was going on in the world, loved nothing better than to chat, and had a supply of scotch. Barrie and I thoroughly enjoyed our week at Auntie Belle's.

Barrie and I changed into our top hats and tails at the guest house where Mum and Dad were staying near the church. The shortest way from the guest house to the church was through Woolworth's, so Barrie and I decided to brighten up the shop assistants' day. I very much enjoyed the pageantry of the dress, which made up for the lack of music (due to my not being Catholic). The celebrations continued after the church service at the Valley Lodge outside Wilmslow. My friends made sure I got a pint of beer or two when my parents weren't looking.

Then off by plane from Ringway Airport to Dublin. Our first mass in Ireland was quite an experience for both of us. We went along to St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral on Sunday morning, and found there was a mass every quarter of an hour. This was before Vatican II and the Dublin priests had got rattling off the Latin mass down to a fine art. If you blinked at the wrong moment you missed the consecration of the Host.

We caught the train to Galway, and from there a tour coach (that's all there was on a Sunday) to Clifden. On the way we were able to take advantage of the tourist stops, including one at a quarry where we bought a pair of beautiful Connemara marble bookends. In Clifden at the end of the afternoon we had lunch – what in England one would call tea – before being taken by taxi to our destination, a cottage on the coast about two miles from Cleggan.

Our landlady, Mrs. O'Donnell, gave us milk, eggs and bread; the vegetables we had to pay for. One stormy evening Kay and I were telling each other ghost stories when a figure shrouded in a black cloak and hood and carrying a lantern appeared at the cottage door. When we had got over our fright we found that Mrs. O'Donnell just wanted to see if our electricity was working.

The nearest shop and church were in Cleggan. On the first full day we passed a man on our way by foot to the shop and wished him "Good morning". He wished us "Good morning" back. When we got to the shop we discovered it was about four in the afternoon. On the following Sunday we went to mass in the church in Cleggan. The men hanging around outside came in for the vital ten seconds of the consecration then went out again to carry on talking and smoking.

We saw: the many tones of green and brown; the rushing streams; the deep blue loughs with golden reeds; the scudding clouds and the empty wind-blown sandy beaches; donkies on the road, usually being barked at by dogs. Being colour-blind I couldn't see the fuchsias in the hedges during the daytime, but one night I saw the brilliant red of their flowers in the headlights of a car we hired for the last three days.

We caught the lobster lorry into Galway when we wanted to hire a car. The lorry had a fast driver and little in the way of brakes. The many bends and the lack of shock absorbers left us sore and dizzy when we finally arrived. Our Fiat Cinquecento took us first of all to Salthill, where we spent an enthralling evening listening to wonderful local voices and music at a singing pub. Whenever we saw someone on foot we stopped to offer them a ride, as this was customary in the West of Ireland. We didn't have much room in our little Fiat, but we had some lively conversations. Before hiring the car we had walked one day the nine miles into Clifden thinking we would get a lift on the way. The first car to pass us going in the direction of Clifden did indeed stop for us, but that was after we had walked the first eight miles.

At the end of the fortnight we dropped the car off in Galway and caught the train back to Dublin. There we made a point of going to the National Museum, where we saw some exquisite ancient jewelry and several Celtic crosses, as well as some bog people.

We left Ireland enchanted with our stay there, and on the way back to England started to make plans for our future married life, which was going to begin in Besançon.

 

Besançon, 1964-1966

We spent our first week in a youth hostel before finding a flat on the fourth floor of 24 Rue Rivotte. Our landlady, Madame Masson, had a haberdashery on the ground floor. Kay took the same linguistics certificate I'd taken the previous year, and I registered my doctorate subject. We both taught intensive English courses, each of us more or less six weeks on and six weeks off.

Now there were two of us the gastronomic invitations were more plentiful. At one particular restaurant in the Doubs our host, Monsieur Lévy, a dentist, made a point at the end of the meal of demanding to see the chef and then giving him a hearty kiss. Monsieur Lévy told him that he was embracing him as they would never see each other again, the meal having been quite dreadful.

We bought an old 2 C.V., which we called Jumping Gerty, as the registration had the two letters JG. Jumping Gerty lasted us a year, but we didn't make any long trips, as it was somewhat reluctant to go far. We exchanged it for a Renault 4 C.V., no bigger than the Citroen but a great traveller. We made several trips into Switzerland, down to Lyon, over to England, and then an epic journey all the way down to the toe of Italy and round Sicily. Its life came to a sad end when we were back-ended in Besançon, and while waiting for the tow truck we saw Jumping Gerty go past!

We had a variety of students, from all walks of life, from all over France and many parts of the French-speaking world. The laundryman from the ocean liner Le France; a ski resort hotelier from Courchevel; air hostesses from Air France; an engineer from Tunisia; a member of the Senegalese government. In one particular class of Kay's in the summer of 1965, she had Jacques Duhamel, at the time Mayor of Dôle and a member of the French parliament, and Francesca Vitale, the wife of a member of the Sicilian parliament. The two flirted, and each was to play a part in our lives at the time.

My parents were staying with us in mid-July. Jacques Duhamel invited the four of us to spend the 14th July with him in Dôle. He was a charming host, but perhaps needed some visitors to serve as an entourage as he did the seigneurial rounds of his fiefdom. At his apartment he offered us an aperitif before lunch. I suggested to him that champagne was perhaps preferable to whisky as my parents had only recently loosened up through visits to France. Yes! la douce France had rubbed off on the strict Methodists of yore. On the strength of one glass of champagne my father gave a quite passable, certainly tuneful, rendering of the Marseillaise, which of course pleased our host no end.

Francesca Vitale invited Kay and me to spend a holiday in Sicily. In October we set off in the little Renault, and economically camped our way down Italy rising and retiring with the sun. Since we knew we were going to be seeing Byzantine mosaics and Greek temples in Sicily, we went via the church of San Marco in Venice, the religious monuments of Ravenna and the pale ochre temples of Paestum, which we saw lit by the sun at six o'clock in the morning. It was at Paestum that I had the best citron pressé I have ever tasted. In the outskirts of Rome the car got stuck in the mud of a campsite, and we were towed out by a Landrover which backed over a tent. Fortunately there was no-one inside the tent so we put it back up. The owner must have been intrigued when he returned to find tyre marks going up his tent.

We crossed on the ferry at Reggio di Calabria, and drove to Palermo, where the Vitales lived. In Rome we had closed the car windows to try to deaden the continual noise of car horns; in Palermo we kept them closed to protect ourselves from the whips of the drivers of horse-drawn landaus. During our ten-day stay in Sicily we visited, among other things: the Norman-Byzantine-Arabic marvels of the chapels in the parliament buildings in Palermo and the monastery at Monreale; the old palaces of Bagheria; the mosaic Pancreator in Cefalù; the Doric temple and the amphitheatre in Segesta; the Greek temples in Agrigento; the summit of Mount Etna, though we were unable to see it because of the dense cloud; the dusty hill-top town of Enna, renowned for its bandits; the floor mosaics at Piazza Armerina; the hanging gardens of Taormina. We bathed in the sea and ate squid in Mondello.

On the way back up through Italy we stopped in Rome to see the cardinals pour out of St. Peter's at the end of a session of Vatican II; and we were taken out to a Tuscan restaurant by the delightful subject of Kay's thesis, Giuseppe Ungaretti. He was an old man with a young heart and an eye for the pretty signorinas; a first-person host and a third-person poet.

Our last epic journey in the Renault took us to my parents' in England for the Christmas of 1965. In Winchester we took advantage of our French registration to pretend to be French and thus get away with parking the car where it was convenient for us but illegal for the car. After Christmas there was a big freeze; the roads of France were ribbons of ice, and the car heater wouldn't work. It took us three days to get from Le Havre to Besançon, stopping at friends' in Versailles and then again in Troyes. I remember one stretch of road that had plane trees to left and right with seemingly a car brought to a sudden halt by the trunk of every other one. We were able to keep going, stopping frequently to warm our feet in cafés and fortify ourselves with hot chocolate.

At Easter-time Kay and I were hired by the aluminium company Péchiney to teach English at their centre de formation in L'Argentière-la-Bessée in Haute-Savoie. Our pupils were eight foremen who were going to help set up an aluminium factory in the state of Washington. They had been taking night classes for the past two years and the company wanted them to have a two-week intensive course before they went to America. I taught them in the mornings, Kay in the afternoon, and an American student from Paris, Gene, took them for a conversation class in the evening, by which time they were fed up with being in the classroom – so I had the best part of the deal. The eldest, a man of about 60, whose wife had never left her Pyrenean village and was about to cross the seas with her husband, asked if I minded if he got up and walked about the room during class – he was not used to sitting down for long. Most afternoons Gene and I hiked in the surrounding mountains, and during mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks and after lunch we all played in ad hoc ping-pong and volley-ball tournaments. At the weekend we were invited to go to the weekly cinema show in town, which, like that in Montmirail, was the occasion to greet friends and catch up on local gossip. The next day we went with one of our pupils and his wife over the Alps into Italy, where we tasted and bought wine. On the last day, we were treated to a superb midday meal by the talented cook, who always prepared food with his bouteille de rouge at hand. While we ate we were regaled with Alpine and Pyrenean stories, and after we had finished we sang songs from the mountains of France. We spent a wonderful two weeks, particularly as we had been asked how much we wanted to be paid and stated a rate that was twice what we were getting in Besançon.

Kay wanted to return to Toronto to do a doctorate, and so in 1966 I applied for a position in the Department of French at the University of Toronto. My application was accepted, and I was told my starting salary as a lecturer would be $7,000 per annum. A few weeks later, still in Besançon, I received another letter saying that faculty members had received a raise and so my salary would be $7,500.

The New World, its streets paved with gold, awaited us.

   


Taste

In a normal distribution of the senses, taste is perhaps the most sensuous, its sensuousness and the memory of it often reinforced by expression or word shared with one's table companions.

One of my childhood memories is of the last thing I said before going to bed: "What's for pudding tomorrow, Mum?" My mother was, in my opinion, a very good cook. She had been raised in a cottage where the water was fetched from a well, light was provided by oil lamps and the cooking was done on a wood-burning range. When she married and moved into a modern house, she took advantage of water on tap, light provided by electricity and her electic cooker to concoct appetising meals. If I had to choose one of her dishes from my childhood years it would be her rice pudding, made with milk and the addition of nutmeg, and covered with a wonderful skin. I always asked for the skin from her custard. Rice pudding skin and custard skin added touch to taste.

I move forward several decades in this inventory of memorable tastes to another "pudding", one which my ration-conscious and teetotal mother could never have dreamed of preparing. The scene was an elegant farmhouse restaurant in Auvergne, where, after several dishes ending with a selection from the tray of Auvergne and Cantal cheeses, I had a poire au vin to finish off the meal. The wine-soaked pear was on a bed of marc-soaked crushed ice. In memory I lingered over this marvellous dessert more than over the copious dishes which preceded it.

My third memory of gustatory sweetness is of a peach bought from a fruit stall on the Rialto bridge in Venice when I was a student. It was big, juicy and had a flavour I had never encountered in all my years in England.

One of Kay's students in Besançon was a Sicilian, who invited us to spend a holiday on her island. Among the attractions of Sicily are Greek temples, so on our way down by car through Italy that October we went early one morning to Paestum. The sun shone in a cloudless sky, the stone of the temples was almost white, and we enjoyed the peace of the place as we were almost the only visitors. Lemons grow abundantly in the South of Italy and at the end of the visit we could not resist the cool refreshment given by the juice of a big lemon squeezed into a glass with the addition of water, ice and a little sugar.

Wine, on the other hand, is usually meant to accompany a meal. Janine's ex-husband had built up a considerable cellar, which he left with her in Alsace when they divorced. I was the beneficiary of several bottles of 25-year-old red burgundy. One bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin I brought home to Toronto and invited David to share it with me. I bought a baguette, lightly cooked the best steak I could find and tossed some salad, so that we could savour the richness of the wine. I later went to the Rioja region in Spain and appreciated the similarly rich taste of the local wine, served with salchichón, a type of salami, at the end of visits to wine cellars.

Several savoury tastes remain in my memory. I spent a year in Nice and am very fond of dishes made with herbes de Provence. The best dish with this ingredient I have ever tasted was a poulet aux herbes de Provence, served with frites, eaten on a sidewalk restaurant in Vence in the company of Kay and her parents, who all chose the same dish and agreed that the chicken was delicious.

On the other side of southern France, Toulouse remains in my mind for a meal eaten there, again with Kay, but in the company this time of my two eldest children, who were then four and two years of age. I particularly like seafood, but instead of evoking memories of lobster, oysters, moules marinière or langoustines, all of which have provided me with memorable tastes, I will mention the Toulouse soupe de poisson, to which one adds rouille, a spicy Provençal sauce.

During my first year in Besançon, before I got married, I lived with the Scherlers. One day – I believe it was to celebrate the approaching Christmas season –, my landlady and landlord took me out for a meal in the railway station restaurant. One of the specialties of the Franche-Comté region is morels. I don't remember what the dish was, but I do remember the wonderful taste of the morilles.

The French traiteur is a sort of caterer-cum-delicatessen. One near the university in Lyon has a restaurant upstairs. I had lunch there one day with Isabelle and Brigitte, and chose endive au jambon. The endive, wrapped in a slice of ham, is covered with sauce béchamel sprinkled with grated gruyère cheese, the tartness of the vegetable thus being balanced by the creaminess of the sauce.

A simple meal, eaten on the spot while remaining standing up, is provided by slices of hot, juicy roast meat cut straight from the joint and placed within a piece of bread. Nigel and I went many times late at night to the Glastonbury Festival stall which sold pork 'n' baguette. Many years later, Sarah and I ate slices of hot pork placed inside a bolillo at the open-air market in Quiroga.

The complete meal is one that satisfies all the senses. I had such a meal with Catherine in a hotel in Morestel, to the east of Lyon. In a room containing about eight tables, one other was occupied. The decor was both simple and elegant. Peace reigned and conversation was subdued because unnecessary to one's enjoyment. The restaurant was clean, the only smells being those of the dishes as they were served. The linen table cloth and napkins were of the finest whiteness. We were served by a young girl who was obviously in training under the watchful eye of the patronne who sat silently in the corner. The service was quiet, attentive and unobtrusive. We chose a menu de terroir, a menu of local specialties. Each of the many dishes, small in quantity and esthetically presented on the plate, left a unique, pleasing taste. It was an unforgettable experience.

© 2004-2007 Russon Wooldridge
Optimized for 17" to 19" screen.