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It won't always be dark at

An early life remembered

Boyce A. Stretton


It won't always be dark at

An early life remembered

Boyce A. Stretton


It won't always be dark at

An early life remembered

MEMOIRS Cirencester

Published by Memoirs

Memoirs Books 25 Market Place, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7 2NX Copyright Š Boyce Attwood Stretton, August 2011 First published in England, August 2011

ISBN 978-1-908223-18-0

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of Memoirs.

Printed in England

This memoir is dedicated to our mam. “……..and the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5.5)

PREFACE The text that follows falls into an unintended genre: the posthumously-published memoir. My father was working on it for the last two or three years of his life, during which time it occupied much of his energies. He had finalised the text and was seeing it through the final stages of publication when he died, suddenly, at home on 22 July 2011. He was thus thwarted in his determination to see his story in print, but died with the satisfaction of knowing that he had completed the book he had in him. He knew, too, that an enthusiastic readership as far afield as Canada and South Africa awaited him. I was involved in the editing of the text from my own perspective as a novelist. With characteristic stubbornness, Boyce did not implement all of my suggestions. The final text reflects his determination to tell his own story in his own way. In its keen eye for the telling detail - particularly the early years in County Durham - the memoir sometimes carries a novelistic intensity. The reflections of a man at the end of his life trying to understand the events at the beginning of it lift it well beyond a simple period drama of the mid-20th century. Our parents are almost definition fully-formed adults in their children's eyes; “It Won't Always Be Dark at Seven...� concludes nearly fifteen years before my birth, and fleshes out with considerable skill and economy the childhood we never imagine our parents to have had. Much of the memoir's accomplishment lies in its interweaving of intensely-recollected detail with later reflection, and fully illustrates that, while our lives are lived forwards, they can only be understood backwards. One of Boyce's later passions was the construction of his family tree, which he achieved with some certainty stretching back into

the late 17th century, and which also brought him into contact with relatives around the globe. “It Won't Always Be Dark at Seven...� is his own contribution to the richness of that family tree and one which will serve as a fascinating reference for generations to come. Published as it is only a month after his death, it also serves as his fitting memorial.

Tim Stretton Bosham England July 2011

Boyce Stretton 14 April 1937 - 22 July 2011


Without the aid and encouragement of a band of dedicated people this story would have remained just what it was, four sheets of foolscap paper buried in a document folder. The latent premise I had nurtured was that some future generation of the family, in the course of their family’s history might find this work of assistance and additionally carry some merit as a social history document. Egotistically I also harboured the notion that we all have one book in us, all I lacked was the confidence to dip my pen in the ink. All that changed some two years ago with an innocuous e-mail to my cousin Dorothy in South Africa, in which I light-heartedly attached those four languishing pages. She opined that there was a story to tell, and to pursue the ambition. Lacking confidence, I still pondered, wondering if she was just being kind. However, although I buried the four pages yet again, the desire had really taken hold and wouldn’t go away. A short while later Fate threw in a card and by chance I read an incoming e-mail from an author, Melody Richardson in Canada who was offering, along with her writing group, to sympathetically encourage any would-be writer (of family or social history) for a whole year providing that they sent periodic updates for the group’s perusal. Well, it’s now or never, I persuaded myself, and passed on my four well-travelled sheets for scrutiny. Almost by return the response came from Melody cajoling me to just get on with it and that she and her team would monitor progress. And the rest, as they say, is my history. The writing group stayed together for the first year and then for many reasons disbanded; Melody alone endured the remainder of the narrative, offered me encouragement when the spirit was flagging and is, to a large degree, responsible for there being a finished article. I owe her a debt of gratitude.

Our Ruth has been invaluable; she has been to an extent my family historian, guide and researcher for the first two parts, has offered up half-remembered names, has been my ‘publisher’ and an endless and continuing source of encouragement. Tim, being a Literature graduate, has kept a critical eye on the structure and continuity of the story throughout and pointed out historical inaccuracies. He was also generous with his reassurance. I thank him for his unstinting support. While not actually partaking in the construction of the memoir, Heather was my ‘Jack of all trades’. She was the proof reader parexcellence, on occasion my mobile dictionary and walking thesaurus, had an understanding at all times of my anxiety in the gestation and eventual giving birth to my book and never lost faith in my ability to complete the project. I promised Sal that she would get a mention. She spent many a late night on my lap or pacing the keyboard making typing well-nigh impossible but she was always a warm and purring companion. Unfortunately she never made the finale; she was called away towards the end of Part 2 to that eternal, dappled sun-patch but I like to think that just maybe she sometimes quietly peered over my shoulder, checking. I thank every one of you for being an integral part of my jigsaw, which when completed became my memoir and perhaps ultimately I was only the person who pointed the pen. Finally I make an unreserved apology for any inaccuracies that may have occurred in names, dates and sequential information, particularly in Part 3 where I struggled with the passage of time. My inadequate and yet truthful excuse is that the narrative is a remembered story and some of it was so long ago I couldn’t penetrate the shade to get to the fine detail. However, rest assured that that whole episode of my life as it affected me is an absolute truth both in retrospective observation and actual happening.


She put a match to the scrunched-up paper; kindling was an unaffordable luxury. Next she carefully placed cinders on top of the already burning paper. The cinders she had painstakingly separated from the cold ash previously; bitter experience had taught her that this was her only chance of lighting the range without firewood. She then put a sheet of old newspaper across the front of the fireplace, the resulting draught causing the flames to roar up the chimney with a sound like a steam train. When she judged that the cinders were sufficiently hot, she removed the newspaper and carefully added a few small lumps of coal. She gazed at the half-full coal bucket knowing that this slack coal would have to last them until she could afford a delivery. Although not yet six o’clock, a sharp white frost hung on the rooftops, already trespassing on to the pavements. The house with its ill-fitting doors and windows seemed to conspire with the elements to invite the cold through every crack. She couldn’t afford to keep the range banked up all day; each evening she returned from work to a freezing house and laboriously went about bringing the range back to life. Until the fickle fire had co-operated with her efforts there would be no hot food, hot drink, or hot water. She was also painfully aware of the young boy and girl, perched like sparrows on the edge of the sofa across the room, regarding her every move. Although both young, they knew that there would be neither a hot meal nor a warm room until fire could be coaxed from the stubborn coals. Still on her knees by the fireplace, the blossoming flames casting a distorted shadow on the wall, she turned to the boy with the big brown eyes and said reassuringly, “Never mind pet, it won’t always be dark at seven.”


PART ONE Early Years 1937 - 1951 Page 2 - 101

PART two Part Two: A Fresh Start 1951 - 1953 Page 102 - 198

PART three Part Three: Boy Soldier 1953 - 1955 Page 200 - 291

PART ONE Early Years 1937 - 1951

chapter one

The Year of Our Lord 1937; Mr Hitler was casting his eye over Europe, my father was casting his eye over anything in a skirt and I was born into an overcrowded house situated at 15 Ellesmere Road, Berkhamsted, then a small town within easy commuting reach of London. The house was large and old, overlooking a railway cutting and within smelling distance of the canal. The matriarch was Grandma Stretton, a lady who had been born into a middle-class household, but was, by now not so much sinking as fully submerged in a working class environment. Grampy Stretton, on the other hand, had no such pretensions to a former status. He had been an entrepreneur long before the term was current. To my knowledge he had been a greengrocer (failed), a credit draper (failed) and a muffin-man (failed). At the time of my birth he was tending a large flock of chickens in the back garden, while at the same time manufacturing large bundles of kindling wood presumably to keep the home fires burning. All his adult life he suffered from 'defensive deafness', a condition brought on by Grandma's somewhat foolhardy attempt to control his life. This condition manifested itself in his warm and slightly vacant smile to all who threatened his Utopia. He could roll a cigarette with one hand; he could whittle wood; he could make a 'cat's-cradle'; with a lick of spit and a grubby hankie he could instantly cure a grazed knee but most magical of all he could drive a pony and trap. My sister - who had put in an appearance some eighteen months before me - and I adored him. Our mam had arrived in London in 1924 at the age of fourteen via the Situations Vacant column in her local paper, The Northern


Chapter One Echo. Born a miner’s daughter in a village in County Durham, she had - on leaving school - looked to employment as a 'domestic' in the more prosperous South. This at the time was the accepted fate of many young North Eastern girls, both work and money being in short supply in the pit villages. The prospective employer would send the onward train fare, which would be repaid over a period once the employment had commenced. I think mam was one of the luckier ones: I never heard her once criticise her patrons or her working conditions. The working day must have been long and hard but she always maintained she was treated with fairness and dignity. At some point whilst in service she must have met my father and they married in Camden Register Office in June 1933. Her address on the marriage certificate was given as King Henry's Road, Hampstead, the dwelling-place of her employers. My early life was very much in Grandma's hands, a lady with Victorian God-fearing principles, who could, and very often did, quote limitless passages from the Bible. I still possess a Bible given to me by her with the inscription "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his Righteousness" Matthew Chap. 6 Verse 33. I hate to admit, and forgive me Grandma, I'm still seeking. Grandma (and Grampy!) had had a disparate family of four sons and one daughter. Of the boys Leslie, the eldest, went on to become the managing director of ICI. One, Claude Stanley, became my father, a total psychopath. Seth, being glib of speech and short on promise, spent time in and out of His Majesty's prisons. Eddie, the youngest, volunteered to join the Army at the outbreak of war in 1939, bravely giving a false age in order to meet the minimum age criteria. He served with honour throughout the hostilities and on return to civilian life at the end of the conflict became a respected figure in the community. Winifred Patricia, (Pat) the daughter, was to play a pivotal role much later in my upbringing.


Chapter One Where to begin? I find the early years of my life a kaleidoscope of events not necessarily following any logical time scale. They come and go and most certainly wouldn't stand up to any historical scrutiny. I used to wet the bed a lot and my father smacked me a lot. Did he smack me because I wet the bed, or did I wet the bed because he smacked me? Whichever way, he was an extremely bad-tempered man, prone to violent tempers leading me on occasion to utter the now famous family words "What are you going to do to me next, dad?" The property in Ellesmere Road consisted of a vast scullery, a sitting room and a long, narrow passage running directly from the front door to the back door which, on opening, revealed the outside toilet, an assortment of garden sheds and a somewhat overgrown, magical garden. On entering the house, leading from the passage was a door giving access to the sitting room and at the furthest end, a narrow, steep flight of stairs leading directly to three bedrooms, one immediately facing the landing the other two on adjacent sides. This then is my remembered world full of noises and smells, fears and excitement. In all truth there may have been more rooms, entries and exits but they most certainly were no part of my young existence or captured memories. The scullery consisted of a huge, sturdy wooden table filling the centre of a room whose functions were many and varied. Running nearly the length of the side wall was a massive and imposing sideboard which as it transpired later had an unexpectedly practical, and from Grandma's point of view, valuable purpose. On the opposite wall were positioned the cooking facilities - a range I think - and a large Belfast sink with a single cold water tap. As well as being used regularly for the washing-up and the family's wash, Ruth and I were popped in there at indecently frequent intervals for baths.


Chapter One The scullery was, without a doubt, the centre of my young adventures. The huge table was to the adults primarily a dining table and a place to entertain friends with a glass of beer and perhaps a game of cards. To my sister and myself underneath that table was something totally different, a world within a world. It could be a pirate ship; it could be an Indian's tent, a bus or a tank. Unfortunately, periodically Ruth would commandeer my bus to become a hospital or even a doll's house! When used as a hospital we needed a patient, and unbeknown to him we had a volunteer in the shape of our younger cousin, Arthur. We would dose him with spoonfuls of 'medicine', the only thing being available (from the kitchen table) was vinegar. After a period of dosing, Arthur's lips would turn white, rather like pickling eggs I should imagine, and Grandma would enquire of us in a horrified tone, what on earth we'd been doing to him. Because I was the one with the dimple and therefore the more believable liar I would tell Grandma that we had been kissing Arthur and she seemed to accept this rather ludicrous explanation! The course of treatment apparently did Arthur no lasting damage; he's still alive and thriving today bearing neither of us any malice. Living with us at that time was a Mr Gask and his daughter, Ruby, both being evacuees from the bombing in London. Mr Gask was in the habit, when working commitments would permit, of taking a glass of beer with Grampy. The fatal mistake the grownups had made on this particular day was to leave the condiments on the table in between meals. The temptation to Ruth and myself was irresistible. From under the table we spotted that Grampy and Mr Gask had left their newly filled beer glasses on the table unattended. We knew that the mustard pot was well loaded and contained a small serving spoon and that just maybe beer and mustard would make a refreshing drink. So without any more


Chapter One ado we added three spoonfuls of mustard to Mr Gask's full glass and retreated back under the table. Shortly Grampy and Mr Gask reappeared and drank deeply from their full pints. From that precise moment Mr Gask would forever be known, for obvious reasons, between Ruth and myself as Mr Gasp! “Gasp� doesn't even begin to describe the strangled cry of amazement, disbelief and anger that came from his person. To say the least Mr Gask was a man demented with anger not to mention a very hot mouth and throat. Ruth and myself could not have suffered a worse fate if we'd been shot at dawn, instead we were lashed with furious adult tongues and sent to bed without any supper. I have a faint memory that Grandma gave us a token smack but as our father was very often giving us a good whacking it wouldn't have registered anyway. In 1939 I had reached the tender age of two; Mr Chamberlain had issued Mr Hitler with an ultimatum; and Berkhamsted was finally at war, although nothing much changed in my small world. There was probably an air of apprehension in the house, young people and the not so young were volunteering to bloody Mr Hitler's nose; when the air raids started we had the arrival of the blackouts. I would have found all of this rather exciting. The imposing sideboard in the scullery finally came into its own. When the air-raid siren sounded - it always seemed to be at night, had the Germans not yet started bombing London by daylight? - we were wrapped in warm blankets with a torch for company and stowed under the sideboard until the 'all clear' sounded; all very thrilling to a three year old boy. Sometimes before we were transferred back to bed Grandma and Grampy would carry us outside the front door where we could quite clearly see the fires from the London blitz burning on the horizon. Grandma treated thunderstorms with the same or even greater


Chapter One respect that she treated the Luftwaffe. With the first rumbles of thunder she would immediately cover all the mirrors in the house and put all the cutlery away in a convenient drawer, to prevent lightning striking them and being reflected back round the room. She would then open the front and back doors; later I learnt this was to allow the free passage of any thunderbolt which entered the house. I think she would have loved us all to hide under the scullery sideboard until the storm had passed but I don't think we ever actually did. Needless to say I found thunderstorms a source of great wonderment. Grampy never ever took part in this ritual, instead probably disappearing into the garden shed to roll a cigarette. One particularly rousing day, late in the afternoon a German plane crashed into the railway embankment slightly further up the street from our house. From the very earliest remembered days of the conflict I had been a patriotic young lad. When visiting the cinema and the newsreel came on with its chiming Big Ben signature I had been known to say in a loud, little boy’s voice "Big Ben's still standing!" much to the delight of the adult audience. It was not surprising, therefore, that on hearing the noise of a crashing German aircraft I ran into the street cheering and clapping only to hear Grandma's voice in the background say "He must have been someone's son!" Although slightly deflated I did defend all patriotic three-year-olds by scathingly replying "But he was a GERMAN, Grandma!" By far the happiest times of my childhood in Berkhamsted and probably my subsequent growing-up years were spent with Grampy and his pony and trap. Grampy had a part-time job with the local cinema, the Rex, which involved bill-posting in the surrounding towns and villages. The 'bills' were, in fact, large posters for forthcoming cinema attractions and for 'posting' them


Chapter One Grampy needed a large pail of paste and a broom. Ruth and I were always delighted when along with his pail, broom and posters for the day, he would load us into the trap and we became his assistants. No respecters of protocol us, we would vigorously give Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable a good pasting heralding to the villagers that "Gone with the Wind" was showing at the Rex. Judy Garland got exactly the same treatment along with her friends, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion; how else would people know that "The Wizard of Oz" was in town? My favourites in those far off days were the Old Mother Riley films; if by chance Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane appeared on our poster days I was beside myself with delight and anticipation. I knew at some point I would be visiting the Rex, and oh, the laughter. I must have started school whilst growing up in Berkhamsted, after all we didn't leave there until early on in 1943, but my memories of it are very vague. I know that I didn't like it; that I was a very slow learner and, on occasion, had my bottom smacked on the way down the hill to the infants' school. Meanwhile in the grown-up world our mam must have been becoming increasingly fearful of my philandering father with his violent mood swings and was desperate to extricate herself from an intolerable situation. To this day I don't know the exact detail but at some point mam must have contacted her previous employers, the Cliftons in Hampstead, for advice or live-in employment; which I just don't know. Our mam was the loveliest, meekest person you could ever have met which makes the sheer courage and determination it must have taken to make this blind leap of faith incredibly brave. Her Gods were obviously smiling on her that day as the Cliftons had recently moved to Harrogate and apparently needed a domestic. But did they need a live-in domestic with two very young


Chapter One children in tow who would also be required to live in the household? The answer must have been yes, and very shortly we were to become acquainted with Mr & Mrs Clifton. So on a cold dark morning early in 1943 with the blackout rigidly enforced, our mam set off with her two offspring and one suitcase from Berkhamsted railway station, through London to an uncertain new life for us all in Harrogate. On the actual day of the move, I had some childish ailment and Grandma implored mam to leave me behind to be collected later, mam - in my opinion - refused as I think she realised that once clear of the house, our small family unit was also clear of our father. I still well remember the extreme kindness of the embarking troops as they helped us through a bewildering array of London stations and the chaos of London in the Blitz. But most of all I remember that I was sick for most of the journey.


chapter two

Life at 8 York Road, Harrogate was both bewildering and intimidating for a young boy who had left an overcrowded working class household in Berkhamsted to arrive at a very middle-class detached villa in an elegant part of Harrogate. Mr Clifton, a distant and austere yet kind figure, was a director of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and as such we were convinced that he talked with God. He had in his possession a gold (coloured or real, I didn't know) pass which entitled him to free travel anywhere on the railway system, yet another reason for our thinking he had direct access to The Almighty. I had very few dealings with Mr Clifton, the exception being every Sunday when I was allowed access to his library, under his supervision of course. Yes, he really did have a library. I have always held this feeling that Mr Clifton thought small children were just grownups in miniature. (Many, many years later my sister did re-visit York Road, by which time the Cliftons had gone to a better place; the library room was still there but alas the book collection had long gone). The disadvantage of this little treat was that being just turned five and a lazy learner, I couldn't read a word! I seem to remember, therefore, that I selected books by their size and by their illustrations. I vividly recall large coloured pictures of Japanese warriors wielding great samurai swords; of multi-coloured dragons breathing fire; and of large lizards roaming through prehistoric forests. Not really bedtime material for a five-year old boy with a fertile imagination; the Sunday nightmares those Sunday treats must have engendered! Many years later I was told the red leather covered tomes were entitled "Myths and Legends of Japan".


Chapter Two Mrs Clifton was a different character entirely. She was elegant, always immaculately dressed and quite approachable. She also took it upon herself to become my nanny. Maybe she reasoned that mam was too busy with the household chores; whatever the reason each morning Mrs Clifton and I would walk (or in my case, toddle) across the park to the local school. In later years I was to realise that Mrs Clifton became very fond of me during that time. I had the dimples, the big brown eyes and perhaps for a period I became the son she never was to have. I remember very little detail of daily life in York Road. Ruth and I slept in an attic, which was like a palace compared to our previous life. We both agree that the abiding memory of Harrogate is feeling hungry. It certainly wasn't because the Cliftons were poor or even mean. I suspect that Mrs Clifton knew very little about healthy, growing children and the portions of food we were given were just inadequate. We remember distinctly that our tea meal consisted of a slice (albeit thick) of bread and jam and a piece of cake. I think I must have been happy there, it was certainly the only period in our young lives when we had a 'normal' upbringing and had mam to see us off to school and welcome us home again. We had accepted Berkhamsted as being normal but then as very young children we had no yardstick and couldn't possibly have known that our family life was totally dysfunctional. Although mam was the domestic we were all treated like members of the family and touchingly it was here that we had our first and only Christmas tree. Mr & Mrs Clifton must have gone to great lengths, even in the depth of the war, to give us a 'proper' Christmas. One fateful day whilst in school I cut the fringe of my hair (�hacked� would be more accurate) with a pair of paper-scissors which had been given to us for a cutting and pasting lesson. Mrs


Chapter Two Clifton (and I presume mam) was horrified and questioned me as to how on earth it had happened. Being a five-year-old who thought on his feet, I immediately said, "It was Roger Pocklington!" Unbeknown to me Ruth had immediately been blamed for the desecration of my fringe and the very next morning was interrogated by her form teacher. Nothing more was said on the subject that evening so imagine my surprise and mounting anxiety when the very next morning not only did Mrs Clifton walk with me to the school gates but marched in with me, straight to the headmaster's study. Most people in their whole lives will never walk into the Lion's Den; I did at that point! To all five-year olds in 1943 the headmaster was a deity in his own right, I actually thought he was called Mr. Sir and here was me sitting in front of his huge and hugely polished desk with Mrs Clifton by my side being asked by this man-God to relate the 'hacked-hair' incident. Needless to say, not being able to think more than two minutes ahead, I stuck to the Roger Pocklington version of the story. Imagine my terror and disbelief when, two minutes later, into the study walked an apprehensive Roger Pocklington. Poor old, or more precisely, young Roger; I never did bear him any personal animosity either then or now and I sincerely hope that he went on to achieve great things, at the very least the Mayor of Harrogate. As for Ruth, she definitely deserved better, not only was she my sister but also my best friend; a sentiment that is as true today as it was then. She has long forgiven me. They are known to say in all good police films, "It's a fair cop, guv!" and at that point I caved in and admitted, through a bucketful of tears, my wicked lie. I suppose that today the whole incident would be recognised as a cry for help but then three whacks from the headmaster on the bottom was considered a panacea for all such psychological ailments.


Chapter Two I was made to apologise to Roger for my gross defamation of his young character and I was given a verbal thrashing by Mrs Clifton. The only moral to this whole sad episode whether young or old is, if you're going to dig yourself into a pit no matter how deep, make sure that you've also dug yourself an escape tunnel. I have always sensed that our mam never really settled in the York Road household, whether she was lonely, homesick, or just worn out I don't know. I think that she must have maintained contact with either her sisters or her mother, all of whom were still resident in the North East. Maybe she met one of her sisters during her free time, Harrogate being a short railway journey from Darlington, their local railway station. My guess, though, is that she would have communicated by letter. However whatever the reasons and despite Mrs Clifton begging her to stay, one morning the battered suitcases were packed and mam migrated with her two offspring in tow to her birthplace in County Durham. That was not quite to be the end of the Clifton saga: Mrs Clifton was later to re-appear unexpectedly (to me) in a rather dramatic, if brief fashion, with only a small but very important walk-on part. Ruth and I have often discussed this puzzling move by our mam. Perhaps she balked at the benign dictatorship of the Cliftons. She wasn't very old - 32ish - and probably she had to account to the Cliftons for everything she did - including a night out. On the other hand is that even if she had been in a conventional family, she would have been restricted by having children anyway. From our perspective she never had had it so good and was never to again during our childhood. After years of living with an abusive and philandering husband and working her fingers to the bone, at Harrogate she lived in a very comfortable home, was treated like a member of the family and had a large


Chapter Two degree of security. She was an employee, albeit to benign employers, and had to look after both us and the Cliftons, but it was no more than other housewives did with largish families. And yet she gave all this up to return to County Durham. Maybe our conjectures are totally wrong and perhaps, with hindsight, she saw the Cliftons were getting too fond of me (which later we will see to be true) but it's all just speculation. (Digressing slightly, it's a strange fact but when the people are available to ask these puzzling and important questions we never do; perhaps we are too busy ourselves carving out our own futures. By the time we actually search for the information that shaped us, these very people are no longer there to ask, and hence we can only theorise as to their motives). If life were to be compared to a game of snakes and ladders, Ruth and myself had started our lives at the bottom of a snake. Socially Harrogate would be seen as a massive ascent of a ladder; then Chilton would drop us down a massive snake, a dizzying descent which dumped us right back onto the starting square.


Chapter three

We arrived at 50 Dale Street, Chilton, where our mam had spent her childhood, and now occupied by her mother, our Granny Attwood, and her two youngest daughters, Auntie Ruth whose husband was serving in the Armed Forces abroad, and Auntie Vi who was still single. Chilton was a mining village and Dale Street was the classic row of miners' houses back to back with the adjacent street. A cobbled back alley separated these streets and allowed egress to the back of all the properties. 50 Dale Street was a two-up and two-down or more accurately, a two-up and one-and-a-half down, and like the rest of the street had a small backyard with an outside lavatory and a small building attached to it, affectionately called the 'coal-hole'. To the side of the coal-hole there was a hinged, dilapidated back gate opening on to the cobbled alleyway. A brick wall on either side of the property and the obligatory clothes-line completed the panorama. All of these yards had tin baths hanging by their back doors (a pre-cursor of hanging baskets?) Granny Attwood had had four sons and six daughters, one of whom, Molly, had died at the age of nine. Aunt Florrie, born in 1900, was the eldest, Auntie Ruth the youngest, arriving in 1920. Mam was somewhere in the middle, born in 1910. Aunt Florrie had been born in Trimdon, just slightly north of Chilton but at some point, probably by 1911 the family must have moved to the village, where Granny lived for the rest of her life and raised the family. Grandad Attwood had died at the young age of 45 in 1922, I think from peritonitis, leaving Granny, now a widow, to bring up her young family. Times must have been extremely hard for


Chapter Three Granny Attwood and I'm convinced that the elder children, particularly Aunt Florrie, chipped in when they could. Knowing what I now know it is understandable but Granny always presented herself to us as bad-tempered, joyless and quite intimidating. I suspect that she was worn out with both poverty and bringing up the young family single-handed; to be landed in her sixties with two young, lively children can have been no joke. At the time, however, we were much too young to understand such social conundrums and to my sister and I she was just plain frightening. Her relationship with our mam was perfectly symbiotic; Granny received an injection of much needed cash and mam got a roof over her head and a free child-minder. 50 Dale Street had every signs of a house that had been materially neglected since 1922; Granny would have had neither the cash nor the expertise to maintain the property. The front door, which direly needed a lick of paint, opened directly from the pavement into a tiny hall. Immediately ahead were the stairs to the two bedrooms and to the left was a half-glazed door to the grandly named sitting room. Throughout our stay in Chilton, as far as I remember, that door had one large pane of glass missing and was covered by a ragged curtain. The furniture, what there was of it, was badly worn, the curtains and carpeting faded and the interior paintwork desperately needed freshening up. The sitting room was the centre of all activity, dominated by a range with an open fire. Immediately to one side of the fire was the oven, whilst on the other side reclined a deep receptacle containing water which was constantly kept heated by the fire. This water would have been used for all the household needs including personal washing. The fire unit itself had a hinged grating, which could be swung over the actual fire for the purpose of boiling the kettle and cooking; when finished with the grating


Chapter Three would be swung back, the kettle or pans being left on the grating to keep warm. Under the window, which faced on to the pavement sat a large, multi-purpose table which amongst its many functions was its use for formal meals. Much more importantly to me it was eventually to become a football pitch for the newly discovered game of "Subbuteo Table Football". The furnishing of the room was completed with a worn sofa in the middle of the room facing the fireplace and an armchair to the side. That's not quite true, on the wall opposite the range stood a small organ completely out of keeping with the remainder of the dĂŠcor. It transpired that the organ had belonged to Grandad Attwood, who although from a humble mining background and being a pitman all of his life, was in fact an accomplished organist and had been the choirmaster of a prize-winning church choir. Hard that it is to believe, Grandad must have been musically self-taught, as his parents could never have afforded or aspired to music lessons for him. From the sitting room a door led into what can only be described as the scullery. This was a small room which contained a similar range to that in the sitting room with a water heating receptacle but no oven. In the corner stood the Belfast sink with a cold water tap and I seem to recollect there was a dilapidated chaise-longue running along the wall facing the window, which itself looked out over the backyard. The scullery had two doors, one that led out into the backyard and the other on the side wall which led into a pantry. The pantry always seemed sparsely stocked but then there was a war on and, as a household, we were always short of money. Upstairs there were two poorly furnished bedrooms; I can only remember there being the beds and a washstand as furniture. I don't think that these bedrooms had electricity; I do know we always went to bed with a candle. The bedrooms were always


Chapter Three freezing cold and mam used to take the warm shelf from the oven, wrap it in a piece of cloth and pop it into the bed at bedtime.


Chapter four

Nearly by definition mining communities were closely knit groups and Chilton was no exception. Dorman Long & Co owned the colliery and by all accounts were considered benevolent employers for the time. The mine remained in their ownership until 1947 when it was taken over by the newly formed National Coal Board at which point working conditions and pay structures were standardised countrywide. Fathers and sons, uncles and nephews and brothers-in-law worked side by side in the most dangerous and restricted conditions, often at the coalface. Accidents were commonplace and fatalities happened. Life in the village rotated round the miners (pitmen to the locals) either directly or indirectly. The mine employed most working males in some capacity and the shopkeepers, the cinema and the hostelries relied on their hard earned. The mine's working day would be divided into shifts; miners going on shift were healthily clean with a spring in their steps and the sound of a hundred pairs of boots could be heard heading towards the pithead. All would be wearing miners' helmets (essential for miners working underground) and strung from the belt around their waists would be the 'bait-tin' (we would call it a lunch box but then that would be a misnomer: as often it often contained supper or a midnight snack). On arrival at the pithead, before descending in a cage to the working level, each miner would be searched for flammable materials, given a numbered tag, which he carried throughout his shift. At this point miners working underground would also be issued with a cap lamp.


Chapter Four The lamp consisted of two components, an illuminating device being attached to the helmet and a battery, which hooked on to the miner's belt. The cap helmet had been in service for quite a number of years but some of the older miners still mourned the loss of the davy lamp, a safety oil-filled lamp invented by Sir Humphry Davy in the early 19th century. (They claimed the advantage of this lamp was its ability to detect an early presence of poisonous gases in underground chambers. This was achieved by the experienced lamp carrier observing a changing colour of the flame in the lamp from yellow to blue. Ironically they may well have been right; at this time safety inspections were still carried out with the inspectors carrying a davy lamp and a canary in a cage, the canary because of its sensitive lungs being the ultimate gas detector). On the miner’s return to the surface each tag would be handed back along with his cap lamp, the tag being a simple yet effective method of tracking the underground crews, ensuring that no man could become lost or injured without the safety authorities being instantly aware. At the end of a shift a completely different tempo visited. The once-clean miners with a spring in their steps were now tired men dragging their heavy boots home and the collected coal dust from hours of working with picks and shovels (and in extreme cases, bare hands) made them appear to have been blacked up for a minstrel show. Pithead baths were unheard of in the early 1940s, meaning that once home the tin bath would be placed in front of the fire and filled (usually by the woman of the house) with hot water and the miner's cleansing process could begin. The miners' casual dress (or more appropriately, uniform) consisted of a flat cap and a long white silk scarf knotted at the neck and their meeting place was The Working Men’s Club in the


Chapter Four middle of the village. Their abiding passions were racing pigeons, whippets, football and most bizarre of all, growing leeks. Many wives said in jest that their husbands thought more of their pigeons than they did of them! Or at least I think it was said in jest. Many kept their pigeons in lofts in the backyard, while some had built lofts on their allotments, alongside the vegetable and sweet pea patch. It was on these allotments that the leeks were grown. The miners tended, pampered and talked to these leeks from the time they were seeds in a pot until they were truly magnificent specimens and ready for showing. The seeds were carefully selected from the previous year's winning specimens, the plants being fed on secret 'magic' mixtures and security was impenetrable around the likely show winners. Leeks are still grown today for showing both in the North East and Wales (another mining area), and the size of some of these entries just has to be seen to be believed. On race days miners all over Chilton could be seen gazing skywards with a stopwatch in hand waiting the return of their beloved pigeons that had earlier been transported to a starting point many miles away. The miners were knowledgeable both on the racing, rearing and breeding of these pigeons and some of the birds were worth a considerable amount of money. Fantail, Blue Bar, Irish Delight and Tippler, the names of these beautiful and intelligent pigeons come flooding back after all these years. Whether they kept whippets - lovely, graceful dogs – to race or merely to parade as symbols like pretty girl friends, I don't know. Surprisingly – or when you remember their daily vulnerability at the coal face, maybe not so surprising – the miners had a Godfearing attitude and the Sunday sermon, particularly at the Methodist chapel, always had a large attendance of miners and their families.


Chapter Four The highlight of the miners' working year was the Durham Miners' Gala known colloquially as Durham Big Meeting Day, the first Gala having been celebrated in 1871. With the exception of the Second World War it had been observed annually ever since and recommenced with great pomp and ceremony in July 1946. It is said the gala developed from a solidarity between miners and the high regard with which they were held within the mining communities. All the pits without exception had a banner, the majority also having a colliery band, and on Gala Day all the banners would be paraded through the streets of Durham with their accompanying bands. Although the day had a carnival atmosphere, there would always be an element of sadness among the crowd, which in its heyday after the war numbered nearly 300,000, as some would have lost friends in mining accidents at some point during the previous year. Any pit which had suffered such a fatality would proudly march its banner through the Durham streets draped in black crepe as a mark of respect for the dead and to acknowledge the everyday danger of their work. The march would eventually culminate in a miners' service held in the awe-inspiring setting of Durham Cathedral followed by speeches in the park by politicians headed by the leader of the Labour Party. All of this was totally true and historically accurate but to a nine-year old boy it was the sheer excitement and jamboree atmosphere of the occasion, which held the enchantment. Weeks before the occasion we would hear the Chilton colliery band practising in a room set aside for that very purpose in the Working Men’s' Club. At the dawn of Big Meeting Day, wives, families and miners would gather alongside the band and banner-carriers waiting at a designated location to board the coaches which would drop them


Chapter Four at a marshalling point in Durham. On arrival in Durham the bands and marchers would be assembled with military precision and at a given time and signal would parade at measured intervals through the streets in a splendid crocodile, banners billowing in the breeze heading towards the dominating, beautiful Cathedral. The families meanwhile would jockey for vantage points along the way, the expectation of waiting palpable. The clapping and cheering when the head of the crocodile finally hove into sight and the regiments of marching pitmen which seemed to snake on for ever and ever was wondrous to me. Magnificent. After the parade had passed by the crowds would thin somewhat, some to follow the procession to the Cathedral and listen to the speeches, others to search out the fun fair and various food stands. We would join the latter and having brought sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper along with a drink in a bottle we would find a place in the park or down by the River Wear to have our picnic. Afterwards it was candy-floss, that lovely pink spiders' web of confection attached to a stick which appeared to float on the air and all but defied attempts to capture it in the mouth. And then on to the fun fair and sheer magic; rolling pennies down channels trying to land in the middle of a square and claim the amount of money denoted. Operating the hand crane, willing it to pick up an expensive toy; clambering aboard the horse on the merry-go-round and being a cowboy for two or three minutes but most exciting of all, riding the 'shuggie' boats. Shuggie boats were vaguely boat shaped, with vertical metal poles attaching them to a high horizontal bar but allowing free movement within an arc. As on a swing the object was to gain momentum and height by hauling on the metal poles with the aid of a partner who would be sitting opposite. With practice and daring quite dizzy heights could be reached with these boats and


Chapter Four the feeling of the stomach catapulting into the mouth at an alarming speed, along with the screams of delight remains an evocative memory. All too soon it would be time to find our coach, wait for stragglers and miners who may have had a glass of ale too many and head back to Chilton having had a tiring but enchanting day, already making plans for the next year.


Chapter five

Of Granny Attwood's children, Florrie the eldest was married with a daughter and living in Fishburn, a small mining village not far from Chilton. Nancy, who had joined mam in London as a domestic, stayed in the capital for the remainder of her working life. The high-spirited, fun-loving member of the family, Nancy – surprisingly to say the least –finished up marrying Reg, a stalwart of the Salvation Army and they remained close for the rest of their lives. (As I write this Uncle Reg is in his nineties and still in the Salvation Army; sadly Aunt Nancy died last year at the age of 92). Nancy had inadvertently been responsible for mam meeting our father. A domestic in Hampstead at the time, Nancy had arranged a date with him, but not unusually for her she stood him up. Mam, feeling sorry for our father, went on the date with him instead. I don't know what the opposite of Divine Intervention is but whatever its title it certainly happened in the course of that evening! Vi, who was still single and living at home when I arrived in Chilton, was later to marry Bill Dodds and moved to Windlestone, which was no more than an attachment to Chilton. My Aunt Ruth meanwhile had married Tommy Croft but was living with Granny for the duration of the war. The Attwood sisters were quite a formidable and loyal team and always looked out for each other, I'm quite sure that collectively they felt sorry for and maybe helped mam sometimes during our stay in Dale Street. I do firmly believe, however, mam being something of a 'softie' was also presumed upon occasionally by the sisters. The eldest son, Edwin, known to all and sundry as Major worked and lived in Chilton all of his life being employed


Chapter Five underground in the mine. Sam, the next son, must have initially worked at the colliery but in 1927 had emigrated to Australia where he set up home and remained for the rest of his life. Among the boys John is the interesting one. He detested the mines so much he rebelled and became a butcher and on the outbreak of war served in the Army. At the cessation of hostilities he returned to his civilian occupation of butcher living and bringing up a family in North Yorkshire. Tom, the youngest of the boys, was probably the cleverest, perhaps because he received some tuition from his father. One thing is certain though, there would have been no spare money in the household for extra school tuition. He must have volunteered for the Army as mining was a reserved occupation and there would have been no necessity for him to join up. He was employed in the colliery both before and after the war. Strangely, there being no indication of medical or first aid training, Tom served in the Medical Corps and for a period at least was stationed in Belgium where one of his duties was removing the dead and wounded from the battlefield arena, a most unenviable and gruesome task. After the war, like so many miners, Tom had his working life cut short by emphysema, a combination of working at the coal face and smoking I should think. The brothers never possessed the close affinity that marked the sisters' relationship and they definitely showed no exceptional fraternal affection for the girls. It should be remembered, however, that within the mining community there was at the time a culture of extreme chauvinism and it would have been unthinkable for the men to show any overt sign of affection in public. Worthy of a mention here is old Don the dog who was also resident at 50 Dale Street when I arrived. Don had been Uncle Tommy's dog and on enlisting Tommy had obviously passed Don on to Aunt Ruth for safekeeping whilst he was abroad. (Uncle


Chapter Five Tommy served with the famous 7th Armoured Division, the 'Desert Rats'). Granny Attwood didn't like dogs but by then it appeared she didn't like young kids either. Many were the times a cry would be heard all over the house "Get under, Don!" as she kicked him under the sofa in the scullery. I wonder how many times she would have liked to do the same to Ruth and me! Don was a scruffy little dog who was the colour of a dirty tread-mat where no-one had ever taken the trouble to bath him but he did have spirit and on occasions would escape. Ruth or I would then be given a bit of string with the specific instruction of bringing him back. We, but particularly Ruth, would shed tears for Don's unhappy existence but we were too young even understand how to make a difference to his miserable life. This then is an epitaph to old Don so it be known that there were people, albeit young children, who did care about him and that after all these years his presence is still remembered with affection and sadness. This, then, was my introduction to the North East, an alien yet vibrant society and Dale Street was to be our home for the next six or seven years. Although our stay was relatively short and my upbringing leaning towards the nomadic, Chilton became and always will remain my spiritual home. It was here that I honed my life-long values although I didn't know it at the time and it was here in this mining community that I learnt the warmth, kindness and honesty of the North Eastern people. To this very day I still regard myself as being North Eastern and am prepared to defend their corner wherever I go.


Chapter six

In some aspects our mam, it might be said, had an Edwardian or even Victorian working class outlook. When Ruth passed her eleven-plus with ease mam's immediate reaction wasn't one of unbridled euphoria but more of " Well you'll leave school and get married so what's the point?" and she was disinclined to let her take her rightful place at the grammar school. My own personal opinion is that mam was well aware of the importance of education to young girls in the mid-forties. She had worked in London, seen the emancipation of women and must have realised that in the post-war years educated women were going to be an important component in rebuilding Britain. I think that the real reason for her apparent antiquated attitude to Ruth's achievement was purely financial and she was worried about the pecuniary implications. At this point my father paid his only visit to the North East and persuaded mam to change her mind. How he persuaded her I have no idea, it certainly wasn't with his fists, which had been his previous method of persuasion. This was Attwood territory and violence towards mam wouldn't have been tolerated. Perhaps he offered her financial support but that is unlikely as unbeknown to us he had already started a second, illegitimate family back in the South and he was never known for his largesse anyway. Whatever the reason mam relented and Ruth went on to grammar school, a decision which I'm sure mam warmed to as time progressed. It was round about this time that I finally conquered the wondrous art of reading. From that moment I was hooked, I loved (and still love) the tactile nature of books, the invitation to turn


Chapter Six to the first page and the promise of escaping to another existence. Oh, the magic of Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" books; on occasion, when I reached the end of one of their adventures, I would cry bitterly on our mam's shoulder as I never wanted the story to finish. Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons", perfect escapism for a young lad living in a pit village... Life soon settled into a routine of sorts, mam would disappear to work early in the morning to return in the evening and we would go off to school, which was just around the corner. Auntie Ruth worked in a shop at the end of Dale Street called Thompsons which by wartime standards was quite large and modern. Auntie Vi worked on the buses as a conductor, an occupation that no longer exists. Her job was to go up and down the bus collecting the fares, dispensing and clipping tickets to prevent their re-use. (Hence they were universally known as 'clippies'). Aunt Florrie would visit Grandma regularly and was by far the wisest of the sisters. I would come home at lunchtime from the primary school, lunch being a euphemism for a couple of slices of bread spread with dripping and some scowling remark from Granny. We were given free milk at school, small glass bottles with cardboard lids. The cardboard lids had perforations in the middle for the purpose of taking a straw. Most of my classmates seemed to hate it; I quite enjoyed it. I would always look forward to mam coming home in the evening, occasionally she would bring home a wondrous treat, like a flapjack. Mam's expectations regarding my education were never high so there was absolutely no pressure on me to perform. In retrospect this was slightly unfair. I still have some school reports from those early school days, signed off by mum and they're not that bad. Much more of a problem to me in the initial days at school was the 'posh' southern accent and the


Chapter Six Christian name Boyce. I was ribbed for sometime over being 'different'; broad 'Geordie' soon replaced the southern accent but there wasn't a lot I could do about my name. It was whilst at this school I discovered I had a natural talent for sport. Who I inherited it from I have never fathomed, I can't find a single Stretton or Attwood with any sporting inclination. No matter from where it came, I found from that moment my young life changed imperceptibly at first but gradually my fellow classmates realised that this outsider could kick a football or handle a cricket bat as well as any of them. Once the sporting prowess was recognised by the peer group my status within it changed, from just being one of the crowd I moved into the echelons of the leaders and occasionally in the playground would pick my own football team. ("I'll have Matty, Ken, Arthur, John etc." and hope that the opposing 'picker' finished up with all the less talented participants). However it should be remembered that at this point I was only seven or eight and I have no doubt that this newly found status changed from day to day, but importantly I had been accepted. Life in those early days in Chilton fluctuated between school and holidays. When on holiday Granny Attwood had a new torture lined up for us. She would make us stay in bed until about nine o'clock by which time she had completed the 'housework'. (That is probably the biggest joke in the whole of my story, the one thing that 50 Dale Street needed above all else was daily house cleaning, a job mam couldn't do justice to as she was working all day and every day. From my young observations I don't think Granny would have known a scrubbing brush if it came and bit her and as for a duster.....!) For young kids growing up this was a diabolically clever punishment considering we hadn't done anything wrong. Life for me was to be up and about not fidgeting


Chapter Six in bed where an hour seemed like a whole day. Granny would then give us a breakfast of sorts and turn us out no matter what the weather; I remember she even turned Ruth out when she had measles! Personally the arrangement suited me fine, I loved to be out seeking an adventure or a game of football but I hardly think it constituted Granny keeping her part of her bargain with mam.


Chapter seven

By nine o'clock, of course, all my pals would have called for me, literally. The practice was to arrive at a friend's house, lift the letterbox and yell through the door for the person you were hoping would be available; sometimes wonder if that's where the phrase 'calling on someone' originated. There was a strict pecking order for calling; you would always call on your best pals first and work down your own popularity ratings depending on the availability of the ones at or near the top. Naturally all of this unspoken protocol became academic if the person near the bottom of your list possessed a football or a cricket bat and 'The Ashes' was on the agenda for that particular day. I had, by now, been accepted into a gang. The numbers and inhabitants of that group fluctuated but the core consisted of Matty Coates, Arthur Abbot, Ken Brown and me, with Eric Hope flitting in and out. The games I played were myriad, cost nothing and to the best of my knowledge harmed nobody. I do feel a genuine sorrow for the children growing up today who belong to the bored generation needing expensive toys and computer games to hold their interest for a very limited period. In no way do I blame them; we have introduced them into a society of instant gratification where they are well aware of the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Football or cricket were always my games of choice; having no etiquette for seasonal priorities I never did mind playing cricket in the winter or football in the summer. Hard though it is to imagine now there were very few cars on the streets in Chilton in the early 1940s so the road was an ideal football pitch. Jackets or pullovers became goalposts and invariably the football was an old tennis ball. Just occasionally someone may have been given a


Chapter Seven proper football as a birthday or Christmas present, then the whole gang would retire to the rec (recreation ground) for a 'proper' game although jackets and pullovers were still the necessary goalposts. A cricket pitch was constructed by drawing three stumps on a convenient house-end with a piece of chalk, again an old tennis ball would substitute for the hard cricket ball and any suitably sized and shaped piece of wood made an adequate cricket bat. In 'wall-cricket' there were never two sides, just the batsman and the bowler, everyone else being designated as fielders. Prior to the game each player would draw a number which had been scribbled on a piece of paper with a pencil stub. The neighbourhood rules were strictly adhered to, the two lads drawing No.1 and No.2 being the first batsman and bowler respectively, the person drawing the last number being the umpire. When the batsman was judged to be 'out' by the umpire everyone would move up a place, thus No.2 became the batsman, No.3 became the bowler and No.1 moved to the back and replaced the umpire. The game proceeded until everyone had had a turn in every position or it got too dark to continue. Many games were fads which came and went but when they were in vogue they took precedent over all other aspects of our play. One such game was marbles. Marbles in themselves are exquisite, precise orbs of glass with multi-coloured flecks running through their entirety. They came in varying sizes but most commonly were about an inch in diameter. Any marble much smaller we would call a 'peawee', anything larger would be known as a 'shooter'. Marbles as a game was, and still is, played all over the world and has many colloquial names but in Chilton and probably all of County Durham they were known as 'pop-alleys'. The origin of that term is obscure but the best guess seems to be that the name was taken from those old-fashioned mineral water


Chapter Seven or 'pop' bottles which, in their early days had little round glass stoppers attached to the neck of the bottle by a wire thread. Although there must be many, many games involving marbles, in Chilton we adopted just two and no doubt over the years had implemented local rules to make them unique to us. The first involved drawing a circle in chalk on the pavement roughly three feet in diameter although this varied according to the space available. The game would normally consist of four players but there was no rule that said there couldn't be more or less. Each player would put a nominated number of marbles into the centre of the circle (normally five) and set them altogether in a bunch. Order of play would be established, normally by the hand-behindthe-back method ("Which hand is the marble in? Guess wrong and you're not first!"). Going first was important as the first player had the complete collection of marbles in the centre of the chalk circle to aim at. Without exception our gang used a bigger shooter marble (which was jealously guarded) as the projectile pop-alley. The method of firing projectile marbles was universal, the process being known as 'knuckle-down'. The shooter marble was held in a bent forefinger (knuckle-down) and fired by releasing the thumb from behind the second finger with a considerable force; with practice impressive speed, control and accuracy could be achieved. The object of the game was to knock all the marbles out of the circle; as they were knocked out they became the property of the shooting player; knuckle -down always took place from the perimeter of the circle. The second game we played was quicker and easier to set up but no less fiercely fought over. This involved using the pavement as a playing area or more accurately, a paving slab as a pitch. Marbles were lined up in a straight line along the join of two paving slabs, again the number to be agreed before the start and


Chapter Seven knuckle-down was from the edge of that paving stone. Much greater accuracy was demanded with this variation, the number of marbles to aim for was more specific than the circular game. When marbles was in its ascendancy pop-alleys could be and often was used as a form of currency among gangs. Some games were unique to a particular locality and I suspect that 'beer-tops' was peculiar to Chilton. The gang would muster outside the Working Men’s' Club and gather a quantity of beer bottle-tops from the rubbish. The tops would have to be of the metal variety, removed with a bottle-opener. The spoils would be equally divided and taken home. The trick then was to make them as weighty as possible, usually by inserting an old coin or piece of lead into the cap. The game was simplicity itself, all that was needed was a wall, and a throwing distance of between six and ten feet. Each game would consist of up to five tops each, depending on the number of players. From behind a throwing point - a misnomer as the tops were never, never thrown, they were skimmed along the ground - we would take it in turns to skim our doctored beer-tops. As in a game of bowls each player would throw just one top then allow the remaining players to have their turns before skimming the second top and so on until all were skimmed. The winner was the player who was judged to have manoeuvred his beer-top nearest the wall and, of course, he kept the lot. I must admit the game sounds simple, deceptively so, but there was a great deal of skill involved in judging the speed of the skim, the weight of the top in the first place (too light and it would bounce off the wall, too heavy and it would never reach the wall) and the tactic of dislodging a competitor's top. All of these games could be and very often were played after school but the real 'adventures' were saved for the school holidays. On the northern edge of Chilton, dominating the skyline reared


Chapter Seven the pit-heaps. Every mining village in the country would have had these in one form or another; pit-heaps were areas usually attached to the colliery where the waste product from the mining process, locally called slack, was deposited in ever-increasingly high and expanding dumping areas. These were recognised by the grown-ups as being dangerous; they consisted of flint, noncombustible stone and large amounts of coal dust and were notoriously unstable particularly when wet. To eight-year-oldboys Chilton pit-heaps were a magnet and were like the Mountains of the Moon waiting to be climbed. Naturally they were out of bounds with 'Danger: No Entry' signs at intervals but to young boys who were immortal these signs were an open invitation and may as well have read 'Come on in Boys'. This waste was carried from the pit by means of an overhead endless cable on which ran at regular, spaced intervals small dumper trucks, rather like cable cars, that would disgorge their loads on top of the heap and return to be refilled. Even we knew that playing near the tipping area was dangerous but that didn't dissuade us from going ever closer to the falling waste, a sort of gang initiation challenge, I suppose. Depending on what Saturday morning matinee we had seen we would be cowboys or Indians, Indians being favourite as we could lay siege to the dumper trucks (from a cowardly distance) pretending them to be a wagon-train carrying settlers. Or spacemen fighting off alien invaders, their space ships again being the dumper trucks. No matter what the game one outcome was always a certainty, we would finish up covered in coal dust and more resembling young Victorian chimney sweeps than modern day mountaineers. By complete contrast at the other end of Chilton a long sweeping hill ran down to the crossroads at Rushyford. Straight ahead a bus would have taken you into Darlington, the centre of


Chapter Seven my universe, turn right and you would have eventually arrived in the market town of Bishop Auckland, turn left and the road would have taken you into Sedgefield, home of a racecourse and an isolation hospital. Sitting comfortably in the armpit of the crossroads and laying back from the main road was The Eden Arms, a large hotel owned by the Eden family, and a place where colliery workers never set foot. The Eden family were influential landowners, their seat being Windlestone Hall, Bishop Auckland. Their famous son was Anthony Eden, later Sir, who was to become Prime Minister in 1955 and will be remembered by historians for the Suez debacle. None of this social history was of any concern to me then however, the allure being the small stream (beck) that skirted the edge of the hotel's car park. The beck was clear and raced over small boulders until it disappeared from sight behind the Eden Arms. Our favourite pastime was paddling (plodging) in the cold, clean stream and we weren't too concerned whether it was summer or winter; the feeling of cold bubbling water over (not very clean) feet was delicious. We invented a gripping game which involved placing small twigs in the beck at a given starting point and observing which one would catch the current and be the first to disappear behind the hotel. Imagine my chagrin many years later when reading to my young son, to discover that Winnie the Pooh had perfected the game before I was even born and was known all over the world wherever children had access to flowing water as 'Pooh Sticks'! Climbing the hill back up into Chilton, called the Durham Road, eventually we would arrive at the railway lines which crossed Durham Road at right angles. Traffic and pedestrians were controlled by gates, which were closed prior to trains approaching. This was no ordinary passenger line but a railway


Chapter Seven linked directly to the colliery, whose sole purpose was to carry full coal wagons to the nearest mainline station, in this case, Ferryhill Station. Once we were over the railway lines on the right sat the Regal cinema and a large expanse of waste land which had been the home of Windlestone Colliery until its closure in 1927. All that remained now was a few derelict buildings and a largish rectangular reservoir. A Health and Safety nightmare today I would think, but a veritable Wonderland then for adventurous young boys. The reservoir contained many varieties of pond life; tadpoles, frogs, newts and small stickleback fish. A jam-jar became an aquarium and we would spend many a lazy afternoon catching tadpoles and newts. I think at some point of our childhood most members of my gang, including me, fell into the reservoir. Goodness knows how deep it was but we came to no harm except from being thoroughly soaking wet and extraordinarily smelly. Needless to say not one of us had the faintest idea of how to swim.


Chapter eight

From my early days in Berkhamsted with Grampy Stretton the cinema had always been a place of great enjoyment and expectancy. Old cinemas had a unique aroma and even today if I close my eyes and concentrate I can still conjure up that far off smell of polish, cigarette smoke and anticipation. The Regal cinema on Durham Road didn't let me down. The Saturday morning matinee when I could afford it was a time and place of pure magic and was the breeding ground for many of our gang 'adventures'. Flash Gordon and his dastardly enemy, Ming the Merciless from the planet Mongo, Roy Rogers along with his trusty horse Trigger and the ever-faithful Bullet the Wonderdog, the enigmatic masked Lone Ranger and his dependable companion Tonto the Red Indian, all paraded across the Saturday morning screen. Good always overcame evil, I was always enthralled with the exciting spectacle and a life-long love of cinema was cemented. During my early years cinemas, all over the country I presume, had a curious protocol, which at the time I considered absolutely normal. I can best describe it as being a loop system. The Regal had two identical programmes running each evening, unsurprisingly they were called the first and second house respectively. The programme would always consist of the newsreel (there being no television), a "B" secondary feature followed by the main film. At any time during the evening we could enter the foyer and purchase our tickets from the ticket booth. An usherette would then greet us at the double swinging doors, torch in hand and direct us by torchlight to our favoured seats. Having inspected our tickets the usherette would shine her torch on the


Chapter Eight seats we were to occupy and everyone between the aisle and our designated seats would get up to let us past. Seating towards the front of the house was the cheapest and those at the back were more expensive, unless you opted to go upstairs where a whole new pricing structure operated. This whole ritual was necessary for the simple reason that one of the segments of the programme would have been in progress by this time and the picture house would have been in darkness. This then was where your viewing commenced and you could easily be watching the last ten minutes of the main feature! We would then watch the whole programme from that particular starting point until it reappeared again some two hours later, which gave rise to the famous saying of the day "This is where we came in!" People next to us would then have to get up from their seats to let us back into the aisle and out of the cinema. And we never considered this 'loop-viewing' the slightest bit odd! I bet if someone had started reading a book at the beginning of Chapter 12 and finished it when they arrived back at the end of Chapter 11 (and, what's more, sighed with satisfaction) they would have been judged a suitable case for treatment! On a rare occasion perhaps if one of our Aunts had taken me to the pictures I would have the special treat of refreshment halfway through the evening. The usherette would come down the aisle carrying a tray, which had a thick leather strap running round her neck leaving her hands free to hold her torch and serve customers. By the light of the torch I could see the 'goodies' for sale, ice-lollies, orange drinks, chocolate-covered ice cream bars and small tubs of ice cream. My selection was a mental routine of savouring the tempting goods on display but eventually I always opted for the ice cream tub. Money changed hands by torchlight and any change was dispensed from a small wooden cup at the


Chapter Eight side of the tray. On returning to my seat the purchase would be lovingly opened. The tub was a small circular cardboard affair with a cardboard lid and on removing the lid I would bend it in the middle thus making a perfect spoon. Delightful.


Chapter nine

Surprisingly I remember very little specifically about either Christmases or birthdays in the North East. Perhaps because of the austerity of the times and our ongoing financial situation there was little memorable about them. I loved Easter however and in particular the ritual of Easter eggs; I can never remember, before arriving in Chilton, any convention of celebrating Easter from a child’s perspective although it may well have happened and I’ve just mislaid the memory. In those early years there was no such thing as chocolate Easter eggs; because of the sustained war effort all foodstuff was in short supply let alone luxuries like chocolate. To us as a family all this was academic anyway. Never would mam have been able to afford the indulgence of chocolate so hens’ eggs were considered the ideal substitute. Actually obtaining them was a feat in itself. On Easter Sunday mam or Aunt Ruth would hard-boil a couple of ordinary hens’ eggs in vinegar-added water and leave them to cool down. Once cool, Aunt Ruth (as she was the artist) would move onto the next stage which was to paint the eggs. On these now cold, hard-boiled canvases she could and would paint the most amazing faces and add bow ties or scarves as embellishments, the finished products looking remarkably like handsome Humpty-Dumptys. (I have never known why vinegar was added to the water and never asked, maybe it was to assist the adhesion of paint to the eggshell). The finished eggs were left overnight to dry and early on Easter Monday morning both Ruth and I would hurriedly get dressed, wolf down some breakfast and head for the Bunny Banks, where already children were gathered, carrying our precious eggs. The


Chapter Nine Bunny Banks, no more than half a mile from Dale Street, had long been one of my adventure playgrounds, it being a series of gently sloping grassy banks complete with a natural sand-pit ideal for jumping or falling into or for use as an enemy gun entrenchment. After much admiration and comment on each other’s eggs our handsome Humpty-Dumptys were then rolled down the grassy banks gathering pace as they neared the bottom and inevitably smashed during their precipitous journey, Humpty-Dumpty now looking decidedly unattractive. I don’t think the object was to damage the eggshell but the consequence of rolling made breaking all but inescapable. However a few lucky individuals managed to avoid breakage and these saved trophies were displayed for a couple of days until another craze took precedence. I fatalistically just ate the unfortunate Humpty-Dumpty! I assumed at the time that this tradition was peculiar to Chilton. Oh how wrong! Eggs had been used in birth rituals since pagan times and had been adapted at some point into the Christian religion. In 1307 it had been noted that King Edward First paid eighteen pence to have four hundred and fifty eggs decorated. Egg-rolling is still practised world-wide today, for example eggs are rolled on the lawn of the White House in Washington each Easter, the first ‘rollers’ being the President’s children. It is thought the practice of egg-rolling evolved to symbolise the removal of the stone from Christ’s tomb and thus His re-birth. The introduction of chocolate eggs was probably during the mid-nineteenth century and certainly by 1875 Cadbury was producing smooth chocolate eggs on a commercial scale. I still hanker after the romantic idea that it all started in Chilton!


Chapter ten

Prior to descending on Chilton it is debatable if I had ever been in a church; neither Ruth nor I had been christened. I had possibly been to a wedding or two but certainly had no recollection of any of them. Granny Attwood was instrumental in changing that ethic, whether she considered us heathens or was merely inflicting another form of torture is not recorded. At the north end of Dale Street, or more technically just round the corner in West Chilton Terrace, sat the Methodist Church. This was the church Grandad Attwood had attended until his death in 1924. In 1914, being the choirmaster, he had famously (by local standards) led the church choir to its prize-winning achievement. It was inevitable, therefore, that this was where both Ruth and I were destined to attend for our religious education. Granny, along with most of the local people, always referred to it as 'chapel' (as in "Going to chapel") and indeed until 1932 it had been a Primitive Methodist Chapel, part of a long-time breakaway group from Wesleyan Methodism. The Primitive Methodists belief encompassed a more simple and 'honest' form of worship aimed at the poorer communities. By 1932 though these niggling differences had been resolved and the re-named Methodist Church was born. I do believe that Primitive Methodism still flourishes in areas of America. Naturally I knew nothing of the politics or protocol of Methodism and throughout my residence in Chilton I, like the entire local congregation, attended 'chapel'. One particular morning and while still living in Berkhamsted I posed Grandma Stretton the age-old question "Where does God live, Grandma?" Grandma looked over her spectacles and with a


Chapter Ten beatific smile playing round her lips replied "Why, He's everywhere of course, Boyce". (I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have quoted some relevant Bible text to reinforce the feasibility of her statement but that specific bon-mot escapes me; Grandma, in fact, could and would produce a Bible quotation for each and every imaginable occasion). Having mulled over the idea I was quite comfortable with the notion of an 'Everywhere God' and for a considerable time I thought that God (and by association, Jesus) rather like royalty had mansions, palaces and castles in all parts of the country. Armed with this carried innocence, I headed for Sunday school located within the chapel annexe. Grandma Stretton had quoted Jesus as saying "Suffer little children to come unto me" and I thought that possibly Jesus would be waiting to greet me. Alas this was not to be, neither then nor later; however there was in His place a gathering of kind and enthusiastic teachers. The Sunday school attendance was quite large, having more than one class, probably segregated by age. I distinctly remember two Sunday school teachers, Mr Welch who was lame and whose 'other' job was shoe-repairing, and Mona Hepple, a young girl who couldn't possibly have been much out of school herself. The weekly lessons consisted mainly of Bible stories, hymn singing and time set aside for questions and answers. I vividly remember being read and discussing parables such as The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son and The Lost Sheep among many others. The hymns were all children's favourites, 'The wise man built his house upon the sand', 'Running over, running over, my cup's full and running over', and 'Jesus bids us shine' to name but a few. All these hymns were accompanied with the appropriate hand movements and facial expressions guided with exuberance by the class teacher. I couldn't sing then and fare no better now!


Chapter Ten Supplementing weekly Sunday school was the occasional church social where there were organised games such as pass-theparcel, spin-the-bread-board and quizzes with small prizes for the winner, rounded off with (home-made) cakes and fizzy drinks. In truth I found the whole Sunday school experience a little boring, my concentration period being somewhat limited. My mind would often wander to the game of football or conkers I'd rather be playing. However, one of Grandma Stretton's more memorable sayings was "God works in a mysterious way His wonders to perform, Boyce," and in this instance she may well have been right. The compensation for this boredom and fretting at weekly scripture classes was the Sunday School Outing. The highlight of the Sunday school year from the chapel's point of view was, without a doubt, Anniversary Sunday. This event was held each summer and all the Sunday school classes would parade round Chilton and the neighbouring village of Windlestone dressed in their Sunday best, singing Methodist hymns as they crocodiled through the streets. In principle all the Sunday school pupils would have had new outfits for the occasion but in practice I'm sure that this couldn't always have happened. Many of the miners, particularly with large young families, wouldn't have been able to afford this extravagance year after year; I would think that in many instances Sunday best was kept for just these sort of events. I certainly can't remember being furnished with a new Sunday best every year! After the parading through the streets the procession would repair to the chapel where volunteers from the various Sunday school classes would recite, from the pulpit, relevant pieces of poetry or Bible extracts to the gathered congregation. There were two presentations, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, the reward for the young speakers being a prized free Sunday school outing for that specific year.


Chapter Ten The main congregation hall was separated from the remainder of the chapel by a system of sliding glass doors, the doors fulfilling a dual purpose. In the winter they kept the area of worship less draughty; they also conveniently created a series of partitions giving privacy to the various Sunday school classes. Such was the popularity of this event that the dividing glass doors invariably had to be opened to accept the over-spill of the eager and appreciative congregation. I sometimes speculate that Ruth was born reading a book; she certainly took to learning and reciting poetry at an early age in Berkhamsted, with the help of Grandma Stretton, and it certainly came as no surprise to me that Ruth shone at the annual Sunday school recitation and Bible readings. I can never remember reciting a single word of poetry or reading anything from the Bible at these gatherings, my excuse in later life being that I was much too busy employed helping the smooth running of the organ (all will become clear later). The truth, I suspect, was that I was just not good enough and showed little dedication or enthusiasm. The Sunday school outing was an eagerly awaited annual event, which unfailingly took the scripture classes, their parents and teachers by coach to the seaside for the day. Redcar, Whitley Bay and Seaburn were all within easy striking distance of Chilton but my favourite by far was Whitley Bay as it possessed the White City, a large amusement park. My first Sunday school outing was to Whitley Bay, mam accompanied Ruth and me on this trip although she didn't always make the journey being prone to migraines, in which case an aunt came along. As we excitedly approached Whitley Bay, coming over the brow of a hill I had my first glimpse of the sea. I was awe-struck. I had never seen anything to approach the size, splendour and movement of that great expanse of water. Even from this


Chapter Ten distance I could see white horses skittishly appearing, charging towards the shore and abruptly disappearing as in a game of hideand-seek. The sun when it appeared from behind a high cloud would throw a beam into the sea, which would sparkle and caper apparently in high spirit before vanishing in the path of an oncoming wave. And the horizon seemed a world away; it was the first time that I had seen the curvature of the earth and there were ships like little toys that seemed to be in the process of tumbling off the edge of the planet. When the coach unloaded us all onto the seafront the sound of the waves as they slapped on the beach and the hungry sucking as they dragged pebbles in their hurried retreat combined with the constant mew of overhead seabirds made for a unique explosion of noises. Everywhere smelt of the sea. Tremendous, humbling and unforgettable (As a first experience of the sea, this is a delusion: I am in possession of photographs taken on the promenade in Paignton, Devon just after the commencement of the war. I am dressed in leggings and holding Grandma Stretton's hand with the sea a mere stone's throw away. I have no recollection of the event, whatsoever, and that occasion in no way diminished my everlasting impressions of that day in Whitley Bay). All of the children dashed down on to the beach to 'bag' a square of territory, the adults in the party following at a more sedate pace. Off with the shoes and socks, straight down to the water's edge and for the very first time I dipped my toes into the salty water; now that really did take the breath away. Mam settled on a towel on the sand and I became more adventurous. Soon I was in the sea up to my knees, examining clear rocky pools for any sign of life, looking for the best piece of seaweed and the most curious seashells. The night before mam had packed sandwiches, carefully prepared and wrapped in greaseproof paper along with


Chapter Ten a bottle of 'pop' and some biscuits. Running up and down the sand, and searching the pools was hungry work and Ruth and I soon worked up an appetite and set about the sandwiches, which had never tasted so good. The rocks that I clambered over and explored were black and slippery with lichen and seaweed, and the waves, for the most part quite benign, could suddenly produce a higher and faster 'horse' which held the power to bowl me over like a skittle. Oblivious to this threat and lost in a world of exploration imagine my surprise and fear when suddenly along came a rogue wave which took my feet cleanly from their precarious foothold and dumped me most unceremoniously into the sea. Head first I plunged into the salty water and thought I would fall forever, (in truth the depth was probably only about eighteen inches!) and panic set in; I had lost my bearings, couldn't see a thing and couldn't get my breath. After what seemed an eternity, but could only have been a few seconds, I righted myself, stood up and took stock of my surroundings. Somewhat to my disbelieve and a little disappointed I observed life going on round about me completely as normal, I hadn't even been missed and there was no search party or grown-ups gathering on the foreshore to effect a rescue. Cold, wet from head to toe, teeth chattering and feeling a little sorry for myself I dashed up the beach in search of mam, looking for reassurance. Mam, secure on the towel and surrounded by all our beach paraphernalia, having ascertained there was no lasting damage to my person wasn't quite as comforting as I'd hoped. She was much more concerned that my clothes, particularly my short trousers, were dripping wet and I had nothing dry to change into. (Thank goodness that underpants were alien to me – and mam in those far off days.). The shirt would quickly dry in the sun and wind, I had removed my pullover before exploring the rock pools,


Chapter Ten but the trousers just weren't going to dry during the time we had left in Whitley Bay. A trip to the local shops was called for to replace them, an expense that mam could almost certainly ill afford. With the afternoon wearing on and the sky clouding over mam decided that the best course of action would be to gather all our possessions together and abandon the beach before we went trouser hunting. We very quickly found a suitable shop and I was duly kitted out in a pair of brand new, dry trousers; I felt quite posh! Next stop was the fish and chip shop where we bought chips, deliciously hot, and smothered in salt and vinegar after each individual helping had been popped into a greaseproof bag. In my opinion the only correct way to savour the delights of real chips is by eating them from a greaseproof bag in the open air preferably on a cold day. And so on to the White City, seen by me for the first time. I have always believed there should be a special word or phrase to describe the unique atmosphere of funfairs; the cacophony from the non-stop music merged with the persuasive cries of the attraction holders, the smell of food and engine grease, and the general air of expectation and revelry from the throng intent on spending all their money. Magical and magnetic spring to mind and that certainly held true for a young boy on his first Sunday school outing. Now the panic of pitching into the sea and the uncomfortable wet trousers were forgotten as I lost pennies on the various penny arcade-type games, tried in vain to win a toy by spearing a playing-card with a dart and watching in near disbelief at the dexterity of the dodgem-car operators as they dodged between moving cars helping stranded, squealing 'motorists'. Nevertheless, by far the centre of my attention and wonderment was the helter-skelter, rising above the other attractions like some


Chapter Ten other-world giant. I can't remember for the life of me what each descent cost (it can only have been coppers) but collecting the mat, climbing the never-ending winding stairs to the launch area and impatiently waiting my next turn made the moment of anticipation nearly palpable. Then the moment of exquisite fear before plunging down the undulating shining wooden ramp, whooping with delight and clutching the now alive and writhing mat certainly encompassed my phrase, magical and magnetic. After a long and eventful day all too quickly it was time to go home and on boarding the coach I made sure that I hadn't lost my bunch of seaweed and collection of seashells both of which, for a period, would have pride of place in the crowded backyard of Dale Street. It was a much quieter group on the homeward journey; grown-ups falling asleep, children more subdued reflecting on the happenings of the day and determined to be one of the party selected for next year's outing.


Chapter eleven

As well as attending Sunday school Ruth and I had been thrust at an indecently young age into frequenting the evening service. While the atmosphere in Sunday school was one of benevolence, the same cannot be said for the evening gatherings. The chapel was large, cold and unwelcoming, the lay-preachers distant, feeding the assembled congregation on a diet of fire and brimstone. Hell and damnation was the constant threat to sinners and as we were all berated for being sinners the warning was that we, myself included, were all going to burn in Hell for eternity unless we changed our ways immediately. I found this revelation both terrifying and not a little bewildering. What terrible sin was I guilty of? Coveting Harry Potts's new bike? Envying Harry Drake for being in possession of a real leather football? Wishing we had a proper bath with taps like Aunt Lizzie? There and then I made a promise to myself (and God) not to desire things I couldn't have (well maybe just the green baize football pitch for the sitting room table. which would enhance my Subbuteo Table Soccer) and perhaps I would escape the eternal roasting. Chapel events were about to take an unexpected turn. An acquaintance of mine from Sunday school was John Farrow, whose father sang in the chapel choir (Mr Farrow senior is to capture a walk-on part later in my story). The chapel organ was desperately in need of a volunteer as 'organ-pumper' and John's father had persuaded him, or more than likely told him, the position was his. After a couple of weeks in the role it was decided that the task was too physically demanding for a young boy on his own and maybe he could find someone to share the responsibility. John in turn asked me if I'd be interested; with mam's blessing


Chapter Eleven and thinking that anything must be more preferable to sitting in the congregation week after week, I accepted. A wooden fretwork balustrade set across a raised tiered stage separated the worshippers from the choir. At the front of the stage stood the pulpit, flanked on either side by the choir and at the rear the imposing chapel organ, its pipes climbing towards the rafters. I think that this area of the chapel was aptly named the stage; it was pure theatre. On the left-hand side of the organ at waist height protruded a large wooden bar or 'pump'. Above the pump handle running round a pulley was a weighted length of thin cord, known affectionately as the 'mouse', presumably as the lead weight had a passing semblance to a mouse's body. What I know about the workings of a chapel organ I could write on my thumb-nail but I would hazard a guess that our particular organ operated on some form of air system, the pump being a form of bellows, air probably being stored as in a set of bag-pipes. Many years earlier an astute pumper (whose official title was that of organ blower) had scored horizontal marks at the top and bottom extremities of the mouse's movement, so long ago in fact, that the scribe marks had taken on the very patina of the organ itself. The job of the pumper was to ensure that whenever the organ was being played there was sufficient air stored in the system for the instrument to be played with maximum efficiency. The mouse indicator was the key by which the pumper assessed the effectiveness of the air supply: the mouse on or near the bottom scribe mark meant ample air reserves; near the top mark indicated very short supply with swift pumping action required. This was a grand labour for two young lads once we had overcome the weight of responsibility and had mastered the pumping technique. Eventually the confidence we had acquired allowed us


Chapter Eleven to treat the whole exercise as a game, the dare being to judge how close we were prepared to allow the mouse to ascend towards the upper danger point before pumping vigorously, restoring the organ's equilibrium. On one occasion nerve overtook common sense and we actually allowed the mouse into the danger zone with potentially disastrous results; the organist realising something was amiss alerted a nearby member of the choir who swiftly moved and pumped life into the failing organ! At the end of the service both John Farrow and myself, despite laying the blame on each other, were both verbally thrashed, told we were thoroughly irresponsible and threatened with the sack. (A bit like excommunication, I suppose) John fared worse than I did; his father being in the choir had witnessed the whole incident and John had a good hiding when he got home; I escaped with a telling-off. I found the preachers themselves, although still alarmist in message, considerably less intimidating when viewed from the rear, perhaps it was because I couldn't see the piercing eyes coupled with the fact everyone's backside is much of a muchness! I have always been puzzled by the fact that these preachers had found God, accepted His teachings of love, compassion and a promise of eternal life, felt driven to spread His word and yet never once did I see any one of them smile. In maturity I came to realise that these preachers demonstrated a very hostile and narrow form of Christianity and were actually breeding in me and probably others a healthy agnosticism and yet they did leave a dormant but indelible mark. Throughout the years and even today whenever I indulge myself in an expensive luxury such as the HD television or the traded-in computer when the old ones were perfectly adequate, I feel that God will visit His vengeance by creating pestilence and misery in


Chapter Eleven my life. So far He remains the benevolent Entity, which I find much more acceptable but...

Chapter twelve


The whole Chilton experience was an unhappy period for Ruth. I can't say the same: my term of misery was to arrive later. I settled in quite well; we were very poor but then I had never really known anything else except perhaps in Harrogate where the riches on display never belonged to us in the first place. Granny Attwood was increasingly nasty to us both but as a young boy these unpleasant intervals were tucked away and never allowed to interfere with a good game of football or cricket. Not least in helping towards my sense of general contentment were Aunt Ruth, Aunt Florrie and Uncle John, who being aware of the circumstance did their best to make my life easier and more fun. Immediately after the war in 1945 Uncle Tommy had returned home; he and Aunt Ruth, along with Aunt Vi and Uncle Bill, soon moved to Sedgefield, the home of local steeplechase racing. The attraction, however, was not the horse racing or the area but the accommodation. At the commencement of hostilities all racing had been abandoned and the racecourse turned over to agriculture to help the war effort and at the side of the course a series of Nissen huts had been erected to billet soldiers. Nissen huts were easily constructed, consisting of single storey buildings made of corrugated iron and hemispherical in shape. With the end of the war the troops were dispersed, the huts were 'glamorised' by the use of room dividers and turned over to temporary living quarters. Families moving into the properties were given priority on local housing waiting lists. Both Aunt Ruth and Aunt Vi considered this the quickest and most efficient way of securing long-term homes and took up residence in adjacent huts. Aunt Ruth had always been my favourite aunt since the day we arrived in Chilton. She was the youngest of the Attwood


Chapter Twelve sisters, was great fun, had twinkly brown eyes and always took time to talk to and show an interest in my daily happenings whilst she lived in Dale Street. It was now a pleasing and delightful experience to stay during holidays with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Tommy in their Nissen hut, which in comparison to 50 Dale Street seemed to me a veritable palace. Aunt Ruth by now had her hands full with their first baby, a little girl called Rayma, and Uncle Tommy disappeared to work each day in the nearby town of Stockton-on-Tees where he had worked prior to the war. The racecourse was, at this point, still agricultural and in the late summer it was a joy to see the large cornfield being reaped and the farm workers stacking the harvest into 'stooks'. Stooks were cylindrical stacks of wheat about four feet high and shaped like wigwams, tied at the top with a length of wheat straw and spaced throughout the field, much the same as farmers had been doing for centuries. The purpose of this operation was to dry the wheat thoroughly before the next process but it wasn't hard for a boy weaned on Saturday film matinees to see an Indian reservation in the fading light and imagine a 'pow-wow' of Red Indian chiefs or a gathering of squaws. Here, on a once Sedgefield racetrack, I also had my first glimpse of normal happy family interaction. In retrospect it was a mirage, however, as later events were to prove but the demise of Aunt Ruth's family was never going to be part of my story. Sedgefield racecourse has since been returned to steeplechasing, the corn-stooks and the Nissen huts long disappeared and I'm quite willing to bet that not one single jumpjockey would dream that a small boy saw a whole Red Indian tribe occupying that very space in the mid-1940s. I'll now let you into a well-kept secret, dear reader, this confidence being the fact that when God created the Garden of Eden He also created a replica (rather like a saved document on


Chapter Twelve a computer) and combed the Earth for a suitable location. After much searching he lit upon a small valley in North Yorkshire through which ran the river Swale and which the local people have ever since call called Swaledale. I'm quite sure that the majority of visitors will arrive at the Garden of Eden via the Pearly Gates. I, by comparison, took local transport from Rushyford to Darlington, a second bus to the market town of Richmond and a quaint pre-war country bus which meandered through the Dale. The end of the journey - adventure in its own right - deposited me in the centre of Paradise. Have you ever noticed that when you're small it never rains? The sun always seems to be shining and it's never cold. Swaledale was such a place, the rolling downs were a vivid healthy green, and were policed by sheep or cattle as far as the eye could see. The downs were intersected by a never-ending series of dry-stone walls and God must have supervised their construction as no human hand could have had the skill and patience to envisage such a quilt. Throughout this splendour strode the river Swale, sometimes rushing, sometimes growling, sometimes murmuring gently but always demanding an acknowledgement of its presence. The Swale held the clarity of a burnished mirror and it appeared the sun took a delight in bouncing and glancing from its many sodden boulders. Dropped precisely into this picturesque landscape was an arrangement of pretty hamlets, villages and small towns, one such hamlet being Grinton, the home of my Uncle John. Uncle John's cottage sat comfortably in the corner of a T-junction on the left-hand side of the road; the bus having wandered from Richmond stopped virtually outside the cottage and I would eagerly clamber down. The country bus would then immediately turn right and journey about a mile before coming upon the


Chapter Twelve market town of Reeth, which stood proudly on the crest of a hill. It was here that Uncle John managed the local butcher's shop. I remember very little about the layout of the cottage except that it was warm and cosy and a low wall stone wall ran around the perimeter of the property, very handy in preventing small boys from running directly on to the road. Resident in the cottage were Uncle John, Aunt Jean his wife, a young son Tony and later a second son Brian. Completing the family line-up was Aunt Jean's mother, Granny Anderton. Also billeted in the cottage was a young Land Army girl, Brenda, whose chief duty I concluded was as shepherdess to one of the local flocks. My stays in Grinton bordered on the idyllic; there was always amiable activity in the house, trips into Reeth, sometimes a local show in Reeth's social hall and of course, new places to explore and stretch my imagination. Turning right from Uncle John's cottage and following the busroute towards Reeth within a short walking distance (did we ever walk anywhere as kids?) I would arrive at a shaped road bridge that spanned the river Swale. With admirable forethought the designers had built into the span a succession of viewpoints on either side of the road thus river gazers never impeded the flow of fellow pedestrians or traffic. At the side of the bridge there was a set of steps, which tumbled down to the banks of the Swale. Alongside the bank ran a footpath and what an adventure playground that track was! It was here that I acquired the skill of 'skimmers', the small flat stones that could be made to bounce or hop over the water's surface. This was a benevolent stretch of water and aiding this venture, through a youngster's eyes, the river gurgled in delight at the game and maybe assisted an extra bounce. The river supported an abundance of wildlife and it was an endless source of satisfaction watching the birds arriving to


Chapter Twelve drink, splash and preen, some in a dreadful hurry as though they were late for an appointment and some obviously intent on a picnic from the myriad of small flying insects. Periodically Brenda, the Land-Army girl, would take me with her on her working day. I cherished these days. I think I had all the symptoms of puppy love: Brenda was kind, animated and interesting, pointing out things of interest as we moved around. She always held my hand when her work would allow it; I adored her and have never forgotten her or our trips over the dales. The one fly in the ointment was Granny Anderton, who looked and acted like a witch. She was thin with a hooked nose and hair that appeared to have been cut with the aid of a pudding basin. I found it very hard to understand her speech and thought she spoke in some witch-tongue. It was only later that I realised that the poor woman had a cleft palate and had always carried this speech impediment. Her age was nondescript, to me she looked about ninety but was probably only in her mid-fifties. She was always dressed in dark clothes and she disliked me but I was in good company, as she also disliked Uncle John. I think perhaps in my case she was jealous of the attention I engendered and took delight in being spiteful if the occasion arose. I remember one incident vividly when she'd been asked to take me to a school function at Reeth community hall. On arriving at the hall Granny Anderton left me outside mumbling some incoherent and feeble excuse that Uncle John would bring me in later. On the arrival at her chosen seat she must have known that Uncle John and Auntie Jean were already in the hall as she sat immediately behind them. The lights had only just been dimmed for the performance so Uncle John was unaware of my absence and it wasn't until the lights were restored at the end of the programme an hour and a half later that he and


Chapter Twelve Auntie Jean realised that I wasn't there. Meanwhile outside the hall I waited and waited, it was dark, getting colder and with the passing of time I became increasingly scared. Being only eight or nine years old it never occurred to me to question the garbled reason for my being there: I had been told by an adult that Uncle John would arrive and so he would. The doors to the community hall were closed on the show's commencement and although they weren't locked I couldn't go and stand in the foyer for fear of missing the grown-ups. God only knows what must have gone through the minds Uncle John and Auntie Jean but their relief was palpable when they found me forlorn and cold waiting outside. Needless to say Uncle John was furious with Granny Anderton and berated her for her irresponsibility and in his opinion her unmitigated and calculated action of spite against a little boy. I seem to remember at some point of the tongue-whipping Uncle John called her, "A sad old lady who should repent and find something useful to do with rest of her life." As if it was yesterday I can still hear her muttered unrepentant reply, "Ah, all that may be true John Attwood but mark my words I'll be here to see you out!"...And she did! Despite her casual unkindness and dislike towards me, this fact never impinged on my love and enthusiasm for visiting Grinton – after all I had had experience of an abusive father and an increasingly vindictive Granny Attwood and survived those abuses. The warmth and kindness of the rest of the family including Brenda more than compensated for Granny Anderton's character flaws and even at the age of eight I was both seduced and captivated by Swaledale, a feeling that with time has never diminished.

Chapter thirteen


Back in the everyday world of Chilton life went on much as usual with its accepted ups and downs. Pocket money was an everpresent problem; most of my friends although far from middleclass usually had a few pennies (tied tightly in a handkerchief as invariably there were holes in our trouser pockets). Mam did her best, I'm sure, but in our Dale Street household the money supply was always stretched to and beyond its limits. Pennies were a necessity of gang life, they were needed to barter second-hand comics (Beano and Dandy), to upgrade the marble collection, and to be prepared for any overnight craze which appeared from nowhere. A perfect example of this could be tops and whips, whereby I could swap a few marbles and a penny for an old top which, when chalked on its upper surface and whipped, spun with the speed and dazzle of a Catherine wheel. (All my life it has puzzled me that these crazes arrived overnight and vanished with the same abruptness. No words were ever exchanged among friends or acquaintances but the very next morning the tops, the hoops or the tennis balls would appear as if decreed by a Terrestrial Games Master). Up until we settled in the North East pocket money had never been a problem; I was too young and never had any long-term friends to compete with anyway. On arrival in Chilton opportunity for acquiring money for spending was a limited activity as I was too young and too small to be of any great value, but naturally this dilemma did decrease as I got older. However, as luck would have it, by design even at that young age, I was a perfect 'first-footer'; being brown-haired, brown-eyed and male proved a great and long-term moneyspinner for me. First-footing is a tradition in the North East and probably


Chapter Thirteen Scotland whereby the first person to cross the threshold of a property after heralding in the New Year must be male, dark and carrying a piece of coal. Age is immaterial although I would have thought a toddler might have struggled in that role! The whole purpose of the ritual is to bring good health and good luck into that household for the coming year. In exchange the householder must provide the luck bringer with a drink (in my case usually ginger beer), a piece of cake and cross their palm with a silver coin, probably to demonstrate their own generosity and hospitality towards strangers. The silver coinage at the time –which remained constant until the country converted to decimalisation in the early 1970s – were sixpence (tanner), one shilling (bob), two shillings (florin) and two shillings and sixpence (half-a-crown). Much less common were the silver threepenny piece and the five shillings (crown) which wouldn't have been proffered as firstfooting money, the first being perceived as mean, the second unaffordable in a working class home. However any silver coin was a fortune to me; I can't remember the amount of money I could pocket, probably about ten shillings which I passed on to mam who, in turn, would feed some of it back to me when the need arose. I do remember I constantly wished that there could be two New Year's Days in every year! Not quite so dependable but equally as lucrative in its own way was the wedding custom practised in Co. Durham; whether this was unique to the area I have no idea but I've certainly never heard of it anywhere else. This convention dictated that at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, upon leaving the church and waiting for the requisite photos and transport, the best man would throw a handful of coins into the gathered onlookers excluding the wedding guests. Next to the junior school where I had been enrolled stood the imposing (to me) St. Aidan's Anglican Church.


Chapter Thirteen I think this practice was unique to the Anglican community as just around the corner sat the dour Primitive Methodist Chapel where I certainly never remember this sort of matrimonial charity. The trick with collecting the thrown money was to know when a wedding was about to take place, become a bystander and only tell immediate favoured friends of the moment. I don't think that I was ever hit by flying money, the best man probably being gentle and accurate with his lob. The take from this exercise varied greatly depending on the gathering of us youngsters, the variety of the coins (usually a mixture of halfpennies, pennies, threepenny pieces and occasionally a few sixpenny pieces) and my determination to scavenge. It was however a welcome supplement to the always-depleted kitty, the slight disadvantage being the constant commitment required on my part to keep an eye open for impending weddings; very often a more important 'adventure' would take precedence. Desperate times required desperate measures and occasionally I, along with a couple of my pals, would resort to criminality which we considered a victimless crime although I have no doubt the shopkeeper would have had something to say about that thought. The railway line carrying the coal trucks across the Durham Road to the station was the unwitting accomplice in this particular conspiracy. All we needed was an old halfpenny and a knowledge of the coal-train movements. On becoming aware of the train's imminent arrival we would carefully position the halfpenny in the centre of one of the tracks, stand back and let steam power do the rest. The train would, of course roll straight over the coin, flatten it and continue on its journey. We in turn would retrieve a new larger looking coin, which bore a striking resemblance to a one penny both in size and colour. The original 'Double-Your-Money'– in a manner of speaking! Snuggled in the middle of Dale Street about ten doors from


Chapter Thirteen where we lived was Jenny Mac's shop. The word 'shop' was a gross exaggeration; it was in fact the grubby front room of a miner's cottage which happened to have something to sell and by some sleight of hand appeared to have wares which catered for all requirements. It is also quite likely that she undertook credit (tick) for hard-up colliery wives who were struggling to make ends meet in between pay packets. Jenny Mac's shop was always the target of our ill-gotten gains. Did she know of our duplicity and was too kind to object, was she just naïve or were our counterfeits too good to spot? I doubt if the latter was true but couldn't hazard a guess as to either of the first two; no matter what the reason she always took our penny and instantly created in me a dilemma of delight and anticipation plus most uncharitably, the thrill of savouring the undetected sin. There being a war on, sweets as such were virtually unobtainable but that didn't dampen my relish. Penny apples, perhaps a toffeeapple (Jenny Mac’s home-made toffee) on a good day, liquorice root which would be chewed to extract the liquorice flavour and best of all, cinnamon sticks which I think are still used today in cooking recipes. The culinary qualities never occurred to me at the time; I just loved the hot unique flavour of cinnamon. Occasionally I would get a pennyworth of sherbet spooned from a jar into a twisty paper bag and either dip the cinnamon into the fizzy, powdery contents or even better just stick a wet finger into the bag and suck! Heaven! As I grew pocket money jobs became more accessible and were considered – on my part – to be of sufficient importance to impinge on valuable holiday playtime. Two of these steady earners are worthy of mention if for no other reason than to show that even at that young age I was acutely aware of our ever-perilous finances. In the mining communities of the North East the established


Chapter Thirteen practice was that working miners had access to a cheap and abundant supply of coal furnished from the local colliery; Chilton was no exception. It was at regular intervals therefore that an old coal lorry would trundle down the cobbled back alleys to deliver loads of unbagged coal adjacent to the appropriate properties. On coal delivery days (which, from my point of view, were merely random judgements and sometimes I was lucky, sometimes not) I would follow the truck down the selected alley and note the houses where the coal was heaped, usually about three or four deliveries to an alley. Each house had a small wooden door about twenty four inches square and positioned about four feet from the ground opening directly into the coal-hole and accessed from the backyard. Someone was required to move that heap of coal through the little wooden door into the coal-hole and hopefully it was going to be me. I'd knock on the door (big brown eyes, dimples) and ask if they'd like me to do the job. Quite often I was out of luck; the husband was at home and would do it himself or one of the family had already been dragooned into doing the work. On the other hand if I could capture about one in four of these deliveries there was money to be made. Having secured the task I had very soon learnt the hard way that the next job was to secure the coalbunker internally by making sure that stop-boards were slotted into place and the shed door was latched correctly. Failure to do this resulted in the coal being shovelled straight through the small wooden door, straight through the coal-hole and out into the backyard! And, yes, I then had to shovel the offending pile back in the bunker for no extra reward! I always had to borrow a shovel and in the early days I'll swear that shovel could seem nearly as big as me and add to this fact the small wooden door's aperture was roughly the height of my head and shoulders, the


Chapter Thirteen work was both hard and physically tiring. The residents were without exception always generous and I invariably received a drink of lemonade and a piece of cake on completing the undertaking plus sixpence which appeared to be the going rate for clearing the coal. On a good day I could be fortunate enough to achieve a couple of coal clearances, that was a whole shilling earned, a truly handsome sum, and although tired I embraced a lingering feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Although Co. Durham was first and foremost a coal-mining county it also had an extensive farming industry, no doubt encouraged by a national food shortage and the government's insistence that all possible spare land be turned over to agriculture. Hence I came to the most lucrative of my boyhood earners, that of potato-picking. In late September or early October the sweeping fields of potatoes had been turned over by farm machinery and were ready for picking. Nevertheless the actual process of lifting and bagging the crop was still very much a manual affair, no mechanical implement at that time being sophisticated enough to do the job efficiently. By the time I was acquainted with this labour I had gained strength and height, moved to a higher school and was thus better equipped to deal with physical effort and longer hours involved. A farm truck would pick us up early in the morning, move us to the required picking field and return us to Chilton at the end of the working day. Picking was both a tiring and back breaking-chore; the number of sacks to be filled seemed never-ending. The daily reward, however, more than justified the sweat and fatigue, invariably I would take home over two shillings and sixpence which, when multiplied by the week's endeavour amounted to a substantial quantity of money towards making life a little easier. It has been suggested that everyone has at least one book


Chapter Thirteen buried inside them and that all of us will encounter a "What if...?" moment at some point in our lives. As to the first proposal I can't in all honesty comment, regarding the second the notion has overtaken me not once but twice, both occasions being potentially life changing and both still leave me reflecting today what might have been. One afternoon on coming home dirty but happy after a game of street football, standing cool and elegant in our neglected sitting room was Mrs Clifton, an image of my all but forgotten earlier life. She had always worn a fashionable hat of the period and a handsome fox-fur round her throat; this occasion was no reason to let those standards slip. She graced the room as an orchid does a rubbish-tip, drinking tea from a probably chipped cup as though she had been born into this squalor, a mark of true breeding and confidence. Ostensibly Mrs Clifton had visited our mam with the intention of persuading her that she should return to her previous employment in Harrogate as housekeeper: naturally Ruth and I were to be included in the package. For whatever reason mam repeatedly refused the offer (although on recalling her crushing lifestyle I can't think why), at which point Mrs Clifton pitched her bombshell and proposed that she should adopt me. I have always suspected this was the true purpose of her visit. I do know that she was very fond of me and she must have discussed this very possibility with Mr Clifton well in advance of her trip to Chilton; he in turn must have shown some degree of enthusiasm for the scheme to have been launched in the first place. Mam refused the offer but it was perhaps a closer decision than initial suppositions would suggest. Later mam said her overriding consideration had been to keep us together as a family, a job this timid, wonderful little lady had done admirably so far, but that then begs the question if Ruth had been part of the Clifton's


Chapter Thirteen adoption proposal would we both have moved back to Harrogate and a different life? That, however, is hypothetical, Ruth unfairly never was part of Mrs Clifton's longing or vision and having played a small but significant part, Mrs Clifton exited my life and I never did see or hear of her or Mr Clifton again. The " Clifton what if...?" becomes a whole new, unknown book but the foundations had been laid for that express story; doting adoptive parents, money and a formal education in an upper middle-class background. Would I have been happier and led a more rewarding life? Thereby hangs the question. When we arrived in Chilton early in 1944 working class life had changed very little since the end of the First World War. Somewhere on a distant horizon, however, the breeze of imminent change was stirring which would, over a period, become an irresistible gale and the next decade would see attitudes and practices change beyond all recognition. Men coming home from the armed forces would have aspirations of a better life, women who had worked on an equal footing with men and doing men's work would be loath to give up their newfound freedom and the Labour government of the day would be committed to a fairer society.


Chapter fourteen

This distant horizon certainly wasn't Chilton and in Dale Street daily life continued in a rhythm probably unvaried since the early 1920s. I have no doubt that the orchestration and tempo of that rhythm evolved with the needs of miners and their families; there were no miners living at 50 Dale Street but our household routines were inextricably linked to the same pulse. In 1944 the milkman still did his daily milk round with a horse and cart. He would process along the street jangling and clattering, carrying the milk in large metal churns (still in use today, I think) at the back of the cart and his horse would munch comfortably from its nose-bag during the milkman's frequent stops. I would be sent out with a jug for the daily milk order, the fresh milk being ladled with a metal gill measure directly from the churn into the jug. God only knows what health and safety would say about this practice today but I will swear that milk has never tasted so good since. Refrigerators were things we had only fleetingly seen in American films; the jugged milk was set in a bowl of cold water in the pantry, the coolest spot in the house. On occasion curdling milk was an inevitability, however, and, nothing being wasted, home-made cheese would be the order of the day. I seem to remember the curdled milk (curds?) was wrapped in a muslin cloth and allowed to drip above the sink until it had the consistency of a soft cottage cheese. There may well have been further processes of which I knew nothing but the resultant product certainly wasn't unpalatable. Periodically a woman would arrive in Dale Street selling fish from a handcart I believe, but truthfully I can't remember her mode of transport. Her robust shout was "Caller Herring!" or


Chapter Fourteen some such unintelligible clarion call to let all and sundry know that she was in the vicinity and prepared for business. And then there was the rag-and-bone man with his horse and cart who trotted his horse from one end of the street to the other shouting at intervals "Any rags and bones?" making it sound more like the opening line to a popular song than a bald question. Rags I could understand and even old iron and bedsteads, but bones? To this day I have never seen a rag-and-bone-man with a cartload of bones and way back then I was totally bewildered that any household would be selling-on bones. From what? In 1947 the then Labour government nationalised the collieries under the auspices of the National Coal Board. In 1948 the birth of the National Health Service changed the way working class people viewed illness; for the very first time all ailments were to be treated free of charge, whether visiting the doctor or visiting hospital. Over the next ten years these two single acts alone would fundamentally transform the lives and prosperity, not only of the people of Chilton, but nation-wide. Up until the emergence of the National Health Service, treatment certainly of common complaints was by application of home remedies, many of which had been handed down within families from generation to generation. In our household a hot bread poultice was always ministered to any infected cut; a bullseye sweet (peppermint) dissolved in vinegar was a cure for coughs; Vick Vapour Rub (a proprietary preparation, still widely used today) smothered on the chest was considered the panacea for all colds and chest ailments. At first glance these and many other home cures would appear to be bordering on alchemy but closer inspection reveals that many have a scientific foundation. For example bread is known to be a source of penicillin and in some forms of alternative medicine oil of peppermint is employed as an expectorant.


Chapter Fourteen More serious disorders required the services of the local doctor, our practitioner being a Dr Wilson, who rumour had it, had suffered as a Japanese prisoner of war. His surgery was just at the end of the road and we think that mam paid a small insurance premium (costing probably about 6d a week) towards the eventuality of needing his services. One morning in the summer of 1946 I woke up with a sore throat, a high temperature, covered in red spots and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself. No bread poultice or Vick was going to cure this distressed little boy and Dr Wilson was called in. He immediately recognised scarlet fever, which was considered much more dangerous in my childhood than it would be today and without delay he summoned an ambulance. I vividly remember tearfully and fearfully being swathed in a large red blanket (whether that was to designate an infectious patient or not, I don't know) being carried by the ambulance man to the waiting vehicle and transported to Sedgefield isolation hospital, known colloquially as the Fever Hospital. Immediately I had vacated 50 Dale Street a medical team was moved in, both to fumigate and seal the bedroom in which I had been sleeping. The exterior Victorian faรงade of the hospital was quite daunting and, along with the hustle and bustle of a working ward, did nothing to calm my fears. The ward was long, the ceiling high and the wooden floor burnished to a sparkling cleanliness. The single beds were lined with military precision on either side of a central walkway, each bed having a small accompanying bedside cabinet. There must have been ten or fifteen beds on each of the facing walls and I would think that's exactly how that particular ward would have presented itself on the day the hospital opened all those years ago. The exterior wall had a number of very large, tall windows running along its entire length, giving the whole ward a light and airy atmosphere.


Chapter Fourteen Matron was in overall charge of the discipline, hygiene and smooth running of the hospital, a firm but fair lady who instilled fear into the heart of any would-be miscreant. Internal ward infections were unheard of, the legend being that any lurking germ on hearing the assertive footfall of matron on her frequent rounds, would die of fright. The nurses were wonderful; without any shadow of a doubt they were the nearest experience I am ever likely to have of being in the company of angels, short of entering Heaven. Today the pressures of modern medicine, patient expectation and an insatiable demand for beds has necessitated a philosophy of a short hospital stay with an emphasis on out-patient after care. Medical thinking of 1946 was that of a much longer hospital stay with ample time given over to rest and recuperation. Consequently my residence in hospital with scarlet fever was in excess of two and probably nearer three weeks; this coupled with the fact that visiting on the ward wasn't allowed created an atmosphere of, in my case at least, close companionship with the nursing staff. The fever hospital had developed a most effective and cunningly simple method for preventing the spread of infection back into the community; ward visiting was banned and visitor contact was maintained by use of the tall windows running down the side of the unit. Presumably the visitor on arrival reported to the hospital reception desk and would be directed to an appropriate exterior window in the hospital grounds where conversation could be exchanged with the young patients and gifts (usually books, comics, sweets or fruit) passed through the open window, thus avoiding any physical contact. Visiting must have been an uncomfortable experience in the depths of a Sedgefield winter with the wind striding in from the


Chapter Fourteen North Sea, to say nothing of the driving rain that in moments of ill-humour purported to be icicles. Perhaps during these periods of inclement weather there would have been an alternative plan, but during my stay I had no occasion to observe this. One day and well on the way to recovery, during visiting hours I spotted Aunt Florrie, Uncle Ernie and their daughter Doreen, patiently waiting at one of the tall windows, carrying a nondescript box. Even now, for reasons which are still obscure, and to my eternal shame I pretended not to have seen them and hid away by my bed. I think that probably it had something to do with shyness and an awkwardness at accepting a gift (a trait I still carry today) but I knew the three of them well, so there had to be something more than that. Possibly, I think, I had grown used to my life in the ward 'bubble', had become increasingly fond of the nurses and didn't want anything in the real world to burst that temporary existence (a psychiatrist's delight‌). Whatever the reason, after a period of waiting Aunt Florrie and her family left, leaving the box at reception. (Many years later when I admitted my unforgivable rudeness to our Doreen, she generously accepted it as the anxieties of a small boy in hospital. As for my absence, she said that her mam and dad weren't unduly worried at not seeing me, they thought I had probably gone to bed for a rest). Later in the day a nurse delivered to my bedside cabinet the most wonderful hamper of fruit. (Doreen assures me that it was no hamper but merely a made-up punnet but to me it will remain forever as I remembered it) It contained grapes, which I'd only ever seen in a picture book, apples, pears and an orange but best of all, a peach. People tell me today that I couldn't possibly have received grapes or a peach; the war was not long over and such luxuries would just not have been available. I have news for the doubters. That was no imagined fruit, I still see that hamper


Chapter Fourteen today as clearly as the afternoon the nurse placed t on my cabinet, dripping with grapes and topped with a peach. The brain being the super computer that it is, has the staggering ability to rekindle latent memories and experiences from years gone by. If I hear the tune "Volare" I am immediately back in Italy in 1959, Naples to be precise; the taste of a greengage and I'm deposited back into Grampy Stretton's unkempt orchard; and the smell of a fresh peach promptly puts me alongside a bedside cabinet in a Sedgefield fever hospital. How can the brain possibly do all these things? Unquestionably since I had left Berkhamsted and Grampy Stretton's orchard I had had very little contact with fresh fruit on a regular basis, perhaps the odd penny apple from Jenny Mac's shop but more often than not the source would be "Gi'us your gowk, Matty!", imploring one of my mates to leave me his apple core. Needless to say on the odd occasion when the roles were reversed I would save my 'gowk' for the most favoured friend of the moment. The touching present of fruit from Aunt Florrie was, therefore, the proverbial 'manna from Heaven' and definitely made being poorly, albeit recuperating, more than acceptable! All too soon my hospital stay was coming to an end. Being young I had soon settled into the pattern of ward routine; the caring, kindness and dedication of the nurses was more than comforting and I absolutely worshipped one nurse in particular, whose name I never did know (we called each and every one of them 'Nurse'). When she was on shift she supervised my baths, would wrap me in a big towel and give me a cuddle before popping me back into bed. What Ruth and I had always lacked was tactile affection: we had been on the move too frequently to establish intimate relationships and mam was just too busy ensuring our day to day survival. That is not to detract from our mam. I never doubted that she loved us both dearly and probably, no certainly,


Chapter Fourteen would have died for us. She had demonstrated on many occasions her determination to keep us together as a family unit, when it would have been easier to give in to external pressures and separate us. I suspect that mam wasn't 'feely-touchy' with her love, possibly because no one had ever demonstrated an affection for her whilst she was growing up in hard times, hence for me to be cuddled on a near-daily basis was both an alien and amazing happening. One morning my favourite nurse came to tell me that I was being released and would be allowed home that very day. I was dismayed, I think I had persuaded myself that my hospital recuperation would just go on indefinitely. I flung myself into my nurse's arms and cried bitterly. She picked me up and held me tightly, I in turn wrapped my little arms around her neck and cried on her shoulder. She had the now familiar smell of hospital, a pleasant mixture of antiseptic, talcum powder and warmth. As I clung on to her I could hear the watch, which she carried pinned to her uniform, rhythmically ticking and I realised that tomorrow all of this would be no more. I have never felt so desolate and alone either before or since; I was convinced that I would never, ever get over the pain and sadness. In fact it was all of three days before I was out on the streets kicking a football and seeking new adventures with my friends but through all the subsequent years and changing situations I have never forgotten the compassion and kindness of my very own Florence Nightingale. I don't recall who collected me to take me home. It wouldn't have been mam who would have been working; I think it was probably Aunt Florrie as she was the one living nearest to Sedgefield. Transport would have been by the public service, no one we knew possessed a car and a taxi ride was a luxury of which we only dreamed. Of one thing I am quite sure and that is, with my aura of misery and wretchedness, the trip home would have made a funeral cortege look cheerful.


Chapter fifteen

Somewhere between playing games, having adventures, visiting the picture-house and earning pocket money, much to everyone's surprise I passed the schools' eleven-plus examination and joined Ruth on the daily bus ride to Spennymoor Alderman Wraith Grammar School. Mam must have run the whole gamut of emotions; she would have been thrilled that I was joining Ruth at grammar school and that both of her children now had access to a good education but she would have been horrified and worried at the expense involved. The grammar school was strict on a uniform dress code and Heaven only knows how she managed to fund Ruth's needs let alone mine as well. The reality of course is, she didn't. Ruth and I never had our uniform quite correct and I always felt that we stood at the edge of the crowd instead of being anonymous within it. Maybe a white blouse was the order of the day, Ruth would find herself clothed in a blue one; the class would be wearing white plimsolls for PT, I ran around in black ones. I sometimes think that the phrase 'abject poverty' was coined with our little family in mind. The only money available was mam's wage packet which wouldn't have been much and out of that she had to feed and clothe two rapidly growing children, find the rent and all other ongoing household expenses. To this day I don't know how she coped but cope she did and somehow we survived from week to week. Although mam was no financial genius, from observation I do know that she operated a stringent financial discipline. Every week a tin would be produced and money for the rent and everyday essentials, including the 'tallyman', were secured. After that if we couldn't afford an item we didn't have it. Today, I still operate this system minus the tally-


Chapter Fifteen man (as I suspect our Ruth does), the only difference being instead of a tin I have a bank account. The tally-man – or the 'nevernever' as it was affectionately called – was the saviour of many working-class poor families and was possibly the forerunner of the modern catalogue company. He would call regularly, usually weekly, and people would order from him goods they couldn't otherwise have afforded. In return people would pay him off by a series of fixed weekly payments, the tally-man making sure that the debt was manageable. I'm sure that over the years this is how mam afforded some necessities including items of clothing, both for herself and for us. Mam duly kitted me out for grammar school but instead of shoes she purchased a small pair of boots for me. She said it was because I had weak ankles (strange that I hadn't had them before); the truth was the boots were cheaper and more durable than shoes. I never did tell mam but every morning I stood at the bus-stop with fellow grammar school pupils and scrutinised all the feet present for boots. I never ever did see one other pair and each morning I felt conspicuous and humiliated in short trousers and boots. That was the first time that I first felt the emotion of shame; ashamed and conscious of being poor, ashamed of threadbare Dale Street, and ashamed at the shabbiness of my situation. I suppose the grammar school was catalytic towards this new-found feeling. Children there appeared to have everything; always new clothes, new satchels, good homes and a general appearance of confidence. I am now aware that in many cases this just wasn't true but the illusion stuck and coloured my relationship with friends for some considerable time. By sheer coincidence I developed two completely different sets of companions. The first remained my original and faithful gang who were my weekend and holiday


Chapter Fifteen crowd, the second were grammar school acquaintances with whom I either travelled to school, or met during the school day and who lived in an adjacent catchment area. With the grammar school group I never played my early boyhood games. Although not always true, this second set of friends tended to come from more affluent backgrounds, boys like Tony Potts, Harry Drake and John Farrow and these were the companions I dreaded calling to see first-hand the squalor of Dale Street. And, as for the acquaintances living outside of the village, arriving on their bikes during holiday periods was this young boy's constant nightmare. I'm not sure whether mam was mindful of this feeling; in all probability she was but although I remember being resentful, at no stage did I blame her for our situation: even back then I realised that she did everything possible to make my life less fraught. Grammar school was a completely new experience. The school was large (to me), timetables for lessons were complex and strictly adhered to and school rules had to be observed at all times. The day seemed a lot longer now, as there was no going home at lunchtime and dinner was taken within the school's meal system. As a family our circumstances qualified us for free school meals but mam never did apply (pride?) and I paid the grand sum of 1/8d (8p!) a week. It would have been 2/1d (10p) but because there were two of us in the same school there was a weekly reduction. Although my Christian name was still a problem the period of settling in was much easier, my 'Geordie' accent was well established and my sporting abilities recognised. Furthermore Ruth was already established into the school's rhythm and I could always consult with her at play breaks if the need arose. Prior to taking a job at Remploy in Aycliffe which was to last for the rest of her working life, mam had worked at a cafĂŠ in


Chapter Fifteen Spennymoor called Coias. Remploy was then and still is the largest employer of people with disabilities in England and mam worked in their canteen as a caterer; I can only assume that she also did this type of work while employed at Coias. The Coias had a daughter called Connie who by happy chance also happened to be the PT teacher at the grammar school. Whether by design or a liking for our mam Miss Coia kept an eye on my wellbeing during that initial period whilst I was forever stumbling around a bewildering array of classrooms and teachers, a kindness I have never forgotten. Morning assembly was a large and formal affair when all the school gathered in the main hall with the teachers sitting on a raised stage facing the gathering of pupils. The teachers all wore the black teaching gowns and Mr Sumner, the headmaster, was no exception. I suspect that he had read too many 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' type books and each morning he would stand at his lectern thundering the day's chosen vitriol at us; the more animated he became with his theme the more he would pace the stage like some martinet. One 'sermon' remains fresh in my mind and that was on the moral degradation of the youth of the day. One lad had been caught with a 'girlie' magazine in his possession (unbelievably tame by today's standards I should think, perhaps Health & Beauty) and he roared with the passion of an evangelist about one rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel. On reflection I found Mr Sumner a pompous little man with a propensity for the theatrical and, I daresay, a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte hung in his study. The school was divided into four 'houses' named after the affectionately known 'North-eastern Saints'; each saint also being designated a colour. These were Aidan (blue), Bede (red), Chad (yellow) and Cuthbert (green). Our Ruth had been assigned to


Chapter Fifteen Chad house while I was in Bede. The school had in its curriculum a cleverly torturous experience for first-termers which took place every Friday after the completion of school lessons. This was the dreaded dance class, when we were taught to dance by members of the staff and even worse, with members of the opposite sex as partners! The point of this specific torment was to prepare us for the Christmas House party. Ugh! (And I still can't dance..!) Lessons were more formal than anything I had experienced thus far; the teachers were sterner but on the whole fair and discipline, when necessary, was maintained by the strap. More extreme cases of misbehaviour were dealt with by Mr Sumner wielding his cane, the venue for this punishment being his dreaded study. Fortunately, although I tasted the strap periodically (quite painful) at no point did I get summoned to the study and the cane treatment. Three teachers are worthy of mention, the first being Mr Coulthard the boys' PT instructor. He was also in his leisure time a very competent footballer playing for Bishop Auckland, a leading, national amateur football club. Mr Coulthard improved my football skills, and taught me the disciplines and the ethics of fair play in sport. He showed and coached me in the handling of a proper cricket bat and ball, equipment I had never touched in my life, and he parted the curtain to a range of sports I had only read about like tennis and badminton. The second is Mr Rutter the maths master. Like all eleven-year olds I had a rudimentary knowledge of mathematics, I could do my times tables by rote and on a good day I could divide 1431 by 9 (159!). I even knew a little about triangles and circles but my only motivation at the time was fiscal mathematics, how many pennies there were in a shilling and how many shillings there were in a pound. Mr Rutter, who possessed a quiet enthusiasm


Chapter Fifteen for the subject, changed all that. He had a natural talent for making the hardest concepts both understandable and accessible, in fact it's fair to say that it was through Mr Rutter I arrived at an understanding and appreciation for the language of maths. Maths is the ultimate, unshakeable truth. Two plus two will always be four, the sum of the angles of any triangle must always be one hundred and eighty degrees and if two odd numbers are added together the result will always be an even number but if two odd numbers are multiplied together the result will always be an odd number. It was quite a revelation and delight to me when I realised that these and, for that matter, all mathematical principles held the same truth whether quoted in Chilton, Japan or even on Mars. And so to the third, Mr Roxby the English master, a teacher who had a profound influence on my school career. At this very moment Mr Roxby will be looking down from his blackboard Heaven and saying, " We don't start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, do we, Stretton!" Mr Roxby was an imposing figure not so much in stature but more in presence. He would march into Form 2b with a purposeful stride, his black teaching gown billowing like a ship's sail behind him and a pile of schoolbooks under his arm. He had an authoritative bearing, a pithy turn of phrase and a well-honed strap technique when required. Yet more than all of this his over-riding quality to me was a contagious passion for the English language and its structure. Before grammar school I already had a thirst for reading and the ability to write short compositions - I think later they were called essays, but that would have been a grand title for my junior school efforts – so English as such held no fear for me but Mr Roxby did. However, extremely firm but fair would describe Mr Roxby's attitude and provided pupils could be seen to


Chapter Fifteen trying their best he gave every encouragement. Mr Roxby acquainted me with and encouraged me to explore the DNA of the English language. Prior to this insight I could write sentences and even compositions but whether the syntax was correct had always been a matter of flipping a coin (some people would say, "So what's changed?"). Mr Roxby was THE master; he introduced me to past and present participles, subordinate clauses, coordinating and subjective conjunctions, adverbial particles, prepositions and the near limitless configuration of these and many more components to produce our language of impressive versatility and beauty. Oddly my two favourite areas of learning, mathematics and English, are opposite in concept. Mathematics is crisp, precise and not open to interpretation; five multiplied by five will always be twenty-five, whereas English can be loose, vague and be open to many opinions. One only has to be a scholar of William Shakespeare to realise the astonishing vagaries of this beautiful language.


Chapter sixteen

By now with my ability to generate a regular source of pocket money I had finally acquired a small degree of independence. At last I could indulge in my ever-growing passion for football. One of my new friends from grammar school, Harry Drake, shared with me this passion and together whenever we had the opportunity we would travel to one of the large football clubs in the area, Middlesbrough or Sunderland. These two clubs, alongside Newcastle, played in the then First Division of the Football League; unfortunately my pocket money wouldn’t stretch as far as Newcastle, so we happily settled for two out of three. Middlesbrough was easily accessible by public transport from Rushyford, the journey to Sunderland being more involved we would take advantage of the supporters’ coach which left regularly from Chilton Working Men’s’ Club. I don’t know if the fixture list had been consciously arranged to ensure that Sunderland and Middlesbrough never played their home games on the same Saturday but for Harry and me it was most fortuitous; assuming that we could afford it we need never miss a home fixture. Middlesbrough played their football at Ayresome Park and Sunderland at Roker Park, both of these arenas being cathedrals to football; a rather apt description as it was often stated by wives that football matters came second only to religion in the list of their husands’ priorities. On match days the stadium was invariably filled to near capacity, the terraces being a sea of cloth caps and men wearing their teams’ favours, normally a coloured scarf and in many cases a large colourful rosette. Some of the more enthusiastic fans, looking uncannily like nineteenth century bird-scarers, also carried large wooden rattles, which when


Chapter Sixteen twirled created a unique cacophony. Crowd segregation was unheard of, as was crowd trouble, and home supporters mingled with the travelling fans creating a patchwork of moving colour. Both grounds had separate boys’ safety enclosures but we scorned these and mingled with grown-ups to better soak up the prematch carnival atmosphere. The terraces were completely open to the elements, situated in the areas immediately behind each goal and were much favoured by fans because of their proximity to all the anticipated goalmouth action. The terraces were literally named; that’s exactly what they were, stepped terraces with standing room only. On either flank of the pitch were positioned the covered stands, one ‘posh’ with seats, the other purely for standing supporters. A football crowd is an entity in its own right with its own moods; it sighs, it groans, it cheers and it sways and surges to the rhythm of match. To this end all the standing areas had, at staggered intervals, strong metal stanchions supporting equally strong transverse bars about six feet long and set about waist height. The purpose of these safety barriers was to prevent the whole crowd in a section surging forward and causing injury to the people below, the staggered barriers controlling the weight and depth of the rolling wave of fans. (Years later some fans were horrifically and tragically killed when, in an overcrowded stand, the forward surge and continual pressure of the mass at the back crushed and suffocated vulnerable people towards the front, who had no means of escape. This incident led to massive changes in the safety laws; football stadiums are now required to have allseater accommodation, which immediately negates the forward crush). The fans were passionately supportive of their home team but also appreciative of the opposition’s footballing skills and


Chapter Sixteen personalities; further they were extremely kind and watchful towards the younger element of the crowd like Harry Drake and me. At the very first sign of spectator movement we would be herded in front of the steel stanchions, safely protected from any forward surge. In exceptional circumstances such as a local ‘derby’ we would be passed to the front of the crowd, over the dividing wall and deposited in the area immediately adjacent to the pitch. I can honestly say that in all the games I attended both at Middlesbrough and Sunderland I never once feared for my safety. During that period I had the privilege of observing at first-hand most of the all-time ‘greats’ of the era. To a man they were modest, sportsmanlike and undemonstrative. I hold this notion that these immortals considered they were just doing a day-time job to the best of their abilities, unlike today’s preening, self-indulgent, vastly over-paid gladiators whose sense of self-importance in most cases, is not matched by their greatly over-stated skills. I witnessed the magic of Stanley Matthews (later, Sir) and Stan Mortensen both playing for Blackpool; the great Tom Finney (also later, Sir) who spent his whole footballing career at Preston North End (and still retained his trade as a plumber). I saw Middlesbrough’s own Wilf Mannion; Jackie Milburn, still worshipped today as a god in Newcastle, and Len Shackleton, ‘The Wizard of Dribble’, a legend at Roker Park, who famously scored a penalty with a back-heel. Never did any one of these ambassadors argue with the referee, show petulance or remonstrate with the crowd and they were always gracious in defeat. Along with attitude, the football itself has changed beyond all recognition. The football of my boyhood and probably for generations before consisted of a segmented, stitched, outer leather casing and an inner inflatable rubber bladder. The inner bladder was pumped up to a requisite pressure then the outer leather casing would be ‘laced’ up to secure the bladder. The case


Chapter Sixteen was well treated with dubbin, a waterproofing and preservative grease, which also carried the added advantage of making the leather panels more supple. Despite all this effort and preparation, on wet and muddy football pitches the football became extremely heavy and woe betide any player who was unlucky enough to head the ball with the lace impacting on his forehead. Today’s footballs are lighter, have no stitching or lacing and are not prone to the vagaries of the weather. Each Saturday evening I would hurry round to the newsagent to collect the ‘Pink’, a local evening paper, which published all of that day’s football results and league positions. It also carried football news in general. As far as I’m aware all areas had this form of publication, I think only the colour changed, so in some areas it would become the ‘Green’. Whether it’s still published today, I’m not sure – I would have thought with instant television reporting and access to the Internet the survival of this sort of journal was highly unlikely. I’d pore over all the results and having read the paper from cover to cover cut out all the action photographs. It doesn’t happen today but back then all the papers both local and national carried, on football days, a selection of photos depicting the exciting and unusual occurrences during a match. These pictures were eagerly sought after, cut out and pasted in a scrapbook with flour and water paste. If I were extremely lucky, an unseen, crumpled newspaper would arrive in the house, which had been used to wrap up vegetables or chips, and within those pages there could be an undiscovered photographic jewel. With my heightened interest in football came the Saturday evening ritual of Subbuteo Table Soccer. After tea the living room table would be cleared, the green baize football pitch laid out, the goalposts, the small replica football and the teams positioned


Chapter Sixteen ready for a match. Each Saturday the venue would change, one week it would be my house and the next Harry’s, thus giving the semblance of home and away fixtures. The coloured team strips were realistic and the cardboard players ‘ran’ round the pitch on plastic semi-circular bases controlled and propelled by the skill and finger power of the team ‘manager’. The games were rigorously monitored, results and scorers being recorded in a notebook and weekly league positions calculated. Running concurrently we also held a knockout Cup competition, the eventual winning team receiving an old eggcup topped with a disused Subbuteo ball. It says much for the popularity and realism of the Subbuteo game that it is still played today with the same enthusiasm as that of my generation, having changed very little since those faroff days. Accessories like football stands, corner posts and plastic (instead of cardboard) men have been introduced but the skills and passions of the participants remain unaltered. I now only have a casual interest in football; I certainly no longer participate as a spectator and rarely study the weekly football results. I can’t think where it all went wrong but the sport today is a global business generating millions of pounds of revenue, but paradoxically alienating the smaller and less influential clubs. Players are vastly overpaid, transfer fees astronomical and players’ agents too influential in the commercial direction of football. Football clubs are bought and sold as playthings by multimillionaires. Football venues are demolished and rebuilt with unfamiliar names; Sunderland’s once traditional home of football is no longer Roker Park, nor Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park but instead fans are burdened with such unlikely epithets as The Stadium of Light and the Madjeski Stadium. Club sponsorship is


Chapter Sixteen now accepted as normal and team shirts are emblazoned with the sponsors’ logos. Cynicism has overtaken sportsmanship; winning not participating has become the mantra and sadly, I notice that this attitude has permeated into the lower reaches of the amateur game and it is now not uncommon to witness verbal abuse of the referee in both local park and school matches. Violence has become sickeningly routine both on and off the football pitch; segregation of opposing fans is deemed a necessity within the stadium and on match days a large police presence is necessary to prevent thuggish behaviour both to and from game. Whilst I accept and applaud the loyalty and passion of supporters for their favourite team, I abhor their tribalism with its undercurrent of aggression. What happened to the unfailing good humour along with the innate sense of fair play which typified the post-war football fan? I mourn the loss of my beautiful and artistic game; sometimes I idly speculate that some malignant power has hijacked a worthy, warm and innocent pastime and turned football into a gaudy, duplicitous and profit-engendering replica.


Chapter seventeen

By 1951 I had reached the amazing age of 14, moved into the fourth form at the grammar school and my life had settled into some sort of acceptable routine despite our continued poverty. Sometime earlier Granny Attwood had moved out of 50 Dale Street to live with Aunt Florrie; her health was deteriorating and mam being at work all day couldn’t possibly give her the constant care that she demanded. That is not to say that mam was free from the duty of care; at weekends she would take the bus to Fishburn and take her turn attending Granny Attwood’s needs. For myself, I never saw Granny Attwood again. The departure of Granny Attwood was a double-edged sword; as kids we no longer had to put up with the constant sniping and general nastiness of Granny which we had endured on a daily basis since our arrival from Harrogate; on the other hand mam’s daily poverty struggle became even more acute. The reason for this was that during her residence in Dale Street, Granny had been supported, to a small extent, by her sons, Uncle Tom and Uncle Major, who ensured that she always had coal in the coal-bunker. By association we also benefited from this charity. When Granny vacated the premises this benevolence ceased and mam had the task of securing a coal supply for the house; this was necessary in both summer and winter, the only sources of hot water being the ranges in the sitting room and scullery. It has always puzzled me why mam’s brothers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) continue with this small act of generosity. They must have been aware of her daily struggle. On top of this Ruth and I were growing at a pace, and keeping us clothed to a semblance of the grammar school code must have


Chapter Seventeen been a continual headache. To our mam’s credit I never once remember her complaining. I can’t begin to imagine how today’s single mothers would cope in such a situation. One day late in 1951 Ruth and I received out of the blue (to us) an invitation to spend two weeks holiday on the Isle of Wight with our Auntie Pat, Grandma Stretton’s only daughter. Auntie Pat was no stranger to me; although the memory was hazy, Ruth and I had spent a holiday in Paignton on the South coast with both Auntie Pat and Grandma Stretton just after the outbreak of war. And she was, of course, resident at 15 Ellesmere Road for the majority of my upbringing there. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War Auntie Pat had met and married Arthur Lee, the son of a successful local businessman. Uncle Arthur had served as an officer in the Commandos during the war and I can only assume that part of his training must have been completed on the Island. Whatever the reason, after his release from the services Uncle Arthur along with Auntie Pat and their son, Arthur, settled on the Isle of Wight. (Yes, that’s right, the same cousin Arthur, Ruth’s white-lipped, willing patient in the ‘hospital’ under Granny Stretton’s sturdy wooden table all those years before). They had established a successful turf accountant’s business (bookmaking), increased their family with the addition of a daughter, Andrea, and bought a house within its own grounds in the village of Brading. The holiday invitation itself seemed innocuous enough at the time but in later years I came to suspect that there was a hidden agenda and that the plan was to secure Ruth employment. Why this was deemed necessary I will never know; I suspect that our father was behind the scheme, perhaps he thought there was no future for a young girl leaving school in Chilton and her prospects would be better served with ‘family’ in the South. I’m also quite


Chapter Seventeen sure mam would have wanted what was considered best for Ruth and gone along with that suspect judgement. If that were the idea it was misconceived; Ruth was in her GCE year at grammar school and I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have passed that test and moved on to university. I think that Ruth was dealt a shabby and ill-conceived hand but as she was manifestly unhappy in Chilton perhaps her benevolent God smiled on her and worked in His ‘mysterious way’. Eventually the Isle of Wight became her springboard to a better and more complete life where she met her lovely husband, John. Naturally she also went on to achieve academic success through the Open University. That, however, would be to tell Ruth’s story. For myself, the initial reaction was to decline the invitation, which had arrived at the beginning of the annual ‘potato-picking’ holiday in October. Although backbreaking and tiring work, I could earn real money, which would go towards funding my passionate pursuit of all things football. Without these much-needed funds I had visions of a barren winter ahead and the prospect of missing important - to me - football events. I remember having discussions with Harry Drake (who had never found it necessary to go potato-picking!) about this financial dilemma and he unswervingly advised that I should take the break. To youngsters in the North East, going to the Isle of Wight was akin to travelling abroad and a trip not to be missed. As well as the obvious attraction of going ‘abroad’ and being the envy of my classmates, there was the big adventure of a long train journey down to London, crossing the city on the tube-train system, a further train ride to Portsmouth, followed by a real sea voyage to the Island. The added bonus was the fact that Portsmouth Football Club were the reigning champions in the First Division of English football; I would have the opportunity to visit their


Chapter Seventeen stadium at Fratton Park and see the team in action. The decision had to be mine and mine alone and as I remember it I was never pressured one way or the other by our mam; the lure of an adventure with its unspoken promises proved too great to resist and I eventually agreed to the trip. And that seemingly innocuous choice was to become the second ‘what-if’ moment of my life. It is no exaggeration to say it was a decision that would be pivotal in shaping the course of my life and to some degree would mould mam’s life in Chilton. If I had elected the potato-picking option with its monetary incentive would I subsequently have been consigned to the coal mining industry? Or perhaps the teaching profession? Would mam have met and settled with a caring companion, finding the comfort and happiness she so richly deserved? That was all for the future, however and at the time none of us vaguely suspected that a holiday ripple was to become a life-changing tsunami. The day duly arrived. Mam had diligently prepared me for the holiday. By this time I wore long trousers, grey flannel with turnups being the order of the day; however where I was growing rapidly mam had had to let the turn-ups down, which rather violated my ‘man-about-town’ look. 1951 was Festival of Britain year and somewhere I had acquired a Festival of Britain tie – I can’t for the life of me think where – a gaudy replica silk affair with the Festival motif. I thought it to be the bees’ knees, in point of fact I more than likely resembled a miniature London spiv. And, of course, the ‘must-have-at-all-times’ requisite blue gabardine raincoat belted at the waist (and probably too small). Ruth and I were duly deposited on Darlington railway station impatiently waiting for the train’s arrival and, for me, the start of my latest adventure. Our father was to meet us at King’s Cross station, take us across London on the tube to Waterloo and then


Chapter Seventeen accompany us to the Isle of Wight, but with my suitcase and sister by my side I felt quite grown-up and supremely confident. In reality I must have appeared to be exactly what I was, a gauche young schoolboy fresh from a pit village with a proverbial lump of coal protruding from his pocket and coal dust on his shoes. What none of us could possibly have known was that Ruth and I had wandered back onto the snakes and ladders board; after years of languishing at the snake’s tail we were about to be confronted with what appeared to be a tempting, many-runged ladder‌.


Chapter eighteen

Now would seem an opportune moment to say a few words about my mam. She is after all, the unspoken thread who, to this point, holds my narrative together and the person who singlehandedly held us together as a family unit. Although small in stature, apparently meek by nature and far from family and friends in the North East, she had the courage and tenacity to remove us from an abusive environment and head for an uncertain future up North. This action was all the more remarkable as, at the time, she was living in the heart of the Stretton dynasty and there would have been enormous pressure both spoken and unspoken to abandon any thought of leaving. I suspect that mam was no longer prepared to tolerate my father’s blatant infidelity and ill-temper, but her over-riding consideration, much as a lioness protects her cubs, was to remove us from that very real threat of further abuse. Later mam was to show this same streak when unexpectedly leaving the employ of Mr and Mrs Clifton in Harrogate. Mam must have possessed an inner stubbornness and sense of purpose, which steered her unwaveringly into these significant decisions. Mam had been born in Chilton into an impoverished workingclass mining family, the sixth of ten children. She was christened Lillian Alice and thereafter for the remainder of her life was known as Kitty. (Don’t even ask…) She wouldn’t have been favoured by Grandad and Granny Attwood: boys could put bread on the table, girls couldn’t. The exception to this philosophy may well have been Aunt Florrie, who, being the eldest, would have been seen as a nursemaid to an ever-growing family. When mam was twelve Grandad Attwood died which must have put an added


Chapter Eighteen strain on an already stretched budget, the youngest child, Aunt Ruth being only two. It was not surprising, therefore, that at the tender age of fourteen and undoubtedly naïve to the ways of the world beyond Chilton, mam was despatched to London to work as a ‘live-in’ domestic. Later she admitted to us that she was inconsolably homesick for a period but returning home wasn’t an option and she was expected to send money home each week to supplement the family finances. In due course her younger sister Nancy joined her in London, which must have made an alien London more palatable. It was during this period that mam had the misfortune to meet and consequently marry my father. If her early years had been unpromising, the quality of her life was about to tumble even further. Mam never spoke to me about those years she spent in Berkhamsted but, although Granny Stretton would have been kind to her, after the initial honeymoon period life must have been fraught and forlorn for mam in the Stretton household. In my opinion Granny Stretton must take some blame for this situation; in her eyes our father could do no wrong, as had been demonstrated throughout his childhood. In reality he could do very little right and I find it inconceivable that apparently Granny remained oblivious to his continuing acts of mistreatment and sheer bad temper. Eventually, having tolerated years of mental and physical humiliation, and probably fearing for our well being, mam removed us all from that jeopardy. And yet, unbelievably, mam was certainly no pessimist and indeed throughout her life maintained a refreshing optimism. This is best illustrated by her often-proclaimed expression when things were going badly for us, which was not unusual, “It won’t always be dark at seven, pet!” and, of course she was absolutely right.


Chapter Eighteen When time and circumstance allowed, mam also had a mischievous sense of humour and she carried a wealth of disparaging one-liners. “Chase me, I’m chocolate!” she would say regarding opinionated people. “I couldn’t fancy him if his ar*e was decked with diamonds!” she said drolly, of the menfolk who were convinced they were God’s gift to women. And when asked the ageold question, usually by one of her sisters, “Do I look alright in this?” she would teasingly say, “A galloping horse and a blind man wouldn’t notice thee!” Mam was a stubborn and proud person. Although she could justly have claimed free school dinners for Ruth and me, she steadfastly refused. However, she never let this pride cloud the reality of our situation and if the need arose she would humble or humiliate herself; one particular occasion has remained crystal clear in my mind across all the ensuing years. As a threesome we were always short of something but coal was critical. Without coal we had no range and therefore no hot meals, hot drinks or hot water. And, of course, it was our sole means of heating the house. Mam was an absolute wizard at dealing with the range. She could light the fire without any kindling wood; she merely used scrunched up and knotted newspapers, an amazing feat the likes of which I have never seen before or since. She seemed to be able to make a shovel of coal last forever and at weekends knew how to bank the fire up with used ash and cinders ensuring that the house had some degree of warmth when we rose in the morning. One evening on returning from work mam went through her daily ritual of re-lighting the range and realised that no matter how frugal she was, our fast dwindling supply of coal couldn’t possibly see us through the evening, let alone until our next delivery. With some new-found manliness I said to mam, “Don’t


Chapter Eighteen worry, mam, let’s go round to Mr Farrow’s, he’ll give us some coal to keep us going ‘til our next delivery”. Mr Farrow I already knew through his importance in the chapel choir, his lay preaching and his son, John; mam would undoubtedly only have had a nodding acquaintance with the family. It was a bitterly cold winter’s evening in Chilton with the wind malevolently strutting all the way from the North Sea, bringing with it a threat of snow. We wrapped up and with heads bent against the elements, mam and I set off round the corner, mam carrying a small bucket and a hand-shovel. Down the years I have often wondered what mam must have felt at that moment, about to knock on the door of a near-stranger and beg (for there is no other word for it) for some coal. I am completely convinced that had she been living alone she would have put up with the discomfort and biting cold but, as she had always done, accepted the responsibility towards her children’s well-being. Mam knocked at the front door of the Farrow household with some trepidation and after what seemed an eternity Mr Farrow appeared at the door dressed in a large, patterned cardigan and carpet slippers. Without the slightest hint of courtesy he asked us what we wanted. By now mam must have swallowed any vestige of her pride and related our situation and asked this God-fearing Christian if we could possibly borrow some coal until ours was delivered. Without any trace of sympathy Mr Farrow indicated for us to wait a moment, left us standing on the doorstep, closed the door and disappeared. After an indecently lengthy interval he reappeared wearing an overcoat, a woollen scarf, stout shoes and carrying a torch. Unsmilingly he guided us to his coal shed, slid the retaining bar and opened the door. What mam and I were confronted with I can only describe as a cornucopia of coal. Coal was crammed from floor to ceiling with only the smallest space for


Chapter Eighteen a bucket or coal-scuttle. Mr Farrow took the bucket from mam and, with his own shovel carefully filled it to the halfway point and handed it back to her. He then shut the shed door, put the bar across and with scarcely a “Good-night”, turned on heel and disappeared indoors; we returned to 50 Dale Street, I should imagine looking like a couple of characters from a Dickens novel. Mam, I have no doubt felt totally humiliated. I think, in a small boy’s way, it dawned on me that because a creature has four legs and a tail, is covered with spots like a leopard and says he’s a leopard, it doesn’t necessarily equate to him being a leopard and I suppose mam new that fact all the time. On the positive side we had a half-bucket of coal with which mam worked her magic and kept us warm until our own coal delivery arrived. There is no great moral to that little vignette. I have no desire to inhabit Mr Farrow’s Heaven and if there is such a thing as Divine Justice (which I’m sure there must be) my mam will be right up there among the angels whilst Mr Farrow is still rattling at the Gates. Mam, however, was no saint – although to me in many ways she was – and she displayed human frailties like the rest of us. She was quick to dislike and for some reason unknown to me detested Aunt Jean, Uncle John’s wife, whom I found delightful. In retrospect I note that it tended to be the womenfolk over whom mam cast a baleful eye, so perhaps there was just a touch of jealousy in her personality. She blatantly paraded her favouritism, of which I, unfairly to Ruth, was the chief recipient. Although outwardly she remained the eternal optimist, cheerful and attentive to our needs, she did occasionally suffer from black moods. What private thoughts she harboured I will never know, but she must have had moments of grave doubts as to her ability


Chapter Eighteen to meet the responsibility of two growing children. That though, is my supposition and never knowingly did these surmised dark thoughts impinge on my daily life. Like most people mam could be most irritating, not least being her insistence on punctuality. Well that was mam’s word for it; in fact we were invariably at least half-an-hour early for any occasion and I carry this vision of us all sitting on a shabby sofa ready and waiting, watching the minutes tick by. Ironically the very last time I saw her, mam was sitting on our sofa, suitcase packed by her side and at least thirty minutes early, waiting for the taxi to take her to the station. At some point after Ruth and I left home mam met the man who was to change her life. I never asked her the circumstance of their meeting but I assume it was at her workplace, for Jack too worked at Remploy. By then she had divorced our father on what grounds I’m not sure. Jack was either separated from his wife or divorced; I never asked. Jack Boal and our mam were well suited. He was kind and attentive to her, made her smile, gave her companionship and a purpose. Eventually Jack moved into Dale Street; being a competent handyman and having a way with all things wood he gradually transformed the house into a cosy dwelling. On my first meeting with Jack (a forty-eight hour pass from the army) mam was nervous as a kitten; being her favourite I think that she needed my approval to give her an ultimate peace of mind. She had no cause to worry; on seeing her obvious contentment, the sparkle in her eye and the re-found pride in her appearance, it would have been churlish of me to give their union anything but my blessing. I was delighted for her. Mam discovered television and curiously became something of an armchair expert on the rather grand sport of show-jumping (a


Chapter Eighteen working class miner’s daughter…), rather ironic as she was actually terrified of horses in the flesh. She stopped smoking, too late as it turned out, and she met and held, with great pride, all of her grandchildren. In Jack, mam found her ‘seven-o’-clock dawn’; they lived happily together for over twenty years before mam died at the ridiculously early age of 69 with an emphysema-related complaint, then not uncommon in the North East and certainly not helped by years of smoking. What else to say about my mam? I regret not having told her how much I came to admire her tenacity and unquenchable spirit against all the odds. I regret never knowing the real Kitty; by the time I recognised that she was much more than just my mam I had flown the nest and the opportunity never arose and I regret not being at her bedside when she was dying. I am eternally mortified that for a period after starting grammar school I was ashamed of her; ashamed of her shabbiness and ashamed of her apparent gaucheness. The simple truth is that I was the graceless one and underneath mam’s shabbiness was a determination that we, as a family, would not be beaten. Most of the people I contrasted her with at that time weren’t worthy to walk in her shadow. Now, of course, I’m proud to tell the world that Kitty was my mam, and am humbled by her achievements against unjust circumstances. I think a fitting epitaph to mam would be, “She was a good person and despite all obstacles, a staunch and indefatigable mother. Her selflessness will never be forgotten.”


PART Two A Fresh Start 1951 - 1953

Chapter nineteen

Although the journey south to King’s Cross was uneventful, I loved the magic of railway travel. The noise and incessant clamour of the station. The aura of beginnings, endings and possibilities. The bustle and movement of passengers laden with suitcases, each traveller with their own hidden story. The hurried good-bye hugs on platforms and the plaintive, “Don’t forget to write!” from worried relatives. All of these things contributed to the tapestry of the experience. Steam engines possessed a character all of their own, proud and majestic with names to match - The Flying Scotsman, The Brighton Belle, Pride of Northumberland - and to me they resembled great, sleek shire-horses, calm, docile and yet promising infinite power. The engines were lovingly cleaned, the brasswork shone and it was not unusual to spot the driver or his fireman proudly pass a cleaning cloth over any offending dirt. The drivers of these trains were undoubtedly the elite; modest and admired; all schoolboys wanted to be engine drivers when they grew up. And then finally, the moment of anticipation, the guard’s green flag was raised and the train obviously impatient to be off, pulled away from the station slowly gathering speed with the distinctive ‘clack-clacking’ sound of wheels on rails, whistle blowing and exuberantly letting off steam, colluding in the adventure. (It may well be that my love for steam engines is purely nostalgic; certainly the trains ran on time and there was a palpable feeling of pride pulsing through the work force. Modern diesel engines surely don’t have the cachet of steam and their identification numbers (8177968) don’t have the same ring as The


Chapter Nineteen Brighton Belle for instance. And the proliferation of private railways across the country dedicated to the age of steam manned largely by volunteers both old and young, suggests to me that perhaps I’m not a dinosaur after all). We duly arrived punctually at King’s Cross station, where our father was waiting to meet us as arranged. I no longer regarded him with abject fear; however, my few encounters with him were always filled with apprehension and unease. Although not dreaded, I certainly never regarded these occasions with any degree of enthusiasm. We crossed London by tube, which was exciting in itself, arriving at Waterloo station in good time to catch our connecting train to Portsmouth Harbour. I grandly called it the boat train, which of course it wasn’t; there were commuters travelling who had no intention of boarding any vessel and just wanted to be home after a day’s shopping in London or visiting the Festival. After what seemed like forever but in fact was probably little more than an hour, the train pulled into Portsmouth Harbour station. Neither then nor now, come to that, would the Harbour station receive the accolade of “Britain’s Most Welcoming Station”; it was a bleak and windswept affair and showed little of the pride that I had been aware of in both Darlington and the London stations. At the time, though, this was of little importance to me as I was impatient to catch my first glimpse of the harbour with its undiscovered sights. I had done my homework back in Chilton and was aware that Portsmouth was primarily a naval town and that the harbour was the home to many naval warships; it was therefore a disappointment on rounding the corner of the concourse not to be faced with the cream of the British navy. Nevertheless, not to be discouraged I descended a steep incline along with Ruth and our father, and arrived at the boarding area


Chapter Nineteen for the Isle of Wight ferry. There, tethered to her moorings and gently rolling stood the Paddle Steamer (PS) Ryde with passengers already climbing the firmly secured gangplank, a scene reminiscent of troop embarkations from half-forgotten newsreels. Beautiful would certainly never describe the Ryde, nor for that matter would elegance but she sat gently rolling at anchor like a stately old lady, smoke drifting lazily from her single funnel. Situated centrally on either side of the paddle steamer were two paddle-wheels lying idly at rest, which rather gave her the appearance of a contented wide-waisted matron. She exuded confidence in her own abilities and above all she had an air of complete dependability. (While not directly part of my story it is worthy of mention that more than all of these qualities, and written into history, is the fact that she was utterly fearless. Built in 1936 as the Paddle Steamer Ryde, at the outbreak of war she had been transferred to the Navy and served throughout the conflict as HMS Ryde where she initially patrolled the Dover Straits and North Sea as a minesweeper. After two years on this duty she was given additional quick-firing weapons and saw service as an antiaircraft ship. In May 1944 she returned to Portsmouth and joined the large, D-Day invasion fleet, gathering for the liberation of Europe. She arrived off the Normandy coast and took up station on the western side of the floating Mulberry Harbour at Omaha Beach (famously re-enacted in the film Saving Private Ryan). A raging storm severely damaged the temporary harbour and she received a fateful signal: “If you have enough coal return to Portsmouth, if you do not have enough coal, run your ship onto the beach!� The captain coaxed her back to Portsmouth where she safely made harbour,


Chapter Nineteen although it is said that by the end of the voyage her crew were sweeping out her bunkers for any remaining shovels of coal! In August 1945 she was returned to the Southern Railway after nearly six continuous years at war. A truly modest and fearless lady). I was impatient to join the assembling passengers and hurriedly clambered aboard to inspect the vessel. The first sensation to be savoured was the not unpleasant, peaceful movement of the Ryde as she lay at anchor. The second observation as I went below deck where passengers could sit, seek refuge from the elements, or take a cup of tea in a well furnished saloon, was the absolute cleanliness of the boat and the glimpsed pristine condition of the engines, situated in a forbidden area further below. I quickly decided that I would spend the entire voyage on deck as near to the bow as was possible. Suddenly with a belch of smoke the Ryde sprang to life. The mooring rope was released, was skilfully wound round the capstan by a crew member and the gangplank withdrawn. With the paddle-wheels creating white spume as the rotating blades dug into the sea, she pulled away from her berth and headed for the open water. As the captain negotiated a sharp bend the panorama of the harbour revealed various naval vessels and support ships benignly at anchor and a number of small craft busily crisscrossing the water like busy, disciplined ants going about their daily business. Quickly we were clear of the harbour and its offered shelter and headed for the open sea where the white horses smacked against the old lady’s sides and the unyielding crosswind caused the roll to become more pronounced. Unerringly she cut a passage for the Island, which being only five miles off the mainland was already in distant view; on dashing to the stern I could see Portsmouth receding and a long, white furrow marking the Ryde’s progress thus far. I suppose that the whole crossing


Chapter Nineteen could only have taken about half an hour but what a thirty minutes! The experience was completely new to me, the pitching of the boat, the regular, reassuring throb of the paddle-wheels and the spray which cascaded over the deck when she dipped her bow into an oncoming wave; literally breathtaking with an added a sprinkling of fear; a memorable and lingering feeling. The Isle of Wight loomed larger by the minute; by now I could pick out inlets, beaches and the pretty small town of Ryde, which also acted as our destination port, its church spire a focal point set against a background of striking, green woodland. As we drew nearer it was possible to see a small train toiling up the pier with its accompanying passenger coaches and a few vehicles moving in both directions. About a mile out from Ryde, having passed her sister ship, the PS Sandown on her outward bound journey to Portsmouth, the boat performed a sweeping familiar arc, and with a nonchalant expertise, manoeuvred alongside the pier. A rope was thrown to the jetty, the boat secured and the gangplank lowered in preparation for disembarking. Passengers clustered at the head of the gangway, gathering suitcases and preparing to leave the PS Ryde and complete their journey. Ryde pier had been built in 1840 and through various metamorphoses, importantly the addition of a railway in 1864, had arrived at her present evolution. This included a pedestrian promenade which now incorporated vehicle access to the pierhead, a diesel-powered tram which plied between the pierhead and the esplanade and a train which met all arriving steamers. After Southend, Ryde pier was (and still is) the longest pier in Britain at very nearly half a mile and in 1951 boasted entertainment and a cafĂŠ at the pier head. We joined the shuffling group, now impatient to be on our way,


Chapter Nineteen although I must admit, suddenly I was slightly overwhelmed by too many ‘firsts’; my first solo train journey; my first solo contact with our father for many years; my first sea-voyage and now, an imminent first meeting with Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur, who I could only vaguely remember from those early days in Berkhamsted. We arrived at the ticket barrier, where the inspector clipped our tickets and waved us through. At this point the crowd thinned out, some peeling off to board the waiting train, some bracing themselves for a walk down the pier and the remainder, like ourselves searching for a familiar face within the busy concourse. Suddenly our father must have spotted Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur because he waved and moved us towards two confident, well-dressed people waiting at the edge of the scattered assembly of anxious greeters. I realised immediately I would never have recognised them and thought perhaps it was just as well that our father was chaperoning us. On reflection I am aware of the incongruity of that thought; by ourselves, I have no doubt Auntie Pat would easily have recognised two forlorn children with unmistakable Stretton characteristics travelling by themselves, trying desperately to look unconcerned. There was no portent, thunderbolt, or any visible indication but within the next minute this simple meeting would prove to be the determining moment of my life and the naivety of my early boyhood would leak away. After an initial kiss and hug, I assumed that we would join the ranks of people heading for the waiting train, but, no, we headed in the opposite direction towards an assortment of parked cars. Imagine my disbelief when Uncle Arthur purposefully strode towards a Standard motor-car and inserted a key into the lock. Being the first car I ever rode in, I remember it vividly to this day;


Chapter Nineteen maroon in colour, with a running board on either side, and by today’s established design, the doors opened outwards the wrong way. The upholstery was made of real leather, the whole interior smelling pleasantly of leather and polish. The car’s numberplate was RV 9569 and later I discovered that the Standard was known affectionately within the family as Harvey (RV). With much fussing we all clambered into the car, drove down the pier carefully avoiding the promenaders, along Ryde esplanade and up a steep hill, following the signs which pointed out Brading and Sandown. Once out of Ryde we drove on down a pretty country lane, flanked by overhanging tree branches which formed an arched canopy, over a hump-backed railway bridge and came upon the town of Brading. As we drove into Brading immediately to our left was the historic parish church, St Mary the Virgin, built in the twelfth century and much admired by architectural scholars and students alike. In the centre of the town, Brading boasted (if that’s the right word) a bullring…literally; a large metal ring secured in the ground for tethering bulls. The purpose of this ring in the past had been to shackle the poor creature whilst being set upon by dogs, in the barbaric sport of bull baiting. Brading was the one-time capital of the Island and had been an important seaport but gradually the harbour had silted up and by 1881 with the arrival of the railway at Bembridge the reclamation was finally completed. Brading now shares with Winchelsea and Romney the distinction of being a seaport without sea. The capital of the Island is now Newport with its river access to open water. The town had been a major port certainly as late as the midsixteenth century, when a large gun had been commissioned to defend the town from an impending French invasion. The original


Chapter Nineteen cannon, historically known as the Town Gun, is now held in safe and secure custody, while a replica stands proudly in the centre of the town, adjoining the Town Council offices. Although a town by name and Royal charter, Brading possesses all the qualities and spirit of a rural, English village. However in recognition of its town status, it significantly and jealously guards the ancient office of Mayor. Spreading from the bull-ring rather like the spokes of a wheel was a system of roads. We took the one immediately in front of us and made our way up The Mall about a hundred yards and parked outside an impressive, detached, double-fronted Victorian villa called Belle-Vue. The house snuggled comfortably under the protection of Brading Downs, which hung immediately behind the house. Initially I thought that we were parked to let an oncoming vehicle pass; but this was our final destination. Since meeting Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur and being introduced to Harvey, I felt as though I was living in a dream, from which I surely would wake up at any moment. Never had I seen such opulence; well perhaps in Harrogate but then I had been much too young to actually experience it. Less than twelve hours previously, but surely a whole lifetime ago, I had left the shabby security of Dale Street to fetch up with a middle-class family on the Isle of Wight, surrounded by material wealth I could never have imagined. Albeit the holiday stay was only for two weeks but how would I re-adjust to life in Chilton at the end of it all?


Chapter 20

After climbing a series of stone steps, access to Belle-Vue was through large double doors opening directly onto a large, stonetiled hallway. To the side of the house was a steep gravelled driveway leading to various outbuildings and a side entrance to the house, presumably the servants’ entrance in earlier times. Returning to the main hallway and continuing past an under-stairs cupboard I was confronted by a low, solid-looking door which led into a long and cosy informal dining room, which doubled up as the everyday, working room. This particular room had a low, beamed ceiling, recessed windows and a large mahogany dining table set against the rear wall. Nestled into a window recess smiled a black telephone (Brading 283). At either end of its length, there were connecting doors, one leading to a well-appointed kitchen and the other to a downstairs, indoor toilet with a wash hand basin. The kitchen was substantial, had every conceivable appliance including a washing machine. A large window looked out on to the extensive garden. A door to the side of the kitchen allowed passage to a small conservatory, the conservatory itself opening on to a pathway leading to the garden. Retracing my steps through the hallway and climbing the spacious staircase I arrived at a roomy L-shaped landing, high ceilinged and light. Spaced along the landing there were a variety of doors leading to four bedrooms and two washrooms. The first floor of Belle-Vue was a mirror image of the ground floor in design. The first bedroom, therefore, sat on top of the study; the master bedroom with a large window seat tucked in the bay, reclined above the breakfast room sharing its stunning view of the


Chapter Twenty garden; and smaller third bedroom lay above the kitchen shared the same view. Running the length of the informal dining room was a bathroom with a basin and toilet and further along, a separate toilet with a wash hand basin. To complete the upstairs layout at the far end of the L perched a huge bedroom directly proportioned to the formal dining room. The garden was large and private. There was a long, manicured lawn with an ornate fishpond and formal flowerbeds. Hidden among the shrubbery were various full-size statues. At the top of the sloping lawn, leading on through a rose archway, stood a small orchard with apple, pear and plum trees. To the side of the orchard Uncle Arthur kept chickens in a well-secured chicken coop. Coming back down towards the house a large area was turned over to the growing of vegetable crops and near the conservatory a small area had been set aside for the cultivation of readily available flowers for the household. A side path running down from the conservatory led to a solid gate, which opened on to the gravelled driveway and the garage. Set tight against the garage wall stood a sizeable, wellstocked greenhouse, complete with water butt and a winter heating facility. Completing the assembly of outbuildings lay a comprehensive range of well-built, brick outhouses, which could only have served as stables, tack-rooms and a carriage maintenance facility. Running above the garage there was a high, dry loft accessible by a stout ladder and trapdoor, which must have been used in the winter months for the storage and preservation of feed and bedding for the animals. Uncle Arthur had converted this loft into a games-room for his son, Arthur, complete with table-tennis and darts. I can think of nothing less suited to have prepared me for the experience of Belle Vue and its lifestyle than a childhood spent


Chapter Twenty in Dale Street. From having no inside toilet, suddenly there were three; from tattered, inadequate rooms to enough spacious accommodation to get lost in; a bath with running hot water; a telephone and a television set; the list was endless. And the private garden with its exploration points, its promises and secrets‌


Chapter twenty one

Belle-Vue was a busy, bustling household. Nine-year-old Arthur attended a private day school in Sandown, three miles along the coast and Andrea, four, was about to join him there. Uncle Arthur’s turf accounting business was also located in Sandown and by midmorning he would disappear for the day, after dealing with both winning and losing bets from the previous day. He knew full well that at twelve o’clock on opening his doors in Sandown, some winning punters would be waiting on the doorstep. Auntie Pat worked with him as his secretary/second-in-charge; consequently she would also leave mid-morning to man the office in Uncle Arthur’s absence. She employed two part-time cleaners for the house, Mrs Dower (Dee-Dee), a local bird-like lady, who came in each morning twittering all the latest village gossip, and Mrs Piper from Sandown who arrived on the bus from Sandown invariably carrying a bottle of Guinness - or two. (“My elevenses, dear!”) The final member of the Lee family was Whisky the dog, whose theoretical home was in the small conservatory, but who in fact spent most of her time indoors either scrounging or pleading to be taken for a walk. She was lovely dog and, although I knew nothing about dogs, we became firm and in many ways, inseparable friends. Uncle Arthur retained two part-time gardeners, one, Mr Pomfret from the village, who invariably appeared with his pushbike, complete with his set of tools and a small black and white Jack Russell riding in the cycle basket, the other being Mr Harvey, noisily announcing his presence with a motor-bike and side-car. Making up the complement of workers was Mrs Piper’s husband,


Chapter Twenty One Stan, the odd-job man who appeared infrequently. Whether the term odd referred to him or his work is open to debate. Stan Piper could well have modelled his outfits and demeanour on Charles Dickens’s Fagin. The clothes were ill-fitting and unclean, his shoes were scuffed and dirty and he walked with a splayed shuffle. His left eye had a permanent squint, adding to his already shifty appearance and his hair suggested that perhaps Mrs Piper had taken a pair of scissors to it whilst holding a glass of Guinness. However, in another book at another time Stan would have received a glowing report. Appearances can be and are totally deceptive and my young son Tim and Stan were to have a magic relationship, the like of which is only possible between the young-minded old and the trusting young. Sunday was the family gardening day, and in addition a local shopkeeper, Jack Morris, would volunteer his digging services for the morning. Obviously the grown-ups must have worked up a mighty thirst because each Sunday lunchtime they would repair to the local public house for refreshment. Ration books were still very much in evidence in 1951 and as the publican also owned the confectionery shop next door it must have seemed a good idea to pick up the family’s weekly sweet ration at the same time. Although busy I think Auntie Pat was genuinely pleased to see us and went out of her way to make us feel at home. During that first week I was put into a bedroom with young Arthur, who to my knowledge never complained about the inconvenience, even though his routine must have been sorely tried and his collection of toys scattered all over the house. Uncle Arthur, for his part I suspect, just wanted a quiet life and providing everyone else was content, he was happy. Despite the ostensibly hectic pace of her life Auntie Pat always found time to talk and listen to me and showed interest in what I had done on a particular day. She seemed a very tactile person and would give me a cuddle for any


Chapter Twenty One obscure reason; when she was at work in Sandown she would encourage me to phone her up, a new skill; I had never used a telephone in my life. A special treat was to watch television in the evening, particularly Sunday evening when there would be a weekly play showing. Television was very much in its infancy and coverage was quite sparse; in fact the plays were probably much too old for me but the encounter was so new and improbable I would have happily sat and watched the test-card. The holiday very quickly settled into a pattern, breakfast followed by a trip down into the village looking for postcards to send to my friends in Chilton. Then back to Belle-Vue with its unending garden to explore, outbuildings to examine and fallen fruit to pick. It was during this period that I came to know Whisky, a sweet and gentle dog, and with her securely attached to her lead, I was trusted to walk her up on to Brading Downs. The view from the downs was akin to being airborne, the fields a panoramic quilt below; Sandown Bay with its vast expanse of water and proud pier jutting into the sea, welcoming some visiting pleasure craft. And further round the Bay a continuous stream of birds heading to and from Brading marshes. Whisky loved the scent of rabbits, the foraging in the undergrowth and the sheer exuberance of being a dog. I, in turn, loved her companionship, her trust and the temporary feeling of our independence. I never did tell anyone but very quickly I demonstrated my faith in her; I let her off the lead to give her the freedom she deserved to sniff and investigate at her leisure. Never once did she let me down. And, needless to say, within that two week break I never did get to Fratton Park to see the all-conquering Portsmouth FC‌ Meanwhile back at the house, Mrs Dower and Mrs Piper would


Chapter Twenty One go about their daily chores, the dining-room table would be cleared and Uncle Arthur would start his daily work routine of dealing with the previous day’s bets. All of the wagers would be laid out, the table taking on the appearance of a paper chase. The stake money was counted and the winning slips sorted from the losing bets. The unsuccessful chits were put to one side but kept for future reference, the amount of winnings calculated for each winning bet and, along with the winning chit, dropped into a secure leather bag. Although technically bets could be on anything, 99.99% were either on horse or dog-racing. During that two-week spell I became quite familiar with betting parlance accumulator; treble; double; each-way; starting price; odds-on and many more; terms, which are still in general use to this day. In many ways, early 1950s turf-accounting was a rather clandestine affair. Other than actually placing a bet at a particular racecourse the only legal alternative to having a wager was through a turf accountant’s credit system. From a bookmaker’s point of view the disadvantage of this system was obvious; by nature gamblers were eternal optimists and the next gamble was always going to be the big winner, which of course it wasn’t. Consequently the credit punter’s debt could easily escalate within an agreed credit period, often becoming unmanageable and in instances, unpayable. From a bookmaker’s stance, credit betting was a high-risk strategy, and many of them carried bad debts. On the other hand the average working man was neither used to, nor wanted credit and was quite content to pay as he went along. Although illegal this led to the proliferation of the ‘bookies’ runner’. The runner would gather all bets from an agreed place, usually a pub, check the stake against the wager, and deposit the accepted bets into a bag. The bag in turn was passed on to the


Chapter Twenty One bookmaker before the commencement of the day’s racing. The next morning the system was reversed, the bookmaker would return the winning bets to the runner, who would disburse any winnings. This then was very much part of Uncle Arthur’s daily routine; having opened the office he would undertake a round of the pubs returning slips and collecting the current day’s tally. His presence in these bars achieved two things, firstly he was on hand to settle any disputes and secondly he was in a position to build up a trust and rapport with his everyday punters. The police must have been aware of these activities but turned a blind eye; the transactions hurt nobody and business was always conducted with an observed protocol. Within days I was totally seduced by Belle-Vue and its accompanying aura. I loved the large rooms, the large, unfolding garden and the air of easy sophistication that the family exuded. There was a general feeling of a purpose within the household and I was flattered by the attention I received. Suddenly I realised, with some surprise and not a little passing guilt, that I was looking for something more from this visit; I desperately wanted to be part of this family.


Chapter Twenty Two

The two-week holiday slid easily into four or five weeks and during that time I became even more determined not to return to my previous life in Chilton. Auntie Pat seemed quite willing to accept us as part of her family, Ruth would soon be a working young lady anyway and I assumed that I would fit seamlessly into the family. During that holiday period discussions must have taken place between Auntie Pat, our father, and our mam. As mam had been responsible for our upbringing thus far I’m sure that she would have had the final say into the feasibility and acceptability of the move. Later mam confided to our Doreen that she only ever had our best interests at heart and she considered that I would have a distinct advantage of furthering my education down South with its affluence and better career prospects. How difficult it was for her to make that decision I will never know but I’m sure that she must have agonised as to what was best for me and was probably a little hurt and surprised that I’d even considered such a step. It was finally settled that our Ruth would stay with the family and I would return to Chilton, complete the school term at Spennymoor - a matter of four or five weeks - and then transfer to Sandown Grammar School for the beginning of the Spring term. Whether our mam contributed towards the expense and upkeep of my living at Belle-Vue I can only guess. My thoughts would be that she didn’t directly; I don’t think Auntie Pat would have accepted it; she had an ethic (often misguided) of helping perceived ‘lame-ducks’ within the Stretton family and our mam would most certainly have qualified as such a case. (“Poor little Kitty!”)


Chapter Twenty Two What Uncle Arthur thought about the whole arrangement I have no idea; as I grew to know him better I believe his initial reaction may well have been one of ambivalence but that he was willing to accept the judgement of Auntie Pat, knowing full well that he would have little to do with the day to day running of my life. Periodically the Lee family would take the car onto the mainland and visit Grandma and Grampy Stretton in Berkhamsted; such a visit coincided with my agreed return to Chilton. Once the journey had been confirmed it was acknowledged that I would spend one night at 15 Ellesmere Road and the following morning journey to King’s Cross, there picking up the express train to Darlington. Unbeknown to both Ruth and myself there was also a planned social call to our father in Yateley. To this day it is still unclear what necessitated this stop-over. Whether it was normal procedure on their Berkhamsted trips, whether Auntie Pat needed to see her brother or whether she thought Ruth and I would enjoy the contact has never been satisfactorily explained. What I do know is that it demonstrated a remarkable lack of sensitivity and even now I can’t understand why these grown-ups couldn’t foresee the crassness of their particularly ill-conceived action. The day duly arrived; we boarded the car ferry to Portsmouth and subsequently headed for Berkhamsted with, from my viewpoint, this surprise stop in Yateley. My own feelings towards the journey were quite mixed, on the one hand I was excited by the a long car trip – my first - but on the other hand distressed by the thought of returning to Chilton even though it was to be only temporary. The drive up country was trouble free and we speedily arrived in Yateley, where Uncle Arthur pulled Harvey into the kerb outside a nondescript, shabby house. The front door opened and our father greeted us. He ushered us all indoors to a small,


Chapter Twenty Two overcrowded sitting room, where in the next second I was about to confront a spectacle which initially had no meaning at all to me, but in a very short time would dismiss my childhood innocence and forever question my attitude towards trust. Standing by the side of my father on the worn carpet was a woman who glanced nervously at Ruth and me, obviously embarrassed by our presence, but who seemed quite comfortable with the attendance of Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur. Playing on the floor behind the woman were four young children whose ages ranged from about two to eight who clearly knew my father well. “Who are all these people?” I thought to myself, at which opportune moment Auntie Pat introduced us to the strangers saying, “This is Betty and these are your four half-brothers and sisters!” naming them Mary, Brian, Barbara and Trevor. The often-quoted cliché in all good – and not so good - novels is that time stood still. Well, it did just that for me, dear reader. I have said elsewhere that I was extremely naïve and I had no comprehension or inkling that our father could or would be living a separate existence, raising a second family. It was also quite apparent even to me that this was no casual affair, the ages of the children alone signified a permanent, calculated relationship. Later our Ruth said that she was quite uncomfortable and unsettled with the whole incident – she also had no idea of our father’s duplicity. I was shocked and disbelieving, while at the same time feeling betrayed. The final thoughtless indifference to this bizarre incident was that Ruth and I were expected to play with these newly found relatives whilst the grown-ups had a cup of tea and a chat! It was also right there in that small room that I finally lost any lingering fear that I harboured towards my father, to be replaced by my somewhat muddled emotions of resentment, disrespect and antipathy. Never again would I allow


Chapter Twenty Two him to invade my life, nor would I ever forgive him for the blatantly cavalier and shabby way he had treated my valued and vulnerable family unit over the years. And I never did forgive him; I believe that our Ruth with a much more sensible and Christian outlook eventually reached some closure. I know little about Betty save that she was an orphan and our father most likely met her through a family acquaintance, Clarrie, whom our mam had worked alongside whilst living in Berkhamsted. The chances are that Betty and my father were already in some form of relationship before our mam left Berkhamsted for the North, a suspicion borne out by the conjectured age of the eldest child, Mary. Life could never have been easy for Betty either before or after meeting our father, the house we visited in Yateley being reminiscent of 50 Dale Street but more crowded with the addition of a bad-tempered and unpredictable partner. At the time of our fateful visit there were four children in the already overcrowded house, later there were two more children, Mandy and Stanley, to complete the union. Over the years there were occasions when various members of the Stretton family attempted to effect a conciliation of sorts between Betty’s family and myself, not least from the children themselves. I always resisted such approaches. I have no doubt that this attitude would have been seen as churlish, vindictive and vengeful. Nothing could be further from the truth. On a purely personal level I have always felt sorry for Betty and her children; life can’t have been pleasant for them growing up in Yateley. They must have experienced a sapping poverty similar to our own, as well as having to contend with my father’s unacceptable temper and tantrums. The children have, to their credit, overcome their disadvantaged start and all seem well balanced and successful in their chosen careers.


Chapter Twenty Two My reasons for rejecting any these diplomatic approaches are complex, confused and yet inherently instinctive. The premise for this conviction is an unswerving and unchangeable loyalty to our mam. By acknowledging closeness to this second family I would have been allowing some sort of respectability in my father’s actions and that could never be right. I felt that our mam deserved much better. Perhaps if our first meeting had been treated with more forethought and perception the outcome could have been different but I was never about to be pressured by the Strettons into a position I wasn’t comfortable with. Eventually the embarrassing and ill-conceived visit came to an end and we made our way to Grandma Stretton’s where I spent a confused evening before returning North. In the course of the afternoon I had been introduced to four half-siblings, my perspective on life had been altered dramatically and I had no desire to return to Chilton. Early next morning we made our way down past the canal to Berkhamsted railway station, where some years before our mam had set out on an identical journey to remove us from the threat of violence and introduce us to a more acceptable life. The irony was completely lost on me that I was now about to complete the passage in reverse and end my association with Chilton, where in my short life I had found some degree of stability and security. We took the train into London, spent the morning tube-hopping and shopping. Shopping in London with its large and impressive stores - Selfridges, Hamleys, Gamages - was completely novel to me, which under different circumstances would have been a noteworthy occasion. Because of the nature of my forthcoming return trip I’m sure that I was spoilt that morning. Uncle Arthur bought me a football in Selfridges, a gift which five or six weeks


Chapter Twenty Two before I could only have imagined and would have vaunted endlessly among my friends in Chilton. To complete the morning and for a special treat, we had a meal of fish and chips served with bread and butter and pot of tea at a Lyon’s Corner House in Oxford Street. Lyon’s Corner Houses were, at that time, national treasures and had earned over the years a reputation for cleanliness, fair pricing and attention to customer satisfaction. Their waiting staff was highly trained, efficient and affectionately known throughout the country as ‘nippies’, presumably because of their nimbleness between the tables. Finally I was taken to King’s Cross station and set on the prearranged express train bound for Darlington, where I was to be met by Aunt Florrie. The trip passed in a blur of misery and I was duly deposited back in Dale Street to complete the school term, while our mam made the necessary arrangements for my departure.


Chapter twenty three

I never did complete the term at Spennymoor, in fact I never returned to the school, not even for one day. Consequently I never got to thank the teachers who had inspired my thirst for learning, nor did I say good-bye to my grammar school friends. Of equal importance, not setting foot outside 50 Dale Street during my brief return, I never said goodbye to any of my staunch and faithful Chilton friends who had shared in all my experiences - both good and bad - since my arrival in Chilton. Not once had they sneered at my obvious poverty nor resented my moving on to the ‘posh’ grammar school. Harry Drake, my constant football companion, was left with an unfinished Subbuteo football league, a half-completed Subbuteo Cup competition and he had lost a travelling companion to see his beloved Middlesbrough playing football at Ayresome Park. My aunts and uncles who had been kind, gracious and hospitable throughout my life in Chilton also received the same treatment. Our mam, as ever, seemed to take it all in her stride. I must have been appalling to live with during that short spell, sulking and grizzling with an unconcealed impatience to re-join the Lee family on the Isle of Wight. Deep down she must have been terribly hurt by my attitude, after all I had always been her chosen favourite and here I was blatantly turning my back on my old life and everything connected with it. Mam never outwardly showed this hurt however; she positively assisted my speedy departure and must have accomplished a great deal of organising behind the scenes to make my transition to a new life as smooth as possible. Over the years I have come to feel deeply ashamed of this very


Chapter Twenty Three short but significant period in my boyhood; the shabby way I ignored all previous kindnesses and friendships in my self-centred obsession to escape to another life. Each and every one of these people were worthy of, and deserved, much more considerate treatment; in most cases I was never to see any of these warmhearted and considerate folk again. And so on a grey, cold, early December morning I found myself on Darlington railway station yet again, this time eager to be reacquainted with Belle-Vue, its occupants and its seductive charms. Whilst fretfully waiting on the platform, although too young to appreciate the full significance of my actions, I think I realised that this was the end of an important chapter in my upbringing and the beginning of a new - and as yet untried - stage. What I didn’t realise then of course was that this was the inevitable good-bye to our mam; she would always be there should I need her but from now on she would cease to be a direct influence on my life and daily decisions would be made which were beyond her control. Unlike our Ruth’s experience, Chilton had been kind to me and with the exception of Granny Attwood and to some extent Granny Alderton in Reeth, people had shown me warmth and generosity at all times. My North-Eastern aunts and to a lesser degree uncles showed a fondness and caring from the outset, in fact some of my happiest and lasting memories are the many occasions I stayed with Aunt Ruth in Sedgefield or Uncle John in Grinton. Although my stay in Chilton was only eight or nine years, it represented the lion’s share of my growing up and although poverty was our constant companion, during that period I captured a stability to my life which I had never known before and the fear of random, pointless beatings was securely left in Berkhamsted.


Chapter Twenty Three Naturally none of these things occurred to me on that grey, December morning in 1951. My immediate future was hungrily beckoning and refused to go unheeded. It was only later when I had arrived at some form of maturity did I realise the total affection that I carried for Chilton and its people with their simple philosophies, decency and transparent friendliness. To this day I unashamedly regard the North East and Chilton in particular as my spiritual home. In this instance the atmosphere of the station - the incessant bustle of people and the appeal of the majestic steaming locomotives - failed to excite me. Accepting the momentous nature of the occasion, it was unsurprising that my mind would be elsewhere. Enthusiastic as I was to join a new family there had to be moments of apprehension; new school, new friends and a new environment where there was hot water on tap, a proper bathroom and a pervading air of opulence. There being no point in her returning to Chilton our Ruth had stayed behind in Berkhamsted - in fact had celebrated her sixteenth birthday in Ellesmere Road - and I missed her companionship for this long journey. We had shared so many defining moments together that it seemed strange for me to be embarking on this one by myself. I was met at King’s Cross station by a smiling Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur, our small party returning not to the Island but to Berkhamsted, where their family holiday was coming to a conclusion. I was both relieved and delighted to see the whole family again, I could finally believe that the events of the past month were not make-believe and that I really was about to start a new life in a family unit. Grandma and Grampy Stretton were delighted to see us all together again. I am quite sure that Grandma thought that ‘God had worked in His mysterious way’ and had finally seen fit to


Chapter Twenty Three return both Ruth and myself to the bosom of the Stretton family. As they both made frequent visits to Belle-Vue Grandma wasn’t in the slightest bit fazed at the fact that we were all about to leave her at the end of the family holiday. Early next morning with suitcases packed and I would think my impatience showing, we said our goodbyes to Grandma and Grampy, piled into Harvey and headed for Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight car-ferry. Although our birthplace, 15 Ellesmere Road held few happy memories for me; I was to stay there just once more and to my knowledge our Ruth never set foot in the place again. We made good progress to Portsmouth and across to the Island, traffic being relatively light. In 1951 it was impossible to imagine there would be an ever-increasing volume of vehicles on the roads, which would eventually strangle every major route not only in England but also in the majority of the world. On the way to Belle-Vue we called in at Mr Pomfret’s house to collect Whisky where she had been staying during our vacation on the mainland. This arrangement worked well, Whisky was already acquainted and comfortable with Fred Pomfret from his weekly gardening employment and Mr Pomfret, having a Jack Russell terrier of his own understood the needs of Whisky. Money probably changed hands, which from Mr Pomfret’s standpoint would have made the bargain even more favourable. Whisky was ecstatic to be re-united with her real family and tried to lick everyone in sight, her tail wagging like an overworked metronome. On arrival at Belle-Vue she immediately scampered all round the garden making sure that nothing had changed during her absence and obviously pleased to be back on familiar territory. For myself I already regarded the house as an old, durable friend and I was delighted to be back but in all honesty at that transitional period I couldn’t bring myself to call it home, an emotion with which I was quite comfortable.


Chapter Twenty four

The next few weeks are something of a blur. The excitement of settling into a new home and a new routine, registering at my new school and being kitted-out in a new school uniform, preparation for Christmas which was a matter of weeks away, are all jumbled pieces in that bewildering period. Christmas clearly was a significant and eagerly anticipated occasion within the Lee household, the large formal dining room being taken over for the festive period and preparation soon started after our arrival back from Berkhamsted. Firstly a vast amount of coloured crepe paper appeared which had to be cut into narrow strips and in some cases glued together to achieve the required length. These strips were hung all round the room from the moulded coving, each piece being a measured distance from the next. Finally the free ends were gently twisted and attached to the ornate chandelier in the centre of the ceiling, each strip having the requisite and matching sag in the middle. The result was a multi-coloured festive canopy, which immediately transformed the formality of the room. Uncle Arthur was in charge of this operation – as he was of all the Christmas decorating – and although a long and occasionally tedious task, the outcome was amazing and an obvious labour of love. The “Christmas” box would then appear, a large cardboard affair that contained all the previous year’s accessories. Out came all the perennial favourites, the hanging, decorative paper balls and bells, and the concertinaed wall decorations. Suddenly these often forgotten baubles, which for most of the year had lain flattened in their cardboard prison, when opened out and hung in their appropriate positions came to life and took on a natural elegance, particularly when gently twirling with an up-current of warm air.


Chapter Twenty Four The nearby, long informal living room was given virtually the same treatment without the meticulous attention to detail which had been lavished on the larger room; the decoration to both rooms was then completed by the addition of holly sprigs, an ample supply of which was readily available in the garden. Finally a large, fresh Christmas tree arrived complete with roots and was delivered into the stable/garage. A suitable container had already been earmarked by Mr Pomfret and with a considerable amount of help and panting both tree and container were moved into the space provided in the now festooned formal dining room. The tree was set in its container; the container then filled with a mixture of soil and garden compost which was to be kept moist throughout the festive period. Auntie Pat was in charge of decking-out the Christmas tree. This she skilfully achieved with an assortment of coloured glass balls, shining stars and a collection of glittering gewgaws, each piece hanging from selected branches. Silver tinsel was then draped randomly throughout and small pieces of cotton-wool added to represent snowflakes. Uncle Arthur then attached the Christmas fairy complete with wand, in her rightful position on the apex and finished off by outlining the whole Christmas tree with illuminated candles, cleverly hiding the electric wire within the foliage. Majestically standing in the corner of the room by the large window the effect was dramatic and completed the atmosphere of bold revelry and the feeling of ‘goodwill to all men’. (I am by no means an expert on Christmas tradition either past or present but my feeling is that in 1951 artificial trees were unheard of and if a household required a tree to decorate it would have been the real thing. With post-war austerity it is highly unlikely that there would have been an abundance of manufactured seasonal adornments for sale and equally as


Chapter Twenty Four unlikely that working-class households in particular could have afforded to buy them anyway. Most homes would have – as in the case of the Lee family, whom I never considered working-class – used a combination of home-made decoration and more expensive heirlooms passed from generation to generation. Today, of course, Christmas is a vast, profitable enterprise with tempting seasonal goods and cards appearing in shop windows as early as September. The range of products and services on offer are infinite, pre-decorated artificial trees, gift-wrapping, delivery services, prepared festive party snacks and so much more. This may well suit the modern family lifestyle but I have a sneaky feeling that, no matter what else, Christmas today is nowhere near as much fun). Completely unused to such preparation, expense and family involvement it was one of the many things that I found both exciting yet strangely unsettling. Christmases in Chilton had always been low–key affairs, mam certainly wouldn’t have had either the funds or the expertise to deck out the house, and the flimsy weight of paper-chains could well have brought the whole ceiling down anyway! I have a vague memory that the Cliftons in Harrogate had gone to great trouble to make the occasion special for us and had thoughtfully provided a decorated tree. Other than that I remember very little about earlier Christmases; I do remember receiving a Jacob’s ladder (a fascinating piece of engineered woodwork) and a large hand-made aeroplane painstakingly sculpted by whom I can’t remember. It was also sometime during this period that I developed an unease at accepting presents face to face, an attitude I retain to this day; I have never learnt how to graciously accept a gift without feeling great embarrassment. That’s not to say I don’t greatly enjoy receiving them, particularly the variety so cunningly wrapped


Chapter Twenty Four that despite all the pinching and pressing defy identification! Somewhere between this flurry of activity I was fitted for a new school uniform and all the required accessories, Sandown Grammar School being very keen on a school-cap. I was further treated to two new shirts, two new pairs of socks and two pairs of underpants, which I must admit I had never, certainly since living in Chilton, possessed. I also met Mr Northover, the headmaster in his study, who impressed on me – or more accurately – lectured me on the School’s rules, expectations and academic achievements. Why, I have often asked myself, did all these headmasters of the period have to be so pompous and unapproachable? Mr Northover conformed to that pattern.


Chapter Twenty Five

And suddenly it was Christmas Eve. All the preparations and last minute shopping had been completed and it was clear that young Arthur and Andrea were excited and impatient for the arrival of Christmas morning. The custom in the family was that the children would wake up on Christmas morning to find a filled pillowcase at the bottom of their beds, with gifts that had been left behind in the night by Father Christmas. Further family presents had been added, the balance being lodged under the Christmas tree and would be opened later in the day. Mystifyingly Auntie Pat had also provided me with a pillowcase (I was fourteen for Heaven’s sake!) which contained the obligatory tangerine, apple, an assortment of nuts, a few sweets – they were still on ration – and some school essentials such as pencils, a pen, a rubber and surprisingly, a protractor. Whether this was because she assumed I still believed in Father Christmas or to preserve the illusion for Arthur and Andrea I don’t know. I have never asked our Ruth if she received a visit from Santa Claus but I would have thought at sixteen she had been removed from his calling list, although knowing Auntie Pat, more unaccountable things have happened. The whole day to me was like a page from a Dickens novel. A blazing log fire was lit in the large dining room’s ornate fireplace, the subsequent updraught causing the many decorations, particularly the hanging paper balls and bells to pirouette and sway with festal merriment. The dancing flames cast their light on the tree’s dangling baubles giving them the appearance of mischievously winking at any passer-by. A small, folding table


Chapter Twenty Five had been set up in one corner of the room, the top covered with a festive table-cloth and on it placed a variety of drinks, glasses and what today would be called nibbles. It occurred to me that there was an awful lot of drink and nibbles for one household, especially as three of us were children excluding our Ruth, who at sixteen certainly must have considered herself grown-up. My innocent reflection almost immediately resolved itself when at eleven o’clock precisely the doorbell rang and the first caller arrived. Unbeknown to me it was the custom at Belle-Vue for Uncle Arthur’s business acquaintances and friends to assemble for a Christmas morning drink. First to arrive was Dr. Harrison, the family’s doctor, followed closely by Mr Fletcher the dentist and then in quick succession Mr Saunders, the local coal merchant (affectionately known as Sooty), George Stay, the blacksmith – more about him later – and Jack Morris, the Brading sweet-shop owner and Sunday morning gardening volunteer. Throughout the morning various people arrived and left, most of whom I’d never seen before but I do clearly remember seeing both of the gardeners, Fred Pomfret and Mr Harding metaphorically, perhaps unconsciously, doffing their caps proving to me that feudalism wasn’t quite yet dead. Auntie Pat introduced me to a variety of callers as either her ‘adopted’ son or nephew (the former was never to be true) depending on her frame of mind; all very confusing to a young lad. I’m sure our Ruth never suffered this confusion, she was only a transient member of the household and would soon be moving on. By one-thirty the last stragglers had departed and the long, polished wooden table was laid up for Christmas dinner. A most impressive sight. We all sat down to the table, I’m sure there was seven of us, the four members of the Lee family, Ruth and I, and Uncle Arthur’s Aunt Rose on holiday from Berkhamsted. The meal was


Chapter Twenty Five very traditional, turkey and all the trimmings with Uncle Arthur carving at the table, a flaming Christmas pudding with a brandy sauce – “Go on, Boyce, you’ll find that you like it”. And I did! – followed by hot mince pies and a cup of coffee. We all wore paper hats and pulled crackers, laughing at the dreadful joke contained in each and oohing and aahing at each worthless gift. Just before three o’ clock the radio was switched on and tuned in, in preparation for the King’s Christmas address. In the early ‘fifties the majority of the population was fiercely royalist, not least because of the King and Queen’s high profile throughout the war. It was not uncommon to see them both in the East End of London, particularly after a heavy bombing raid, clambering over the debris and ruins, talking to the rescue services and sympathising with the civilian population, many who had been rendered homeless in the blitz. This and the fact the young Princess Elizabeth had put on a uniform and worked alongside ordinary folk endeared them to the British public. Uncle Arthur and Auntie Pat were no exception and on the stroke of three o’clock with the first beats of the National Anthem the grown-ups stood up ramrod straight. This surprised me, not because I wasn’t aware that people stood during the playing of the anthem but that they actually stood in their own homes halfway through a meal. In the cinema it was understood that at the end of the last performance of the day the National Anthem would be played and every single person would stand proudly and silently throughout its entirety; not one person, to my knowledge, ever attempted an early exit. I hurriedly got up and joined the standing adults round the table, whether ramrod straight is another story. (Not that it has anything directly to do with my story but this was, poignantly, to be King George VI’s last Christmas broadcast, in fact it was the only address during his whole reign which was


Chapter Twenty Five pre-recorded. He was already a very sick man and died in February 1952, the young Queen Elizabeth inheriting all of his duties, including the Christmas address). After the dinner table was cleared and the washing up completed, games were the order of the day, the principal one I remember being a horse-racing based game, which although exciting had the added advantage that the whole family could join in. I could immediately see that it had been an expensive toy to buy, consisting of a green baize racetrack complete with running lanes, start and finishing posts and obstacles all of which were secured to the long table. To this could be added up to ten metal racehorses complete with jockeys. Both the jockeys and the horses had been fashioned to a very high standard, the horses each having an authentic, distinctive hue and the mounted jockeys sporting a variety of racing colours with multi-coloured hooped, striped, or quartered jerseys. I don’t remember the exact rules but having selected a horse the game was controlled by the throwing of a dice and the luck (or skill as it was called for the purpose of the race) of negotiating the obstacles. The winner was the first past the post, by what distance – lengths – being calculated using the segmented running lanes. (For some time after the break I puzzled over why anyone should buy such an expensive present when a cheaper edition would have been just as acceptable to a young child. To add to my perplexity when after Christmas I went round the house in search of this expensive game, it was nowhere to be found among all the other toys and pastimes. Some months later I think I solved the mystery, although I never did put my theory to the test. Inadvertently I had discovered that Uncle Arthur belonged to a poker school, which met at regular intervals, the players taking it in turns to host the event. I know that the school consisted


Chapter Twenty Five entirely of business acquaintances. I firmly believe that when it was Uncle Arthur’s turn to play host, the horse-racing game would be produced as a diversion, pennies almost certainly being wagered as to who would win and by how much. It would have appealed to Uncle Arthur’s sense of irony that as a bookmaker by day, he should be a racecourse owner by night! Perhaps the original toys for (big) boys!) With interest in the variety of games waning, tea was next on the agenda. This was much less formal than Christmas dinner, although the table was lavishly laid up and paper hats were worn and crackers pulled. The jokes in the crackers were still excruciatingly unfunny and the gifts still worthless. Tea consisted of a selection of sandwiches, hot homemade mince- pies and a large, decorated, iced Christmas cake also made by Auntie Pat. There was plenty of lemonade and cups of tea on offer. I always preferred tea, a taste which I had acquired at an early age from our mam and shows no sign of diminishing even today. After tea was the time for a closer inspection of my Christmas presents. Understandably most had been school based but I do recall receiving a rather large unsightly, collared pullover, claret in colour. Our Ruth had received, among other things, an elegant dress and at that moment I realised that although forever my sister, Ruth was now a young woman and would never again participate in my childhood adventures. In the morning Ruth had accompanied Aunt Rose to Brading’s historical St Mary’s church; whether she had found God or used the occasion to show off her fashionable, new dress only our Ruth could tell you. So came to an end a Christmas Day perfect and memorable for a variety of reasons. I was truly happy, felt secure in my new family and I loved the new-found attention. Unfortunately during the next year I was to find that happiness is an extremely


Chapter Twenty Five capricious commodity and by the following Christmas although the decorations, tree and burning log fire were all in place, my disillusionment had already manifested itself. Next day, Boxing Day, was one of the busiest days in the racing calendar, there having been no meetings on Christmas Day; for Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur the holiday was over and they returned to their very busy office in Sandown. This didn’t affect my spirits, or the rest of the gathered family; I took Whisky for walks up on the downs, wrote to our mam with my new fountain pen and played games with anyone I could persuade to join in. New Year’s Eve arrived without the importance that it carried in Chilton, no first-footing and therefore no extra pocket-money for me. I was still allowed to stay up until midnight to see in the New Year and sing Auld Lang Syne with the grown-ups, I think I actually had a glass of alcoholic ginger beer. 1952 not so much crept in but more galloped in on a wave of discordant singing, a year which would see my attitudes change and my childlike dreams punctured. However, at the dawn of the year I never foresaw any of this coming and at the time, my life couldn’t have been more satisfying or the future more eagerly looked forward to with an innocent anticipation. A few days later we dismantled all the signs of Christmas activity; Auntie Pat stripped the Christmas tree and carefully stowed the glass balls and trinkets. Uncle Arthur disassembled the lights, gently handling them to avoid breaking the electric candle lights. He then placed the fairy back into her cotton-wool lined box, took down and folded up the paper balls and bells; finally the whole impressive display was methodically and lovingly consigned into the ‘Christmas’ box, where they would hibernate for twelve months and be completely forgotten. Mr Pomfret took the tree and planted it at the top of the garden, where it gave years of succour to our local birds.


Chapter Twenty Five It is a small, sad period, the conclusion of Christmas; the once appealing rooms now appear bare and hostile and in some houses goodwill seems to be packed away with the decorations.


Chapter Twenty Six

During the first week in January, with a deal of trepidation I joined the Spring term at Sandown Grammar School. This involved a short daily bus ride, although alternatively I could board the train from Brading station. The bus-stop was near to Belle-Vue in the bullring; on the other hand it was a long walk from the bus in Sandown High Street to the Grammar School. Conversely it was a long walk – albeit downhill – from Belle-Vue to Brading station but conveniently the station in Sandown was nearly adjacent to the school. Later, when I was more familiar with the area, I would take to walking to school, a distance of about three miles; as I paid for my own school journeys this was a considerable saving on my pocket money. (Perhaps there is some truth that Grandma Stretton’s ancestors were of Jewish extraction!) I reported to the headmaster’s study where the school secretary escorted me to my new class in the fourth form. Mr Holden, the form master was obviously prepared for me and introduced me to the expectant class, a most embarrassing experience. I don’t know if the class had ever seen anyone from the North before but all eyes would turn to me at every opportunity, or so it seemed to me. Mr Holden assigned a class member, John Scholar, to me for the day, his job to chaperone me through every aspect of a school day. I clearly recall that the first lesson proper was an English language lesson heralded by an end of period bell and with all the obligatory noisiness and exuberance of youth, Form 4b migrated further along the corridor. And again with a distinct feeling of déjà vu I was transported to my early days at Chilton primary


Chapter Twenty Six school; I found that 4b had a job to understand (this time!) my broad Geordie accent and the name, Boyce, created its usual initial problems. The school, a Victorian building, was relatively small, not unfriendly looking with a sloping playground containing a bikeshed and a woodwork classroom, which also doubled as the school army-cadet training room. Whether by accident or design, Mr Maybe the woodwork teacher was also Commanding Officer of the cadet force. Moving out of the school-gate and across the railway line past Sandown station stood the school playing fields consisting of a football pitch, a cricket square with its accompanying outfield, an athletics track and a rugby facility which was shared with the local rugby club. Complementing all this was a sturdy changing-room, which in the summer also doubled as the cricket pavilion. Further on, at the far end of the playing fields stood the postwar constructed Secondary Modern School, a large, glass and brick building, which dominated the landscape. By the early 1950’s Sandown Grammar had clearly outgrown its available space and to alleviate the squeeze, the school dining facilities had been transferred and was shared with the modern Secondary school. This involved for all dining-at-school pupils of which I was one, a daily trip across the railway line and around the perimeter of the playing fields to the spacious dining-hall. I think uniquely in the history of school children I quite liked school-dinners, and even had a taste for tapioca and semolina. One lunchtime, having attended the school for perhaps two or three days, I was walking back from dinner alone, not yet having made any comfortable friends, when I approached a group of boys, some from 4b, kicking a football about in the area of the practice goal area. Just as I was opposite the goalmouth, Fate intervened


Chapter Twenty Six causing one of the boys to miskick the greasy ball straight towards me. Although the ball arrived to me at an awkward height, without thinking I brought it under control with my left foot and returned it in one smooth movement to the feet of the unfortunate player some twenty yards away. In the time it took the ball to arrive back into the group my popularity in the school was assured. I could play football! And it didn’t matter if they couldn’t understand my accent or that my Christian name was Boyce. Two of the ‘kickabout’ players, John Saunders and Don Bartlett, members of my form and also part of elite 1st team XI passed my name on to the sports master who immediately drafted me into the squad. I promptly secured a place in the 1st team, a position I held for the remainder of my time at the school. We were like young gladiators, taking on and beating all-comers, our mode of transport being the railway, which took us all over the Island. There was a certain prestige in belonging to the football team and an added cachet that we were all-conquering. I was acknowledged by teachers, as well as prefects who would in normal circumstances have ignored me. After the football-kicking incident I quickly settled into school routine and sorted out the classes I liked and the ones I didn’t. Loved English and Maths (with gratitude to my teachers in Spennymoor), hated biology and religious instruction. I was – and still am – absolutely useless at woodwork but Mr Maybe was a cheerful and understanding person and because of him I actually joined the school cadet force, not for any jingoistic reason but more that it seemed my best option of extra-curricula activity and the school provided the uniform. I soon realised that a section of boys in 4b had a reputation for waywardness and they had made dumb insolence an art form long before I even knew it existed. That is not to say they were bad, more exuberant; one went on to become


Chapter Twenty Six a respected headmaster, one a teacher of severely handicapped children in Australia, and at least two held positions of responsibility in the Royal Navy. The hidden trap of perceived vulnerable popularity is the fear of losing it, and being vulnerable at the time I tended to fringe the wayward crowd, particularly as three or four of the students also belonged to the football team. Two things of significance happened in January of that year. Firstly, our Ruth finally left Belle-Vue and took up residence in nurses’ accommodation about four miles further round the coast in the town of Shanklin. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that we had been through a great deal together over the years and unconsciously I heavily relied on her presence. It wasn’t until she was no longer there that I realised I missed her and although she visited Belle-Vue periodically the unique bond that we had always maintained was to some extent fractured. Ruth pursued her career, met John, married and had a family, meanwhile I embraced the uncomplicated life of a bachelor, finally marrying when I was twenty eight and it wasn’t until the late 1960s we finally became firmly re-acquainted and slowly welded that severed bond. Secondly, although not yet an established thought, I developed a faint, uneasy feeling that just maybe my Utopian dream of being unconditionally part of this ideal family wasn’t really happening.


Chapter twenty seven

One of the first manifestations of my latent ill-ease was concerning the matter of gym lessons at school. The mode of dress for PE, among other things, was white plimsolls; not only did I not possess white plimsolls, I had no plimsolls at all. It says much for the fragility of my newly discovered confidence concerning my place within the Lee family that I found that I couldn’t tell them my problem. I don’t know why, perhaps I didn’t want to be seen to be impinging on their goodwill. The outcome was that every week from mid-January until the Easter break I wrote myself a sicknote asking to be excused PE for a variety of reasons and signed the notes variously Arthur Lee or Winifred Lee (Auntie Pat). Mr Wilkinson, the sports master, to his eternal credit, must have had a deep-seated streak of compassion, never once did he query my home-grown ailments although it must have been blatantly obvious that these notes were bogus; I didn’t have the mature handwriting of an adult and why did Mr and Mrs Lee have almost identical writing styles? And how come that no matter how incapacitated I was on PE day, by the arrival of games day the same week I had made a spectacular recovery and never once missed a games (football) lesson? This episode surely led to my being drawn into the wilful group. They knew full well that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my health and saw my continual absence in the gym class as an act of supreme rebellion when in truth I was anything but rebellious. It was vital to me, however, that not under any circumstance should anyone be aware of the true reason for my apparent defiance.


Chapter Twenty Seven The group’s disobedience was generally mild in nature and took a variety of guises, by far the most popular being that of practised dumb insolence. One of the younger teachers would be chosen for this treatment and mercilessly stretched to their limits of patience. Failing to do set homework by the required time and making the most absurd excuses for failure to complete it was quite popular, again the teacher for the baiting being carefully selected. Perhaps the most audacious was missing a class completely; biology was a favourite. When the bell rang for a change of period and 4b snaked down the corridor for biology two or three conspirators would innocently saunter towards the school gates. Should the absence be noticed (which I think surprisingly was only once or twice and never during my escapade) it was the duty of the remaining gang members to explain their friends’ nonappearance. The class-dodgers, meanwhile, headed for Joan Frost’s ‘greasy-spoon’ café down by the station, where a single cigarette and a mug of tea could be bought. (I was already an occasional smoker of long standing from my days in Chilton). By the end of the biology period the form had been rejoined as it meandered to the next period of the day. I must admit that I always remained on the periphery of these and other inappropriate activities, neither brave enough nor confident enough to be in the centre of their misdemeanours. Nevertheless it was important to be seen as a fellow-member as I had unconsciously established myself as a rebel and I did just enough not to lose that reputation. And, of course, I always attended the end-of-day detentions with the same persistence as the other miscreants. In fact I did so many detentions with the others that Detention could well have been part of my school curriculum. During my whole stay at the grammar school I made many


Chapter Twenty Seven acquaintances but no firm friends as I had in Chilton, I never visited any of their homes nor for that matter, did any of them visit Belle-Vue. This was an unconscious policy of ‘arm’s length’ friendship; so far and no farther. My initial acceptance had been based on the genuine premise that I had a gift for football but thereafter my character was a developing façade – encouraged by me – that I was a bit of a rebel and fearless of authority, both of which were totally untrue. In my own fourteen-year old mind I reasoned that I couldn’t afford to be caught out in this lie, the best way of avoiding the problem therefore was to circumvent the intimacies of true friendship. It says much of the influence of that period on my life that later when dealing with people, I became extremely adept at the chameleon approach to relationships and only the very trusted few were allowed to see the real personality. Not inviting school companions back to Belle-Vue – it was certainly big enough and impressive enough to furnish a visit – highlighted my sensitive position within the household; I wasn’t sure how Auntie Pat or Uncle Arthur would react to the situation nor confident enough to handle any boisterousness (remember in the eyes of my school acquaintances I cared not a jot for authority!)


Chapter Twenty eight

My birthday that year fell within the Easter break and I had hinted that I would love a pair of white plimsolls for my fifteenth birthday; no reason given just that I would love a pair of these plimsolls. I had realised that the practice of bogus notes couldn’t go on forever and my birthday seemed an ideal time to rectify the situation. My birthday duly arrived - April 14th should anyone be thinking of marking it in their diaries! - and lying at the foot of my bed was a wrapped present, uncannily shoe-shaped. My relief was almost palpable; at last I could cease the charade of fictitious ailments. (It never struck me until sometime later, wouldn’t my lack of gym activity have been noted on my term report? And who received the report anyway, our mam or Uncle Arthur? Strange). I clawed at the birthday paper with a frenzy of anticipation, young Arthur with whom I shared a bedroom looking on intently. I can’t begin to describe the feelings of disappointment and frustration when the toe of a tartan-patterned object appeared. I had been given a pair of slippers! I’m quite sure that my dissatisfaction and disheartenment must have been clearly visible to young Arthur. Hard as it is to believe, that incident must rank as one of my life’s great disappointments. By breakfast time I had regained my composure somewhat, and probably ungraciously thanked the gathered family for their collection of presents but without the plimsolls the celebration was singularly hollow. I guess Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur must have thought I was an ungrateful and rather surly teenager; that apparent surliness was to demonstrate itself more frequently as time progressed.


Chapter Twenty Eight Almost by the next post, I turned to the one person whom I knew I could trust, our mam, and as well as thanking her for her gift, I asked her for a pair of white plimsolls. I never hinted why, neither then nor later and she never asked but very nearly by the return of her receiving my request I received my plimsolls. My gym crisis was finally over and thereafter I exercised with the medicine ball and leapt the horse with the remainder of 4b. It was, however, a watershed in my position at Belle-Vue: I was prepared to ask for outside help if I had to. Hardly an occasion to cement the family relationship for which I so desperately hankered. I did get a surprise party birthday tea with some family friends invited, none who were more than passing acquaintances to me, namely the Woodfords, brother and sister Philip and Irma, whose father owned a drapery shop in Sandown and the Gladdis sisters, Gina and Janet, their parents running a greengrocery store near to Uncle Arthur’s turf-accounting business. Later in my twenties Frank and Peggy Gladdis, the parents were to show me extreme kindness, which I will never forget but that time must lay dormant waiting for another book.


Chapter Twenty Nine

The time has come when I must try to explain my preoccupied and tangled attitude towards life at Belle-Vue. Even today, with the wisdom of hindsight I’m not sure that I completely understand the thinking and expectations of my fourteen-year old self. The premise was simplicity itself; I was captivated by an idealised picture of family life within the Lee family at Belle-Vue. This outlook, I remained totally convinced, was supported by Auntie Pat and therefore by association, Uncle Arthur. After all, although I had ambitions of fulfilling the dream it had been Auntie Pat who first floated the idea. The reality, from my viewpoint, was to prove somewhat different. Initially I felt as though I had landed in my Heaven to the exclusion of all else; I seemed to fit into the family, Belle-Vue and its surroundings easily and was more than comfortable with the attention. Auntie Pat introduced me to all her friends and local villagers and on occasion, actually used the phrase, ‘my adopted son’. Even though this was a total myth I basked in the sound of the phrase. It was only sometime after the New Year when I began to sense that perhaps there was a shadow in the background, which threatened to cast its shade into this idyll I had created. ‘Family’ is a unique, instinctive and spontaneous creation with its own language and its own unconscious protocol. All families whether disparate or lovingly conventional carry this trait; some characteristics being carried on from previous generations and some learnt from the cradle. Family manifests itself in all aspects of everyday life; a particular look, a particular phrase, an exclusive endearment or an unexpected hug; the list is unlimited


Chapter Twenty Nine with subtle variations in each household. People on the outside of that circle will find it nearly impossible to break into its intimacies, however I’m sure that there must be a select band who, being aware of their own family’s impregnability, are generous enough to invite in an outsider, probably young and probably vulnerable. Hence we read or know of wonderful adoptive parents who successfully integrate a stranger into their home. Nearly by definition this must be a collective decision by the whole family who also will realise that the adoption will be a sensitive and complex issue. One thing is an absolute certainty, entering a family unit from the outside is definitely not as simple as opening a door and strolling in, nor for that matter can unlocking that door from the inside be a casual, “Hello, come on in”. I naturally knew none of this then; I do now. I’m quite convinced Auntie Pat knew none of this then and doubt very much whether she’s remotely aware of it now. When, later and having a family of my own, I asked why she invited me to live with them, she replied, “Because I loved you”. On the surface a very laudable sentiment but she probably also loved dogs, Yorkshire puddings and her mother. The truth, I believe, is that she was in love with a three-year old little boy with big brown eyes and dimples who, by now no longer existed. I think initially that I was also seen as one of her deserving causes – poor little Boyce - worth rescuing. Oddly although my position was to become increasingly untenable (to me) I never did give up hope that my aspirations could be realised; it never occurred to me to return to Chilton and I never told a soul of my growing unhappiness and resentment. Whether that was akin to the battered wife who always thinks things will improve in the future or the whipped dog who constantly returns to his master, I can’t say.


Chapter Twenty Nine The older I have become and the more I understand her human frailties and despite the mental hurt I had suffered at the time, I have grown quite fond of Auntie Pat. Although now totally inconsequential to me, even today she occasionally tends to say one thing with her mouth but her actions imply a completely different thought process. However unwitting, when I was growing up in the household, I found the same tendency most distressing and hurtful. Uncle Arthur’s attitude I absolved many years ago when I realised that he considered his dedication lay primarily with his own children. He had obviously gone along with the arrangement to please Auntie Pat and because financially he was convinced that he could afford the experience. I was no blood relation and had had no previous bonding with him. He always treated me with extreme kindness but at best I was never going to be any other than his favourite nephew. That he somewhat excessively indulged his own two children, particularly Andrea, I never begrudged but it should have highlighted the fact that maybe my fantasy of family was unachievable. The Lee children, Arthur, Andrea and later Patsy, for their part did then and have always since treated me as an equal in the family; to the extent that Andrea and - to a lesser extent - Patsy have imparted to me confidences that would only be trusted to big brothers. Readers may well find that my expectations then were unrealistic and that I should never have expected such integration in the first place. And they may well be right. What I do know is from my young and insecure perspective those beliefs and aspirations were deep and sincerely held and that the tide of near tsunami proportions from those convictions were to spread over many years and to trespass into the most unexpected areas of my


Chapter Twenty Nine life. And tellingly I never did then nor have I since called BelleVue home.


Chapter Thirty

Summer term at school started on a much more comfortable note than had the previous term. I was no longer the new boy, was totally familiar with procedures and conventions and was wholeheartedly accepted by 4b for what I wasn’t. The teachers I should think had a much more ambivalent outlook; some were conscious that I was capable of a substantially better quality and more disciplined approach to lessons, while others considered that I was part of a disruptive minority within the class. The football season was coming to a most successful conclusion; we had remained unbeaten since January and the time was fast approaching to turn the school’s attention to cricket. The practice nets were erected and an invitation appeared on the school notice board for any interested pupils to report to the nets after school; an evening being set aside for each age range - junior, intermediate and senior. The school already possessed a strong intermediate eleven and allowing for age parameters only a few had graduated to the senior level. The uptake for consideration into the intermediate side was always going to be small therefore, the strength of the existing players being a deterrent. As I was completely oblivious as to the quality of these players and I reasoned there had to be two or three vacancies, I was determined to turn up on the required evening. The two distinct advantages I had over the competition were firstly that I was both a left-handed batsman and a left-handed bowler. Now this by no means made me more competent than right-handed players but the selectors would always look for a complement of left-handed players within a team; it unsettled the


Chapter Thirty opposition who continually had to change their fielding strategy. The second advantage I had was that I had learnt most of my cricket on the streets of Chilton where the ball would bounce unevenly from the badly maintained side roads. The local boys in contrast had probably learnt their skills down on the sandy beaches where the ball would be slowed down by the sand and bounce with a regular predictability. Our different methods of learning the game I reflected logically must give me a hand-eye co-ordination superior to the competition. I turned up on the specified evening in late May along with a sprinkling of hopefuls and under the watchful eye of the game master, Mr Wilkinson, and a few senior team members, we were put through our paces. I was fortunate in that I possessed a set of cricket whites - flannels, pullover and white shirt - which I had needed at Spennymoor Grammar School and with the addition of our mam’s white plimsolls, at least I looked the part. We were all rigorously put through our paces, batting in the nets, bowling to a series of batsmen and an arduous fielding session with an emphasis on catching and accurately returning the ball to a fictitious wicket-keeper. At the end of the session Mr Wilkinson thanked us all for the enthusiasm we had shown and told us that the eventual selection of the team squad would be posted on the notice board in due course. There was nothing any of us could do but wait impatiently for the list to appear but within a week a neatly typed tabulation appeared on the board announcing the junior, intermediate and senior teams for the season, each team also carrying a selection of reserves and officials. Imagine my disbelief and surprise when I saw that I had been nominated as captain of the intermediate side. (Unbeknown to me the previous captain had moved up to the senior grade). This accolade really cemented my position in


Chapter Thirty the school although I still had to live the lie of being who I wasn’t. And what a memorable season the intermediate team had. We had a very strong eleven and three of us were actually selected to play for the Isle of Wight schoolboys at intermediate level, a feather in the cap for the school. On the field we were untouchable in all departments, batting, bowling and fielding and as the season wore on I suppose we developed a confidence that bordered on the arrogant. We remained unbeaten throughout the whole period and at some point, sheerly by accident, I acquired a second string to my cricket bow, which didn’t wholly please Mr Wilkinson; to tell more now would be jumping ahead in my story. Unfortunately my achievements at school were not supported by my perspective of life at Belle-Vue. I still desperately wanted to be a complete part of the family but had the feeling that the vision was slipping further away; the more I perceived my position in the household - either valid or imagined – the more disheartened and aggrieved I felt. This naturally led to more mood swings, which in turn must have made me appear to the casual observer ungrateful and churlish.


Chapter Thirty One

With the late spring turning to early summer the house became progressively busier both from visiting relatives, in particular Grandma and Grampy Stretton, and bed-and-breakfast guests, most of whom were returning acquaintances and not random strangers. In mid-summer our mam came to stay for a week: never once did I hint at my increasing unhappiness and she never did question me on the subject. Luckily as I had a summer job at the time mam didn’t get to see too much of me during the day; our time for close contact therefore was somewhat limited. I’m convinced that had mam had that extra time she would have seen through my mask of tranquility. She must have thought I was quieter than I had been in Chilton but probably she would put that down to the moods of a growing teenager. To my certain knowledge mam was never made aware of this miserable period in my life: I never told her and nobody else knew. Far from being deterred from the ideals I had set myself from the outset I was determined to work even harder (I already pulled my weight in the garden during any spare time and gave Whisky her daily run up on the downs) to make my presence more necessary. I took to helping Auntie Pat lay up the breakfast tables the previous evening in readiness for the guests’ breakfasts. The breakfast room always looked fresh and inviting with its French doors opening directly onto the garden and fresh flowers in the fireplace. I also volunteered for the task of making and taking the early morning cup of tea round to visiting relatives and guests alike before leaving for school. I had always made my own breakfast; I was away to school before the house was up and


Chapter Thirty One about. This I remember as being an enchanting time of the day for me; the quiet of a sleeping Belle-Vue before the hustle and bustle of the coming day, the misty stillness in the garden and the early rising birds noisily and greedily searching a breakfast of snails and fat, juicy worms. And Whisky beside herself with delight knowing that I would - quite wrongly – sneak her a buttery piece of hot toast. As the days grew colder in late summer and early autumn I also undertook to clean out the ashes from the back-boilered fire in the long, family dining room and if necessary re-light it, which wasn’t often; the fire replacing the immersion heater as a source of hot water. Regrettably I had not yet learnt one of life’s simple but profound rules. That maxim states unequivocally that there are particular commodities, notably emotions which cannot be acquired either by deeds, achievements, words or indeed money. Money was never an option (although it would have made no difference) but for a while I genuinely believed that my deeds, work ethic and achievements would provide the key to that family door I needed to open. What I did reap was gratitude, appreciation and praise in abundance but that elusive key was not forthcoming. It wasn’t all bleak news however; one of the many advantages of youth is resilience and there were benefits and light-hearted moments. Invariably I would find a tip left on the bedside table at the holiday’s ending with a little note thanking me for my unfailing attendance throughout the week. These gratuities were most welcome and went straight into my ‘bus fare’ fund. A gentleman called Arthur Bedford stayed with us frequently; he was much more a friend of Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur than a paying guest. Just after the war, I think, Mr Bedford managed a public house in Sandown, and was befriended by them after he


Chapter Thirty One acrimoniously separated from his wife. As was the practice in the house, having established on his arrival if he would like a cup of tea in bed each morning – not everybody did – I duly arrived at Mr Bedford’s bedroom door the next morning. The light was poor in the bedrooms at this time of day with the curtains drawn but I had got quite adept at negotiating the furniture, as I knew the layout of each room quite well. As I approached Mr Bedford’s bedside table, I spotted something in the gloom, which faintly resembled a leg and thought to myself that it must be merely a trick of the light (or gloom). But no, as I approached nearer the bed, it was a leg (and foot), complete in every detail up to and including a knee. For one horrible moment I thought that I was either going to scream or faint or both but like the tea-trouper I had become I grimly held on to the cup and saucer. Apparently nobody had seen fit to tell me that Arthur Bedford had a wooden leg! As I gingerly approached, the final twist in this vignette of gallows humour surfaced, Arthur had an ashtray delicately balanced on top of the leg. He sat up and with some difficulty placed his ashtray on the bedside table and calmly asked me if I’d mind leaving his tea where the ashtray had reposed. With some effort this I did, although I’m absolutely convinced that I must have had trembling hands and a thumping heart. I hold the opinion that Arthur Bedford had been born into life’s theatre to perform the role of tragedian. God hadn’t been overgenerous in the looks department; he resembled a melancholy and slightly crumpled Arthur Askey. He carried a perceptible limp almost certainly associated with his wooden leg, which gave him an awkward rolling gait. Despite the fact that I was to meet Arthur Bedford on various occasions he never volunteered the circumstances surrounding the loss of his leg and curious though I was I thought it rude to even mention it. From things not said


Chapter Thirty One and his interest in motorcycles perhaps the answer lay in a motorcycle accident of sorts. After the separation from his wife Arthur must have hit a low point in his life and apparently with no-one to turn to decided to take his own life. He did this by jumping off Sandown pier one dark and windy night with the tide coming in. Fortunately - or perhaps unfortunately if you were Arthur Bedford – he was wearing a belted gabardine raincoat on the evening in question and as he hit the water the belt trapped air inside the coat and wouldn’t allow him to sink! Struggle as he might he couldn’t release the trapped air and the incoming tide propelled him towards the beach. A passing dog-walker spotted him and bravely waded into the water and hauled him ashore. Arthur would recount the story with great glee and maintained that not only the mackintosh but also his wooden leg gave him added buoyancy. Whilst recognising the walker’s selfless action, he said that at the time he was most annoyed at being rescued at all. It was round about this time that I finally learnt to ride a bicycle. As we grew up in our nomadic existence Ruth and I had scarcely touched a bike, I had no friends in Chilton who owned bikes and had never actually sat astride one. That situation was about to change; young Arthur possessed a small-boys’ bike. Notwithstanding that the bike was too small for my growing frame it was adequate for the purpose of riding around the paths in Belle-Vue’s extensive garden and to learn the art and confidence of balance. As is the case with all learners I fell off on numerous occasions, grazed my knees and elbows but I soon mastered the technique of balance and steering. Perhaps I am doing our Ruth a disservice but as she never had this golden opportunity to learn I don’t think she ever did master the mysteries of bike riding.


Chapter Thirty One Suddenly a whole new world opened up for me; I could ride a bike and with it sample untried journeys and pleasures, the only problem being that I had no machine to ride. I determined to save up and buy myself a bike. I knew that I was about to start a summer vacation job and innocently reasoned that I could save the appropriate amount in no time at all. It soon became obvious to me that at the rate I could save and the cost of bicycles I would probably possess a bike by the time I had reached maturity. As fate would have it, this yearning for a bike coincided with our mam’s holiday period and while my enthusiasm was evident there was also a realisation on my part that I wasn’t pedalling anywhere in the near future. I think mam must have sensed my dilemma and made the generous suggestion that maybe she should buy me the bike as an early Christmas present. (It was only early July, for goodness sake!) I selfishly accepted the offer – I’m sure that she couldn’t really afford it – and shortly after her return to Chilton a pristine new bicycle coloured red arrived by carrier. Fortunately for me Grandma and Grampy Stretton were on one of their visits when the bike arrived. Neither of them had changed one jot in ten years, Grandma still quoted the Bible at any given – or ungiven - excuse and Grampy still suffered from 'defensive deafness'. He still smiled gently at all and sundry, still had his nicotine-stained moustache, and his nose invariably still carried a precariously hanging ‘dew-drop’. And I still adored him. He pottered around the garden and the many outhouses of Belle-Vue as though he were still at home doing God knows what, but on the arrival of my bicycle he downed tools – or whatever he was carrying – and immediately assembled all the pieces to the frame. He secured the pedals and the handlebars, adjusted the saddle and positioned the dynamo in such a way that when required it would generate electricity to the front and rear lights. Not being


Chapter Thirty One mechanical in any form myself, I think that without Grampy I’d still be looking at the machine disassembled today. Sadly this was to be one of the last occasions I was to see Grampy in the flesh. In the near future my circumstances were to change and he died at the relatively young age of seventy, early in 1955. He was a truly nice and gentle man; the best grandfather a young boy could wish for.


Chapter Thirty Two

In the middle of the summer term I resolved to find myself a job for the duration of the long summer holidays. I always seemed to be short of money, the fault I suppose resting with me where I was unwilling to ask for support from Auntie Pat; that shouldn’t be read that I didn’t gratefully accept any largesse when the situation arose. To be fair (which I wasn’t at the time) Auntie Pat was probably too busy at the office or dealing with her bed-andbreakfast sideline to notice that some of my clothes were not in the best of condition, particularly my shoes which I had worn-out at an alarming rate from walking to school and playing football in the playground. Two shirts were never going to be enough for me and as for two pairs of underpants…. I think that Mrs Dower was responsible for the bulk of my washing and as it all went into Auntie Pat’s twin-tub it wouldn’t have been that great a chore. This meant of course that Auntie Pat wouldn’t have been aware of the deterioration in my shirts and underpants for example on a daily or even a weekly basis. In retrospect, I’m convinced that if I had mentioned the situation to Auntie Pat or Uncle Arthur come to that, they would have promptly rectified the situation; it just didn’t occur to either of them that they were dealing with someone who felt incapable of asking for help. My philosophy back then, however, wasn’t anywhere near that charitable; it was a philosophy based on hurt and not understanding, a philosophy of stubbornness, pride and an emerging dignity. Why, I asked myself at the time, did Arthur and Andrea not have to ask for renewables and apparently I did?


Chapter Thirty Two Much later I came to understand that it was a totally specious reflection and it was quite wrong of me to bring Arthur and Andrea into my reflections; they were totally innocent of any misdeed and neither would have hesitated in asking for a new pair of shoes should the circumstance have arisen. Enter the blacksmith, George Stay, who we had last met at Belle-Vue’s Christmas morning drinks and nibbles gathering. Albeit that he was a Brading local – I have always thought that had George Stay been a stick of seaside rock he would have had the word BRADING running throughout his length – his workplace was in Sandown. Very close to Uncle Arthur’s turfaccounting office in Wilkes Road snaked a narrow, cobbled passage at the end of which his forge was located. George employed two artisans, both Brading born and bred, ‘Rocket’ Squibb, carrying a familiar Brading name whose sobriquet needs no exclamation and ‘Scotty’ Scott, whose nickname owed nothing to “Beam me up Scotty.” of Star Trek fame; he was at least a generation ahead of the star-ship Enterprise being launched into space. Mr Stay didn’t shoe horses. Whether he had ever done I’m not sure; his skill and that of his two employees lay in ornamental ironwork, fire-grates and commissions for repairing farm machinery. One day in late June I met Mr Stay in Brading High Street and like a messenger from the Fates (a less likely looking angel it would be hard to imagine!) he asked me if I’d be prepared to work for him during the summer holidays and the occasional Saturday before then. I didn’t know whether to kiss him on the cheeks or bite his hand off but I gratefully accepted the offer and there started an enjoyable and financially rewarding interlude for me. He kitted me out with overalls and when the need arose, picked me up from Brading bullring in his van along with Rocket and


Chapter Thirty Two Scotty, both of whom made me welcome and treated me as part of their workforce. One thing became immediately apparent and that was that I was never going to be a blacksmith or any kind of practical engineer. I already knew from woodwork lessons at school I was never going to be a carpenter, so I pondered what possible use could I be to a team of blacksmiths? Fortunately for me I don’t think George Stay considered any of these skills necessary when he kindly offered me seasonal employment. Rocket and Scotty were unfailingly good humoured and delighted in gently pulling my leg, without any trace of malice. They worked together in a harmony, which suggested to me that they had operated together for a considerable time and were probably friends outside of working hours. In the days before job descriptions my role in this tightly knit group would have defied labelling anyway. Admittedly, after a settling in period I was given a chance to make a wrought-iron scroll on the forge (hot work!) but this was more for the amusement of the gathered experts than to educate me. I would make the tea –thirsty work by the furnace – sweep the floor, answer the telephone and run errands when required, in fact I think the term gofer would adequately have covered my status in the forge. Of course I was subjected to the obligatory ‘apprentice humour’. I was sent to the ironmongers for a left-handed hammer, left-handed screws and rubber nails (ideal for stopping damp penetration); eventually even I saw through blacksmith’s bread (the loaf will remain consistently soft despite being stored near the forge). It was at this point I earned my spurs as a member of the team: I had passed this apprentice’s rite of passage with a smile and the ability to laugh at myself. But what I really enjoyed was riding out with Mr Stay in his van to visit customers who needed a job pricing or to deliver a


Chapter Thirty Two completed order; George knew everyone or so it seemed to me. Ostensibly my job on these trips was to keep a note of any work he had taken on, the provisional price he had quoted and any relevant or unusual detail to meet that particular customer’s requirements. By his own admission George was terrible at the clerical side of his business but that aside I also believe he liked me along for company. These trips were strangely reminiscent of my trips with Grampy Stretton in his pony and trap all those years ago; the intimate peacefulness, the stunning scenery, in this case the Isle of Wight and being involved in day-to-day working transactions. It was during one of these early trips that I discovered George Stay’s real passion in life. Cricket. This piece of news set me pondering, was this the real reason why George had offered me seasonal work? Certainly he knew me from BelleVue visits and certainly he did need some sort of gofer in his workplace but a dozen local boys were better suited. My belief is that George had heard about my cricketing achievements captain of the school team and playing for the Island Schools – from the cricket grapevine and had thought to himself that he would kill two birds with one stone, recruit a part time assistant and a potential Brading cricketer in one fell swoop. Outlandish as this idea seems it does carry a certain amount of credence. For not only was George passionate about cricket per se he was also the team’s captain and his two employees, Rocket and Scotty were both regular members of the Brading side. Scotty was the side’s wicketkeeper and very good he was too; Rocket wielded his cricket bat like a claymore but was nevertheless an invaluable run-scorer and George Stay was a most elegant, dependable left-handed batsman who handled his bat as if it were a rapier, elegantly caressing the cricket ball to all parts of the ground. In the early 50’s most village teams comprised players


Chapter Thirty Two primarily from their home village – although it may be hard to believe now, the luxury of a car as a runabout was still a thing of the future – and Brading proudly conformed to that pattern. And so I was about to be introduced to village cricket. Village cricket had a unique atmosphere and should not be confused with the urban or professional game. The rules were identical of course but that was where any similarity ended; urban cricket didn’t have the same camaraderie as its village counterpart and in some cases the pitches were owned and maintained by the local council; the professional game was, well… professional. Village cricket was at the other end of the spectrum; the land was invariably owned by the local farmer who either loaned it, rented it or leased it to the club and all the maintenance of the ground was completed by a band of volunteers, generally members of the cricket team. Brading’s venue lay about half a mile beyond the village within sight of St Mary’s church. It was shielded from the main road by a hedge on one side, the far extremity being the raised railway line. In the centre of the field was the playing square, which was preserved to a high standard by members of the local cricketing community in their spare time. Needless to say in between matches this area was fenced off to prevent invading cows, which the farmer may have put in the field to graze. The outfield was mowed probably once a week but nearer the cricket boundary the grass became more unkempt and it wasn’t unheard of that an outfielder running to prevent a well hit ball escaping over the boundary would slip in a cow-pat. The grandly named cricket pavilion was a sectional affair, erected for the season, dismantled and stored for the winter. The same applied to the two large white-painted sight-screens which stood behind the wickets at each end of the field. There was a tap behind the pavilion in the


Chapter Thirty Two field, I daresay used by the farmer when he required water for his animals. Of toilet or changing facilities there were none; on match days a primitive Portaloo was erected, and as for changing facilities, well with the exception of cricket boots you arrived ready to play. The venues and facilities were as varied as the number of village teams playing but some things they all had in common. Firstly the scorer, a non-playing member who possessed a total command of the laws of cricket and who had a love of figures and statistics; a surprising number of scorers turned out to be ladies. Secondly the umpire who travelled everywhere with the team and was usually a respected member of the village. His knowledge of the game would be unquestioned and literally his word was law on the playing field. Thirdly and by far the most important of all, the tea ladies. This band of angels were always there on match days, usually wives or girl friends of the players but not necessarily. They would make the sandwiches and provide a selection of homemade cakes for the tea interval. The sandwiches were always exquisitely prepared, wafer thin and appetising, they certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place at a royal garden party. They dispensed tea from a large, silver urn. After the tea interval they would clear the tea things away, wash up and tidy the pavilion. The Brading team itself was an eclectic mix of the local populace; a solicitor, two or three farm hands, a labourer, a salesman, the butcher, the local vet, George Stay and his employees and latterly me, a schoolboy. In one instance the vet was called away halfway through a game to deliver an uncooperative calf, and in another a herdsman was called away to milk the cows in the middle of an innings, the duty herdsman having injured himself on the farm. That is not to say that the players weren’t deadly serious about each game, they were but I


Chapter Thirty Two think it was accepted in a village community there could well be unavoidable calls on their expertise. I absolutely loved being part of the village cricket scene. George Stay took me under his wing and all the players were friendly, helpful and informative. Brading cricket team itself was a great leveller of social status, solicitor talked to herdsman and labourer conversed with vet as though they had been friends for life. On the field of play no quarter was asked nor any given on account of my age although in one critical game George Stay in his capacity as team captain did remonstrate with an opposing team’s fast bowler who insisted on hurling balls at my body instead of the wicket (and that was in the days long before head guards or body protection). I managed to acquit myself creditably on most occasions, definitely never let the side down and when used as a bowler captured a few wickets. One of the many thrills for me was to see my name in print in the local paper, The County Press, as a wicket taker against a particular team. On match days the ambience was magical, as with all things recalled with great fondness the sun always shone and it never rained on Saturdays that summer. Along with some of the players I invariably arrived at the ground early and helped prepare the pitch. Sight-screens had to be positioned, the fencing surrounding the square removed and the stumps put in place. The pavilion was prepared for the arrival of the tea ladies, the scoreboard with its attendant box of numbers erected, the scorers’ amenities put in place and chairs arranged for the likely spectators. And with the arrival of the opposition, the two umpires in their white coats strode along with the team captains to the square and after a pitch inspection tossed a coin to decide which team would have choice of batting or bowling. Finally the umpires placed he bails on top of the stumps and all was set.


Chapter Thirty Two As the cast of fielders and batsmen vacated the pavilion to register their presence centre stage and with the gathered onlookers hungry for the first act, it always appeared to me that the whole panorama could well have been a Constable painting, probably called “And Let Battle Commence� and we, the sitters had crept out of the canvas more to enjoy the spectacle. The remembered sky seemed forever deep blue; high fluffy white clouds sauntered across the heavens towards a distant horizon and the sun smiled benevolently down on the world. A large old oak tree in the far corner of the field muttered contentedly as a gentle breeze wandered through its leaves and expectant birds chattered endlessly amongst themselves as they darted in and out of the long hedgerow. Perhaps they loved cricket but more likely is the fact that they knew on match days after the tea interval there would be a feast of left-overs on which to gorge themselves. The spectators added splashes of vibrant colour and movement as they settled down; young boys playing their own absorbing game of cricket behind the pavilion and seasoned watchers conveying highly-coloured deck-chairs to their favourite spot; ladies in their bright summer frocks, perhaps carrying a cardigan or clutching a beach bag which might contain their knitting for the afternoon or maybe a magazine to browse. To complete this idyll any landscape artist would have delighted in the small steam train, which wandered at regular intervals past the ground taking returning holidaymakers to meet the paddle steamer at Ryde pier-head. These small trains were neither fast nor elegant but they were dependable and reminded me of the pit ponies of Chilton colliery, highly regarded by the work force and admired by the general public. As the train approached the cricket ground she was settling back into her busy clackety-clack rhythm having recently departed Brading station


Chapter Thirty Two half a mile back. I am persuaded that the passing train knew it had a small but significant role in our montage; she would chuff large amounts of billowing, white smoke behind her as she ploughed relentlessly towards the oncoming tunnel, bearing a credible resemblance to a hurrying lady with a long, trailing scarf. The engine driver’s contribution was to release two long blasts on the train’s whistle in reality because of the approaching underpass but also, I like to think, to express his affinity with this true village activity. Matches, with very few exceptions, finished round about seven in the evening; all the team assisted in securing the equipment including fencing-off the square. Chairs and scoreboard were locked in the pavilion and the players, both friend and foe, usually repaired to the Bugle Inn in the centre of the village, presumably to conduct a thirsty post-mortem. Naturally because of my age I was excluded from these gatherings but as I was already tired but happy this didn’t bother me at all. Mr Wilkinson, my sports master wasn’t at all pleased with the turn of events when he heard about them. I think he was worried in case I would overstretch or injure myself in pursuit of village cricket, a grown-up game. Before the end of term I would captain the school team on Saturday morning, dash back to Belle-Vue and turn out for Brading in the afternoon. He had no need to worry; I never let the school down as our continued success reflected, in fact I think it improved my understanding of the game, my confidence and certainly improved my captaincy. Goodness knows what Mr Wilkinson would have said if he had known that occasionally I played for Brading on a Sunday as well, usually when a touring side from the mainland had arranged a fixture. Surely God must be a cricket lover, probably much more than that, a lover of village cricket. I do understand that Heaven is not


Chapter Thirty Two like McDonalds – although they probably have a drive-through outlet at the Gates by now – there isn’t an option to put in an order and wait to collect the finished product. However if there is not village cricket, Whisky – the dog, that is, not the alcoholic beverage – waiting for me and an everlasting supply of fresh jam doughnuts oozing with red jam and lashings of crunchy sugar, I think I’ll respectfully decline the deal. (A wonderful irrelevant aside. I am reliably informed that EE ‘Doc’ Smith author of the Lensman science fiction series invented the process by which sugar is made to stick to doughnuts: he was a real doctor, but of chemical engineering).


Chapter Thirty Three

There was one incident very early in the cricket season, however, which threatened the tranquility and equilibrium of both school and village cricket. As with most forbidding happenings in my life at that time – real or imagined - the source could consistently be traced back either directly or indirectly to Auntie Pat. I think the episode could well be called “The Case of the Unwashed Cricket Whites”. It must have been late May or early June and I suppose the fracas all started with a silly, inconsequential personality clash. Auntie Pat, probably tired from a day’s work, had put a small pile of my ironed clothes on the dining room table and as I was passing through the room she said to me in a quite off-hand way, “Go and put those clothes away in your drawer.” As I was already ultra-sensitive concerning my place in the family I immediately saw this as a slight. I quite wrongly said, “I will if you say please.” I should state here, that I had then and still have now a dislike of unthinking rudeness; it is quite pointless, civility costs nothing and in many cases cements relationships. To Auntie Pat, more to the point, my remark was the proverbial red rag to the bull; she demanded that I apologise and immediately take the offending clothes away. I, of course, refused. I think what surprised her most was the unseen stubbornness I possessed, a quality our Ruth also had in abundance; where we had inherited or developed this trait from I have no idea. Unbeknown to me I had also committed the cardinal sin of stepping outside of the role Auntie Pat had ordained for me from Day One, that of a defenceless, dimpled waif who she would rescue and I would be forever grateful. There ensued an almighty spat, which unfortunately Auntie


Chapter Thirty Three Pat was never going to win but maybe I learnt the true meaning of a Pyrrhic victory; it would have been so much easier for me to have just said sorry. Later that evening I found the offending clothes on my bed, probably put there by young Arthur or Andrea and nothing more was said at the time, nevertheless Auntie Pat had a long memory when crossed and could be extremely petty. The first thing I had to endure was the frosty treatment but worse was to follow. That very evening all my toiletries were moved from the large family bathroom into the smaller self-contained one further along the landing which guests used: there was now no need for me to go into the large bathroom at all, except on bath days. Auntie Pat’s timing was exquisite; to a passing stranger it would have appeared a generous act, but I knew differently. It was act of calculated pettiness, shrewdly aimed to hurt and to emphasise the fact that I was not yet incorporated as a family member, more a guest. Why cricket flannels are called ‘whites’ I can’t imagine; it’s a total misnomer, as any cricketer will confirm they should be named ‘reds’ or ‘greens’. The red from the cricket ball which fielders, particularly bowlers, acquire by continually rubbing the ball down the side of their trousers to maintain its shine. The green from the grass where a fielder has dived in an effort to stop a passing cricket ball or fallen, attempting a catch. Anyway I had put my cricket whites in for wash after a particular school match and to my puzzlement found them lying on my bed the next day, unwashed. When we met up Auntie Pat told me with an air of ill-concealed satisfaction that she had no intention of washing my cricket trousers. I can only presume that I was supposed to whine and plead that I desperately needed them clean for the following weekend; I did no such thing: our Ruth and myself had had to do without so much in our lives that we didn’t resort to pleading. By


Chapter Thirty Three now, after the fiasco with the white plimsolls, I had a back-up strategy and without any hesitation I wrote and asked our mam if she could afford to buy me a pair of cricket flannels, which naturally she did very nearly by return of post. So my immediate cricket season was secured as a most pleasant and enjoyable interlude in my Belle-Vue life. There is a post-script to this little tale. I was about to recognise that above all else Auntie Pat jealously guarded her image of being a caring benefactor. Whether she actually believed this position or wore it as a cloak I’m not sure; I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. The expression of this indulgence would become apparent to me when close family visited the house. Her smile would become warmer towards me and she smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth. She used terms of endearment, which she never used on other occasions, and would give me a passing hug. This subtle transformation both annoyed and confused me; I refused to take part actively in these charades and normally reacted by being even more unapproachable. Unquestionably the result of this stance was that I would be considered ungrateful and unsociable, whereas Auntie Pat appeared even more benevolent and understanding. There were unexpected advantages to be gained from these interludes; with the imminent arrival of our mam my cricket flannels were magically washed and no more was ever said about it; Auntie Pat actually noticed that my shoes were beyond repair and a comic was put on the family news account for me. In these writings I make Auntie Pat sound like an ogre; that’s not completely true: she was only a human being who was probably experiencing trouble of her own making. She had manufactured herself a position in my life, which worked extremely well providing I stuck to the script which had been


Chapter Thirty Three written for me. That was never going to happen as I had my own agenda from the outset, one to which I mistakenly thought Auntie Pat also subscribed. Although I still clung to my initial vision, it was increasingly apparent to me that the position I craved was unattainable. Auntie Pat meanwhile was suffering her own conflict in how best to deal with me and there is no doubt that for both of us the situation deteriorated. As she didn’t even understand my aspiration there was no chance of a lasting appeasement. I’m quite sure that in her own way she became more and more discouraged, which led to uncalled for remarks and actions. (Years later Auntie Pat was to say that she always treated me exactly the same as her own children, which was patently untrue). In her more spiteful moments, probably engendered by frustration she would spit barbs like, “You know you’ll have to leave here when you finish school, Boyce.” or “You know you don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to, Boyce.” Remarks which were never likely to heal wounds, much more likely designed to hurt and which she would never have used towards her own children. And what I really wanted, although fifteen, was a cuddle and somebody to ask me what really was the matter. No one ever did. Rationally the simple and sensible thing would have been to withdraw to Chilton but back then I never considered it as a serious alternative, probably because I wasn’t yet ready to give up on the dream.

Chapter thirty four


Early in September another school term started, a long term which ran through until Christmas, broken only by half term. By now I was quite comfortable with life in the Grammar School. I had become quite adept with my bike and this was my preferred transport. I had had a good season with the school cricket team, was ensured a place in the football team for the forthcoming season and maintained a high degree of popularity with my peers. On the other hand the majority of teachers still regarded me along with the rest of the 4b miscreants with a certain amount of distrust and we still did more than our share of detentions, a dubious cachet which I think we proudly wore rather like a badge. Life in general at Belle-Vue continued at an apparently serene if busy pace, but for me it remained troubled and in many ways unsatisfactory. Whisky was my constant, faithful and comforting companion. We would go for long walks over Brading Downs, Whisky enjoying every single minute of it and me losing myself in thought and angst. No matter how many times I tackled the walk it never ceased to surprise me how the downs appeared to open up from nowhere. Access was via a rough cart track, which ran from the Mall just above the house. The chalk track ran ever upwards for about half a mile, passed a delightful old cottage known locally as Little Jane’s Cottage presumably after an erstwhile occupant. The path hugged the contour of the downs and was sided by an abundant growth of trees and rampant shrubs, which masked the true ascent being undertaken by the walker. Suddenly, in a matter of strides, from this dense undergrowth the whole panorama of the downs would appear with virtually no warning; a truly beautiful sight and very much how the rabbit must feel every time it emerges from its warren. Why


Chapter Thirty Four did I invariably get the vague feeling that we may well have wandered into a Lewis Carroll story with Alice and friends in close proximity, perhaps just at that very moment setting up a tea party in a nearby hollow? From our point of view – Whisky’s and mine, that is – Brading Down was divided into two distinct halves, the front half facing Sandown Bay, above the counterpane of fields running towards the shore before getting lost and confused in Brading marshes. The farmer always changed the counterpane by the season; there was a ploughing season when what appeared to be little Dinky tractors turned the rich brown soil over into mathematically straight lines and the hungry birds, particularly seagulls, followed with avid intent, noisily clearing away anything vaguely edible. This was quickly followed by the sowing season when the crop for the following year was set in place. An assortment of scarecrows magically appeared, each carrying some imaginative form of birdscarer, which - with the possible exception of the ribbons of silver paper - did no such thing. Whisky and I always said – well, I said and Whisky thumped her tail - that the farmer knew all of this and merely planted extra seed so that all parties were satisfied with the result. And finally the harvesting season. The scarecrows had marched away overnight, presumably to take a well-earned break before their busy pantomime season where they would accompany Dorothy nightly up the yellow-brick road to meet the Wizard in the Land of Oz. Meanwhile the little Dinky tractors reappeared on centre stage and harvested the entire sunripened crop and left it in neatly executed stacks for the autumn sun to dry out. After a long walk or more accurately a scamper, we would settle on a rocky outcrop overlooking this fairy-tale vista. I would then indulge Whiskey in a dog biscuit and a drink of water before


Chapter Thirty Four proceeding to tell her all my woes. She always listened intently, face between her paws, only occasionally doing the unthinkable and nodding off to sleep. I was fifteen, not stupid, extremely unhappy and, although loath to admit it, knew the present situation couldn’t go on indefinitely. I had the option of re-defining my dream - but then by definition dreams are non-negotiable – and admitting defeat, which under no circumstance was I prepared to do; or alternatively walking away from the situation with some degree of emerging dignity. But how to do that? I’m quite sure that Whisky, as she contentedly lay there with one eye open, knew all the answers but had rightly decided that as I had arrived in this position unaided I must somehow manoeuvre my own way out without help. The other half of the Downs I had dubbed the ‘Adventure Trail’. Whisky loved the endless exploration and I had made a tacit agreement with myself, no doom and gloom or woeful discussions on this trail. At the extremity of the trail Ryde was visible in the distance with the impressive All Saints’ Church being its instantly recognisable landmark, and further beyond this a ribbon of the Solent was clearly visible with the mainland holding up the horizon. Very nearly at the start of the trail and well off the track, camouflaged by the terrain and surrounding boulders, lived a colony of strikingly-marked adders who seemed to like nothing better than to bask in the sun. Whisky, as with all creatures attuned to Nature, gave them a wide berth. Some people however, regarded them as hazardous pests, insisted on poking them with sticks and then complained how vicious and dangerous adders were. I would always tritely point out that I didn’t suppose that the complainants would be too happy if some ill-informed person came and prodded them with a stick as they were having a snooze in their favourite armchair! The footpath quickly dropped and without warning widened


Chapter Thirty Four into a long, beautiful wooded walk, which must have stretched for a mile or more. On either side of the path stretched an elegant grove of tall trees, whose foliage seemed to reach the sky before meeting overhead to form an umbrella of foliage. The sun, not to be outdone, picked a passage through the leaves and pierced shafts of light onto the woodland floor; small dust motes rose and danced in the rays. The floor was carpeted in masses of ancient ferns and I sometimes speculated that perhaps roving dinosaurs would have feasted on this greenery. At irregular intervals along the trail the path would widen into a spacious glade where the sun could make a full and lasting appearance, consequently the undergrowth in these glades changed dramatically. It was always quiet and peaceful throughout the whole length of our Adventure Trail, except for the constant, not unpleasant, clamour of the bird population going about its undisclosed business. It was not unusual but always a special treat to spot a red squirrel in the higher tree reaches effortlessly moving from branch to branch or from tree to tree with impeccable balance and timing. Whisky absolutely delighted in the Trail, she was ‘busy’ from beginning to end, tail held erect not knowing where to explore first. She would disappear in the thick bracken, leaving only the tip of her white tail showing like a periscope. She wasn’t quite as brave as she pretended to be; every now and then she would return to the edge of the path to check that I was still bringing up the rear. For myself I loved the peace and solitude, the exchanges with Nature and relished Whisky’s evident enjoyment. The walk itself continued on to Ryde but the trail as we knew it petered out on arriving at a minor road and having sauntered across the highway it then resumed its journey, running parallel with the railway line into Ryde. This then was our turning point and was signalled by the most charming cottage, which stood in the


Chapter Thirty Four dappled shade and was surrounded by a picket fence with a small gate that opened on to the road. My remembrance of the cottage, which surely must be distorted with the passage of time, is that of a picturesque country garden laden with hollyhocks waving in the breeze and a pervading aroma of scented stock. After a rest, a dog biscuit and a drink (I generously allowed Whiskey the biscuit to herself!) we would make our way back into the real world where very little had changed. If there is a dogs’ Heaven – and why shouldn’t there be? – from Whisky’s standpoint these walks must have come pretty close, and will always remain in my memory as interludes of peace and calm in an otherwise troubled and unhappy term. It seems to me that some of the world’s greatest discoveries have been made by accident or circumstance; Newton and the apple, Archimedes in the bath, Dorset farmer Jesty (pre-dating Jenner) and smallpox. In my own way I was about to join this rarefied company and fall upon my solution in the most unlikely of places.

Chapter thirty five


By now September had crept into October, the evenings were drawing in and often, after completing my homework, I would retire to my bedroom, which had recently been moved to the large, double-fronted room immediately above the formal dining-room. I had resided at Belle-Vue for almost a year and what had I achieved? I had set out with a near crusading intention of joining a ready-made family and seamlessly integrating. This had not happened and, although I still hankered after it, given the climate any meeting of minds was extremely unlikely. I had willingly abandoned all my real friends in the North-east, had as a calculated policy refrained from close relationships at school and taken on a persona in the classroom which didn’t belong to me. I’m sure that the sum total of my achievements to date was to be regarded by ‘family’ as being awkward, sulky and difficult to manage. Our Ruth to all intents and purposes had moved out of my life and my only unswerving confidante was the lovely Whisky. I must confess when my time came to cross the Rubicon I didn’t even know I was approaching the water’s edge; I had known for some time that I was getting close but never dreamt that I was about to get my feet wet. And the source of this life-changing and unexpected revelation? Most people would say the Bible, maybe one of the world’s political reformers such as Karl Marx or even one of the great philosophers like Bertrand Russell; mine was much more mundane and incongruous; a comic, the Champion to be exact! The Champion was a comic aimed primarily at teenage boys: it was full of derring-do, a few written serials and a smattering of pertinent advertisements. One evening in my large bedroom I was settling down to read the latest Champion; any thoughts of


Chapter Thirty Five resolving my personal crisis couldn’t have been further from my mind. Tucked away towards the end of the comic was a small section of diverse adverts covering mostly toys and games; however as I was browsing through that section one extraordinary notice caught my eye. Frustratingly, although at the time it jumped out at me, try as I might I can’t remember the exact wording of that momentous advert; ridiculous when you think it was about to change my life again. To paraphrase – and with apologies to the original – it said, “The Army is looking for healthy and enthusiastic boys between the ages of 15 & 17 to join the Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps, a junior section of the elite Royal Armoured Corps. You will be trained in all aspects of military life, taught a skill pertaining to your future in the Army as well as completing your civilian educational requirements. To find our more about this exciting opportunity…etc, etc.” I’m convinced what it said subliminally in flashing lights was, “Come on, Boyce, this is your dignified way out and you might even enjoy it!” There was absolutely no history of military commitment in my family, mam’s brothers were nearly without exception pitmen and the Strettons did their duty during the war but showed no enthusiasm for a military career. From the training I had received in the school’s Army cadet force I could just about swing my arms in co-ordination with my legs and, on a good day, name the component parts of a rifle but there my expertise stopped. I certainly had no patriotic motive in joining the forces and no pressing desire to get killed; on the surface I must have appeared a particularly ill-equipped recruit. At the age of fifteen the future was a maximum of six months away and I couldn’t possibly imagine a time scale ten years in advance; foolishly some might


Chapter Thirty Five say or even foolhardy, from the moment I saw that invitation in the Champion my resolve never wavered. Time alone would tell. Next morning was a school morning; I was up, breakfasted and away before the rest of the household was about, although I did take Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur a cup of tea in bed before I left. Therefore I had virtually no opportunity to discuss the previous evening’s life-changing discovery. I had thought about very little else since reading the comic and the more I considered the proposition, the more I persuaded myself that this enticement was the encouragement I needed to change my unhappy and muddled life. It was much later in the day, during our evening meal, that I finally told Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur that I wanted to join the Army and showed them the cutting I had taken from the Champion. I had no idea what their reaction would be, never having discussed anything of this nature or magnitude before. Oh, Auntie Pat had said in her more petty moments that I would have to leave Belle-Vue when I left school but that could well have been an idle and unmeant threat said in a moment of haste, or conversely if she were deadly serious with this warning, the execution of that intimidation could be up to three years away. I had latterly thought it to be an idle threat, if she had been sincere regarding this forecast she would have been in grave danger of losing her caring benefactor mantle. Uncle Arthur’s attitude was predictable: having been a Commando during the war he was all in favour of the idea; he thought that every Tom, Dick and Harry would benefit from the discipline irrespective of their mental approach or suitability. The unknown factor was Auntie Pat--which way would she decide? In retrospect, it was the answer to her dilemma as well as mine, and without hesitation she agreed that it was a good notion. What


Chapter Thirty Five neither of them could have known, of course, was had they vetoed the proposal I would have written to our mam, put the idea to her telling her it was the thing that I really wanted to do and I’m sure she would have accepted my wish without question. As it turned out it never did come to that and a head-on confrontation was avoided. Although I never used the stick I was always aware that conceivably Auntie Pat had taken responsibility for my day-to-day life but our mam was still my legal guardian. The next step was to obtain the papers, which when signed by my guardian would give me the authorisation legally to proceed. On the following Saturday I took the ferry to Portsmouth and visited the Army recruiting office, where I was greeted by the recruiting sergeant who must have lately marched out of an army recruiting poster; tall, erect, smart and sporting a handle-bar moustache. The chest of his uniform was swathed in medal ribbons and I had this illogical thought that if he actually had occasion to attach the medals he’d be in grave danger of toppling forward. His name was Sergeant E. Bates and he belonged to the Coldstream Guards. I knew the latter fact; it was printed on a name-plate, which sat on a highly polished and impeccably tidy desk. “A good choice, laddie, you’ll never regret it!” he intoned in a voice that would have made the gravel-voiced seem falsetto, after I had explained the purpose of my visit. Having taken my name and address he duly gave me the required forms and carefully showed me how to fill them in, a task he had obviously performed many times in the past, which either pointed to the efficiency of the recruiting office or more likely, the educational standard of the would-be recruits. “Now run along home, laddie,” he thundered “Get those forms filled-in and your parents to sign their consent. When you’ve done


Chapter Thirty Five all that come back and see me with the completed application and we’ll make you into a soldier.� I thought this not an opportune moment to point out to this fearsome yet likeable sergeant that the parents in question may well turn out to be a guardian. I left the recruiting office strangely exhilarated if a little in awe at the process I had just started, which if all went to according plan would lead me into a new life.

Chapter Thirty Six


Never having been too sure of the family politics involved, over the years I have half-heartedly tried to find out who actually took the final responsibility for my joining the Army at the age of fifteen. I would have thought unquestionably it must have been my mam; she was my legal guardian and my next of kin. There is a train of thought, which says it may have been my father; in the eyes of the law he still had a responsibility towards me and being Auntie Pat’s brother would have been well aware of what was happening. I refuse to believe that reasoning, surely after all the years of parental neglect my father wouldn’t have had the insensitivity to finally trespass on my future. At the actual time I gave the matter no thought whatsoever, from my standpoint the matter was of no importance; the completing of the forms was merely a means of progressing towards my chosen, perhaps misguided, future. The filling-in of the required documents was duly accomplished, for some reason they were sealed in an envelope and returned to me in preparation for my return visit to the recruiting office in Portsmouth. (I never did know if there was a recruitment centre on the Island, I suppose there must have been). Armed with the completed forms in the envelope I reported back to the still resplendent recruiting sergeant who sat me down facing him across his desk. He carefully opened the envelope and meticulously studied each item on the questionnaire. Only once did he look up and said, with one hand fingering his handle-bar moustache, “Grammar school boy, eh? Does your school know that you’re soon to be leaving them?” I had to confess to him that the thought hadn’t yet occurred to me. “Well”, he rumbled, not unkindly, “You’d better get a move on, sonny, it’s already


Chapter Thirty Six November and time is short.” He finally ended his document check, asked me to sign an official looking piece of paper, which while not committing me irrevocably to the Army, was one step nearer my enlisting. He then patiently explained the procedure, a process he would have been through countless times, although being a potential boy soldier, I suppose there was an added necessity that I fully understood to just what I was imminently committing. He told me that the Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps was based at Bovington Camp in Dorset and the next intake of recruits would be early in January and all the necessary instructions would be posted to me sometime in late December. When he had finished his clarifications he stood up, shook me by the hand and boomed, “I wish you all the luck in the world, sonny. The Army is what you make it; everyone on joining has an equal chance but with your education you stand a more equal chance. Keep your nose clean, your boots polished and respect your seniors at all times. Good luck.” With that he bade me farewell. Although I had one more trip to his office I never saw Sgt. Bates again; presumably he was on leave or had returned to his regiment. I did, however, remember his three salient points towards success and carried them like a mantra for the remainder of my army career. It was sometime later, only when I had settled into Army routine did I realise that I must have been something of a feather in Sgt. Bates’s cap. In the early ‘fifties it would have been quite unusual for a boy of my educational ability to volunteer for any of the Services as a non-commissioned officer, they would have plumped for officer training in some field. Most would have completed their education and waited until reaching the age of eighteen anyway, when National Service was a compulsory


Chapter Thirty Six requirement. On the way back to the Island I carried a sackful of emotions; it suddenly dawned on me that this was no longer a game but was really going to happen. I was filled with fear, fear of the unknown and a greater fear of failing. On the other hand I felt a great exhilaration, I had actually done it, passed the first series of tests and was about to achieve some form of independence.

Chapter Thirty Seven


Back at Belle-Vue, I immediately asked Uncle Arthur to write a note explaining my intention to leave at the end of term and with it attached all the relevant information concerning my joining the Boys’ Squadron. (I’m not at all sure but I think it was a requirement to remain at Grammar School until a minimum age of sixteen unless there was a good reason for early departure). Technically I was going to continue my schooling so there was no problem there. First thing on Monday morning I found Mr Holden, who was still my form-master – and still valiantly trying to teach me physics – and presented him with my imminent departure at the end of the forthcoming term. Having read through the note he dispatched me to Mr Northover’s secretary, where the information was left with her for notation and safe keeping. In the following days as word spread around the school, there was no wailing or gnashing of teeth, in fact I think some of the teachers heaved a conscious sigh of relief. In fairness the three exceptions I must mention here are firstly Mr Wilkinson my games (and history) teacher who had persevered with me through thick and thin; secondly Mr Maybe, my woodwork and cadet force leader. He certainly wouldn’t miss my woodworking skills but would have a depleted troop of cadets. Thirdly and unexpectedly was my English teacher, a lady whose name ashamedly escapes me; she said I showed a potential ability in English and whatever else I did I must pursue my English grammar studies. By now it was late November with December and Christmas fast approaching. Since it had become obvious that I was deadly serious in my proposal to join the Army and had diligently pursued all the preparation paths, there had been a noticeable sea change in the house, particularly by Auntie Pat. I think I had


Chapter Thirty Seven unwittingly solved her dilemma. She could now drop her mask of disappointed but persevering benevolence towards this brooding and sometimes ungrateful boy and take on a persona (or perhaps I’m being unkind?) that suited her much better. This mantle was that of a caring, worrying ‘mother’ whose ‘son’ is about to embark on an unknown future and must be looked after at all costs. I, for my part, refused to be drawn in and although I accepted the ‘new’ Auntie Pat and my brooding disappeared, the days of playing with my emotions were over; the beginnings of my lifelong cynicism had taken root. Ironically now that I didn’t care so much, life at Belle-Vue was much easier for me. Perhaps if some wise counsellor had advised me to be less passionate and principled in the first place I wouldn’t have had this anxious and unhappy period to contend with. To balance that argument, however, if the passion and principle had not been there in the first place I wouldn’t have abandoned Chilton! Funny old world, isn’t it? And suddenly it was the second week in December and the festive ritual started all over again. The routine was by now well and truly established and worked like clockwork; the coloured crepe paper appeared, was neatly cut into strips and hung from the ceiling. The ‘Christmas’ box was resurrected and the favourites released from their cardboard prison to entertain and amaze once again over the holiday period. I naturally lent a hand but the magic, which had been central to my wonderment last year, had disappeared. Too much had happened to my perception of family life, as well as the fact that part of my daily focus had transferred to all the possibilities and realities of Army existence. Early during the third week in the month, along with the Christmas cards, there dropped on the mat a large official buff envelope addressed to Mr B. A. Stretton. I think it’s the first


Chapter Thirty Seven official mail I had ever received and it may as well have been headed, “Here comes your future, Boyce!” Naturally I opened the package with great trepidation, great excitement and a little anxiety; needless to say my heart was in my mouth and I crept into my bedroom, needing the privacy to savour and digest the moment. And here was my very first taste of Army administration efficiency, a skill at which they’re brilliant – still they have been practising it for a few hundred years! To divulge the contents at this point in my narrative would be slightly premature; suffice to say that I was detailed to attend Portsmouth’s recruiting office at 0900 on January 13th 1953, (my first encounter with the military clock!) when I would finally become a member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. So, the momentous day was finally within touching distance. This was also the week that I started my final week at grammar school. The highlight was always going to be the annual school football match between ourselves and Newport Grammar School, a keenly and hard-fought contest, which I had missed last year as I hadn’t yet joined Sandown Grammar. In my mind’s eye it was going to be a comic-book exit; we were going to thrash Newport, I’d score a couple of goals and play brilliantly throughout. With the majority of the school spectating, fiction didn’t translate into fact unfortunately. It was a grey, cold, rainy day and the pitch was muddy and Newport thrashed us four goals to one. How humiliating! I didn’t score the lone goal and doubt that I played particularly well. The very next day being my last, I cleared the few possessions out of my desk and lying on top of my small pile of books was a lone, sealed Christmas card. This was to be my first encounter with the fair sex. The card was unsigned but the sender wished me all the very best for my future, had admired me from afar for


Chapter Thirty Seven sometime and would always love me. I never did know whom I had captivated from a distance: my cynical self says it could well have been a send-up but I like to think that the card had a ring of naïve innocence about it and at the time I was deeply touched. No, that’s not quite true; looking back over all those years I’m still touched by the thought today. As was the tradition at the Grammar School, all pupils leaving at the end of term were assembled outside the headmaster’s office and individually wished bon-voyage and every success in their chosen venture. My last act at the school, therefore, was very much as it had begun, a lecturette by Mr Northover. Undoubtedly Mr Northover was a snob, an academic and not a sportsman and hadn’t been blessed with a sense of humour; it must be safe to say that when I entered his study our farewells were short and succinct. In fact I thought it somewhat unfair, perhaps I could and should have done better academically but I had brought nothing but credit to the school – and by definition, Mr Northover – on the sporting field, in particular my handling of the successful cricket team. By comparison those leaving to engage in academic pursuits, university, the civil service, music and the like seemed to spend an eternity in that study. On leaving the Grammar School that day as I rode out of the gates I never looked back either literally or metaphorically and never had a desire to revisit or join reunion gatherings.

Chapter Thirty Eight


At Belle-Vue Christmas convivially skated towards its appointed Day in much the same fashion as it had the previous year; presents were assembled underneath the Christmas tree; mountains of food magically appeared in preparation for the forthcoming merriment; the drinks and nibbles table was laid out; and the excitement surrounding young Arthur and Andrea was obvious. Father Christmas duly arrived during Christmas Eve with large pillowcases for Andrea and Arthur; I was by now considered a young man and as such was past Santa Claus’s generosity. Early on Christmas morning Auntie Pat and Uncle Arthur dispatched a taxi across to the Nurses’ Home in Shanklin to retrieve our Ruth who was invited for the day. As was the case last year, business acquaintances and friends arrived promptly at the set time, the difference this year being that I now knew most of them. A few like George Stay had actually become friends and in George’s case, a mentor of sorts. Dinner, the Queen’s Speech and an elaborate high tea came and went with the usual evening mixture of party games. The one ingredient missing was my enthusiasm for the occasion; too much had happened in the intervening months to allow the magic of the preceding Christmas to hug me again, plus the fact that a small but integral part of me was already preparing for Bovington Camp. Our Ruth left early in the evening returning to her duties and I think I’m correct in saying that’s the last I saw of her for fifteen or sixteen years. During the following week, in the period running towards - or more appropriately - sauntering towards New Year’s Eve, time reluctantly dragged its feet, seemingly in no hurry whatsoever to


Chapter Thirty Eight propel me nearer to my leaving date. It was only natural that I now viewed my whole future with some apprehension. Had I done the right thing? Would I fit into the military life with its apparent lack of privacy? Could I cope with the discipline? Thankfully to more than offset these negative thoughts, there was a frisson of excitement and a bubbling keenness which continually ran through me at the prospect of this new start. In moments of uncertainty and disquiet such as this I was about to develop an approach, which was to stand me in good stead, not only then but on many and varied future confrontations and was to become part of the philosophy of my adult life. Never, ever to be afraid of admitting to fear. Never to knowingly turn my back on an unresolved problem, not only would that dilemma not disappear it would unexpectedly return in larger and more frightening proportions. And finally, in moments of wracked indecision or moral cowardice, place one foot firmly in front of the other and keep mentally walking; it is quite amazing how often these fears turn out to be groundless when tracked down and faced head on. My main practical concern prior to leaving was dear old Whisky. She had been my faithful and constant colleague for the majority of my life at Belle-Vue, in fact much more than that she had been my uncomplaining confidante and in a short while I was moving on and leaving her behind. I told myself that she had a good and secure home and although she may well feel abandoned by me for a time, nothing could be further from the truth but then I couldn’t tell her that. Despite being primarily a military establishment, in many ways Bovington Camp was to be an extension of my schooling and as such I would enjoy the frequency – though not necessarily the length – of academic holidays. As was both practicable and


Chapter Thirty Eight convenient Belle-Vue would remain my base for the foreseeable future - I had been somewhat perplexingly informed by Auntie Pat that as I was family (since when?) my bedroom would be ready for me at all times. Consequently it was with absolute conviction that I told Whisky we would continue our stunning walks when I returned at Easter. I like to think she understood; we did continue our walks over a protracted period, Whisky getting slower but always showing the same enthusiasm, whilst I maintained the same sense of peace and spectacle I had from the very outset. Whisky was by now getting noticeably older and towards the end of my posting to Bovington she died peacefully in her sleep. My lasting memory of her was, and still is, of a delightfully friendly, trusting and loyal companion who, during an unhappy and complicated time in my growing-up, was a joy to be with. I think it not over-dramatic to say that without her reassuring presence during that year at Belle-Vue, some days would have been well nigh insufferable. I loved her dearly and not infrequently told her that she would never be forgotten, to which she energetically wagged her tail and, if the mood took her rolled on her back, legs splayed in the air. And she wasn’t forgotten; I have carried her down the years with me, sometimes tucked away in some warm recess of my consciousness for months or even years but always there and at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected circumstances she has suddenly but insistently craved acknowledgement. It may well be that I stand accused of being anthropomorphic towards Whisky and that must be for the reader’s judgement but I did no such thing. To me she was always what she was, a thoroughly lovely-natured dog with an unswervingly loyal and dependable streak whose more endearing qualities of innocent pleasure and transparency surpassed that of


Chapter Thirty Eight many of her human counterparts. Despite my impatience and frustration at the passage of time New Year’s Eve finally arrived and was celebrated in exactly the same vein as last year. I now stayed up as a matter of course, had a real alcoholic drink and joined with the gathered assembly in standing to sing Auld Lang Syne on the stroke of midnight. Glasses were raised to my future in particular, which in many ways I thought quite ironic; it was the insensitivity of others that had put me here in the first place, I reasoned. Putting all those thoughts to one side the thing I realised with absolute clarity was that 1953 was set to be the significant year for me on many levels and to a large degree I was determined to become the master of my own destiny. If 1952 had galloped in on a note of unsustainable euphoria on my part, the arrival of 1953 was a much more sedate affair with my implicitly held view being one of measured optimism. With thirteen days to go, the time for angst or lingering misgivings was over, the calendar which had sauntered from day to day during the post-Christmas period suddenly accelerated like a sprinter and appeared to leave each day struggling to keep pace. Out came my buff envelope, which had been tucked away for safekeeping. The instructions for joining my unit were quite succinct and covered less than an A4 page. As I’ve already mentioned I was asked to report to the recruiting office in Portsmouth at nine o’clock on the morning of January 13th. I was advised to travel light with the minimum of clothes required for one overnight period; once I had been issued with my military uniform all civilian clothes were to be sent back to Belle-Vue. On arrival at the recruiting office I would “sign-on” – in my case for a minimum period of six years, which would only commence on reaching my eighteenth birthday - and be given a


Chapter Thirty Eight travel warrant with a train schedule to Bovington Camp. I was also asked to bring a packed lunch, there being a strong possibility that I wouldn’t arrive at the barracks much before teatime. I would be met at my journey’s end, transported to the camp, escorted to my already designated living accommodation and then fed. The well-oiled military machine was preparing to seamlessly move into action. The morning of January 13th arrived exactly the same as any other - I don’t know what else I expected – the exception being that my heart appeared to be stuck in my mouth and I had to make a conscious effort of swallowing. I knew with an absolute certainty that the rest of my life started right there at that moment and, although only fifteen, any future direction, any future success or any future failure would be mine and mine alone. It seemed a total impossibility that only fifteen months before I had stood, a trusting and unsophisticated northern lad, convinced that I was about to embark on the holiday of a lifetime and nothing more. I now considered that the tempting snakes and ladders board with its many-runged ladder which had been seductively laid out on the concourse of Darlington Station was nothing more than a mirage and did little to enhance either mine or our Ruth’s fortunes. And yet perversely given the same set of circumstances I would probably do it all over again - without the aspirations - for much as I loved the North-East and its people there would have been little future in Chilton for me. So here I was again waiting at another station with a somewhat battered suitcase at eight o’clock on a cold, crisp January morning. I had made the journey down the hill from Belle-Vue to Brading station by myself and I must have cut a lonely figure on the platform, although my mind was already many miles away in Bovington Camp with its imagined


Chapter Thirty Eight expectations. My instinctive thrill at the buzz and activity of railway stations even a small, rural halt like Brading was undiminished. I still delighted in the untold stories of comings and goings; however I realised for the first time that I was part of the drama and not just a dispassionate onlooker and what’s more all my young life I had been cast in the role of ‘going’ and never ‘coming’. Going from Berkhamsted to Harrogate, going from Harrogate to Chilton, going from Chilton to the Island and now going from Belle-Vue to a life in the Army. Whether in my case ‘going’ was a euphemism for ‘retreat’ I can’t truthfully say; my leaving Belle-Vue was certainly much more complex than that. These musings were rudely cut short as round the bend from Sandown ploughed the early morning train, whistle blowing and purposefully throwing a plume of white smoke into the air. It grumbled noisily to a stop, the doors were thrown open by alighting passengers and I climbed aboard my future.


PART three Boy Soldier 1953 - 1955

Chapter thirty nine

If my journey from Darlington had been uneventful, the same surely could not be said for my progress to Bovington Camp. In reality I think I was overwhelmed by the situation I found myself in; I was naïve in the art of self-sufficiency and I realised that this was no small boy’s ‘adventure’ but an actual happening, which could well set the pattern for the rest of my life. It was with some trepidation therefore that I set foot into Portsmouth’s army recruiting office for the final time. The office was just as I had remembered it from my previous visit, immaculately clean with an air of understated efficiency, the immediate disappointment being that Sgt. Bates, my original and trusted mentor, was no longer in attendance and his name-plate had been removed from the highly polished desk. I was expected and the pertinent paperwork was already in place on the desk. The recruiting sergeant (whose name, Garlick, was prominently displayed) sat me down and explained my itinerary for the day ahead. The first item on the sergeant’s agenda was a travel warrant, which laid out the route I would take and the train times involved. Briefly this would involve changing trains at Southampton and Bournemouth, where a connecting train would take me on to the small station of Wool, the disembarking point for Bovington, located a further two miles by road. He explained all of this in great detail, making sure that I understood every detail and confirmed that I was fully aware of how to exchange the warrant for my ticket at the railway ticket office. He also assured me that I would be met at Wool by transport from the camp. On studying the travel warrant I noted that the whole journey should take just over two hours but waiting for connecting trains would considerably increase that time;


Chapter 39 Bovington could have been no more than fifty miles from Portsmouth, although the circuitous train perambulations would have added considerably to that distance. (While still at school I had taken the trouble to establish the location of Bovington from a school atlas and knew that it was situated in the nearby county of Dorset, midway between the towns of Poole and Dorchester). (Again, although having no bearing on my story I think the following observation sums up the army’s eye for detail and military efficiency. What I had just witnessed without being conscious of it was the Army’s ethic of passing on information whether trivial or complex. The technique was simplicity itself; strip the gathered information down to its basic units, pass it on to the gathered audience segment by segment and never move on to the next slice until all present understand the mechanics of what had already been stated. As my army career progressed I observed this approach on countless occasions; even the most complicated piece of equipment when subjected to this treatment became understandable to the rawest recruit or those - like myself - with no mechanical aptitude whatsoever. Later after I had parted company with the army and had taken up a civilian career I never ceased to be amazed - or maybe amused – at the lack of this approach by civilian tutors. Oh, with presentations, seminars and courses they had flip-charts and overhead projectors but time and time again it was quite obvious that the participating assembly hadn’t grasped the overall aim of the tutorial). The next item on the Sergeant Garlick’s agenda was the issuing of a day’s (or perhaps part of a day’s) subsistence allowance, for which he asked me to sign. Hard as I try I just can’t remember the exact sum involved but it can’t have been more than 3/6d (17p), which to me seemed a fortune for one meal; I had already been told I would be in camp by dinner-time where I would be


Chapter 39 given a hot dinner. Next - and as it turned out – finally, the sergeant handed me a piece of white card written on which in large printing was what appeared to be at first glance some sort of statement. “I would like you to read that document carefully,” he said. “Make sure that you fully understand and agree with its content. I’ll be back in a while.” And with that he left me alone, returning almost immediately with a cup of tea before finally withdrawing to a sideroom. Meanwhile the office was quite busy, all queries being dealt with by a colleague at another table. The declaration was quite short, probably about seventy words in length and headed “The Oath of Allegiance”. I read through it quite quickly, and, briefly, it stated that the reader swore to honour, obey and defend the Queen and all her representatives at all times. I saw nothing contentious in the declaration; after all I was joining Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Sergeant Garlick returned after a short interval and asked me if I understood what I had just read and pointed out that all personnel on joining the Army had to swear this Oath, known as the attestation. On affirming that I was quite comfortable with it he took me into the side-room where, asking me to stand in front of his desk, he asked me to swear the Oath, which I did. He then produced from a side drawer a shining new shilling piece (5p) and proudly told me that I was about to accept the Queen’s Shilling, symbolically my first day’s wages. On accepting and signing for this coin (everything was signed for in the Army!) I was officially Boy (Trooper) Stretton and a member of the Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps, quite a significant moment in my young life and a point at which I had arrived entirely by my own initiative. The time now being half-past ten and with my first train departing from Portsmouth at eleven o’clock, the sergeant now


Chapter 39 bade me farewell, shook my hand, wished me all the luck in my chosen career and offered me virtually the same advice as Sgt Bates had some months earlier. Lastly he took me to the office door and gave me explicit directions to the Town station, which was only a matter of minutes along the road from the recruiting office and would have been hard to miss. Carrying my small suitcase and clutching my travel warrant I made my way down Commercial Road, finally a soldier - albeit a fearful and apprehensive one – and with fleeting alarm realised that for the first time in my life I was totally on my own and must now take responsibility for my own decisions and mistakes within the parameters of army existence.

Chapter Forty


I duly exchanged my warrant for a ticket and waited on the appropriate platform for the arrival of my train. The station still held the familiar and anticipated buzz with an air of latent expectation but with one added ingredient, that of my own unease bordering on anxiety. Even today within the family this unique feeling is known as “before speech”, a mixture of fear of the unknown and a nervous nausea in the pit of the stomach. Innocently I had expected the platform to be littered with boys looking nervous and carrying suitcases; there were none. Apparently, I thought pragmatically, I am the only person joining the army today. The train arrived on time; the first leg of my journey was undramatic and the carriage, thankfully, virtually empty. I had brought along a book with me for company and although I turned the pages and appeared to be absorbed in the story, I couldn’t have told you one single sentence I read on the way to Southampton; my thoughts were already exploring a preconceived Bovington Camp. I consoled myself with the fact that my frequent school changing in earlier years would stand me in good stead, and managed for a brief moment to convince myself that fitting in at Bovington would be the same type of experience. One decision I consciously made on that train, which would remain constant throughout my army service, was that although my official documents would confirm otherwise, I would become known as Brian and not Boyce. The logic behind this rather strange action was that I had reservations concerning my ability to cope with the confusion my name Boyce would probably engender as it had on a number of previous occasions. (The pretence was to work well throughout my whole army service, mainly because the armed forces dealt in number, surname and


Chapter Forty rank, whilst colleagues had neither access nor interest in official documents, or for that matter, names). The train arrived at Southampton on schedule, and there being a thirty-minute wait for the Bournemouth link of my journey I daringly bought a sandwich, a cake and a cup of tea at the station buffet with my newly acquired wealth. I had packed a round of sandwiches in my suitcase for consumption on the way but to exploit my new feeling of ‘grown-upness’ I had furtively discarded the package in a convenient waste bin; only small boys, I thought – quite wrongly - carried packed lunches on their person. Again I expected to see the platform dotted with boys carrying suitcases looking concerned; again there were none, confirming my misguided belief that I was the solitary recruit for that specific day. Unbeknown to me, of course, the army recruited by ‘intakes’ and my particular intake consisted of between twenty and twentyfive boys – all of whom I would meet later - which when divided throughout the entire country would make us pretty thin on railway platforms throughout the United Kingdom. The trip down to Bournemouth was relatively short; in the summer these same carriages would be crammed with holidaymakers heading to the resort for their annual break but in January Bournemouth was bleak and uninviting and again I had the carriage to myself for the majority of the stage. And at last on leaving the train at Bournemouth and changing platforms to wait the arrival of the Wool connection I spotted one solitary boy with a suitcase looking suitably lost and worried. If this were a fairy tale we would tentatively have greeted each other, would have exchanged names and details, would have become life long friends, and would have gone through our entire army careers serving in the same regiment and looking out for each other at all times. The reality was not remotely like that. Our meeting was both formal


Chapter Forty and awkward, his name was John Walkden and he came from somewhere in the Midlands. I suppose because of our situation and our inner worries, conversation was decidedly stilted and although we stayed together all the way to Wool I’m sure that both of us would have preferred our own company and our own thoughts. In fact when we reached our destination we almost immediately separated and although over the next two years our paths crossed on many occasions our friendship never developed past the point of a nod and “Hello.” Although the distance between Bournemouth and Wool was probably only about twenty miles, this final leg seemed to last forever; with every passing mile I could feel the suspense growing and I could taste the fear as one would taste sour milk. I had no time or inclination for forced conversation with John and I have no doubt his feelings towards me were identical. At the stop prior to Wool, the much larger station of Wareham, to some extent I finally took control of my fears, after all I reasoned we would all be new boys together, and that must be a distinct advantage over my prior joinings, and the arrival would be a totally new experience for us all. At last the final train destination, Wool, the time by now being about two-thirty. We alighted from the carriage – John and Ilooked up and down the platform and I was quite surprised to see four or five rather forlorn boys also emerging from the train and also gazing up and down the platform. They had either been on the train all the time or had joined it at one of the stops along the way. Khaki uniforms were dotted all along the platform both arriving and departing and it was quite apparent that Wool was, at that time, a military staging post. (Sometime later I learnt that in close proximity to the station as well as Bovington Camp, situated on the coast was the important training establishment


Chapter Forty of Lulworth Gunnery School). I had no time to dwell on this or any other observation, heading along the platform was a clipboard-carrying corporal shouting, “All new arrivals for the Boys’ Squadron follow me.” We all sheepishly crocodiled behind him through the exit where we were mustered on the station car park. The corporal (Marcelle) asked each of us our name, ticked it off on his clipboard and pointed to a large military vehicle parked in the car park and said, “This is your taxi to the Camp, lads.” So this, then, was the transport, which I had been promised in Portsmouth would meet me at the station; I don’t know what I had expected, innocently I suppose some sort of civilian taxi. The vehicle to which we had been ushered was the army’s all-purpose vehicle, commonly known as a ‘three-tonner’ - doubtless because of its weight – and could (and did!) carry everything from people to ammunition. Ours, in its role as ‘taxi’, possessed a removable tarpaulin cover with slatted wooden bench seats arranged down each side of the body. Ingress for passengers was by means of a drop-down tailgate, which enjoyed a large foothold in the middle and a stout, knotted rope hanging from the tarpaulin stanchion. The purpose of this arrangement was to securely place a foot in the foothold, firmly grasp the rope and haul oneself up in one in easy movement. Or it should have been one easy movement; however, to a bunch of ex-schoolboys, whose major arm exercises to that point had been pushing a pen or lifting a jam tart, the operation of climbing into the three-tonner with a suitcase became our first test of teamwork and doggedness. Finally we were all aboard and seated. With Corporal Marcelle sitting in the cab of the lorry beside the driver we set out on the short drive to Bovington Camp. The journey certainly wasn’t the last word in luxury; it was an extremely bumpy ride and as the


Chapter Forty vehicle negotiated bends in the road we were continually thrown from side to side. The main problem was that although we had a perfect view from the back of the truck as to where we had come from we could see nothing to the front because of the tarpaulin cover and were consequently unprepared for approaching obstacles or bends in the road. In a short space of time the theetonner slowed down, turned left, drove probably a further hundred yards and then stopped; the driver switched off the engine. Corporal Marcelle’s head appeared above the tailgate and he told us we had arrived and were outside the guardroom of the barracks; with that information he lowered the tailgate and told us to collect our luggage and disembark. To us ‘rookies’ that operation was easier said than done and dignified is hardly a word that springs to mind when describing our progress to solid ground, perhaps falling potato sack would much more accurate and graphic! We all gathered outside the guardroom in some sort of haphazard group and I gazed around this sprawling, unfamiliar garrison, which was to be my home for the next two years. It seemed quite impossible to me that less than twelve hours previously I had been an unhappy young boy with a dream of sorts, and here I was actually inside that dream and turning it into a reality. I also sensed that although I had only travelled some fifty miles in distance I had in fact made perhaps the most momentous journey of my life to date. I also knew that I still had a long way to travel and must now learn a new set of rules and protocols as laid down by the army.

Chapter forty one


It very quickly became apparent that the guardroom was the mustering location for the entire intake, and a room had been set aside both as a reception and holding area. On entering the room we found that it was already inhabited by earlier arrivals, possibly a further seven making a grand total of about fourteen. Cpl Marcelle, on his clipboard, had a list of the complete intake and their expected arrival times. He indicated that he had one more immediate trip to the station where there should be a further five boys waiting transport to the camp; the remainder of the recruits would be arriving much later in the evening; they were travelling down from various parts of Scotland. Cpl Marcelle disappeared to collect his batch of boys and we were handed a series of pamphlets to read, mainly concerning the history of the Squadron, its aims and its hierarchy. They were probably interesting, informative and necessary literature but I would guarantee that not one single boy in that gathering could have quoted a solitary fact two minutes after reading it; the air of tension and expectation in the room being painfully evident and made concentration well nigh impossible. In a short while Cpl Marcelle duly returned with his charges – there were only four; it later transpired that one had caught the wrong train – and the intake was almost immediately separated into four groups of roughly equal numbers. It was at this point that we were introduced to four boy/corporals who had been detailed to show us our accommodation and deposit our suitcases before reporting back to the guardroom. The Squadron was divided into four troops each named after a famous cavalry or tank battle. Rather like school Houses they were also colour-coded and so collectively we had Alamein (green),


Chapter Forty One Balaclava (red), Cambrai (yellow) and Dettingen (blue). Although I never did count, in 1953 each troop must have had a complement of about fifty boys housed in three individual barrack rooms per troop. (The Squadron was, however, in a continuous state of expansion and by the time I graduated into man’s service in 1955 it was well on the way to achieving regimental status in number and was later - in 1956 - re-designated The Junior Leaders’ Regiment). I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Dettingen Troop; I was soon to discover that it was a happy and tightly knit formation. I say fortunate; I have no doubt that this was a personal and biased preference; if I had been allocated to any of the other three troops I would probably have felt the same towards them. Our living quarters were situated in two wooden-constructed spider blocks, Dettingen and Cambrai resident in one ‘spider’, Alamein and Balaclava occupying the other. An ‘H’- Block by its very name should be self-explanatory - a building constructed in the shape of the letter ‘H’. A spider block is identical in construction but with the addition of three ‘legs’ attached to each perpendicular strut of the H making it look uncannily like a spider from the air. The spiders’ legs were the boys’ accommodation, there being roughly sixteen or seventeen boys housed in each ‘leg’. The ablution unit, carrying the washing and toilet facilities slotted neatly into the shared corridor, which was in fact the horizontal bar of the ‘H’. That facility was the responsibility of the two Troops sharing the particular spider, who on a rota basis would keep both the corridor and the ablutions clean and ready at all times for the Troop Leader’s inspection. Our Boy/Corporal (Birch) took my group - four of us - into Dettingen troop, paraded us down a long corridor to the furthest


Chapter Forty One barrack room and showed us our living quarters. The room was spotlessly clean with beds spaced evenly down each wall, perhaps seven on each side, each bed companioned by a large, green metal locker. Every bed with its accompanying locker was known as a ‘bed-space’ and was the sole liability of the boy who occupied that bed area both for its cleanliness and tidiness. Laid out with military precision at the near end of the room were five metal bedsteads each holding a rolled-up mattress with two pillows and the obligatory metal locker by the side. One of these spaces, I thought with some surprise, is my new privacy! There was no sign, however, of either bed linen or blankets; the time had arrived for my introduction to the Quartermaster’s store. As long as it wasn’t food the quartermaster’s store appeared to stock everything; a true cornucopia. We left our suitcases in the lockers, were taken to this large building on the other side of the camp and were issued with two sheets, two pillowcases, four blankets and a deep green coverlet. Needless to say, now being in the army we had to sign for everything. “Number, name and rank. Sign here!” “I don’t have a number yet, corporal.” Weren’t they aware I mused that they had an intake of twenty upward about to descend on them, none of whom would possess a military number? Boy/Corporal Birch instructed us to leave the bedding in our lockers along with our cases; it was time to re-assemble at the guardroom, be re-united with the rest of the intake and handed back to Cpl Marcelle. It says much of human nature that the twenty or so members of our intake who had assembled in the guardroom less than an hour earlier as complete strangers had already split into four distinct groups; friendships were already being forged. And on to my second introduction of the day, the cookhouse,


Chapter Forty One although I suppose more accurately that it was my third major introduction of the day, the guardroom also being an integral part of the Camp. The cookhouse was a building of considerable size situated not too far from our living quarters, which was divided into two distinct halves. The kitchens at the rear were manned by the Army Catering Corps and an eating facility filled the front section with a capacity for two hundred hungry boys – though I hasten to qualify very rarely would the whole complement of the Squadron be dining at precisely the same time. The seating arrangement was a series of wooden tables and chairs, each table capable of holding eight people and, needless to say, lined up with military precision. Curiously on entering the cookhouse, just inside the double-doors on the right-hand side sat a tin bath on a large, trestle-table filled with what appeared to be hot, foamy water. As it was outside normal dining hours we had the dining room to ourselves save for the on-duty catering staff who served us a dinner in rather simplified cafeteria style. With very few exceptions the army had two choices at each meal, take it or leave it. (Because we were growing and active lads, ‘take it’ was by far the more popular option). I think my intake was surprisingly hungry, it felt as though we had been travelling and assimilating information forever. By no stretch of the imagination could the fare be called ‘haute-cuisine’ but it was adequate and there was plenty of it. Throughout my army career I never had any major complaint about army food, albeit that the tradition was that ‘squaddies’ would always grumble about the inadequacies of the menu. (When I finally reached the rank of sergeant in the regular army, my lifestyle changed and my dining room became the sergeants’ mess. Eating became much more formal and the menus more varied and ambitious; initially an array of knives,


Chapter Forty One forks and wineglasses appeared at the table whose function I could only guess at. That, however, was the future). We automatically sat together in our Troop grouping and Cpl Marcelle joined us. Most of us dispatched what was in front of us including a large pudding (in fact on my first leave to Belle-Vue I had gained a stone in weight!) and a mug of hot, steaming tea. The army, I was to discover, had a mug of tea with everything; whether Mr Tetley or Mr Twining would have agreed with that description of the fluid is open to conjecture. To its credit it was hot, brown in colour and most acceptable first thing in the morning or after a gruelling route march; I never met anyone serving in the army who didn’t take sugar with this beverage. Having completed a most welcome and needed meal, Cpl Marcelle directed us to our respective Troops and instructed us to assemble outside the guardroom the next morning at first parade, which was eight-fifteen sharp, where army life for us would start in earnest. The four of us, who had in the space of a few hours become firm friends, returned to our barrack room where the remainder of the occupants had long returned from their daily curriculum and, as far as we could see, were busily cleaning and polishing boots and uniform. A boy/lance corporal controlled each of the three living units and his privilege was to have a small cubicle at the end of the room to afford him some privacy and authority. As became immediately obvious the four of us had only the vaguest idea as how to make a bed from scratch and the Lance Corporal promptly took charge of our situation and detailed a couple of boot cleaners to lend a hand. They turned out to be warm and friendly, – any excuse to have a break from kit-cleaning, I suspect – briefly told us what to expect and warned us not to unpack our suitcases as all our belongings including the clothes


Chapter Forty One we were wearing would be returned home the very next day. During the first term in the Squadron no civilian clothes were allowed, it was joked (I think!) in the Camp that it would make absconding that much more difficult. Most of the boys in the room came at some juncture to say hello and introduce themselves; it turned out that the majority had only been in the Squadron for three or four months themselves. Out of the four of us who had been allocated to Dettingen Troop three of us, Nev Wood, ‘Tich’ Short and myself really did become firm friends and watched out for each other throughout our boys’ service. The fourth recruit - unfortunately I don’t even remember his name now – remained conversationally friendly but drifted away over time and joined his own circle. The fifth bed-space was never used and eventually disappeared. ‘Lights out’ was at ten o’clock, and although only about ninefifteen some boys had already made their beds and climbed in. I think it safe to say the four of us by now were exhausted both mentally and physically; one of the boys kindly showed us the washroom, acquainted us with the fact that ‘reveille’ was at sixthirty and breakfast was from seven until seven-thirty. “Miss that time” he said, “and you miss your breakfast”. I had a quick wash, cleaned my teeth and returned to my bedspace. I can’t speak for the others but I felt extremely selfconscious at the thought of undressing without any semblance of privacy; I had changed communally on many occasions for football matches but somehow this felt totally different. On the other hand I knew that it was essential not to parade my shyness, it could reverberate for weeks or even months and could well mar my chances of a seamless acceptance. Consequently with a feigned nonchalance, which I most certainly didn’t feel I casually undressed, slipped on my pair of pyjamas, hung my civilian clothes


Chapter Forty One in the provided locker and escaped under the bedclothes. As time went on the embarrassment became less acute but in all honesty it was an aspect of the army with which I was never comfortable and I never did let the façade of casual indifference slip. I lay in bed and as the lights were doused, and with the voice of Dettingen’s Boy/ Sergeant bellowing “No more noise now!” resonating in my ears I contemplated the momentous day’s happenings. I found it inconceivable that less than twenty-fours hours previously I been a young boy with only the dream to sustain me, and now by my own endeavour I was actually living the reality of that dream. I realised with a feeling akin to shock that in this environment I was ME in my own right; not Kitty’s son, not Ruth’s brother or even Auntie Pat’s nephew/son and from this point on my history would be entirely of my own creation. As I drifted into a surprisingly untroubled sleep I also realised with a touch of arrogance that I could and would achieve more than a small degree of success in this, my randomly chosen profession.

Chapter forty two


Reveille; feeling fully refreshed I had lain awake for about halfan-hour anticipating the day ahead. Bodies tumbled out of bed; some boys stampeded to the washroom, some preferred to sweep and clean their bed spaces first and then make their beds up - a precise and practised art - and the four of us were at a loss as what we should do. As seemed normal practice by now help was at hand and a boy called John suggested that we joined him in the washroom where there would still be spare washbasins; once we were washed and dressed he would accompany us to breakfast. Although it was still dark we were familiar with the location of the cookhouse and with John as our guide we adopted the accepted cookhouse routine. We, of course, stood out like navvies in a beauty pageant being the only people in civilian dress and what we found quite puzzling was that all boys heading for breakfast carried their own knife, fork, spoon and mug. As on the previous evening the catering staff provided each of us with a mug and eating utensils; a hearty fried breakfast was on offer with the addition of porridge if required, served in the now familiar cafeteria style. Two large urns at the far end of the serving counter provided hot tea. The conundrum of the trestle table and the tin bath of hot, foamy water was finally solved. On finishing their meal and leaving the hall the boys would empty any leftover food or tea into two positioned slop buckets, stack their used plates on the trestle-table and wash their eating utensils and mugs in the hot water provided. Back in the barrack room the place was buzzing with activity. Boys were diligently cleaning their bed spaces, applying finishing touches to their uniforms in preparation for first parade and a


Chapter Forty Two detail of boys under the guidance of Boy/Corporal Birch were busily cleaning the long corridor. Making our beds ‘up’ was a skill we hadn’t even heard of let alone mastered but the four of us realised that we couldn’t just leave them unmade. Firstly the green coverlet was used to cover the mattress, the edges being squared-off for added neatness. Next three of the four blankets were folded to an equal size, as were the two sheets, the remaining blanket being folded lengthways to form a strip. This was then laid out on the bed and the folded blankets and sheets placed in the centre on top of each other in the specific order, blanket-sheet-blanket-sheet-blanket. Finally the ends of the long blanket were wrapped around the subsequent pile to form a secure ‘parcel’. The whole parcel was then turned upside down and placed neatly at the head of the bed, with the two pillows slotted firmly behind. That then was bed making-up, which had to be completed every day before first parade and ready for room inspection, the exception being Sunday. The finished article always reminded me of a slice of layered cake or, more accurately, a black and white liquorice allsort. All the beds had to remain in this condition until the end of the working day, when we could dissemble them at leisure. Some really keen members of the troop would shape pieces of cardboard to the required size and slide the resulting cut pieces into the bed parcel, hence squaring off the edges and sides of the ‘liquorice allsort’; I was never that zealous.

Chapter Forty Three


However, for us that operation was in the future and two nearby lads, spotting our dilemma, generously gave up their valuable time to make our beds look presentable. The time by now was fast approaching eight o’ clock; the three barrack rooms emptied out and Dettingen Troop gathered outside the block, formed three ranks under the watchful eyes of the boy/NCOs and prepared to march onto the parade ground for early morning inspection. Joining them on the march to the square were the other three assembled Troops, Alamein, Balaclava and Cambrai. We of course had no time to observe this spectacle and hurried to the guardroom for our own morning parade. Corporal Marcelle had disappeared and was replaced by two permanent staff corporals, who exuded efficiency. They immediately ordered us – no more asking! – to divide ourselves into two groups, Alamein and Balaclava forming one group, Cambrai and Dettingen the other. With a corporal in charge of each section our names were read out from the obligatory clipboard. Luckily, my name being Stretton I was neither first nor last on the list, the dubious honour of being first rested with a fellow from Cambrai called Barton. “Barton,” yelled the corporal fiercely. “Here,” murmured Barton. “Here, CORPORAL,” exploded the irate corporal to the hapless Barton, “I’ve worked long and bloody hard for these stripes. And raise your voice laddie, this isn’t a monastery!” And so, in that one exchange, was set the tone not only for that particular encounter but also for the duration of my service in Bovington. Sgt Bates’s Third Rule of Survival sprang to mind, ‘Always respect your seniors’. We had been divided into two groups for the sole purpose of


Chapter Forty Three splitting the day’s workload more efficiently; one half would report to the Quartermaster’s store for the issue of uniforms along with all the paraphernalia that constituted army life. The other half would head to the Medical Centre where there was to be a thorough medical for each of us and then on to the Administration block for completion of our military records. On conclusion of the assignments the two halves would then swap places. My squad was scheduled for the Medical Centre first; it was also our first taste of being marched as a formation. I say ‘marched’ in the loosest sense of the word, what an absolute shambles we must have presented. I fared better than most thanks to my experience in Sandown grammar school’s Cadet Force; at least I could swing my arms in time to my legs and keep in step correctly. I had already had a medical check back in November at the Recruiting Office but I assume that that had been to assess my suitability for the Forces. Although thorough this medical examination was a purely standard procedure including eyesight and a hearing test. Like all medical examinations everywhere the intimate procedure was embarrassing with the added military indignity of a certain lack of privacy. I must have passed the criteria set by the army as I was very soon told to get dressed and wait with the remainder of the squad. On to the Administration block where the updating of my documents were finalised. At long last I was designated an army number (22782756), which would remain constant throughout my service career and beyond. One of life’s ultimate truisms is that you never as long as you live forget your army service number. I have been known to forget my son’s name or the odd anniversary but whatever and whenever these memory lapses occur my army number remains indelible. I have this hunch that if there are Pearly Gates with St Peter greeting, then standing right beside


Chapter Forty Three him will be an army sergeant- major – naturally with a heavenly clipboard – demanding, “Number, rank and name”! After a welcoming mug of tea our groups swapped places and we headed for the Quartermaster’s store. The first thing I was issued with was a kitbag – “Pack as much stuff as you can get in there, there’s loads more to come!” said the issuing trooper – followed by items of clothing and equipment which appeared to be never ending. There were two uniforms, two pairs of boots and two berets, one set for working days and one set for church and ceremonial parades. There were shirts, socks and underwear; my own mug, eating utensils and mess-tins; two tank-suits, webbing and items whose functions I could only guess. There were PE shoes, gym shorts, lanyards, cap badges and I think even pyjamas and so much more. Finally I was given a cardboard box in which I was told to deposit my entire civilian paraphernalia and an address label. This had to be filled in with my home address and then to return the box and its contents along with the label to the QM store where the entire package would parcelled up and returned to Belle-Vue. The one exception was my civilian shoes, which I was told to keep. We found two flat-bed trolleys; the Dettingen contingent piled all their possessions on to one and headed back to the barrack room; with all of my newly acquired property laid on the bed I stared in amazement at the sheer quantity and diversity of it all. It was already dinnertime and now possessing my own mug and eating utensils I was one step nearer to integrating. By tomorrow the civilian clothes would have disappeared and assimilation into the Squadron would be complete. After dinner our barrack room boy/lance/corporal (Smith) joined us and spent a considerable amount of time pointing out each piece of equipment, its name and its purpose. Naturally the


Chapter Forty Three army had a name for everything, some of which I found quite amusing, although without exception the names were all quite apt. For example the underpants were known as drawers cellular; a small rolled-up canvas pouch was termed a housewife, which when unfurled revealed a small bobbin of cotton, needles, a thimble, a small ball of grey wool, in fact everything required for the maintenance and repair of all items of clothing. A similar but larger canvas container named a holdall revealed when unravelled all the necessary items for the cleaning of equipment; a button-stick for efficiently polishing buttons, shoe brushes and compartments for boot polish, Brasso and dusters. He showed us how to neatly fold and stack clothing in the locker and pointed out that it all would need ironing and - in most cases – marking with our name and number in indelible black pen thus making it readily identifiable when going to the camp’s laundry. Finally from out of his living cubicle at the end of the room Boy/Lance/Corporal Smith produced an ironing board, an electric iron and a quantity of brown paper. He then deftly showed us how to press our uniforms correctly with a razor-sharp crease in the trousers and a perpendicular, well-defined crease in the arms of the tunic. By now the end of the working day was upon us and boys were returning from their day’s undertakings; some immediately made their beds down, some read their received mail but all very quickly changed out of their uniforms, neatly hung them in their lockers and pulled on tank-suits. The tea meal was very much a priority; the four of us attached ourselves to a group from the barrack room and joined them at the dining-room table where the day’s happenings were discussed by all. They kindly asked us how we were coping with the discipline and the new routines of Bovington assuring us that we would soon get used to the regimented and


Chapter Forty Three ordered life of a soldier. After tea activities varied considerably. The Boys’ Squadron boasted a marching band and two members of the room produced band instruments and disappeared for band practice. Three donned PE gear and made for the gym – one represented the Squadron at boxing, and two were in the Squadron football eleven – for extra one-to-one training. Three in working boots and berets, having been put on fatigues, headed back to the cookhouse. I had no idea what the term ‘fatigues’ meant but it turned out that these were penalties handed out for a multitude of misdemeanours. These transgressions varied from a dirty bed space, dirty uniform, lateness and insubordination to virtually anything that displeased authority or contravened camp policy. It transpired that these three unfortunate individuals were reporting for a potato-peeling punishment, a cold and tedious task preparing potatoes for the next day’s meals. The majority seemed to be making preparations for the next day, whether it was kit cleaning or revising from hand-written notes taken during a trade tutorial. A few, however, were engrossed in letter writing, presumably to family or girl- friends. Notwithstanding the fact that I had not yet been at the camp for two whole days, a routine was beginning to develop, which left very little time for reflection on my previous life. I knew that I had much to learn - protocols, disciplines and acknowledging authority with respect at all times - but I was already making friends and, as yet, ‘Brian’ Stretton had been well accepted with no unforeseen awkward moments. I could do this. Much has been written about the philosophy, ethics and practicalities of ‘spit and polish’ by people more qualified than me, except perhaps most have never been directly involved in the dayto-day process. The dictionary says of spit and polish – colloquially and succinctly known throughout the army as ‘bull’ –


Chapter Forty Three “punctilious attention to neatness and discipline”. The psychologist, Norman Dixon suggests that it is “a substitute for thought”, which I would have considered a magnificent oversimplification. My conviction is that over many, many years the army had inculcated, either consciously or unconsciously, a military etiquette, which foremostly created a sanitary environment and an immaculately clean soldier who would become accustomed to accepting orders and disciplines without question - a necessary and advantageous trait on the battlefield. From personal experience, spit and polish also engendered a spirit of camaraderie; we all united in whispered complaints about the pointlessness of the whole process. What I did find unexpected was the almost clannish attitude aroused, of pride and achievement shown collectively towards any considered competition. It was never my intention in this memoir to discuss or elaborate on the minutiae of spit and polish - I suspect that’s a book in its own right – but I must enlarge somewhat as to how it trespassed into my daily life and to a lesser degree how even today remains part of my psyche. It transpired that the next days and weeks were to be hijacked for the cleaning and where necessary, learning the purpose and use of my seemingly endless equipment. The first major surprise to me was that the term ‘spit and polish’ was literal. All leather items – mainly boots and belts – were burnished to a mirror finish by the technique of applying small amounts of polish worked into the leather with a liberal addition of spit, the process being repeated time and time again. When the supply of spit ran out – which it invariably did – a small amount of water would be reluctantly accepted as an inferior substitute. (Goodness only knows what ‘health tsars’ have to say about the present day use


Chapter Forty Three of this tried and tested technique). During this period I learnt how to prepare, buff and lace my boots, how to polish all my buttons, buckles and other brass with a button-stick, how to iron my uniform and shirts correctly and how to wear my beret in the appropriate fashion. I eventually learnt how to make up my bed-pack (liquorice all-sort) professionally, how to lay out my locker and its surrounds ready for daily and weekly inspection; I was even shown the right way to use a broom and that irreplaceable piece of army cleaning equipment, the floor-bumper. The dedication of the NCOs who instructed us initially was relentless - and to my mind at the time, a mite sadistic - I doubt very much if any of us in that early learning stage escaped a verbal whiplash for unintended dumb insolence. The truth was that in many instances we just couldn’t grasp the principle of ‘how to’. And so Sgt. Bates’s Second Rule of Survival came to pass, “Always keep your boots polished”. Although he had omitted the salient word ‘immaculately’, whether by intention or omission I don’t know. I, along with the rest of the intake, took some consolation in constantly damning the authorities who, in their wisdom, had heaped these never-ending, seemingly aimless, repetitive tasks on our persons. Being more experienced, the remainder of the barrack room generously gave of their time and acquired expertise on many occasions and when the spirits were flagging they were quick with encouragement and the promise that with time, there would be a vast improvement in our circumstance. The consequential effect, which this continuous, repetitive labour fostered, was an unspoken loyalty amongst the new boys with a unity and acceptance from the Troop as a whole. In tandem with our cleaning apprenticeship were our daily activities on the parade ground, fondly known as ‘the square’,


Chapter Forty Three where we learnt the technique of marching and drilling as a unit. Initially this proved to be a painful experience, both metaphorical and literal. It is a proven fact that some individuals don’t march naturally; they have great trouble in correctly co-ordinating arm/leg movement and the more they think about it the worse it becomes. We of course, had two of these, who impacted on the whole squad and infuriated the drill sergeant; it made us a totally dysfunctional marching outfit, eventually requiring the temporary removal of these two unfortunate individuals. They were allocated to a junior corporal who had the patience, skill and understanding to rectify their problem without the embarrassment of an audience. Drill sergeants’ wit, sarcasm and tantrums were legendary and Corporal-of-the-Horse (Sergeant) Bone was no exception. Sometimes I thought that he must own a manual called ‘Drilling Put-Downs’; he had instant witticisms, mockeries or ridicules for every conceivable eventuality. The trick if possible was to maintain an anonymity thus avoiding the humiliation of becoming the squad buffoon for that particular session. If you weren’t in the spotlight some of the barbs were quite amusing; if you were you either prayed for the ground to open up and swallow you, or just to be someone else for period. None of us had ever found the necessity for wearing large, heavy boots before and certainly not heavy, unforgiving army boots. Within the first day of marching we all developed large and painful blisters, particularly on our heels. There was no quick and easy answer for getting rid of them; thick, woollen, army socks and plasters were the best remedy but really time and a hardening of the skin was the only long-term answer. Daily sick parade was available but wasn’t a sensible or practical option; a sick-note would have been issued by the Medical Officer, which would have carried the famous army ‘catch-all’ phrase, ‘Excused


Chapter Forty Three boots and marching’. This would have been a totally self-defeating exercise; most importantly both the squad and the drill sergeants would have labelled us as ‘skivers’, and at some point we would still have to complete the drill element of our training and the blisters would still return with a vengeance. All in all the best choice was to grin and bear the pain and remember not to limp on the parade ground! And yet grudgingly and despite my reservations, a sense of pride was emerging; I was actually becoming a soldier, smart, capable and assimilating the cadences of military life.

Chapter Forty Four


The ultimate aim of the Boys’ Squadron was to train and educate boys to a standard where they would seamlessly fit into and enhance the quality of their chosen regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps at the appropriate time. It would also become the spawning ground for many future non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in these regiments. Military discipline and etiquette had to be the first priority and gradually the extra elements of training were introduced into the working day. Besides the acceptance and execution of everyday discipline there were three major component parts to the schooling of entrants to the Squadron, these being fitness, education and learning a trade. I would have considered myself quite fit but by army criteria I had a long way to go. The gym was a cavernous building more like an aircraft hangar, hugging one complete side of the square and was the domain of Quartermaster Sergeant Instructor (QMSI) Slater. He was a huge barrel of a man who exuded authority and enthusiasm and it was rumoured that he had been an instrumental part in ensuring the fitness of the 1948 British Olympic team. His assistant was Corporal Carroll, a thoroughly knowledgeable and approachable man whose uniform consisted of black trousers with a red and black hooped sweater; he forever reminded me of the swag-carrying villains made famous in the ‘Dandy’ and ‘Beano’ comics. The gym consisted of a vast array of equipment, some of which was completely foreign to me. There were vaulting horses, parallel bars, springboards, medicine balls, climbing ropes and, clinging to the majority of the wall space, climbing bars. The centre of the hall had space for a full-sized boxing ring, which could be swiftly erected for boxing tournaments. So I began the long and arduous task of achieving the required


Chapter Forty Four level of fitness including a weekly cross-country run of five miles, never my favourite. During this early period in the gym, QMSI Slater who was passionate about football and in charge of the Squadron team, noted my football skill and I was promptly drafted into the First XI. This meant extra out of hours training but on the other hand it carried a certain prestige among the rank and file. Education for me was easy mainly because of my grammar school background but it still had to be done and I came to regard these periods in the working day very much as a rest period. The Squadron education system was directed towards achieving various Army Education Certificates, without which promotion would be severely impeded on joining a regiment. Trades of any variety were alien to me; the Royal Armoured Corps had three on offer, of which most regular soldiers were expected to complete two at some level. The three on offer were tank driving and maintenance, tank gunnery and wireless operator. I opted for tank gunnery and wireless operator for the simple reason that I had no inclination towards the maintenance of any combustion engines, a hasty decision that in some small measure I came to regret in my late teens. A typical working day in this early period of my life in Bovington would consist of drill straight after first parade, followed by a gruelling session in the gym incorporating, once a week, the dreaded five-mile run. This would be followed by a session of education supervised by a sergeant in the Education Corps. After lunch the afternoon could well be taken up with trade training; I elected to take wireless operator as my first choice of trades, the workshop for this particular skill being just across the main road next to the now famous Bovington Tank Museum. Needless to say no strolling about here, we were marched to all venues at all times! After the tea meal there would


Chapter Forty Four be a session of never-ending ‘bull’ but on specific evenings this would be preceded by extra sessions of football training in the gym with QMSI Slater, who divide his time between the football team and the Squadron’s boxing squad. There is no doubt that the curriculum was physically challenging and extremely tiring leaving little time for reflection or regrets; not that I had any remorse, save perhaps the total lack of privacy or private moments. I did however feel a steadily growing satisfaction in accomplishing something worthwhile and a burgeoning awareness of self-belief. Nevertheless my adolescence, coupled with an insecure background, had created that self-belief as a fragile and tenuous commodity. Shortly it was to be tested to the absolute limit and my whole future, carrying with it all my intentions, hopes and ambitions was in grave danger of collapsing around me like a cardboard castle in a hurricane.

Chapter forty five


Squadron Sergeant Major ‘Doughy’ Baker. Sergeant majors throughout the front-line British Army were regarded as gods; as far as each and every boy of the Boys’ Squadron was concerned Sgt Major Baker was God. In my case this could be attributable to the fact that he was ever present in spirit but only ever seen in unguarded moments. He was short and dapper in stature, loud of voice and displayed an acid tongue, which I’m convinced could curdle milk at twenty paces. As in the Bible, his word was law. He marched with a pace-stick securely tucked under his left arm and whenever he found reason to reprimand some wretched boy for an observed personal misdemeanour – hair too long, boots dirty, insufficient trouser crease, beret at the wrong angle, etc. - he would always prod the offending element with the brass end of the stick and demand an explanation. (He was zealous in his mission to make soldiers out of us and by definition there was no word or phrase in the English language which would have pacified Doughy Baker’s towering wrath; best keep quiet). He appeared on the parade ground at infrequent intervals, therefore we had no time to prepare ourselves for him either mentally or physically. On this memorable occasion I had not been with the Squadron for more than four weeks and it was only the second time the squad had experienced Sgt-Major Baker’s unique brand of discipline and expectation. His reputation swept before him; we knew from anecdotes that his discipline and methods could be cruel as well as personal. It was said – and vouched for – that on one occasion he was so frustrated with a left arm/left leg marcher, that he halted the squad and produced two pieces of pink hair ribbon. (This suggested to me premeditation; who in the army


Chapter Forty Five just happens to carry around pink ribbon on his person?) He instructed the person next in line to the miscreant to tie one piece of ribbon on the poor fellow’s right wrist and the other just below the knee of the left leg. His instruction apparently was succinct. “On the command ‘Quick March’ thrust the two pieces of pink ribbon smartly forward at the same time,” he bellowed. “Don’t think about it, just do it!” The outcome of this humiliation was not recorded for posterity but I have grave doubts as to its positive achievement; on the other hand the embarrassment to the recruit would have been total. The morning drill session started in the accepted way, Sgt Major Baker inspecting the three ranks of boys, Cpl-of-the-Horse Bone following behind making notes. There was the inevitable two or three “Get your hair cut. Am I hurting you? I should be, I’m standing on it!” Then the slightly more serious observation, “You’ve got your beret on like a French onion seller, Davies”, - prod the beret with the pace-stick – “As you seem to like bleeding food so much, report to the cookhouse tonight and for the rest of the week for potato-peeling!” And the final indignity of the inspection. “Get this Boy off my square, CoH Bone, his boots are filthy and I will not tolerate them dirtying my parade ground!” he screamed, pointing at the offending boots with his pace-stick. Lane was marched off the square in double-quick time much to his obvious discomfort. It transpired that his boots were probably as clean as anybody else’s; he had a certain amount of dust in the welts, which may well have been picked up while marching on to first parade. I was positioned in the middle of the front rank and on his way back to assume his drilling position facing the squad ‘Doughy’ Baker stopped behind me and said in a conversational voice, “When the drilling is finished and the squad dismissed, fall out and wait for me on the edge of the square”. A whole set of confused thoughts passed through my mind.


Chapter Forty Five “What on earth could the Sgt-Major possibly want to see me about after the parade? If I were guilty of some offence then surely I would have been bawled out like the other unfortunates during the inspection? And what was of such importance that it required a personal confrontation and was not to be passed on through the medium of CoH Bone?” My concentration was severely tested over the next thirty minutes but by some stroke of luck I managed to avoid the gimlet-eye and pointed sarcasm of Sgt-Major Baker and none too soon the drill session came to an end. The intake was handed over to CoH Bone who marched us off the parade ground, informed all the parade sinners to remain in position after the squad was dismissed and the remainder to report to their next work post with the necessary kit. And with that we were ‘fallenout’ - the authentic military term for official standing down. I returned to the square remarkably calm considering the circumstance, I considered it a feeling akin to the lull before the storm. I still wondered what the Sgt-Major could possibly want with me? As I had been taught, I waited on the side of the square standing to attention waiting the arrival of ‘Doughy’ Baker, who was having an animated conversation with the camp adjutant, Captain Peters. Finally, finishing the discussion he saluted the captain and turned his attention to me. Marching smartly across the square with his head held high and pace-stick tucked under his arm, Sgt-Major Baker was a daunting figure. He came to a halt in front of me, eyed me up and down and said, not unkindly, “Boy Stretton, isn’t it?” “Yes sir,” I croaked, my mouth having gone completely dry from sudden fear and an attack of nerves. “Well, Stretton,” he said, “I don’t think that you’re that sort of boy but your neck is filthy! When I dismiss you, go immediately to your washroom, clean yourself up and that will be the end of the matter. Never let it


Chapter Forty Five happen again!” With that Sgt-Major Baker dismissed me and smartly marched away. For me the feeling of embarrassment, degradation and shame was complete and my self-worth ebbed away like water from a leaking bucket. I could and would have cried on the spot but for the greater ignominy of being observed by passing comrades. I slunk back to the barrack room, grabbed soap and towel and headed for the washroom praying that I would meet no one; I would have had no conversation and certainly no plausible reason as to why I was there. Luckily I was unobserved at any stage, completed my ablutions and headed for the gym where I was supposed to be in the first place. I found Cpl. Carroll, with whom I was familiar from evening football training, made some hurried excuse about being detained by the Squadron Sgt-Major and quickly joined the rest of the PE class. (In my somewhat jaundiced defence and with the wisdom of years I have struggled to make excuses for the inexcusable. I think that I had been brought up in an atmosphere where personal hygiene was not the prime consideration; survival came top of the list. In Chilton I was given an ‘up-and-downer’ by our mam once a week. This consisted of standing in a tin bath in front of the fire, and by today’s standards must have been completely inadequate. For the rest of the week as far as I remember it was a hurried rub, face, hands and maybe knees with flannel and soap. Cleanliness would never have been high on a young boy’s agenda. I suppose I must have had baths in Harrogate but I have no recollection of the happening. Belle-Vue was somewhat different, obviously I was deemed old enough to look after my own hygiene but it was still the bath once a week on Sundays and habits from Chilton remained, I can never recall actually washing my neck and ears as a dedicated task. I still go hot and cold today when I


Chapter Forty Five look back on those years. How many times did I go to school with a visible ‘tide’ mark? How many boys in Bovington had noticed my grubby neck? Was Sgt-Major Baker the first person in authority to notice and broach the subject? And why had neither Auntie Pat nor Uncle Arthur cared enough to ensure my daily, personal grooming; after all it must have reflected on them? Since that fateful encounter on the parade ground there hasn’t one single day passed – literally! - when I haven’t conscientiously scrubbed my neck!) Running parallel with my feeling of disgrace was a completely different realisation. There was no doubt whatsoever that SgtMajor Baker could have destroyed me if on the parade ground he had chosen to make my personal hygiene – or lack of it - public. He must have noticed the neck on his initial inspection of the squad. At that juncture if he had chosen to bawl me out and have me escorted off the square with some cruel barb – and other people had been flayed for much less – I would never have recovered my self-respect or ability to fit seamlessly into the daily barrack room banter. Personal dirtiness was one of the few unacceptable offences among the ranks and the finger would forever have been pointed at me. ‘Doughy’ Baker, having considerable army service and having risen through the ranks, would have known all of this and in an extraordinary act of compassion must have decided to keep the matter private. What I did know was that he was not the martinet he purported to be and that behind the façade of cruel words and rigid discipline there was a person who believed in fairness, decency and the right to a second chance. This knowledge remained my secret throughout my military career and in our future meetings Sgt-Major Baker never once made any comment or gave any indication that he remembered that fateful


Chapter Forty Five morning’s conversation. Although the next few days were traumatic for me, I recognised that Sgt-Major Baker must have had some faith in me and had sensed some emerging ability to make a success of the army. To this end I vowed that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by this setback. I would learn from it; the very least I owed him was to prove his instincts were justified. It did take time but I did regain my confidence and self-belief and whenever I felt ill-prepared for a task I thought of that man who had (knowingly) given me a second chance. Sgt-Major ‘Doughy’ Baker was then and remains today all these years later, something of a saviour. I do sometimes ponder the question that if he hadn’t sagaciously presented me with quietly spoken options and had instead publicly pilloried and shamed me on that cold February morning would my early life have spiralled irretrievably out of control? I think that there is a strong possibility that it would have.

Chapter forty six


Those early weeks passed quickly; there was much to learn, new friendships to be cemented and a natural pecking order to be established. Another of life’s absolute truisms is that an army friendship is unique, complete and never questioned. Real friends will never be selected and the process will occur spontaneously for a limitless variety of reasons but certainly has nothing to do with background or breeding. I think the distinctive feature of an army friendship is the literal closeness of the relationship. Eating together, working and playing together, sleeping in close proximity, sharing hardships together and personal confidences that can be admitted without fear of judgement or re-telling. Nev Wood and Tich Short were naturals for me; we joined in the same intake, were assigned to Dettingen Troop together, and initially had adjoining bed-spaces. They were as unalike as chalk and cheese. Nev Wood was a cockney through and through with an aptitude for sport – we played in the Squadron football team together – with a wicked sense of humour, while Tich Short was a small, Scottish lad who hated all things sporting and had an apparent dour outlook towards life, which masked a hidden humour. Later he took to playing the cymbals in the Squadron marching band, a curious and heavy choice of instrument for one so small. On occasion Nev or I would give him a hand in cleaning these cymbals; they did take an inordinate amount of Brasso and endless polishing. And the three of us were to become fiercely loyal, even when our circumstances changed. There was to be a fourth member to this attachment whose arrival was unexpected and in my case, expedient and timely. By now, as an intake, we had completely amalgamated with our parent Troop, accordingly first parade saw me muster and


Chapter Forty Six march onto the square with Dettingen under the command of Boy/Sgt Lynn. Once on the parade ground the Troop Leader and his subordinates joined us, Dettingen Troop’s being Lieutenant Taylor, Sgt Paterson and Cpl Marcelle. There followed the rigorous morning inspection followed by a short address from the Adjutant at the head of the parade normally covering matters of Squadron discipline or any other pertinent issues. The whole gathering was then dismissed by the Squadron Sgt-Major and we repaired to our barrack quarters before being fallen-out by Boy/Sgt Lynn. On this particular day as was the usual practice I, along with the rest of the Troop, returned briefly to the barrack room to collect my requirements for the morning’s agenda, before being marched to my appointed workplace. On falling-out there was always a certain amount of jostling; with a large contingent of boys, both Dettingen and Cambrai spilling off the assembly area simultaneously and hurrying to collect their requisites before reforming, this scramble was unavoidable. And suddenly I found myself being crowded somewhat aggressively by Ronnie Milne - and this was no accidental shoving - watched closely by his inseparable companion, Dave Edgar. I had a nodding acquaintance with both of them; they had been in my intake, had been assigned to Cambrai Troop and accordingly we shared the same spider block. They were Scottish, spoke with harsh Glaswegian accents and it was rumoured in some quarters that they had been resident in a care home before committing to the Army. They were known for their aggressive attitude, particularly Ronnie Milne and he had been in trouble on several occasions for fighting. (Fighting was distinctly frowned upon in the Squadron, “Any disagreement, boxing gloves on and settle your differences in the boxing ring!”) Failure to comply with this edict almost always led to fatigues and in the case of more serious


Chapter Forty Six abuses a confrontation was scheduled with Sgt-Major Baker. As far as I knew Ronnie Milne cared little for this civilised convention, he had survived in the mean streets of the Gorbals where the only accepted justice was the fist. I think that Ronnie regarded me as ‘posh’ because of my accent – it’s rather ironic that my accent or in this case, lack of it, had dogged me from my early days – and possibly some innocent conversation during our early intake days had been misconstrued by him and had rankled ever since. Ronnie Milne was streetwise, small in height but built like a barrel; I for my part had never had a serious physical altercation in my whole life and knew that if it came to an exchange of blows there could only be one winner and that wasn’t going to be me! By now a small crowd was gathering, the blue shoulder-flash of Dettingen collected on one side and the yellow of Cambrai on the other and I could sense that a clash was inevitable. I reasoned that I could lose face and retreat, but the thought of fatigues or even the certain unavoidable encounter with ‘Doughy’ Baker – and needless to say, a painful bloody nose! - paled into insignificance when set against the backdrop of forever being branded a coward by my peer group. On a completely different level I knew that to bow to the bully was an open invitation for even harsher persecution. I had always believed in the adage ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword’ but the flippant thought passed through my mind that whoever had coined that noble and oft quoted phrase might like to show me how it actually worked in practice. I concluded that by the time I had scribbled on his face with my pen, he would have cut my hands off with his sword. So we squared up, Ronnie and me; I was surprisingly calm knowing full well that I was about to take a beating. Suddenly a large shadow blotted out the sunlight behind me (or is that an


Chapter Forty Six imagined image cast down the years?) and a gentle voice enquired in a familiar accent, “Is everything all right, Brian?” I looked round swiftly and there stood Don Hiscock. He was a fellow member of Dettingen Troop, but from a different barrack room and I had had no personal contact with him. Later it transpired that he also hailed from the Isle of Wight, Newport – hence the familiar accent - was a farmer’s son and he was built like one of his proverbial barn doors. As I got to know him better – and both Nev and Tich took to him instantly – I found Don to be one of life’s gentle giants and in normal circumstances wouldn’t have hurt a fly. He was also, in the true sense of the word, a simple man. Our ongoing friendship developed a symbiotic nature; I helped him with his educational needs - necessary army schooling requirements, letter writing and the like – he, in turn, was always on hand for any physical or moral support. He was also a natural athlete and time and time again beat me on the athletics track and always had the modesty to apologise for making me look secondrate! Naturally I had no knowledge of this in those first moments; from my somewhat tremulous position he could just as well have been riding a white horse and be called Sir Galahad. I glanced quickly at Ronnie Milne and noted his attitude had changed completely; he had a look close to fear in his eyes, his shoulders had dropped and it was apparent to me that he had mentally retreated. “Yes thank-you,” I said, hiding my relief, “I’m fine!” Don had saved me from an inescapable beating, preserved my credibility and rather curiously from then on Ronnie Milne and Dave Edgar went out of their way to be friendly towards me whenever or wherever we met. Later Dave and I completed a course together and eventually he went on to become a respected NCO. (Once again this has nothing remotely to do with my story


Chapter Forty Six either directly or indirectly but in the course of my memoir I became deeply interested in the derivation of particular phrases. This was one such, ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword’. Did a well-meaning pacifist or an intellectual write it as a theoretical proposition? And when was it written? After much research the definitive version is attributed to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1839 quoted the exact phrase in his play ‘Richelieu: Or the Conspiracy”. However the ideal had been much discussed long before that; Euripides is quoted from reliable sources as saying ‘The tongue is Mightier than the Blade’ and William Shakespeare {who else?} in Hamlet: Act 2 says “Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.” Muhammad apparently voiced the same thought and there is a similar quotation the Bible; Hebrews. So this noble conviction has been around for some considerable time. For those grammar buffs among my readers the phraseology is termed a metonymic adage).

Chapter forty seven


The end of the first term was fast approaching along with my first leave. Leave very much followed the pattern of school holidays, three terms of roughly fourteen weeks each with breaks fitted in at Easter, August and Christmas. For the first time in my young life I was what could be loosely termed financially secure. Since my latter days in Chilton I had been given a small pocket money allowance but chose to supplement my income through casual jobs, which was a bit of a hit and miss affair. Now, suddenly I had a regular source of finance, although, as my readers know, had never been part of my rationale for joining the Boys’ Squadron. I can’t honestly remember the actual wages on joining but I have a recollection of a figure for 21/- (£1.05) – it certainly wouldn’t have been anything greater than that – plus a small increment for each year of boys’ service. An extra supplement was also paid if any promotion through the ranks was obtained. Pay parade was, like most things in the army, a formal affair and normally took place weekly, each Thursday morning. A trestle table was set up in the main corridor of each Troop, controlled by a member of the Royal Army Pay Corps and supervised by the Paying-Out Officer – in my case usually our Troop Leader, Lt. Taylor. Names were then called out alphabetically and as usual I was quite a way down the list, at which point the nominee marched up to the table, counted and signed for the stated pay, which was laid out in pounds, shillings and pence. On dismissal a salute was required, as there was an officer on parade. The initial worry for me on these parades was that my Boyce/Brian cover would be blown when the names were called out – not quite as paranoid as it appears; if there were two Browns in the Troop,


Chapter Forty Seven then Brown John and Brown Peter would have their Christian names related. I had no need to worry; in retrospect nobody could have cared less anyway and the majority of us were known by nicknames anyway. (Mine for the best part of my time in Bovington was ‘Seppy’; don’t even ask!) The army in their wisdom had developed an ingenious method of controlling a boy’s spending ability; each week we were only paid a small portion of our wages, the balance being set aside and allowed to accumulate. These savings were then distributed in full at the end of each term, giving each boy a considerable purse to take on leave. I think I was given about 5/- (25p) a week spending money, which meant that on my first trip back to BelleVue I had the princely sum of £12 or £13 burning a hole in my pocket, a true fortune in my mind. At the outset 5/- was more than enough pocket money, although strangely as well as having to buy all of our toiletries, the Squadron expected us to supply our own boot polish, Brasso and all cleaning material, which was akin to saying, “Don’t forget to furnish your own instruments of torture!” There was a small NAAFI shop on site in the camp where all these supplies could be bought plus offering a limited range of confectionery and cigarettes for the over-sixteens. The standing orders for the Squadron stipulated that any boy over sixteen was allowed to smoke BUT they must have a written letter of consent to this effect from their parent or guardian. In the early ‘fifties there was no stigma attached to smoking whatsoever, or any general knowledge of the health hazards involved. Using our mam yet again and bypassing the Lee family, on my sixteenth birthday I wrote asking her to give me the necessary permission, which naturally she did. Obviously at that age I didn’t smoke a lot but it was the proverbial ‘straw on the


Chapter Forty Seven camel’s back’ and tended to put a strain on my 5/- a week, which eventually rectified itself when I later received my service increments. However we were known in times of extreme poverty between pay-days to smoke small fibres of coconut matting carefully wrapped in a Rizla cigarette paper!

Chapter forty eight


With the end of the first term now galloping towards me I viewed my first leave with, if not trepidation, certainly mixed emotions. On a purely personal level I was now quite comfortable with myself; I had eased into the military routine without too much angst, effected three good and trusted friends alongside numerous acquaintances and despite a couple of frightening setbacks I had acquired a large degree of confidence and selfworth. I had an established place in the elite Squadron football team, I was progressing well in my chosen trades, had jumped the first hurdle of educational qualifications and I had achieved financial independence. I knew that I was a changed character from the person who had departed Belle-Vue at the beginning of the year just thirteen weeks ago and yet I also knew that at this early stage it was a fragile transformation. Would being plunged back into Belle-Vue’s home environment return me to the sad, bad days of moods and longings? For her part Auntie Pat had kept in contact with me and I with her and the family, as well as with our mam of course. The letter exchange was rather erratic – my fault – but it did keep me apace with daily happenings at Belle-Vue and ensured that at least on my first break I would be familiar with household matters and any village gossip. As I suspected might happen Auntie Pat had donned the cloak of ‘caring, worried about son in the Services mum’; “Take care of yourself,” and “Make sure you eat enough!” and the large homemade fruitcake, which arrived at infrequent intervals. This proved very popular with my room-mates; there was an unwritten rule that goodies from home should be shared. And in reality I had never had such a healthy appetite and had never eaten so


Chapter Forty Eight heartily, as a photograph taken on my first holiday bears witness… So the day arrived for my first leave. There was an air of excitement and anticipation within the Troop; the ‘old soldiers’ tended to go home in civilian clothes, while the ‘rookies’ like myself had no choice but to wear uniform, the concession being we were allowed to wear highly polished civilian shoes and cast off our army boots. Uniform was no hardship to me, the previous evening I had polished and pressed my best - or No.1 – outfit as though I were preparing for a formal ceremonial occasion. In truth I suppose that I was quite proud at the degree of smartness and professionalism I had assimilated and I’m sure that I had a desire to flaunt my newly acquired persona to the sceptics in Brading, who had murmured that perhaps I was doing the wrong thing. The journey back to Brading was a companionable affair; I had a pocketful of money just waiting to be spent and a group of friends as company for part of the trip before we all separated at Southampton. It was at this juncture that I was really alone for the first time in nearly thirteen weeks and I knew that the next few hours would be crucial as to whether I was prepared to slip back into my old life of longings and unattainables. I had consciously left all that behind in an effort to create my own future and retain some semblance of dignity. But would that be enough? The ferry crossing had its normal calming effect and I took the small, friendly steam train to Brading station before walking the long, winding road up to the Bull-ring and on up the Mall to BelleVue. The house, although still majestic on first sight, had long since lost its magic for me; there were many, too many, confused and painful images associated with its apparent charms. During my passage up from the station I had passed a few familiar faces


Chapter Forty Eight whom I had cheerfully acknowledged with a friendly smile and an hello but somewhat to my surprise I found that I was largely unrecognised. I had undoubtedly changed in thirteen weeks; the uniform and the military bearing; I had added height and weight and probably exuded more confidence but had I changed that much? Obviously. By now it was early afternoon and not having a key I knocked on the impressive front door. Because it was also the end of a school term both Arthur and Andrea were at home as well as Auntie Pat who had returned early from the office to be part of the welcoming party. I heard running feet in the flagged hallway and the door was flung open by young Arthur with Andrea in close attendance; bringing up the rear more sedately was Auntie Pat. Everyone was delighted to see me. Auntie Pat was in her element in her new ‘worried but relieved’ role and couldn’t stop hugging me. In the old days I could so easily have been seduced by this behaviour but I had grown wise and wary and was only too aware of the mixed messages and hidden pitfalls of the situation. With just a touch of bitterness I thought that if this were the real Auntie Pat I wouldn't have been standing there in a uniform in the first place. I was, however, quite relaxed with my reaction to the ‘family’ tableau, I had attained a maturity to stand back and impartially evaluate my feelings without causing any apparent friction or hurt. This, then, was the beginning of an attitude which was to remain unchanging in my dealings with Auntie Pat and I would never again be susceptible to the fickleness of the mood. And yet I never quite lost the elusive and intangible feeling of a family misplaced. So in the first few moments of our reunion I realised that I could control and conquer this intrusive and unacceptable shadow, which had hounded me for the past year or more, and my earlier anxieties had proved groundless.


Chapter Forty Eight As I settled in and pottered around the house and gardens I had a distinct sensation of the ‘Marie Celeste’ with people; nothing appeared to have changed in my absence, everything was exactly the same as I had left it back in January right down to the fine detail of a broken watering-can lying by the side of the path. And yet appearances can be quite deceptive, although nothing had changed everything had changed; the subtle shift in balance and perspective was purely in my outlook and had nothing whatsoever to do with Belle-Vue or its surroundings. Whisky, I am pleased to say, was delighted to see me; when she was extraordinarily excited she possessed this unique gift of keeping her tail perfectly still and vigorously wagging her body. She did just that. We continued our daily walks as before, she at a much more unhurried pace as befitted an ageing lady and I no longer the forlorn and sad figure looking for answers. I still - and I’m quite sure that I speak for Whisky - continued to enjoy the magic of the Downs and the intimacy and solitude of those moments as we had always done in the past. I was re-acquainted with the cleaning ladies, Mrs Dower and Mrs Piper, and the gardeners Mr Pomfret and Mr Harvey all of whom commented on how I had grown and how well I looked. I even saw George Stay in the village and promised him that during my summer break I would still turn out for the cricket team, that is if he still wanted me. He was quick to accept. I insisted on paying Auntie Pat a housekeeping allowance for my leave period, I could now afford it and it was another step towards my self-sufficiency. One of my priorities was to address the urgent problem of civilian clothes; all I possessed was my old school uniform, which was in turn woefully inadequate. I cleaned and pressed the blazer and trousers as well as I could but it was quite clear that I had outgrown them, both mentally and


Chapter Forty Eight physically, and I set about buying myself a new wardrobe (my first independent purchase) some of which I would be taking back to Bovington. About to start my second term I would now be allowed to wear ‘civvies’ off-duty. There was one small blemish during the early part of my leave, which tarnished an otherwise agreeable break and left me irritated and frustrated; it involved Don Hiscock whom, since rescuing me from an almost certain hiding, had become a dear and trusted friend. Living in Newport on the Island Don had taken it into his head to cycle across to Brading and see me, a notion which would have horrified me had I been aware of it. I knew from my grammar school days that my ability to entertain under these circumstances was questionable and that Auntie Pat’s attitude was, to say the least, unpredictable Early one morning there was a loud knock on the front door and standing there, clearly overwhelmed, was Don Hiscock. He must have thought that I lived in a cottage or small house overlooking the Downs and I think he was amazed at the grandeur and size of Belle-Vue. Luckily I answered the knock and had time to quickly assess the situation; would my Boyce/Brian identity be exposed? And how would Auntie Pat react to my friend? (It was a bad time of the day – many years later our Ruth and I concluded there was never a good time of the day for calling! – Uncle Arthur was working at the table on his previous day’s betting slips and Auntie Pat was busy organising the cleaners). I invited Don into the hall (which must have looked like a film set to him); I felt awkward and I could see that he was uncomfortable. Right on cue Auntie Pat came sweeping down the stairs and said in her ‘lady of the house’ voice, “Who’s this then, Boyce?” the unstated inference being “There’s a tradesman’s entrance round the side!” I immediately introduced him as a


Chapter Forty Eight friend from Bovington Camp who was visiting, at which she said, her manner barely unbending, “I hope you’re looking after my ‘son’, DonALD; I’m busy, Mrs Dower will get you both a cup of tea, nice to meet you.” She then flounced off into the dining room. Don mumbled some sort of thank-you but I doubt very much whether he’d heard a word she had said such was his predicament. We spent probably a further fifteen minutes together, in which time I took him round the gardens and the outbuildings – we never did have a cup of tea – and I’m quite convinced that he was pleased to make his escape at the earliest opportunity. Back in Bovington the incident was never mentioned and to his credit Don Hiscock in no way let it affect our friendship, he was much too nice a person for that; needless to say he never visited again. He knew full well that Auntie Pat wasn’t my mother, he was aware that I lived with relations in Brading and not my mother, and as for the use of the name, Boyce, he probably never even heard Auntie Pat say it. I bet he thought when he finally collected his thoughts “What a strange lady that was!” Don, I think would have been more suited to the northern hospitality and cheerful simplicity of Dale Street. When I later met Auntie Pat around the meal table she was completely oblivious of the impression she had created, although she must have seen that I was more than a little annoyed. “Seemed a nice little fellow,” she murmured (‘little’ being her euphemism for peasantish), “A bit rough though, wasn’t he, dear?” I told her as succinctly as I could that he was a farmer’s son, was a good and trusted friend of mine and had no illusions of grandeur. He was also, I said, modest and kind to a fault. And to call the substantial Don Hiscock ‘little’ no matter in what context it was phrased was akin to labelling the Great Wall of China a


Chapter Forty Eight neighbourhood project! I have never understood Auntie Pat’s pretensions; her father, the lovely Grampy Stretton, had started life literally as a peasant in Oxfordshire, and although her mother, Grandma Stretton had a life-long illusory belief that she deserved better, the reality was Ellesmere Road, a run-down, over-crowded and faded workingclass home. I know, I was there. At what moment did she decide that she was going to be grand? And she never did understand that a person of true breeding has the unconscious ability to put people at ease, not stain them with inferiority. I lent a hand around the garden and house when I could but now without the previous sense of urgency or self-inflicted necessity. All-in-all, despite Don Hiscock’s disastrous visit, my first leave was an unqualified success in learning to cope with a new circumstance and I doubt very much whether Auntie Pat or Uncle Arthur were even conscious that there was an altered situation. In early May I returned to the Boys’ Squadron with a completely different view to the one I had harboured in January on enlisting. I was much more confident, there were no unknown pitfalls to worry about, I had a circle of good friends and was making satisfactory progress. Deep down I still yearned for privacy or, at least private moments but I did realise the ambivalence of the situation, I couldn’t exchange a lifestyle of near total separateness for one of twenty-four hour friendships without sacrifices.

Chapter forty nine


There had been a military presence in Bovington since the turn of the 20th century; it had even boasted a boys’ unit as early as 1920 to complement the newly formed Army Tank Corps. This scheme had been phased out in 1924 with the formation of the Army Apprentices’ School elsewhere and it was not until 1952 that another boys’ establishment appeared in Bovington with the mustering of the Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps. To me that date is quite significant; in January 1952 the Squadron had come into being with a total of forty-four boys under the command of a major. By the time I enlisted in January 1953 the contingent had risen to close on two hundred boys split into four Troops of roughly equal size and it was to continue to expand becoming ever more successful until in January 1957 it took on the mantel of Junior Boys’ Regiment. When I joined in 1953, however, the establishment was barely a year old and I’m sure that the Squadron was still on a steep learning curve. In those early days I always felt that we were something of pioneers and a lot of boys carried some sort of disturbed background, myself included, which was rarely if ever discussed. I unreservedly apologise to the boys who transported none of this baggage, but such was my estimated number that for years I nicknamed the unit ‘The Dorset Foreign Legion’ owing to the band of us who had escaped some demon to find a better life. That is not to say that the Squadron wasn’t a rampant success; it was. By 1956 (the year after I left) eighty-six of the ninety-four boys who were to pass out of the Squadron and move on to the regiments of their choice, did so with sufficient qualifications and capabilities to automatically secure promotions up to the rank of sergeant if and when the necessary vacancies occurred. The permanent staff at the base must have been chosen in the


Chapter Forty Nine main for their aptitude in motivational and man (or perhaps boy!) management skills. This would have been a lesson the Army had learnt over many years in its dealings with training boys at other military establishments around the country. With very few exceptions I found the staff at Bovington firm but fair and always prepared to help in extracurricular activity when the need arose. All of the permanent staff was on loan – or secondment, as it was known – and would eventually return to their parent regiment at the end of their tour of duty, normally three years. These people were very influential with the boys, particularly the ones we dealt with on a daily basis; many, as in my case, unknowingly impacted on the later regimental choice we would have to make. Bovington settled easily into a ribbon of military establishments, which stretched from Lulworth Gunnery School on the Dorset coast up through Blandford, Salisbury and Bulford in the North. Whether this was accident or design I can’t say, the one thing that they all had in common was large training areas in the form of heaths and plains. It has been said that a military presence is ruinous to the surrounding countryside; in my experience I have found this statement to be untrue. The distinct advantage the Army has as a large landowner is the total exclusion without permission of all the civilian population and with the exception of military exercises the local flora and fauna can develop undisturbed. And more and more the powers-that-be were – and are - insistent that during manoeuvres damage to local wildlife would be kept to a minimum. At Lulworth, just for example, a whole pre-war village, Tyneham, is preserved for posterity and when the gunnery ranges are not in use members of the public - including relatives of the former inhabitants - are encouraged to visit the site, tend loved-ones’ graves and tidy the cemetery. Meanwhile a standard of maintenance is observed and


Chapter Forty Nine any necessary work carried out by a dedicated team of camp permanent staff. The village of Bovington itself had grown in line with the military commitment to the area, I suppose. Basically the village straddled either side of the main road and comprised a selection of shops, which primarily catered for service personnel, their families and the civilians employed on the various sites. Of special interest to the boys was the cinema at the far end of the village and, for a different reason, the Church of England church and Methodist Chapel all situated in close proximity. On alternate weeks – Dettingen and Cambrai one week, Alamein and Balaclava the other – there was a formal church parade in full No1 Dress headed by the Squadron marching band, which would march up through Bovington to the chosen place of worship and on completion of the service march all the way back to barracks. There were no exemptions to church parades; anyone who thought that atheism was the ideal excuse was sorely mistaken, they marched with the Squadron to church and stood to attention outside the building whilst the service was in progress. It’s quite surprising how many of these dissenters found God after a couple of parades, particularly when it was cold and wet! Bovington had twin claims to fame, firstly the location of the Tank Museum and secondly T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). After World War 1 many tanks returned to Bovington only fit for scrap and it wasn’t until 1923 that the writer Rudyard Kipling suggested the inception of a museum. The idea took off and grew slowly; by the time I arrived at the Camp, although still in its infancy the museum had achieved a much wider recognition. Now, of course the Tank Museum is a world famous institution attracting military historians, scholars and enthusiastic amateurs alike. T. E. Lawrence, after his famous exploits (Lawrence of Arabia),


Chapter Forty Nine had served in the Royal Tank Corps for a short period from 1923 to 1925 under the assumed name of Private T.E. Shaw and during that period rented a cottage just outside the village, which he later bought, presumably with retirement in mind. Lawrence was an avid motorcycle enthusiast and on the morning of May 13th 1935 was leaving his cottage on Clouds Hill on his Brough motorbike. His view of two boys on bicycles was obstructed by a dip in the road; he swerved to avoid them, lost control of his bike and in the subsequent accident was fatally injured. He died six days later at the age of forty-six. There is a small memorial plaque at the side of the road on Clouds Hill commemorating his death. (While having no bearing on my story but of significant social interest is the little known fact that Lawrence’s accident had farreaching consequences. The eminent neurosurgeon, Hugh Cairns, was so profoundly affected at what he perceived as a tragic waste of a life that under his auspices and with tireless lobbying the first motorcycle crash helmet was introduced and immediately worn by all military dispatch riders).

Chapter fifty


I very quickly settled back into the daily routine of Squadron life and with another intake arriving I was no longer part of a new boys’ squad. A large part of me flourished within these military confines; I loved the neatness and orderliness of daily convention and the practised routine and camaraderie of the Squadron in general. I wasn’t too keen on the levels of discipline imposed, but at the same time I accepted their necessity; most of all I missed the moments of solitude that I had enjoyed – hardly the right word – in my previous existence. The highlight – or more precisely the lowlight – of the Squadron week was the weekly barrack room inspection by the permanent staff. The scrutiny took place every Saturday morning and this particular form of torture was invariably conducted by Sergeant Paterson and Cpl Marcelle; Boy/Sgt Lynn and Boy/Cpl Birch brought up the rear taking notes. The whole of Friday evening was given over to preparing for the happening. Lockers and kit had to be cleaned and all clothing in the locker neatly folded and tidy; each bed-space had to be layered with a helping of thick, army floor polish, allowed to dry and finally ‘bumpered’ to a shining finish. Th word ‘dust’ did not appear in Squadron parlance and every trace of dust was meticulously removed from every crevice and work surface; finally a detail of boys from each of the three barrack rooms would clean and polish the long corridor from end to end. On Saturday morning we all rose early, washed, dressed and made up the bedding into the perfect ‘liquorice all-sort’. After breakfast the ablution cleaning parties (one from Dettingen and one from Cambrai) repaired to the washroom and thoroughly cleaned the wash basins, toilets, showers and baths, finally


Chapter Fifty mopping and drying the floor before vacating the facility. The ultimate barrack room chores were to line up all the bedends - believe it or not - with a piece of string, and roll down the newly brushed strip of coconut matting, which ran the length of the room and to make sure that it was equidistant from each bed-end. Each room was now as ready as it would ever be and we waited with some disquiet for the arrival of the inspecting team; with their arrival the whole room was called to attention and remained so until the room inspection was complete. My room had a good reputation for inspections but that is not to say that we were faultless. Sgt Paterson and Cpl Marcelle always found something wrong. Sgt Paterson’s favourite was the eating utensils which had just been brought back from the cookhouse supposedly washed and placed in the locker next to the little-used mess-tins. Cpl Marcelle, on occasion, would don a white glove and run it along the top of the locker, and woe betide the boy whose locker showed the faintest trace of dust. Some boys, no matter what their efforts, could never achieve the standard of perfection required and although we coached them as much as possible, the team regularly homed in on these hapless characters. Bed packs were the favourite targets, they were easy to pick up and throw on the floor in disgust – much of which I suspect was feigned – and clothing not correctly displayed in lockers was strewn over the bed to be refolded. Fatigues were the currency of these morning inspections and over a period I don’t think that any one of us escaped some form of punishment. The worst that could happen was a re-inspection of a whole room on Saturday evening; luckily this never happened to me although the other two rooms did experience this penalty occasionally. This punitive action usually occurred because of the laziness of one or two boys and the whole room was made to suffer.


Chapter Fifty It was unpopular with all concerned. The inspection team wouldn’t have wanted to spend their leisure evening checking a barrack room, the boy NCOs were not best pleased and the innocent boys were furious with the perpetrators. I have always thought that the logic behind this particular discipline was that the compliant majority would turn on the lackadaisical minority and by whatever means encourage them to see the error of their ways. Barrack room justice and, to a degree, barrack room lawyers were very much a part of my everyday life. If there was no church parade next day the remainder of the weekend was your own to pursue; leisure activities, in my case normally a game of football, letter-writing and a trip to the village or cinema was my typical weekend. Whenever a boy had cause to leave camp he was required to sign-out at the guardroom and sign in on his return. On the way out the duty sergeant would always check to see that the soldier was fittingly dressed and would in no way denigrate the name of the Boys’ Squadron. All boys had to be back in barracks by lights-out and anyone who through necessity needed to be out later required a signed pass beforehand. Initially on the train returning from leave I had had a fleeting thought, but it wasn’t until after one of these Saturday morning inspections that the idea became a firm goal. I reasoned that it was certainly a more attractive proposition in becoming a Chief than in remaining an Indian and with that possibility dangling in my future, I set about willing it to happen.

Chapter Fifty One


Spring moved swiftly into summer; there was never an idle moment; the football season gave way to cricket and the Squadron had a strong ethos towards athletics. Although by no means brilliant I was passably good at the sprinting events and long jump and represented Dettingen on the track in these pursuits. Don Hiscock was the master of the sprint; surprisingly for a lad of his size he was a natural and had a surprising turn of speed, leaving me and anyone else who cared to challenge his superiority, a very poor second. The dreaded cross-country run still took place at frequent intervals and it is one, if not the only occasion in my remembered life when I actively cheated. I concluded that I was never going to be a cross-country runner and that my ongoing deception was unlikely to encroach on anyone else and therefore I felt virtually no guilt at my subterfuge. On race days a small group of us – probably three or four – set out purposefully with the remainder of the field but about half-a-mile along the route we would conceal ourselves in a small copse and await the return of the genuine runners as they neared the end of the circuitous course. It was easy to mingle with the returning competitors and complete the race looking suitably exhausted. As a salutary warning against cheating however, one of our number, a boy called Doughty – later to be a Boy/Sergeant of Balaclava Troop – and who was from my intake, decided during one outing that he would attach himself towards the front of the field on its return. Imagine his surprise and bewilderment when he found himself selected as a member of the Squadron cross-country team based on his performance for that day. God definitely works in a mysterious way… To his credit Doughty knuckled down, trained hard and became a


Chapter Fifty One respected contributor to the running squad. Outside of the sporting arena there was more than enough to keep me occupied. My progress towards being a wireless operator was engrossing, and education, while in no way stretching my capabilities, had to be taken seriously: only a fool would treat advancement to the army’s intermediate educational standard with flippancy. There were also new skills to be learnt, the most important and absorbing of which was map reading. I had been taught during my geography classes in grammar school the rudimentary principles of a map, such as the function of contour lines, colour shading and compass points but at no point had any teacher taught me how to use a map as a navigational tool. The army was naturally very keen on this, and I did many exercises in the countryside of Dorset learning how to get from A to B with only an Ordnance Survey map as a guide. When I had gained some experience I would be dropped in the middle of nowhere and with the aid of a compass and a map had to determine where I was and then how to get back to a given rendezvous. Finally the ultimate test was to repeat the process all over again, only this time in the dark and across country, leading a small team. I suppose the army’s thinking behind these practical activities was that there was no point in training us to be leaders of men if we had a propensity to lead them in the wrong direction. In those infant days of the Boys’ Squadron not much heed was paid to organised ex-curricular activities outside and away from the Camp. Later with the expansion of the Squadron into a Junior Leaders’ Regiment, and probably with knowledge gleaned from other boys’ establishments, the importance of this type of recreation was appreciated both to stimulate interest and to expand young boys’ limited horizons. Thus as infancy grew into maturity there arrived a plethora of these pursuits; Outward


Chapter Fifty One Bound courses, rock climbing, diving, camping, days spent learning how the Navy and the RAF functioned and the list was continually being extended. In 1953/54 there was very little if any of this, therefore none of us missed it; in my case it’s very debatable whether I would have welcomed it or not. I was more than satisfied with the fullness of my life. I do remember vividly one day that we did have out with the Royal Navy on a destroyer, which we boarded early in the morning at Weymouth. The sea was grey and choppy with white horses in evidence as far as the horizon. The wind blew at nearly gale-force all of the day and I – and many of my colleagues – was violently seasick for much of the trip. They showed us their cramped living quarters, their armaments and their small but well supplied galley, as well as the immaculate engine-room and allowed us access to the bridge. And for the majority of the day I just wanted to die and thanked God that the enticement in the Champion comic hadn’t been to join the Navy. I decided then and there that my commitment to the water would stop at the Isle of Wight ferry. Constantly at the back of my mind for the majority of this period was my ambition to become an NCO. It was not a subject that I could readily discuss with my friends unless they shared my aspiration – and I had no way of knowing that. My fear was that I would be perceived as moving to the ‘other side’. I felt that I couldn’t discuss it with any member of the permanent staff either, in the army without exception promotion is by selection and not by verbal enquiries; the best I could do was try my hardest in all disciplines and hope that I would be noticed. At intervals the Squadron ran cadre courses, a cadre course being the selection process to assess a person’s suitability for promotion from the ranks. Each course consisted of about ten


Chapter Fifty One boys and I knew the key to my future at Bovington depended upon my being chosen to attend a cadre course. There was nothing else I could do to make this happen. I was aware that I must be patient; in the meantime I must pursue camp life to the full and suppress my ambitions. Summer leave swiftly came and went in August. By now I was an old hand, full of the confidence of youth and I travelled back to the Island in civilian clothes, relishing the feeling of being incognito. I’m not sure but I think that this was the last time I was to see dear old Whisky. She was definitely getting slower and older but nevertheless we still enjoyed our rambles and quiet moments of reflection on the Downs. It was right in the middle of the bed-and-breakfast season and I reverted to lending a hand and serving early morning tea, not through any feeling of obligation but more as a way of telling myself that it wasn’t important anymore. I also fulfilled my earlier promise and played cricket with George Stay and his village cricket team. It still held the same magic. Everyone said how well I looked and how I had matured, particularly the bed-and-breakfast guests who I hadn’t seen for a year when my angst was probably at its height. Having completed six months or more at Bovington returning to the unit had a sense of familiarity about it; I was no longer fazed by the unknown, knew my capabilities and had much to look forward to. I sensed this period running into Christmas could well be an important stepping-stone towards furthering my career prospects. The aspirations of mice and men….

Chapter fifty two


I, alongside a number of boys, arrived back in camp by early afternoon; the three-ton ‘taxi’ was at Wool station to meet all incoming trains and by now I was agile as a monkey in swinging aboard, light and nimble when de-bussing. I signed-in at the guardroom and headed for my barrack room in Dettingen spider; two or three boys were already in residence, Nev Wood being one of them. We all had the same purpose and that was to prepare our kit at leisure in readiness for parade and inspection the next morning and to check our itinerary for the first day back in harness. Personally I was determined to get to bed early, have a good night’s sleep and be refreshed for the rigours ahead. However the best laid plans…; there were boys returning well into the night, particularly the more Northern and Scottish element, making sleep a fitful affair plus the fact that ‘Tich’ Short was determined to make his presence known to both myself and Nev. I suppose that he could have made more noise if he’d banged his cymbals… Immediately after first parade the next morning I was told by Boy/Sergeant Lynn to report to Lieutenant Taylor’s office. He would frequently hold morning ‘surgeries’ – not the medical variety – where he dealt with an assortment of Troop problems, including the more serious disciplinary matters, which Sergeant Paterson or Boy/Sergeant Lynn felt that they had neither the authority nor the expertise to deal with. I knew that my reporting to Lt. Taylor could have nothing to do with the latter; those offenders would have been warned of the exact nature of their misdeeds and in most cases accompanied by a witness. I also was aware from the traumatic incident with ‘Doughy’ Baker that these biddings had unexpected outcomes and were almost certainly of a personal nature; other than that I had no idea what this meeting


Chapter Fifty Two could possibly entail. It was, therefore, in a wary and nervous frame of mind that I entered Lt. Taylor’s office and saluted. “Good morning, Stretton,” he said. “I have some good news for you. You have been selected to attend a cadre course, which starts in a week’s time. At its commencement you will report to Sgt Major Baker. The course will last for two weeks and for its duration you will be excused all other duties. I think that you thoroughly deserve the opportunity, good luck.” I was nearly speechless with delight and disbelief. I had willed this occurrence for sometime but had never dared speculate on it as a fact and here it was being confirmed, the initial step towards becoming a Chief. I thanked Lt. Taylor, saluted and marched out of the office or more poetically floated out of the office on a cloud of anticipation. (Reflecting on that period in my life, although I had no way of knowing it then, or for that matter, the arrogance to even surmise it, I must have been the epitome of a young person suitable for progression. I was educated to a standard, articulate both verbally and on paper, was good at sport and was popular and respected within the barrack room. I always had had an instinct for fair play and tended to champion the underdog). Back in barracks I grasped my obvious dilemma concerning the forthcoming course. I was determined, no matter what the cost, to break my good news to the residents of the barrack room in general and my friends in particular before they had had a chance to digest it in Squadron Standing Orders the following day. In the event reservations as to my comrades reactions were groundless; to a man, particularly Nev, Tich and Don Hiscock, they were pleased at my endeavours. I think that secretly they were proud – if that’s the right word – that ‘one of their own’ had potentially made the grade. During the remainder of the week when the opportunity arose


Chapter Fifty Two I questioned some of the Boy NCOs as to what the actual cadre course would consist of and what level of competition I could expect. By the end of the week I was as ready as I was ever likely to be and looked forward to the next two weeks with a blend of nervousness and eagerness. All of the NCOs had agreed that the pace for the two weeks was relentless and that there would be very little respite from the first day to the last. The purpose of the course was evident; to chip away the veneer of a soldier’s suitability and expose the real qualities of leadership that may or may not be hidden. There were class and field activities. To have the minimum army educational standard was a formality but the added ability to express oneself simply and clearly, particularly under pressure, was of equal importance. Physical fitness was high on an NCO’s agenda; a considerable time was spent in the gym, the rationale being that there was no point in posing as a leader of men if you couldn’t lead them with ease on a five mile forced route march for example. Not only was the greatest effort, expertise and smartness required on the drill square but an added capability of being able to drill a squad of soldiers who were still learning their trade, with authority and confidence. Without exception where we were unused to shouting drill commands the larynx rebelled and all of us attending the cadre were to lose our voices at some juncture, which was no excuse for not making the effort when required. A considerable period of the course was spent in the field, chiefly map-reading, taking compass bearings and demonstrating the competence to lead a small team from point A to point B in a specified time with the aid of only a compass and map. And lastly but by no means least was the lateral-thinking teasers practised in the classroom but more often accomplished in


Chapter Fifty Two the field with a small team. Maybe quite wrongly but my thought is that this type of mind-stretching exercise was still in its infancy; later private enterprise and many other government agencies would implement a similar form of group challenge, acting simultaneously as a technique in team-building and also as a means of flagging-up potential leaders. Anyone who has passed through corporate management will be only too aware of my lame, verbal brush stokes that illustrate the activity: ‘Five people arrive on foot at a swollen river infested with crocodiles. The rope bridge has been damaged beyond repair and it is imperative to get across by nightfall. With only a screwdriver, a bobbin of cotton, a needle, a Bible, and a tin-opener how did they get across?’ In these situations I was always tempted to say, “Find another crossing point quickly!” but studiously played the game. The final act of the programme was a short, informal – perhaps not? – interview conducted by the course leader and a small team of instructors. I’m sure that the object of this was to test the ability of the participants to express their thoughts and aspirations articulately to a gathered audience. We were all then gathered together, thanked for our participation, hard work and enthusiasm throughout the cadre; the results of our endeavours would be passed on to our Troop leaders in a few days’ time. For myself I was glad that the course was behind me; I was quite pleased with my performance throughout but realised that there were certain elements where I could have performed better. However I dared to be quietly optimistic and returned to my daily work schedule of education, trade, PE and football training apparently calm and unfazed, whilst actually I was in a state of perpetual tenterhooks waiting for a summons by Lt. Taylor. A matter of three or perhaps four days later the anticipated call eventually came and with a feigned calmness I knocked on Lt.


Chapter Fifty Two Taylor’s door. “Good morning, Stretton,” Lt. Taylor smiled. “How are you? Please take a seat.” Pause. “I have to tell you that you have failed the course….”

Chapter fifty three


In my short life I had experienced many emotions; fear at my father’s temper, envy at other children’s apparent wealth, happiness in the glorious Swaledale valley and hate at our father’s callous and practised deception. I had experienced shame at our obvious poverty and longed for the unobtainable but I had never until now experienced disappointment or failure. As children our Ruth and I were too young to understand our poverty but we were well aware of the effect it had on our lives and consequently had no expectations towards grand Christmas presents, holidays or new clothes, so no disappointments in that direction then. Academically I had cruised through life; in school I had graduated from primary to grammar school without even realising that the examination was of any importance. I held my own in most curriculum subjects and on joining the army found that I was already thrust into the upper echelon of the educationally qualified. On the sports field I had the luck to be a natural; I sailed into Sandown Grammar School’s first XI football team and merited a much-coveted place in the Squadron’s successful side. In cricket I had captained the grammar school’s unbeaten intermediate team, been selected to play for the Isle of Wight schoolboys without knowing that I was in the selection process and been a regular member of a village cricket side at little turned fifteen. Of course I had known the frustration of missing an open goal or dropping a catch I should have held or even the frustration at Granny Attwood’s continued belligerence, but never disappointment or failure And the irony is that there I was, sitting in front of Mr Taylor, being told that I had failed something for which I had really strived, wanted and had even timorously ventured to believe I


Chapter Fifty Three could attain. Being told I wasn’t good enough was a new occurrence and I didn’t even have the luxury of savouring this bitter pill in private. I had no idea how to cope with the overwhelming disillusionment, especially sitting upright in a chair facing my Troop Leader, who could well have been at that moment an executioner. I tried desperately to maintain a neutral posture – dignity was now the only issue – but I think I was too young to maintain the façade and without a doubt my whole body language would have revealed my true feelings. In the background Lt. Taylor was still speaking and I concentrated on a large fly as it ambled lazily across the shining table. “…but I should also tell you,” he had continued, “that in many aspects of the cadre you were in the leading pack. I can see your obvious disappointment, which is all to your credit. You are a good young soldier with a promising future and your time will come again. Take heart.” There then followed some inconsequential pleasantries after which I was dismissed and fled the room. I fled to the only place where I knew I could guarantee my privacy, the toilet and hastily tried to compose myself and my thoughts. Rudyard Kiplng’s poem “If” kept running through my head but I found no solace there. The one thing I did know was that by the time I vacated that latrine I would have to have perfected a mask of total nonchalance; not even my friends would be allowed to see how deeply I had been affected by my failure. Never, ever confess to vulnerability was an ethic I had lived by from an early age. Nev, Tich and Don were sympathetic before moving on to discuss the latest football news and Tich Short’s up and coming fatigues; from their point of view the incident had been consigned to history. The next day the official result appeared on the notice board, to soften my blow the standing-order only naming those of


Chapter Fifty Three the cadre who had passed, eleven in all; leaving unwritten the three of us who had failed. My life slowly reverted to its normal daily routine, trade instruction, PE and football training, education and kit polishing but I found it extremely hard, if not impossible, to bury my dented but firmly harboured ambition of promotion, and to draw a veil over my recent devastating failure. One evening, no more than two weeks distance from the cadre course’s conclusion, on returning from football training in the gym at around seven o’clock I was greeted by a boy from the next barrack room who said to me, “Mr Taylor wants to see you in his office, now.” Odd, I thought, that anyone in authority should demand my presence at this time of the evening. Still in my PE gear and sweating from my exertions in the gym I hurried along to the office understandably a tad disquieted, knocked on the door and waited.

Chapter fifty four


On entering the room I was confronted by Mr Taylor relaxing behind his desk dressed in casual clothes and sitting beside him, Birch who had recently been promoted from Boy Corporal to Boy Sergeant in charge of Dettingen Troop. “Good evening Stretton,” Mr Taylor said. “Good news. I thought I should be the first to tell you unofficially that the adjutant has reviewed the cadre course results. From Thursday (two days hence) it will be confirmed in Standing Orders that you attained a pass in that course and will assume the role of Boy/Lance/Corporal with effect from that date. Sgt Birch and I would like you to take charge of the middle barrack room. Congratulations.” I was both speechless and void of any thought at this turn of events; I managed somehow to express my gratitude to Mr Taylor and left the office. I hadn’t expected this reversal of fortunes and as I gathered my wits, although beside myself with delight, a thousand considerations bounced round in my head. Would I be able to cope with the new responsibilities? How and when would I tell my immediate friends? Who would sew the first stripe onto my uniform? How would I move all my belongings to the next room? Oh, and a hundred other inconsequential triflings. (As I got to know Mr Taylor better and he learnt to trust my integrity, he confided the politics – for the want of a better word – in that momentous decision. Apparently I had performed exceedingly well on the majority of the cadre course and acceptably well on the remaining disciplines with one exception and that was drill. Not personal day-to-day drill but my ability, or more accurately my inability, to drill a squad of recruits. And that is not quite true, either; I could drill and command any squad commendably but the knack I hadn’t yet grasped was the capability


Chapter Fifty Four of using my voice with clarity, authority or volume. {Anyone who knows me may well will find that laughable, I have – and had then - a naturally deep and loud voice; what I hadn’t fathomed was that for clarity and drilling volume I had to pitch the tone up an octave and the authority would spontaneously follow}. (I think this as a failing point was a bone of contention amongst some of the panel and the adjutant and not sufficient reason to fail the whole course. With the weight of the adjutant and various senior officers behind me in this dispute my failure was eventually rescinded. As a postscript, with the help of CoH Bone I soon learnt the trick of voice-pitch, certainly didn’t let the adjutant nor Mr Taylor down and for the rest of my army career was a definite asset on parade ground and on ceremonial occasions). On the Thursday my promotion to Lance/Corporal was officially announced on the notice board; my friends – whom I’d already informed – were supportive, helped move my possessions and Tich Short sewed the chevrons onto my working clothes and tank-suits, while the resident camp tailor looked after the No 1 dress. Suddenly I was in charge of a whole barrack room; the cleanliness of the room and the welfare and discipline of the boys in it was my responsibility and I was soon to learn that Lance/Corporal was probably the loneliest job in the British Army. By definition in starting to climb the ladder your friends are left behind and those scaling the higher rungs are loath to acknowledge the presence of this humblest of ranks. You’re also in the immediate firing line at all times from flak coming up from the ranks and raining down from your superiors. To me, however, all this seemed a price well worth paying, although I had not yet acquired many feathers in my head-dress


Chapter Fifty Four I was on my way to becoming a chief and although there must be an inevitable shift in relationships, my true friendships would stabilise and perhaps even blossom. And in my little 7 feet by 8 feet cubicle at the end of the room I had secured the degree of privacy for which I had so long yearned.

Chapter fifty Five


I soon settled into the routine of responsibility. I had had some small experience of leadership from my time as captain of the grammar school cricket XI and I concluded that there couldn’t be too much difference between looking after eleven boys on a cricket pitch and sixteen boys in a barrack room. Armed with this oversimplification of my duties I set about making an impression and from Day 1 lived by the maxim of ‘firm but fair’, a dictum I was to apply for the remainder of my army career. I worked on the elementary principle of treating all personnel as I would have expected to be treated myself. The concoction must have worked; after the initial period of ‘bedding-in’ I was acknowledged by all as being fit for the job and respected by those who came under my influence. For myself I positively flourished under this challenge and became increasingly confident in my new role with the added bonus that I now had my own private retreat for moments of reflection. I was, of course, still expected to complete all my other duties and follow the weekly training itinerary. I still found time for extra football training in the evening, in fact QMSI Slater was delighted at my promotion, I think he now had four boy NCOs competing for places in the Squadron team. In early November I jumped the second hurdle of the army’s educational system, that of the Intermediate Certificate and immediately moved on to the final qualification, that of the Senior Certificate, which would guarantee my educational capabilities for any or all subsequent promotions on joining my regiment. Talking of regiments, I had opted to join the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards – if they would have me – on attaining the age of eighteen; this was Lt Taylor’s parent regiment and I was most


Chapter Fifty Five impressed both with his qualities as a Troop Leader and his likeability as a person. At the moment this was a still a choice in my head; I would not be called upon to make the final choice on paper until I was seventeen and a half. The signalling (wireless) course was well past the halfway stage and being a totally new skill for me to learn, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And Auntie Pat still parcelled her ‘caring mum’ fruitcake at irregular intervals, which was conscientiously shared with my barrack room. (Yes, unknowingly I had moved on from ‘the’ barrack room to ‘my’ barrack room; in the space of weeks they had become ‘my’ boys). This term I had been so busy and engrossed in my new position that I scarcely noted the passage of time until suddenly I realised that the Christmas break was nearly upon us. I’m sure that a number of boys viewed Christmas with the same outlook that I did; whilst not shrinking from it, I certainly didn’t look forward to it and it was a festive occasion to tolerate with the minimum of fuss. So I returned to Belle-Vue very nearly twelve months after my leap into the unknown, a totally changed and free character with absolutely no regrets for the decisions I had taken. The ethos of arriving at that decision in the first place would rankle for years to come but as Grandma Stretton in her wisdom would have said, “God moves in a mysterious way, my dear…” Could it only have been twelve months ago that I was still a naïve and lost schoolboy searching for the unobtainable and carrying anger, frustration and bitterness? Yet here I was less than a year later having climbed that mental mountain and slain a few demons along the way and arrived at this station in my life where I had gained confidence, self-worth and an independence that I would jealously guard. And not to forget a puff of pride in


Chapter Fifty Five what I had already accomplished. Outwardly Christmas was much the same as it had always been in the Belle-Vue household, extensive decorations, visitors and drinks before Christmas dinner, the Queen’s Speech, followed by games and presents before a huge tea. There had to be nevertheless subtle differences, most probably in my mental attitude. To the best of my recollection our Ruth was missing that Christmas of 1953, the first time we had been parted for such an occasion and her company was sorely missed. I was also now an earner in my own right. I had just had an incremental gain due to my promotion, about another 2/- (10p) a week, I think, and I was due another increase early in January having completed one year’s service, another 5/6d (27p) a week or thereabouts. This, plus the money that had been saved for me throughout the term gave me, at sixteen, a feeling of incredible wealth. I insisted, as I now considered normal, in paying Auntie Pat a housekeeping allowance and contributed something extra towards the Christmas fare, plus the fact I could afford to be more generous in my choice of presents. This generosity must surely have been similar to the pheasant displaying his plumage. I suppose that I was childishly vaunting my considered prosperity by saying to all concerned, “I now have the means and the freedom; I can so I will.” On New Year’s Eve I was treated, although still only sixteen, as a fully-fledged grown-up, sang Auld Lang Syne and saw the arrival of 1954 with an alcoholic drink in my hand. Was it the glass of brandy, the general bonhomie, or just my change in outlook and newly found self-assurance which caused me to view the coming year with an eager anticipation? And after years of unrest, upheaval and an accepted poverty I was not to be disappointed: 1954 was to be a golden year.

Chapter fifty six


There comes to some people a short and magical phase in growing-up, which although inadequate, can best be described as a ‘purple patch’. It seems to be a time-slip in that indefinable period between escaping adolescence and being captured by adulthood and within that one-way corridor anything is achievable. My purple patch ran throughout 1954 and well into 1955 before the obligations and responsibilities of manhood stifled my infallibility to a large extent. I am quite convinced that it’s a rite of passage not experienced by all; I know forty-year olds who apparently still haven’t escaped their adolescence and conversely fourteen-year olds who have already settled for carpet slippers. Neither of these groups can possibly have tramped the wondrous corridor and perhaps a prerequisite for entry is a need to escape in the first place. Needless to say during that period I was immortal, had the wisdom of Solomon and if anyone had taken the trouble to ask I could probably have explained the meaning of life. Along the way I discarded or at least put into perspective the baggage of my early life and accepted that it was all part of the jigsaw which was me; my latent uncertainties I put to rest and encompassed that which was dear and precious. And the really satisfying aspect of it all was that I had the clarity of thought to know that I was gradually shedding my old persona for a new one. By now I was completely at ease as a Boy/Lance/Corporal, the barrack room had its normal mix of lively individuals but generally speaking they were well behaved and required little serious discipline. As a Lance/Corporal my options regarding discipline were quite limited and any serious misdemeanours were dealt with at a higher level by the Troop Sergeant, Troop


Chapter Fifty Six Leader or in extreme cases, the adjutant. Considering the miscellany of boys in the Squadron serious offences were comparatively rare. In fact during my whole tenure as an NCO in Bovington I never once had to refer any of my charges to higher authority; I found that a severe dressing down, a dollop of fatigues and a restriction of privileges were more than enough to restore equilibrium. Punishments available to the camp authorities were fatigues, by far the most popular; confined to barracks, which I thought a little pointless as we were only ever allowed out at weekends anyway - later Wednesdays were added - and detention. Detention was hardly ever used and the offence incurred would have to have been of serious content to confine a boy to the guardroom. This I considered totally unsatisfactory as it deprived the boy of educational and trade training, the very reason he was in the Squadron in the first place. When I joined in 1953 the cane was still permissible, a punishment that could only be awarded by the adjutant and administered by the Squadron Sgt Major, however by mid-1955 this practice had been discontinued and in my time at Bovington I only heard of it being used twice. To this day I think the demise of the cane was an error of judgement – for the time in question – it was a short, sharp remembered lesson and a painful reminder of the necessity to live by the established rules. I also think that it was the perfect deterrent to the bully; bullies love to inflict pain but hate to receive it. In January I received my expected salary increase of 5/6d on completion of my first year’s service. It’s worth noting that although I was becoming more and more financially secure but conceivably still too young, it never occurred to me that eventually opening a bank account would be an option. In the early fifties people from a Northern working-class background probably never


Chapter Fifty Six had the wherewithal to contemplate the security of long term money management. Their household budgets worked very much on the tally man, hand-to-mouth weekly basis, and equally bank accounts would have been considered the prerogative of the middle-classes. In reality I didn’t open a bank account (Lloyds) until the mid-sixties – the same account I hold today – I think my piggy bank in those intervening years must have been my back trouser pocket. By Easter I had obtained my Senior Certificate of Education, the final hurdle in the educational curriculum, which exempted me the necessity for any further qualifications on joining my regiment. This, I thought was the end of my army education but this turned out to be not quite true. The following month I completed my wireless course and was classified as Signaller (AFV 3) (Armoured Fighting Vehicle) and potential Signaller/Gunner, a qualification, which could prove to be a distinct advantage in any future regimental competition for early promotion. I immediately moved on to my second trade preference, that of gunnery, a subject that was totally alien but one I viewed with great enthusiasm. And to strengthen the axiom that everything will happen in threes, within a matter of weeks I was promoted Dettingen’s Troop corporal, with the rank of Boy/Corporal. I promptly exchanged my small 7 feet by 8 feet sanctuary at the end of the barrack room for a slightly larger 9 feet by 9 feet cubicle situated at one end of the long corridor and my responsibilities expanded from one barrack room to a much wider brief. Ironically in the absence of the Boy/Troop Sergeant for any reason I was tasked with marching Dettingen troop onto parade, the very discipline for which I had initially failed my cadre course. It was yet more feathers in my head-dress and although still a mountain to climb, was a large


Chapter Fifty Six step towards fulfilling my cherished intention of becoming a chief. What I had found since the very first day I joined the Squadron was how little actual free time I had available. After a day’s work there was kit cleaning, football training and trade revision. There was letter writing – which to me had always been a tiresome chore – and latterly, since my elevation to the ranks of NCO, rotas to prepare and in some cases fatigues to supervise. As I climbed the promotion ladder the available free time became even less, not that at any point did I feel compromised; the profession of soldiering was fulfilling, rewarding, diverse and challenging in itself. My golden year of 1954 was gaining a momentum all of its own and where, I mused, would it come to rest?

Chapter fifty seven


Whilst all this was happening to me, Nev Wood had been selected for, and passed, a cadre course and received his first stripe; I was more than pleased to welcome this close friend into the echelon of Dettingen NCOs. Although I was totally biased there is no doubt that Dettingen Troop possessed an esprit de corps, albeit that none of us would even have heard of the phrase and would have scoffed at the idea of a shared purpose. Each year there was a cup presented to the best all-round performing troop and for the life of me, try as I might, I can’t remember its title so for the purpose of my narrative I’ll just call it The Cup. Dettingen had to be in with a fighting chance of claiming it in 1954. We, as a troop, had a strong sporting ethic, were smartly turned out on parade and fared reasonably well on the weekly barrack room inspections; educationally we were quite capable and for those of us who qualified, our map-reading skills and fieldcraft passed muster. As troop corporal I made it my responsibility to keep an eye on and judge our progress. Finally, somewhen between July and September – for such an important happening in my life surprisingly I can’t pin the date down – I was promoted to the rank of Boy/Troop Sergeant and moved my home from one end of Dettingen’s long corridor to the other. I had finally arrived. My fleeting contemplation on the train had grown and grown like Topsy and I surmised that I could now add the remaining feathers to my head-dress and call myself a chief. During the absence of permanent staff, Dettingen Troop, the three barrack rooms with their fifty or so boys and all the happenings therein were solely my responsibility. By an extreme stroke of good fortune Nev Wood had also been promoted to


Chapter Fifty Seven Boy/Corporal, moved into my old room and adopted my old role; I was confident that along with the three barrack room NCOs we would make a formidable team. Boy/Sergeants in the unit were treated with a respect and awe that normally would be reserved for minor gods or, at the very least, their disciples, and there is no doubt that we wielded a lot of power and influence with the ability to affect lives. All four boy/sergeants were issued with silver-handled black canes - I imagine they would be called swagger-sticks – which went with us everywhere as part of the uniform, Such was their status it was rumoured in some quarters that some sergeants even slept with them. We had our own small table set aside in the dining room, with five place settings, four for the sergeants and one for the boy/sergeant major and a mess-orderly who would actually look after our every need. After lunch we would report to the administration block, collect the day’s incoming mail, which had been sorted by troop, and distribute it in our respective barrack blocks; the recipients would probably consider this to be our most important function! The question has been posed as to how I coped with suddenly being thrust into the limelight and being considered one of the elite. The answer is comparatively simple. The transition wasn’t in effect sudden; I had moved through the ranks of lance/corporal and corporal to arrive in my present position and at each stage I had accepted a little more responsibility and a little more of the spotlight. At grammar school, being captain of a successful cricket team, I had experienced a small degree of attention, therefore the situation I now found myself in wasn’t totally alien and with my growing self-belief I had little or no problem in adjusting to this new, fulfilling role. I was surrounded by a good and trusted team, particularly Nev


Chapter Fifty Seven Wood. The permanent staff was supportive at all times, and I positively thrived as I grew into the role. Suddenly it was October 14th and I had arrived at the age of 17 – , a landmark in any boy soldier’s career. It was – and probably still is – the age of majority in the services, and on Squadron standing orders I was ‘posted to the ranks,’ a technicality which immediately entitled me to a regular soldier’s rate of pay, a positive fortune to me in 1954. One of my priorities as troop sergeant was to secure The Cup for Dettingen and to that end I called a meeting of all my NCOs. I had been gauging the progress of the Troop against the opposition for some considerable time and I calculated that providing I could engender and maintain sufficient enthusiasm among the boys, that Cup was Dettingen’s for the taking. We had already won the inter-troop football competition and competed well in other various disciplines. Both Nev and I realised that in some – but not all – contests the key was going to be quantity not quality; the rules indicated that every entrant for a particular challenge received a point, win or lose. That was going to be our challenge then, to enthuse enough boys to enter into the spirit of the challenge. To set an example I volunteered for the rugby XV alongside Nev, a game neither of us had ever played and the team put in an honest and plausible performance – we finished a close second. I ran (no cheating) the dreaded cross-country and was gratified at the number who joined me from the Troop but how would our contingent fare in the boxing ring? The venue for the Squadron boxing tournament was the gym with its full size ring and the sport always guaranteed a large, enthusiastic crowd of spectators; I had never put on a pair of boxing gloves in my life and only vaguely understood the rules. I knew that I had to get in the ring to sustain the momentum of my


Chapter Fifty Seven plan and was the first to put my name forward as a contestant. I think about 85% of the available boys signed the form underneath me, a truly remarkable feat and it was in that gesture of solidarity that I knew we could win the Cup. As though scripted by a comedian my opponent was called Kill, a large lad from Cambrai Troop and our bout was halfway down the bill. My silent prayer was not to win but to get out of ring at the end of the encounter with my dignity still in place; the scalp of a Boy/Sergeant must have seemed an attractive proposition. Kill turned out to be a gentle individual and for the best part of the first round we parried round the ring like a couple of ballet dancers neither of us keen to hurt the other. The referee – QMSI Slater - was having none of this; stopped the fight pointing out that this event was called a boxing match; Kill mumbled “Sorry” in my ear and the real fight commenced. To my credit I managed to last for most of the second round in a three round contest but Kill had skill and towards the end of that second round he knocked me to the floor with a fist I never even saw coming. I wasn’t about to get up in a hurry, but the referee could see that I was totally outclassed and stopped the fight on the spot, declaring Kill a worthy winner; I retained my dignity for effort and vowed never to enter a boxing ring again. Dettingen, as a troop, performed well in the tournament and interestingly a couple of lads who had never boxed before turned out to be naturals and became part of the Squadron boxing team. By now I thought that we had done more than enough to win the Cup but there was still the final obstacle left, the Troop sketch at the end of which, each performance would be judged and finally the year’s winner declared. I certainly had neither the knowledge nor flair for such a production nor apparently had any of my NCOs. However I was determined that our revue would be as


Chapter Fifty Seven slick as could be expected of an amateur troupe. With this in mind I made a request on first parade that any individual who had had any experience of amateur dramatics or felt that they could contribute towards our forthcoming show should contact me. Time was comparatively short and I prayed that there would soon be a queue of budding thespians outside my bunk. Late that evening there was a knock on my door and there stood the lone, tall figure of Don Farquharson Farquharson admitted to having a small degree of experience in the presentation of school concerts and was prepared to oversee the project should nobody better turn up. Not another single person appeared at my door; Farquharson, for better or worse had secured himself the post of director and producer of the show.

Chapter fifty eight


Farquharson turned out to have a natural talent and was a modest genius. In my opinion he most certainly wouldn’t have been found lacking in masterminding any provincial production. My golden streak of 1954 was holding good and my invincibility was still intact. Each troop’s effort was scheduled to last between twenty and thirty minutes; the slot could be filled with any material of the troop’s choosing. Farquharson decided that we should do three skits, all parodies of camp life. Many, many years later I was watching a television programme called “It ain’t ‘alf hot, mum!” a comedy series concerning a troupe of actors, who although serving in the army during World War 2, spent the majority of their time in India staging revues for fellow combatants’ entertainment and relaxation. I was struck by the uncanny similarity between those TV parodies and Dettingen Troop’s performance, right down to the minor detail of wobbly sets, army blanket backdrops and enthusiastic amateurs. In a very short space of time Farquharson conjured up three drafts, which he realised needed padding out and a small group of us sat down with him each evening and took on the role of scriptwriters. We knew that the jokes had to be to the point, respectably bawdy and that no member of the permanent staff should be untouchable; those sessions turned out to be great fun and the material quite amusing. We settled for three central characters all easy to caricature, QMSI Slater, with a cushion – or two - for padding and a dangling cigarette, taking a PE session; SSM ‘Doughy’ Baker with a wand instead of a pace-stick and CoH Bone training recruits with a large bone. Surprisingly it was easy to recruit a selection of ‘actors’ once


Chapter Fifty Eight they grasped that we were deadly serious and the intention never had been to make them the butt of our jokes. Some were quite good considering, others were never going to set the stage alight but they all had one ingredient in common, that of keenness. Each evening for about a week we cleared bed spaces at the end of a barrack room and rehearsed the three sketches; by the end of which all of us, and Farquharson in particular, were satisfied with the collective competence. The ‘theatre’ for the occasion was the cookhouse, in which a temporary raised stage had been erected, the dining tables removed and the chairs laid out facing the stage to accommodate the anticipated audience, which obviously was going to be large. First night nerves were conspicuous among the actors, the exception being Farquharson who methodically made sure that everything was in place and that the backstage crew was familiar with the props and the scene changing routines. The drawing of lots decided the running order and Dettingen was third on the bill, a position we wouldn’t have chosen. I watched the first two troops’ efforts and although they tried, with a plain lack of rehearsal I considered they weren’t a patch on our entry. Then it was our turn. I was part of the backstage crew - the prompter - and after a somewhat shaky start my team of actors was magnificent and I wasn’t needed at all. On the sidelines I kept my eye on the audience, who seemed to enjoy our sketches and the laughter seemed loud and genuine. I cast a wary eye on the three unfortunate recipients of our humour. They were enthralled, and laughed longer and clapped louder than most at the end of our show. “Alamein will have had to conscript the complete cast of ITMA to beat us!” I dared to think. “We can win this.” And we did. After a very short deliberation Dettingen’s was voted the best revue of


Chapter Fifty Eight the evening and I insisted that Don Farquharson deservedly took centre stage to receive the accolade; the whole cast had been splendid and I could sense the pride and satisfaction as they bathed in the audience’s applause. And Dettingen had won the annual Cup! I was beside myself with pride but at the same time greatly humbled in the knowledge that I couldn’t possibly have done it without the support of my NCOs and a superb bunch of boys. Good fortune was still smiling benignly on me.

Chapter Fifty nine


1954 was drawing to a close and besides everything else that was happening I had set aside my gunnery instruction and been moved on to full time education along with three or four other boys. It was like being back at school but with discipline and duties; we had been selected to participate in an intensive GCE curriculum headed by a dedicated Army Education sergeant. I opted for English language, maths, physics and history; for the period of the course we were excused all other daytime activities, although in the evening I did pursue my football training and naturally, as was my duty as troop sergeant, engaged in and supervised all of Dettingen’s daily life. I can’t remember how long the schedule lasted, probably about eight weeks. The brevity of the programme can best be explained by the fact that I and presumably the other chosen participants, had already spent four years in school preparing for just this moment and I always regarded this interlude more as a concentrated refresher. My instructor was good and, of course, I was now eager to learn and with that in mind sometime in early January I duly passed my GCEs in English language, Maths and Physics, failing miserably in History, not altogether surprising. I was thoroughly pleased with the outcome and mentally thanked Mr Roxby and Mr Rutter who had given me the enthusiasm in the first place back in my early years at Spennymoor Alderman Wraith grammar school. I also expressed silent gratitude to my unnamed English mistress at Sandown grammar school who had shown a faith in my abilities, even when most of her colleagues perceived me as being a ‘Jack-the Lad’. Her sound advice ‘no matter what else, to pursue my English studies’, had been quite prophetic. My time in the Boys’ Squadron was now nearing a conclusion,


Chapter Fifty Nine as is my narrative. In early March of 1955 I was accepted by the regiment of my choice, the 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and on completion of my boys’ service would join the unit in Germany alongside Lt Taylor whose tour of duty in Bovington was also coming to an end. At the end of March I qualified as Gunner (AFV 3) and would join my regiment at the end of April with the military qualification of Gunner/Signaller B3, which meant that I was now fully equipped for life in my preferred regiment. I now had recognised trade and education qualifications, alongside proven leadership skills; these combined attributes I speculated would position me advantageously towards early promotion in my regiment. (And this proved to be the case, in July of that same year, I received my first promotion in the 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, a matter of only eight weeks after arriving in Fallingbostel). On April 4th 1955 I was ‘Struck off Strength’ – a military term – from the Squadron and ‘Taken on Strength’ at the Royal Armoured Corps depot awaiting posting to the Dragoon Guards in Germany. I handed in my entire Boys’ Squadron paraphernalia, stripes included, collected my regular army uniform including regimental signia and became 22782756 Trooper Stretton. On May 14th, after a short embarkation leave, I sailed for Germany, left my adolescence on the quayside, held my head up and took the first tentative steps into manhood and an unknown future. The Boys’ Squadron had been good to me; it had given me selfbelief, a confidence and purpose to my life. It had introduced me to true friends, instilled a sense of loyalty and given me a treasured independence. I had accomplished so much more than I could ever have dreamed of or considered possible in just over two years and reflecting on our somewhat nomadic and


Chapter Fifty Nine occasionally traumatic upbringing I had found stability and a sense of belonging. And all of this I had effected entirely by my own endeavours helped by the intervention of fate and innumerable conversations with dear old Whisky. To paraphrase a modern football manager, “The lad done well!” Contemplating that early part of my life from the perspective of age with its perceived wisdom, would I have changed anything? Now that is a question. The immediate answer is an overwhelming yes; I would have traded my father for a far more acceptable model. I would have removed our mother from her remembered, relentless daily grind and I would have excused us the crushing poverty that hounded our childhood, which despite our attempted pride, forced our dependency on other people’s generosity. The wisdom from my comfortable vantage-point, however, dictates that I can do none of these things; change just one small segment of that early existence and the ‘butterfly effect’ changes the whole. Primarily the chances are that I would have known a ‘different’ mam, unharrassed. I would never have experienced the security of Harrogate, the kindness and warmth of the North-Eastern people in general and my Northern aunties and uncles in particular. I would never have known, seen or believed in the sheer magic of Swaledale or felt the warmth of Uncle John’s family and cottage in Grinton and I never would have fallen in love with Brenda, the land-army girl. I would never have shared adversities and secrets with our Ruth and I would never have experienced the friendship, comfort, conversations and the unswerving loyalty of dear, sagacious old Whisky when I so desperately needed guidance. So, all in all, no I wouldn’t, or morally couldn’t, have changed


Chapter Fifty Nine a single thing. I have a certainty that some person with much more perception than me has already stated more fluently and succinctly than I ever could, that to grasp a true understanding of contentment a soul must first have experienced a considerable degree of hardship. Believe: That our background and circumstances may well have influenced who we are, But we are responsible for the person we become. (Anon).



15, Ellesmere Road is now a desirable residence in a very much sought after London commuting area. The house is handy to the nearby station, with its frequent connections to the capital. Whether the plum trees and Grampy’s old shed are still in evidence is open to debate but highly unlikely. 8, York Road in Harrogate still stands in all its former elegance adjoining the park although through grown-up eyes it does appear much smaller. Our Ruth tells me that the (then) library from which we borrowed exotic-looking books is still in existence being used for what purpose I can’t say; I like to think for the purpose of knowledge. 50, Dale Street, my spiritual if shabby home, has recently been razed to the ground to make way for ‘affordable homes’ (although who is going to afford them in an area of great unemployment is anyone’s guess). It saddens me greatly - but I do understand the need for progress – that the one place in which I found a degree of happiness as a small boy no longer exists. Belle-Vue maintains its façade of Victorian gentility and the garage/stable block is still in existence, however the building is now Brading’s Medical Practice housing doctors, nurses and treatment rooms and a large car-park has been added to the side. As to the fate of the tended gardens I can’t hazard a guess. The Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps had progressed to The Junior Leaders’ Regiment by 1957. Trapped in its own success it had outgrown squadron status and added further units to achieve regimental status and prestige. The hierarchy would say that that was a resounding success and it was; to me as one of the trail-blazers I doubt if any of the consequent intakes realised the frisson of being involved in something new, untested and


Epilogue exciting. The Regiment continued to grow and went from success to success; in April 1970 it was granted the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Wareham in recognition of its status and importance to the Borough. The Regiment then marched through the town of Wareham with fixed bayonets each September until its closure in 1992. The last I heard it housed a specialist training centre consisting of a one year’s leadership course for a maximum of 460 boys from various Army Corps.



Shortly after completing the final draft of this memoir, Auntie Pat died at the age of 90. Her decline was slow and sad to watch. We all witnessed a once smart, proud and, at times, feisty person slowly but inevitably being drained of her dignity, with her independence increasingly curtailed; a situation, which in her matriarchal years would have horrified her. In her prime she had little understanding of the aged sick and death; she overcame this by pretending it didn’t exist. True to her much paraded mantra, “This is my other son,” she left me an equal portion of the estate in her will, alongside Arthur, Andrea and Patsy. This was both a generous and unsolicited gesture, which certainly from her standpoint validated her claim that I really was an integral member of her family. Auntie Pat was never a deep thinker, was largely insensitive to other peoples’ feelings and could on occasion be totally selfcentred. However many years ago I had made my peace with her and we eventually settled into a comfortable and trusting companionship. Whilst never forgetting, I had long since forgiven Auntie Pat for her slights and hurts – intentional and unintentional – when I was young and vulnerable; as I matured I realised that she actually thought she believed everything she said, which I suppose is a vindication in its own right. What she never, ever did realise was that my circumstance was never going to be about money but about belongings and relationships. So Auntie Pat has departed and is buried alongside Uncle Arthur in Bembridge; a lady who had an influential part in moulding my attitudes towards commitments and trust, a lady who inadvertently taught me the advantages of the ‘chameleon’ persona and the value of independence. Strangely – or perhaps not – for all the harsh things I have said


Footnote and implied about Auntie Pat in this memoir, I do miss her and I think in conclusion that to be a fitting and just sentiment.



It won't always be dark at

An early life remembered

Boyce Stretton was born in Hertfordshire in 1937. “It Won't Always Be Dark at Seven...” tells the story of his early life; his impoverished infancy in County Durham, his sometimes uneasy transition to a more affluent life on the Isle of Wight, and finally his career as a Boy Soldier before enlisting with the Royal Dragoon Guards. Packed with period detail of a way of life now long forgotten, “It Won't Always Be Dark at Seven...” is also a moving reflection with the perspective of half a century and a recognition that, while life is lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. Boyce Stretton died in July 2011, a month short of seeing his memoir in print.

ISBN 978-1-908223-18-0

Published by Memoirs 25 Market Place, Cirencester Gloucestershire GL7 2NX

9 781908 223180

Tel: 01285 640485 Email:

It Won't Always be Dark at Seven by Boyce Stretton - Memoirs Publishing  

Boyce Stretton was born in Hertfordshire in 1937. It Won't Always be Dark at Seven... tells the story of his early life; his impoverished in...

It Won't Always be Dark at Seven by Boyce Stretton - Memoirs Publishing  

Boyce Stretton was born in Hertfordshire in 1937. It Won't Always be Dark at Seven... tells the story of his early life; his impoverished in...