Extracts From My Autobiography
| 3 The Early Years.
October the eighth 1960 I was born, We lived in Islington, North London. I don't actually have any memories of the place as I moved to Crayford at the ripe old age of two. That sounds like I left home when I was two. No, not quite that young. That sweet relief would take another fourteen years. So the first time I moved, they all came with me. However, until then I'm reliably informed that we lived in a two bedroomed flat in Muswell Hill. Like lots of working class areas in the 1960s, it has since become gentrified, frequented by the nouveau riche of the film and media industries, bankers, city traders and such like. Then it was the first stepping stone to getting out of the city for good. The lure of suburbia, the spread of the masses ever outwards.
After completing his national service in Malaysia, my father worked as an auditor for a firm of accountants in the city, this is where he met my mother, a filing clerk, eight years his junior.
Mum was eighteen and dad twenty-six when they married. A year later my sister Jacqueline was born, and sixteen months after that I came along. After a two year gap, my brother John was born, and five years after him Elizabeth arrived. I think they thought they were done having children at John, and so Liz was somewhat unexpected. So that's the six of us. Nothing very remarkable there, just an average 1960's suburban family.
I started school in September 1965. The first few months of school for me were horrendous. I couldn't settle in, I dreaded going, on the short walk to school the tension would build. By the time we reached the school gates I would be dragging my heels, and my mother would be pulling me along by my wrist. John would have been in the pushchair as he was only three. She would have to push him with one hand and drag me screaming and kicking with the other.
Eventually, she'd make it to the school gates. It usually took so long to get there that we were late. School would have already started for the day, I remember how eerily quiet it was. This made it seem even more intimidating to me, and I became even more determined not to go in. By now I would be kicking and screaming and dragging my heels for all I was worth. But it was a waste of time. I was going in, whatever protests I made.
From the gate, there was a small garden in front of the school building, and to the right hand side a wall ran all the way to the fence at the back of the playground. The wall separated the school from the houses next door and created a short alleyway between it and the school. This alley was the way in, and in my head I knew that it was the point of no return. Once she'd managed to drag me through there, I would be incarcerated for the rest of the day. Even worse, she might never come back for me.
On one occasion, I'd been putting up a pretty damn good fight, when, from the alleyway, strolling towards me appeared Mr Reece, the headmaster. He looked like he was a hundred years old. He was tall, about six feet, and very thin, with a bald head and a bright red wrinkled face. He was also the owner of a very stern voice. He reached the gate, where my mother had all but given up the fight, took my wrist from her grasp, told her to go, and just dragged me in. He dragged me down the alley, round the back of the school, into the main school house entrance, down the corridor, through my classroom door, got to my desk, dragged the chair from underneath and forced me to sit in it by pushing down on my head.
“Stay there and don't move,” he said, in his scariest voice as he made his way from the room.
He'd obviously underestimated my need not to be there because the second I saw him go out through the door I was out of that chair and making a mad dash for freedom. I ran back the way I'd just been dragged. Out of the door, down the corridor, out the front door, round the building to the alley, down the alley to the front gate and out of the front gate into Iron Mill Lane. And that's where I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn't be sure of the way home and my hesitation had allowed the chasing pack to catch up. My teacher, Mrs James got to me before Mr Reece. Her cajoling words of encouragement and the fact that my mother was nowhere to be seen made me give up the fight. I allowed her to take my hand and lead me back to my desk and all the other kids who were happily getting on with their work.
To this day I still don't know why I was so against the idea of going to school. Once I was there and settled in for the day I quite liked it. I got on well with the other kids and all the teachers. I think it was that I couldn't stand the thought of being separated from my mother.
4 Dirty Dishcloths.
Teachers and anyone else for that matter, in those days, had far more authority over their charges than the poor overstretched powerless crop that inhabit the school halls today. There were rules that had to be obeyed and woe betide anyone that thought they were above them.
Lunchtime and the dreaded school dinner was just as bound in the traditions and rules as any other part of the school day.
If you stayed for a school dinner, there was no choice in the food that you ate. It was a two course meal consisting of a dinner and a dessert. I actually quite liked the dinners. However, it was at school and to be more precise in the school canteen that I discovered that I didn't have a sweet tooth
On this particular day, I'd eaten my dinner, I can't remember what it was, so I won't pretend that I do. Anyway, I was patiently waiting in line, to get my afters. I started to catch the aroma of the most vile and toxic substance known to man. Just the smell of it made me retch. I arrived at the service hatch, and there it was laying in wait on a massive metal tray. A great slab of jam sponge, topped off with grated coconut, accompanied by a giant ladle of lemon sauce.
I knew there wasn't going to be a cat in hell's chance of me eating this most vile of concoctions. It's recipe must have been thought up by the food devils living in some twilight world, with the power to make a small boy's life miserable. For some unknown reason, I can't eat coconut. The slightest whiff and I'm heaving. This wasn't some childish fad because it's still true to this day.
I turned to Mrs Sturton, who was actually the school's secretary, she also doubled up as a dinner monitor. I'm not sure why it is, but I'm remembering everyone from that school as being ancient. She was a short, stout woman, I'm guessing that she was in her late fifties, but at the time I thought she was probably about a hundred and two or so. She was standing guard over the queue, waiting to pounce on any wayward child, who forgot momentarily that speaking in line was strictly forbidden. You also had to stand directly behind the person in front. If you deviated from this in the slightest, most teachers would give you a first warning. “Hughes, get back in line and shut up,” would usually suffice.
Mrs Sturton, however, had her own well tested methods. She would select for herself a slightly wet, but well used dishcloth, wrap one end around her hand and then stand with both hands behind her back in wait. Any offending child would suddenly get swiped round the back of the head with the mucky dish cloth and be left with a damp patch on their neck with bits of mashed potato and rapidly drying custard sticking to it
“I can't eat that, Miss,” I said pointing at the offensive tray of food.
“Have you brought a letter from your mother telling me that you're excused from eating your food?”
“Then pick up the bowl and your spoon,” she was pointing at the mountain of white bowls stacked to the side of the serving hatch, “Get your pudding and go and sit back down and eat it.”
“But Miss, I can't eat it, I.... Whack! I'd just had my first taste of dirty dish cloth. “Get the pudding, get sat down and get eating or you'll get another,” She shouted.
This time I obeyed, I got the offending substance and went and sat back at my table. The problem I had was that I just couldn't bring this stuff to my lips, without getting an urgent need to throw up.
I sat on the bench with the coconut sponge before me and stared at it. I thought she would relent and let me go at the end of the lunch break. Surely she wouldn't keep me here all afternoon.
At the end of dinner, Mrs Sturton stood in front of the hall, said Grace and then dismissed everyone. As everyone started to file out.
“Not you,” She bellowed from the front. She was pointing directly at me.”You can go when you've eaten that food.”
I sat down and went back to staring at the bowl. By now it's contents were cold, and the lemon sauce had congealed into a thick glutinous substance.
The canteen was empty except for the dinner ladies cleaning tables, I could hear the clatter of pots and pans being washed up. I sat and stared.
She came up behind me, “You won't be leaving here until that,” pointing at the bowl, “has been completely eaten. I've got the whole afternoon.” Whack!
The dirty dish cloth had started to dry out, and as I felt it's sting for the second time, I felt a strange stickiness on my neck, I longed to wipe my hand across it and wipe away the bits of mash and custard, but I daren't, for fear of getting another helping.
I heard the bell ring for the beginning of afternoon break, which meant I had been sitting in front of my dessert for an hour.
“You don't have to worry about that,” she said. “No playtime until that's gone,” still pointing at the vileness.
The bell sounded for the end of afternoon break, one more hour, and they would all be going home. I think I was too young to know that she would have to let me go by three thirty. I started to entertain the possibility of still being sat in front of my dessert for the rest of my life.
I grabbed hold of the spoon and shovelled as much of the sponge onto it as I could and rammed it into my mouth. I shut my eyes, clenched my fist and chewed for all I was worth, swallowing and fighting. There was hardly anything left in the bowl, but she wanted total victory.
“Finish it all.”
I scraped my spoon round the edge of the bowl gathering any last remnants of pudding. I knew this would have to be the last spoon, or I would be sick. I rammed it in and swallowed as hard as I could
This woman was so determined that I would follow the rules and eat my food that she was prepared to waste her whole afternoon just to get her way. If she had done that to a child nowadays she wouldn't only lose her job, they would lock her up and throw away the key. Times were different then. They had the authority to basically do as they wished for the time that you were in their care.
“Ok”, she said. “Get to your class”
I was already on my way. I ran to the door and out into the empty playground, where I was violently sick. She marched past me heading for the main building, two minutes later she was back by my side with a bucket of steaming hot water, filled with bleach and a mop.
“Get that cleaned up before you go in,” she said, without the slightest care for my plight.
By the time I had finished being ill and got the mess cleaned, the last bell had gone. Everyone was leaving for the day. So I emptied the bucket in some bushes, dropped the mop to the floor and went home.
When my mother asked about my day, I don't remember even mentioning this incident. I can't think why I wouldn't have said something, only that parents believed that whatever they did to you at school you must have deserved it. So your word as a child counted for very little.
5 Air Raid Shelters
Most of my primary school life passed without incident. From what I can remember, apart from the odd episode, I enjoyed life at school.
The school was actually tiny. It only had five classrooms, and roughly a hundred pupils attended. So depending on your abilities each child spent one year in some classes and two years in others.
The building was old and decrepit, and there were air raid shelters under the playground that were still there left from the second world war. There were two of them, one on either side of a netball court. Of course, they had been covered over. What you could actually see was a raised concrete border, about 8ft by 4ft square, that stood about 6 inches off the ground. It had steel railings embedded in it on three sides and the centre part had planks of wood that laid flush to the concrete surround.
So the railings became the ropes of a make believe wrestling ring, and many a bout was fought there. It was so dangerous, children were forever bashing their heads on them. I'll always remember the day one boy, Michael Wheeler, he chased a ball straight into the railings and ended up having fourteen stitches to close up the gaping wound on his forehead. No way would they have allowed them to have stayed there nowadays. Not with health and safety the way it is, the claim for everything and blame anyone but yourself society that we now live in.
6 I Was Only There For The Football
The air raid shelters were on the top part of the playground, that bit was concreted over, and the lines of a netball court were painted on it. The other half was a piece of rough stone covered dirt with a huge Horse Chestnut tree and a tree stump that was good for climbing on, stuck right in the middle.
Every break time most of the junior boys would be playing football on the netball court while the rest of the school, the girls and all the infants were confined to the rough, or round the periphery. Even as a five year old I knew that I wanted to be part of that, playing football, it looked so exciting. I would stand on the sidelines and obediently go and fetch the ball whenever it was kicked off, with never so much as a thank you. I just hoped that one day I'd run and get it and someone would say
“Come on Nick, come and have a game.” But of course that would probably never happened. Junior boys never played with the younger kids, it just wasn't cool.
I used to play football in the street at home with all the other kids that moved in. Our road was newly built in 1962. It consisted of two rows of neat little semi-detached houses on either side of the road, between the pavement and the road there is a strip of grass about twenty feet wide. That is broken into precise little rectangles by the concrete driveways that intersected it. It was on these patches of grass that we'd play. All the new houseproud residents hated us playing on those lawns, spoiling them. Worse still, when our balls dared to stray from the public lawns across the pavement and onto their own little bits of lovingly manicured grass all hell was let loose. You'd have thought we had committed some kind of heinous crime instead of just running onto their little bits of heaven.
It seemed that every other household contained a couple of kids, so there was a never ending stream of budding footballers to play with. But I wanted to play at school because they played proper matches there. So by the time I was in my second year edging ever closer to being a junior I got my big break.
I was just settling into life as a junior in Mrs Sterling's class and wasn't expecting my call up quite so soon. I always had my football boots with me in hope more than anything else really. The time was about 3 o'clock, and there was only another half an hour until the last bell and home time. The classroom door opened, and in walked Mr Dane, he taught class one, the eldest kids. But more importantly he was the football team manager.
He walked up to Mrs Stirling, had a brief word with her and then turned to me, and uttered the words I'd been longing to hear for so long.
“First eleven football practice starts in five minutes,” he said. “If you want to play in the match on Friday, you had better come now.” I had my boots on and was out of the classroom door before he had stopped talking.