A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
So we sailed away from the golden weather and un-ending sun-shine, back to a world that had changed since we had sailed east three years before. The journey reflected this. We couldn’t leave the ship at beautiful Colombo, there were strikes on the docks, and it was deemed unsafe for us to land. At Aden we were allowed to land but not to roam the town. We were whisked straight up to the RAF Officers club where we enjoyed a swim in the blazing heat and sun.
Sailing through the desert on the Suez Canal in late February meant scarlet dawns and blazing sunsets seen across the desert sands in sparkling clear air. These were the last moments of golden weather and beauty. At a cold rainy Port Said the presence of two menacing uniformed Egyptian guards at the top of the gangway deterred us all from leaving the boat…we were warned there was no guarantee we would get our passports back or be able to re-board. This was just a few months before the nationalisation by ‘The Dancing Major, ‘as President Nasser was known then. I realised then that Pax Brittanica had passed.
We landed in a cold misty dawn amid the grim grey docks of Liverpool, and by the time we reached London on the boat train from the docks, I was so cold and so depressed that England seemed very unwelcoming. I still had some months to go before taking my last A levels, so I was enrolled in the University Entrance Department of the Regent Street Polytechnic, my scholarship still opening doors for me.
My first day there felt so bleak and intimidating, that by lunch-time I had fled, and walking blindly down Park Lane, head down dodging the icy rain, sought refuge in Apsley House, The Iron Duke Wellington’s London pad where it was warm. When it was time to go back home, I caught the tube, and didn’t divulge where I’d spent the time. Days passed, the only heating in the whole building seemed to be the miniscule coal fire in the common room, which I could never get near.
I shivered uncontrollably with cold, prompting one student who arrived every day in a chauffeur driven Daimler to chide me kindly and ask why I didn’t wear warmer clothes. I was wearing all I had – a short-sleeved white muslin blouse, thin white cardigan and grey flannel skirt donated by my step-grandmother with whom we were staying. I was already at my new educational establishment when the rest of the family had taken themselves off to Simpsons in Piccadilly to get kitted out with warm clothes.
I felt totally intimidated by my fellow students – including the sophisticated girl delivered every day in the Daimler. I noticed a beautiful Indian youth from a princely family, a woman in her thirties who attended classes as a way of passing the time instead of working, an exquisitely mannered and groomed Jewish girl I became friendly with, some arrogant young chaps from Eton, a blonde elegant girl famous for being a general’s daughter, and a plain young man, the inheritor of a shoe – making empire who took me out in his green MG until I couldn’t bear being with him just for the sake of the MG.
There were others too, like the charming Polish girl who told me of starving in the ruins of bombed out Berlin as they fled west from Poland to escape the Soviet soldiers; and another Polish girl -this one fair-haired, blue eyed, and Jewish -who had endured unspeakable things.
These hard-up refugee girls somehow knew their way around a sort of student underground, knowing where to buy good second- hand clothes before the term vintage had been invented, getting their hair beautifully styled by trainee hairdressers needing models, having their teeth done by trainee dentists needing someone to practise on and getting free tickets to concerts and student activities.
Eventually I became part of a foursome who stuck together, Vera, a Hungarian Jewish refugee with a cloud of fair curls, blue eyes, and an anxious manner, Joanna, a calm gentle girl who lived in Hampstead, and Winifred, slim, elegant and as naïve as me. Joanna had been at school with Jackie Collins, before the budding actress had been expelled at fifteen and Joanna regaled us with stories of both Jackie and her older sister, Joan Collins. My history teacher was Mary Quant’s father, while one of the rich girls was the daughter of the man at the head of the cool new TV station, ITV.
All these hints of a larger world made us feel as though we lived on the fringes of glamour and excitement. Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock shocked our elders, when teenagers – a term just invented – began dancing in the cinema aisles to this song. We would gather to dance this new rage of rock and roll too, at the central hall in the Regent Street Headquarters, though I was still too shy to dance and watched from a balcony with Winifred.
When we broke up for the Easter holidays, I caught the tube to Acton, where I had heard there were lots of factories. I walked down a long road lined with them and seeing a sign saying ‘vacancies’ went in and signed on. When I got back to my step-grandmother’s where we were staying, every one reacted as though I had said I was joining a brothel, but I ignored the disapproval and went anyway.
I lasted the week until Easter, packing thousands of yellow plastic lemons that would hold lemon juice. I became so bored that I ended up scribbling verses from Omar Khayyam inside the cardboard boxes, in the hope that someone, somewhere, would read them… sort of message in a bottle sent from a factory…
With the five pounds so hardly earned I took myself off to Marks and Spensers and bought a blue and white pinstriped blouse, a grey flannel pleated skirt and a cardigan. Back at Regent Street, I ended up making other good friends as well as my close foursome, and having lots of fun, skipping classes to see Ingmar Bergman’s incomprehensible ‘The Seventh Seal’, an exquisite Russian version of Twelfth Night, great lover Rudolf Valentino in The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and lots of goodies at the Baker Street Classic. The wondrous Wallace Collection was just around the corner, and museums and art galleries all within walking distance.
One day Joanna said her parents were away, and invited the four of us to their rambling house in Hampstead to try out a oujia board. With great enthusiasm and much ignorance, the four of us gathered around a table, and wrote the letters of the alphabet on separate squares of paper which we arranged in a circle. In the centre we placed a glass. We then each put a finger on the glass and sat in silence.
When the glass began to move, we each laughingly accused one another of pushing it with our finger, but then it seemed to gather a momentum all its own. In silent disbelief we watched it glide from letter to letter, and then hurried to write down each letter so we could work out the words and the sentences. As the séance progressed we all became more and more un-easy. The messages we were getting seemed rather malevolent, telling us that people we knew were untrustworthy, another was entangled with the wrong person, and other personal details.
Feeling we were playing with danger we broke off the session, made ourselves some coffee and dispersed across London to our various homes. I was so frightened by what felt like a mischievous and unpredictable energy that I didn’t dare switch off the light in my bedroom back at my step-grandmother’s flat that night. Nor did I switch it off for some weeks until the memory of the nastiness had faded.
As for my education – I never caught up with my Latin – though I enjoyed the lessons, as the Anglican church in North Audley Street was just through the classroom wall, and the organist was always either rehearsing or playing for a wedding – mostly the wonderful Trumpet Voluntary – a small compensation for my struggles with the subjunctive and ‘The Aeniad’.
My lovely history tutor, Mr Quant – didn’t teach my history period. I begged him to just let me swot myself and recommend some reading as I couldn’t face starting somewhere else, and we hobbled towards the finishing line together, and somehow I passed. Thus ended my schooldays, but not my education.
I now joined my parents in Monmouthshire, where they were living in a house belonging to friends who were overseas. Here I walked in a field golden with buttercups, edged with high hawthorn hedges. Here I felt again the sweetness and gentleness and ancientness of the English countryside that I had hungered for in the tropical heat when the only flowers apart from frangipani, were yellow cannas, purple bougainvillea and the scarlet flame tree.
I was eighteen and this was how I had remembered the scenes of my childhood… shades of Sir Walter Scott’s:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land…
We were living in a house lent to us by friends, far out in green hills and deep valleys. The name of the house revealed that it was built on the site of an Iron Age fort. Offa’s Dyke was reputed to end in our garden, just above a huge S-bend in the River Wye. Offa lived from 757 to 796 and invented the penny. His dyke separated Mercia from Wales and stretched for ninety-eight miles from north to south. Whatever the truth of the rumour, behind the un-used stables there was a large mound stretching into the back garden from the fields and woods beyond and covered in hazel and hawthorn.
The house was part Queen Anne and part Georgian, with a charming regency style wrought iron porch stretching along the garden side of the house. It looked over a lawn, where two ancient lime trees hummed with bees in summer, and which seemed like silent sentinels in the wintry mist which hovered among their thick tangle of branches in winter. Beyond the lawn was a ha-ha, but not deep enough to keep out the piebald pony who led a small herd of young steers through the gate-posts, up the drive, avoiding the ha-ha and across the lawn while every-one else was at church parade one morning.
By the time I’d rushed downstairs to shoo them away, they had meandered on into the little sheltered garden with a sundial, and pushed their way through the scraggy hedge which gave onto a lane, leaving only their deep hoof-prints.
The lane led down to a farm house, but before I got there, I would branch off through the woods with my puppy and take the winding path which meandered down to the river. Just below the tree-line, and in the grass which bordered the riverside was the ruin of the tiny sixth century church of St James, only its outer walls still standing, empty windows framing the sky, ivy climbing part of the grey stone walls, and tangled brambles guarding the foundations. In spring the woods were filled with bluebells and windflowers.
The house was faded and gentle, dreaming in the silence of the country-side, no neighbours within sight. My bedroom had pretty flowered wallpaper, pale green painted thirties furniture and long windows looking over the garden. It had a soft sweet atmosphere. The other place that I loved, and where I spent solitary afternoons engrossed in a book was the so-called ballroom. Not a grand one, its claim to fame being the ceiling which had been copied from some famous library in a country house.
Apart from the large and somewhat threadbare faded old carpet on the polished floor, the only other furniture in the room was a big drab-green brocade-covered Knole sofa, and a large gilt mirror hanging over the carved fireplace. That was all I needed. On sunny days I sat on the cushioned window seat, on other days I curled up on the sofa. When I shut the door the silence and the solitude were absolute.
So I dreamed around the place, head in the clouds or in a book, picking flowers, adopting two wild kittens as well as the puppy, my dreaminess driving my parents mad. I didn’t know anyone, but once a boy nearby invited me to a hunt ball at Tintern, and the rather erudite and elegant bachelor who lived on the corner further down, in a house filled with books and good furniture invited us to a pre-ball party. I thought he was much more interesting than my escort, and found the ball very dull, spoiled with too many in Malaya.
It was around now that both the Suez crisis blew up, and the Hungarian revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks. The Suez crisis didn’t bother me much… there had always been tanks and guns rumbling somewhere throughout my life, though this felt nearer, having so recently traversed that contested strip of territory. It seemed to get tangled up in the drama of the Hungarian tragedy. I cried my heart out when I heard on the radio the last words that came out of Budapest from Radio Rakoczi on October 23:
“This is Hungary calling! The last remaining station! … For the sake of God and freedom, help Hungary.” Then a horrifying silence. It felt unbearable that the west that I was part of, wouldn’t lift a finger to help the Hungarians.
I mooned around, not sure what to do with my life. I wanted to go to university but didn’t know how to go about it, and also shrank from more difficult years of trying to mask my scanty wardrobe and lack of funds. I’d never been able to save as my stepmother used to ask me if I had any money when she sent me shopping, and so my Christmas and birthday postal orders had dwindled away on potatoes and bacon and sausages.
I tried to repeat my factory stint by signing up to work in a local brush factory, and also tried to apply for a job interview at the local hotel for a receptionist. Both these schemes were vetoed by my father, who said he didn’t want to see his daughter behind the hotel desk when he fetched up there for a drink with his friends. So I continued to drift, until the day my father came home and said he’d made an appointment for me with the recruiting officer in Cardiff.
Which was how I ended up joining the army. I left home in the dark at six thirty, one cold January morning. My parents put me on the bus to the station with my suitcase, gave me three pounds, and I left my childhood behind.
( the picture is St James Church with acknowledgements to Mercurius Politicus)
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
To cheer up lunch, which was just bread and cheese and chutney, I decided to knock up a courgette and cheese loaf to make life more interesting!
So easy… two cups of SR flour, a cup of grated cheese, a cup of grated courgette, quarter of a cup of oil, an egg, salt, a teaspoon of mild curry powder and a cup and a half – or more if needed – of milk. Just mix them altogether, and tip into a greased loaf tin. Cook for forty minutes or so in a hot oven, and there you have it… serve warm or cold, it’s just as moist the second day, and particularly delicious with soft blue cream cheese. I’ve also served it with cold meats…
Food for thought
There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self development. Revelation of the Mystery by Sufi master Al-Hujwiri