Saturday, 26 November 2016
I was born in June 1940 and my mother always maintained this was so I would be in time to get to know The Blitz. Like all children born in that period my first five years was a time when The War with all that it entailed was simply part of daily living and it did not occur to any of us that life could be any different. In fact when I was given a red, white and blue hair ribbon and told by my elated mother that now The War was finally over, I was perturbed because I wondered what would happen to us all. How could we go about our lives with no war to worry about? It was not until many years had passed that I came to realise how great the bomb damage had been in Gravesend and the surrounding areas. I had naively imagined, if indeed I thought about the matter at all, that most English towns must have suffered similarly. The fact that the industry of the area was heavily involved in war oriented manufacture escaped me for decades. The major factories nearby were Bevans Cement Works in Northfleet where my father later worked, Bowaters on The Undershore where apparently anti- aircraft guns were made, Henley’s in Crete Hall Road producing gas masks as well as a number of essential items like under water fuel piping and wiring for Radar installation, Northfleet Paper Mills presumably producing newspaper print, and Aero Ltd engaged in churning out fuel and oil tanks for the Spitfire and Sunderland flying boats. Of course to add to the general all round attraction of the area as far as the enemy was concerned, there was also Gravesend Airport nearby which was in fact a satellite station to Biggin Hill not to mention Cooling Radio Station on the marshes. The latter was home to a highly secret enterprise engaged in relaying telephone calls between Churchill and Roosevelt. Most exciting! My introduction to bombing started when I was four days old with an Incendiary raid when over a thousand bombs were dropped on Northfleet High Street and surrounding streets. In mid August that year, one hundred and eight High Explosive Bombs were dropped on Waterdales, Preston Road, Detling Road, London Road and Bowaters Paper Mills. Apparently the school at Rosherville was badly damaged, twenty nine people were killed, eighteen seriously injured and ten had minor injuries. On the first day of September bombs fell around the Canal basin area and four days later one landed on 16 Pelham Road, Gravesend completely demolishing the house whilst more than sixty surrounding homes were damaged. The same day houses in Peter Street were destroyed as well as others in New House Lane. More mayhem reigned down on the A2 Road and the local golf course. So by the time I was three months old I had become completely accustomed to explosions of various kinds, and a mother who was, of necessity, becoming more and more hysterical and very afraid of what might happen next. You could say her heightened concern was understandable under the circumstances. Fortunately for us, York Road seemed to escape the general devastation. Perhaps at that point we even began to feel almost comfortable with the situation. However, September 1940 was to see a great deal more enemy action. Swanscombe, and Gravesend were both heavily targeted. Gravesend suffered missiles in Rochester Road, Clarence Row and John Street and there was damage to the railway line at Denton Halt, the training ship Cornwall, Denton Isolation Hospital, the Sewage Disposal Works, the Sea Wall, The Promenade and the Golf Links. In addition a number of unexploded bombs forced closure of major roads including the A2 and Pepper Hill. In one particular raid in the space of just over an hour approximately one hundred incendiary bombs fell in fields and allotments around the town. An hour later another fifty fell on open ground. Fortunately these caused no damage and no casualties. The German bombing crews were clearly not paying a great deal of attention to targeting at this stage. At the very end of the month to keep us on our toes oil bombs were dropped in fields near Bourne Road, again causing no damage or casualties. But the increasing frequency of the raids indicated that things were undoubtedly hotting up and young mothers grew even more alarmed at the prospect of what might lie ahead for their small children. Those as young as me, however, were by now completely used to the nightly blasts and general commotion. October opened with one hundred Incendiary bombs falling on the Milton Rifle Range, Filborough Marshes and East Court Farm during an early morning raid astonishingly only resulting only in slight damage to the farm house. Again those young Germans responsible for targeting were not paying full attention to the task they were engaged in. By the sixth of the month the activity was edging closer to us when the High Street in Northfleet was attacked just after midnight leaving three people dead and six seriously injured. Two days later just after eight in the evening, fifty Incendiaries fell on the marshes and along the Lower Higham Road near the river but no one was hurt. The next day when we visited Old Aunt Martha in Hamerton Road she talked a great deal about the number of devices that had landed overnight in nearby Stonebridge Road . The remainder of the month saw more lively action from the enemy including a great deal of damage around the Kings Farm Estate and Sports Ground area. Houses were flattened in Cedar Road and water service pipes were fractured. The Imperial Paper Mills Sports Field was hit, as was the Wesleyan Church in Milton Road. Various areas of the town now came under relentless attack and the village of Chalk was the recipient of its first bomb which killed two, seriously injured one and slightly injured four people. On the very last day of October two High Explosive devices fell on the County School for Boys causing widespread damage. The Prince of Wales Public House was destroyed as well as Denton Post Office and Co-op and several houses in East Milton Road, Denton Street, Elliott Street and Empress Road. Astonishingly no one was injured. November saw similarly heavy attacks though now with increasing casualties, the most significant being the raid on Swanscombe when the Star Public House received a direct hit and was totally destroyed during a darts match killing twenty seven people and seriously injuring six. The attack on The Star affected the local populace significantly because it seemed that everyone knew one of the victims. My mother said later that she walked me to Swanscombe in my pram and stood observing the completely gutted building that once had been the popular local pub, astonished that such carnage had taken place and wondering when, if ever, it would end and if it was possible that we would survive it. A major attack took place on December eighth at seven in the evening with bombs falling hour after hour on the town and its environs. Then there was a strange lull in the activity perhaps because the Germans became preoccupied with the celebration of Christmas or simply because they themselves needed a rest. Whatever the reason the next aerial attack did not happen until the middle of January 1941. Our street had survived the general conflict of 1940 with the exception of a few shattered windows. We and our neighbours were largely unharmed with merely frayed nerves and stories of what had happened to friends nearby to relate to the curious. And so our experience of the war at home meandered along in a similarly predictable manner throughout 1941, 1942 , 1943 and the first half of 1944 when I was four years old and by that time very much a pre-school war veteran. We three and four year olds of York Road were by then completely accustomed to broken sleep, air raid sirens and middle of the night dashes to the Anderson Shelter. We knew that danger came primarily from the sky and most of the boys and at times the occasional girl could identify German aircraft with accuracy and precision. We girls were generally more interested in our mothers being able to somehow appropriate parachute silk to turn into white dresses for Sunday best and weddings. We knew exactly what to do in an emergency the greatest of which would be if we heard church bells ringing. Then we must at once stop play and consult the nearest adult because the ringing of church bells meant only one thing; Invasion! We had little idea, however, what this word Invasion actually meant. Our world comprised largely of women, our over protective and increasingly nervous mothers, some of whom crossed themselves frequently and whispered prayers when the sirens went, our aunts and grandmothers and the spinster ladies who lived nearby with their cats. We were largely unfamiliar with men except the grandfathers who grew marrows and potatoes in back yards and made toys out of odd bits of wood and fencing wire. Our fathers had long gone with all the young men to serve in Army, Navy or Air Force. We were to become the generation who would within a few years harbour a great deal of hostility for the returning fathers who expected open armed welcomes from delighted sons and daughters. That euphoric greeting was unlikely to come from those of us who had been born in 1939 or 1940 and had no memory of a father and little idea of what his role in a family might be. In July 1944, however, we had little comprehension of what the future relationship with our fathers might be and so we were contented in the way young children always are when they have the undivided attention of loving mothers and grandparents despite the fact that they are living in the midst of a major war with all the deprivations that might entail. As I said, most of us were now troupers and nothing much could disturb our equilibrium – or so we thought! The bubble of well-being was about to be blown apart when in the early hours of a Tuesday in mid June the very first Flying Bomb, the V1 soon to be christened The Doodlebug fell on waste land in Swanscombe signalling the start of the Flying Bomb Offensive. The V1s did far more to rupture the collective psyche of the people of Kent than anything the previous bombing raids had achieved. From the comparative safety and security of 2016 it is difficult to describe the depth of fear they inculcated, the growing alarm when the first faint far off tick tick of the motor was heard; alarm that rapidly turned to full blown terror as the missile came closer issuing the stutter that signalled that the engine was about to die. The ensuing silence when everyone seemed to become rooted to the spot, immobile, waiting for it to fall. The Doodlebug did what all previous aerial weaponry had failed to do, seeming to break the spirit of those on the Home Front who had survived with so much determination until then! And when it was followed some months later by the V2 which came silently, totally without warning and did infinitely more damage, local mothers simply breathed sighs of relief and grasped what was left of their British Determination. Somehow the V2, said to be Adolf Hitler’s ultimate secret weapon, simply didn’t cut the mustard!
Thursday, 24 November 2016
Growing up in North Kent in the immediate post war years, Northfleet seemed to be a thriving town rather than a suburb of Gravesend as it appears now. My mother and I made regular trips to shop in the High Street and to visit Great Aunt Martha in Hamerton Road and a distant cousin called Edie in Stonebridge Hill not to mention yet another who lived in Huggens College and whose name I have long forgotten. Walking the area today ít’s hard to believe that this quiet place where footsteps now actually echo was once a veritable hive of industry. The shops on each side of the High Street then offered all that a local resident could possibly desire and included a grocer, greengrocer, baker, butcher, newsagent, hardware merchant, sweetshop & tobacconist and florist not to mention a post office, dentist, optician, photographer and even a cinema. I remember standing impatiently in a queue at Lincolns the chemists where the only amusement was staring at the little wooden drawers behind the counter with strange names on them which were probably Latin. We seemed to go to Rayner’s on a regular basis for things like screws, nails and sometimes huge bars of yellow soap and broom handles. The fish and chip shop was a highly exciting place because sometimes on Fridays my mother would stop by for fish and chips with vinegar. My favourite High Street shop though was Frosts, full of things like radios, bikes and even toys and I loved it when my mother decided to browse there for ten minutes or so. One morning towards the end of the war we visited the photographer whose name is long forgotten, to have a photograph taken together to send to my father serving in North Africa. When he at last returned he visited Bareham’s the Barbers on a regular basis for a short back and sides. There were also corner shops tucked away in the side streets and of course a number of pubs including The Edinburgh Castle and the Dorset Arms. Not a supermarket in sight of course and indeed I don’t think we had heard of them although we knew from our weekly cinema visits that Americans were likely to shop in a completely different way to ourselves. At home most of us had a radio for entertainment and information but as yet no television. Without a doubt we all loved the radio and there were plenty of programmes to amuse us such as Paul Temple and Dick Barton, both serials of the Special Agent variety. We also listened to the Billy Cotton Band Show and ITMA starring Tommy Handley. His cleaning lady, Mrs. Mopp seemed to greatly amuse the studio audience simply by asking week after week, `Can I do you now Sir? I was confused by the ongoing merriment at the time. If we felt we needed to be further entertained we went out into the community, visiting the Wardona Picture House or the Astoria Dance Hall. Most local men, and some women said by my mother to be `fast’ also visited the various pubic houses. After the war I recall my father going to the Factory Club opposite the cinema and from time to time my mother and I went with him and watched what she called Variety Shows. These were organised by the local scouts I believe and at least once a year there was an extra special event, The Gang Show produced by Ralph Reader. To me the Factory Club was a fascinating place and my first introduction to live theatre. Years later when passing the building my poor mother shuddered and muttered and said the place had been the ruin of my father and I imagined that it had been in some way connected with the fights and tears that later took place between them involving mysterious fast women who were no better than they ought to have been. It would be true to say that for all his good points my father had a weakness for women. He was also a football fan and sometimes on Saturday afternoons I most unwillingly accompanied him to matches at the ground at the bottom of Stonebridge Hill. I was much keener on joining the group of local children to fight over the swings and slide in Ebbsfleet Park. People did not travel out of the area a great deal and although there was a regular bus service linking us with Gravesend and Dartford, only important citizens like the doctor and those living close to him in London Road, whom we thought to be seriously wealthy, owned vehicles though some shop owners who made deliveries had vans. Many deliveries were still made by horse and cart and boys on bicycles, however. During the years that immediately followed the war we, like many of our neighbours, kept chickens and rabbits in our back garden to supplement our diet. Once the rabbits had been killed their skins were sold to the Rag & Bone man for six pence apiece. I was usually allowed to organise the sales and keep the proceeds just as long as I made as little fuss as possible at the slaughter which I generally found to be more than I could bear. Nobody owned a refrigerator back then, let alone a freezer and so fresh meat was kept in small wooden safes with mesh doors that were fixed high on an outside wall. During the hottest weather we kept milk and butter in a bucket of cold water in the outside lavatory which I admit now seems rather less than hygienic. Very few women went to work but stayed at home attending to home chores and children. Every Monday they rose earlier than usual to do the weekly wash and a fire would be lit under the copper boiler in the kitchen so that sheets, towels and pillow cases could end up as white and bright as possible. First of all the items were rubbed vigorously on a washboard, transferred into the copper, prodded for a while with the copper stick, rinsed in the kitchen sink and finally put through the mangle outside the kitchen door before being pegged onto the line! Most local families had very little money and so large items like a birthday bicycle or a replacement radio would be financed on Hire Purchase offered by some local shops. The National Health Service did not exist until 1947 and as a rule we were reluctant to consult a doctor unless absolutely necessary. I remember the local doctors were Dr Crawford in Granby Place and Dr Outred in London Road. There was no appointments system and no receptionist and all you needed to do was sit and wait your turn. When I was very small there were no antibiotics so some conditions, today easily treated and minor, were very dangerous and could kill. There were a number of local schools including Lawn Road School, The Board School, St Botolph’s C of E School and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School. I was initially enrolled at St Botolph’s and thought I was an Anglican but later removed by my father and told I was a Catholic. Although I years on briefly flirted with becoming a nun, on the whole I vastly preferred St Botolph’s. Gradually in those years following the war, we became accustomed to having more goods in the shops to choose from and we increasingly abandoned Northfleet High Street as the main focus of our weekly shopping to venture regularly into Gravesend where there was a Woolworth’s and a Marks & Spencer’s and of course a Saturday market. The great entertainment of the market was Sid Strong who sold his wares from the back of a lorry and always attracted a huge audience. It seems now that community life in those days moved at a slower pace and involved us all in a way that now seems completely absent. We no longer know anything about the characters behind the household items we buy and the services we use. Perhaps not a huge step forward in human progress.
Tuesday, 22 November 2016
Growing up in working class North Kent after the war there were very few books in our house when I was a child, with the exception of those I brought home from the library. We owned probably three books; one was called something like `The Home Doctor’ and my mother consulted it when I developed a cough or a rash. Another was called `Peoples of the World in Pictures’ and had a disgraceful photograph of a totally naked Aboriginal family in uncivilised and far off Australia somewhere near the centre which I was not allowed to contemplate for more than a second or two. The third I no longer remember. When I was seven my father suggested that I join the library and from that moment on hundreds of titles made their way past the front door of 28 York Road, Northfleet. When Molly from down the road also signed up to the library service, we visited twice weekly and compared thoughts and opinions. Not coming from households where pre-schoolers were introduced to bedtime stories or stories at any time, we first of all fell upon picture books such as Helen Bannerman’s `Little Black Sambo’ series and of course the tales produced by Beatrix Potter. We very soon discovered, however, the joys of Enid Blyton starting with titles like `The Magic Faraway Tree’ and progressing swiftly to the far more sophisticated `Secret Seven’ series. As she was so hugely prolific we stayed by Blyton’s side for several years reading and re-reading and finally advancing to the more classy and cutting edge adventure and school stories. To her credit, the children’s librarian made several attempts to wean us away from Enid and into a different direction but we treated her first suggestion of trying Angela Brazil’s school books with scorn. To be honest we were slightly disconcerted by the more complex sentence structure and the proliferation of what seemed like long and unfamiliar words. When Enid Blyton became unfashionable later on and we heard murmurs that her stories were both racist and sexist we were mystified. We had never experienced Little Noddy because when he was created we were already ten or eleven years old and although the covers were tantalising, by that stage the Northfleet Children’s Library had developed a section for under sevens and Noddy remained out of reach inside it. We were slightly intimidated by the idea of pushing our way through the group of much smaller children and their mothers to grab Noddy from their grasp. So his experiences with bad golliwogs when they waylaid him to steal his little car did not impinge upon the way we saw the world or influence our feelings towards the new immigrants from the Caribbean. Strangely the middle class mind sets and attitudes of the Blyton adventure story protagonists also passed us by and we found it more than easy to empathize with the characters in the books we read. It did not seem odd that there were often cooks and maids in the households we read about, or that large cars drove the children to and from the starting points of their current escapade. When Enid Blyton’s heroes described a gypsy child as dirty and possibly a thief we agreed with them wholeheartedly. It was with a great deal of satisfaction that Miss Seamark, the librarian, produced Eve Garnett’s `The Family From One End Street’ and told us that it was a milestone in children’s literature. What she really meant was that it was a truly working class story and the opening sentence left the reader in no doubt about that - `Mrs. Ruggles was a washerwoman and her husband was a dustman…..’ A story by a middle class author for the deserving poor, children like me and Molly! We read the book with a degree of detachment and suspicion, enjoying the struggles of the family that was so like our own but delighted to get back to the more middle class fare we were now accustomed to. And we went on to find Richmal Crompton’s William books both amusing and vastly more satisfying than anything the unfortunate Ruggles family could offer. Replete from William we threw ourselves into the Noel Streatfield sagas, `Ballet Shoes’, `White Boots’, `The Circus Is Coming’, `Curtain Up’, all concerning families of the one servant poor variety and all of which we loved. `The Children of Primrose Lane’ again offered by the well meaning Miss Seamark as a story `more about children just like you’ we enoyed a little less because it had decidedly working class nuances with not a daily maid or even a cleaning woman in sight. As we grew into our teens we came across Pamela Brown’s theatre stories which were thrilling because we were at the stage where we both so very much wanted a successful career in the theatre, or in Molly’s case in Hollywood. Then Monica Edwards’ books, and we were once again unhindered by any problem relating to easy identification with the middle class characters who now all owned their own ponies. Our final favourite author before we totally outgrew children’s literature and progressed to women’s magazines and Mills & Boon, was Lorna Hill who wrote enthralling stories about characters who either came from the North of England to the Sadlers Wells Ballet School or alternatively rode their ponies along the length of Hadrian’s Wall and found solutions to local community problems as they did so. I now wonder if the boys of the nineteen forties and fifties were reading as voraciously as we were, and what they read. Who were their favourite authors? And how about today’s children? I am now totally out of touch with juvenile reading matter but it is possible that in the ensuing years J.K.Rowling is not the only writer who has emerged to capture a dedicated generation of readers.
Saturday, 19 November 2016
It was some time in 1952 when my cousin Pat Doran (mother Martha Constant) on a Sunday afternoon visit nonchalantly told me that a film company was about to make a movie on our very doorstep. She knew I’d be interested but being a year older than me and more sophisticated by far, she feigned disinterest herself and studied her pink nail varnish with an air of indifference. I could barely wait for her to leave before rushing two doors down York Road to inform my friend Molly of the momentous news. The film was to be called `The Long Memory’ and I’ve long since forgotten what the plot involved. What I do remember is that it starred John Mills and Elizabeth Sellars (what ever happened to them?) and Molly and I decided to take a day off school to watch some of the scenes that were shot in Queen Street, Gravesend and The High Street. We might pick up some important tips for the future! We were delirious with excitement because what both of us desired more than anything else at the time, was to become stars of the Big Screen although as Molly pointed out, she would infinitely prefer that her career took place in Hollywood. I wasn’t quite as fussy and had the Rank Organisation wished to sign me up I would have agreed on the spot. A day or two later we heard that more scenes were to be shot even closer to home at the bottom of Granby Road in Northfleet quite close to where Molly’s older sister Pam was living at the time. When we heard that the children from Lawn Road School were invited to watch this exciting event we were sick with envy because there was no chance whatsoever that our own school in Colyer Road would be included or even interested. Under the circumstances we felt almost obliged to absent ourselves for another day and I wrote the notes of explanation for both of us. We were both `indisposed’ as I recall – a word I had learned very recently and become rather fond of. The several hours of watching nothing much happen from a distance turned out to be more tedious than we had imagined and this was coupled with a certain amount of anxiety when we were spotted by a classmate’s mother who enquired curiously what on earth we were doing so far from the school gates on a Tuesday afternoon. Months later we went to see the film at the Wardona in Northfleet and found the plot to be more monotonous than we had imagined. However the scenes filmed on the riverside marshland, places we actually recognised, livened it up considerably. How many others remember the time when Gravesend and Northfleet made it onto the Silver Screen?
Friday, 18 November 2016
Children play differently these days. They spend more time indoors with electronic devices and you could say that their mode of play is of necessity state-of-the-art, bearing little resemblance to what amused those of us roaming the streets in the latter part of the nineteen forties and early nineteen fifties. Games I recall being most popular were HOP SCOTCH, CONKERS, MARBLES, KNUCKLEBONES, KNOCK DOWN GINGER, TWO BALLS, HE, DONKEY, THE FARMER’S IN HIS DEN, STATUES, TRUTH DARE OR PROMISE, WHAT’S THE TIME MR. WOLF and KISS CHASE….. all of which could be played in the street and needed very little apart from willing participants. Sometimes sticks of chalk, balls and rope were necessary to ensure a good game but a lot of fun could be had with no apparatus whatsoever. Of course there were also organised playgrounds in local parks with swings, slides and roundabouts but in those days it seemed that only the very youngest children were attracted to them. I don’t know how we would have reacted to the Adventure Playgrounds that came twenty years later and were so beloved of my oldest son when we lived in London. A lot of the time it seemed that boys and girls over a wide age range played reasonably happily together although some games were considered to be the preserve of boys rather than girls. Emerging from the bombardment of a major war was a plus when we were growing up. Bombsites abounded and were enthusiastically occupied by the generation of children that followed the conflict. These were places where we could safely throw stones, make camps, light fires and even roast potatoes. We came before the era where beautification, high rise flats and car parks took over these excitingly unkempt and wild places. When the boys played by themselves the games were generally more violent with a lot more simulated maiming and killing. Males between the ages of five and ten spent a great deal of time with their arms outstretched being Spitfires and Hurricanes but it was very unusual to see a girl involved. Girls liked to tuck their skirts inside the elastic bands of their knicker legs and practice hand stands and cartwheels and it was an atypical boy who would be likely to join them. In a game of cowboys and Indians girls would occasionally take on the role of Indians but never cowboys. A great many girls served whiskey in the Dodge City taverns. One of the most daring games of the era was LAST ACROSS which greatly concerned motorists and bus drivers. Children lined up beside the kerb, selected a particular bus or lorry and when it got close enough all would run across the road. The child closest to the vehicle’s bumper was the winner. This game could also be played in a most satisfactory manner utilising the nearby railway line. FILM STARS was extremely popular with the ten to fourteen year old girls of Northfleet in Kent. It evolved as a kind of guessing game where one child stood a short distance from the others, possibly on the other side of the road and called out the initials of a film star. For instance if my friend Molly was playing this would invariably be D.D (Doris Day). As soon as one of the players thought she knew who the star was, she raced across the road and back again, then shouted out the name. If her guess was correct she changed places with D.D. but if it was wrong she had run for nothing. The game escalated when two or three runners still had failed to make the correct guess. We found it a great deal of fun at a stage when we were starry eyed about the famous and still reasonably athletic. Playing KISS CHASE generally began when we were twelve or so and it was usually the last game of the day as darkness descended and was played in the alleyways at the top of the street, farthest away from the prying eyes of parents. Once we reached school leaving age the game rapidly ceased. We had become far too sophisticated! How many of today’s more worldly children would recognise any of these games I wonder.
Wednesday, 16 November 2016
It’s more than tedious I know, and a subject I seem to be thrashing unnecessarily at present, but political correctness stubbornly remains an ideology where it is perfectly acceptable to stifle any discussion on opposing views by labeling them `bigoted’. If you are described as bigoted often enough there is the danger that you might begin to believe it and even take steps to make changes in your biased and blinkered beliefs. A similar thing happens should you be described as `racist’. For example if you dare to mention that a certain ethnic group make up a large proportion of the current prison population or that more children of a certain ethnic group suffer serious injury and sometimes death at the hands of their extended family, those very people who should be protecting them, you are likely to be viciously rebuked. The claims might very well be true but it is one hundred per cent racist to start pointing it out because to do so immediately puts you into a most unpleasant xenophobic category of humankind. And sadly if you are called a racist often enough you start to think more deeply on the issue and sometimes discover that you are in serious danger of becoming one whether you like it or not. Now possibly this is what your opponents actually want, more bigots and racists to re-assure them that there is only one correct life philosophy – their own! Furthermore, if you allow your thoughts to meander and consider such matters critically from a political viewpoint it appears that Liberalism and Communism are extraordinarily similar - neither side can tolerate challenge.
Friday, 11 November 2016
Whenever I go back to London on visits to The Daughter, I am compelled to take unavoidable stop overs in the riverside towns of North Kent, now very nearly part of Greater London itself, where I grew up all those decades ago. Catching up with former friends and schoolmates is imperative. So many of them still live in or close to the towns where they were born but in circumstances that are greatly changed from those we knew in the nineteen forties and fifties. Milly and I became friends when I was three and she was four, both of us from families at the very bottom of the social heap, crammed in like sardines in a row of Victorian workers’ cottages where the overall sanitation remained largely unchanged from a century before. Milly still believes theirs was the poorest family in the street and I remain in fierce competition with her for that particular accolade. Now in our declining years we take pleasure in analysing the social ills of the past and are astonished at how far we have catapulted into prosperity. `Who would have imagined we would ever own a car?’ Milly marvels as she selects from a list of available Whites By The Glass on Sunday lunchtime at The Three Daws, `Or a telephone……or an inside toilet!’ There is no doubting the fact that the majority of that post war underclass from those estuary towns have somehow or other emerged from the quagmire of dire poverty that seemed to be their lot. And not on account of educational opportunity either because most of us abandoned school at the age of fifteen and school seemed content to let us go. As Eleven Plus Failures what the local Grammar School might have offered was not even the slightest whim of a fanciful notion. If we had been American citizens we would have most definitely been considered to be Poor Whites and in my case, with so many of the family emanating from half breed gypsy stock, perhaps Trailer Trash. Our knowledge of the United States was confined largely to Doris Day musicals so we didn’t understand that People Like Us existed there as well as in our little bit of the home counties. You mustn’t think that girls like Milly and I grew up devoid of moral and ethical boundaries; our parents had instilled into us what was Right – well, they even enrolled us in Church Schools and if we didn’t get them at home we certainly had a surfeit of the Right kind of stories at school. We knew that Daniel was being enormously brave when he entered the lions’ den and we turned the other cheek when people called us names. Well we did most of the time. We didn’t steal from local shops very much because we knew what would happen if we were caught. We told lies occasionally but not as often as you might think and we could be surprisingly kind to one another. As we grew older we understood that sex before marriage was forbidden and that getting pregnant as a result was possibly a catastrophe. Sometimes it happened to a teenage sister and then your Dad would first threaten to throw her out onto the street and she would do a lot of crying. Then either she would quietly marry her current boyfriend or suddenly your Mum had a new baby and nobody talked about it a great deal afterwards. By the time we were eighteen we were completely aware that homosexuality was totally abnormal and should we be marginally religious we knew God was going to hand out a mighty punishment at some stage. The occasional homosexual in our midst was at the same time, largely accepted. If anyone had told us that one day Gay Marriage would become an almost run of the mill event we would have had trouble believing it and our parents would have simply laughed and asked us who on earth put such stupid bloody ideas into our heads. We were naturally racist and we couldn’t tolerate the Welsh let alone the Lascar Seamen who occasionally settled in towns nearby and talked about opening Indian restaurants. By today’s standards we were ignorant, uninformed and unaware – yes and our parents were red-necks and bigots. Since the nineteen fifties poor whites growing up like Milly and myself have lovingly embraced indoor toilets and telephones, learned to drive cars and been advised how to choose one white wine over another. We are sophisticated beyond our wildest childhood imaginings. We have also learned that women are not only equal but probably better than men, that homosexuality in men is perfectly acceptable and in women is close to being a sacred state. We are thrilled to be invited to Gay Weddings and discuss such upcoming nuptials as loudly as possible in coffee shops to demonstrate how thoroughly modern we are and that we have the Right Kind of Friends. We support in vitro fertilisation and adoption for gay couples. Recently we have begun to support gender change for under tens who so desire it. As I said, we have come a very long way from the ignorance of our beginnings. Something of those uninformed socially illiterate parameters still linger in many of us though. In corners of our consciousness vestiges of our parents’ outmoded and dangerous ideas can slumber unnoticed. Overlooked completely perhaps until sections of the world’s media, with taunts and jibes, begin to challenge the beliefs of our parents and grandparents. Then from the security of our present social position we reflect upon the fact that a short time ago we were one of the ignorant rabble, now being disparaged and degraded. It is our parents’ values that are now being vilified so vociferously and perhaps a small flame of anger is ignited. Maybe it is simply because we come from a generation who underneath it all, largely still respected our parents. We are not always content to stand by and witness what they held dear to be so publicly reviled. And should this combination of circumstances by chance coincide with an opportunity to redress the balance – such as with Brexit or Trump – we, the Great Unwashed suddenly have no hesitation in doing so. You can never truly trust the hoi polio!
Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Although I do try hard from time to time to become more politically correct, even though I mix with the `right’ people, not very much seems to rub off on me. I worry about it sometimes because all around me there are `right thinking citizens’ (alternative - `moralising do gooders’?) who are anxious to make even more left leaning changes to the community and there am I stranded in the centre of all this progressive thought, leaning further and further to the right and at times reaching back into the very annals of history. A person can feel very lonely. Good Friend Sara, who has seen me distributing occasional two dollar coins to the homeless, and with whom a day or two ago I shared the remains of a bottle of white wine, maintains that I am not as traditionalist as I would like to be seen. She’s wrong about that, well to be honest she’s wrong about a lot of things, but as for traditionalism I don’t think there are many among us as terrifyingly Rightist as myself. For instance I would bring back hanging in a flash should I find myself leader of an independent, self directed sovereign state. Not for the average run of the mill murder I should explain, and certainly not if there was some doubt as to the perpetrator, but for child killers of the category we have become accustomed to in New Zealand – and furthermore even for those committing sex offences against children. As far as the latter is concerned, I won’t even demand a body but I will need to be assured that the offending actually happened. Why on earth keep these people alive? What can they possibly contribute to society? Much cheaper, more efficient to simply get rid of them. I’d hazard a guess that should my ideas be deployed sex crimes against children would dramatically diminish overnight so we wouldn’t even need to have too many unpleasant executions. Good Friend Sara looked at me strangely when I said this so I added that overall I think we would find it to be a far more economical solution than the current arrangement where we keep these offenders secure in various ways and attempt to change their thinking with therapy. I would certainly bring back a parent’s right to physically chastise their errant child. Doing away with smacking has done a lot of good hasn’t it? And you know, I might even bring back corporal punishment in schools. Not for the very little ones though. I think you can afford to debate appropriate behaviour with five and six year olds (even use an exclusion room perhaps) but by the time those with red hair called Damon or Kevin are nine and ten years of age they are completely aware of consequences. I’m not suggesting beating them senseless you understand, just enough to hurt and remind them that nobody really wants to expend too much energy on redefining the parameters of acceptable behaviour with them. Yes, I know it probably won’t turn them into better people but it will make school a more pleasant experience for those who are constantly disrupted by the more disorderly students. I would also dispense with the services of poor teachers as fast as possible. For a start I would give them all a spelling and grammar test – oh and basic arithmetic too. Now Good Friend Sara began to tell me what I already knew – language changes, spelling changes. Yes, I know but it certainly doesn’t change that much that quickly. My New & Acceptable Teaching Staff would conform to my ideals or get out. `Are you going to allow there to be such a thing as gifted children?’ she wanted to know – well she knows how many years I was obsessed with their future, etc., etc. And yes, I was, children with high intellectual potential would be given the opportunity to study topics that would extend them such as Latin, Philosophy, Russian Literature. And those with creative ability would be given rigorous training. `A bit like it used to be in Russia?’ she queried but by then I wanted to get away from education. I said that it was my belief that a society is judged by the way it takes care of its most vulnerable members so I would also bring back psychiatric hospitals where those suffering from serious mental illnesses could be cared for by staff who would ensure absolutely that they took their treatment whether they liked it or not. This I believe would cut down the number of horrific killings committed by patients currently aimlessly wandering shopping malls and lingering outside schools. These are people that nobody cares too much about, even their families and it’s a problem that should be fixed not only for them but for the good of the majority. Yes, I do realise they might not want to be incarcerated but if I became Head of State they wouldn’t actually have a choice. Good Friend Sara maintained that I would very quickly become a much despised Absolute Ruler rather than a greatly adulated one. I told her that I didn’t think I would mind that too much and anyhow there were other things I would do that people would applaud. I would not get rid of the dole as she suspected but I would make people work for it. Not an original idea of course but definitely a sound one. Medicine and Education would be absolutely free and no, as yet I didn’t quite know how I was going to fund it all. Good Friend Sara emptied her wine glass and said she didn’t think I would need to worry too much about it all anyhow. `Why not?’ I asked. `Because I think you’d be assassinated before you could implement much of it,’ she said. She can be extremely irritating at times.
Saturday, 5 November 2016
Thinking about corruption in high, or even slightly elevated places, Distant Cousin Jacinta has brought up The Profumo Affair and yes it was certainly an extraordinary piece of manipulation from above. Even so, there were still substantial differences from those lapses in justice that have prevailed in New Zealand in recent years. Stephen Ward’s catastrophe hinged upon him being a thoroughly decent and civilised human being whose greatest failing was that he constantly went out on a limb for his friends (or those he perceived to be his friends). This coupled with his unfailing generosity and slight sexual kinkiness absolutely guaranteed him to be an outstanding candidate for scapegoating. It doesn’t work in quite the same way in New Zealand where the blunders and errors and subsequent cover ups appear to be far more blatant – firstly emanating from local police persons hell-bent on making sure that they get a Conviction Come What May where notable cases are concerned. None of us have to think very hard to list those cases that make us uneasy - Arthur Alan Thomas, David Bain, Scott Watson, Teina Pora spring instantly to mind. And yes, it IS possible that each of them was in fact guilty as charged. How many of us really believe that? At a gut level we all know that there is something not quite right in the manner in which some investigations are carried out, evidence gathered, witnesses presented. We perhaps think that it’s nothing to do with us and eventually Justice Will Prevail – except that in too many instances that doesn’t happen and the unhappy victims are left to fester in prison year after year, sometimes decade after decade. And although it would be easier to shake off the urge to invest time and thought into the reasons why the Judiciary itself is content to allow this unhappy situation to continue, we are almost compelled to do so. What makes our New Zealand Judges so blinkered? What can’t they see what the rest of us can see? Never mind; people like Thomas, Bain, Watson, Pora are personally unknown to most of us. On the other hand tomorrow it might conceivably involve one of us – then what?
Friday, 4 November 2016
After many months yesterday I spoke with distant cousin Jacinta via the trusty services of Skype. `It’s just called Skyping’ she advised knowledgeably and said she had caught up with all my latest blog posts and had I caught up with hers. Hers mostly concern interaction with those she works alongside at North Kent Social Services so of course I had not and what’s worse, had to admit it. She ignored that and went on to ask when I was going to get started on the book idea that emerged from the family bereavement earlier in the year. Was I still intending to call it `Does Anyone Here Speak Portuguese?’ she wanted to know. I did the bad-skype-connection version of a nonchalant shrug and she must have seen it because she told me that she thought it was a great idea for a title. `You seem to be posting on Facebook quite a lot at the moment,’ she told me and then asked if it was simply to put off the awful business of actually making a start on the proposed book. I nodded because she was completely right of course. We went on to talk a bit about police corruption in England and people being charged with serious crimes they had not committed and because Jacinta had once upon a time been a Court Reporter she was interested but disappointingly could not add a great deal other than interest. Secret witnesses it would appear are more a New Zealand tradition than an English one though she did remind me that Timothy Evans, long ago hanged for the murder of his wife and child (who were undoubtedly killed by John Reginald Halliday Christie) had gone to the gallows because of false evidence. It wasn’t quite the same I told her and anyway Timothy Evans died way back in 1948 whereas I was talking about much more recent criminal events. `There are certainly some funny customs in New Zealand,’ she observed, as though secret witnesses giving false evidence was part of the local culture. Later I thought that perhaps a certain amount of depravity, strangely acceptable, had indeed embedded itself into the current national ethos. We then spoke a great deal about Brexit and the ridiculous notion that if a binding referendum did not quite turn out to the liking of Those In Charge, it could then perhaps be voted upon again when everyone had time to digest the first result. We both agreed that it would be difficult to go on describing such a situation as democratic. I then bored her with ten minutes of Politics New Zealand Style and pointed out that I could still not truly be described as a political animal even though a Facebook acquaintance had recently accused me of being a cheerleader for John Key. Jacinta, pleasingly, had heard of John Key and even she knew that he had a reputation for being a pleasant enough fellow who was now heading for a fourth term in office. `He's obviously got something,' she said. `A certain element of the community seem to detest him though,’ I told her - well, I had to be honest. She said well look at how many people had found Maggie Thatcher detestable and I was a bit bemused and found myself saying, `Well she was wasn’t she?’ Jacinta did not think she had been too bad, even taking the Poll Tax into consideration. She asked what New Zealanders hated about John Key and I couldn’t really think of anything concrete except that he was supposed to be rich. `We don’t like people to be too successful,’ I said cautiously, `Some of the anti-Key brigade think that his most ardent supporters vote for him because they think some of his wealth will trickle down to them somehow.’ There was a silence before she asked how much I thought we might each get in a country of four million people. After thinking about it I had to admit that it would probably only amount to twelve dollars fifty each. Not a great deal!