Chapter 22 (1956-1961)

Space Race

28 Briar Crescent was a semi-detached, end house in a quiet road in Northolt in the north-west suburbs of London. It had been built about 1935 in what had once been pleasant countryside, as evidenced by a huge oak tree which, saved by preservation order, occupied most of one pavement and overshadowed several houses. Northolt is a very old village, with a delightful green, a stream and an attractive church. Its neighbour, Greenford, similarly retained glimmers of its rustic ancestry, with the Grand Union Canal still meandering dreamily through fields in the shadow of Horsenden Hill. Both had grown under the influence of the Metropolitan Railway and numerous estates of cheap pre-war housing had replaced the farms, while a race-course barely a stone's throw from our house which had been a popular attraction before the war was now sad and neglected. This was a tiny part of “Metroland”, created by the Railway to encourage passengers on its trains.

With the coming of the Underground Central Line after the war, all pretence at leafy suburbia vanished and most surviving green space was rapidly built upon. We were relieved when part of the race-course was preserved as a modest park. Northolt, Greenford, Harrow and Ealing became inseparable from London, a fact recognised when the Greater London Metropolitan Area was created and the old County of Middlesex abolished, its name lingering only as a postal district kept by a happily bureaucratic Post Office. Even so, compared with much of South London, the streets were wide and the houses clean; and above all, property was cheap enough for struggling young families to buy.

Brian journeyed to school on the Central Line to Greenford, where he caught an ancient steam train known as the Push-and-Pull to Ealing Broadway and thence on foot. The train was a GWR Autocoach and Tank Engine.


Push-and-pull train

Carolyn walked to Wood End Junior School, a matter of half a mile. As a reward for his scholastic success in the 11-Plus, Brian chose a Siamese cat, whom we purchased from a breeder in Ealing. Vashti, as he was registered, or ‘Mese’, as Brian called him (or ‘Beast’, as he eventually became known after some particularly heinous action) was an extraordinary character who provided amusement, anguish and conversation through the whole of his life. He would often steal large pieces of cooked meat and chicken from neighbours and drag them, greasy and gritty, into the house. His loyalty and affection were unfailing, and he would sit miserably on the step ladder as I tried to paint a ceiling, rather than retreat to a comfortable room as any normal cat would have done. When he died twelve years later something went out of all our lives.

Although the house gradually became too small for us, we were very happy there. Geoffrey Desprez would often collect the children for a swim at the open-air pool at Harrow, and on one occasion arranged a special trip with Brian and myself to the famous railway works at Swindon. It is now just a museum but at that time still retained the bustling atmosphere of the vast engineering works which gave Swindon its life and where monster locomotives for the Great Western Railway had been built since early Victorian times. Echoes of the Industrial Revolution and the industry of the people who made the British Empire still resounded in its miles of sidings and the streets of small terraced houses where generations of railwaymen had lived. The future was catching up fast, however, and we saw the very last steam locomotive being built there, the magnificent Evening Star, now preserved at the Railway Museum at York. In the sidings were hundreds of derelict steam engines of all shapes and sizes - sad, rusty and forlorn as new diesel locomotives sped by on the main line to Wales and the West Country.

Steam locos scrap

Steam locomotives waiting to be scrapped

The introduction of an annual road test for cars sounded a death knell for the elderly Morris 10. It failed on quite peripheral grounds but I was impatient for a post-war car and exchanged it for a second-hand Morris Oxford, a large, heavy creature into which we could all pack with comfortable ease. With that commercial indifference characteristic of post-war Britain, the Government refused for many years to change the basis of taxation for cars from the arcane Horsepower formula to the more realistic Cubic Capacity. The effect of this was to retain side-valve engines in British cars long after their continental rivals had switched to the more lively and efficient overhead valves, and to restrict development until we were well behind. The Morris Oxford had such an engine, steady, reliable but heavy and incapable of reaching much more than sixty miles an hour. However, it served us well and we had many happy expeditions in it.

Morris Oxford

The Morris Oxford

We had two memorable holidays in the Isle of Wight with Joan and Geoffrey, on the recommendation of a neighbour. It is a beautiful island and at that time held two features of great interest to Brian. One was an electric railway from Ryde to Ventnor, whose rolling stock consisted of pre-war Picadilly Line Underground trains; the other was a network of older lines on which still ran ancient steam locomotives hauling even more ancient carriages. On one occasion I took the family to Portsmouth where an Admiralty friend arranged a private boat trip around the Fleet for us. Lying majestically at anchor was HMS “Vanguard”, the last British battleship ever built. She was a graceful monster but completed too late for her guns ever to have been fired in anger and now, expensive in manpower and money, awaited an ignominious journey to the breakers. In my Private Office days it had been suggested that she should be used for a Royal visit to the New World, but with considerable embarrassment the Admiralty admitted that the amount of fuel needed for such a journey would have made her uncomfortable, not to say unstable, for the Royal Personages. We also took a boat into the Solent to see two great ocean liners, the USS United States and the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Queen Elizabeth, follow each other outwards from Southampton to the New World. It was an unbelievable sight as these two magnificent leviathans sailed towards us, small at first then all of a sudden towering far above us, each filling the whole world with its huge bulk and seemingly near enough to touch.

One day, the insurance collector told us of a house in Wales where he had spent an unusual holiday and we decided to try it, accompanied by our friends Reg and Joan Prentice. It turned out to be a large Edwardian house nestling in its own grounds in a deep valley near the sea at a beautiful little bay near New Quay in Cardiganshire. The collection of some dozen dwellings on the seashore was called Cwm Tydu, pronounced “Coom Tiddy”. The house itself was let by a Welsh farmer and his wife, two delightful people who soon became firm friends. It had about twelve rooms, with massive furniture and an accompanying assortment of large pictures, aspidistras and stuffed creatures in large glass cases. Carolyn and Christine Prentice were delighted to find an ancient harmonium in a back room, where they arranged an impromptu church service for us on Sundays. I, as the only one with any musical ability, acted as organist. Since I played with just one finger of one hand and the instrument had numerous dead keys, the small congregation’s imagination and indulgence were frequently called upon.

A unique attraction for Brian and Carolyn were two Welsh ponies which Mr Jones kept in the grounds and which he permitted them to ride. Joan Desprez, who spent a weekend with us, also enjoyed this unexpected pleasure, but the riding tackle consisted simply of a rope halter and the sight of them hurtling bare-back across the field and being dumped unceremoniously into the lush grass was a source of both amusement and concern to the rest of us. Reg was then Minister for Public Building and Works in the Labour Government re-elected after the Suez fiasco, and was a source of awe to the local inhabitants. When he was suddenly recalled for a 3-line whip, meaning that his attendance at a crucial vote was compulsory, I had to drive him some forty miles to Carmarthen, whence he took the train to London. On arrival he walked through the Division Lobby, nodded to the appropriate Teller, turned round and caught the next train back. “Democracy is a wonderful thing”, he remarked.

Naval Supply Lines
My new job at the Admiralty revealed another world of which I knew almost nothing: the Supply and Accounting Departments. The organisation needed to run a modern Navy was enormous - paying its men, building and repairing its ships and keeping them supplied with stores, fuel and ammunition all over the world, placing contracts for materials, and keeping the accounts for hundreds of millions of pounds. The task was carried out by civilians who ran Pay Offices, Store, Victualling and Ammunition Depots at Dockyards, Naval bases and remote locations throughout the world, as well as operating the tankers and supply ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service. The work was so specialised that most people spent their whole careers in one of these great Departments.

My own Branch of the Secretariat Civil Establishments was by contrast quite small. Its task was to oversee the administration of these huge staffs to ensure that they kept to the rules laid down by the Treasury and Parliament. I, and my band of four assistants, were concerned with authorising numbers of staff (“establishments”) and their entry, promotion and eventual retirement. The work of the Supply Departments was extraordinarily varied. They produced high explosive propellant for the Navy’s guns at a factory in Wales, made torpedoes in Scotland, imported and stored millions of tons of bunker and aviation fuel, kept vast supplies of food and clothing, and bought thousands upon thousands of other items from massive steel plates for ship-building to the smallest nuts and bolts. Consider how many different kinds of article can be bought in the largest Department Store, multiply it by several hundred times, and you will have a rough idea of the extent of the Navy inventory. As I began to grapple with all this complexity I encountered people with odd titles such as Chemical Plumbers and Ratefixer-Planners with highly specialised skills, some of them dating back for many years.

My boss was an elderly civil servant named Clement Reeve, an unmarried, sober and diligent man now nearing retirement, the archetype of the public servant of an age now past. We youngsters joked at how one could set one's watch by the time of his arrival and departure; how he unfailingly went to lunch at 1.15 to Lyons teashop in Whitehall where he partook of a bun and a cup of coffee, returning exactly half an hour later; how he always took his summer leave during Wimbledon tennis fortnight (because the weather was usually good) and always went with his sister to the same hotel on the South Coast. He never robbed the Admiralty of one second of the time due to it or took his full allowance of leave; but also never took work home. He was fanatical about cricket, a regular churchgoer and a Friend of St Paul's Cathedral. I formed a deep affection for him and learned an immense amount under his tutelage; he had a keen, shrewd intellect and an iron character, and his insistence on objective analysis, honest impartiality and efficient administration in the public service deeply influenced my own subsequent approach to the duties of office. He is alive still at the time of writing, aged 93, and still has no need of spectacles, indoors or out.

During this time, my sister Vera’s husband threw up his job and they took over an old pub at Elstree, in Hertfordshire, called “The Wagon and Horses” - a delightful, thatched building quite close to the once famous film studios, by then virtually abandoned. We enjoyed visiting them, though it is not the sort of life which would appeal to me. It was then just an “ale-bar”, typical of thousands in England which for centuries catered for the needs of the agricultural labourers who formed the majority of the population. But they managed to obtain a spirit licence, rebuilt the bars and served excellent meals, which transformed the place into a mecca for well-heeled gentry from a wide area.

In 1961 my mother died suddenly. The couple who lived in the apartment below hers used to keep a gentle eye upon her and the husband had found her one morning lying on the floor; she had apparently had a heart attack and, so the doctors informed us, had died instantly. I hoped fervently that she had not suffered and needless to say was full of remorse that I had not seen her for some days. She had no telephone and I depended on her to call me if she ever needed help. No matter what one's age, or theirs, it is a great shock when one's parents die, and with great sadness Vera and I arranged for her cremation at Croydon in accordance with her wishes.

Shortly afterwards I was appointed to the Admiralty Training Branch, headed by my old chum Jock Telfer who had been promoted to Senior Executive Officer. An intensive and effective course at the Treasury turned me into an Instructor and gave me the priceless ability to speak confidently in public to any group of people. I was impressed by the skill and professionalism of the tutors, who were after all just civil servants like myself, but who had mastered the techniques of teaching with the same thoroughness which they applied to any other job which came their way. Some of them were actually Customs and Excise Officers on loan to the Treasury. I have to say that over the years I have attended very many courses by private and public educational institutions and have very rarely met tutors as effective as those found in the British Civil Service; some of the professional lecturers I have met could only be described as quite incompetent.

It was the first of several Treasury courses, at which one would meet people from all over the Commonwealth and from many foreign countries. I remember one particularly charming official of the Government of Jordan, who returned home only to be immediately assassinated. A similar fate met Prince Desai of the Ethiopian Royal Family, who once visited my Branch; he was murdered along with many others by an ultra-Left Revolutionary Party which seized power in the name of the people and for over a generation brought death and destruction to a once noble country.

Within the space of only a few months, however, I was suddenly told that I was appointed to another job, to which I must report the following Monday. I left Jock Telfer, to our mutual dismay, and presented myself to Military Branch. This was the plum Branch of the Admiralty, dealing on behalf of the Board and Parliament with political and operational matters involving the Navy across the world. I never discovered why it was called “Military” Branch in a totally Naval environment, but it dated from the Nineteenth Century and the name was hallowed throughout the Fleet.

War Planning
Again, I was thrust into an utterly unknown world of huge complexity, with a quite small immediate staff, but with responsibilities which seemed almost apocalyptic. The job was concerned with War Planning and embraced all the measures that would be needed to place the Navy on a war footing in the event of a major or global conflagration and, if all else had failed, to issue orders for those measures to take effect. Lesser political crises, which cropped up almost continuously across the world and usually involved the Navy, were handled by the day-to-day side of Military Branch. The world of the 1960s was a dangerous place, with the Russians and their satellites enjoying a new-found confidence in their nuclear and military strength, spreading revolution and disaffection in many countries. This was the height of the “Cold War”, and next to the USA, Britain was then the most powerful member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But we were members of other alliances, too, such as the Western European Defence Union and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), and we also had purely British obligations in the Middle East, Central America and East, South and West Africa. In such a world, explosive situations leading to East-West conflict could arise with little or no warning and it was essential to have plans in readiness. Unlike earlier times however, the assumed rapid escalation to nuclear war meant that we could no longer rely on time to build up reserves of men or materials - we would just have to be ready to fight with what we had.

My job in this was to bring together two main strands. The first was to see that purely British Naval war plans were constantly up to date. These consisted of a large number of interlocking orders to be carried out on receipt of coded instructions from the Admiralty (the "Total Germany" message sent on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 was an example). The second strand of work was the “Alert” system of NATO, which contained a similar series of graded orders to meet varying degrees of Russian threat. This was driven by the Americans, who showed consummate skill and patience in formulating orders capable of being understood, accepted and actually carried out by the conglomeration of NATO countries. American officialese is not a model of clarity or economy to British eyes, but at least it is in English. Instructions also had to be translated into several other languages and the need for precision led inevitably to wordiness and repetition. I hope that one day the American Military will receive recognition of their dedication to the thankless and awful task of knitting such disparate forces together over very many years.

Another part of the job was to recommend to the Admiralty Board which of the massive legacy of World War II stock-piled materials should be retained for posible future use. This again meant much agonised searching in the dark with Naval Staff colleagues. Of course, in all these things the advice of a host of experts was essential; but analysing it, drawing conclusions and presenting options to my superiors was often a taxing task. It was a keen and in many ways fascinating intellectual challenge and I beavered away with members of the Naval Staff, other Government Departments, the public services and legal authorities to keep our plans crisp, clear and above all, we hoped, workable. By way of relief, I also had to arrange meetings and take the minutes of a body called the Shipping Advisory Council, where shipbuilders and shipping companies met Government officials to fulfil the Admiralty's long-standing duty to support the infrastructure of our seafaring nation. In accordance with the “non-belligerent” thinking of the times, this task was later transferred to the Department of Trade, where the industry seemed rapidly to decline.

At home in the real world life was happy and I spent much of my then considerable energy re-decorating and improving the house. Like most family men, I devoted hundreds of hours to jobs which would have been done much more quickly and efficiently by an expert. But it was the dawn of Do-It-Yourself and there was an explosion of interest in house-building and motor-repairing skills. I loved it. I also at this time took a fancy to playing the classical guitar and procured both an inexpensive instrument and a competent teacher, who lived at Primrose Hill in North West London. The modern classical guitar had been accepted by musical cognoscenti as a legitimate concert instrument largely as a result of the brilliant playing of Segovia and his young British protégé, John Williams. This guitar and its method of playing had marked differences from the dance-band instrument which I had learned. Its strings were made of nylon; they were plucked by the thumb and three fingers of the right hand, and the instrument rested on the right, not the left, knee. I leapt enthusiastically into this strange but difficult activity.

Dawn of the Space Age
On 12th April 1961 an event occurred which electrified the world and signalled a momentous advance in the history of mankind: the first manned space flight took place when a Russian named Yuri Gagarin made a single orbit of the globe in a small capsule named “Vostok 1” before being successfully returned to Earth. Rivalry with the USA now became intense and he was followed in May of the same year by an American, Alan Shepard. Both countries then began a race to develop spacecraft and techniques for survival in the cold, unfriendly environment outside our planet. Inevitably there were divided opinions: those like Freda and myself who felt thrilled and privileged to have lived to see the dawn of the Space Age, contrasted with those who objected to such vast expenditure while whole populations still starved.

One day Freda announced that she had had enough of Northolt and wanted to move. We looked westwards and only a few miles away found a little place called Ickenham, still unspoilt, with an ancient church, a village pump and a pond, in the neighbouring Borough of Uxbridge, Middlesex. We were fortunate in finding a detached house in a long Crescent, backing onto common land through which meandered a stream dignified by the name the River Pinn. Ickenham had a long history dating back to the Domesday Book and its main street was still graced by some dignified alms-houses and a farm with a huge wooden barn. It was the birthplace of one Breakspear, later Adrian IV, the only English Pope; and a large graceful 17th Century Stuart mansion, Swakeleys House, mentioned in Pepys' Diary, still stood in splendid grounds some ten minutes' walk from our house, along the Pinn.

We moved into our new house in the summer of 1961 in glorious weather and rejoiced in the extra space and long garden it afforded. We followed the removal van in our old black Morris Oxford, laden with odd treasures and accompanied by Vashti who howled continuously in his loud Siamese voice, a white rabbit which scuffled about on the floor of the car, a tortoise and a budgerigar. From the end of our garden we could stroll along the tree-lined Pinn until after a few hundred yards we entered the County of Buckinghamshire, with unbroken leafy countryside dotted with farms. Yet in spite of its then still rural setting, Ickenham was served by two Underground lines and a British Rail service into London. The former two, of course, ran on the surface for many miles before diving under the streets of Central London. In summer Brian and I could walk through the Common to West Ruislip Station to catch a Central Line train, he to school and I to work.

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