Chapter 4 (1933-1934)

Local Life and Primary Education

The years between 1928 and 1934, when I reached the age of 11 and left primary school, still stand out fairly clearly in my mind. The argument whether we are fashioned as human beings by our environment or our heredity constantly recurs. My own observation is that while childhood years are crucial in forming a person's outlook upon and approach to life - in their known environment. The most significant environmental influences are health, home and education. The child who is healthy and enjoys a stable home where he or she is part of an affectionate and accepted order of things has a strong base from which to face life. Similarly, friendship, appreciation and respect condition a person's later ability to relate to others. But underlying and constantly overriding these factors is the basic temperament and intelligence that we are born with. This is what matters when we meet unexpected circumstances; when our world is turned upside down. None of the environmental factors seem to me to be able to make a basically pessimistic person more cheerful, a suspicious person more tolerant of others, a cruel nature more kindly, or a meek character more determined in adversity. These are inborn factors which are difficult to shift.

Home, Unemployment and Hardship
So far as my own environment was concerned, I was very lucky in having a loving, stimulating and congenial upbringing in a time of peace, and I look back on those days as being a most happy period. But in retrospect I see that for others they were quite the reverse. Following the Stock Market crash in America in 1929, the world was plunged into economic depression on a scale not seen before and unemployment caused huge misery in most countries. In the South of England we saw only a shadow of the heartbreak of the North and Wales. For some inkling of what it was like to be really poor, read "Two Pence to Cross the Mersey" by Helen Forrester, a small example being that her family of seven living in Liverpool had only half a comb between them because there was no money to waste on the luxury of a new one.

Many of our neighbours were in and out of work and my father seemed to have numerous short spells in dead-end jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment when he would become dispirited, made more acute by his determination not to let me see it. He tried his hand at various business ventures, including making up small bottles of eau-de-Cologne which he hawked around the shops: none of them was successful. He was also a Hoover salesman for a time, a job which enabled him to have a car and me often to accompany him on interesting trips around the Reigate area of Surrey. At one stage he was thankful to get a job as a Corporation lorry driver and part-time labourer in a road repair gang. He often had no money at all in his pocket. Vera too lost her job at Oxford Street Woolworths and I remember her arriving home in tears.

Although there was no obvious grinding poverty in our immediate area, we saw glimpses of the horror elsewhere. It was not unusual for people to walk round the streets singing, in the hope of being given a coin or two to buy something to eat. They usually had strange Welsh or Northern accents. But thanks to old Granpa Morton, who died long before I was born, we were never reduced to despair and always had enough food. Sadly, however, my mother frequently argued with my father about money or his lack of it, and I recall standing at the top of the stairs wishing they would stop, just for a while, so that I could go to sleep. But they never allowed their differences to affect their relationship with me.

I was also fortunate in having friends. Even in those early days there was a special and different relationship with each friend, a fact which continued throughout my life and one which no doubt other people also experience. For example, Wilfred and I would go fishing for sticklebacks and tadpoles, walking to the farthest side of Mitcham Common and back - some six to eight miles - without turning a hair, getting into scrapes and sometimes being chased by older boys or even enraged adults. When it was dark or wet we would play with our Meccano sets for hours on end, or do jigsaw puzzles. The Daily Mail 1000-piece puzzles were the ultimate challenge, being non-interlocking so that the slightest jolt threw the whole picture out of gear.

With Martin, who lived in a house immediately opposite mine, a different pattern of play emerged, involving toy soldiers and cowboys (which were made of lead, usually in Germany, and purchased cheaply at Woolworths). We transported them into imaginary situations of great variety and ingenuity, inventing a dialogue as we went along. Martin was a romantic, an only child, doted upon by his parents, and with a charming nature. We did not roam the wide world with the restless energy of nomads, as I did with Wilf. We didn't go to the cinema or for bike rides or fishing or to try to steal rides at fairgrounds; and we never seemed to get into the scrapes which were normal with Wilf. Yet we played happily with particularly close companionship.

It was different yet again with Derek, who's keen and indefatigable mind conveyed us into worlds of the future, with space-ships, planets and alien invaders. Although Derek was the year ahead of me, lived two roads away and even moved to a house a mile away, we still kept in touch and would sally forth together to the park, which would temporarily become the planet Venus and fallen tree one of the beasts which inhabited it; and puddles in the road must be circled around because they were pools of molten metal on the planet Mercury.

The Cinema
From the age of about 9, every Saturday night, with scarcely an exception, he and I would go to the cinema, of which there were at least ten within a penny tram ride. Often we would queue for ages then find ourselves either within a few feet of a huge screen or squeezed into the uppermost row of the uppermost balcony whence the screen was like a postage stamp. When there was an "A" film, we would importune some sympathetic adult to take us past the cashier.

Typical 1930s cinema

The cinema was an inescapable feature of our world, much as the early black and white television inspired the dreams and interpreted life for our children in the 1960s. They were usually well attended, with queues on Saturday evenings which would take so long to clear that sometimes the major film was well under way before we got in. We hardly ever went on Saturday mornings or afternoons since daylight was for messing about in. Most cinemas by then had reasonably comfortable seats, with arms, but the upper galleries of the Empire and the Hippodrome, which had been Music Hall theatres, were simply tiers with some sort of padding along their length. If the person behind had long legs and you were an insignificant brat, they would not be at all concerned at kicking your backside or shoving a bony knee into the small of your back as they wriggled on the uncomfortable bench. There was no point in protesting; that simply confirmed that they were right to be beastly to you. But we were no better. I remember sitting with Wilf chewing peanuts and methodically dropping the husks into the open side pocket of the man in front of us.

Films were all black and white and nearly all American, but silent films were by then rare. We said we were "going to the pictures", never to a "film" or the "cinema". I suppose we understood most of the plots, though I can't say I recall many of them. Gangsters, war, murder and Cowboy-and-Indian battles seemed to predominate, though possibly we were less interested in the "human" stories. Having been brought up on a diet of such unrestrained mayhem, I have reservations about the alleged influence of television violence on the young mind; but it was good clean violence and did not display gory details or dwell upon the sadistic pleasure in inflicting injury which modern producers seem to consider essential; nor was it introduced into our own homes, but was reserved to the make-believe of the cinema.

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Sometimes there would be live stage turns to enhance the programme, sad remains of the great days of Music Hall. Most people were glad when they were over and the audience could return to the dark anonymity of the silver screen. But possibly the most striking feature for a modern child transported back to those years would be the dense clouds of tobacco smoke which filled the air, often casting a swirling shadow across the screen as someone lit up. The warm, cosy, friendly, smoky, smelly atmosphere was more treasured by us than the freshest sea breeze.

Although people were robust in their views and not disposed to regard children as of any great importance, I cannot remember a single instance of sinister physical threat to ourselves or any of our friends, or, for that matter, any public disturbance at all, during the several years Wilf and I traversed the town quite late at night as young children. The question simply did not arise. It was indeed a different world.

Then, as now, children would keep pets if space and the forebearance of their parents allowed. I had a small pond in the garden, inhabited by frogs, newts, toads, sticklebacks and anything else that the insatiable curiosity of small boys could discover lurking in the ponds and disused workings which abounded around Mitcham Common. Sometimes they lived in harmony - more often not. I also had a white rabbit and later several guinea pigs, the latter increasing in number exponentially until my mother insisted that the hutch be divided into separate boys' and girls' compartments.

Ramshorn pond snail

One day Vera brought home a tortoise which she had found crossing the road, like the proverbial chicken. It was the first of several. Wilf and I found a pet shop at Broad Green, an adjoining district, which had a stock of tortoises and also a bottomless demand for high quality pond weed and fairly rare rams-horn water snails, two commodities which we found in a pond on a golf course. By stacking up credit, we were able to buy tortoises. I had three, including one truly enormous creature which I could hardly lift. We called him Granpa but sadly he did not survive one exceptionally cold winter. During all this time, Gyp was a constant companion and pleasure until age and infirmity persuaded my mother that he should be put down. It was a horrible experience, not for him I hope, but for me, and I feel that it should never be done to any animal which has given loyalty and affection until one has really no alternative.

Primary Education and the Scholarship
During the years up to 1934, when I left the primary school, there was no hint of the holocaust to come. The war had bitten deeply into the souls of my parents' generation and, unlike veterans of World War II, few ex-servicemen talked about their experiences. George Phillips, our landlord, had twice been buried alive by shell bursts and had also been severely gassed, as a result of which he suffered dreadful bouts of bronchitis when he could scarcely breathe and coughed up revolting things. Others had seen and done things they couldn't bear to think about. They were not going to inflict their memories on their children, with the result that war was unreal to us, glorified by story-tellers and film makers, but not remotely liable to happen. Yet the pacifism loudly proclaimed by the far Left was not shared by most people; it simply never crossed their minds that anyone could be so insane as to contemplate another war.

At primary school we received no Twentieth Century history at all (nor, for that matter, did we at our secondary school). The fact that the British Empire was based on military domination of other people was never questioned or even discussed except in terms of its desirability and inevitability. At the same time, ours was very far from being a militaristic society and there was a curious absence of indoctrination into the attraction and duty of present-day military service. Past victories, on the other hand, would be described in detail and viewed in a heroic and glorious light, implying that every right-minded young man would gladly give his life for his country. The fact that none of us expected to do so made this idea all the more admirable.

As I progressed up the school I moved into the top echelon, though able to perceive that there were one or two who greatly outshone me. The ultimate aim was to obtain a scholarship to a grammar school or one of the "Central Schools" which were of slightly lower standing. There were three grammar schools - Whitgift, Whitgift Middle and Selhurst. All took paying pupils and the number of free places was quite limited. In those days the scholarship exam could be taken at age 10. I just failed to make it but one or two others succeeded, leaving me with less competition, and I found myself appointed School Vice Captain, a position which Derek had held the previous year before going on to the Whitgift Middle School.

Imperial measurements
The system of Imperial measurements which was used throughout the British Empire and, with modifications, in the United States, must seem incomprehensibly archaic to today's children who have been educated since 1973 in the Metric system with its universal base of 10 and its logically designed relationship between length, weight and volume. The Imperial system had descended from Roman and Saxon measurements which were entirely pragmatic and related to visible or readily-handled quantities, while to the later Danish invaders of these British Islands we owe the "duodecimal" (ie to base 12) method of calculation. Measurements varied according to the commodity being measured. Thus in length 12 inches made one foot, and three feet made one yard (the distance from a man's nose to the tip of an outstretched arm); geographically 1,760 yards made one land mile but 2,000 yards one nautical mile, with intermediate units of a chain (22 yards), a furlong (220 yards), a nautical cable (200 yards) and a fathom (6 feet). Small measurements were in fractions of an inch, going down to as little as one sixty-fourth of an inch, and a good ruler would show these divisions. There were also odd agricultural units, including a "rod", "pole" or "perch" which semed to mean the same thing depending on which part of the country you happened to be in.

Table of imperial weights and measures

Money was just as difficult: 4 farthings or two half-pennies (pronounced "haypenny") to one penny, 12 pence to one shilling (colloquially known as a "bob"), and 20 shillings or 240 pence to one pound or "quid". Additional coins were a three-penny piece (called a "thruppenny bit"), a sixpence (universally known as a "tanner"), a florin (2 shillings) and a half-crown (two shillings and sixpence). The old crown worth five shillings was virtually obsolete; likewise the guinea coin (21 shillings) which had been made of gold and now appeared only to adorn gentlemen's watch-chains and ladies' bracelets, though it was customary until well into the 1960s to price works of art in guineas, and classic horse races are still known as, for example, the Two Thousand Guineas.

A one shilling coin

These tables and many others we were made to learn by heart and they provided a gold-mine for those who set examination questions, a typical example from my own scholarship paper being: "The inside measurements of a box are 24 inches long, 12 inches wide and 18 inches deep. Find what weight of lead would cover the bottom and the sides if the lead used weighs 6 pounds to the square foot". (The pound weight was, of course quite different from a pound in money). The answer - I think - is 66 pounds.

Nevertheless, in 1934 at the age of 11, I did get my scholarship by the skin of my teeth and was allocated a place at Selhurst Grammar School.

Next page: Chapter 5

Previous page: Chapter 3

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