A Compressed Life
I have written a fairly comprehensive unpublished account of my life from the late 1920s until the very early 2000s. So here I want to have fun in compressing that life into as short a written space as possible, occasionally recalling events that have appealed to me.
My father was a farmer who was showing the Egyptians how to water the desert from the Nile when WW1 was about to start. He returned to England, joined his Territorial Regiment, was sent to Mesopotamia where, after a terrible time fighting the wily Turks in the marshes, where many of his officer colleagues were killed, was badly wounded. He had charged the enemy at the Battle of Hanna with a sword in one hand and a revolver in the other. He never really recovered, and certainly never again to play cricket for his county. Madame Curie discovered radium, a cure-all of the time. He had treatment with it, which destroyed his blood and then him.
My mother, brought up in court circles, pretty and vivacious, found that being a chicken farmer’s wife was not really to her liking.
Well connected, but very poor, my sister, brother and I (unwanted) led an ideal life close to animals and nature.
WW2 has started when I was at school, and my mother, now high up in WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services), heard of an American family who wanted an English refugee. Wanting one of us to survive, I jumped at the opportunity. At 15, I took a train to Liverpool and boarded the Duchess of Richmond bound for Montreal.
Kind though my American hosts were, I did not really fit in with their way of life. From the elitist Taft School I was sent to a trade school where I learned how to draw the teeth on cog wheels.
When old enough to join the RAF, I boarded the M/V Axel Johnson in New York. We sailed northwards toward Halifax, Nova Scotia, to join a convoy across the Atlantic, breaking down on the way.
When enough ships were ready to leave, we were escorted out by a Canadian destroyer. It was slow going as convoys can go no faster than the slowest vessel.
In mid Atlantic German U-boats were waiting for us and, during the night, many of our ships were sunk. I had not been woken from my bunk and was surprised to hind our few passengers and crew still standing by the lifeboats at dawn.
Joining the RAF soon after landing in Liverpool, I was told to return to civvy street to await flying training. I took a job as a farm labourer to learn a bit about farming and to help feed the nation during strict rationing.
It was when in the middle of a field hoeing weeds that there was the noise of approaching engines. And suddenly, just above me, was a German JU 88 bomber banking on its way to bomb Reading Railway Station. The gunner declined to kill me, but their bombs missed the station, killing many children in school. It was the nearest that I came to the enemy during the war.
Then I heard of a job going five miles away at RAF There as a prop swinger, which I took.
My job was to swing the propellers of Tiger Moth biplanes for those just starting to learn to fly. As there was no such thing as weather forecasting, an instructor would fly upwind to see that the oncoming weather was fit for students. The second cockpit was unused. Knowing that I was in the RAF and waiting to fly, I was often given this spare seat. Soon I was flying the aircraft. So when I was recalled to train, my records rightly stated that I had little experience in the air. I now had that initial experience and flew my first solo flight in what was thought to be record time. I was off to a good start.
There was a lot of waiting around to do as pilot training schools in suitable climates where congested. So we were posted to airfields for operational experience. One of these was RAF Davidstow Moor, in Cornwall. Here I did 20 hours operational flying in the second pilot’s seat of Warwick aeroplanes, just to keep an eye out for a nasty German four-engined convoy buster called a Condor. Our slow and very noisy twin-engined aircraft was a failure as a bomber and used in this instance to save bailed-out aircrew with a lifeboat slung beneath to drop to the Bay of Biscay on 6 parachutes.
We never saw anyone in such an expanse of sea, but, with wonderful eyesight, I did see a Condor as a speck in the distance. As we were absolute mincemeat for its speed and cannon fire, we dived to just above sea level and headed hotfoot home - where we were each guaranteed an egg.
At another RAF airfield near Lincoln, Skellingthorpe, the rear gunner of a Lancaster bomber was unable to fly, so I was asked if I would like to go on an engine test up the coast to Scotland in his place in the tail turret. My job was to line up the guns with the landscape beneath, read off the drift on a scale, and report it to the navigator via the intercom. With four fully armed-up Browning machine guns to fire at the press of a button I was fully prepared to use them should a German aircraft cross the North Sea. But none did.
Still waiting for flying training and based at RAF Northolt, I volunteered to mend bombed roofs in Plumstead. One of the first German V2 rockets landed in the district.
Then I was crossing the Atlantic by sea for there third time in the war, this time in the Mauritania, to Oklahoma, where I wrote off a lovely PT19, Cornell aeroplane (not my fault) and gain my wings flying Harvards.
Although the was ended in Europe, many of our more experienced pilots continued flying in Pacific operations. I crossed the Atlantic for the fourth time, now heading for home as an officer and in safety on the Queen Elizabeth.
Until invalided out with TB, I became Photographic Intelligence Officer, using captured German aerial photographs of the northern Caspian to see what had interested them in the region. My war was truly over.
I lasted a year as a medical student. Then the TB returned. There was no cure at that time. Rest was recommended but you either lived of died. To rest my lung, atmospheric air was introduced through a tick needle inserted between ribs to a gap between lung and rib cage. Never pleasant, it was a weekly inconvenience for some seven years.
I went to Central School of Art and worked with the artist Bernard Meninsky, also taking the theatre design course, to be followed by the design course at the Old Vic School.
I was lucky enough to buy a bombed out house in Fulham, London, to rebuild and live in.
My first theater jobs were to paint scenery at the Royal Opera House, and then to design for repertory and touring shows. After repainting pantomime scenery in York in the costume I made for the job out of scene canvas and rubber solution, I made off for home. Transporting my basic paints in chamber pots (ideal and plentiful at the time) in the back of my van, an accident on an icy road decanted much of the paint over me in my monk-looking habit. Bystanders were surprised.
The big design jobs were not coming my way, being of a different sexual orientation to those in power. As the war had interrupted my education a Grand Tour around Europe seemed in order.
For this I bought an old Ford 8 flat-back vehicle and built a body on it. Its fun features were two, brass, nautical air scoops on to of the cab, a compass, an altimeter and a horn that would waken the dead. I lived in it to travel around France, Spain and Italy, selling it eventually to some Scottish Laird.
A replacement VW van, designed so that I could paint landscape from water in a small pram dinghy that it held, followed. When the Russians invaded Hungary, Anna de Goguel and I filled it with blankets and clothes to take to the refugees in Austria. We contacted the Red Cross in Vienna and were told to deposit our clothes in their warehouse. A local newspaper told us that refugees were entering Austria in Eisenstadt. On reaching it we found people shivering in a straw-strewn farmyard. We backed the van into the yard and distributed our collection to the people who really needed it. In doing so I learned a lot about charity.
The mid to latter part of the 1950s were mainly rebuilding the Fulham house, working in the theatre and exhibiting mainly landscape paintings with some success. But I was feeling my lack of education again and thought that to see the world would be in order.
So I bought a medieval wreck of a house in the Berkshire Downs north of Newbury, sold my London house and set off to see and draw around the world. It was a wonderful time to travel, there being virtually no international conflicts going on. Costing a thousand pounds I spent most part of a year travelling around the globe, mainly in the far east. Out of it I held an exhibition of drawings and paintings in London’s Cork Street, a further show in Japan, and later, and the illustrated book: ”Harbours, Girls and a Slumbering World”.
My next job was to deal with that medieval wreck I had bought outside Chieveley. It had a thatched roof. So, in league with my lovely cottage neighbour, I telephoned the Newbury fire brigade, told them not to come out, and put a match to the downwind corner. A chimney stack remained.
I designed and got a Polish builder to construct a studio sed my bedroom house with one bedroom. I vegetated there, to the extend that a blue tit used my bedroom as its roost. I somehow lost my way with painting. This I rectified by making collages, which have now become popular. I had to return to London’s art life, so sold the house to Francis Bacon, a charming fellow.
In the 1950’s, I had worked on coaster ships as a supernumerary. These sometimes left London from Limehouse. It was a part of dockland that appealed to me, with its close-knit dockers’ world and artisan community. So, in 1965, I bid at auction for a warehouse off Limekiln dock, got it, and, with yet another Pole, Max Jarnot, turned it into accommodation of two studios that overlooked the Thames. It was at that time I made most of my dockland paintings.
Then marriage, first son, a few years at Yale, where I ran the home and made a garden from soiled nappies and subsoil, back to England and off to Great Chishill, in Cambridgeshire, to form a vineyard, run a house and garden, paint and sculpt large pieces of elm wood.
My next home move was to Tangley, just north of Andover in Berkshire. Again it was my job to bring up two children, cook, garden (another vineyard), make a press for cider and wined-making and continue to sculpt large elm logs. Unfortunately, I broke my wrist in a car accident and could no longer sculpt.
Now was the time for another tack. No one was telling us then about supermarket wines. My knowledge was of importing it in cask for home bottling and making wine for my own vineyards. So I started to write - over 700 articles and 14 books over the next 25 years. And I did the first of two “Gardener’s World” programmes for the BBC.
Then my wife left to make her fame and fortune and I, with one son, returned to London, where I had the best of fortunes to meet and marry my charming Dutch wife.
Two matters goaded me back to painting (actual pastels). One was losing a delightful Matthew Smith painting with the divorce and emulating his style with “Homage to Matthew Smith” written on it boldly, and next selling a 1954 painting at Christie’s for an obscenely large sum of money when two people desperately wanted it. Working on that “homage” pastel started me off to make pictures once more.
I now sell mainly to private collectors with as much success as I want. And I write a blog. Well, this may the last blog as my trusty Windows 95 has taken on a mind of its own. I no longer understand it.