Saturday, June 25, 2022

Recalling a child's life in the late 1920s to the early 1930s

People made their own entertainment, and there was plenty - often centred on the village hall. Here there were evenings for plays, whist drives, jazz music (my father played the drums and saxophone) and dances, sometimes in fancy dress. Though small, we actually had a sprung dance floor in our house. On a grander scale was the 9 to 90 ball (I must have been 9 years old or over), where I remember a lady in a simple red dress held up from behind the neck, that when she bent over revealed her comely breasts. At that age I thought that it was rather disgusting. And there was the occasional ball at my grandfather's 18th century Strathfield Saye vicarage where, being gauche and young, I untied the bows on the dress of a girl I fancied. That was not the thing to do.

Foreign governesses, to educate and look after us children, came and went. One in particular hailed from Switzerland and became a family friend. I was staying with her family in Vevey when the war was eminent, so was put on a much overcrowded train and returned to England. 

We took part in plenty of other activities, too. We gave tennis parties, our grass court being so good that we children were often given a prize should we find a weed on it. 

Home-made lemonade was the thirst-quencher, dispensed from the shade of a wooden shelter that could be rotated as desired for sun or shade. There was the Schneider Trophy along the Solent to watch, where seaplanes of several nations raced. The British aircraft were powered by the newly-developed Rolls Royce Merlin engine, later to power many of our fighters and bombers in the upcoming war. The King's Cup air race sometimes took a course above our house. The mixture of private biplanes and racing monoplanes flew quite low in a handicap race around markers. They made a wonderful and colourful sight. There was car racing at Brooklands where we watched from the Home Banking to see such as Napier Railton and ERA cars race around. But for me it was aeroplanes and flight that fired my imagination. Alan Cobham would bring his Flying Circus to some farmer's field and take passengers up in an Avro Tutor biplane. I went for a flip at 7/6 had a loop-the-loop included.

But that was nothing compared with a flight from Croydon Aerodrome (then a large grass field as London's airport). It was 1931. Kingsford Smith had just flown in there from Australia in an Avro 10 Trimotor aircraft with the Christmas mail. It took a record breaking 17 days, crewed by an all-Australian crew - except that my uncle Wyndham Hewitt was his flight engineer and very much English.

Anyhow, Kingsford Smith's plane had a broken tail skid, so we were taken up (my brother Nigel and I) in a German Klemm Bat monoplane. We sat in the forward open cockpit on a bench, and had to hang on like mad in the wind and the exhaust of its in-line, air-cooled engine. I think it must have been a sales aeroplane with advertising words on its side and, unusually, had a prop boss fared into the streamlining of the fuselage. The type was very modern for its time and was used for training Luftwaffe pilots. It was made in many configurations, and a quantity were sold to Czechoslovakia and the USA.

The excitement and potential danger of flying stayed with me until I obtained my wings in the USA at the end of the war. 

The Silchester house was built next to a Roman road. Because of this it was quite usual for us to find Roman coins in the kitchen garden soil. The coins were of little interest to us as they were found so often, so they were thrown in a hamper. 

After my father died of radium poisoning (Madame Curie's triumph), we sold the main house and lived, mainly for weekends, and me alone in some school holidays, in the re-designed, and then thatched, ex-army sheds situated around the pear-shaped back drive. Much later, after I had joined the RAF and was working as a prop swinger, waiting for a place as a trainee pilot, I heard that the thatched house had burnt to the ground. No one knew quite how it had happened. Perhaps a tramp had broken in and set fire to it, perhaps an electric bed-warmer had been left on by mistake? Anyhow, all the Roman coins had melted away, and only an iron cooking pot and a lump of gold, found below where I had placed my watch in a drawer, were recovered. 

Although now much older and able to become an RAF airman, that was the end of my connections with my youthful existence at Silchester. Its time capsule had now been left behind - some of which I have now remembered in haphazard form and recalled here in print. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Recalling a child's life in the late 1920s to the early 1930s (part 3 of 4)

With no refrigeration at that time, food that might deteriorate was kept in the larder - a small room on the north side of the house. Game was popular for us, but usually kept until it was almost crawling with maggots. A pheasant was always hung up by its two tail feathers until the rotting bird fell to the floor. Then it was ready to roast and be eaten. And very smelly it was - both before and after.

On certain days the muffin man would come to the village with his wares in a tray on his head. He rang a bell and shouted that he had muffins and crumpets for sale. We would bike into the village for them. But most of our food was delivered to the back door by van - baker, butcher, fishmonger and merchant. When dealing with the wine merchant, all used bottles were left out for him to re-cycle. And it was the dregs in those wine bottles I consumed that must have been the origins of my taste for and later writings on wine.

We also bought from the local village shop, where salt was sold by the block, flour, sugar and such by weight in blue paper bags, and fine bacon, which was sliced from the side of a smoked and boned pig by a circular, hand-turned blade. Its rib bones were much prized for flavouring soup. Butter was prised from a  large lump by wooden paddles and patted into shape before being wrapped in greaseproof paper. It was used for most cooking instead of oil. Olive oil was only obtainable from the chemist.

Although not encouraged to mix with the village children all joined in as players or spectators when our cricket team played at home. We children loved it, as there were plenty of wild strawberries to be gathered from around the boundary, and a stream nearby where we could catch minnows.

The local carpenter would take me fishing for chub on the river Kennet.

The village garage was an essential in those times when machines tended to go wrong or engines not to start. It was owned and run by "Uncle Sid". The floor was thick with oil and grease as engines leaked a lot at that time. It smelled of oil and battery acid.

On our bicycle route to swim in the mill pool at Aldermaston, we would pass the garage, then where our bread was made in an oven fired by faggots, and then stop to pick blueberries in a wood. At the mill was a sign that said: "Please pay before you bathe or else you will be...." That part of the sign had been broken off, so we never knew what punishment might befall us if we did not pay.

Should we ever bicycle by night, we had an acetylene/carbide lamp to rather warn others then light our way. Carbide was placed in the bottom of these lights and water allowed to drip on to it, creating acetylene gas, which was lit by a match.

For family transport and delivering eggs to market, we owned an open bullnose Morris car with a Dicky seat, which was great fun in dry weather and in the summertime - when it worked. On a nearby hill we had to get out and help push it.  

The town of Reading was about 10 miles distant - a long way for a child. I loved it when we  went there, mainly because it had a gun shop where I could spend my pocket money on lead pellets for my air gun and .22 cartridges for my garden gun. We went to Reading once just to see King George V's funeral on a newfangled television set. 

And at another time I stopped on the pavement to look at an African man on the other side of the street. He was the first one I had ever seen.

Bicycles were our main mode of transport, and when the hunt met nearby we knew pretty well where the fox would run to and be there on our bikes before the hounds and horses arrived.

The meets were a fine sight with the ladies sometimes astride on their horses or sometimes riding sidesaddle.  The men and master in pink (really red), the barking of the hounds and noise of horses and their hooves the greeting of fellow villagers, neighbours, and strangers, the handing up of sloe gin to the riders, made for great fun. But having a chicken farm meant that foxes were our enemies, so the more dealt with by the hunt the better. And you did not shoot the hunt's foxes. Nor should you shoot partridges out of season, as I once did with my garden gun when very young - bad form.

There was a hunting ritual called "blooding". This was an initiation into the world of the hunt. Ordinarily for those on horse, somehow we children, too, were blooded. It involved having a fox bloody skin rubbed over one's face, and to keep the blood on the skin unwashed for a period of time. I don't know quite how we youngsters qualified - possibly because we may have known the Master of the hunt.



Monday, May 30, 2022

Recalling a child's life in the late 1920s to the early 1930s (part 2 of 4)

Our house was provided with light from a lovely, ticking gas-making machine. Petrol was poured into it and a weight that pushed the gas through copper pipes into the house was powered by winding a lump of concrete to the top of a tree (trees were obviously useful). To ignite the gas, a mantle had to be fitted to wall-hung sconces. These mantles were of soft material, like a small bag, attached to a ceramic ring. Fitted to the gas supply and before turning on the gas, the mantle had to be lit. After its flame had subsided the gas could then be turned on and the now very delicate mantle, lit. The light given off was soft and very pleasant. 

There was never any shortage of water as my father was an expert water diviner. He had selected two sites for wells from which the water was pumped up to a tank in our roof by a Swift car engine that had been bolted into a slab of concrete. But as the engine often failed to work, we all took turns to pump the water up by a hand pump in the kitchen.

The cooking, hot water and irons were catered for by a night-and-day, coal-fired, black-leaded kitchen range, on which was often a pressure cooker filled with water and cabbage.  The resultant liquor was thought to be health-giving by my father. The smell was unpleasant.

The kitchen was a focal point for us children, especially in winter. Connie, our maid (charming, but smelling of carbolic soap) made wonderful cakes there and allowed us to lick out the mixing bowls. The range also provided us with barely-enough hot water for our baths and hot water bottles that we took to our freezing bedrooms by candle light to warm our beds. There was no central heating in those days.

Connie, who lived in a room near the back door, had a boyfriend who was the local steam roller driver. He would leave his bicycle in bushes and climb into her bedroom through a very small window - when just around the corner of the house was a much larger window, which would have been far easier.

I once visited Connie's parents house in Tadley (where the gypsies came from) and when the door was opened, there in front of me, was a vast black pig hanging from a hook on the wall. I suppose that it was about to be cut up. I was impressed.

A man whose job it was to be in charge of a section of road, was called a length man. He mended pot-holes, trimmed hedged and cleared drainage ditches. I'm sure he also needed the services of Connie's steam roller boyfriend. Anyhow, our local length man was a friend of mine and I would sit on the verge of his road, sometimes to share his cold tea, bread, cheese and raw onion - I imagine much to my parents' displeasure.

To get into and out of our village, it was usual to cross over streams by a ford. Whether length men were in charge of keeping these in order I do not know.

Beside an adequate supply of eggs and chickens from the farm, we were almost self-supporting in fruit and vegetables. My father was an agriculturalist and very proud of his kitchen garden, from which we had many vegetables and much fruit - a lot of it being preserved as jam or in glass jars for the winter. At one time, when he was very pleased with a fine crop of giant gooseberries, we woke one morning to find that the whole lot had vanished. The gypsies had penetrated the hedge that separated us from the road and stolen the lot - every one, and at night. I'm sure we called the local policeman, whose name to us was "not good enough".

I was not meant to play with the village boys, and at one time when I went with them to catch newts, and thus gone missing, "not good enough" was called to find me.

When I went to the local pub to collect beer in a jug for Mr. Beer, I would pass by where the newts lived and left them and the village boys well alone.

Going to church on Sundays was a must. We walked there along a Roman track, crossing a pre-Roman fosse, and where a toad lived in his hole. Near to it was where long-tailed tits tended to build their lovely nests of moss and lichen. Then we passed through where there had been an entrance to Calleva Atrebatum, the Roman town. In our designated pew in church we had to listen to long boring sermons and in an atmosphere that smelled strongly of death-watch beetle spray. It was a great relief to retreat afterwards to enjoy Sunday lunch, cooked by Connie as we were supposed to have communed with God. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Recalling a child's life in the late 1920s to the early 1930s (part 1 of 4)

 This piece is really a glimpse into my early life, a child's life in the English countryside during the late 1920s to the early 1930s.

It all started as Margreet and I were enjoying a glass in our garden "shed" when she asked me more about when I was recovered crawling toward a neighbour's house in my nappies to see the local parson's daughter, a friend. "You must write about it", she suggested. But how could I write a whole piece on such a small incident? So I might as well include it with other small recollections of that time. That is what I have done. I apologise for any repetition as I have written in the past on many of the episodes that I will mention.


I was born in our house at Silchester in 1925. At that time the village could not be reached unless a stream had been forded. My father (badly wounded by the Turks during the '1914 - 1918' war in Mesopotamia) had started a chicken farm in a large field next to our house.

Around our pear-shaped back drive were two ex-army sheds, joined together to form a banana shape. In one end the food for the chickens was kept (mostly dried sweetcorn and ground-up oyster shell) and in the other, the Baverstocks who worked on the farm and did odd jobs. Their daughter remembers me going to see them to ask for "half a naaner" (banana).

One of our jobs was to scrape eggs. Being free range (as all chickens were then) sometimes droppings would adhere to some. These had to be scraped off before the eggs could be loaded on or trailer to be driven to Woking market. One of those scraping knives is still in use in our garden shed. It must be around 100 years old. When there was an order for a chicken from the farm, our spaniel Ben, would under my father's direction, hold down the bird with his paw until my father could pick it up.

We were "gentry" but poor. This came to light I remember when the local brass band came to our drive to play carols at Christmas and we had no money at all to give them. Perhaps we offered eggs or chickens. But I recall that it reduced my mother (a Londoner brought up in court circles) to tears. I don't think she was ever very happy as a farmer's wife. Yet being gentry our financial circumstances were understood. And I am sure that friends and relations helped out with school fees and other expenses. 

This lack of money and the generous attitude to our small income with my father's war disability pension, manifested itself when my parents played bridge with friends. Always someone at the table would cover their losses. It was not a disgrace to be poor.

The Firths lived across a field from us. It was one of the venues for playing bridge. I was often taken along, and boring it was for a small boy. To keep me happy I was given marons glacĂ©es to eat, but I would have much preferred a "pennerth" (pennyworth of chocolate drops, a bag of lemonade crystals or a sherbet fountain. 

When the Firths wanted two chickens from our farm for a dinner party, my sister June delivered them - to the front door. Sherrard, the butler, opened the door and asked her, very politely, to deliver them to the servants' entrance at the back of the house. My sister never forgot her embarrassment, especially as no one locked their houses and we were used to simply walk in to see whoever we wanted. 

A social faux-pas that I remember my mother telling we about was when the Duchess of Wellington came to call. When she arrived, my mother was eating bread and dripping. And dripping was one of the  perquisites of the staff.

Harry Firth seldom entered his well-stocked cellar. One day he decided to look at it and found the butler, Sherrard, drinking his favourite port out of a teacup. Sherrard was sacked on the spot, not for drinking the port but for drinking it out of a teacup.

We had other connections with the Firths. Our wireless (a PYE) needed power from a large dry battery and a wet, car battery. As there was no electricity in the village it was my job to take our wet battery across the field to have it charged at the Firth's electricity-generated plant. This extension to the back of their house contained a large flywheel as part of its power generator. On the floor were masses of car batteries linked up to supply the house with light. Our battery was added to the others. My father, being a cricketer (he played for Berkshire) among other sporting skills, wanted to hear the Test Match score from Australia. This needed an aerial strung from the wireless set to the top of a tree. 

The Firths must have moved, I think to Calcott. We stayed there and I recall their men's lavatory being just like stalls in a public lavatory. And after our stay I tipped the butler six pence.

Mary Firth's sister, Hetty Heber Percy, who came to stay at the Firths, became a great friend of my mother's. She lived in London near to the Albert Hall. Much later, when her chauffeur had gone to war, she let us use his flat in the basement, which became a fairly safe refuge for friends and family on leave or needing rest and recuperation. A bomb actually fell nearby and blew off the right breast of one of the sculptures connected to the Albert Memorial. (It was cleverly repaired after the war, but was not quite the same as the original.)

Other rich friends lived at The Vyne, a Tudor house owned by Charlie Chute (he was probably a sir or a lord). There was a chapel in the house, and a resident priest who gave me fishing hooks when I went fishing in their lake. Outside the front door were (and probably still are) two large stone eagles on plinths. They were covered in lichen. I called them "the mossy eagles", and that was then their name.

My grandmother, a formidable lady with a title and rather unknown origins, would come to stay with us. We obviously had to be nice to her as she probably contributed to our finances. She was grand enough that when walking in London's Soho district with my mother, they were confronted by some louts blocking the pavement. She pushed through them, saying "aside, scrum". And they obediently did stand aside.

One day at Silchester, when I had shot or snared a rabbit and not yet dealt with it, she rolled up her old-fashioned sleeves, paunched, skinned and cut it up for the pot. We were astounded. It might have confirmed that she had been an Irish farmer's daughter before she met my later to be knighted grandfather. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Refugees

 With refugees much in our minds at present, I realise that I have, in my long life, been both the receiver and provider of aid in adversity.

With Russia now intent on overrunning and subjugating the Ukraine, the fear of invasion from hostile forces was as much in the minds of the British people concerning the Nazis in 1940. Hitler's henchmen were then on the rampage, just as Putin's army is today.

In 1940, with my elder brother and sister in occupations that could contribute to the war effort, and my mother working for WVS (Women's Voluntary Service) in London. I, at 15 years old would, she hoped, be one member of the family to survive the probable invasion if I was in a safer country.

An American family from Connecticut in America's East Coast, contacted WVS to ask for an English refugee boy. I was consulted at school, agreed to go, and prepared to leave for a safer land.

With a small suitcase of belongings, I took a train in London to board The Duchess of Richmond liner in Liverpool, thence to sail across the U-boat-infested Atlantic Ocean to disembark in Montreal, Canada.

It was the start of a lonely life in foreign parts, lasting until I was old enough to return to England in 1942 to join the Royal Air Force. 

As a refugee, people in America did their generous best to keep me happy, and certainly safe from Nazi bombs.

Compared with whole families uprooted and with their homes destroyed in the Ukraine, my life as a refugee was one of minor consequence.

That, briefly, was my life as a refugee.

Fast forward through my life in the wartime RAF (written about in my blogs and painted in pictures), TB, the war's end, recuperation (no cure then), medical student (TB again), and on to when I rebuilt a bombed-out house in Fulham, London, to become a landscape painter. 

For painting these landcapes of river and lake scenes, I bought a small pram dinghy and designed and had built a body of a flat-back VW truck in which to house the boat and myself when painting in the countryside. The results were popular.

Fast forward again to 1955 when the Russians invaded Hungary. Refugees, a little like I had been in the war, were pouring into Austria for safety.

With Anne de Goguel, who was well-connected in well-heeled society, we decided to aid these Hungarian refugees.

So, consulting all who might help, we filled my VW "boathouse" van with warm clothes and blankets (mostly new) and set off across Europe, crossing customs borders, and aiming for Vienna.

There we contacted the Red Cross and were told to take our cargo to their warehouse. 

We had not come all that way to do that. So we bought a newspaper to learn that many of those fleeing the Russians were crossing the border at a town called Eisenstadt.

Off we continued, to find a farmyard at the border with many Hungarian refugees trying to keep warm in straw.

Backing the VW into the farmyard we distributed the clothes and blankets directly to those really needing them (there's a moral there). On our way home we took a couple of refugees from the border to Vienna.

So I happen to have experienced both of life as a refugee and, in turn, helped others in much the same situation.

The movement of people throughout the world for economic or oppressed reasons will, sadly, continue for ever. There will always be those who help or are helped - sometimes both. 

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Monday, April 11, 2022

Skylark

 It was in the spring of 1944 that I was posted for operational training to the highest airfield in England, RAF Davidstow Moor, in Cornwall.

I was only an AC2 trainee pilot, waiting for a vacancy to become a fully-fledged pilot in a friendly country where the weather was more conducive to novice flying.

Here, for experience of operations at Davidstow, my only job was to take the second pilot's seat in Warwick aircraft to watch out for the four-engined and powerfully armed German Condor aircraft, based in Brittany and operating over the Bay of Biscay.

Even with our plentiful collection of 303 Browning machine guns, we were no match for the bristling canons on the far swifter German aeroplane.

So my extra pair of sharp eyes being directed skyward were of vital importance when the others aboard the Warwick were looking seaward to locate bailed-out or crash-landed aircrew for whom we were prepared to drop, via parachutes, a specially-made lifeboat slung beneath the fuselage.

The sorties were often long ones, one, as I recall, lasting 9 hours. 

We were each given a box of food and drink guaranteed as fried egg on our return to Davidstow. 

The noise on board from our two Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp, radial engines was enormous. So conversation was impossible without use of the intercom. 

Back on land at Davidstow there were several useless plans to keep me busy, if not happy. But life on the station was generally pretty miserable with poor rationed food and infrequent leave.

As having the lowest rank in the RAF (AC2), I mostly had to keep my sleeping space in a multi-bed Nissen hut clean and tidy, trousers pressed, boots shiny, brass burnished and blankets in perfect "bisquit" form. So leave, if only a day's worth, was a delightful break from the land-based monotony. 

My favourite outing was to take a bike ride to Boscastle, a delightful, small and almost miniature unused inlet harbour on Cornwall's north coast.

On the way there or back I would stop, make for a field of grass, lie on my back and gaze into the blue sky to listen to the song, and watch the hovering flight of a skylark. 




Thursday, March 24, 2022

A Busy Winter in the Garden

 My normal winter jobs in the garden are simple. In early December I prune the vines and turn the pruning into kindlings for a friend who has a real fire in a fireplace.

When it's cold and no longer pleasant enough to use our summerhouse (the shed), we move the potted lemon tree into it for the winter.

Then comes the distribution of compost from our bin and on to soil in pots, bags, or the small strip of garden soil at the edge of one side of the garden (where we grow alternatively new potatoes or beans).

I then prune our two examples of that wonderful rose called Typhoon, and take a few cuttings of it that I hope will "take", then to give away.

With light pruning of the pear and apple trees in pots, and a trim of the mistletoe on the apple tree, I close up shop and only go out in the cold weather to feed the wild birds. Jobs done.

This year has been different.

Rotten wood above the shed door needed clearing out and replacing. This was done mostly by our Lebanese handyman/plumber with my help.

Then I repainted the roof of the shed with another coat of silver, reflective paint and varnished bits of woodwork around the edge that might be subject to further wet rot. 

In attending to the rot over the door we inadvertently just altered the shape of the door frame, which widened the gap at one side of the door to allow wet and wind to penetrate. So I had to buy some timber to put that to rights.

Another winter job was to strengthen the piano, a bamboo framework that supports our summer crop of runner beans. On a recent blog I have related how I solved the problem when having bought long bamboos, the bus driver for my return journey refused me entry with any object over two metres in length (my bundle was six inched too long).

Now came the trickiest of my winter jobs.

The end of one of the slats of our hardwood garden bench had rotted away. I had tried several make-do methods in the past to correct this - and failed. Other solutions, contrived in ideas of the night, also proved ineffective. So I decided to tear off the rotten slat and replace it with new wood. Not selling hardwood at the wood merchant, I had to settle for the proscribed length of softwood. Then I found that the remaining hardwood slat was so firmly attached to the bench framework that it would be just as good and a lot easier if I simply replaced the rotten end of it. So, having drilled and countersunk screw holes, and coated the softwood twice with protective varnish, I assembled, and then admired my handiwork. Only a little wood filling was necessary and, because the colour of the new wood was too light, a bit of artwork came in handy to complete the job.

We live in an age and society where broken objects are often discarded to be replaced by the new. But I like to repair old and often loved objects, and allow them to continue to serve their purpose and become, in their way, unique.

I'm quite proud of my winter's work in the garden. But at my age it has taken a bit of time, and sometimes deserved a restful beer.