Wednesday, May 22, 2024

FLYING FISH



I am a bit vague about dates, but the 1950s stand out in my memory as very creative and imaginative years.


The residues of war were still around, mainly in the form of general shortages and food rationing. And the war itself had taken its toll on me in as much as it encroached on my education and left me with TB in the lung.


So in those 1950 years I had a lot of life to catch up with, not only in the acquisition of knowledge but also with bodily health.


My RAF war service had left me with the then incurable TB which returned when I studied medicine. 


I was now back to starting again at square one. And that square one was based on art. So I was able to incorporate my art into whatever I did.


Art school and theatre design school taught me a certain amount but their basics are also learned with constant practice combined with imagination.


With paintings, I sold landscapes, had one-man exhibitions, exhibited in mixed shows at top London galleries and painted and designed scenery for television and the theatre.


Buying a bombed-out house in London’s Fulham Road and rebuilding it happened to be, unknown at the time, a satisfactory and remunerative life decision.


By 1958 it was time for change. And changes have reinvigorated my life. 


I sold the London house and, with travel and art in mind, bought not only a steamship ticket to Japan but also the remains of a tumbledown cottage in the Berkshire Downs. This small bit of England was to maintain a foothold in my home country. 


On a cold and drizzling day I took a train to Liverpool and a taxi to Birkenhead where the “Achilles” merchantman was about to leave in ballest for warmer climes.


Aboard, on the plus side, was my own cabin that had been extremely well designed. On the minus side were fellow travellers in the form of parents with some very ill-behaved children.


We plied through the Bay of Biscay into a cold Mediterrainian Sea and on to the warmth of the Red Sea at Port Sudan. 


My overall aim was to live and draw throughout the Far East, skipping the Near East that did not lure me - confirmed in the shortest of contacts by sight from the Suez Canal and a short stay in Sudan.


After we took on fuel at Aden, in Yeman, we set sail across the Indian Ocean toward Malaya. 


It was then that I suddenly felt that to go straight to Japan was pointless when an event occured when our ship, now deeply laiden with Sudanese cotton, ploughed into a deep swell, sending not only warm sea spray right over our superstructure but with it masses of small, blue flying fish that looked like clouds of dragonflies, many landing on deck.


There was something about this exotic occasion that made me feel that at the next port of call, Penang in Malaya, I must disembark, and there to start my world tour of drawing and discovery.


So, lowering myself to the pilot boat with my suitcase of clothes and art kit, 

I set out on a great adventure, leading eventually to two exhibitions of paintings, a travel book, and tremendous satisfaction. 

Monday, April 29, 2024

LOIRE MANOR HOUSE





In 1953, based on a clapped-out builder’s lorry, I had built a sort of car in which I could sleep for the nights during a Grand Tour of Europe.


After Paris I headed south toward the Loire valley to visit an artistic family whose painter and architect sons I had become friends with in their capital city. 


It was to be a curtesy call on my journey toward Spain.


Except for the address that included “Manoir” in its title I did not know what to expect.


Certain items of the visit stand out in my memory.


The family had once been landowners of consequence but because of their strong religious belief and  artistic abilities, their fortunes had dwindled away in good works and ambitious artistic projects.


Their Manor house had fallen into disrepair over time, compounded by the Germans, who had commandeered it during the war and had left it in a dilapidated state. 


The lavatory for the main house was some way away from it which might be described as an in-convenience. 


My friends’ parents were delightful and as hospitable as they could be.


I was invited to stay the night and, in the morning, their cat appeared with a small rabbit struggling in its jaws.


With a large depiction of a crucified Christ in the background, the importance in the house of that little rabbit temporarily became of greater interest to my hosts.


We ate the small creature for lunch.  






                                                                




                                                            




                                                                

Saturday, April 06, 2024

CAPTAIN FREDERICK WILLIAM PAGE-ROBERTS





In remembering people of interest that I have met during my life, first comes my father, Captain F.W. Page-Roberts.


He was the son of the Reverend F. Page-Roberts, vicar to the Duke of Wellington and President of the National Rose Society (he budded some two thousand roses a year and had one of the most famous roses of its day (1920s) named after him).


He went to Marlborough College, then to Wye Agricultural College and then to Egypt (then our Protectorate) to, I believe, show the Egyptions how to irrigate the desert with Nile water.


He was an athlete, scratch golfer, played cricket for his county (Berkshire) and  excelled at tennis.


He played the saxophone and drums in the local jazz band.


When in Egypt, the First World War was imminent, and with his ability to read and speak Arabic, he returned to England to join his regiment (1st/4th Hampshires). As a Territorial, he trained on Salisbury Plain (his uncle was the Dean of Salisbury), and was shipped to India as a Captain and put  in charge of Indian soldiers.


Temporarily debilitated through sunstroke, he missed a major skirmish where his friend (the Colonel of his regiment) and many of his comrades were killed by the Turks (fighting on Germany’s side for the Ottoman Empire). 


Conditions were horrific, being desert in extreme heat and nights of freezing cold, and often, in his case, in the mosquito-infested shallow marshlands that was home to those thought more dangerous than the Turks, the Marsh Arabs.


Our relief Army had advanced to relieve our forward troops who,  in advancing towards Baghdad, had been beseiged in a bend of the river Tigris at Kut. To prevent the force from reaching Kut, the Turks had dug excellent defensive positions at Hanna.


The British General aimed to charge the Turkish lines through early morning mist, but it rose unexpectedly and he did not change his mind. His troops now had no cover.


Exposed to withering Turkish gunfire, Freddy Page-Roberts charged with his men, revolver in one hand and, sword in the other, and was shot in the thigh.



Building a “coffin” of mud as protection from Turkish bullets, he lay in a pool of water and blood for, I believe, two days in daytime desert heat and sub-zero temperature at night.


When bodies were being collected for burial, he was found to be alive. He was then taken from the battlefield to a Tigris hospital boat in an unsprung cart from which he fell several times and was then transported back down the Tigris and on to England.


On crutches, still in wartime, he married Evelyn Hewitt (daughter of Sir Frederick and Lady Hewitt) at St George’s, Hanover Square, London. Outside the church, sheets of thin tissue paper were handed out to the onlookers with the names of the newly-married couple printed on them, surrounded by the flags of Britain’s allies.  


With a foot held up with a spring attached to a colar around his leg, his athletic days were over.


Madame Curie had just invented radium, then thought of as a cure-all. He took it in his quest to regain fitness and died from its radiation.




                                                 




   



Saturday, March 16, 2024

A Special Austin

 



For one reason or another I needed a car after I had been invalided out of the RAF. My brother, Nigel, an engineer, knew of someone in a hamlet near Southampton who made up cars from second hand and new bits. 


My requirements were simple. It had to be soft-topped, sporty, simple and unique. Then, for a modest sum, I took possession of a little Austin sports car that was crab-tracked with an outside exhaust that would burn the unwary. 


Baby Austins in those days had very poor brakes and didn’t go very fast. But mine was fun and where ever I went, smart or otherwise, it commanded attention. For an ex-RAF pilot with modest funds at his disposal, it was a godsend.


I had been invited to a smart weekend in Norfolk. So off I trotted in my little car. A rather slow cattle lorry was hindering my progress north east. 


As I was in the middle of overtaking this goliath, a cow, standing athwartships decided to relieve herself. Open-sided, the liquid poured from the truck to soak me in cow’s urine. We all enjoyed the tale in Norfolk and fortunately I had taken other clothes.


On the way from my Council rooms to a wedding reception dinner party, a lamppost jumped out from the pavement to halt my progress. I left the car where it stood and continued with another guest who had just before been entertained in my rooms.


The time came to upgrade a bit, and the Austin became rather unstable at speed, and a bit dangerous.


I had joined an Austin 7 racing club and even the great Collin Chapman, founder of Lotus, was unable to find anything wrong with it.


So I sold it to a man în the city.


A while after, he contacted me by telephone and I feared for the worst.


After solving his simple question about the carburattor, I asked him how fast he had taken it. I have  forgotten the answer but it was very slow and quite safe. 








Monday, February 19, 2024

Past Country Life for Children



I’m sure to have written in the past on several aspects of what will follow.  I apologise for it. But putting it all together will, hopefully, give a rough idea of what my country-bred childhood was like during the late 1920s to early 1930s. Here goes with memories - if a bit haphazardly chosen. 


The pleasures of my youth at Sawyer’s Lands in Silchester were miriad and at a time when one did not expect others to give much of their time for us. We were free to come and go more or less as we pleased. Self-sufficiency was quite normal and one’s initiative, was encouraged. But if we misbehaved Nigel and I were punished by beatings with the back of a clothes brush - Nigel rather more than me as I was my father’s favourite. However, I deserved a beating after using scissors to trim the bristles on my father’s hairbrush. 


At some 14 years old I was at one time looking after myself during school holidays because my father had died and my mother was too busy in London working for us to survive. Then all I had learned about feeding myself, shooting for the pot, and local  friendships fell into place.


Aeroplanes in those formative years of flight where very important for my brother Nigel, and me. There was the King’s Cup for handicapped (mostly) biplanes that sometimes flew so low over our house that we could see the pilots clearly. The Schneider Trophy was a speed competition for seaplanes (with floats) over the Solent that we went to view, and Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, that based itself in a rented farmer’s field, and at which we had our first taste of really flying in an aeroplane. It was magic. 


Then there was a ‘flip’ over London from Croydon Airfield (London’s greenfield airport) in a Klemm Bat, which, when I was 7 years old was one of the many instances that gave me a taste for flying. We were always making models to scale and to fly. One of the latter, a Frog, a monoplane powered by elastic bands, was one of the most sophisticated to fly. 

Kingsford Smith, the great Australian aviator, was to visit and land in our field, but didn’t, due to more “corporate” pleasures. But I did meet him later at Croydon. 


For the house (before refrigeration) we gathered mushrooms (mainly for breakfast and eaten with tomatoes), blackberries blueberries and fruit of all kinds for bottling in Kilner jars to feed us in winter time.

With a chicken farm we ate chickens and eggs a lot, with roast chicken being our choice when asked what we wanted to eat on our birthdays. Our dog Ben would help my father select birds and hold them down with his paw until my father could pick them up. 

We would snare rabbits and acquire game to hang in our larder to eat when high enough. Stilton cheese was also eaten over-rype by today’s standards. 


My rather grand grandmother, of little known origins, once volunteered to clean, skin and cut up a rabbit and rolled up her sleeves to do so. This indicated that she might have been a butcher’s daughter in Ireland. She might also have been a hairdresser. 


My father, an athlete who had played cricket for Berkshire but badly wounded in the First World War, was a bit of a health freak, so crates of oranges featured prominently in the larder. An aluminium pressure cooker that looked like a large Mill’s bomb was used for boiling cabbage overnight. The resultant liquid smelled horrible but my father thought it was very healthy to drink. 

For him, lavatory routine was very important for us children.  We had to “try hard” even if we had not eaten anything for days due to illness. 


Good manners were also very important to him. We would open doors for grownups allowing ladies to go through first. I think we rather overdid it. But it was much appreciated. We had to write “thank you” notes for any gift or visit. I still do. 


My father took great interest in nature and taught us about bird, animal and insect recognition. Our garden was special to him so we were virtually self supporting with fruit and vegetables. When my father had grown some giant gooseberries and was going to show them at the local fete, gypsies broke into our garden at night and stole the lot. Of course we contacted the local policeman who was unable to help, but for every time we called on his services he would say “it’s not good enough” so his nickname to us was always “not good enough”. 

I was the proud owner of a garden gun that fired .2 2 bore cartridges. One day when my parents were out, two partridges walked in our kitchen garden. Miraculously I shot them both with one cartridge. When my parents came home they were shocked instead of full of praise because shooting game then was out of season. This was not a thing to do in country society. I think we had to bury the partridges as to shoot them at that time of year really was “not good enough”. 



                                                        





We had a lovely tennis court that was free of weeds. After we had weeded it, a monetary prize would be given to the child who found any weed that might have been missed.  


As for other entertainments my father played the saxophone and drums in the local jazz band, so we gave dances on our sprung dance floor. Both of my parents played bridge with local families. I was taken along, and to keep me happy was sometimes given marron glacé when I would much rather have had a simple Mars bar. 

In summer, at our tennis parties, we provided home made lemonade to drink. We were relatively poor as when the local brass band came to play Christmas carols in our drive we had no money to give them, which made my mother cry. We may have given them chickens or eggs. 


We, as children, had access to most houses as all were welcome and few doors locked. My sister June once had to deliver two chickens from our farm for a dinner party at the Firth’s (friends and neighbours). Being used to free access she delivered them to the front door of their house. The butler, Sherrard, told her to deliver them to the servants’ entrance. She never forgot it.

Harry Firth enjoyed a good glass. Unexpectedly one day he chose to visit his cellar and found there Sherrard drinking his favourite port out of a tea cup. He sacked Sherrard on the spot, not for drinking his favourite port, but for drinking it out of a tea cup.


If lemonade was the drink for tennis, my own preference was to consume the dregs from wine bottles left out for the wine merchant to collect and recycle. These tipples must have given me a good start to a later life as weekly wine correspondent for our local newspaper and authorship of several books on the subject. 


We used country recipes for country matters. To kill aphids etc, it was with nicotene spray made from cigarette butts soaked in water. Tomatoes were nourished with cow dung dissolved in water. Iodine was applied for all cuts and hurt like mad. Butter was applied for all burns (which I do to this day with success). Dock leaves were rubbed on to nettle stings. Butterflies were killed for the collection in a jar of laurel leaves.  When collecting bird’s eggs, we were always sure to leave some in the nest. We would blow them for our collections, the method being, a hole was made in the shell and a hollow tube with a curved end used through which air was blown into the egg to empty it. 


Connie, the maid, who was a wonderful cakemaker, and who allowed us children to lick out the bowls, always referred to my father as “The Captain”.  Her lover drove the local steamroller, and would leave his bicycle in a hedge at the bottom of the drive. He would crawl into her downstairs bedroom through a very small window by the back door, when a large window beckoned around the corner nearby at the front of the house. 

The roads were cared for by a lengthman. Our local one was a friend of mine and sometimes I would share his bread, cheese, raw onion, and cold tea -  much to my parents’ displeasure. 


We would collect beer from (really, a Mr Beer) in a jug at a penny a pint from the “Crown” village pub. We would collect bread from our baker (nearly every village had its local baker). Ours baked his bread in an oven in which tied faggots had been burned. Other people’s bread somehow always tasted better than ours. The muffin man would come to our village and ring his bell, balancing on his head a tray of muffins and crumpets. 


The local carpenter would take me fishing for chubb at a tributary of the Avon river. 

There were two local water mills at Aldermaston and Burfield where we would cycle for a swim in summer time. At one there was a notice that said: “Please pay before you bathe or else you will be…..”  the rest of the notice board had been broken off, so we never knew how we would have been punished had we not paid. At Burfield Mill there was a tank of eels - which were presumably for sale. 


With the Reverend John Barker taking over from my grandfather as the Duke of Wellington’s private vicar at Stratfield Saye, the lovely Georgian vicarage he lived in became our second home with its occasional balls, a river to swim in (5 shillings reward for our first swim across), trees for shooting pigeons and, for me, being made a Brownie as my aunt was their “Chief” or something. Next to where the Brownies met was a small museum of local artifacts - the kind that country gentlemen liked to have. Another at Silchester, run by Colonel Karslake, who was also Mayor of Paddington, held items that were related to the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). 


Being so close to the Roman town we would often find Roman coins. They were just thrown into a hamper, which was eventually destroyed in a fire. 


Although most of the town’s Roman wall had disintegrated, parts had been restored by archeologists. It was massive, and clearly kept its inhabitants, travellers and merchants safe from tribal attacks. 


The town’s amphitheatre had not yet been excavated and was the farmer’s duck pond. 


At the end of our field was a totally overgrown fortification outside the Roman wall that must have been pre-Roman. We called it the fosse. It was completely wild - and might have been unknown. 


Our local doctor, Dr Daley, who made his medicines in a shed in his garden, ministered to us and never charged as my grandfather had got him out of some scrape or other when they were both at Cambridge.  For me, I learned a little about a girl’s anatomy as my cousin Cherry and I liked to play doctors. 


As my father was so keen on sport and had played cricket for his County, he needed to listen to the Test Match in Australia. With the combination of an areal from the house to a nearby tree, and a huge dry battery combined with a wet one, charged by the Firth’s electricity-generating fly wheeled machine with floor batteries, we were able to reach Australia through a PYE wireless containing glowing valves in the shape of bulbs. It was sometimes my job to lug these batteries across the field that divided our properties. 


Our cars were generally hand-me-downs from the Smithers family, our rich relations. Our favourite being a bull nosed Morris that we occasionally had to push up hills. 


A field beyond the Crown pub was the village cricket field. Watching a match there meant harvesting and eating wild strawberries on its perimeter and catching minnows in a stream nearby.


We almost lived on our bicycles cycling everywhere. Light for cycling at night was provided by carbide lamps. To work these, water dripped on carbide to create acetylene gas which was lit by a match.  


Within cycle reach were two farms where cheese was made. The one at Sherfield made a glowingly yellow cheddar type cheese, and the other a camembert lookalike coated in straw. 


Heating for the winter was by open fires, and beds warmed by hot water bottles.  Light for upstairs was provided by candles or torches.


Lighting for the house downstairs was by gas, made in a lovely, 

clicking green machine into which we poured petrol. Power to push the resulting gas through to the house in copper tubes was by a large weight (concrete) hanging from a tall tree.

The gas mantles on brackets in the house each had to be lit by a match. 


Water was pumped from a well in the garden to a tank beneath the roof of the house by a Swift car engine or, when we were unable to start it (often) by taking turns at a hand pump in the kitchen. This was next to the blackened range that was used for heating water for the baths (meager)  and cooking for the house.  


Climbing trees was for me a great pleasure, as was making tree houses. These climbing skills were especially useful when I was at prep school where the strict and tough regime had been established to make us boys fit to run the Empire. Our headmaster was sadistic, making any excuse to beat us. Certainly my bottom was often decorated with parallel welts of red and blue. An escape   from this regime was provided for me in the form of a crow’s nest atop a tall pine tree. There I could climb to isolation and to enjoy the view of the Needles off the Isle of Wight and large ships coming and going on the Solent.  

 

If the school was to make us able to run the Empire, it certainly failed in my case. 


The war came. My childhood was over.