I was born in 1942 in a large town in Essex. I did not take an interest in national affairs until hearing the distressing and frightening reports on BBC radio in the early 1950s about the Korean War – desperately hoping my father would not be called up to serve again. He had joined up in 1939, been posted overseas in December 1941, and did not return until December 1945, when I was three and a half years old. So for those early years, I was brought up by my mother, with help from my paternal grandparents and my mother’s sister.
We lived in a flat, one of three, above some shops, which were owned by my grandparents. The kitchen window overlooked a bomb crater, and then a small Infant’s school, which my mother had attended and which I would soon attend. The first floor flat was reached by an iron staircase outside the building, which started from a little courtyard at the back of the shops and ascended to an iron-grill platform which gave access to the three flats. The courtyard at the bottom was reached via an alleyway from a door next to one of the shops. Every day we went up and down the staircase and back and forth through the alley.
As a baby and small child, my life was relatively uneventful, in contrast to the lives of the adults around me. My grandparents owned a toy shop nearby, and I was a frequent visitor there. My grandfather had a rather abrupt way with children, though I didn’t really register that then, but my grandmother was a strong presence for me, especially as I was her first and only grandchild at that time. They also had a garden, where I vaguely remember learning to walk, and where I took intense interest in the tomato plants, a water butt with a tap at the bottom, a peach tree against a wall, and a compost heap. There were little brick paths around the garden, which were ideal for toddling around.
My mother took me on foot everywhere she could by pushchair. There was a park with a museum which we visited regularly, several of her friends to visit who lived nearby, my aunt’s house and small garden about a mile away where I spent a day a week at least, and the town’s cemetery. We visited the cemetery regularly because my maternal grandparents were recently buried there, after having been killed by a bomb landing directly on their house in 1941. This was a traumatic time for my mother, who had not only lost both her parents in unbearable circumstances, but had also left her job, got married, seen her husband off to war and given birth to me, all in the space of 12 months. I of course was unaware of any of this.
But life goes on
There was regular shopping to do. Fortunately the shops were close by. A butcher, a baker, a grocer, a sweet shop and a greengrocer, although the rationing was severe and limited us to small amounts each week of eggs, meat, cheese and so on. The shopping visits were frequent, friendly, and involved some queueing. There was a lot of personal contact with each of the shop-keepers, their staff, and other customers.
In late 1944 or early 1945, we went out into the street when we heard a doodlebug overhead, and watched its approach. Someone in the crowd shouted for it to go away. I dimly remember this. Fortunately it did so, and crashed and exploded harmlessly in a field outside the town.
A father returns
In December 1945 my father returned. He had been captured and held in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Japan, mining coal, for three years, and released after the two atomic bombs landed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His body weight then was around 6 stone. His journey home, involving hospitalisation and then long sea and train journeys, took 4 months, during which time he more than doubled his body weight. He was among the 10% of his regiment who made it back, so he had been very lucky. I didn’t know any of this at the time. The first I remember was a man calling out “cock-a-doodle-do” at the bottom of the iron staircase while I waited at the top.
His long-term recuperation took time. He was interviewed on the BBC by Freddie Grisewood, he wrote a memoire of his experiences and he used his £50 demob payment to hire a coach to take his friends and relations up to London to see a show at the London Palladium.
Post war normality
In 1947 my brother was born and I started at the Infant’s school. On Sundays, I was taken out to the pub in my grandparent’s car. Grandad usually drove in the middle of the road, which was OK most of the time because there was hardly any traffic. At the pub, I was left outside with a lemonade, while my grandfather bought a round inside and held forth about the local football team, which he had played for and had strong opinions about.
In 1949 I started at the junior school. This was a mile and a half away, which I walked alone each way. Up a long street, past the church, along another street, round the park, along and then across the bypass. Girls were separated from boys and we had no contact. At morning break we had a half-pint bottle of milk with a straw. At the long lunchbreak it was mostly marble games, swapping cigarette cards, and games of chase in the playground. There were no sports, games, or gym lessons. I had one minor scuffle once with another boy for no particular reason. On the way home I dallied with another boy in the bomb crater next to the school, even though we were warned not to, and then further dallied in the park. Nothing serious, though my mother told me not to do any of these things. Arriving home, I went to the toy shop and hung around there till closing time.
In 1951 we moved to a new house, a new kitchen, a new radio and a new era. The daily news reports from Korea marked the end of my childhood innocence.