I have been waiting for a few key people to die before I really get started on my autobiography, so that I don’t get sued. They are taking their time about it. If they don’t get on with it soon I may beat them out the door. In the meantime I shall have to stick with the relative safety of what I recall of my early childhood and younger days.
This is not written to entertain anyone. That comes later when I revise it and start making things up. In the meantime I am just jotting down some dot points to jog my memory so I can expand more fully some of the stories later on. It is pretty random at this stage.
Draft 1. My Autobiography, Part 1: The Early Years.
Chapter 1: England and Beyond.
Around 1:15 in the early morning of January 16 1952, my grandmother woke my father from his no-doubt sound sleep to tell him that he was now the father of a baby boy. Dad didn’t need to ask how she knew this. She is Irish. Later that day he visited Woking Hospital and learned that his mother was correct both about the time and my gender.
That was me. Born.
That is how the story was told to me. Once, many years later, over a teacup she was reading, my Irish Nanna told me she had the sight, and she thought I did too. She was pretty guilty about it because it rather clashed with how she was raised a Catholic. That is why I know she really believed it. Because it made her feel guilty. Me, I have my own theories on how some people seem able to work out what’s going on when others can’t. It involves the subconscious processing power of the brain. If tea leaves or some other form of pattern recognition process helps, well who am I to argue. At least not with my grandmother.
Only last week I put extra food in the slow cooker one morning because I had a feeling I would have guests that evening. Sure enough two tourists I had met two days before turned up. They had to turn back on the Canning Stock Route after one had a bike accident in the sand dunes. They were most surprised when I told them I had been expecting them and I had a hot meal ready for them. But I am digressing sixty two years ahead already.
Now read on:
By describing to older relatives the houses, events, pets and locations that I recalled, I have been able to place my earliest memories to when I was three years old or younger.
Some of them are pretty hazy, like waving bye-bye to my dad, held in Mum’s arms outside a house I could partly describe. Others are very clear images even now. Why I remember particular things I don’t know.
My cousin Dawn and I both sitting on a potty beside each other, in front of a blazing fire at my paternal grandparents’ house.
The very first time I wiped my own bum all by myself. Mum had left me on the loo and gone next door. Such pride. I had to go over next door to tell her and everyone else about my achievement. I don’t think Mum was all that impressed.
My Irish Great Grandmother, Granny Coffee (nee O’Brien) sitting on a high backed chair like a queen on a throne in an ill-lit room and giving me a ten shilling note. The only memory I have of her.
Fireworks and a bonfire in the snow.
Silver threepenny bits in Christmas pudding that flamed as it was served. The only time my Irish grandmother ever used alcohol was that little bit of Brandy on the Christmas pudding.
The pine smell of Christmas. A teddy bear. A koala made of kangaroo skin from Aunty Berys in Australia. I gave them both away to a collection for poor kids when I was 15. Many years later I saw the koala, or one exactly like it – even down to the worn patches – in an antique shop. I couldn’t afford to buy it back.
Picking blackberries. Scratched hands. Blackberry and apple pie.
Rhubarb. Custard, Lemon Curd. Cherry pie. Counting stones to see who got the most. Nanna always made sure it was me.
The huge copper in which Nanna did the laundry. The mangle which squeezed the wet clothes dry when you turned the handle. Blue in the rinse water.
Riding on the back of Nanna’s bike as she took me to work at her cleaning job.
Hiding under the table with my mother when some chap came around to collect half a crown that mum didn’t have. It seemed half a crown was a lot of money. Grandad Ayres gave me one whenever we visited. Once he asked me “Double or nothing?” I asked what that meant and he explained that if he tossed the coin and it came down heads, I would get two half crowns. If it came down tails he would keep it. I knew I was onto a sure thing because granddad would never let me leave without my half crown. So I agreed. He tossed. I lost. He kept the half crown and then gave me the best advice I’d ever had from an adult. “Never gamble son”. The sting of it stuck. I have never been keen to part with money on a bet.
There was a silver birch tree in our front garden at the Balmoral Estate, Woking. i loved its white bark. I visited the house in 2008 with my Aunt Anne. The tree is gone. The old lady who lived there wanted to know why I was photographing her house.
Snow so deep Dad’s car was just a white mound. I made a tunnel in the snow.
I remember an uncle’s wood shed, his saw-horses, axes, files and saws. The delightful smell of rotting sawdust that I still love. They had a big black dog and I still love dog smell too. I must have liked it there. There was an open space and woods behind their house. We walked the dog and explored.
Picking bluebells in the woods and catching sticklebacks in a stream with my aunts, who were not that much older than I, though they seemed so much older at the time. Collecting acorns.
Conkers. A Horse Chestnut on a string.
A shady lane walking with my aunts as a girl rode by on a horse. The horse dropped its doos right near me. I liked that smell too. And the spring smell of the woods.
Walking round Horsell Common. There was a huge pond which I was told was a bomb crater. It had a wrecked fighter plane in it. There had been a war not long ago. Right here. Later, somewhere else, I saw areas of broken houses and piles of bricks that Dad said had been houses that were bombed. There was a war there too.
Being told that Horsell Common was where the Martians had landed and not yet being aware that some stories are true and others are not.
That pond on the common had frogs in it. That is where my interest in frogs began.
Waiting outside the Cricketers Arms while Dad talked to a man about a dog. He brought me out a glass of lemonade sometimes. I waited patiently but I never ever saw a dog.
Fishing in the Basingstoke Canal. A cousin singing an Elvis song, – I’m All Shook Up. We used floats that bobbed on the surface. I don’t remember catching anything but I was really interested to see the canal locks in action. I watched a small motor boat be lowered from one lock to the next. There was duckweed on the water.
Playing with my cousins David and John. They had a cool collection of military Dinky toys, and toy soldiers.
On a double decker bus singing Last Train to San Fernando and some other song of which I can now only remember the line I’m only a poor man how much can I take? I thought the line referred to how much money was the singer allowed to have.
Lonnie Donnegan. Skiffle groups.
Sitting upstairs on the bus at the front, pretending to be the driver. I also seem to vaguely recall holding up the bus once for someone to get on, until my mother explained to the conductor that I was talking about my imaginary friend. Or perhaps I only recall this because I have been told the story a few times. Either way, it really happened.
I had an invisible friend, not an imaginary one. Apparently I passed on some pretty interesting stories that he told me. I can’t remember what he looked like, but he was adult. I believe he was Irish and may have been one of the Sidh. Sometimes I am pretty sure he is real. Just really good at not being seen when he didn’t want to be. Plainly I could see him, or I would not have been talking about him. I did, therefore he was.
I remember buying a Minnie Mouse shaped ice lolly from the man with a horse-drawn ice cream cart. It cost a penny, which was very expensive in those days. My mother complained. Disney. I recall the coin was enormous in my hand. I also recall I didn’t want the Minnie Mouse one, I wanted Donald Duck, but Minnie was all that was left. Someone else got the last Donald Duck. I saw it and I thought it had a much better shape than the Minnie. Funny what you remember. I don’t even know what flavour they were.
I remember pedalling my jeep to the corner sweet shop to buy sweets I paid for with farthings from the money pouch on the holster belt of my cowboy outfit. Farthings were a much more manageable sized coin and everyone gave them to me to put in my pouch. I learned that four of them were equivalent to a whole penny. Sweets were sold by the ounce and it seemed to me that a few farthings bought quite a lot of sweets.
Trebor Chews, Lemon Drops, Smarties, Rowntree’s Wine Gums. Licorice Allsorts.
I remember painting my grandparents’ garage door with an old paintbrush and a bucket of water dyed with laundry blue. The garage door never changed colour no matter how many coats I applied. I wondered why my grandad wanted me to do it.
I remember picking plums with Grandad, and him telling me they were Victorias. He said Nanna made him send some to the Queen at Buckingham Palace every year, because the song says “Send her Victorias”. I didn’t get it.
Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. Forever associated with that potting shed at my other Grandad’s place. It had been a Bomb Shelter in the back garden and was now used as a toolshed and storage for flowerpots. The dim light and dusty petrichor smell.
Picking peas and digging potatoes with my other Grandad. The smell of freshly dug potatoes (and the taste of them cooked) also lives in my memory. New potatoes.
Shucking peas with the other Nanna. The taste of raw peas.
Cold sausages and cold cooked new potatoes. With butter.
Crying over cooked liver because I simply could not eat it without gagging (I love it now). Sent to bed with no dinner and served cold liver next morning for breakfast. More tears. Nanna sneaking by and eating it for me. Mum suspicious.
I seem to recall spending a lot more time with my paternal grandparents than my mother’s parents.
I remember having for a short time a pet grass snake that Dad caught on Horsell Common. I learned that there were other dangerous snakes called Adders, or Vipers. So I should leave strange snakes alone. There is a tortoise floating in my memory too, but I am not sure if it was mine or a neighbour’s. I think the latter, because it slept or hibernated in a glasshouse and I don’t believe we had one.
I had two goldfish called Wally and Sammy that we brought home from a fair in plastic bags. I remember getting lost at the fair and the panic I felt until I found my parents. Or they found me.
Wally and Sammy had a glass fishbowl to live in. I left them with my Aunt when we went to New Zealand. She wrote me a letter to tell me when they died.
I remember toys and books that would be worth a small fortune if I still had them. A Muffin the Mule marionette, Dinky toys, Matchbox toys, an electric train set of the London Underground. I never understood why the set didn’t come with tunnels. It was, after all, supposed to be under ground. A battery powered army tank. A rubber band powered submarine that went up and down in the bath. A tin ray gun that fired sparks. A wigwam. A wind up monkey that played cymbals. A bow and arrow with rubber suction cup tips on the arrows. A little milk truck with tiny crates of bottles, some white and full of milk, some clear. Empties. I remember one of the empties had a bubble in it that spoiled the illusion. A toy shop in which all the jars and packets of fruit and vegetables were actually tiny sweets. It even had little scales and weights for measuring out the groceries.
A yoyo I couldn’t do anything with.
I remember Noddy books and Rupert Bear.
Rupert was smart. Noddy was a bit silly.
Tessie Bear gave me a squishy feeling when she gave Noddy a hug.
I thought Mr Golly was so nice to give Noddy his first job.
I never really trusted BigEars. He seemed rather grumpy and judgemental, though I could not have expressed it that way then.
The Rag and Bone Man came round with his horse and cart swapping stuff for Mum’s rubbish. I never understood why.
I remember the first time I saw floaters in my eyes. It was bedtime and the light was dim. The floaters seemed to drift downwards. I told my mother it was raining in my room. She told me not to be silly. I knew then I could see things other people couldn’t.
I remember watching the track on a gramophone record roll into the centre of the record. I pondered for a long time about where it went. I concluded at last that it went under the label, through the hole in the middle and continued on the other side. Nothing I have learned since disproves this theory.
The record label said Capitol. I was sure it was spelt wrong. It looked wrong. See? I was smart.
Mum packing me a tiny suitcase and putting me out on the front doorstep to wait for the man from the Naughty Boys Home to come and take me away. Tearfully begging forgiveness and promising to be good if she let me back in. Waiting in fear until she did. I don’t remember what I did wrong.
My parents once drove me past some huge creepy looking old brick building and told me it was the naughty boys home. I didn’t want to go there.
I remember the milkman coming round with an electric powered cart. I wondered how he made it go so I took a look while he was talking to my grandmother and mother. I deduced that if I pulled down the handle, it would move. I tried it. The cart jerked forward and all the bottles rattled. I let go immediately, and the cart stopped. It scared the daylights out of me. No one seemed to notice and as I calmed down I felt a little pride in my reasoning powers. I had figured it out by myself.
Soft drinks delivered by the crate in a truck. The scent and taste of orangeade.
Orange juice in waxed cardboard boxes.
The scary face in the woodgrain of the toilet door at my Maternal Grandparents’ house. I can still see it. My first remembered experience of pareidolia. But to me then, it was a face in the door. I was afraid of it but could not stop looking.
Fantasia and the terrifying Night on Bald Mountain scene. My Dad told me his horror childhood film had been The Wizard of Oz, particularly the flying monkeys scene, but I don’t recall that being very scary when I saw it. I just liked the movie transition to colour and the green flames in Oz. Green flames seemed really cool. I didn’t understand the story at all.
Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Robin Hood, Zorro. Andy Pandy.
Feeling sick after a trip to Brighton (?) and throwing up all over the kitchen floor after Nanna made me drink lemonade. She always knew what to do.
A hot bread poultice on a festering sore on my knee. The distinct phenol and oil of wintergreen scent of thick, pink Germolene ointment, from a round tin. Germolene cured everything a poultice couldn’t deal with. Or maybe a poultice cured everything Germolene couldn’t handle. In any case, both together were a powerful combination.
Being put to bed in a strange room upstairs at Nanna and Grandad’s place when it was still daylight. Unable to sleep, watching from the window and seeing my mother go out. Wondering where she was going and if she was coming back. The clock’s tick tock as I lay in my bed waiting for sleep and darkness – which in summer could be as late as ten pm.
A Christmas party in an aircraft hangar where my dad worked. There were trestle tables of food and drink, and an enormous plane. Father Christmas gave me something. I don’t remember what. Maybe that submarine.
I had a sailor suit which formerly belonged to Prince Charles, given to my mother by a friend or relative who worked at the Palace. It was too tight and I hated it. I only remember wearing it once to some wedding or similar event. There is a photo somewhere of me wearing it.
I collected tokens of some sort from a cereal packet. We posted them away and soon after in the mail I received a toy telescope.
One kid who lived near my grandparents’ home in Russell Road, Horsell, I think his name was Billy Cotton, had a new pedal car in the shape of a racing car. It had a bonnet that opened and an engine with little spark plugs and wires and everything. It was so cool. He challenged me to a race around the block, certain he would win because his was a racing car. My jeep was lighter to pedal and I won easily. My First Victory. After that his didn’t seem so cool.
My aunts playing hopscotch on squares drawn on the pavement with a piece of brick. Me not understanding what was happening or why they were doing it.
I remember watching ants on a dog turd by the brick wall on the pavement outside my Grandparents’ house. It was fascinating to watch them. I wondered why they found a dog turd so interesting. It smelt. A few days later I saw the turd had turned white and crumbly. I wondered how that happened.
I wondered about a lot of things. Like where were the ladders that my mother and aunts talked about? “Oh I have a ladder and I only just bought them”. What?
What was a stroke, and why did you whisper about it. Did it have anything to do with stroking cats and dogs?
We visited one of Mum’s uncles who didn’t even have water in his house. There was a pump in his front garden with a handle that went up and down. I couldn’t move it.
My first day at school.
That kid in the sleeveless pullover could be me. It’s not, but I looked exactly like that. I even seem to remember school being like in that photo. Big low tables. The smell of paint and crayons.
I wasn’t at school long in England but I seem to remember being able to read my Noddy and Rupert books even before I went to school. I do know I that in NZ I thought the Janet and John books I was introduced to at Ohariu valley School were pretty lame in comparison. But then I met Dr Seuss in Palmerston North. But I digress once more. That is later.
At the end of 1957, my parents emigrated to New Zealand.
When I found out, I followed.
No, seriously, just kidding. They took me with them.
We travelled from London by train overnight to Glasgow to embark as assisted immigrants on the TSS Captain Cook. I remember the Johnny Walker statue at Waterloo station in London , and wondering why he was famous. Also why he was dressed in that silly fashion. Tearful farewells from the adults. I just thought it was an adventure. Oh, lets get on with it.
I was sorry though, that I had to leave Wally and Sammy behind.
But I had a new Rupert Bear Annual from Aunty Doris to read on the way.
Some time in the night Dad told me we were in a different country now, called Scotland.
Salty porridge in Glasgow.
The TSS Captain Cook
Being on a real ship. The smell of bunker oil, paint and ocean.
Separated in a cabin on one side of the ship along with all the women, girls, and small children. Men and older boys on the other side. I was the only boy in a cabin of maybe six. All the rest were women and girls.
My hand jammed in a door when I tried to go into the cabin when someone was changing. Pain and swelling. Tears. A visit to the infirmary to be sure nothing was broken. Bandaged.
Some stupid girl in a bra. As if I cared to look.
A storm. Everyone locked in and not allowed out on deck. Being sick. Falling out of the top bunk and being relegated to the bottom one. The shame of it.
Lifejackets and lifeboat drill.
I enjoyed the meals in the dining room. I don’t remember being served anything I didn’t like. There was a distinct smell of eggs and steam and fish and white sauce. There was a similar but different delicious steamy hot food smell in the galley when I wandered in there later on my explorations. The kids menu was not the same as the adult sittings.
Sneaking down to the crew-only afterdeck at the stern, which seemed to me to be only just above sea-level. Watching the waves rise higher than where I was standing. Awe at how much water was out there. Making friends with the sailors. No one minded I was there. When I look at the photo of the ship the deck doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as low as I remember.
I found my way to the galley. The cook (there must have been more than one!) was friendly and told me he would cook me something special if I brought him all the flying fish that landed on the afterdeck. He gave me a bag. I remember seeing fish come flying over the ship’s side and flopping about on the deck. I gathered lots of fish. I am pretty sure someone was helping me collect them. That part is hazy. The cook gave me fish and chips and cream scones. Maybe not both at the same time. I am pretty sure I went there quite often whenever I could escape. I probably stank of fish every time mum found me and herded me back. What a give away.
My mother was really irate every time I disappeared. I disappeared a lot. There were some pretty cool places a small boy could get to on a ship and be hard to find.
I was only five. I was curious. An explorer. It was an adventure. I can see now why my mother was so pissed off. At the time it seemed to me she was being most unreasonable about it. That ship was the absolute best time of my short little life so far. Watching the sea roll by was never boring.
Roses lime cordial in icy cold water from a water cooler and with clinking ice that had bubbles trapped in it, and which had just the faintest hint of a metallic taste when you crunched it between your teeth.
Hot salt-water baths. Not enough fresh on board to waste on baths. Another strange steamy smell. Odd smelling soap that lathered in salty water.
Shark fins in the harbour at Curacao. A crocodile in the river leading up to the Panama Canal. Gun towers around the Pepsi Cola factory where we went on a day tour. Beggars in the street. Shoe-shine boys.
The Crossing the Line ceremony at the equator for which my mother cut up my favourite Disney tablecloth to make me a costume. It was wasted. I didn’t win a prize.
I took it so very seriously when as part of ceremony I was awarded a certificate that said I now had free and safe passage throughout the whole of Davy Jones’ realm. I believed it implicitly. Ever since then I have felt at home in or on the sea. No matter what crap has happened to me at sea – and quite a lot has – I have always been calm and self assured, and handled it. I am at home with the sea. I have never doubted that this equanimity is entirely because of what I was told when I was only five.
That is how important an affirmation can be.
And I had one in writing. Signed by King Neptune himself. The ocean was mine.