Growing Dumb

Peter Quartermain


Chapter One

Salvage. We never threw anything away in the War, not if we could help it, you never knew what’d come in useful. Paper would go into its bin, glass into its, broken toys mended or saved for parts. You could always find a use for everything pretty well, no matter what it was. You’d straighten out bent nails, store things like old buttons in jam jars; you could make toy telephones out of old tins and string, kazoos out of tissue paper and an almost toothless comb. And clothes, well, you saved everything no matter how worn out it was, rags made wonderful rugs as well as flannels and dusters.

When they’d darned all the socks and gloves and turned the cuffs and collars on the shirts, then Mum and Mrs Davis might sit in the evenings unravelling old socks and pullovers that were past it and us kids’d roll up all that crinkly wool into balls. “I can’t knit anything with this,” one of them would say, “it’s too far gone,” and she’d pass it on to one of us kids. Some evenings, if we’d done our homework, we’d sit round the table especially in that cold winter of 1939 working away at our knitting spools, what we called corkers, producing long knitted strings we could spiral into mats, pot holders, tablemats, things like that. I vaguely remember somebody, probably Peggy, trying to cobble together a scarf that way, what a mess that was, and Our Kid, he’s my brother Phil, still has a little spiral doily he made then, he’s older than me, it sits under a china pot he’s got on his windowsill in Worcester, the colours of all those different mixes of re-used wool neutralised into a salt-and-peppery browny grey. “You never know,” Mum would say, “it might come in useful.” But it was more than that, there was something essentially wrong, even wicked, about throwing stuff away. We saved brown paper and string, always had a packet of Economy Labels so we could re-use envelopes, steamed off postage stamps if they hadn’t got postmarked. Salvage. Everything of use. Don’t be a squander bug! the posters said.

And food? With posters and adverts everywhere you looked, and slogan after slogan, it was unthinkable to chuck food away. One woman in Barnet got a pretty hefty fine when she was caught feeding bread crumbs to the birds, she should probably’ve used them for rissoles or she could’ve made an apple charlotte with them. “A clear plate means a clear conscience” was one of the slogans, probably from the Ministry of Food, the Ministry had its inspectors going round inspecting people’s dustbins and cupboards and checking restaurants and canteens to make sure food wasn’t vanishing into the black market or, what was probably even worse, being thrown away. Food clubs kept pigs and chickens and rabbits on bombed-out plots and even in their gardens or on the roof if it was flat, sheep grazed on what used to be famous lawns in stately homes as well as municipal parks, and everybody saved their kitchen scraps, put them in the pig bin for collection, the pig bin out where everyone could get at it, it wasn’t half messy on the pavement all round it. In some towns sanitary inspectors sorted out bomb-damaged food, even if it had dirt and glass in it, to see whether it should be processed for people to eat or passed on to the pigs and chickens or just plain destroyed as no good.

We didn’t starve, though I told my kids we damn well nearly did. Of course that was the same as Mum and Dad telling us There’s millions starving in India when we got a really stringy and scraggly joint from the butcher and pushed the gristle to the side of our plate, and what they told me was just as futile as what I told the kids. My unspoken Why don’t you post it to them then? was exactly the same sort of useless resistance as Then how come you’re so fat? which David and Ian never actually said but which occurred to me, made me grin to myself even as I chastised them for not eating up their food. And they did think it, or something like that, they told me so years later, the parent recycled through the offspring, history re-lived. Not that I’m fat anyway, though my waistline now is easily double theirs, certainly double what mine was when they were born, and in fact we did pretty well in the War. Later on I read that by and large people were better fed and healthier in 1945 than they’d been in 1939, partly because with everything under the control of the Ministry of Food it was all cheaper, people could afford it if they could get it. Needless to say there wasn’t much meat, or fruit except local and in season, and you couldn’t get things like ice cream no matter what. But there was lots of spuds and bread, they weren’t rationed till after the War when Labour got in (“Trust them!” Mum said). And there was the odd treat at School (Once in a blue moon! Our Kid said) as well as at home when tinned fruit came in and Dad brought some back from the store, he couldn’t do that very often, he had to be careful, and it wasn’t fair, he said, even if he did clip the points from our ration books, to bring some home when other people’d queued up for hours and then gone away empty-handed. Then perhaps we got more at School because of the School Farm, Pussy Bailey every now and then, once or perhaps twice in a Term, would get hold of great big tins of cherries, goodness knows where they came from, some Old Boy’s orchard probably, not that any farmer we knew would’ve been able to tin them, especially with metal so short. A real treat they were. Cherries. Fat and black. Stones still in. Thin sweet syrup. Dished out by the Cook, just enough to go round, muttered recitations as kids counted stones, tinker tailor soldier sailor richman and even poorman, but never so far as beggarman thief. And there was Nunc, he grew a lot of vegetables in the kitchen garden down behind the Dining Hall next the Headmaster’s garden, and there was the orchard across the road from the Gates as well as the trees espaliered on the wall outside the Master’s Common Room and the Prep School. With “Dig For Victory” notices everywhere, nearly everybody grew vegetables, but we didn’t, not at home, so I don’t think we were specially well off, we didn’t have a garden because we lived in a flat. We only got one egg a week each mostly and sometimes not even that, and two ounces of butter, and a bob’s-worth of meat. Mum certainly had to stretch things, she and Dad would do without sometimes to make sure we got enough.

Dad once brought three dozen eggs back from the Farm at Alcester and Mum and him put them down in Waterglass in a white enamel pail with a wooden lid on it, it had a chip in the enamel all black near the rim, stiff wire running through a bit of wood to make a handle, she kept it in the airing cupboard at the end of the hall in the upstairs flat at Rugby, and that meant she could bake a small cake now and then. Sudden riches. They lasted about three months and they didn’t go bad at all, tasted a bit stale from the Waterglass Mum said, making a face, but they were perfectly alright for cooking she said they were a godsend really and it was a real treat to have a bit of sponge now and again for tea, I really liked it with raspberry jam, or apricot, but “Oh for a new-laid egg!” What she hated most was only being able to have six inches of water in a bath and the bathtub too short even for me to lie down in, that was extravagant, you didn’t do it often, only one bath a week, Dad scraping away with razor blades he’d used for over a year, you couldn’t buy them for love nor money. He had a special razor-stropping machine he’d used ever since he’d bought it in the twenties, I wasn’t half surprised to see one in the Richmond municipal museum just outside Vancouver when I went there in the sixties, what a funny little shock of recognition that was, in a glass case right next to a razor exactly like the one I still use, it comes apart and nestles in a little steel box about one-and-a-half-inches square, the black velvet lining all worn and scruffy bits of beard hair caught in it, solid brass with the chrome worn off in patches. Dad said he had it when he was in the War, and it’s a lot better than the trashy stuff you get in the shops nowadays, all cheap plastic. Every morning he’d load the blade into the stropping machine after he’d shaved, lock it down on a flat bar running across the middle, now and again he’d let me turn the handle it made a little scraping sort of kerflip kerflop as the blade went over and over, the edge scraping along the leather strops inside as the blade turned over and over, really loud when he did it and fast but not when I did, “You need to go faster,” he’d tell me, “to make it work properly,” the cream paint of the windowsill gleaming a bit in the light through the glazed window all pebbled so you’d only see vague shapes, blurry green lumps of trees, the dull dark patch of outbuildings, the mottled glow of the sky stretching up.

We had to make do, but we didn’t really have anything to complain about. Not like those poor devils in the Channel Isles, the stories they told us when we went to Jersey for our holidays in 1952, that underground hospital the Nazis built, Russian slave-labour buried in the concrete walls. Not like anywhere in Europe for that matter, except perhaps Spain and Switzerland and I suppose Sweden, not that we heard very much about any of them, not till after the War at any rate, except what the Ministry of Information let us see on the newsreel or read, the Mystery of Propaganda somebody was it at School called it, he shocked me when he said that, how he could be so disrespectful.

The limbs of Osiris. Not very long ago I was thinking about Moseley, we weren’t there very long, and the Anderson shelter behind the house, did we ever have the cat in there, how could we have managed that, so I asked Our Kid on the phone, he had to think about it, the phone line was clear as a bell as though he was in the next room instead of seven thousand miles away, I could hear him scratching his head the way he does, his hand up over his forehead his forefinger rubbing where his hairline used to be, “No,” Phil said. “We never had a cat at Moseley.” And he paused, I started to say “That’s what I thought,” and he said “First we had Fluffy and then we had Sooty, but that was before the War, I don’t suppose you remember Fluffy you were so small,” and I started to say something and he said “I remember that very clearly because I named Sooty, I remember that, he was still a kitten, he was a long-haired cat, dark grey, we got Sooty after Fluffy’d gone, I can’t remember Fluffy very well though” and I said “That’s funny, I’m sure you’ve got it the wrong way round, because I remember Fluffy. She was a long-haired grey Persian, a Silver Persian Mum called it, I remember once a spark flew out of the kitchen grate and burned her, a smell of burning fur and suddenly she wasn’t stretched out asleep in front of the fire but hissing and licking furiously at herself as she moved away. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” and I thought of Fluffy cautiously emerging from a box when Mum or Dad, but it might have been Alice, brought her home for the first time, and in memory it feels like the house on Solihull Road before the War, there we used the kitchen grate. “But you know,” I said to Phil, “I don’t remember Sooty at all. Might that ’ve been a cat we had at Rugby? Did we have a cat there?” and a vague memory popped into my head of Mum telling me once when I was home from Brewood that I had given Fluffy her name, I suppose we’d been talking about cats, Hermy and Ginger stretched out in front of the fire, it must have been Lichfield then that she said that, and I said so to Phil.

“No, Pete,” he said, “I don’t think so. We got Fluffy when Florence was our maid, long before Alice, and Alice came along when you were only three,” and I said “Oh? You must be wrong, I can’t really remember Florence at all except she was a big woman wasn’t she? wore black? But I can clearly remember when we got Fluffy,” and as we talked we began to sound a bit peeved, we were both so certain the other was wrong, his absolute certainty that Sooty came after Fluffy really got to me, my older brother putting me right, an old irritation. But it was such a totally daft thing to get cross over. “I’m such a Great Aputh,” I said, and we both laughed at ourselves. I thought with a grin how I used to think an Aputh was a baby Ape and how surprised I’d been to find it meant ha’penny-worth; even now that word conjures a fleeting Abominable Snowman sort of figure lumbering vaguely through a corner of my mind. The limbs of Osiris. Memory. Scraps of words clinging like barnacles along with other bits of flotsam and jetsam. You can’t decide what you’re going to remember at any given moment, you’re just going to remember it, “this way, that way,” a poem by Robert Creeley says, “just because | it was in my head today.” The details conflate, pour together. How apt, that Latin word confundere. In the 1960s a friend asked me “What don’t you know?” and I didn’t know what to answer, so he asked “What do you know wrong?”

Probably everything.



Once, quite a bit before the War, when Mum had taken me along with her to go shopping she let go of my hand to get something out of her handbag, she had to pay for something I suppose, my left hand had been up above my shoulder when she let it go, there was a great big polished shop window rearing up above my head the brown wood at the bottom of it right in front of my eyes, moving reflections blurring above my head, bits of uneven bumpy black stuff where the glass met the wood, little drops of water and mist on the inside, tiny cracks in the paint and the wood underneath it, some of the paint curling away, glossy bits and dull bits, a bit of an overhang and the hard wall reaching down to the pavement, a square plate full of holes in the wall next to the ground, a shiny dark blue pram sticking up above my head right next to the window curvy gold lines on it, the silver curved arms of the handle going up above my head to a black crossbar I couldn’t reach, trim white tires on big wire wheels, the spokes all bright, shiny mudguard, and something was sparkling down on the pavement over there and a shoe covered it moved off I went over to look picked it up the end of a smooth brown coat brushed by me, somebody’s skirt coming in the other direction and I turned round and a blue mac with grey trousers and black shoes straight at me, legs and shoes and stockings and trousers, greens and blues and greys and blacks and a bit of red, I held my hands out my arms out in front of me “Mum! Mum!” all these people hurrying about getting out of each other’s way knees and skirts nothing else to see, where’s Mum, I couldn’t see the pram, and I turned round and round and round and Mum’s voice “Peter! Peter! I’m over here,” grey trouserlegs shiny black shoes a walking-stick right over me left and right jumbling away as I turned high heels skirts stockinged legs stumbling going somewhere a pair of brogues brown overcoat brushing Tsk! breathing a cool wind on my cheek me flailing and spinning skirts and knees, knees and feet, shoes gritting on the pavement stops and starts dodging then a dog taller than me stepping away smelling wet caught in its leash a sudden gap and there was Mum’s coat no it wasn’t then the pram and I remembered it and started towards but no I couldn’t suddenly she was right next the doorstep. Mum put her basket down and picked me up and I started to cry, and she wiped my face I sniffled a bit and hung on Mum smelled of flowers and powder and soap just like she always did, my arms round her neck the edge of her hat against my face the hatpin knob all blurry, the whole front of the shop, the window dusty dark green leaves scruffed among the small dark stones where the pavement met the wall, glints of stone here and there and someone going in the door. I could see around and between the people walking about, I could see their faces and their hats, I could see over their shoulders. There was a bus over there, a car parked over there, a set of traffic lights, I could hear all the sounds of the street, and I pointed at a bird sitting on a lamp-post and smiled, she set me down on my feet and said “Come on, let’s go home, I’ve finished the shopping.” I held her hand and we walked home as fast as I could walk and I was glad.

I suppose I must have been about three at the time, more likely four, and I expect almost everybody has memories something like that one, the bewilderment of it stays with you the idea that everybody else knows something you don’t, sure of themselves. Before 1976, and for a while after but more comfortably, I felt knee high to everyone, wherever I went, whatever I did, even in the classroom and the lecture hall: aged four, always the outsider, always foolish, always a bit lost, always surely scorned and mystified, not sure what I was doing. Meredith and I, she’s my wife, had our private joke that in 1984, when I’d be fifty, I’d graduate to being five, and we printed party invitations that said that, a great big 5 and a tiny o. But how did I learn so to dislike myself and my fellows? Why was I so fearful? I was a small and pretty awkward kid, didn’t know at all how to make friends, there’s a mysterious way you’re supposed to behave which defines friendship, husbands, boys, girls, teachers, and so on, it’s what the others all do, and you don’t, it’s what makes them so other. But where and how did I learn such rubbish that in 1962 when I got my first real job and became an Assistant Professor in Vancouver I went to the pictures at the Varsity Cinema and was confounded to see the Chair of my Department, a distinguished Professor and Man of Letters, a Significant Canadian Poet, in the queue ahead of me, the shock of surprise akin to what I’d felt in my late teens when I went to see a blood-and-guts adventure film at the Regal in Lichfield, Dr Saunsbury our family doctor and his wife there in the row right in front of me. But this time the shock was a bit bigger, what was such a prominent man doing at the flicks? What on earth would someone like that want to go there for? How come I didn’t remember my shock of half-rueful recognition when as an undergraduate I read in David Jones that ordinary soldiers in the First World War, privates, did not believe that Officers used piss-houses, jankers, latrines. How come I didn’t make the connection? What spirit of inattention held me all those years and holds me still?

When I was ten or possibly eleven, I wonder what day of the week it was, it doesn’t feel like an ordinary day as I think of it, but a bit formal, maybe it was after all a Sunday, Dad came home for dinner every day, he only got an hour so it had be ready dead on time, during the week he always wore a suit and it was the main meal of the day and we all did sit down together even though it was a bit of a rush, firmly bracketed by Dad’s arrival and departure, that frame always hovered over dinner, except on Sundays. I’m a bit puzzled because this meal was formal, Dad in his suit he wouldn’t wear it on Sunday that’s the day he knocked about in old clothes he couldn’t stay out of the garden he loved it so much, but it was also leisurely, we had oodles of time. Of course it doesn’t matter really what day it was, we were all sitting down, it was roast beef and roast potatoes and parsnips with mashed potatoes as extra and some cabbage, that’s what we’d eat on a Sunday not on any other day, and of course lots of gravy, I loved roast beef and gravy, especially if there was white bread with gravy on it to slide under the mashed potatoes and mop up the juices, I still love that, the gravy was in a boat in the middle of the table, you helped yourself just as you did with hot mustard, and I picked up my knife and fork and arranged my potatoes and parsnips and everything in a little circle, I built a little fort out of the potatoes and parsnips and used some mashed potatoes to plug the gaps and made a little causeway with the cabbage to make a dam along with mashed potatoes and then I poured the gravy in and watched it flow over the roast potatoes down into the little lake with cabbage shores steering it with my knife, jiggled things about building dams and digging rivers, we were all relaxed round the table, and after a bit Mum said “Peter, stop playing with your food” there was a cheerful note in her voice I looked up. Everyone was watching. Dad said, “Yes, get on with it!” and he looked a bit annoyed, so I cut a bit of my slice of meat and started to cut into a roast potato and it wasn’t a potato at all it was a great big brown wrinkly lump of cooked fat that had sat on top of the beef in the oven to keep it moist and I said “this isn’t a potato!” and everyone laughed, Dad, Mum, and Our Kid, but whatever else you did at mealtimes and especially at dinner you had to eat everything on your plate, and Bess said “Let him put it back, Leo, he doesn’t really have to eat it does he?” and Dad took it back and gave me a real potato and said “Now stop playing with your food” and grinned, he’d played a trick on me and Mum said something to Dad and everyone started talking to each other except me. I went a bit pink and grinned back a bit ruefully, a tiny slice from that fake potato on my plate, I’d have to eat that, and it was funny, for a horrible moment I’d thought I’d have to eat it, the whole thing, it smelled good, but it would have been terrible to eat, would’ve made me sick, and Our Kid wondered how come I hadn’t noticed, and everybody except me I felt so barmy grinned all over again. I certainly was a bit of a dreamer. The first real nickname I had at School, one that was my own I mean, that said who I was, I got it after people had got to know me a bit, was Scat, short for Scatterbrain.



The day before Term started – or the Sunday before, if Term started midweek – the Quad in front of the Headmaster’s house would be full of parents delivering their children to School. Little trios of kids and adults in their best clothes standing about awkwardly before saying goodbye, perhaps waiting for the bus back to Wolverhampton so they could go home hardly anyone had a car in the War. You’d see other boys you knew, and glimpse their parents, posh clothes, sometimes they had brothers and sisters come to say goodbye, they’d tagged along for the ride, likely, a day out. Scraps of conversation drifting in the air, some frighteningly posh and self-assured child calling his dad Pater, pebble in his mouth. Aching about in your School Uniform, fiddling with your cap, rubbing the toe of your shoe against your sock to get the dirt off, hoping a Master wouldn’t see, waiting for your mum and dad to go. My clothes, best or not, always got mucked up as soon as I put them on, somehow I could get my shoes muddy standing on a carpet. I’d furtively run my shoes up and down the back of my socks, seeing others do the same; Schoolmasters smiling about the place saying hullo, mothers talking to the School Matron. Kids dreading that their mum would kiss them goodbye, and hoping they would. Not wanting to be seen. “Peter will be in the First Dormitory, with the other New Boys,” somebody said.

A long room, you go up two steps to get into it, big white wooden beam running across the room and through the wall into the corridor, sloping ceiling above the beam at the end and then it levels out above the middle, five iron beds along the side with two windows, four along the plank wall with the door, one of them blocking another door towards the far end, “That door’s kept locked,” Matron said, “we don’t use it at all.” Polished lino on the floor, a battered chest of drawers with a mirror just in front of you on the left, three washbasins at the end on the right in an alcove just past the window, made by a chimney jutting out at the end of the room, sponge-bags hanging under a narrow shelf above the basins, a couple of wooden towel rails on the wall alongside, and another chest of drawers up against a blocked-up fireplace. Radiators under the windows, lockers next to each bed, black painted coat-hook on the yellow wall above each locker, somebody’s flannel dressing gown hanging on one of them, nothing else on the walls anywhere, no pictures, nothing. Everything bare. “This is your bed” – the third one down, blocking the other door, under one of the two ventilators opening out into the corridor – “and this is your trunk” at the foot of the bed. The tartan blanket you bought at Beatties with Mum in Wolverhampton a few weeks ago is on the bed. That’s how you know it’s yours. It’s got your name (on a Cash’s nametape) sewn on one corner. All your clothes have your nametape on them, even your socks and handkerchieves (white). “Every morning you make your own bed. Clean sheets once a week” (the sheets have your nametag, too). Our Kid in Dormitory Two along the hall on the left, mirroring the same layout, and the Head HousePrefect’s bedroom opposite, between the two bathrooms (one has one tub, the other two) and the w.c., you soon learned to call it the Bog, but not to grown-ups. There’s another bathroom just off the top of the stairs, but we can’t use that or even go in, it’s Matron’s. Third Dormitory runs across the end of the corridor, there are more dormitories upstairs, where the senior boys are. Everything strange, even though I’d seen it the year before when Our Kid came. Seven New Boys all of us in Prep School, all of us in the First Dorm, I was the youngest and I’d still be the youngest two years later, in the whole School. And one older boy, about ten or eleven years old, in charge but not back till tomorrow. One empty bed, not made up. “Another boy is coming on Wednesday.” He’d have to start from scratch, then, when everybody else knew each other.

Five months later, half-way through the Winter Term, another new kid turned up in the dorm. The day after we got back from Half-Term holiday there he was when we came up at bed-time after supper, we were all in a hurry clattering up the concrete stairs we’d left it to the last minute as usual and when I came in there he was in his pyjamas, wide blue-striped flannel they were so trim they were obviously brand new, his toothbrush in his hand standing by the bed next to the washbasins. I didn’t notice him at first there were some other kids standing round his bed they weren’t even getting undressed What are they doing there? that wasn’t anybody’s bed it was empty, Alan Franks had escaped it when Morris West left at Christmas, so many people sat on it drying themselves or cleaning their teeth it always got into a damp mess towels and wet flannels left on it or on its locker he’d had to keep defending it and fighting people off, and somebody said “What’s your name then?” and that’s when I noticed him, just a slight little bloke small delicate bones and neat black hair, big brown eyes, real tidy-looking kid, neat. “Prince?” said a voice as I came closer, “What sort of name’s that?” and just as he said “That’s my name” in a strangulated sort of surprised voice somebody else said “We can’t call you that! Everybody’d think you’re Royalty!” and laughed. “What’ll we call you?” asked another, along with “We’ve got to give him a name, we’ve got to call him something!” Next moment we were all talking at once as if he wasn’t there loud and scornful, “He doesn’t look like any prince I ever saw,” “I dunno, look at those posh pyjamas, they’re not like mine!” and we all laughed, after a Term or more ours were all rumpled-looking and worn they’d been through the School Laundry so many times, not that the School had a laundry really it just sent them out to be done, once somebody’s pyjamas had come back all starched and stiff and we’d all laughed, this kid’s pyjamas looked like that, he shifted a bit and looked up at us and then away “He looks like a faun” somebody said, “Nah, ’e looks like a bloomin’ girl!” said somebody else, “Look at ’is eyelashes and those lovely lips, ’e ought to be in the films” and he shrank a little into himself, “Not like Princess Margaret!” we all liked her, he got a bit pink-cheeked, and as somebody else said, was it me? “Hey, he looks like a bird” he pulled himself upright and turned, all bewildered looking, to put his toothbrush in his sponge-bag, his eyes blinking, eyelashes dark with wet, “Just a little bird” came a voice and then “That’s what he is, he’s a bird! We’ll call him birdie!” goodness knows who said that, we all took up the general cry we chanted “Birdie! Birdie! Birdie! Birdie! Birdie!” over and over and he turned back towards us his back absolutely straight an uncertain trembly smile he looked at all of us his eyes moist he hadn’t said a word all this time and started to climb into bed “Yeh, that’s what we’ll call you” and “Now you’ve got a name” and “That’s who you are, you’re Birdie.” We began to drift to our beds all pleased with ourselves as the Prefect came in and said “Come on you lot! it’s way past Lights Out! You should have been in bed ages ago and you’re not even undressed! Get on with it.” And after we’d all settled down in the dark, faint light through the ventilators up on the wall, somebody said “Good night, Birdie” in a relaxed sort of tone and then somebody else “Good night Birdie,” and I lay there wondering how he’d managed to get through all that, he’d been so dignified, it was fantastic he’d hardly even twitched, all of us shouting at him. “You’re all right, Birdie” somebody said.

He hadn’t even cried, we couldn’t make him cry. “Yeah,” we all said, “G’night.” One of us.

A boarder. It was so unlike life at home nearly all of us had cried and cried and cried the first few nights and never talked about it or even mentioned it, it gave us a secret sort of knowledge, strangely secret even from ourselves, that removed us from the secure rule of grown-ups, made us less dependent on the cozy world of family, kept us clear of intimacy, separated us from dayboys. You’d look into their eyes and see nothing you could recognize, no affinity, no response. Nothing, that is, that was anything like you. They looked self-contained. They all had abilities and interests from which you were completely excluded, they were strangers, lives of their own, i.e. not yours. Aliens. What with three holidays, four weeks, four weeks, and seven weeks, and a long weekend at Whitsun on top, most of a boarder’s life had nothing to do with home, except when Mum or Dad wrote a letter, they couldn’t come on a visit, take far too long in the War without a car. When you went home you were a stranger to other kids your own age, they thought it was funny you went to a place called Brood if they remembered, and you got tired of explaining. Phil would ride the Outer Circle bus round Brum, took all day, Mum’d pack a lunch for him, a sandwich, and an apple. If I could I’d go stay with friends from School, the odd weekend, like Norman Laycock in West Bromwich, or Robin Salmon at Agardesley Park Farm near Sudbury. You had to make new friends, break into settled circles or make friends anew.

At home in Brum or Rugby I was afraid of being laughed at or looked down on, had to wear School Uniform because that was all the clothes I’d got – flannel shorts, grey; long-sleeved shirt, grey; School tie, grey with green stripes; green School blazer, green and grey badge on the pocket; School cap, green, with a solid silver badge sewn on above the visor; School socks, grey wool with a double green stripe where you turned the top down, held up with black garters; black leather shoes – and boarders weren’t allowed to wear anything else, at School or in the village. But village kids, like Gerald Wakelam or like Ivor Williams from Codsall four miles down the road, they had sports-jackets, and they wore them at weekends or even in the evening! I remember the shock the first time I saw Gerald in a grey herringbone jacket, in Term time. His dad ran the cycle shop in the village square, and he’d help out some Saturdays. Boarders had to wear School Uniform during the Term, even when I was sixteen, wearing long trousers, still had to wear my School Cap whenever I left the School grounds, you’d get Gated if you didn’t. “Prefects have to set an Example!” But the daykids went home every day, had tea, supper, could go for bike rides in the evening. They came to School after their Mum had cooked breakfast (even if it was only cornflakes, and what horrible grey cardboard they were in the war – but you didn’t know what they’d had), they brought exotic sandwiches for Break or for lunch – cold toast and bacon! the pungent smell of cold toast wafting out of somebody’s satchel filling the room, we boarders never got toast – had games to play (indoors and out), friends to visit, other people’s houses to go to at weekends, family, grown-ups they could actually talk to, listen to and even take part in adult conversations, go to soccer games, trips to the pictures. They could talk to girls, in the village and at home. They were mostly country folk, quite a few of them farm labourer’s or local shopkeeper’s sons or – more of them – farmer’s sons (like some of the boarders), and they had relatives all over the place, went visiting, high tea on Sundays, perhaps; a game of ha’penny nap after with all the relatives and friends, celery sticks in a jamjar of water on the tea table next to the salt. “Would you like another piece of cake, Bill?” They knew each other’s mothers! They had dogs, and cats. Jeff Hayward would know Jake Bickerton’s pet canary. They’d go for bike rides together, or even to the pictures; they could go to town on the bus, watch the Wolves at Molineux Football Ground, do a jigsaw puzzle on a Sunday morning. They’d all grown up together, gone to the same village school before coming here, roamed the fields and woods summer and winter, fought and played, knew each other, knew each other’s sisters (and later, perhaps, married them). And what you saw, when you looked into their eyes, was that, that knowledge, that world they shared with all manner of mysterious folk and animals and each other. Dayboys. Not to be trusted – and in School they belonged to a different House, Kempson or Parke.

Every half Term we boarders were let go home for one weekend, from Saturday lunch to Sunday evening, three hours on the bus back to Brum for Phil and me. So what was there when we got home? Mum, of course; Dad on Sunday – he worked all Saturday, got home late – a pair of strangers when you get right down to it, who most of the year led the life of grown-ups with no children in the house. Of course you didn’t see that at the time, home was warm welcoming shelter, yes, but by Sunday afternoon you were aching about the house a bit, Saturday night you might have played a game of Monopoly or Ludo or whist or stayed up late to listen to “Music Hall” on the wireless with Mum and Dad, that was on at eight o’clock, Henry Hall and His Orchestra, Ted and Barbara Andrews and their little daughter Julie, Dad tired beyond relief, you’d been for a Sunday Afternoon Walk with your parents, you’d played with all your toys you kept at home, you’d said hello to Fluffy, and then it was time to catch the bus back to School, sandwich to eat on the way in your pocket, cold sausage on thick white bread, hot mustard and a bit of ketchup, eating it on the bus to Wolverhampton windows all fogged up, everything steamy, standing downstairs everybody jammed together so you couldn’t fall over, your bag under the stairs, Our Kid somewhere near, just on the edge of shivering from the cold, cloudy breath, hunched up in your mac, sandwich scrunched up in a bit of greaseproof paper, desperate not to drop it, no gloves on, breathing out to warm your fingers as you bit into the sandwich, wanting more when you’d finished, your fingers getting even colder as your breath evaporated again. I didn’t think it at the time, but my distrust of dayboys sprang from envy of their sheer otherness, those alien creatures with a life beyond School’s outer limits, walking or cycling home in cheerful ragging clumps at the end of every school day, even shouting on the way home, helping each other with their homework, listening to the wireless, staying up late. A life which was their own.



We were a bit wary, too, of weekly boarders, they went home every Friday night missing Saturday morning’s lessons and came back Sunday night or even Monday morning. Like Morris West, the kid who’d arrived a few days late all full of himself when we were all new boys, a cocky little bloke from Wolverhampton darker than us like a street kid, sharp brown eyes, curly black hair, like one of those urchins at Wheaton Aston, his dad was a jeweller, Ezra Pound might have called him one of the sturdy unkillable children of the very poor he was so rambunctious, and he absolutely refused to cry, instead he crowed it over us all. How we all hated him, he seemed so undisturbed by it all. Told us the facts of life, while we all cried. We none of us believed him. Your dad sticks it into your mum, he said. That was shocking, yes, and we incredulously laughed. A couple of nights later he announced he was Jewish, he sounded angry and impatient about it – or about us. I hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant, I’d never heard of Jewish before. I couldn’t see why he sounded so defiant, that he didn’t come to School Prayers every morning, but I was startled. Other kids weren’t so baffled, and some were scornful and hostile right back, noisy about it too, even after Lights Out when we were supposed to shut up. “Oh yeah, your dad’s a jeweller isn’t he?” “He’s got a shop in the Arcade.” “Bet he’s got a lot of money!” “ Where’s all your toys then?” and the voices jeered on, in the dark, and after the HousePrefect came and shut us up there were still furtive whispers from one bed to another, there’s a lot of them in Hull, wear funny clothes for the weekend, keep themselves to themselves, interested in money.

I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on, and there was no-one to ask. You learned fast not to show ignorance if you didn’t want to be laughed at, and so little of any of this sank in. Fifteen years later, when I came back to Nottingham after a year in the States as a graduate student, I met and became fast friends with the first artist-in-residence the university ever appointed, an abstract-expressionist painter named Harold Cohen, and one afternoon we were all sitting round talking about cultural traditions of one sort or another it was all pretty abstract, I didn’t really know what anyone was talking about, and Howard remarked on possible Jewish threads in Harold’s work. I turned and said in great surprise “I didn’t know you were a Jew, Harold.” He gave me a funny look and somebody else said “Well his name is Cohen” as though that settled the matter, and I realised I’d somehow thought Jews were radically different from the rest of us, didn’t look the same or smelt funny or something, were marked in some way everybody could see, didn’t know I’d ever met one. “Oh!” I said.

Such extraordinary blindness, even ten years after the Second World War I had no notions whatsoever of politics, I’d never reflected on ethnicity (not that we called it that then) or for that matter race even though I’d seen the dreadful newsreels that came out of Belsen and Buchenwald, nightmare stuff, I’d read lots of stories when I was a kid about noble Kanakas and shifty Lascars working on ships but that was all just words on the page and impossibly remote from English country life anyway, the stuff of comics like the Wizard and Adventure and tales by T.C. Bridges and Percy F. Westerman and W.E. Johns, men with names like Carruthers heroically trying to keep order over thousands of miles of jungle filled with “Indians, mosquitoes, leeches, ticks, snakes and a few other horrors” (that’s in Biggles in the Jungle), and I remember Aunt John in one of her fastidious moods right after the War shuddering about “hulking great Chinamen” you could run across in the back streets of Birmingham or London, “you daren’t go near them,” she’d said, a delicious frisson in her voice, but I don’t think I’d ever even seen anyone Chinese, except pretend ones like the Widow Twanky played by Tommy Trinder in the pantomime or in The Mikado. Now and again during and after the War Dad, when he’d had dealings with the Masons, he was a Freemason himself because that’s what other business people expected, had made an occasional remark to Bess about some people thinking he was Jewish because of his nose he hoped it wasn’t a problem, and once I remember when Our Kid and I were home from School, it must have been about 1946 or 1947 we were going somewhere in the car perhaps for our summer holidays, we overheard him talking to Bess about how people were being turned away from hotels and clubs and places like that because of the colour of their skin, they were both of them shocked, “Oh Leo that’s dreadful!” Mum said, Dad said “It’s terrible; it’s outrageous!” but when we asked “what is” they said “Never you mind, we’re talking to each other,” and that was an end of it. But Morris West left Brewood at the end of Term, December 1941, never saw him again. And a year before, at Rushbury, there’d been a gaunt woman named Hannah. A refugee. German, or Polish. Didn’t have much English, made the beds, ate in the kitchen, kept out of the way. You’d glimpse, spectral in her pale clothes and white face, her blank planed face with its nose and its dark frame of hair, brooding at the top of the stair, keeping herself to herself. A lonely woman, but I didn’t see that then. She frightened us – she never spoke, she never smiled, she kept out of the way in that cold and gloomy house. But when you’re six you don’t make connections, not that sort anyway, and you learned to hide your ignorance. Did we know there was a War on?



September the third, 1939. The day War broke out . . . Who was it said that, on the wireless? . . . my missis said to me, she said, “What are you going to do . . . ?”, some comedian’s catchphrase that, Robb Wilton was it, in a comic routine, laughter of anticipation, he must’ve said it once a week in the War.

But it wasn’t like that at all. It was Mum and Dad in the kitchen, frantically packing stuff into suitcases and boxes, coconut matting all rolled up one side of the room, listening to the wireless, haste and anxiety you could smell, breathe it in breathe it out, waiting for a deadline they knew would happen, us kids hanging about wondering what was going on, the words “it might be War” not meaning a thing. Mid-day. This is the B.B.C. Home Service. Here is the news. Mr Neville Chamberlain has just announced . . . . “That’s that, then,” said Dad, “You’re going.” To Wheaton Aston, out in the Staffordshire countryside to people Phil and I had never heard of, some sort of relatives of Mum’s. After that to a small village in Shropshire. Mum and us kids, to get away from Air Raids. Dad staying in Birmingham, where his job was. I was just about five and a half, Our Kid’d be eight in just about three weeks, and we lived on Solihull Road in Shirley, a Birmingham suburb, dustsheets on the furniture ready to go into storage, Phil and me prowling back and forth, restless, not knowing what to do, no toys to play with nothing to read, everything put away or about to be packed, a lot of stuff already in the car sitting in the driveway.

Which car was that, I wonder, the old-to-me-now but then-almost-new Austin 10, DOL 90? or the sit-up-and-beg black Morris 10 before that? Phil says Dad bought the Austin in 1937 for £197, I don’t remember and I wouldn’t’ve understood that anyway, I’d no idea what money was or even that there was such a thing, but I can remember Dad driving it home when he got it, surprise surprise pulling into the driveway, us kids hanging out the lounge window (“Hey Our Kid, come and look” said Phil), and Mum saying “Oh Leo! you got a new car!”, she didn’t know, he hadn’t told her a thing. Forest green, four doors, black mudguards and running boards, smell of matching leather upholstery. Dad was so proud of that car, he really kept it up, still had it fifteen years later when it went to Our Kid everything in beautiful condition, lovely unblemished paintwork, the bumpers undented and shiny.

We had to sit still, in the back, and once, going away on holidays just after the War, a long drive, main roads all the way, lots of luggage in the boot and piled up on its let-down door, the car was really loaded, we’d been cooped up for hours on the back seat and Dad got out when we stopped for petrol and I said “Can I get out too?” I started to open the door and Dad said “No, you just say inside, don’t be such a nuisance,” he really snapped at me, I didn’t want him to know I’d already opened the door so I just pulled it to, I was afraid he’d hear the snick as the catch caught and I didn’t want him to snap at me again.

He hated driving long journeys, especially when he had all of us in the car and he was worrying about getting there on time, it’d be easily eight hours, probably more, to get down to the south coast, the roads already crowded, busy narrow streets of town after town to get through, Mum reading the AA route-book and Dad fretting, perhaps we were going to the Isle of Wight for the first time that would’ve been 1947 and he was really worried about getting to Lymington on time to catch the ferry, never done the trip before, you had to book months ahead and if you missed it that was it, you’d have to hang about for hours and hope like mad that somebody else had missed a later one, and he went marching off to the building to stretch his legs all anxious and grumpy and I just sat there, I was in the seat behind Dad’s, on the offside next to all the traffic. When he got back he just gave me a look and settled back in his seat and pulled into the traffic and there was a hell of a bang! as the door next to me opened wide and slammed against the rear mudguard it made a great big dent I grabbed hold of the post between the doors and leaned out the road whizzing by under me but I couldn’t move the door the slipstream was so strong. I could see the raggedy nub-end of the black canvas strap by the door hinge that was there to stop it opening too far it was flapping in the wind, Mum shouted “Peter!” she thought I’d fallen out of the car and Dad swerved pulled over to the grassy verge and braked all the cars behind slowing down and hooting and then looking as they drove past and Dad said “What d’you think you’re doing!” and got out and had a look, his face pale, “Look at the damage!” he said but he was trembling a bit and gave me a look, and Mum said “Peter are you alright?” of course I wasn’t going to fall out I knew what I was doing, and I said “It’s not much, just a strap” and then I said “I’m sorry” but I didn’t know what else to say, I couldn’t explain, everyone was in such a hurry to get to Lymington and so fed up with what I’d done there was no point trying.

That was the car Dad’d been able to keep going in the War, because of the farm, “I don’t want it commandeered,” he’d said, “we’d never get it back. And if we did it would be ruined.” More likely of course like everyone else he’d’ve had to hand in the distributor cap or whatever it was to the police, “vital engine parts” is what the papers called it, so that if the Germans came they couldn’t drive it, but that didn’t happen until 1942, people got them back two-and-a-half years later in September 1944. Goodness knows what sort of condition they were in by then, engine slowly rusting apart tyres perished flat.

I don’t remember those dates, of course, didn’t even know about the engine parts till I was reading old copies of the Wolverhampton Express and Star a few months ago at the British Library, looking for a report on Pussy Bailey’s trial, he was the Headmaster, and I still don’t know when we got gasmasks. I can remember getting one, yes, but was it when the War broke out? I don’t think so, it must have been before the War started, just a few days perhaps, they smelled of rubber and you didn’t half look funny, the black mask and the big goggle-window, the round snout of the filter. When you breathed out the air puffed out across your cheeks and past your ears, you could hear it, and then the edges clamped down on your cheeks when you breathed in. “We must make sure it fits properly,” Mum said the day we got them, and she checked, made us breathe in and out real hard, no leaks at the sides or under the chin that she could tell. “They’re not to play with,” she said. I always thought mine didn’t fit and I’d be poisoned when the gas came, but I didn’t say anything. “They’re not toys.” You could unscrew the canister off the end, pink crystals inside, but you had to tear the tape wrapped round the edge first. We weren’t to muck about with them but some of the kids at School did, that’s when I saw the pink stuff anyway. Your gasmask was in a glossy black tin cylinder with a strap that went over your shoulder and the weeekend after we got ours Dad put our initials in white paint on the end of the cylinder “So you’ll know which is which when you need them in a hurry,” he said. “You can’t afford to muddle them up, they’re not the same size.” Your voice got a boomy echo when you had your mask on and it came out all muffled people couldn’t really tell what you were saying, you’d take a big breath and say it louder almost shouting but all that did was deafen you the noise rattling around inside your head as well as your mask, everybody got really irritated with us when we discovered the weird ululating noises you could make with it on. Don’t be so aggravating! Take it off! Sitting down right now more than sixty years later thinking about all this, smelling that gasmask, that lingering sharp bite stronger than galoshes or new Wellington boots still floods my nostrils, and when I learned caoutchouc was French for rubber it was perfect, a lovely word, felt just like clearing your throat after you’d breathed a bit with your gasmask on.

At the end of February 1941, Our Kid was home so it must’ve been Half-Term, we were crossing the Stratford Road in Shirley, waiting on the median strip for a gap in the traffic it was always busy with lorries and vans, army convoys and stuff, sometimes a spitfire or hurricane wing camouflage paint all fresh going somewhere on a great big trailer, both of us shivering a bit in our macs the pale grey cement of the Static Water Tank radiating cold as we stood beside it, muddy scruffs of grass underfoot, over our heads the smudgy “CD” stencilled in white on its upside-down black triangle, Our Kid anxious about getting us across the road and a policeman strode up to us Why haven’t you boys got your gas masks? Don’t you know there’s going to be a test? and he ticked us off, told us we’d better get home as quick as we can or get into an Air Raid Shelter, the streets are going to be flooded with tear gas so everyone can see how well their gasmasks work, he escorted us across the street, Air-Raid Shelters everywhere, concrete steps down through a squared-off concrete arch, metal doors, damp smell, bunks and benches along the sides, dim lights, the great long mound of earth and grass down the middle of the divided road. Me hanging on to Phil, the little kid mithering away at his big brother, hurrying hurrying in the damp day, Mum in a panic when we got home, she’d forgotten to tell us about the test, would we have the sense to find a shelter, the three of us keeping an ear open for the rest of the day waiting for the test that never happened, Dad at work up in Sparkhill.

In an Air Raid women in cheap cotton dresses and stiff-looking coats, hair in a bandanna, would hurriedly straggle with shopping baskets and paper bags and blankets and pillows, kids and old people chivvied along, games and toys and papers, packets of biscuits and bottles of water, harrying the laggards, calling out to each other. The kids unruly, the adults loquacious, always somebody carrying a puppy dog and somebody else a kitten or a cat. “You don’t want to go down there” but if you got caught in an Air Raid that’s what you did “. . . not our sort of people, no.” The men didn’t wear shoes, they wore black boots, heavy ones that came up to the ankle, sometimes with steel toecaps, and so did their kids, steel tips on the heels. Some of the women had jobs, or their daughters did, they might work in a factory or behind the counter in a shop. Or even work as a maid – certainly none of them had one. Common, is what Mum meant, or at best a bit vulgar – like Mrs Hindley next door, who put the jamjar on the table when they had tea, didn’t use a jam spoon but a knife when they had tea in the kitchen, probably used Hartley’s or even CWS. Didn’t even use a tablecloth for tea. But kind. When I was four Mrs Hindley now and again would take me out for a walk in the afternoon, get me off my mother’s hands. “Talk talk talk,” she said, “he never stopped talking! He’s going to be a professor when he grows up.”

The air-raid shelters were pretty terrible places, especially if you wanted to keep up appearances. Disinfectant and mould; moist earth, damp cement. A couple of Elsan toilets tucked away in the back, Jeyes toilet paper, or Bronco, hard and scratchy. Cold. All those people jammed together, and some of them only bathed once a week, or even less, Mum said some of them keep their coal in the bathtub they don’t know what it’s for. They’d talk to you without being introduced, and the children ran about all over the place, all over everybody, chasing each other, laughing, shrieking, scrapping, snotty noses running – they always had disgusting-looking colds. Sometimes people would be down there for hours at a time, the air getting worse, the kids dropping off to sleep on someone’s lap. At dusk you’d see people carefully lock up their house and go across the street to the shelter to get the best place for the night. Patient, they knew how to wait, and how to pass the time. In the evening, gloomy and chill, the shelters a noisy rabble full of life.

I didn’t have the slightest notion of Class, but of course absorbed it through my pores. I remember at Brewood going some years later, after the War anyway – I must have been about thirteen I’d think, p’r’aps a bit older – for the weekend to stay with Norman Laycock, or was that in the summer holidays, meeting his mum, a large comfortable sloppy-looking woman who talked about “our Norman.” I liked her, she had no airs at all, full and affectionate, you could talk to her. Working class family in a brick terrace in West Bromwich, narrow streets, front door right on the pavement straight into the living room. She’d talk about anything and everything, how the doctor had shoved a red-hot needle up Norman’s nose to cure his nosebleeds. I laughed. “That was serious, that was.” She was annoyed. “We couldn’t stop ’is nose bleeds, day or night. ’E could’ve died.” I looked at Norman. “That’s right,” he said, “cauterized it, didn’t he Mum.” “Didn’t it hurt,” I asked. “Well, it did afterwards, but he froze it first, you daft.” I sat there on the floor with him, in wonder. How could someone like Norman get sick like that, and why would his mum tell me all this private stuff? Kids who lived in detached houses with gardens in Hall Green or Shirley or Moseley looked down on West Bromwich and Aston and places like that on the other side of Birmingham, “not a nice part of town at all, we wouldn’t want to live there” – they had professional football teams, among other things, and that was a working class game if anything was, not like rugby. So I was a bit surprised that people like Norman’s mum even had a doctor. So what a surprise, when I went there. Warm friendly people, casual; always ready to talk; spoke Brummagem – well, more likely WestBrom English. And they talked to you, made jokes, reached right across the table for a piece of bread or a celery stalk or something, easier than asking. “Don’t wait to be offered you might not get anything!” they laughed, asked how you were and meant it, didn’t tell you how to behave or what to do, didn’t disapprove, except when you did something horrid. And if you got into a scrape, well, they’d done that too, you knew that, so that even in chastisement there was always a sympathetic note of pleased approval – not necessarily of what you’d done, but of the life in you that led you to do it.

We escaped the shelters by going to Wheaton Aston out in Staffordshire. Other kids evacuated with luggage labels tied to their collars, or round their necks, on the train, Sammy Roe next door who was the same age as me went on a boat to Canada, strangers among strangers, uprooted. Emptying the cities of children. Thousands of London and Brummagem children dumped in small country villages, billetted; scorned because they didn’t know what a cow was, ’d never seen a cow before. Well, Phil and I had, plenty of times. We had the advantage of Uncle Tom and Aunt Dot and cousin Brenda, lived on the farm.