I’m reflecting from a morning of short presentations to students at a school near me which I did at the end of term.
They had a theme for the week called survival week. I offered to help by sharing my early childhood which is I think a little unusual.
I happen to believe we are shaped, at least in part, by our life experiences and perceptions of those experiences. I wondered whether some readers who might stumble on my blog might be interested.
If you’re not interested that’s fine of course. If you are the curious type, then read as much as you want to.
There are a few scanned images so the quality is not that good but I hope you enjoy them.
When it all Started
I was born in 1955 and believe that was the year rationing in the UK had finished following the second world war.
Early life from baby to around five years old saw me living in a caravan located somewhere near Hillingdon. My grandfather owned the caravan which also housed my mother, father, younger brother, Chris, and of course yours truly.
I don’t remember a lot about that time but was told of various misdemeanour’s.
Apparently I had something to do with letting the chickens out. It’s not clear to me whose chickens they were or how many of these chickens were seen clacking around the other caravans.
My grandfather was a member of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in the First World War. My understanding is, he got a bullet in the lung and was gassed but somehow survived after having a lung removed.
He used to read me stories which I assume were frequently read. Occasionally he changed the sentences; I would notice immediately and tell him to read properly or words to that effect.
My father was a Flight Lieutenant during the war, based out in Singapore and was part of the ground crew.
At some point in my early life we moved from the caravan to a real brick house. I suspect I was around five years old or so. The brick house in question was quite a cold brick house as I remembered ice on the inside of our bedroom windows. Something we called “Jack Frost” (is he still around)?
Father worked as a London Underground mechanic but obviously had other ideas. And it was these other ideas which helped create the adventure of my life.
You see, dad was also an inventor. An innovator, if you will, who wanted more from life than a job. I have a distant memory of someone who worked with my father on one particular invention. I referred to him as Uncle Dick.
Uncle Dick seemed an okay guy to me especially since he let me sit on his lap and drive his car. At least I thought I drove it, although more accurately, I suppose I steered it.
School seemed very ordinary to me, with only a few recollections.
There was a time when the whole school was ordered outside to look for my watch which dad had brought back from somewhere or other. A most professional search as I remember after getting my watch returned to my wrist.
I do remember volunteering to spell in one class and asked to write the word “Once” on the blackboard. It seemed as though the whole school was screaming at me as for some reason I wrote “Ounce” and for the life of me couldn’t seem to get it right.
That cemented my future philosophy somewhat and never wanted to go through the whole emotion again. So, no more volunteering at school unless it was to do something a tad naughty. I will explain more on this topic of naughtiness later.
A Brick House in Hounslow
A brick home in Hounslow was a step up from a caravan and whilst it had its problems, there was much to be happy about.
Our small back garden overlooked a field and in that field was an old air raid shelter. It could never have been that secure though as we (my brother and some other friends) managed to gain entry and explore its confines. We collected a gas mask and a few other bits and pieces.
The small local church was a great test of skill which had me and my brother climbing up its walls and sitting on the roof. Yours truly managed to climb down but my brother Chris was stuck and unable to move from his perch, I had to get dad to assist.
He wasn’t that happy about my leadership and gave me a bit of a spanking. I don’t want to get into a slanging match about spanking, child cruelty etc as times were different then.
There were other escapades of course in which I was caught and banged to rights or whatever the term is.
Escapade one – Sneaking into the local bully boys garden and stealing his sleek, speedy go cart. To avoid detection, we painted the go cart another colour.
We were rumbled when said bully boy’s mum paid a visit. She explained to my mother that her sons had stolen a go cart and included the colour in the description. My mum explained there was no such go cart with that particular colour in our garden and proceeded to invite the bully boy’s mum to take a look. After bully boy’s mum pawed at the still wet paint, it revealed the original colour beneath. The go cart was taken back from whence it came and I learned an important lesson which was, next time use quick drying paint.
Escapade two – Setting light to a hedge. I’d learnt at some point the sheer joy of fire. Such magic came forth from a pack of matches and I was keen to show others I was master of this magic. Having learned striking a match away from you is the safest way to set light to it, I was keen to show my envious friends what I could do.
Having found a suitably dry area, I set light to it. This in turn set light to a bigger bit until the hedge was well and truly ablaze. My solution to this problem was to throw my matches away and run home as fast as I could.
Little did I know the magnitude of my misdemeanour until a poor shocked neighbour called on us. The neighbour explained in some detail that I was the culprit. Apparently a dozen or so people were needed to put the blaze out.
I can’t remember whether I got a spanking for that or not.
Writing this in 2015 and now a parent, I think I can see with at least some degree of clarity on my past exploits a degree of loving frustration in my parents.
My world as a child was quite small, revolved around me and not a lot else seemed to matter. My parents always picked up the pieces I left, for which I’m truly grateful.
Onwards and Upwards – Guernsey Here We Come
Flying in an aeroplane back in the 1960’s was still a glamorous experience even if the aeroplane in question had propellers. I think my mother was a little unnerved when watching the wings wobble up and down, she thought we would all perish in the sea below.
My father explained it was not only normal for the wings to flex but if they didn’t they would break and fall off. Whether this new information calmed my mother or not is open to conjecture.
We landed and arrived safely in Guernsey but what exactly drove us there?
Guernsey – Low Tax
My father seemed very clever to me. He also seemed very tall and incredibly strong although that might be something to do with the fact that yours truly was only around 10 years old at the time. Everything seemed very large except me of course because I looked like a skinned rabbit.
Being an inventor is fraught with challenges not the least of which is how to get your invention out into the big wide world.
My dad’s invention needed not just an idea, it also needed to be patented or protected in such a way that horrible people wouldn’t steal it. In the end, horrible people just did horrible things which put the kibosh on an otherwise brilliant childhood, more on that later!
To get the ball rolling my father borrowed quite a lot of money from the bank. This was, I believe, a personal loan and was to pay for patenting costs in various countries throughout the world.
I’m more than a little hazy on the exact amount but I don’t think the amount matters that much. The bank wanted their money paid back and this is what drove our desire to live in Guernsey.
Back in the 1960’s, the highest rate of tax was something like 83%.
At some point the machine he invented would be manufactured and royalties would be paid. If my father was taxed at 83% that would leave very little from which to pay back a personal loan.
Guernsey was known as a low tax country, so we packed our bags and off we went.
From where I was sitting it seemed perfectly normal for someone to go from living in a caravan, to a cold house in Hounslow, to a rather warmer and nicer place which was Guernsey.
My overriding memories from Guernsey are sketchy.
Huckleberry Hound was a basset hound that followed my brother and I on our various escapades. I’ve no idea who owned him and why he chose us to follow but that’s all he did.
There was someone called Jim (I think that was his name) who had been a circus performer. He showed me a trick and swallowed a long spear from a spear gun. He was also into diving and his mates put on a bit of a show in our apartment pool.
I did go to school but only for a short while and the other children all seemed rather indifferent to my brother and me.
My bicycle couldn’t be ridden without paying road tax which seemed very odd to me.
With everything going nicely in Guernsey I thought we had finally settled down to a life of warmth, sunshine and lots of cash but life is very rarely that simple, is it?!
I’m not exactly certain what had happened but one minute we were reasonably firmly ensconced in Guernsey and the next minute we were jetting out to a very hot Malta.
Apparently someone had made a bit of a cock-up. It turned out that only authors enjoyed a tax free status and not inventors. My father would have had to pay tax in the UK and again in Guernsey. This effectively put paid to our Guernsey adventure.
Flying in a commercial jet airliner was interesting for a young impressionable boy. I remember visiting the flight deck and having a chat with the pilots. There was a paper map which was slowly scrolling and a plot line drawn by a pen. This apparently was as good as it was back then, so no GPS.
We arrived in Malta with lots of exploring to do so no time to waste.
After living in a hotel for 6 weeks or so we ended up in a place called Mosta, which was famous for its large dome.
More about this dome a little later!
Some sort of prep-school was found for me and my brother, a prep-school run by nuns and where we boarded Monday to Friday. In case you’re thinking of the various singing nuns in the well-known film musical “The Sound of Music” I think a little education is in order.
I used to think all nuns were kind, charitable and wouldn’t harm a hair on any little boy’s head but unfortunately this was not always the case.
Breakfast was certainly interesting and not at all what I was used to. Back in the good ol’ UK, I used to have Weetabix and a cup of tea laced with huge amounts of sugar.
Our nuns had a slightly different interpretation on what constituted a good start to the day. Weetabix was actually served in my cup of tea. I don’t know whether this was to save money or had some other quaint motive but yours truly didn’t like it. Nor did I like drinking a raw egg out of a cup!
As a fairly wilful child I objected and refused to partake in this morning ritual. I seem to recollect mentioning it to my mum and dad. At any rate, breakfast returned to something I recognised and all was well.
Another ritual in which I was a somewhat reluctant participant was Morning Prayer. Malta was and still is a Roman Catholic country, where church and God go together like strawberries and cream.
Mum and dad brought me up to draw my own conclusions as to whether God existed; my mind was somewhat made up after a conversation or two with a fellow Maltese inmate!
I simply couldn’t get my head round the idea of an omnipotent God doing nasty things to people if they didn’t believe in him, her or it.
If God the almighty was in fact almighty, why should he care what I think? It sounded more like God the insecure with a somewhat troubled ego. By my reckoning and having observed the nuns around me, it struck me that God was more a reflection of humanity than omnipotence.
The final straw in my complete expulsion of this particular organised religion happened whilst at mass or prayer session. I wouldn’t sing the Lord’s Prayer; I can only assume this was my way of showing who was boss. A moment later a gang of nuns all seemed to converge on this little skinny, English boy, to persuade him to sing the Lord’s Prayer. I held out for as long as possible, I really did, but my resolve was broken. I sang until the nuns were satisfied and left me alone.
I didn’t stay at the prep-school for too long and was soon on my way to something altogether swankier. My poor brother was unfortunately doomed to attend for another term or two.
He related one or two stories of psychological and physical violence meted out to Maltese children. What they had done I’ve no idea but surely, even in the 1960’s, it didn’t warrant beatings and being kept in small dark closets. I think the main protagonist was a nun with what seemed like a beard on her face. The 1960’s was a long time ago so my imagination may have run away with me.
St Edward’s College was my new home and as a full boarding school, I was not to see home for a whole term. Is it me or does time go more slowly when you are young? A term seemed like an awfully long time and I was quite upset at this thought with tears pouring down my little cheeks. Being upset didn’t last that long though as I stoically decided that I might as well get on with it.
The college seemed huge to me, it even had its own nurse and what looked like a hospital on site (probably just a room with a few beds!)
Once I got into the swing of things, life was once again full of exploration and challenge.
I’ve no idea whether all boarding schools are the same but St Edward’s seemed to be a hive of activity and opportunity. I remember seeing a room with people beavering away with electronics and soldering anything with a wire sticking out. Boxing was another activity being taught although yours truly wasn’t that interested.
St Edward’s had a number of other worldly expats and we were spared from the weekly prayer sessions. We had some sort of hall in which to amuse ourselves and amuse ourselves we did.
Life in the 1960’s was full of adventure and daring do. I’m not sure where I got my ideas from exactly, could have been all the Biggles books I had taken to reading and I loved them.
Biggles Books http://www.biggles.info/
Jetex was such fun even though it could sometimes burn your fingers. Unless you were a child of the 1960’s or earlier, you may not know what Jetex was? If you want to take a look, there’s a couple of links below for you.
Jetex was the brand name of an ingenious little invention which was designed to be fitted to model aircraft. Jetex consisted of a small metal tube in which to place a couple of solid pellets and a rear end which was clipped into place and had a small hole poking out.
Out of this hole you placed your coiled fuse. A lighted match touched onto the fuse, the thing would start to fizz and off it would fly.
I use the term flying in its broadest sense because yours truly and other expat friends decided it would be a real hoot if we forgot about the model aircraft entirely. The metal tube complete with solid rocket propellant was allowed to fly free.
The naked and unencumbered Jetex was great fun. Imagine blowing up a balloon and watching it cavort around the room as you let it go and you will get a pretty good idea of what happened to our little rocket motor.
Was this dangerous I hear you ask? I suppose it was but that was the whole point. A bit of danger and daring gets the blood going and I don’t recollect anyone getting hurt apart from a blister or two from handling the Jetex, once it had run out of fuel and landed (it did get very hot!)
Links to Jetex
You will no doubt recollect my entry into this world was the end of 1955. This was followed by around 5 years living in a caravan with other family members.
Life in Malta was a further improvement on life in Guernsey. We lived in a very large and marble stair-cased house in Mosta complete with maid. Aside from spending fun times at St Edward’s College, Mosta had its attractions for a boy of 11 years or so.
We had our green groceries delivered by a donkey and cart. This was a step up from traipsing around town shopping back in good old England. Whilst not exactly a full blown modern day ecommerce click and deliver solution it was fun.
Across the road from us was a large field full of grapes. This provided plenty of scrumping opportunities for my brother and me. It was stopped though when the farmer found out who was stealing his grapes and paid a visit. I also seem to remember getting stung by some wasps whilst taking this forbidden fruit so it probably made sense to stop.
Other great attractions were Mosta Dome and Johnny’s Bar.
Mosta Dome was quite famous and notable for two reasons.
It’s the third largest unsupported dome in the world. During the Second World War, the dome and its praying inhabitants had an amazing piece of luck. Two bombs hit the dome but didn’t go off. It was hailed a miracle although I see it as a piece of shoddy German engineering.
There’s a connection with Mosta Dome and Johnny’s Bar
Johnny’s Bar was fairly well known to visiting ships and had plaques all around the walls. Sailors would visit quite regularly and this was an opportunity too good to miss.
My brother and I plus some mates we had got to know decided it would be a great idea to get onto one of the great warships in Valetta harbour.
Our cunning plan was to meet with some sailors (preferably American, because they had the biggest ships) at Johnny’s Bar and wow them with the sights of Mosta Dome. Inside Mosta Dome was a replica of the bomb which fell through the roof.
As you know, our end game wasn’t just to get free drinks at Johnny’s Bar but to get an invite onto their war ship. Our clever strategy almost worked too but for some strange quirk of bad luck and bad weather.
We did indeed meet some sailors, showed them Mosta Dome and got an invite onto their ship. On arriving at Valetta, we were told that their captain had stopped all visits because the sea was too rough and people were getting sea sick.
Mosta Dome had a peculiar magnetic attraction for us. I can’t remember the details but we did actually walk on the outside of the Dome on the ledge or lip. Pretty stupid really, as a slight miscalculation and we could have fallen, probably to our death.
Things were going rather well for us, we had after all gone from rags to riches in the space of a few years but I guess the good times couldn’t last forever!
My father used to pick us up from St Edward’s College in his new car and it was always exciting to go home at the end of the school term. One day, though, he turned up looking a little dishevelled and it wasn’t a car we left in but a bus.
The journey home also took a new direction, not towards Mosta but towards Sliema and we ended up in a place called St Julian’s.
My father did explain a little about the change of location. I seem to remember thinking it was no big deal. My only concern was I would be reunited with my precious 3 speed reel to reel tape recorder, something I got as a Christmas present a few months earlier.
Mother greeted my brother and me and I dashed up the stairs of our new home to search for my tape recorder. It was then that I realised it had gone. I learned later it had to be sold to help get some money together.
To say I was distraught was an understatement; I cried my eyes out and basically didn’t understand why they had sold this, my most favoured possession. Something had clearly gone very wrong.
From rags to riches to rags.
My father was getting paid royalties for the machine he had invented and manufactured in the UK.
The company in the UK had found some sort of loophole in the contract and stopped sending royalty payments. It was this which had created a huge problem.
Malta in the 1960’s was quite different to now. It had just gained independence from the UK. English people weren’t permitted to work in Malta and the only schools available for expats were private paying schools.
I seem to remember that the landlord of the big swanky house in Mosta had placed an impediment of departure on my father and he had his passport taken away. My assumption was that we owed money for rent etc..
No money, no chance of work, no way to get back home and there was no welfare state in Malta. We were now very stuck.
The home where we were living in St Julian’s was very small and had been provided by a lady on a free basis. We were to pay her back when things got better. Gone were the TV and there was no marble staircase to be seen.
We were, though, quite famous and had visits from TV and newspapers. We may even have featured in newspapers in the UK but I can’t for the life of me find any records so I might be wrong.
Save the Children were also regular visitors and they provided some food and offered to pay for our school fees. This worked fine for a term or so. I’m not certain why we stopped going to St Edward’s, perhaps the fees were too much or perhaps we got bullied.
A local restaurant owner had read about our fate and funded us to eat at his eatery. This lasted until the busy summer season.
My father did manage to return to the UK. He was a Flight Lieutenant during the war and contacted the RAF benevolent fund. I gather they paid off his debt to the landlord; he got his passport returned and paid for his flight home.
Mother, my brother, Chris, and I remained in Malta. Meanwhile my father got a job at Jack Barclay’s, the Rolls Royce dealer, and would send us what little he could afford to help out.
As an eleven year old child I had no sense of the kind of problems my parents had. Yes, I knew things were different but in my world, there was much to see and explore.
Our location at St Julian’s was quite fortuitous in a way. We had access to the sea, a nice sandy beach at St George’s bay, plenty of rocky places to dive into the sea from and lots of new buildings were going up. It was in short a treasure trove of discovery.
Not going to school was no big deal and I never liked sitting in lessons that much anyway.
There were a few notable and short stories about my time in St Julian’s.
I became very inventive and was an early stage entrepreneur. I built and crafted some quite nice looking peg guns. There was plenty of building materials available and I also made quite realistic holsters.
The local Maltese children wanted my lovely wooden guns so I either sold them for money or swapped them for toys they had which I wanted.
This enterprise didn’t last that long though as their parents decided to ban them from using and firing these weapons. Something to do with getting a projectile in their eye.
Our next great endeavour was aimed at the tourist market.
We would dive for sea urchins, place them in our bath which would inevitably stink the place out and then boil them with some bleach. The end result was a colourful looking shell.
My memory fails me here as I can’t remember whether we sold a few or not.
Having lots of new buildings in the area was another area of discovery. We had much fun playing around them but it was not without incident.
One little Maltese boy fell off a plank and luckily didn’t injure himself too badly. My brother stepped on a nail and this was a bit more of a problem. My mother knew he needed an anti-tetanus injection but we had no money to pay for a doctor’s visit.
Some of the local people got together and gave us the money so we could get a doctor and pay for the injection. These people were quite poor themselves and I will always remember their act of kindness.
The story of my early childhood ends with us boarding a flight from Malta to England. There was though, one further small twist.
My father met us on our return to the UK and announced we would be travelling in a chauffeur driven car, a Rolls Royce to be exact.
This particular Rolls Royce was owned by Rex Harrison. It turns out that my father got to know Rex Harrison fairly well and I think used to service his car.
A big swanky Rolls Royce dropped us off in Wood Green which was to be the place of our home for several years.
There’s a lot more to tell but I think I will leave it there for the time being.
Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did in writing it.