At the start of 1963 my parents were twenty-seven years old. I was six and my sister, Marianne, was three.
And we were homeless.
1963 marks the beginning of my contiguous memory. I woke up one January morning with the startled realisation that I exist. There are a few scattered, isolated memories from before this instant, but they’re mostly fragmented and vague.
I was born in Hull. I’ve been told that Nana, my maternal grandmother, looked after me for a few weeks when I was a baby, but I don’t know the circumstances behind this early separation from my parents. I also know that dad had a brief affair with a woman whom he met at a fairground, so maybe these two episodes are connected in some way.
We moved away from Hull when I was two or three years old. Dad had trained to be a policeman and had been transferred to Leicester. We were able to live there in a rented house which was retained by the Police Force.
Marianne was born while we were there, and I have a vivid memory of that exact moment. Nana had come up from Chalfont St. Peter to stay with us for a few days, and she was looking after me while mum was in labour. The arrival of a baby came as a complete surprise. But then again, my parents were rarely inclined to inform me of forthcoming events.
There were several occasions when I was troubled by the expression on mum’s face. I suppose this discomfort was mainly because, at that age, I was unable to find a word to describe this arrangement of her features. Now I would call it a mixture of ‘exasperation’ and ‘disdain’. It was the kind of appearance which someone might wear when saying something such as ‘What on earth am I doing here?’.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why she might have been exasperated and disdainful. I was a timid, fearful child. I wasn’t comfortable in the company of other children. In fact, I wasn’t comfortable in the company of any group of people whatever their age. I preferred solitude.
Also, I was hopelessly awkward and uncoordinated. Around the age of five, I went through a phase where I often fell down the stairs, usually arriving on the floor in a disorganised heap. But there was one occasion, at Aunty Lily’s house, where I managed to land on my hands and knees, facing the flight of stairs down which I’d fallen. (To this day, I can’t imagine how this unorthodox descent managed to resolve itself into so regular an arrangement of body and limbs). I looked diagonally upwards and saw mum standing on the landing. She looked exasperated, disdainful. I’d like to say that she reacted by coming down the stairs to ask if I was alright. But I can’t. She didn’t do that. She just stood there, at the top of the stairs, radiating exasperation and disdain.
I was partially redeemed in her estimation by having an advanced facility for mechanical arithmetic. I had an innate ability to add, subtract ,multiply and divide numbers. I regarded it as recreation. In mum’s eyes this identified me as ‘clever’, but that was just a misapprehension. It was merely the ability to faithfully execute a simple set of rules. Once having grasped these rules, everything else followed naturally.
Dad must have grown dissatisfied with being a policeman because he resigned his job sometime in 1962. Consequently, because our accommodation was dependant on his work, we were abruptly without a home. We were obliged to move elsewhere.
Thus, in 1963, did I find myself in the village of Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire.
Chalfont St. Peter was home to a battalion of mum’s relatives. There was Nana & Grandad, their other daughter Valerie, Nana’s sisters Aunty Lily and Aunty Dolly, plus various aunts, uncles and cousins.
Aunty Dolly lived with her husband, Uncle Horace, on the edge of Gold Hill Common. Horace was a builder. A successful builder. He had been successful enough to buy a house for each of his three children. One of these houses was Whitehaven, on the other side of the common. I imagine it must have needed some degree of restoration before his daughter could move in, because our family was allowed to live there temporarily. Until mum and dad could afford somewhere else to live.
I liked living in Whitehaven, but realise that it must have been hard for my parents. The house was huge (from a child’s perspective). It was unfurnished and spartan. There was no internal heating, and all we had was a three-bar radiator to warm the immense living room. And this was during the notorious winter freeze of 1962 to 1963! The pipes in the kitchen frequently burst, and we were often without water.
Even so, I enjoyed living there. For one thing, my Corgi toy cars could be propelled from one side of the living room to the other without the frictional obstruction of a carpet. This was important to me. I was fascinated by cars. I had a book entitled The Observer’s Book of Cars, and knew the top speed of every vehicle which might be seen on an English road. I was fascinated by cars and numbers.
There was one evening when Dad’s parents, Granny & Grandpa, paid us a visit. It was around March, when the winter freeze had just subsided. They arrived in their chauffer-driven Austin Princess limousine.
Grandpa was wealthy. He and Granny lived in a large house on Northumberland Road in Leamington Spa. That’s the wide, tree-lined avenue where the town’s wealthiest people lived. I was aware that some people (like Grandpa) were wealthy and that other people (like us) were poor, but the distinction was unimportant to me. It was no more significant than, say, the difference between left and right.
Grandpa was large. Everything about him was large. His car. His house. His dark suit. His cigar. Him. (Actually I might have invented the cigar. but I’ll include it anyway. It’s how I remember him). He was the quintessential wealthy 1960s businessman.
Naturally, my interest gravitated towards his Austin Princess. I asked mum to ask Grandpa if I could be taken for a drive. He agreed, and we both sat in the car’s rear compartment as his chauffeur drove us along the road which encircled Gold Hill Common. I say ‘rear compartment’ because this was a limousine, with a glass partition separating the driver from the passengers.
Grandpa didn’t say anything at all during our journey. He just smiled at me benignly. He was large and benign. There was the distinct impression that he would have liked to talk to me but couldn’t find the words, and I liked him for that. I felt an affinity towards him because I too was frequently unable to think of words.
When we returned home it was my bedtime, so I said ‘Goodnight’ while dad and Grandpa sat down at the living room table. They looked serious. They looked as if they were about to discuss serious, grown-up things. The atmosphere had changed. They were waiting for me to leave before the real business of the evening could begin.
This was the last time I saw Grandpa. It’s my only clear memory of him.
It was soon after Grandpa’s visit that we moved into a two-bedroom semi-detached house in the neighbouring village of Chalfont St. Giles. The house was called Chamefleur, on Albion Road.
We had a daily routine.
Each weekday morning, dad would drive us all to Chalfont St. Peter to drop Marianne and I off at Nana & Grandad’s house. This was so that Nana could walk us both to school while mum and dad went to work. Mum was a teacher, a PE teacher I think. I don’t know about dad’s employment but it had something to do with accountancy.
Nana walked with us along Laurel Road to the High Street, where Marianne attended the Convent School. I went to Oak End School which was further away, just beyond the top of Gold Hill Common. The route was all uphill, so I was sometimes inclined to complain about the journey being so laborious.
“You must learn endurance, dear. Endurance!” Nana would reply, not unkindly.
I had the feeling that Nana could walk a hundred miles without complaint.
After school, I used to walk back to Nana’s house. All downhill this time. Mum and dad would arrive to collect us after work, and we would all return home to Chalfont St. Giles.
Oak End School held a parents’ evening during the summer term. Aunty Valerie came over to Chamefleur to baby-sit us while mum and dad attended. We were in bed and asleep by the time they returned.
The teachers must have been quite impressed with my schoolwork, and mum woke me up to tell me so. She was bristling with excitement. She was carrying a number of books and pamphlets which she proceeded to spread out on my bed.
“These are all the ‘O’ Levels you’re going to take when you’re older” she enthused.
I didn’t know the meaning of ‘O’ Levels, so mum explained that they were examinations which I would take when I was sixteen. After I passed these exams, then there would be more exams called ‘A’ Levels, and after I passed those I would go to University.
She showed me an example Biology Paper with questions and answers. One of the questions was…
Q. Why do we feel dizzy when we spin around?
A. Because …. fluid … endolymph … rotates …
What’s an endolymph? Mum didn’t know what an endolymph was, and neither did I. Panic began to rise up from somewhere within my abdomen. Clearly, I stood no chance at all of passing Biology ‘O’ Level. What other things didn’t I know? Some of the exams had strange names like ‘Physics’, ‘Chemistry’, ‘Geography’. How could I pass these exams if I didn’t even know what their names meant?
It was a relief to discover that there was also a Mathematics Paper. This would be easy because I knew all about addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. But it wasn’t easy. It was hideously impenetrable. It was full of strange symbols which meant nothing to me. Arcane characters which looked like distorted letters of the alphabet. If I couldn’t pass Mathematics, then I was hopelessly incapable of passing ANY ‘O’ Levels.
Did I have to do ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels and go to University? I hoped not. University sounded especially disagreeable. For a start, it had too many syllables – U-ni-ver-si-ty. It sounded like a prison surrounded by high, unscalable walls.
The future was going to be unbearable. I was haunted, tormented by the endolymph. It mocked my ignorance. It was unknowable to me, and would remain eternally beyond my comprehension. When, eventually, I reached the age of sixteen, the endolymph would be waiting for me. Ominously. It would be the principal architect of my failure.
It must have been towards the end of the summer holidays that same year.
Dad was on the settee in the sitting room. He was hunched forward, preoccupied with the contents of several documents which were placed on the floor in front of him. He occasionally picked up one of these pieces of paper and thoughtfully moved it to another position.
Mum was seated, geometrically erect, on a straight-backed chair at the opposite side of the room. She was, in elevation, a pair of equal and opposite right angles. Her hands were neatly clasped together on her lap, and her eyes were blazing with expectation. She noticed my curiosity:
“We’ve added up our money wrongly” she whispered to me, confidentially.
It was clear that something momentous was happening. The documents represented ‘money’ in some unfathomable way, and ‘money’ was related to the lust that was radiating from my mother’s eyes. I fancied that I could have helped them, because I was good at adding numbers together. My facility for mechanical arithmetic was not required though. This was adult business.
A few weeks later we vacated Chamefleur and moved into a house called ‘Avalon’. It was a larger, detached house on Back Lane, two streets away.
Shortly after moving into Avalon, mum told me a story about dad:
“One day, when your father was younger, Grandpa invited him into his study”, she began.
I pictured Grandpa, filling the doorway to his study, authoritatively beckoning dad into the large, luxurious room where Grandpa manufactured his wealth.
“Grandpa was at his desk, holding a thick wad of money in his hand”, she continued.
I envisaged Grandpa, seated in a large chair behind his large desk. He picked up a large bundle of notes with one of his large hands. In his other hand was a large cigar (possibly).
“He offered this money to your father, and do you know what your father said?”, she asked.
No I didn’t. What did dad say?
“Your father said “No! I don’t want this money””, she finished.
That was it. That was the story. And, naturally, I believed it. My imagination obediently produced a stylised image of dad nobly declining Grandpa’s offer of free money.
My subconscious mind, on the other hand, retained a degree of suspicion about this brief anecdote. There was something wrong with it. It was too clean and sharply defined. It was too apropos of nothing. There was something missing from the story, and my subconscious wanted to fill that gap.
So it filed the event away in long term memory.
It wasn’t until twenty years later, in 1983, that I heard the complete story from Aunty Sue. She told me how Grandpa had given my parents a loan to buy their first house, Chamefleur. How, instead of paying this money back, dad had told Grandpa that he could “whistle for it”.
My subconscious triumphantly, and rather smugly, treated me to a slide-show of cameos from twenty years previously. Events which had made no sense to me at the time, but had been religiously preserved in anticipation of this moment. I finally understood how my parents’ meteoric ascent of the housing ladder had been financed. I also realised the distance mum was prepared to travel in pursuit of the appearance of virtue.