We called the school ‘The Raans Road Secondary Modern School’. It was a two-storey building, shaped roughly like a cross. The ordinary classrooms were in the main block, along with the administration and Head master’s offices which were on the ground floor at the top end. The arts and crafts, science, and rural science, classrooms were in the left arm, and the assembly hall and gym were In the right arm. When we started at the school, the builders were still digging trenches and putting the finishing touches here and there.
can be seen to the right of the buildings.
Mick, Alf, and I arrived at this brand new school and milled around in utter confusion with the hundreds of other boys and girls. It took most of the morning to sort us out and get us settled into our form rooms.
We were all taken out, class by class, to be shown around and I well remember the funny ‘sinks’ in the boy’s toilets. It wasn’t until I was told that they were urinals that I turned around and saw the real sinks on the back wall. Those urinals struck me as very modern after being used to the black wall with a gutter and drain along the bottom. There were no easels in the classrooms, the blackboards were fixed to the walls. One side of each room was nearly all glass and, if we got bored with the lessons, we could look out at the green countryside and dream of better things. There were wood- and metal-work shops, a library and reading room, and the assembly hall had a large stage for plays and shows. This school was in great contrast to the old Victorian-type schools that we were used to.
Mr. Lawrence was the headmaster of this new school and a jolly decent fellow he was too (as I'd have cause to discover later). Much to our surprise, a few of the teachers from Germain Street School had been transferred up to this school. Mr. Penny, our old arts master, was there. Mr. Jones, whose Religious Studies I missed out on because I was a Catholic, had moved up to this new school. Mr. Harper, whose form I'd be in at this school, was from Germain Street. And my old enemy, Mr. Ayres (of the lost boots affair), was also among the teachers that had come up from the old school.
Mr. Ayres wasn’t really a bad guy. I suppose I over-reacted about those boots and there was probably nothing he could do about it at the time. But, I still wouldn’t do anything for him. He, I suspect, was too busy to notice that I was slacking on purpose. It was a different ‘kettle of fish’ when I saw the super-modern gym and I couldn’t resist swarming up ropes and wall-bars, working out on the beams, and using the spring-board to clear the vaulting horse more easily. Mr. Ayres became a local hero when he single-handedly took on some thugs, who had just robbed a bank in Amersham, and held them at bay until the police arrived.
There were other teachers who we didn’t know until that day. Among them I recall Mr. Guyford (’Guy Fawkes’ behind his back), Miss Shelley (she was gorgeous and every boy in the class was in love with her, as were some of the male teachers. I believe that she settled for, and married, Mr. Guyford), and a dear, lovable woman called Miss Dubray, who took us for music.
Under the guidance of Mr. Lawrence, the whole school staff encouraged us to make the greatest efforts in everything we did. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there.
During the summer holidays, I’d finally decided to change my surname from 'Kissman' back to 'James'. As nobody bothered to inform some of the ex-Germain Street School teachers, who knew me as 'Kissman' (we were only addressed by our surname by teachers), it caused them a bit of confusion when I turned up at this new school with another name. This was proved when Mr. Penny held up one of my paintings with my new name on the top of the page. “Very good, Kissman...er..James.” he said. “Er!..James?” he continued “I always thought your name was Kissman, Kissman, er...James.” The few sniggers and giggles turned to roars of laughter as I answered something like “Well Sir, it used to be James, then it was Kissman, but I decided to go back to James because Kissman wasn’t as nice as James was before I was Kissman, so now it’s James again, not Kissman anymore.” “Yes...quite!” Mr. Penny had said as he had walked away, probably more confused than ever.
And so we all settled in the new school. Alf, Mick, and I were once again in the same classroom together and, as mentioned earlier, Mr. Harper became our form master. Our class room was upstairs at the top end of the main block above the offices. We were each put into a ‘sport’s house’. I was in Cheyne House and wore a red band, which suited me as red was my favourite colour. Each of us became proud of our particular house and it served its purpose in making me try harder at sports when Mr. Ayres wasn’t looking.
Alf’s Mum had bought him a brand new charcoal-grey suit and, much to my surprise, she allowed him to wear it to the new school. When I told Mum about the suit and how Alf was wearing it to school, she said that she would try and get me one. We had no spare cash for such things and I knew it, but, a couple of days later, I was surprised and thrilled when Mum produced a bulky carrier-bag and told me that it contained the suit I’d been promised.
I wasn’t so keen on the colour of brown with cream pin-stripes that I saw as she pulled the suit from the bag, but what a shock I had when I tried it on, only to realise that it was second-hand and had obviously been made for a very large man, not a skinny boy like myself. I knew that she’d done her best, but I was stunned to think that she expected me to wear that ‘Fatty Arbuckle’ suit to school. Then I had another shock. In the bottom of the bag was a pair of brown shoes and I shrank back in horror when I saw that they were old ‘granny’ shoes with long pointed toes instead of neat round ones.
I had no choice but to wear these terrible clothes to school while everyone around me were wearing school uniforms or proper-fitting clothes with decent shoes. With the trousers of the suit pulled into pleats at the waist and tied up with string, a jacket that could be wrapped around me twice and the long-toed ‘granny’ shoes, I set off for school the next day, wishing that I’d never mentioned Alf’s new suit.
No sooner was I in the playground when the trouble started. I’d already had to put up with Alf, Mick, and a couple of my mates having a good laugh at my expense, and I'd half-heartedly laughed along with them. A few boys had laughed as I entered the playground and still all went well. Then one of the school bullies (and, incidentally, the lad I'd helped on the common when he'd broken his leg) insisted on pulling the front of that great jacket open to show everyone around that my trousers were so big that I had to tie them up with string. I felt bad enough as it was but, when he pulled the back flap of the jacket up to show some girls as we walked along the corridor to our classroom, I’d had enough and told him to leave me alone.
But he wouldn’t leave me alone and I became the butt of his jokes for the rest of the day. He was a toffee-nosed boy with a family who could afford to buy him a school uniform. He hadn’t worried about what clothes I’d been wearing when I had helped him out on the common. But, of course, I wasn’t the type of person to bring that up. Nevertheless, by the end of the day I’d been pushed too far by this bully and had decided to get him off my back.
Not wishing to get into trouble at my new school, I waited for him on the path just outside the gate where there was a small copse to one side. As soon as he saw me there, he knew that I was going to try and fight him and he swaggered up to me, sneering in his cocky confidence. But, I wasn’t going to try and fight him, I was going to fight him and win.
With a yell of surprise, he fell back towards the copse as I went for him. He managed to get a couple of weak punches to my body before I hit him a beauty in the mouth, followed by another in the eye, and down he went.
Again, I was surprised at how easy it had been. I hadn’t had a real fight since the Francis Ridgeway affair over a year previous, but, just as I had felt then, so I felt this time. It was good to get this snooty bully off my back, but it would have been better for it not to have come about at all. I really didn’t like fighting and steered clear of it if I could.
Leaving the boy there to be looked after by his mate, Alf, Mick, and I walked off and thought that would be the end of the affair.
But it wasn’t the end of the affair. Unknown to myself, the posh bully had broken a finger somehow in the brawl and his family was out for blood. Alf, Mick, and I (Alf and Mick were brought into it because they were with me) were summons to appear before Mr. Lawrence. He wasn’t very happy about the brawl and asked me to explain myself. I explained about the suit and shoes (which even he looked at with distaste) and how I’d been ridiculed all the previous day by the toffee-nosed bully. I told him how, not wishing to get into trouble at school, I’d put up with the boy’s taunting until I could get him outside. Alf and Mick were asked their version and told him exactly as it had happened. Then we were sent back to our classroom to await judgement. I knew that I could expect nothing less than the cane and my classmates kept making swishing noises, then yelling out with pretend pain and rubbing their backsides as if they’d just had the thrashing of their lives.
Then the moment came when I was called down to Mr. Lawrence’s office again. I could only assume that Alf and Mick, quite fairly, had been left out of this second summons because they had only watched. I knocked the door and entered. The bully was standing there with his arm in a sling. Mr. Lawrence made me stand beside the lad and he delivered us both a long lecture. I can’t remember his exact words or all he said, but the boy was told not to ridicule or bully others less fortunate than himself, and I was warned that fighting while on the way to and from school was classed the same as fighting at school.
I was still expecting the cane, but suddenly, Mr. Lawrence stood up and told us two boys to shake hands, be good friends from then onwards and never cross his path again (or words to that effect). So, using his good hand, the lad shook hands with me. We were friendly when we saw each other after, and I would cross Mr. Lawrence’s path again, although it would be through no fault of my own.
Nobody laughed about the clothes to my face any more after that. The rumour shot around the school that I’d broken the lad’s finger on purpose (which, of course, I hadn’t) and, all at once, I was given a bit of respect by some of the other bullies that I’d been pushed around by at former schools. A couple of them even asked me to join their gangs, but I had no intentions of using my new-found ‘status’ to cause misery to others, and I let them know that I wouldn’t tolerate seeing anyone being bullied.
The suit became quite popular in the end when my mates would take it in turns to get inside the giant trousers with me and we’d do the jacket up around the pair of us and walk around like a two-headed fat boy. It used to surprise the people in the streets and send the other children into fits of laughter.
I often wonder if I was the first pupil to get into trouble at that school!!
I hadn’t been at the school a couple of weeks when one of those events occurred that seem to stand out from all the other events that go to make up a life-time of memories.
Tommy, my old friend from the Beech Barn camp days, lived right beside the school grounds. I’d gone around with him on and off over the years and, while visiting him on the way home from school one afternoon, I talked him into going camping for the weekend. We were both very keen, but his Mum wouldn’t let him go away so, we decided to camp in his back garden. That weekend, armed with my tent, blankets, and spare clothes, I said goodbye to Mum and away I went.
We’d barely got the tent up before Val arrived to tell me to go back home. Off I dashed back home with Val to find Mr. Clarke, one of the St. Vincent De Paul members, waiting, and he had a beautiful black pair of strong-looking shoes which he handed to me.
Mr. Clarke was the manager of a shoe manufacturing company in Chesham and the company wanted to introduce a strong working shoe and boot for industrial use. Mr. Clarke had picked me out as one of the guinea-pigs for these new shoes and I felt very lucky.
He explained that I had to wear the shoes everywhere, to school, out at play, and when I went visiting. I had to polish them every night and he would come around once a week to see how they were standing up to the punishment. The shoes fitted perfectly and, after thanking Mr. Clarke for the wonderful gift, I was soon back in the tent with Tommy. It was then that the curious incident took place.
Wrapped up in our warm blankets, with home-made candles stuck in tobacco tins flickering out a dim blue light, I was telling Tommy about Mr. Clarke and my new shoes when we suddenly heard the most blood-curdling scream from the direction of Tommy’s house. Although I went cold with fear, I just had to look out of the tent to try and see what had made the terrible scream. Quickly, I pushed the blankets off, untied the tent flap tie and poked my head out. What I saw will always remain etched in my mind.
Tommy lived in a semi-detached house and there was about fifteen metres of bare lawn between the end of the house and the fence at the start of the next row of houses. We were camped down the back of this lawn, beside a concrete path that led straight up the side of the house and round to the front. Another path went at right-angles off the main path along to the back door. The rear of the house was in darkness, but, we could see all the lawn clearly by the light of a high, modern street lamp out in the road.
As I looked up the path, all I could see was the lower half of a man walking towards me. In sheer horror, I looked harder, thinking that I was being partly blinded by the street lamp or something. But, there were only the trousers and shoes in sight. Although the shoes seemed to be walking normally, I couldn’t hear the sound of footsteps. I suddenly lost control and shot right back into the far corner of the little tent. My panic seemed to rub off on Tommy and he became very frightened as well. I couldn’t talk, nothing would come out of my opening and shutting mouth, so he was just as bad as I was because he hadn’t known what I’d seen that could make me so absolutely terrified. In utter despair, we watched the tent flaps shaking as something outside began to pull at them.
I felt extremely vulnerable, but couldn’t take my eyes off the front flaps of the tent. In the feeble light from our candles I saw the trousers kneeling down outside as the flaps opened a bit. My heart was pounding in my chest with the fearsome terror that I felt. Suddenly, with a jerk that almost made me shoot up through the roof, the flaps were whipped open and, above the kneeling trousers appeared a face.
To my relief, I recognised Tommy’s Uncle, who had popped in to see how things were going. It’s a mystery why I only saw the bottom half of his body as he approached down the path. As we all sat around the table having supper later that evening, I told everyone there what I’d heard and seen. At first, Tommy said he heard the scream as well, then he changed his mind (probably so as not to frighten his younger brother and sisters) and said that he had heard nothing. I was told not to be so silly and to stop playing stupid games. But, I had definitely heard the scream and had seen the lower half of a body coming down the path towards me that night and I still can’t explain it.
Click here for a more detailed version of the above story with a graphic of what I saw.
I heard that the manager of the newspaper kiosk, on the platform at Chalfont and Latimer station, was looking for a newspaper delivery boy. This kiosk belonged to the great firm of W. H. Smith & Son, who had their little kiosks on every decent railway station platform in the country. I’d never delivered a newspaper in my life, but decided to go and apply for the job.
Off I raced, the two and a half miles to Chalfont, and to my delight I was taken on. A cycle was supplied with the job and I was allowed to take it home. Riding my bike one-handed and holding the delivery bike by the middle of the handle-bars with the other hand, I managed to get both bikes home. I would be paid the wonderful wage of eleven shillings a week for delivering the papers before school each morning.
I was up early the next day to start the job. I pedalled the heavy, red Smith’s cycle to Chalfont, filled up the two canvas bags that were fitted, one each side of the rear wheel, to the cycle and off I went. For the first few days, the whole of the house names or numbers and road names were written at the top of each paper. Then there was just the initials of the house name or the number. For example; ‘Red Roofs’, Burtons Lane, became ‘R R’. It wasn’t long before I knew them all off by heart.
I had the Burtons Lane area round and I thoroughly enjoyed the early autumn mornings as I raced the bike up drive-ways and crunched the papers through the front door letter-boxes. I never realised that there were so many different papers. But, the people in my area mostly had ‘The Times’ or ‘The Manchester Guardian’. It wasn’t a big round and I’d finish it each morning at my leisure, then wander back to school in plenty of time to meet my friends for a game in the playground before the bell sounded for the start of lessons. Sometimes I’d stop and chat to my customers at their doors and they were always very pleasant. Some of them would stop me as they were on their way to work and ask for their paper. I didn’t mind searching through the bags for them as it saved me opening gates and riding up the drive-ways to their doors.
A couple of Sundays after I started this job, Alf told me that a gang of our friends had arranged to go for a ride to Windsor, about fifteen miles away. He told me that they would wait for me to finish my round so that I wouldn’t be left behind.
On the Sunday morning, I raced down to Chalfont, delivered all my papers (there was nobody going to work on Sundays who would take their papers and save me a bit of time) and I raced back home for my own bike, lunch and drink. As I ran back out to get my bike, I thought it would be a good idea to take the delivery bike and use the canvas bags to carry my sandwiches and ‘Tizer’ bottle of tea in. Off I went to meet my mates and soon both bags were filled with the packets of sandwiches and bottles of drink that the others had brought along and slipped in to save them carrying them. But I didn’t mind and it wasn’t long before we were yodelling and singing as we rode towards Windsor.
As well as Alf, Mick, and I, Ray was there, and also the two boys who had come so close to shooting me in the head a year previously. They all had decent bikes with three speed gears except for me. We went through Chalfont St. Giles, Chalfont St. Peter, Gerrards Cross, Stoke Poges, Slough, and Eton. By the time we’d reached Windsor, I was very tired through riding the heavy, one-geared cycle like mad to try and keep up with the others.
After a quick look around from the bridge over the Thames there, it was time to turn and head for home. Although the drinks and sandwiches had been finished, the cycle seemed just as heavy and I sweated in the cool, late afternoon air while we plodded back towards Amersham with my leg-muscles working overtime. Nevertheless, it had been a wonderful day out and we decided to do it again in the near future.
The next morning I could hardly walk for the pain in my leg- and buttock-muscles. I staggered out to the heavy cycle and sat on it with a groan. In agony, I rode off to Chalfont to do my round. By the time I’d reached the station those muscles were free and the pain had almost gone. But I made a mental note to use my own bike for rides from then on.
One beautiful morning about that time, I went back to the kiosk after my round with some money that I’d been given in payment for papers. As I left the station forecourt and turned right while crossing the main road, an old (to me then) man stepped off the kerb on my right and began to walk across the road. Keeping my eye on the man, as I didn’t want to ride into him, I straightened up beside the left kerb, with the man still in the road on my right. Suddenly I heard the roar of a motor cycle storming up from behind. I didn’t even have time to register the thought that the old man was in danger. There was just the roar, then a terrible bang.
A few seconds earlier and it could have been myself that was hit, and a few seconds later the motor cyclist would have swept on by with no trouble. But the old man was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The full horror of the accident was there right beside me. The motor cyclist must have been in a real hurry as he hurtled up the short hill from under the railway bridge to where the old man was walking across the road. He didn’t have a chance as the motor cycle slammed into him, throwing him right up into the air and pitching him back to the ground just in front of me. Blood spurted in a spray and I felt sick. The motor cycle spun off along the road and the rider was pitched into the far gutter where he skidded along a bit before coming to a rest and laying there.
I had immediately stopped beside the kerb. I was stunned and couldn’t move. My legs had began to shake like mad as I watched the blood oozing out of a hole in the side of the man’s head in front of me. Suddenly I had to sit down on the kerb because my legs and body were trembling so much. Then people came running from out of the shops all around and the man and motor cyclist were soon being attended to.
It wasn’t long before the police arrived and, seeing me sitting there, one of them told me to move on. With still violently trembling legs, I remounted the bike and rode off to school. The sight of that old man flying up through the air like a limp rag doll had shocked me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
A few days later, a policeman arrived at the door. It was a bit of a jolt for Mum when he asked for me by my name, which he had written at the top of a form. She wondered what I’d been up to until the policeman explained that he wanted to ask me a few questions in relation to the motor cycle accident at Chalfont. They'd had no decent witnesses until one of the policemen had remembered that I’d been sitting on the kerb and had ridden off on a Smith’s cycle. They had then traced me through the kiosk manager. As I was at school, the policeman arranged to call back that evening.
When I arrived home from school Mum had a joke with me, saying that I was being hunted for by the police and asking me what I’d been up to. Of course, there could have been half a dozen reasons why the police were looking for me, like door-knocking, hedge-hopping, gate-lifting, trespassing (Boughton’s yard?), and I even thought it might be something to do with the broken finger affair. Having never really been in trouble with the police, I was a bit worried.
Mum let me stew (or probably thought that I had nothing to worry about. Like a lot of parents, she most likely thought that her children were angels). Finally, a couple of hours later, the dreaded knock came on the door. Mum asked the policeman in and he looked huge as he entered the living room where I stood. I was wishing that I’d led a better life at that moment.
He held the form up, asked me if I was David James and, with sinking heart, I admitted that I was. Then he went on to explain how he wanted to ask a few questions about the accident. I was very relieved and eagerly answered the questions, feeling that a ton had been lifted from my shoulders.
As we progressed, he kept going back to the speed that I thought the motor cycle had been travelling at the time of the accident. He asked me if I thought that the motor cycle had been going more than the permitted speed of thirty miles an hour allowed through that small town. I had no idea of speeds and speedometers and I told him so. Then I said that I’d never seen Granddad go as fast as the motor cycle had been going and Mum confirmed that Granddad never went over fifty miles an hour out of the restricted areas. The policeman seemed very happy with that and wrote down fifty miles an hour in the space on the form. I had to tell the story exactly as I’d seen it, then he asked me to sign at the bottom.
At the time I was a bit worried that my inexperience with speeds, and my stab in the dark, may have got an innocent person into trouble (I didn’t know about such things as measuring the distance of skids to determine speeds, etc.). Now as I look back over all those years, with a lot of experience regarding speed and the causes of accidents, I can safely say that the motor cyclist had been going like the clappers (could he have been late for work?). Apart from the old man just on my right and myself riding against the nearside kerb the road was completely clear. It was a beautiful morning, very clear with the sun behind myself, therefore behind the motor cyclist. The motor cyclist would have easily seen the man, and would have had time to avoid him, if he’d been going at a responsible speed. The only warning I’d had of the approaching motor cycle was the sudden growing roar of the engine. On the other side of the bridge there is a down-sloping hill with a bend at the bottom before passing under the bridge and going up the straight hill through Chalfont. In later years I’d ride powerful motor cycles past the spot and know that I could easily negotiate it at a lot higher speed than thirty miles an hour. I don’t think that I was very far from the truth when I guessed that the motor cyclist was going much faster than fifty miles an hour!
That was the end of another incident. We never heard any more about the accident, how the injured men were, or if any charges had been laid or not.
Having learned by my mistake, I decided to take my own bike a couple of weekends later when Alf asked me to go for another Sunday ride with him. There was the same mad rush to get my paper round finished and race back home for my bike and the bag of sandwiches that Mum had ready for me. Soon Alf and I were riding towards Windsor again. Our other friends had gone elsewhere.
With a decent bike on this ride, I hurtled along the road with Alf almost having trouble to keep up with me this time. A couple of hours later we were in Windsor. We had a quick look at the Thames, went around to the castle gate, then rode the whole length of Windsor Great Park up to the Sunningdale road.
But we were not satisfied and the desire to see what was over the horizon urged us to go on. Alf told me about his Auntie that he’d once visited with his family. The Auntie lived at a place called Pyrford, near Woking in Surrey. Not realising just how much farther we’d have to ride before we reached Pyrford, we set off into the (for me) unknown. We’d have to pedal another fourteen miles before we saw his Auntie.
We passed Sunningdale, but, a while later as we rode across Chobham Common, the sky turned black with threatening storm clouds. Keeping our eyes out for a bit of decent shelter, we watched the storm clouds gather on our left as we pedalled along.
Then we saw another of those curious sights that helps to keep one’s memory alive. As we watched the black clouds, white veils seemed to drop down from them. It was just as if some giant Goddess had washed all her white net curtains and dropped them down through the black clouds to dry (Or maybe she’d put them there to be washed in the downpour?). It looked a bit frightening to us two travellers who were alone on the road and feeling far from home.
The storm stayed over on our left and we were lucky enough to miss the deluge that we could see falling from the sky. The sun came out as the two of us pottered through Chobham town. Then we turned left down a narrow road (B 585) that would take us straight to Woking.
Pedalling fast down a slight slope, I noticed a line across the road where the dry surface suddenly became wet. This was where the edge of the storm had passed and I’d never seen the change from dry to wet in so sharp a line. I turned around to point it out to Alf, who was behind me, and at the same time I braked so as we could have a longer look. But the rain had made the road surface very slippery. Without warning the bike skidded out from under me and, flat on my back with the bike tangled around my legs, I went spinning down the road.
The first thing I remember after stopping at the end of that mad whirling slide down the wet road was seeing Alf’s concerned face staring down at me. As I sat up he started to laugh. Then, just like I had done so many times when he had been in trouble, he was soon laughing helplessly. But, unlike Alf I didn’t get annoyed. It had occurred so quickly, I could imagine what I’d looked like as it happened and I sat there in the middle of the road just as helpless with laughter as Alf. Finally, we were normal enough to check for damage. I had a few grazes and the bike was scratched here and there. With no serious damage, we continued on our journey, giggling and laughing at the thrill of it all.
As we entered Woking, the sun went down and the temperature dropped rapidly. I knew that we wouldn’t get back home that night and wondered what we’d do if Alf’s Auntie wasn’t in when we reached her house. Voicing my thoughts to Alf, he told me that there was a place called Newark Priory, that his dad had pointed out on the last visit, and we may find a place among the gravestones to spend the night. As the weather was really cold by then, I didn’t fancy the idea. But, if the worst came to the worst, I’d have been glad to have snuggled up to a gravestone out of the cold wind.
Fortunately, his Auntie was in when we arrived on her front door step just as it was getting dark and we were soon sitting in front of her warm fire telling our story. She decided that we had better stay the night (I was all for that) and go home the next day. As we ate the tea that she’d prepared for us, her husband told Alf and I that we were very lucky not to have had to sleep in the old priory as it was said to be haunted. He then went on to describe some of the terrible sights that he claimed to have seen there. Us two young boys hung on to every word and I’m sure that our hair stood on end a few times. He was a good story-teller and we snuggled down in warm beds that night, hardly daring to breath for fear that we’d disturb a ghost or something, until we both dropped off into a deep sleep.
Meanwhile, back at home, Mum watched the seven-thirty evening dead-line go by with no sign of my appearance. As the hours passed, she became alarmed and, in the end, she went down to Mrs. Baker.
Of course, Alf was missing as well. All they knew was that we were going for another ride to Windsor again. They waited together for a while, then decided to call the police. Searches were made by police cars along the road that we should have been travelling on, but there was no sign of us. Knowing that I couldn’t resist the horizon and what was beyond, Mum suggested that we might have carried on past Windsor. Looking at a map with the policemen, Mrs. Baker saw that the Auntie lived the other side of Windsor and she wondered if we might have somehow got there.
It was a hundred to one chance, but the police decided to check it out. At one-thirty in the morning, Alf’s Uncle and Aunt were aroused from their sleep by the local police banging on their door. Shortly after that a message was passed back to Amersham to say that we were safe and everyone was able to get some sleep. Alf and I had been so tired that we hadn’t even awakened when the police banged on the door just below our room.
There was a frost out on the lawn as Alf and I awoke to a cup of tea in bed that morning and we were jolly glad not to have had to sleep out. I think the cold would have been worse than any ghost that Alf’s Uncle could have conjured up. After a hearty breakfast, we said goodbye and thank you to those good people and set off towards home. Alf’s Uncle had pointed out another route to Chobham from their house that would save us the trouble of riding through Woking and we headed out of Pyrford on this road.
By that time the sun was shining and the frost had melted except for in a few shady areas here and there. Autumn leaves were beginning to drop off the trees and we shivered a bit until our exertions warmed us up. Knowing that we had all day to ride the twenty nine miles and not really looking forward to facing the music at home, we rode along at a leisurely pace until we reached West Byfleet.
While crossing a bridge over the Basingstoke Canal, we noticed a rowing boat tied to the bank, and the boat’s oars were laying across the seats. It was too good a chance to miss and we spent a couple of hours going up and down the canal in the boat. We thought it was great fun and it helped us to forget the trouble we were in for a while.
But, the closer we got to home, the more I realised the enormity of what I’d done. Not only had I obviously caused a lot of worry to my Mum and the police (we’d been told about the police calling during the night) but, I’d also missed a day of school, and let the manager of the kiosk down by not doing my round. By the time we had reached Amersham I wasn’t too happy with myself. But, I couldn’t deny that it had been a wonderful trip.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at Alf’s house. I met Val out in the road and she told me that Mum was livid. Alf went indoors to face his Mum and I rode up to face mine.
In spite of all my fears, I got off quite lightly. Mum didn’t grumble too much. I suspect that she was ready to give up on me. She knew that I couldn’t resist knowing what was over the horizon and that time meant nothing to me while I was ‘exploring’. She was probably glad to see me back safe and sound. But the manager of the kiosk wasn’t very happy with me at all and he kept me on my toes for a while.
Mum wouldn’t give me a note for school. She told me that, if I was old enough to go off all night without letting anyone know, then I was old enough to sort my own excuses out if I had a day off from school illegally. In the end I had to go and see Mr. Lawrence and explain why I’d taken the day off.
He laughed when he found out that Alf was with me for he had a letter on his desk from Mrs. Baker, saying that Alf had been very ill the day before and had been forced to spend the whole time in bed. I hadn’t realised that Mrs. Baker was going to tell a fib. With a stern look, he told me to go and I never heard any more about it.
The school had really become an interesting place after the old lifeless schools that I’d been used to. The teachers had a more modern approach and there seemed to be more participation for each individual pupil with less over-all theory. There were plenty of out-door sports including paper-chases and cross-country runs, which I thought were wonderful. We were also taken on some long nature walks. I recall one nature walk when I had the opportunity to use my new-found courage where deep water was concerned.
Our class had gone on a nature walk down into the Chess Valley as far as Latimer village. While passing Neptune’s falls (Neptune now sitting above the falls without his trident) on the way back, we stopped on the bridge to look at the trout in the water below. One of the boys kicked at the wooden lattice-work of the bridge parapet and his shoe suddenly shot off his foot and fell into the river. The teacher said that the water was too deep to try and get the shoe and it slowly started floating down-stream in the current.
But, it wasn’t too deep for me. I was horrified that they could just waste a pair of shoes so off-handedly. In a flash I’d decided to get that shoe by hook or by crook. The teacher detailed some of the boys to wait on the bridge while he led the rest of the class back towards school. If he’d known that my full experience of deep water had been half a dozen walks through a chest-high dip, he might not have been so keen to walk off and leave me to it.
Meanwhile, the shoe was bobbing along in the slow current and I could see that I’d have to hurry before it reached a great bed of weeds a bit farther down. Whipping off my jacket, shoes and socks, I raced along the bank until I was level with the shoe and jumped into the water.
What a shock I had when the air trapped in those large trousers of my old brown suit nearly unbalanced me, causing me to topple forward until I’d gained my footing. The cold water clutched at my body making me gasp, but it was only just above waist high and, after wiping the water away that had splashed into my eyes, I could see that the shoe just ahead had almost reached the edge of the weeds. Luckily, I was on a firm gravel bed with the current behind me.
A few quick splashing strides enabled me to get close enough to stretch out my arm and grab the shoe. As I threw it onto the bank, a shudder of fear gripped at my very soul as a weed brushed the top of my foot. In pure terror I backed back, finding it quite hard against the current. Panic threatened to overwhelm me until I took hold of myself fiercely. Then I slowly waded to the bank and scrambled thankfully out.
Dripping wet and cold, I replaced my shoes and socks and set off with the waiting lads to catch the teacher and the rest of the class up. The boy was glad to have his shoe back (rather than have to hobble home), the teacher was amazed that I'd actually jumped into the water (rather than get a long stick and hook the shoe out as he had expected) and thanked me very much, but told me never to do it again - And for two minutes I knew what it was to feel like a hero.
Val decided to take on a paper round when I happened to mention that there was a vacancy at the kiosk. Within a couple of weeks she was doing two rounds which, I thought, was quite a feat. On most mornings I would finish my round and dash over to help her finish her second round and we’d ride back to school together.
We’d give Mum some of our wages to help out a bit with the house-keeping and spend the rest. I remember that Val went to Amersham with her first pay and came back with Elvis Presley’s record of ‘Hound Dog’. On the reverse side of this record was ‘Don’t be Cruel’ and we wore that song out on the old wind-up gramophone. We’d have the wireless on most of the day when we were not playing records and hear all our favourite songs, listening especially for the latest releases of the time such as Johnny Ray’s ‘Just Walking in the Rain’, and ‘My Prayer’ by The Platters.
But music wasn’t all we heard on the wireless. The British were having trouble in Cyprus and the Suez Crisis was causing us all a lot of concern. The Hungarian Revolution was also being watched closely by the world. We listened to these events unfolding as reported on the wireless and saw the graphic details on the Newsreels each time we went to the cinema. I know that I wasn’t happy at all when people said that any one of these events could lead us into another terrible global war.
Meanwhile, Jim had finished his National Service and Nan and Granddad were very glad to have him home permanently. He managed to get a job building caravans in a factory down White Lion Road. Uncle Frank worked at the same place. Jim settled down and worked hard. Then, about this time, he was cutting some wood on a band-saw when his hand slipped and he cut an index finger off. It was a bad shock for me when I heard about the accident as he had always seemed so indestructible to my young mind. I went up to Chenies and was relieved to find him laughing as usual, even though his hand was swathed in a great ball of bandages. He eventually returned to work at the caravan factory.
One curious thing about the accident was the fact that Uncle Frank, his brother, had also lost a finger in almost the same circumstances years before and they’d been working beside each other when Jim lost his.
Then, one evening I got into ‘trouble’ with the police.
I respected the police, as did all my mates at that time. They had authority and we had been taught to respect them as the upholders of the law and order that kept us safe in the streets and our homes. This policeman was probably trying to protect me from a terrible accident although I thought he was being a bit extreme at the time.
On the corner of Roundwood Road and Plantation Road was a very high tree. It was a type of fir tree and was said to be the highest tree in the area apart from the King Tree over near the Latimer camp. I’d never been scared of climbing trees and had swayed in the top branches of some of the best in the area. Alf had pointed this giant of a tree out to me and I decided to add it to my list of climbed trees. After struggling up the first few feet, I was soon on my way to the top.
A while later I heard a man’s voice call up, asking me to come down immediately. I looked down and could see a policeman staring sternly up through the branches below. Shortly I’d climbed down and was standing beside him, shuddering under his reproachful stare. He asked me my name and where I lived, then told me to go straight home as he would be round to have a word with Mum about my dangerous activities up the tree.
Full of fear at being in ‘trouble’ with the police, I raced home as hard as I could, taking short cuts to try and beat the policeman who had to ride his cycle around the roads. I arrived to find that he had beaten me to it and was just explaining my ‘crime’ to Mum at the front door. Happily for me, it ended with a warning not to be found forty feet up a tree by him again. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, had he come along fifteen minutes earlier, he’d have caught me in the top-most branches, swaying back and forth in the most dangerous manner and enjoying every second of it.
Mum knew how I’d always loved climbing trees and sitting in the high, swaying branches. But she wasn’t going to under-mine the policeman’s authority by saying so and she warned me not to be caught again or I’d really be in trouble. Of course, she knew that I’d be up the next tree that caught my eye.
Then I got into trouble with Miss Dubray, our music teacher at school. But this time the ending would have far better results due to her understanding and myself ‘knuckling under’.
Our class was having a music lesson with Miss Dubray and, for some reason that I cannot now recall, I was sent out of the classroom for being disobedient. When the class was dismissed, Alf and Mick came out excitedly and told me that they’d been picked to go up to London and sing in a choir. Now, I loved singing and I also enjoyed going up to London. I was very envious of my two mates and wished I’d behaved myself during that lesson. Then Alf suggested that I could go and ask for Miss Dubray’s forgiveness then she might let me join the choir as well. I decided to give it a go.
With every determination, I walked up to Miss Dubray, apologised for whatever it was that I had done and pleaded to be allowed to join the choir. Miss. Dubray (who I eventually adored) looked at me hard for a few seconds as if she was thinking about the matter deeply. Then she said that she would give me a chance but, I’d have to work hard and behave myself. She also warned me that, if I once misbehaved, I would be taken out of the choir with no chance of getting back, no matter how good a singer I was. I thanked her and promised that she wouldn’t regret her decision. It was more than I deserved and I knew it. I was so excited and happy.
And so, Alf, Mick, and I, along with half a dozen others, learned and practiced a number of new carols for a carol concert that was to be performed in front of an audience up in London by five hundred children from around England. We in our school became a special group and spent each lunch hour practicing our harmonies under the guidance of Miss Dubray. We all worked hard and missed out on many hours of play so as we wouldn’t let our school down. But, we were to reap the benefits and I don’t think anyone enjoyed it more than I did, thanks to Miss Dubray and her kind understanding. She never once mentioned my misbehaviour again and, as will be seen, the choir was a great success.
As I was busy trying to learn carols and harmonies, I was also trying to cope with three paper rounds. Val had given up doing her two rounds and, to help out, I’d taken them both on along with my own. The mornings were very dark and cold as I rode to the station at Chalfont, helped the kiosk manager to sort out the papers and raced off to deliver them, going back for more papers as I ran out.
After a couple of weeks rushing to get three rounds done each day, I came unstuck. I was very tired one morning and, after doing Val’s old rounds, I set off with the loaded cycle to do my own round. I was later than usual and, having seen papers delivered in the. evening (I didn’t know anything about the evening papers such as ‘The Evening Standard’ in those days), I decided to take the papers to school and deliver them that afternoon after school had finished.
But, my customers were very upset about this arrangement. I was told off quite a few times and who could blame them? What was the use of a morning paper in the evening? Before I was half way down Burtons Lane, I knew that I’d made a bad mistake.
The next morning, I was sacked from the job. Mum wasn’t very happy, but it was a bit of a relief for me as I wasn’t making much money out of all my work due to the fact that I had to pay Val half the money for the two rounds that she wasn’t even doing anymore and I still wanted to give Mum some money to help her out a bit. Nevertheless, it was over and I could concentrate on other things.
I’d been reading a book called ‘The Wolf Patrol’ by John Finnemore. It was an adventure story about Scouts and fired my imagination so much that I decided to join that movement. I’d already had a spell in the Cubs while we had lived on the Beech Barn camp, but I hadn’t been overly impressed. I thought the Scouts might do better things for me. I joined a group at Little Chalfont and attended the meetings regularly for a few weeks. But I learned nothing new and became bored. Finally, I stopped going.
One afternoon, Alf, Mick, and I walked out of the school gate and who should be standing there but my old bullying enemy, Hubert Wells.
He, it may be remembered, was the boy who had caused trouble on the Beech Barn camp, ending in his Mother being hit by my Mum.
The bully had grown up and was built like an ox by that time. He began to menace us in his old nasty way (and as usual when he was out-numbered, from a distance). But I had little fear of him any more, and that determined-not-to-be-bullied feeling swelled up inside me again. I was just about to advance and put him on his place when Mick, the smallest of us three friends (but, by then a fiery lad), asked me to give him the chance to take on this great lump of a boy. While Hubert stood there sneering, Mick and I argued about who would do the honours.
In the end Alf suggested that we give Mick a go and I was out-numbered. Hubert, trying to ensure an easy victory I suspect, moaned that, if he began to get the better of Mick, Alf and I would jump in to lend Mick a hand. I gave Hubert my promise that we would not interfere (and meant to keep that promise) providing that, if Mick shouted that he’d had enough, Hubert would stop, whereupon Alf and I would give him a chance to walk away until our next meeting. I felt that to be fair all around and it was agreed by all of us.
Alf and I stood back, more than a little worried about the outcome of a fight between the great brute and our wisp of a mate.
With a shriek of amazement and fear, the bully fell back as Mick tore into him with all the courage of a seasoned boxer. Hubert never stood a chance as, with Alf and I cheering him on, Mick pummelled the great lump until he cried that he’d had enough. Then Mick stood back and the bully got to his feet and staggered off at a trot, calling for his Mother (who, curiously enough to us, he called by Christian name instead of Mother) and turning around now and again to hurl filthy language and threats at us three left standing there. Clearly we had let him off too easily!
The next morning, I was sent for by Mr. Lawrence and I had wondered what I’d done this time.
All was soon revealed. As I entered his office, I was greeted by Mrs. Wells who straight away started screaming that I was the one who had smashed her son up. Mr. Lawrence very sharply asked her if she’d mind keeping quiet while he sorted the matter out. I looked over at Hubert, who was standing behind his Mother, and noticed that he had a nasty smirk on his battered face. He had a cut lip and a black eye, and I was determined to black the other one for him if he didn’t soon stop smirking at me like he was. I realised that he was nothing but a bullying coward who hid behind his Mother and authority, and I really disliked him for it at the time.
Mr. Lawrence asked me why I’d beaten Hubert up, especially after his warning regarding the broken finger affair. His eyebrows shot up when I told him that I hadn’t touched Hubert. With Mrs. Wells screaming (and I mean screaming) at Mr. Lawrence every so often, telling him not to listen to my lies, I managed to relate the true story. I couldn’t keep Mick and Alf out of it and they were also sent for.
Lining the four of us boys up in front of his desk, Mr. Lawrence told us that he wanted the truth. After Alf and Mick had related their own versions of the incident, Hubert had to confess that Alf and I were innocent and that he’d been beaten by Mick. With a disbelieving look on his face, Mr. Lawrence measured the difference in height between Mick and Hubert with his eyes. I remember that look as if it was only yesterday! Then he turned to Mrs. Wells and said that, if her son foolishly picked fights with others, then got his just desserts from someone that was at least nine inches shorter than himself, then he must suffer the consequences. Mrs. Wells screamed at him that she would take the matter further, but Mr. Lawrence opened the door and asked her to leave. Shouting filthy abuse (no wonder Hubert used foul language so easily!) at us all as she stormed down the corridor and giving Hubert a clout around the ear for good measure, the two of them went out of the school.
Still standing in front of the desk, Alf, Mick, and I were given another lecture by Mr. Lawrence and warned that he would be watching us very closely in the future. He told us (especially me) that he realised how annoying bullies were, but it was not up to us to dish out any punishment. He explained that it was his job to do that and we should report any incidents of bullying to him from that time on. Warning us not to come before him again as he was definitely giving us our last chance, we were dismissed. Once again we felt very lucky that we’d got off so lightly, and returned to our class to tell all our friends about the spectacle that Hubert and his Mother had made of themselves.
I’d developed a soft spot for a young girl at school. But she didn’t even look my way although I’d tried to speak to her a few times. Val, Alf, and Mick knew about this latest ‘crush’ and, unknown to myself, Val had decided to invite this girl to my fourteenth birthday party. Val also arranged that Alf would invite a young lad that she herself had a ‘big crush’ on. I was allowed to take the day off from school on that birthday and lounged around at home with the enormous brown trousers on, still tied up with string at the waist, and a man’s cream-coloured shirt that was just as baggy as the trousers were.
Expecting the party to be a bit later in the evening, I was still dressed in these school clothes when all my guests arrived direct from school. I was speechless with embarrassment as the young girl suddenly appeared in our living room behind Val. With a Mumbled apology, I dashed upstairs and changed.
It was a wonderful party as all our parties usually were. Mum had made plenty of party snacks for us and the old wind-up gramophone worked overtime. Dances were had and games were played, making the evening flash by. Everyone agreed that it had been a great ‘do’.
But, Val and I both missed out when the young girl that had taken my fancy, and the lad that was the cause of Val’s latest ‘crush’, went home hand in hand together. I didn’t blame the young girl, that lad was one of the most popular boys at school. He’d won, I’d lost, and I remember thinking that my turn would come one day.
November slipped into December and, as the Christmas festive season approached, we practiced harder and harder for the coming carol concert. We even stayed behind a couple of nights a week, as well as the lunch time sessions, in our efforts to get everything as perfect as we could. There were three trips organised for us to go up to London, but, for some reason, I only went on two of them.
My first trip was up to the Academy Of Music. A gentleman called Ernest Read (was he a ‘Sir’?) conducted this practice session, presumably to knock some of the rough edges off us. But, we worked hard and he seemed very pleased with our progress. I thought he was a very nice man and he was patient when we made a mistake. It was a new world to me, being in amongst all the people with their musical instruments, but they all made us feel happily at ease. Finally, the great day came when we set off to London for the real thing.
Dressed in our best clothes and as smart as we could be, our little group met outside of Amersham station. Miss Dubray purchased our tickets and we excitedly boarded the train for London. It wasn’t long before I was keeping the others amused by telling them of the adventures I’d had on that train while I had been travelling back and forth to the little school at Rickmansworth. Miss. Dubray wrinkled her nose in disgust and the children went into fits of laughter when I explained the pretend nose-picking trick and described some of the looks I’d received from the passengers as they veered away towards other compartments.
As we rode through the tunnels near London, an incident happened that gave us something else to think about. The lights were on in our compartment and we were watching the black tunnel walls rush by a few centimetres from the window. Suddenly, there was a great bang and the carriage lurched as glass and splinters of wood came rattling and banging past our window. We didn’t know what had happened, but the train seemed to settle down again as we speculated about the incident.
When we arrived at Bakers Street station, we were told that some boys had opened their compartment door in the tunnel and the door had been smashed like match-wood after hitting the wall and being crushed between a projection and the train. As we walked past the compartment, we saw that the door had almost gone, leaving behind a few bits of wood hanging by the hinges. In front of us the boys were being led along the platform towards the station buildings by two porters.
But, we didn’t have much time to dwell on this incident for we were soon roaring along below London on the Underground railway. At Charing Cross station we left the train and came up into the thin winter sunshine to walk across the Hungerford railway bridge.
At that time, the Hungerford railway bridge over the Thames at London was, if I recall rightly, painted a dark green. There was a pedestrian catwalk, seeming to be tacked on to the side of the bridge as if it had been an after-thought by someone who didn’t like walking along the railway lines on the bridge proper. Situated at the southern end of this bridge, on the east side, was the building we were to sing in, The Royal festival Hall.
The Royal festival Hall had been built as part of The festival of Britain, that was held on the south bank of the Thames at Southwark in 1951. I remembered seeing the tall radio mast and the flat-domed building, that were features of the show-piece, when I’d passed through London at the time. Now I was going to sing in one of the remaining buildings that had been preserved as a monument to that event.
By the standards of theatres that I’d been into up to that time, the Festival Hall was enormous and very modern. The entrance on the railway side seemed to be all glass and tiny ceiling lights (that’s how I remember it). We were led down to underground make-up and changing rooms where we handed in our coats and were made to look presentable after our journey. Then Miss Dubray, rushing around like a mother hen, ushered us up towards the stage, telling us that she was very proud of us for the way we’d worked long hours and now was the time to show the people how good the pupils of our great school were. With our chests sticking out and a determined look on our faces, we walked onto that giant of a stage. But, with a shock, we very nearly walked back off again.
From where we were, the stage was stepped down, way below, towards the orchestra. As the children were filing out onto the stage, they were being neatly slotted along the different levels. We were almost at the rear of the queue and, as the usher had started loading the children in the upper levels first, our group was shown into the front row with only the orchestra between us and the audience.
The hall was huge, I’d never been in such an enormous hall before. The whole place was lit up with dozens of lights and we could easily see the thousands of people that made up the audience in front of us. I felt as if everyone was looking at me alone. With five hundred other children there, I was just a face along the front of a crowd, but I did wish that I’d been put in a row a bit farther back from the front.
I soon forgot my fright as the concert began, Suddenly, the lights above the audience faded, leaving us children in the bright lights of the stage. The tuning of the instruments died out from the direction of the orchestra and a few coughs were heard before the audience fell into an expectant silence. Then the conductor waved his baton, the orchestra started to play, and shortly we were singing like we’d never sung before.
It was a wonderful feeling to sing to that appreciative audience and they followed the whole program with a keenness that surprised me. Right in the middle of the concert I was amazed to hear a sound as if a sudden hailstorm was battering a tin roof. Then I realised that it came from the audience as they turned the pages of their programs. The noise had actually drowned out the sound of our singing. Finally the concert ended and the clapping, that seemed to go on for ages, was thunderous in our ears.
Contrary to my frightened thoughts as I’d walked onto the stage, I now felt ten feet tall and so pleased that the audience were obviously happy with our efforts. I hadn’t heard one mistake from our small group. I was absolutely thrilled to have had the chance of being a part of our school choir under the leadership of Miss Dubray. As we walked off the stage, she met us and was bubbling over with delight. She gave each of us a squeeze and told us that we’d been really fantastic. It was all very stirring and once again I felt very lucky and privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of it all. Miss Dubray took us for a meal then, excitedly chatting about the wonderful experience we’d shared together in exchange for a few extra hours at school, we rode the train home.
I feel that, if it hadn’t been for Alf’s original suggestion, the dedication of Miss Dubray and her faith in young people like myself at the time, along with the fierce encouragement she gave us, I’d never had that grand memory to look back upon. Miss Dubray was a good sport and I really felt like making an effort in her classes.
In the excitement at the success of the concert, I had forgotten to collect my coat from the cloakroom below the stage. Mum wasn’t very happy with me and didn’t know how we were going to get it back. But an event was shortly to come about that would enable me to get the coat myself with the help of a friend.
Meanwhile, I’d crept into the Plannie to get Mum the branches for her usual home-built Christmas tree and had found some holly along Raans Road. Our living room was soon decorated and the Christmas spirit once more came into our lives.
I hadn’t been carol singing for a couple of years but Alf, Mick, and I decided to try out the carols we’d learned for the concert on a few of the posh streets around Amersham. It wasn’t much of a success, I think the people thought we were too old to be carol singing. After half an evening with not much luck, we wandered along to a cafe down Hill Avenue in Amersham.
It was the first time I’d ever been in a cafe where young people gather to drink coffee and 'Coke' while they chatted and listen to the latest music blaring from the juke box. Walking in behind Alf and Mick, I felt very self-conscious as I looked around and saw that most of the young teenagers were dressed in the ‘Teddy Boy’ style of clothing while I had only my ordinary clothes on. But it wasn’t long before we had a cup of coffee on the table in front of us and we’d worked out how to use the juke box. If I remember rightly, Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Green Door’ was very popular with us all at the time. I soon became bored with just sitting there and we wandered home.
All through that year Alf and Mick had been going on the trips with Geoff Angliss, the man who owned the grocery shop in New Road. Each time they’d come back and tell me all about the great time they’d had and the things they’d done. Mum still wouldn’t allow me to go on these trips, but I hadn’t been too upset about missing out.
Although I hardly knew Geoff and Kathy, they hadn’t forgotten about me. When they very kindly gave all my mates a Christmas present, there was one put by for me. They told Alf to ask me if I would call in at the shop and see them. I went the next day and they presented me with a game of Monopoly. Thanking them for their kind thought and gift, I dashed home to show Mum and Val. Mum was very touched and went along the shop to say thank you. When she returned, I was thrilled to be told that I could go on a trip with Geoff in a couple of nights time.
On the appointed evening, dressed in my best clothes, I squeezed into the car with Geoff and my mates. Each of us clutched a bag of sweets and chocolate, given to us from the shop by Kathy at the start of the trip. Munching happily on these goodies, we laughed and joked with each other while Geoff drove us up to London.
In that city we were all treated to a meal and I thought that there was no end to Geoff’s generosity. But a further surprise was in store. Geoff led us around Piccadilly, past the statue of Eros and up a side street. We entered the foyer of a theatre that had a sign above the door reading ‘Cinerama Holiday’. Geoff bought the tickets and we followed him in. Each of us were given a program and the workings of this (at the time) modern wonder called Cinerama was fully explained in the pages.
The screen in front of us was shaped in a half-circle, not flat like we’d been used to. Three cameras were used to project an image on a third of the screen each, making up a full picture on that huge screen. It gave us the effect of actually being a part of the film due to the screen going around the side of our vision. At first it was easy to pick out the two vertical joins where the three camera pictures met on the screen, but they were soon forgotten in the excitement.
And what an exciting show it was. To actually share in so many great adventures from the comfort of our seats was amazing. Without going into details of a hundred experiences that we felt in that theatre, here is one example.
From the safety of our seats, the scene all around was as if we were in the cockpit of a fighter plane. The clouds on the screen were rushing towards us and the sea was below. Suddenly, the plane did a barrel roll and, stomach’s churning while heads went giddy, we all gasped as it really felt as if we were turning over as well. Many hands grabbed for the arm-rests of seats, including mine. It was a thrilling experience. The Plane performed a few more manoeuvres while we hung on to our seats. Then there was an aircraft carrier down below and we were pushing back into our seats as we seemed to hurtle down towards the flight deck, only to shoot forward as the motion on the screen was stopped when the plane caught the arrester-wire with its hook and jolted to a halt. Of course, these sort of theatres (Omni-theatres?) are quite common now. But in those days it was a new thing and I have never seen a modern screen as large as that screen was.
The whole show had been one sensation after another. Geoff treated us to ice creams during the interval and looked genuinely pleased that we were enjoying ourselves so much. He must have spent a small fortune on us all that night. To cap it all, he drove us around to The festival Hall so as I could collect my coat that I’d forgotten after the carol concert. Full of excitement and happiness, we sang carols to Geoff as he drove us home.
I went on a few more trips with Geoff over the next couple of months. He and Kathy were genuine friends to us boys. Their kindness and patience were a credit to them both. No thanks was ever asked for, and nothing was expected in return for what they did for us. It seemed that our delight was their reward. It goes without saying that us boys were extremely grateful for their efforts and counted ourselves very fortunate to have such generous and good friends. I never once knew any of us to take advantage of them and our thanks for every last thing they did for us was profuse. Although I only had the chance to go on a few trips with Geoff, I had quickly recognised that he and Kathy were good people with no thoughts of any ‘sinister notions’. But I’d also recognised that Mum’s earlier suspicious attitude was in my own interests - it was hard for her to comprehend that somebody would do something for young lads with no thought of reward whatsoever. And so Kathy and Geoff earned a special place in my heart and memory along with my family and other wonderful people that had helped to make my life so happy.
Mum and John, who were really getting on well together, had put a present each for Val and I on the Christmas tree. These presents were not much larger than the size of a match box. We two children had been dying to know what was in those packages for days.
Finally, it was Christmas morning and the usual hoots and cheers told of full Christmas stockings and many goodies. Breakfast was hurriedly eaten, fires were lit, the dishes were washed, then it was time to open our presents.
The mysterious little gifts were handed to Val and I both at the same time. I thought this unusual as Mum always liked to see our faces individually while the presents were opened. Then I realised that both presents must be the same. As each of us ripped the paper off, we found that there was indeed a match box under the wrapping. When we slid each of our boxes open, we were amazed to discover that there was a one pound note folded up in the tray. A whole pound note all to ourselves was real wealth. Granddad, Nan, and Jim had clubbed together and bought me a ‘Mamod’ steam engine that gave me years of entertainment.
Then it was the new year of 1957. Little did we know that the end of this year would see us living in the same conditions that we’d endured before finally finding an empty hut on the camp at Beech Barn.
On new years day I was over at the garages in one corner of the Plannie. Some of my mates were talking about how they’d sat up to see the new year in. John White had his mouth organ and he was a natural at playing it, soon we were having a sing-song. Our latest favourite song was ‘Singing the Blues’. This song had, I believe, been first released by Guy Mitchell. But a young lad from Bermondsey, in London, released his version of the song and it took us by storm. The young lad’s name was Tommy Steele and he was to become one of my favourite singers. Other songs that we sang at that time were Frankie Laine’s ‘Moonlight Gambler’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Love me Tender’.
Right at the start of that year I had one of those curious (though not serious) accidents that seem to happen every so often in one’s life. There was another dell with a rope swing above it just like the one in Bluebell Wood. It was in a small wood down the bottom of Stanley Hill, near Old Amersham. It wasn’t so deep as the Bluebell Wood dell, but it made a change.
One afternoon, Alf, Mick, and I went down to this dell and were soon having a great time, spinning around or turning upside down as we swung across the crater on the rope. We never tired of trying all sorts of different spins and tricks as we swung out, and it was a couple of hours later that the accident happened.
I don’t remember taking hold of the rope, running as hard as I could and leaping off for, perhaps, the hundredth time. There’s just a blackness. But, I was suddenly aware that I was laying on the floor of the dell with a few bruises, and I’d been terribly winded. I laid there for a while, fighting for breath and trying to comprehend what had happened. After their initial surprise, Alf and Mick had slithered down to me full of concern, but there was nothing they could do until I’d recovered a bit. They told me that I’d just let the rope go and ‘belly-flopped’ onto the floor of the dell. Soon, apart from the few bruises, I felt better and we were all laughing about the incident. Alf and Mick said that I’d looked so funny sailing out into space after I’d let go of the rope and I giggled as I imagined the sight.
I’d had enough for the day and watched my mates for a while until we headed home. After telling Mrs. Baker about my accident, she said that I’d probably had a ‘blackout’. This, she told us, was a sudden loss of consciousness, most likely due to the motion of swinging out and spinning around on the rope for so long. Mum was a bit worried and said that if it ever happened again, she’d take me straight up to the Doctor’s for an examination to see if the cause could be found.
Meanwhile, Mum had got us another dog. She was alone most of the day and thought another dog would be a bit of company for her. Andy Pandy, as we named her, was a Terrier-cross and turned out to be one of the most good-natured dogs that I ever came across. Soon she was one of the family.
Much to our delight, Geoff and Kathy hired a hall down Woodside Road, near Black Horse Bridge, for a couple of nights a week so as all the young people could use it as a club. They put on some wonderful parties and dances in that hall for us youngsters, and it was great to have such a place nearby to go to.
I remember one dark evening, while we were at a dance being held in that hall, when Alf had an accident and I thought, at the time, that he’d killed himself.
We’d made some ‘spindle-bombs’. These ‘bombs’ were two cycle-wheel axles screwed together using one of the axle nuts. Three or four nuts were screwed to the other end of one of the axles to act as a weight. To ‘arm’ our bomb, we’d unscrew the two axles at the centre, scrape the chemicals off the heads of a few matches into the ‘cup’ formed by the lower axle and the joining nut, then we’d screw the other axle tightly-back into the ‘cup’ with the chemical trapped between the two axle ends at the join. All that remained was to throw the bomb up into the air and the weighted end would hit the ground first, causing the compression between the two axles to set the chemical off with a sharp bang. It was with such devices that we were playing outside the hall that night.
We’d frightened a few girls by dropping these bombs on the concrete path behind them, but they soon became used to our trick as the evening progressed. Not being very good dancers, we lingered outside the door.
Then Alf decided to squeeze every bit of chemical that he could into his bomb so that he could make a really big bang. He scraped away until the ‘cup’ was full and there was hardly any room left to screw the other axle into the thread. With all his might, Alf threw his bomb up into the dark night above the glare of the light outside the door.
It was another of those scenes, as if the. whole thing had been planned by a movie director. Mick and I stood by the hall door and Alf was standing out on the concrete path. The bomb seemed to be up in the air for ages as we waited for it to drop back down. Alf was grinning over our way expectantly. Then the bang came.
I watched in horror as, in the light from the lamp above the doorway, I saw Alf seem to spring stiffly to attention then crumple to the ground. The ‘bomb’ had dropped straight down on the side of his head.
Full of fear, I shouted to Mick to get Geoff while I raced to Alf’s side. He was unconscious (to me at the time he was dead) and blood was thickly matting his hair from a bad head wound. Within seconds Geoff and Kathy were beside me and it wasn’t long before Alf was on his way down to the hospital. Luckily, he was a tough young blade and was soon back on his feet again.
In a way, this accident caused me to get into trouble once more.
On the Monday morning I called into Alf’s home on the way to school to see how he was. Mrs. Baker told me that he was bored and asked me to stay with him for the day.
Now, I hadn’t ‘played hookey’ from school since that stormy morning a year before and I wasn’t at all keen to do it again. But, Mrs. Baker promised to write a note for the teacher once more and in the end I agreed. I spent two school days at Alf’s home, going up to my own home each lunch-hour and evening as if I’d been to school, before we both went back to school armed with a note each for our teacher. A week or so later Alf didn’t feel like going to school again, and once more I stayed with him. This time we had four days off. But the ending would be a lot different.
We became bored and Alf wanted to go down to the woods for a bit of adventure. Of course, Mum didn’t know that I was ‘playing hookey’ and, as she could see straight into Alf’s road from our kitchen window, I told him that I dare not walk out of his house for fear of being seen by her. To overcome this obstacle, it was decided that I’d ride in an old push-chair, covered over with hessian sacks, and Alf would push me along the road until we were out of sight of our window.
Off we went with me giggling under the sacks at the fun of it all. But, as Alf tried to push me down the kerb onto the road, he lost control and let go of the push-chair (I still wonder if he did it on purpose!). There was a jolt and I was pitched out of the seat and sent sprawling across the road in full view of our house. We laughed until we were breathless as I scrambled back in and Alf covered me up again. What Mum would have said if she’d seen this from our kitchen window is anybody’s guess, but I went home at the proper time and nothing was said.
For the next couple of days Alf and I had a ball down at the woods and each time we went out the push-chair method was used to get me out of sight of our window.
It was on one of those four days that I met Hubert for the last time.
Alf saw him first and, nodding over in the direction from which Hubert was coming, idly wondered if he was ‘playing hookey’ as well (it had occurred to Alf, Mick, and I during the trouble with Hubert a few months earlier that, even though we knew where he lived (on the Quill Hall Estate and close to the school) we never saw him at our school and we had supposed that he attended some other school). I’d been gazing across at the hills on the other side of the Chess Valley and, wondering who Alf was talking about, I glanced in the direction that he was looking.
As soon as I saw Hubert I knew that old scores would be settled one way or another before the day had ended. Immediately I told Alf that on no account was he to interfere in any way whatsoever while I sorted things out with Hubert once and for all. There was no mother nor headmaster to interfere, and no Mick to beg for a chance to tackle the bully. If it came to a head, there would just be Hubert and I as it should have always been.
Hubert spied us, hesitated a bit, then came forward with his nasty sneer and the usual loudly-shouted filthy and threatening language (which, I now realise, is what a lot of bullies use as a weapon to get their own way and to control others - until somebody stands up to them, whereupon they usually either hide behind authority (Mums, Headmasters, courts, etc.) or they run for it).
I didn’t bother to argue. I walked straight up and hit him in the mouth.
There was only need to hit him the once. Hubert went down as if he’d been clubbed over the head with a hammer. Once again I was amazed at how easy it had been to stand up to a bully, and once again I was grateful to finally have a tormentor off my back.
Alf and I left Hubert lying there and went on down to enjoy our illegal day of play at the dell in Bluebell Wood. On the way home we were very alert and wary just in case Hubert and his mother were waiting along the path for us. But we saw nobody and I have never knowingly seen Hubert since.
Then, on the fourth afternoon as I was waiting at Alf’s house to go home, as if I’d just come from school, there was a knock at his door. I hid as previously arranged and Alf looked out the side of the curtains. With an excited giggle, he whispered across to me that the school ‘Beadle’, Mr. Jefferies, was at the door. It was the ‘Beadle’s’ job to go to parents of absent pupils and ask why they were away from school. We waited until Mr. Jefferies had gone, then I left for home, resigned to the fact that, if he’d called at Alf’s home, then he was bound to call at mine while he was in the area.
And so it proved. Two or three minutes later I’d walked around to our house and Mr. Jefferies was still there. Mum was furious and I knew that she had every right to be. I was well aware of what was right and wrong, and that I’d deserve whatever punishment came my way. I didn’t want to complicate matters any further so I simply told them the truth, little realising that I was getting Mrs. Baker into trouble while doing so. Mr. Jefferies took notes as I confessed to playing truant from school the three times and how the last note (that he had there with him) had been written by Mrs. Baker. Finally, Mr. Jefferies left and I, being too big to be hit by Mum’s hands, got a thrashing with the copper-stick.
The next day, I was instructed by Mum to go down to Alf and tell him that we were not to associate with each other any more. Mrs. Baker answered the door and I’d never seen her in such a rage. Before I had a chance to speak, she shouted at me that I must never go near their house or Alf again. Still not realising that I’d ‘dobbed’ her in, I tried to explain that I’d only told the truth so as not to complicate matters any further. Then Mr. Baker came to the door and told me to clear off as they didn’t want people like me near their house. With that, he slammed the door in my face. Later, I’d learn the reason for their attitude.
But Alf and I were very good friends and we decided that, even if our parents were against it, we would still stay that way. A plan was devised where, if I wanted Alf to come out, I’d walk past his house whistling ‘The Dambuster’s March’ very loudly and he would come out and meet me down the road a few minutes later. If Alf wanted me, he’d whistle the same tune as he walked past my house then wait up the road until I came out.
This arrangement worked very well and it wasn’t long before all of our friends knew of it. We even earned ourselves a new nick-name each, I became ‘Dambuster number one’ and Alf became ‘Dambuster number two’. Of course, our parents didn’t know of it at the time.
Mr. Lawrence wanted the best for his pupils and one morning during assembly he asked if there were any volunteers who would go out in their spare time and collect newspapers and magazines that could be sold for re-cycling. He went on to tell us that the money paid to the school for the newspapers and magazines would help to pay for a swimming pool that was to be built in the school grounds. He also added that, if any pupils volunteered then left school before the pool was completed, those volunteers would be allowed to use the pool in the evenings by arrangement. Alf, Mick, and I looked at each other in delight and were among the first to put our names down as volunteers.
Back at home that evening I pulled my cart out of the garden shed. I whistled ‘The Dambuster’s March’ as I passed Alf’s home on my way up to Mick’s house and it wasn’t long before our carts were loaded up with newspapers that we’d collected from nearby houses. As we left each house, we arranged that the owners would save all their newspapers and magazines and we’d collect them weekly. With loaded carts we headed back to school as the daylight was fading and a couple of volunteer teachers helped us unload the paper into a room under the stage in the assembly hall.
It was great fun to be among those volunteers. There was a spirit of friendly rivalry as we encroached on each other’s territory, and many laughs were had as we raced other groups to likely-looking houses. We’d all help one another to fix broken carts or replace fallen loads and it was wonderful to work together for the common cause. There’d be a steady stream of carts going to the room under the stage each evening and through the weekends, and the teachers who helped were run off their feet, but I never heard them complain once. After a while, we stopped taking the loads back to school in the evenings. They were parked up at home for the night and we took them to school the next morning. It was funny to see the carts lined up beside the playground all day. But after school the hordes would be off again to collect more paper and the room under the stage soon filled up.
Meanwhile, Mum and John were so in love that they wanted to live together properly. But, there were snags. Living together was frowned upon in those days. There were strong religious reasons against them getting married (something about John being a Catholic and Mum being a divorcee) and they didn’t want to live a lie in front of their friends by secretly living together or pretending that they were married. Finally, in March, they decided to move away from Amersham altogether.
Unaware of this decision, I blissfully lived my last few days in Amersham, secretly meeting Alf, collecting paper and seeming to centre my whole life around our school and that promised swimming pool. The freezing winter was behind us and once more the country was coming alive under the warm spring sunshine. Then I went home one evening to find that we were the owners of a car.
It was a black ‘Y’ type Ford '8' with the spare wheel lashed to the rear above a fold-up luggage carrier, The number, as I still recall, was JN 8331. John had purchased this car in Greenford, near London, and brought it all the way back home only to find that, when he went to take us for a spin, the engine wouldn’t re-start. The fault was diagnosed as a flat battery and I volunteered to take it up to Amersham for a re-charge. I set off towards Amersham, walking beside my bike and holding the heavy battery on the saddle. I hadn’t gone far when the battery slipped out of my grip and fell down onto the road with a thud. That was the end of that battery. John bought a second-hand one and we got the car going again.
Little John, our other lodger, had left and we had a new lodger, who I shall call ‘Claude’. (Like a few others in this story, that wasn’t his real name.) I didn’t like Claude very much, he was too smooth for my tastes. I had really been annoyed with myself for being caught using his gloves, without permission, to keep my hands warm as I had cycled to St. Albans and back a couple of times on errands for John. I knew that I’d done wrong, but I didn’t like his silky manner as he brushed my apology aside when I was found out. I had a feeling about him that I couldn’t quite fathom out.
With a week to go before we moved, Mum and John gathered us all together and told us that we were leaving Amersham. They explained that we were to exchange houses with a family in Somerset who wanted to move closer to London. This was the first that Val and I knew about the move. Mum went on to tell us that there was a nice school in a town called Ilminster, nearby, and that John would be able to get a job at a cable factory which was also in that town. They’d been assured that there were plenty of vacancies at that factory by the family who we were swapping council houses with.
I was so excited at the prospect of seeing new pastures that I didn’t fully realise that we were leaving Amersham, that wonderful school, and all our friends, on what was planned to be, a permanent basis. The only thing that spoilt the adventure was the fact that Claude had chosen to come with us.
That last week seemed to flash by and before I knew it I was saying goodbye to all my teachers and friends at the end of my last day of lessons in that school. I’d already dashed over to my grandparents and Jim to say cheerio, and been up to wish Geoff and Kathy well. Alf and Mick walked me to the end of my road and we said goodbye as if I was only going on a short holiday. Then I went indoors where everything was packed for the removalists.
Val and I had been most surprised when Mum told us that we were all going on the journey from Amersham to Somerset as, apart from a trip to Chenies and a few walks to the local shop, Mum had hardly stepped outside the door since we’d moved from Beech Barn. After the nervous breakdown and her long illness, she had become a victim of agoraphobia, barely able to go anywhere. So the trip to our new home was a big step for her. Later, she told us that, if it hadn’t been for the fact that she’d been forced to do the trip due to the circumstances, she would never have gone.
She’d have a year’s respite from that phobia before she became a victim of it once more.
As a footnote to this chapter:
In early April 1997, I was chatting to my old friend, Tommy, on the phone, and I asked him if the Raans Road Secondary Modern School had been re-named as I couldn't seem to find any references to that school in spite of all the resources of the Internet at my fingers. I was sure that a (to myself) fairly modern school, having been given such a good start by those teachers under the leadership of Mr. Lawrence, could have only progressed to greater heights and would surely have had a home page or some reference on the Internet.
No reader can imagine my amazement when he answered that the school had been bulldozed to the ground in 1996 and a housing estate now occupies the area.
Apart from the little school behind the church at Rickmansworth (which still exists, as does all the other schools, apparently, that I attended), that school gave me some of the most satisfying and encouraging memories of my school days.
To myself, it's astounding, and seems an incredible waste of money, that a modern school, such as that school was in 1956, can only last for forty years before being demolished.
Neither Tommy nor myself (nor Alf and Mick the last time I spoke to them) ever set foot in the swimming pool that we had all worked so hard for - and now we never will.
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