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Chapter 14.
Roughing it in Reading town, Berkshire, and another lucky break.
London Road pic.
London Rd going east from the Cemetery Junction in 1989. Sally's flat over the
shop is arrowed.

Three and a half hours later we were sitting in Sally’s and Bill’s living room having a welcome cup of tea. We all had a laugh as we remembered the last time Mum, Val, and I had visited them and I’d lost the spring out of my gun on the dark stairs up to their flat above the fruit and vegetable shop. Sally explained that they already had a couple living in their spare room, but fortunately they would be moving out in a few days and, if we’d like to sleep in the living room until then, the spare room would be ours. Mum and John agreed to this plan.

That night we settled down to sleep, rolled up in our blankets on the floor. Bill brought in a chamber-pot just in case it was needed in the night (it wasn’t) and told us not to forget to pull the chain. We all cracked up with laughter as, of course, chamber-pots have no chain (most toilets in those days had high cisterns and a chain hanging down from the cistern that had to be pulled to flush the toilet). It was a while before we realised that Bill was telling us not to forget to pull the chain down to turn off the gas light that hung from the centre of the ceiling. The traffic on the London Road, down below our window, kept me awake for quite a while as I wasn’t used to hearing any noise at night, but finally I dropped off to sleep and knew no more until Bill woke us the next morning.

For three nights we slept in the living room until the couple vacated the spare room at the rear of the flat and the four of us moved in. I don’t know which was worse, the noisy traffic that kept me awake in the front room, or the large, noisy refrigerated room out in the back yard that kept me awake. It seemed as if I’d be dropping off to sleep each night and the motor of that large room would start up with a whine and a clatter, leaving me fully awake until it cut out again. Mum had purchased a double mattress and, rolled up in our blankets, the four of us had tried to sleep without rolling off. It was very hard not to fidget about and disturb the others while laying awake half the night. Those nights were fairly hot and we had to have the window open for fresh air so the sound of the refrigerated room motor just outside was very loud.

As well as the noisy refrigerated room, there was the stench of the old rotting fruit and vegetables that were stored out in the open back yard of the shop. It wafted in through the open window and was most over-powering. But there was nowhere else to go so we had to grin and bear it, feeling very fortunate to have a roof over our heads.

John managed to get a job as a barman at ‘The Bull’ public house in Reading, and Mum got a job cleaning at the ‘Granby’ cinema, just across the other side of the Cemetery Junction from the flat. Mum’s job was only for two hours each morning and it left her with plenty of time to do other things during the rest of the day.

For the first few days I was free to explore the area. My bike was still down in Somerset, but I had two good legs and it didn’t take me long to get out and start looking around.

Broad St pic.
Looking east down Broad Street in 1989.
Friar St pic.
Looking west up Friar Street in 1989.

Reading is a large town situated on the banks of the River Thames, about thirty five miles west of London. The county town of Berkshire, it is almost surrounded by wooded, rolling hills and picturesque villages. The main shopping area consisted of two parallel streets - Broad Street and Friar Street. There was plenty of industry within its boundaries, including the great Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit factory, the Huntley, Bourne and Steven’s tin factory, and the Gillette razor blade factory, among many others. There were ample things to do at leisure-time with boating, swimming, fishing, all types of sports, a dozen large parks and gardens, a theatre, six cinemas, a couple of dance halls, libraries, a museum, many public houses, and a large shopping centre. On top of all this there were three railway stations with trains coming in from the north, south, east, and west, and all sorts of buses called at the town on their journeys around the country. Reading also boasted its own country bus service (The Thames Valley Traction Co.), and a town trolley-bus system. There were many schools and, for the better educated, a university. Above all, the Reading area offered plenty of scope for a young explorer such as myself.

On my first free day, I wandered down Cumberland Road, just around the corner from the flat, and found the River Kennet at the end of the road. As I stood on the tow-path, I could see a lock upstream to my left (was it blake’s lock?). In front of me, across the other side of the river, was the Reading Gas Works, and to my right was a large, brick-arched bridge. I turned to the right, walked under the bridge only to find that there was a second large, brick-arched bridge over the river, about one hundred metres down-stream from the one that I had just passed under.

Even as I stood there looking at this second bridge, a dark-green steam locomotive passed over it followed by red and yellow carriages. From a railway book that I owned, I recognised the locomotive colours as belonging to the Great Western Railway (I later learned that, although the railways had been nationalised, the Western Region still hung onto their locomotive livery). The colours of the carriages were the original British Railway colours if I remember correctly. This, to me, was an exciting discovery and I made a mental note to find Reading station before too long.

As I walked along the tow-path under this second railway bridge (the first bridge had been for the Southern Region railway lines), the River Kennet widened and I saw that this was the point where it flowed into the River Thames. There was a foot-bridge (The Horseshoe Bridge) over the mouth of the River Kennet, immediately past the second railway bridge. I crossed over it and followed the tow-path of the River Thames a mile or so up-stream until I reached a big, river-side park (King’s park). The river bulged around a bend at this point, so I cut across the park and, as I rejoined the river, I was delighted to find that there was a good-sized lock on the river with plenty of holiday boats passing through. This was Caversham Lock and I stayed for a while to watch the operations.

Caversham Lock pic.
The River Thames from Reading Bridge looking east towards 'The Clappers' (weir center-left) and Caversham Lock entrance (right). Path on right was where I walked and determined to become a competent swimmer as I glanced into the murky river.

Fifty metres on upstream, I discovered a swimming pool on the left of the tow-path. It looked as if it had been built in the Victorian days and I believe that the pool water was pumped in from the Thames. As I glanced down at the dirty green water of the river on my right, I shuddered at the thought of falling into those murky depths. I made a mental note of where this pool was and resolved to learn to swim in its confines as soon as possible.

Another fifty metres upstream brought me to a long, concrete bridge that spanned the river (Reading Bridge). I could see through its arch that the river widened out past that point and wound out of sight through trees and buildings with another large park on the right. This was as far as I went on that first walk, but I was more than satisfied that Reading offered plenty of scope for my young inquiring mind.

On the way back past the lock I was amazed to see a large boat, packed with passengers, going through. It almost filled the big lock to its capacity and I stopped to watch the operations as I’d never seen such a large boat go through a lock before. It was one of ‘Salter’s Steamers’ that plied the Thames giving passengers a chance to see the beautiful upper reaches of that river from mid-stream. I made another mental note to take advantage of this service in the future as well.

When I arrived back at the flat, I mentioned to Sally that I’d like to learn to swim in the pool up near Caversham Lock and asked her how to get there by bus so that I wouldn’t have to walk all that distance. She laughed and told me that there was a much better pool just along the road. Within minutes I had my towel and trunks and went off to find that pool.

Cemetery Junction pic.
Cemetery Junction during days of this story. Taken from front of
arch in first picture on this page, and looking west towards Kings
Rd & Reading (London Rd in left foreground). 'Jack of Both Sides'
pub arrowed left (behind toilet block), Arthur Hill swimming baths
behind shops arrowed center-right.

The ‘Arthur Hill’ swimming pool was only a hundred metres away and was situated right opposite the ‘Jack of Both Sides’ public house where we had parked up and slept a couple of weeks earlier while on the way to our small holiday at Chenies. It was an indoor, heated pool with a spring-board, and three diving tables, at different heights, down at the deep end. The depth of the water went from about one metre to about two metres. Soon I had changed and was standing beside the water watching some lads diving off of the top table. Those lads made it look so easy and I was suddenly annoyed with myself for not getting on with the task of learning to swim and dive as I had planned.

Without any more ado, I got into the water and walked all around the edge of the pool, holding on to the rail, just to get a bit of confidence up. The main thing that I wanted to do at that stage was to put my head under water. I had never forgotten the horrible rushing, roaring, noise that I’d experienced as I went under the water when the bullies threw me into the storm-drain on Chesham Moor. Even in my moment of triumph at pulling the leader of that gang in with me hadn’t helped me to forget the awful feeling of going right under the water and having the heavy wetness close over my face. I knew the penalty for any mistakes, the image of the drowned man at Rickmansworth was still etched in my mind like a never-fading photograph. I was scared, but I knew that I had to conquer my fear of deep water and that I would never do it without getting used to putting my head under the surface.

After thinking about how I was going to do it and having a couple of dry practice runs while holding my breath, I held the rail with one hand, my nose with the other, closed my eyes and ducked under. I fought my fear and stayed under as long as I dared, then I sprang up with a wonderful feeling of happiness at passing another stumbling block in my quest to learn to swim. It had been so easy!

I ducked under again and this time I plucked up enough courage to flick my eyes open and shut. The sight of the light-blue water with the sun’s rays shining through the mirrored under-surface (from the sky-lights in the roof) was so pleasing that I quickly opened my eyes for another look. Within ten minutes I was sitting on the bottom of the pool happily watching the other swimmers as they plunged through the water in a comet of silver bubbles after diving off the tables, holding my breath for as long as possible so as to get the feeling of the real thing.

As my confidence soared, I tried a few splashing, swimming strokes. I must have looked as if I was drowning as I thrashed around in the shallow end and managed, after a lot of effort, to move a couple or metres along the surface. But I didn’t care, I was getting towards the goal that I had set myself.

Not content with my progress so far, I decided to try a sitting dive (’Donkey dives’ I called them). This was a beginner’s dive that somebody had told me about where the person sits on the edge of the pool, sets a stance for a sitting dive then rolls forward into the water. Again it was so easy. After half a dozen of these dives I became bored and wondered if I could manage a real dive off the edge. I watched a couple of lads doing their dives off the edge for a few minutes then finally thought that, if I didn’t try it then, I never would. That first dive was a bit of a belly-flop and I went home very disappointed with myself.

But I persevered, going to the pool for an hour each day and progressing in spurts. Within a fortnight I could dive off the top table, swim five lengths on the water, and one length under water. I crowned all this by swimming across the Thames and back, a feat (to me) that would have filled me with terror only to think of a short two weeks before. Again, I couldn’t believe that I’d wasted so many years of fun through being so scared of deep water. But all my new-found confidence couldn’t squash the fear of weeds on the river-bed and I still go cold with pure terror when my feet touch any.

I spent many hours swimming or playing around the River Thames. I was given a lorry wheel’s inner-tube and had great times floating down that river on it, giggling away to myself as the tube would nearly capsize each time a river cruiser passed by and the waves from the wake reached me. I ‘discovered’ Caversham Bridge and the ‘Prom’ upstream past Reading Bridge, and I took quite a few walks down the river to the beautiful village of Sonning. I took up fishing for a while, making my own rod from a length of bamboo, and my own reel from a cotton reel and a shoe polish tin. But I always put any fish that I caught back into the river.

The River Kennet was filthy in those days and was full of all sorts of rubbish that had been thrown in by people that lived along its banks (I even saw a dead cow, bloated with gases, floating down it one day). Nevertheless, some fish survived in those dark-green waters and I recall that a man showed me how to catch Dace by using hemp seeds. One seed on the hook and a handful of seeds thrown around this bait would guarantee to have half a dozen of those fish going mad to dope themselves up, it was too easy. I felt sorry for the way those fish seemed to come so very trustingly, like lambs to the slaughter, for the seeds, only to be caught, and I decided, after a couple of goes, not to fish like that, it didn’t seem very sporting.

Reading Station pic.
Main entrance into Reading General Station in 1989. The Southern Railway Region Station (out of picture on right) had long gone.

I found Reading General Station and soon had a grubby note book in which I bagged all those beautiful Kings, Castles, Halls, and Granges - steam locomotives that were a legend in their own time on the Great Western Railway. At the Southern Region Railway Station nearby I bagged a few locomotives from that region, but I didn’t find that station or its trains as interesting as the Reading General Station. There was another station, the Reading West, up along the Oxford Road, and I went there a couple of times to see something different. I was still feeling myself around the town and I knew that I would have plenty of time to explore those stations further.

Meanwhile, Val went to a school for the autumn term but, for some reason unknown to myself at the time, Mum kept me home. Gradually my exploration hours became less as we got down to the serious task of trying to find somewhere better to live. Mum and I scoured all the papers in the hope that we would find something suitable in the ‘To Let’ columns, but we looked in vain. Soon the pair of us were forced to take more drastic measures and we started to knock on people’s doors to ask if they knew of any houses to rent.

Mum took one side of a street and I took the other. Up one street and down the next we went, knocking on hundreds of doors and asking the same question as each door was opened. A shake of the head and the gloomy looks would tell Val and John each evening that our searching had been wasted. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I got very bored and frustrated, but I knew that I had to do my bit.

In the evenings, I’d sit and do crosswords or read books by the yellow light of the dim gas lamp (there was no electricity in the flat). I became a real addict for Enid Blyton’s ‘Adventure’ series of books. I joined the local library so that I could read the whole series, losing myself in the adventures of Lucy-ann, Dinah, Philip, Jack, Kiki (Jack’s parrot), Aunt Polly, and Uncle Jocelyn. I also went through Enid Blyton’s ‘Five’ series. Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and Timmy the dog had great adventures as well, and I recall names like Aunt Fanny, Uncle Quentin, and Kirrin Island. The two series of books were absolutely full of smugglers, thieves, underground tunnels, wild moorland, mountain or coastal areas, and narrow escapes. Very often I couldn’t put one of those books down until I’d read every page.

Mum treated Val and I to the cinema one evening. ‘The Tommy Steele Story’ was showing and I enjoyed watching the tale of how that lad rose to fame as a rock ‘n’ roll star from the back streets of Bermondsey in south London. After the show we came out singing his song called ‘Butterfingers’. That song had recently been released and was featured in the film.

Elvis Presley was still churning out the hits and, at that time, ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Teddy Bear’ were in the charts along with Johnny Dankworth’s ‘Last Train To San Fernando’.

As I sat down to a condensed milk sandwich (a craving at that time) one evening in early October of that year, I was thrilled to hear on the news that the first artificial satellite had been launched into space. This was ‘Sputnik I’, launched by the USSR. It was quite an achievement at the time and everyone took an interest in the event.

I was gradually getting used to riding the Reading trolley-buses. It felt funny at first to hear the whining roar from the motor rather than the throbbing noisy engines that I’d been used to on buses. Sometimes the poles, that were up on the roof and picked up the current from the over-head electric cables, would jump off those cables and swing about like a drunken cockroach’s antennae. The conductor would hop off, pull a long pole from beneath the rear of the bus and hook the roof poles back down onto the electric cables again. Then the bus would roar on its way once more and the built-up traffic would be left to sort itself out, having been forced to wait until the bus was mobile again.

While on the subject of built-up traffic. In those days there was no such thing as the M4 motorway by-passing Reading and the town was quite a bottle-neck for traffic on the main A4 road from London to Bath and the west of England. It was bad enough at normal times, but during the rush hours each day there were always long queues of crawling vehicles at road intersections and traffic lights. Drivers that reached Reading at rush hour on a journey from, for example, London to Bristol, could add anything up to an hour on the time taken to do that trip. There were no motorways at the time and very few by-passes around towns in those days and the bottle-necks through towns were common and an accepted part of life.

Mum and I went out most days to continue our search for a decent place to live, but occasionally I managed to get away for a few hours on my own. One incident really stands out in my memory of the last few days we were at Sally’s flat and involved a beautiful young lady.

I was leaning on the fence beside the River Kennet at the bottom of Cumberland Road one cool, but sunny, afternoon. I remember that I was humming a song to myself called ‘Diana’ that had just been released by Paul Anka. It was too cold for a swim in the Thames and I was thinking of going for a walk along the River Kennet tow-path through Reading as I hadn’t been that way at the time.

I was just about to walk off when a young lady, who had been leaning against the fence a bit farther down-stream, approached and asked me if I knew the time. I looked into her lovely blue eyes and, just like the time that I’d looked into Gina’s eyes, my heart gave a lurch. But, as usual, I became very shy and embarrassed and mumbled something about not having a watch.
She stood beside me for a minute looking into the dirty water of the river below. Neither of us spoke during that (to me) long minute, indeed, I was speechless with shyness. Then she fumbled in her pocket and brought out a packet of ‘Spangles’ (sweets). As she offered me one I seemed to go to pieces, my legs went wobbly and I felt my cheeks burning.

From what I had learned about male and female relationships, it should have been me that offered her a sweet not her offering me one. But I had no sweets, nor any money to buy some. Feeling extremely embarrassed and out of my depth, I declined her offer with more mumbling words. The girl didn’t seem to mind that I’d refused her offer, she just smiled and asked me where I lived and why I was there beside the river all on my own on such a lovely afternoon.
More mumbling from me as I began to move away only seemed to spur her on, and she started to walk along beside me as she asked if I’d seen the latest film at the local cinema. That helped to break the ice a bit and I told her that I hadn’t seen the film. She said that she hadn’t seen it either but would like too. It suddenly dawned on me that the young lady seemed to be asking me to take her out. I don’t know why she wasn’t at school, but she was probably lonely with nobody to chatter to during school hours.

But, I had no money to spend on taking girls to the cinema, although I would have liked to have got to know her a bit better as she seemed a very nice young lady. I stuttered an apology, made some excuse that I had to go and left her standing beside the river as I quickly hurried off. It may have been a cool afternoon, but I was sweating with the acute feelings of shyness and embarrassment.

I never saw that young lady again and I often wonder who she was and how her life is going. It seems weird that she popped in and out of my life for ten minutes and made such a lasting impression on my memory. I can still recall exactly what she looked like even after over forty years have passed by. With all the confidence that I have now where ladies are concerned, I have to look back and laugh at my early shyness!

It was at the beginning of November when we finally found somewhere a bit better to live. I recall that the USSR had just launched another capsule into space. This was ‘Sputnik 2’ and it carried a dog called ‘Laika’ as it orbited around the world. Unfortunately, the dog wasn’t brought back to earth and died when the capsule oxygen ran out. But that dog and the Russians proved that life could exist in space, paving the way for all future ‘manned’ space flights.

But, for our family, this latest feat was pushed into the background by the thrill of finding a new home. We heard that there were some rooms to let over on the other side of town. Fearing that somebody else would beat us to them, Mum and I quickly hopped on a trolley-bus and rode through Reading and up the Oxford Road until we reached Chester Street. As we walked along the rows of terraced houses in that street, looking for number twenty one, I could see the Great Western Railway lines not too far away. I remember thinking to myself that it would be good to explore that side of the town. The rooms were still vacant and we left Sally’s and moved in the following weekend.

This latest home of ours was owned by two old brothers, Bill and George. It was a corner house and they sold vegetables, that they had grown in their allotment nearby, from a side entrance of their back garden in Sherwood Street. Both of them were veterans of the Great War (WW1) and they told me some gripping tales of their adventures while they had fought in France.

We had two rooms to ourselves and shared the dining room and kitchen with the two brothers. It was quite comfortable and warm there as the winter began to take hold, and there was no noisy refrigerated room to bother us at nights. At first, the two brothers were very good to us and we settled in as if we were going to stay there forever (or so it seemed to me).

John said that we should try and get our furniture up from Somerset and put it into store. We were still paying rent for the house down there and he said that it would be cheaper to store the furniture and cut our ties with the Somerset house altogether. We rented a large garage along Berkeley Avenue and Mum arranged for our furniture to be brought up by a transport firm that had advertised return loads from the Somerset area.

A couple of days after moving into Chester Street we went back down to Donyatt to pack all our furniture up ready for collection by the furniture lorry. The old Standard ‘Fourteen’ whisked us there in three hours and we got straight into packing.

I remember being surprised at how bleak the countryside looked now that it was winter time. We’d lived there through the spring and summer, the days had been hot and the countryside had been a living green. But, after being away for the autumn months, we found that the trees had lost their leaves and the landscape was all dark greens and browns. For some reason I hadn’t expected that.

Being back in that house also reminded me that Claude had gone out of our lives. I hadn’t even noticed the fact or missed him with all the excitement of my new life in Reading. He had gone his own way when we’d moved from Somerset and I can’t say that I was sorry. But I was amazed that the fact hadn’t even registered in my mind until I was back in the house at Donyatt after all that time away.

After packing up we headed back to Reading. Mum had left the house keys with a neighbour who would let the removalists in on the day that they went to collect our furniture.

We were waiting at Reading when the lorry arrived and it didn’t take long to pack everything into the garage. The car was loaded with a few of the extra things that we needed, and at last I had my ‘trusty steed’ (cycle) back. Giggling with happiness, I rode down to the house behind the car, thinking of all the exploring that I could do now that I had my bike again.

Val and I started attending the Battle School and I found that the pupils in my class were very similar to the pupils of class 4-D at Germain Street School. This school was only half a mile away from where Val had been born in the Battle Hospital.

The very first day that I was at the school, one of the school bullies approached me in the playground and threatened me because he thought that I had been looking at his girlfriend. I faced him squarely and, emphasising every word, told him that I hadn’t been looking at his girlfriend (which I hadn’t) but, if I had looked at her, there would have been no harm meant. He then asked me if I thought that I was tough and I answered that I was just as tough as he was (although, secretly, I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to try and prove it). His gaze dropped to the floor and he made a joke of the incident. That suited me better than a fight would have done. He kept his girlfriend and I had no more bullying problems at the school after that. The lad’s name was ‘Baldy’ Belcher and he eventually became one of my casual friends. As already mentioned, I have a lot to thank Francis Ridgeway for!

Another incident that I can recall from that school involved my class and a young student teacher. This teacher taught music and I’d only been at the school a couple of days when he gave his first music lesson to our class. Being a new boy, I didn’t have the confidence of the other pupils in my class, so I didn’t know or their plans. The teacher came into the music room where we were waiting to begin the lesson. He introduced himself and, walking over to the piano, explained that he wanted to hear how good we could sing. Well, that was right up my street, I hated musical notes, treble clefs, arpeggios, and all the other bits and pieces to do with reading music, but I loved singing. Happily, I sat back and prepared to give it my best. I cannot remember which song it was now.

It was at this point that the plan was made by the rest of the class. Whispers and giggles shot around the room but I didn’t take much notice of it at the time. The teacher told us that he would play the introduction and that he wanted us to start singing at the end of it. Looking up to the ceiling with one ear cocked in our direction, as if he expected to discover another ‘Caruso’ in our midst, he played the introduction and nodded his head at the right moment. With great gusto, I burst into song and had already sung a couple of lines when I realised that I was singing on my own and the rest of the class had gone into raptures of laughter. I trailed off, wondering what I had missed that had caused the other pupils to laugh so much.

The teacher stopped playing and asked what was wrong. ‘Baldy’, the lad who had tried to bully me earlier, and who was a bit of a ‘class-leader’, explained that nobody could sing. The teacher laughed good-naturedly at the joke and played the introduction again. Thinking that they’d had their fun and would all sing this time, I burst into song again, and once more tailed off as the rest of the class sat in silence. More giggles made me resolve to wait until the others were singing in future.

That teacher gave them half a dozen chances then finally called the Headmaster. Of course, while the Headmaster was in the room every voice sang out loud and clear and the student teacher looked very embarrassed. The Headmaster walked off and the class stopped singing again. The teacher tried very hard to encourage the pupils to do as he asked. He promised this and threatened that, but his introductions were met with silence. In the end he flew into a rage, his frustrations causing him to lose control of the situation, much to the delight of those youngsters. I was reminded of poor ‘Jazzy’ and the way the pupils had treated him at Germain Street School. Sensing that they’d won a victory over that teacher, the class at last decided to sing. The teacher suddenly beamed with happiness and things got back to normal.

But the damage had been done and the music lessons became a battle of wits between that teacher and the pupils as more plans were devised to frustrate the lessons. I only attended that student teacher’s class a couple of more times so missed out on the really bad ones that I heard about later.

There was a lad named Bill Bundy in my class and he was very keen on joining the Merchant Navy. We became friends and he told me of his plans. My imagination was fired and I started to dream of exotic ports and stormy seas. It all sounded very exciting and I was soon borrowing books on seamanship from the library. I studied these books from cover to cover and set myself written tests. I had a special drawing book in which I drew buoys, signal flags, parts of ships, etc. naming each item correctly from memory. I practised knots and learned the Morse Code. It all seemed to come so easily to me, probably because I was very interested. Mum remarked one evening that she wished that I could do the same with my school subjects. Bill and I chatted for hours as we made our plans and longed for the day when we could join a ship together and sail off into the wide blue yonder.

My 14 yo pic.
Aged 14, my photo taken at Battle School while living at
Chester St.

My days were very full at this time. Most school days would see me up early so that I had time to ride across to the heated pool near Sally’s flat for a swim before school (there was no Central Swimming Pool up the Oxford Road in those days). After my day at school I’d go home and have tea. Then I’d study the seamanship books for a while until about seven o’clock each evening when I’d walk down Little John’s Lane to the railway and wait for my favourite train to pass by as it headed west from London. After watching ‘my train’ (as I called it) pass by, I’d go back home and study until it was time for bed.

That train was called ‘The Red Dragon’ and, if I recall right, it passed through Reading at about seven-fifteen each evening. It was usually pulled by a powerful ‘Britannia’ class locomotive and I thought it was a beautiful sight as the train roared past under the great lights of the Scours Lane goods sidings and vanished towards the west into the dark winter’s night, leaving everything quiet again except for the clank of buffers and the dull throbbing of the diesel shunter over in those goods sidings. I never tired of watching all the trains on the Western Region in those days, but The Red Dragon was my favourite and most evenings while we lived in Chester Street I’d watch it pass.

Weekends were spent mostly exploring Reading and the surrounding areas. Although the weather was fairly cold, I happily rode my bike in whatever direction I pleased. It wasn’t long before I knew the town and all its streets off by heart. I ‘discovered’ all the parks, and found my way to the Forbury Gardens and the ruined Reading Abbey.

If I wasn’t riding around Reading, I could sometimes be found at the end of a platform in one of the stations, ‘bagging’ locomotive names and numbers in my grubby little note book. But, my favourite place for train-spotting was just down the lane where I watched The Red Dragon pass, half a mile from our home. There is an industrial estate each side of the lane beside the railway embankment now, but at that time there were only fields, with the lane driving between them and under a bridge to a farm on the other side of the railway embankment. I was happy to sit beside the line on the bridge and watch the trains pass. Later, I’d find Reading locomotive shed, which was nearby, and go there a few times.

When I think of the time we lived in Chester Street, I’m always reminded of a song, sung by Debbie Reynolds, called ‘Tammy’. It was very popular at that time. Buddy Holly blasted into the charts with ‘That’ll be the day’, Jerry Lee Lewis had us rocking with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, and Peter Sellers released a song called ‘Any Old Iron’ that became a favourite of everybody’s. Elvis was still churning out the hits, his latest being ‘Party’ and ‘Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do’. We must have driven our parents nearly mad as we tried to imitate all these different singers.

While we were staying at Sally’s flat across the other side of the town, I’d had a real craving for condensed milk sandwiches. Now that we were in new surroundings, I went the opposite and got a craving for creamed cheese sandwiches. Jam, honey, syrup, chocolate spread, and the faithful condensed milk would have been left to rot if Mum had relied on me to keep the stocks ticking over. I’d have my normal breakfast and a cooked dinner, but at tea time I’d demolish the cheese sandwiches as if I’d eaten nothing all day.

I remember one dinner time when Mum had cooked us some chips as a treat. It wasn’t often that Mum would allow us to have chips with our meal and we all set to with a relish. John grabbed the tomato sauce first, laughing because he’d beaten Val and I to the bottle. The sauce was thick and wouldn’t pour so he decided to give the bottle a rigorous shake. As has happened in thousands of homes, he hadn’t put the cap back on properly. There was an explosion of red at the second or third shake and the wall behind, the ceiling, the table top, and John were splattered in the tomato sauce that had shot from the bottle during the shaking. Poor John sat at the table with a surprised look on his face while Mum, Val, and I went into shrieks of helpless laughter. It was quite a while before we could settle down and do justice to those yummy chips that Mum had prepared for us. After the meal we all set to work and soon the room was spick and span again.

Having given my pigeons away when we left Amersham, I obtained a couple more and made a cage for them out of wooden vegetable boxes that the two old brothers kindly gave me. It wasn’t long before I’d trained those pigeons to home in on their cage just like my other pair used to do.

My fifteenth birthday passed by with no memories that I can recall. My days were busier than ever now that I had the pigeons. Then I decided to abandon the idea of joining the Merchant Navy. With lorries trundling up and down the Oxford Road at the end of our street, the Merchant Navy seemed too remote whereas lorry driving was right there within my grasp. To get behind the wheel of a lorry became my longing ambition then.

To fill in the gap those seamanship studies had taken up, I started building model aeroplanes from plastic kits again.
I’d begun building model aeroplanes and ships from kits when, at about thirteen years of age, I’d discovered that the Woolworth’s store in Amersham had started selling ‘Airfix’ kits in little plastic bags at a cost of two shillings each. The mouldings of the aeroplanes were in blue plastic and, as I could never afford paint as well, my models stayed a blue colour. I recall that the first ‘Airfix’ kit that I purchased was a Spitfire. I tried a Gloster Gladiator but the Spitfire was my favourite. These kits were a luxury as I didn’t have much money in those days (my wages from the paper round had helped towards the cost), so I took my time in building them and they turned out perfect, even if they were not painted.
Now, with that spare time, and a bit of money that I earned helping the two brothers, I made a few more of the aeroplanes up. I also tried my hand at the tiny sailing ships as well. The mouldings were in white plastic and the only other colour on my models was from the little flags and pennants that were stuck to the top of the masts. I built a model of HMS Shannon, then HMS Victory. These models could be mounted on a bracket and stuck to the wall. For a long time those two models were on the wall of our next house. I still have a Spitfire kit in its plastic bag that has never been opened. It’s a piece of nostalgia from the past.

Christmas passed, again with no memories. It seemed as if I’d suddenly grown up and the magic had gone out of those occasions that had given me so much pleasure when I was younger. I think that our lives, at that time, was so unsettled that celebrations like birthdays and Christmas were dimmed by the problems of trying to get back to normal. But I do remember that ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Harry Belafonte was a popular song at the time.

Snow fell just after Christmas and, after crunching through it to watch The Red Dragon pass by, I’d spend an hour each night, under the dim light of the gas lamps in Sherwood Street, throwing snowballs and making slides. At that time I knew no children locally but, as usual I was quite happy to play on my own.

1958 arrived. ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, a song released by the Everly Brothers, was in the charts and Elvis was also there with ‘Loving You’. ‘He’s got the Whole World’ by Frankie Lymon was being sung by all ages, and Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ was also very popular. America entered the space-race with the launching of the unmanned ‘Explorer I’ and we all wondered if the Americans would beat the USSR to a proper ‘manned’ space flight.

Then one of the old brothers took a fancy to Mum.

He offered her a thousand pounds to leave John and marry him. When Mum told him that she loved John and wouldn’t leave him, the old boy turned his attention to Val, offering Mum the same money if she’d promise that Val would marry him as soon as she was old enough. Mum was disgusted and told him so. From that moment on things became very strained in that house and we knew that somehow we’d have to find somewhere else to live quickly.

And so Mum started keeping me home from school again and the house-hunting began anew. This time we walked the streets of the west side of Reading, knocking on hundreds of doors and asking the same old question. I well recall a song that I hummed to myself during this dismal time called ‘The Story Of My Life’, that had just been released by Michael Holliday, and Mum saying that maybe I’d write the story of our life, with all those ups and downs, when I was older.

Then, on a cool, sunny day in the middle of February, the miracle happened again, just like it did all those years ago when we found the empty hut in the top camp at Beech Barn.

Less than a quarter of a mile away was a large house on the corner of Little John’s Lane and the Oxford Road. We were told that it had become vacant and the owner, a Mr. Longstone, was willing to rent the place out. Mr. Longstone was one of the local plumbers and Mum frantically tried to contact him so that we’d have first refusal if the house was truly up for rent. Finally she managed to contact him and, luck still being on our side, he agreed to rent the house out to us.

Once again we had the chance to settle down and get on with our lives in a more relaxed manner.

Chapter 15

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