Thursday, 2 February 2017

My Wembley boundaries when at home

This post has been prompted, in part be a conversation with a friend here in Beeston, Nottingham, where I have lived since the end of 2014. We were having a conversation about 'sense of place' and how important it has been to both of us throughout our lives.

Richard used to live in Lenton and we met through my Lenton based blog, Parkviews. Susan and I bought our Lenton house at 1979, but did not move in until 1980 and stayed there until we left in 2014.

We were active in the community for all those years and when I look  back at the places where I have lived being involved in the community has been a common factor: Wembley until I was 22 and from 15 I was active in Wembley South Young Socialists and the Labour Party; then Harrow 1966–69; Birmingham 1969–78; Mansfield 1976–1979; Lenton, Nottingham 1980–2014 and Beeston, where my involvement began in 2011 when I joined the WEA Beeston Branch writing class.

The common thread has been the Labour Party and local history, the former I trace back to my Uncle Dave and Auntie Nannie, who I used to stay with in Harlow New Town, as it was then, throughout the 1950s. They were Party activists and Uncle Dave was Secretary of then Plumbers' Trade Union Harlow branch, so there was a steady stream of visitors. The latter, local history, came through my grandfather, Ernie Howard, who I called 'Pop'. He had been born above the family shop on Totnes Terrace (part of Wembley High Road between Ealing Road and Wembley Central Station) in 1896 and was living at 36 Swinderby Road in 1976, the year he died in Harlow whilst staying with Uncle dave and Auntie Nannie. He lived on Swinderby Road for fifty-four years. My Nanna, Anne Starr, grew up in Ickleton on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border and they met during the First World War and every day I see and use things which they used every day and I love that sense of continuity.

I can never remember sitting down and listening to Pop talk about his Wembley, it kind of seeped out over the years during chance conversations or when I heard him reminiscing with old Wembley friends, many from his childhood days, perhaps in a shop when buying shoes, groceries, fish or with family. In the 1940s and 1950s Wembley, despite it rapid growth during the inter-war years, especailly the 1930s, still had a solid core of pre-First World War families, of which the Howards were part.

My Wembley was, by today's standards, quite constrained, yet I was happy with it as it was and the legacy of that happiness has been an ability to be happy in all the places I have lived. I could probably create a similar photographic record for Lenton and Beeston (and in a sense I have since 2007, thanks to blogging), but right now I want to share with you My Wembley as captured on a few chance postcards in my possession. At some point I will give them all their own posts as memories are triggered.

Swinderby Road looking north towards Wembley High Road. No.36 is on the right-hand side of the road, with the handcart outside the semis with the angled front bays (the one furthest from the camera). From the open windows, despite, the clouds, it may have been a warm day, although wanting to keep the air inside the house 'clean' was something I grew up with and, with the benefit of hindsight and a better understanding of history, I suspect that my Nanna, born in 1892, was Victorian enough to believe that ill health and stale air went together. Fresh air equated with healthy. 

Ealing Road from Wembley Brook looking north towards Wembley High Road. Uncle Joe's tobacco shop and newsagents is in the parade of shops on the left and from when I was seven until I was eleven he paid me 5/- (25p) to deliver afternoon newspapers every day except Sunday to about seventy houses.

Just out of view on the left-hand side of the road, the first house beside the brook was a dentist, where I used to go until I moved to Harrow. The fact that I still have most of my own teeth and do not need dentures I put down to my dentist. My mother used to tell me that she took me there the day after the National Health Service (NHS) started and that I never needed to see the school dentist.

Further up the road on the left-hand side, nearer the High Road, opposite the Regal Cinema was Cut & Quality (grocers) and DeMarcos ice cream parlour and coffee bar.

On the right-hand side you can just glimpse the entrance to Union Road, where I went to Sunday school at The Church of God in the British Legion Hall (which was on the south-side) every Sunday. I went there from about six until I was eighteen.

On the other side of Union Road the Labour Party built its New Hall in the late-1950s, where we held Young Socialist meetings and where my first wife, Tricia, and I had our wedding reception in 1965.

Just beyond that and before the Regal Cinema was St Andrew's Presbyterian Church where I went to the 1st Wembley Cubs. I didn't join the Scouts because by the time I was eleven I didn't like uniforms or the discipline!

The Regal Cinema came next (bottom left-hand), where I went to the pictures most weeks, including the Saturday Club and was a member of the 'ABC Monitors'. It cost 6d (2½d) to get in.

In the parade of shops facing Ealing Road which were part of the Regal were Radio Rentals, from where we rented our radio for 1/- (5p) a week. We didn't have electricity in our house until 1958, so I had the job of lugging the acid battery to and from the shop on a trolley every few weeks, where I got a replacement.

Close by was the fish & chip shop on Station Grove, at the far end of which was the Toc H hut.  

A view of Wembley High Road looking east from its junction with Ealing Road, about which I could probably write a book. I will return to it in future posts. I went there most days for something. Just beyond the Station Hotel was Sharvil's the fishmongers. Reg Sharvil was one of Pop's closest friends and they played snooker most nights in the Fairview Club. I would go the shop for fish every other day or so it now seems. I grew up on a diet of fish, cheese, beetroot, runner beans  and apples and only cheese has fallen by the wayside in recent years because too much now upsets my bowels!

Barham Park along with One Tree Hill were my childhood playgrounds if you discount Swinderby Road. In the house they did tea and cake in the summer, but it was demolished sometime in the late-1950s if I remember correctly, by which time I was visiting Barham Park Library more often.

An 83 bus across from Alperton Station on its way to Ealing Broadway. For most of the 1950s there was a Sunday extension renumbered 83A to Kew Green (later changed to London Airport). The 83 took me everywhere in my then known world, well not quite, it took me to family in Kingsbury and on days out to Kew, Hampstead Heath and Gunnersbury Park.

The 18 and 79 buses, and the 662 trolleybus also played a big part in extending my childhood boundaries, as did the Piccadilly line (see previous blog). Trips from Wembley Central Station were in the company of family, every couple of months to Broad Street on a Sunday morning to visit the Petticoat Lane market. My love of buses and public transport began in Wembley as a child.

As a child my world was Wembley and the trips I made to Harlow and Grantown-on-Spey, with visits to Glasgow as well, gave me a sense of being part of something beyond Wembley, but it was home and it was where I always returned to. I read Anne of Green Gables when I was about twelve and remember a male teacher reproving me for 'reading a 'girl's book'. It is a book about place and its importance.

Life has taught me that townscapes change over time, as they should, not always for the best, but sometimes, but individuals endure and they are what I want to remember and celebrate. Wembley may be different in many respects, but what I see and hear I still love.

That is the memoir and legacy I want to pass on to my grandchildren and the families I will never know, that we carry the past with us and we decide, as ourselves, what to do with it, no one else.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Three Wembley histories and different perspectives

Back in 1954 I was ten and saw that a book called Wembley Through the Ages had been published by the Wembley News. It was the local newspaper of choice in my house on Swinderby Road. Pop (my grandfather) read the Evening News Monday–Saturday and The People on Sunday.

I took this photograph in the kitchen at the back of the house in about 1958. 1959 at the latest and, at some point, it got torn, so I stuck it together with sellotape!

We didn't buy the Wembley Observer, though I did deliver it every week. It was not as popular as the Wembley News if my afternoon newspaper round was anything to go by. From the age of seven until I was eleven I delivered papers for 'Uncle Joe' Lochmatter, who had a newsagents shop on Ealing Road between 'The Brook' (as I knew it) and Chaplin Road. I was paid 5/- a week (25p) to deliver all the roads between Chaplin Road and Eagle Road up to Barham School. To deliver papers for bigger newsagents like W H Smith up on the High Road, between Ealing and Ranelagh roads, you had to be eleven, but Uncle Joe gave me a round because he and my Pop were drinking pals and members of the Fairview Club, up on Harrow Road, beside the fire station, as you head out of Wembley towards Sudbury.

I also got the comics to deliver and looked at them in the shop, preferring to buy the small 6d (2½p) cowboy picture story books a bit smaller than what we would know today as A5 size. My favourites being Rocky Lane and Lash LaRue. So long as I bought something each week I was able to read the comics at the back of the shop. I was also marking up my round after a while, so I would dash out of Barham School and go to Uncle Joe's. By four o'clock I usually delivering my papers and by 5.30pm I was home. It was my routine six days a week, except when I was on holiday or ill.

Anyway, it was reading the Wembley News as I did that I found out about Wembley Through the Ages and decided to buy my mother a copy as a Christmas present. Needless to say I read it as best I could and it came back to me in 2006 after her funeral.

Of the three books about Wembley, it is probably the best written and opening it again for the first time in years I went immediately to the chapter on enclosure. It spoke to me in much the same way as it did when I ten.

'The 1803 (Enclosure) Acts… completed what private greed had begun, and abolished people's rights… So far as Wembley was concerned, the wholesale robbery was completed under the Act (and) the only people who were forgotten were the small tenants, who lost not only their rights but, in many cases, their land and livelihood. This ought to be remembered today when the cry is "Back to the Land" and, particularly, when one thinks of the vast sums which now have to be paid for re-purchasing and acre of common land in order to provide a "lung" for the people… but the injustice (of enclosure) is that it gave nearly everything to those who had, and took away from the commoner even that little which he possessed'.

Rev Elsley does not criticise the consolidation of land holdings so that farmers 'were no longer compelled to wander all over the manor to do their farming'. It was the enclosure of common land that he was objecting to.

I never learnt about English land enclosure whilst at school, but I did learn about clearance in the Scottish Highlands, which was the same thing by another name, and I saw enough westerns at the Regal and Majestic cinemas in Wembley to know about the brutal treatment of 'Red Indians' and, again, I could see the injustice of it all without anyone telling me. 

Oh I know the reasons were these things were a little different, but all were about the powerful dispossessing the powerless.

Sixty-four years on and I wonder what Reverend Elsley would make of both Conservative and Labour governments privatising public assets over the last thirty-five years?  I suspect he would see the injustice of it all. As my wife, Susan, frequently points out, British governments do believe in public ownership, providing it is not British. The Dutch, French and German governments can own our buses and railways, and the Chinese our power to name just a few.

The Reverend Elsley is a man I will be quoting again in other blog posts I'm sure. I will end with tattered image from the back of the book's dust jacket:

A History of Wembley edited by Geoffrey Hewlett dates from 1979 and published by the then Brent Library Service.

It is divided into topics with contributions from a number of writers. Like many local histories of its time it is antiquarian in style and light on interpretation. Housing* and politics are noticeable by their absence, which given Brent has always been a very political borough seems strange, for its councillors as individuals and a group had made Brent what it was in 1979. Reading this book I get no idea of what political parties have won elections in Wembley or what wards. It is a history without passion, but as a collection of starting points it is invaluable.

Memories of Wembley by Derek Addison and Tony Rock is the last book in this short list dates from 2016 and is an update of an earlier version from 2011 (which I also have and referred to in 2013 posts)over the next few days.

The 2016 edition has more pages, covers more locations and topics, and has different photographs. It is a guide to Wembley in the 1940s and 50s I am happy to recommend. I love their perambulations around the borough and they remember far more than me, perhaps because there are two of them. I do have my own Wembley 'buddy' who I may have mentioned before, who grew up on Swinderby Road a few doors away from me and is just three weeks younger. She is writing her take on her Wembley days and we do compare notes, exchanging names and memories. Her name is Audrey Watson, still is, and like my wife, Susan, has chosen to keep her own name.

Derek and Tony went to the same schools as us — Barham and Alperton Secondary Modern — and there is a chapter devoted to the latter dated 1948–1952, which makes them six or seven years older than us (we were both born in 1944), but their memories offer a different take on the school. I wholeheartedly agree with them when they point out in their Introduction that 'A wise man once observed that if ten people were asked to describe a particular event that occurred fifty years earlier, there would be at last fifteen versions'.

They say, for example, that 'The teachers at Alperton School were doing the best they could, at a time when the post war socialist government was tinkering with the education system, levelling down where possible, and generally lowering the quality of education throughout the country. With classes of 45 or more pupils they had problems enough without the need for directives passed down from the Orwellian bureau known as the Ministry of Education'.

The 1944 Education Act, is also known as the "Butler Act' because Rab Butler, who was a Conservative MP and the Education Minister during the Second World War, prepared the legislation to reform post-war education in England and Wales, with the support of both the Labour and Liberal parties. There was nothing 'socialist' about education at Alperton School. The Act raised the school leaving age to 15 from 1947 and reduced the number of church schools and placed an emphasis on nonsectarian religious teaching in secular schools like Alperton. Local education authorities where left to interpret the Act which, in Wembley's case, meant Middlesex County Council.

Alperton Secondary Modern was more secular than Barham School, where I remember Catholic and Jewish pupils sitting in the corridor outside the assembly hall during the short morning service at the beginning of every school day. Right now all I want to point out is that, at the time time Derek and Tony were being educated, I wonder how they came to the conclusion that 'socialists (were) tinkering with the education system'?

A few pages on, whilst writing about 'The School Nurse' they refer to TB and, to quote, 'another government inspired programme at the time was the eradication of TB... This project would no doubt have succeeded in ridding the country of this disease, were it not for the later flood of third world immigrants who brought not only TB, but Smallpox with them. Today, TB is alive and well in the UK and apparently resistive to the antibiotics which could have totally eliminated in the fifties'.

This is racist nonsense. Why? Because the authors are clearly blaming the continued presence of TB in the UK on 'third world immigrants', a pejorative term for non-white people, but which in recent years has been extended to include east Europeans. TB has nothing to do with colour or the third world! It is all about rich and poor, and the reason it is rising again is rising inequality in the UK. 

Also the description 'third world' conveniently hides the fact that many of the people who came to live in the UK during the years after 1945 did so because they lived in countries the UK occupied and we told them they were free to come to 'the mother country'. In my time at Alperton School we celebrated Empire Day (24 May), so I guess the school did the same between 1948 and 1952, when Derek and Tony were pupils. What I learnt from those days was to welcome people of all colours and faiths as fellow subjects because they had (and have) as much right to be in this country as I do — that is a great lesson for life I learnt during the years I was at Alperton Secondary Modern School and I cannot thank the teachers responsible enough.

I have had a couple of things published elsewhere which relate to Alperton Secondary Modern School and its part in making me actively opposed to racism in all its forms and why we should all take an active interest in democracy, even if we do no more than vote!

So, as you can see. I find a lot in Memories of Wembley that needs to be challenged, especially the way the authors interpret Wembley history as they remember it. I thank them for providing the opportunity!

NOTE *: Housing was the driver of Wembley's development in the first half of the 20th century and it is, I believe, better understood if related to what was happening across south-east England during the same period. The best, popular, history I know is 'Semi-detached London' by Alan A Jackson, first published by Wild Swan Publications in 1973 (my copy is a revised edition dated 1991).

Saturday, 14 January 2017

A 9d Piccadilly ticket to Museumland

News in The Guardian and on BBC News yesterday that Tristram Hunt is resigning from Parliament to become Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in South Kensington, reminds me of how growing up in Wembley gave me a life long love of museums.

I have a vague memory of memorabilia being displayed in the old Barham Park Library and when the Brent Borough Council opened the Grange Museum in Neasden one of its first displays had the photograph below at its centre surrounded by work tools my family gave to the Museum before it opened. By chance, Susan and I knew the museum's first curator, Val Bott, because we were all members of the then Labour Arts & Museums association (LAMA), which later merged with Arts for Labour.

The photograph is from the 1920s, when my great-grandfather had his own business, H Howard & Sons, which had a shop on Wembley High Road and a yard on London Road. My grandfather (who I called 'Pop'), with my Uncle Arch, worked with their father, but by the time I was on the scene and remembering things in the late-1940s, the business had gone and my grandfather was trading from the backroom of 36 Swinderby Road as E W Howard & Son. Pop is on the far right of the photograph.

The 1906 Wembley Directory & Almanack has an entry for 'H Howard, Ironmongers' at 3 Totnes Terrace and the 1932 Kelly's Directory lists 8 London Road as 'H Howard & Sons Contractors yard'.

Totnes Terrace was on the southside of the High Road by the Station Hotel.

But I digress (this is a good example of how one thing leads to another and takes you away from the topic/memory which got you writing in the first place), the main point of this post is to write about my Wembley childhood and the importance of museums, especially the South Kensington museums, which could be reached direct from Alperton Station for the cost of 9d half-fare return ticket on the Piccadilly Line.

When I was little, before my mother got married, I remember her taking me out for days on our own, just her and me. She wasn't about most of the time (even though she is recorded as being at 36 Swinderby Road on the electoral rolls for 1947–52) and one our regular haunts was the museums at South Kensington. They were easy to reach, a ten minute walk to the station, thirty minutes on a tube train, then along the pedestrian tunnel which linked South Kensington Underground Station to the natural history and science museums.

They were (and remain) all close together, the V&A, the natural history, geological and science museums. What has gone is my favourite from those day — the Commonwealth Institute as I remember it, although back then records show it as the Imperial Institute.

The V&A didn't get much of my attention, nor did the Geological Museum — ten minutes was usually enough, but I could lose myself all day in the other three. In the Science Museum there were a few what we would call today 'interactive' displays, mostly mechanical. There was the telephones which you dialled and then watched and heard a mini exchange click and whirr before another telephone rang a few feet away.

I used to watch other children approach the telephone with caution, not sure of what to do. In the late-1940s/early-1950s home telephones were a rarity. At Swinderby Road we always had one because Pop was a plumber. The first number I remember is Wembley 394 (or was it 439?) and our upright telephone did not have a dial. Later it did and our number became Wembley 4394. It was the mid-1950s before we got a modern telephone, complete with a pull-out tray containing cards on which you could write telephone numbers. We may have been high-tech insomuch as we had a telephone, but we had gas lighting until 1954, so I grew up a little in awe of light switches! Even now, in 2017, I press a light witch and somewhere inside me I am amazed.

When my mother got married, our days out together came to an end. After that, for a while Uncle Jimmy came along as well but when they married and they moved to Kingsbury, we would not visit museums together again for many years and started visiting museums together again with my children, Alicia and Owen, then my grand-children, Laura and Natalie. I see my mother as responsible for sowing the seed which grew into a lifelong love of museums on my part and for that I thank and remember her still.

My interest in the Commonwealth Institute (as I will call it) must have been enough to prompt my being given a Commonwealth Annual one Christmas as a child, and then every year thereafter for a good few. 

I took them into adulthood with me and left them behind in Birmingham in 1975 when I left Tricia, my first wife, for Susan, then Curator of Mansfield Museum & Art Gallery in Nottinghamshire. The best and worst acts of my life all rolled into one and there, at the centre, so to speak, were museums, for I met Susan at the 1975 annual Museums Association conference, held in Durham that year, where I was speaking about 'Museums in a period of inflation' and what local councils might do to address the challenge (one thing I did not advocate was museum admission charges).

There were other museums I visited regularly as a child, Gunnersbury Park and Kenwood House. The former my favourite childhood museum and park. Gunnersbury Park and its museum will get a blog post of its own one day because that childhood connection re-surfaced in the 1970s, during my years as Chair of the Midlands Area Museum Service (MAMS) and a former curator of the museum introduced me to Susan in Durham. His name was Vernon Radcliffe and he was curator at Gunnersbury in the 1950s. He became  a mentor when I joined MAMS. I gave the eulogy at his funeral in 2011.

There really was a dearth of local museums in our part of Middlesex, so by the time I was eight or nine I was taking myself off to South Kensington on my own because, by then, I had the confidence to use buses and tube trains like an adult. 

I think the Commonwealth Institute played a part in shaping my take on the world even then, looking at the displays and watching films in its cinema, you could not but help see the way we treated Black people in Africa and the West Indies. Those in charge were always white and the workers always Black, yet I knew from the Fanthornes (I hope I have spelt the surname correctly), who were Anglo-Indians and members of St John's Church, that colour was no bar to ability. In those days Black faces were a rarity in Wembley, but when they came my years of visiting the Commonwealth Institute helped to put their arrival into some kind of context.

Add to this liberal schoolteachers like Mr Fowler, Mr Irvine and Mr Sladden at Alperton Secondary Modern, and listening to adults talk at 36 Swinderby Road, I can understand how I became who I am today. Pop and my Uncle Dave had very different views of the Suez War in 1956. At school I was on Nasser's side, just like I was always a 'Roundhead', never a 'Cavalier'. These things just went with the territory of me being who I was, a little apart from others even then.

The Natural History Museum helped me question what I was taught at Sunday school long before I knew the name Charles Darwin. It was there, all in plain sight for any child to see if he or she looked. My questions resulted in being given The Story of the Bible as my reward for regular Sunday school attendance in 1957, which I still have (all it did was fuel the fire).

I wasn't bright at school because I suspect I was seen as disruptive, always asking questions, even challenging what teachers said at times, but these are things for another day.

Had I not grown up in Wembley, a 9d train ride and forty-five minutes away from 'Museumland', as I liked to call it then, I would not be me.

There is one teenage footnote to this story. My first job on leaving Alperton Secondary Modern School eas as a a trainee animal technician at the Chester Beatty Research Institute in South Kensington, so I would take myself off at lunchtime or when I finished early on a Saturday to the V&A Museum, which was just five minutes away. This was when I got to see and learn about another side of history and as really my introduction to 'the arts' as such. If I had my way all museums would have a virtual reality website so that, with the touch of a finger (or saying a few words) we could visit them all if we wished! 

I will end where I started, with another reference to Tristram Hunt. He is on record as supporting museum charges and the V&A has already felt the need to reassure the public that it has no plans to introduce charges. I have always opposed museum charges (just as I am opposed to university tuition fees and private fee charging education) and, at the root, of this objection are my own experiences as a child. Had she to pay, I suspect my mother would never have taken me to museums… the rest you know.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Three years and I'm back

The last post to this blog before this one is dated 6 October 2013 in which I said I was going to Brent Archives to look at electoral rolls for Swinderby Road, especially at the names of who lived at No.36, where I lived from my birth in 1944 until buying a house with my first wife, Tricia, in 1966*.

So, why has it taken me so long to return to this memoir? In truth, the local historian and writer in me has yet to finalise how I want to proceed, plus the fact that I returned from London in 2013 to find our cat, Markiza, was ill. She had come to live with Susan, who I have lived with since 1975 and married in 1977, and me after a close friend went into a nursing home in 2008, by which time Markiza was already quite elderly. We knew Markiza as long as our friend Michael had because I had gone with with him to the Cats Protection Shelter at Watnall, near Nottingham, and was there when he chose Markiza.


In early November 2013, Markiza was put to sleep in our arms at home. It really was a peaceful end. We had been thinking of downsizing for several years and her passing was the trigger. It took us a full year to move, even though we sold the house quite quickly. We didn't move far, just under three miles to nearby Beeston, an area we knew well. It was home from the day we moved in, my daughter Alicia and her partner Steve came and stayed a couple of days and did all the grunt work.

2015 was election year and though I was no more than a Labour Party foot soldier, living in the marginal Broxtowe constituency meant there was  a constant stream of delivery to do, plus work on the house and the largest garden we have ever had in our lives. Fortunately, the latter was well maintained and our plan for 2015 just to pull weeds, pick the fruit and cut the grass. The first time I did the latter I coughed up blood, which led to me having an x-ray on the day after the general election. Ten days later I was being seen in the lung assessment unit at Nottingham City Hospital, because the x-ray had revealed 'established fibrosis of the lungs' (I have never smoked), with the doctor asking me 'How long have you had a heart condition?' 'What heart condition?' I replied. At the time I felt in the best of health, but the NHS picked me up and has spent twenty months monitoring me. To cut a long story short, my lungs are 90% normal and my heart condition is congenital (I was born with two cusps in my aortic heart valve instead of three), but it has reached the point where I am down to have open heart surgery later this month (January). In the last few months I have become a 'half-day person'. Right now I consider myself one lucky bunny, the NHS have been faultless in their care and support and I am looking forward to getting back to my old self.

In readiness, I have cleared the decks and decided that post-op I will have three interests: the garden, writing and my memoir, beginning with my Wembley years, so here I am, about to climb back on the bike so to speak, knowing that I may disappear from view again for a few months, but with this posting anyone who chances upon this blog will know it does have a future.

After my October 2013 visit to Brent Archive I prepared three tables based on electoral roll information. I include the tables below without comment other than what I may have already included. I know there are people missing, some of the lodgers at 36 Swinderby Road for example, and those faces I can see from my childhood days, but to which I cannot (yet) attach names.

To see the tables more clearly, click on to enlarge:


Eileen Matthews and me with our cats c.1951–2 at the back of 36 Swinderby Road. My cat Tibby died when I was about 18.

Me in the early-1990s snoozing on the sofa, with our then cats Coco and Jenny above me sleeping as well.
We have not had a cat since Markiza passed on.

NOTE: * I lived with my mother and step-father in Swindon when I was 12–13 for about four months before coming back to Wembley and returning to Alperton School. I cannot remember the exact year (something I still have to check).

Sunday, 6 October 2013

What will I find in Brent Archives?

This time three days from now will find me in Brent Archives and I will have been there about eight hours. If I am lucky, I will have confirmation of some of the names I remember from growing up at 36 Swinderby Road in Wembley, where I lived from 1944 until 1966.

I will also know more about the family shop, which was on Wembley High Road from sometime in the 1890s until the mid-1930s and I will almost certainly be looking at old copies of The Wembley News, looking for stories and photographs relating to events I have vague memories of.

I am taking some things with me to see if Brent Archives would like them, including the photograph below, showing my great-grandfather Albert Howard (left, 2nd row) with other members of what was then the voluntary Wembley Fire Brigade. My Uncle Smiler (my mother's brother) was looked very much like him and when I last saw my first-cousin Derek Howard at a family funeral a few years ago I thought he also looked very much like our great-grandfather.

One of my other would-be deposits is a couple of copies of newsletters produced by members of Wembley South Young Socialists in 1964. I was a member from 1960 until I moved to South Harrow in 1966 and was, at various times, Branch Secretary and Branch Treasurer.

Looking at the copy again for the first time in a great many years, names and faces I had forgotten came tumbling out. They were enjoyable times and I am in contact with  three of people from my Young Socialists days, one of whom I will be staying with during my visit to London and Brent Archives.

Another item is a very colourful map of the 1924 Wembley British Empire Exhibition site, which describes Wembley as being in London, even though it was, until the county's abolition in 1965, part of Middlesex (and I know all the arguments about the fact that the county still exists for some purposes). Below are just a couple of sections.

Admission cost 1/6d (children half-price) and it ran from April–October 1924. Many of the buildings survived in the mid-1970s at least, the last time I took a wander around the old Wembley Industrial Estate as it had become known, looking with Susan for manhole covers bearing the legend, 'A E Howard & Sons – Sanitary Engineers' and we found a few, together with a few lions from 1924 exhibition halls guarding warehouse entrances.

This was a Wembley I never learnt about at school because in the 1950s schools didn't do local history. What I found out came from older family members and neighbours who, like my grandfather, lived in Wembley all their lives.

In yesterday's Guardian (5 October 2013) the comedian John Bishop was asked 'If you could go back in time, where would you go?'* He replied 'The 1950s, when the welfare state was making an impact and people were looking forward to the future.'

I understand perfectly. So much about the fifties coloured and shaped my life and if you were not there you might not be able to understand the optimism and how it still influences the way a great many people over sixty see the world.

One thing is for sure, I am not going to Brent Archive for a nostalgia-fest. I don't want to go back, but I do want to have some certainty about what I remember before I begin writing about life on Swinderby Road during the years I remember as a child and teenager. I want to make sure some of the people actually existed and that I put them on the right side of the street.

I know from the contacts because of this blog that some of my memories from the 1950s and early-60s are remarkably accurate. By this time come Wednesday I will know a lot more, so visit this blog again in a couple of weeks.


*Where would I go to if I could travel back in time?

1086 to go around parts of England with the men who had been commissioned by William The Conquerer to compile a record of all the property in his kingdom. The result became known as the 'Domesday Book'.

Where would you go?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Swinderby Road my home port

As children we all want to explore and mark territory if we have the chance. Some less fortunate never leave home unless part of a convoy. They are anchored to their home and garden. Someone from my Swinderby Road childhood, who I am getting to know again and met last week for the first time in fifty-four years was one of the latter. Our conversations were at her front gate and I have this memory of her behind her front gate whilst other children, like myself, clustered round.

I know this memory of her is 'reliable' because I told her of where we used to stand and talk before she said as much herself. I thought her very grown-up and whilst she claims she was shy, it isn't how I remember her. She was much more outgoing than the more free roaming Swinderby kids like myself and her memories are beginning to confirm my view.

She moved on, school wise, before the likes of me, going off to Ealing Art School at thirteen after two years at Alperton and what all too few conversations we had afterwards were all at either her front gate or at her aunt's house a few doors down.

We were in the same years at Barham and Alperton, but I cannot remember being in the same class. I was a slow learner back then and didn't really like the constraints school placed on me. I always had things to do away from school and people to see, papers to deliver, bottles to collect and errands to run.

My friend was bright and on the few occasions I thought of Swinderby Road and Wembley as a grown-up in faraway Birmingham and Nottingham, and reminisced with family, or my two teenage friends from my days as a Wembley South Young Socialist, she was always there.

My friend did have 'voyages' away from Swinderby; going to Barham and Alperton schools and Sunday school (which I think she did). I must ask if she went to Barham School on her own, or whether her mother took her and collected her?

I, on the other hand, was taken to Barham School for the first time one morning in 1949. I then made my way home in the afternoon as part of a huge wave of children which rolled down Danethorpe Road every afternoon. Now it may have been the case that a neighbour had me in her sights, perhaps Mrs Matthews, who lived next door. Her daughter Eileen was a few weeks younger than me and we played together a lot in those days.

I suspect I  was the only child at Barham School aged five who already travelled on buses alone, albeit seen onto an 83 outside DeMarco's on Ealing Road, opposite the Regal Cinema, into the care of the conductor, then met at the top of Townsend Lane in Kingsbury by my Auntie Wi'en. In the evening, the process would be reversed. In between time, I enjoyed the company of cousins Fiona and Derek, whose prefab home backed onto open fields leading down to The Welsh Harp.

A blessed 83, Ealing bound, outside Alperton Station in 1952.
By coincidence (yet another one), the 83 was to play an important part in the life of my Swinderby Road friend. Like me, she likes buses. As children they liberated us. Before this blog is done with, there will be fair bit about Wembley buses and where they took us. Image from London Transport Buses and Coaches 1952 by John A S Hambley (1993), which can still be bought on the Amazon website. This is a great series of 'year' books, which capture on page after page how the world looked at the time — with a bus or two in every pic!

On days when I stayed at home, some of us Swinderby kids would wander off to One Tree Hill, a nearby open space, on our own and play, often on the swings and slide by the Piccadilly Line. Most of time we did this without asking or telling and, usually, our absence from Swinderby went unnoticed. If it was, someone would come and find us and sternly tell us not to do it again. We did of course.

At first that was as far as we went. To the top of Swinderby, right along Eagle Road until it met Norton Road, and across to the left was the open entrance to One Tree Hill. There were no fences then and very few cars, if any.

Another day we might go and play beside 'The Brook', which ran between the lower part of Swinderby Road and the length of Ranlagh Road on the west side, which was bordered by back gardens. On the east side all you saw was the bacsk of the sshops which fronted onto Ealing Road. In those days it was open and, most of the time, no more than six to eight inches deep, with an open bridge which carried The Brook under Chaplin Road.

This was where we would lay low on summer evenings waiting for the DeMarco's ice cream vans to return, then as the driver took in their takings, we would dash across to the open van and scoop out as much ice cream as our hands could carry, before dashing back to hide in the bushes again and consume the ice cream as quickly as we could, covering our hands and faces in melting ice cream before washing our hands and faces in The Brook.

I saw other lads steal boxes of tins and other provisions from unloading lorries on the same unmade road behind the shops, but I was never that brave. What I did was akin to scrumping. What grown-ups like my grandfather ('Pop') would call poaching. There was a line and I didn't cross it.

As we got older, perhaps six or seven, and had a year of Barham School under our belt, we would go further afield, in the footsteps of the adults who took us to Barham Park to play or visit the Library. If grown-ups could do it, so could we, and no group I was with ever got lost, for I had an anchor point, where we could hove to and, if lucky, get a free glass of pop of squash or pop, with a biscuit too.

My port of call was the Fair View Club on the Harrow Road, between Wembley and Sudbury, beside Wembley Fire Station. I could get to 'The Club', as I knew it, from Swinderby Road blind-folded. It was a kind of second home. Parked in the 'ladies' room by my Pop, with its leatherette chairs and sofas, I would consume glasses of lemonade and eat Smith's crisps or large penny Arrowroot biscuits with a lump of cheese. I would watch the men come and go and, if it wasn't busy out the back, I would be let loose on a table in a corner and ball the coloured balls into the pockets or make them bounce off one another in the hope that one would go into a pocket on its own. Sometimes we all got lucky and go no further, some raquets would be found and we would end up playing on the already neglected tennis courts, with glasses of squash or pop and food to keep us going. On my own, I would go there with a barrow and collect grass cuttings for Pop's runner beans, but that's another story for a another day. I wonder what occupies them now?

My route to Barham Park was one which allowed me to show off; down Chaplin, into Dagmar, where the Venture Coaches went from, and round the back towards Wembley Hospital, then off to the right, across the tennis courts, through the hall full of green covered tables and a quick dash through the bar of The Club.

Always someone on a stool propping up the bar and my arrival would be greeted with someone saying 'Where's Ernie?' (my Pop's name) and someone else saying 'Not far behind'. By then we would already be in the hallway on the other side heading for the large front door. On my own,  I would have lingered, sure of a free glass of lemonade and an Arrowroot, always my favourite.

Across the Harrow Road, between the then endless stream of trolleybuses and buses, and a few yards up in the direction of Sudbury was Barham Park, like One Tree Hill, fenceless, only separated from the pavement by a ditch of sorts. Then it was off into the dells and sunken gardens, where we would play and hide and, on occasions, visit the Library as well. At the beginning of the 1950s, the large house at the centre of what had once been a private estate was still standing and I have vague memories of a large ground floor room, with windows which opened onto a terrace, serving tea and cake.

I might not have been good at school, but I was encouraged to borrow books from the Library, which I did most weeks and took out picture books, mainly about history and places, and read about Lord Nelson and North Sea fishermen, or other parts of Britain. These were not things we learnt about at Barham School, but there was a young teacher at Barham, Jean Conrad was her name, who took an interest in me and other children too — like the girl I have met again. Miss Conrad will get her posting.

If there is one thing I do not want to lose from my life, it is amazement. You may call it wonder, but I never cease to be amazed in wonderous ways and meeting another Swinderby child again of my own age is a case in point. After so many years, over fifty, there are still so many shared interests and passions.

We are on a voyage of re-discovery together, this time she is free to sail and we are bringing different qualities to our journey. It's very exciting and we have even picked up another 'Swinderberbian' (if that is what we are), a few years younger, but she knows many the same names and has sent me information as well.

At some point, my writing will have to be given some order. For now, I am letting a long forgotten world come to life again before me, as words come tumbling out and many more go untyped. For now they remain scribblings in notebooks.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How did I get to Swinderby Road?

I was born in a Torquay nursing home in 1944. Until recently, I always thought I was born in Teignmouth. At least the Devon part was right. The most this ever meant to me as a child was that I could not play cricket for Middlesex. In the 1940s and 50s, they were very strict about these things.

My mother was unmarried and my father's name does not appear on my birth certificate. My mother never spoke to me about my father and I never asked. I did wonder from time to time, but I never found the courage to confront her and I'm not sure she would have told me the truth anyway.

I was taken back to 36 Swinderby Road, Wembley, where I lived until 1966, except for six-seven months in the mid-fifties, when I lived in Swindon with my mother and step-father. From my point of view, living in Swindon didn't work, so I took off one day and cycled back to Wembley. My Nanna and Pop let me stay and for the next few years I slept on a folding sofa bed in the ground-floor front room.

I don't know how many of the illegitimate children born during the Second World War were adopted, taken into care, lived with their mothers or some other family member. I must find out. In my case it was the latter. My Nanna and Grandfather, who I called 'Pop', took me in and cared for me.

The family must have been talking about me from the moment they knew my mother was pregnant. What was to be done about this unborn baby. Was my mother to be shown the door and told not to come back? She could have been told to give me away. Somehow, a few weeks old, I ended up living at 36 Swinderby Road.

I don't think it was all amicable and the clue to this 'fact' is in my name. On my birth certificate I am 'Kevin Peter', yet as a child the only name I knew was 'Bobby'. I tell myself and others that Nanna gave me this name as a condition of me being allowed into the house. This is my story — I have no way of knowing for sure. Somewhere along the line Bobby became 'Bob' and 'Robert'.

I do know that within weeks of being born my mother had left me and returned to her job working for a Mrs Cooper, helping her to care for her son, Stanley. My mother stayed in touch with the Coopers until they died, then with Stanley, who was at my mother's funeral in 2006. During any visit to my mother, their names would come up in the conversations, so it came as surprise, when, finally introduced to him, at her funeral, he said 'Who?'.

He knew my step-father and my half-sisters, but in all the meetings they had, any reference to me was assiduously avoided and, as far as Stanley was concerned, his parents never know about me either.

My mother liked to believe that she was a good mother. She tried in her way and I do have affectionate memories of her, but these are laced with less than happy ones. When she died, the family rallied round and I gave the eulogy. She was within days of her eighty-sixth birthday and, in the few years before, she had divided up the family photographs between me and my half-sisters, with the result that I suddenly had a tangible childhood, one I could see and touch.

For the first time, I had a few photographs of me as a child to keep.

Swinderby Road was home. I do not believe my childhood was extraordinary, but it was different and, nearing seventy, I find myself wondering about all those conservations about me I was not party to. Who made the decision about me going to Swinderby Road? Certainly not my mother, was it Nanna and Pop together, or just one of them?.

For them this was the second time they had to confront such a decision. My Uncles Dave and Frank* were abandoned by their mother after their father, my Uncle Sid*, was hospitalised in an asylum after The Great War. It's a complicated story, but here they were, my Nanna and Pop, in 1944, having to make a similar decision again. I like to think that this time they were determined not to make the same mistake.

I think I have my uncles to thank for how I ended up going to Swinderby Road.

*Uncle Sid was Pop's brother and appears in the photograph in my first posting dated 25 January 2013, showing me at the back of Swinderby Road, with Pop and my mother, when I was about eighteen months old. You can find more family photographs online in the London Borough of Brent Archives.

After all these years, I not sure it should matter, but watching 'Call the Midwife' on TV last Christmas I was reduced to tears before the end, prompted by a discussion between a mother and father about the fate of their fifteen year old daughter's baby. The camera pulled back and you were confronted with the image of a crib and standing a few feet back, the girl and behind her, her parents. I turned to my wife, already crying and said 'That could have been me', then I cried for a good few minutes.