Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Down the rabbit hole of a Wembley childhood

I am re-visiting old territory with this post. In my first posting, I wrote about why I wanted to write a memoir of my Wembley childhood. I have been thinking about it now since Christmas 2010, after having my vanity appealed to by younger family members.

In truth, I have little yet to share. In January 2011  I found myself sitting in a room with a dozen or so other would-be writers at a Workers' Education Association (WEA) class in Beeston, near to where I live in Nottingham.

On one level, I was already a published, self-taught, writer, dating back to the early-1970s, writing regularly about local government politics and local history — and still do, with a monthly column in the Nottingham Post about public transport.

I realised from the outset that my childhood memoir would be different: it was about me telling a story, becoming creative in previously unimagined ways, and the more I thought about it, I realised by Wembley childhood was like a multi-layered labyrinth, which I could view from as many perspectives as there were days in the story. I felt like Alice going down the rabbit's hole and still do.

Childhood is not a comparative experience at the time you are living it. It was like it was and it was mine.

I was fatherless and motherless most of the time. I lived with my grandparents at 36 Swinderby Road and a string of lodgers, some of whom were kind to me, others ignored me and one sexually abused me and I did things to him. No one seemed to notice at the time. If they did, no one ever spoke to me.

School was a haze. I have a few memories. I had no direction. The eleven-plus passed me by. I cannot remember it at all. It was day-to-day until I left at fifteen.

I looked on as a teenager, as several I knew confronted their illegitimacy. At the time, only I seemed 'normal'.

A press cutting from The Wembley News in 1953 shows the joint Coronation street party for Swinderby and Ranlagh roads and says it was attended by '100 children' — 100! Twenty, maybe, but never one-hundred!

I found myself thinking I was more a loner than I realised. Looking back, I was regularly 'despatched' to relatives for weekends and 'holidays' — I had plenty of them as a child in places like Kingsbury and Harlow, occasionally Grantown-on-Spey, Dunbar or Teignmouth, then there were the summer camps with the Cubs and the Church.

My friends at school were few, some in Swinderby Road, others at the Cubs and The Church of God, which I attended until I was about seventeen. What friendships I made were always being interrupted by me going off somewhere. None survived childhood.

I remember the names of a dozen other children on Swinderby Road at most and if we take 1953 as the year I try to remember, then you might understand why the number '100' frightens me: I lived at no.36, next door lived Eileen Matthews (34). On the other side (38), at about this time, the Rutherford's moved in with their daughter Judith, who went to a Catholic school. I'm sure there were other children as well, but no names or faces come to mind.

Gill and Ralph Maiden lived at no.40 and Johnny Hicks, who drowned on holiday when he was about twelve, lived at no.42 and, next door, at no.48 lived Audrey Watson and her sister. Next to them lived the Allen twins and further up Swinderby, on the same side, lived Peter Scott and his elder brother Ivan. Their father died of a heart attack at Wembley Central Station and Peter was killed in a motor-cycle accident in his late-teens. There was also Bobby Kelner, who has no cause to remember me kindly, if he remembers me at all, as he features in an incident from my Barham School days, which still shames me over sixty years on and I will write about.

At no.26 lived Pamela Mellish and on the other side of the road, just around the bend, opposite the Watsons, lived Bobby Dazely and his brother, who then was described as a 'Mongol' child. Everyone was very protective of him and I never heard him called names. A little up from Bobby was a lad called Neil, who, when I was about fourteen, gave me a cigarette. I took one puff, coughed and gave it back. I had the strength of character to say 'no' and can never remember being bullied by anyone to change my mind.

I had a few playground fights and never joined 'a gang'. I was avoided, not shunned. I had my paper-round and I had my bike, and I had the confidence to take myself off to Barham Park Library, the South Kensington museums, to Gunnersbury Park and to relatives in Kingsbury, as well as my mother, when she was the live-in housekeeper to a Dr Sheldon in Kingsbury proper before she married my step-father, where they then lived together until my first half-sister was born.

Perhaps the most liberating thing in my childhood was the advent of London Transport's 'Red Rover' ticket for 2/6d (12½p), which allowed unlimited travel for a day on all red bus routes. I took myself off and explored London, often alone, and got myself a morning paper-round instead of an afternoon one so that I could do this.

Being able to travel on a red London bus on my own from about four years old (then just to Townsend Lane in Kingsbury, where my aunt and uncle and two cousins my age, lived in a prefab) is what gave me my life-long love of buses. I got to know the types of buses I travelled on and started reading Buses Illustrated when I was about nine and still have copies with 'Gillies' written in the top right-hand corner, as my mother used to buy it for me. I never collected bus numbers, always more interested in bus maps and where I could get to on a bus. I will write about my Red Rover days at some point. I grew up wanting to be a bus driver.

There was a darker side to me I want to acknowledge. My experiences at the hands of a lodger, made me think, in all innocence, it was OK for me to do the same. What cured me was how others reacted. My 'normal' was not their 'normal' and I disgraced myself. No more was ever said and the children involved remained friends until leaving school, when our lives went off in different directions by which time, anyway, there were other 'distractions' and more 'grown-up' experiences had left an altogether different mark on me.

No one reformed me. I did that, unthinkingly, for myself. It made me wise enough not to condemn, to be slow to judge and to understand that the greatest dangers we have to confront are those nearest to us — which is why I made sure my own children never had to share a bedroom and why I believe not providing decent housing for all is our biggest failing as a society.

Swinderby Road was my world and it made me what I am — which is why writing about my childhood is proving so much harder than I imagined after  two-and-a-half years and starting this blog has not been the release trigger I had hoped for.

A trait I readily admit to is a deep dislike of authority. It began at Barham School with a teacher who I remember as 'Miss Macheck'. She tried to make me write with my right-hand when my inclination was to use my left-hand, despite doing most other things with my right-hand. She used to hit my wrist with a ruler until one day she used a big black-board ruler and I left the class crying and ran off to One Tree Hill. In those days schools were not like the prisons they have become today.

There is a story here and, I suspect, what I have said above already contains half-truths. None of us, in my experience, because of the reminiscence and oral history work I have done as a local historian, remember events as well as would like to believe, so I have no way of knowing the truth for sure, other than as I have told it to myself since being asked, as a teenager, why I hold a pen 'funny''?

I also remember being laughed at by a teacher at Alperton Secondary Modern on my first day, when I proudly showed him my new Words dictionary my Nanna had bought for me in Harlesden for 2/6d. It is still a treasured possession and I had the last laugh, because the same dictionary was later bought by the School.

There were teachers who encouraged me, whether they knew what they were doing is another matter. For now, it is enough to acknowledge their contribution to the making of the 'Robert' I am today.

Miss (Jean) Conrad at Barham, who sent me a Christmas Card every year until I was about eighteen  and, much to my shame, I never replied once, despite there being an address in Twickenham or Teddington or somewhere like that. Mr Sladden, who taught geography at Alperton and lived on Scarle Road, and Mr Irvine, the English teacher at Alperton who lodged at the top end of Swinderby Road and had to walk to school in the company of over-talkative kids like myself.

Family wise, my Auntie Nannie and Uncle Dave in Harlow were a towering influence on me and my life-long belief in Socialism comes from them, not by talking, but by example. They both became Labour councillors like myself ( one teenage ambition I did fulfil ).

The Church of God, which met in the British Legion Hall on Union Road, off Ealing Road, played a part too, as did my own insecurities — the need to be 'worthy' came from the Church. Only now, nearly seventy years later, am I unpicking this particular 'shackle'.

Others have paid a price at times for my imperfections and I am deeply sorry for this fact, but will go to my grave thanking them for their understanding and forbearance.

This memoir, when I begin writing it properly, will now end when my first wife, Tricia, and I left Swinderby Road in 1966, when we bought our first house together in South Harrow. The future was bright and the world felt good.

And next week I will meet another child from Swinderby Road, the same age as me, after a gap of more than fifty years. Had I not started this blog we would not be meeting. The rabbit hole awaits and it leads to a labyrinth going I know not where…

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