Archive for December 2011
The battered and peeling gateposts near Mr Bowes the dentist led to a dusty rubble track, which in turn led to my first home.
In the spring of 1958, I was born in St John’s Wood, north London. The setting was ‘a nursing home’. 29 Crescent Grove was where I then spent the first few years of my life.
Like most of the houses nearby it was a dilapidated mixture of flats and bedsits. My mother had moved in to the first-floor flat the year before, having met my father, who was Czech, over an ice cream at the BBC’s Bush House in the Aldwych. At the time, she was in search of somewhere to live, and his mixture of continental charm and extraordinary English had worked its usual spell.
Next door down (No.31 ?) was owned by a lady known to us as ‘The Old Pious Goat’. I have no idea what her name was. Like Vesta Tilley, she had been a male impersonator in music hall, and had now retired to run her home as a lodging house. She was religious, and the rules of her house were extensive, and strict, prompting my father once to enquire if her tenants were allowed to breathe. He meant it, and was relieved when she said that they were.
Whether or not my father wholly owned No.29 is not clear to me without further homework, but I remember that he took an almost patriarchal interest in the occupants. To a very small child it seemed that every available corner of the house was inhabited by rather weird and wonderful characters.
Michael lived in the basement. Michael had a beard, and was bohemian. He came from a well-to-do background, and seemed to be very well off. He certainly didn’t need to work. He was also a little unbalanced – a combination of genius and insanity – something that ultimately got the better of him, and he died very young. I think it was a brain tumour, but this was something that was only ever whispered about in my hearing.
The ground floor was where my father lived with his first wife. They had escaped from what was Czechoslovakia to London just in time for the Blitz in 1940. Their part of the house was a fascinating mixture of too many books, odd furniture, and cats. At Christmas, the bath had live carp swimming in it.
The furniture was odd because it was antique, and mainly of very good quality, and we weren’t used to it. It often suffered at the hands of my father’s first wife, who would seek to improve any item that had untidy things like intricate brass ornaments and decorations on it. She would ruthlessly attack with a pair of pliers until it was reduced to almost Calvinistic plainness. A fine regency card table still in my possession was thus denuded, and a pair of unfortunate Georgian long-case clocks also subjected to the same fate – their finials and decorations torn off and unceremoniously dumped.
Spotlessly clean net curtains hung in the windows at the front and back of the house. They did not look English. Nor did the large baroque cherubs that clung to the wall in the entrance hall. They were almost black with the grime of centuries and soot, until my father’s first wife attacked them as well – with white gloss paint, carefully colouring their loincloths an attractive powder blue.
The cats were acquired over several years – every one of them a stray in some kind of disrepair. Most of them smelt, and had colonies of fleas. They spent warm days outside in cardboard boxes, and at night occupied the very warm kitchen – or went prowling in the wilderness that had once been the carefully tended gardens at the centre of Crescent Grove. Carefully tended they were not any more – with no railings anywhere, and huge untamed bushes of privet and rhododendron swinging over the cracked paving. Noisy and grubby children (who were probably very ordinary and middle-class) played rough games there: Cowboys and Indians, Soldiers, and Robin Hood. There was no reason to go anywhere near, so we didn’t, and I don’t think I ever saw The Crescent on the other side of the gardens. We kept mainly to our part of The Grove.
Uncle Rudolph was not a relative, but a retired Polish airman who had flown with the RAF. He now lived in a single room off the main stairs, and his passion was fishing. Every weekend he disappeared, returning on Sunday evening, laden with freshly-caught fish which he would distribute to anyone who might appreciate it. My mother once opened her front door to find a very large pike hanging from the doorknob, its tail curled decoratively into its mouth.
Mr Parker, who was rather stout, and rather elderly, lived opposite Uncle Rudolf. My only memory of him is of a black gaberdene raincoat and a black hat, glimpsed as he passed on the stairs. He was always very polite. Shortly before he died, he gave my father a pretty walnut chair that had belonged to his mother. I have it still. It is small, useful, and comfortable. The gentlemen must have shared a bathroom, which was probably further along their passageway.
At the top of the house were the rooms occupied by the au pair employed mainly to look after me. I think the accommodation consisted of something like a bedsit and a small kitchen and bathroom – but by the early 1960s my mother had applied to run a playgroup there, and what I had always regarded as my home and my territory was invaded by a mixture of children who I mostly did not like, and certainly wanted nothing to do with.
There was Mark, the youngest, a toddler who was a bully: no chair was safe from him if he decided it was his – the occupant was pushed out of the way onto the floor, too surprised to retaliate; there was the strange and exotic Indian girl with a steel plate in her head, covering the place where her skull had failed to grow properly; there was me, very shy, and rather plump, and there was my best friend, Peter.
Peter lived nearby at Parson’s Corner and was collected by his father at the end of the day. There were three or four others, who I cannot recall, and the group seems to have been considered a success.
Peter and I were occasionally taken out for treats by Lisbeth, a splendid Norwegian friend of my mother’s who had wanted a year’s sabbatical from her job in Oslo, and who had been seconded to run the playgroup. She took us to places like Arding & Hobbs (opposite Clapham Junction Station) for afternoon tea, where we embarrassed or amused customers and waitresses alike by playing hide-and-seek under the stiff white table-cloths in the otherwise silent dining room. We were also photographed together, sitting on a threadbare armchair in my mother’s sitting room, both glued to a large picture book about a fire engine. Peter was shortsighted, and wore round metal-rimmed glasses. He was clumsy on occasion, and once managed to fall down the stairs from the top of the house, literally turning cartwheels past me, until he landed against the wall and burst into floods of tears. His only injuries were shock and a bump on the head. He and I stayed friends until school intervened and we went our inevitably separate ways at the age of five.
Our last meeting was at Chessington Zoo. He had been invited to my birthday party, but I don’t remember which one.
There is a coach-house next door to No.29. It was part of our house in those days, but I always thought of it as a garage, and could never understand how Uncle Henry and Adele, his schoolteacher girlfriend, managed to live in the same room with his Morris Minor.
They were a young and fashion-conscious couple who would soon be part of the Swinging Sixties – an era that came into being with some very hard winters. Crescent Grove disappeared under snow that was higher than the edge of my pram, and as a small child, the visit to the Market to buy a Christmas tree with my mother was a perilous undertaking through the bustling crowds, thick fog, and ice.
‘Just push,’ was my mother’s instruction as we negotiated a very tall Christmas tree through a press of other people’s shopping and heavy winter coats.
Before I was five years old, my mother took the plunge and bought a house of her own. It was in Barnes, facing the Green, and we lived there for twenty years. I do not know what became of Uncle Rudolf or Uncle Henry and Adele, but it might have surprised some people to know that my father and his first wife moved with us, along with their many cats.
Although perhaps unconventional for the time, it was an arrangement that worked, and to me it seemed completely normal, as part of a childhood that was – on the whole – a very happy one.
* * *
(The booklet by Hermione Hobhouse, ‘A Regency Survival in Clapham’, published by the Crescent Grove Trust, was an immense help in writing the above. The pictures were kindly provided by Alyson Wilson of The Clapham Society.)
Copyright © Francis Wright, 2011
Glengyle Preparatory School for Boys was in Putney, south-west London. It was founded in 1907 by Leonard Augustine Chope, and was originally in Cambalt Road before moving to 4, Carlton Drive in 1914.
Walter Vivian Wallace was appointed as Assistant School Master in 1938 before purchasing the lease from Mr Chope and becoming the proprietor and headmaster of the school.
He bought the freehold of the property in Carlton Drive in 1960. His wife Winifred taught at the school and took over its running following the death of her husband in 1981. Mrs Wallace retired in 1986 and the school was sold. It is now the Merlin School.
The building was one of those huge Victorian villas, probably built in the 1860s for a large and prosperous family with many servants. The ceilings were high, the rooms spacious. The large garden had been turned into a gravelled playground, complete with climbing frame. A skeletal medlar tree stood in one corner near the conservatory, which was now Form Two.
In the 1965 photograph, the whole school is shown: it had about 60 pupils.
From L – R the staff are: Mrs Helen Jordan (music); Mrs Joan Mensing (Form Two); Mrs Winifred Wallace (Form One); Mr Vivian Wallace (Headmaster); Major Peter Williams (Form Four); Mr Smith, and Mr Davies.
Mrs Mensing had started out by being Mrs (or Miss) Walker, but intrigued us all by remarrying and changing her name in 1964. She was a good amateur watercolourist.
The Wallaces, with their three children, Peter, Juliet, and Adrian, lived upstairs. The school occupied the ground floor and the basement, which also housed the kitchens and the dining room.
Mrs Wallace ruled Form One, teaching just about everything to little boys mostly new to school. Basic arithmetic was introduced and I have a clear recollection of large sheets of dark yellow paper with red spots drawn on them to show the way numbers increased. Five (two spots at top and bottom, with a central one making up a pleasing pattern) and then the favourite of all ‘Lonely Six’ – a repeat of Five, but with poor old Six stuck out to one side.
Easter and Christmas were significant in that we beautified the classroom a couple of weeks before the end of term with specially made decorations. Paperchains and cotton wool snow at Christmas, and bunnies at Easter. The paperchains were made from strips of coloured paper, gummed together into loops, and the bunnies were carefully cut out by Mrs Wallace, who then gave them to us to exercise our artistic skills with brown powder paint. A small lump of cotton wool was then added for the tail. The rabbits were arranged round the walls along with cut-out Easter eggs and bright flowers. I don’t think the Easter message was mentioned. That would come later, in Scripture lessons with Major Williams.
For me, Christmas was immediately exciting because of the promise of the ‘School Concert’ – an end-of-term entertainment in which our histrionic talents were put on show. From a classic nativity play with angels and shepherds and three wise men, to a number of songs in French and English, short dramatic interludes – again, some in French, some in English, and some even in Latin. I once scored a great hit as Mrs Noah in a French version of the Bible story. I had a blue and white striped frock, which I think had originally belonged to a neighbour of ours, and a neat apron. I had to bully the animals. In French.
Mr Noah – played by Carlos Munday, who was Spanish – eventually lost patience and ordered me into ‘l’arche’ with the warning that if I didn’t obey at once, I would drown. I think we were better than the extract from ‘Macbeth’ which followed, but I coveted Peter Wallace’s magnificent blue gown and wimple, and wished I could have been Lady Macduff. I can still hear Guy Whitehead groaning ‘He has killed me, mother’. He had a naturally gruff voice, and was lying on the floor, dressed in a sack. His plastic dagger and shaggy red hair lent a certain authenticity to the scene.
Music was provided by Mrs Jordan, who one year composed ‘The Glengyle March’ which involved a lot of stomping about, all of us pretending to play musical instruments. The stage, which wasn’t a stage at all, but just the space in front of the longest wall of the room used for assembly, always seemed enormous to me. It was made spectacular by a huge gold curtain – provided by the generosity of Michael Bogod’s parents. Three very large floodlights illuminated it and us, courtesy of Jimmy Koenig’s father who ran a photographic studio. It wasn’t subtle, but it was bright, and I loved it.
Willing volunteers were roped in to help get us ready and to make sure we didn’t miss our cues or get involved in squabbles. Our housekeeper, Dorothy Buck (always known as ‘Dolfie’) was very good at looking after those of us in her charge. Fortunately she didn’t mind when I insisted that she join the staff for Morning Prayers, and also be put at the head of one table for lunch.
Glengyle’s cook was a South African by the name of Frank Jermy. He had a permanently grubby white apron, and greasy trousers. He produced endless quantities of chips, every day. Ham and peas and chips, fish and peas and chips, stewing steak and chips, a slice of spam and (probably) peas – and chips, pie and peas – or sometimes carrots or cabbage – and chips, the menu didn’t vary very much. Except at Christmas.
The morning playtime discovery of a headless grey squirrel lying on the gravel outside the kitchen doors caused endless speculation as to how it had met its fate. The verdict was unanimous: Mr Jermy had beheaded it, and the squirrel would no doubt be on the menu the next day, complete with chips.
Every lunchtime, between the main course and sweet, Mr Wallace would take his dessert spoon and hammer the formica-topped table in front of him. This brought a pin-drop silence to the room so that the daily register could be taken. As there were only about sixty pupils in the school, it didn’t take very long, and lunch then continued with jelly and custard or apple pie and custard.
Next to the kitchen and dining room was the place where we hung our coats and caps on hooks until going-home time.
This area was also the place where small bottles of milk (one third of a pint) were dished out from a crate every morning. It was a perk to be appointed a milk monitor. I never was. In winter, the bottles were stood in plastic bowls of hot water to take some of the chill off. Winters in the 1960s seem to have been spectacularly cold.
Next to the dining room was the Maths Room, which was the domain of Mrs Hawkins. It smelt of blackboard chalk and the paraffin heater that steamed the windows up. The walls were an acidic yellow, covered with educational posters and bits and pieces to do with mathematics. The room also carried a faint smell of its incumbent: a smell of perspiration in an age when deodorants were far from common.
Mollie Hawkins – who arrived in around 1964 – ruled the Maths Room by fear. She was a bully, given to outbursts of temper with occasional violence thrown in. Had she behaved in a similar manner nowadays, she would not only have ceased to be a teacher within a very short time, but would probably have been arrested into the bargain. She remained on the staff for twenty years, and died in 1993 at the age of 76.
(I remember my best friend being the victim of one of her more brutal attacks, in which she grabbed him by the hair and shook him backwards and forwards to punctuate a tirade levelled at him. Of course we never said anything. At home, complaining about a teacher was virtually useless, the usual response being something along the lines of ‘Well, I expect you asked for it.’)
My dislike of Maths has remained undimmed to this day.
The playground was at the back of the school, and its rear wall overlooked the playground of Putney High School. At break-times, the vigorous shouts of amazonian young girls at play could be heard, providing – for some – a tantalising hint of desires and pleasures as yet unknown and undeveloped, but frequently spoken of with much hilarity and absolute disbelief.
In 1967, the school held a Diamond Jubilee celebration, marked by a fete in the school grounds, and also the production of felt pennants, printed with the school’s name and dates – in the characteristic grey and white of the uniform.
I was there from 1963 – 1967, leaving just before the celebrations, and returning as a visitor for the day. It all looked very strange. And very small. For many years the prospectus continued to declare that the school provided a fitting background for those wishing to enter “the colonial or diplomatic services”.
To be continued …
Here’s a little extra: Kaspar Mettler, who was at the school before my time, sent me this photo, and wonders if anyone is still in touch the chaps in it.
These photos are from a production of ‘As You Like It’. I was at drama school (Arts Educational) in the long hot summer of 1976, and we were invited to take the play to Sandhurst in Kent, where we performed it in the open air.
I recall a rather magical few days, made slightly wistful by the fact that our time together was coming to an end.
Below are some photos of my fellow students, taken during and around the time of our final dress-rehearsal.
The costumes were hired from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s vast store at Stratford Upon Avon. My fool’s motley had been worn by Alec McCowen in ‘King Lear’, and was still spattered with blood.