Monday, 31 October 2011

Student Exchanges and Sixth Form Pranks

The two harvest camps (in the previous post) gave me the opportunity to spread my wings a little. However when I was 15 I also took part in an student exchange scheme which took me to Belgium during the summer holidays.  Although there were a few boys involved, it was a major break from home. After two train journeys and a channel crossing we were collected by our respective host families in and around Liege to spend a fortnight in a foreign environment.

I stayed with a family engaged in farming in a small town.  There were two boys although the one I exchanged with, Fernand, was two years older than me. His younger brother was more my age.  Three generations lived in one large farmhouse; mealtimes were treated as family get-togethers and were very sociable. They did their best to make me feel at home. One of the things I remember on my first trip abroad was drinking my first Coca Cola from the original-shaped bottle.

The family took me by car to the Belgian/Dutch border town of Maastricht where everyone spoke two languages.  Maastricht later became the centre for a historic agreement in the European community.

Several week later Fernand came to stay with us. Being older he took plenty of interest in my sister, Betty, who by this time was back in Peterborough working in a local fashion shop.  Having Fernand as our guest, we repayed the kindness offered to me in Belgium by taking him out in the car to show him our part of England.

In 1950 I took my School Certificate and managed five credits and three passes. I decided to take Art, History and Geography at A level although I don't remember being encouraged to think about a future career at that stage.

Life in the Sixth Form was more relaxed and enjoyable although homework became more difficult and time-consuming. My lasting memory of these two years is of the room we occupied where we sat around a large heavy table with the teacher at one end and up to ten pupils along each side. We soon discovered there was just enough room to get our knees under the table in such a way that, by raising our heels together at a given signal, we could lift the table and allow it to 'float' about half an inch off the floor. This was particularly annoying for the English teacher who found it disconcerting to see his open text moving about in front of him. The table was positioned in a large bay window on the ground floor, with large sliding sashes which could be opened up on a warm summer day; ideal when your attention was diverted by girls from the neighbouring school walking past. On one occasion an enterprising boy, sitting with his back to the open window, gently leaned backwards in his chair during a lesson, quietly slipped out of the window and casually walked back in through the door ten minutes later, to the utter confusion of the teacher taking the lesson.

By now I was also old enough to earn a bit of money for myself. At Christmas time young people were taken on by the Post Office to help with the seasonal increase in workload. One year I opted to work in the sorting office doing night-shift work; it was very tiring and I have always had sympathy for anyone doing night shifts ever since. Another year I tried the early morning deliveries, getting up and cycling to work at 6am to deliver mail and grabbing a quick breakfast at home on my way round. The postman I worked with lived on a large council estate along with many of his relatives; the estate formed part of our regular round. On Christmas morning we made a point of visiting them all, collecting a drink at each house. By the time I got home, about midday, I was thoroughly full of Christmas cheer!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Harvest Camp

One of my strongest memories of school days was going to an organised harvest camp; I went twice between the ages of 15 and 18 (1949 to 1952). The camp lasted two weeks during August at Pershore in Worcestershire and many of us cycled all the way there and back; a 100 mile journey each way along major roads.

The 'harvest' was the plum orchards and the 'camp', pitched army tents in a farmer's field.  The camp also included a cookhouse in a marquee, run by the masters and their wives, and field toilets which we had to build ourselves.  The toilets were very basic chemical loos which we had to take turns to empty every day into a deep trench which we had dug out when we set up camp (and had to fill in before we left).  I discovered later that in the army these were referred to as 'thunder-boxes'.

Each day we walked or cycled to the orchards for a day's work picking plums and loading them into 56lb crates which had to be weighed before being loaded onto trailers or lorries for despatch.  We were paid by the crate provided they were properly filled, minus twigs and branches.

With apologies to Bizet, we used to sing our version of the Toreador song from Carmen:

"Toreador, pick the plums up off the floor. Put them in the crate, they will make it weight" (this is the clean version) [You could have told me the dirty version, Dad!...Trish]

We had a packed lunch for a midday break and worked until about 4.30pm.  The weather was generally good although heavy rain stopped everything, particularly as it increased the weight of the fruit!

At the end of a hard day's work we had a cold shower (also set up in the field) and a good hot meal in the cookhouse.  Then came the freedom of the evening when the attention of the teachers relaxed. The drinking laws in the local pubs were also more relaxed and the local cider or 'scrumpy'was in plentiful supply.  A few glasses of cider and and game or two of skittles or darts and we could be found staggering back up the road to the camp.  I don't think we were any worse for wear the next morning; at least we were back at work.

At the weekends we found numerous places to visit: Evesham, Broadway, Gloucester, Worcester and the Malvern Hills, all within cycling distance.  One Sunday we spent all day at a County cricket match. I also recall there being a small airfield nearby, an RAF training centre. One year they had twin-engined Avro Ansons; another year Gloster Meteor jet fighters. Security was non-existent; we were able to get onto the airfield because the minor road from our camp actually cut straight across the main runway. During flying lessons the RAF simply drove vehicles to the crossing point to form a barrier.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Teenage Years - Entertainment

Aged 14

Life as a teenager in the late 40s and early 50s, with a secure family background and an increasingly stable economy, was generally good.  Father had a good job, Betty was working locally, I was enjoying school and Mother seemed happy looking after us all and taking advantage of the social life afforded by the British Sugar Corporation and the local Caledonian Society which must have still been in Father's blood.

Recreation and entertainment consisted of occasional visits to the 'pictures' and the local Repertory Theatre.  As I became older I enjoyed low budget French, Italian and Swedish films such as La Ronde, Jour de Fete, Bicycle Thieves and The Little World of Don Camillo.  I also enjoyed slapstick comedy including Laurel and Hardy classics and Abbott and Costello.

Like most kids of my age I was brought up on radio programmes and records. We had a huge 4'6" high radiogram which had been specially made in a wooden cabinet with a record deck in the top.  Radios, of course, were large to accommodate a number of valves and thick wires.  The records were 78rpm, made of breakable shellac resin.  We had a good record collection mostly covering the tastes of the older generation but I became a big fan of George Formby from an early age. Popular music of the day mostly consisted of dance bands and ballad singers (crooners), which didn't particularly appeal to me.

Television was the one invention which came to revolutionise leisure time in the home but in the ealry years the sets were expensive and very limited in providing entertainment.  I remember the first set I ever saw belonged to Uncle Jim and Auntie Doris who must have bought the first one in Ely.  We often went over there so I was soon to experience the thrill of watching the test card, demonstration programmes, Interludes, like the potter's wheel, on a 12" black and white screen which you could only see properly with the curtains drawn.  It had 425 horizontal lines which were so visible you could almost count them.  To improve the image you could buy a huge perspex magnifying glass to stick over the screen, but you had to be sitting right in front of the set to obtain any benefit.  Quality gradually improved as screens with 625 lines came onto the market.  Programmes improved and extended to daytime as well as evening viewing.  Transmissions were mostly live until the early sixties.

Although television was a draw, I remember we also had a wealth of books in the house, mainly due to my father's love of reading. His favourite author was Charles Dickens whose books he read many times over.  He was also keen on history. By the time I was 16, the study of English Literature forced me to read not only the classics like Shakespeare but also more modern authors like George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.

Like many other families we also had a piano in the house and music lessons automatically went with it. Betty and I both had piano lessons but sadly neither of us kept it up.  I did have an interest in music as a child, perhaps taking after my mother who enjoyed singing in chapel and at the local operatic society.  I had sung Christopher Robin on stage in Ely where I forgot the words and had to run across the stage to check with the pianist before continuing.  I later played the piano at a concert organised by my teacher, Mr Stimpson.  There were two pieces; The Bee's Wedding by Mendelssohn and Rosemunde Ballet Music by Schubert.  Unfortunately I got lost in the middle of the Schubert so returned to the beginning to start again. I never took to the stage again!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Back to School

By the time I returned to school after my accident I had a lot to catch up on with the first major examinations, known as the School Certificate.  My worst subject was Maths, which also affected Physics and Chemistry. As Dad was an accountant and good with figures, he could not understand my apparent inability to grasp the basics, never mind algebra and geometry.   He just became frustrated and I became upset so it was decided I should receive extra tuition from the school Maths' teacher.  That, together with excellent teaching in class, got me through in the end.  However it was clear by this time that sciences were never going to be my strong point.  I did enjoy art and I managed to cope with the other subjects in the curriculum.

Now I was fit I took up sport again.  Swimming was good exercise and I always took part in the swimming gala at the local open-air pool. In the summer holidays the pool was a great place to meet friends (in particular my three pals John Waters, John Armstrong and Malcolm Ayers) and get to know some of the girls. The other favourite meeting place was the park. There were plenty of tennis courts so this became a sport I enjoyed too. We were even allowed to play bowls under the ever-watchful eyes of the park keepers.

I was not too good at athletics, although I could run well enough to compete on school Sports Day.  Later on, when I was doing Art A level, I was given the job of writing out the winner and place certificates for presentations at the end of the day. My friend and I used to have fun writing out false certificates with our own names on, winning events in spectacularly good times!

I played rugby in the winter, hockey in the spring and cricket in the summer. I was never good enough to play on the first team pitches, which were located adjacent to Park Road and passers-by would stop to watch. I always imagined one day I would represent my school at sport and my chance finally came when they introduced rowing. Located on the River Nene, Peterborough had a good straight stretch of water suitable for rowing, so I eventually discovered my natural sporting inclination.

Monday, 3 October 2011

An Unlucky Break

My sister, Betty and I, 1948

My schooldays in Peterborough were interrupted in 1947 when I was thirteen.  I had just finished a PE lesson in the gym and was running along a path towards the changing rooms located in a separate block.  I tripped on a concrete step and fell heavily on my left side.  The result was a broken leg above the knee, towards the neck of the thigh bone (femur). This put me into hospital for several weeks.  My leg, together with half of the other leg, was put in plaster but because the bone would not knit together properly, I had to have traction to keep it straight. For a few more weeks I had to lie on my back with a splint attached to an overhead pulley and my leg sticking out of the bedclothes.

The weeks extended into months and the autumn into winter. During those weeks I became used to hospital routines; the nurses, doctors, cleaners, porters and miscellaneous hospital staff. Daytime started at 6.30am and lights out was 9.30pm. I was in a men's orthopaedic ward with 19 other patients, the only young boy among men. There were no serious illnesses on the ward, although pain and discomfort were common enough. Patients came and went but I was never alone during the day and never bored as the atmosphere was friendly and I had a constant stream of goodies from visitors. Visiting times became a welcome interruption from the outside world; 'real' people with normal clothes - all I had was a pyjama top!

In due course I was put back in a plaster cast and allowed to go home before Christmas. Snow was on the ground as I returned home.  I had a bed made up for me in the living room and I stayed there for a few more weeks with daily visits from a District Nurse. I had regular visits from friends and homework was brought to me from school. Every month I had to go back to hospital by ambulance for X-rays and a general check-up and then, much to my relief, the cast was replaced by a more flexible bandage. I started walking on crutches and began physiotherapy. By this time winter had turned to spring and then to summer.

Hospital visits continued until it was decided I should spend a few weeks at a rehabilitation centre, located in a fine Georgian manor, Thorpe Hall, just outside the town. The building dated back to the mid 17th century and became more significant to me later on when my interest in architecture began.  It is mentioned in the History of Architecture by Bannister Fletcher (I have a copy of the 1950 edition).  Every week day I used to cycle to the centre, although my leg was stiff around the knee because of being in plaster for so long.

The daily routine included electrical treatment, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, physical training and gardening; all intended to strengthen the wasted muscles. I really enjoyed these days. The adult company helped me grow up and be accepted by older people from various backgrounds. The two things I enjoyed most were the hot lunches and playing football in the grounds under the supervision of an ex-army PT instructor who used to play professional football. I also managed to make a couple of woollen scarves and a small rug on the hand looms in occupational therapy!

A few weeks at Thorpe Hall made me very fit and I was able to return to school after almost a full year off. It was now autumn 1948 and I was kept back a year which actually put me in an age group where I should have been in the first place. Life went back to normal at home and school. Betty returned from her two years in Manchester and began work in a fashion shop in town. Family life reflected the steadily improving post-war economy.