1. THE BOY WITH A THORN IN HIS SIDE
I don’t want to give the impression in these notes that here was someone who had only lofty aims and those thoughts that transcend time and space. What I hope to show is how early studies applied to earlier insights left me upon leaving college at 21 not only totally unprepared for life in the outside world and careless of my own or anyone else’s welfare, but more importantly with very much the same set of cultural and critical values that I have today.
I have written about those years between leaving school as an unworldly, naive and fairly idealistic boy and my departure from college five years later, heavily smoking and drinking, unsmiling and already world-weary, but what of the significant events of the years further back? During all my unhappy schooldays, I suffered from intense shyness; the only real emotional bond was with my over-protective mother and later with our white boxer dog Oscar. I remember kneeling by my bed praying that my mother and I both live to the age of 98 and therefore be always together; as for the others, my father, my brother Vincent, or my grandparents I cannot remember offering up any prayer. I wouldn’t say that I was a likeable child; I was gloomy, withdrawn and rather gormless looking, and at the evil Tilbury St Mary’s Roman Catholic Secondary Modern, well known as one of the worst schools in Essex, despite developing a gift for clowning around and making others laugh and being good at football (I say football and not sport because it was the only game we played), I had a pretty bad time of it. My habit of daydreaming and refusing to work at any subject that didn’t interest me combined with a vacant demeanour didn’t endear me to many of the teachers; I was at various times described as an absolutely worthless fellow, a limb of Satan and a damned useless creature.
Having quite early on picked up basic Arithmetic, I lost my way when we got to fractions and decimals and didn’t advance any further for the rest of my school days. My refusal to attend to any subject for which I couldn’t see any use has over the years proved to have been perfectly sound; unfortunately, our Maths teacher, a big fat man and a chain smoker who had spent the War years fighting the Japanese in India and Burma didn’t see it that way! Most of the boys and a good many of the girls were total dunces and the first part of our Maths lesson consisted of Mr Rogers or ‘Barrel’ as we called him going around the classroom asking to see our homework and when we replied “haven’t done it Sir” a severe caning would ensue; six lashes to the hand and sometimes to save time, for he had at least twenty boys to punish, he would instead unleash a series of rapid and very painful strokes across the forearm or chest. We started to put rolled up exercise books inside the sleeves of our jumpers to lessen the sting but received even worse beatings when eventually fatty Barrel discovered the ruse. Our mathematical studies were regularly interrupted as he would leave us alone to have a quick fag outside or would entertain us with stories of the war in the east or of the sea journey there; shooting at Whales using dumdum bullets or of the frightful tortures inflicted by the Japanese on Burmese village children of our own age. On one occasion, having provided instruction about the difference between the incredibly low levels of IQ of Cretins, Imbeciles and Morons, using I seem to remember the figures 40, 60 and 80, he waved the blackboard rubber in my direction and announced “ and Monk there is an almost perfect example of the Imbecile”. I remember the hot shame, and how with fixed smirk and bowed head I endured the morale-sapping derision of my classmates!
For the last three years at school I received a good hiding almost every day. Although this sounds bad, after a while we thought little of it, feeling that it was probably justified. Thrashings in those days were fairly commonplace. My real problem was my school fellows. The girls who made up about a third of our number were on the whole more studious and better behaved than the boys. Of the boys, there were probably eight of us who were of normal intelligence and who occasionally aspired to learning, and a few who were harmless and good natured but lazy; we ‘clever’ ones got on pretty well with them. There were a few runts who occupied a place rather like the ‘littluns’ in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, insignificant fellows usually dim and lacking in physical prowess who were largely ignored unless they had something odd about them; one little boy was a bit lame while another’s face was covered with the running sores of acne and for this they were cruelly ridiculed. Every class seemed to have at least one fatty and he would always fit into this unfortunate group. The remaining third of the class displayed a total lack of interest in learning of any kind, their main concern was to try and disrupt every lesson, presumably with the aim of leaving school at 15 as stupid as when they entered. At the close of lessons during playtime these gangs of boys often became savages. When they went looking for someone to bash up it wasn’t the younger or weaker ones but always the ‘clever’ ones they targeted and unfortunately this usually included me. I was singled out on my first day at this hellish place as my parents with that mixture of deep love and strange neglect which they so often displayed, had sent me to school in short trousers – the only boy to be so attired. But it was my lack of natural reactions that really aroused their fury, especially my cowardly inability to show aggression no matter how harassed or bullied.
An amusing incident relating to this occurred in the final month before we left school (I and a handful of others stayed on for a further year) when the careers advice man Mr Raizey gave a talk. Dealing very quickly with the girls he spent some time with us more hopeful boys, making suggestions. In my case, he advised strongly against even thinking of becoming an artist instead suggesting a graphic art course or better still studying to be a draughtsman. At the end making a sweeping gesture with his hand he said, ‘as for the rest of you they are hiring at the moment at the Essex Sack Company in West Thurrock’.
Years later in the holidays I would get a few days’ work on the farm alongside my grandfather, riddling potatoes, working on a seed drill or helping out at harvest time. My brother even drove a tractor and for a while had a role as a sort of chauffer to the farmer old Billy Wilson who was one of those lowland Scots who came to East Anglia in the years of the depression to teach the English farmers how it should be done. For many years, he ran a model farm, well known for growing potatoes but by that time it was in sad decline; he was old, the workers were old and all the machinery was old; “a regular Fred Karno’s turnout” is how my grandfather described it. Though I always enjoyed working on the land this was far from a rural idyll. There was little camaraderie among the farmworkers and the relations between farmers and men were most often those of mistrust and fear. But I heard old Wilson mention to him at the end of a long day “Fred you can bring that young fellow of yours over any time, he works hard and shows plenty of pluck”. Well I am afraid that pluck was the one thing I most definitely did not show at Tilbury school. Had I shown the least inclination to hit back maybe my lot would have been easier. By this time, I had become mad on football and would spend hours kicking a ball at our back wall or at my brother Vincent who had become a fine goalie. In the end, I could hit a football with accuracy and tremendous power. The kids at school knew this and probably drew the conclusion that if I wanted I could be equally dangerous with my fists and I think it was this latent potential in me that tempted them to torment me so.
Looking back on these events of long ago I can see that amidst all of this savagery there were certain ground rules. Girls never took part although they were occasionally the victims of assault. Boys never attacked anyone from a year either older or younger than themselves, and I never saw a fight between two boys but always a group against an individual or smaller group. After weeks of fairly normal innocent play violence would break out like an epidemic during which none of us felt safe. There was one boy whose sole purpose was to inflict as much pain and humiliation on others as possible. This brute whom I shall refer to as C had the unusual distinction of being both sadistic and stupid to the point of idiocy; he was the class dunce as well as being always last to be picked for the football team. However even the tearaway kids went in fear of C especially when later he started carrying a penknife, shaving his hair and wearing a pair of shiny maroon coloured boots, laced all the way to mid-calf. This vile one’s behaviour was highly unpredictable; he could totally ignore you or take violent offence at the slightest glance in his direction. One day he broke his trouser belt, saw that I had one and told me to give it to him, but knowing I wouldn’t get it back I rashly refused; word was then sent to me in the lesson by one of his underlings that I had stepped out of line and that a beating was being arranged for playtime, leaving me all waxy and in a horror of powerlessness. Often on these occasions a sort of guard of honour would be formed in the corridor – two rows of baying children lined up waiting to fold in on their prey. The communal bashing up never took place in the main playground but instead in a more remote area bordering Dock road close to a sunken area reserved for ball games. I suppose the reason for this was fear of being seen by a teacher, but there was no reason to worry as in all of my years there I can remember only one intervention, a member of staff noticing part of me emerging at an odd angle from a melee hollered from across the playground “put Monk down you don’t know where he’s been”.
How well I remember that stretch of playground where some ancient plane trees grew; their roots had pushed up the tarmac and the dusty patches of waste ground beneath them and alongside ran some quite high railings with the familiar hooped top. Opposite this school yard, scene of so many unhappy events, was Dock road, a row of dismal houses, the railway line, a drainage ditch where one afternoon I saw my first Kingfisher, another road and the high dock wall beyond which were the cranes and ships towering above us in Tilbury East Branch Dock, less than a football pitch length away. They were wonderful ships in those days. The 1950s were the heyday of cargo liners and most of the British companies: Ben Line, Brocklebank, Blue Star, Ellerman and many other proud fleets were constant visitors, and at Tilbury Riverside landing stage could be seen Ocean liners of British India, P&O and Cunard as well as many foreign ships, including the lovely vessels of the Swedish Lloyd company. Who would have guessed that in little more than 15 years almost all of these fine vessels were to make their way to some Far Eastern scrapyard, and that a short time later most of the famous shipping lines would close down? It could not have been long after learning to ride a bike, certainly not much more than the age of five, that with my father in front and my brother behind I made my first visit to Tilbury to watch the ships. Those journeys always left me at the end of my endurance; the long drag across the so often windswept marshes was especially tiring. I know that these trips date from that early time as we got our first motor car in about 1961 or 1962. It was a sky-blue Ford Anglia so sleek and modern compared with the black straight up and down relics owned by my grandfather. We always sat at the same spot looking across towards hilly and romantic Gravesend, just a little upstream from the rickety Collier Hailing station and close to the old World’s End pub and in the summer a man often had a little stall there selling among other tasty snacks Smiths crisps and Percy Dalton’s peanuts. It was here one afternoon that I actually burst into tears with shock as one of Cunard’s elegant and long lived Saxonia sisters blew off while leaving the landing stage upstream! Later we visited the Worlds End less often, instead my brother and I would cycle nearer to home with binoculars and notebook to a spot on the sea wall in front of Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury. We spent hundreds of happy hours messing around by the mudflats, saltings or the moat that surrounded the fort when at low tide there was little river activity, hearing always in the background the unforgettable plaintive dong-dong of the old bell buoy which for so many years lay off Coalhouse Point. Otherwise we spent the time with binoculars in silent study of the far Kentish shore, with its wooded hills, orchards and half hidden villages. I wonder if Dickens who lived not far from there spent as much time looking across to our flattish side of the river as we gazed longingly at those distant parts of the attractive land that separates the river Thames from the river Medway and which is so memorably described in the opening pages of Great Expectations. About an hour either side of high tide a great rush of ships came by; from the left coming upstream you could see the vessels from miles away to where the estuary joined the North Sea and we could see those coming downstream from almost behind us by Gravesend owing to the great bow curve that the Thames makes there. I drew from these experiences in my series British Histories 2010, the novel feature of which is the combination of a subject matter full of heavy memories expressed in an absolutely spontaneous way, often by not much more than a few brushstrokes.
But to return one last time to that crowded school playground of fifty years ago. As I have said when physical violence was to be inflicted the victim was escorted to the remotest part of the schoolyard. Two methods were established to convey the child there; he would either be spread-eagled and lifted as in preparation for birthday bumps or led away by the head which was locked in a sort of half-nelson as the wrestlers call it, while a mass of jeering children aimed kicks at his unprotected rear. I refused to take any part in these bashing-ups of others, which is more than can be said for my classmates; there is something very disheartening when you see your chums joining enthusiastically in your own humiliation. I would sometimes hear a regular commotion and witness far across the playground some other poor wretch being forcibly led away, and experienced disgust mingled with relief that just for today I was safe and that someone else was about to cop it! When the dreaded event actually happened it usually wasn’t all that bad – what they called rolling was the worst when you would be put to the ground kicked around and badly bruised, but even then, you could roll into a self-protective ball. More humiliating was to be lifted up and have your feet pushed through the loops at the top of the high railings which ran around the sunken ball park and left to dangle there as in a kind of stocks, defenceless as all manner of painful blows such as elbowing, dead-legs and horse-bites were inflicted. C was usually the ringleader in these games and more often than not he would gob straight into the victim’s face as a nasty little flourish at the end. I happened to be standing next to this bully when on the final afternoon of term, I know not whether of Christmas or Easter, while milling around in the playground after school, he threw an egg which smashed right on the forehead of our most unpopular master. Mr Cummings was a northerner, an oldish man then in his last teaching job who lacked humour and was not a natural teacher. He disliked us and we disliked him, so that on this occasion which I am sure was also his retirement day we hollered out with joy at his egging. He and a very small number of us always took the train home in an easterly direction; I believe he lived a long way off toward Southend, and that afternoon I was amazed to find him already standing alone on the platform when I arrived. What surprised me most as I shot surreptitious glances his way was to see that the runny egg and particles of shell were still adhering to the upper part of his Gabardine Mac! He did not seem particularly unhappy or distraught as he stood waiting patiently for the train but there was a look about him almost impossible to define, perhaps it was the look of a person at the very end of their tether. And as I loitered secretly watching this teacher whom I did not like, a wave of terrible pity came over me for this man so despised and so alone. I am aware that he may have been feeling none of this and the entire thing was an emanation or projection of my own unhappy state of mind but do what I might that evening as I sat in the back of our car on the way to watch our Friday night football match at Southend, this sad event haunted me. Even today I often think of it.
This mention of Gabardine Macs reminds me that as children we always seemed to own one of those awful drab coats with its horrid buckle belt. My mother was very fussy about our being smart; our hair had to be brushed, parted and brylcreamed. She liked nothing better than to see us two boys ‘looking a credit’ with shiny shoes, slacks and a blazer or what she referred to as a hacking jacket. This sort of working class Noel Coward look was not too bad for my brother who was fashion conscious, but it was maddening for a scruffy one like me. However, at one period in my late teens despairing of the current fashion for bell-bottoms and flowery shirts and being somewhat historically minded I started experimenting with some forgotten remnants of the 40s and 50s from my father’s wardrobe. I recall a college trip at which I wore an old-fashioned jacket and tie with jeans and white plimsolls; this juxtaposition drew many admiring comments from the girls. Even better was his pinstripe demob suit; I can’t remember how I got on with the huge high wasted trousers but the puffy shouldered jacket was a real success. Some years later when we were living in the East End I recovered and started wearing the last of these aged items which was a 1940s Gabardine Mac. The unusual feature of this garment was its inordinate length – my father like me at his best reached just six feet in height so quite why he owned such a voluminous article remains a mystery. I had high hopes that in this apparel I might move among the people of East London like some romantic Poete Maudit of 1920s Paris but it proved to be far from a success, in fact Louisa anxious not to be seen walking out with a half-wit eventually forbade me from wearing it as wherever we went some jeering cockney from a passing van or across the street would shout at us “pity you love, some muvvers do ‘ave em” in reference to the TV comedy series of that time.
Our morning train to school left our little station at 8.10 and took a short time to arrive at the grand station of Tilbury Riverside which is now closed. This was the destination of the boat trains which connected with the great Ocean Liners and being a kind of terminus all trains had to reverse there. As a consequence of the timetable remaining unchanged from the days of steam when the locomotive would need to uncouple and run around its train a generous 12 minutes wait ensued, far longer than the driver of the featureless electric sets needed to walk from one end of the unit to the other, but this period of waiting was a blessing to me. How I used to vainly wish that those few minutes could be extended indefinitely, so great was my dread of school. Miserable as my experiences were at that place there was never any sexual element to the bullying as is so often the case at boarding schools and even the term Sadism when used to describe the brute C I use advisedly, as apart from the obvious pleasure he derived from humiliating others there was no indication of any erotic impulse. Never in all my time there did I witness anything sexual or weird unless you were kinky enough to get a kick out of being tipped upside down and having your head immersed in the lavatory bowl full of stinking piss and then having the chain pulled! Neither was there any sex education apart from a single lesson in our final year about venereal disease, detailing certain nasty symptoms such as the sensation of peeing gritty sand. But an unofficial form of education was provided right from our first term by one of our classmates, a big boy well developed for his eleven years (at least physically), who already at that early stage was enjoying full sexual relations with an older local girl named Lorraine. In the few minutes of fairly meaningless playtime before assembly at the start of day little huddles of boys often congregated around this fellow to hear the detailed accounts of his lascivious behaviour. These thrillingly exciting stories captivated us all especially as no matter how unlikely the exploit he invariably concluded with ‘when I finally got her she fucking loved it’ as he strutted around gyrating his hips and thrusting at some imaginary girl. This lump of a boy claimed to not waste much time on preliminary chat up preferring instead a straightforward ‘skirt up, knickers down, hand in’ approach. He recounted how on one occasion he got a nasty shock to find a girl wearing a ‘jamrag’. I well remember snorting and sniggering knowingly with the others though in fact I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Considering the amount of proper real concern nowadays about protecting the innocence of children it makes me laugh looking back on these events of almost 50 years ago, to realise that while some of us were no doubt born bad, most of us by the age of thirteen were absolutely rotten to the core. As a sort of footnote right at the end of my schooldays I was surprised when a couple of inconspicuous lads from our year who lived locally told us how in the evenings to augment their pocket money they had started providing sexual services to sailors at the Stella Maris seamen’s mission at a rate of two shillings and sixpence for a hand job and five bob for extras.
It would be wrong to get the idea that with all of the bullying from the children and the dislike of the teachers that I felt myself to be a victim. I had already discovered that I could divide my life up into segments and act out a different persona for each separate occasion, in other words I was already aware to an unusual degree that the hapless creature wandering around the schoolyard was not all there was to being me. I had found ways to cope with my troubles, largely unconscious strategies which would have had more success had I been surrounded by people with more sensitivity and intelligence. Even at that early stage I had a tendency to be a self-pitying little bugger! Sadly, the age-old ruse of pretending to be mad didn’t work well at Tilbury school; my use of inappropriate reactions such as laughing when hurt or looking utterly miserable when everyone else was happy or making funny faces, talking gibberish and babbling, simply got me a reputation for being that ’nutty fucker’ who was good at art.
I also had a knack of making people laugh; a gift of real comic timing which came through when under threat. Unfortunately, those receptive to such clowning were mostly the few children who were already well disposed toward me but did little to placate my enemies. Although very placid, I stubbornly refused to ever betray how I actually felt; it was a point of honour to endure all in order to deny the bullies the least assurance that their cruelties had in any way affected me. There was one cardinal rule which everyone followed and which allowed the abuse to flourish: under absolutely no circumstances did you tell anyone what was going on. Only once did I break this unwritten rule. During the lunch time break one day, a boy from the year ahead of me crept up behind and slapped a great mass of bubble gum onto my hair. At the start of class our teacher must have noticed that I kept plucking unhappily at my head and took me straight to the headmaster’s office. Wet bubble gum does not come out of hair easily and Mr Bolger with his secretary acting as nurse went to work unsuccessfully with brush and soapy water, eventually resorting to cutting away with scissors great hunks of hair! But what was much worse was that after long interrogation using cajolery and threats he finally got from me that it was the boy Glibbery who had done it. I suffered the greatest hurt to my self esteem of my entire schooldays when word got out that Monkey had split on Glibbery. For days, afterwards even my friends wouldn’t come near me. The only good consequence of this affair that I might well have learnt from was that after this the boy Glibbery always avoided me.
By far the best mental trick I developed to deal with the unhappy situation at school was the most natural and simple one – to forget all about it and think of other things. That is not to say that there were not fearful projections about future events. I became especially vulnerable to these dark thoughts early in the morning while hurriedly munching my toast or in those ghastly final few days of the long summer holidays. Most importantly I developed a knack of simply obliterating from my mind on arriving home from school all thoughts of the events of the day and concentrating on something else, a technique I became very good at, although perhaps this burying process stored up a lot of trouble for me later on.
All my life I have been prone to daydreaming and this was of inestimable value to me at this difficult time. The ability to effortlessly drift into a self-forgetful dream world must have developed in me earlier at my less unhappy primary school where I would gaze out of the large window of our single-story classroom lost in a pensive dream when I should have been attending to lessons. We looked out upon the enormous sports field of an adjoining school which was separated from us by a fence of wooden palings beside which grew some bushes of elder and lilac while further off you could see the gardens and backs of a row of suburban houses which always seemed to have washing blowing in the wind. Behind the teacher’s desk there was a print of The Avenue at Middleharnis by Hobbema and when I wasn’t gazing dreamily out of the window it was down this Dutch trackway that I would mentally wander, even though I had taken against the picture, not for any aesthetic reason, but because I simply didn’t like what had been done to those trees! I have always hated pollarding; at home we had a chestnut just outside our house and as soon as it started to look at all like a proper tree it would be lopped down to a poor leafless, branchless stump. It is incredible the lengths to which people nowadays go to control and inhibit nature, about which they know almost nothing and care about even less. The small country house and cottage gardens of Britain have always been incomparably lovely but this legacy is pretty much shamefully ignored today- a walk down the average village or town street is a distressing experience so great is the amount of neglect and downright ugliness with so many gardens insensitively ‘themed’ or smothered with hideous plastic, bark, stones, slate, shingle or decking to make absolutely sure that nothing at all will grow there. The first house I bought when I left London was on a council estate which dated from the years immediately after the last war. These always had large rear gardens, presumably to provide the tenants with the opportunity to grow their own vegetables, and I soon made a delightful and productive garden on my south-sloping plot. When after a couple of years my old neighbour died the new tenant, a youngish woman, proceeded to cover virtually the entire back garden in enormous sheets of black plastic held down at the corners by bricks and old tyres. We had a succession of wonderful summers then, and she would often go out with radio, can of beer, sun oil and beach towel and lay sprawled in the middle of this shiny black waste. For centuries gardens were seen as something lovely, a delight to the senses that all might enjoy; so often now they are just places to put up a slide or trampoline for the kids or simply park the cars. Low maintenance or no maintenance seems to be the order of the day. Fifty years ago, my father used to speak with contempt about some of our lazy neighbours who had nothing in their front garden but lawn, but today to see any grass at all is a joy! And so, after all these years while I can clearly remember gazing at the great green sports field, the billowing white sheets and the bluish skies and mentally wandering down that receding Dutch avenue, I can remember almost nothing of the lessons. It’s a curious thing this ability to recall so much of what was happening in what might be called the lower or more vegetative layers of the mind while the learning of the intelligent mind has quite faded away. I detect something of a similar level of consciousness in the vacant dreamy quiescent look of Jumbo when after his morning walk and a bite of something good he will sit for a long while simply staring contentedly into the distance, and I have a pretty shrewd hunch that much of the best of me is to be located at this subhuman level.
I have said it was my less unhappy first school, because even at that early time all was not entirely well with me and had there been a child psychiatrist around in those now distant days I am sure they would have been alarmed at some of my mental states. My greatest fears were due to a condition of self-tormenting hypochondria. The strongest taboo in my family was admitting to any form of mental illness. My father sometimes suffered migraine headaches which were so severe that he would have to lie down in the darkened bedroom and the only time I remember seeing him really angry was when my brother advised him that the scientific world of the late 1960s had begun to view migraine as a nervous complaint. God knows what he would have thought of me had I told him of the truly terrifying mental sufferings I endured through my 20s and early 30s, most of which were caused by bout-drinking alcoholism. Most of our social interactions at that time took place in pubs and nobody at least in the creative world saw anything odd about grown men overdoing it and getting publicly incapable and abusive. If somebody didn’t drink or smoke we thought there must be something wrong with them, and while it is undoubtedly an important part of the youthful learning process to push the boundaries, get yourself in the shite and eventually come to your senses, many of my generation took this to dangerous extremes. Although the enjoyable part of drinking lasted only a short while and I was always aware of the terrible misery it caused to me and those close to me, I must admit that at some level I gloried in all the mayhem. Vile, selfish, self-destructive and low as much of my conduct was at that time there is something to be said for getting things so spectacularly wrong, and such chaotic behaviour can be a fine teacher if it can be eventually overcome. The self-hating madness of those desperate days contrasts very strongly with the comfortable world of the social-media obsessed young today who think that spending a weekend at Glastonbury, getting a couple of tattoos and having a taste for the sentimental artworks of Banksy makes them a courageous anti-establishment rebel! Finally, while talking of alcoholism I want to highlight a couple of common errors. That use and misuse of alcohol in some way helps and frees up the creative process. This is total nonsense. Just about the only artist who profited in any way from booze was American writer Charles Bukowski and I suspect that even he controlled and organised his drinking a good deal more than his autobiographical stories would lead us to think. Also, the myth put out by tabloid journalists and often accompanied by a photo of a stricken and befuddled celebrity who appears to be back on the booze, that if only he could come to terms with his “inner demons” he wouldn’t need to drink. In almost all of these cases the alcohol and only the alcohol is the demon. Sometime before I was ten the nice man who owned the Grocer’s shop at the bottom of our road fell ill with what my father referred to as Sugar Diabetes and during a long illness lost first one leg and then the other and I often saw him in his wheelchair, seemingly tanned and still cheerful despite the fact that his legs were now reduced to the merest tiny stumps. I had no fear of diabetes but over the next few years developed a real horror of somehow getting blood poisoning and having my limbs especially my legs amputated. One of the very early Hole in the Heart operations was shown about that time on television and soon I was convinced that my own heart had a hole in it – I actually felt severe pains in my chest and on this occasion locked myself in our downstairs loo and shed fearful tears. I even thought I had contracted Leprosy after one of our Catholic Nuns recounted the story of a saintly priest of a South Seas Leper colony who described the symptoms of pins and needles at the end of his fingers which foretold that he too had fallen victim to this horrific illness, We kids spent a lot of time helping in the garden and quite rightly were often warned about which poisonous plants we should avoid, and it was about this time that I got it into my head that poisoning was a real possibility and became obsessed with cleaning my hands over and over and over again. However, the most long lasting and frightening of these imaginings was the dreadful thought that I suffered from that disease of the blood Leukaemia which I knew to be hopelessly incurable.
The natural tendency in looking back at events of long ago is to concentrate on extremes both good and bad and give the impression that there was very little in between. There was of course a lot in between; ordinary humdrum everyday experiences, including entire days lost to awful boredom when I would find it impossible to settle down to anything. Later came the typical depressions of adolescence – a reluctance to get out of bed and an ability to sleep at least up to the early afternoon and the feeling of the futility of all the things we were made to do. I remember one grey windy Saturday forenoon in early spring before the leaves were on the branch and the barren seed beds in the back garden were still covered in twigs and netting, once again having to clean my bike with my brother who for some reason seemed to actually enjoy this ordeal. Our bikes were turned upside down on the cold concrete path for this purpose and then we went to work with rags and water and lubricating oil. We had to be quite thorough in this even down to cleaning each spoke, and to this day I clearly recall the tedium and hateful rage I experienced as I laboured at this meaningless task.