Sunday, January 15, 2017

Tickhill. Memoir, "So . . ."

          I was in trouble from the start. It was England, October, 1940, and there were incendiary devices dropping all around. It was noisy, smokey and just downright dangerous, especially for a babe in swaddling clothes who had not yet had a chance to develop defenses. I didn't even have a gun. On the night of my birth, for instance, a bomb took out the Balham tube station in SouthWest London. There was nothing I could do about it. The tube stations were used as refuges from the chaos of a Luftwaffe-gone-mad, but in this case the people of Balham were hung out to dry.  
          As far I know, I was in no immediate danger on the night of October 14th, 1940. I was born a couple of hundred miles to the north at my Uncle's nursing home in Doncaster, Yorkshire. Some may quibble that I was way too young to have memories but I'm pretty sure that my earliest recollections were of my time in that private nursing facility during the first week of my life. I remember the bars of the crib and lying on my back looking up at a mobile. I mention this merely for scientific purposes, because it's generally accepted that people don't have real memories until they're three or four years old. I beg to differ, but it doesn't really matter: there's no one around to confirm or deny these early "memories."
            I discovered the plaque at the Balham tube station in the year 2010. My daughter Justine moved to Balham in 2006 just so this could happen. There has been no particular benefit to me in discovering the truth about my birthday (i.e. in Balham it is a day that will live in infamy) except that I have learned to avoid situations where bombs are falling. There are many such places in the world today (Syria springs immediately to mind) and so far I have steered clear of them. 
          I live now in Louisiana in the southern United States where it's more likely I would  be hit by small arms fire than by bombs, though foretelling the future is not my strong suit. The sepia photo on the right is of me and my brother Peter who is wearing the headgear. I am on the deckchair and we are in the backyard of our house in Tickhill, near Doncaster, Yorks., England. There is something festive about the photo: perhaps it was my brother's birthday. Peter is three and a half years older than me. 
          It is spring or summer in this picture, so it's unlikely to be my birthday. The season is revealed by the netting (left rear) which was strung up around the tennis court, by my father, each spring. I remember this annual net-raising event because, typically, an innocent hedgehog would become entwined in the netting. My father liked to play tennis and I liked to hear about the hedgehog. I don't recall ever seeing a hedgehog, but I remember thinking I wouldn't want to pick one up by the quills. Anyway, my father took care of all that by carefully removing the creature from the netting and sending it on its way.                         
       We  had a large back yard, large enough for a tennis court, perhaps four or five fruit trees, and a greenhouse. My father loved his yard and he grew his own tomatoes. He also grew fruit, but I forget which. Probably plums, apples and pears. I remember his tomatoes, however, and the fact that he and I both loved the yellow tomatoes that he produced. I enjoyed the unorthodoxy of the yellow tomato. By the age of six I was already aware that a yellow tomato was a bit of a rebel. 
        Our garden was also tended by a man named "Cannings." Cannings worked part-time  for my father to keep our yard looking spiffy, and I think he did a good job. He served a similar function at St. Mary's, the village church which dated to the 11th Century. I assumed Cannings had always been there.
        I suppose the fruit trees and greenhouse helped us eat well during the War, but most of our food was obtained from the shops through the rationing process. I was never hungry; in fact I didn't have much of an appetite. This was a cause for concern amongst the women of my families, who often remarked upon the very different eating habits of my brother and myself. He ate like a horse and generally had hoovered his plate by the time I had my napkin in place in readiness for my first bite. I remember that I didn't like parsnips, but I could stomach carrots and turnips. 
        There were certain foods we couldn't get during the war. I'm thinking particularly of bananas because those who had eaten them before the war seem to miss them terribly. Some people spoke of bananas in hushed tones, as though they were the forbidden fruit. During the War they were impossible to come by. I'm guessing that banana boats would rather not challenge the North Atlantic blockade the German U-Boats posed between Europe and Central America. Bananas started getting through to Britain by 1946 or '47, and when they finally arrived on our table it was quite a moment. I disliked them immediately (ewwww!) and my reaction was interpreted as a childish response to an adult taste. My brother wolfed them down like they might be banned again at any moment.
         My father, Dr. Hugh Montgomery Brown, was obviously fond of me and we spent a lot of time together during my first six-and-a-half years. Our red brick house named "Renong" (a Burmese word?) was built in 1905 by a couple retiring from the British foreign service in The East. Upon returning home from a career in the Colonies, they built themselves a house which had servants' quarters and four family bed rooms upstairs. There was a nice long staircase to the main floor which I tumbled down from top to bottom one time. The wooden stairs were thickly carpeted, but on the wall at the bottom end there was a large Chinese gong which produced a satisfying BONG as my little head crashed into the metal radiator.  
Me at Renong, 2007.
My brother and I shared one bedroom (that would be the upper windows on  the right as you look at the house); we had twin beds and my father had the other front bedroom. My mother had already been divorced from our life in Tickhill by the time I can remember. One of the other family bedrooms was turned into a playroom where I had a huge, red London double-decker bus and plenty of other toys. I loved the double-deckers and planned to make a career out of driving them. In real life, there were different colored buses that served our area, drove by our house, and stopped right in front. There were yellow and green, lots of green, there might have been blue, and there was red. There were also single-deckers, but they weren't nearly so exciting. Closest in appearance to my big London Transport bus up in the playroom, the dark red buses were operated by the "East Midland" company.

        My brother liked to build and tinker, and quite logically he grew up to be an engineer. Perhaps it was the time I was given a Fairycycle, my first two-wheeler, that he spent several days building a fully functional side-car attachment. He can't have been more than nine years old, but it was the sort of thing he did. If he was given a gift with any number of moving parts he would generally disassemble it immediately.
        The aforementioned Fairycycle became my double-decker bus. I would spend hours riding around our yard picking up and dropping off imaginary passengers. I forget whether the side-car was attached as I drove my routes, but the little bike got a lot of use.
        Despite the War, life was quite idyllic for me. I lived in a big house which had a cook and a housemaid as well as my father's business which was that of village doctor. He was a General Practitioner. Thus he also had a receptionist for his business office, or surgery. He had hours of business and he made house calls, or rounds. "Rounds" simply meant driving around his area and dropping in on patients who were along the route. I went with him on these rounds frequently. I waited in the car a lot, often dreaming I was on my bus route. 
        We had a couple of cars during the war: one was a Morris, I believe, and the other an Alvis which was kept in the garage. The Alvis was low-slung, sporty, and burgundy-colored;  there was something just a bit risqué about it. Rationing allowed so much per car: the Alvis spent most of its time in the garage. Perhaps my father needed more petrol because of having to keep up with his patients, but I know what you're thinking: there was something underhand going on. (I can't imagine my father doing anything underhand.)  

At this point, my brother had a comment and I realized that he and I working together could do a much better job informing our target audience (our children and their children, than I could on my own. So, red print indicates my brother (Peter's) contributions.

My brother emailed me:  I got to thinking more about your memoir during the night, he wrote. My thought on the two cars - the Morris could have been for redundancy during the War years. The extra petrol is an interesting idea, but I would have thought the Government would have provided an allowance sufficient for the local travel needs of a doctor with a country practice. I think one could be expected to justify travel.

Mrs.Teal and I in front of her house.          
        Downstairs in our house there were two front rooms, with bay windows. The dining room on the left as you entered through the front door, and the lounge on the right. Towards the back on the left was a medical suite: surgery, dispensiary and waiting area, and a separate door for patients. Mrs.Teal was my father's receptionnist; she was a war widow and I met her many years later, a long time after she had retired. 
          One year when Marsha and I went  to visit Tickhill we came across Mrs. Teal, my father's old receptionist from the 1940's. She was living in a house (above left) which had been part of a small subdivision owned by the doctor whom she had wed. They had taken part of the property bought from my father — our tennis court and back yard — and retired to one of the bungalows he had built. The doctor had passed away, but Mrs.Teal (actually Mrs. Something Else) lived on.
        Renong was my world during the War and for two years afterward. But I gradually began to broaden my horizons into the village around me. I started school at age four. Sometimes I took the bus, which cost one big copper penny. It was collected by a uniformed conductor and dropped into a big squeaky leather bag. The conductor, usually a woman, would then activate her ticket machine, produce a long paper ticket and a silver ticket punch, "click" the ticket and hand it over. It was all very exciting. The bus driver, meantime, was enclosed in a little booth where he could concentrate on his driving (he was always a man.) I would make my way upstairs where I would aim to sit in the front seat, over top of the driver. 
       Very often, though, I would walk to school through St. Mary's churchyard, past the village shops and the "Buttercross" to the small private school run by two gray-haired ladies, the Misses Goodwin. Their education was, I'm sure, very traditional and I learned a lot. So much that when I started school in a Canadian private school a couple of years later, I was allowed to skip the first two grades. I started the Canadian third grade when I was still six.
      One of my first homework assignments from the Goodwins was to recite a poem, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again." Before I started school, though, I was nearly always around the house or in the garden. I followed people around to see what they were up to. I talked to the cook, Vera, a tall, gaunt woman who tolerated me but didn't show much affection. 
       We had a couple of different housemaids, I think, but only one at a time. One I liked very much, and trusted, apparently, at least until one particularly painful event. I was walking along the pavement (sidewalk) with her, chattering away, when I devised a little plan. I would close my eyes and depend on her to guide me. I revealed my plan to her and I thought she signed on to it, as, (tiny British voice) "Now I'm going to close my eyes, so I'll need you to tell me when we come  to the curb." Clearly she hadn't paid close enough attention to me because the next thing I knew I was bloodied, flat on my face and squealing on the pavement.
       Another time I was navigating the tops of the furniture in the Lounge when I slipped, fell against the corner of a table, and cut open part of my forehead over my eye. On that occasion my father carried me into his surgery and sewed me up himself. It was convenient having a physician for a parent, though often the first question I'd get from him after we'd been apart had to do with the regularity of my bowel movements.
       Between bumping down the staircase and these two last misadventures, I seem to have been having a dangerous time. But life was good at Renong and I didn't often need special comforting. I noticed that my mother was never there but since she never had been there as far as I could recall, it didn't seem odd to me. My brother, too, was often away. He would be at some boarding school my mother (née Margaret Boyle), (standing at left)
or perhaps my father, had arranged. Peter went to Worksop College during our last year in England. We visited Peter at his school on special days, and once a bird shit on my head. 
       Sometimes, perhaps, Peter would be staying with my mother and her family. My mother's family lived in Doncaster, which was the nearest city to our village, just seven miles away. In fact the address of our village usually included the words "near Doncaster."  Our address was Renong, Worksop Road, Tickhill, nr. Doncaster, Yorks., England. I learned to write and recite our address at a very early age.
        When I speak of my mother's family, it is mostly the group that lived at Cairlinn on the Barnsley Road. My grandmother was the head of household. A feisty woman, by all accounts, she had recently suffered the loss of her husband Peter Boyle, who died just before the War, a couple of years before I was born. Peter Boyle, my grandfather, was born in Ireland, in a town named Carlingford. The Celtic way of saying this town's name is "Cairlinn," hence the name of the house on Barnsley Road. My grandfather was a professional football (soccer) player who enjoyed a modicum of success during his career. He was twice on teams that won The Football Association (FA) Cup, and he fullbacked several times on the Irish International squad. These are no mean feats for a footballer, even around the year 1900. His team was Sheffield United which is why he wound up settling in Doncaster, just a few miles down the road from Sheffield.
         So my grandfather had departed this life, but my grandmother had always run the household. She'd had eight children; five girls and three boys. My mother, Margaret, was the youngest of the girls, and at this time was living with her mother. The other four, in descending order, were Anne, Cathy, Julia and Mae. The boys were Tom, Jim and, the youngest of all, my uncle Peter. Tom followed in his father's footsteps and became a moderately successful footballer and then a publican; he played for Sheffield United and won an FA Cup, too. It may be the only time such a feat has been performed by a father-son duo. Uncle Jim became a schoolteacher, eventually a headmaster, and my uncle Peter, a doctor. 
         The eldest child, Anne, married a wealthy surgeon, Moir Shepherd, who owned the nursing home where I was born; Cathy moved to London with her husband who became wealthy in Real Estate; Mae married a Policeman/Social Worker. As far as I knew, Julia never married.* She lived with her mother and my mother at Cairlinn after all the rest had left home. I liked Aunt Julia a lot. She was always very loving towards me, as was my grandmother. I'm told they both "doted" on me and I'd say that's a wonderful thing for a child.

*I understood that Julia did eventually marry Albert Bamford. I gather Ma (our grandmother) did not approve of Albert, so Julia may not have married until after Ma died.
I have good memories of Ma, but she must have ruled the roost. It is sad to think that Fiona (our half-sister) was never allowed to meet her. And that's another story.
       My mother would come and pick me up from Renong and take me to Cairlinn to visit.  The visits were tinged with sadness because my mother always seemed unhappy, and she was never able to keep me totally comfortable. For instance, she didn't have a car so we'd take buses (OK) but then we'd have to walk from or to bus stops: often not OK. There was a long walk from the bus stop at Barnsley Road to the house, Cairlinn, and I was often tired and cranky from the journey and just wanted to be carried. The bigger I got, the harder I was to carry. During the War there was an Italian Prisoner of War camp on Barnsley Road and my mother and I would have to walk along beside it, to and from the bus stop.
         I can only imagine now what an ordeal this was for my poor mother, traveling with a bad-tempered brat complaining about having to walk, while a bunch of horny young Italians were wolf whistling and yelling lewd remarks. I remember the sound of them and in retrospect they seem to have been hanging from the fence like baboons in a zoo.
         By this time, it could have been the spring of 1945, it seemed we'd been at war all my life. (I checked later: we had! ) There were the daily news broadcasts from BBC radio telling us about fresh successes; the sound of airplanes overhead; (they may have been our aircraft;) there were stories of nighttime automobile accidents and incidents caused by darkness. One time this involved my father's car hitting a horse. The headlights were mere slits which would help another car to spot you, but would not light up the road very well. Anyway, the horse went down, then got back up again, leaped over a fence, tore across a field, and disappeared into the dark.
         One thing that has only recently occurred to me is that my mother had another life during the last bit of the war and the following years. She had a job in Glasgow (she became a professional cook) where an affair with a South African army officer led to the birth of my half-sister, Fiona, a year after the war in Europe. I didn't know anything about Fiona until the mid-1950's, and I didn't meet her until 1958.  

        In the 1940's our village was much more rural than it is now. I remember going for evening walks with my father and discovering turnips which had fallen off a farm wagon, and, of course, horse manure on the road. We had farmers for neighbors, the Durdys, and they had at least one child (John?) who was roughly my age. From visiting the Durdy farm, (was it Stancil Farm?) I learned to speak with a broad Yorkshire accent, though this didn't please my father, who was a great exponent of the King's English. Once I witnessed the killing of a pig. It was the terrified squealing I remember most, punctuated by a sudden gunshot; then silence from the pig.
        On the home front there were the yellow tomatoes, the toys in the nursery (the play room), even visits to the seashore. I have photographic evidence of myself at the beach at Cromer or Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast, and I appear to be three years old or less. That would date it to the summer of 1943 or 1944, which means that though we were in the thick of the War, we could still enjoy a day at the beach.
        Re: the trip to Cromer. It was made in the Ford V8 belonging to the lady holding you. The younger woman in front is the older lady's daughter (and I think the young girl on the right the daughter's daughter.) I think permission to make that journey by car was obtained because of my ill-health, and petrol would have been allowed for the journey. I must have been  a bit of a sickly child — ear, nose and throat issues. The trip to Cromer may have been just after I had the bout of pneumonia. No anti-antibiotics — Dad treated it with chest poultices, standing in front of a heat lamp, etc. 
        Your memory is of me going away, but after the hiatus when our mother  took us away from Renong, the only times I would have been away, other than for the odd visit to Barnsley Road, would have been when I went off to Worksop College. (pictured below) 

That would have started some time after VE Day, which was after I was eight.  I have a memory of coming home from Misses Goodwin's school, and as I was walking on the bend near the hotel close to the Millpond an older boy passing on a bicycle called out that the War had ended. Well, in Europe it had. Later, after I had started at Worksop College, 
I remember learning that the atom bombs had been dropped and the war with Japan was over.

       I'm just reading one of Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel  Dalhousie novels, 'The Novel Habits of Happiness.' 
       One of the characters talks of her husband's unhappy childhood — '...Robert went to one of those dreadful boarding schools. It was down on the South coast. I think some very unpleasant things happened there. So many lives were distorted by such cruelty...' 
       "Isabel closed her eyes momentarily. Those schools, and the attitudes that allowed them, were a largely spent force now, but their shadow was a long one....."

       I wonder if McCall Smith had been a boarder? (At an English school.) Probably :-)
Do you remember *Catherine Brookbank? She had a nice house near Tickhill Castle. My hair was blond early on, and there was an incident where her horse stood on my foot, and was nibbling at my hair. The ground was soft so no damage, but  I was unable to move. Probably tears!
       I recall hearing about *Catherine Brookbank, but I don't remember her in person. I have a vague memory of an attractive woman in riding britches, who may have been involved with our father, but I don't know where that comes from.
       I also think of Catherine Brookbanks as an attractive women in jodpurs. And there may have been a 'relationship' with our father.

       Do you remember *Basil Weir staying with us in Renong on returning from his war in India? I think he had been in the Pay Corps. His military kit had a distinct odor.  
        I don't remember Basil staying with us. On the other hand, I remember being with *Basil Weir whom our mother called "Weary" whilst rolling her eyes. She seemed to think that he, a drinking buddy, had something to do with the break-up of the marriage. 
       The breakup? Who knows. Basil was probably off to India by then.  Maybe something in the legal record of the divorce.

       Obviously this is not childhood information. Our mother would have talked about it when I was 18 or older. 
       Basil may have introduced our mother and  father. 
        He came on a road trip to Barnard Castle sometime before our little family trio left for Canada. I think our father was going around saying goodbye to some friends and family. Anyway, I stuck my head out the car window during the whole trip and got a hell of an earache for the next couple of days. It may have been on the same trip that we went to visit Uncle Dougald in Newcastle. My father, the youngest child, had two sisters and nine brothers. He was born in Newcastle.
        Another trip we took as a family was to Sheffield to see the Pantomime. This was a pre-Christmas tradition in Britain, which has, by now, largely died out. The hero was a young man played by an actress, and the villain, or villains, were male actors in drag. Think: Aunt Edna. The Panto I remember seeing was "Jack and the Beanstalk."
The mists of time - and stuff I didn't understand.
I remember bananas at Worksop College, but that was of course after the war had ended, at least the war in Europe. We had banana sandwiches!

I've enjoyed your memories, and they made me think back.

by Peter Brown

I remember well the occasion when I learned that VE Day had occurred. Why I remember it so well remains a mystery to me. I would have been just eight years old on that day in May, my birthday being on April 29. I was on my way home from Miss Goodwin’s school in Tickhill.    I was walking on the footpath by the bend of the main road just near the "keep" where a lane leads past a pub to the mill pond.
As a small boy living in an English village, the War itself would have seemed to have had very little direct impact on me. Tickhill, a few miles from Doncaster in Yorkshire, and where my father was a medical practitioner, was not a place which attracted much interest from the enemy. My father, beause of his age and occupation was not called up. He donned the uniform with other members of the Home Guard.
The only person I can remember who would have gone off to war in fact was my father’s best friend, Basil Weir. Basil went to India with the Pay Corps. As to the effects of the War, we were always fed and clothed, although I suppose the adults might have complained about rationing, which I would not have understood.
There was plenty of evidence of the War, for anyone who would have known otherwise. There were concrete anti—tank obstacles on the main road just outside our house, we had thick "blackout" curtains on our windows, and convoys of army vehicles rumbling through the village were commonplace.
My father’s cars (apparently he needed two to ensure that he had one that was roadworthy all the time) were fitted with "blackout" lights and I suppose it should have been exciting living though the narrow country lanes on those times that I was allowed along on a visit to a patient after dark. I can also remember being awakened and going to the air raid shelter during one period when I was boarding at a convent school, and l can remember the summer evening sky being filled with waves of aircraft, bombers flying eastwards to take the war to the enemy.
But what l do have memories of most vividly, on what I recall as a warm sunny afternoon, was a boy a little older than myself, who I might have known, riding towards me on a bicycle, and calling out to me that the war in Germany was over.


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