I lived from the age of 3 till the war in Alfred Street, in a row of terrace cottages at the back of Christchurch and London Rd. It was quite a nice community, a cul de sac - no traffic, and very good for playing. We were a “gangy” lot. It was also used by Christchurch Junior School as a sort of unofficial playground. All the kids appeared to be the same age. There was always a welcome when the grown-up kids came back from war, buntings across the road, that sort of thing.
Our house had a basement with 2 rooms – a kitchen and a breakfast room, on the next floor, a sitting room, with a room behind that where my sister slept, and which later became my room –although there wasn’t much space to swing a cat, as it seemed to largely be occupied by the bed. There were two bedrooms upstairs, but no bathroom. We had a tin bath hung up in the back yard. Saturday mornings was bath-day. We couldn't sit in it, so we stood. Our mother said “wash as far as possible down, as far as possible up and then wash possible!” It never failed to raise a chuckle.
There was floral wallpaper in the front room, which was up for a long while - with brown paint, and a 3 piece suite which was rather posh, but much too big for the room. We did not use the front room, except for my listening to the music across the street on a Sunday evening – a drawing room tenor, a fiddle, a piano and a guitar and sometimes a double bass. I would stand in our front room leaning against the window, waiting for them to arrive. As I listened, I thought, What a lovely way to spend an evening. We didn’t have a gramophone at home. No music, so Sunday evening was a special treat. I was a choirboy in Christchurch, which had a good choir in those days. We all got paid – even the boys. Alfred Deller came from Canterbury to join the choir and also worked in his aunt’s furniture business in St. Leonards. He used to sing behind me. Alfred was one of the first counter tenors. He had a wonderful voice and became very famous. He was like a big brother to me. Once we went carol singing together and had water poured over us!
I barely remember my father who died when I was 5. I had 3 sisters, and a brother. But it was most definitely a female house! I was closest to Peg. We were like twins, Peg and I. We stuck together and used to gang up against our older siblings. She was generous, warm hearted and altogether rather lovely. People turned in the street to look at her. Of course she got her looks from me! She married a bloke with a string of shoe shops in the Midlands. I missed her when she left, though by then the war was on and we all went away.
It wasn’t easy for mother bringing up 5 kids alone. When she was a girl she was apprenticed to Plummer Roddis as a seamstress. She spent all of her life sewing. Used to sew loose covers for a firm in London Rd. But mother also had a hobby. She was a dedicated whist player. She played every night except Sundays. We hated it. Once she went in for a charity competition and won first prize – a case of kippers - 24 pairs! I still love kippers, but I hate cards.
My mother had a fixation that I ought to be in a trade so I went into the printing trade as an apprentice at The Observer – which I disliked, but I desperately wanted to leave school. I had a Welsh headmaster who was a bad-tempered bully, and a snob, so I was glad to get away from him. The apprenticeship was for 7 years, would you believe! – something that would now take a girl a month to do on a word processing machine. It was sweated labour. I loathed it. But mother made me do it. In my 7th year the war came along and I was glad to have the opportunity to join the Marines, to get away from it all.
Although at school the headmaster was a bigot, favouring the offspring of shopkeepers and such like who could afford to buy the wretched school uniform, with its silly blazer and ridiculous cap with a red band across the top like a hot cross bun – one thing I did enjoy were my English lessons. Miss Mills was young and pretty. As adolescent boys we used to watch her playing with her necklace, which she’d twist and turn in her fingers, and one boy used to say: “Here comes Miss Mills, playing with her tits.” But apart from providing us boys with a few fantasies, Miss Mills was a very good teacher. She encouraged us to learn poetry. She used to say “If you like a thing, learn it.” So I learnt lots of poetry. I loved the sound of the English language. Still do. It was she who inadvertently laid the foundations for my future career. And it certainly stood me in good stead in my 4 years as a Prisoner of War in Germany. When I was first captured and I lay on the cold stone floor in my transit camp in Greece, I used to go through all the poems I’d learned by heart – Shakespeare, Kipling, Walter de la Mare, Wordsworth. All those beautiful words. It reminded me that there was still some sanity in the world.
When we were first in the prison camps we weren’t allowed pen or paper and the only time you got to write home was on an official POW letter. I happened to notice that a couple of the men threw away these letters. “Don’t you want to write home?” I asked them. “We can’t” was the response. First of all I wrote what they wanted to say, as well as reading the replies, then I ran a class to help them to read and write. The class grew. It was quite frightening how many blokes were illiterate. But it inspired them to do it themselves. I even taught English to a couple of German guards!
After the war I had no intention of finishing my printing apprenticeship, so I applied to become a teacher. On my application I wrote: “My school days were so unhappy, I can’t believe teaching engenders this sort of atmosphere.” At my interview 4 inspectors grilled me, but I got accepted and spent the rest of my working life teaching English, first in a boys school in Tonbridge then here at The Grove, and for a number of years in Essex, where my wife and I ran courses at a Residential Place for young people. Life skills - that sort of thing. When I retired we came back to live in St. Leonards – not so very far away from Alfred St. And I’m still here.