Sunday, 12 October 2008

Jack Giles 2. Learning To Write

Orpington, Kent in the 1950s was like a small country town surrounded by open areas and countryside within a few minutes walk.
The housing situation following the second world war was desperate and to compensate two big estates were being built at St. Paul's Cray and Ramsden.
When we arrived in Orpington to look for a house we went straight to Ramsden - a huge muddy lot that would one day become a sprawl of private and council houses.
The queue of people hoping to get their feet on the housing rung just stretched and stretched and it took hours of patient waiting to get to the site office - and by then we were too late. All the available plots had been taken up but there was one advantage my dad had as he was a carpenter and therefore one of 'the trade'. He was put in touch with a small builder who was building six new houses up Tubbenden Lane on the site of the old Cooks Farm - of Buff Orpington fame. Dad got a pick of the plots and we went home happy.
The Orpington I lived in looked very much as the picture above.
It was a wrench to leave my friends back in Finchley and I would have loved it if my parents had chosen to go back there.
The move to Orpington was made at a time when London's overspill began to pour into St.Paul's Cray and Ramsden. Public opinion in Orpington was very anti - and I encountered prejudice from both fellow pupils and teachers - I wasn't one of 'them'.
The road that I lived in was unmade and at the bottom of a steep hill - great for sledding down in the winter and the road thick with snow. Even better for riding down on my new Hercules racing bike - until I came off my bike halfway down and slicing my right arm open. I cleaned up the cut but it soon became infected and swollen. My mum applied an 'old wives remedy' poultice to the swelling but it was too hot and in the morning the inside of my right arm from elbow to just above the wrist was blistered. We went to the hospital where the blister was cut away and I watched as I saw a glimpse of bone - that was how deep the scald had burned. For the next 18 months my arm was bound up so stiffly that I could not use it. I was in and out of hospital for all that time having the dressing changed.
As my right arm was unuseable I had to become left-handed and had my knuckles rapped for not writing fast or completing schoolwork. What with all the prejudice and this problem with my right arm I began to withdraw into myself and escaped into books and movies. During those eighteen months I made no friends apart from an older boy, who like me, had come from north London.
The prejudice would dog my tail into secondary school - but there I would meet up with a gang of older boys - a mixture of gypsies, East and North Londoners. From the moment I arrived I was warned to stay away from that gang but it was they who approached me. I had befriended one of the gang at Primary school so I was 'in'.
There was one master who taught history who bragged about his experiences in Malaya - to the extent that it could be assumed that he 'won' that theatre of war. But when the Suez crisis blew up I saw another side to him when he began to fear that he would be called up again.
His favourite punishment was the slipper - the slightest excuse and he would use it. One day I was so fed up with this form of punishment that I hid it on the rafter above his desk. What I did forget is that size 11 plimpsolls came in pairs. He did, eventually, find his original slipper - or rather it found him. During a violent thunderstorm the slipper was dislodged from the rafter and hit him on the head.
I was once slippered by him for correcting him. He was teaching us about the English Civil War and talking about firearms ' .....not like in the American Civil War when they had repeating rifles...' So, I corrected him, got the slipper and a reputation for being argumentative.
The third year was good and so, life improved from thereon.
Mr Bethell taught English and would read stories from various authors like O.Henry and Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan-Doyle. The Holmes' story 'Silver Blaze' stuck in my mind.
From then on every composition I had to write had to be a story. For example write something about a drawing pin became a mystery thriller in which the description of a drawing pin is wrapped around the disappearence of a micro-dot.
Of course, my school report claimed that I allowed my 'imagination to get out of hand'.
And my reading went in other directions as I picked up books by D.H.Lawrence (I still have a pre-trial 1960 Penguin book of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'.)
This book would in turn lead to an interesting discussion when I, as a butcher boy, delivered meat to a certain Margaret Thatcher. She thought that I had just read the 'dirty bits'. My response was that that would be pointless - the whole book would have to be read to appreciate it.
In the fourth year I was taught English by Mr. Keeble. He liked my short stories to the extent that he thought that I should get them published. I thanked him but said I wouldn't bother - authors were all older and more experienced than me. But he did say-'one day you will be a writer'.
But, I had eyes on another idea. I had picked up a book called ' Criminal Law In A Nutshell'. A fascinating book that led me to borrowing more law books that I read tucked behind the Bible during Religious Instruction lessons. The Law of England had more to interest me than the Law of God.
When the careers oficer came around and I had my interview with him and he asked me what I wanted to do - I told him straight that I wanted to go into the legal profession. After my interview I was summonsed to the headmaster's office where the careers officer was telling him about our interview. The headmaster looked at me sternly and told me to be serious and that he, personally, would see to it that I took up an apprenticeship in some factory.
I just shrugged.
He could do what he liked - I was the one who knew what I wanted.
I left school and went to work as a junior clerk in the Parks Department of a local council. Where I got into trouble for a) giving a chap an allotment without putting him on a non-existant waiting list and b) going over the Department head to get a job in the Council's legal department. After 6 months I was given the sack.
A week later I was working as an outdoor clerk for a firm of solicitors.
This job would give me a funny aftermath.
My headmaster was, also, a Justice of the Peace. I was attending the local county court when he walked in. On seeing me he said ' Ah, Foster, I thought you'd end up in front of me.' 'Yes sir, I'm here representing the Plaintiff - told you I was going into the legal profession'. His face dropped -but I had not intended my comment as a jibe - just a statement of fact.
On the whole school was good. There was plenty of school playground trade going on. War comic or comics in general were swapped around. My own choice were for books - traded for comics or rare bubble gum wrappers.
After school I went to night school - to improve on my goals I needed to improve on my education. I continued to write short stories that went into the bin after a while - I just liked to write but I don't think that I had found a voice or a reason to be serious about writing. What kid didn't think about writing THE novel - a bestseller that became a movie etc.
What I didn't know, as 1962 dawned, was that events were going to occur that would change a lot of lives. For the good or the bad I still don't know.

4 comments:

Chap O'Keefe said...

A blog cliffhanger? Can't wait for the next episode!

Keith

David Cranmer said...

Ditto for me too. I'm really enjoying these posts.

ARCHAVIST said...

And me - looks like you've found your niche with your tales of years gone by. A great post.

lyzzydee said...

Hi Ray, Thanks for dropping by my blog, I am glad to have found yours now, its a great read!
Liz