I grew up in central London. No, not the genteel bits ofWestminster, Pimlico and Chelsea but the deeply unfashionable parts a couple of miles south of London Bridge and west of the Old Kent Road. We lived in Walworth, just south of that wonderful landmark, the Elephant and Castle, a traffic clogged island, and now home to probably the worst example of a shopping centre ever created (due for demolition this year – worth a miss). The area didn’t even have the dubious dignity of being within the sound of Bow Bells, so I can’t even lay claim to being a proper Cockney (even though I am still clearly recognised as a Londoner).
To say I grew up as an example of childhood poverty would rob my family of the dignity we had, be an attempt to misrepresent the love I received from my parents and anyway, the family life we enjoyed was in blissful ignorance of such social-political phraseology. Certainly, a tin bath in front of the fire on Friday evenings never did any of us any harm and weekly bathing was still the norm in our street.
My early playgrounds were the bombsites that still littered London in the 50’s and well into the 60’s. Superficially ‘cleared’, these acrid smelling sores contained a profusion of weeds, half-uncovered cellars (under the ubiquitous clogging Bindweed) waiting for the unwary and made convenient shortcuts between streets. Later, when I was a little older and trusted to navigate by myself on London’s buses and on my hand-me-down bike, I ventured out to the many parks that breathed life into our capital, soaking up the sights and sounds along with the sun that always seemed to shine. A favourite was BrockwellPark, home to that wonderful lido (first port of call on a bunked-off summer school day).
We were a God-fearing family and it’s fair to say that religion played a strong part in my early life. We prayed together and we stayed together. The first real influence of my father came when he handed me over to the parish priest at the local church for regular lessons in the Latin of Catholic prayer and the rituals of serving at altar. Being universally declared tone deaf by church and school, I was excluded from the choir but, instead, made chief pumper of the ageing manual organ, high up in the loft. Memories linger even today of that curious and sickly mix of incense and body odour wafting past the old organist and I on its journey to the heavens.
Looking back, poor as we were, I realise that my father bequeathed strong influences and powerful gifts to me. But by far the greatest gift was a love of reading. Curled up tight in bed, I would listen intently to the stories he read to me. Later when about seven or eight I was thrilled when he delivered me one Saturday morning to the library at Southwark Town Hall to join the Young Readers’ Book Club. Gathered in a half circle around a pretty young librarian we listened enraptured as she read to us and then guided our choice of books for the week ahead. By age ten I had exhausted the junior library’s stock of books and once more my father took me in hand, across the corridor, into the hushed, enormous room that was the adult library. Being years too young, my father had cleared the way with the head librarian who nodded sagely at the sight of me and solemnly handed over my very own senior library tickets. Roaming the adult library was, for me, like being let loose in the biggest sweetshop in the world. For hours I would scour the shelves in the non-fiction sections for histories of war, of tortured victims, of great suffering and great escapes, long journeys and of adventure in far-flung places.
A cabinet maker born of Irish parents, my father (and son of Joseph of whom I have blogged ‘So you think we have it hard’), married my mother, the youngest of seven siblings from her Italian parents and the only one to be born in the UK. Protective of me in an extreme, Mum and her side of the family taught me always to be welcoming of strangers and to offer whatever hospitality you had. Somewhat an oddity, my father belonged to a rare group as a right-wing trade unionist who read the Daily Telegraph. So, every Saturday morning after I got my hands on the paper, I would read the book reviews, make my pick of the latest publications and run off to the library, where for six old pence I could order and reserve my book choice (no budget cuts then). Several weeks later a post card would come informing me that my book had arrived and a pristine new copy awaited me. The library also had a huge record section which I set about trawling from A~Z and it is from these old recordings that I found favourites that have stayed with me to the present day, of Bach and the Baroque, the great Italian tenors, through to Blues and Jazz.
My father was a solitary man, without friends, but he always seemed to make the right decisions over who I should be introduced to for guidance. So, also at the age of ten, I was marched (father never merely walked) off to meet the leader of the local Scout troop, The 15th Southwark. What followed were four or five years of bliss. From the claustrophobia of London, scouting transported me into the countryside, which I loved at first sight. Scouting gave me new skills and confidence, and provided me with leadership opportunities for the first time. We must have been a typical bunch of local lads but only one of which was I ever to meet again. However, one of my friends went on to become a future CEO of Sainsburys. I wonder if anyone else of our past scouting colleagues achieved anything in business.
I must have been reasonably bright as I was the only child in my junior school to pass the Eleven Plus that year. Memories? Warm milk, the scrapes I got in on the way home, Betty my first crush, regular beatings in front of the class for continuous misbehaviours, one of which I still savour. We had a very pretty young student teacher one year who wore very tight skirts which gave me more than one idea for a ten year old. I brought a carefully chosen scrap of cloth from my mother’s sewing box and, from my seat at the front of the class, I ripped it through as she bent down to pick up a dropped chalk; her reaction was better than I could ever have dreamt of and the subsequent beating a small price to pay!
Moving on to Grammar school my performance started strongly amongst the new competition but soon declined. The school was all boys run by an obscure religious order, the Brothers of St. Francis Xavier. Good teachers they were not but as wielders of the cane, our very own headmaster was a true sadist. I learned to love English (the only truly inspirational teacher I had), art and athletics. A crushing disappointment was music, where in my years at school, we played & listened to – exactly nothing. Did I earn positions of responsibility and authority? No, but I learnt to fight back when bullied, to orchestrate mischief from the rear, to loathe religion and seethe with frustration when nobody could or would answer my continuing question; why?
At age fifteen I started a Saturday job as a junior salesman at John Collier Tailors and found I could be very persuasive and earned, what for me, was a large amount of commission on my sales. Later that summer, still only fifteen, I skipped school one day, took a number 12 bus to Oxford Circus, walked into the first recruitment office I found and announced I wanted a job. After a short interview, I was sent that same day to the offices of a large finance company just around the corner and was offered a job as a junior clerk.
My commercial life had started.