Thursday, 28 May 2009

Posted Abroad ... Not Far East, Not Far at All.

My request to serve abroad was granted: 2nd Tactical Air Force Germany. Not as far afield as I'd hoped but at least I'd be on foreign soil and that would be a first for me, so no complaints. I had now been promoted to leading aircraftsman, or LAC. I now had a twin-blade propeller insignia sewn on each arm of my uniform; oh what giddy heights I've reached in less than a year!

I still had no idea as to my final destination in Germany. I would be among a shipload of service personnel moving to the continent bound for various destinations. I had a spot of leave prior to making my journey across the North Sea and decided to spend a day in Hereford to see Joan. It was a sweet reunion and I wished it had been longer. We both swore to write regularly and book a phone call as and when possible. In 1954 you had to arrange phone calls to the UK some time in advance; none of this picking up a phone and dialling a number! We spent our last two hours together in fond embrace, ending with the usual tearful "goodbyes" on the railway platform.

Spent the next couple of days at home in Thornton Heath and said cheerio to my parents and my four younger brothers, one of whom had intentions of joining the Queen's Own Regiment as a boy entrant.

Next was the train journey to Harwich where I would join the troopship and cross to the Hook of Holland. This was my first experience of being on board a large ship, crammed to the gunnels with military personnel. Fortunately it was a short journey and we would be in Holland by about 6 a.m. next morning. However, the sleeping arrangements were almost impossible. Bunks and hammocks were uncomfortable, the noise from the engines was deafening, the smell of oily fumes and bodily odours of this crowded accommodation was rather nauseous. I wasn't seasick but I was almost suffocating it seemed. Managed to drop off to sleep now and then but kept waking up and wondering where the heck I was!

Disembarked early next morning; don't recall having any breakfast but doubt if I would have been very keen to eat it anyway. The next leg of the journey for me was by train, across the Dutch/German borders to a transit camp, somewhere in Germany. This was an old castle, or "Schloss" and we would spend just one night here. It was quite a decent place and we had good midday and evening meals in the dining hall. In the evening I wandered into a large room where there was an extensive bar, manned by German personnel. It was crowded with RAF men, and a few WAAFs, all enjoying the beer and spirits. It was my first taste of a German brew and I was warned it was about twice the strength of British beer. It was! I had a couple of large glasses, very frothy tops, and decided to turn in and get some proper sleep.

Next morning, after a good breakfast, I was told I would be going to a brand new RAF hospital near Munchen Gladbach: RAF Hospital Wegberg. Again, this was a great surprise and I was quite pleased.

By train to Munchen Gladbach and then a smaller train from Munchen Gladbach to Wegberg railway station. My first impressions of this small station was one of much delight. It was spick and span and there was a café on the platform which was more like a pub! In fact, "cafés" in Germany were all like pubs - but with a different feel and atmosphere from an English pub. I quite enjoyed the "cafés" in Germany!

I was accompanied by two other RAF chaps on our way to Wegberg and we all went into the railway station café for a swift glass of beer. We asked one of the customers in the bar if he knew where the hospital was, expecting him to understand our question. He looked a bit blank until one of my fellow travellers said "krankenhaus" bitte ... "Ach zo, krankenhaus ... Ya!" The bartender came over and fortunately spoke pretty good English. He said the hospital was about two miles away and we couldn't miss it. I asked if there was any transport to it. "Nein" was the terse reply, but there was a local taxi if we wished to hire it. We did, although a two mile walk would not have bothered me, but then again we all had heavy kitbags to lug along and we could split the fare three ways. So we took the taxi and arrived at the hospital gates in a few minutes.

I had a good feeling about this place. Everything looked brand new, clean and fresh. It was in a beautiful country setting too. I knew I was going to enjoy this posting and I was not wrong!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

RAF Hereford 3 months learning to touch-type!

Around April 1953 I am introduced to the Admin wing of RAF Hereford. My target for today: to learn to touch-type at a minimum of 30 words per minute on a "state of the art" mechanical typewriter, an Olympia. Oh well, not quite radar technician or radio operator or aircraft fitter but hey ho, off to work we still have to go.

RAF Hereford was a tenfold improvement on both Cardington and West Kirby. The whole way of life at RAF Hereford was much more relaxed. The only "bull" we had to contend with was keeping our living quarters up to scratch. We still used bits of old blanket to "slide" across the floor with so as to keep the shine on the composite flooring, just as we had to do at West Kirby. We did not have to have a .303 Lee Enfield rifle in our locker either, so no cleaning and oiling of these heavy old weapons.

The training was quite intensive to start with. We all assembled in a large hut which was equipped with a desk, a chair and an Olympia typewriter for each trainee. Our instructor was a corporal who had a larger desk at the front of the class, complete with blackboard and chalk, just like being back at school.

Anybody who has been on such a course will know that the first exercise is to learn how to use the "guide keys" and the space bar. We went through umpteen chants of A S D F G with the left hand and SEMI-COLON ; L K J H with the right hand. Time and time again we repeated this on the first and second days. These mechanical typewriters required quite a firm touch with the fingers in order to make an impression on the paper resting on the platen. Still, we all seemed to manage quite well so that on the third day we were introduced to "strict tempo typing" to some kind of music on a record player. This was supposed to your fingers tapping away on the keys in a regular pattern.

We were tested at the end of each day to see how fast and how accurate we were with the exercises thus far. One or two trainees just couldn't get the co-ordination right and after a week or so they were "failed" - unsuitable. Whether or not these chaps were deliberately skiving off the course in order to try some other "trade" I know not. Wouldn't be at all surprised if they were trying to "work their ticket" and eventually get dismissed from the RAF as total incompetents.

Suffice to say that the majority of us managed to gradually gain speed and accuracy. At the end of the course I could type at over 45 wpm with no errors and felt quite pleased with myself. Although I would not have chosen this form of training I have to say that it has been very useful in life ever since!

My main interest whilst stationed at RAF Hereford was the weekends! We were free to do as we pleased after 5 p.m. Friday - unless there was something special on the cards for Saturday or Sunday, which was very rare.

Friday evenings were usually spent on camp, in the NAAFI, having a beer or two, playing darts or table tennis or whatever one chose to do. Just winding down from the clickety-clack of the Olympia typewriting machines and relaxing.

Saturday was the day of the week for me and most of the other chaps here. Hereford is a pleasant city in a picturesque county with other smaller places surrounding the city. There were some absolutely delightful old pubs all over Herefordshire and many of them produced their own cider, known as Scrumpy! This home-made brew was a potent concoction, cheaper than beer and twice as strong. I was never able to drink more than two pints of the stuff and stay reasonably concious. Any more than this and I would undoubtedly fall over in a sort of stupor. Usually the landlord or barman would dispense this powerful brew from a large jug, often enamel and able to hold about four pints of the cloudy liquor. After two or three weeks of visiting the various pubs, playing darts or skittles in them whilst gradually getting a bit woosy, I had a strong desire to resume ballroom dancing. A mate of mine on the course told me that there were always dances in the main area of Hereford and so one Saturday evening, spruced up in our "best blues" (i.e. the more formal RAF uniform and not the workaday gear) we took the bus into town.

The most popular place was at The Hostel, a decent enough dance hall with a good gathering of local young ladies keen on dancing. Another popular venue was the town hall ballroom; I went to both during my three month training period. But it is The Hostel which impressed me most, mainly because I met a lovely young lady named Joan Turner and it was the start of my second romance.

Joan was 18 months younger than me, which made a change! She was quite shy, which I found most attractive, and she was a decent dancer - which added to her attaction for me. On our first encounter we danced five or six times together - and when we were sitting one out we sat together with a light drink, just getting to know each other. I arranged to see Joan next Saturday evening, which we did, again at The Hostel. I asked her if she would care to "go to the pictures" on the morrow, Sunday evening, and she said she would. It was all so lovely for me and, I think, for Joan. We really did get on well together.

After about three or four weeks later she invited me to have tea on a Sunday afternoon at her home, where she lived with her parents and two older sisters. I was really pleased about this and looked forward to it. It turned out that her father was involved in the management of Hereford United football club and he asked me if I would like to go, with Joan of course, to their next home game. Although I was not a madly keen football fan I said I'd love to go and see the team play.

In those days, Hereford United FC was an amateur team, comprising all local "part-timers" such as the local butcher, baker and candle-stick maker. Nevertheless, the football was entertaining enough and I enjoyed going to see them now and then.

The training course came to an end and I would soon be learning where my next posting would be. It would mean departing the area and leaving Joan, which was not a happy prospect for me, nor for Joan I think. She came with me to the railway station when I had to leave Hereford and take a few days leave at home. She started to weep as the train pulled out and stood there waving goodbye until the train was out of sight of the platform. I promised to write every day, and I kept that promise.

I had not been home during my three months course and thought I'd better pay them a visit before I moved on to pastures new. I had been posted to Headquarters Technical Training Command at RAF Brampton Grange, near Huntington, as a typist! I had no idea what this place would be like but there was nothing I could do about it; I was posted and that was that.

I know I would miss Joan; we had become quite close. I wondered if I would ever see her again...

Monday, 25 May 2009

Moving On - To West Kirby Basic Training

After my induction at Cardington, which lasted only a couple of days, we were all transported to RAF West Kirby, near Liverpool. This would be my new home for a minimum of eight weeks. If for any reason, such as illness or failing certain tasks it could last longer than that. This is the "Flight" I was part of. You can see me in the second row, 3rd from the right. A real sprog; AC2, the lowest form of animal life in the RAF.

On arrival, still in January '53, it seemed as bleak and unwelcoming as Cardington. I was seriously feeling I'd gone from the frying pan into the fire. We were given our billets, this time they were the usual long huts, not the Nissen type of corrugated iron things. On entering the hut it seemed cleaner and more welcoming than Cardington. There was a round stove in the middle of the hut with a tall iron chimney pipe thrusting upwards through the pitched roof. The composite floor was clean brightly polished and the beds and wardrobe lockers were all perfectly lined up.

We had to draw our bedding from stores and a .303 Lee Enfield rifle which we were instructed to guard with our lives! I was now thinking that I'd got on the wrong train and had somehow joined the army.

Suddenly the hut door burst open and a rather short chap announced his presence by bellowing out: "Stand by your beds and shut up!" This noisy little man was to be our constant companion from now on. He was our drill instructor corporal, whose name I have completely erased from my memory. In fact I cannot recall a single name from all my square-bashing days; I could hardly remember my own at times as I was rushed around from pillar to post every day and sometimes every night.

Our beloved drill instructor, Corporal Whosenameescapesme, is seated in the centre of the front row. The photo was taken during the final week of our torment, err I mean training.

It was a really tough course and some chaps just didn't make it. One that we knew of had actually committed suicide by hanging himself one night in the latrines. Apparently, these "departures" were rare but not unknown.

I had more haircuts in those eight weeks than at any other period in my life. One day I had TWO haircuts. I was on the rifle range and the armoury sergeant asked me if I was in pain. No sergeant (see how quickly I'd learned the drill.." No sergeant I said. "Well I should be, I'm standing on your hair! Get it cut NOW!" So off I scampered, at the double of course, to the Sweeny Todd of West Kirby, otherwise known as the camp barber. Later that day our beloved drill corporal had a go at me for some paltry misdemeanour and he too asked me: "When did you last get your hair cut sonny?" I replied: "Today corporal." He then ordered me to go and get it cut again, and this time properly. It was no good arguing, so I arrived at the barber's hut yet again. He did not question why I had come back again; he just cut it even shorter! At a shilling a time for a short back and sides I was feeling exceedingly peeved, mainly at the cost to my pocket!

Well, the weeks went on and on and on... Marching, assault courses, route marches, physical training at 6 a.m. whatever the weather, various weapon training including rifle practice, Bren gun shooting, hand-grenade and bayonet practice. If there were other ways to kill a person I think we must have learned the vast majority of them.

All this frenetic exercise gave me an enhanced appetite of course. When I joined up I was around ten-and-a-half stone but after 8 weeks of this training and with three regular meals a day, plus "chips with everything in the NAAFI" I put on nearly two stone in weight and was fitter than I'd ever been, or will be again!

I think we all tended to hate all the "bull", such as boot polishing, button and badge polishing, keeping the billet spotless for inspections and other never-ending chores, but we accepted it as part of the "training". We just kept in mind that it would all be over and done with in a month or two.

One day we were ordered to assemble in the medical section. We were to receive a series of "jabs" to protect us from various diseases both at home and abroad. I queued up with about 30 others, stripped to the waist, waiting to get to the first of the medical orderlies or doctors who were sticking these large hypodermic needles into our arms. Not one jab, but three! I watched a couple of the lads simply flake out as they neared the dreaded needles; they just swayed and fell down in a sort of swoon.

We were warned that some of us might have allergic reactions to these jabs, and one was a lumpy swelling in the armpit. This did happen to me but it didn't bother me too much. We were also advised not to have too much beer that evening if we went out. We were in our fourth or fifth week now and we were allowed out of camp once a week. I and two buddies caught a bus into Liverpool that evening. Had one drink in a pub, a pub with a massive long bar, and one of the chaps said he felt a bit dodgy. We left the pub and started to walk to the bus stop, hoping the fresh air would help him. It didn't. We'd only gone twenty yards or so when he staggered and almost fell down, saving himself by sliding down a shop window and sitting on the window cill. It was a fish and chip shop and it was open. I went in and asked if I could call an ambulance or a doctor. I was told to push off or they'd call the police! We were all drunkards this friendly Liverpudlian chippy lady screamed at me. So much for northern hospitality, or they just didn't like the uniform!

Our poor mate said he'd rather just get on a bus and get back to camp, and this we did. We reported to the medical orderly who said it was "quite normal" for such a reaction in some people and told him to get a good night's rest and report sick in the morning if he still felt unwell. Fortunately he seemed reasonably recovered and managed to continue training on the next day.

Our final "passing out parade" eventually arrived and it was the end of our basic training. Although we all detested our little corporal drill instructor for weeks on end we seemed to grow more tolerant of him during the last week. He was always in our face, virtually 24 hours a day. He had a small room situated in the corner of one end of the billet and was thus always close at hand. However, our "Number 1 man" in the billet suggested we should have a whip round to get our little corporal a going away present and we all agreed. We presented our tormentor with a chrome cigarette case with combined lighter, engraved with his name and from the chaps in A-Flight.

We were all interviewed as to what our next training course would be, and were given a list of RAF "trades" to choose from. I selected (a) radar mechanic, or (b) radio operator, or (c) aircraft fitter. What did I get? Typist and Admin training! Not even close, but there was no appeal - one just had to accept what one was given. I don't know why they went through the rigmarole of offering us a so-called choice. I was to report to RAF Hereford (Credenhill) on the expiry of my weeks leave, and that would be a three month course of learning to touch-type. Great! I think not, but that was going to be it for me and nothing else.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

National Service: RAF January 1953

Couldn't wait to move out of the family home at 45 Kensington Avenue, Thornton Heath, so I entered the RAF as a "volunteer" on my 18th birthday, for a three-year engagement. I knew that if I waited for the official call-up to National Service the chances were that I would end up in the army for two years. I definitely wanted the RAF; I'd been a Royal Air Force cadet in Croydon and enjoyed that bit so the RAF was a "must" for me.

Where to start? At the beginning probably, and the beginning of my RAF life started at RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire, the place where they used to build airships. The large hangars which housed these airships still stand at RAF Cardington but during my short stay there I never actually went into one of these massive buildings.

My first impression of Cardington was that it was a bleak, damp and cold place! Mind you, it was January so I guess that's to be expected. It also had an odd smell about the place; a sort of stale smell. My first night away from home and I was not feeling too happy. All the other chaps were as bewildered as I was as we were shephered into a cold and cheerless Nissen hut which was to be our home for the next few days.

There were about two dozen iron-framed bedsteads lining each side of the hut, with a folded pile of bedding on each, plus a wooden locker/wardrobe for each bed. I had only a small case with some toiletries and some underwear and dumped this on the mattress of a bed about halfway along the left side of the hut. I think it was about 4 p.m. when I arrived at the camp but I can't be certain. That first day was a bit of a blur. We had some sort of meal in the large dining hall, called the mess, for what seemed to me to be a good reason!

At around 8 p.m. or later the door of the hut burst open and a man in a RAF uniform came clumping in, slamming the door as he entered. He shouted to us to "get on your bleedin' feet",which we all did. He surveyed the motley shower, as he called us, as he strode up and down the hut, bellowing out instructions as to what we would be doing next day - none of which I really understood. He eventually got to where I was standing.

"And what's your name laddie" he bellowed, his face almost touching me - sort of nose-to-nose. I said: "Harfleet sir..." And this was my first mistake!

He pointed to the three stripes on his arm and yelled: "Don't call me Sir! Dontcha know what these stripes are!"

I then compounded my error and stupidly said: "Yes, sir". This sent him into a sort of paroxysm of fury. He had obviously taken a dislike to me and he then stuck his nose almost on my nose again and said: "Follow me you 'orrible long streak of piss.." and he marched out of the hut, with me in close attendance.

The night was now dark as well as damply cold and the stale smell seemed stronger now than earlier. There were only a very few street lamps here and there and I had to walk at the double to keep up with this monstrous individual I had apparently offended by calling him "Sir". Within a few minutes we entered another large building, which was the dining hall, or mess. Now I knew where this sickening stale smell came from! The Mess.

Once inside I saw the place was empty, but behind the serving counter the lights were on and somebody was working in there. It was the sergeant in charge of the mess, and he was finishing off some cleaning of the large bins and trays from which the food was usually stored and served.

My monster sergeant said to the cook-house sergeant something about: "I've got this 'ere streak of piss who wants to 'elp you clean up the place." and with that he about-turned and departed. The cook-house sergeant looked at me and said: "So what have you been up to lad..." I told him that I had said "Sir" instead of sergeant when reply to the sergeant. "Oh my gawd" said cook-house, "He don't like that, and nor does I. We're NCOs, not hofficers, and don't you ever forget it!" "Right, s..sergeant." I said.

"OK lad. I want you to get a broom and sweep out every last crumb and everything else out of the mess. I want that floor spotless. You understand?"

"Yes sergeant. Err.. where is the broom?"

He glared at me as though he considered me to be a complete idiot.

"Find a fecking broom ... find one. And get on with it."

Now you can see how helpful these old RAF hands were. I was beginning to think I would have fared better in the army! Anyway, I located a broom and began my Herculean task of sweeping out the mess. I now understood how Hercules must have felt when undertaking one of his fabled labours: to clean the Augean stables in a single day. Only I was to have only a couple of hours or so!

When I thought I'd finished I went back to the kitchen area to see if it was OK for me to leave. Couldn't see anybody there at all. The lights were still on but there did not seem to be a soul around any more. After a minute or two I decided to get out of this inhospitable and malodourous building and get back to my billet. So I went out the door ... and I could not remember where my hut was!

By now I was thoroughly fed up, tired and a tad homesick. Homesick for 45 Kensington Avenue, the place I had so hurriedly and happily left on my 18th birthday! I had assumed that the grass would be so much greener in the RAF ... but I was now wondering what the heck was in store for me for the next three years.

Somehow, don't ask me how, I stumbled into the right nissen hut which was now lit by just one dim light. Most of the occupants had made up their beds and were already asleep, or trying to get to sleep. An hour or two later I'd managed to get sorted and finally drifted into a tired but welcome sleep.

What would tomorrow bring, and all the other yet to come days in Her Majesty's Royal Air Force. I'd no idea, but you either sink or swim; and I was a good swimmer!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Dance Studios & Ballrooms of 1952

On my own again, aged 17 and still working at Charringtons the brewers in Bensham Lane, Thornton Heath. No girl friend, no regular dance partner and no real inclination to find one. Everywhere I went it was still Stella I couldn't get out of my mind. I wanted to see her again so strongly and at the same time I knew that if I did see her I would do everything to avoid her!

I ventured into The Orchid in Purley one Sunday evening in the early part of 1952. I had to join their Sunday Club as dance halls were not allowed to open on the Sabbath in those days unless it was a registered dance club. I was pretty sure that I wouldn't bump into Stella on this particular evening; Sunday dancing was not something she would have contemplated, especially if she was alone. The Orchid Sunday Club was great if one wanted more room on the dance floor to practice properly and there seemed to be a good selection of female wallflowers to choose from. I didn't just go for anybody to ask for a dance. Oh no sireee; I would watch the couples dancing and then, and only then, would I swoop on a girl if she was a good dancer. I was only interested in enjoying the foxtrots, quicksteps and other dances and that was all. The Sunday Club became a fairly regular venue for a good while and eventually I got to know a few of the regular girls who attended.

I decided one Sunday evening to ask one of them if she would care to partner me on Saturday evenings. Her name was Maureen and she was a year or two older than me I think but I wasn't bothered about that now. Maureen asked where I was thinking of going next Saturday night and I said "The Kursal, Southend on Sea..." She said she'd never been there and neither had I, but my friend who worked alongside me at Charringtons had told me it was a great ballroom with a good resident band. Maureen thought about it over a cup of tea in the Orchid café with me and said OK, she'd give it a go. So that's what we did, and it was a really enjoyable evening.

The Kursaal ballroom had probably one of the finest dance floors in England, and had some of the most famous bands and orchestras of those days, such as Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth, and many other big bands on that popular stage.

Another decent ballroom was in Streatham Hill, The Locarno. This place was a very popular dance hall especially on Saturday evenings. I went there occasionally but often spent more time in the gallery area just watching the dancing and listening to the band. It was too crowded for ballroom "proper" but OK for tightly packed "social" dancing.

The Court Ballroom in Balham was another place I wandered into once in a while and another in Brigstock Road, Thornton Heath. Both of these palais-de-danse have long since disappeared and strangely enough I can find no reference to them on the web anywhere.

The Semley Dance Studios in Norbury was one of the places where I would venture into now and again, usually to take part in a dance class for intermediate dancers, and this place would figure largely in my life in a few years time.

Ballroom dancing in the early 1950s was very popular, probably the most popular form of entertainment along with the cinema. As the decade progressed it started to change quite drastically. The rot set in (as far as I was concerned) when Bill Haley and his Comets exploded onto the scene. Rock and Roll was born around the mid-1950s and Bill Haley was the band that lit the fuse. Ballroom dancing was still fairly popular but the wilder style of dance was forging ahead eventually leading to disco and other forms of dance, none of which appealed to me, apart from a meek attempt at jive.

That just about takes care of 1952, a generally uneventful year in my life but with 1953 now clearly on the horizon a whole new chapter would be born.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Advance 50 Years: End of the Stella Saga.ReUnion

It's something I just had to do: find Stella.

I'd thought so much about her over the years I just had to know how she was; how had life been for her; what had happened in 50 years or more? These and other questions needed to be asked and answered. The search was started in 2001 and began with a search of the marriage records from 1953 onwards. I just felt sure she would have got married and I was right. I found her maiden name, a rather unusual surname, quite quickly. She had married Alfred! Yes, the chap who'd so politely asked my permission to walk out with Stella when I'd joined up!

Now I had two names to trace and this was just as easy: have all the UK records of the census, and of telephone numbers in many cases. They came up trumps showing the full names and address of Stella and Alfred now living in Wallington, a town close to Croydon. Unlike me, Stella had remained close to her birthplace.

I now had their address and also their wedding date. I decided to send them an anniversary card and a letter. I did not want to risk telephoning Stella out of the blue and perhaps upsetting her, so a card and letter might be the best option - other than no contact at all of course!

Happily for me I received a five-page letter from her almost immediately. It told me of her two children, a girl first then a boy. Both were married with children of their own, so Stella was now a grandma, which although no surprise to me I now felt a little dejected. I still had this picture of her in my mind of when we used to be together. Stupid of course, but then I am quite stupid in many ways!

I then telephoned her. Alfred answered the phone and he too seemed happy enough about my searching them out. After a brief chat he called Stella to the phone. My heart was pounding now. She sounded exactly as I remembered her voice as when we had our daily phone chats all those years ago. It was such an amazing thing to hear her speak my name again and we talked for a good half-hour or more.

We continued to keep in touch, mainly by phone, for the next couple of years. I then asked if it would be possible to meet up once more. And she said yes! I asked my wife what she thought about this and although she was dubious she was also intrigued and she went along with it. We would have to drive from Scotland to just outside Croydon but I didn't care.

The meeting was nice enough, but somehow it was something I should not have suggested. Stella was totally unrecognisable now. Everything about her had changed. Her dark brown hair was now white; her slender figure was now "plump"; she also seemed much shorter than I thought. Still, at last I had met her again. It was a delight to speak to Alfred again; he was one of nature's true gentlemen. I asked him if he recalled his question to me, back in 1951. He said he didn't - but I'm sure he did!

We stayed for about four hours or so and then said our goodbyes and made our way to a B&B we had booked for the night. I never suggested meeting up again although I did make regular phone calls to Stella over the next few years. As we became more comfortable and frank during those phone calls I asked Stella how my letter back in 1952 had affected her. She said she was heart-broken. She told me that when she was called into the director's office to take a letter one day she just started to cry; she made out she had a cold when her boss asked her what the trouble was. I was so much more ashamed of my cowardice when she told me this.

After a while Stella's husband fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus; within months he was dead. This shattered poor Stella and she too became ill. Her daughter kept me fully updated on her illness, which started with Parkinson's disease and then tragically into a severe form of Alzheimer's. Stella moved into her daughter's home for a few months but eventually a nursing home had to be found as the stress of looking after her rapidly deteriorating mother became too onerous.

I stilled phoned Stella when she was in the nursing home but by now she had no idea to whom she was speaking. One day I asked her what she'd been doing today. She said: "I've had a lovely day. Just come back from having tea with mum and dad..."
Her parents had died many years earlier of course, but as long as Stella was in a dream world and happy to be living in the past I had no option but to accept a situation that could not be changed.

After four months in this nursing home, where Stella was well looked after according to her daughter, Stella was admitted to hospital with a stomach problem. She was discharged after a couple of days, apparently now quite well. Then two days later I had a phone call from one of her granddaughters; Stella had died suddenly. It was all over. It seems she had a terrible pain whilst having her lunch, collapsed and passed away.

I was shocked and saddened, but next day when I spoke with her daughter, the reality was that it was a blessed relief. She had Parkinsons, Lewy Body disease (for which there is no cure) and a twisted gut problem. Stella was now released from all of these horrendous problems.

Occasionally I still have that dream where I see Stella walking towards me outside Kennards, which, like Stella, no longer exists. The story of Stella ends here.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A "Dear Stella" Letter

Christmas 1951 has been and gone. It was not a happy time for me as next month, January 1952, would be one of the worst birthdays I'd ever have.

Having lied to Stella about my age she would be expecting me to be 18 and then to be called up for National Service. In fact, I would be 17, Stella is 23, and with a full year ahead of me before I would have to don a military uniform of some sort. I had to make a decision: should I make up some story about deferment of National Service or come clean? Either way would be squirmingly difficult.

My evening at Jimmy Quinn's Dance Studio in mid-January was going to be my last. I had made that decision as I travelled on the bus from my home in Kensington Avenue to Biddulph Road South Croydon. I was feeling unhappy and uncomforable and this melancholy was further enhanced as the class ended when a chap who regularly attended the classes came across to Stella and me just before we left. He asked me a question: "Would you mind if I took Stella out now and again when you are called up?"

What a question! It came right out of the blue and was totally unexpected. This chap, Alfred G, was slightly taller than me and was about 25-ish. He lived in Coulsdon and worked in the family business of shop blind supply and fitting. He was a nice enough chap; polite and even a little shy it seemed to me.

I was quite taken aback by his question. I mumbled something about 'I guess that is OK if Stella wouldn't mind ..." or something like that. I was so stunned I cannot recall exactly what I said. Alfred smiled and said "Thanks...cheerio then" and off he went back to Coulsdon.

Stella and I strolled back to her house in Brantwood Road and I was feeling quite awful. I did not linger as long as usual that evening. I kissed her goodnight three times and then said I had to try and get a bus home tonight and so she got her key out and went indoors. I got home much earlier than usual and made my mind up as to my course of action: I'd confess that I'd lied.

The term "young and foolish" fitted me exactly then. I could also add "coward" to that term. I just knew I'd never be able to face Stella after my admission about my real age, so I wrote a short letter, hence the cowardly bit.

This letter said simply that I was sorry I'd lied and felt so ashamed that I could not see her again. It was my goodbye to my first love. I think Stella was very fond of me, loved me even ... and many years later this would be confirmed. Stella worked as a shorthand typist for a firm of leather merchants in London Bridge and every lunchtime I would phone her and talk about "little nothings" for twenty minutes or so, using the phone in Charrington's accounts office. I just loved talking to her; to hear her voice. This would all be a thing of the past now. No more phone calls, no more dancing, or cinemas, or walks on Sunday afternoons across Riddlesdown, or Coulsdon or any other place. My letter ended my first love affair, an affair that never involved anything more than caresses, kisses and a deep feeling of love.

I was utterly lonely and ashamed. It was the worst time of my life for quite a while. I longed to see Stella again but hadn't the courage to face her. I dreamt of her every night and it was so real. I would see her approaching me outside Kennards and she'd smile and walk on by. This was a strangely recurrent dream too, never varying. I just wanted her to say my name, or just say hello in my dream but no; she just walked on by.

Eventually I started going to a dance, mainly on Saturday evenings. There were plenty of places to go and I was never short of a dance partner, but it just wasn't the same, by a long chalk. I steered clear of The Orchid for a few months just in case Stella and Mavis, and maybe Alfred, were there. Much as I yearned to see her face again I knew my courage would desert me again should our paths cross.

I'll skip through the rest of 1952 as most of it is a bit of a blur. Various young ladies would dance with me but none of them meant anything other than a dance partner and I cannot even recall a single name of any of them.

My love life was ended but my now ordinary and lonesome life had to go on.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Is Honesty the Best Policy in Matters of the Heart?

Ever since seeing Jimmy Quinn and Patricia Teare demonstrating the foxtrot at the Orchid Ballroom earlier this year I was determined to have a similar suit made one day. This suit would cost me an arm and a leg in 1951 and it would be partly financed by a loan from the resident nurse at the firm I was working for: Charringtons Bottled Beer Depot in Bensham Lane.

She was a small and very friendly lady of about 50 or so and was always referred to as "Sister" Warne. Whether or not she had been a "sister" in a hospital was neither here nor there but this is how all staff addressed her. She was Irish and a really kindly person. I was just a clerk in the offices here but there were scores of people, mainly female, working in the bottling factory. Now and then an accident, usually involving exploding beer bottles and broken glass, would have need of medical attention and our dear Sister Warne dealt with such incidents with calm skill and professionalism.

I told Sister of my love of dancing and all about Stella. I said I had saved up a few pounds towards a new suit I planned to have made. "How much will it cost you?" she once asked me. I said about 20 guineas or so. "And how much have you got so far?" asked Sister W. "About half-way there I reckon..." I said. A couple of days later Sister came into the room where we had our morning tea break and asked me to come to her office. I had no idea what she wanted but I followed her to her workplace. She then handed me ten £1 notes, pressing them into my hand with a kindly smile, saying "Pay me back when you can afford it. Go ahead and buy your suit!"

To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Nobody had ever been so kind and thoughtful like this before. Sister Warne was a real treasure and presumably was a middle-aged romantic; I don't really know. She was quite a religious lady, catholic I think, and she was just a happy person and everybody liked her. She never said anything about herself and as far as I knew she had never been married.

Anyway, I accepted her kind offer and promised to repay her as soon as I could. She said there was "no hurry", and she meant it.

The new suit I'd promised myself to have made was now finished. It was made by a tailor situated above a shop in the London Road West Croydon, almost opposite Marks and Spencers. He was a very meticulous man and, so he said, was tailor to both Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise - but he offered no proof of that.

I chose a mid-blue 15 oz material and it took two fittings before the tailor was satisfied with the fit. I had made it quite clear to him that I needed it to be exactly the right length in the jacket, so that when I was "in hold" on the dance floor the jacket would hang in as perfect a "V" shape at the back as possible. He understood perfectly and he made an excellent job of it.

This new suit was only worn when going dancing and for special occasions, like a birthday party. I kept it in as pristine condition as possible, not wanting to sit about in it, creasing it up or risking marking it in any way. It seemed to give me more confidence on the dance floor. It's amazing how that simply thinking one looks good makes one actually feel very good. It may be "all in the mind" but as long as it works for you ... so what!

What's all this got to do with honesty? Well, time had fled by so quickly in the latter half of 1951 I was now in a real quandary. National Service! Because of my adding a year to my real age it meant that I would be 18 in the coming January in 1952. And if you were 18, with very few exceptions, you would be called up to spend two years in the armed forces. In fact, of course, I would be only 17 in January.

If I were to explain why I was not being called up it would involve making up some story or other; more lies, and this time they would not be so "white". This was something that worried me more and more as the days and weeks went by. What would I do to extricate myself from this impending doom. What indeed.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Palaces of Romance, or The Cinemas of Croydon

In the 1940s and 1950s Croydon boasted some of the best cinemas in the UK. The Davis Theatre had the largest seating capacity for decades and was probably the finest cinema/theatre I have ever been in. A truly magnificent building both inside and out it was demolished in the late 1950s and replaced by some nondescript pile of drabness - a disastrous loss to Croydon!

Other cinemas of note were The Savoy in Broad Green, The State Cinema (later The Granada) in Thornton Heath, The Regal and The Astoria, both in Purley. These were well-designed and comfortable places, with The Savoy being the earliest of my cinema memories. The Savoy was almost opposite Hathaway Road, thus being a couple of minutes walk from my home. It was almost on the corner of Sumner Road, where there was a café on the actual corner, then a sweet shop and then the Savoy. Adjoining the Savoy, during the war, there was the Civic Restaurant where I sometimes had a very cheap midday meal. I remember the plates they used for us kids; they had a picture printed on the plate which encouraged you to clean the plate entirely to see what the picture was. Not that I ever needed any encouragement to clean every morsel from the plate! Young boys usually have gargantuan appetites and with rationing in place food was never wasted, (although I hated cod liver oil, yuk).

There were many smaller cinemas, such as The Eros and The Odeon in West Croydon, The Palladium on the corner of Surrey St., and Scarbrook Road, The Hippodrome in Church Street and, of course the wonderful little CLASSIC in South Croydon. This last named cinema will forever have a place in my heart and I'll tell you why (but please keep this to yourself, especially if my wife is around!).

In October 1951 Stella and I were cosily esconced in the dark back seats of the Classic. I was now a bit bolder than earlier as we'd been "going steady" for a few months and we had spent many hours in Stella's doorway porch kissing and hugging for far too long after an evening out. Stella is seated next to me with my left arm around her shoulder. Now and then her face would tilt towards me and we gently kissed in the darkness. And then it happened!

Stella slowly guided me left arm from her shoulder, under her own left arm and pressed my hand on her breast. This was the most exhilarating experience of my life at that point. We kissed, passionately, with my hand caressing her left breat as though time had stopped. It was unbelievably wonderful; a never-to-be-forgotten moment.

Of course, I was an inexperienced chap in those days. Wouldn't have dreamed, or dared, to have fondled a girl's breasts then, even though the temptation was usually quite strong. Things seem to go a lot faster today in the dating and sexual exploits of the youngsters but in my day we seemed, generally, to be more restrained. Anyway, from that point onwards our lingerings in the porch, or elsewhere, now included the fondling and caressing of Stella's bosom. One of my favourite actions was to stand behind her, nibbling at her neck and ear, whilst holding both her breasts. Always through her clothing, never inside her blouse or cardigan etc. And that is the extent of our fondles! Nothing further. No wandering below the waist, or stroking the thighs and stuff like that. Whether Stella wanted me to venture further I know not. Possibly she did, but being such a gauche or unpolished lover-boy, I just didn't feel it right to risk such a thing as groping "down below". So now you know. Keep this secret. I wouldn't want anybody else to know all this!

We went to the cinema about once every week or ten days. I remember one film in particular, at the Regal in Purley: "An American in Paris", starring the talented actor and dancer Gene Kelly and Georges Guetary singing "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" - which fitted my mood perfectly as I felt I'd already entered Paradise.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Folly of a Young (Smitten) Croydon Boy

We were now introduced to the foxtrot at Jimmy Quinn's Dance School in Biddulph Road, South Croydon. This was supposed to be the most difficult of all the ballroom dances but I did not find it so. It is definitely the best of the four main dances in my opinion, with the tango a close second.

Stella and Mavis were already in the hall waiting for the class to begin tonight's lessons. It was a great evening and would become moreso later on.

The class ended a bit later than usual with Jimmy Quinn and Patricia Teare demonstrating the finer points of the foxtrot. As everybody started to leave I latched on to Stella, ready to walk her home; it was only a short walk from the dance hall to her house in Brantwood Road, probably no more than 500 yards or so. Mavis accompanied us until we turned off the Brighton Road into Brantwood Road where she gave a wink and a smile as she said goodnight and went on her way.

As Stella and I strolled arm in arm up Brantwood Road she asked me when my birthday was and I told her the truth: 19th January. She waited, obviously wondering what birthday that would be. At this moment I made the stupid decision to tell a silly white lie. I said I was seventeen now and would be 18 in about 6 months time. Why I did this I still don't really know. Probably I thought that narrowing the age gap by a year or so would be somehow more acceptable to her. Anyway, I could not bring myself to admit I was a mere 16 year old; I just could not do that.

Stella seemed quite surprised when she heard my lie; obviously she assumed I was older than 17 but she merely accepted the situation. We arrived at her house which was situated opposite the South Croydon Recreation Ground, a pleasantly small parkland through which we would often stroll in days to come. We stood in the porchway of her house, just holding hands and whispering to each other so as not to disturb anybody in her house. And then I kissed her. Properly, this time, full on the lips that I'd longed to kiss ever since I first danced with her. Stella seemed to melt in my arms. I kissed her again and yet again. I now knew I was in love for the very first time.

Stella was thus my first love and the first love of one's life never fades. Other loves may come along but the first is so strong in one's psyche and one's soul as to be indestructible. It was thus for me and I'm sure it is the same for the majority of people.

This evening was the start of something totally new and bewitching for me. The way Stella responded it appeared to be reciprocated in much the same way. I had a fear of rejection when I first kissed her but that fear was unfounded. This evening would also be one of many where I lingered far too long with my first love; far too long so that I missed the last bus home.

Walking home, late at night, was something I got used to. It was a long way back to Kensington Avenue in Thornton Heath from Brantwood Road South Croydon! I would have to trek along the Brighton Road, past the Red Deer pub, then further on The Swan and SugarLoaf pub, along South End and into North End and the High Street. On and on passing Kennards on my left, Grants and Allders on the right, then the Eros and Odeon cinemas and across Station Road and past West Croydon Railway Station with The Fox and Hounds pub opposite. Pressing on, past Croydon General Hospital with The Co-op stores and West Croydon Methodist Church on the other side of the London Road. Soon I'd be passing Nova Road and my old Hathaway Road, with the Savoy Cinema opposite. Across St.James's Road and past the Star Pub and the Rising Moon, the road seemed endless - but I was walking on air and didn't mind at all. Next was Mayday Road and I knew it would not be too long before I came to Thornton Heath Pond, which to me in those 1951 days was like an oasis. Why an oasis? Because of old Joe's tea and sandwich stall at the Pond.

Joe and one assistant used to open his stall late in the evenings. I don't really know if he ever opened during the day as the only time I ever sampled his offerings were usually after midnight! Joe was an old salt, a sailor of years earlier who now served up tea and his speciality sausage sandwiches. This was all I ever bought from Joe's stall and both items were simply great. The tea was served in a half-pint mug and the sandwich was white bread with fried sausage-meat and brown sauce filling. Hot and delicious, just what this young late-night traveller needed to spur him on to the last leg of his homeward journey. Joe's little establishment was always busy whenever I arrived there yet his service was excellent; he must have been one of the first "fast food" outlets in those days. A big burly character, very friendly and efficient and obviously a popular watering hole.

After about ten or fifteen minutes enjoying Joe's wares I would continue on the last lap of my long walk home. I don't really know how many miles I had to walk back home but I guess it would be something around 6 miles or thereabouts. But I don't regret one yard of it.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Change Partners

My regular visits to Jimmy Quinn's ballroom dance classes were taking over my whole life. I thought of little else and the time seemed to drag until it was time to catch the bus to South Croydon from our new abode: 45, Kensington Avenue, Thornton Heath. Yes, we'd moved from Mr. Richman's cramped ground floor flat in Hathaway Road to this nicer 3-bedroom terrace in Kensington Avenue, owned by the Council.

I'd also decided that although Mavis Harmer was a better dance partner than Stella, I much preferred Stella's personality - and so I tended to dance with Stella more often than earlier. And after about three weeks or so of ballroom tuition I asked Stella if she would like to come with me to the Orchid Ballroom in Purley one evening, without Mavis tagging along. She smiled demurely and said yes!

The Orchid was one of the largest dance halls in the UK and a popular venue for dancers of all standards, novices like me right up to top amateurs. There was a revolving orchestra stage and a top class resident dance-band, a full big band sound with good vocalists too. Visiting bands were also great attractions. One of my favourite appearances was the Eric Delaney band, with Eric on the big kettle-drums giving some loud and bouncy solos. We even had Victor Silvester and his strict tempo orchestra there one evening. One night the "Come Dancing" programme was held at the Orchid and I was there to see it all happening. The Frank and Peggy Formation Dance Team was competing against a Northern Counties team and that was always a great crowd pleaser.

Anyway, Stella had agreed to come with me to the Orchid, the first time we had been "out" together and without her friend Mavis. I met Stella at her house in Brantwood Road, South Croydon just before 7 p.m. and we caught a 166 bus to the Orchid, which was near the Purley cinema "The Regal", which, like the Orchid, no longer exists in its former state.

We arrived at the exciting entrance to the Orchid and descended the thickly carpeted staircase to the paybox on the left at the foot of these sumptious stairs. Paid the half-crown entrance fee, Stella insisting on paying for herself (thank goodness!), which left me with just enough to buy a drink at some later point - a soft drink at that! I was still only 16 and a half and wasn't too well off money-wise.

It was a memorable evening. Here I was with my first real girl-friend and I was completely captivated by her. The dance-floor was so inviting as it meant I could hold Stella close and feel her soft body move in unison with me and the music, almost oblivious of the other couples all around us. Her dark brown hair had the delicate fresh scent of having been recently shampooed and gently set is as fresh in my mind as it was all those long gone days ago.

At about 9 p.m. the orchestra was whisked away on the revolving stage and it was announced that a professional demonstration of the foxtrot was being given by none other than James Quinn and Patricia Teare! This again was something that is firmly embedded in my memory. They would be giving their demo to recorded music and would be dressed informally, not the usual tail-suit and ballroom gown. Jimmy Quinn led Patricia to the centre of this vast dancefloor and the music started.

They performed their demo as though they were gliding on a floor made of silk; effortlessly, gracefully and so stylishly it made me wonder how two people could be so perfect, so much "as one" and make it look so easy.

Another thing that struck me was how perfectly cut Jimmy's lounge suit was. As he moved away from my vantage point his jacket seemed to taper down from his shoulders to just below his hips in a sort of "V" shape. I decided at that moment to save up and get a tailor-made suit that would drape exactly like that. No doubt about it, I just had to make that a priority!

The evening seemed to melt away too quickly. Stella said she would have to be home by 11 o'clock at the latest so we left around 10.30 or so to get a bus back to South Croydon. I walked her right to her front door and for ten minutes or so we just chatted about the demo dance and how beautifully it went. I then asked Stella when her birthday would be. She said it had been a few weeks earlier, in May. She had just had her 22nd birthday! To say I was taken aback would be an under-statement; I thought she might have been around 18-ish, but 22!!!! I don't know if she had discerned my shock; I doubt it, but couldn't be sure, I just hoped not.

I gently kissed her cheek and said goodnight and that I'd see her at the dance class in a couple of days. She smiled and said goodnight and then disappeared into her home, leaving me to catch the last bus home to Thornton Heath. All the way home my thoughts were about one thing only: Stella, and the fact that she would be 23 on her next birthday and by then I would be only 17. What to do? I was by now very fond of this girl; probably in love ... if only I knew what love was. I was bound to have to let her know my age soon ...

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Fandango Days and Nights

Jimmy Quinn and the lovely Patricia Teare. These two expert ballroom dancers introduced me to the delights of the tango, foxtrot, quickstep and waltz when I was sixteen-and-a-half.
This photo was taken in 1950, about three years prior to Jimmy's death from a brain tumour. Patricia was about 18 or so and was Jimmy's new partner for teaching and for demo dances at places like the Orchid Ballroom, in Purley, and other ballrooms in the south east.
Their dance studio was in Biddulph Road, South Croydon and it was here, in late June 1951, that I took my first tentative steps into the world of dance. It was a wonderful world then and remains so for me and my wife (also named Patricia!).
I recall that first lesson as though it were yesterday. A cool June evening and I was in my new double-breasted grey birds-eye pattern suit, complete with a pair of patent leather dance pumps, carried in a little linen bag before entering the portals of heaven, also known as the Jimmy Quinn School of Dancing! If heaven exists then this dance studio was paradise to this young Croydon lad. The place was pleasantly populated by a good-looking bevy of young ladies and almost as many young chaps. Probably a ratio of about 10:8 girls:boys, so no complaints from me on that score.
There was quite a heady blend of perfumes in the air with "Evening in Paris" one of the favoured brands and perhaps Violetta de Parma another popular one in those days. After-shave for the lads was not much used then and the only "grooming" for men was usually Brylcreem, which had a pleasant enough aroma I guess.
As is the norm, beginners are first introduced to the waltz, a simple one, two, three step sequence repeated ad lib. Jimmy Quinn instructed the men and Patricia took the ladies through the basic steps. After a short while, probably 10 minutes or so, we were asked to pair up with a girl to practice the hold and then the steps. Yes, heaven existed and it was here on earth in a dance hall in Biddulph Road!
Another 10 minutes or so of inelegant "one, two, three" steps called out by Jimmy we were ready to try it to music. Yes, the gramophone was fired up and a 78 rpm record was spinning on the turntable with "The Tennessee Waltz" providing the strict tempo - played by the one and only Victor Silvester and his ballroom orchestra. This tune remains one of my favourite melodies to this day.
After all this intensive tuition, (well, it seemed intensive to me!) it was time for a nice cuppa tea, provided by the lovely Patricia Teare wearing her tea and biscuits hat. This gave us all the chance to chat amongst ourselves - and I chanced my arm with Stella, the girl with whom I'd practised the waltz; she was with her friend Mavis. It was a somewhat diffident, even timid, approach by me as it was all so new and exciting but also a tad scary. Fortunately, both these ladies were polite and friendly; I danced with each of them in the second half of the lesson, but much favoured Stella.
The class ended at 9.30-ish and everybody made their way out of the hall. Stella and Mavis lived only a short walk away from their homes but I had a bus journey to get back to Hathaway Road, Broad Green. I said cheerio to them at the bus stop in the main road and they went on their way home, saying that they'd be at the next lesson, which was music to my ears.
How would this new and enthralling venture progress; I could hardly wait for the next lesson!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Dance Me to the Start of Love

Fast forward a few years to 1949. Left Lanfranc Secondary Modern School at 14 and a bit. No GCSE's were around then, just a "school leaving certificate". Don't remember actually having one of these but never mind.

My first job was as an apprentice plumber for A.C. Whyte Ltd of Whitehorse Road in Croydon; he was a general builder outfit. I was taken on as an apprentice but in reality I was just a plumber's mate. Stan, the plumber, was a very good plumber and generally a great chap; we got on very nicely. He taught me how to "wipe a joint" with a moleskin pad and molten lead; how to join iron pipes by tapping a thread and linking them that way and various other plumbing skills. Not like today's easy-peasy copper tubing, plastic tubing and compression joints; oh no, it was all a real skill in those days.

I was due to sign a 7 year apprenticeship agreement after the 6 months trial. However, I found this type of manual labour somewhat exhausting at times but more importantly it was very low wages: 30/- (or £1.50) a week - much lower than most of my peers and friends were earning! And £1 of my wages was handed over to my mother each Friday evening. So, when it was time for me to sign the apprenticeship papers I ducked out. Mr. Whyte, the owner of the business, was quite furious and asked me why I'd waited for six months before chucking it in. I said it was better to decide now than in, say, another six months and just left it at that.

It was dead easy to get another job in those days and I immediately got taken on in a laundry, operating a massive spin-dryer machine into which all the bags of laundered material were loaded. It was known as "bag-wash" and was the cheapest form of laundry. All the clothing and stuff was packed into a large cotton bag by the customer at home, collected by a van, stuck straight into a large washing machine and then put into the spin dryer. These wet bags of laundry had to be placed equally around this spin-dryer (it looked like a big steel roundabout you see at kids playgrounds). If it was not properly loaded it would start spinning and then shudder and jolt around and had to be stopped and reloaded. Anyway, this was a dead-end job but it paid three times the money I'd been earning as a trainee plumber!

Didn't last too long in the steamy atmosphere of the laundry and got a job as a "van boy" with the Direct Potato Supply Company of Thornton Heath. This firm delivered sacks of spuds to houses and I was the driver's van boy, loading and off-loading the sacks of spuds. We also used to deliver "chicken potatoes" to small-holders in hundred-weight sacks. These were cheaper, slightly rotten, spuds. Pay was a flat rate plus "tonnage" which was a sort of bonus or extra pay according to how much weight in spuds you managed to flog that day. Not too bad a job; out on the road, no boss breathing down your neck - suited me ... for about 3 months!

Cut through a few more unskilled jobs and ended up working at West Croydon Railway Station in the ticket and left luggage office. Quite loved it there; I have always loved the trains and railway stations and this was a pleasant little station to work in. After a couple of months I went on a booking office course at Clapham Junction for six weeks. It was an interesting and enjoyable time and I passed the final exams with flying colours. However, I was informed that there was no vacancy in either West or East Croydon stations for a booking office clerk and I was packed off to REDHILL, quite a few miles away, to work on rolling stock returns! Rolling stock returns, what a miserable and boring job that was. Working entirely alone in an old railway coach in the backyards of Redhill railway station, with just a phone in the "office". I stood it for a fortnight and jacked it in.

Immediately got a job as a day-book clerk in the offices of Charringtons, the brewers, in Thornton Heath. There were nine of us working in this Dickensian style office, all perched on high stools at a long sloping desk. I had a massive "day book" into which I had to enter all the invoices for the various pubs we supplied bottled beer to in the greater Croydon districts. All the entries were made with a school-type nibbed pen and ink and had to be in neat, almost copper plate handwriting. I stayed there until early January 1953, when I joined the RAF.

What's all this got to do with the title of this piece: Dance ..... Love.. Well, in mid 1951 I started to take ballroom dance lessons. I was sixteen-and-a-half, and seldom been kissed! I thought this was the best way to meet a girl. And I was right. What a girl too, the first of the few I have to say.

More details in the next blog...

Sunday, 10 May 2009

I Sparred with Albert Finch!

Now 12, I began to learn the noble art of boxing.

Mark Hart was a good boxer, as were other stall-holders in Surrey Street market. One of our best boxers, Albert Finch, became British middleweight champion in early 1950. Perhaps his most notable fight was against Randolph Turpin in 1948 when he was the first boxer to beat Turpin. The fight was at the Albert Hall and Finch won on points, over 8 hard round.

I joined Sir Philip Games Boys Club to be taught how to box properly. Sir Philip was the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at the time and previously was a much respected officer in the army and later the RAF.

In addition to training at the Boys Club I sometimes went the "The Gun" pub in Church Street, Croydon, to train in the gymnasium at the rear of the pub. This was where many of the popular Croydon boxers would train, including Alby Finch, Ron Pudney and others. It was in The Gun's gym that I once spent a couple of minutes gently sparring with Albert Finch! Obviously, Alby had to be very careful not to land a real blow on me as he would have probably killed me. He simply tried to give me some professional advice as to how to move, how to stay out of range and keep moving all the time. A lovely chap, greatly admired by all who knew him.

I was fairly tall for my age and used to have to box as a light-heavyweight in the junior ranks. I had three amateur contests, losing them all on points. I gave up entering competitions after that as I knew my heart was not really inclined to bashing another kid up. I carried on with the training sessions at the Boys Club mainly to keep fit and enjoy the social side of it. Great days - 1947 to 1950 - which were to become even greater in 1951, but in a much more romantic way....

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Earning a Few Bob : Surrey Street Market

The war is ended. Adolf is dead. There are street parties for the kids and families are re-united. It is a memorable time, but hopefully we shall never have such celebrations again.

I'm now aged 11 and failed the infamous 11-plus school exams at Elmwood. Never mind, I didn't care. Lanfranc Boys School, the local secondary-modern for all exam failures was OK by me. It was a tough school and I had to walk the two or three miles there each morning and back home again in the evening, come rain or come shine. Nobody that I knew were driven to school by their mum or dad; cars were for the rich. In Hathaway Road there was only one car, a black Vauxhall. I remember it well; it had those sort of long rounded grooves along the bonnet, one each side running from the nose grill up to the windscreen area of the bonnet. The owner was a business owner of some sort and presumably needed the car for work.

I hated school, especially sport and PE. Pocket money as a kid was non-existent. If you wanted money you had to earn it. I tried most things, such as going around the streets with a bucket and small shovel collecting horse droppings. Hawked it around a few houses to sell a bucket-full for whatever I could get. Bluebell picking was another little earner during the season, selling a few bunches to the lady of the house ... any house! Chopping up firewood kindling, using wood found on bomb sites, bundling it up and flogging it house to house. But ... my main earner was working for coster-mongers/stall-holders in Croydon's Surrey Street Market! Wonderful stuff.

Every Saturday and throughout the school holidays I would work in the sorting sheds where the traders had their fruit and veg stored for sorting. Tomatoes, plums, pears, cauliflowers and anything else that was being flogged by the stall-holder. I would work for anybody who needed a lad to do this sorting and transporting the "good" stuff from the shed to the stall. Mr. Toohig, Mr. Hart and a couple of others were my main employers. Wages were roughly 5 shillings a day, or 25p in this new-fangled money! Five bob, a fortune to an 11-year old kid. I didn't mind sorting the rotten tomatoes from the good ones, often getting through dozens of boxes a day; a day which could be as long as 12 hours in busy times.

When I had enough "good" tomatoes or whatever ready for the stall I had to load them onto a long barrow, a barrow with large cartwheels and two long handles, and then push this load up the slippery cobbled alleway leading from the shed to the main street where the stalls were. It was a heavy load to get up the slope from the shed and then there was the shopping crowd to get through. Hollering: "Mind yer back please, mind yer backs..." I would somehow get the barrow-full of stuff to the stall-holder, probably getting told off for not being quick enough! Still, the promise of 5/- at the end of the day was worth it all.

I used to forfeit some of my expected wages in a little café, situated in the middle of Surrey Street, to have a mid-day lunch (or dinner, as we serfs called it in the 1940s). Sometimes I would spend up to a quarter of my wages in this "kaff" but I loved it in there. The lady who owned it made lovely grub, especially her College Pudding! She trusted me to pay up as soon as work was done; lovely person.

Apart from Surrey Street Market I used to earn some cash from our landlord, a Mr. Richman, who had a large and beautiful detached house in Lodge Road, not far from our house. He was a small Jewish man who owned a vast number of properties, mainly houses but also a block of flats in St. Jame's Road. His name was very fitting: he must have been a VERY rich man. He and his wife lived alone in their detached house and I sometimes did a little weeding and stuff in the beautiful back garden. But property maintenance was what he employed me for in the main. If one of his tenants reported a missing or slipped slate he would drive a van to the house and erect a ladder to the roof. He showed me how to nail a bit of strip lead to a roof batten, slide a slate into place and hook the lead strip over the bottom to keep it in place. He would hold the ladder while I scampered up to roof and fix the slate! Health and safety would have a fit nowadays, but at a shilling a time I didn't mind. He also had some painting jobs for me now and again which I did not like too much - mainly because he would always find something wrong with the finished job and refuse to pay the full amount promised. He would not get away with that now, but in those days you just took whatever you could.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

DoodleBugs, V2 Rockets and the Anderson Shelter

Back home in Hathaway Road, Croydon and a new phase in the war: the terror weapons.

Adolf was now changing tack. He wants to scare we Brits into submission with his new V-weapons: V for Vengeance weapons. Night after night the sirens would wail and we all scuttle out of our warm(ish) beds into the dark and chill night, heading for the Anderson shelter, dug into our back garden by Dad and neighbours. Frequently, the earth floor of the shelter would have a couple of inches of water on it and the canvas bunk beds were damp and uncomfortable. Seldom would we actually go to sleep in these corrugated steel hovels; their main comfort was our faith that we were safer in them than in our house. I wonder if it would have made much difference had one of those V1s had hit our place? Had a V2 struck the house then the Anderson shelter would have also been blown to kingdom come!

After a while we gave up our scampering into the dank environs of the garden shelter and simply cowered in our beds. Listening to the staccato or spluttering jet engine of the doodlebug, knowing we were safe as long as the engine didn't cut out. If it did, as frequently happened, we just hoped it would not drop on our house!

One night we had our closest shave with death and disaster: a V2 rocket had hit Spurgeons Bridge, about a thousand yards from our house. The frightening blast of this monstrous weapon shook us - physically and mentally. You got no warning that these deadly rockets were coming. The first you knew was when they exploded like an earthquake, shaking the foundations of everything nearby the point of impact. Terror weapons par excellence, no doubt about that!

Croydon had more V1 hits than any other town or city in England. Fortunately, the RAF spitfires and also the heavy artillery guns destroyed a good number of these flying bombs before they got too far inland otherwise I might not now be tapping out this blog!

This was Hitler's final throw of the dice; his vengeance weapons lasted a relatively short time and soon the war would be over. But it would still be a hard life for some years to come.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Brother Geoff has Died

For some months now my dear brother Geoff has been fighting a brave, but losing battle against cancer. On Thursday morning, 30 April 2009, Geoff slipped away at 5 a.m. and is now at peace. If there is a god then thank you for ending the pain and indignity that this terrible disease inflicted upon him.