Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter II Feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square

There must have been a lot of talk about our moving to England but I don’t remember any of it. At 13, my sister must have pleaded with my mother for her to come to her senses. My mother had been encouraged by her professor at U.S.C. to apply for a U.S. government grant to help finance the completion of her doctoral thesis at Cambridge University; together with a paid sabbatical from the Los Angeles Unified School District and continuing child support from Gordon, she might actually be better off financially in England. Certainly, this was a chance to let her husband Arthur clean up the Anaheim mess and leave
Even though I was always very sharp at geography, peering at maps, I had no real sense of the 
enormous distance England was from California in those days. To save money, the trip was 
split in two : we would fly American Airlines to Idylwild (now Kennedy airport) in New York. From there we would board the Holland American liner Nieuw Amsterdam in Hoboken and set sail for Southampton, England.
Neither my mother nor her travel agent was much of a planner as my mother had the idea that upon arriving in New York late one evening we would simply ride around in a taxi and sight-see 
all night until it was time to board across the Hudson in Hoboken. For protection my mother had 
brought Soakie along to be our housekeeper in Britain, which was sort of extraordinary as the 
English middle classes had done without household servants for 2 generations. I believe the 
understanding taxi driver invited us into his house. It was not to be the last time that my mother
played the helpless female.
What an extraordinary experience it was to sail aboard one of those transatlantic liners! And for a child, a hundred times so. Imagine being able to order anything off the menu for a youngster 
whose biggest treat hitherto had been eating homemade tacos. I ran all over the ship, had the 
rude shock of tasting sea water in the ship’s indoor swimming pool and soon, I was making myself useful, working for tips, cleaning the ashtrays in one of the ship’s bars. Those Dutchmen were so kind. Years later, I had a homecoming of sorts when I traveled with my then wife Anja on a more modern Nieuw Amsterdam on an Alaskan itinerary out of Vancouver, British Columbia. There were still a few Dutch officers but now the impeccable service was performed by a mainly Indonesian and Filipino crew.
After something like 5 days aboard ship, we arrived at Southampton. Upon disembarking, it was if we had stepped back into history. Everything seemed so old in comparison with California. The boat train to Waterloo station in London could have just as easily been from Edwardian days, pre-war days, pre World War I or as the British called it, The Great War.
There was the smell. The dankness of the English climate mixed in with old tobacco which
permeated the upholstered second class carriages in which we settled ourselves for the sprint to
the Capital. We were not to stay in London, merely to change termini en route to Cambridge. 
Laden with steamer trunks (which were de rigeur for travelers of that recent era), the transfer was to be made by taxi of which 2 were required due to our numbers, 4 children and 2 adults.
Someone must have had the bright idea of our doing some real sightseeing on the way to
Liverpool Street station. Veering off-course, we came to Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column,
that symbol of British imperial resolve. We piled out into the square and posed for pictures, the
three boys sporting American style crew-cuts. For once, it was a brilliant , fine August day. 
Everything was so different in Britain, the food, the way the British drove, the endless cups of tea.  Feeding the pigeons, that controlled mayhem, was not something done at Disneyland. We saw no fast food restaurants, we felt we had indeed arrived in a totally alien world with a common language. Except we were the aliens. 
If London had seemed like time had stopped still with its soot infused buildings, still awaiting a
good clean, Cambridge was like some maiden, scrubbed clean waiting for her invitation to the ball.  Americans were hardly strangers in town; there were several U.S. Air Force bases in the vicinity and the disparity in 1962 incomes between the austere English and the flashy Yanks made for interesting times in the dance halls and school playgrounds. Yes, my siblings and I found ourselves almost immediately thrust into school uniforms and into the late Victorian school system of Cambridge. 
My mother had rented an Edwardian semi-detached house, 17 de Freville Avenue, off the
Chesterton Road, some 400 yards from the banks of the river Cam, the sedate tributary of the river Ouse which bisected the ancient city. I believed our rent was ten pounds a week, certainly no more than fifteen. I’ll never forget that our landlord, the linguist Joseph Cremona, was prepared to accept a paltry 4500 pounds for the freehold a year later in 1963. But such an offer was not to be forthcoming from our family!
We had extremely tolerant neighbors, the Howards on the other side of the brick wall that dissected our abode. It was a large enough house that I was actually given my own room, a small back bedroom on the first floor (second storey). For all its 5 bedrooms, the house had 2 toilets, one indoors, the other an outhouse, a very rude shock for those from the modern suburbs of California.  What probably turned my mother against snapping up the bargain of her life was the house’s lack of central heating and an iffy, at best, hot water heater. The lack of forced air heating or radiators was almost to cost me my life.
As a prelude to the harshest winter in living memory, Cambridge went through a cold snap,
accompanied by snow in November 1962. Naturally we made full use of the provided heating
devices, in certain rooms, gas heaters where coal once burned in bricked up fireplaces. These
were supplemented by electric heaters, the single and double coil variety. I made the inopportune acquaintance of one of these in Soakie’s room; in positioning what appeared to be a heater in the off condition, I found out that the entire apparatus was live and conducting a full 240 volts through my hand, throbbing throughout my body. Some time transpired before someone managed to hear my cries of agony and unplug the ghastly appliance. My hand had been severely burnt, down the front of the index finger almost from its tip to the base of my right hand and for good measure there was a patch of seared flesh across four knuckles on the obverse side.
A stay in Addenbrooke’s hospital was mandated; the healing process would be long and not
rushed by the author.
My sister was the first to rebel; normally a quiescent sort, she found the girls’ Grammar School an elaborate torture thrust upon her with its fecal brown uniforms, unbending discipline and perhaps, strangest of all, no boys. For a girl brought up on a diet of American Bandstand and the left-over 50’s culture of soda fountains and drive in diners, it was as though she had been cast back to the Stone Age of education. The solution was simple : Kathy would spend several hours each day riding a chartered bus to and from the American high school located at R.A.F. Lakenheath, in reality, an U.S. installation.
How my mother managed that, I am not sure. It must have helped that she had a part-time job
teaching for the external program of the University of Maryland at one or other of the bases.
For some reason, neither my mother nor my sister seemed able to visit the PX, the Post Exchange, an elaborate U.S. style supermarket located on the bases. It may have been because they were expected to show i.d. indicating dependent status; for a little 9 year old with a crew-cut, I had free run of the base at Alconbury, north of Huntingdon, some 20 miles from Cambridge. Armed with dollar bills from my mother’s stash (this was an era when Britons were restricted to just 50 pounds of foreign currency per substantiated foreign trip), I would catch United Counties Bus number 151, destination, the cathedral city of Peterborough. Alighting short, right at the base’s main gate, I would stroll in nonchalantly, looking 100% an U.S. Air Force brat. Furnished with a shopping list by our housekeeper Soakie, I would make the required purchases of items absolutely impossible to purchase in the English stores and at absurdly low, subsidized prices. Never in a rush, I would buy all the U.S. candy I could possibly want and then stroll over to the bowling alley and amuse myself by dusting off my former skills at hurtling the heavy black sphere down the polished alley. There were bowling alleys in Britain but none in staid Cambridge, the closest in Stevenage New Town, a half hour away by train. 
These weekend jaunts had to have been a welcome relief from the drudgery that was school that
year. I was assigned to Mr. Plant’s class, the “B” stream, at Brunswick Junior School. Buster was
placed in the year above me at the same school; Randy stayed on our side of the river and
attended Milton Road Junior School. The first lesson learned from Mr. Plant was the meaning of
sarcasm. The second was the teacher who wields a stick wins all arguments.
Mr. Plant saw it as his academic duty to belittle his charges. After all, this was the “B” stream and none of us would be expected to pass the 11 plus examination to be sat the following year. As
failures at 11, we would be shunted off to the secondary modern school, that scrap heap of English scholastic hopes , expected to finish school at 15 and covet any job paying more than five pounds a week. In Locus Parentis, or should I say, In Locus Deo, Mr. Plant never hesitated
to inflict physical pain on a wayward 9 year old. At our supervised school lunches, the various
teachers all showed they shared Mr. Plant’s creed as they bullied me into eating in the English
style, i.e. holding the fork in the left hand, knife in the right. Growing up in California eating fresh vegetables, my first experience with English canned peas had me retching; the ill-prepared
rhubarb followed.
Back in the classroom was the continuing ordeal of learning to write with a poor man’s quill pen,
fueling it from an inkwell. “Not to Blot One’s Copybook” was not a figure of speech in 1962, it was
an imperative.
No wonder then that I saw my near electrocution as providing a rich dividend in not having to
bother with writing any longer in class. And how could Mr. Plant rap the knuckles of a one-
handed cripple? I had him stymied. Or so I thought.
Using some pretext or other, I was offered the chance at escape from the hell of Mr. Plant’s class.  I assumed I would be elevated to the “A” stream; after all, I wasn’t stupid, just an American.  But I was soon made aware of the equivalency of my qualifications: I was invited to join the “C” stream, the bottom rung on the ladder, where those “thick as a brick” were housed.
And so I entered paradise. My new teacher, a younger man whose name now totally escapes me,
could not swat a fly. He exuded love and compassion to his boys and girls. He made it easy for
me to make the transition from the very different American dialect and its variant spellings to
gaining a working knowledge of the Queen’s English.
Cambridge now became a magical place to grow up. 
We had converted the downstairs reception rooms into bedrooms. The attic became our TV room; of course, in the England of 1962, there were just 2 channels, ITV and BBC, as opposed to the 8 or so in the Los Angeles area. The attic had a skylight through which we could peer at the night sky.  Facing to the north, towards Milton Road, we soon realized that on certain mid-week nights between 7 and 9 p.m., bright lights would shine in the near distance. Upon further investigation, we discovered that these were the new flood lights at one of the two local professional football (soccer) clubs, Cambridge City F.C., playing in the premier division of the Southern League.  It was only a matter of time before I saw an actual match being played on a Saturday afternoon, together with 4,000 other spectators. I had never seen football played before but I took to it straight away.
The city of Cambridge itself is a jewel of medaevial and renaissance architecture. The most alive I remember the city was at the traditional parade held early each November to raise charity for
English war veterans. The students would pour all their energy into creating a fantastic atmosphere using the city centre as a backdrop for their manic antics.
There must have been an announcement by the Mr. Chips look-alike headmaster at morning
assembly : would those boys interested in singing in the choir at Great St. Mary’s Church, kindly
speak with him for full details. The details were more favorable than I could have imagined : 
choristers were actually paid by the church to sing, a matter of thrup’ennies and tanners (3d. and 6d. respectively in the old pound, shilling, pence currency), significant to a 9 year old. The real money, a couple of bob (two shillings) was to be had singing at funerals and, more commonly, at weddings. Such was the religious apathy and nature of post-Great War England, even the most prestigious church, the University Church, situated between Market Square and King’s College in the very heart of the city, needed to bribe the choristers to rejoice in song.
We were paid most to attend the Tuesday and Thursday night rehearsals which seemed to be
more social occasions than rigorous training sessions. I was accepted as a probationer. I don’t
think I cared to mention that I had never been baptized and had hardly seen the inside of a church before; that I had Jewish roots might have been an advantage; the church was very ecumenical in nature and the next vicar Hugh Montefiore was an apostate from one of the most famous Anglo-Judeo families. Each Sunday, a sermon would be given by one of the leading Christian intellectuals; perhaps even a famous atheist would speak along the lines “Why I Am Not A Christian”. Just hearing such erudite speakers must have instilled in the uncouth American an appreciation for fine language and diction. My biggest handicap was not lack of religious fervor but that the cherubic looking lad couldn’t sing. After several months of nurturing and coaxing by the choirmaster, it was alleged that I was tone-deaf and I was politely urged to seek help for my condition before returning to sing at the upcoming spate of spring and summer weddings.
In 1962, few people had cars, most traveled the city by bicycle. One of my mother’s first tasks was seeing that we all obtained good second-hand bikes; the bikes being our passport to exploring the city. There were also the ubiquitous Eastern Counties red buses, the spectacular ride upstairs off-set by the pall of cigarette smoke. There was at least one workday morning when the buses failed to run. It must have been January 1963, after the onset of the harshest English winter in living memory. The Siberian blast was so intense that night that the diesel fuel froze in the storage tanks.  One alternative mode of transportation for weeks on end that winter was using the frozen river Cam as a pathway to and through the city centre. The football season was all but abandoned until the thaw. One favorite activity that winter was visiting the new indoor swimming baths on East Road.  Yet somehow, as children, we took everything as quite normal and adapted to wearing warm clothes and footwear.
When spring came, what a glorious one it was! One of my first tasks was replacing ice skates with
something more appropriate for the flowing river. I had saved much of my Christmas and birthday money, much of it in U.S. dollars, and splurged on a single seat kayak canoe. I would wheel the canoe and double bladed paddle the few hundred yards from our home on de Freville to the near-by slip and off I would stroke, mainly upstream towards the Backs, the picturesque backs of many of the Cambridge colleges. With spring giving way to summer, at the first sign of heat in 1963, it seemed that all of Cambridge would flock to the Mill pond and swim in the river’s cool muddy waters. Overshadowing such frolicsome behavior would be the all too common story that day in the Cambridge Evening News of yet another student taking his or her life with the aid of an unlit gas heater spewing forth its toxic fumes, another victim of the unrelenting pressure to succeed, a pile of shilling pieces for the meter at the ready in case of a botched first effort. 
That first year I had just the slightest awareness of the elaborate May balls that were staged each June after finals were sat by the students. I was far more aware that early summer of the sprawling tent city taking form on the common land across the river. Midsummer’s Common would host each year an ancient fair of the same name that would retain such vestiges of its past as stalls selling pottery sets and linen but would derive its greatest current popularity from the very many amusement rides and carnival booths present. Adding spice to the festivities would be a booth where a young lady would pose - by legal necessity - absolutely still but in her birthday clothes, nude. As well, there was a large tent , beer sodden straw on its caked mud floor, that at night would house dance concerts by touring groups.
Always on the look out for a opportunity to participate, I soon obtained employment in the coconut booth, replacing fallen coconuts, dislodged by hard wooden balls hurled at them. My limited experience of baseball must have made me fearless of having my head cracked by an errant projectile. 
Other than an occasional flasher at the public conveniences, I was never aware of being preyed
upon by older men. Cambridge was a very safe place for my myriad of adventures. I was always
conscious, however, of the boys my age, spoiling for a fight. I knew they had plenty to be resentful of and I was a convenient target; I soon made sure not to let myself be out-flanked in any situation.  At school, I also made sure to give another set of identical twins, the Butlers, a wide berth.   My salvation from being regularly beaten up came in an unlikely form. 
The football season was extended early into the summer that year. In April, the top two teams in the division, Cambridge City and their arch rivals Cambridge United played a local derby in a floodlit midweek match. I remember we had a French au-pair visiting; it was suggested that I entertain her. All I could think of was the big match and so off we went to the city ground. Only this night, there was a record breaking attendance in excess of 11,000, overfilling a ground designed to hold a maximum of 5000 souls. City prevailed 2-1 and went on to win the Southern League but failed to gain admittance to the Football League, the equivalent of the major leagues. Some years later, the much smaller, upstart United prevailed and City went into sad decline.
One benefit of the longer season was the possibility of joining other Cambridge City fans on
supporters’ coaches as they traversed the lower half of Britain each Saturday to travel to away
matches to support their beloved team in the Southern League. Once I had shown my
commitment to the team by traveling to nearby Chelmsford, I was “in” and the older teen-aged
and 20- something supporters saw to it that nobody picked a fight with me. 
We would travel to such exotic locales Yeovil and its giant-killing pitch The Huish in Thomas Hardy country, in the south west of England. Another Saturday, it would be the heart of Wales, Merthyr Tydfil. There were trips to the clubs near London, like Dartford. The farmer’s lads would be excited at the prospect of espying a Chelsea Girl, then the rage of the media, as we would pass through the heart of London on our way back to Cambridge. The cost would be minimal, a few shillings for a chance to see Britain and get to know ordinary Cambridgeshire people. 
It must have been June 1963, when my mother and her young boyfriend Myles Burnyeat led me
and Buster on a walk through the Backs, past the University library, past some lush, grass courts
where little boys were playing tennis and into a nearby imposing red brick building where we had been told we were to sit some kind of test to enter an elite school called King’s College School .
Originally set up as a school to provide education and housing for the boy choristers of King’s
College, the school had expanded to accept other boarders and day boys and provide them with
an education which might prepare them for entrance to the elite private schools of England, Eton
and Winchester included. As many of the boys were sons of Cambridge professors and nobel
laureates and their ilk, and some of the choristers were well-nigh musical prodigies, there was a
heady atmosphere within the school. As Myles was a high flying scholar at King’s, en route to a
starred first and, much later, a Cambridge professorship, he had a certain amount of influence.
It was his decided opinion that we had to leave the state sector of education for the ironically
called public schools. (Public schools charged fees but were public in the sense they were
neither tied to the former monasteries nor noble households). 
My brother Gordon has reminded me that he had already failed his 11 plus examination. It was painfully obvious that I was not being prepared for success in that crucial examination in the “C” stream at Brunswick. Randy must have been having difficulties at school, too, for our mother felt it was inappropriate for him to join us that day. In any case, the Headmaster at King’s, David Briggs felt that 2 years would not provide enough time to prepare Gordon for the Common Entrance examination to public school.  Though invariably wrong-headed on most issues, Briggs must have felt that already having missed 2 years of the obligatory French and Latin language instruction, the mountain would have been too steep for Gordon to climb. At the end of the day, it was only I that was offered a place the following September at King’s.
My two brothers were sent off to board at a minor preparatory school, St. Peter’s Court, near
Hayward’s Heath in Sussex. In delivering one of the 3 eulogies at Randolph’s funeral some 30
years later, Gordon pointed out that the 2 years the brothers spent there allowed them to bond in a way not possible before or later. The elder brother having to defend his younger brother from jibes and taunts. The younger, strappy brother always willing to weigh in on the side of his skinny, older brother’s side in a fight. Gordon would prove David Briggs wrong, as my brother would win a place at Shrewsbury, a public school of not inconsiderable repute. Randolph would receive sufficient remedial education that he would leave boarding school and join Nancy and Myles in their large London flat in 1965 and benefit from Nancy’s charm offensive and obtain a place at the Quintin School, then a north London Grammar school. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Robbie!

    What happened to the memoirs? I was enjoying them. (matthew montagu-pollock)

    ReplyDelete