What’s been going on: Episode 2

I am somewhere in this video.

Ten years is a long time. Not just for a small boy, for whom every day is an adventure, full of fears and wonder, but for a world in transition. Between ’56 and ’66, all hell had broken loose in the minds of the war veterans, on the wireless, in the generation gap. The home service was being attacked by Radio Caroline, Cliff by The Animals… The short back and sides by The Beatle Cut. You were either for The Fab Four or the Stones, Mother’s Little Helper or She Loves You, Ian Smith, Desmond Tutu, LBJ, Nixon and Vietnam, Berkeley race riots when Martin Luther King’s dream became a nightmare, the independence of Rhodesia, the death of Winston, Yuri Gagarin and that monkey, Mohammed Ali and good old Harold Wilson. Ten years after the hovercraft was invented, we had a cross channel service, and stamps issued in its honour. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were sentenced. Till Death Do Us Part started airing on BBC, alongside Steptoe and Son, Watch with Mother and nobody batted an eyelid at nignog, spastic, shirt-lifter and fag. Gay still meant happy.

We’d moved home three times, from 86 Psalter Lane in Sheffield to a crumbling pre-war terraced rental in Carshalton Beeches to sedate suburban Belmont, where we moved into a 1920s detached doctor’s house with an air raid shelter in the garden and the phone number Vigilant 0060, a house which cost £5,000 in 1961. June wore billowing flower print skirts and wide red leather belts, low-cut blouses and rich red lipstick, which marked her untipped Senior Service butts and the rim of her whisky glass. Jeremy and I played out in The Dell, or crept into the basement of The Henderson Hospital where Victorian operating theatres lay untouched, or threw stones at windows, broke the indicateors off morris minor cars and stole sweets from the local newsagent. Jacko, the cleaner, must have been born around the end of the Great War. She wore overalls and slippers to work, and chain smoked as she ran the rotary polisher across our parquet floors, filling and emptying ashtrays all day long.

By November 66, I’d been at Westminster Abbey for just over a year, and progressed from probationer to ‘number 22’ in the choir, singing for Winston’s funeral, the independence of Trinidad and the 900th anniversary of the Abbey itself. Five hours a day of choir practice and services, regimented time-keeping. Up at 7.10 for a run twice round Dean’s Yard before breakfast. Beds made with hospital corners, bath rota, prayers, no talking after lights out, obligarory letter writing home on Sundays, black marks for running in the corridors. Long grey shorts and long grey socks held up by garters with Cash’s Name Tapes and a small gap between for scuffed and chapped knees.

I was in love with the deputy matron, a woman in her twenties probably, who subsequently married the science master, and went to live near Abingdon. She’d held me over her knee every evening for weeks, carefully removing hundreds of splinters from my buttocks, after my attempt to swing off two iron bedsteads in the dormitory had gone wrong. I’d become the class joker, the boy who hid in cupboards during French, who dreamt Latin declensions and climbed on the piano in the practice room so he could squirt passers-by on the street below with his newly acquired water pistol. Had I been beaten by then? Headmaster Francis Tullow, fresh from the 8th Army in North Africa, had several sticks and a cricket bat for particular crimes. We lived for the exeat, three hours with our parents every three weeks, with an hour deducted for three black marks accrued in the intervening time. But already mine were forgetting to come on time, forgetting to take me to The Golden Spoon or to see Thunderball or whatever the other boys’ parents did. Mine were fighting too much to notice any emotional deprivation caused by putting their eight year old into boarding school. Already Alan Clinch, the maths teacher, was preying on Mikey Brain, my best friend, and Loats the caretaker was paying him in sweets for a grope in the boiler room. That all important gap between the bottom of the shorts and top of the socks became a battle ground for many boys, trying to defend themselves from prying hands.

But the formative experiences of 1966 made an intricately woven blanket of self defence and a cape of invisibility.  It was a time to slip between extroversion and introversion, a chance for sensory exploration and a prodding, singeing, knuckle-wrapping education in self-discipline and social caution. The first turning point?


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