Ch4 pt1. In His Majesty’s Service.

I got up early in the morning of 21ST October, 1941, ate a hearty breakfast, then caught a bus to take me on the first part of my journey to join the army. The bus was held up in a traffic block in the cobbled Essex Road. Slowly it crawled on to “The Angel” public house and then accelerated downhill and arrived quite rapidly at King’s Cross railway station.

I boarded my train with a few minutes to spare and found myself a seat as we began to move out of the dim, curving platform. The sun shone through the windows and foretold a fine day. There were several soldiers sprawled about the carriage, but they did not talk much. Mostly they sat and read with quiet, serious expressions on their faces, or they lay back and slept.

I did not feel any regret at leaving home. I now detested London. At one time, as a boy during the peace, I had thought it romantic to trudge through the dimly lit streets of the dock district and watch the big ships arriving from strange lands; or to stand on Tower Bridge and gaze at the magnificent display of light from up river. However, I had now come to perceive clearly that there were two Englands: the haves and have-nots – and my people belonged to the latter. I saw equally clearly that the war had to be won, for Hitler’s philosophy of the superiority of what he was pleased to call the “Aryans” and the inferiority of everybody else was intolerable and would have led to the ruination of all of us. Yet by the same token I was as sure as I had ever been of anything that the successful conclusion of this war would have to be followed by a radical change in English society.

I was thus entering the army as a young and very inexperienced lad who already had an inbuilt suspicion about the competence of the officers in charge of that army to lead it. As for London, I saw it as a huge repository of working class industrial cannon fodder with mansions, sumptuous restaurants, limousines and theatres for the fortunate minority who had mostly inherited their wealth. For people of my class, the city was an ugly, petrol stinking ganglion of streets; a prison that had confined me since childhood and my mother’s people for generations.

But I was escaping from the prison. The sun gleamed brightly through the windows, and the train clattered merrily along the rails. Escaping! Escaping!

The small Yorkshire station became quite crowded as the train ejected a disproportionate number of passengers, all carrying cases like myself. I surrendered my ticket at the gate and walked into the street. I felt that I would have known this was a Yorkshire town if I had been dropped there out of the blue. Half a dozen coal-begrimed miners passed, and the small, box-like houses were built in long parallel rows.

The young men with cases were milling together into something like three ranks under the direction of a lance corporal, and I squeezed myself between them and shuffled into line.                                                                                            


A scrape of feet.                                                                     

“Right turn!” 

Clumsily the line faced to the right.            

“Gawdelpus,” barked the lance jack in charge. “What a sloppy lot. You’re a shower ….. What are you? Pull your stomachs in! You look like a bunch of pregnant ducks.”      

This sally was followed by what might have been described as a pregnant pause while stomachs were duly pulled in. 

“Quick march! Left, right, left, right.”                                                           

The line moved off. A group of young men in khaki grinned sardonically as we passed. They had been in the army five weeks, and considered themselves old sweats. Someone in the front started to sing, and soon the song spread along the whole column. The lance corporal barked encouragement.                                            

“That’s the ticket, lads. Sing up. Swing those arms, now. Straighten your backs. Bags of bull.”                                                                                                

We lengthened our stride and duly straightened our backs. We stopped walking and began to march. We were passing through the town centre, and people turned to stare as we swung by. We held up our heads and sang lustily. Stare, you civvies, stare! We’re in the army now. We’re soldiers of the King! 

At the small Yorkshire town of Osset we were subjected to six weeks of intensive foot and arms drill commonly known as “square bashing”. We were also instructed in the art of firing the three-0-three Lee Enfield rifle and received some instruction in the working of the Bren gun and Thompson sub machine gun. We were all then very relieved to be sent to various technical training battalions in and around the drab, cotton-spinning town of Huddersfield – ‘Oodersfield’ to the locals. This was where my Yorkshire grandmother had been born and bred. We were now members of the Royal Corps of Signals, often abbreviated to “Royal Corps of Sigs”, but known to its irreverent members as the “Royal Corps of Pigs.” I was to be initiated into the mysteries of wireless operating, and found myself with several hundred other men billeted in a huge disused factory filled with rows of double-tiered bunks. We were split up into squads, and I became a member of 93 Ack Squad, composed of nineteen year olds like myself.

We were a noisy, unruly squad, and since the accent was now on technical training rather than on discipline, we got away with our unruliness. We were young and did some silly things. I remember the occasion when, as some sort of a gesture of independence we got together and all agreed to grow moustaches. Beards were forbidden, but moustaches were permissible. Thus after a few days every face in the squad – and there were some most unlikely ones – began to sprout whiskers. They called us the Clarke Gable Squad.

Tiny Mac, who was barely nineteen years old, grew the best moustache of the lot. Despite his small size, he had a fierce beard, and grew a huge black walrus moustache that practically covered his mouth. Poor Mac. He was wounded in an engagement with the Japanese at Imphal in Burma, and later they came and blew up the hospital where he was a patient.                                                                                    

Good luck, Mac. You are not forgotten.       

At the end of our course, the whole squad was sent on draft to India, but some star guiding my life decreed that I should catch mumps. For a couple of weeks I mooched about the isolation hospital with a face swollen grotesquely to twice its normal size. Then came convalescence. But when I was ready to face the world again, Squad 93 Ack was on its way to the Far East.                                           

I envied what I considered their luck in being sent abroad, but could do little about it when I was posted to an armoured brigade stationed at Staines, on the River Thames, just outside London. I was consoled by the fact that I got regular weekend leaves from here, but after a month the unit suddenly packed up in the perverse way that army units have, and we moved north to the Scottish border. We cruised around aimlessly for a week or two, then settled down at the village of Clifton, three miles outside the small town of Penrith, in the Lake District. Penrith itself was about twenty miles south of Carlisle, close to the Scottish border. Here we were to remain for two years as part of the 35th Tank Brigade of the 79th Armoured Division.       

In many ways I enjoyed my stay here. I came to appreciate what life was like in a very small town as opposed to a very large one, and the hospitality of English north-country folk to strangers came as a revelation to me after the indifference of Londoners. I also had the opportunity of getting to know the beautiful Lake District of north England. I saw Ullswater in shifting mist and Ullswater in sparkling sunlight. I marvelled at the glorious views from windswept Hellvelyn, and I tasted the cold water of clear mountain springs. All this I much appreciated, even though my travels by lakeside and over steeply rising fell took place during the course of gruelling battle training arranged by a diabolical O-C.

I had two special friends in this unit. One was Basil, a black haired, blue-jowled, slim young man, the original Mr Nice Guy. Basil was studying theology and trying to make up his mind whether he was divinely inspired to take up holy orders. (He finally decided that he was not, and contented himself with lay preaching). Basil was always sincere and ready to help others in any way he could. Some took advantage of him at first, but his honesty and friendliness eventually gained him the respect of all who knew him. Basil was a Methodist, the first I had known, and for the rest of my life I was always predisposed to look upon any Methodist of my acquaintance with favour until such time as they gave evidence to the contrary.

My other friend was Tony. Tony was the same age as Basil, but was notwithstanding rapidly losing his hair. He was smallish in build and rakish in character. His intelligence was considerable and his cynicism unbounded. He had a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty young women, having in this latter connection a way of leavening a searching stare with a flattering compliment. We made fun of him by attributing the bags under his eyes to dissipation, but nothing could annoy Tony

“Eat, drink and be merry, comrades, for tomorrow we die. Jimmy, are you going to buy me a pint of beer?”                                                                      

Tony had been a journalist in civvy street, but had given it up to go into the Post Office. Like me, he still had a hankering for scribbling and, like me, he doubted his ability to make a reasonable living out of it. 

We had a good time during our two years at the little town of Penrith. We got to know all the people and we were well acquainted with the local pubs. We scraped acquaintance with one or two of the local girls and “got our feet under the table” at their homes – that is, we were welcomed and treated like members of the family. Every Saturday we visited the local hop at the large hall in the centre of town with its rustic orchestra. I even started to attend a Penrith evening class to brush up on my shorthand and learn a little bit more about English literature and the French language.

My principal dislike was for the army discipline that became increasingly pettifogging and irksome. This discipline seemed to mirror the class structure of English society. You simply did not become an officer in the British Army unless you had received instruction in a certain type of accent, which betokened your superior class. In addition, you behaved with arrogance to those below you and made it always clear that they were expendable, at the best slightly idiotic, and always beneath contempt. It was the “them” and “us” syndrome we had known all our lives. I had no illusions about it, and found it completely unacceptable, although there was nothing that I could do.

We were all becoming restive, and would have welcomed transfer overseas and some concrete task to help finish the wretched war, rather than the necessity to continue vegetating in England.

At the time that we were in the Lake District, the Germans and the Russians were locked in bloodthirsty and seemingly interminable battles on the Russian Steppes, costing each nation the flower of its manhood. In North Africa the British Eighth Army under Montgomery had broken out of Egypt and chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps westwards across Libya. The Americans, who had invaded Algeria had raced in the other direction to close the jaws of the trap, and the German North African Army had been evacuated across the Mediterranean back to Europe. The Anglo-Americans had then invaded Sicily, crossed the Straits of Messina, and were now engaged in pushing the German-Italian armies up the boot of Italy.

In the Far East there was another war. This was much less publicised in England. There the British had finally secured the gates of India against the Japanese, and were forcing them back into Burma. One saw occasional film clips of Australian troops in action in New Guinea. And the Americans were doggedly thrashing the Japanese on land and sea in the Pacific wherever the opposing forces met. 

In the Atlantic, the German U-boat menace was being met and mastered. And now the combined English and American Air Forces were beginning to mount horrendous bombing strikes against German cities. The Allied superiority in men, material and technology was plain for all to see. Victory was not yet within our grasp. But it was clear that this terrible conflict, now working up to a murderous crescendo, would see the final victory of the Anglo-Americans and their allies.

Ch3 pt6 Friendship at the Fire Station

My work at the Homerton Fire Station was that of wages clerk to the firemen on our station’s ground – the same job that I had carried out at Burdett Road. The Accounting Officer was Harry S, a middle-aged man with a lined, tired face and a hacking smoker’s cough. Harry had a withered right hand, which he still managed to use for writing although with a degree of awkwardness. This was the result of shrapnel wounds received in the First World War in the Palestine Campaign. He was seventeen years old at the time. Harry S and I became very good friends, and our friendship prospered, even into the future when I was in Australia, until he suddenly died from a cerebral haemorrhage at the early age of fifty-eight.

The other clerical assistant was Harry F. He was a small stooped man with a long wandering nose, black hair flecked with grey combed straight back, and thick horn rimmed glasses. He was very intelligent and had an enormous capacity to drink pints of beer. He tried to get into the army while I was at the Homerton Fire Station, but was rejected because of defective eyesight. Harry F and I also became good friends but lost touch after the war. 

One day we heard that the authorities had decided that we were overworked and had allocated an extra clerical assistant to us. We were upset when we learned that it was to be a female. We imagined an angular, horsey looking old crone who would cramp our style when we wanted to get away early on Friday for a couple of beers at the pub. Also we would have to moderate our language. Harry S said there was no way he was going to moderate his language. A good expletive relieved the tension when he had added up a column of figures incorrectly. If the old crone didn’t like what she heard, she could bloody well get.

A few mornings later I came into work, and Harry S was already there. 

“We’ve got our new clerical assistant,” he said to me. “She’s in the toilet powdering her nose.” In a few moments the new assistant came out.

“Jimmy,” said Harry S, “I’d like to introduce you to Julie. Julie, this is Mr Foxon.” 

I blinked my eyes and a little alarm bell rang in the back of my head. I was confronted with a vision of loveliness such as I had never expected to see. The new clerical assistant had black, beautifully combed hair, smiling eyes and white teeth surrounded by moist red lips which reminded me of a magnificent single stemmed rose on the front of an invitation card to a birthday party. She wore a medium length black dress with a modest neckline, belted tightly at her slim waist. From there it dropped in pleats to just below her knees. She had dark silken stockings and dark shoes with Cuban heels. I suppose I must have murmured some formal greeting and she must have done likewise. We returned to our desks and got on with our work.

After a couple of days, Harry S said to me, “How do you like our new clerical assistant, Jimmy?” 

I told him that I thought she was all right, and he said to me with a conspiratorial air, “From tomorrow morning, I’m going to call her Julie.” 

From the next morning, she was “Julie” to everyone. All of a sudden life at the office was gay. Julie had a bubbly personality, an irrepressible sense of humour, and a capacity to laugh in even the most awkward situations. She also had enormous compassion and seemed incapable of committing an unkind act against anybody. She was the life and soul of the office, our mascot and our joy. I do not think that I have ever enjoyed coming to work so much anywhere before or since. Although Harry S was nominally in charge of the office, we were all friends and comrades and liked each other’s company tremendously.    

Julie was supposed to be a typiste amongst other things, but clearly she had not done a great deal of typing. Nevertheless, she set to work with a will to learn. One of my jobs was to type out a daily attendance report of fire fighting personnel. I always disliked detailed time-consuming reports of things that did not greatly interest me, so under the guise of improving Julie’s typing ability, I popped the daily report on to her. She made no objection, to my secret relief, because I was a little bit ashamed of playing such a dirty trick on her. However, after a little while, I began to wonder how I could make use of this situation to obtain a few laughs in the office.

I began a campaign to wreck Julie’s typewriter. Every time Julie went out of the room, I would make some small adjustment to put the typewriter out of action. Sometimes I would disconnect the spring so that the carriage would not move. At others, I would tighten up the spring so that the carriage moved too fast. Sometimes I would put the ribbon on “stencil” or on “red” so that either no typing came out at all, or the colour would change. On other occasions I would remove the ribbon altogether and hide it. Sometimes I would shift the roller slightly so that only half the typeface was imprinted on the paper. At other times I would take the roller out altogether and conceal it in her drawer. Julie would come back, sit down at her typewriter, and begin with very great care a one-finger effort to copy the daily report. Often it was several minutes before she would wake up to the fact that something was wrong.

Of course, everybody in the office was in the know, and they would have one eye on their work and one on Julie to see how and when she would react. Suddenly she would realise that something was wrong and give vent to a cry of frustration. Then she would turn around to the rest of us with a huge grin on her face. 

“Somebody’s wrecked my typewriter.” 

Everybody pretended to be completely unaware of what had happened. After many expressions of surprise that I should be suspected, I would finally agree to examine her typewriter and rectify the situation. Sometimes I would rectify one fault but leave her with another, giving rise to further frustration on the part of Julie.     

All this nonsense was followed by gales of laughter in which Julie was always the leader. In those wartime days when we were under continuous tension of one sort or another, we needed to let ourselves go sometimes. So when we laughed it seems in retrospect that we did so more freely and happily than at any other time in our lives. I have often wondered why Julie never belted me over the ear for some of my silly antics. But she never did – she always laughed, and her good humour made the rest of us laugh too.   

Julie was twenty years old at this time. She had been married at eighteen, and Dave, her husband, was about to embark for army service in India, where he stayed until the end of the war.

When he left, Julie remained scrupulously faithful to him. She was a most attractive young woman, and could easily have found herself masculine company had she wanted. Many people separated from their partners by the war entered into extra marital liaisons, and with the stress that war brought, this was often understandable. But Julie never wavered. Her marriage was of supreme importance to her. She saved her money carefully and tried consistently to make a decent home in a flat she had in Phillip Street, Hoxton, for Dave when he returned. Yet she was always in good spirits, always friendly, always helpful, always concerned about other people.

In a way, Julie was the least “Jewish” girl I ever met. She was not orthodox in any way whatsoever. But when it came to quiet and serious concern for the importance of the family unit and kindness to all members of the family, then she was the embodiment of all that was best in Jewish life, and I admired her greatly for it. Of course, I suppose I was not a particularly “fromm goy” either, so from the very first moment that we met Julie and I accepted each other exactly as we were. The artificial barriers of religious orthodoxy which people erect to shut themselves off from others never rated a mention as far as Julie and I were concerned, and that was simply wonderful.

When Dave returned at the end of the war, he and Julie had grown apart from each other. It was a common enough phenomenon which most of us experienced who had to make the traumatic change from life in the services back to civilian life, and no doubt the civilians had to make their adjustments too. Nevertheless Dave and Julie settled down to get to know each other again. He got a job in a cigarette factory where he eventually became foreman. His income was not great, and Julie often went to work to help out. They later moved to a Council flat at Woodberry Down, between Upper Clapton and Finsbury Park. Dave might not have been rich, but he was utterly reliable and never missed a beat. I came to have considerable respect for him. Between them they raised two fine children, a boy and a girl, of whom any parents could be proud.         

Julie became my dear and lifelong friend. I regarded her as my number three sister. As I write these lines, forty-one years later, we still exchange regular letters. And the friendship we have is for me, and I believe also for her, one of those intangible things in life which cannot be bought, but which give enormous pleasure and satisfaction.

The blitz tapered off. Work at the Homerton Fire Station settled down to a steady routine. And peace once again descended on battle-scarred London. The ruined houses remained, but were tidied up as much as possible and in some cases fenced off. In Europe, now occupied from the Baltic to the Mediterranean by the armies of the Third Reich, the German Air Force licked its wounds and regrouped and re-equipped for a new battle. This was the battle now raging on the Russian Front, following Hitler’s insane attack on that country. In the background, General Winter was already gathering his forces of cold and snow to deal the Wehrmacht the same deadly blow that he had dealt to Napoleon’s Grande Armée a century and a quarter before.

In London, I awaited my call-up to the army.

Ch 3 pt 5 Jack and Fred’s Courage

But what had happened to her? How should I find out? I cursed myself for not having stayed at home. But then I, too, would have been involved in this explosion. I stumbled into the street and accosted a man in a black tin hat with the letter “W” printed on it in white.

“Warden, excuse me. My grandmother was in that house when the land mine fell. Can you tell me where she’s likely to be?” 

He scratched his head. “They’ve taken a lot of casualties to the synagogue in Devonshire Road. You might find her there. They’ve turned the basement into an air raid shelter.”

I knew the place – about a quarter of a mile up the street and a hundred yards along a crossroad. I murmured hurried thanks and set off at a run.

The synagogue basement was reached by a flight of stone steps and was filled with double-tiered wooden bunks on which fully dressed men and women of all ages lay in uncomfortable positions. Here was a sunken-faced man in a blue suit and green polka-dotted muffler. His grey cloth cap had slipped back from his head as he slept, revealing thinning black hair, and a faint snore came from his partially open mouth. Opposite him lay a fat, red-faced woman in a white cotton overall, her long, once golden hair awry.

I saw my grandmother at once. She was propping herself up on a low bunk quite near the entrance, vomiting into a bucket. 


“Jim.” She put a weak hand on my arm. Tears came to her eyes as she looked into my face, and the stink of vomit rose from the bucket to my nostrils. 

“Jim, I’m so glad you’ve come, dear. I was sitting in the living room when the bomb fell.” She started to sob quietly. “A piece of wood hit me on the shoulder. I got into a corner. The warden took me into the street. I didn’t know where I was. I was screaming for water. Water. I didn’t know what I was saying. I must have been hysterical. Now I’m sick. I can’t stop being sick.” 

Her voice was thin and weak. Her grey hair was disarranged. I put my arm around her trembling shoulders and suddenly realised how frail and thin she had become.           

My poor old grandmother. Her life had been so hard, and now it had come to this. I cursed the airmen who had dropped that landmine. If I had had them before me, I would have taught the bastards how to make war. The swine. What a murderous lot they all were. I prayed savagely that they should rot in hell.

“Try and get some sleep now, Gran,” I said, “The raid’s over. Everything will be all right. Tomorrow I’ll get the morning off from work and take you to Mum’s flat up at Clapton.” 

Up Clapton way, near Hackney Downs, two persons who always used to cheer up Jimmie and me during those air raid nights were Jack and Fred, who ran a coffee stall a few streets away from the shelters. Jack was a portly, bald headed man with the Pip, Squeak and Wilfred medal ribbons of the 1914-18 War pinned across his white apron. Fred, his partner, was tall and black haired. He was middle aged like Jack, and wore thick-lensed spectacles. However fierce the attack, either Jack or Fred would be behind the counter of the dimly lit and heavily shaded coffee stall, an urn of hot tea on the cheerful coke stove. 

“What’ll you have, bonny?” Jack would ask, briskly. 

“Tea and a hot dog, please, Jack.” 

“With or without, bonny?”     

This meant with or without mustard.


Jack would seize a sausage from the oven beside the stove and hold it up for inspection. “There’s the dog, nice and hot.” 

He would slit it in two with a flash of his knife, giving a little squeak as he did.

“Blimey, listen to the bastard yelp. Shut up, you bugger.” 

His bald head shining in the lamp light, Jack would bend, rapidly slosh mustard on the open sausage, and snapping it between the two halves of a split roll, offer this culinary masterpiece to his customer. Jack, despite his bulk, did everything quickly. Fred, the dark, thin man, was slow but sure. Suddenly one might have heard the thundering reverberation of anti-aircraft batteries from a close-at-hand gun site. Fred’s hand would not falter as he carefully poured out a cup of tea. 

“One of ours, matey. Take no notice. Take no notice.” Fred was always telling people to take no notice.

One evening Jimmie and I were walking along the main road, away from the coffee stall, and towards the block of flats into which my parents had recently moved. We were carrying out our favourite pastime of chatting up a couple of girls whom we had met about five minutes previously. Suddenly there was a screech, then a flash and an explosion some two hundred yards ahead. We stopped our nerves taut. Almost without thinking we pushed the girls to the ground and fell on top of them. I had a split second to think how it is a primeval instinct to protect the female. Then almost immediately there was another flash behind the public house on the other side of the road, followed by an explosion that nearly deafened us. We had not heard the whistle of this second bomb, indicating that the wretched thing had come uncomfortably close to dropping on top of us. But we certainly felt the blast. It gave us the impression of an immense wave of ice cold needles overwhelming us, bearing us back, and penetrating every pore of our skins. A third bomb whistled down and exploded behind us, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Jack’s coffee stall. A stray raider had apparently seen the tram lines along the road and had dropped a stick of three bombs on that bearing. 

We picked our way across the road, which had suddenly become littered with glass, ripped off window shutters, slates and other debris. Part of the floor of the pub had given way, and some of the customers had evidently fallen into the cellar. After initial efforts to help, it became clear that the situation was well in hand, so we returned quickly across the road to our two girls who were standing like lost sheep, close to tears. We escorted them very quickly home, then returned to the coffee stall, wondering whether Jack and Fred had copped the number three bomb.

The coffee stall was still there. The third bomb had fallen some fifty yards away on a house that had formerly been used as a lunatic asylum. Very appropriate. War is a game for lunatics anyway. 

“Hallo,” Jack greeted us, his shiny head bobbing. “What’ll you have bonny?” 

“Two teas and two hot dogs, please, Jack. That was a close one, wasn’t it?” 

“Pretty close, bonny, pretty close.” 

“Take no notice”, said Fred, slowly pouring out the tea. “Take no notice.” 

“That’s right, bonny”, grinned Jack. “Take no notice.” 

He deftly slit up a sausage, giving a little squeak as he did so. “Coo, ‘ark at ‘im ‘owling. What a noisy bugger. Shut up, you sod.” 

After the blitz, Jack and Fred chalked a notice on their coffee stall: “WE NEVER CLOSED.“ I hereby testify that they never did. I also testify that they were a couple of heroes. I know that in those difficult days their unfailing courage set me and, I am sure, many others a fine example. They helped us to carry on when we felt that our nerves had had about as much as they could stand.

At the Burdett Road Fire Station, work shook down to a regular routine. A few of our men were killed fighting fires during the air raids. The rest of us somehow survived with broken sleep and many near escapes. However, it became obvious that to bomb an enemy civilian population into submission was a most difficult task, something proven by allied attacks on German cities in the later stages of the war. These attacks were often heavier and more prolonged than those on London. But the civilian populations held firm.  

In the early days I sometimes saw the smoke trails of fighting aircraft above London and heard the chatter of machine gums as I went to work in the morning. On a couple of occasions German fighter formations flew across London in daylight apparently unhindered. But as our aircraft and pilots became organised and as our anti aircraft defences were strengthened, the German attackers no longer had it their own way. The British Spitfires flown mostly by Englishmen, but with help from Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians succeeded in breaking the German air force. Every day the papers gave us news of the number of enemy aircraft destroyed and, if memory serves me correctly, the maximum number was four hundred shot down in one day. Memory may have played me false, or perhaps the figures were wildly doctored at the time. Some years after writing this account I read that on September 15th 1940 the maximum number of enemy aircraft claimed in one day occurred. The number claimed was 185 German aircraft shot down on this single day. No doubt these figures were doctored for propaganda purposes. But it remained equally true that the enemy was taking a punishing that he could not withstand indefinitely. Our newly invented radar helped us to scramble our fighters at the right spot to stop the attacks, but I was unaware of this at the time. 

“Never,” said Churchill in one of his marvellous histrionic performances that helped to hold us together at this period, “have so many owed so much to so few.”  

Thus the enemy stepped up the nighttime blitz on London, and from time to time set the city ablaze in a most frightful fashion. Casualties were very numerous. At Bethnal Green Tube Station in the east end, near Parmiter’s Foundation School where I finished my education and near the York Hall Baths where I sometimes went swimming as a kid, there was a terrible tragedy. A bomb exploded near the entrance to the tube. Hundreds of people rushed down the steps leading underground. Scores stumbled, fell, and were trampled to death by the stampeding mob.

At the junction of Threadneedle Street, Old Jewry and Victoria Street, in the heart of the City of London, a subway went under the busy intersection to permit pedestrians to cross from one street to another. This subway was used as an air raid shelter, but sustained a direct hit one evening. Over a hundred people were killed outright. In the whole of my subsequent life I have never once walked past the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street without giving thought to that tragedy.  

On another occasion bombs fell all around Saint Paul’s Cathedral destroying every adjoining building for hundreds of yards, but leaving Christopher Wren’s masterpiece intact. Just down the road, Ludgate Circus, which stands half way between St. Paul’s and Fleet Street, “the street of ink” where all the major newspapers had their offices, was very badly knocked about. But amazingly the memorial plaque to Edgar Wallace, the journalist and writer, which I had admired so often when I was roaming these streets as a youngster on my old bike, was left unharmed. As a man something more than middle aged I still raise my hat to that plaque whenever I travel overseas from Australia to London.

That was the night, incidentally, when I stood at the junction of Well Street and Mare Street, in the east end, about a quarter of a mile from Frampton Park Road where I was born, and a couple of hundred yards from London Fields where my mother was born. The petrol buses, which normally went to Fleet Street and The Strand by way of the Bank of England, were parked in a long line, and their crews talked quietly to each other. The thunder of explosions came from the west end, some miles away. The city was ablaze, and the light from the west end was so intense that you could actually read a paper by it in Mare Street in the east end. The buses had stopped because to travel to the west end was not only dangerous, but suicidal.

The blitz on London finally began to slacken. At work I was transferred from the Burdett Road Fire Station to a substation at Homerton – an evacuated school just opposite Hackney Hospital where my grandfather was to pass on several months later. Subsequently we shifted to the main fire station in Homerton High Street, a couple of miles down from the flat at Clapton where my parents now lived and about a mile in the opposite direction from Hackney Marshes. Just up the road was Hackney Churchyard and the old elementary school where I had gained my basic education. I was certainly on my home ground.

Ch3 pt 4 Destruction gets personal.

Senor Morato’s classes were always closing down, due to lack of pupils and the restraints imposed by the increasingly serious air raids. When this happened, he would tell us with a sad spreading of his hands and hunching of his shoulders. Then he would go on to explain that he was about to open a class at another institute if we would care to attend. So a small band of faithful students followed him all over London, from one institute to another, until eventually the Spanish class collapsed never to reopen. In this way we tried to advance our education but were overtaken by world-shaking events, which wiped our insignificant personal ambitions off the slate for the duration.

To help me with my language studies, I joined the Linguists’ Club, which at that time had its headquarters in the basement of a cafe opposite Baker Street Underground Station. In a long softly lit room, smelling of Turkish cigarette smoke, one found several tables with chairs around them. When the Club was full, a babble of talk filled the place. At each of the tables a different language was spoken, the conversation being led by a person whose mother tongue was that language. No English was permitted, and if one walked the length of the room, one heard German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese; in brief, all the major European languages.

My family and I and our immediate circle of acquaintances were on the whole extremely lucky during the air attacks. My memories are of terrific damage done to buildings and installations, and on one or two famous occasions the fires in the city would light up even the east end – not that the east end was short of its complement of fires on occasion – especially in the docks area.

The residential area close to the Burdett Road Fire Station, which itself was close to the docks, suffered major damage. Long stretches of terrace houses were reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment, and I would not care to estimate how many civilians died in these attacks. When a very old house has been destroyed in this way, an unpleasant smell lingers which it is hard to describe. There is the odour of tortured earth, which has not seen the daylight for a hundred years and is now suddenly exposed to it. There is the smell of old timber and plaster suddenly broken apart. There is somehow a lingering smell of the explosives that have caused the damage. And over and beyond this is the uneasy knowledge that people have been killed and maimed in this new silent rubble. And that the odour, which assails the nostrils, is also the odour of violent death.

The serious air raids occurred at night when I had left the fire station and was seeking my own salvation at the shelters on Hackney Downs. However, there was the occasional daylight raid. These diminished as our anti aircraft defences improved. But I clearly remember one afternoon when a hit and run raider dropped a bomb on a motor car a hundred yards along the road from the Fire Station, a piece of shrapnel neatly severing the driver’s head from his shoulders.

I was working on some pay sheets at the time, and a few moments later a passerby was brought into the station with shrapnel wounds in his back. One of our firemen cut away part of his bloodstained jacket with a pair of scissors and gently turned the victim in my direction to do so. I shall never forget his face. He was a tall, thin man, possibly in his early forties, with long, greasy hair combed straight back. His mouth was loosely open, and he kept blinking his eyes with shock, screwing up his heavily lined features as he did so.

On another occasion, we were counting out money in the upstairs office, preparatory to paying out wages, when a sneak raider, taking advantage of cloud, dropped a bomb on a house on the opposite side of the road. The house crumpled, a cloud of smoke rose in the air, and we, our money swept quickly into a bag, were speeding downstairs far faster than our own professional firemen when the bells went down.

On another occasion, my father confronted me suddenly at the Fire Station as I was in the middle of my morning’s work. 

“What’s up, Dad?” 

All sorts of terrible possibilities suggested themselves to my mind, for the whole city was at the mercy of the German Air Force and nobody was safe.

“There’s an unexploded bomb up the street from last night’s raid and we have to clear all our furniture out of the house until they’ve got rid of it.”

So back I went on the tram with my Dad to remove our meagre possessions to a safe spot until the bomb had been defused.

These unexploded bombs were a common occurrence, and gave much work to the unexploded bomb squad whose job it was to get rid of them. When they had been lifted, they would be placed on a truck that would dash screamingly through the streets with everybody getting out of the way for who knew, if the thing had not been properly defused, when it might go off? The destination was Hackney Marshes, that peaceful expanse of green fields where my uncle and I used to go fishing in the River Lea for tiddlers when I was a child, and the local teams used to play football on Sunday mornings. Those wonderful days of peace and innocence were far behind us now. Hackney Marshes were a closed area and many an engine of death, safely removed from the residential quarter, was exploded there by remote control.

The Blitz was about a third of the way through, and our family members were all sleeping together in my grandparents’ bedroom, on the ground floor for safety, when I awoke in the early hours of one morning. It was still dark, and the explosion of the land mine, which had burst just opposite, had been muffled by sleep. However, I heard the tinkling of glass as the windows shattered and felt the small pieces fall on the blanket that I had pulled over my head. Everybody else had awoken also, but our guardian angel had been at work again, and nobody was hurt. The land mine had come down by parachute and burst on a nursery just obliquely down from us, so we had caught the blast only partially. Several weeks before, the far end of Frampton Park Road had been badly bombed and many people had lost their lives. We felt now that we must have had our quota of bombs for the war, but as subsequent events proved, this was not so. A few weeks later, just down in Well Street, where my grandfather had run his butcher’s stall many years before, a concrete-roofed above-ground shelter, proof against anything except a direct hit, received just that, and many people were killed outright.

The landmine explosion reduced our Frampton Park Road house to a state where my parents were forced to move out. They, my brother Harry and my two sisters, Nellie and Dolly, after spending a week at a school which had been turned into a rest centre for bombed out persons, moved into a Council flat near Hackney Downs, in the better class Clapton area. It had taken a war to procure for them reasonable living quarters. However, my grandfather and grandmother insisted on staying in the old house, although the ceiling had fallen in upstairs, and one could see the sky through the gaps in the slates on the roof. My uncle also stayed on, and I spent some evenings at the house and others at my parents’ new flat.

The visits that Jimmie and I paid to the Hackney Downs shelters became less urgent. My French girl had been spirited away by her mother, and although I had met a Spanish refugee called Abilie, from whom I tried to obtain further fluency in the Spanish language, he also had disappeared. Jimmie was trying to give his girl friend the cold shoulder, as she was becoming too possessive. So one evening we stayed away from Hackney Downs. When the usual air raid came on that night, our shelter received a direct hit. When we visited next day, the trench where we used to sit with our friends was a tumble of earth, upturned wooden benches and bloodstained sheets. We never again saw any of the people we knew there, but the news was that many of them had been killed.

Jimmie and I were both young and therefore a little callous and lacking in understanding about the feelings of others. But on this occasion the narrowness of our own escape and the tragedy for those who had been caught up in this dreadful happening were brought very closely home to us. 

My grandfather, who had been rather shaken by the bombing which had come so close to us personally, now began to accompany my uncle to the tube shelter at nights. I remained out for most of the evenings, but returned late to sleep at the house with my grandmother. I did this partly to keep her company, partly because my mother’s natural anxiety for her children during a raid used to set my nerves on edge, and I preferred to be as much as possible by myself.

One evening, several weeks later, my uncle and grandfather went to the shelter as usual. My grandmother remained in what was left of the living room, peering through her wire-rimmed spectacles (which she always bought straight off the counter at Woolworths) at the evening paper. I left to meet Jimmie Abbott, and although the usual evening air attack developed quickly, we followed our habitual custom and left our shelter to take a walk as soon as the main bombardment shifted two or three miles away to another part of the city. We always felt more at ease if we were on the move, provided always that the attack was not in the immediate vicinity and severe. Anyway, we could always take refuge in a street shelter if things got really bad. 

We were walking past the baths in Mare Street, where Jimmy H and Mr B had so often taken us swimming in our schooldays, when we heard the explosion. There was a brilliant flash in the distance, followed by a rumbling roar. We felt the ground shake beneath us and heard the shop windows rattle.

“That was a big one, “remarked Jimmie. “Must have been over Mile End way.”

We walked further along Mare Street until we came to a large furniture store whose basement had been turned into an air raid shelter. Friends of ours slept here, and they told us a lurid tale of the shelter doors being forced open by the blast from the explosion we had heard, and of a man standing at the top had nearly been blown down the stairs. We took the tale with a pinch of salt, because there were no traces of blast outside. Nevertheless, the explosion must have been nearer than we had thought. We agreed that it had probably been caused by one of those land mines that the Jerries were dropping by parachute at that time, and shortly afterwards parted company for the night.

As I walked along Frampton Park Road to the section of the street where our house stood, I began to notice signs of damage. This became progressively worse the nearer I got to home. First, the panes had been blown out of windows, and glass littered the street. Then the sightless window frames themselves had been ripped out and flung into the street by blast suction. The crunching debris underfoot became greater, and with a dagger of fear I suddenly realised that the land mine whose explosion Jimmie and I had heard had dropped directly opposite our house, more or less in the same spot as the one that had damaged it previously. I stumbled across the brick-strewn road. The heavy door of our house had been blown in and lay splintered in the passage. The passage itself was filled with bricks, dust and spars of wood over which I tripped as I forced my way to the living room. The living room door hung askew and the interior was a shambles. The ceiling had fallen in, a beam of wood lay against one torn wall, and the place was scattered with broken ornaments, upturned chairs and hanging laths.

Hurriedly I struck matches. There was nobody downstairs. Nobody either on the dusty, ruined, nasty-smelling upper floor where we had once lived. The air raid wardens must have taken my grandmother out.

CH 3 p 3. Youth in The Blitz

This was the time of the phoney war, that exquisitely sentimental but dangerous period of my youth when Vera Lynn sang with a sob in her voice, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when….” or perhaps “Somewhere in France with You”. Over the radio also “Our” Gracie Fields from Lancashire and Maurice Chevalier, the quintessence of all things French, put on Anglo-French concerts for the greater solidarity of the Entente Cordiale. At night when work was done, I divided my time equally between study at evening classes and walking about a large adjoining open space called Hackney Downs. This was the recognised monkey parade where local lads and lassies strolled up and down looking each other over and sometimes pairing off to go roaming in the gloaming. My mate on these nocturnal jaunts was a burly young man by the name of Jimmie whom I had known at school, and who was now employed on the railway, cleaning out the dirty boilers of the big coal-fired engines. Subsequently he became a fireman, feeding coal into the rapacious furnace of the London-Edinburgh express. After the war he joined the London police Force. He had had only a basic education, but he set himself determinedly to study and finished up with a very good rank. But this was in the future that we could not foresee. As we contemplated the present we became aware that disaster had suddenly overtaken us. The German Panzers in an unprecedented thrust of armoured might had turned the Maginot Line and were streaming towards Paris. The British Expeditionary Force retreated to Dunkirk where it was surrounded and evacuated back across the Channel to England in every craft available provided it was seaworthy. The French capitulated. America was not yet in the war. Australia, Canada, New Zealand were far away. England stood alone. 

            Thus we waited for the first air raid, having no doubt that when Hitler decided to strike he would not mess about, and we would really have to brace ourselves. The first real attack of the war occurred one evening when Jimmie and I were making our way through the darkened streets to Hackney Downs. Our pleasant dreams of an evening promenade, with two girls with whom we had earlier scraped acquaintance, were abruptly shattered by a piercing whistle, a brilliant flash and a crash like a thunderclap. This was followed by a whole series of whistles, flashes and explosions.

            We quickened our pace and arrived running at one of the many wood and concrete shelters, which had been constructed all over Hackney Downs. These were really nothing more than trenches thinly roofed over with earth. They were not bomb-proof – few shelters were – but they gave protection against anything except a direct hit. In our shelter, we were soon joined by other people, not really afraid, but perhaps a little flustered by the unexpectedness of the attack. Chiefly they seemed to be curious as to what the result of the explosions would be, for this was our first air raid and a novelty. 

            The alert sounded, after the damage had been done, and we heard the enemy aircraft humming overhead. Then suddenly everything became quiet, and abruptly the all-clear was heard. When we emerged from the shelter we couldn’t see any damage in the immediate vicinity. Everything seemed as it had been before. However we learned later that some houses in neighbouring streets had been demolished. Jimmie and I wandered off in search of our girl friends and found them, intrepid souls, wandering around looking for us.

            Subsequent air raids became much worse. The anti-aircraft defences of London were at that time inadequate, and the Germans used to come over in the evenings and do more or less as they liked. The fire service soon had its work cut out, and history has recorded how magnificently its members acquitted themselves.

            Our anti-aircraft defences were negligible for quite a long time, but every park down to the smallest patch of open space quickly sported a motorised winch under the control of two or three Royal Air Force ground staff. A long steel cable led from each winch up to a fat white blimp, riding in the breeze several hundred feet high. By this means a mass of cables stretched up into the sky all over London. The object was to prevent dive-bombing and force enemy aircraft to fly at a minimum height. In this at least our defences were successful. These blimps were known as barrage balloons and became such a common sight that one felt a sense of deprivation when the air attacks eventually fell away and the balloons and their crews disappeared.

            However at the beginning of the “blitz” on London, Hackney Downs was to become the nightly rendezvous in our part of the city for many people besides Jimmie and myself. Air raids rapidly became a regular occurrence and assumed a much greater severity. People from all over the neighbourhood used to drift to the Hackney Downs shelters. They would bring their sheets and blankets with them and try and settle themselves for the night along the thin wooden seats, which ran along the concrete walls of the narrow shelter. The warning would always come at dusk or shortly after. Then the questing searchlights, which had been moving slowly about the sky, would suddenly begin to swing madly in circles – this was the preliminary warning. A few moments afterwards the sirens would begin their sickening, ululating wail. One heard the stomach-contracting moan from distant sirens first. Then the local sirens would begin to howl, and when they had died away into silence, the plaint would be taken up again further away. The scamper of feet would be heard as people hurried to get themselves and their children to a shelter. The distant explosion of bombs would rumble. Very soon thunderous explosions would be occurring in our own area. Scattered anti-aircraft batteries would roar into life. Shrapnel bursts could be seen like small fireworks against the black sky.

            My family became dispersed during these air raids. My parents and my brother and two sisters used to spend the night in the earth covered corrugated iron shelter in the back garden. This was the Government “Anderson” shelter which my father and I had laboured mightily to dig out and erect in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of war. My grandparents, too old to bestir themselves, set an example, later followed by us all, and generally stayed in the house. My uncle used to go to one of London’s many bomb-proof tube stations, where makeshift beds crowded the underground platforms and men, women and children slept an uneasy sleep.

            Jimmie and I always went to a particular shelter on Hackney Downs because I knew a young French girl from a colony of Dunkirk refugees who lived in the neighbourhood. I spoke French in the shelter to her as the bombs fell overhead, and Jimmie had a girl friend of his own. Thus the blitz helped Jimmie and me to improve that marvellous 1938 film The Shining Hour. As we became case hardened, we often used to walk through the raids with bombs dropping a few streets away, anti-aircraft gums thundering, and shrapnel exploding like sparkling fireworks above our heads then clattering in the roadway behind us. After one of our friends put his head outside and received a dent in his tin hat from a piece of falling shrapnel, we did take a little more care about this aspect, and made sure the anti-aircraft fire was some distance away before venturing out. 

            Before the air raids became really serious, I was still going spasmodically to evening classes, where I was studying French and Spanish. My tutor in the latter language was a small, black haired, neatly dressed man with a carefully trimmed black moustache. His name was Senor Gomez Morato, and although he spoke English imperfectly, he had a genius for putting over Spanish. I made rapid strides in the language, due to my good knowledge of French, which was similar, and I was soon able to hold my own in everyday Spanish conversation. 

Ch 3 p 2. London County Council 1939

I was becoming dissatisfied with my job at the “Hairdressers Journal”. It was obvious that I stood no chance of doing any writing for this purely technical paper whose articles were all contributed by hairdressers of long experience, most of them with their own salons. There was no such thing as reporting as it is known on a newspaper. I was clearly not going to progress. So I wrote again to several small London newspapers for a position. But either there were no vacancies, particularly as my shorthand was not yet up to standard, or premiums were requested for my training, which my father could not pay. I had no money of my own. My wages from the “Journal” merely paid for my fares and my keep. I had two shillings a week pocket money after I met all my expenses, which would buy newspapers and three packets of cigarettes. There was no way I was going to get rich like this.

The peculiar thing in those days was that we had been born and bred poor and never looked for anything else. If we did no more than pay our expenses and just keep our heads above water, we thought that we were well off. So many people slept in the parks or on the Thames Embankment, wrapped up in newspapers. At least we got a feed, and a roof over our heads and a regular job.

Frustrated by my lack of success, and reluctant to spend my life working to make the owners of the “Hairdressers Journal” rich, I allowed myself to be persuaded by my family to enter an examination for clerkships to the London County Council. With my schoolwork only a few months behind me, I could hardly fail, and I duly became a General Clerical Officer in the service of the body regulating the life in the County of London. I had a grandiloquent title, but more to the point, I earned two shillings a week over and above what I had received at Ogee’s.

I started work at County Hall, that huge building of endless corridors facing the Houses of Parliament across the River Thames, and I was allocated to the Highways and Main Drainage Committee. I saw nothing of highways or drains, however, and had only the vaguest notion of how the Committee functioned vis-a-vis the Council. My chief job was to make tea, and after that I did a little filing and batching up of papers. Much of my time was spent reading the Bressey Report, a praiseworthy plan for speeding up London’s traffic by means of viaducts, tunnels and roundabouts.

It was, however, a safe job. I was reminded of this time and time again by my parents, who had never themselves known such a luxury. Also there was a pension at the end of it and, although that meant nothing to me then, I would begin to understand its value after a few years.

I found myself in a dilemma. What was I to do? Should I make this local government my career? I felt the lack of movement after the busy days at Ogee’s. A job at County Hall meant a lifetime of unworried, unhurried paper shuffling. The majority of people seemed to carry few responsibilities. The tall poppies were hidden away in plush offices with carpets. (The majority of us made do with timber floors). What was I to do?

I had left school in the latter part of 1938, and started work at Ogee’s some weeks after. I transferred to the London County Council early in 1939 about six months later. Every morning and evening as I went upstairs on the grinding, sickening double decker electric tram, the air would be filled with cigarette smoke, and people would be hawking and spitting all over the place. We must have been a very unhygienic lot in those days. I would bury myself in books about the structure of short stories, novels and various types of newspaper reports. Sometimes I would read popular novels by Edgar Wallace and “Sapper”, who made a small fortune from lurid tales about a true blue British type called Bulldog Drummond. Drummond was always locked in mortal combat with an international criminal of indeterminate nationality called Carl Peterson. The “Saint” novels of Mr Leslie Charteris were also favourites of mine. I was beginning to read and enjoy the short stories of Guy de Maupassant in the original French. In my more serious moments I would attempt to understand the art of newspaper editorials better and also improve my bilingual ability by translating editorials into French, then rendering them back into English and comparing my efforts with the original.

Although my ambitions were journalistic, all this left me little time to read the newspapers as closely as I should have done. I was going off on a quasi-artistic kick. I read somewhere that Hitler and Stalin had concluded a non-aggression pact, and felt my heart sink, then tried to dismiss it and hoped that somehow we should muddle through.   

My main worry now that I worked at the County Hall was what my next move was going to be. 

A decision was forced on me by the inexorable wheel of history. German troops massed on the borders of Poland. The patience of the certifiable maniac in charge of Germany was once again exhausted. 

I was suddenly transferred from County Hall to a fire station at Burdett Road, in the east end of London, half way between Hackney, where I was born, and Limehouse. Two days later, war broke out. I was seventeen and a half years old. We all knew that we were for it. Obviously the only thing I could do now was to stick to my job until I was called up. 

In the Munich days of 1938, when the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was flying to placate Adolf Hitler – the black hearted, utterly wicked psychopath who led Germany – war seemed imminent. In London, volunteers worked all day long digging up parks and open spaces to construct the air raid shelters that should have been provided long ago. Passing strangers left the pavements, took off their coats, grabbed shovels and sweated. The green fields of Hackney Marshes became striated with trenches and battlements of black earth. When daylight had gone, the feverish digging continued by the light of oxy-acetylene and naphtha flares.

Chamberlain came back to England with a fluttering slip of paper held in his hand guaranteeing “peace in our time”, but at last the man in the street was alive to the danger, and although he longed for peace, was no longer really hopeful that it could be maintained. A country-wide campaign was set on foot to organise air raid precautions services, and as many men and women as possible were urged to join the Auxiliary Fire Service. A.R.P. and A.F.S. became key words in the language. 

In London, the regular London Fire Brigade run by the London County Council was to be the backbone of the new service, and the volunteers, most of whom would become full time in the event of war, were to work under the supervision of this experienced body of men. This was the plan. The ironical fact was that when full-scale air raids on London eventually began, many auxiliaries acquired as much fire fighting experience in a few weeks as their professional colleagues had had in years and some were finally promoted and made senior to them. 

When I arrived at the Burdett Road Fire Station, I found that a certain Mr G was to be my colleague. Mr G was a tall, thin, middle-aged man, always very neatly dressed and polite, with a habit of fingering his large, horn-rimmed spectacles. He had been “something in rubber”, but a market crash had forced him to seek other employment, and he had eventually taken a job with the London County Council as a fire station clerk. For although the burly, tattooed ex-navy men who seemed always to drift to the London Fire Brigade were excellent at their job of putting out fires, their powerful fingers seemed to become less capable when it came to putting pen to paper. 

There was at this time a rush to join the auxiliary fire service, and Mr G and I used to sit at a table in a little upstairs room of the fire station, explaining the conditions of service to would-be recruits, and getting them to fill out the necessary forms. Then we would turn them over to the mercies of the regular firemen downstairs. We were joined a day or two later by Len, a tall, pipe-smoking young man with black hair, and a pair of thick framed spectacles to rival Mr G’s. Len was to be in charge. He was to be known as the Accounting Officer, and Mr G and I were to be his assistants. Our job was to make out pay sheets for the three hundred odd auxiliaries who would eventually be allocated to the several evacuated, sand bagged schools on our station’s ground. We would calculate their sick pay and injury pay deductions, draw money from the bank, and pay it out. We would balance anything left, and redeposit it in the bank. If it be thought that we were not fully occupied, remember that this was in the days before computers and office machines. All records were manually kept, and all calculations were worked out in the skull.

The bank was situated in Limehouse, and I always looked forward to the journey there by A.F.S. car or some dirty old requisitioned taxi with ladders strapped to the roof and a coil of fire hose in the back seat. The fan tan and opium dens of the Chinese quarter might be things of the past, but I could still let my imagination wander when I saw the unusual names over the chop suey restaurants in East India Dock Road and the tattered notices in Chinese characters pasted on the walls of the dingy houses in Pennyfields.        

One other duty of ours was to stick stamps on hundreds of health and unemployment cards each week. Back to the old stamp licking again! This was an awkward business, since the stamps had to correspond exactly to the pay sheets, and there were many irregularities due to adjustments in respect of sickness or absence. The law said that once an insurance stamp was stuck on a man’s card let no man put the stamp and the card asunder! But since we were obliged to make the pay sheets up in advance and our information regarding attendance was not always correct, it was inevitable that we made mistakes. Then we had to indulge in minor illegalities and remove the wrongly affixed stamps. So we put the kettle on the stove in the little room next to the office, brought it to the boil, and steamed stamps off one card in order to stick them on another. What a ramshackle, improvised way to help run a war. But somehow we muddled through. And after Len was called up for the Air Force several firemen expressed their appreciation of the efficient and understanding, if slightly unorthodox way in which he had run his side of the station.

When I left the fire station between five and six in the evening, the streets were completely dark due to the strict blackout that had been imposed. Double decker trams were still running in the Mile End district at that time, although they were later replaced by trolley buses. Occasionally vivid flashes from the tram rails would light up the street like lightning coming from the earth. The large electric headlamp at the front and rear of each tram was obscured by a black metal disc, only a shaded slit of light being allowed to escape, and the lights inside the tram were dimmed and similarly shaded. The conductors, unless they made use of small battery and bulb contraptions attached to their uniform jackets, generally had to bend over the seats to see where they were punching their tickets.           

It was an anxious time during those first few weeks. Everyone waited on doorsteps during the long twilight. The isolation and unfriendliness of people in the big city disappeared. For a while everybody went out of his way to be friendly to everybody else. People called each other “chum” or “mate”. In this way it was a good time, despite the anxiety of waiting for the first air raid. I always expected an air raid to catch me in the tram mid way between the fire station at Mile End and my home at Hackney. However, no air raid materialised in the first months of the war. Thus we soon became blasé, smoking in the blackout, flashing torches, and not taking any notice at all of the hoarse-voiced wardens in blue dungarees and black tin hats who would angrily shout at us to “Put that bloody light out”.

CH 3 p 1 Soho, and first love.

Soho, the district in which the premises of Messrs Osborne and Garrett stood, consisted of a number of narrow thoroughfares, sometimes cobbled, sometimes asphalted, which wriggled their way between the traffic-streaming boulevards of Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street. Soho had an unsavoury reputation, but its notoriety was not entirely deserved. By no means were all its inhabitants racketeers and prostitutes. On the contrary, the majority were honest, hard working citizens.

True, it was a district of foreigners. Voluble Italians jostled harsh-accented Africans and gesticulating Frenchmen walked side by side with Hindu women in silken saris. The mixed population, which is today the norm in England, was then the exception. Thus, Soho in those pre-war days was to me a place alive with romance.

In Soho one could spend an hour in a chop suey joint or an Indian restaurant, there to partake of the many and varied delicacies of the east. Or one could patronise a certain French rendezvous in Greek Street where soupe a l’oignon, escargots farcis, and cuisses de grenouille were de rigueur on the menu. Or if one wished to hob-nob with the dark sons of Spain and speak a bit of “Castellano” to the waiter, one could go to “The Majorca” at the Regent Street end of Brewer Street. These spots were typical of the marvellous variety of foods and languages.

But it was at night that Soho really came into its own. Then, when the offices were empty, when the grind of the working day was over and people gave themselves up to pleasure, the thunder of the west end traffic could be heard like a muted drum roll in the quieter back streets. Glaring on-and-off neon advertisements would give spasmodic illumination to murky lanes, and as one walked and felt the cool breeze on one’s face, one must have been dull indeed not to have revelled in it all. We were young, the world was full of romance and opportunity, and it belonged to us.

Look! Over there is Piccadilly Circus, brilliant hub of the universe, and beyond lies the black, shimmering River Thames. How beautiful it all is!

Even the pornography shops didn’t look so dingy when night overtook the West End. And the heavily painted prostitutes who brushed past you with an overpowering whiff of perfume and a murmured “Hello darling” seemed much more glamorous than they would have been if you had had the nerve to accept their invitation and follow them to some squalid back room.

Those days at “Ogee’s” were, on the whole, happy ones. I was worked hard and earned every penny of my meagre salary. But after the grind of Thursday, taking small advertisements over a scratchy old-fashioned telephone in the morning (the “Journal” ran several pages of “smalls”, and there was always a rush before we went to press) and the foot wearying afternoon journeys when I carried proofs, hot from Oldham’s Press, round to the larger advertisers, I could walk home with my colleagues through the neon-lit streets, puffing at a cigarette, talking of the day’s work, and enjoying the marvellous feeling of being on a London paper, however insignificant it might be. Those men and women in evening dress whose limousines carried them swiftly to some expensive restaurant might feel pretty pleased with themselves, but I knew something they did not. I knew what was going to be in tomorrow’s “Hairdressers Journal”.

The “Journal” offices were at the back of Ogee’s big store fronting Greek Street. We reached them by entering a small door in an insignificant side street and climbing a short staircase. One then found oneself in a square space enclosed by walls on two sides, a counter on a third, and fenced off from the main office on the fourth side by a frosted glass partition. This partition annoyed us intensely, because we always had to guess whether anybody had climbed the short flight of steps and wanted serving. Invariably we used to get up and go round to the counter when nobody was there, because we had heard a board creak. When someone was in fact there, we often failed to realise it, and were warned only by an impatient shuffling of feet, a testy cough, or a peremptory tap on the glass itself.            I disliked the early part of the week most during those “Journal” days.

Apart from Monday morning reluctance, my job in the early part of the week was to sort out the replies that had been sent in to box office numbers and redirect them to advertisers’ addresses, of which we kept a weekly list. Since the “Journal” officially appeared on Saturday, every post on Monday brought piles of letters to my desk, and I never had a moment’s peace. 

I had to leave home at about half past six in the morning to get to work on time. I would generally knock off at about six in the evening. You were expected to bundy on a few minutes before time and not leave before all jobs were finished. Any involuntary overtime was not paid for, and of course, as was general in those days, Saturday mornings were worked. On Saturdays we got away at about one o’clock.

On weekdays we had a tea break at four thirty in the afternoon. Well, it was not really a break, because one was expected to go on working. But I remember with pleasure the tea and biscuits that motherly, white-coated Jessie, smiling through her rimless glasses, used to fetch round on a trolley. We all needed tea, especially on Mondays, when the licking of innumerable envelopes reduced me to a state of near dehydration.     

I remember, too, the pulsating, busy basement, the “guts” of the building with its endless belts carrying packages hither and yon. This was the section from which parcels were dispatched all over the world. Incredible that these packages would journey in a few weeks to places which I should probably never see – to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.            

I used to go to a cafe in Dean Street for my lunch. This consisted of two ham rolls (no butter) and a cup of tea. The customers were all men, and the talk was rough. The subject was always normal – that is to say, women and booze in that order. According to the conversationalists the women were always loose and the booze was always potent. If there were any “four-letter words” I didn’t know already, I was rapidly introduced to them.

The proprietor was a deft, cheerful, watery-eyed, watery-nosed individual in his middle thirties called Len. I think we all went there because the “caff” was the cheapest eating-place in Soho. Later, when the war came, a bomb hit Len’s Cafe and completely destroyed it, but by that time I had moved on elsewhere.

I was attending evening classes during this period, studying shorthand, typewriting, English and French, in the hope of one day becoming a real journalist, and not just an advertisement copy-boy and stamp licker. Three evenings a week I used to climb the brick-enclosed staircase of the local evening institute, which was a children’s school during the day and had certainly not been designed to accommodate adults. The ceilings were low, the coat hangers and lavatories needed raising a couple of feet, and we had to squeeze into the desks which children used during the day and sprawl with our feet along the gangways. However, we did not worry greatly about the surroundings. The object was to try to learn something to help us on our way.   

After the fashion of the time the whole school was lit by gas lamps, which gave off a faintly yellowish light. It was here that I met my first girl friend, Rita, although I must confess that our friendship was of a very short duration. 

Rita was a blue-eyed black-haired beauty, precocious for her seventeen years. Her lips were soft, cherry coloured and moist. She had a pair of shapely silk-stockinged legs that Michelangelo might have sculpted. She was acknowledged by the boys to be the best “looker” in the class, and whenever she came in, all eyes were turned in her direction, and a dozen young masculine hearts fluttered in silent worship. I caught her up in the street one night when the classes had finished. 

“Good evening. Do you mind if I walk home with you?”                                   

“Why, no” she said. “Of course not”. 

Her voice expressed such pleasure at the prospect of my company that my heart swelled in ecstasy. She was definitely the girl most likely to succeed. There was a dead silence for some yards. I had run out of steam and didn’t know what else to say. But Rita did.                              

“Do you like shorthand?”                                                                                   

“Why, yes,” I said. “Do you?”                                                                            

“Yes. Very much. I like Miss Jolly.” The shorthand class was taught by a tall, bespectacled and persistently cheerful woman whose name was appropriately Jolly. 

“Yes. I Iike her too.”                                      

“Do you like typewriting?” asked Rita.                                                                   

“Yes. Do you?”                                                                                                 


“Do you like English?”                                                                                         

“Oh, yes”.

What a wonderful conversation we were having. We seemed to agree on everything. My head in a whirl, I walked Rita to her door. I asked if I might see her home the following night. She said I might. I debated whether to kiss her, but thought it might be a bit soon, and we parted with a formal handshake. The following evening I invited her to come to the pictures with me, and she accepted, but she did not keep the appointment. The next time we were at evening classes, a note was passed to me by one of her girl friends.

Rita apologised for not meeting me and regretted that she could not come out with me again. I was bewildered, and although she had left rather hurriedly at the end of the session, I caught up with her and demanded an explanation. 

She seemed rather embarrassed.                                                              

“Well, you see, my mother saw us at the gate the other night and she said that since you are a Christian boy and I’m a Jewish girl it wouldn’t be right for me to go out with you.” 

I was stunned and hurt. It was my first chagrin d’amour. The pleasure of love, the old song says, lasts only a moment. But the pain of love lasts for a lifetime. Well, it certainly took me several weeks to soothe my upset pride.        

The lesson was this, that I had always automatically assumed that one was fortunate to be a white Anglo Saxon Protestant. Yet here was somebody telling me that it was better to be a Jew, and I was simply not good enough for Rita because I was a goy. There was no way that Rita’s parents were going to stand by and see her run the risk of becoming a shicksa – a proselyte – an abomination. I understood the point. Later, when I began to read widely about Judaism, I understood it better. 

Ch 2 p 4 Mum and School.

My mother’s maiden name was Eleanor Alice Hunt. She was born at London Fields, Hackney.  On the birth certificate her father was shown as Arthur Hunt and her mother as “Ellen” Hunt. This should have been “Eleanor”, and was an example of my grandfather’s airy disregard for detail in official matters. He always called my grandmother “Ellen”, and if it was good enough for him, it should be good enough for the Registrar. My grandfather’s profession was shown as “Butcher”.

My mother spent most of her life up to the Second World War in Frampton Park Road, Hackney, she and my father taking possession of the two top rooms in the house after their marriage in 1921. As a boy, I used to climb a sycamore tree in the back garden that had been planted by my mother as a seed when she was a child. 

My mother did well at school scholastically, but with money needed to help with the household expenses, she left at the age of fourteen and started work as a machinist at a local shirt factory. She pursued this occupation until her marriage to my father, after which she devoted herself to looking after the household and her children.

My earliest recollections of my mother are of a fair haired, very attractive, bluish-green eyed woman who loved me probably above all else in the world. To my father, she was “his girl”, and he cherished her and remained scrupulously faithful to her until the end of his life. My mother had long, naturally wavy hair that she subsequently had bobbed in the fashion of the time, and used to curl with hot tongs. She never wore make-up, which for some reason she disliked. Many women eschewed make-up in those days. I think it may have had something to do with the Victorian concept that only “fast” women wore that sort of stuff.

My mother had a true Cockney sense of humour and like my grandmother, she worked hard. She kept our two rooms scrupulously clean at Frampton Park Road, and I have a whole range of memories of her kneeling on a piece of sacking and scrubbing the lino flooring (we used to call it “oil cloth” in those days in London). I also remember her and my grandmother stoking up the copper in the Wash House to do the weekly wash, manipulating the heavy mangle amidst clouds of steam, scrubbing on the scrubbing board, and hanging out interminable rows of sheets and clothes in the back yard.

Having lived all her life in the east end of London, and drawing the conclusion that any sensible person would arrive at, my mother’s ambition was for her children to lift themselves out of the ignorance and poverty of our environment, and to this end she always tried to direct us.

When I first went to Infant School, in Paragon Road, Hackney, opposite the Public Library and the big Telephone Exchange, my mother used to take me there in the morning. Every afternoon she would bring with her an old tin can that we would place on the tram lines running along adjoining Mare Street. When a tram came along I would shout with laughter as it rattled past and squashed the tin flat in a most satisfying manner. 

After the Infant School, I received my education at three other schools. These were, the Hackney Free and Parochial School, which was the elementary school and stands to this day in St. John’s Churchyard, Hackney. Then by the grace of scholarships and my parents’ scheming to finance me, I progressed to Upton House Central School, and one step higher to Parmiter’s Foundation Secondary School.

However, the Hackney Free and Parochial School will always be My School, for there I spent my happiest childhood days. There the teachers seemed to have a real interest in their pupils. 

Of all my teachers I remember best Mr Bowles, a small man with large horn rimmed spectacles, but how well he knew his job of handling boys. Tragedy struck him during my later years at the school when he lost his wife. I wonder if Mr Bowles ever knew how my childish heart overflowed with sympathy for him then? I remember too fierce, bald headed Mr Atkins, the history master. He stirred my imagination with tales (delivered with fine histrionics) of the sabre toothed tiger, prehistoric man, and the first Roman invaders of Britain. On one occasion also, when I was standing in front of the class he gave me the biggest clout I had ever received from anyone for turning away when he was speaking to me. I suppose I deserved it. The next year Mr Atkins offered a book as a prize for the best historical essay and I won it. Mr James, too, springs into my vision, the kindly, grey moustached headmaster who called all his pupils by their Christian names and always had time to listen to any one of them. We all rather looked up to Mr James. Apart from his kindness and obvious ability, he was the only member of the staff who had a university degree.

And, of course, no Hackney Parochial boy who was there with him could ever forget “Jimmy” Hollick, a veritable Mr Chips. Jimmy had himself been a pupil at the school in the eighteen seventies, subsequently becoming a student teacher, and then being promoted to the full status of master. He was tall, hoarse voiced and very short sighted. His suits were always impeccably tailored and sat well on his broad boned but spare frame. He wore pebble glasses with extraordinarily thick lenses, and had to hold papers within a couple of inches of his wrinkled face in order to read them. He was the deputy headmaster, a Hackney local boy who had made good.          

After Mr James’ retirement, Jimmy Hollick became head until, in the early days of the war, a piece of shrapnel received during an air raid put out the sight of one of his failing eyes and ended his teaching days for ever. He was a good man with a fine understanding of children. Jimmy specialised in the teaching of geography. It was he who slung a map across the blackboard one day and first said to me the magic name “Australia”.     

Jimmy Hollick and Mr Bowles used to take the swimming classes together at the local (indoor) baths. At different times during the day, classes of boys would form up in a row in the school playground, “quick march” through the little gate into the silent, tree-filled Hackney Churchyard, then up and across to busy Mare Street. We used to get about half an hour of actual swimming, two boys sharing a small “box” with an inadequate wooden seat to dress and undress. Leaning precariously over the edge of the pool, and generally getting themselves soaked in the process, Jimmy and Mr Bowles would encourage breathless boys to hang on to the bar and make appropriate leg movements, yelling to make themselves heard above the din. Or else they would induce some intrepid young man who had almost mastered the art to allow his arms to be fitted into a couple of loops hanging from an overhead wire and then be lugged up to the deep end, puffing and blowing and madly waving his arms and legs.     

I never saw Jimmy Hollick actually swim, but Mr Bowles once donned a bright blue costume and volunteered to take part in a race. However, he gave up half way, informing us that he was unable to see where he was going without his glasses. We all readily accepted the explanation at the time; indeed it rather tickled our boyish sense of humour. However, in the light of adult experience, I look upon it with some scepticism, believing that Old Bowlsiefound the exertion of the race too much for him and decided to give it away.

Every Christmas, partitions which divided three classrooms at the school would be folded back so that one large hall was formed. A wooden platform was erected at one end, curtains were rigged up, and each class set about devising a sketch or short play. I remember that I took the part of the heroine in a cowboy melodrama at one of these Christmas shows. I can’t remember the plot. But I know that all rules of chivalry went by the board, because I had a tremendous life and death struggle with the villain of the piece, falling over and severely bumping my head on one of the iron desks in the process. The villain was well and truly plugged by the hero’s six guns, and the curtain fell as I swooned (very nearly literally) in his arms. The gun reports, horses’ hoof beats, and so on were provided by our effects man who stood hidden behind a small curtain, knocking the usual coconuts together and striking the blackboard with a hammer. We looked forward to Christmas at that school, and thoroughly enjoyed our annual show.

I left eventually and went to other schools, but I never enjoyed them half as much, except when a very fine linguist by the name of Algernon Montgomery taught me the first elements of French at the Upton House Central School. I learnt the elements of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and mechanics and promptly forgot them. I gained some knowledge of biology, physics and chemistry. At Parmiter’s Foundation, history meant mostly learning long strings of dates and any understanding of this subject I may possess was picked up mostly from reading books after I left school. The best thing that I retained from my education was an excellent knowledge of French phonetics and later of the language itself. I liked this and had a bent for it. I was then spewed out into the world equipped with a School Certificate and good for little else but pushing a pen.

I had failed to matriculate because in changing from one school to another I had missed out on some basic mathematics, and had never been able to pick them up. Mathematics was a compulsory subject in matriculation in those days, and if you failed in that it mattered not at all how good you might be in other subjects. After the war I found that every worthwhile avenue of study was barred to me unless I went back to the beginning and matriculated all over again. This I was unwilling to do, and the absence of any concession in this regard was one of many reasons why I finally left England and went to Australia. 

I mentioned at my last school that I would like to go in for journalism. I personally wrote to some forty or fifty newspapers, but was unable to get a traineeship with any of them. Thankfully, my school found me a job on The Hairdressers Journal, a trade paper run by Messrs. Osborne and Garrett, known as “Ogee’s”. This was a Soho firm that made hairdressers’ equipment and ran a large department store for the public and the trade. It was at this office that I started work at the age of sixteen some months before the outbreak of the 1939 – 1945 World War 2.

Ch 2 p 3 Hope Springs Eternal

In the middle 1930s my father gave up his studies at evening classes to take up pencilling for a bookie at the local greyhound races, most evenings at the big Hackney Wick Stadium. My father was quick at figures, and the money enormously increased the family income. After my father had got a little capital together, he decided to set up as a bookie on his own. He had a flamboyant brass name-plate made with the words “Harry Foxon” printed across it in red, and he ordered a large, multicoloured umbrella. Now it was he who was the boss, and he employed someone else to do the pencilling for him. 

That first season it seemed as if his luck had really turned. Nothing he could do was wrong. Every night my mother and we children would wait up for him. And when she asked him in that Cockney voice of hers: “‘Ow did you go, ‘Arry?” he would smile and reply with that Yorkshire accent which he never lost: “We’ve woon.” 

Every night he won. He hardly had a losing meeting. He bought himself an expensive suit and my mother had a new frock. That summer we, who had never had a seaside holiday before, went to Jaywick, a new resort close by Clacton-on-Sea, in a hired car. We spent a fortnight at a bungalow that cost my father twelve guineas to hire. He had four hundred pounds in the bank, and was opulent, for remember, those were the days when four hundred pounds were really worth four hundred pounds. In all my life I had never had such a marvellous holiday, neither had my mother, neither had my brother nor my two sisters. We basked in my father’s glory, and for fourteen wonderful days the sea piled itself unceasingly upon the shore while at night the lights of the bungalow colony rivalled the stars in the blue-black sky. 

My grandfather had struck a bad patch and lost his “float” with which he bought his stock of meat. My father “staked” him to begin anew and gave him a little extra on top.

 It was when we came home that my father’s luck turned for the worse. Before he had been able to do nothing wrong, but now he could do nothing right. One losing meeting followed another. He managed to pick up a little towards spring, and the following summer he hired a very inferior bungalow at Jaywick for a week only. But the holiday was a gloomy one. It was impossible to capture the carefree happiness of the previous year. Bookies were going broke one after the other at the stadium, and my father knew he had not enough capital behind him to see him over this run of bad luck. Why didn’t he quit? Well, hope springs eternal.                      

Shortly after we returned home he went to his final meeting. He was in debt and had to borrow to extricate himself. He had made his last throw to beat poverty. 

He now made occasional visits to “The Dogs”, as a punter, in the hope of a big win which would put him on his feet, but had little success. 

A worse misfortune was to follow, however. A safe at my father’s firm was robbed – a safe to which my father had had access. The police were called in, and when my father’s circumstances were known, the inspector in charge immediately decided that he was responsible. In vain my father protested his innocence. The police had solved the problem to their satisfaction, and seemed content to leave it at that.

 For days an atmosphere of gloom pervaded our house. My grandfather was earning little money, my uncle was out of work, and even my grandmother’s charring seemed to have fallen off. Now it seemed certain that my father would be sacked, if not prosecuted. After many anxious days, however, it turned out that there was not enough evidence to prosecute and that my father, in view of his previous good record, would be allowed to continue working. We were still in debt, but at least the breadwinner was not in the unemployment queue.

 My father was then in his late thirties. He eventually became Assistant Personnel Officer of the firm and Councillor in the Borough of Hackney. Did he rob the safe? Of course he didn’t. I know because he and my mother were struggling to pay off debts for long months afterwards. But more than that, and notwithstanding the bookmaking interlude, my father was such an honest man and so much of an idealist that such a deed would have been beyond him. 

Another memory of my father is that eventually, after many years of loyal service to the Borough of Hackney as a Councillor, he became Mayor. On one particular occasion he suddenly realised that the Annual Mayoral Reception clashed with the Jewish Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and fasting. He immediately set back the Reception so that the Jewish members of the population should also have the opportunity of participating. Knowing my father, I can state categorically that this was not done out of political motives – he was not that kind of man. Rather his action came from his own innate sense of what was fair and just. Nevertheless, he was pleased when subsequently the Jewish Community presented him with a medallion, struck to commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of the resettlement of the Jews in England at the time of Oliver Cromwell. On one side of the medallion is a seated woman holding in one hand a scroll reading “1656 – 1956”. In the other hand she holds the Tablets of the Law. On the reverse of the medal are portraits of Oliver Cromwell and Menassah ben Israel, the Dutch Jew who helped negotiate the resettlement. On this side is also depicted the Seven Branched Candlestick or Menorah, the logo, if you like, of all things Jewish. The medal was presented to my father by Rabbi Lehrman at a reception following a service of thanksgiving and dedication held at the New Synagogue, Edgerton Road, London, N.16, in the middle of April, 1956.    

I have written about my father at some length and am hesitant about how to conclude. I can only say that he loved me dearly, and I loved him in return. I have met many men in many walks of life, but I have never met one man anywhere who could hold a candle to my father. My father did not reveal himself to people easily. But once you knew him, you could only admire him. After my mother died, my father and I struck up a correspondence, he in England and I in Australia. I visited him twice in England, once with my wife, Irene, and he visited us twice in Australia. We both had a compulsion to write, and through our letters we became very close. It was a late flowering of a wonderful friendship that I shall never cease to treasure in my memory. 

As I related previously, my paternal grandparents were up in Yorkshire. As we lived in London when travel for the working man was an almost impossible luxury, we rarely got to see them. My Yorkshire grandfather, James, after whom I was named, actually saw me when I was young and visited Yorkshire, but I cannot remember him. They tell me that he created a tremendous scene on a bus on one occasion when my Mum was carrying me in her arms and nobody would offer her a seat. After my grandfather had finished lashing the passengers with his tongue, several seats were offered. This would be the kind of man he was, from what my father has written about him. A photograph I have shows a firm jawed man in a cloth cap and a substantial moustache looking unflinchingly at the camera. The eyes are smallish, but set fairly wide apart and quite unwavering. Some fairly wide set frown marks show faintly above the level eyebrows. Here is the face of a stubborn Yorkshireman who thinks about a problem and then, having come to a conclusion, sticks with it to the bitter end. No need to wonder from where my father inherited his stubborn streak.

Although my grandfather spent his young years in the army and then a lifetime of hard physical work in the coalmines, he had a heart murmur and should have been permanently on light duties. Nevertheless he lived an active life until his death at the age of sixty-five. I have visited his grave at the village of Grimethorpe, in the churchyard and hope to pay my respects several times in the future before I, too, pass on. My Yorkshire grandfather was a dark, swarthy man. He was well known as a “stirrer” who never hesitated to tell the mine bosses what he thought of them if he believed he wasn’t getting a fair go. In later years this prejudiced his chances of being taken on in the local coal mines. James Foxon’s father, William Foxon was also a miner. When James Foxon was twenty-seven years old, he married Fanny Sanderson, twenty five years old, from the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, whose father was also a coal miner. 

A photograph I have of my Dad’s mother when both she and my grandfather must have been close to sixty shows a no-nonsense woman who still retained her black hair without any grey, with a fairly rugged cheek structure such as I recall in my father.

I have personally but a single recollection of my father’s mother. It is a memory of a dark haired, elderly woman in a long Victorian dress, rolling me on the grass, bending down, tickling me, and laughing as I laughed. A vivid recollection is that she had a “wall-eye”. I was not sure for many years whether this was a true recollection or a dream. But checking with my father when the subject came up in conversation during one of his visits to Australia, he confirmed that my grandmother did indeed have a “wall-eye”, the result, apparently, of a stroke she had suffered.

I must have been about ten years old when my mother approached me quietly and told me that she and Dad would be away for a short while. Dad’s mother had died, and they had to travel up to Yorkshire for the funeral. I was alone with my maternal grandmother for a couple of days. When Mum and Dad returned, Mum confided in me that Dad had wept at the graveside. As I had not known my Yorkshire grandmother closely, I could not feel deeply about her, but I realised that if my Dad had wept he must have been very upset.

Ch 2 p 2 Towards a satisfactory philosophy

            I always remember my Dad being utterly dependable and like the Rock of Gibraltar to his family. Despite this, when I was a boy my Dad and I were not close. After leaving the Irish Constabulary he was employed first by the Manufacturers of Gibbs Dentifrice, and I remember well the many cut-outs of fairies and “ivory castles” representing strong teeth which he used to bring home to me. Afterwards he worked for Clarke Nichols and Coombes, the confectionary manufacturers, as an engineering storeman.                                        

            The depression was at its height – or its depth. As soon as one man stepped out of a job – or was pushed out – there were ten waiting to take his place. My father who had a young and growing family to support must have been sick with worry during all this time, hence his preoccupation which I interpreted as coldness and aloofness.

            There were occasional jewelled moments. I remember Christmas when my father and mother prepared a Christmas tree, and lighted candles were a “must” for my father. I remember how he used to bring home the Mickey Mouse Weekly with its coloured cartoons for us children every Friday night. And there were the hidden presents always produced after I had gone to sleep the evening before my birthday, so that I should discover them when I awoke in the morning – my mother also played a part in this, of course. I remember the only occasion when I played football with my father – one twilit evening on Hackney Common as the sun went down and we finally could no longer see the ball. I would not exchange this golden memory for any money in the world.

            So my father worked hard for his family during a time of unparalleled economic difficulty, and I, only half understanding the problem, thought that he was very reliable, but distant.

            With a background of generations of coalmine labourers, invariably cheated and swindled by the proprietors, my father hated naked capitalism and was convinced of the validity of the tenets of humanitarian socialism. His unalterable belief was: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” This definition alone will indicate that he was never a communist, although, in common with so many men of good will in England in the twenties and thirties, the abject failure of the Russian social experiment grieved him.

            Settled in London, a permanent resident of the Borough of Hackney, he began to work long hard hours for the British Labour Party. By the introduction of a socialist system the working man would at last get a fair go, men of good will and economic understanding would unite the world, and war and poverty would be no more. If these ideals seem empty and illusory in the affluent latter part of the twentieth century, they most certainly did not in the nineteen twenties. At that time the world was emerging from the utter carnage of the first Great War, but all that greeted the heroes returned from the battlefield were poverty, class distinction and more poverty. Never was a revolution closer at hand in England than during the late twenties and early thirties. 

            In addition to his political activities, my Dad began attending evening classes where he commenced the study of electrical engineering. Thus, although he always did his duty by his family, my Dad inspired in me feelings of awe and respect rather than close affection. It was clear to me that he was enormously intelligent. I did not think that I would ever be able to obtain his clarity of thought and power of intellect. 

            I remember that there was one day when I turned over in my childish mind what would happen if my Dad were without a job – a thought that haunted everybody during the depression. I thought: “He is our father – he will have to look after us somehow. It is his duty”. Then, as I considered it further, it suddenly flashed upon me that my worries were without foundation. My father was so intelligent that he would always be able to support us. Furthermore, it was a duty from which he would never shrink because, if he was nothing else, he was the kind of man to whom principle and duty were the most important things in life. 

            From that moment on, I was never afraid again. Although I was very young, I understood clearly that despite the fact that we were poor, we were as secure as any family could ever be because my father united us and would always protect us, whilst my mother’s love for us was unbounded.

            Parents have such an important influence on children. Some things learnt in childhood almost unconsciously from parents can affect one’s whole future outlook. I remember, when I was very young, before I went to school, I would make paper boats from pieces of torn newspaper, in a fashion taught to me by my mother. During the winter months, when we had a fire going in our small living room upstairs at Frampton Park Road, I would put the paper boats at the edge of the grate, then watch as they exploded into flames.

            I would pretend that they were German battleships from the First World War, torpedoed by allied submarines. One evening, I sat by the fire watching one of my paper boats burning, and saying quietly, “The torpedo has struck. The boat’s on fire. All the Germans are jumping into the sea and getting drowned…..”.

             My father from his chair said suddenly in a sharp voice: “You’re not to say that, do you hear? Just stop it. It’s a terrible thing in wartime for ships to be torpedoed and people drowned”.  I have never forgotten that remark. The truth of it cut into my childish play and showed me the reality in a way that has never left me. I did not play my burning boats game again.

            My father claimed to be an agnostic. But his biblical and social principles were better than those of any cleric that I have ever met.

             In our area of London there lived a large Jewish minority. Although we lived cheek by jowl there was little intermingling. The Jews kept to themselves and so did the goyim. Frampton Park Road was a Christian street, although there was a synagogue in Devonshire Road. This street intersected Frampton Park Road about half a mile up towards Clapton. In the opposite direction, only about sixty yards from us, Frampton Park Road crossed Well Street, changing its name to St. Thomas’s Road, and becoming a pure Jewish street for about a mile, right up to Gore Road and Victoria Park. There was a synagogue a few hundred yards down from Well Street, and on Saturdays, bearded men in long caftans, tall silk hats, or homburg hats used to discuss earnestly and gesticulating matters of importance in harsh, guttural Yiddish. No doubt the finer points of Talmudic Law were at issue. But, of course, in those days, I had no idea what the Talmud was.

The visible presence of a sizable and quite different minority gave rise to a deal of anti Semitic feeling. The 653 trolleybus, which ran between Upper Clapton and Mile End carrying many Jewish workers from their homes to their jobs in Whitechapel, became known as “The Palestine Express”. It was a joke, but one with a faintly unpleasant savour. Neither were the peace, love and harmony of our neighbourhood helped by the shocking unemployment existing at the time. These strange foreigners (thought the goyim) must surely be stealing jobs which native born, red-blooded Englishmen ought to have had. It never occurred to them, of course, that an Englishman could also be a Jew. Christians faintly disliked their Jewish neighbours. For their part, the Jews faintly distrusted the Christians.

One day, struggling to solve this problem (I must have been about nine years old), I said to my father, “Dad, do you think we ought to stop the Jews from coming to this country – because they’re taking our jobs?” My father stopped what he was doing, looked at me very seriously, then bent down so that he could talk to me face to face. “Listen son.” he said, “Always remember that if a man comes to this country, works hard and honestly, and keeps the laws of the country, then he has as much right to be here as you or I have.” 

I have a crystal clear recollection of that statement of my father, and I believe it to be the most important remark that anybody ever made to me in all my life. It was a never to be forgotten signpost towards a satisfactory philosophy.