Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.

Ch9 Pt1 Sponsorship to Australia

“They’ve published it,” said Irena. 

She held out a short typewritten note to me.

Dear Sir,

Your letter to The Editor was published in ‘The Sun’ today, and we have pleasure in enclosing a cutting.

                “Yours faithfully ………..”

It was signed by The Associate Editor of the Sydney Sun.

“Well,” I said, “let’s hope it will help us to get on our way to Australia.”

Irene and I were in the small upstairs flat near Notting Hill Gate that we had been lucky enough to rent after our marriage early in 1947. The letter, which had just reached us after journeying half way across the world from Sydney to London, was the result of our latest effort to obtain a sponsor to bring us to Australia.

We had decided many months ago that our future lay in Australia. The idea of migrating had been at the back of my own mind for a long time. After the war it was resurrected by the publicity given to the country by its “Food Parcels for Britain” scheme. The Australian Government also initiated a drive for British migrants. The problem was to obtain berths on the limited number of overcrowded ships.

During the war in Britain we had seen quite a few Australian airmen who were regularly engaged on bombing raids over Germany. Also one saw occasional Australian sailors. I do not recall ever meeting any Australian soldiers. After their stint in the Middle East the Australian Prime Minister of the time, John Curtin, had withdrawn them to Australia to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. This was after a ferocious but well-concealed row with the British Prime Minister Churchill who thought that Australia was expendable, and could be liberated from the Japanese after the defeat of the Germans in Europe and North Africa.

Irene had known a few Australians in Cairo. They were rather notorious for misbehaving themselves and taking bars and bistros apart. She said that basically they were lonely and frustrated, and weren’t really bad at heart.

The Agents General for all the Australian States were in the west end of London, and most of them in The Strand. Thus I could walk across Waterloo Bridge from the Headquarters of the London County Council where I worked and read the Australian newspapers, which were always on display during the lunch hour. I did this for two years so that when the time eventually came for us to go, I felt that I knew as much about modern Australia as I did about England, and when we got there, I would not be a stranger. I also read as many books on Australia and Australian history as I could find in the library with the object of making mental preparation for the future.

Irene was not happy with the London climate after the openness and sunshine of the Middle East. The dirty streets oppressed her and the cold winter chilled her to the bone. Moreover, she viewed with alarm the renewed activities of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist hooligans, and wondered how many of her friends who thought she was German would still have been her friends had they known that she was not only German but Jewish. Remember that the clap-trap mouthed by these young fascist thugs who openly began to hold meetings in London was identical with Hitler’s ravings which had encompassed the death of most of Irene’s family little more than three years previously.

Sir Oswald Mosley, by the way, who addressed fascist meetings in the east end, dressed in jackboots and black riding breeches and shirt in pre-war years, had been interned during the war. It was always a mystery to me why the authorities did not shoot him. Instead, with that tolerance for which Britain was at one time famous, they let him loose again.

If these things made Irene begin to doubt the wisdom of continuing to reside in London, I saw the city as a huge stone and concrete prison. A kind of claustrophobia gripped me when I walked its dusty streets, devoid for miles of a single blade of healthy green grass.

The general economic situation at this time was also most depressing, and a sense of urgency began to prick at my mind. I was in my late twenties, beginning to look towards thirty, and I had achieved nothing, neither did I seem to have any prospects. Apart from these things, however, there was another even more important matter thrusting me towards pulling up stakes and starting afresh. Quite simply, I had a quite dreadful personal vision of the England of the future.

I saw the rich getting continuously richer and the poor getting poorer. I saw a country with decreasing access to raw materials and a need to rely increasingly on superior technology to import food and resources necessary for its survival. But who could guarantee that with increasing competition, English manufacturing excellence would continue to be triumphant? Beyond this, the tight little island was grossly overcrowded. Furthermore, the nation had always been riven by class distinction and had never been a true meritocracy with equal opportunity. I saw this inequality and class distinction tearing England apart.

I did not foresee racial strife, because West Indian and Commonwealth immigration had barely begun. What I did see, however, was the spectre of nuclear war.

Already we had been almost brought into conflict with our recent allies, the Russians, over the Berlin question – where that city had been divided into four segments under British, American, French, and Russian control.

There was no way in the world that I would have joined up again to fight the Russians, and I am sure that a very large number of ex-servicemen at that time would have been of the same mind. But it was crystal clear that Russia was to become the next enemy. Nuclear bombs had won the war against Japan, with what terrible effect everybody knew. How long would it be until the Russians mastered the technology and laid waste to England?

These, then, were our reasons for wanting to get to Australia. We were held up because of lack of shipping following the war. The Jumbo aircraft of the modern era had not yet been developed, and all travel to the Antipodes was by ship. The Australian Government, in its drive for migrants, was offering free passage to ex-service personnel. But in order not to prejudice the housing situation in Australia, which was very restricted after five years of war in which little building had been permitted, it was necessary for each migrant who was not a skilled tradesman to have a sponsor. This individual would guarantee board and lodging for six months in Australia. Irene and I had no known relatives in Australia, neither had we discovered any friends who had contacts. Therefore, to accelerate processing of our immigration application we had to find a sponsor. This was the reason for my letter to the Sydney Sun. The letter read as follows:

           Waiting, Hoping ……..

                My wife and I first decided to migrate in 1946, and long before the present ‘free and assisted passages’ scheme came into operation, we were investigating at Australia House here in London, generally gleaning all the information about it that we could.

                There are now about 750,000 applicants for free and assisted passages registered with the authorities – and the list is getting longer every day. So it would seem that if government-assisted migrants eventually leave at the rate of 50,000 a year, a wait of “some years” for those without priority such as my wife and myself may mean 15 years!

                In desperation my wife and I booked private passages with the P and O Line. We should be broke when we reached Australia, but at least we should get there while still young enough to feel ourselves part of the country.

                We were told at the time that we would have to wait 18 months for a berth. Today, more than a year afterwards, we are informed that the shipping position has worsened, and that a wait of three years is envisaged before tourist berths become available.

                When such difficulties and delays are put in one’s way, one feels at times like accepting the fact that one is beaten. Only at times, however, because we intend to come to your country no matter how long it takes, and to settle there.

                I wonder, nevertheless, if there is any reader of your newspaper who would care to nominate a would-be immigrant and his wife — both ex-service, and not afraid to work and learn? 

                When we get settled in Australia, we know at least one family whom we in turn shall nominate.”

About a fortnight after receipt of notification of publication of this letter, we received a further letter from a Mr P, of Campsie, Sydney, New South Wales. Mr P informed us that his parents, to his everlasting regret, had christened him Oliver, and begged us to call him “Oll” for short. He also told us that he would nominate us for a free passage if we received no other offers of help. As it turned out, we did not receive any other offers. Thus, a few weeks later Oll, true to his word, and despite the fact that he and his wife had five children, and his own house was, if anything, overcrowded, had nominated us.

Oll was employed at the GPO in Martin Place (now Martin Plaza), in Sydney. He was an upright, honest, hard working Australian gentleman, who took a chance on a couple of complete strangers. I added him and his wife Alma to my very special list of people whom I regarded it as a privilege to have known.

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 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”.