(Updated April 2017)
I was born in 1947 at Thorpe Coombe Hospital. Round about November, I moved from Highams Park with Mum, Dad, Gran and my sisters to a newly-built council house at Millfield Avenue, Walthamstow, London E17.
Yes, I am an ex-E17 musician!
This was described as a "centrally-heated" house, because it had the chimney in the middle, with heat vents off it to two of the bedrooms, and a radiator in the dining room, behind the fire. I have all sorts of little fragments of memories about my childhood at Millfield, and I will gradually put more of them into this space, although it looks like being a long job. I find that a good method of digging them out of the inner recesses of my mind is by concentrating on a particular spot in the house or garden, so I will list the memories geographically rather than chronologically.
Here’s Mum, against the background of next door’s house. The area by the front doors had a large ledge that ran all along the block, above the bay windows, and was supported by thick metal pipes in the form of narrow ladders. This made it easier for window cleaners and burglars, but also tempted many young children to climb where they shouldn't. Memories of the street itself include the deliveries by the baker in his electric cart, like a milk float. There were also winkles and cockles, which Gran loved and I hated, and of course, the horse-drawn rag-and-bone man who rang a handbell and shouted “any rags or iron?”. We all used to love to stand at the front door, under the protection of the generous porch, and watch thunderstorms. Partly, we watched because, being at a low point in the road, our front garden was likely to flood with water.
Here, we see one occasion when it filled the road, covered the garden, and a van drove along the pavement, but I don’t think the water ever got indoors. From the front step, stretching all through the hall, and across the kitchen, there were red tiles that Mum polished with tins of Cardinal, and Uncle Arthur also liked to tap-dance there, as did Beryl. I remember a later occasion when I was alone in the house, and found a trail of thousands of ants leading from the front door, along the edge of the carpet runner, and through to the kitchen, where they were having a party. Thanks goodness those tiles allowed me to boil kettles and brew some ant soup without any worries about where the hot water would end up.
The window frames were all iron, and they distorted with temperature changes, so they allowed lots of draughts, as well as inordinate condensation that had a knack of dissolving ornaments. I remember that as part of Dad's wicked sense of humour, he placed a loudspeaker in the hedge by the pavement, and the speaker doubled as a microphone, so he could listen to people, and startle friends and family members with this disembodied voice. We also enjoyed having a similar device listening through the chimney to pick up night sounds from all round the streets. When Dad put one on the landing, we were naughtily listening into Gran's nightly bedtime routine of swearing "bloody this" and "bloody that" as she thoroughly brushed her long white hair. She was extremely superstitious, and never swore at any other time, in case God heard her. Presumably her bedroom was God-proof? It was an image that gave me a nightmare after she died in 1960, aged 76. Nobody thought to tell me that her body wasn't in the room any more, and at the age of 13, I was “protected” from any knowledge at all about the funeral.
Later, I wanted to repeat the speaker idea, but with a microphone as well, so I had to work out how to keep three wires together neatly, and I invented a method of twisting alternate sides, quite unaware that that was how girls plaited their hair. Dad and I invented a lot of things that other people also invented. Sometimes, we did it first, sometimes we both came up with the same ideas, but we never made money! I remember when I had the idea of a guitar in which the strings touching the frets also sounded electronic organ notes. Dad separately came up with the identical idea, but unfortunately, the Vox company made it, and made money too. Another time, I designed an electric guitar which was hardly any bigger than the area of the strings, with no head at the top. Everybody said I was mad, but as I sat there in front of the telly, polishing my new creation, there it was on "Top of the pops", a Steinberg, virtually identical! I had a computer idea brewing for many years, but someone beat me to it with the actual creation. After all, it doesn't seem to be my function in life to make any money, I never did. I invented a binary music keyboard, and later saw it used by stenographers. In the seventies, fed up with paying through the nose for bad haircuts, I invented and made a precise hair-cutting tool, which I still used until it fell apart in 2011.
In the kitchen, between the cooker and the sink, under the draining board, there was a copper, which had electric elements inside, and provide the means of doing the washing by swishing it around with a copper-stick. (On reflection, this may have been a rolling pin.) There was a mangle in the garden. The porcelain Butler sink had hot and cold taps, but the hot supply depended on a back-boiler from the coal fire in the front room, which also fed the radiator in the dining room. Hot air rose through vents from the chimney to gently warm the two larger bedrooms, where there were also lethal electric bar fires. One day, I tried to light a little oil lamp from one, and was initiated into the family tradition of electric shocks. June had grown up to be terrified of everything electrical, because of Dad's many crackles and bangs. Dad had the knack of repairing televisions, so we had them before most people, but they were usually other people's rejects, which Dad had to work on, so they were often running with the cabinets removed, and, today, would be considered a health and safety nightmare. Some of the worst ones came from Uncle Len, I guess they were the ones he couldn't fix! We became connoisseurs of the characteristic and pungent odours of burnt-out rectifiers and exploded condensers. The aerial was just a piece of wire, and Dad would go around the room, trying to find good reception, but eventually he got angry, and just threw the wire. This, of course, resulted in much improved pictures! I don’t know how they learned to do electronics, perhaps it was from their uncle John.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Among the early television programmes, I remember Billy Bean (my inspiration) who “built a funny machine to see what it would do”. I built several. There was also Arthur Haynes, who did comedy sketches about stupid people and unpleasant, irritating people, but I just didn’t understand what he was getting at, because I grew up in the protection of a family group who were honest, intelligent, literate, eloquent, logical and creative. I’m inclined to say working class, but with middle class English. Apart from Dad’s rages, we were all fairly quiet and placid, and when I went out into the real world, I was shocked to find that it was not the same, people were often a disappointment, or irritating, or downright unpleasant. The current trend towards “Reality TV” is not doing anything to improve my view of certain elements of the human race, it focuses far too much on the negative, and gives little credit to the many good people in the world. At least they get an airing on DIY SOS.
Apart from their love of music, one thing that bound Mum and Dad together was their fascination with spelling and pronunciation, and they found great amusement in words. Life was undoubtedly hard, and I remember being shocked when I saw how little Dad earned. He may have suffered from migraines, because he could often be found shut in the front room, with the curtains closed, and sitting with a towel over his head to block out the light. He groaned a lot, but nobody dared asked why. In recent years we were told that he had suffered all his life with a terrible stammer, but my sisters and I were completely unaware of it, although he had an odd way of blurting out short sentences, and covering his mouth when he spoke.
With so many girls in the family, Uncle Len was unusual in our family circle in having 3 sons, Pete, Mike and Len. On one occasion in the late fifties, we all went camping here in Great Yarmouth, a favourite holiday destination of ours, although a long way by motorbike. There always seemed to be a thunderstorm when we camped here! I loved the huge night skies, but never imagined I would end up living in GY. I went for a walk with these 3 boys that I hardly knew and, being shy, felt a bit out of my depth. We walked around the headland and were amazed to see a submarine moored there on the river. My memory of it is vague, but it seemed quite small. Recently, local people were trying to confirm that submarines were moored here, and I happened to know that they were.
The kitchen was very modern for its time, with fitted cupboards along two sides, including a tiny built-in fridge, and a floor-level cupboard where Peter the dog lived. Beryl had come home from school one night with him in her pocket - "can we keep him?". June says Smudge was our first dog, he got run over near Grandad’s sports ground, and Dad had him put to sleep but didn't tell us straight away. The second dog was a Peter, and he was black and tan: he got bitten by another dog near Kings Laundry, where Mum worked. He ended up paralysed and Beryl remembers that Dad made him a little cart for his back legs, but eventually, he had to be put to sleep. Peter (II) became the kind of best friend for whom I put up with being bitten occasionally. I had such fun with him, and took him shopping with me. One day, he escaped from the garden, found my school, and wandered around looking for me, so I had to take him home. Another day, I lit a giant banger firework called an "Atomic Bang", and then Peter appeared from nowhere, and headed straight for it. I tried to rescue him, but ended up with a loud bang in my ear. Still, it was better than my mad school friend Alan, who stuffed a GLASS boiling tube with the gunpowder from several bangers, and then lit the fuse. It went out, so he stuck a lighted match in the end, and nearly blew his hand off. He also created something like TNT in minute quantities, which would blow up any fly unfortunate enough to land on it.
Dad had a wonderfully artistic, creative side, which showed up not only in his music, but in woodwork and other things. He made me quite a few wooden toys, I remember a garage for my toy cars, a rifle, sword, shield, axe, battleship, and a castle for the toy knights in armour which Mum got me from Selfridges for Christmas, a luxurious trip I remember well, but I don’t know how they found the money. Later, I made a few things for my daughter Sarah, including a zoo and a dolls’ house. I’d love to do more modelling if life provided the time.
(But I haven’t got the figure for it.)
This view is from our house, and to our left (not visible) is where Brenda lived. I married her, her brother Dave married Viv, from the house on the left of this picture. Viv’s brother Gary married Elaine, from the house on the right. The front fence was a metal one, which was pulled out from time to time, so that the motorbike and sidecar could be parked on the lawn. I saw a shiny red sidecar recently, hand-made, and in typical Dad-style, it had timbers inside that hadn’t even been sanded. One wonders how such things are allowed on the road nowadays in this health-and-safety obsessed world. When Dad got his first motorbike, he applied to the Army, because he should have been on record as a dispatch rider, but they couldn’t find any record of him driving anything except lorries, so they sent him a driving license for a car. This was not much use to him, and he had to pass a test for the bike.
Interestingly, he was mentioned in dispatches twice for his bravery. One, he said, was pure temper, shooting at a fighter plane with his bren gun because it dared to shoot at him. The other was a tragic event when all the platoon except him were killed by a booby-trap while picking peaches. With a gaping wound in his stomach, Dad crawled for days in ditches, hiding from Germans, and reported the location of a radio operator hiding inside a haystack. Dad never ate peaches again. His brother Len came home with a fear of mice and rats, from his experiences in the trenches. Their sister Rosemary says “I remember Mum and Dad taking me with them down to either Plymouth or Portsmouth after he had been injured and we watched him being brought off the boat on a stretcher, something I will never forget.” The few stories Dad told about the war usually involved musical instruments, like the time when Dad left a banjo standing in a truck, and a soldier jumped down but caught his hand-grenade, pulling the pin. Unlike film fiction, the truck was not blown to bits, but it caught fire, and all that remained of the banjo was a pile of frets and other metals parts, all laid out neatly on the floor. The officer regarded the banjo as essential for morale, and drove Dad to town to find another. Len left his guitar leaning against the inside of a tent overnight, it rained, the water ran down the guitar, and it fell apart. Dad took the opportunity to have a go at any instrument that was available, and was sometimes banished to the outskirts of the camp for his practice sessions on louder instruments. When he was based in Mytilini, he played a bouzouki, and something he said was called a TRIPOLIN, like a mandolin with triple strings. I can’t find that one listed anywhere.
Dad had a strange need to use the crudest of tools, probably because he never had any money in his life, and on occasions when I tried to buy him better tools, he didn’t seem to have any use for them. He made a pear-shaped instrument a bit like a bouzouki, and branded some decoration into it with a soldering iron, including palm trees and a camel. The instrument weighed a ton!
My first car was an Austin A40 Countryman station-wagon, like this one, with flip-up indicators. We always felt safe when Dad was riding his motorbike, but learning to drive a car with him was a nightmare, partly because of his temper, but also because he regarded it as acceptable to coast round double bends at speed with the clutch down. When I went for proper lessons, I had to unlearn a lot of what he showed me. When he planned a route for a holiday, he would draw a straight line on the map, then write a long list of all the twists and turns required to stay as close as possible to that line. The logic is easy to understand, but in practise, it was not an easy task for Mum (on pillion) to guide him along such a complicated route, and it was certainly not the shortest, quickest or easiest. I wonder what he would have made of satnav!
In the kitchen there was something called "the side" which consisted of fitted cupboards with a worktop. As a small boy, I found a screw on there, and promptly shoved it up my nose, as children do, so we had to go to hospital to get it removed. "The side" was also where the teapot lived, with its cosy, and the sugar bowl, where we dipped pieces of raw potato. Next to it was a tall, slim broom cupboard. The cooker was electric, it took an age to warm up, but then continued to heat the room for hours after it was switched off. Dad liked to eat only selected meat products that didn’t look like part of an animal, such as sausages or spam, which he fried until they were well beyond the state of being "bien cui", and bordered on charcoal. He had a lot of digestive problems, which he solved by gorging on indigestion pills as if they were sweets. He used to heat the dog’s food, still in its tin, as if the dog cared, but on one occasion, Dad left it on too long, and the tin exploded, spreading dog food around the kitchen.
The dining room was small, and Dad decided to paint the ceiling with some dark blue paint he got for nothing. We were horrified at the prospect, but it made the room seem strangely taller. Then, he had an uncontrollable compulsion to use up the free paint in all sorts of other places. In the middle of the room was a rather fancy squareish dining table with extendible flaps. The place mats were wooden, hexagonal and stained brown, I had always thought they were home-made until I saw identical ones in an antique shop. By the window was the sideboard, which held the family photos, knitting materials, and a radio, where we listened intently to such delights as "Journey into space".
Knitting was a hobby of Mum's, she laughed at the way her wrist clicked as she did it, but then she laughed a lot. I remember a hideous bright blue bolero thing she knitted me, and I didn't want to be seen in public with it. The house's only radiator was where I tried to warm up while I was dressing in the mornings, using the electric fire, and I remember what seems to have been a very rare occurrence - Mum smacked me, and I wasn't sure quite what I did to deserve it. Who knows what was going on in her head at the time, she rarely showed anything but smiles. Our family didn’t go in for a lot of physical contact, and this has given me a healthy respect for people’s personal space, but I remember a time when Mum told me that I was too old to be cuddling my Mum. Dad made a daily, prolonged ritual of shaking my hand before I went to bed, but it was 40 years before I hugged him. I remember also that if June or Beryl had a boyfriend round too late in the evening, Dad would bring the alarm clock into the room and wind it forcefully to make a point. Subtle as a sledgehammer. Once, I was asked to a party, and wondered if Dad would allow me to be out late, but it was fine, because I was a boy!
When Mum was at work, Gran spent many hours comforting me through a period of seemingly endless earaches, until they were diagnosed and treated at the clinic next to the town hall. Once a week, I had to put 60 squirts of liquid up each nostril. Gran was a strange mixture, so caring and loving, and yet I remember that as I grew up, I found her more and more irritating, and was uncomfortable with feeling that way about her. June and Beryl say that she had a habit of stealing their toys, and giving them to relatives and friends as presents. She believed every old wives’ tale there was, and was curiously superstitious about God too.
The back door from the dining room led into the garden, and Peter the dog found a convenient way of getting out there urgently when a cat passed by, he just leapt through the glass. Years later, another dog did that to my front door when the postman came. By the door was a small strip of flower-bed, with vertical iron rods to carry plants growing up a wall. Then a paved area, with the mangle, and manhole covers, as well as space for mending motorbikes. Occasionally, bigger jobs like building sidecars were done on the tiled floor of the kitchen.
Steinweg and Brinsmead thought that kitchens were for making pianos, but apparently they were wrong.
I was bought a bike, but given no proper instruction on how to ride it, so it rarely left the garden, and was often turned upside down to serve as a spaceship, a ship's wheel, or whatever was needed at the time. I was not really encouraged to go out in the street and play, but didn't feel restricted by it, I just played the parts of the cowboys AND the “Indians”, in the days when it was considered entertaining for Hopalong Cassidy to kill Indians by the dozen. The alley between the two houses was echoic, and I liked to make noises in there, and record them, it was an interesting place to play the guitar. Above the alley, we seemed to have the advantage of more house-room than the neighbours, with the bathroom, large landing cupboard, and part of Gran's boxroom above the alley. However, the consequence was that all of these spaces were extremely cold. The bathroom was heated by a tower paraffin heater, which stank, and scared us, especially when Dad messed about with its adjustments.
Imagine designing a "centrally-heated" house with no heating in the bathroom, where people take their clothes off!
From the kitchen's back door, we stepped out to a coal shed, which nestled into an L-shaped concrete shed in the garden, making a square-ish building joined to the neighbours' sheds. One of my delights when I was alone was to climb out of the bathroom window, and leap down onto the garden from the shed roof. I wonder if that’s why my knees don't work properly? Dad suffered the same problem as Mum’s brother with his knee, which sometimes seemed to dislocate, and cause great pain, so I wasn’t a bit surprised when the same happened to me, but I soon learned the hard lesson that I had to avoid kneeling down and twisting sideways. In 2015 I said that I wasn’t sure if the pain in my knee was any worse now. Then half an hour of acupuncture fixed half a century of pain and stiffness.
The first neighbours at 127 were an old couple, the Sowerbys. Then there were the Jaggers, who oddly spent large amounts of money altering and decorating what was, after all, a rented council house. When Brenda's family moved in next door, Mum and Win spent many tea breaks chatting in the dustbin area, and on one occasion I took what seemed to me a very poignant photo of cups and saucers on the dustbin. I had it made into a greetings card, I wish I still had that. Between the shed doors was the dartboard-cum-airgun target area, where Dad said that Chris (later my brother-in-law) and I shattered far too many old 78rpm records. I was sometimes an angry young man, and sometimes spent long periods in the garden, I can't remember how much of that was taking out my temper on a spade, and how much was actually achieving things for Mum in the garden. I remember she kept asking Dad to dig over the area of earth near the house, but he never got around to it. I did it for her and, of course, got told off!
When I was quite young, Mum decided she wanted an area at the far end of the garden closed off by a trellis, Dad made it from scratch, and stained it dark brown. I am not sure what the idea of the trellis was, apart from supporting Rosa's roses, but it became an area of interest for me, being secluded and well away from the arguments in the house.
It was also a backdrop for photos, including what is undoubtedly the worst one ever taken of me, when I wore my new McEntee school uniform and a vicious haircut. I still shudder thinking of that sadistic barber, Reg, who had a rare talent for inflicting unnecessary pain on small children – why should a haircut be painful? Just across the road from him was the horrible, aggressive dentist – even more pain! It took me years to get over my fear of dentists. In the trellis area, I remember a gooseberry bush and blackberries, more of which could be found halfway down the garden, so we had lots of yummy blackberry pies. I also remember battling with huge ant nests whenever the weather brought out the flying ants.
When I started school in 1952, I was not a sickly child, but when a little girl called Elaine vomited what seems to my memory to have been a huge pool of smelly stuff, my “gut reaction” was to vomit as well. This traumatic experience has obviously blighted my life, because now, I vomit regularly – every thirty-seven years!
As for schools, I went to Infants and Juniors at Roger Ascham, with Carol Keyes, Danny McVay, Daphne Lowe, David Atkinson, David Ware, David Watson, Derek Barber, Eileen Wiggins, Elaine Bailey, Jeremy Weinstein, Lorraine Pearson, Mavis Chambers, Richard Billingham, Roger Baldwin, Roger Green, Roy Stebbings, Sally Wells, Stephen Beck, Victor Clements and many others. Here are some of them…
Looking at this 1956 photo, I see faces that shaped my perception of people I met later in life. I am in the middle of the front row. On reflection, it seems as if it was a different planet, where the kids almost always got on, never swore, and found very little need for aggression. I was not a gang member, and not usually involved with the crowd, but that didn’t mean I was ever excluded, or looked down upon for it, but I was made to look stupid when a much younger boy got me down on the ground, because I had no interest in, or concept of, aggressive fighting. Most school breaks were spent with Jeremy Weinstein, son of a local councillor, and (later) with Roger Green. Jeremy and I were the only boys to pass the 11-plus, our treat was a day out with the headmaster, Mr Newton, and (before the days of CRB checks) he took us to a zoo, then showed us how he processed photos taken there. I wonder how many children now would consider it a treat to have a day out with their headmaster?
One of the most amusing things about English for me is the fact that I listened and carefully learned from my dear old form teacher Mr Charlton in Roger Ascham Junior School, and went on for years spreading his “wisdom”. It was only in later life that I found that some of what I learned so carefully was wrong, like his idea that “maintainance” is about maintaining, whereas “maintenance” is about tenancy. There is no such word as maintainance!
When I was eleven, I had my first-ever eye test at school, and nobody could believe how I struggled to see the letters, desperately leaning forward to try to get a clearer view, but it transpired that I had a serious astigmatism in my left eye. What was really strange was that my reading age had been assessed as being 4 years in advance of my peers, and I can only guess that I learned to recognise the shapes of words, because it is unlikely I could have read the individual letters clearly. I remember coming out of the clinic wearing my first pair of specs, and I was stunned to find that everything in the world around me had sharp edges! Recently, I found that my left eye had improved so much, I don’t need to wear specs for driving, so why would I wear them at all?
One day, Mum and Dad took me to Littlehampton, and I saw a little girl undressing for the beach. My face must have been a picture, Mum and Dad laughed at my ignorance, but did nothing to cure it. I remember that Roger Green and I wandered the streets one evening, discussing a rude joke that we didn’t understand, involving a carrot and a garden, and trying to work out what sex was all about. Like me, he was told nothing, but he had the advantage of seeing his girl cousin naked regularly, which filled in some of the blanks. At college, aged 16, a friend tried (poorly) to explain what he meant by a “pansy”, which I only knew as a pretty flower. It involved wrist movements, before that sweet word “gay” was hijacked. Why did my parents think it was right to bring me up in such ignorance? Mum had suffered a nervous breakdown with her first period, because her Mum didn’t warn her about it, you’d think she would have learned something from that, but I suppose it was a different world then. I don’t think my parents could have coped with the television programmes of today.
Coming just across Billet Road from Roger Ascham to senior school, McEntee Tech should have been familiar territory, newly built right in between Mum’s work at Kings Laundry and Grandad’s old home as groundsman at the BDV sports ground (above). I only have vague memories of Grandad’s time there, the tennis courts, playing on an old lorry, and going into a big, dark shed where Grandad kept his tools and machinery. We had parties in what I remember as a wooden pavilion with a big old clock.
This was a gathering there from 1947, with me on Mum’s knee on your left. I always feel very much at home when I go into little wooden halls to tune pianos. Gran was Mum’s Mum, my other grandmother was known as Nan, (top right) and after the sports ground, she and Grandad lived in a caravan made for them by their sons, first at Herne bay, Kent, then later at Thundersley, Essex. Apparently I was Nan’s favourite, but when we visited, children were seen and not heard, while Nan and Grandad tried to shout over each other, and Mum and Dad had to field answers from two different conversations. The last time I visited, Grandad suddenly acknowledged that I was a human being, and engaged in conversation with me, letting me hear how his hearing aid amplified the sounds from great distances away. I wish I’d had more time to appreciate his finer points.
He died at 72, allegedly because of years of chain-smoking, lighting each fag from the previous one, so be warned, if you chain-smoke you might only live into your seventies!
Nan came to live with us briefly, it was not a happy experience. She was virtually blind, and had no experience of dealing with life, Grandad had dealt with all their paperwork and finance.
At McEntee, I really was on a different planet, (or perhaps it was reality) I found myself surrounded by kids using 4-letter words that I had never heard, and laughing at me because I didn’t know what they meant. My senior school days were the very worst of bad times for me, and I hated every minute. Most of the teachers had nothing much to offer, and two of them were worse bullies than the pupils, so I joined the engineering bias, just because it avoided Westwood, the bullying history teacher and Radowicz, a manic geography teacher who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and was determined to take it all out on the little children he was supposed to educate. The headmaster was equally angry and unpleasant, not someone I could respect. It is perhaps interesting that I can’t ever remember the subject of drug-taking being mentioned at school, but Mum helped out at an old people’s party where Purple Hearts were being handed around quite openly!
I remember that the whole class laughed when a boy, asked about his ambitions, said he wanted to be a dustman like his Dad. I confess that has never been my ambition, and in a country where the streets have become dustbin parks, I seem to spend a ridiculous amount of my time and energy separating rubbish and trying to conform with impossible regulations. I think back longingly to a time when the dustmen were like tooth fairies, rarely seen, but we just kept our dustbin discreetly in a back alley, and went on putting our rubbish into it, it never filled up. I am in favour of helping the environment, but for example, plastic bottles must not be placed in plastic bags, but their lids must be put in a separate bin – in a plastic bag, yet plastic bags are not allowed in that same bin unless they have something in them, or we receive a note from the dustmen saying they could not empty the bin because there was “contaminated waste” in it. Paper must go in the recycling bin, but not if it is torn up or shredded! Meanwhile, we are told we must crush plastic bottles, but they won’t stay crushed, because we are not allowed to put lids on them!
For most of my life, I could take rubbish to the dump, and get rid of it, but now, we can’t keep pace with the regulations about what may or may not be dumped, and there seems to be a conspiracy to charge for most items if they can be construed as “DIY waste”, whether it’s a carpet, a brick, or a piece of wood. Wood? We are only allowed to dump one BAG per day. I said ”It’s not bags, it’s bits of wood”, but the man just shrugged. No wonder we have so much fly-tipping! I took an old plastic stereo to the dump, and as I headed for the general waste bin, a large and terrifying woman with a loud, coarse voice shouted “MET’L”. I looked round and asked what she meant but she just repeated “MET‘L”. I said “it’s not metal it’s plastic” but she insisted. Now, the new improved system has brought her to her knees, and she has to be polite to “customers”, so I found it greatly satisfying when I took some rubbish and the same woman said through gritted teeth “would you mind awfully putting it in the black bin over there please, thank you very much”!
Suddenly, in the sixties, “The Shadows” were popular, people at school were playing guitars, and although theirs were posher than mine, they handed them over to me to play, because I was better than them. Suddenly, I was respected for something. Then, a group of sixth-formers invited me to regular private gatherings in a room behind the stage, where my musicality brought me older friends who appreciated me. Music was my first love, especially if Doris Day was singing. Our music lessons were a farce, more to do with who the great composers slept with, where they lived, and just about anything except the actual nuts and bolts of the music. On a rare occasion, Mr Adler played us a track from an LP, and asked what was wrong with it. I was shy about coming forward, but nobody else seemed to have noticed that the clarinet was flat, so I pointed it out. He was impressed. On another “proper” music lesson, he wrote a short tune on the blackboard, and I composed an answering phrase. Adler was almost lost for words.
It remains a puzzle to me that “music books” are never about music, they are about artists and recordings, in the same way that “music questions” in quizzes don’t have anything to do with what I have been learning for half a century.
I remember that on the way home from the Hoe Street annexe of the school, a bully and his cohort took me to the broken-down prefabs at the edge of Lloyd Park, and shut me in a cupboard several nights running. It didn’t scare me, it bored and irritated me. They piled huge amounts of rubble into a big metal bin, which was supposed to keep me in the cupboard. I knew I could break the flimsy cupboard if I had to, so I just waited until they had finished, then pushed my way out. I don’t think I was ever a weakling, even before I started shifting pianos around. Like Dad, I knew how to bluff aggressive people, although I hoped I would never have to back it up, I didn’t have fists like his, he was the kind of Dad who was there for me on the rare occasions I was in trouble, but seemed unable to enjoy our relationship otherwise. He taught me how to punch, but never made me feel like fighting anyone except him, I would love to have punched him in those days! One day in 1960, I punched a bully. He was sadly undamaged by the assault, but impressed that I had the courage to do it, he left me alone after that. I have never felt the need to punch anybody since, and aggression usually stays away from me. People nowadays talk a lot of rubbish about violence on the streets being a modern phenomenon, of course it was always there, and I remember that in my teens there was talk of gangs wandering the streets, armed with flick-knives, lead pipes, and bike chains, although I never encountered them.
I am sometimes accused of being absent-minded, but I don’t think it’s an old age thing, I feel I always was. I remember that Chris used to bet me money that I couldn’t finish the washing up in so-many minutes, I always failed because my mind was on other things, especially music – that was more important than money. I hated washing up with Gran because she left all the bits of food on the plates – in the water. Yuk!!
Lloyd Park has a big area of open grass, great for playing with the dog, or for those who are inclined to team sports. Gran used to walk cousin Carol and me through the park on Saturdays, and we found time to look at the enormous goldfish on the way to the Empire cinema at Bell Corner, Hoe Street. Carol says we sometimes took other cousins with us. Apart from cartoons, one film I can remember is “The Vagabond King”, because I liked a particularly rousing song from it. It talked of France being taken over by Burgundy, but this was fictional, and our French friends have never heard of the idea. A film that stirred my emotions was “Lassie come home”, I unwisely watched it again recently, and I can see why, I have always been a sucker for dogs!
I remember asking Gran why the trees had white bands painted around them, she said they did it in the war so blind people didn’t bump into them!
Gran’s sisters used to visit quite often. Great Aunt Clara lived around the corner, and Great Aunt Alice was a little further away. What always intrigued me about those great aunts was their need to sit with their legs apart, and show more than I cared to see. I have warned Beth to look out for the tell-tale signs now she is a Great Aunt!
Cousin Carol was a regular visitor at Millfield, and although I seem to have been surrounded by girls, this one was always special to me. Carol cannot remember Dad ever being aggressive, I guess he was on his best behaviour when she was there, so he could obviously control it when he wanted to. One thing that sticks in her mind is that her family always ate the same meal together, but when she stayed for a meal with us, we all ate different things. I don’t know why. When I visited Carol at her house, she would make a sort of milk shake from custard powder, sugar and cold milk, it became my favourite drink then, although she doesn’t remember it. Looking back, if we had all the rules that are forced on us today, I don’t know what we would have eaten. There were several options alleged to be milk, including powdered, evaporated and condensed, but I preferred the real thing. Chicken used to be a rare and expensive treat. The only fast-food takeaway was fish and chips, but our ordinary diet included things like bread and dripping, lots of sugar and sweets, Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Fry’s Chocolate Spread, and bread with almost everything, before makers started putting all sorts of indigestible additives and hard grain into it. I grew up thinking I would be alright as long as there was bread in the cupboard and water in the tap, but modern British white bread doesn’t like me at all, and people now spend inordinate amounts of money on buying bottled water because what comes out of the tap may be lead-free, but it doesn’t seem to taste like it used to. Mum made bread sometimes, it went a bit strange, but came out tasting much better, so I encouraged her to continue. At Christmas time, Mum and Gran were involved in making cakes and puddings, and my reward for assisting here and there was to scrape the bowls afterwards. I think I preferred the cake before it was cooked.
Walthamstow Stadium (“The Stow”) closed in 2008, it was famous for greyhound racing, and I remember going there for stock car racing, but it was too noisy for me, and car races don’t excite me any more than watching a toy train going round in circles. Carol and I had outings with Gran where we walked through a footpath by the stadium, and came out in Highams Park, probably heading for the lake. We walked up Cavendish Road, and stopped at a corner sweetshop where Gran knew someone. I don’t know if they were related to us, but our family had lived nearby in Castle Avenue, when I was born.
Click on the picture to hear the parties.
Back in Millfield, the front room was the hub of the famous Kibby parties, centred around Gran's upright piano, which was bought in 1933 from W.H. Barnes at the enormous cost of 4/6 per week. There was no music theory, no bits of paper or discussions of notes or keys: it was playing from the soul. Away from the parties, June and Beryl used to like to play simple duets on the piano, such as “Heart and soul”, or one of two tunes known as “Chopsticks”, and another little tune played on the black notes. These same tunes remain popular with some young people today whenever they come across a piano, learned by rote from their parents. They also sang Everley Brothers harmonies, and June liked to sing descant parts for school carol concerts. I also remember how Gran loved to plonk away in private on the black notes, with old favourites like "Sweet Rosie O'Grady", and "When I grow too old to dream". Bad as it was, it was no worse than Irving Berlin's piano playing. Our neighbour Mrs Mead had her piano backed up against the party wall, so we heard her more than she heard us. I liked to experiment with musical sounds representing other things, such as ghosts or trains, like the mood music on television, but Dad didn’t approve. I remember the wholetone scales that created such tension for Dr Kildare’s operations. Years later, when I sold the piano to one of my tuning customers, Dad decided to WASH the dust out of the inside with a wet cloth, which turned it all to mud. Dad threw the receipt and guarantee away, which seems annoying now that I am a piano historian.
A very sad memory for me was that, having largely ignored each other at parties for years, my artistic, creative cousin Jean and I suddenly found a friendship that was very special, and we began visiting each other, and talking about things, sometimes on the phone, which was half a mile away for me, but she had one indoors. Then just as suddenly, Jean was killed in a car crash, hours after visiting us on holiday in Kessingland. I am glad we had that brief time to get to know each other a little. The photo at Jean’s Dad’s caravan in Kessingland shows our neighbour Mr Rackham (later my father-in-law), with Dad, Mrs Rackham and probably the last photo taken of Mum.
ROSA EMILY KIBBY
Mum died when I was just starting work, I have lots of memories, but never feel that I got to know her as well as I would like to have done. I suppose I was a typical teenager, wrapped up in myself. Although she had been suffering from leukaemia for years, and was bloated by the drugs, it really didn’t cross my mind that my Mum could ever die. At the time, I was numb, and didn’t seem to know how to grieve for Mum, I recall being distracted at the funeral by the fact that the crematorium had the same organ as me. Another odd memory of that event was the way that mirrors inside the funeral car created strange, disturbing multiple images. Some years later, when my dog died, I said that I cried more for that dog than I did for Mum, but that became some kind of trigger that allowed me the privilege of crying for Mum whenever I wanted to. I’ve cried for a good few dogs too. A few years ago, I started to learn a catchy Lucretia McNeal tune, “Ain’t that just the way” but when I first looked at the words, I couldn’t sing it without bursting into tears –
“She was a very special warm and gentle person,
who put the music in the world, and spoke in rhyme,
and it hurts me that I never really knew her,
coz all it would have taken was some time”.
Living with Dad, music was the centre of our life, around which all other things floated haphazardly. Dad’s incredible one-ness with music was his redeeming feature, the thing that always impressed me at times when I needed something positive to say about him. Beryl said much the same. Some of the best musicians I have known are also the most impossible human beings. In recent years, I heard a banjoist playing with a jazz band, and said he played just like my Dad. I was told I was listening to one of the best banjoists in the country.
In the days before people shredded personal information, we just chucked it all on the coal fire, and I remember how we loved to place crisp packets on there, and watch them shrink, whilst remaining perfectly formed until they disappeared. In earlier times, I bathed in a little tub in front of the fire. In the recess by the fire was a wind-up gramophone, where we would listen to Les Paul or Frankie Laine. The double doors between the front room and dining room will live in my memory as the place where Beryl could poke her tongue out at Dad without him seeing, during one of their many rows. June, Beryl and I have never in my memory found it necessary to get annoyed at each other, but Dad was sometimes too much to bear.
At the top of the stairs, there was a big cupboard where Dad set up a photographic darkroom, and I used to experiment with "light art" on photographic paper. The tiny toilet room was unpleasant, but one of the lighter moments associated with it was when Dad painted the seat just before a party, and the paint didn't dry. When I went to a tearoom called Twyfords in recent years, all I could think of was seeing that name on the toilet bowl every day.
Inside the front door, there was a tall cupboard at the bottom of the stairs, which included the electric meter. The stairs were a favourite area for me, I loved to see how many steps I could jump down without injuring myself. (When I wasn't jumping off the shed!) I had dreams where I could fly all the way down the stairs. I remember trying to jump in a similar way off a breakwater at Canvey Island, and landing on my stomach, knocking all the wind out of me. I didn't do that again. I was never sure why Dad wanted to drive all the way to Canvey, it hardly seemed worth the effort, and when I went there a few years ago, nothing seemed to have improved.
I was in each of the bedrooms at some time, I may get the sequence wrong. As a small child I was in with Mum and Dad in the big back bedroom, then the big front bedroom. The girls and I liked to squeeze ourselves into the little top cupboards, and hide from Gran. Some time after Gran died, I moved into her boxroom, where I had a smaller space, but it was all mine. I think it was when Beryl and Terry lived with us. It had a big, square box-like structure over the stairs, which seemed to gobble up a lot of the space. When I had the big back bedroom all to myself, I remember finding out that the water tank was above where I slept, and it took some time to get used to the noises it made.
I had a train set, but was never especially interested in the trains going round and round, I just loved designing a model village on the board, which I called Bilston. (Get it?) I remember an occasion when I was using something along the lines of papier mache to build scenery for the railway. Tearing up newspapers and magazines, I came across a photo of a pretty girl wearing a bikini. I had never seen anything like that, let alone held it in my hands, and it had a somewhat pronounced effect on my anatomy, so I tried to hide it where Mum wouldn’t find it. I can imagine her laughing at that! Eventually, I couldn’t take the guilt any longer, so I buried the picture as a layer in a model of a mountain. The end result was not as good as I had hoped, so I dumped it on the compost heap. When the weather got to it, it fell open like a book, revealing THAT photo!
That bedroom was also where the music, recording and songwriting really got going, and I remember hearing Mum saying to a neighbour "I'm looking at the sky, wond'ring if it's gonna rain", which became a lyric.
In 2003, Millfield had a bus route running through it, and my photo shows new windows and door, but for many years, the glass in the front door continued to bear the mark where "Billy" had thrown a stone at it when I was a toddler! I was known as "Billy" for the first few years of my life, but decided quite young that I preferred "Bill", and I've been stuck with it ever since: perhaps it was because I didn’t want to be Billy Jimmy Kibby! I wouldn't mind if I didn't have to wrestle with two different initials. Gran called me "Billiam", a version of the name that always feels comfortable: Surprisingly, it was only in recent years that it ever occurred to me that Liam is a shortened form of William too.
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