Christian Values?

The Reverend Gilbert with his treasured cricket team.
Author – far right, standing.

I’d like to tell you about the Reverend Gilbert, or Gobby Gilbert as we children referred to him, due to his predilection for spraying the front dozen rows with saliva during assemblies. Have a look at those jowls in the cricket team picture. He didn’t always soak the first years – only when he became passionate, which happened whenever he was talking about God or cricket, which was pretty much always so strike my assertion at the beginning of this sentence. A Church of England primary school has a communal act of worship every day so he talked about God at least once a day, but usually more than that.

I can only remember him not talking about God or cricket on two occasions. They were so special, I still know the science topics, 6 decades on. He talked about why birds can survive sitting on high voltage pylon cables and how we get energy from cold food. That apart, it was God and cricket and often as not, God with cricket! Those topics were synonymous for Gobby. You will want to know what sort of cricket topics he would kill a 45-minute science or religion lesson with. I remember some of them. Try this example.

‘Three cricket teams are in a tournament. One team has brilliant bowlers but average batters and fielders, the next brilliant batters but average fielders and bowlers and the third, brilliant fielders but average batters and bowlers. Who won the tournament?’

He then discussed the plusses and minuses of each team and explained why the fielders would win. I remember the argument, but won’t bore you here.

He praised me only once in four years. That was the day after I won the district swimming gala for the school. Had I lived in the posh part of Cheam, or my dad been a lawyer, doctor, teacher or man of the cloth, this praise would have been administered during assembly. As my dad was a working man, he took me to one side and quietly, almost with regret, said, ‘Well done La Pensée.’

But it wasn’t God, or cricket or his reluctance to acknowledge the achievement of the sons of an honest worker that made me detest him and leave the school a dyed in the wool atheist, it was Mr. G, the music teacher. He physically abused the boys, Gobby must have known and did – nothing! It was such a done deal at the school, that we didn’t even bother to tell our parents.

Mr. G was a sadist and beat the boys unmercifully about the head with his knuckles, sometimes until they saw stars. His favourite trick was to ask a music question to which we couldn’t know the answer and then beat us for our stupidity.

Eventually, it was my turn.

‘Come out here and play middle C, La Pensée!’

I had never had piano lessons, he had never shown me where middle C was, so he could be sure I wouldn’t know and he could administer a good hiding, just for fun.

Wrong Mr. G!

I stood in front of the piano and based on it being called middle C, I looked in the middle.

Now many men in the 50s, as a result of the war, were heavy smokers. It was almost a patriotic chore to have a lit fag drooling from your lips – watch any Robert Mitchum film from the decade. As a result, many men had a yellow forefinger on the right hand, and there, in the middle of the keyboard, was a yellow key, because Mr G used to beat the note with his nicotine finger, prior to beating the child for its stupidity, with his knuckles.

I went for it and hit the yellow key. His disappointment was obvious. He probably considered beating me anyway, but didn’t.

No other teacher hit the kids. Why did those men of the Church let him get away with it?

I have a theory. Please do not believe this is an excuse. Nowadays, G would have gone to prison for the way he hit under 11s and rightly so!

My theory is based on an experience I had with Mr. Eveleigh, who was, without doubt, one of the loveliest people I have ever met. He died a decade after I had left the school, of a heart attack, while refereeing a football match. Yes! He had a yellow forefinger, too. I watched mothers of past pupils weeping in the street, when his death became known.

There was a jumble sale to raise money for the school. I purchased a tortoise shell covered pad and silver propelling pencil, for my mother. It was a typical handbag accoutrement of the 30s. After the sale, we returned to the classroom and I was so proud of my purchase I took it to show Mr. Eveleigh. He was quiet for a moment, then said in a very low voice, ‘I’m glad you like it, boy. I put it in the sale. It belonged to my wife. She died in an air raid you know. I hope your mum likes it, too.’

This was at least 15 years after her death and he still had a lump in his throat. I know he never remarried.

Our secondary school religion teacher, Mr. Foster, had a severely disabled wife at home, because of the war. Who knows what Mr. G experienced? Was he in the Far East, a Japanese POW perhaps? Did he have such horrific experiences that the staff room figured, beating pupils was a small price for our generation to pay? We boys would have it better than any before us and probably after us, for a good few centuries.

Were they simply jealous, or furious and couldn’t forgive us the good life we would have, when theirs had been ruined by war, rationing, bereavement?

I remember a particular Gobby-Gilbert assembly to this day, and it perhaps reinforces my theory.

Gobby read from the Times of Thursday, 18 April 1957. I was 9.

‘Defence Policy approved – Conscription to end with 1939 class’.

He explained. Those born before 1940 would still be conscripted and we – lucky people, born 47/48 – wouldn’t have to serve.

He looked at us and knew we would be spared the worst 6 years of his life.

He clearly felt he had been dealt the crap hand.

The rumour went around Cheam, that Mr G went to prison for attacking his wife with a razor and hammer. I have no idea if that is true! Oddly, he had a sense of justice when he wasn’t teaching music. He revered Paul Robeson for his proud championing of black people and was a devotee of Billy Graham’s evangelism. It all didn’t add up.

Billy Graham’s fourth statement of belief is – ‘We believe all men everywhere are lost and face the judgement of God…..He will reward the righteous with eternal life in heaven and He will banish the unrighteous to everlasting punishment in hell.’

I know where you are right now, Mr G.

The other side of 50s primary education. The nicest person I ever knew. Mr Eveleigh and the under 11s football team.

How a novel begins.

The last stop – how a novel happens.

Berlin Diary – Summer 2012.

How it started.

I walked into the sunshine from the old East German airport, still called Schönefeld. (Beautiful Field). It shouldn’t still exist. It had long ceased to be fit for purpose and is now being renovated. Back then it was truly awful. Late evenings, when the charter flights to Istanbul and the beaches of the Black Sea and Turkish Riviera leave, it  was a hellhole. It takes one back to the days of the terraces at football matches. You have to hope that the direction in which you are being pushed, will take you to the right departure gate.
That day in 2012, was much calmer. A young woman approached me and asked for €3 for a subway fare. She was dressed OK, not fashionable, but tidy. I tried to help her, but she was so distracted that she ignored my advice.
When I arrived at my apartment, I immediately sat down and tried to commit to paper, what a twenty-something woman was doing outside an international airport, with no money, no credit card, just a few stray tears in her eyes. I think she was Polish. I called her Maria.

A frantic woman in the shadows doesn’t attract attention.

Mystery Moments in Old Age

The key slid in the lock with its usual slight resistance – or did it? Wasn’t there a different feel to his apartment door? How would he be able to decide that? He knew he imagined things and then often had to admit they were unverifiable. That was to be expected at his age, but that lock felt different, dammit. Why would he pretend to be dumber than his years?

His monologue was loud enough to reveal a mid-west accent. Living as he had, outside the USA since he was 33, he rarely spoke English, except to himself. Now he felt the need for that special clarity produced by native emotions.

He dropped his shopping bag in the kitchen and as something wasn’t right, dropped his backside onto a convenient upright chair. Then came the ritual of smoothing a greying beard and short-cut sparse white hair.

His disbelief at the tricks of a wild imagination caused a shake of the head, which meant a glance through the doorway, towards his writing table in the next room. Where were the papers from the church elders? They had written asking him if he would play a few Sundays, while the regular organist had her baby. He’d left the letter there, on his desk, protruding from the half-opened envelope that had arrived that morning.

The envelope was gone!

Jumping to his feet with the energy of a five-year-old, he inspected the desk, the drawers, turned papers over to make sure he hadn’t slipped it under something, to then stand, arms crossed over his old-man’s torso, considering possible conclusions. What was there to consider? Someone had taken the papers. Impossible of course and why would they?

‘Check the waste bin,’ he said, his voice husky from the years of too much singing. He still sang. ‘What is there left in life if one stops singing,’ he would have demanded. ‘Why would I have thrown them away? Why am I beating myself up, accusing myself of some bizarre senior moment? There is only one explanation! Someone has let themselves into my apartment.’

Back in the kitchen he bent to retrieve the bin from under the sink, but, although his hand arrived on the bin lid, his concentration didn’t. He’d left the sink full of breakfast washing up. Where was it? Not on the draining board – so he hadn’t washed up on auto-pilot and left it to dry. Washing and drying without noticing was a step too far for credulity. He opened the crockery cupboard. There were the plates, cereal bowl – and his favourite mug, the one he never put in the cupboard, because he used it so often.

The ringing phone diverted him from the unsolvable riddle. It was a friend from the UK, one of the few people with whom he still spoke English. That was good. He felt that revealing the onset of dementia shouldn’t be hampered by language limitations.

A quick ‘Hi,’ was all he said as a greeting, which barely covered necessary courtesy.

‘I’m so glad it’s you. Advise me if you can. Am I lucid?  Do you get the impression I’m losing it? I can’t decide anymore. Think carefully. A lot depends on your answer.’

The 60s. Dance Hall Teenage Angst

Not for some – freedom, drugs, sex, rock and roll.

Dance Hall – A coming of age story.

The mirror sphere rotated. It was all my dreams, scattered across walls and ceilings, even the floor, where pretty maids trod on them. Only now, do I realise, their agonies equalled mine.

My mate, Bill Prentice said, ‘If you can’t pull off the walls of the Croydon Lucano, you’ll spend your life in chastity.’

I think he meant celibacy, but I didn’t argue. I sensed the failure in his voice and shared his gloom. We wouldn’t pull off the walls of the Croydon Lucano. Of that, I was sure, even though we knew many of the girls on the other side, who went to the neighbouring girls’ school. I kept wanting to say Meccano instead of Lucano, and so decided a vow of silence was safest. A vow of silence, only to be broken if….. If what?

Times were desperate, but Bill had status and provided he didn’t walk someone home, life would go its untroubled teenage boy without a girlfriend, way.

What if Bill did…. And I didn’t? A scenario so scary, I considered hiding in the car park with the smokers.

I was recovering from my dad’s first lesson on the facts of life. I walked down the hallway that evening, dressed like a Christmas Tree – ties were obligatory – when it occurred to him that he had never said anything relevant about sex.

‘Remember son. You can get what you need at the barbers,’ he had murmured.

What? I was fifteen, on my way out at 7 o’clock in the evening, to my first dance, and my father suggests I need a condom and could reasonably knock on the barber’s door and ask for a packet of three. Why didn’t he plunder his store if he thought I was going to get laid?

Wire brushes on side drum, announced the music would begin. It was followed by a chord full of expectation and hope, which disintegrated into a foxtrot.

My mate, Bill Prentice said, ‘I think that’s a foxtrot. No one here can dance a foxtrot. What are they doing?’

I sensed heightened desperation in his voice.

Opposite, sat the opposite sex, beautifully white in dresses made of materials I’d never heard of. I imagined my gran using words like, ‘crinoline, damask – or is that a scent, poplin, or perhaps popelin. The first time I heard that pronunciation, I thought she said ‘pipeline.’ My granddad had a line of pipes in an oak rack, each stinking according to its history. If I did get a dance, and did manage to open a conversation, please Lord, let me not mention my granddad’s smoking habits or say Meccano.

My eyes wandered from the crinoline to the faces and hair, back-combed to within an inch of its life, lipstick, identical in every face. I thought of the saying, ‘all cats are grey at night.’ Perhaps it was the light.

I asked my mate, Bill Prentice.

‘Are the lipsticks all the same colour?’

He was unprepared for this intervention on the science of colour and lipstick. Perhaps, he was busy working out his opening line for the next dance. He cussed a lot and when his power of dialogue returned, called me every swearword he knew.

That’s OK. That’s what mates are for. I felt reassured.

There was one girl who I really fancied, but knew the outlook was hopeless. She was more worldly-wise than the rest of us and was busy marshalling her troops. She wore a plain black dress, straps, with a yoke round the neck and the back had a large round opening, revealing……  flesh.  

Her hair was confident, worn loose, the make-up measured.

I asked Bill Prentice, my mate. ‘Who is the girl with the dress open at the back?’

‘That’s Belinda Titts older sister. Belinda brought her for moral support.’

I mentioned once, over dinner, that there was a girl in a parallel class, in the parallel girls’ school, called Belinda Titt. My dad said, ‘That must be John Titt’s daughter. I went to school with John.’

My God! This, has been going on for generations and no one has done anything about it. You can’t go through life being called Belinda Titt and what woman, with a sensible maiden name such as Smith or Baker, would court a guy called John Titt

If I were called Mathilda Ramsbottom, I might consider it.

Mathilda Ramsbottom might even consider Clive La Pensée. What were my parents thinking of?

‘Belinda’s sister is very confident, Bill,’ I said, hoping I wasn’t interrupting some major strategic, dance-opening manoeuvre, fermenting in Bill’s cortex.

This time he answered without wrath.

‘Enviable, isn’t it?  I reckon it’s the – Boy named Sue – syndrome. You know, the song by Johnny Cash?’

‘How do you know this stuff?’ I asked.

He ignored me. It took me years to work out what he meant.

The foxtrot was threatening to finish, and no one had danced.

Belinda Titt’s older sister broke rank and walked across the dance floor towards the male line. She seemed to be heading in our direction. This was interesting. She was looking at me. She was coming straight at me. I felt my hand taken and pulled gently onto the dance floor.

‘I can’t foxtrot,’ I stammered and thus, exhausted my knowledge of ballroom dancing. I had never stammered in my life until that point.

‘No one can foxtrot,’ she reassured me. ‘Just shuffle.’

She was confident, took me round the shoulder and shoved me round the floor.

I took her in a similar clinch and felt my hand slide into the hole at the back of the dress. I shouldn’t call it a hole, but have no idea what the correct name for deliberate vandalism whilst dressmaking, is. I wasn’t thinking dressmaking. This was my first genuine touch of female flesh. She smelt and felt divine.

‘Take your hand out my dress,’ I heard her command.

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to.’

‘Don’t apologise. Normally I wouldn’t mind, but tonight I am here on a different mission. You are Clive, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I answered with concision, despite total confusion. Had Brenda Titt just said I could put my hand in her dress, normally? She commanded my attention before I had chance to work that scenario through.

‘Good. I’m Brenda – Belinda’s sister. Do you know Belinda?’

‘Not really,’ I admitted. ‘I know who she is, of course.’

I was cross with myself. As a person, I hate causing pain in others. I might as well have said, ‘Who wouldn’t know who Belinda Titt was?’ That said, it wasn’t my fault her name was Titt.

Brenda was unabashed and not cross with me. She was fabulous. Under her influence, I was beginning to dance in a halfway reasonable manner. That woman controlled the world. No! That was my gran, who had she been born a man, would have led armies across Europe. Brenda was less scary than my gran.

Brenda put her face close to mine. I felt her soft cheek skin, then lips, against my ear. It was heaven. She whispered something in my ear. I had to strain to hear above the music.

‘I want you to dance with Belinda.’

‘Sure thing,’ I said. I would have lay down on railway tracks for Brenda.

‘She likes you and you have to dance with her,’ Brenda continued.

‘I said I would.’

‘And spend the evening with her – well most of it, and be attentive when she is on her own.’

‘OK,’ I promised. ‘Attentive – you mean hang out with her?’

‘Precisely, and walk her home afterwards. It’s not far.’

The music stopped. Brenda had ended us up near Belinda. I felt a gentle but determined shove, and I was in Belinda’s arms.

‘Yes. I’d love to dance,’ she said, before I had chance to ask, and she propelled me back to the dance floor.

You have to remember my confusion. I had just fallen passionately and eternally in love with Brenda. Belinda wasn’t in the same league. She was my age, a little dumpy and wasn’t tall enough to whisper in my ear, the words I longed to hear. She wasn’t going to tell me to dance with her sister. She was hanging on like a limpet. Our knees were in permanent conflict.

My hand was round her back and it slipped naturally down to the dell above her bottom. It was dark, so I put it on her bottom and waited for the protest. We shuffled. She said nothing.

I had always been baffled by the female form. My mother wore items designed to change what nature had given her – turn her into an armadillo. Linda had no armour on and an adequate backside. This was only my second dance in this life, and this life had just changed.

A few other couples were grinding across the floor.

‘Thank you for dancing with me,’ she said.

‘Pleasure is all mine,’ I said and increased the pressure on her left cheek.

‘It won’t be pleasure on Monday morning, when all the lads rib you about dancing with a Titt.’

I let my left hand find her right cheek, and squeezed.

‘I think Monday morning can look after itself.’

I was learning how someone could end up courting a girl called Titt.

The mirror sphere rotated and among its thousand light dots whizzing across the walls, ceiling, floor, Belinda wrapped her arms around the back of my neck, and kissed me.

60s Teenage Angst 2 – The Red House

The Red House

A red house, in Gander Green Lane, was not lost not lost on smart school kids, as a clash of colour identity.

‘I wonder why it’s called Gander Green Lane,’ Paul asked.

‘It sounds like an old name, from the times when one shoed geese to get them to market,’ I offered.

Blank expressions. I elucidated. As the harbour of useless information, my classmates expected it.

‘Before railways, geese and turkeys walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London. The journey would take months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.’

Clueless faces, followed by derision.

‘That doesn’t explain its name,’ John said, with teenage honesty.

I don’t know what had come over me. I usually hid my store of useless information. I fell silent and didn’t explain that the lane once connected two hamlets and is believed to date back to Celtic times as a path. The Victorian house, painted red, was once red brick, but in a fit of patriotic vandalism, many houses had their red bricks painted red, window frames white, and gutters blue, for the coronation.

 The gutters have long returned to white, to match the woodwork, but no one considered how to get the paint off the bricks. Now, water has penetrated and the paint blistered in bubbles of damp. That apart, the red house was unspectacular, apart from the myth surrounding it, entirely created by burning teenage imaginations. And we were to make up another version, about the imposing, scary, red house on Gander Green Lane.

John said, ‘It’s red. I bet it’s a brothel.’

Geography, followed by RE, had wound their usual gruesome paths that afternoon, and diversion was essential if we were not to explode with frustration. Perhaps that is why Paul said the least expected thing.

‘I wonder how much it would cost. I mean, could we afford it?’

I looked at the house. Apart from its colour, there was nothing to suggest any ill repute. OK. The paint was bubbling and had peeled off in places and the paths were barely visible beneath the weeds, growing through the gravel. Hedges covered some windows.

Paul asked, ‘What would happen we saved our pennies and one day, rang the door-bell?’

‘Cross ‘we,’ out,’ I said. I wasn’t going near this one. Paul had to be joking. I mean – what would he say?

Joke or not, three days later, after some complicated dare I wasn’t privy to, we stood on the gravel – what was visible beneath the sheaves of flattened grass from the neglected lawn – and watched Paul ring the bell. Despite our secret prayers for no one to be in, the door opened immediately. I heard the fateful words cross Paul’s lips.

‘I’ve emptied my pennies jar. How much do you charge?’ He sniggered, then looked away to hide his mirth.

An elegant old woman, stood at the top of the high steps, framed by mock Greek pillars supporting an elaborate portico. I knew she was retired, but hadn’t expected her to still dress for dinner. Why else would she wear a black flapper dress from her youth, at 4.30 in the afternoon. I noticed, that her dress, although made of some amazing material, was stained after decades of battles with soup spoons. She was an embarrassment. We were mocking the afflicted and I wished I were somewhere else, but couldn’t move before hearing her response

‘Charge?’ She asked, her glissando climbing to a top soprano A, much like an amateur dramatic rendition of Lady Bracknel’s ‘A Handbag’.

For what should I charge, pray?’ she continued. ‘Do you think I am some kind of sedentary accumulator?’

That was witty, I now know, but beyond me at the time. She smiled at her joke, and I wondered if the layers of rouge wouldn’t follow the blistering masonry.

We waited for Paul’s response. I prayed he had prepared the scenario. Ad libs wouldn’t do.

‘I mean, it is a red house – obvious – isn’t it?’ Paul’s voice began to falter. We didn’t appreciate how little sense we were making.

‘I haven’t the foggiest what you are talking about, boys, but come in, all of you and I’ll make some tea and we will see if we can get to the bottom of this.’

She spotted me hanging back.

‘And you, young man. Don’t be shy!’

She moved to one side and allowed us to pass. We were a post-war generation drilled to do as adults tell us. Despite the lunacy of our predicament we obeyed, and if we got into trouble, we would use our highly developed low-degree of cunning, to extricate ourselves, or at least, charm our way back to safety. It’s Darwin. The war years had left us with a default position, where we obeyed, rather than face consequences. But sidestepping consequences often leads to deeper mire. That doesn’t matter. We had learned to operate like a squad of highly honed Sergeant Bilkos. It didn’t occur to us that we are out of our depth. Onwards and upwards – something will turn up. Just don’t deny an adult their will and above all, show no fear.

‘Sit down,’ she commanded in a familiar way, once we were in the back parlour. ‘I’ll make the tea.’

She left and we heard cups clatter in the distance.

‘She isn’t cross,’ I whisper to Paul.

‘She soon will be,’ says John, ‘if we can’t come up with some plausible excuse for having rung her bell. Just don’t tell her we thought her house is a brothel, because it is painted red. She’ll call the police, or worse, the school, and if they tell my dad?’

We dared not consider that one. I diverted myself from imminent danger by checking out the furniture. Her parlour was crammed and it was dark, despite the huge Victorian bay-window. The curtains were so heavy that, even drawn back, they obscured much of the window, not obscured by the bushes outside.

I caught a glimpse of the back garden. The grass was several feet high. Time to act – go on the attack, before defence becomes impossible. I walked through to the kitchen. She had her back to me, but heard me come in.

‘Do you have some shears?’ I asked.

‘Oh. The grass. I know,’ she sighed. ‘It’s got beyond me this summer.’

‘We’ll do it,’ I promised. ‘We’ll be back at the weekend.’

‘That’s kind, but you don’t have to.’

‘We do,’ I countered. ‘It’s not your fault you house is red, but the unkempt gardens around a red house, are leading people to make up things. We will put it right.’

‘Good Lord. What sort of things?’

‘Leave it with me,’ I answered, ignoring her question, and picked up the tea tray for her.

I explained over tea, how we would put Saturday afternoon to good use, chopping grass. No one dissented and the penny jars were not mentioned.

Saturday, we assembled on the gravel and looked in amazement. Not a weed. Bushes and hedges were trimmed, grass cut. We heard the door open. She was in the same dress, but it had been to the cleaners. Her hair was trim, the make-up more measured and without rouge.

‘I got a company to come in and fix it,’ she sirened in her Oxford English. ‘I much prefer it and feel so much better. It was a nice thought, but you boys would have never managed such a huge task. Tea in the back garden. I’ve made some cake. Teenage boys are always hungry – so I’ve heard.’

We trooped through to the back garden, now trimmed and weeded. Tea was ready on a central table with brand new garden furniture around it. We relaxed. No weeding was necessary and no crisis management to explain why we had rung her bell. There was tea and cake on the lawn, surrounded by a jungle of beautiful bushes. The sun came out to make a perfect afternoon.

‘Your visit the other day, got me out of my rut,’ she explained as she poured tea. ‘Did me good. Changed my life, in fact. Thank you. All of you. You were very brave to ring my bell and tell me where I was coming up short. Now, let me cut the cake and then you can explain the riddle of the penny-jar!’

Three brains crashed back into Sergeant Bilko-mode.

60s Teenage Angst 3 – Workplace

Little Town Blues – or why I became a science teacher.

Little Town, Essex. Real name – Stanford-le-Hope. Better named back then, Stanford-no-Hope. A just reminder that the ‘good old days,’ were actually, crap! The pictures of it look great, now! Put Stanford-le-Hope Fertilizers into your search engine and check out images. Not so pretty!

It felt like 400 souls (it’s actually much bigger) and an ammonia oxidation plant, with its own water tower, to defy the flatness of the North Thames mud. Little Town nestled on that mud, due south of Billericay and west of Foulness. Where was the swinging London, just 30 miles away? I think it was a figment of media imagination.

The ammonia was purchased from the Shell Haber Process, a few miles upriver, oxidised in Little Town, on a platinum catalyst to form nitrogen oxide, washed with water and sold as nitric acid to the fertiliser plant in Barking, just behind the Crooked Billet, which itself nestled under the towers of a Lead Chamber Sulphuric Acid plant. Presumably, the Crooked Billet had an alkaline front door, acidic back and the ridge tiles might have been neutral.

I had been promised, during O-level chemistry lessons, that the Lead Chamber Process was of historical interest only, and there was one, spuming sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and occasionally oxidising a molecule to sulphuric acid.

The nitric acid from Little Town sometimes managed to react with more ammonia to make ammonium nitrate – a first world war explosive – and when damp, a modern-day fertilizer. Some ammonia was reacted with sulphuric acid to get ammonium sulphate, which is used to keep the worms off putting greens. It was nice to know I was making a difference.

But Barking was in the future. Back to Ammonia Oxidation.

The reactor was the size of a small car, hexagonal, with a hood and a pipe in and one out. Several dozen stainless steel nuts held the hood in place and tried to prevent the high-pressure gasses from escaping through the flange. It sat above the compressor, which was the size of a bus, and squeezed the air/ammonia mixture to about 30 bar. The gas mixture was blown over a platinum gauze catalyst and the exothermic reaction soon heated the gauze to around 1000oC. The flange was no match for these forces, and leaked, almost as soon as it had been reassembled with a new gasket and much straining, with long-armed ring spanners. The rule is, to tighten in a sequence that prevents distortion. No one did.

The idea was to get the gauze to a fine cherry red. The colour could be studied through a small window in the side of the reactor. The temperature was controlled by altering the ammonia/air ratio, of the gases entering, with a wheel, attached to a valve.

Harry, was the master of redness. One can’t easily measure high temperatures, so the operator had to learn which redness gave the optimum conversion. Harry had the redness! During his shifts, the efficiency of the reaction peaked. He tweaked the mixing wheel to perfection. He knew the red he was looking for and how to get it. I never spoke to Harry. Occasionally, he would by chance, look at me when I came in with an evacuated flask and took a sample of exit gas, to see if Harry had the mixture right. We sent our hourly figures to Harry, but he never looked at them and certainly never turned his wheel on our account.

The compressor made conversation impossible and anyone working on the reactor had to wear ear-protectors. So, Harry spent an eight-hour shift, in silence, communing with a red gauze catalyst, through a tiny window.

His wife, Sharon, was a typist. They copied handwritten notes from bosses, and made them presentable, using a typewriter. She wasn’t on shift work, so they didn’t meet that often. She went home for lunch and he stayed with his platinum gauze.

Frank, the tanker driver, I was told, parked his tanker, every lunchtime, outside Harry’s house, and went in.

Everyone mocked Harry. If the other process workers bumped into Harry, when he didn’t have his ear-protectors on, they would say to him, ‘Frank’s got it in for you.’

It’s a joke that is barely funny once, but after several months, only amuses the teller. Harry ignored it. I wondered why, until Alf, my boss told me to cut across to the typing pool and give Sharon a report to type up. Thus, I met Sharon, and learned why Harry communed with his gauze, rather than go home for lunch, which left me with the Frank-conundrum. What sort of bloke would park his tanker up daily and spend his valuable lunchtime, with Sharon? There must be libido limits.

One day, I went into Little Town at lunchtime to run an errand. I saw the tanker stop, and Frank more wobbled than climbed down, and with difficulty. There could be no doubt, Sharon had to go on top. Smart move, Harry.

Alf was the chief chemist, a post everyone assumed I aspired for. I knew the truth. I couldn’t do dire boredom, so Alf spent much time repeating my analysis. They were rarely in spec. There were two reasons for my poor performance. Firstly, I wasn’t that committed to standing under a 10m scrubber, spewing not-so-dilute nitric acid over me, while a wrestled with the corroded valve on the sampler tap, or injecting high pressure gas mixture into a pre-weighed evacuated flask, in a din, way above the pain threshold. I could do the ammonium nitrate water content. If one took too much water out it exploded. I was finally motivated even though our oven couldn’t dry it sufficiently. And then there was the Keljar test. I was clueless until I read the word. The man’s name was Keldahl. That didn’t worry the independent state of Essex. Pronunciation was as random as doing the football pools.

  Assuming I did get a decent sample, which was rare, I wasn’t very good at the analysis. Alf would pretend every day to repeat the test, but in fact entered the required value so the process didn’t have to be interrupted. Occasionally, Alf had a result so bad that he phoned across and warned the chief engineer that he would have to consider a shut down. That was a big deal and the process took several days to restart, so the chief engineer would tell Alf to keep repeating the analysis until he got it right. On such occasions, Harry wasn’t in the control room. Harry had the redness.

One day, as the Thames mist settled across the mudflats, obscuring the top of the water tower, I was told that Legionnaire’s is a bacterium that grows in warm stagnant water and it was some time since we tested.

‘But the water in the tower is about 8 oC and not stagnant,’ I protested, but was told, that was the moment we needed a Legionnaire’s test on the holding tank. I wrapped up warm and began the 100 or so steps to the top of the tower. Already at the base I was aware of a strange noise from somewhere unidentifiable.  I think I had reached around step number 70, when I connected the noise at the tower bottom with the awful wailing noise from above. Macbeth’s witches couldn’t have been more convincing, in the mist. Show no fear, is the Essex mantra, so it was onwards and upwards, but by then the penny had dropped and I had identified the noise. It was Jock on the top landing, struggling to get a scale out of a trombone. Jock and his trombone were legendary. He wasn’t expecting a visitor to come out the mist, any more than I was expecting a novice trombone player on the top landing. Jock jumped out of his skin and dropped his instrument, denting it and then called me all the daft effing Sassenach bastards, ever to crawl across the Essex mud flats.

Why are you up here, Jock?’ I asked when he had his heart rate under control.

‘I tried practicing at home, but the landlady threatened eviction. I tried practicing in the disabled trap at lunchtime, but the boss threatened the sack. Can you hear me at the bottom of the tower, Clive?’

‘Not really,’ I lied.

‘That’s good. Obviously, I’m not supposed to be up here at 3 in the afternoon. I should be licking the chief engineer’s arse, but it’s so boring. Clive, you have no idea!’

‘Oh, I have,’ I assured him. ‘Gruesome is more accurate than just boring. Why did you come down to Essex from Glasgow, Jock.’

‘I can’t tell you, Clive. You’d disrespect me for ever, and rightly so.’

‘You fell in love with an Essex Girl,’ I yelled with mocking delight. ‘You dozy pillock, Jock.’

I think I saw a tear in his eye so I took my water sample. No one wants to embarrass a bloke, who already has the ultimate cross to bear. He was suffering enough.

As I turned to descend, he stopped playing and asked, ‘How do you survive the evenings, Clive?’

‘I’m the only unmarried person on site and the only worker under 32 years of age,’ I told him. ‘This leaves me with two options. Adultery – there ought to be room for a toyboy among the typing pool, or celibacy. I chose the latter and solve my financial and human contact problems with an evening job in a pub in Southend.’

‘Wise move,’ he assured me, with envy in his voice and picked up his trombone. ‘I miss the Highlands of home.’

That was not the time to ask how Glasgow was suddenly in the Highlands. He had enough problems with nostalgia so I left him to his scales.

I lay in bed one summer morning, window open, birds giving the dawn chorus beltissimo, when I heard the best noise ever. The hum of the distant compressor gave way to a long release of steam as the turbine wound down. Finally – shut down. Harry had failed to save the night shift.

There were people in Southend-on-Sea and the sea. No one would notice I skipped off, apart from Alf, who would tell me what story he had made up on my behalf, in case some busybody asked after me. So, as the steam hiss gave way to the birdsong, I leapt from bed, dressed and hit the A13. A prophetic number for the main road through South Essex.

Southend has one of the longest piers in the world, complete with its own railway. This was necessary, because without the pier one would only see the sea for about 30 minutes a tide. It races across the mudflats, turns and disappears. I hadn’t the price of entry to the pier and so have never seen the sea at Southend-on-Sea. I had just 2/6 in my pocket and invested that in a Joseph Conrad novel, to read on the mud. By 11.00 I regretted not having gone to work. I had no sunglasses so couldn’t read and for how long can you stare at mud?

I couldn’t go back to my digs because Digger’s wife was there and she would tell Digger, who loved sucking up to the boss. He would have grassed me up, sure as eggs are eggs. I hated Digger. Hate is not a word I lightly use, but I really hated Digger. He was the lowest form of lumpen proletariat and his type had been the natural fodder for Hitler, 35 years earlier. He was a natural born snitch, my landlord and the company health and safety officer. His main job was to make sure we wore the safety clothing the company refused to provide, but insisted we wore. One ordered through Digger, who had the cost deducted from our wage packet, and took a commission off the supplier. Alf Garnett’s script writer had Digger in mind when he created, Till Death do us Part. Digger taught me my first piece of Essex. ‘What you getting out yer pram for? You can get straight back in, wiv yer dummy in yer gob,’ he told his wife, when she mentioned a TV programme she would like to watch. I learned to love the radio in Digger’s house. His grandchildren went on to vote Brexit and hate Poles, but by then the ammonia didn’t need oxidising. Poland did it for half the price after the company was taken over and shut down by its new Swiss owners.

Alf went on to be a hater. He already disliked anything that didn’t begin in Essex, especially if it had a non-white skin. I was lucky. My South London accent adapted easily to Essex. There is no th in Essex. I sat in Essex meetings and made up imaginary th conversations, while everyone else denied its existence.

‘Firty free fousand fevvers on a frushe’s froats frottle, Keef,’ was my favourite.

And then there is the k-ending.

‘Ain’t nuffink der ma^er wiv ‘ow we speaks. We ain’t go^ anaccent, ‘ave we?’

 Thus, the glottal stop is a moveable feast and can appear anywhere in a sentence. Beginning, middle and end!

‘Oi! Clive! Got dem anali^icals yet?’

Not quite in the same league as Beethoven beginning his Vth with a rest and then …- , but I admired the effort and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one says.

The pub in Southend where I worked is another story, as is Barking, which I nearly was, by then.

 And there was worse to come. I went on to Kodak in Rickmansworth. 8 hour shifts in total darkness, staring at a luminous clock dial. But that had compensations, when Vasenti, the lovely Ugandan Asian woman, from upstairs, came down for a cuddle.

My Grandma was a most amazing girl – part 1

 My grandmother, Aunt Joan and father. (1932)

16 Apr 2016 by 6 Comments  © Clive La Pensée

There is a much-loved German children’s song. It starts, ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’. Translated freely one gets ‘My Grandma rides her Honda in the henhouse, and the chorus is, ‘My Grandma is a most amazing girl.’ It has other classic verses such as ‘My Grandma has a radio in her molar,’ and ‘My Grandma takes a tank to see the tax man.’

This song reminds me of my grandma. She was a most amazing girl, and her bicycle technique was the talk of the village. The milkman climbed down and calmed his horse when she rode by. There is no record of anything in the henhouse.

My grandmother once described her first radio experience. She called it a wireless to distinguish between a telephone and radio. Suddenly she could have continuous noise, which I’m surprised was a positive, considering the number of children in the house. It was only for an hour a day, as my great-grandmother was unsure how the voice inside the box worked and was worried about its longevity.

A decade before the wireless entered my grandmother’s life, something more important crashed its path through the lives of the young women in that sleepy hamlet, which is now part of the sprawl of London Town. Soldiers! And lots of them and they didn’t come in belligerent, but rather in loving mode. My grandmother never told me how it all worked so I have pieced bits of the story together as best I can. It will have to go down as fiction though, not as historical fact.

All the young men from that hamlet and thousands like it across Europe had been taken off to war, and by 1916 many of them had been taken by the war and were laid to rest, young faces barely old enough to support a whisker, rotting somewhere in Flanders.

My grandfather had a better fate: he survived the war, but he relived the curse of those years forever.

In 1914 he lived in Canada, probably in Montreal and one day was told he was to fight for King and Country, although he could only have had a vague notion about which country. French Canadians feel more attached to France than Britain, although it was GB that had the biggest Empire and that’s why he was put into a commonwealth uniform. He and his chums must have been confused. I’ve deduced that he was in France from 1915 because I can be sure my aunt Joan was born 1916. It is a mystery how he became my grandfather, as Canadian troops suffered terrible losses in some of the stupidest early attacks of the war. But he survived and met my grandma.

He was due leave, but it was several weeks by steamer to get back to Canada and then a long train ride to his hometown. The war was deeply resented by French speakers in Canada so these poor lads were shipped off to England for their holiday, possibly because one knew they’d never get them from Canada a second time.

There was a sleepy hamlet, with a fine country house in its own grounds. That was where the soldiers were billeted for a well-earned rest.

After the soldiers realised that the noise of exploding shells had disappeared, they were able to settle down to the most important task in any man’s life, especially a man who knows he will probably die within the year. He has to get himself laid! He cannot die never having known the touch of a good woman. That would be too cruel.

These young Canadians must have pondered the effect the language barrier would have on their efforts with the local talent. They should not have been concerned. The girls in the hamlet had their share of problems too. Every day, another of their school chums, who would normally have become their beau by then, was listed as missing or killed in action. I imagine the lasses talked among themselves and wondered if there would be a good man left standing in the village. And suddenly a bunch of likely lads from Canada were billeted there!

I know not what they said, but language was not the problem. The girls were horny as hell and the lads were shagging as though it were their last chance, which for many, it was.

My grandma got pregnant by one Jean Louis La Pensée – well he agreed to own up to paternity. Whether Joan was his we shall never know nor is it relevant. Maybe he just wanted something left on this earth, which his mum could call “my grandson or granddaughter”. Daughters were more popular as, “they were less likely to get slaughtered in the next insane war that has nothing to do with us and is 3000 miles away”. Of course my great-grandma said that in French.

Grandpa Jean went back to France, survived, returned to Cheam and sometime in mid-summer 1917 my father was conceived. My grandmother said some wicked things to my father from her deathbed – indicating that my grandfather probably wasn’t my grandfather. That I could have guessed. It is unlikely the local lasses would only bestow their favours on one group of Canadian soldiers.

Whatever the paternity, my grandparents were married by 1918. Before the war ended, my grandfather returned by troopship to Canada, presumably in late 1917 or spring 1918. He was no longer fit for purpose because of shell shock, which we know was a problem the rest of his life.

Old Jean Louis took paternity of both children. My grandmother followed him to Canada. She caught the train from London to Liverpool and left Liverpool on 6th June 1918 on the SS Olympic to Nova Scotia. The reason for travel is given as “to join husband, Jean Louis Lapensée; brakeman, CPR.”

We can be certain of this as the records for the shipping line still exist.

Once in Nova Scotia, there followed another train journey to Montreal. A hamlet south of London to Montreal, she did with a three month and a two year old, but with no pampers or other disposables. I have no idea how she did her laundry. She had her 20th birthday three weeks before she left Liverpool. Believe me! That woman could have ridden a Honda in the henhouse!

My grandmother May and grandfather Jean, never had a common language except the language of love or lust or whatever it was. They could only communicate through their children, once their children could talk. The kids were hardly mature enough to translate the nuances of married life and so they translated the strife instead. For example, my grandmother always accused the old man of going to prostitutes (he was Catholic after all). He presumably would have accused her of keeping him short and doubtless let the paternity issue surface a few times. That’s no mean translation task for children not yet in double figures, but my father had fond memories of his Canada years. The old man had a good job with the Canadian Pacific Railway as a brakeman; the kids had a warm apartment, food on the table and shoes for their feet, which was by no means the rule in Canada or England, in working-class families between the wars.

So, Jean Louis senior was back in Canada by 1918. What did he hear when the shelling stopped? More exploding shells perhaps, their ripping, screaming, detonating sound indelibly etched upon some part of his brain, ready to haunt him for the rest of his life. What did he hear in the moments when silence returned? A wife in his country, talking a strange language and wondering why a tumble in the hay had left her attached to a good man, but one who could offer her nothing – no companionship, no love that could be expressed, a meal ticket and plenty of misunderstanding.

How did my Grandma know about her mum’s first radio? Her mum sent her a letter complaining how hard life was and how much she missed her daughter. Her daughter wrote back, ‘I’m coming home.’ She arrived in 1926 at Tilbury before her letter, knocked on the door of the tiny terraced house with an 11 and 9-year-old and they became numbers 10 to 13 in that house. It must have been hell. My father was permanently damaged and until his death 80 years later, worried he would get something to eat.

Things got better when his uncles, one by one, emigrated to Canada to find work and a place to live where they didn’t have to share a bed with four others.

I remember that radio. It was a beast – the size of a sideboard and the thermionic valves heated the parlour – nothing with molars. But every time I hear my daughter sing ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’ to my grandson, it reminds me that we all have a migrant background.



My Grandma was a most amazing girl – part 2

My aunty Joan, dad (Louis) and great uncle Ray (ca. 1930)

Aunty Joan – #metoo – nothing new!

That summer’s day, I saw my great uncle Ray for the last time. I knew I would never see him again, so it was a chance to get a few questions answered. The one I chose to open with received such a baffling and horrific answer, that I forgot to ask the others. But first the background to the question.

When my gran died, my dad was overawed by the stuff he found in her house. It was mostly junk and had to be thrown away. He couldn’t get a price for any of it. So, he stored much of the contents of my grandmother’s house in his. After his death and when my mother knew she was going to move out of her house after 66 years, she asked me to empty the loft. In one suitcase I found, among other things, a small handbag, more an evening bag, and in it were letters, written in pencil by my aunty Joan, and her husband Foggy, to her mother, my grandmother May Lapensée.

Here they are, unedited, in order.

Hotel Manchen                                              Guatemala 29th May 1934

Jorge Mann

Antigua G

Guatemala C.A.

Dear Mrs. Lapensée:-

Just a few lines to let you know that Joan arrived safely on the 23rd May and we were married last Saturday morning at 11.30 A.M. of 26th May. In the meantime Joan stayed with Mr. & Mrs. Vintner until we were married. Unfortunately we were only able to have a honeymoon of about 4 days as I have to return to work again. The whole affair has been so terribly hard on Joan, Mrs. Lapensée, but I must say she has been the sweetest girl I have ever known and she has been so nice to me. I can only speak good of her in every way, naturally though, she is homesick, which she may get over or may not. Joan has had to meet so many strange people & in a strange country, besides which I guess I have not been as sympathetic towards her as I might have been.

So far, Joan has behaved like a brick & I’m really proud to be able to call her my wife. All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice & my every wish is for Joan’s future happiness. As soon as we are settled down here I shall write you again & advise how Joan is getting along. In the meantime I must thank you for all you did for Joan and myself knowing fully well that nothing could have been accomplished without your help in this matter.

                   Love Foggy

I nearly fell out the loft in my hurry to get downstairs and ask my mother how my aunt ended up married in Guatemala in 1934. She was just 18 and it must have taken her at least six weeks to travel there. And “All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice”? What was that about? My mother sighed, then explained.

Joan (or her mother) had seen an advertisement in a London newspaper, put there by a rich English banker from Central America who had returned briefly to London to find a wife. Joan had been the successful applicant.

My mother knew why it had all gone wrong. Joan had been told to take a solicitor’s signed copy of May Walter’s and Jean Louis La Pensee’s marriage certificate and her own birth certificate. These had been produced for scrutiny just prior to the wedding, whereupon it emerged that the birth certificate predated the marriage certificate. That was no rarity between 1914 and 18. The wedding went ahead, but Joan was persona non grata among the UK expats in Guatemala.

I asked my mother about the interview for the post of banker’s wife. She said she knew next to nothing about it, which was to be expected as she met my father, Christmas Eve 1939 in the Spring Hotel in Ewell, Surrey- a long way from, and a long time after, Guatemala. I don’t know how long Joan stayed out in Guatemala but she was back in England before the chance rendezvous that Christmas Eve in the Spring. My question, “how the applicants were vetted,” was answered firmly.

“Oh, they went up to town, to a hotel, The Dorchester in Park Lane I think, and there was some sort of interview. The mothers of the girls were expected to be there too.”

 My next question was, “Were the short-listed girls invited behind a screen in the hotel room, where a waiting doctor and nurse established virgo intacta?”

My mother denied any knowledge of such detail, but I know that she and Joan were great buddies during the time my mother and father were courting. She knew alright, and her face said more than her words. Pity Foggy wasn’t so careful with the certificates as he was with the vetting process!

Foggy was a master of the euphemism. Let’s have a look at a few.

“The whole affair has been so terribly hard on Joan”  =  I was less than honest about what she should expect and should have checked her birth certificate in London.

“must say she has been the sweetest girl I have ever known and she has been so nice to me” = we consummated.

“naturally though, she is homesick” = the other expats have behaved shabbily.

“she is homesick, which she may get over or may not” = The people here will continue to behave shabbily and will never accept her.

“I have not been as sympathetic towards her as I might have been” = How did I end up with your bastard for a bride?

“So far, Joan has behaved like a brick” = I was economical about the realities of life her,e but she hasn’t held it against me.

“I’m really proud to be able to call her my wife” = I’m a patronising arse of a man.

“All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice” = We are all patronising arses around here.

“advise how Joan is getting along” =  We’ll see how she shapes up. When you write, make sure she doesn’t go flaky on me.

“nothing could have been accomplished without your help in this matter” = thank you for convincing your daughter that she wasn’t the victim of sexual coercion.

Or was the whole thing May’s idea in the first place. She wouldn’t have been the first mother to prostitute her daughter. Those were hard times. I don’t sit here in judgement! And rumours have surfaced about May’s methods of accumulating her savings for a comfortable life.

May was a rich woman when she died and was always generous to her grandchildren, but she never had been more than a single mother and cleaner; a cleaner for the rich and famous however, who lived south of the railway line in Cheam. She was also a stunning beauty as a young woman! Work it out for yourself!

Here is Joan’s first letter home.

Hotel Manchen etc.


Dear Mother,

Just a few lines hoping you are well. We got married on 26th May and we are staying at this hotel for a few days. I don’t like it here much as it is raining nearly all the time. I don’t like Guatemala very much  there are to many policemen about and they are very strict on what you do. When I first arrived I had to stay at Vintners (that is Foggys manager) house and they were very nice to me they had a wedding cake and champagne and they gave me a lovely wedding present it is a coffee heater, jug and bowl. also mr Townson gave me a tea set on a tray. We had a lot of flowers given to us. I am lonely without all of you and I will not be sorry to get back, which seems a long way off.

I hope you will answer as soon as you can as I haven’t heard from anyone for such a long time. You had better write to the bank but just put mrs Fogg and Foggy will give it to me in case you have forgotten the address I will give it to you it is. The Anglo South American Bank Ltd.

Republic of Guatemala

City of Guatemala

  Central America

I cant think of any more to write so I will close

Love Joan

PS How is Will as I hope he is well and give all the family my love.

And finally

The Anglo South American Bank Ltd.

Guatemala City



Dear Mother

          Just a few lines hoping you are well and that your new bike is OK. It will be a month tomorrow since I was married. I hope you do win the sweep as you deserve it. I wish I could win a sweep or someone leave me a lot of money I would get out of here as the place is a rotten hole so if you do win only come for a visit but don’t ever stay here             I am going to mrs Vintner to help her make a dress tomorrow. she has a lovely electric machine but she always works it herself.

How was your dress alright I hope. I have not received my belt or photos yet still I suppose they are still on the way. Have you had the cake yet    I hope its alright. I have started playing golf and I like it very much and I am going to learn to ride soon. How is everyone as it seems as if I have been away years instead of two months   I have never been so lonely in all my life. How is dave and Grandma. I still cant believe about mrs Parfitt. I think Foggys sister was telling a lie about the present because she came down the Tuesday night while I was playing tennis with dave and she knew I wouldnt have time the next morning. I cant think of any more to write so will close.

With love


The sleuths will notice that these letters are in the wrong order from their dates, but when I put them round the other way they made no sense. I think Joan was confused.

It is odd that Joan expected, as a matter of course to return to England. Perhaps she was only supposed to produce an heir for Foggy and would then be given an allowance and a ticket home. Did she have a child by him? No one mentions it.

Incidentally, The Anglo South American Bank Ltd. went into liquidation in 1936. Joan’s gravy train would have stopped there anyway! I think she was back in England by then.

Joan was not a great letter writer and maybe a bit of a moaner. Golf, riding and tennis were not her normal entertainments. Maybe she was suffering from too much cake. (She appears to have sent some from the wedding to England).

Mrs. Vintner treated her like a domestic, which wasn’t surprising as Joan was an illegitimate working-class girl. My mother told me that Joan was as stunningly beautiful as her mother. But when you compare Foggy’s and Joan’s written English, it is apparent she would never belong. She was Foggy’s appendage at worst and trophy at best. She showed that Foggy could get the best even if the best had no breeding. Did Foggy ever expect things to work out? It’s as if he’d read Pygmalion before seeking a wife and thought he could turn his Eliza Doolittle into a lady. But then the illegitimacy problem doomed that dream.

To be fair to Foggy, he never deserted Joan and as far as we know, never reproached her. He paid the trip home and for the divorce.

So far we have had my interpretation of my mother’s account.

I knocked on Ray’s door. Short and very stout Ray opened.

“How the hell are you Ray?” I grabbed his hand and pumped it vigorously.

“Fine!” he answered. “Who the hell are you?”

His eyes were dim.

“Clive,” I replied. “Louis’s boy.”

My elucidation did the trick. (Louis’s boy – I was 60 at the time).

“Good Lord. I’m sorry. Do come in, I’ll put the kettle on straight away.” He scuttled off to the kitchen. “Take a seat. You know your aunty Glad passed away.”

“Yes.  I’m so sorry.”

“Oh well. She was 92, couldn’t move for arthritis and could neither see nor hear in the end. Clive; what’s the point?”

He returned with tea with milk and sugar although I use neither.

“You’re visiting your mum. How is she?”

“Fine. She is moving up to Yorkshire to be closer. Probably in the next few weeks.”

“Give her my love.”

“Will do! I wanted to ask you something. I found some letters from Joan in an old evening bag belonging to Mapier. Written from Guatemala. Can you tell me anything about it?”

Ray went silent for some time. Then he erupted in glee as the old memories returned.

“Oh, crikey Clive. How long ago was that?”

“1934 it says on the letters.”

“Was it really? I bet it was. That was a circus I can tell you. I don’t know what happened in America but it was bedlam here.”

“Do go on.”

“I know nothing of the early stuff. I think May got hold of this idea that Joan could use her good looks to get a rich husband. There was plenty of that sort of thing going on in those days. Joan wasn’t interested – I don’t think she was. She was just a sweet kid who wanted to please. Your dad and I got involved after May had set it all up. What was the bloke’s name?”

“He signs himself Foggy.”

“Really. I’d forgotten that. Well, he went on in advance, but booked Joan a sailing from Cherbourg. So, Joan had to get to Cherbourg. Foggy booked her a hotel in Dover. She was to get the ferry from Dover to Cherbourg. Joan was scared stiff. She’d never stayed in a hotel in her life nor caught a ferry to France. None of us had, not in them days. So instead of taking the train we borrowed old Honeyfield’s van and the four of us went down to Dover. 1934. You can imagine; cars weren’t like now. Ruddy thing boiled on every hill. No motorways of course. 90 miles sounds nothing now but it took us over 6 hours. Lou and I had put all our spare cash in the petrol tank and when we got to the hotel, of course, we were starving, but we had no money. We ordered a cup of tea and we were cleaned out. Been better if we’d gone straight down the chippy. Foggy had forgotten to leave any spending money. Joan didn’t get a meal until breakfast and after that, until she got on the ship in Cherbourg. Then it was luxury all the way. We expected to drop Joan off, turn around and come straight back home, because we had nowhere to sleep. But Joan begged us to stay, so we sneaked upstairs and we all bunked down in her room. May and Joan had the bed and Louis and me slept in armchairs. It was bad, but Joan was desperate. She said we had to see her on to the ferry so we did. I remember she stole some breakfast for us, wrapped it in a serviette and brought it up to the room. She told us that it was the first time in her life she had stolen something. I’m sure that was true.”

“How long did she stay in Guatemala?”

“I can’t remember, Clive, but it was months rather than years.”

“Did she have a kid out there?”

“No idea! No one ever spoke about it.” He paused, letting the memories surface.

“I remember when we got back, Louis and me got in a dreadful row with Honeyfield for staying away with his van. He would have sacked us, but he didn’t know who to fire first and he couldn’t afford to lose two grease monkeys in the same morning. He’d had to have got his own hands dirty. So, he thundered and we sloped off and got on with some work before he had chance to make up his mind.”

“But you and my dad could only have been 16 and Mapier never drove.”

“Didn’t worry about things like that. We probably only saw about three cars there and back; no one had a licence.”

“How or why did May change to Mapier?”

“I think big Louis called her that and it stuck. Maybe a French-Canadian nickname?”

I assume Ray has died by now. No one has informed me.

Joan is long dead. On her return to England she met a feckless spendthrift radio engineer who liked the good life. I think Joan encouraged him after her experiences with the stuffed shirt expats. My father always said “he pissed the profits up against a pub wall.” They ran out of money so the business was sold off and they, with their three very young children emigrated to……. Canada. I’m sure she took up contact with the old Jean Louis when she got there. From about 1955 onwards, May wouldn’t talk to Joan.  I think May was worried we might learn Jean Louis’s side of the marriage story.

Joan and her husband George died in their early fifties in Canada. I never had another chance to meet them or my cousins, apart from an evening spent in London, around 1972, entertaining cousin Jane, who was over here – looking for a rich husband. I don’t know if she was successful. I doubt it. She didn’t have the guile of my grandmother.

Chara-bang to Margate 192? My grandmother 3rd from left.

Wetlands – Or how not to translate Feuchtgebiete


The Mersey, trying to hide its innermost thoughts by reflecting everything.
Unlike Roche and Newman, who bare their souls, or me who hasn’t quite the courage yet to really write what he feels, but is getting there.
As a bloke, I’m always a bit afraid of straight out chick lit, but then again, I find it difficult to resist. So here are my newest confessions.
I’ve just finished reading Feuchtgebiete (Charlotte Roche) and Leftovers (Stella Newman). Are they so similar that they can stand comparison? Not really, but I’m going to do it anyway.
But “vorweg,” as Charlotte would say, Wetlands as an English translation of Feuchtgebiete is rubbish. It misses the intended meaning of Feuchtgebiete by a mile. The novel is obviously about the wet areas of the female anatomy and not some term from a geography textbook. It deals with the hang-ups about our wet areas and Roche has got over hangups although the need to write in such intimate detail about them may show they are still residing and troubling her somewhere deep down where she lives.
I give the book 5 * even if I hated some intimate areas. It reminded me of a Julian Clarey stand-up routine. You may hate the content but you love the outrageousness of the whole thing. Charlotte has put the wet areas where they belong – right out front. They need to be out front because our wet areas govern the bits of our lives/loves that are most important to us – sex, eating, defecating, sex and defecation, sex and eating. But it is much more than a treatise on the things we never want to mention. It liberates to read her descriptions. It will liberate more when I can talk about my Feuchtgebiete the way she does. At the moment I’m still trying to hide their impact on my life. Give me time! My finger hovers over the <publish> button for my new novel, Goddesses – 49 1/2 shades of charcoal.
Stella Newman takes a much more traditional view of hang-ups. She deals with the hang-ups caused by being jilted and by working with arseholes. I prefer the modern word for jilted – dumped! It covers the feeling so much better. And she analyses that feeling with great knowledge and empathy. A must read for anyone recovering from being dumped.
But as if being jilted isn’t bad enough – you are down at your lowest point – the bastards of this world take the moment to kick you, too. And her description of your average actor, advertising scripter, and fashion follower, and the hang-ups these people can cause in us, are terrifying. Never has a light-hearted read made me so furious. Great stuff Stella! I love the use of food as a metaphor for…….everything!
The nicest part of both books is the understanding our victims get from their friends. Gives you hope.
I shall keep reading both these authors.
OK. The truth. I have published my confessions too. They are not entirely honest. Who ever is? They are embellished (never spoil a good yarn) and censored, (some revelations I’m not quite ready for). But I hope to soon publish “Confessions of an old man in a dry month.”
Nice title? Stolen from a genius of course. I’ll let you know when to check it out.

Out Now – My Berlin Thriller – Suspense suspended by comedy.

The Last Stop – A Berlin Story

Endstation – Eine Geschichte aus Berlin – jeztz auch auf Deutsch.

Clive’s latest thriller. Get the videos from YouTube

The BNBS cover to look for!

Sample Pages

Chapter 1

‘The bus or train?’

Jack Precious was not ashamed of talking to himself. After all, a simple decision can change a life, and discussing it, even as a monologue, often clarified things. He wanted nothing but a speedy transfer to his hotel.

Jack was the wrong side of sixty, comfortably plump round the middle, thinly thatched on top, spot on the median height for a north-European white male and uninteresting to members of the opposite sex, unless they were widowed or divorced, in which case his more than useful pension as a retired tax inspector would make up for physical shortcomings.

He knew the bus would be quicker, but it was also riskier. Buses always are. They get held up in traffic, are subject to unknown deviations and, as a stranger in town, he hated the pressure of wondering where the next bus stop would be. Furthermore, this particular bus journey would involve a change. Always tricky in a new city. So he did the steady-Eddie routine and headed off, under the sign of a train, towards the station. At heart, that’s what he was – a steady Eddie.

Jack still doubted the wisdom of this move. The bus stood panting and hissing right outside the airport exit – the station was a full five-minute drag of a heavy case, followed by stairs down and up, in order to get to the trains. He could take the ramps, but they seemed endless. However, the weather was bright, cool and fresh so the walk seemed good.

Had he chosen the bus, he later reflected, the following months of his life would have been so different. No! That was wrong. The rest of his life altered the moment he rejected the bus. He was to be thrown from his predestined orbit like a meteor that had come too close to a star. The star was a woman. He would have missed Maria, twenty something, high cheek bones showing an eastern European origin, medium height, dark blue, darting, observant eyes, dressed in a tatty overcoat, despite the fine weather, sitting on her tattier suitcase, in the shadows of the entrance to the station, looking with imploring eyes at passers-by.

If a girl stands in the shadows, then the imploring looks do not attract much attention. He would have overlooked her, too, but Jack was a face person and noticed Maria’s face. Although not pretty, it was interesting. It looked puffy from old tears and the eyes were reddening in preparation for new ones.

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