2. Bideford

I think the furthest back I can remember was when we lived at 3 Seattle Terrace in Northam, Bideford, after moving there when my father had been sent to his first unit after joining the army. He was in a unit with amphibian vehicles (DUKW) at Fremington, just outside Bideford. We lived there between 1957 and 1963, and I reached infants and then primary school there.

The world was changing, commercial television aired its first broadcast, People were talking about the ‘Cambridge Spies’ who had finally surfaced after disappearing in 1951. The Clean Air Act was passed in response to the severe London smog in 1952. Nuclear power was available via Calder Hall Power Station, the British tested its first Hydrogen Bomb and teamed up with France to invade Egypt to secure passage via the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and beyond. Politicians came and went, but there was something in the air. Prime Minister Harold McMillan spoke of the “Wind of Change”.

Of course, I wasn’t bothered about what was going on in the world. For nearly four years I was the only child, and consequently, I had imaginary friends with whom I fittingly conversed, as many children do. I had such a vivid imagination I often saw figures walking across the plastered wall. The faint shadows began to move and form into people, animals or trees on the rough surface in the low light at night. Occasionally I would try to dream on keeping those figures in mind, slipping into a nocturnal world of fantasy and imagination. One particular instance comes to mind when I had a fever and that unquiet dream turned gruesome. I awoke with fright and sweat with mother and father looking down at me.

Life then is full of dim memories of cockle-collecting with a bucket and spade, the wind-swept Northam Burrows, and kissing the neighbours daughter, who was as young as I. “You Romeo!” they said to a young boy with no idea who that tragic figure was. They probably didn’t know the full story either. We were “working class” as they used to say, which meant that my parents hadn’t had the opportunity to gain a higher education. The UK had been slow to introduce compulsory education almost a century before and after the war, the class system was still very much intact with compulsory schooling by law only until the age of 10. The Eleven Plus test gave pupils in the 6th class the chance to rise in society by being educated in Grammar schools from 1944 onwards. I was fortunate to go to school but remained blissfully ignorant for several years whilst there. I was far more concerned with discovering the world of my imagination. 

Soon my brother, Colin James, was born. He seems to have been a friendly bundle that only occasionally made noises that disturbed the peace. I frequently found him wrapped up on the sofa and later crawling on the floor. I can’t remember registering him more than that until one day when my father told me hurriedly that I had to look all over for the three-year-old Colin, who’d gone missing. My mother wasn’t at home. I presume that she was then pregnant with Jeff, and I must have been approaching seven. Colin hardly moved much at that age and my father said as much, but we were to search for him. He was quite frantic, I thought. He even ran outside and called the neighbours out to search, to no avail. In the end, Colin himself gave his hiding place away by crying from behind a door that had the whole time been wide open and hid the sleeping sibling behind it. It might have started as a game, but when nobody came looking he fell asleep.

There are memories of meeting various members of the family, but I can’t say where it was. I remember travelling in a VW bus between the mattresses, small pieces of furniture and suitcases, and meeting my paternal Grandfather, who was always having a joke at other peoples expense, and he told me about how he used to treat his mules when they had colic. My mother had told him that I had suffered colon colic in that year. Gramp was very graphic in his description of how he would have treated me. Long afterwards I was hoping that it never happened again and feared the bar of soap that Gramp said he used to treat his mules with.

On reaching 6 years of age, I had entered primary school, which I did with the normal morbid anticipation I always had when having to socialise with other people. Colin was only 2 years old and took up my place at home. Once I knew what was expected of me I warmed to the idea and, as usual, I even got overexcited and fell on a low wall, causing a hernia. It taught me a lesson for a short while, but soon I was back climbing the walls with fellow pupils, showing off to the girls and being told off by the teachers. I can’t recall anything about the primary school, except the capers that got us into trouble. I didn’t really know what I was doing there, I think. This seemed to follow me for some time and at least gave me the childhood that many would have cherished and I took for granted.

The hernia treatment was postponed first of all, but I was soon back in trouble after the traumatic event of being hit by a car whilst crossing the road without looking. As it happened, the driver was a Doctor on his way to patients and I came to consciousness in his car. I had managed to fade cars out of my thoughts when crossing the streets, unfortunately, they are quite solid. After a check-up, the “lucky boy” was sent home to lick his wounds.

Life then seemed so relaxed and open. People used to knock on doors but they weren’t locked. There was a kind of natural reservedness about people that made sure that they didn’t impose on your privacy but they looked out for you. The remarks made about children weren’t taken to heart, but everybody knew that a child had to have a certain respect for adults, and do as they were told. Of course there were those teenagers who didn’t feel understood by their parents, but that was a result of the normal transition into adulthood. People knew about these problems having been through them themselves. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked and people knew that life could be a lot worse, especially if they had experienced the war years that only ended ten to fifteen years before.

When we look at our lives today, with all of the complications of just making a living, we don’t have more problems, just different ones in comparison to people back then. The modern complexity of society can make us more confused and worried because of the more information we have. We are told about every catastrophe in the world that could draw an audience, and the selection of the newsworthy reflects the attitude of the people in media, not the news kept in proportion to the news in general. Of course, the BBC in the 1950’s and 1960’s also selected newsworthy articles, but there was less of it. That made us more provincial in our outlook, but people were also more present. They took the time of day from the church bell, read the newspaper from beginning to end, with an occasional re-reading on the WC.

I haven’t found any articles on the accident with the amphibious tanks that my father was involved with. He lost his crew on that day and only survived by being a strong swimmer. Essentially it was a faulty design. The tank floated in the water like an iceberg with the top only a foot or so above water. It must have been a wave that caught them unawares and the tank sank. My father, never a religious man, was at odds with every pastor that came offering support, as well as with pastors throughout the years. He had an issue against God, if there was one, he said. It was also an issue that I took too little into account when I became a Christian years later. At his funeral I was asked to offer prayers and I asked for forgiveness, “because he was just one of us” who also sought reconciliation. “He was one of the best we had to offer”, I said, and consequently, if we had any hope, then he should have too.

I think that accident had more to do with who my father was than I took into account for in years we were apart. I was upset because he refused to be the father I wanted him to be, but he could only be the one he was, and he always gave the best he had. It’s strange that we come to realise these things when it is too late, when we can’t correct anything. In later years I sometimes saw my father in my own reflection, shining through so to speak, as though he was making me aware of how much I had benefited from being his son.