13th July 1955, Swindon, England
The winds howled and the rain hit the windows with a never-ending torrent. Severe thunderstorms rumbled across the sky of southern England and seemed to build up to a resounding crash as a bolt of lightning struck the chimney top at Kingshill maternity hospital. Down below a child’s cry was heard, a little boy was born.
What a dramatic entry into the world you might say, but like most dramas, there is only a certain amount of truth to the account. First of all, I wasn’t that “little”. To tell the truth, giving birth to me was probably a harrowing experience for the young nineteen-year-old Audrey June, my mother, but it left no impression on the world.
When I was born, my proud father, Basil James (called Jim), gave me the name Robert Stephen, which was quite common at the time of my birth, and he was probably asking himself what the best solution was to the problem of feeding us. My father was that kind of pragmatist and born in 1932, he was a lorry-driver when my birth certificate was issued. He then went on to join the RASC, which was quite common for people looking for a rise in status. I remember him as a serious type of person who had to push himself to be easy going. He seemed very pragmatic in many issues and it seemed even being sociable was a problem to be solved. His upbringing was steered at being reliable, not like his father, who had disappeared when abroad as a soldier and turned up when everybody thought he was dead. My paternal Grandmother had learnt a handwork to see the family through and had been quite an active person, although when I met her, she already had several health issues. There was a large picture of her in their house showing her as a beautiful young lady. All of the children had her looks, my father and his brother Geoffrey were good lookers, my aunt Muriel was a spitting image of her mother and only Eve, the oldest of the children, had a bit of her father in her appearance. But Eve, in particular, was very critical of “Gramp”, she told me that it annoyed her that he was liked a lot by people who didn’t know him. She had experienced the worries of her mother, and they both had to see to it that the younger children got through the difficult times. Eve was always proud of my Dad, although I doubt that she had a bad word to say about anyone – except Gramp. When I was living with her, she was always talking about how my father had done his part to help the family.
My father was also a source of science fiction paperbacks that I read later on in life, but also of “men’s magazines”, though they hinted mostly rather than the kind available today. He sometimes left them lying under the bed, which his inquisitive son soon discovered. He had taken up swimming early on and had a broad back and strong arms, but he was mostly gentle with his children. When he pretended to use the belt to discipline us, he used to cry afterwards. I’m sure he thought this was the only way to make us boys become sensible adults, but I vowed not to use the same measures on my children. I don’t think I gave my father enough credit for what he did for me. He warned me of many things that came to be because I ignored or forgot them. He tried to interest me in his interests, like engines and mechanics but soon noticed that I was interested in other things.
My mother, Audrey June, (born 1936) was a bright-eyed girl with a broad laugh. She was the more sociable of the two and came from a large family that seemed full of contradictions to me as a child. Grandmother, Clara Maud M came from a Methodist lay preachers family of eleven and married Alfred George William P, originally came from Wales, who in the war had worked on the railways as a carriage painter. After they married, they had my mother, three sons, Walter, the twins John and Brian and a daughter, Brenda. Later on, Grandad was a manager of a working man’s club, but Gran did most of the work, which may have influenced the way I saw her.
Her sister, my Great Aunt Sis was a very mild mannered lady and an ardent Churchgoer. She always seemed to have the gentleness that I was missing with Grandmother, but it would be unfair to forget the fact that her husband spent a lot of time behind his newspaper and that she had worked during the war looking after “mums with new babies” as my mother put it, despite Grandmother having such a large family herself. My mother also found herself allotted to this work, which probably explained why, occasionally, I would find myself sleeping with my brothers because a young woman was staying overnight. My mother was also an auxiliary nurse for a while, which echoed in my life later on.
I had the feeling that my maternal uncles and aunts acted in a strange way towards me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, I thought that perhaps it was me that was different. At some time, Brenda’s husband, Pete, manhandled us boys in a way that we weren’t used to and I remember giving him a punch on the chin. It didn’t hurt him, he was far larger and stronger than I but it appeared to have an effect, if only to make him a bit cautious.
Of my cousins, with whom I only had a brief relationship with any of them, the most time I remember spending in Swindon was with my cousin Linda, followed by Karen. We liked each other and I remember how both my mother and hers constantly warned us that we weren’t “kissing cousins”. Linda was full of energy, had a cute smile and insisted on wearing the tiniest of minis. Muriel, her mother, constantly told her, “I can see your knickers, girl!” To me, Linda was one of those people with whom I got on well with, and later in life, I would constantly find that I could manage women better than men. Karen was also a soul with whom I resonated and I was deeply saddened when I heard that she had died. They were two members of the family with whom I had shared secrets from the adults. Diane, their sister, was a sprightly young girl who always wanted to be in on the secrets, and complained that we were mean because we wouldn’t let her in.
But many of the people I have mentioned came into my life later, or at least that is my memory. To begin with, my mother and father were my family, then later came Colin. According to my mother, I was “Thursday’s child” who had “far to go” according to the children’s poem „Monday’s Child“. It is one of many fortune-telling songs, popular at the time, that supposes that a child’s character or future is based on the day of birth and additionally helps young children remember the seven days of the week. Although, in fact, according to the almanacs, I was “Wednesday’s child, full of woe”! Probably my mother, always concerned for the well-being of others, didn’t want me to be full of woe. I was, however, a child that was very much alone with himself, no matter how many people were around.