Stumblin‘ through

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 learned 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 were detective stories and only hinted 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 most gentle with his children. When he pretended to use the belt to discipline us, he used to cry afterward. 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, and is 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, came from a Methodist lay preachers family of eleven and married Alfred George William, originally came from Wales, who in the war had worked on the railways as a carriage painter. After they married, they had 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 Grandfather spent a lot of time behind his newspaper and that Grandmother had worked during the war looking after “mums with new babies” as my mother put it. And that 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 get on with 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.


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 (amphibian tanks and DUKW’s) 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. 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 afterward 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 amount of information we have. We are told about every catastrophe in the world that could draw an audience, and the selection of what is deemed newsworthy reflects the attitude of the people in media, not the selected news in proportion to the what was going on 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 the 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 after that, 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.

Via Swindon

In 1963 my father received a posting abroad and we were to travel to Malaya via Swindon and London Airport. There was a lot of excitement but my father had to go before us and then we’d follow him. Meeting my maternal Grandparents, him a voice behind the Swindon Advertiser, and Grandmother a stern lady who told us off far more often than our mother did, was an experience that I disliked. There was something in the air that disturbed me, and it wasn’t just fearing doing something wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. There was, of course, the tension when my father was gone. I sensed it in my mother. She was always someone who hoped that everything would be harmonious and people would get along. She often warned me, even later on, about saying too much and getting myself into trouble, which seemed to be her method of getting through life. Now everything was in turmoil. I can imagine how she felt about having to cope with the situation with three boys at our ages.
As far as I can remember we were split up and I lived with my paternal grandparents whereas my two brothers lived with our maternal grandparents. Grandpa Brewer was a right character and kept pigeons, so I helped to feed them and clean up the loft. His face seemed a bit screwed up and his hair was curly and silver in places, not like Grandma at all. He was always annoying Grandma for some reasons and was continually being sent off somewhere. I think he was still working, it was probably at the Great Western Railway workshops, which were the biggest employer then. There is a photograph of Gran, Dad, Colin and me with our cousins, Linda, who is a year younger than me and Karen in front of a pigeon loft before dad left for Malaya. At that time we were just kids getting to know each other but we got to know each other better later.
My uncle Geoff still lived at home and was a young, lean curly-haired young man who seemed to smile all the time and had a loud voice. The big event then was when he let me ride his adult size bicycle with derailleur gears although I was quite small then. It was quite an achievement and I often showed off in front of other children. However, I borrowed the bicycle without permission and managed to break it somehow, which Geoff always reminded me of – even at my father’s funeral.
My Grandparents had a piano in the front room on which I pounded away until I got on everyone’s nerves. I never did have the knack of playing, even though I like to listen. At the end of the street there was a small garden with two or three apple trees, and I remember that I got into trouble for “scrumping” but my memory of this time is interwoven with the time when we returned from Malaya, so I’m not sure when exactly things happened. I have some memories of buying things at the corner shop at Hythe Road which also had a post office, which was before we went to Malaya, so I couldn’t have spent all the time in Rodbourne.
Swindon was only a small town then and our stay there was relatively short before we started on our journey, but I remember looking through a hole in a wall, finding a gang of boys in the back streets that didn’t want anything to do with me, sitting in outside closets with lots of newspapers to read and playing with children in the streets. Swindon was only a small town then and our stay there was relatively short before we started on our journey, but I remember looking through a hole in a wall, finding a gang of boys in the back streets that didn’t want anything to do with me, sitting in outside closets with lots of newspapers to read and playing with children in the streets. It is all so long ago and when I drove down the main road there 40 or more years later, I could see how much it had changed on the surface. But there were still buildings standing that hadn’t changed over the years. The street where Gran and Gramp lived was demolished in between, which said a lot about the standard of housing they had put up with. My main expectations about Swindon, considering the changes I’ve experienced over the years living in Germany, was that the same degree of development would happen in the UK, but it didn’t. The town just became larger. At the same time, I think that people weren’t unhappy with their lot and just accepted it as the way it was.