I thought I’d take a trip way down Memory Lane to my very earliest ones, which are so long ago they are somewhat hazy. The very earliest are just hazy snapshots in my memory bank. We are talking about the first ten years of my life, the late 1940s and early 1950s.
My very first memory, very hazy indeed, is of waking up in some hospital ante-room. This is not surprising, as I was constantly hospitalized from birth till I was 24 for various operations, many due to deformities probably caused by a World War II bomb blowing out all the windows in the hospital where my mother gave birth. Apparently she was in danger of losing the baby altogether, and I was born with a club foot, hare lip and a cleft palate.
Another early memory is of being in my dad’s car and seeing thick snow outside the window. This is likely a memory of the bad winter of 1948, and I seem to remember the snow being on the high banks each side of the roadÂ north of Hampstead Heath (we lived in West Hampstead).
I have many hazy memories of various so-called ‘aunts’ and female friends of my parents, many of whom were refugees from the Third Reich who came over during the War. Some of them worked in my dad’s restaurant at Swiss Cottage, such as my ‘Aunty Gretel’ who doted on me (and died of cancer in Hill End Hospital in the early 1950s), and Petra, another foreign lady.
There was alsoÂ ‘Aunty Dora’, an English woman married to a Greek-Cypriot, who warned my mother that on a planned upcoming visit to Cyprus, which was to be the first for my mother, myself and my little brother, he had only one-way tickets for myself and my brother and planned to bring us up as Greek-Cypriots. This was the final straw which led to the separation – not least because I was under constant hospital treatment which I wouldn’t be able to get in Cyprus. At least not from the finest surgeons in the NHS whom I was under at the time. Mr Wiles was my orthopedic surgeon, Mr Mowlem the one for my lip/cleft palate, both based at the Middlesex Hospital, Mortimer Street where I was born.
Another early memory is of my mother paying aÂ visit to one of the first laundrettes in the country, in Finchley Road. As we sat there watching the washing going round and round, it suddenly disappeared and my mother panicked. She found the supervisor out in the back and asked where her washing had gone. My mother thought it had gone somewhere else to be perhaps dried and then collected. The supervisor patiently explained how the machine had gone into spinning cycle, and the clothes were still in the machine but had been pressed to the sides of the revolving drum by centrifugal force. This seemed highly unlikely to my mother, but of course turned out to be correct.
My mother taught me to swim at a very early age by taking me regularly to the indoor swimming baths in Finchley Road, now long gone along with most other swimming baths in London.
Also in Finchley Road was John Barnes department store. They had one of the first food halls/supermarkets in London. I remember going down to what seemed a vast food hall, the likes of which I’d never seen before, on an escalator and hearing the latest hit of the day played over the Tannoy system – ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’.
In our luxury West Hampstead flat we lived in some affluence, due to my dad’s successful business. We not only owned a car, but the flat was expensive at Â£5 a week rent (a fortune in the late 1940s) and was furnished expensively. We had a radiogram, and I used to dance around the room to Katachurian’s ‘Saber Dance’.
Another old 78 we had, this was long before 45s of course, was ‘Walkin’ My Baby Back Home’. I was puzzled as to why a little tiny baby would be made to walk, and even more so as to why a baby with no hair would want to borrow her father’s comb!
Walking with my mother one day up Adelaide Road towards my father’s restaurant in Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, I spotted a whitewashed slogan on a gray brick wall which read: ‘NO WAR IN KOREA!’. So this must have been the early 1950s, my first experience of an anti-war protest. I was always very good at reading from an early age.
I remember my first school, St Mary’s Primary Church of England School, just off KilburnÂ High Road. Miss Adams was my teacher, and taught us to read by means of little colored picture cards with words printed on them. The one which sticks in my mind is a picture of a bomb with the word printed underneath. Seems a most unsuitable subject for a toddler, but I suppose it was just after the War. We used to play regularly on bombsites.
In this classroom was a Wendy House, and at playtimes I was always crawling inside, only to be told cruelly by the teacher that only girls were allowed inside, but I could be the postman.
Since my father was always absent, in bed till midday, then out till the early hours gambling, womanizing, etc., he never taught us boys Greek or took us many places at all.Â I was usually out with my mother, so on my first day at school when I wanted the toilet and was directed to the boys’ one in the school playground I was horrified to see the dirty tykes urinating against the wall, or so I thought. I kept going into the girls’ toilets, and they kept pushing me out and telling me to go to the boys’ one. I’d never seen a boys’/men’s urinal in my young life until that day.
At lunchtime we were served school dinners in the main hall, and the dinner lady serving mashed potatoes was talking to the one next to her when serving me. I said: ‘no more potatoes please’ as she had already put too many on my plate, and not hearing me properly she said ‘Go along now, you can’t have any more you greedy little boy!’ Actually I wanted her to take some of the mash OFF my plate.
Another early memory is of being in nearby Regents Park with my mother pushing my brother in a pram. The pram had a big silk canopy over it with tassles hanging down. Apparently we were visiting the Children’s Zoo, and Hella, a friend of my mother’s also married to a Greek-Cypriot, was with us. I remember goats gathering around us and eating the paper carrier-bags my mother had hanging on the pram. My mother was pushing them away, and my mother tells me Hella was roaring with laughter. Getting the carrier-bags out of the reach of the goats, they then started reaching up and trying to eat the silk canopy. We made our escape eventually.
Poor Hella was destined to be murdered by her Greek-Cypriot mother-in-law. Hella was at the sink washing up, and the old lady crept up behind her and hit her over the head with a heavy marble vase or something, killing her. The old lady then tried to burn Hella’s body in the garden. The old lady was arrested, convicted of Hella’s murder, and was the last woman to be hanged in Britain before Ruth Ellis, who was the very final one. There seemed to be a lot of female murderers in the Hampstead area at the time!
My mother said that my dad would come home in the early hoursÂ with friends and ask her to get my brother and I up as they were having a party. I don’t think she did this, but I do remember some parties. I used to be able to speak a few words of Greek at the time, long since forgotten, and I remember singing a little song whilst hugging my favorite teddy bear: ‘Goodnight mama, goodnight papa, goodnight to all the rest. Goodnight mama, goodnight papa, but I love my teddy best!’ Ah sweet!
I also remember the little green and black plastic nightlight which burned all night in the little bedroom I shared with my brother. This was because I didn’t like sleeping in the dark, I was afraid lions from Regents Park zoo might escape and somehow get in the window and gobble me up. My brother slept in a cot, and my mother used to find him playing with his toys on the floor in the middle of the night. She scolded me for taking him out of his cot, which I denied. Then she discovered one day he was climbing out of his cot by putting one leg over, then the other and just dropping to the floor! He also regularly tipped his pram over – my mother had to prop it up each end with boxes. If she gave him a baby bottle of milk, which were then made of glass, she had to be quick as he’d fling it to the floor and smash it as soon as it was empty.
I used to play in the sandpits in Grange Park, Kilburn and also in Regents Park. We also used to visit the playground in the churchyard at St John’s Wood, opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground. My mother remembers my Greek-Cypriot cousin, Sylvia, going to the top of the slide and pissing all the way down it from the top! All the posh nannies with their little charges were, of course horrified: ‘Come away, darling, no you can’t go on the slide today.’
After Aunty Dora’s brave revelation of our upcoming abduction (‘Johnny will kill me if he knew I’d told you’ she said – Dora too died of cancer soon afterwards) my mother secretly planned to leave my father, who was also knocking her about, especially when drunk, which was very often. On the day we were leaving I looked out of the flat window and said excitedly: ‘Daddy’s here!’ as I saw his car pull up. My mother was scared and horrified, and with good reason. We were all packed up, and I have vivid memories of my dad shouting and screaming at her. He’d obviously been tipped off by someone, and he was breaking open boxes, taking out curtains and throwing them to the floor. I’d never been so terrified. He threw a little table across the room and smashed it. Somehow we got away with a few items, and for the next few weeks were homeless.
Part of the time we stayed at a battered wives’ refuge in Fulham Road, then stayed with my Uncle Fred and his big family, his wife Dorothy and their six children, plus every pet you could imagine, in their police house in Sutton Valance, near Maidstone in Kent. My uncle was the village policeman. Whilst there we kids went for a country walk, and my brother was picking wild flowers, berries,Â etc. from the hedgerows and asking if they were OK to eat. One of the berries or leaves he ate was from the Bella Donna/Deadly Nightshade plant. Even I knew these were poisonous, and my country cousins certainly did, but for some reason we said: ‘Yes, OK’. My poor brother ended up in hospital with what they thought was an epileptic fit. He survived, but I didn’t dare tell my mother till years later. She wished I’d told her earlier – for years she thought my brother Philip was epilieptic and liable to have more fits.
My mother’s other policeman brother, Len, lived in Wood Green with his family, upstairs from my Gran and Grandpa (my Grandpa had also been a policeman, but now worked for the Civil Service in Crouch End). I remember visiting Len and my cousin Laurie, who played me his favorite 78 on a wind-up gramophone – it was Tweety Pie singing: ‘I Dort I Daw a Puddy Cat’.
Anyway, once Len and his family moved to a police house in Wembley, we were free to move in downstairs, and my grandparents moved upstairs. We lived in this house in Marlborough Road, Bowes Park, Wood Green from 1951-1957, when we got a council flat at the back of Alexandra Park. I know we were in the council flat by October 1957 as I stood on the iron steps and watched the first Soviet Sputnik pass over with our neighbor, Mr Paulec.Â In the school playgrounds we used to sing a version of Michael Holliday’s hit ‘Catch A Falling Star’ just to annoy the Yanks, who’d been beaten into Space by the Soviets: ‘Catch a falling Sputnik, put it in a matchbox, send it to the USA’.
But I digress – that was the late 1950s. No sooner had we moved into Marlboro’ Road than there was another mishap. My father had access rights of course, and came to visit us in his car. I saw it arrive, and rushed outside to show him some photos. It was a cold Winter, and I slipped on an icy patch on the front path and broke my leg. I was in hospital in traction for the next 6 months – it was the right leg which had originally had a club foot and was already shorter than the left one, so they wanted to make sure it didn’t end up any shorter due to the broken leg.
Later we started going to the Saturday Morning Pictures at the ABC Ritz on the North Circular Road. Before watching the cartoons, The Three Stooges and Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in their cliff-hanger serials, ‘Uncle’ Whatsisname used to play the Wurlitzer organ, all the latest hits of the day in this pre-rock’n’roll era. Things like ‘Over The Mountains, Over The Sea’, ‘I Love to Go A-Wandering’, ‘How Much Is That Doggy In the Window’, etc. But we were too busy screaming, shouting and throwing things at each other – a full scale weekly riot – to sing along. However as soon as ‘Uncle’ sank down into the pit with his flashing colored lights on his Wurlitzer, up on the screen would come the invitation to: ‘Join in the ABC Minors’ Song with your very own ABC Minors’ Choir’. To the tune ‘Blaze Away’ we’d then sing with gusto:
‘We are the boys and girls well known as
Minors of the ABC
And every Saturday we line-up
To see the films we like
And shout about with glee
We like to laugh and have our sing-song
What a happy crowd are we
We’re all pals together
We’re minors of the A-B-C!’
These last three letters were shouted out with gusto at the tops of our voices. Our deadly foes were the Gaumont Saturday Morning picture goers. We had luminous badges with the ABC logo, which glowed in the dark and gave us all a dose of radiation – Gaumont kids didn’t have those! However when we moved in 1957, the ABC Ritz was too far away so I joined the Gaumont Saturday Morning picture club in Wood Green High Road.
Then finally, around 1955, many boys started wearing luminous pink and green sox to school, with the words ‘Rock’n’Roll’ printed on them in black lettering. This exciting new kind of music had hit Britain, though the BBC refused to play it. We didn’t have a record-player at the time, so I never got into the music till 9 years later, in 1964. But kids were teaching each other the words to Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in the school playground.
But I really didn’t have a clue. I rushed home excitedly one day to tell my mother I’d seen the girls doing ‘rock’n’roll’ in the hall. They weren’t of course – they were merely doing exercises to music. I assumed, since they wereÂ swaying from side-to-side, this must be the ‘rock’n’roll’ dance I’d heard about.
I didn’t really get much further educated about rock’n’rollÂ till 1964 when I discovered Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time, via their Granada TV specials. However in the late 1950sÂ I did get to hear Elvis’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’ EP on my friend’s record-player, and was amazed at the little 45 records which could be bent without breaking, unlike the shellac 78s I was used to.
So there you have it – some of my memories of the first ten years or so of my life. Another age, when TV was in very few homes, and many streets were still lit by gas, and sweets and some other commodities were still on ration till 1954. I still have my old ration book with some unused coupons in it!