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Beginnings


A little before 4:30 am a few days after Christmas 1947, in the front bedroom of her mother's house in Catford, a woman gave birth to her second son. But she was in for a shock when the midwife declared she was to have twins. “If it's another boy, throw him out of the window!” she laughed. But the midwife didn't do that when, an hour and forty minutes later, my identical twin brother, Martin, joined me.


My two earliest memories are as a baby. We had a pram with covers that hinged up at both ends. I was in the pram and the sky was bright. One of the covers was hinged up and then the other, cutting out all the light and I screamed. Was I always claustrophobic?

My other memory was being breast fed. My mum had long dark brown hair which she had to move out of the way to let me on the breast saying this was my one and the other was for my brother. I have no recollection whether I refluxed the milk back up though I believe it's quite common in infants.

I only ever knew one grandparent, the others not having survived long enough. Every Sunday, after junior church, we would have dinner at my Nan's, and with Mum's sister who also lived there. We'd draw pictures, play cards, when old enough to understand Rummy, and have a traditional tea. My Nan was very Edwardian.

I was probably about 5 when I remember my Dad praising me for sitting up nice and straight at the table. I had done it as I found it more comfortable. I must have been experiencing reflux without understanding it. [*]

About this time, my Mum took me to the family doctor. She was concerned because I was always breathing through my mouth. “It's just Catarrh and he'll grow out of it,” he said. [*]

Other early memories include standing outside a local shop with my Mum and someone asking how old I was. “Four,” I remember replying proudly. And I remember travelling on the top deck of the tram into Catford to the hair dressers. The last London tram ran when I was just 5. And I vaguely remember travelling with Mum and Dad and my brothers, by tram to Woolwich, where it terminated and taking the Woolwich Ferry to the Isle of Dogs.

This was to become a favourite occasional outing later by bus and ferry. The river was black and

stank with pollution in those days. The ferry was a paddle steamer and we could look into the engine room at the large pistons going back and forth that drove the paddles. 

My Dad was interested in shipping and we were able to get onto the lock side at the entrance to the King George V docks and watch large boats being lifted.

Experiencing some slight deafness after starting school, my doctor sent me to have my ears syringed weekly at the children's hospital in Sydenham – a not very pleasant experience which had no lasting impact on my hearing apart from scarring to my ears which were to preclude me from completing sub aqua qualifications twenty years later. [*]

As an alternative remedy, I was to have my tonsils and adenoids removed.

It seems that was often considered the cure for most childhood maladies.

I remember being in a waiting room with other boys of my age being taken out one by one and watching the list of names. I was the last.

I was anaesthetised with ether. If I ever smell it today, I am instantly reminded.

I remember lying on a table in the operating theatre with some tubes of coloured liquid bubbling beside me whilst the suffocating rubber mask was held over my nose and mouth. The next thing I remember was waking up and being very sick, throwing up lots of blood into a bucket – and with a very sore throat.

Apparently my blood count was low and I remained in hospital for 3 weeks receiving 3 very painful injections in my backside each day – which I hated and screamed at. Though when I was eventually released, the nurses said how good I had been and hadn't even cried when I had the injections!

I do have one or two other memories of being in hospital. The ward was a large dormitory with boys down one side and girls down the other. It had a balcony at the end. The theory was, the French windows would be opened in fine weather and we could sit out, but I don't remember that happening. The boy in the next bed had a remote control car which I envied. (I think it was probably connected by a cable in those days rather than radio controlled.)

We weren't exactly tied to our beds and had to go out into the corridor to the toilets. One day, being an inquisitive 5 year old, I looked into a different room. This was smaller and only had three children in it. “Why are you in this room?” I asked. One of them responded that it was an isolation ward as he had scarlet fever. It didn't mean much to me then but I assumed I shouldn't be there and went back to my ward.

About that time, I went to a birthday party of a girl in my class whose parents were friendly with mine. We had honey on bread and I spat it out. I may have even been sick. [*] To this day I have not liked honey. It was also the first time I'd ever seen television and I kept wanting to see inside it. Whatever was on was accompanied by Elizabethan Serenade (though I obviously didn't know the name at that time). Whenever I hear that tune, I am reminded of that incident and the “yucky” sensation on my tongue.


As I grew up, I learned to live with my “catarrh” and slight deafness: the adenoidectomy and tonsillectomy didn't seem to have achieved anything. I also realised I had a very poor sense of smell – being more alert to the “thickness” or “feel” of the air rather than the odour. I couldn't bear to go into Boots as the cosmetics made the air too thick. [*]

Growing up with a twin brother had its pluses and minuses. We always had each other to play with so probably didn't make so many friends as our contemporaries.

We were so identical, our teachers found it very difficult to tell us apart – and, truth be told, my Dad had to think carefully. We had to wear badges with our initials on so we could be identified.

Although Martin tells of times we swapped badges to get the other in trouble, I have no recollection of anything like that.

What I do remember is, as we grew up, we shared everything: all the childhood ailments. I suppose it was inevitable, living together, but at times it was almost as if we were sharing thoughts. He would come in whistling the same tune I had had on my mind. Of course it may have been we'd both heard it on the radio or something. But certain experiences later in life cannot be so easily dismissed.

At the infants and junior schools we were probably considered “cute” but when we progressed to the secondary school, an all boys grammar school, we were regarded more as freaks and became the victims of bullying.


Being brought up in the immediate post war period as foodstuffs came off ration, Mum wanted that we should get what she thought was the best nutrition. We sat down as a family to a cooked breakfast every morning followed by cereal (because if we had the cereal first we wouldn't have the bacon and eggs). And we would have thick creamy Channel Islands milk and sugar on our Weetabix. Dad had his fried egg on a piece of toast and carefully cut and eat the edges until just the yolk remained which he ate last. He'd then clean his knife by sticking it through another piece of toast before spreading it with IXL tinned marmalade. I liked the tinny taste of that marmalade and have never found any since that has a similar flavour. And in the summer, Mum would make her own marmalade in the pressure cooker. Sometimes it was difficult to get Seville oranges and she would make sweet orange marmalade instead.

We also received cod liver oil and sweetened orange juice as part of the government's post war nutrition programme and, at school, a third of a pint of milk.

During the hour and half lunch break, we went home and had a cooked dinner. This would frequently be stuffed ox heart or stewed lambs tongues. Occasionally at the weekend we'd have stewed rabbit or chicken: a boiling fowl cooked, as everything was, in the pressure cooker. Apart from potatoes and carrots, vegetables tended to consist of tinned peas – more frequently processed, marrowfat, peas, which I wasn't too fond of, than garden peas. Though sometimes, we had fresh peas that needed shucking.

Mum didn't really like green leafy vegetables. At Christmas she'd overcook sprouts in the pressure cooker – and frequently forget them when they'd burn and Dad had to clean the inside of the pressure cooker with a wire brush on his electric drill.

For a short period, our class had to be coached daily to an annexe. Then we had to have school dinners. Typically this would be liver in gravy, mashed potato and cabbage. And we had to eat everything. I learned to eat cabbage by mashing it into the gravy and seasoning it liberally with salt and pepper. Invariably there'd be a steamed sponge pudding with custard to follow.

In the evening, we'd have bread and jam and cake. But we couldn't have cake if we hadn't eaten our bread and jam. I don't know when I first realised I didn't like butter or margarine and started having my bread dry.

But we did burn off calories, too. Like most families at the time, we didn't have a car, so, apart from public transport, walking and cycling were part of everyday life. When small, we had a tandem tricycle, a rare piece of cycling equipment, and cycled with Mum and Dad frequently on the journeys between our house and Nan's.

It had a box like a car boot on the back and Dad had a special walking stick that could engage in a sprocket on the back with which he could give us a push if needed.

Another of our favourite occasional weekend outings was to Hayes Common. We'd travel by train and walk to and through the common. We'd take a picnic comprised of a chicken leg and salad in one of the new Tupperware dishes. We'd also have hard boiled eggs which we used to roll down a grassy bank.

A special treat was to go to London. When we went to the science museum, we took the underground to South Kensington and walked through the tunnel which, in those days, led right into the basement of the museum by a reconstruction of part of a coal mine. Also in the basement was the children's gallery where we could pull on ropes to lift loads and “play” with other machines. One item of interest was the automatic opening door. In these days when self opening doors are common place, it is difficult to imagine how fascinating this was. Other exhibits challenged us to attempt to open a safe or tested how high a pitch we could hear. And in the main galleries upstairs, we could press buttons to see the wheels on model steam engines turn.

When we outgrew our tandem tricycle, we went to the railway lost property office where Mum and Dad bought us “new” bikes – and we had fun painting them and adding transfer decals. I painted mine royal blue whilst Martin painted his green. We used those bikes a lot. Mum and Dad sorted out a quiet backroad route to Bromley where we'd take our model boats to sail on a boating pond. The bikes gave us freedom and we went everywhere on them – particularly to the swimming baths, though we had to carry them over a footbridge. One day, I was off school with conjunctivitis and at my Nan's. I had been out cycling round the quiet roads when I was followed back home by a man who turned out to be a truancy officer wondering why I wasn't in school.

One day we cycled to Maidstone and back. That was the furthest we ever went on them – probably about 35 miles each way. The outward journey was easier going, with a long downhill at Wrotham that was a slog to climb when we were tired. But we didn't think about the return on the way out. But we were probably about 12 or 13 by then and at our new school.


While we were at the Junior School, we moved house (which I have since learned, was made possible by a legacy.) The new house was bigger with more room for three growing lads but it was a mile from the school. Nevertheless, showing our independence, we chose to walk to and from school by ourselves and stay for school dinners, which also enabled us to discover the music club where we could sit in the hall and listen to classical records being played.

We also joined an after school club to learn the violin. Mum and Dad had managed to find a couple

in a second hand shop which they had re-strung for us. If anyone asked us to play it was “Over the Hills and Far Away” - or anywhere out of ear shot! It was the second attempt at making us musical, Piano lessons from a friend had had an equally dismal failure. We weren't non-musical and were to learn to use our voices instead.

Before we moved into our new house, Dad spent some time converting an outside toilet and coal shed to be part of the kitchen, building up the floor and knocking a new doorway to it from the living room. He also put a downstairs toilet under the stairs – where a trap door opened to reveal steps down to an air-raid shelter fashioned in the basement.

Downstairs there were three living rooms. The front room was kept as best but there was a piano and a billiards table in there which we played with occasionally. The middle room (which had, evidenced by the “bell board” on the wall, been a servants' room) became Dad's work room which became known as the black hole. The doorway from the passage was blocked off and entrance was effected through the larder Dad built in the entrance to it from the kitchen.


We passed our 11 plus exams and went to Colfe's Grammar School. Our older brother, six years previously, had won a scholarship to Dulwich College but there was only one scholarship available from our school each year and my parents wanted us to be treated exactly the same so weren't even entered for it – which was a relief as we didn't like the idea of Saturday morning school our brother had to attend.


Click here for Chapter Two - School Days