THE PRESSURE OF STARTING OUT IN LIFE by John Sayles

A regular guy, 

Memories come back to lighten the shadows of approaching nemeses with regular emotions associated with sounds, smells and flickering flames of domestic fires along with thoughts of what might have been as one was bundled between well meaning adults. What if, if only and why/ were a regular theme going through the head. Emerging from and passing through babyhood and the teens one cannot fully understand why ones mother should nickname me ‘Little Hitler’ in seriousness or jest has to be left to others to judge.

Much mystery exists about my family circumstances. Mother would never talk about it. I learned from Aunt Bea, probably the most dominant person in life that father was a valet at a big house in Kent and possibly mother was a maid in the same place, though trained as a milliner. Being young with a home education, a shy sheltered girl she was left at home a lonely sad life, as her three older sisters Beatrice, Annie and Ruby could not get on with the new step-mother. My real grandmother died in a house fire. Again some mystery, one story is that she had a drink problem and caused the fire by knocking over an oil lamp beside the bed when worse for wear. 

From being a valet having deserted his northern roots to escape The Depression of 1929 my father, whom I only ever saw once in my life. He suddenly appeared one day to take me fishing along the R. Nene flowing through Peterborough having become an electrical engineer by the time I was born. This change of occupation was the first of several different jobs obtained for him by the formidable Aunt Bea. Her influence came through a large engineering company as a result of being a very close "friend" ( a mistress I suppose in today's language) of the owner.. More of this later! 

Aunt Bea was a dominant influence on mother and me a regular feature of a young formative life. When born, in what appears to have been a ‘gun shot wedding’ as mother was some seven month pregnant on her wedding day, Aunt Bea wished to adopt me. Failing in that wish she ensured the name David would be included on a birth certificate. This situation only emerged when obtaining a copy of my birth certificate. One is in the name of David with a second one including John Brian, the names mother knew me by. Another mystery here, only becoming clear from love letters passed to me by Aunt Bea in her later life. Was she trying to shelter mother from her naivety becoming pregnant to a younger man as a spinster, a consequence of First World War slaughter of men? Could Aunt Bea have had a skeleton in her own cupboard as love letters from her beau suggested their life would be complete with David. Did she come back to England to have a baby? In despair of a failed birth, did she see in me her lost David? 

Fishing trip completed, mother took me to see her friend, fireman Nobby Clark. I would imagine father disappeared quickly. Meantime, Nobby put a big brass fire helmet on my head, lifting me up on to the front seat so I could clang the bell. It’s strange how certain experiences stick in ones mind.. Mother destroyed all photos of father and no other relative seemed to have anything good to say about him when I asked in later years. So this whole part of my life is a blank experience other than being dominated by a regular succession of Aunties and female carers.

Father eventually re-married and subsequently committed suicide in Kettering by putting his head in the gas oven. When I tried to make contact with his widow, the local vicar warned me off via letter. I often wonder if there are any half-brothers/sisters as a result of that marriage.

Strangely enough, I cannot recall being at a loss or disadvantage with no father, after all many other children were in the same boat with fathers away during the war. Even at boarding school I seemed to be protected with some vague story of him being away on war work.

So what was regular in life. Well uncertainty being passed from one relative to another as a child until mother, as a bar maid could afford a childminder. Then I really learned what it was to be regular and regular ever since. 

Again all rather vague as I was in a child minder's home all day in Reading. What impressions can I recall? One of the other older children was called Bunty and I learned latter he became a fighter pilot. Could he have survived the war? I wonder. I do remember the thick brown table cloth with frilly tassels round the edge, over which one looked out onto a brick back yard. There was a large black cooking range in front of which was a rag carpet on which we played - I can even recall the dusty, comforting smell of that carpet at times. The painful memory and a regular one was having my trousers taken down each day for a piece of soap to be pushed up my backside to "make me regular". 


Being about about four or five years of age and taller, with the front room view looking out onto Wantage Road and across the way a park-like green space, there were men walking past carrying partly built aeroplane wings. This was a regular daily scene so perhaps this was part of the preparation for the possibility of war though at the time of course it was just part of an interesting visual page in my book of life experience? 

It seems mother obtained work in Sussex in the bar of a hotel so I was moved to the Worthing area but cannot remember much of that except starting at a kind of Dame School in a small nearby seaside town. Run by two ladies teaching me my letters using a slate. There I remembered the squeak of slate pencil and the wonder of removing the scratches with a damp cloth. Later I progressed to copper plate writing books, filling in countless lines and pages copying perfect black letters at the top of the page. This was done at a high bench-like shelf, sitting on a stool in what I seem to remember as a greenhouse like lean-to at the back of the cottage. The other smell was of warm plasticine and rolling out and making little men with this brown oily material.

It was at this time mother wanted to play sand castles on the nearby beach. I shot off to the sea without waiting to have my costume put on and the great excitement this caused. Then humiliation after going into the water with my knitted costume as it became wet and sagged round my knees.

At this point Aunt Bee appeared in my life again - probably earlier as well but I don't remember except being always pressed to be well behaved if ever I should see her. With W.W.2 having started I lived for a while with Aunt Ruby back in Peterborough, a regular part of my life in an accommodation emergency. 

Mother managed to find lodgings. No easy task in war time. Sleeping in the "Morrison Shelter" every time the air-raid warning siren wailed. Four or five of us, Mother, me, the landlady & daughter and another lodger sleeping many nights in this steel box-like table with steel mesh round the sides. During the day I played shove penny football on the smooth steel table top when not used for dining. This was in Peterborough, in the same road where Aunty Ruby & cousin Dennis lived. The landlady being a member of the Salvation Army I had to be very quiet on a Sunday.

We had one room downstairs and my own little box room as bedroom. A very drab, dark house with much green and brown paint, lit by gas light. Remembering the smell and pop of gas mantles being lit when the blackout curtains were drawn was quite comforting. With the browns and greens of paintwork and the yellow-green of the gas lights over the fireplace it was always a cold, gloomy place. The toilet was outside and had squares of torn up newspaper as toilet paper hanging on a loop of string. And by now very regular in visiting the toilet I was usually the first one to use the toilet house in the early morning, though sometimes found myself hopping up and down in the cold winter air if already occupied. This regularity of bodily function was so well ingrained its effect was almost as good as an alarm clock. Now being a little older the words of an early child minder about being regular as she pushed soap up my backside seemed to have more meaning.
The lodging house had a long, dark, narrow corridor from the front door. Being the same road as that of Aunt Ruby I was able to crossover to visit her and play with cousin Dennis in their back garden., This was a much more modern house than our lodgings, backing on to the Peterborough Football Club grounds. 


Aunt Bea obtained mother a good job looking after the welfare of the many women now doing war work in the engineering works of her friend, the owner. One horrific story relayed by mother coming home very distressed was of a lady who, because of vanity I assume, often would not wear the thick string hair net and her hair became caught in the lath and she was scalped. Shortly afterwards we had to move out of the rooms we had and so for a short while, until fresh lodgings were found, we were back living with Aunt Ruby. As the upstairs back bedroom overlooked the Peterborough United football ground we could watch games from there in comfort.. This period was nice as Cousin Dennis used to play toy soldiers with me in the garden, building trenches and shelters out of stone, firing matchsticks from the toy cannon. Many of the lead soldiers lost their heads which were fixed back on with matchsticks or replaced with lumps of plasticine. I still remember the great clumps of yellow ‘Golden Rod’ flowers round and under which we made tiny tunnels with our hands and sticks for digging.

One bad night we were kept awake by the bombs. We were told the Germans were trying to hit the railway marshalling yard which was fairly near. I recall hearing goods wagons being shunted at night - clang, clang, clang up and down through most of the night.

Possibly 1943 I recall seeing my first black man! A convoy of American ammunition lorries passed by and all the drivers were Negroes smoking big cigars and throwing out sweets to the children watching them go by. It was about this time I fell into the River Nene by the Custom House key. I was throwing stones at the fish and fell into the water. Having recalled the experience of seeing lovely green bubbles all round me as I came up to the surface I’m conscious that this interesting pleasure went some way to soften the hard words and concern the adults expressed when eventually my explanation was made on returning home. Not, at that time being able to swim, I was lucky to surface by the iron key-side ladder. Having managed to climb up out of the water standing, crying in a puddle of water wondering what to do. Nearby American soldiers made a fuss of me and gave me my first chewing gum and some money for the bus home. Being too embarrassed to say much at the time I did not say I had my cousins old rusty bike round the corner. Cycling home with excitement with a tale to tell having met my first Americans and given sweets and money. It was only later that I had pangs of conscience and thought God had punished me for throwing stones at the fish.

Attending Fulbridge Junior Mixed School, my first proper school I seemed to settle in quite well though found I had to wear glasses and name calling which I did not like. Why are children often so unkind to each other? At some stage during the day, usually the afternoon, we all had to get on to our camp bed to sleep and were not allowed to talk. We were taught to shelter under the desk if we were attacked or no warning was given. On one occasion the air raid siren sounded and we all trooped out to the brick shelter. We walked along beside the playground wall and just got into the shelter to sing songs sitting round on wooden benches. Great deal of noise outside. When we came out of the shelter there were the bullet marks along the wall where we had been a few moments before as the fighter had swept over the building machine gunning. I don't recall feeling scared but very excited, especially when able to watch the dog fights up above, cheering when we saw a plane go down or a parachute appear. We always assumed these were Germans, when in fact they may have been British.

One of the jobs enjoyed was being milk monitor. When it was my turn I would puncture the cardboard milk bottle tops with a pencil. These tops were saved and used as a base to make woollen pom-poms by winding the wool round and round the edges and central hole, then the strands were cut through ending up with a fluffy ball of wool. I can remember the smell of the floors when kneeling down over the milk crate - a mixture of disinfectant, polish, tar and stale, spilt milk. Quite a comfortable but uneventful two and a bit years at this school. 

On the way to and from school we played marbles along the gutter as well as playing with wooden hoops in the schoolyard.. Much of our PT was bean bags and hoops and jumping over benches. The coloured team bands we wore always seemed too big for us and got in the way. In the play ground I became quite good with collecting cigarette cards through the game of "flick". One propped a card against the wall and flicked other cards to knock it down. If knocked down you won all the cards yours and other participants cards had used in the effort. I used to stick two or three cards together to make for heavier and more accurate flick cards. Conkers came into the playground games as well with many schemes to make ones own conkers strong such a pickling in vinegar.

When about nine years old, with a single mother, it became difficult to arrange holiday care. The war seemed to be getting worse. Aunt Bee wanted to adopt me. She tried to get me into Salisbury Cathedral School where a friend of hers had been head chorister. Mother took me for an audition in a grand house in the Cathedral Close, very near to where later Sir Edward Heath had his home. I remember the wonder at finding floors of black polished wood that sloped in odd directions and the low ceilings. Having passed the entry exam I then faced a music/singing test. I did not know anything about music and clearly my voice was not up to standard required. While waiting for the results of the interview we were allowed into the garden which I recall had a pair of stone lions at the base of some steps. I recall sitting on the back of a lion and thinking how wonderful it would be to sing in the cathedral, the spire of which I could see over the roof top. Sadly, this was not to be, so, with Aunt Bee paying the fees, I was sent off to Dunstable Grammar School as a boarder and cried my self to sleep for many weeks. Being sent away to boarding school was, I suppose, some sort of compromise as there was no home for me to use as a base.

After the first train trip with mother for interview and to take an academic test at this school, most of my later journeys as a ten year old one travelled were made on my own. Crossing London by myself struggling with a suitcase was common.. One cannot really imagine this being possible these days. 

Boarding school was very Spartan. I learned to stand on my own feet very quickly. Bullying was common, one just had to be tough and get on with life a day at a time. I recall being put into the vaulting box in the gym while heavy medicine balls were thrown at the outside of the box. One bully kept on at me so for the first and only time I lashed out and punched the fellow so hard that I thought I had killed him, blood spurting everywhere but it was only a badly cut lip. Strange, I never had any further problems with being bullied thereafter. If one misbehaved the punishment was to spend early Sunday morning cleaning all the shoes of the other boarders, about sixty pairs to be ready for church parade.. If not on punishment duty one was free to play until Church Parade. Joining the School Cadet Corp wearing 1914 style uniform, this was before the idea of Army Cadets was set up nationally. We wore puttees and peaked hats and it was my hope to be a drummer boy but the war caught up with us and the band was dropped in place of rifle drill and exercises. Greatly enjoyed was training to camouflage and wriggle through the woods on an adult version of ‘cowboy & indians’. We had real Lee Enfield rifles from the first World War and strings of Christmas crackers to pull to simulate firing.


One of the sad memories was watching the older prefects whom we greatly admired going off to war and learning a few months later of the death of some of them. Every Sunday we marched to church putting up with the taunts of the local town lads. We used to have running battles if out on our own at weekends. I still have the scar lump in my buttock where I was shot with an air pellet. If we tried to protect ourselves by taking our cap off and were caught by any member of staff without a cap on, we used to get into serious trouble - three strokes of the cane if lucky - so am not sure which was worse the town yobs or the cane!

The dormitories were small and cold, with eight or nine boys in each room. I had a clothes box under the bed and a shelf cupboard for my things. Beds were metal framed with a hard, lumpy mattress. Bare, wood floors were washed each week. No carpets and a chair by the bed to hang ones clothes on over night. Washstands for each boy with a large china bowl & jug of cold water to wash in each morning. It was not unusual in the winter to find thin ice at the top of the jug. Once a week we had a hot shower with much merriment seeing who was a corporal or sergeant from the blue/black cane stripes across the buttocks.

I don't remember having any home holidays while at boarding school. I either stayed there during the shorter holidays or mother made arrangements for me to stay with other pupils in their home or with Aunt Ruby or other of mother's friends. I suppose this was accepted as many people had been bombed out of homes, evacuated or parents killed or in war work, so others who were able, looked after children of other people to help out.

Near to the dormitory was the music practice room and every student had the same pieces to practice so when I hear these tunes today I can see and smell the dormitories quite vividly. No talking was allowed after lights out and if caught talking it was lights on, out of bed and two or three cuts with the cane!

We would be woken each morning by a bell being rung along the corridors. We then washed in cold water and took our turn to use a commode-like toilet box in the master's bathroom. He would be shaving and each boy in turn had to go to the toilet and the result inspected by the master. After which you emptied the chamber ready for the next person. If not able to 'go' first time, one had to go back later until the bowels were clear!! What with earlier soap being pushed up the bottom and now a regular daily toilet drill, being ‘regular’ was part of ones life and indeed has lasted to this day. If not regular one would know that not all was well with ones wellbeing..

Down in the basement were games stores, changing rooms, boilers and a hobby room. Here I learned to make a crystal set, progressing to a one, then a two valve radio. I recall setting up a crystal set under my clothes on the bedside chair, with the aerial attached to the bed frame and earthed to the water pipes. Then, with a headset, sharing one ear piece with my neighbour, we listened to late night programmes and music - all very daring and exciting. The crystal being made from broken pieces of coke. If not this , then reading under the bedclothes with a torch was another way of passing a winter evening in the dormitory.

When first attending Dunstable Grammar School we attended the prep-department situated in a large Victorian house in the grounds. Nearby were patches of garden for each pupil. It was here I think I first became interested in growing things to eat as we were given seed packets like radish and lettuce to sow. Great joy when each day one looked at the plot, urging things to grow faster and as soon as big enough, pulling up the plants to take into have with our tea. Tea was always a simple affair with bread and jam and perhaps a biscuit picked up during the line-up for tea from a great big copper urn. Long tables with benches with a very strict sitting or pecking order of seniority at each table. It was the senior pupils at each table I recall, especially one tall ginger haired with a spotty face and glasses who left to go to war and a few months later hearing he had been killed when Mr Evans the Head gave it out at assembly. There were several such losses when the war no longer seemed such an adventure.

It was here I quickly learned my tables. We started each day sitting on a long PE bench and then answered questions on our knowledge of tables as the master moved along the row. If you got the answer right you moved up the line of pupils, if wrong, one moved down a place.. At the end of the session, whoever was last in line i.e. at the bottom end of the bench, he got a whack with a gym slipper. The maths master was rather unpleasant, as he would grab one by the short hairs at the back of the neck and while asking a question would gradually lift one up from the seat in a most painful way until the correct answer was provided.

Over the boundary fence was Waterlows who were printers of foreign bank notes I believe. They had a big reservoir in the grounds into which we used to fire conkers with our illegal catapults. I always enjoyed work in the woodwork shop seemingly better with my hands than head. Here I made a mouse box and acquired two or three lovely pink mice. Oh, my sadness and shock to find two dead with heads eaten off. An early lesson into sex and breeding. It seems I had two males and one female, a recipe for disaster. It was here a lesson in honesty was learned. One boy removed one of the tools from the workbench but denied doing so, claiming the tool belonged to him. The master put the tool under a running tap and the identification letters which had been removed showed up as the bruised wood in the handle became wet. The boy was marched off to the head for a beating. Activities in the gym were great for the physical activities came easily to me. I could climb ropes and hang as a swallow upside down between two ropes or climb wall bars without any problem. Being short in the leg I found vaulting the box more of a problem. At week ends, in wet weather, we would play pirates in the gym which led to many a tumble and skin graze, but great fun. Not such fun for those who were not fit or very athletic. Pirates was a kind of tag game where one was chased from one piece of apparatus to another and if caught had to then chase others. All the P.E. equipment was set up and spread out all over the gym so one was jumping, swinging like Tarzan from one piece of apparatus to another all the time having to keep off of the floor. If you touched the floor you were out of the game.

I often found myself on punishment duty on a Sunday morning. This was organised by the prefects and if one had too many bad points for late homework or some other wrongdoing, it meant collecting all the shoes in large wicker baskets from the dormitories and cleaning/polishing the lot. It would take all morning.

I became quite good at table tennis which we played in the Common Room which overlooked the main entrance to the school and the Great Watling Street which ran past the school.. We used to collect lorry numbers and names, especially the brick lorries passing. One company had dark blue lorries and each carried the name of a bird on the cab door. A bit like train spotting I suppose.

We also spent a lot of time chasing parachute flares near Whipsnade Zoo, fired by soldiers under training. These flares had silk or possibly nylon parachutes of varied colours, mostly yellow. These would hang in the sky and we would chase after them as they drifted across the countryside. Ladies would pay us for the material as such material was not available in the shops, all clothing being on ration. One winter it was very cold with deep snow. I had terrible chilblains but cured them by walking up and down the quadrangle in my bare feet to the amusement of watching pals and rubbing snow into the raw areas. Also, at this time, I badly cut my lip, which is still scarred. We were sliding down the side of the North Downs on pieces of corrugated tin. I picked mine up and the wind caught it and the bent up, front end swung over into my face, knocking a tooth down through my lower lip where I still have a lump to this day.

Two other activities for idle hands were quad hockey and fives. Quad hockey was a kind of ice hockey without the ice and a small wooden chuck to hit instead of a ball. For this we used roller skates. A very rough game. Fives was played in an enclosed court, very much like a squash court. We would hit the ball with our bare knuckles, very fast and hard. To get their own back on a not very nice teacher, some of the older pupils lifted his Austin Seven car into the fives court. There being no way out a crane had to be hired to remove it. I'm not sure how the teacher was able to run a car or obtain petrol as petrol was still on ration in the war. 

One very sad event was the suicide of one of the older pupils by putting his head on the local railway line. It seemed he had been caught in a homosexual activity and been expelled and he could not face his father coming home on leave from the RAF. Two other events I recall in the Common Room involved all of us crowding round the radio to listen to a boxing match - I think it was Bruce Woodcock in a title fight. The other was the wonder and awe on hearing the dropping of the Atomic bomb and end of the war in the Far East. 

It was time for me to move on to another school and the opportunity to have my first real regular home on the remarriage of mother in Worthing. Thirteen years had passed, thirteen lucky for some not for others in a period leading to war for many and for me the excitement of youth. The outstanding experience was the regular struggle to find me a home environment, added to which was the regularization of bodily functions which last to this day. Finally, for this phase of life, the need was to survive in tough all male groups while submitting to the pressures of doting Aunts and a mother trying to mould my life. I’m still regular and still here at eighty five years of age and just recently returned from Antarctica with my grandson, the apple of my eye and a regular good guy.

In