My friend and I both passed the “11 plus” exam, which gained us entry into the local grammar school. There weren’t many of us; most came from the schools on the “other side of the tracks” and the first year was a cautious exploration of each others’ potential. There I met another boy, an adventurous lad who my mother thought was a bad influence on me. She was not impressed when I suggested I might be a good influence on him!
The boys from Parkway school had mostly been taught to swim, something no teacher had ever suggested for Peartree pupils, so when the grammar school took us swimming in the open air, unheated pool (53 degrees F some May mornings), I couldn’t. I rapidly learned to swim long distances under water (two lengths of the pool eventually) and to dive – of course, I had to swim under water to get back to the side. This was all to avoid the indignity of spluttering and sinking when I failed to control my breathing on top of the water! The pool was cleaned on Fridays and, as the week progressed, the water got greener and so murky you couldn’t see the bottom. We used to fish out the frogs that trespassed from the nearby river Lea.
The better swimmers learned to life-save and naturally wanted to practice on me, a known non-swimmer. I dived off the top board, swam under the opaque water to the side and climbed out. Then I sat and watched as the lads in the middle duck-dived ever more frantically for their drowned school mate. You’d have thought they would have been pleased when they found I was safe, but there’s no satisfying some people.
In 1947, the winter snow came early, began to melt, then froze solid for many weeks. At 15, I cut firewood in the woods and fetched coal in a sack I took to the coal yard on my bike, then walked the bike home with a hundredweight of coal balanced in the frame. Every evening after school we went toboganning on the golf course. There were several broken limbs and my new friend blew himself up in the woods with a little bomb and was kept home with several stitches in his eyebrow. My clothes never got properly dry so I borrowed his oilskin overtrousers – covered in blood. That night, racing other lads, I ran into long, ice-covered grass on the sledge, face down with another boy sitting on my back. My forehead, cheeks, nose, chin and lip were skinned; all superficial, but it looked terrible. I went home and climbed in through my bedroom window so my mother wouldn’t see. Fond hope! Seeing her son red raw and with clothes covered in blood (she didn’t know it was somebody else’s) was only one of the shocks I gave her from time to time.
On another occasion I had caught a dozen fresh-water crayfish, (kind of very big black shrimps or tiny lobsters) in the river Mimram by H G Wells old house and dumped them in the sink where they scuttled to the corners and crouched evilly. The idea was to ask my mother to cook them. She was out, so I went and read a book, forgetting all about them. She came in by the back door. Her horrified scream reminded me of what I’d meant to tell her.