When my parents separated,
I had to leave prep. school and go to live with an aunt and uncle. My
uncle approached the headmaster of the local Grammar School, the Royal
Liberty, who accepted his request, in view of my situation, to test
me and he subsequently let me in as a late developer. Sympathetically
putting me at my ease, the headmaster, Mr. Newth, gave me an oral exam
in which my Latin and claims about off- and on-spin bowling seemed to
me to have been the deciding factor. My aunt, being snobbish, said that
he probably hoped that my typical prep. school well-spokenness might
have a good effect on the tone of the school too.
Crossing the class barrier 'downwards' at the age of twelve, I know
how it feels to have one's 'class ego' punctured... by which I mean
that bundle of superior and attitudes that the prep. school system was
so good at inculcating until it became one's subconscious or second-nature.
My first days in Mr. Morley's second-year Latin class, probably prepared
through the headmaster's influence, were pleasant enough. All the regular
masters were university graduates, some evidently with similar school
backgrounds to my own. Almost all of the boys, however, had previously
been to State primary schools of the sort my mother had so looked down
on. They were naturally a bit curious about life at a preparatory school.
Very soon, however, I felt that I was in some subtle 'class apart' from
the rest of my school class.
There seemed to be no way for me to make any sort of friendship or even
to be able to partake in any of the usual activities during the breaks.
I stood literally for weeks on my own during the lunch hours, wishing
desparately that someone would one day manage to invite me to join in
one of the informal teams that always played courtyard ball games such
as 'kingie' and 'winkle'1. The more present
I was, the more my presence was overlooked, so that my unspoken exclusion
became progressively the more obvious and painful and also the more
difficult for any of the boys to alter. I became the victim of an unspoken
In those weeks I went through much painful self-examination and soul-searching.
I did everything within my power to become acceptable to the winkle
gang. I had to discover the subtle effects and signs of class arrogance
that had formed some of my attitudes and also to discover my own failings
and conceits. It meant nothing to anyone here that I had won a lot at
school athletics except that it made me a prig even to have mentioned
My relatively advanced acquaintance with Latin was a cause of envy at
best. To make matters worse, I foolishly looked up a word surreptitiously
in the vocabulary during a class translation and was accused of cheating
by the master, which was fair enough. I had not actually been cheating
then, but I felt I had to own up to having done so once before. Some
boys reviled and teased me really mercilessly everywhere I went for
days, vituperation that would not have worried me had I not been at
the depths of loneliness already. Not until I gave up any desire to
join the group and ignored them for days was I suddenly invited casually
to make up a team. The boys who had teased me became my closest associates.
They were rather unpopular themselves and were not the best company
in various respects, but I had by then firmly resolved I would never
reject anyone who wanted to be friends.
My first month or more was altogether spent in the very lowest of spirits,
I think I really learned something about human insensitivity, the herd
mentality and not least of what importance even a single kind word can
The most obvious vulnerable point was the 'posh' accent. Though there
were also boys who accepted and even liked it, a few imitated it for
fun. Even a woodwork master who had (as that dreadful class vernacular
had it) 'risen somewhat from the ranks' of local carpenter called me
'Lah-di-dah' and imitated my vowels in a satirical way. One day, however,
he made a generous apology to me before the class, saying my classmates
had spoken to him to put a word in on my behalf.
After a year I had enough self confidence to dare to drop the occasional
'h' and say 'same' more like 'saime'. But that rigorous and 'low' Romford
accent was not allowed by my aunt and uncle. I suppose it was some measure
of my outward assimilation, for I had learned 'When in Rome do as the
Romans do'. Inwardly, of course, I remained who I was, in many ways
a witnessing outsider because my experiences made me always view my
social surroundings from different and sometimes opposing perspectives.
I already knew the causes and quality of friendship and enmity, admiration
and jealousy and many such qualities from my several varied backgrounds,
having been at 5 schools previously due largely to my father's changing
posts abound Souther England.
To have been suddenly extracted from the unreflecting, unproblematical
web of life and thus be faced with the web's structure gave me the perception
of an observing witness. No longer did I belong, neither
to the one class or the other, neither to the family home nor the surrogate
family of aunts and uncles. This brought its own kind of suffering but
also its peculiar compensations. To be a participant yet able to see
all from without as sole observer is lonely, yet it also gave the strength
of insight, opening perspectives beyond the mental fences of whichever
herd I mixed with. I gradually learned how to partake and mix as fully
as I wished, yet only on my own terms. There was some existential realisation
that set me up in an inner independence from then on.
I began to understand my experiences in a wider sense by aid of the
novels of H.G. Wells. I felt I had found both a kindred spirit and a
teacher in the social insight he gave me, even in his science fiction
stories, and in the social satires at which he was so brilliant. I recognised
for myself that he had seen both the perplexities of 'inferior class'
and the intellectual presumptions of the social climbing middle- and
upper-classes. The divide I crossed was from upper to lower middle-class.
He described all the strata and their attendant attitudes from a sovereign
objectivity, a truly humorous and yet benevolent outsidership.
Only in recent years did I learn the biographical details of Wells'
childhood sufferings under the class system, to which mine were rather
similar in some ways, if also less oppressive. His early two-volume
novel The Passionate Friends was surely partly veiled autobiography.
His experiences and views struck chords in me and it surprised me to
see how strongly my own outlook was formed on some fronts by his, right
into my mature years. One set book for the school-leaving examinations
was Mr. Polly, which I read with fervour and amid fits of laughter.
His first great success, The Time Machine,put many ideas
into my head that virtually inoculated me against many lesser thoughts.
After that, I set out to read the fifty-three Wells' titles that I had
managed to list from here and there. I must have got well past halfway
on that agon before I had absorbed enough. Some of Wells' simpler predictions
have come to pass, but not his many very speculative ideas and visions.
However, what appealed to me and taught me was the very ingenuity of
his thinking, the manner in which he twisted hypotheses to yield unexpected
but plausible results, the breadth of scope within which he would place
the most insignificant of facts. In that he still remains superior to
most writers who came after him in the genres he created. His utopian
works ranked high in my ratings, his tales of fantasy and science fiction
having been the bait. I admired his wit, simple but bitingly perceptive
descriptions of people's foibles and fads, as the highest and funniest
sort known to me.
From then on I soon grew into a decided modernist: away with the old
order, stupid inefficiency and especially undue privilege. My fate -
being torn out of private education to a grammar school - I began to
realise was my fortune; in that way I escaped the confines of the mentality
of the privileged classes and learned to 'mix' on an equal footing with
all sorts of people. Besides, I can now see that it was a very good
grammar school too, the Royal Liberty, the values it embodied being
egalitarian and upright. As time went on I became friends with a varied
cross-section of the two classes I attended at different periods of
my 5 years there.
So I learned to know boys who actually smoked, others who went to see
speedway2 ('so dreadfully common they must be' was my aunt's comment), who delivered milk and
had similar pursuits that were exotic and interesting by boarding-school
standards. However, at RLS it was yet the era of tedious methods of
learning and writing... sitting for long stretches on hard wooden seats
in one-piece desk units, paper-scratching and hole-digging pen-nibs
- sometimes crossed and spluttering, inkwells topped up from cans of
lampblack with brownish-black ink. Meanwhile, pens were used as arrows,
quivering on desk-top targets and ink was the colouring agent used in
chewed, soggy paper pellets for ruler-snap projection onto white ceilings.
Science was on the upsurge among us boys, though the humanities were
still to the forefront at grammar schools. For us it meant the latest
advancements in fighter aircraft, ejection seats, futuristic car streamlining
and many other such supposedly progressive marvels of peacetime and
the post-War decade. The country's self-image was still very strongly
bound up with the Battle of Britain, the Whittle jet engine and the
aero industry of the future. When my uncle and aunt went with me to
the 1951 Festival of Britain on the London South Bank site, I was entirely
absorbed in all the popular scientific contents of the main exhibition
construction, the 'Dome of Discovery', and in the statistics of the
huge cigar-shaped exhibit suspended on its end on wires, 'the Skylon',
plus the space-probing marvels of the Shot Tower where radio signals
were sent and reflected back from the moon.
With hindsight it is clear that the decline in classical values was affected by inventions that heralded the consumer age. Not until my
thirties did I become extremely doubtful about the willy-nilly 'progress'
of scientific technology. But then for us it was the cause only of such
weapons against the adult world as bubble gum (just in from America),
corrugated plastic key-rings which, when moved from side to side, showed
a dog beg or a girl wink at you as she opened her blouse wide. (These
were provided for me by a maverick uncle who visited the family for
a few weeks after twenty years in Canada. My aunt confiscated the busty
girl and also a silk tie with a similar one that Uncle Nug had brought
me. Uncle Nug himself became a persona non grata in her
A few boys at school chewed newly-imported bubble-gum or sported discreetly
hidden fluorescent green socks and used 'Biro-pens'... a miracle of
smooth motion with their inexplicable stock of 'dry' ink! Masters forbade
the use of them, doubtless fearing a further slide into illegibility
and sloppy Yankeedom. The zaniest of sounds of the electric guitar of
Les Paul were heard (could that instrument be something like a Hammond
organ? Nobody knew, even at the big music shops). It all went to show
that even the days of the classics were numbered and soon one would
forget the old ditty: 'Latin is a language, as dead as dead can
be. It killed the Roman people and now its killing me'.
I was at last able for the first time to hear the radio for myself,
which had always been banned at prep. school. The B.B.C.'s music programme
'Top Ten' had given birth in 1948 to the 'hit lists' and the Top Twenty
with warmed-over folk songs like an early Number One Hit 'Lavender Blue,
Lavender Green' - an innocent lyric if ever there was one - and amusing
songs like 'There's a rich Maharaja of Magador', who had everything
except that he couldn't do the rumba or syncopated jive numbers like
'Blacksmith Blues'. The same flippant musical trend continued into the
50s; Puddy Tats and bunches of cokernuts alternating with the deadpan
soppiness of supposedly romantic songs with tear-jerkingly yodelled
choruses like 'I am the great pretender' and 'I am a f-o-oool, to f-aaall
for youuuu'. Not long after joining RLS, the 9-inch TV screen made its
debut at home and I could begin to see the world, especially historical
events, such as in the long series 'War at Sea'.
Stoppages and shortages becoming less and less after 1950, there was
an emergent desire to 'live it up' as in popular songs from America
about putting nickles in the nickolodian, if not quite as much as in
'Cigareets, Whuskey and Wil' Wil' Women'. For many of us, and especially
myself living under the auspices of my puritan aunt, girls were largely
foreign bodies, an UFO-like species whose habitat was strange and who
were difficult to approach to within speaking distance. A friend and
I used to sit during the lunch hour beneath the tall and shady elms
on a bank beside iron railings that gave a view of the road. The added
attraction of this spot was the daily appearance of a passing schoolgirl
of our age, Mavis, who deigned to say 'hello' back to us. Like caged
animals, and because we never got any further than that, we eventually
planned to go to a dancing school in Romford, my pretext upon my aunt's
inquiry was an extra meeting of the Boy Scout troop. Two visits were
enough for me, though, staggering awkwardly through formal waltzes and
foxtrots with expressionless but heavily-scented and -lipsticked girls
who always seemed to reach only to my chest.
Despite all our fascination with the future, we were mostly well-ordered
and disciplined boys, genuinely interested in most of our curriculum.
We knew to a 't' who was a teacher dedicated to our development and
who was just a repetitive pedagogue and we really did respect those
who taught best. All of us liked those masters best who were open with
us and were convinced of their calling and who respected us by never
making fun of us or speaking down to us. We were not fooled for a moment
by doctrines that were empty or which we were convinced teachers did
not believe in themselves or were not conscientious. I was at the age
of learning to see through more of the foibles of adults and privately
to criticise and ridicule some of them.
I found that there was one acceptable way open for me to escape from
the confines set upon my behaviour by my aunt's home regime; to join
the Boy Scouts, to which I was eventually invited by some school friends.
Once or twice a week, and on an occasional weekend, I could get away
to the scout meeting. The 12th Romford Troop was led by Mr. Morley,
a sound man whom - years after I left school - also became the headmaster.
My scouting friendships made helped me adjust socially, as they say,
increasing my social self confidence. I stayed in the troop for over
three years, earned a few badges, and went on fortnight long summer
camps to Devon, Wales and Oxford with campfires and all kinds of outdoor
One incident from my scouting days seems worth recounting, for it bears
on a small part of British social history, in its way. My brief childhood
brushes with the great were surpassed by a brief encounter with a person
who was the basis of a character once known and enjoyed more or less
throughout Britain - though decidedly not a great one. Towards the end
of my scouting career, late 1952 or perhaps early in 1953, a three-day
bicycle marathon with camping on the way was organised which was to
end in a large jamboree - a county-wide meeting of many patrols and
troops at some place in the Essex countryside... I think it was Billericay.
The climax was supposed to be a visit from the main organiser, whose
real name I forget. We were told that he was a very active and enterprising
scout leader, one who knew lots of well-known people including Michael
Bentine, Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan. Prior to his delayed arrival,
our scoutmaster, Mr. Morley, made us promise not to remark on this other
scoutmaster's way of talking or mannerisms, nor to laugh or show any
signs of fun... for he was a rather different sort of person, unusual.
As soon as I heard the great man's voice approaching, I recognised it
as that of the grotesque character Bluebottle from a BBC radio comedy
show 'The Goons'. It was unbelievable that anyone could pronounce words
in such ridiculous fashion and unlikely tones, and moreover with such
assured self-importance as did this barrel-chested, hairy-legged wonder
in short trousers complere with whistle, scarf, toggle and so on. It
was fascinating but oddly repellant ... also confusing, for Peter Sellars
used exactly the same tones and weird twists of language on the weekly
show. He even boasted of his friendship with Sellars and Co. to us.
It was perfectly obvious that he had been the model for the contorted
phrases and falsetto leaps of voice of Sellars' character Bluebottle.
However, nothing much was said about this, probably because we had been
told not to mention it - obedient boys that we actually were - and anyway,
there was no way of finding out any more. But he was a steaming fool
if ever there was one! I can't remember his name or where he came from,
but he was a scoutmaster in some place like Walthamstowe, Ealing, Ilford...
I seem to recall.
As years went by, I virtually forgot all about this peculiar chap, until
in the 1970s when, having rediscovered the pleasure of the old Goon
Shows, I got an l.p. of the Parkinson TV interview with Peter Sellars
and Harry Secombe in 1972.3 There, the
origin of Bluebottle's voice and some character traits was publicly
revealed by Sellars. It was the selfsame red-bearded, wide-chested scoutmaster
in full regalia from khaki shorts to wide-brimmed hat that Sellars described,
along with the preposterous voice! He had tried to get Sellars to do
a show at some scout meeting, but the declining Sellars had instead
taken the opportunity to send him on to the other 'goons' instead, chiefly
to be studied as potential material. Potent it surely became... Bluebottle
must have been the most popular fictional radio character ever.
Something that the U.S. playwright, Arthur Miller wrote in his autobiography 'Timebends' illustrates well what I experienced and thus
how basic faith or trust resurfaces in maturing young persons: 'For
me, as for millions of young people then and since, the concept of a
classless society had a disarming sweetness that called forth the generosity
of youth. The true condition of man, it seemed, was the
complete opposite of the competitive system I had assumed was normal,
with all its mutual hatreds and conniving. Life could be a comradely
embrace, people helping one another rather than looking for ways to
trip each other up.'
However, I was not over-preoccupied with all this until my twenties,
perhaps. Meanwhile there was much to discover and life ahead of me to
be lived. I shared several dreams or longings typical of my generation,
three of which were the desires to see the world, to fly in aeroplanes
and to play music for the sheer enjoyment of it. It is odd to think
that I eventually fulfilled each of these aims myself within that decade.
1. The games kingie and winkle seem
to be related. Kingie was a kind of tag, played with a tennis ball.
An area of play with boundaries was determined. One person was chosen
by some chance method and he became 'it'. He took the ball and tried
to hit any of the others anywhere on the body except the hands/fists.
Once hit, that person joined the one who was 'it' making a team of two.
This went on until all of the team who were 'out' were out, by going
over to the same side. The last man was the winner. Defence was with
the fist only, for which purpose a hankerchief could be wound round
it to avoid sore knuckles. Those who were still 'live' were not allowed
to pick up or otherwise touch the ball... all they could do was run.
The game soon became unsatisfactory, for it was easy for several who
were allowed to handle the ball to hit the remaining players. Winkle
employed the same way of defending oneself and the same rules of who
could and could not touch the ball. But there were two teams of equal
numbers. The game started with a 'winkle'- that is, five uneven stones
of descending sizes piled on top of one another. It was built up about
a yard in front of a wall. The team who was 'out' (i.e. roaming in the
field) sent one member at a time to try to knock down the winkle. The
ball was to be thrown from a distance of about 5 or more yards and had
to hit the wall first, then fall on the winkle. Each player had three
throws. As soon as the winkle was down, the ball became 'live' and could
be picked up and thrown by the team who were winkle-defenders. The aim
was to hit out all of the opponents (who became 'dead' once touched
by the ball anywhere but on the hands) before they could sneak back
and rebuild the winkle. If rebuilt before all were dead, a new round
was started with the same teams in and defending the winkle, the score
now being one to the attackers. If all were hit before the winkle could
be rebuilt, the teams changed sides. The game was agreed as being finished
within a given time limit (eg. end of lunch break). In practise, the
main weakness of the game was that it would stagnate if the defending
team kept the ball stingily near to the destroyed winkle... so as to
keep the others from rebuilding it. This could have been solved by a
system of time limits and setting boundaries beyond which the ball must
go within the limit - but would have been complicated and required a
(timekeepier and) referee, which no one wanted to be. Perhaps this is
partly why we do not see World Cup Winkle on TV yet?
2. The speedway' referred to 'dirt track' (cinder tack) motor cycle
racing, which took place at varying times at Harringay, West Ham and
3. The Michael Parkinson interview
of 28 October, 1972 in which Peter Sellars tells of his meeting with
the scoutmaster whom he copied for the character Bluebottle is hilarious.
It was released on vinly lp as 'Michael Parkinson Meets the Goons' by
BBC records and tapes.