EARLY MEMORIES (1934 – 1938)
My mother had a Pye radio with many valves. Initially this was kept in the dining room of the cafe. I was fascinated. How could so many people get into such a small place? How could a whole band, with all their instruments, get in? I looked in vain through the gauze covers at the front and back of the radio. All I could see were the valves, glowing red in the darkness. The mystery was intractable, but my listening developed an early interest and delight in music. One day my mother was surprised to find me in tears beside the radio. She asked, “Why are you crying?” “Because the music just played was so beautiful”. “But you don’t have to cry when you hear beautiful music – you should be happy”. I always remembered the tune. Many years later I identified it as the march from ‘Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suite’.
The radio was later moved from the dining room into the kitchen and I could listen while I was having my tea. I became an ardent fan of ‘ Toy Town.’ I enjoyed the different characters and their catch phrases. Larry the Lamb, “I’m only a very little lamb”, Dennis the Dachshund, Captain Higgins, Ernest the policeman, “I hope I knows me duty”, Mr Mayor and particularly Mr Grouser, “You ought to be ashamed to look me in the face!.” I was allowed to build my own toy town on the table in my bedroom and played my own episodes with my toys. Mr Mayor happened to be a rabbit–with one ear knocked off. One tea time my mother rushed into the kitchen, “I’ve got Captain Higgins in the dining room!” I didn’t believe her, so she took me in to meet him. He acted the part of Captain Higgins for me and the several other characters (the actor’s name was Frederick Burtwell).
My mother really had Victorian values and so she expected her children to be helpful at home, polite and truthful. Hence I was surprised and anxious one day when I saw a strange man kneeling in the bathroom cupboard. I did not hesitate–I knew the stern path of duty! I found a stick and hit him a blow on the head, while shouting, “What are you doing in my mother’s cupboard?” He was a plumber, and I had to make an apology.
My mother thought it might be a good idea to divert some of my youthful energies into learning to read and write. She offered me a rich reward-6d–when I could read a paragraph from the front page of the Daily Mail. She taught me to sing the alphabet (both ways) and to print my own name and the names of my brother and sister (Stanley and Margaret). Alas, when I started writing, I always used my left hand. My mother remarked that this was unusual, but didn’t try to make me change (nor did my school subsequently). However, she did object to my looking glass writing. I explained that if you held the sheet of paper in front of the mirror, it could be read easily. My mother was not impressed, “Most people won’t take the time and trouble to do that–even if they have a mirror”. So I had to perform some rotations in my brain–which took some time. I think I collected my 6d reward after a few months at primary school.
I started at Nevendon primary school in the summer of 1937, when I was just six. The school was a good mile away from my home, and Margaret and I normally had to walk both ways. The first day got off to a bad start. I had expected my mother to stay–but she quickly went back to run the café. The black board in the class was covered in long words and difficult sums, which I couldn’t understand. So I shed copious tears and paid little attention. After a while, the teacher suggested that I might like to go to the back of the class (50 to 60 children) and play with plasticine. I hadn’t tried plasticine before, so this was a novel and enjoyable experience. It occupied me until my mother came to collect me. Thereafter I can recollect no further troubles at school.
Apart from the three Rs, I became interested in history (Kings, Queens and battles) and religion (both the Old and New Testament). In the archaic language of the Authorised Version of the bible I had to learn by heart the 23rd Psalm and the beatitudes. On a good day I can recite them still. Someone asked me, “Are you enjoying school?” I replied “Yes! It’s interesting, and two of the subjects, History and Religion join up”. I would have to qualify that statement now!
My mother taught me to say my prayers (Victorian style) by myself on going to bed. Having said my prayers, I was allowed to read or write. One evening I wrote my first poem ‘My Fathers Car’ and illustrated it with appropriate drawings. The poem did not rhyme or scan and most of the words were misspelt. It was an interesting precursor of many other poems. I can still remember it but I will spare the reader. For interest I have included some later poems as an Appendix.
The café possessed an expensive notice board in the form of a full size wooden chef, displaying the legend “Breakfast, Dinners and Teas, Quick Service”. This notice was put out every morning and taken in every evening – normally by my mother; it was too heavy for a child to handle. Next to the café was the Cricketers public house, which had a new landlord. In an attempt to stimulate sales, the local press ran a story that a ghost had been seen outside the pub. One evening my mother was late bringing the chef in and observed two drunks coming. She hid behind the chef and shouted, “I’m the ghost of Nevendon!” At first the drunks were shocked and stopped, allowing my mother to escape into the café and hide the chef. Rather unwisely, she went back into the garden. The drunks plucked up courage and decided to investigate the paranormal phenomenon they had observed. They ran up, and hammered on the café front door shouting, “We saw it! We heard it!” It took my father some time to persuade the drunks to go rolling home, while my mother was laughing to herself and hiding in the conifers in the front garden. I mention this story because the chef notice board had an exciting adventure at Christmas 1939.
UNDER WINGS OF WAR (1938 - 1942)
Our idyllic rural existence was soon ended. One day in 1938 I read a headline in the Daily Mail, ‘Peace in our Time’. However my father and mother did not trust Hitler. They were not surprised when war was declared on 3rd September 1939. My parents quickly made three important decisions. One, my father would keep his business open in the East End of London and travel home to the café on Saturdays by train; this decision was forced by strict petrol rationing. Two, my mother would keep the café open despite the virtual elimination of traffic on the arterial road apart from a few troop convoys. Three, we children would not be evacuated although the arterial road would provide a good landing site for gliders and transport aircraft.
There was an immediate increase in air activity because there were fighter stations at Hornchurch, North Weald and Southend. My father gave me an aircraft recognition handbook so I could distinguish between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. The arterial road was used frequently for low flying training from September 1939 to April 1940. One morning in the winter, an open cockpit trainer, a Miles Magister flew past below the level of the café roof. In the front cockpit I saw a figure wearing a thick RAF greatcoat and a forage cap and goggles, I had expected to see a flying suit, helmet and goggles. In retrospect the aircraft may perhaps have been flown from the rear cockpit where the regulation flying kit was worn. A searchlight station was established at Doe’s Hill Farm, about two miles north of the café. The searchlight was guarded by a Lewis gun mounted in a sand bagged enclosure. Off duty soldiers walked down to the café for tea and cakes in daytime and to the pub for beer in the evenings. My mother welcomed the soldier’s custom. However in the excitement of Christmas Eve 1939 my mother forgot to take in the chef notice board and on Christmas morning the chef had gone! My parents were both annoyed because it had been expensive. My mother considered the possible suspects. She suspected soldiers rolling back to camp rather than drunks. When the soldiers next came to the café they were rather sheepish and asked my mother what had happened to the chef notice? She replied, “She didn’t know. But she wished it would be returned just as it had been taken, at night!” The next morning the chef was back in his proper place. Unfortunately he had been scratched and scarred on the front and back. Later the soldiers confessed to their crime. On Christmas day 1939 the chef had been issued with a rifle and put on guard over a barrel of beer. All the soldiers wrote their name on it. Wisely these names were removed before the chef was returned, although my mother would not have charged them. (See the poem Lines on the BlueBird Café).
Initially we had no air raid shelter. When the warning sirens went at night my brother, sister and I had to stretch out to sleep under the large table in the kitchen. However, an Anderson shelter made of galvanised iron soon became available. My father advised on it’s installation, remembering his own observations on German dug outs in the 1914-1918 War, which were always much more comfortable than the British. Our Anderson shelter was half buried in our front garden with the rectangular access at one end facing the south. It was given a concrete floor with a drain in the south west corner, my father correctly anticipated condensation problems. The shelter was covered with the earth excavated for camouflage, warmth and extra protection.
My mother planted this cover with flowers in the spring. In front of the access space my father built two blast walls at right angles made from old tea boxes filled with rubble. These were roofed by an old wooden door primarily to keep out the rain. Across the access space he fitted a steel door made from an old sign from the café. He then paid a local carpenter to fit a pair of bunk beds on either side of the shelter. When the Blitz started my mother and sister took the lower berths while my brother and I took the upper berths; there was no berth for my father. Light was provided by a large hurricane lamp, which smelt of paraffin after a few hours. Thanks to our shelter we were safe and comfortable during the Blitz and Battle of Britain in 1940 and the flying bomb, ‘Doodle Bug’ attacks in 1944. Our hurricane lamp provided sufficient light for my mother to teach us to play Whist in 1940. This was a good introduction to Bridge, which I learnt to play in 1954 in Bedford.
The so called ‘Phoney War’ ended abruptly in May 1940 when the Germans breached the impregnable Maginot Line and our Army retreated hurriedly towards Dunkirk. Owing to unusual atmospheric conditions we heard gun fire and explosions from Dunkirk quite clearly in Nevendon although about 200 miles away. A group of soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk were billeted briefly for recuperation in Nevendon’s large Victorian Vicarage. They came into the café for tea and cakes but were clearly shaken by their experience. On coming home on Saturdays and discussing the week’s disasters my father would say, “The Germans will eat us, boy!” He had been impressed by the German’s general performance in the First World War in addition to the superiority of their dug outs.
Invasion now seemed a real threat as the Battle of Britain was fought above our heads. One afternoon three of our fighters were falling in flames at once while we were in the shelter. My mother saw one pilot “bail out”. His parachute opened and drifted down towards Nevendon cross roads. My mother immediately poured a cup of hot sweet tea (recommended for shock), walked to his landing point and handed it to him as soon as he touched down and released his parachute. He was grateful but said, “I must get back to Hornchurch Aerodrome at once!” and started to gather his parachute together. One of our two village policemen then cycled up; he must have been watching the dog fight too. He stopped the first car going west along the south carriage way of the arterial road to take both pilot and parachute back to Hornchurch. About that time another pilot, a Pole, was not so lucky. His body fell without a parachute on the narrow strip of green between the two carriage ways of the arterial road. Sadly his head was never found…
The huge refineries at Shell Haven were bombed in daylight. They were set alight and thick black smoke billowed up for two days. The arterial road was considered a potential landing strip for gliders or Junkers 52 transports so as a mild deterrent pairs of pylons with wire stretched across the top were provided at intervals of about half a mile along the road. A few small brick ‘pill boxes’ were built in the fields beside the road with gun apertures for the defenders, if there were any! Nevendon cross roads was considered a vantage point between Southend and London so some ten to twenty Scottish soldiers were deployed in it’s defence. Much to our delight the soldiers actually installed their Bren gun in the ‘hide’ that my friend Arthur had selected as a base for our homemade wooden rifles.
The officer in charge of the soldiers asked my mother whether his men could use the Club Room beside the café as a billet? My mother was pleased to accept the rent offered, ten shillings a night for this service. There were now few customers on the road. However, my mother soon noticed young women from Wickford going into the billet with the soldiers. She contacted the Officer and ordered, “This must stop!” So the soldiers moved somewhere else and Arthur and I re-occupied our ‘hide’.
There was another exciting event one night in the autumn of 1940. A parachute carrying a large landmine drifted down towards our ancient church dedicated to St Peter. The mine was caught in the Doe’s Hill Searchlight and the Lewis gun was aimed at it but without success. The landmine exploded on landing. It excavated a huge crater but only caused moderate damage to the church and neighbouring houses. We slept sweetly in our shelter through the incident, which is now commemorated by a stained glass window in the church. We were glad to use the shelter during the intermittent air activity from the autumn of 1940 to June 1944.
Adding to the pains and sorrows of war, my sister Margaret died suddenly with meningitis and a tumour on the brain on 3rd June 1942. She was 13 years old and just becoming a companion to my mother. Her nickname for me was ‘Dennis little ditherer’. In the photograph Margaret is holding my hand firmly. I used to call her “fingy pie” because she sucked her thumb. She was buried at St Peter’s on 6th June 1942.
Fig.1 Dennis, Margaret & Stanley
At the time of Margaret’s death I was enjoying school and in the top stream of my class (still about 50 to 60 children). The class had a small library and I was rebuked for reading ‘Treasure Island’ several times in succession when other pupils wanted to read it. So I joined the county library, which sent a van with a large collection of books once a week. I became friendly with the librarian, with whom I chatted when he was not busy. He was an elderly gentleman (Mr Darington) with white hair and a smiling face. He noted my interest in ships and aeroplanes. Soon he was providing me with special volumes describing the Spanish Armada or aeroplanes. He had been a chemist working for a railway company. He described how he would sometimes travel on the footplate of a locomotive, measuring the contents of the exhaust gases by chemical analysis.
I was fascinated by his descriptions and obvious enthusiasm for science. We also talked briefly about religion. He had some reservations about that and I never borrowed any religious books. My reading may have helped me to win a scholarship to Palmer’s College, a Grammar school at Grays in Essex. In 1942 there were only two successful entries from Nevendon, Audrey Carter and myself. My elder brother had earlier also won a scholarship to Palmer’s but left in July 1942. He took a reserved occupation at the military firing range at Shoeburyness until he joined the RAF to train as a navigator (1944).
PALMER’S PROGRESS (1942 – 1949)
I started at Palmer’s Grammar School in September 1942 aged 11. I had to get up at 07.00 to catch the 07.40 bus to Vange arriving about 07.50. There I had to wait for another bus at 08.00 that took me to Grays at 08.45 in time for assembly at 09.00. Despite the wartime conditions both buses were fairly reliable and I never got stranded in Grays. When possible I did homework, reading or revision during these long journeys. During assembly we sang a hymn and heard a short address normally from the Headmaster, the Reverend Abbott. He would also give out any Notices.
On my first day the new intake of about 90 boys was divided into three groups and set an examination. I didn’t do well and was disappointed to be relegated to Form 2C. Just before Christmas 1942 we had another examination. I was pleased to be moved up to Form 2B for the Easter and summer terms. After another exam I was delighted to reach Form 3A at Christmas 1943. I was showing some aptitude for science and mathematics, but little success with languages. For my first year only English, French and Latin were available, due to the shortage of teachers. Latin was dropped from our second year. Perhaps that was fortunate, for my Elementary Latin Grammar by J.B Allen, was found to contain a test marked ‘unsatisfactory!’ when given to my grandson, Christopher.
In 1943 serious distraction from our studies was provided by a steadily increasing air activity, mainly from US aircraft. I quickly learnt to identify Mustangs and Marauders together with four engined Liberators and Flying Fortresses. There were also transport aircraft, DC3 Dakotas. These sometimes towed gliders, Hadrian gliders, which were American, or Horsa gliders that were English. Many of these aircraft were based quite close in Essex at airfields like those at Finchingfield and Great Eastern. These were standard airfields constructed with great skill in only two weeks.
One afternoon at home I saw a daylight crash landing of a Spitfire. I was in my bedroom and I heard an aero engine misfiring. I rushed to my window and saw a Spitfire flying slowly towards Hornchurch at a height of only about 30 feet. I rushed from my room in the east to my mother’s bedroom at the west, I was just in time to see the Spitfire make a belly landing in a great cloud of dust in a field to the north of the arterial road. I ran downstairs, jumped on my cycle and tore towards the wreck. I left my cycle and ran across the field. I was the first person there. I was surprised to see the pilot nonchalantly leaning against the aircraft and lighting a cigarette while a loud klaxon sounded. I shouted, “What’s that noise?” The pilot said, “That’s a warning that I’m attempting a wheels up landing.” Then he reached into the cockpit and turned the klaxon off. I asked, “Is it safe to smoke with all the fuel in the aircraft?” He laughed, “I’ve crashed because I’ve run out of fuel!” Other people, including a village policeman were arriving then and the pilot asked about access to the field to recover the aircraft. I retrieved my cycle and returned home.
In 1944 Essex roads suddenly filled with heavy military traffic and adjoining fields were covered with tented camps. Our bus had to make a major diversion west of Stanford-le-Hope but I still made Palmer’s in time for assembly. Then came D Day 6th June 1944. A road to Tilbury Docks passed by the school. Many convoys carrying soldiers passed. During the morning break some soldiers threw their English money into our playground. The soldiers seemed very cheerful and some had been issued with French money already. After lunch our Headmaster made a short speech, “This is the greatest day in English history. Today Allied Forces have landed on the coast of Normandy. Initial reports suggest that the landings are going well. We should all pray for the success of our Forces and the defeat of Hitler.”
On the 13th of June the Germans proved that they where not yet beaten by launching ‘Flying Bomb’ attacks. The ‘Doodle Bugs’ were small, pilotless jet planes carrying about one ton of high explosive. The nickname ‘Doodle Bug’ came from the characteristic intermittent noise emitted by the pulse jet engine until the fuel supply was cut off. The bomb then took 10 seconds to glide down to earth. We had no shelters at school so we were told to carry on working. If a ‘Doodle Bug’ approached we hoped the engine would keep going. If it stopped we had to dive under our desks and hope. Fortunately the school escaped with no casualties and only a few broken windows. For most of June and July the ‘Doodle Bugs’ came so frequently that my family slept in our comfortable shelter every night. One night my mother woke me and said, “We’ve had it!” “Had what?” I answered. “A Doodle Bug.” We climbed out and found the café very badly damaged, all the roof tiles were blown off and many of the windows were broken. The bomb had fallen close to the crossroads and completely demolished two small buildings without hurting the owners, safe within their Anderson shelters although so close to the impact. I went to release our dog from the wreck of his kennel while my mother went indoors to survey the damage.
Most of the upstairs walls were knocked down. She noticed an opened bottle of Guinness and poured a glass to help her recover from shock. She went into her bedroom where she saw the telephone still sitting on its stand. She lifted it and was surprised to find it still working. She rang a friend in London who lived near my father’s shop with the message, “Café badly damaged by ‘Doodle Bug’. Family OK, get down if you can. Please tell my husband when he opens his shop.” My father rang back at seven and said he would come down by train and bus, which he did; but he had to return to London in the evening. My mother and I were back in our bunks when an Air Raid Warden knocked on the door and asked, “Are you alright?” We said we were and he went on his way. Just as I was leaving for school a team of builders arrived to begin emergency repairs, which were completed in a few days.
The London anti-aircraft guns were initially not very successful against the ‘Flying Bombs’ so the guns were moved to form a cordon on the south coast where they were much more successful, scoring about 80% hits. Inland two types of aircraft, the Typhoon and the Mosquito were fast enough to catch the ‘Doodle Bugs’, which generally flew at about 400 miles an hour. One afternoon I was on the café verandah and heard a ‘Doodle Bug’ coming. It was being chased and fired at by a Mosquito. My mother was out of sight and I shouted excitedly to the Mosquito, “Get the b……” using a bad word that I had just learnt from Shakespeare. There was only one customer on the verandah. He was telling me off when my mother appeared. She made me apologise for swearing before a customer. I don’t know whether my imprecation helped but the ‘Doodle Bug’ went down in flames crashing on an empty Essex field rather than crowded houses in London.
In the summer of 1944 Allied Armies advanced along the French coast and then into Belgium and Holland, capturing the launching sites of the ‘Doodle Bugs’. Thereafter we rarely heard their characteristic noise although a few were air launched from Heinkel 111 bombers. My family then reverted to sleeping in our house.
In the autumn and winter of 1944 we did get a few ‘V2’ rockets, which were falling well short of their target, London. However, these were travelling at supersonic speeds and thus gave no advance warning of their approach. The war in Europe ended in May 1945, which was marked by a sudden reduction on air activity. The Japanese surrendered in August 1945 after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In September 1945 we started to work for our School Certificate in June 1946. For applied mathematics (mechanics) we had the legendary teacher Mr Gallimore, and we were known as ‘Galley Slaves’. He had only two marks, 10 or 0! As we were completing a test he would walk between our desks saying, “5 marks a minute, 300 marks an hour, that’s my system”. When dictating he would introduce deliberate mistakes to keep us on our toes. One day he dictated, “An Ockendon train travels at 30 mph………..what was the total time of the journey?” Then he asked, “How many boys have written Ockendon?” I had only got as far as Oc–so I escaped. We were the first year unable to learn Newton’s 3 laws of motion in his original Latin, because we had had no Latin teachers for several years. However, we still had to learn Hooke’s Law in Latin; ‘Ut tensio, sic vis’ As the tension, so the extension.
In this vital examination year we had a new science teacher. He was straight out of training college, lacking in firmness and full of new educational theories. One break time I mentioned to him that there was a theory that left handed pupils were more intelligent than right handed. (I am left handed!) If true, there should be more left handed boys in the A streams than in the B & C streams. He was interested and agreed to make a survey in all his classes. I thought he would just count the left handers when every class was busy writing. Unfortunately he asked every class before their lesson. He reported back to me and said, “Sorry! They all claim to be left handed!” He quickly lost control of our class. One afternoon he shouted in anger, “Every time I open my mouth, some fool speaks!” That unfortunate remark made things even worse. Other masters complained and the teacher left in the spring of 1946. He was replaced by a forceful teacher, just demobilised from the army. He walked in, and looked at the class. “I know what you’ve been doing! If you behave and work extremely hard, just a few of you may get a pass in science”. Our response was total silence from the class. “Right! We start working now!” We did work very hard for the remaining eight weeks of the term. A number of us managed to pass, much to our surprise and that of our new teacher.
My recollection is that after School Certificate examinations of class 5A with about 30 boys; about 10 left school or had to repeat, about 10 went into the arts stream and about 10 went into the science stream. My School Certificate results were only fair, but good enough to get me into Form VIC (Science).
There I concentrated on physics, chemistry, pure and applied mathematics. We had four experienced teachers and we had to work hard. We were in the fast stream, who would take Higher School Certificate in two years and then ‘shoot’ for a university scholarship (at Oxford, Cambridge or London).
I will flash past these two years (1946 to 1948) of hard study and review some of the other changes at the school. We had a new headmaster, Mr Jordon, who made many rapid changes. The Army cadet Corps stood down, so we had to return our uniforms and stop drill and firing on the range. I had learnt to fire a 303 rifle; that’s probably where I damaged my hearing. In those days there was no nonsense about wearing ear defenders when shooting.
The school gym and swimming pool reopened and although we had no swimming lessons, I taught myself to swim breast stroke very badly. After school many sports flourished, football and cricket being popular, but I didn’t have time for these activities. When Mr Jordon arrived, he formed a choir and then an Operatic Society. The first Operatic production, (Christmas 1947) was ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ by Gilbert and Sullivan. I was in Form 6B and thus approaching my first shot at ‘A’ levels. I wanted to take part but I decided that I could not spare the time. However, I enjoyed watching the production so much that I had an audition in my final year, in Form 6A. I was accepted as second tenor for the chorus in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ and was a pirate in both acts. My parents sat in the front row for the last performance. My father was very amused at the second act when the pirates marched to the footlights singing, “Come friends who plough the sea, truce to navigation, take another station…..” I could see and hear my father laughing. Afterwards he explained that when I drew my sword from my scabbard and lunged forwards he feared that I might impale another pirate! Fortunately that didn’t happen. I enjoyed ‘Pirates’ so much that I decided I would take up amateur dramatics again if I ever had another opportunity. Fortunately this occurred when I started work at Bedford in 1954. This introduced me to my future wife.
There were two additional matters of interest in the period from 1946 to 1948. Although I had stopped studying French in June 1946 (after gaining only a pass at ‘O’ level), I still had a French pen friend. Pierre invited me to visit his home in Provence in July 1947. I accepted his kind invitation and travelled alone via the Newhaven–Dieppe ferry. I crossed from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon by bus and then took the Paris, Lyons, Marseilles evening express.
As the sun arose it revealed the beauty of Provence and the fragrance of flowers drifted in through an open window. Pierre and his father met me at Orange station and took me home for breakfast. I was made very welcome and had three delightful weeks, initially walking and cycling locally and also swimming in a tributary of the Rhone. Pierre’s father later hired a car (his own car had been stolen by the Germans in retreat in 1944). We visited Avignon Cervennes, Nimes, the Pont du Gard, Vaison la Romaine and had a quick look at the Cevennes mountains.
During my first two weeks I had some difficulty following conversations but by the third week everyone seemed to be slowing down. In preparation for our French essay at School Certificate we had been made to learn idiomatic expressions. The idea was to string these together with some appropriate nouns and verbs to complete a story. I thought I would try some of these idioms in conversations; the results were not as anticipated, ‘Arrive´’ a la gare…….’ ( having arrived at the station) worked quite well, ‘C’est une affaire mais……….’(it’s a bad job but……..) produced laughter (presumably because of an adult phrase on the lips of one only 16). ‘De quoi s’agit – il?’ (what’s the matter?) produced hilarious laughter, I asked “what’s so funny?”. The answer was that in the spring of 1918 the Germans were closing on Paris and Marshal Foch held a press conference and when asked about the possibility of defeat, he replied “De quoi s’agit – il?”
On my return from France I wrote an account of the visit, illustrated with photographs taken with my box camera. Sadly, I cannot find that account now but memories inspired my poem ‘La Provence’. Pierre came and stayed with me in July 1948 but England could not compare with the delights of Provence.
The second matter of interest concerns my attitude to the Christian faith I had learnt from my mother. Soon after taking School Certificate I decided (at 15!) that science and scientific research had made religion obsolete. I stopped going to Evensong at St Peters every Sunday, but was content with the ethical teaching of the ‘sermon on the mount’ and the beatitudes I had learnt at primary school. Then something happened which changed this.
My mother went to the funeral of a distant relative. There she met a long lost, distant relation, the Rev. H Carter. Somehow he got from Chelmsford to study in America and he gained a PhD at Yale. He was now retired and expressed a wish to come and see us at Nevendon.
When he came I explained that only science gave the truth. He replied if I had thought of the many different kinds of truth? I was speaking of scientific truth, but what of legal truth, moral truth, spiritual truth? I was talking about things or processes scientists could measure–like temperature or the speed of light. But how could we measure human love? (See my poem ‘Litmus Test for Love’) Supposing there was a God, how could we measure Divine love? (See my poem ‘How do I love you’).
After some thought, I decided I had been too hasty. I would ask our new vicar at St Peter’s (Rev Dacre–FiennesBarret–Lennard) if I could be confirmed? When I told my mother, she and my brother decided to be confirmed at the same time. Hence all three of us were confirmed at St Andrew’s, Billericay in the spring of 1949. We made our first communion at St Peter’s, Nevendon on Whitsunday, 1949.
Our two years of hard study produced our Higher School Certificate results in August 1948. I had done reasonably well and after a brief interview in Chelmsford was awarded a County major scholarship from Essex County Council. So I had a chance to repeat ‘A’ levels in form V1A with the hope of shooting for a university scholarship. We repeated each syllabus again, but studied at a higher level. In physics and chemistry we did more advanced experiments. In particular, in chemistry we had time to do organic experiments. These were often long and complicated with a small yield. Our homework consisted of writing these experiments up and writing timed (half hour) answers to previous examination questions. These questions sometimes involved duplication, which I always avoided.
One day our teacher, Mr ‘Chick’ Henley, gave back our homework. He remarked (with a smile), “Some boys are using unusual words that I don’t understand! Why are you smiling Mabey?”
“Well sir, you’ve crossed out gambit.” “What is gambit supposed to mean?” “It normally refers to the early moves at chess, but in a wider context it means the opening, scientific approach” “Let me read it again”. “For the first part of question 3, see the opening, scientific approach of question 1, Alright Mabey, you can keep gambit”.
Shortly after this exchange we were working in the science library (a special privilege of the scholarship year). Someone found in a text book the Latin phrase ‘mutatis mutandis’. What did it mean? Someone looked it up and found ‘The necessary changes being made’. I thought; does ‘Chick’ Henley know this and would he challenge it? To find out, I inserted ‘mutatis mutandis’ halfway through the sentence I was writing. This phrase excited no comment when my homework was handed back. Perhaps ‘Chick’ feared another gambit!
In our scholarship year our applied mathematics teacher was more relaxed than in previous years. Before assembly one morning he caught me at the blackboard, finishing a large drawing of a futuristic aircraft with highly swept wings (these were just coming into fashion in 1949). “What’s that Mabey?” “Britain’s answer to the flying saucer sir”. Mr Gallimore replied “Britain’s answer to the flying saucer Mabey is more and more applied mathematics” and then strode out.
Thus we enjoyed our scholarship year, but Higher School Certificate was soon upon us again in June 1949. After ‘A’ level s came our special scholarships. I had been recommended to try two, the Whitworth (for students with an interest in mechanical engineering) and the standard Imperial College (IC) one (for students with a more academic interest).
The results came out quickly. I had failed the Whitworth, but was delighted to be awarded the Clothworkers’ company scholarship (This was awarded to the candidate under 21 with the highest mark in the IC scholarship examination). Some weeks later we got the results of our Higher School Certificate repeats. I had done well and was awarded a State Scholarship. So I did not need to take up my County Major scholarship.
I looked back with pleasure to my seven exciting years progress at Palmer’s and forward with anticipation to my study at IC.
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