I was born into a very poor working class family. Now contemporary critics consider this a very heavyweight way to begin an autobiography. Maybe it is, but at least I claim originality for my opening, for it is the absolute truth, something I intend to adhere to throughout the whole of my story. Autobiographies, like everything else, have changed. Years ago they were rare, usually the work of some scion of the bluebloods whose claim to an audience was based mainly on the assertion that a forbear helped Mrs Boadicea to burn Roman London. Nowadays the claims have a different character, instead of filling page after page with society balls, house parties and other aristocratic gambols, the autobiographer of today, by a clever piece of word jugglery, gives the impression of a genteel but somewhat poverty-stricken intellectual who has managed to struggle through college on a shoestring. Further investigation generally discloses however that at some stage a rich aunt turned up to foot the bill, in some cases sending her beloved nephew, in addition, a sample of the edible wildlife in her county. Very touching indeed, and one feels one should sympathise with the poverty which prevented the writer from buying a car – his third one, that is. These gentlemen have a strange language for the poverty-stricken, including such expressions as `What would you like to drink?` when some friend drops in for a chat.
In our genuinely poverty-stricken family, eight children and a drunken father, the language was the true language of compulsory shortage. When mother handed us the sugar to sweeten the tea, she always said, in all seriousness, `Remember, sugar is for sweetening not thickening`. If one of the older children, that is a wage-earner ventured to suggest that their portion was rather small, mother quickly pointed out that it was even smaller where there was none.
Although not fate, but a lack of knowledge of contraceptives, gave us to an illiterate drunken bully of a father, our burden was eased by a miracle-working mother. On Saturdays, our father would stagger into the little house of three up and two down with a single golden sovereign hidden under his tongue. Rumour had it that it was he who inspired the story of the working man’s wife who warned that carrying one’s wages in one’s mouth was dangerous as there might be germs on the money; to which he replied `A germ couldn’t live on my wages.`
How much he really earned neither mother nor any other member of the family knew. All mother knew was that out of that one sovereign she had to feed eight children, him and herself, and find tobacco for him. He smoked a clay pipe stuffed with an evil-smelling twist that looked like the unwashed pigtail of a seventy-year-old Chinese. The rocking chair by the fire-grate was the throne from which this bricklayer’s Ivan the Terrible glowered dire threats at anyone who dared to speak. No one ever did. A well-oiled strap dangling from a nail at the fireplace was a perpetual reminder for us all that the booze-angered deity did not forgive. His method of beating seems to have been adopted by the modern all-in-wrestlers except that there was nothing fake in the punches our father handed out. Brutal beatings were usually followed by the child in question being sent to bed without food. Anyway the junior members of the family were obliged to retire for the night at 6 pm, and then the others in order of age. Only those who were twenty-one got the key to the door, but those who were nearing the age of twenty-one during his tyranny did not wait to test the validity of the key to the door theory but just simply walked out. They had learned by bitter experience that the key to a lodging house was worth two to his door.
In the midst of all this misery stood mother, firm as a rock at the same time as soft and comforting as the warm sand on a beautiful beach. She often had to be a strong bulwark between him and the child who was, in his besotted conception, a wicked and wilful defaulter needing to be thrashed. It made little difference to him that she was the woman who had brought up his two children by a former wife and bore him nine that he blindly created with no consideration for anybody or anything except his lustful satisfaction. If she protected her child with her body, then her body bore the brunt of the blows. When we came home after playing (mainly football with a rag ball on the `stadium of the plebeians`, the street, we were obliged to remove our boots and hand them over to the ogre for inspection. Woe betide the unfortunate who had kicked out one of the heavy hob nails he had covered the soles with. But it was mother, not he, who found the shoe factory which was selling rejects cheap – and found the money too, for that matter.
The money was far from easy to find. It entailed slaving over a washtub of other people’s dirty linen from morning till night. In those days washing was heavy work, twirling clumsy dolly pegs in a huge tubful of waterlogged clothes and wringing them out with a mangle half as big as the kitchen. The two massive rollers were turned by swinging with all the weight of the body. As all this was done before a steaming coal-fired boiler, one wonders how a working woman ever came out of the kitchen with strength enough to climb the short stairs to the bedroom and there be raped by a moron who had long ceased to give her any joy or satisfaction, in bed or out of it.
Amazing as it may seem, our mother not only fed us, dressed us and saved us from the two killers that took so many of my schoolmates, TB and Meningitis, but in that age of no maternity homes or proper medical attention, it was she who brought into the world half the children born around our streets. When a pregnancy out of wedlock occurred, my mother realised it long before it was noticeable to anybody else. It was she who shamed he young man into fulfilling his duties or, if he was married, knew other ways of helping the couple out of their difficulty. But she was no illegal abortionist: that was their affair; she only approached the right people to get the money. Herself, she never received a penny from the unfortunates she helped. She continued her good work almost to the day of her death. On one occasion she stayed by the deathbed of a woman with thirteen children and a drunken husband, and after feeding and washing all those children and tending the dying mother all through the night, she came home tired out and wanting only to sleep. Four days later she was dead. But that is going too fast ahead. When the First World War broke our father’s boozing decreased, not because of any desire to reform but simply because in wartime drink was difficult to get. The beatings, not being affected by the shortages remained at their prewar level.
Just about three years before the start of the First World War, I had made my initial trip to the neighbouring school in the company of my mother. She had one more little boy on her hands who was bidding fair to be an invalid, as polio had caught up with him, and she wanted me at school a year before time. So she talked the headmaster into receiving me at the age of four into the infants’ class of the Catherine Street Elementary School of the City of Leicester, one of Britain’s oldest towns. (Twice recently I wanted to phone this city of almost three hundred thousand people and on both occasions I was asked by the Moscow operator `Where is it?` - an ignorance I attribute less to Russian shortcomings in geography than to the fact that the World Service of the BBC ignores the existence of our major cities, preferring to concentrate on the thirteenth-century music and the stained glass windows in old churches.)
My introduction to the three Rs, which we were supposed to get at least an inkling of so that we might in the future be able to read the murders in the papers and reckon up our wages as one shilling an hour for a forty-eight-hour week, was not very promising. I was dull, scared of every word the teacher said to me as I expected it to be followed by a blow. In fact I soon learned that the Three Rs were more properly Four, the fourth being the Rod of which we had plenty. One of my teachers gave a whack across the hand for every mistake in dictation.
We all spoke with the Leicester accent, not acknowledging aitches, say `yo` for `you` and uttering vowels as broad as the Atlantic, but no effort was made to improve our speech or give us a love for the language which birth had made our right and which a traveller can travel the whole world with. Instead there were stupid singing lessons that nobody needed, in which the teacher spent his time going round with a tuning fork to detect the boys who were striking false notes. He never got beyond me, for by the time he had finished handing out cuts with his cane for my false notes he had no more energy for sleuth work with the tuning fork. It was no good trying to explain that I was a breadwinner and sold the Leicester Mercury on the streets in the evening; or that he who made the best sale was the one whose screech of `Eeextrra Merrrcurrreee!` reached the furthest corners of the city: an accomplishments which, of course, did not aid the vocal cords to produce the sweet sounds our music teacher demanded.
But in general the demands of the teachers were not exacting. In fact the teachers were no more interested in us than we were in seeing Santa Claus on Pancake Day. They were aliens to us and I suppose we were to them. They lived in another part of the city, the `posh` part, and when lessons were over they jumped on their bicycles and sailed away to it. Even their language was, in a way, foreign to us and except for the teacher responsible for sport they never used it to converse with us on other than school affairs. I can only remember one of them visiting a pupil’s house. That was when the captain of the school’s football team was dying of meningitis at the age of thirteen.
As for us, we had no desire for homework and nobody offered us any. At that time, when wartime shortages meant effort and ingenuity to obtain something over and above the ration, I had a peculiar form of homework. Every other day I got up at three in the morning and walked through the darkened city to join a huge queue at a shop in the centre which opened at six to sell a pound of something edible on the `first come first served` principle. The other days I got up at six because the shop then opened at nine. Although I did the journey so often, I could never get rid of the fear of walking through the dark streets alone. Our town was as safe as Fort Knox, yet I walked along in the middle of the street, whistling as loudly as I could in an attempt to convince myself that Dutch courage is not only found in bottles.
The now-demolished railway station to which the van brought the local newspaper was a scene of great activity every day, for here the soldiers coming home on leave from France arrived, and as they left the train we mobbed them for souvenirs and French money. A certain French coin just fitted into the penny-in-the-slot machine which shot out a small bar of chocolate in return. At the station I also kept a look out for any of my three elder brothers who had all gone to the front, leaving me the only man at home. Early in 1918 father had been taken to hospital where the doctor diagnosed fatty degeneration of the heart, adding tartly that it was not caused by drinking too much lemonade. He lingered for a year and then we got the news that he had died. It was a Saturday. I had been playing in the street and I knew my mother and elder sister had been visiting the hospital. I came into the house for a drink of water and found my mother and sister sitting before the fire somewhat dejected. I asked what the matter was, `Your father has died,` they answered. `Oh!` I said, and walked out to continue my game. I can’t remember whether I told any of my chums but it seems to me that I did not. The game interested me more.
On a bleak January morning in 1919 we all got dressed in black and took him to the cemetery. We were tearless when we went there and tearless when we returned. Eleven years later when I was in the Navy and qualifying in the Gunnery School at Devonport, I received the news of my mother’s death. Unable to say a word I chose a far corner of the barrack room and stood there for more than an hour while the tears poured freely down my cheeks. I cried in silence, not once lifting my hand to brush away the tears, one phrase repeating itself incessantly in my brain: `They can’t bury her with that man!` I will never forget how when I was at sea somewhere and there was a devastating storm over England, she would spend the whole night praying for my safety. Her photograph is before me now, as it will always be.
The war ended and the men teachers returned from the front, more hardened and less averse to letting out a strong word or two, in the absence of the head, of course. Likewise they were more inclined to bring the cane into action. My academic successes were nothing to boast about, but even if they had been I don’t suppose it would have mattered much: my destiny, like my classmates’, was, in the expression peculiar to Leicester, `in the boots`. Some of our teachers who disliked our mutilation of the English language and other lowborn characteristics would comfort themselves by taunting us about going `in the boots` with total acceptance of the idea. Nobody ever asked me or anyone I knew what we intended to do in the future. That was the prerogative of the `rich`, the children in private schools. As for further education, it was never even thought of.
Just before my father died our teacher decided to run a mock election with two candidates contesting for an imaginary constituency. Naturally the captain of the school, a very popular boy because he played football well and had a father who had been a fairly successful professional boxer, was immediately adopted as the Conservative candidate. Nobody, however, wanted to be the candidate for the very unpopular Labour Party, and it looked like a walkover for the Tories. There was no reason why I should care about this. Our family were anything but Labour supporters, in fact we were all aggressively Tory, and at any election a faked-up photograph of the Tory candidate was put up in our front window. But for some reason I got up and volunteered for Labour. One or two pitying glances were cast at me but on the whole the boys were delighted that there would now be a real contest. The campaign consisted of each candidate coming in turn before the class and making a speech which was to be followed by questions. To everybody’s amazement I wiped the floor with my opponent and answered the questioners almost into the ground. Then the count took place and I had lost by only one vote. All the congratulations came to me and for a time I was the proud peacock.
I had not noticed that the headmaster was standing by the open classroom door during my speech and when some days he presented me with a diploma entitling me to attend highschool I was more shocked than a pauper who has heard he has been left a fortune. I ran all the way home taking surreptitious glances at my elaborately coloured diploma and placed it on the table with an air of `now, what do you say to this?` My pride soon went sliding into the dirt bucket, however for when the family saw that a small payment was required. I was told to take the diploma and tell the headmaster to hang it on the wall in the smallest room of his house. I was wise enough not to deliver this message verbatim but I lost the diploma to the local barber’s son who was counted among the `rich`.
A further blow to my election victory soon followed. Our school was shaken to the very foundations by a most extraordinary event for 1919. Not far away, about two miles or so (Catherine Street was then on the outskirts of Leicester), was a small farm, where, one early morning, an aeroplane had chosen to make a forced landing. The whole district was agog, for in those days the egg-crates which our intrepid airmen flew were rarer than hairs on a head of cheese. Nowadays I don’t suppose anyone would bat an eyelid if a flying machine of that size landed on his window-box.
All through morning lessons we were fidgety, and whenever the teacher’s eagle eye turned away we made motions with a thumb in the direction of the farm. We were absolutely sure that just before breaking up for dinner at twelve o’clock a benevolent headmaster would announce that afternoon lessons had been cancelled. Imagine our disappointment when no such announcement was made! We were wild, angry, rebellious and I organised my first strike. Quickly I spread the news that instead of going straight home to dinner, we would gather on an adjacent piece of wasteland and there hold a protest meeting. On the basis of my election speech I was of course chosen as speaker, and my call for a strike was met with loud cheers. After dinner we gathered again on the waste ground and then set off to march to the fields. We were about half way there when someone gave a shout. On looking back we saw all our men teachers mounted on their bicycles, waving their canes and rapidly overtaking us. Like cowboys in a Western they herded us back to school and corralled us in the drill shed. There stood the headmaster, shaking his cane in a most ominous manner.
`Now,` he saif, glaring along the row of boys, `who is the ringleader?` There was a silence. `Who is the ring leader?` Not one boy answered. A third time he put the question, and out stepped a boy who had suffered at the hands of jibing teachers for his name, which was Slow. There he stood, head up and slightly inclined to one side, hands clasped behind his back. `There are no ringleaders, sir,` he said, his voice level and firm. `We are all of the same mind.`
There he stood, the plebeian, `when-did-you-last-see-your-father,` boy, calmly facing the roundhead schoolmaster. Of course he got the biggest share of the cane but he took it with the same fortitude as he had answered the head’s question. Six months later I sat with his mother by the side of his bed and watched him die of meningitis. It was terrible, the way he suffered. Although I later saw men die of ghastly wounds and strong men die of starvation in the siege of Leningrad, no suffering has ever left such a deep impression on me. I left the house and made a collection among his schoolmates to buy a small spray of flowers. When, on the day of his funeral, I placed them on the coffin lid I saw the brass plate with the words `Harry Burdett Slow`. They remain forever in my memory.
A month or so later the circus came to town. It was a poor, shabby affair and its appearance was not heralded by the usual parade of camels and elephants with scraggy loungers in patched motley riding aloft. As the trucks drove on to the ground all hands joined in the hard labour. It was at this moment, with the debris of disorder strewn all about, that I came on to the field. Evidently the big top had just been raised for it stood in the centre of the chaos, mute and bleak, waiting for the bunting, the lights and music to breathe life into it. My appearance there on a school day was more accidental than deliberate. I had not planned to come and did not even dare dreaming of being the `daring young man on the flying trapeze`, giving the breathless crowd a pain in the neck as its eyes strained upward to follow my sensational dives across space. When the school bell clanged out its summons I left home to answer it, as I had done for almost nine years. But somehow instead of turning right in the direction of the school, I turned left in the direction of the circus field.
By the partly open entrance to the big top stood a man who was unmistakably the boss. He wore an almost-new suit of a strange beige-lavender colour, in the middle of which a promontory stuck out, giving the impression that his chest had slipped and the waistcoat with its long row of buttons was there to prevent the slip becoming an avalanche and landing his chest at his feet. He was a big man with a hooked nose and to one side of it, covering one of his eyes, was a monocle. Despite the gaudy get-up it was difficult to take him for a clown, for with the mechanical regularity of a ventriloquist’s doll his mouth opened to emit sounds of command suggesting an automatic potato peeler filled with bits of sheet iron.
This was my man. I stepped boldly up to him and asked if he needed any help. `How old are you?` `Fourteen`, I answered. It was no lie, just an overstatement of the truth by about six months. That six months, however, made it illegal to take me on as a worker. The boss turned into the top and pointed at a pick lying on the grass. `Take that pick`, he said, `and go round the ring loosening the turf for the horses to get a footing.` Then without waiting for my response, he left the tent and began issuing his far-from-musical orders again.
I looked at that pick and wondered if he thought he had engaged a weight-lifter. Except that it had a wooden shaft, it looked like an anchor for a battleship. Years later in Devonport Naval Dockyard the huge seven-ton anchors lying about immediately called to mind that pick. Evidently circus owners and dockyard officials have something in common, perhaps a sense of humour. For both the pick and the anchors bore a notice `Not to be taken away.`
Somehow I managed to do the job but I must admit that it was not me who brought the pick down to cut the sod, but the pick which brought me down almost to kiss it. He was a live wire, that boss. No sooner had I delivered my last blow than he stuck his head in the door to order `Go and help the strong man`, jerking his thumb in the direction of a ragged curtain in one corner.
This was where all my illusions about the circus in general and their strong men in particular were devastatingly shattered. My years of study at the street-corner school of philosophy, where the dons give lessons in how to send smoke down the nostrils, artistic cursing and their own lurid sexual experiences, most of them imaginary, had absolutely convinced me that circus strong men were fakes and that the huge dumb-bells they threw around with the greatest ease were rubber. This one was huge and flabby, like a Japanese heavyweight wrestler who cocks his leg as if he has been bitten by a dog and cannot get out of the habit of leg-cocking. He pointed at the dumb-bells and told me to roll them over to the side. Trying to impress I made a dive at the bar, intending to set them rolling with a mere thrust of my arms. When I did connect it was with such a jarring blow that I thought my arms were broken in several places.
The strong man never blinked an eye but threatened to cuff me if I didn’t stop playing the fool. Clearly he did not like boys, especially me, and several times he stuck his massive fist under my nose to remind me that the cuffing was always near. But I did discover a number of fakes in the short time I was at the circus. The sharp-shooter, who shot out of the air anything and everything his stooge threw into it, used buck-shot; he could not miss. He was a bald-headed runt, dressed, cowboy fashion, in a pair of motheaten hairy chaps several sizes too big for him, because, instead of being bow-legged as a cinema rustler should be, he was knock-kneed. He always appeared in the ring unshaven, believing this made him look like Joe Ryan, then the screen’s most beloved bad man. The lion, into whose maw our young lady tamer put her blonde-painted grey locks, must have been the grandson of the character Daniel chummed up with. When nobody had time to put it in its cage, it just strolled around among the company, and if it got in anbody’s way, they simply gave it a cuff and it slunk under what was available as cover, like a cur caught scrounging in the dustbin. The clown said the fierce teeth it displayed during the performance were rubber, and if, after yawning, it shut its maw sharply, it would bounce open again.
My efforts to make fame, if not fortune, came to an abrupt end when I saw some rehearsals with the other performing animals. In rehearsal the sugar given as a reward at the performance was replaced by the whip. To see a huge grizzly bear, its maw viciously clasped in a metal muzzle, grovelling on the ground as the trainer stands over him and slashes him about the head is an ordeal. Nobody remonstrated, in the belief that at the first sign of weakness the trainer would perish. The idea that it would perhaps be better not to have performing animals if their training involved so much brutality never entered their heads.
So I walked out and home. Apart from anything else the promised cuffs from the ham fists did finally land on my person. I was often beaten at home but home-made beatings are always more tolerable than other people’s. I crept into our street a little hero to my schoolmates, who thought that my adventure in the circus had raised me to a status they could never dream of. I returned to my own home to be fed by my sister, hugged and wept over by my mother and thrashed by the schoolmaster. He had long ago given up the idea that my budding promise as a politician would ever bear fruit.
A few months later I left school, having achieved nothing, least of all in my studies. But good luck met me in the labour market. By chance I noticed a little factory down an entry to a yard. It was a factory for building hosiery machines and though three stories high employed only about eight workers. The owner Mr Arkwright, who was still working at the age of eighty, was a direct descendant of the original Arkwright.*1 He took me on as a tea-boy, errand boy and non-indentured apprentice for the fabulous wage of ten shillings a week. My mother was delighted, for at this time hundreds and thousands of workers were being laid off to join the biggest queue anywhere in Britain, the queue to the Labour Exchange.
However a year of tea-making and errand-running on the one hand, and learning nothing and receiving no increase in my princely salary on the other made me think of moving on. I was finally convinced by one of our workers. He had once kept a pub and had been deprived of his licence for not observing the time laws. By some misfortune he discovered that a certain inspector in the City of Leicester police was my mother’s brother and therefore my uncle. Moreover this was the very officer who had caught him serving drinks after closing time. He decided to blame me for the unpleasantness that my very officious uncle had brought down on his head – and for the loss, to his pocket, of what, in those days, was considered a gold mine. I took advantage of the fact that my sister had recently married a man employed at the huge Wolsey works, and managed, with his help, to get taken on there.
But the persistent deepening of the depression with its attendant growth in the army of unemployed could not pass our works by, no matter how huge they were. More and more often we were sent home because there was nothing to do. How long it would be before we were sent home never to return was anybody’s guess, but everybody guessed perfectly correctly that one day or another it would come t pass. Somehow I became the possessor of a little pamphlet called How To Join The royal Navy. Naturally there was the usual slogan `Join the Navy see the world`, but, equally naturally, there was no mention of the old sailors’ bitter addition `Serve twelve years and see the next`. Not knowing any sailors, old or young, I was little troubled by this. Sailors were such a rarity in our town that the appearance of one on the streets caused heads to turn. Perhaps that is why no ship of the Royal Navy has ever been christened `HMS Leicester`, although neighbouring Nottingham appears on the stern of a cruiser and I doubt if there are many more Nottingham men in the Navy than Leicester men. At least our city has one Naval hero. In 1926 a Royal Naval sloop was sunk in a hurricane in the West Indies after an heroic struggle by all the officers and men against fearful odds, in seas which made impossible the launching of the ship’s boats. One man remained at his post sending out distress signals as the water flooded his wireless office and, when all power from the ship’s engines had broken down, continued to send out signals from a battery powered set. He went down with the ship, a Leicester man whose father kept a well-known pub in the city called Spitall House.
But no one will suppose that a sixteen-year old boy was moved by ideas of heroism to read a pamphlet on how to join the Royal Navy. In my case the urge was certainly the ominous spectre of unemployment. I despatched my letter to the nearest recruiting office, which was in Nottingham, and in a few days was invited to come to that city and try y luck. I needed luck. The physical examination went well enough. It was when I was faced with the ordinary, standard seven examination in arithmetic that I flopped. I was already preparing myself for a repeat performance of my empty handed return from the circus – not this time as the prodigal son to be cherished by those who had worried, but as the son who had failed the most simple exam.
However, the recruiting officer, an ex-naval chief petty officer, was reluctant to let me go, possibly because all other showings had been in my favour – or maybe because he was working on a commission basis. Anyway he quietly showed me where I was going wrong, tore up the disgraced paper and gave me another try. The next morning, with no more school tests to face, I was on my way to London for a more stringent medical examination. Whatever those doctors thought about the contents of a candidate’s head, they were determined to find out the most minor defect of his body. All day we were passed from one doctor to another, each dealing with some little part of our anatomy in which he was obviously a specialist. Short of turning us inside out there was nothing they did not do, and when, towards evening, they concluded their collective examination not an authority in the world could doubt their conclusion that we were physically fit for service in His Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy.
About 8 pm we left Liverpool Street Station for Harwich, bound for the Royal Navy Training Establishment at Shotley.
- 1Richard Arkwright (1732-92), inventor in 1769 of a cotton spinning frame worked by water power.