Posts for ‘1942 – 1955’


The second enthusiasm I caught from Murray Wilkinson was trainspotting.  This is a quintessentially useless activity. I had to stand on draughty railway platforms waiting for trains to arrive so that I could write down the numbers of their engines and then, when I got home, underline these same numbers with a ballpoint pen in one of the little books published by Ian Allen, books that, collectively, listed all the locomotives in Great Britain.  Real enthusiasts, and I quickly became one, went to great lengths to collect their numbers.  For me, any railway journey involved sitting (or standing in the corridor, if there was one) with my face pressed to the window peering up the line so that I could see the engines that came towards me and read the numbers on the front of their boilers (they were still almost all steam trains in 1951).  This was an uncomfortable task and difficult, too, given that the combined speeds of the two trains might be 240 kmph so that the spotting opportunity only lasted a fraction of a second.  It took vigilance, commitment and discipline – qualities that have often been wanting in other parts of my life. 

Useless activities are done unambiguously for their own sake.  They have you in their thrall, which is probably just another way of saying that they are manifestations of some kind of instinct.  In the case of trainspotting, the instinct is one that is common in nine-year-olds, especially boys, but that can also survive into adulthood.  It’s the instinct of the collector.  I’ve always enjoyed the story of the man who collected old tyres, a completely useless activity because they were of no value whatsoever.  He had acres and acres of them, piled into pillars and ridges and mountains.  His property was an eyesore that drew complaints from neighbours and bureaucratic fire from the local authorities.  Then, one day, someone discovered a way of recycling rubber and overnight he was a millionaire.

I like this story because it is about the triumph of folly.  It is a kind of morality tale in which the virtue of doing things for their own sake is rewarded in the only way that is fitting – unexpectedly and without justification. 

Of course, collecting tyres is not collecting in its purest form.  That honour goes to trainspotting.  Nothing has less utility than a trainspotter’s list of numbers or his Ian Allen ABC of British Railway Locomotives: North-Eastern Region full of its scrupulous underlinings.  Such a book can’t even be used by another spotter.  It is no more than a record of experience, the most abstract form of intellectual property, of meaning and of value only to its creator.  As such it suffers from all the purity and the pitfalls of private knowledge.  Once, in a fit of acquisitive madness, I went through my Ian Allen books and underlined dozens of numbers at random just to increase my collection.  The only result was that I destroyed it.  I suffered a terrible sense of self-betrayal and, what’s more, I had to start all over again. 

Trainspotting relies on a private kind of integrity.  You have to be honest with yourself in order for it to mean anything at all.  On the other hand, there is no way that a spotter can know that his collection is accurate.  Who is to say that, in the split second when two trains flashed by each other, I had not read the number as 61043 when it was actually 61048?  Almost certainly, I got some of them wrong.  The integrity of the collection depends not on its truth but on the collector’s belief in its truth.  Here, I think, is a shining example of the absurd – a bundle of disparate elements that come together only in the doing and which resists the loss of meaning that results from a shift to another point of view because it has no meaning in the first place. 

Trainspotting helped me survive the last years of my childhood.  Like listening to the Goon Show, it offered me a way of being.  More than the Goon Show, it gave me something of value (to me) that no one else could destroy.  I kept it up until we left England in 1956.  The only legacy I have of all those years of observation is the ability to spot locomotive anachronisms and mislocations in British movies set in the first half of the 20th century – ‘You’d never see that engine in 1935.  It wasn’t built till 1948’ kind of thing.  Even these remarks I have to keep to myself.  Other people don’t usually thank me for them.


The coldest winter I can remember was in Bradford in 1951-52. It was nothing exceptional for the locals but I was too young to have time-stamped memories of the really big one of 1946-47 and since then we had been living in London where it rarely snowed. It snowed in Yorkshire in that year, though. It kept us home from school for a couple of days. Everything went white. There was a big drift, way above my knees, piled up along the front fence. When the weather cleared, I tunnelled into it, lengthwise, and made a tube I could crawl through, a magic space of white light.

The walk to school, when we did get to go, was a riot of snowball fights, which carried over into playtime. I don’t know how it started but suddenly there was a fight between pupils and some of the staff, including the headmaster. They were vastly outnumbered, of course, but they stood their ground for quite a while and took it bravely, a dozen or so teachers and a couple of hundred kids, screaming in happy anarchy.

After the snow came the freeze, which left a crust of ice crystals over the battered drifts. By now the snow was too compacted for snowballs so we turned instead to making slides. I am not quite sure how a slide ever got started. I suppose some kids had the skill or the experience to pick a likely spot. What happened was that you took a run up, planted your feet and slid along on the soles of your shoes until the ground beneath you bit and stopped you dead. Pretty soon there would be a queue of people waiting their turn. All the soles on the ice created a friction that covered it with a slick of water. This would freeze overnight, hardening and thickening the surface. Over the course of a few days the slides got longer and longer and also more and more treacherous to anyone unwary enough to step on one. The adult neighbours complained about the one in our street when one of them slipped on it. We took no notice so they resorted to sabotage. We woke one morning to find that someone had dumped a bucketful of hot ashes in the middle of the slide. Neither end was long enough.

The biggest slide, though, was on our school playing field. It must have been the length of a cricket pitch and was in constant use. It was not for the faint-hearted. You had to go for it full tilt in order to get from one end to other and if you tried to trim your speed there was always someone faster than you coming up behind and yelling at you to get out of the way. For the most part, it was dominated by the bigger and more daring kids. My physical courage was never up to it. I confined myself to shorter slides round the periphery with the other scaredy-cats. The sheer speed of the kids on the big slide filled me with awe and envy.

I am not sure how long the cold weather lasted but, eventually the snow began to thaw. The playing field became a morass of slush under which you could hear the soft sound of water trickling. This led us to a third game.  We began to dig channels, packing down the slush into banks and guiding the melt into little streams that joined to become bigger streams and, eventually, into a river, several centimetres deep and nearly a metre wide. This had to go somewhere. Somewhere downhill. The most obvious spot was one of the backyards next to the grounds. I can remember standing at the top of the slope and looking down into the yard, which was a foot or more deep in water. Water swirled around the corners of the house and down the side paths. I knew there was a risk the house itself might be flooded but there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it. The stream seemed somehow inevitable, like the river of life.


In the summer of 1951 I went to stay for a few days with the Wilkinsons. They were old friends of my parents and had been our neighbours too before we moved to London. They had three children: a boy and a girl about the same age as my older sisters and Murray, who was my age. Murray and I used to play together when we were quite small and I can remember one occasion when we decided to go carol singing. As it was some time in June or July, our efforts to gather funds by this method were not that successful. Responses from the houses we visited varied between puzzlement and tolerant amusement (does that add up to bemusement?).

I am not sure if Murray was the leader in the carols but he was in a number of other things. One was his enthusiasm for the Goon Show.

The first Goon Show, billed as Crazy People, broadcast on 28th May 1951.  Murray’s family must have been onto it quickly because he introduced me to it in July or August of that year, about two thirds of the way through the first series.  I was an instant fan.  The Goons drew me into a crazy world that was the obverse of the crazy world I was living in.  This was a world in which I could laugh.  It was built on the wild imagination of Spike Milligan, the protean acting talents of Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the manic energy that these two generated with Welsh tenor Harry Secombe.  The humour was anarchic and surreal but it was also curiously complicit.  You didn’t laugh at it or even with it.  You were there in the middle of it.  You were part of the joke. 

Radio is sound.  Silence is its enemy.  To the Goons, however, silence was anticipation and expectation.  One of the running (pun intended) gags: the sound of heavy boots pounding a pavement at about 20% faster than their normal speed, a pause of maybe two seconds, a resounding splash and, instantly, the high-pitched voice of Little Jim (Sellers) ‘He’s fallen in the water!’.  Often the silence would go on for longer and the anticipation would draw half-suppressed laughter from the radio audience or giggles from the cast (usually Secombe).  No other medium could be exploited in quite this way to draw you into it.  No other medium could hold you with, well, nothing.

When the Goon Shows were redone for television using puppets in the 1960s, they didn’t work.  One of the complaints about them is a standard response to the visual representation of characters from radio or fiction – they look different from the way I imagined them.  There are two ways to interpret this response.  One is that each of us creates our own fully rounded visual image of the character and it contradicts the image presented to us.  The other is that we don’t actually have fully rounded images at all, but pictures that are rudimentary, non-specific, flexible, and open.  The image in the new medium is not wrong but too concrete, too particular.  For me and, I would guess, for many others the second is the case.  I did not imagine Bluebottle as some small, skinny human wearing a wolf cub’s uniform, who I could have faithfully drawn if I had had the skill.  He was a voice, not disembodied because to be disembodied you must live in an embodied world.  Bluebottle lived in a world of sound.  When he got blown up in an explosion and cried, as he inevitably did, ‘You dirty, rotten swine!  You have deaded me!’, I didn’t need to picture blackened flesh or scattered limbs.  I didn’t have to picture anything at all.  On the contrary, if I had been offered a picture, it would have changed the reality and made it less than what it was.  The sonic world of the Goons was a medium in which the impossible could be made real and madness let loose.  Madness, of course, is a manifestation of the absurd.  It has a comic and a tragic face.  To hold that madness, to live in its grip, even for a little while, is to live without explanation or meaning. I have a suspicion that that is what we all must do in the end.

The Fur Coat

In 1951 my mother bought our family’s first television set. I’m not sure why she did it because, in one sense, she could ill afford it.  She had capital but no income. The government allowed her a widow’s pension of a few pounds a week but it was useless because they then subtracted every shilling she earned. She got a job working as a clerk for Jowett Cars but it was pitifully paid. My two older sisters both had jobs, too, and I supposed they paid her board but, in general, the household income was meagre.

Maybe she saw the TV as a cheap form of family entertainment or maybe she bought it to act as a babysitter for me and my little sister, Bridget. Bridget was three and my mother found a place for her at a nursery school attached to the school I went to. I’m not sure now how it worked except that I had to pick her up everyday and bring her home. Nowadays we would have been taken into care if such an arrangement had ever been discovered. Then we were just one such story among many in the neighbourhood.

I can think of a third possible reason for the TV, though. It could have been an act of defiance. There were one or two things like that, things that my father and mother had talked about getting or doing and that she was damned if she was going to miss out on even though he had died. The fur coat was an example.

He had always promised her a fur coat. I guess it was part of the romance in their relationship, the idea that at some point in their lives, when things sorted themselves out, he would enable her to dress up and be a lady. Sometime in the early fifties she bought herself one. It was black beaver, a wonderfully soft and luxurious garment with fur that riffled in little waves when you breathed on it. She can’t have worn it more than two or three times. She never had the opportunity to go anywhere where you might be justified in wearing a fur coat. Later on, after we came to New Zealand and her life took on a few other middle-class accoutrements, it was never cold enough to justify wearing such a thing. She kept it for twenty years, wrapped in plastic, hanging in her wardrobe. I wonder now if she ever took it out and looked at it. Maybe they were times, in secret, when she slipped it on. What did she think about as she stroked it?  Because you couldn’t help but stroke it. It was that sort of garment.

The TV was a console model in yellowish wood. It had thin cabriole legs and twin doors with little wooden knobs. I guess Bridget and I watched it a lot in our after-school, home-alone days. She was very fond of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben, the Flower Pot Men. I can still remember the theme tune of the former, with its vacuous lyrics. (They seemed vacuous even then, when I didn’t know the word.)

Andy Pandy’s coming to play, la, la-la, la, la-la,
Andy Pandy’s here today, la, la-la, la-la.

I guess you can find someone singing this on YouTube somewhere, I haven’t looked.

Little sisters (or brothers, for that matter) have a special capacity for innocence. They teach you about naïveté, I suppose, and perhaps give you a sense of being more worldly than you really are. You tolerate their ineptitude when you are responsible for them. It makes you feel superior. At other times they are just irritating. I can still hear the childish sing-song with which Bridget recited a poem she had learnt at school. In fact, I can still remember a chunk of it. I must have listened to a few of her proud performances.

It was called Elizabeth and it was about a couple of children going fishing. One reason I remember it, perhaps, is that it is told not in the voice of the title character but in that of her (presumably) elder brother. It is also, in its trivial way, about losing your relatives, so it might have made a subconscious connection.  

But when we’ve hooked them safely on a cunning bended pin
Elizabeth gets anxious and her worryings begin.
She wonders if the fish we’ve caught are sad without their mothers.
She wonders if they’re missing all their sisters and their brothers
Or perhaps she thinks they’re mummy fish and worries, as a rule
To think they may have babies left lamenting in the pool.

I don’t know if she remembers any of this herself. I must ask her.


I don’t remember the War, only the effects of its passing – the tank traps on the beaches , the bomb sites in the cities. Hull was one of the closest ports to Germany and, therefore, one of the first places to suffer the Blitz. The centre of the city around Paragon Station was flattened, although the station itself miraculously survived. I recall most of the shops, including the big department stores, were in prefabricated buildings and the long terraces of houses had gaps like missing teeth. There was no rubble left. The empty sockets had all been cleaned out, leaving smooth, concrete pads, with bare brick walls on two or three sides.

All this damage made for a huge task in reconstruction and, by1950, this was in fill swing. If this was not an economic resurgence, then at least the country was moving again and the sense of activity and tangible progress led to a wave of optimism. I sometimes think that the Baby Boomers, whose formative years were spent in this brave new world, drew their unprecedented sense of self-confidence and personal privilege from this post war release of tension. Hence, came the sixties and the reinvention of London as the centre of modern culture.

The fortunes of my family took a turn for the better along with everyone else’s. By the end of1950, we had moved on from our house in Barkimgside to a white stucco place in Little Heath in a semi-rural setting. We had a big garden complete with beehives and fruit trees. We bought our first car. My parents switched their votes from Labour to Conservative. I was now attending William Talbot School, a more salubrious establishment than The Glade. My name was down for future enrolment at one of the minor public schools. We had come a long way in the five years since the War ended. Then my father died and everything changed.

My mother was left with a house still entangled in mortgage settlements from our old place, a car she couldn’t drive, an invention that was tantalisingly close to making money but never would, and an substantial insurance policy on my father’s life that the company wouldn’t pay out on because, although he had signed the forms and passed the medical (two days before he died), he hadn’t actually paid the first premium. Like many married women of her generation, she had no experience in financial matters and no prospect of  earning much over a minimal wage. She could have fallen to pieces. I think she almost did. Instead she took the advice of her sister, my Auntie Carole. She sold up and moved back north, to Bradford this time. This was not the best decision of her life.