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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Babyland, 68b East Hill, Dartford, Kent

This is autobiography.

My father spent his war time call-up years repairing things like tanks; he rose to the rank of Sergeant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Demobbed, he set up in business with the help of the small war time savings which nearly everyone had accumulated. There was a shortage of everything, including furniture, and he started out with a furniture repair workshop over a shoe repairer's in Lowfield Street, Dartford. Then he added two lock-up shops (in Kent Road and Lowfield Street market) selling carpets and linos. He employed female assistants to sell the stuff and in the evenings, after a day in the workshop, he did the carpet and lino laying. When I was about four years old, he bought a new green and yellow van with his name on the side and I was woken one evening to go outside and see it. PKM 672.

Furniture repairing and carpet laying was hard work and my father's fingers were mis-shapen from the hammer blows struck on them when a tack or a nail was missed. Later in life, his fingers curled inwards from the damage carpet stretching tools had done to tendons in his palms.

By the time he was 40 he decided it was time to look for work that was physically easier - and also for something which might engage my mother who had been hospitalised after a recent (and second) suicide attempt. So he bought (or bought the lease of) a pram and toy shop with a maisonette above: this was Babyland. I lived above the shop with my parents from 1953 to 1961, attending first York Road County Junior School in Dartford and, from 1958, Bromley Grammar School for Boys.

Babyland represents both the affluent period of my childhood and a prolonged experience of marital disharmony, only brought to an end when my mother fled in 1961 taking me with her to refuge with an Aunt and Uncle.

Affluence 1950s-style meant that my mother was at the outset allowed to have the sitting room decorated and carpeted to her taste. That involved panels of wallpaper in the corners of each room being of a different pattern from the rest of the room and carpets being plain. There was a TV, a very large stereogram and a growing pile of records drawn from the Hit Parades of the 1950s. The three piece suite was in uncut moquette - I don't now know what that is but it mattered.

Upstairs, I chose maroon and yellow for the colours of my walls, carpet and eiderdown. By the time I was 11 or 12, I owned a Raleigh Triumph bicycle with white wall tyres and - the request coming from me - an adult, portable typewriter.

There was a telephone, which I must have used; a budgerigar and, in the garden, a horribly neglected rabbit in a hutch.

When my parents were Getting On with each other, my mother would come down and work in the shop. When they weren't, she stayed upstairs. When my father employed female assistants, my mother was jealous. I don't know if I was prompted or did it on my own initiative, but I recall an occasion when I eavesdropped behind a door on my father's conversation with an assistant.

Arguments between my parents consisted of my father shouting abuse and my mother generally saying nothing. I was reluctant to bring home friends from school in case an argument was raging. When things went from bad to worse, as they often did, my father cut off housekeeping money. My mother had war time savings in her Post Office book and drew down her balance to buy food. Just once I remember her refusing to feed my father. He responded by giving me some money and telling me to go down to Penney Son and Parker and fetch him some bread and cheese. Towards the end of the marriage, my father became violent and, on one occasion at least, my mother took her bruises to the local police station, though she got her formal separation on the grounds of mental cruelty and neglect to maintain.

When I started travelling to Bromley Grammar School, depending on the state of our relationship, my father would sometimes keep me waiting in the morning for my bus fare so that I had to hurry for the bus. Throughout his life my father punished by witholding. He never hit me.

I spent a lot of time in the shop and there were toys which interested me - Corgi and Matchbox. But the franchises for Dinky and Hornby were held by a bigger toy shop in the centre of town. Likewise, my father sold Pedigree but could not get the right to sell Marmet prams.

I listened to him selling prams to young couples. They would pay a deposit for the pram to be kept and my father would then say that, of course, if anything "went wrong" the deposit would be refunded. At the time, I did not know that before the War my mother had gone to full term with a baby which was still born, after which she had cut her throat. When she told me as a teenager about this, leaving me with the feeling that I had once had a sister, she added that my birth was "God's forgiveness" for her suicide attempt. My mother was never light work.

My parents' arguments affected me in various ways over the years in Babyland, eventually affecting my school performance and behaviour. Before that stage, I recall night sweats, digestive problems, difficulties swallowing, and disturbed religious fantasies. At one point, maybe I was nine or ten, my mother took me to the doctor saying that I was "highly strung". "They sometimes play the best tunes", he replied, but still prescribed phenobarbitone which I could only swallow when it was crushed into a jam sandwich.

The nearest I got to an appropriate protest was, on one isolated occasion, to hurl a cushion at the sitting room's three flying ducks, breaking one. I saw them again, the broken one repaired, when I cleared my father's belongings after his death.


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

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