Hank's CHANGING HORIZONS
The Stolen Satisfaction of Childhood
The first great defining moment of my life came when I passed my scholarship to go to grammar school. It wasn’t the fact of passing that was the problem. It was my mother’s reaction.
‘Of course, you didn’t really pass,’ she scoffed.
‘I did,’ I protested, full of enthusiasm.
‘They only gave you a pass because your father’s paying for you,’ she told me.
‘But I took the examination and passed it,’ I insisted.
She just shook her head, reached for a cigarette and lit it. ‘No you didn’t. You’re not intelligent enough. Not like your brother.’
The year was 1942. We were living in Moseley, one of the grander suburbs of Birmingham. I was ten years old.
In order to escape the death that rained down from the skies in those early years of the war, my father had the uncanny knack of moving us to what was destined to become the Luftwaffe’s next major target. So we had moved from London to Luton (major tank and aeroplane production factories), to Liverpool (major port for receiving raw materials from abroad), to Coventry (another major armaments manufacturing centre) to Birmingham (the industrial heart of Britain).
It was only sixty years later that I realised he hadn’t intended to put us in danger. His self-imposed role for the war was to entertain the workers. As a conductor and concert pianist in peacetime, he’d converted himself into a cinema organist and impresario for the duration of the war. So he went wherever the factories were located.
In between the supporting and main film – there were always two films in those days – he would rise up from the bowels of the orchestra pit on his shiny, multi-coloured Compton organ. Flamboyant is probably a good word to describe Harold Howell, my father. He would bestride his organ seat, black tails almost flapping in the wind, white hair slicked back with brilliantine, pale face reflecting the coloured lights, organ pipes blasting out something like The Valkyrie to give dramatic effect.
Then he would break into a popular wartime tune as words appeared on the blank screen, and the little ball would bounce over each word in turn. Audiences needed no encouragement to break into hearty voice ...
‘Run, run, run ...
‘We’ve got the Bosch on the
‘Run, run, run ...’
Or maybe he’d play,
‘We’re gonna hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line
‘Have you any dirty washing mother dear?
‘’Cos the washing day is here
‘Whether the weather may be wet or fine
‘We’ll just rub along without a care
‘We’re gonna hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line
‘If the Siegfried Line’s still there.’
Sometimes an air raid warning would try to burst above the noise inside the cinema but it would only make the audience sing louder and with more determination. Nobody was going to leave their seat and miss all the fun.
In a more sombre mood, he would play,
‘There’ll be Blue birds over
‘The white cliffs of Dover
‘Tomorrow just you wait and see ...’
Most sombre of all was the time when he played the main theme from Swan Lake, with the cinema darkened and only the pale glow of a swan being slowly pulled across the stage by a thin cord. The hall was hushed throughout as people gave it their own personal meaning, and there’d be a wave of applause at the end. And many a tear shed for loved ones lost.
It was said that people went as much for the organ intermission as for the attraction of the films.
It became a daily ritual for me. As soon as school finished in the afternoon I would rush to the cinema. If my father was in his office – he owned the cinema as well as played the organ – I would ask if I could get an ice cream and go sit in the back row of the circle. If he was out, I would sit on his revolving seat, set behind his grand desk, and spin round and round until he returned. I’d never seen a revolving seat before and I was the envy of my schoolmates when I would describe it to them.
My love for the cinema and films began in London when my father bought his first cinema, two years earlier. It became both a source of great enjoyment, and a sanctuary from the blitz raging outside. Somehow, the hugeness of the building gave it a seeming impregnability. The usherettes and ice cream girls always made a big fuss of me, too. They made me feel important, like my father. And watching the young Mickey Rooney playing Andy Hardy took my mind off other things.
What other things?
Like Mr Saddler, the headmaster of my private school, who sat with his black gown and mortar board, his heavy jowls always scowling. He’d once caught me yawning and pointed at me menacingly. ‘Come here, boy.’
Timidly, I stood up. His crooked finger beckoned me, with some degree of urgency. I stood before him, scarcely able to conceal my fear.
‘What were you doing?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘You don’t know anything, do you, boy? You were yawning.’
‘Only cows yawn.’
His hand streaked out, pinioning my jaw between his thumb and forefinger.
‘So what are you?’
‘A cow, sir.’
That brought an audible titter from the other boys.
Then his other hand thwacked against the side of my face. Even knowing it was coming didn’t lessen the surprise. Or the shock.
I had other worries, too.
Bedtime was at seven o’clock, not a minute later. By seven-thirty I’d be shinning down a drainpipe from the toilet window. Then I’d be off to meet Joe and his mates. They were all older than me. We’d sit around smoking cigarettes. I’d been told countless times not to associate with Joe. ‘He’s a bad influence,’ my mother warned me. As if I knew what a bad influence meant at that age.
But the problem had come one night when I returned home to find the toilet window closed. I had no choice but to ring the front door bell. My grandfather opened the door.
‘Where do you think you’ve been?’ he demanded.
‘Just wait until your father hears about this. Get up to bed.’
Father did hear about it when he returned that night. He came to my bedroom, where I was feigning sleep. ‘He looks so peaceful,’ my mother said, looking over his shoulder. ‘Don’t wake him.’
‘All right, I’ll leave it until tomorrow.’
I managed to put it off for several days by not seeing my father at breakfast and going to bed early until he gave up. But I had plenty of hidings from him. Not brutal hidings, just a good slapping across the backside. And I could add that I never got a hiding I hadn’t deserved. So there was never any bitterness about that.
When my mother told me I wasn’t intelligent enough to pass my scholarship I came to a very quick decision. I wasn’t going to try to learn. I would only do those things which didn’t require great intelligence ... like playing sport.
So I became my new school’s worst pupil, academically, and one of its best sportsmen. I came bottom of every single subject because I never tried to learn. Never did homework, dodged classes whenever possible, but because I was good at cricket and rugby became popular nevertheless.
When teacher left the classroom, I would often stride to the front and everyone would stand, arms outstretched in salute: ‘Heil Howell!’
And I would take over the class. I’d tell yarns, make accusations and hold a mock court, or whatever. Always in good humour. Until one of my cronies, who kept watch on the corridor, would warn me teacher was returning. Everyone would resume their seat and act as if we’d all been hard at work in his absence.
But I did much more than keep everyone amused. As soon as the lunchtime bell rang I’d rush for my bike and cycle to the village, buy some custard tarts and cream cakes, and sell them off to anyone who’d pay me a halfpenny more than they cost.
And when American troops were billeted a few houses from where I lived, I’d give them the usual cry: ‘Got any gum, chum?’ If they gave me some, which they usually did, I’d take it to school next day and offer it for sale. American chewing gum was much sought after.
In Spring I would collect bluebells and daffodils from a local copse, tie them in neat bundles, and have a roadside ‘stall’. I’d always make a couple of shillings and any flowers left over I’d take home as a present for mum.
The money I earned would almost always be spent on paper, pens and inks. Or books. I had this passion, from about eleven years old, to write stories. Horror stories were my favourite. The imagination was fertile and never lacking in subject matter.
* * *
Such was my dislike for school that I would feign illness from time to time. Being a very skinny child – despite the enormous amount of steamed suet puddings I consumed – it wasn’t difficult to persuade my parents that I needed a week off. My timing often coincided with exams coming up, but nobody seemed to put the two things together.
My mother would become very concerned about my sickly, wan condition. ‘How would you like a week at Southend to help you get better?’ she might ask me.
Those were among my favourite times. As soon as we were away my health would rapidly improve, which pleased mum because it showed the convalescence was worthwhile. We would walk to the end of Southend pier and catch the train back. It was over a mile long and made a truly bracing, enjoyable walk.
Then, as a special treat, we would call in at a large tearoom in Southend’s High Street. I’d have an ice cream, my mother tea and scones. In the evening, we might go to a cinema, walking back to the Tower Hotel holding hands and singing songs from the film as if life was so blissful. I felt particularly good since the alternative would have been sitting in a classroom writing exams that I would be bound to fail.
Mum’s family were from Westcliff-on-Sea, adjoining Southend. So we’d often go and visit them for afternoon tea. I had lots of cousins to play around with. And dogs. It was great fun.
Back home again, life would resume. I was always looking for something different to do, to lift life out of its grim mediocrity. Brother Mike was nearly five years younger than me and too young to do the sort of things I’d want to do. I would often go to my bedroom early and sit and write a story. I might not have been intelligent, but reading and writing came easier to me than to most of the other kids in my class.
Sometimes, in the early evening, a pal and I would loiter near a lamppost – which was never lighted because of the blackout – and sing Lilly Marlene.
Underneath the lantern,
By the barrack gate
Darling I remember
The way you used to wait
T’was there that you whispered tenderly,
That you loved me,
You’d always be,
My Lilli of the Lamplight,
My own Lilli Marlene.
I don’t know why we did it but we seemed to get some ghoulish kick out of it when we heard footsteps approaching in the cold, dark evening, with fog swirling around us, singing this in German words we’d learnt from the radio. Maybe we wanted people to think the Germans had landed.
Var der Kaserne
Var dem großen Tor
Stand eine Laterne
Und steht sie woch davor
So woll’n wir uns da wieder she’n
Bei der Laterne woollen wir steh’n
Wir einst Lili Marleen.
Michael Jemson, my pal, and I often tuned the radio into Lord Haw Haw’s nightly broadcast from Germany. He used to pour out his Nazi propaganda and we’d both get a good laugh out of him. That was where we first heard Lilli Marlene.
The song had a great fascination for us, maybe because it was ‘naughty’. Although a German song – sung by a Swedish pin-up, Lala Anderson – it was adopted first by Rommel’s Afrika Korps and later by the British Eighth Army in Northern Africa. That made it patriotic in an inverse way.
We got all our news from the radio, and after so many early defeats, anything the Eighth Army did was all right by us. They were the turning point in the war and Montgomery was our great hero.
We had a large map of Europe and North Africa on the wall in our breakfast room and I had taken on the job of pinning different coloured pins into it, showing advances and retreats of the various armies involved. It was great fun for me, and the rest of the family always looked at it every day.
I might have been a terrible scholar but I knew how to fathom out the war and what was going on. I would use some of my accrued profits to buy plane-spotting books. These were produced by Penguin, and were paperbacks that gave information on all the world’s fighting planes, together with silhouettes for easy identification. I learned the shape, armaments and performance of all the Luftwaffe and English planes – and the American planes after they entered the war.
Why wouldn’t I want to know? I’d been blown out of bed when a bomb hit a house across the street. I’d dived for cover behind an oak tree in a field when a Junkers J88 flew low, strafing everywhere with its machine guns. And I’d watched dogfights taking place in the skies not far from where we lived. Never actually saw a plane being shot down, though.
There was one exciting moment when Judy, our pet Alsatian dog, chased a low-flying Messerschmitt Me 109 the length of the garden. Even she could distinguish between friend and foe.
One of the pastimes most kids had in those days was searching bombed-out buildings looking for pieces of shrapnel – as fragments of bombs were called. We’d take our collections to school and maybe swap pieces amongst ourselves. One large piece might be worth three or four smaller pieces.
My father insisted that I learn a musical instrument, but never made any effort to teach me himself. I’d have a lady come to the house twice a week to give me lessons. We had two pianos: a Rosewood baby grand in the lounge and a Winkleman upright overstrung in the dining room.
I was only allowed to play on the Winkleman, which my father said was the best piano he’d ever played on. But I rebelled against learning the piano. I heard too much of it and I never enjoyed classical music. I wanted to be different ... something modern.
Like the jazz music that was occasionally filtering over from America. It had a vibrancy that immediately caught my attention. I decided at the age of about twelve that I was going to be a jazz musician. Not a doctor, as my father wanted for me.
Towards the end of the war my mother bought a small grocery shop called The Cake Shop – not the most original of names. It was in an area of Birmingham called Warstock, and we moved into the premises above the shop. It was still within the catchment area of my school, so I remained there.
Despite rationing, eating well had never seemed too much of a problem for us. My father bought eggs on the black market, as he did petrol for his car. Sweets were rationed, of course, but he always had several large bars of Cadbury’s Nut Milk Chocolate – as well as several packets of Gold Flake cigarettes, some of which I used to pinch.
This was a very working-class area, so it meant adjustments all round. Several boys from my school lived in the area, so I was not without some acquaintances there. I became more friendly with them.
I was also living in an area that had its own bully, something I hadn’t experienced before. As soon as my new face appeared on the scene he had to establish who was the ‘cock of the street’. He challenged me to a fight, and we met one afternoon on a green verge at the top of the street.
It developed into more of a wrestle than a fist fight, and ended with me flipping him over my hip to the ground. He bounced up immediately and proclaimed I was cheating. ‘You used judo!’ he shouted. I didn’t know what judo was, so whatever I did was coincidental. He insisted we fight again. It was virtually a rerun of the first effort, and once again he insisted I’d cheated. When we repeated it for a third time, he gave in and conceded that I’d beaten him. We became reasonably friendly after that.
At school I played rugby for the school XV, but the game I really enjoyed most was football. Moving to Warstock gave me a chance to join a local football club. I quickly became captain of the team. But in those days of clothing rationing, things like football shirts were impossible to get.
I solved the problem by raiding my father’s wardrobe, commandeering ten of his shirts (one of them his favourite brown-striper) and dyeing them all red – the team’s colours. I had never considered the possibility of my father discovering what I’d done, nor the repercussions. Miraculously, he never did. My mother, who had aided and abetted me, always managed to throw him off the track when he asked what had happened to all his shirts.
On the 7th May, 1945, Germany surrendered. The following day was declared VE-Day, and a street party was hurriedly arranged. Trestle tables appeared miraculously, an assortment of washed and starched table-cloths, and an incredible array of foods. It was a veritable banquet, with sandwiches, small cakes and tarts, larger cakes with marzipan on top and drinks of all description.
A few months later, on 15th August, we had a repeat performance with the surrender of Japan and VJ-Day. The war in the Far East had never had quite the same impact on us, probably because we’d never felt directly threatened by bombers invading our home skies.
It also brought new revelations with it. When it was first announced that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshoma, we all felt elated. We had a new weapon that would quickly bring the war to an end. This was confirmed when a second A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, effectively ending the Pacific war.
At the time, none of us saw the ramifications: the spread of radiation from the nuclear bombs and the death and misery it brought to countless thousands; the inevitability of the Cold War and the nuclear race that it sparked off between East and West.
Nor was I to know that a few years later I would be meeting some of the spies who had passed atomic secrets to the Soviets.
In 1946 we moved yet again, this time to Castle Bromwich, right on the other side of Birmingham. Now I was out of the range of my school and was transferred to Saltley Grammar School, at Bordesley Green.
It was particularly interesting for me because where Moseley had been boys only, this was a mixed school. I was fourteen now, and lots of the kids seemed to think I looked like Alan Ladd, who was something of a heartthrob for teenage girls. I immediately became attracted to going out with girls, and never had a shortage of girl-friends.
The other significant event was meeting Ian, my next door neighbour. We were very like-minded. He enjoyed writing stories, had a huge appetite for jazz music, and we egged each other on all the time. It was a kind of competitive friendship. Everything I did he tried to do better, which pushed me to go further.
My father had accepted the fact that I was never going to become a pianist. He didn’t like jazz, but he was willing to let me give it a go. He bought me a clarinet, since one of my favourites was Benny Goodman. But he never arranged for me to have any lessons and a clarinet is something you can’t learn on your own. I later traded it in for a C-Melody sax but didn’t do any better with that.
Ian’s mother had bought him a drum kit, and we tried to make music together. I dread to think of the racket we made. He adopted the ‘stage name’ of Earl Sauter. I became Bats Borley. It was really a big joke, but it was going to lead towards something more concrete in time.
Another sad event was taking place around this time. My youngest sister, Pam (eight years older than me), had contracted tuberculosis and had been placed in a sanatorium a few miles from Cheltenham. We would go down to visit every weekend. These were the days when TB was a definite killer. Streptomycine had not yet been discovered, and the prognosis was very dismal.
We also moved to an area called Kings Heath, which meant I had to return to Moseley Grammar School. I was welcomed back by most of the kids. I’m not sure how the teachers felt about my reappearance.
The house my parents bought was very large, and we had a great innovation: a billiards room, with a full size snooker table. That became my favourite place, and it certainly kept me off the streets and out of mischief.
The winter of 1947/8 was one of the coldest ever recorded. We had what became known as the ‘Great Freeze-up’. It was so cold that the snow just froze over and never had a chance to thaw out.
American jazzmen were now making occasional appearances in England. I went to the Town Hall to see my first concert, given by Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart. It was a wonderful experience for us – I went with ‘Earl Sauter’ – and cemented our determination to become jazz players ourselves.
The problem was, I had yet to find an instrument I felt comfortable with.
A new prospect was looming ahead, as we all struggled to get through this bitter winter.
My father had been considering emigrating to South Africa. Immigration in South Africa was on a quota system, and he’d put our name down several months earlier without our knowledge. Suddenly, our name had come up as eligible. In addition, he’d had an offer of a musical post there.
I would go to the Public Library and scour all the travel books for information. The first thing that struck me was they had hot weather there. And it seemed that most of the whites had black servants. In addition, there was no food rationing.
Whether it was the severity of the winter, the continuity of food and clothes rationing even two years after the end of the war, or just the dismality that life had descended to that pushed my parents to a final decision, I don’t really know.
The spirit had gone out of people, it seemed to me. While a war had been raging and we all had a common enemy there was a community of spirit that transcended all obstacles. The removal of that left people floundering. Troops were returning to civvy life and everything seemed very grey.
One day, just after Christmas, father announced that he had a buyer for the house and we would all be leaving for South Africa. My first thought was that I’d miss the School Certificate exams that were coming up in June, and which I knew I’d fail miserably.
‘Who’ll be going, dad?’ I asked.
He faltered for a moment. ‘Me and your mother, you and Michael.’
‘What about Pam?’ My heart was already sinking. She was fighting for her life in that lonely sanatorium.
I remember my father shaking his head. ‘It isn’t possible to take her. She’s getting the very best treatment available where she is.’
‘It isn’t as if we can do anything for her ourselves,’ my mother added, defensively.
This had taken the gloss out of the move. My three sisters, Joan, Phyl and Pam, all had a father from my mother’s previous marriage – who had died. The two older sisters had never lived with us after my mother remarried. Pam, being younger, had always lived with us. I never found out the truth for many years about what had happened, except that my father had little or no feeling for the older two. I wasn’t sure how he felt about Pam, because he was very Victorian in his attitude to children. We could never sit down as a family and discuss anything.
The sale of the house went through. My father walked in one day and announced we were leaving on February 18th, 1948 on the Athlone Castle.
We were still in the throes of that terrible winter. Frozen snow was piled up at the side of roads and footpaths. Even the birds were struggling to survive. Spring and summer seemed an interminable distance away.
But I didn’t have to think about that any more. I was fifteen years old, and we were going to sail towards the warmth and the land of plenty. And best of all, I wouldn’t be going to school in South Africa. I’d be venturing into the real world.
Destination: Port Elizabeth.
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