Chapter 7

Other Things We Did

It was marvellous living in the village of Wootton on the Isle of Wight, exploring the open spaces, woods, marshes and foreshores was a new world to us when we were evacuated. Portsmouth's row upon row of terraced houses, their streets our only playground, seemed to be a million miles away, and to us children the war was hardly taking place at all.

So, what did we do to pass the time? I suppose we did what most other children living in the country, with a river and sea-shore on their door-step, would do. I spent most of my spare time in the company of boys, my sister being no longer with me, and my few excursions with the opposite sex having ended in disaster, as will be seen later. Girls were alright sometimes, specially as they got older, but they weren't much interested in rafts on the river or nesting, or in building huts and camp fires, or fishing and the like. Quite honestly, they could be an embarrassment at times.

Some things we were forced to do, such as Sunday school; but others, like the Hon. Mrs. Mitchison's concerts and percussion band were voluntary (well almost). Hobbies such as stamps and birds' eggs were entirely optional, and they came and went - usually following the seasons. Cubs was my greatest love, which I attended as soon as I was eligible to join, and I never tired of the activities we enjoyed when belonging to them.

The sea-shore at Woodside, and to a certain extent Fishbourne to Binstead, were wonderful places to explore. We found all manner of things washed up on the deserted beaches, from strange-looking devices with wires hanging from them, which we were always told to leave alone, so threw stones at them from a distance, to a dead whale (I think), and the flotsam from ships and ditched aircraft in the wake of war. Once, we even found the skull and parts of a human skeleton, but when we reported it and it was investigated, was thought to be a few hundred years old, and from an old burial ground now under the sea, near Quarr Abbey.

We would also light a fire on the beach, using coke which floated in on the tide from the cleaned out boilers of coal fired ships. Coke would keep a fire going all day, whereas a wood fire would need constant replenishment. We would boil water for "hot lemonade" and to cook winkles collected from the rocks, or cockles dug from the mud at low tide. Carrots and potatoes brought from home, or other small vegetables liberated from fields en route, would be added to the pot and feed us sufficiently to save a journey home at lunchtime, enabling us to spend all day on the beach. To protect, us from the seasonal weather, we would find shelter under the overhanging trees near the beach, or in huts built from the pieces of wood or corrugated sheet found on beach-combing expeditions. Sometimes on the beach, one of the older boys would bring a cigarette with him, spiriting it away from his dad's valuable packet of Woodbines at dead of night. He would light it with great ceremony, using a long taper (as seen in cowboy films), and puff madly to let you know he knew all about smoking. Then he would pass it around for a single puff and splutter amongst the younger boys, before he sat back, fag draped in corner of mouth (as seen in gangster films), to consume the rest of the cigarette, reminiscing like some old sea-dog about his experiences in the bustling village of Wootton. For an extra puff, or if no cigarette available an apple or sweet, one of us would strip naked and run into the pounding waves. I did this once, and then only for a dare with no reward at the end of it. They refused to allow me to come out of the freezing sea until I had completely submerged three times, by which time I was blue all over. As I said, I did this once, although I was thrown in for being cheeky to one of the Mafioso on another occasion.

Most of the well-behaved children of the village attended Sunday school, and although I never considered myself to be well-behaved, I was made to attend Station Road Methodist chapel on Sunday afternoons. The main reason for this attendance was, I'm sure, because Aunty Annie was a Sunday school teacher there - and had been for some thirty years. To make doubly certain I was purified before the start of another week I also had to attend the evening service. She insisted I attend regularly, threatening that God had a great book in the sky and everything I did wrong was written in it in red ink. After so many entries you had no chance of going to Heaven, but would be cast into a great big fire in Hell. It was enough to convince me and the only time I missed an evening service was to go swimming on a lovely summer's evening. I made a point of hiding behind rocks and spending long periods submerged in the water so that I wouldn't be seen too much by Him. It just wasn't worth the effort, and I was back at chapel again the following week, hoping my page in the great book hadn't exceeded the number of red marks permitted.

I could never understand why we had to walk a mile and a half to the chapel at Station Road, when there was a quite satisfactory one in the High Street, not more than a couple of hundred yards from where we lived. I can only assume that one of the foundation stones at Station Road chapel, bearing the words, "LAID BY E. GALLOP FOR THE SUNDAY SCHOOL", had family connections with Annie Gallop and she felt obliged to attend there, but as that stone had been laid in 1897, there didn't seem much risk of offending him. There was always a great deal of competition from the various religions to get hold of children at a tender age to swell their ranks; in fact the Rector ("don't you dare call me Vicar boy"), the Rev. Arthur H. Genower, would stop his bicycle alongside you and give physical restraint whilst telling you the benefits of attending his church, offering such bribes as payment for belonging to the choir and a much better annual Sunday school outing and Christmas party. To counter this the Methodists, who made a big thing about strong drink, (we all signed "The Pledge" at the age of seven - promising to refuse alcohol politely but firmly), put around that the Sloop Inn near the Mill, the Club on the corner of Church Road, and the Rectory were the only calls made at Wootton by the Mew's Brewery delivery dray; you only had to look at his nose, they said. There were a lot of rumours going around, from all denominations, I can assure you.

There was always something happening at the chapel. Lantern slide shows, whist and beetle drives, fund raising etc., these were in addition to our religious activities and the festivals associated with them. We also attended Bible study classes and even had examinations for which certificates were awarded. Our knowledge of the Bible was therefore much better than our C of E and other denomination counterparts, so when we Methodists attended St. Edmund's church on Friday mornings, which replaced religious instruction at school from about 1945, we knew all the answers to Rev. Genower's questions. Points were given, and at the end of the session these were totted up, for a Rector's prize at the end of term. It was embarrassing for him to find that we were winning hands down over his own flock, so he would purposely direct questions of an easy nature at his own C of E favourites. If this happened too often we would shout out the replies, thus invalidating their easy points, then we would answer questions they couldn't and win the day. The Rev. Genower often gave us a tap on the head for this behaviour, or for any over-enthusiasm to answer before the question was completed, but we never saw him do this to any of his own cronies.

Wootton's Norman church of St. Edmund'sWootton's Norman church of St. Edmund's (circa 1088), as it was in the 1940s

The membership of our Sunday school always increased a few weeks before the annual outing, then fell off a few weeks later. You could always tell those who weren't proper members because they didn't know the words of the children's hymns and prayers which we knew by heart, nor did they know the rude version of, "Hear the Pennies Dropping", or other things we knew as regulars. Children with a good attendance record received a bible, presented by the Superintendent with great ceremony, which could be flaunted in front of new members to show them our seniority also.

I also attended the Sunday evening service, which was unusual as very few children came to that. I used to look forward to the sermon at the end, when I could listen to the various preachers, who were mostly devout amateurs but all had a style of their own. Sometimes a boring in-depth analysis of a small passage from the Bible would almost send one to sleep, but at other times, and you always knew when a popular preacher was coming because the small chapel was full to capacity, the action was intense. The pulpit, which was about fifteen feet long, became a stage, the preacher punching the air, dashing to and fro and shouting loudly at the congregation to mend their wicked ways. He would confirm my worst fears about the devil and hell, and put impossible standards of conduct as a provision for getting to the other place. I would observe the looks of guilt on the faces of the congregation - and hoped I would never become as wicked as he said they were. The only consolation to me was that hell would be so full of sinners, and heaven so empty, that God might overlook some of my red marks in His great book and let me in after all.

The Methodists at Station Road chapel brought a lot of fun to my childhood, caring very much for each other and teaching by example the principles of a religion which, without doubt, they sincerely believed in. I enjoyed being part of them for so many years, at a time when war over-shadowed everything. My sister Brenda, who attended there for two years until her death in 1941, loved the chapel and its people, and was remembered in their prayers for many years after she died.

One of the other things we did on a regular basis was to take part in events organised by the Hon. Mrs. Mitchison. I have mentioned her previously, and a few words should be said about this remarkable lady who left such a lasting impression on me, and I'm sure on many other people in the village whose paths she crossed. She was the daughter of an Admiral and had inherited her title of "Honourable" from a distant relative, but seldom spoke of this. The less active ladies of the village assumed she was a lady of leisure, although she was anything but that, being involved in anything and everything to raise funds for the war effort. Tirelessly she organised events, one after the other, until you would have thought she intended winning the war on her own. It was strongly suspected she had won the First World War in that way, but no one would have dared ask her age.

The Hon. Mrs. Mitchison encouraged the artistic talent of any child (or adult) in the village. She was an accomplished musician, winning cups and contests regularly on both violin and piano, but I'm sure she could just as easily have played the trumpet or tuba. She convinced the young boys of the village that they could perform in a "percussion band" and encouraged singing and acting in her productions of concerts, pantomimes, variety shows and plays. For many years she organised the Glee Club, with quality choirs of competition standard, her own voice being of superb quality and pitch. These are only the things I can recall but there are doubtless other things this genteel lady - with the discipline of a Regimental Sergeant Major - could add to her list of accomplishments.

When she approached me to suggest learning to play the piano (you never asked her directly, simply dropped a hint to one of her pupils), I felt honoured. She had a grand piano which was so big that you could almost have lived in it. Black and shiny, it occupied one end of her music room, with a twelve inch ruler nearby to slap your hand if you so much as dared to think of plucking the horizontal strings when the lid was open. It was no good trying a crafty twang when she left the room because she could detect the sound from two rooms away. She said it would make the strings rusty, but as they seemed to be made of pure gold I doubt if it would have.

Wootton - Station Road Methodist chapelWootton - Station Road Methodist chapel

The early days of learning were fun and she would dance with joy after a successful piano lesson, her considerable frame circling the floor, arthritic hips swaying like a Polynesian Hula dancer and her face wreathed in smiles. On my good days she would let me keep the sixpence fee for the lesson, to spend, but on bad days she would take it from me and put it in the "Poor Children's" collecting box on her table, saying that they deserved it more than me. As my enthusiasm waned, I was losing far more sixpences than I was gaining, and with a music examination looming on the horizon, I thought it was about the right time to give up learning to play the piano. The following week I arrived late for my lesson, a thing which I knew she hated. I rang the doorbell as usual, but nobody came. Whilst waiting, I could hear the unmistakable strains of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" wafting through the half open windows of the music room, each sweet chord seeming to express the mood of the composer and the peace and tranquillity of silver moonlight. It was beautiful, and I very much wanted to be able to play the piano like that. Perhaps it would be worth the effort to learn after all, I thought. Of course, the whole episode was choreographed by her, the waiting, the music, the delay in opening the door and even the half open windows. I realised much later, that this lady who savoured life to the full and gave so much to others, also understood the mind of this small mixed up boy, better than he understood himself. I shall always remember her. She died, I'm told, conducting her beloved ladies choir. I imagine she merely had to pick up her fallen baton, and continue to lead the choirs of angels, in that place to which she surely went.

If there is one way of distinguishing success from failure in boyhood, it's a uniform. The Boy Scouts, St. John's Ambulance, the various cadet corps of army, navy and airforce, and many others, bear witness to the popularity of a uniform. Appended badges, stripes and insignia add prestige and instant visual recognition of seniority in these organisations. Wootton Bridge on the Isle of Wight had none of these groups functioning. One or two of the older boys belonged to the cadets at their posh schools, but there was nothing at all for ordinary village boys (or girls) to join. We therefore had to look further afield for any of the exciting, uniformed and badged Units, which would accept us.

There was still virtually nothing to join at the tender age of seven and a half years, when I began searching; but at eight we could join the Wolf Cub Scouts, known affectionately as "the Cubs", the junior arm of the Boy Scouts and needing no introduction, I'm sure. The nearest group, or pack, was at Binstead, a village about three miles away, which came under the Ryde Scouts banner, being called the, "1st BINSTEAD 7th RYDE", assuming, I suppose, that one day there would be a 2nd Binstead or even a 3rd. The description was a lot to get on your first arm badge, but at least it was a start for us badge-hungry youngsters. This was soon followed by a triangle of colour, to show which six one belonged to, and then by the two tenderfoot badges for cap and left breast after a simple test of the salute, shaking hands with the left instead of the right, and a simple declaration to give your life to the cause. We would have sworn to kill if necessary, in order to obtain this flurry of badges. After the initial enrolment and acceptance into the Pack as a fully-fledged Wolf Cub, we could settle down to the business of stars and stripes and other badges, which were somewhat more difficult to obtain and in my case involved a good deal of bribery, corruption, creeping and general skullduggery which was certainly outside the code of conduct expected of a good Cub Scout.

After a few months, which enabled me to build up a small measure of seniority, I introduced other lads from our village to the Binstead Cub Pack. Chris (Organ) Morgan was the first , being the same age as me, followed by my friend David when he reached the age of eight. Hugh, my other friend, joined a bit later, falsifying his age by almost a year but as I have mentioned previously, he had a knack of telling a very convincing tale. It was necessary to increase our Wootton numbers because a hint of resentment had crept in from the Binstead boys to my enthusiasm and rapid rise through the ranks. I worked hard to obtain my first star, this being a small silver star worn alongside the cap badge. It involved officially passing a series of simple tasks, such as cleaning a pair of shoes or simple knots. With this first star it was possible to be promoted and wear one yellow band on the left arm, and this honour was soon awarded to me. But to qualify to become a Sixer - in charge of six cubs - one had to earn a second star, then wear two yellow bands when promoted. The second star was a much more difficult set of tasks to complete, such as semaphore signalling, advanced knots and things like backwards skipping thirty times ( which took some boys a long time to master, but was easy if you'd had a sister). Because there was little time for tests at Cub meetings, I travelled to the home of Akela at Ryde to accelerate my progress, taking the opportunity to give her presents of posies of flowers or fruit in season. In this way I achieved my second star in record 'time, together with a quick promotion to Sixer, much to the envy and irritation of the time-served and older Binstead Boys.

There was one promotion only above a Sixer, and this was to Senior Sixer, the most senior Cub of a Pack. There had never been one at Binstead, but as we had increased in size it was permitted to have one. The decision was, which of the four Sixers in the Pack would Akela select? Which one would wear the coveted three yellow bands of a Senior Sixer? We four candidates were warned we would be under scrutiny for several weeks and I made an effort to be best at everything we did during that period. On the honourable side, Bob-a-Job week saw me working every spare moment to earn the most money, I volunteered to take the part of the Dragon in "St. George and the Dragon", a part nobody wanted in a play performed on parents' evening, and I won the obstacle race, and egg and spoon race at Ryde Cubs sports day. On the dishonourable side, I removed other Sixers' carefully laid tracks on a "Tracking Skills" evening so that our Six got home first, hid clues in a treasure hunt so only our Six could find them and generally riled the opposition so much that they would argue loudly with me. I used this to advantage by saying such things as,"That's not the way a good Cub behaves", or similar expressions, when our adult leaders Akela and Baloo were within ear-shot. Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting Movement, died in 1944 and as we stood for a minutes silence in respect, I couldn't help wondering if he had died of a broken heart because of me.

As you have probably guessed, I was selected as the Senior Sixer, or Pack Leader as it was known. I was attached to the Red Six, which only added insult to the already injured Binstead boy called Bennett, Sixer of the Reds, who had been one of the candidates for promotion. However, I was only to enjoy this exalted rank for a few months before I was too old for the Cubs and had to join the Scout Troop, starting again at the bottom of the pile, as the saying goes. The Binstead Scout Troop weren't in the least bit interested in my war record with the Cubs, and I achieved nothing during the remaining year or so with them. Blessedly, I was not too long in this intolerable position before moving back to Portsmouth. But I shall always remember my time with the Binstead Cub Scouts during the war years and the pride I had in reaching the top of the Pack, so to speak.

There were plenty of other things we did, of course, but the things I have mentioned stand out above everything else.