VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 2: Pre-school Years
Chapter written 1998 & last revised 2013
NOTES My very earliest memory is unmistakeably of war.  It consists of a powerful and still frightening four-part impression - of the sky darkened by great waves of bombers, of the roar of the same, of the wail of the air-raid siren and of a web with a large spider at the centre, high up in a dark and dusty corner of our front porch.  The siren was probably sounding the 'all-clear', in which case the bombers would have been ours, but either way I suspect my mother was panicking.  Nervousness and panic were things I learned from my mother and grandmother from a very early age.  I think they had their value in sharpening my awareness of the world around me as I grew up so that whatever wasn't actually terrifying was exciting and mysterious.
For present-day Normandy Avenue residents reading this, the communal air raid shelter for our stretch of the avenue was right opposite 110.  I remember watching the demolition of it several years after the war.Oddly enough, although a profound terror of spiders never left me until middle age, I have had a lifelong love of aeroplanes, including Second World War bombers!  Of course, I never experienced the actual work of bombers, although apparently a single small bomb dropped on Normandy Avenue, in the middle of the road, and a piece of shrapnel pierced one of our drainpipes.  I don't remember the bomb, but I always loved the shrapnel hole.  I also loved playing with the rusty old gasmasks and a soldier's tin hat that mysteriously appeared in our garden after the War.  My only other memory of the War, which ended before my third birthday, was of a firework display, part of the Victory celebrations of 1945.  It took place on waste ground where Mays Lane now joins the Great North Road.  Mays Lane didn't quite get that far in those days!
Most of my memories begin just after the War and are steeped in an atmosphere - very exciting to me at the time - of dusty, gloomy austerity.  I loved the smell and feel of the dirty scrap timber my father, now working as a machine operator, used to bring home to burn in the small fireplaces of our flat (my grandparents occupied the lower half of the house, we the upper).  I loved the dimness and sparseness and cheapness of everything.  I was excited by the way my father used condensed milk to glue fireplace tiles back in place.  I liked the blowflies that seemed to abound.  I especially loved the great box of wonderful tricks that was our pre-war home-built radio, with its huge glowing valves and constant acrid smell of burning, on which you could just about get the Light and the Home with hundreds of feet of wire draped all over the trees in the garden.  It went up in flames once, but it still worked afterwards.  My earliest clear memory of a radio programme is of Dick Barton, Special Agent, a show eventually banned because of the use of expletives such as 'blast!'  It was replaced in the early fifties by The Archers, which I hated, but which is still going strong nearly sixty years later.
I suppose not many people are familiar with water freezing inside the house these days or with having to scrape ice off the insides of the bedroom windows in the morning? My first memory of weather conditions is of the great freeze-up of 1947-8.  Sometimes, in the mornings, there was a stick of ice connecting the single kitchen tap with the great stone 'butler's sink' about 3 feet below it.  Water then had to be obtained by gathering snow and melting it in saucepans.  There was no running hot water.  Because many saucepans of water had to be heated to provide a bath, it was easier to use tin baths in the kitchen - there was a range of sizes.  I delighted in helping (or hindering) with the task of digging a deep cutting through the snow in order to clear the front garden path.  The walls of snow thus created were much higher than I was.  However the winter of '47-8 was not the only time this had to be done.  We often had deep snow in London in those days, whereas now even a very short-lived light dusting is rare, and children are robbed of the fun of building snowmen.  I must admit that cold and snow were not entirely welcome to me - I remained singularly sensitive to cold until I was about 30.  As a small child I many times screamed in agony with frozen hands and feet despite the best efforts of my mother to keep me warm.
Because both my parents worked full-time, I was left largely in the care of my grandparents.  Their home downstairs was late Victorian and Edwardian in nature.  Although I loved the sparseness and gloom of my parents home, I loved even more the amazing clutter and frilly fussiness dowstairs.  Victorian ornaments of all kinds covered the surfaces of the heavy mahogany and dark oak furniture.  There seemed to be drapes and curtains everywhere.  I still have a few of the ornaments (most of which had already been in the family for generations) but some of the best of them were, alas, disposed of by my mother in later years.
My grandfather was very soft and indulgent, and would put up with no end of cheek and atrocious behaviour, but he was often at the Crown & Anchor in the High Street. He also had a part time shoe repair job at Cullender's in Barnet Hill (demolished some 50 years ago). My grandmother, though, was another matter.  I was quite terrified of her, because she seemed to me to be cruel, vindictive and sinister.  The only concrete fact to which I can now attribute this opinion of her was that she used to take me on her knee and sing a folk song called There were Three Ships a-Sailing or sometimes (even worse) You are my Sunshine.  These songs and her singing of them were torture.  Oddly, she delighted in telling my parents when they came home from work that the songs had made me cry.  Despite my fear of her, I became obsessed with the sport of driving her into fits of rage by shocking behaviour.  One day she tried to shut me out of the kitchen and the tip of the index finger of my right hand was shut in the door.  This didn't improve my attitude towards her.  The finger tip is still misshapen.
One day it was decided that my grandmother could no longer cope with me and I would have to go to the creche every day.  I still remember my horror at encountering other children for the first time.  I needed to get out of there as soon as possible, so I picked up my plate of dinner and flung it with all my might on the floor.  To my great relief, I was never allowed back.  However the trauma of enforced subjection to other brats in the form of school was not far off, and my grandmother loved to terrify me with warnings of how terrible it would be.
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