VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 3: School and Regenesia
Chapter written 1998 & last revised 2013

The Welsh Assembly Government has recently re-imposed this nonsense on schools here in Wales, presenting it as a revolutionary new idea !  Doubtless England will follow suit.
School came as a terrible shock.  I started at Underhill Infants' School in Mays Lane, Barnet in the autumn of 1947.  In those days freedom of expression was all the rage for the first couple of years in school.  What this meant for me was the freedom of all those terrifying and unfathomable creatures to throw plasticine, paint and sand over me and to make a continuous deafening and utterly pointless noise. (At home, of course, I did the very same thing).  Their freedom was my hell.  My whole school career was destined to be lived out in dread of playgrounds, cloakrooms, changing rooms, the routes to and from school, and all other places where my fellow students were not under the immediate control of adults.   When real lessons eventually started, I took no notice - I simply daydreamed my way through them.  As a result I was considered 'subnormal' (as it was then alright to say) for several years and given up as a bad job, but secretly I was educating myself and had nothing but contempt for the teaching methods of the time.
The times away from school - and other children - continued to be idyllic in the main.  Things that stand out are the ritualised Saturday afternoon shopping expeditions with my father, which involved the buying of huge amounts of sweets, fruit and nuts as though it were Christmas every week and, in the holidays, the many hours entirely alone in the long partially overgrown garden of 110 Normandy Avenue, with all its trees, bushes, nooks and crannies.  A complex fantasy gradually evolved that I was the absolute dictator of a vast new superpower, which was somehow completely contained within the confines of the garden.  By the time I was about 10, this had become a socialist Utopia called Regenesia, and my title was Lord Protector.  At the time I was convinced I had invented this title.  It came as an awful shock to learn later that a certain O.Cromwell had already used it.  I was also astonished when, in my teens, I read Marx and found in him most of the political and economic philosophy of Regenesia.  This discovery had a profound (though not consistent) influence on my subsequent thinking and attitudes right up until the cynicism of late middle age set in.
But the garden was not a fantasy world all the time.  My father taught me how to sow seeds and grow vegetables (presumably he could only recently have learned this himself).  The germination of seeds, their development into many kinds of vegetables, the changing of the seasons and the spring calls of birds were all just as magical to me as my own imagination.  In case all this sounds a touch angelic it has to be said that I somehow managed to be quite a vile brat at the same time.
I've recently discovered that the aircraft based there were on routine patrol of the North Sea and that, yes, a few Ansons still exist, but not in flying condition. Another feature of 110 Normandy Avenue that, perhaps oddly, greatly added to its magic for me, was the constant sight and sound of aircraft coming in to land at Hendon Aerodrome - not far away in a straight line across the fields.  RAF Hendon (it closed in the '50s) was a Transport Command station, and the only two types based there, as far as I remember, were Dakotas and Ansons.  The sound of these aircraft was music to me.  The sound of a Dakota, on the rare occasions when I hear one, is incredibly nostalgic and still full of magic, but it's a few decades since I heard an Avro Anson (do any still exist?).  The spatial relationships between the silver aircraft and the trees and buildings were a source of endless excitement.
Supersonic flight over land has been illegal in the UK since 1973.My father, having discovered that football bored me stupid, began taking me to air shows instead, first at Hendon then at many other places - Elstree, Croydon, Hatfield, Northolt, Gatwick, Heathrow (imagine air shows there now!) and of course Farnborough.  At the latter, they had indescribably exciting shows in those days, featuring vast formations of redundant Spitfires and Lancasters for example and mass parachute drops with hundreds of canopies.  Attempts were made to go supersonic over the crowd!  If the pilot succeeded, the resulting sonic boom was tremendous.
See photo of the aftermath of the disaster. Farnborough, above all, became an annual fixture.  My father never paid to get in.  He knew of a hill just outside the perimeter with an excellent view over the whole airfield. One year - 1952 - we were invited to stay the weekend with my uncle Eddie in Bexley, so Farnborough was off.  I was furious and sullen during our stay, until we saw the Sunday paper.  Several people had been killed on 'our' hill when a DH110 experimental aircraft broke up while John Derry was attempting to go supersonic.
It wasn't only air shows that my father took me to.  For example, in 1951 we went to the Festival of Britain.  Unfortunately my only memory of that great event was that an Italian badge-seller told me off quite severely when, in answer to my father's question "would you like a festival badge?" I gave my usual answer - "Yeah, all right then".  It was a result of rarely having to ask for anything - my father always got in with an offer first.
It's not true to say that I had nothing at all to do with other children unless I was forced to - more about my childhood friends in future chapters - but it's certainly a fact that I associated much more with adults, at least until I was about 10.  These were usually neighbours (none of whom had any children of their own).  We had some quite eccentric ones.  Some of them probably took a fairly patronising attitude.  After all, we were a working class family thrown by strange circumstances into a very middle class environment, something that was unusual then.  However, they were very nice to me and one lady took it upon herself to educate me, in her home, into decent middle-class values such as lemon meringue pie and Darjeeling tea served from a tea trolley at 3.15pm.  That was Mrs Strugnell at 108, whose husband was a Civil Servant (this sounded hugely important), and whose brother was headmaster of Ashmole School.
Then there was Mr Gale across the Road who was the sub-postmaster in Mays Lane.  He actually had a workshop in his back garden and possessed an electric drill!  Mr and Mrs Gale had two Scots Terriers who used to run about yapping furiously upon my arrival.  This always caused the Gales to do a curious sort of dance while singing "Bonnie and Kinnie say 'Victor's here!'" in a most exuberant fashion.
I gave my parents to understand that I was now moving in very superior circles.  This caused them to become very critical of these well-meaning people and friction was sometimes in evidence over little things.  I remember the Strugnells, Gales, Brockhursts and others in Normandy Avenue with great affection, even though I was told off sometimes by Mrs Strugnell for such things as sounding the Gongs of Regenesia (a row of water tank inspection covers of various sizes) every hour during the holidays, for tormenting our cat, Sambo, and for not learning the excercises in French for Little Folk, which she had given me for my 8th or 9th birthday.
In 1951 my grandfather Alf Coughtrey died at home aged 82.  Oddly, I can't remember being upset by this loss.  All I remember is the revulsion invoked by my mother's predictable method of giving me the news: "The Gates of Heaven have opened for Grandad."  What sloppy rubbish, I thought to myself.  This strong reaction to my mothers sugary (and to me superficial) sentimentality, particularly as anger and bitterness always seemed to be lurking just under the surface, was to be a key factor in our difficult relationship for most of the rest of her life.  I'm still allergic to too much display of emotion or swings of mood.  I also remember my grandfather's death as the occasion of the last great gathering of Alf's children and their wives, as far as I know.  It was certainly the only time I ever met some of them - Eva and Horace for example.  Shortly after this, Stan and his wife Lil emigrated to Australia on the ₤10 one-way ticket scheme.  They used to send us very welcome food hampers from time to time, as there were still shortages in Britain.
I have to admit that there was one strong and lasting emotion following my grandfather's death - that of guilt.  This was caused by the memory of such outrages as pushing him over in the garden for fun, knowing that he wouldn't be able to get up again unaided, and that no-one in the house would hear his cries for help.  I can't remember how that episode ended.  On another occasion he spent all day and much effort in planting out some onion sets, but he'd committed the terrible crime of not waiting for me to return from school before doing it, so I jumped up and down all over them in rage, which made him cry.  I wasn't punished of course - my father wouldn't have allowed it.
You will find photos relevant to this chapter in the INDEX OF PHOTOS.
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