VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 7: Upheaval
Chapter written 1999 & last revised 2013

The Invisible Man and David Copperfield were probably the two novels that impressed me most at the time.

When the new school year started in September 1953, I found myself in Miss Salmond's class.  Elsie Salmond was known as 'The Dragon'.  Her favourite threat was "you'll feel my hard, horny hand if you're not careful."  Even the worst elements were mortally afraid of her.  From the start, she showed blatant favoritism towards me.  She openly allowed me to get away with things strictly forbidden to others.  She became a fervent believer in my abilities, even though I had hardly shone up to this point.  She also liked Walter.  With this combination of physical protection from Walter and great encouragement from Miss Salmond, it felt to me as though some sort of fog had lifted that year.  I was full of confidence and roared ahead unexpectedly in academic work.  I began to read avidly: William books, then public school novels, Biggles books and by the age of eleven I was on to H.G.Wells and Dickens.  But the euphoria was short-lived.  Two calamitous events were round the corner.
As I understand it, owners of requisitioned properties were entitled to claim them back very soon after the war ended.  As a result, many people (some of whose own houses had been bombed) were evicted, so we were very lucky Shortly after the Coronation in 1953, the news was broken to me that Mr Roach, our mysterious landlord who, as far as I know, never the visited the house once in the ten years we were there, had decided to sell the house.  My parents had no hope at all of buying it and it seems that Mr Roach's obligations under the wartime requisitioning scheme were long since over.  Barnet Urban District Council responded immediately with the offer of a council house on a small new estate of 15 houses at Duck's Island on the south-western edge of the town.  My parents thought I would be distressed by this news.  From a distance of well over half a century, I indeed look back on it as a dreadful event, but the fact is that at the time I was very excited by the prospect of the move.
The estate was opened officially by Harold MacMillan (then Minister of housing, later Prime Minister) just before we moved in.  With the completion of these 15 houses, the Tories had exceeded the Labour record for council-house building, hence the importance attached to this tiny estate.  I was astounded to find film of the event on YouTube.  I was in that little crowd somewhere. I went with my parents to look at number 4 Connaught Road, just off Mays Lane.  This was the house we had been allotted.  However, secretly, Walter and I had already raided the site for lead (unsuccessfully - we were chased off by workmen).  We had to squelch through a sea of mud to look over the house, but I was mightily impressed.  It's now totally incomprehensible to me that I should have preferred the idea of living in a terraced council house with a small garden to living in a characterful old house with a large and complex garden, and I'm sure the move was damaging.  At the time, though, I went running up and down Normandy avenue boasting about the 'amazing mod cons'.  By this, I meant such wonders as the lavatory cistern not being miles over your head with a rusty chain that rarely worked, the central heating (fired by the coal fire in the living-room), the revolutionary metal window frames and wall sockets for the electricity so that you didn't have to keep blowing fuses by plugging your television or Hoover into the overhead light bulb socket.  The most exciting thing of all was that the bath was boxed in so that you couldn't see its legs.  Far from being dismayed that the magic land of the Normandy Avenue garden was being replaced by an oblong of mud and rubble, I was very excited by the idea of helping my father construct a garden from scratch.
My grandmother had to sell most of her home because the new place was so much smaller.  We moved into 4 Connaught Road shortly after my eleventh birthday, November 1953.   I certainly enjoyed very much the task of helping my father with the garden and we were proud of what we achieved in the first few months, despite the tough opposition of the heavy bright yellow clay of the London Basin. My father said the problem was that it was 'virgin land'.  Of course, I had no idea at all what 'virgin' might mean, but it seemed to have something to do with the wide open spaces of the USA, so believe it or not, our tiny patch of garden was invested with the excitement of the pioneering spirit.  Soon, both the back garden and the front garden were probably the best on the estate, at least for the first couple of years.

These gardens, though, were very public places, especially before the privet hedges grew tall.  There was no chance to imagine Utopias, space travel or diamond mining here.  Instead, I became somewhat obsessed by the private lives of the neighbours.  I spent much time lurking in the garden spying and eavesdropping, between running indoors and reporting to my mother and grandmother what I had seen and heard.  They were an eager audience of this running commentary on the minutiae of the neighbours' everyday lives.  I was especially interested in the constant quarrelling between the two small children of the Akermans at number 2 - Roger, aged 6 and Julie, 4.  I was always hoping for an especially bad set-to, and was occasionally rewarded.  Reg Akerman was a sheet metal worker, a strangely shy and withdrawn man, unlike his chirpy wife, Joyce.  The neighbours to the other side were the Wrights.  Mr wright, who worked with my father in Adhesive Tapes was a large loud Yorkshireman, full of opinions.  He called me 'The Professor'.  This was meant as an expression of contempt.  He thought I should have been treated much more strictly, as indeed his daughter Carole was.
This being the 1950s, council house dwellers were not in the least bit interested in flaunting their working-classness.  Their object was, in fact, to be more stuffy and 'respectable' than the middle-class inhabitants of Normandy Avenue.  Acquisition of goods was also of great importance.   Both the Akermans and the Wrights gradually acquired cars, fridges, washing machines and telephones.  We remained without any of these, despite the fact that my mother was working, and those women were not (their husbands wouldn't dream of letting them).  The whole atmosphere of the estate was perfectly in accordance with the newspaper soap-powder ads of the times: the housewife respectably and cheerfully getting on with her chores in the gleaming kitchen, waiting to show hubby how white she'd got his shirts when he got home from work.  Engrossed as I was with their lives, I began to experience a sort of mental nausea in this environment.  Regenesia was still there in the background, and set against it these families and their goals and aspirations were appalling.  But the apparent lack of goals and aspirations of my own family began to seem even worse.
At school I was selected to take the Common Entrance Examination (the '11-Plus') for a place in a Grammar School.  Stuart was also selected, but Walter was not.  I remember finding the exam very easy.  In fact I didn't just pass: my results were good enough to qualify me for an interview for Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School for Boys, in Queen's Road, Barnet.  This school had a very high reputation, and creamed off the 11-Plus candidates with the best results over a wide area of north London and south Hertforshire.  For most of the children of the neighbourhood, going to a Grammar School at all was out of the question, but QE was considered something very special indeed.  The interview was somehow successful.  Stuart was sent to East Barnet Grammar School and Walter to Elizabeth Allen School in Wood Street, long since closed.  My mother was beside herself with joy and pride and ran around announcing in what was supposed to be a haughty and superior way "Of course, my boy's goin' up Queen Elizabeth's."  This meant that to local kids, I was not just a 'grammar grub', I was something especially alien.  As it turned out, I was going to prove even more of an alien to my fellow 'privileged' ones at QE when I at last started there in September 1954.  I was soon very much aware of having been torn out of my genuinely privileged position of that final year at Underhill.
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