Saturday, 22 March 2014

In Our Time

Having been cooped up in doors for most of the last twelve months due to the need for me to keep out of the sun because of the side effects of my chemo treatment, I have been doing a lot of reading.  Usually I have at least three books on the go - a serious fiction book, a lighter bit of fiction (often a crime novel) and some kind of non-fiction book (maybe something to fill in a few holes in my knowledge of science or history).  But when my eyes get a bit tired I turn to the radio, especially BBC Radio 4 which has some fantastic programmes on.  I shall expand on this in a later blog but for now I want to concentrate on a gem of the network - In Our Time.

These are serious discussion programmes made for grown up listeners.  Each programme features a panel of three experts on a topic, usually university Professors or lecturers. The topics of the programmes range across many subjects including science, history, religion and philosophy.  The programmes are expertly chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Contributors gradually lay out the key points on a topic, invariably in a clear and articulate manner that can be understood by an intelligent lay person.  From time to time Bragg will attempt a summing up of the story so far. Sometimes he gets it wrong - understandably as he is,like the listener, not an expert, although he does appear to have the benefit of notes prepared for him beforehand by contributors, and probably some extra notes given to him by a researcher for the programme. But in general he manages to steer the discussion expertly in the time available bringing it nicely together at the end. This is not an easy thing to do as I know from my own experience of chairing student (and staff) seminars at Portsmouth University. Even when the contributors know what they are talking about it is a skill to know when to curtail one speaker and bring in another.

Now as well as the live programmes that go out every Thursday morning at 9 am there is now an absolute treasure trove of past programmes going back to 2004, available via the programme's website in downloadable podcast form.  The topics are listed under five genres - culture, history, philosophy, religion and science.

Now I  know a bit about some of the topics covered - for example the programme about random and pseudo-random numbers didn't tell me much that I didn't already know. But it was reassuring to me that I felt that the programme covered the topic in a full and balanced way.  This means that I can have confidence in the authority and authenticity of the coverage of other topics where my knowledge is more partial or even non-existent.

Melvyn Bragg has, of course, other claims to fame, namely his novels and the excellent South Bank Show, originally on London Weekend Television (ITV) but recently revived on Sky. He truly is a National Treasure and I hope that he will be around for many more In Our Time programmes.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Theatres and actors

It was only when I saw next week's Radio Times and the article about Dad's Army and Jimmy Perry that I remembered that I had been quite a regular visitor to the Watford Palace Theatre during my sixth form days. Jimmy Perry was the Director there at the time and, as the RT article points out, it was his experiences in the Watford Home Guard during the war that gave him the idea for the popular TV comedy.  Apparently young Pike was based on  Perry himself.

I also remember about that seeing a production of Peter Shaffer's "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" somewhere in London with my friend Chris Turner, whose father was in the play.  Chris's father, originally from South Africa, worked with many of the great British actors in the sixties and seventies and must have been so proud that his daughter Jess became an actor too.

I was interested in plays and the theatre and took a special subject called Theatre as a voluntary course at Watford Grammar along with my A levels. It was taught by Dave Spearman who was also the teacher who came with us to Cuffley camp, as described in one of my other blogs.  I remember that I did a special project on Ibsen and I have had a penchant for his plays ever since.  I managed to see the recent revival of Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic with Sheridan Smith in the title role.

When I went to Warwick I managed a few trips to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry but, to my regret, not many visits to Stratford. Without a car in those days it was difficult to travel even that relatively short distance. Looking back I am surprised that there wasn't a club or society catering for theatre visits. Perhaps there was and I just didn't spot it.

When she taught at Prices College in Fareham Pauline ran a Theatres Club that would take groups of students up to Stratford in a minbus. I was never able to join in with this, which was a pity.

Pauline also likes musicals. For some reason these have never really appealed to me - not even Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables.  And that, despite the fact that one of my uncles, Charles Stapley, appeared in the Drury Lane production of My Fair Lady in the sixties. He was understudy to Rex Harrison in the Henry Higgins role and he actually made more appearances on stage than Harrison.  I remember seeing the performance and then meeting "Uncle Charles" backstage afterwards. Unfortunately Charles' marriage to my mother's sister Nan ended in an early divorce and Charles' acting career peaked with the part of the antique dealer in Crossroads.

Living down here near Chicheser we do try to get to the Festival Theatre when we can.  It will be particularly frustrating for me this year as the programme there looks very good, but because of my chemotherapy treatments I am supposed to keep away from big crowds for fear of infection. Hopefully I shall be able to see something later in the summer.

Recently, before my new chemo sessions started, we manged to have a few days up in Yorkshire at which time we were able to see a play by Brian Friel at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

One excellent development in the last few years has been the live screening in cinemas of productions from the National Theatre.  We have managed to see several of these and, although the experience is not quite the same as being in the theatre with the actors it does give the beauty of the live performance rather than a carefully edited movie version.

Plays don't only have to be put on in big theatres. A few years ago we saw an excellent production of Two Gentlemen of Verona in a local village hall, by a travelling pair of black actors.

And I can't end without a mention of Amateur Dramatics.  My good friend from university days, Graham Sessions, has been a stalwart of the Am Dram scene down in Devon since he moved down there after retirement from teaching.

Oh, and my first visit to a theatre, as for many other people, was for a pantomime.  And we have seen a couple of the special Christmas productions for children up in Stratford.  Wonderful.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


If the universe was but one year old
Three hundred and sixty-five days
Then the sun wasn't born until August 21
And dinosaurs died only yesterday.

Jesus was born just five seconds ago
And science has only just begun
We have learned so much
But there is still so much more
That's beyond us when all's said and done.

Are we unique?
Are there other planets out there
Amongst all the trillions
Supporting life of any kind?
Or are we alone,a pinprick in space
With no-one out there we could find?

38.8 billion years have passed
Since the time of the big bang
Or is time just an illusion
Something we experience but
Not the full shebang?

White dwarfs, red dwarfs, brown ones too
Dark space, black holes
I wonder what you do

Quasars, quarks, neutrinos too
The big and the small all here in space
Supernovae, galaxies, our own Milky Way
Everything out there in its own rightful place

But is there only one universe?

Books and libraries

I can't remember the first book I ever had.  I do remember that quite early on I had a book made of cloth rather than paper, and then there was a bible stories picture book printed on thick cardboard. It had a funny smell!  After that I had the usual kind of alphabet picture book - you know the kind of thing - a is for apple, b is for boy, c is for cat, d is for dog. But not with the sounds that you can get from modern books of this kind.

Books have been incredibly important to me over the years I can't begin to think how many I have read over the years.  Just looking round my study now there are literally hundreds. And I have even managed to write a couple although maybe it should have been more. Maybe it can still be!

I have to thank my mother for my love of reading. From an early age she would sit down and read to me and I then managed to read on my own from quite an early age. She always had at least two library books on the go and she took me to the local library in Croxley where there was a wealth of lovely books for me to read. More on libraries and librarians later.

I can remember reading a lot of books on family holidays in the fifties and sixties.  Where ever we were it always seemed to be raining and there I was in the beach hut with a book in my hand. And taking loads of books with me on holiday has stayed with me.  I haven't got into eBooks though. I prefer to have a physical copy in my hand. I can read stuff of a screen, but not for long periods of time.  I also like to have a book by my bed. A chapter or two and I am off to sleep!

Thinking about the books I have read you could categorise them in a number of ways.  Fiction and non-fiction of course.  On the non-fiction side there were text books, but also reference books.  Two books I especially remember from the sixties were an iSpy annual and a book about ancient civilisations.  The iSpy annual included a section on animal and bird footprints in the snow and I can remember trying to identify tracks out in the back garden and in the woods during some of those snowy winters back then.  The other book had fascinating material on the Mayans and the Aztecs, the Egyptians, Greeks, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Hittites and others.  I am so glad that I have managed to follow up this interest with many visits to ancient sites in Greece, but also to Mexico and a few years ago to Syria before its dreadful disintegration. I should have loved to have got to Iraq too.

I also went through a bit of a biography and autobiography phase - sporting heroes mainly.  The one I remember best was Richie Benaud who was a particular hero of mine.  On the music side I loved Ralph McTell's Angel Laughter.  More recently I have read everything by and about Patrick Leigh Fermor who lived for many years in Kardamyli, one of our Greek holiday regular places.

On the fiction side the books can be divided into "worthy" books and easy reads.  On the easy read side I seem also have into the habit of devouring everything in a series.  In my early teenage years it was the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. Then, after reading The Gun by C.S. Forester at school I discovered the Hornblower novels and worked my way through them.  Next it was John Buchan and Graham Greene. I have re-read some of these again recently and realised how much I missed first time round.

Going back to sport for a moment, I don't think I am missing any books about Watford FC from the likes of Trefor Jones, Oliver Phillips, Lionel Birnie and Matt Rowson. I share their fanaticism!

In my early twenties I went through a Science Fiction phase, starting with the Isaac Asimov Foundation series. I think it was sparked by hearing a radio adaptation of the books, which opens up another line of thought, namely the interaction between reading the books and film, TV and radio adaptations of them.  I prefer to read the books first and then see the adaptation (as has been the case with Andrea Camilleri's wonderful Montelbano series recently) but I think I  was turned on to Simenon by the Rupert Davies portrayal of Maigret on TV.  I have always liked crime novels - thinking about it I read most of Agatha Christies books by the time I was sixteen before moving on to Sherlock Holmes.  More recent favourite authors include Kinky Friedman, Anne Zouridi, Amanda Cross, Mike Nicol and Deon Mayer. Michelle Giutarri . That sparks another thought - I might not have come across some of these authors but for Amazon's recommendation system. I also have to credit radio programmes like A Good Read and book reviews in the Guardian and Observer.

Having mentioned Amazon I am a bit conflicted over them. On the one hand I love the fact that I can just sit here at my computer and order a book which will pop through my letter box in a matter of days,  But I also love real bookshops where you can just browse the shelves and stumble across something really interesting. I also wish Amazon would pay more taxes so that more libraries could stay open!

It is time to move on to libraries and their impact on my reading. As I have already said I  was a member of the Hertfordshire Library service from early on, and I have kept that up down here in Hampshire. The library at school was good too, and in the sixth form I also made use of the library at Wall Hall college where my mother worked as a librarian. At university some of my happiest hours were spent in the library, particularly in my second year as an undergraduate when I was in digs with nowhere suitable to work. Coming down here to Portsmouth at first the library was just a couple of floors of books in Mercantile House until the wonderful new library was built in Ravelin Park. My teaching and research has benefited so much from this library, and the wonderful librarians that work there. I should like to give a special name check to Judith Stamenkovic who was a great help to me and my students over the years. I have no doubt in saying that I found the library to be the best part of the university - I can think of nothing I  can criticise it for. And Inter-Library loans are wonderful.

In the 1990s I was lucky enough to be involved in the management of the International Biblography of the Social Sciences (IBSS) project at the LSE. as the database went online.  Again, working with the librarians there I realised how much a library was not just the books and journals but also the people working there.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Toy guns and table-top games

I don't know if I had somehow subliminally screened out my more violent toys, but it comes back to me now that as a young boy I also had a toy gun, not to mention a bow and arrows. Andy and I would play cowboys and Indians in the back garden.  We used to buy small gunpowder caps that you could put in the gun to make a loud bang. The arrows had a rubber tip on them but you still felt it if one hit you on the body.  I also remember that we had pea shooters. We also used to crush rowan berries into the end of a bicycle pump and fire them at various targets.

I also had a little canon that would  fire matchsticks.  We had little plastic soldiers that we would line up on the table and shoot at.

The other games that I have now recalled were table-top sports games.  Blow football, and then later at Ron's, Subbuteo.  We spent many happy hours with that.

Andy and I also used to play a cricket game based on rolling a die and a small hexagonal piece of metal to generate scores. I can't remember exactly how it worked but according to the roll of the die you either scored runs or got out in some specific way. We made up our teamsheets based on the cricketers of the day - Ken Barrington, Fred Titmus and the like - and then played all afternoon, writing up the scores in a book as if it was a real match. Latent statto tendencies emerging!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Toys and games

Today's children have all manner of toys and games to play with, as well as apps for  iPhones and other handheld devices.  But back in the nineteen-fifties and sixties we had plenty of playthings, including things that we had made for ourselves.  And I never remember once saying or feeling that I was bored.

Some types of toys are just the same today as they were then, or modern versions of them perhaps. The first toy that I can remember having was my Teddy bear.  I dragged it about by one of its arms and it went everywhere with me. Andy had a toy monkey - perhaps appropriate for the cheeky naughty boy that he could sometimes be.

Another early toy that I remember was a dog on wheels that you could push around. Now that I think about it, it was probably a way of getting me to move from the toddling to the walking stage.  Later, in what was possibly a quite expensive toy, was a little peddle car that I could drive around the garden in. And then of course my first bike.

On a smaller scale we had various glove puppets, painting and drawing books, board games like snakes and ladders, draughts and jigsaw puzzles. We could amuse ourselves using tracing paper to create our own pictures, or playing hangman or noughts and crosses. We played with marbles a lot too.

Grannie and Auntie Edie used to play cards quite a bit so we got into that too, first with snap and happy families, then onto patience (solitaire) and more gambling type games. When we stayed with my father's sister Bet and her husband Fred in Matlock, Fred had us playing with his Pokerdice kit.

I really loved my dinky toys. I managed to build quite a good collection including buses, lorries, ambulances and police cars, and my favourite - a Rolls Royce. I really wish I had held onto them, but like many of my toys they eventually got passed on to Andy and after that who knows where.  Across the road there was an Italian family called the De Lucas and one of the De Luca boys showed me how to use bicycle oil on the car wheels to make them run smoothly.  At one point I bought a big piece of hardboard and painted roads on it that I could drive the vehicles around on.  Later I  built up a collection of Hornby OO trains with a station, track, level crossing and bridges to run my beautiful Mallard engine on.  Then there was a Scalectrix set with cars that we could race each other with. Like many boys at that time we had a Meccano set that we could use to build things with.  Ron Sharp had a more advanced engineering set up with moveable steam powered parts.

We had outdoor games to play too, of course. Football, cricket and tennis in the garden or at the rec.  We were very lucky to have such a big garden to play in. We used to annoy my father by turning the garden seat on its side to make a small goal. He let us use his old and really heavy cricket bat before we got our own. 

We also built a tree house in a damson tree at the bottom of the garden. We put together a gokart made from bits of wood and various old pram parts that we could get our hands on.  Steering was by a piece of rope with a pull of it to the left or right as required.

Like many children I went through a stamp collecting phase so I got to know about strange countries which helped me with my geography of the world.  I  had a John Bull printing set and imagined myself to be a magazine editor as I created poems and short stories to show my parents.  I had an autograph book into which went autographs and comments from friends, family and some Watford footballers.  Something else I wish I still had!

We played a lot with my parents' record player, an old Bush turntable which I eventually inherited when my parents upgraded.  Even before we bought our own records we would play classical records of my mother's and some old 78s that Auntie Edie gave to us.

We also played games at the Church Youth club and then later in the Sixth Form Common Room at school. It was in these places that I got to play table tennis, billiards and table football.

Looking back I was very lucky in the range of toys and games that I had, not to mention the space and freedom afforded by our large back garden, the recreation ground, the woods and the green. And I haven't even mentioned the books I had at home and via school and the libraries. That, I think, deserves its own separate blog post.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


If you come out of  number 29 and head southwest down Watford Road (the A412), that is in the opposite direction to Watford, you go down Scott's Hill into Rickmansworth.  In many respects Croxley Green is actually part of Rickmansworth - its council, postal address and telephone numbers all place it there. Rickmansworth School (formerly Rickmansworth Grammar School) is in Croxley,at the top of Scott's Hill opposite All Saints' Church. To Croxley boys growing up in the fifties and sixties though it was definitely a separate place, albeit an interesting place with good memories.

One of my first memories of Rickmansworth was Saturday morning pictures at the Picture Palace cinema just as you go into the town from the Croxley side. Black and white cowboy films and space adventures. The cinema now is long gone but it was great for us in the days when daytime television did not exist. Our parents were probably pleased to have some time without us around too!

Rickmansworth had some reasonable sized shops if you didn't want to go into Watford - W H Smith and Woolworths for example. These days there is a Waitrose and a Marks and Spencer
food shop as well as such delights as Caffe Nero.  In the sixties my mother's favourite shop was the Swiss Delicatessen in Church Street which also had a cafe. We would pretty much always go there if we were in "Ricky". Also in Church Street there was a music shop selling records, sheet music and musical instruments. I purchased my first single there - Apache by the Shadows for six shillings and eight pence. Later I bought my first guitar there, a lovely German instrument called a Hawk - a real bargain. I was a regular in that shop also buying lots of sheet music and song books by Joan Baez and Tom Paxton.

As young boys we would often go down into Rickmansworth via Croxley woods which then also took us by the River Chess, a lovely chalk stream with plenty of fish and other wildlife and watercress beds. I remember fishing there with Ron Sharp and catching a fairly disgusting looking fish that we took home and insisted on having cooked for tea! Another route into Rickmansworth was along the Grand Union canal from Croxley moor near the Dickinson's paper mill. It was fascinating to see the locks in action with barges from London and Birmingham passing by. Another place we would visit was the Aquadrome, a wildlife sanctuary and outdoor leisure venue that had been created from old gravel pits.  I can recall taking a young lady from Croxley there for a walk one summer afternoon and then being told when I  tried to kiss her that she didn't fancy me!

When I was still at Primary School there was a class visit to Mr Findlay's farm just outside Mill End, the other side of Rickmansworth.  I can remember that we drank fresh milk (still warm) that we had seen being extracted from the cows.

If we didn't fancy walking or cycling to Rickmansworth we could always catch the 321 bus.  I  was never a trainspotter but I did go through a phase of collecting bus numbers. In those days most of the green London Transport buses were of the RT class but there were also RTLs,  RFs and single decker GSs on some routes. I think the books we used were published by Ian Allan and I  can see from eBay that they are still valued. 

When I first met Pauline one of her sisters, Mavis, lived in Hazlemere, a suburb of High Wycombe. In the Easter of 1970 Pauline stayed with her sister and got a job doing data entry for the  G D Searle company.  We arranged to meet in Rickmansworth and she travelled over by train.  As she got off the train and I saw her coming towards me I suddenly had the feeling that this was not just the latest of my girlfriends but the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was right. 

Sadly neither Mavis, nor her husband John are still with us. But in a remarkable set of interconnections dating back to the fifties there are some interesting links.  Like Pauline and Mavis, John was originally from Nottingham. But working for a bank he was based for a while in Rickmansworth.  I remember watching a few football matches involving Rickmansworth Town in the early sixties. From what John told me later it was probably him that I saw playing on the left wing. Mavis and John had two daughters,Heather and Claire. Heather was our bridesmaid and Claire has always been close to us too. When  Claire was  still quite young Mavis broke her hip and Claire came to stay with us for a while.  Much later Claire went to Bristol University where she met Chris Field, a young vetinary student from St Albans. They are now married with two lovely sons, who are being properly brought up as Watford supporters.  One big Hornet family!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


The first bike I had was really just a baby bike with two extra stabilising wheels at the back that were removed once I got the hang of the thing.  Later I inherited a fairly rusty looking old bike from my father until, in my early teens, I was finally able to save up for a lovely new BSA bike with straight handlebars and three speed gears. It was this bike that I rode out in the country lanes of south-west Hertfordshire and nearby Buckinghamshire.  A lot of the time I was happy enough just to venture out on my own, discovering beautiful villages and views. Sometimes in the summer  I would take a picnic and stay out all day. I don't think I ever quite told my parents how far I had travelled, particularly in the light of the Rover Ticket incident when my parents had been worried sick when my friends and I  had got back so late from our day out with the bus pass.

Later, having the bike enabled me to get over to Oxhey to see Dave and Chris and the Hunton Bridge and Langleybury to visit Harry Barlow. I remember also fitting a speedometer so that I could see how fast I was travelling - up to thirty miles per hour on some downhill sections. Of course there was much less traffic in those days and no suggestion that one should wear a helmet. I didn't even like bicycle clips, preferring to tuck my jeans into my socks.

Sometime before that I also acquired a second-hand bike which I turned into what I called my track bike.  I suppose today it would be called a mountain bike. I removed the mudguards and replaced the tyres with much thicker tougher ones.  This was the bike that I used down in Croxley woods, particularly that section that we called the Dell. The Dell was an old Second World War bomb crater, about twenty yards in diameter around the top of which a few trees had grown.  In effect we had a wall of death ride.  We could race around the top of the crater at high speeds, avoiding the trees - a real adrenalin rush.   Again, if my parents had realised what we were up to they would have had kittens. Fortunately there were no serious accidents.  I do remember taking and passing something called the Cycling Proficiency Test so I  wasn't totally gungho!

I did come off my bike once though and had a nasty scrape on my left elbow as a result.  By then Andy had a bike too and we had returned from a ride out somewhere and just left our bikes on the  drive in front of 29 Watford Road to go inside and get a drink. I remember looking out of the window and seeing a young lad get on to Andy's bike and start to ride it away. I rushed outside and gave chase up Watford Road on my bike.  Turning left onto Dickinson Square I  had almost caught up but, unfortunately for me, the road had recently been re-covered with loose chippings.  As I took the corner a bit too quickly I skidded and slipped off the bike onto the road surface. I must have let out a hideous shriek as this was enough to cause the thief to abandon Andy's bike, making his escape on foot. So although I was injured I did manage to get the bike back. We never left our bikes unattended on the front drive again.

When I started work in Portsmouth in 1972 I initially lived in Portchester, sharing a house with George Bulkley and Tony Flegg. Soon though I moved in with Pauline into a lovely first floor flat on Marine Parade East in Lee-on-the-Solent. While I lived here, and later when we moved to Alverstoke in Gosport I travelled to work on my bike, taking it over Portsmouth Harbour on the Gosport Ferry.  While we were still living in Lee, Pauline arranged to be a leader in a summer work camp in the Netherlands where the students would be clearing the forest floor of unwanted undergrowth. It was only after she had committed herself that she discovered that the itinerary involved travelling to a railway station about twenty kilometres away from the camp where the group would pick up bicycles to enable them to complete their journey and to have their own transport for the rest of their time at the camp. It was only at this point that Pauline confided in me the fact that she had never ever ridden a bike.  Growing up in a house on a hill in inner city Nottingham, the youngest of six children there had never been a strong case for her to have a bike. So out we went onto the back streets of Lee to undertake a crash course in bike riding.  I remember that it did amuse one elderly resident who stood chuckling at his gate as a wobbly rider passed back and forth. Anyway Pauline did it (she does most things that she sets her mind to) although she didn't have to undergo the initial long ride from the station as she went in a taxi with all the luggage.

Before we ever visit Greece we had a holiday in Cyprus. Staying in what was then just the small village of Paphos with only a couple of family hotels we hired bikes to get out and see a bit more of the local area.  The concept of mad dogs and Englishmen looms large in my memory as I  recall us being chased through the streets on our bikes by dogs one lunchtime.

In the nineteen-eighties when we moved to Emsworth I again managed to get out into the country on my bike - this time in East Hamphsire and West Sussex. I would go out through Westbourne to East and West Ashing, to Compton and West Marden. I didn't learn to drive a car until I was thirty-nine so for many years a bike was a key form of transport for me. I'm not sure I would want to be out on the roads of today however, even though bikes are probably now more popular than ever.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Croxley shops

John Pilgrim's book includes a few old adverts for some of the shops in Croxley Green, including Wright's shoe shop in New Road. I well remember being taken there by my mother to be fitted with proper Clark shoes and sandals. The nice lady serving there was from Lancashire (Blackpool perhaps) and it was the first time I had met anyone with that accent.

We used to shop at the Coop in New Road which had a separate butcher's section as I recall. There was always the "divi" number to remember if I had been sent there to pick up some shopping.

Then there was Wade's newspaper and confectioners shop over the road from the Coop. Later when we had moved to 29 Watford Road we would instead get our papers from Luxton's at the top of Scott's Hill (Andy nicknamed the proprietor "Slug"!). And we would get grocery deliveries from Hunts which was a few doors down from Luxtons. The owner's son, Johnny Hunt, was in the choir with me - he now lives in Ireland but I caught up with him a few years ago in Cardiff at the Championship Playoff Final when we beat Leeds.

I used to get my hair cut at Mr.Evans barbers in New Road. My mother always insisted on "short back and sides".  I remember rebelling in my later teenage years and going down to Sadiq's in Rickmansworth for a "Boston"!  But I always took a long time at Mr. Evans so that I could read all the comics. My mother only let us have the Eagle and Look and Learn at home (both estimable publications) but I was able to get my fill of the Beano and the Dandy at the barbers. 

That reminds me too of how I used to like Friday afternoons when we had tea over the road at Doris Hunt's house.  Beans on toast and Yogi Bear on the TV. We only really had the BBC on at home!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

More on Croxley

In his book John Pilgrim has a list of famous people with Croxley Green connections. One person missing from the list is John Timpson, a journalist who was a presenter on Radio Four's Today programme.   He lived in Watford Road in a house almost opposite us.  There seemed to be a few other BBC journalists who lived in the area and I remember a charity cricket match played at Baldwin's Lane in the summer of 1970 between a BBC eleven and the England Ladies team led by Rachel Heyhoe-Flint. I helped to prepare the pitch (as part of a summer job with Rickmansworth UDC)  but I can't remember who won!

Pilgrim does mention the actor John Grillo, who was the son of the Ice Cream man.  When Andy and I had both left home my parents sold 29 Watford Road and moved to a smaller house on the corner of Gonville Avenue. The Grillos lived on Watford Road just down from Gonville Avenue.  In my first year at Watford Grammar School I was in the choir as part of the school production of  a play called "Galileo Galilei". Grillo gave a towering performance in the title role.

Another set of memories that I forgot to put in concerns our pub visits in the sixth form and later when we were home from university. Our main local was the Coach and Horses on the Green, but I think we sampled all of the Croxley and Rickmansworth pubs over the years.  Alan Rawlinson had use of a Land Rover for one of his part-time jobs and we travelled in this to get out further afield to ChandlersCross, Sarratt and Chorleywood. I remember we always celebrated New Year's Eve in the Coach and one time the Irish barmaid Mary was so tipsy that she got up on a table and danced!

Thinking of Alan reminds me of an event that occurred when we were about fourteen. Alan, Graham and I made use of the bus Range Rover ticket which allowed you to journey on any of the London Transport buses for a day. Our last journey of the day was to be on the 336 bus out to Chesham and back. Unfortunately the bus broke down and we were stranded for a while, getting home very late (after ten anyway when we should have been back by seven).  When we got back to Alan's we found all our parents there, together with a policeman. Of course mobile phones hadn't even been dreamed of then and we hadn't been able to find a public phone box. We were well in trouble and that was the last Range Rover trip we had.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Growing up in Croxley Green

John Simpson, a friend of mine from Croxley Green and school days at Watford Grammar School in the sixties, recently kindly gave me a copy of "Out & About in Croxley Green" by John Pilgrim (published by Alpine Press in 2007; ISBN 978-0-9528631-8-2).  John Pilgrim is a writer and broadcaster (especially on Three Counties radio) who grew up in Croxley. His book is a wonderful blend of the general history of Croxley Green and his own personal experiences growing up there. Pilgrim is seven years older than me but much of what he has written resonates very strongly with my own upbringing in the village. But it turns out that his days and mine ran on slightly parallel lines. He went to school at Malvern Way and Rickmansworth Grammar - I went to Harvey Road and Watford Grammar.  He went to St Oswald's church - I went to All Saints.  He played at Baldwin's Lane recreation ground - I was at Barton Way. He used to like going down by the river Gade - I gravitated towards the river Chess.  So I thought I would put together a short blog to complement his book with a few of my own stories. Here goes!

I was born in Watford in 1949 and for the first couple of years my parents and I lived in a house called The Bungalow just off Vicarage Road.  My father's family were builders and the Bungalow was attached to the builders' yard which was at the back of the building. Later on I must spend some time researching them but not now as this blog is about Croxley Green.

When I was two my parents moved us to a house in Watford Road, Croxley Green - number 88, a semi-detached house on the corner of Harvey Road. They were able to afford it as my father's mother ("Grannie") also lived with us and she had obviously put some money into it too.

Like most people I have only vague memories of my very early years.  I do remember being taken for walks in a pram on the green (up past the Artichoke and Coach and Horses pubs).  I was told later by my mother that I had startled her friend Doris Hunt who was with us by making an observation one day that the street lights had been changed! Before I started school proper I went a couple of times a week to a nursery school on the Cassiobury Park estate where I can remember playing in a sandpit.

In 1953 I was joined by my little brother Andy. I well remember the day when my father and I went in a taxi to collect my mother and the new baby from the nursing home in North Watford.  Growing up with Andy was great. Although we are different in many ways (he has always been better than me at any sport you care to name!) it was lovely to have someone to play with. Of course we had a few differences from time to time - he was the naughty cheeky boy and I was the more serious "goody-goody" there were never any major problem between us and I think he shares many of the good times that we had together in Croxley.

My first real school was Yorke Road Infants school.  The school is no longer there, although I understand that recently it has been converted tastefully into new housing following protracted arguments about the future of the site.  Unlike John Pilgrim I always enjoyed my time at school. I met new friends, several of whom came with me first to Harvey Road Primary school and then on to Watford Grammar School - Alan Rawlinson and Graham Horwood particularly come to mind.  I have a class photo from Yorke Road - that is me third from the left in the front row with Graham second from the right in the front row. I can't be sure of the teacher's name - it might have been Mrs. Graver. And all those girls. 

Here are a few more pictures from my early years. First, an individual picture of me at Yorke Road, then one of Andy and me on a visit to see Father Christmas, I think in either Clements or Cawdells store in Watford.  Then a picure of me on the beach with a bucket and spade somewhere. We used to go on holiday every year, mainly to Sandbanks in Dorset or Bexhill in Sussex. 

 My parents said they always wanted us to have a holiday but if the truth be told I would rather have stayed in Croxley Green where I could play with my friends at the rec or in the woods or later, get out and about on my bike. This was probably partly because, in the fifties we would always have Grannie with us, and also family friend "Auntie" Edie (she was not related but a family friend from Denmark Street in Watford who came over on the 321 bus to visit us every Thursday). On several holidays we also had family friends the Boundys. Les Boundy was an international rugby referee but I always found him to be a bit of a gruff and intimidating character. His wife Mollie was warmer but their daughter Mary and I were expected to play together, something that neither of us fully appreciated!

Back in Croxley too I was expected to play with Mary Makinson who lived with her parents in the first house in Harvey Road which backed on to ours. I had nothing against girls, indeed when I got to Harvey Road school some of my closest friends were girls. It is just that you want to choose your friends, not have them forced upon you because your parents happen to be friends. Although it can sometimes be fine as you will see later in my story when the Sharps of Yorke Road come into the picture.

So after Yorke Road school I moved to Harvey Road County Primary School, as I believe it was called. Here I made many more new friends including Lee Harvey - and a few girls (Christine Wells, Paula Spring, Shirley Lester and Linda Warwick come to mind). The Head Teacher, Mr. Ford, was a very nice man and set the tone very well for the school. In my final year there he took a few of the boys on a Youth Hostelling trip to the Peak District in Derbyshire. I can still remember us gathering at Croxley met station at the beginning of the railway journey that took us up to Miller's Dale.  It was a steam train of course and it was brilliant as it took us over viaducts with such gorgeous views.  The walks were of course very carefully planned to get us from one Youth Hostel to the next but Mr. Ford also had us apparently spontaneously meeting very nice ladies along the way who would invite us into their gardens for tea and cake.

Harvey Road School was housed in what were supposed to be temporary buildings put up in the war.  I expect they have new buildings there by now but we got on OK with what we had. We had some good teachers. One who particularly inspired me was Mrs. Rosen. She was much less maternalistic than some of the other female teachers and really encouraged us to think for ourselves. I later discovered that she was the mother of Michael Rosen, the children's novelist, poet, and trenchant critic of Mr. Gove and all that he stands for. One of my heroes (Rosen, not Gove!).  I also remember Mr. Tidder who took us for football and his catch phrase "You Can't Kick a Ball Through a Boy!"  

As I have noted in another of my blogs about folk music it was at Harvey Road School that I first got interested in folk.  We used to listen as a class to William Appleby's programme on the radio - "Singing Together".   We also did a bit of Country Dancing - poor old Leila Hobbs always seemed to get stuck with me as her partner. And some of the boys, including me, did Morris Dancing which we demonstrated at the Croxley Revels in May.

When I was eight I joined the choir at All Saints church. There was choir practice on Wednesday and Friday evenings under the guidance of our choir master Lou Horton. And three services on Sunday – Holy Communion at 9.45, Matins at 11, and Evensong at 6.30.  And other services on special days such as Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  And for a number of Saturdays there were weddings. And a bit later I was invited to join the so-called Angel Choir who had an extra practice at Lou Horton’s house on Saturday evenings with Tizer and Jusoda to drink.  This all took up a lot of time, especially in the summer when we added in Choir cricket on a Thursday night.

Another highlight for me at this time was going to Watford to see the football. My first match with the first team was in November 1958 when I saw a 1-1 draw with Reading in the FA Cup but I had been to a few reserve games before that. And living in Croxley I got to see the team close up as they used to train at the John Dickinson sports ground just off the Green. Ron Burgess became the manager and big Cliff Holton also had a lot of input into team tactics I recall. My friend Lee Harvey and I (among others) acted as unofficial ball-boys. My heroes were Mick Benning who, because he came from Croxley,was especially nice to us young lads, Bobby Bell the hard-tackling right-back from Scotland and Vince McNeice who played centre-half. I have been a fanatical Watford fan ever since, a season ticket holder in the Rookery despite living down in Hampshire since 1972.

Around this time we moved down the road from number 88 to number 29 Watford Road. This is a big semi-detached property just up the road from the Duke of York pub with a very large garden adjoining the back part of the grounds of Yorke Road school. So having lived close to Harvey Road school when I attended Yorke Road school I was now living near Yorke Road school and going to Harvey Road school. Not that the distance between the two was very far anyway!

The new house was great for us boys. There were plenty of rooms so we now had a bedroom each. Grannie had her own bedroom and toilet downstairs and there was a third floor flat that my parents let out to a series of young couples.  Best of all was the garden where we could play football and cricket, and we rigged up a tennis game where the ball was attached to a frame by elastic and you could give it a good old whack! We also had a swing. Andy and I were both given a bit of the garden to look after for ourselves. I remember being overjoyed when I got some runner beans to grow.

We had a cat called “Chocolate” or “Chocky” for short. It was basically black but in the sun its soft fur underneath showed up dark brown. For a while my father kept chickens and we also had a pet rabbit called “Whiskas”

The joys of growing up in the fifties and sixties in Croxley Green meant that for a lot of the time we were allowed out to play on our own, on the Green, down in Croxley woods and by the river Chess, playing football and cricket at Barton Way rec and later venturing further afield on our bikes to places like Sarratt or Langleybury.

In 1960 I passed the eleven-plus and secured a place at Watford Grammar School for Boys. I really wanted to go to Rickmansworth Grammar – the girls I knew were going there – but my father had been to Watford and he very much wanted me to go there too. Later Andy would join me there. Grannie died in the summer of 1960. She knew I had a place at Watford but didn’t live long enough to see me start. I must admit that I found the first year at Watford quite challenging. Going from being one of the brightest pupils in the Primary school to just one of a cohort of about 120 clever boys was a shock. We were addressed by our surnames not our Christian names. Everything was very formal. We had to play rugby rather than football which I didn’t like – I was still quite small and lightweight in those days. It didn’t help that my father had been a good rugby player and had carried on playing for the Old Fullerians, as the old boys team was called, until his late forties and several of the teachers had been in the team with him. I just didn’t measure up. Here is a picture of some of our class in my first year at Watford Grammar school when I was in form 3B. I am second from the back in the middle row.

But gradually I settled down at the grammar school making new friends to go with those who travelled with me to school on the train from Croxley Met to Watford every day – Graham Horwood, Alan Rawlinson and Lee Harvey to be joined by John Simpson who lived close to the Station on Valley Walk. To begin with the trains were brown slam door rolling stock but were later replaced by the silver trains. That was good because the brown trains had windows and we would sometimes get set upon by local lads who thought it was amusing to steal the caps from the “grammar grubs” and throw them out of the windows.

Two of my new friends from Watford are still good mates and I see them regularly at Vicarage Road – Dave March and Chris Turner.  They both lived the other side of Watford in Oxhey so the bikes were handy for us to visit each other. Dave sat behind me in class and would occasionally taunt me by poking me in the back with his ruler. But we were good mates and we later became dinner monitors together.

My mother had started working in the Watford Registrar Office as assistant to Harry Barlow who lived in Langleybury and I would cycle over to his place from time to time and enjoy a shandy with him in his local pub. Later my mother took over from him as Registrar but before that she had another part-time job as a librarian at Wall Hall Teacher Training College. Chris’s mother worked there for a while so that helped to cement our friendship. I remember going over to the college library when I was revising for my A levels.

In the summer after my A levels Chris and I, together with a couple of others from the school, teacher Dave Spearman, and lots of visiting students from Europe, attended an educational camp at Cuffley. It was a wonderful experience and just great before going off to Warwick University in October. I have a picture from the local paper of some of the group meeting with the then local MP Shirley Williams. That’s me at the front clinking tea mugs with Mrs. Williams. Chris is second from the right at the front, the other side of Mrs. Williams.

Throughout the sixties, as well as being part of the choir at All Saints church, I went to the church youth club. There I became very friendly with Ann Williams and Pat Wright. Ann went to Watford Girls Grammar School and we also started to go into the St Mary’s church youth club on Saturday nights – by now my voice had broken and I was no longer in the Angel Choir! Pat went to Rickmansworth Grammar school and fairly soon she became my first real girl-friend. We went to the cinema together, for long walks in the countryside – she even came to the football with me!  The relationship never survived when I went to university but we continued to remain friends. Both Pat and Ann have become Church of England vicars while I have rather lost my faith.

I can’t complete an account of my childhood in Croxley Green without telling you about my good friend Ron Sharp. Ron’s grandmother, known to us only as Mrs. Sharpe, lived in Yorke Road with her daughter Daphne. Ron was the eldest of three brothers (the others being Stephen and Michael). Sadly at some point their mother had passed away and they went to boarding school in Essex close to where their father lived and worked. But in the school holidays they lived with their grandmother in Yorke Road, which of course was only just round the corner from us. Ron and I became great friends and, as I have recounted in another blog, we learned to play the guitar together and had lots of fun jamming sessions together in the downstairs front room at number 29 – what had been Grannie’s bedroom was now mine.  Before that the three brothers also joined the church choir and I vividly remember Ron coming to my rescue when one winter’s day I came under snowball attack from another member of the choir. I know who he was but it is a long time ago and I shall leave it at that!