Chapter 2 – Whistlefield
Of the first two years of my life I remember nothing. This is a pity because it was a very interesting period. I should have made a point of remembering it all, so that I could tell people about it as soon as I learned to talk, but the idea of remembering never crossed my mind.
There must have been a time when it gradually dawned on me that the universe was very much larger than my own body. Lying in my pram I would have noticed that when the pram was still the scenery was still and that when I experienced a jolting the scenery moved. Just as the early astronomers couldn’t tell whether the earth or the stars were moving, so I couldn’t tell whether my pram or the surrounding scenery was moving.
Like everyone else I must at some time have made the discovery that the things I could see continued to exist when I could no longer see them. Nowadays I take this for granted, and yet when I first used a word processor I thought that if the text disappeared from the screen it was lost for ever. It seems to me that the experience of being a baby is not very different from that of being a grown‑up.
Of the following years I remember a great deal. I remember knowing how old I was: I was three. There came a time when people tried to tell me that I was four, but I knew better. I also knew that all babies were girls and that all toddlers were boys. This means that I can remember the time when I didn’t know that I had been a baby.
My earliest datable memory is of staying with my aunt at Rileys, a house in Sawbridgeworth on the London road, and of listening to the traffic on the road outside. I later learned that this was at the time my sister was born, which means that I was two years and ten months old.
I remember knowing that my father was thirty-nine and that my grandmother was seventy-nine. Then my father tried to tell me that he was forty and that my grandmother was eighty. I didn’t believe this, so he explained it to me. He said that it must be true because ‘twice forty is eighty’. I couldn’t understand the logic of this, and I still can’t. My father was born in November 1906, so this must have happened about six months after my fourth birthday.
For the first eight years of my life I lived in a beautiful thatched cottage called ‘Whistlefield’ in Bedlar’s Green, a quarter of a mile from Hatfield Forest. The living room was open to the roof and overlooked by a small room called the gallery which was reached by a box staircase. This was where I had my office and this was where I did all my writing and drawing. The most notable thing about my output at that time was that it was not very good. I remember once writing. ‘I’ve got Four Legs, Biggy, Leggy and Jump.’ Then I realised that nobody could tell from the sentence what I was talking about, so I added a second sentence ‘These frogs are frogs.’
I was always going to build a place called Secretland. It was all underground, and consisted of a number of chambers linked by tunnels. The most important of the chambers was called the Perishamada. I hadn’t learned to write, so I got my brother to write about it for me. Eventually I got round to building it. I got out the trowel and started to dig. When the hole was about a foot square and a foot deep I realised that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I don’t remember that Secretland was inspired by the underground home of the badger in The Wind in the Willows, but I think that it must have been.
I wanted to know what the highest number was. I decided that it must begin with ‘nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine million …’, continue through billions, trillions and zillions, and end with ‘…nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine.’ Nowadays I would call it ‘1096–1.’
I remember compiling a list of numbers that can’t be exactly divided by other numbers. I started with the odd numbers, taking out 9, 15, etc., leaving 1, 3, 5, 7, 11 and so on, which I called indivisibilities. Later I learned that they were called prime numbers and that they should have started 2, 3, 5 etc. The question of whether ‘1’ should be included is a matter of opinion and I don’t think that I was wrong to include it, but the omission of ‘2’ was clearly a mistake on my part. However, I would rather that I worked it out for myself and got it wrong than that I learned about it and got it right.
The member of my family that I liked best was my brother Jonathan. Interestingly the person that I liked third best was myself. In later life I often thought that I liked some people better than others, but I never thought to compare other people with myself in this way.
Of my relatives the one I liked best was my cousin Robin, who always signed his letters with his middle name Nigel. He is the only person I know with two Christian names, both of which are legitimate car registration numbers. I have always thought that if if I could choose my registration number it would be CHR 1S, and I have actually seen the car numbered DAV 1D. Other interesting registration numbers that I have seen are 100 MPH, RUN 1N, TRY 1T, WE 2, 1 F, 1 AAA, ONE 23, 123 AB, 789 TEN, 22 TO, SAD IE, D1 CKY, D1 NKY, F1 SHY, SNA 1L, CAB 1N, S1 GHT, L1 NKS, M1 CAR, SET 1 and 1 AM. The last number could be a statement or a time of day, or it could refer to a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists.
I remember that sport was dominated by Stanley Matthews (football), Denis Compton (cricket), Randolph Turpin (boxing), Stirling Moss (motor racing), Geoff Duke (motor cycling), Reg Harris (cycling) and Lester Piggott (horse racing). Most of them faded from prominence within a few years, but Lester Piggott kept on going through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
I used to enjoy making models with plasticine and building houses with Lott’s bricks and later Minibrix. Lott’s Bricks were made of stone and Minibrix were made of rubber. The latter had the advantage that they couldn’t be accidentally knocked down, but creativity was limited because the roofs came in fixed sizes.
We had a black and white cat called Soda. Sometimes he would be ‘hibobbaresa’ and rush around all over the place. I don’t guarantee the spelling.
Once I was frightened by an owl, which I saw from the kitchen window, and I used to get nightmares about an animal called the Owl-dog.
I liked animal stories like The Wind in the Willows, but I thought that the animals should be portrayed behaving like animals and not like people. Then I found a book by someone called Rutley in which animals were portrayed in this way, but I lost it, and if ever I asked people about it they would say ‘You mean Alison Uttley’, and I would say ‘not Uttley, Rutley’. Sixty years later I found a couple of very small books by Cecily Rutley in a shop window in Kendal. The animals in it spoke English, but in all other respects they behaved like animals, just as I remembered them all those years before.
When I was very young I used to frequently imagine myself being high up inside a large building like a warehouse, and there was a particular feeling associated with this recollection that I have never experienced in any other circumstances.
If ever my mother sent a parcel she would tie it up with string and seal the string with sealing wax. If she was particularly impressed by something she would say ‘By Jove.’ I haven’t heard this expression used for a very long time.
From time to time my father would bring things home for me from the office. The best of these was a scrapbook. It had previously been used by the British Council and had become redundant when a new version was produced. The original material was still there, but there was plenty of space left for my own additions.
On the inside cover are the words:
The first two Ss and the J are back-to-front. Among the contents are:
(1) Long printed words and printed words with two or more Cs in them. C was the first letter I learned because it was the first letter of my name. I no longer look on C as a special letter, but I still count the letters if ever I come across an exceptionally long word.
(2) Photographs cut out of The Times (mainly from the autumn of 1948) including an aerial photograph of the Salisbury area.
(3) Printed unicorns and lions.
(4) My own drawings and paintings.
(5) Pressed leaves of trees – oak, beech, ash, elm, lime, horse chestnut, hornbeam, maple, silver birch, hazel, pine, wild cherry, plum, guelder rose and sloe (actually spelt slow). The horse chestnut leaf was too big for the page, so I patiently waited until the following spring, when I could use a newly-emerged leaf that was much smaller.
(6) Cuttings from the Children’s Newspaper, including 12 Countryside Flowers, 19 photographs entitled ‘Our Homeland’ or ‘This England’, 12 Jacko and Chimp cartoons, 20 Bedtime Corners and ‘The Countryside in May’ by the Hut Man.
There is also a book four inches square made up of pieces of paper eight inches long, folded in half and stitched together with cotton. The reason it was stitched with cotton is that this was the only way I knew of acquiring a book with no printing in it. On each of the pages is a heading such as ‘LONg Werds’, ‘A STORy’, ‘Pichers’, ‘NAMe’, ‘things I have’ and ‘PATANS CALAings’. On one page I wrote ‘STICK things in here’. Then I realised that I hadn’t left enough room for all the things I wanted to stick in there, so I added ‘ONLee UNICORNANDLIONS’. By now all the space I had left was four inches by two and too small for even one coat of arms. It was not until 2011 that I realised that this little book must have pre-dated my scrapbook, and it may have inspired my father to obtain one for me.
In front of the house and at the sides there were lawns and flower beds. At the back of the house there was an orchard. Behind that was a vegetable garden, and right at the back was a wilderness. My father used to remove weeds from the flower beds. I thought that this was a shame, and I decided that one day I would have a weed garden. Little did I know that we already had a weed garden – the wilderness – and that if we didn’t remove the weeds the whole garden would become like it. One year the wilderness was transformed by the appearance of enormous daisies called marguerites, and I have a photograph of my sister surrounded by them.
When I climbed one of the trees in the orchard I could see over the top of the house to the countryside beyond. This was my favourite spot in the garden, and I called it Landscape Corner. In amongst the golden rod there were a lot of little animals, and I called this area Natural Corner.
In the front lawn there was a swing and a sandpit, and I used to enjoy making long tunnels in the sand with my arm and smoothing the entrances with my thumb. Close to the front gate was an apple tree with a hole in it at about the height of my head where snails used to shelter. I liked snails better than slugs because I could pick them up without getting slime on my fingers. One day it was decided that the tree should come down, and they made the cut above the snail-shell hole purely for my benefit.
Once I caught a lizard on the front lawn and its tail came off in my hand. I felt very sorry for this poor lizard, but I later learned that they do this deliberately to prevent themselves from being caught. To see lizards, newts, frogs and toads was not unusual, but when I saw a grass snake in the garden it was a very special occasion.
From 1946 until 1950 I attended Miss Fitzmaurice’s school, which consisted of one teacher and about ten pupils. I remember once someone at the school called me a human being. ‘I’m not a human being,’ I protested, I’m a person.’ I also remember being shown a hornet. I have never seen one since.
In 1949 the school moved from Robert Corey’s house in Hallingbury Street to Harps Farm, which was the home of one of the pupils, David Streeter. At this time my favourite song was ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’. One day we all took our teddy bears to school. Among ‘the family’ were Dan (the cat), Ming (the panda), Wonk (the monkey) and Big (the large teddy bear). There was an identical teddy bear in the film Words and Music, which was released in 1948, and one like it was valued on the Antiques Road Show in 2013 at £4000. At Christmas, 1949 I played the part of Prince Follidol in the school play. I have not been able to find this name in the internet, and I wonder whether Miss Fitzmaurice wrote the play herself.
My favourite lessons were the weekly nature walks. On one of these walks I was overcome by the idea that from that moment onwards I was going to be absolutely perfect. I remembered seeing a boy flinging his raincoat over another boy’s shoulders as a form of greeting, so I did the same to David.
‘Ow,’ said David.
‘What’s the matter, David,’ said Miss Fitzmaurice.
‘Christopher hit me with his raincoat.’
‘Why did you hit David with your raincoat?’ said Miss Fitzmaurice.
They had played right into my hands. They had given me the chance to explain this wonderful thing that had just happened to me.
‘I don’t know’ I said.
In a way, that is the story of my life: beautiful ideas are formed in my mind, but when I try to turn them into reality they crumble into dust.
My best subject was reading, for which we used a series of books called the Beacon Readers. The item I liked best from these books was the poem that began ‘Little by little, an acorn said …’ It was not until 2015 that I thought to search for it in the internet. When I did so I found the first three verses very much as I remembered, but I had completely forgotten that the last two verses described my own ambitions and my subsequent efforts to bring them to fruition. One of the lines read ‘Whatever I do, I will do it well.’ Unfortunately, people don’t want things done well: they want them done quickly.
When I was seven years old there was a competition in which all the pupils were invited to write a composition about what they did in the school holiday. I won the competition in the same way that I won the competition to design a cover for the Aberdeen University Motor Club Review: I was the only contestant. My composition was never returned to me, but I remember two events that were mentioned. One was when I was walking with some friends and we found ourselves in Stansted Aerodrome. There was a man there working on an aeroplane, and he let us have a look inside the plane. The other was when I walked through Hatfield Forest to the hamlet of Bush End and back on my own. I listed the wild animals I had seen including fifty rabbits and two ‘dears’. My mother thought that the ‘dears’ should have been called ‘deer’, but I thought that they should be called ‘dears’ because if they were the composition would be entirely my own work, whereas if they were called ‘deer’ I would have written every word except for one.
I have a photograph of my sister and myself in Whistlefield garden with three of our friends, Robert Corey, Angela Page and Vanessa Page. In 1995 my cousin Robin sent me a photograph showing two more, Mavis Lansdale and Susan, who was the grand-daughter of the couple who ran the post office. In 1949 Alan and Susie Abrahams joined our school. They were the children of the athlete Harold Abrahams, who was later to be featured in the film Chariots of Fire. I don’t have photographs of Alan and Suzie, but in 1998 I watched a television programme about their father that included photographs of Alan and Suzie taken at about the time I knew them, and I was able to preserve their images on video tape.
When I left the school in 1950 my teacher wrote in my school report ‘Christopher is above all an “individual”; lazy; hardworking; tidy; untidy; alert; listless – according to his mood!’ I have been like that all my life, but as I grew older the lazy periods became longer and longer until they accounted for 95% of my time, which is why this book has taken over three years to write.
Adjoining our house to the north was an orchard where Old Man Howard had his caravan. The land has since been built on, as has the land adjoining our houses at Sawbridgeworth, Buckhurst Hill, Chigwell and Bridport.
I remember once going to the Pages’ house to see some puppets. For a long time the puppets lived in a world of their own: they talked to each other, but they never talked to anyone else. Then one of the puppets mentioned Mrs Page, and I wondered how the puppet knew her name. Nobody had told me that puppets were manipulated by people and that they had no minds of their own.
The couple who ran the post office were Mr and Mrs Alcock, who lived in the appropriately-named house called Oakside. When they retired they moved to a house in Orpington with the equally appropriate address of Commonside, Broomhill Common. Then the G.P.O. decided to change the address to 44, Wiltshire Road, and I thought that this was a terrible shame. Many years later, when I was working as a taxi driver in Southampton, I had to find a house in a road a mile long where every house had a name, and then I understood why it is better to give houses numbers rather than names.
I remember that in summer there were tar bubbles on the roads that could be ‘popped’ like the bladder wrack on the beach. In those days my favourite tree was the horse chestnut, because it had so many interesting features; now it is the oak, because it has been here much longer and supports more kinds of insect. When I was very young an aeroplane crashed near our house, and we brought back bits of metal called shrapnel. I often wonder if there is a record of this somewhere from which I could find out the date.
Twice a week there was a bus to Bishop’s Stortford, once to get us there and once to bring us home again. We called it the Woolly Bus, presumably a corruption of ‘village bus’. Otherwise we had to walk a mile to the Old Elm on the Roman road and get a bus from there. We used to get our food from Holland & Barrett’s shop in Bishop’s Stortford. I remember that there were little metal cylinders that flew around the shop above our heads like electric trains. I haven’t seen these since we left the area in 1950. There is now a branch of Holland & Barrett’s in Kendal, but I never go there because they don’t sell the sort of food that I eat.
Sometimes, for a change, we would go to Dunmow, where there was a pond with ducks on it. I found that the pond was still there when I revisited the area in 1986. At other times I would go into Stortford on the back of my mother’s bicycle. On one occasion I made up a song as we went along, and I called this my Long Long Song.
I remember going to the seaside for the first time and discovering something I called ‘wooshy-woo’. I was told that this was called sea-water, and so it became ‘wooshy-woo sea-waddy’. Sometimes when I came across a new word I would not get it quite right, so tractors became ‘trackydons’ and lorries became ‘lollies’. Lorries with a load of hay were called ‘hayhack lollies’. I still have this problem, but nowadays I can always write down the correct name.
The longest walk we did as a family was to Great Canfield using the disused railway that is now known as the Flitch Way. I later worked out that we walked for fourteen miles. For me the highlight was studying ivy-covered trees looking for the thickest stems I could find. These still fascinate me, and in 2011 I found a tree near the Pennine Way where the trunk was completely covered in ivy stems.
The wealthiest people we knew were the Speechleys with their daughters Valerie and Jennifer. They made their money from the manufacture of Christmas crackers. They lived in Warwick Road in Bishop’s Stortford, and there was a table-tennis room in their attic. Leading off it were smaller rooms under the eaves, and this is where I acquired my love of attics.
We lived about thirty miles from London, which was then the largest city in the world, and from time to time we would go there, taking the train from Bishop’s Stortford to Liverpool Street. The last four stations, all within the built-up area of London, were inappropriately called Hackney Downs, London Fields, Cambridge Heath and Bethnal Green. The first time I went on the London Underground I was disappointed to find that the pictures were only in the stations and not all the way along the line, as I had been led to believe. In the stations we would sometimes pass the entrances to tunnels that we didn’t go down, and I wondered where they all went.
I remember once going on a coach journey to Whipsnade Zoo. This time I was determined to memorise the route to find out where it was. I came to the conclusion that it was the other side of Hatfield Heath, which was completely wrong. The coach must have picked up some people in Bishop’s Stortford and then some more people in Hatfield Heath and elsewhere before taking us all on to Whipsnade. Nevertheless the seed was sown: curiosity is the first step on the road to knowledge.
Of course, we also went to London Zoo. At one time I had seen all the animals I knew about except for the wolf. I think that if I had seen a wolf I would have been disappointed, because it is not all that different from an Alsatian dog. Three animals that I particularly wanted to see were the giant snail, the giant tortoise and the bullfrog because they were all larger versions of animals that were familiar to me.
I remember that the first time I went to Kew Gardens there were trees growing out of the roof of the palm house. If I could find out when the building was repaired I might be able to work out how old I was at the time.
Sometimes we would travel all the way to Yeovil to visit my father’s relatives. I used to enjoy walking round the town parks with my father. My favourite was Ninesprings, which consisted of a string of nine ponds each connected to the next by a waterfall. I remember going on a coach journey with my mother in the Yeovil area. Every so often there would be a beautiful view, but there was never enough time to study it. Then at last the coach stopped near one of these viewpoints, and we were able to walk back to it. I expected the other passengers to do the same, but my mother and I were the only ones: all the others went into a public house. Much later I had the same problem while watching television, eventually to be solved by the invention of the ‘pause’ button.
On a later visit we went to Cheddar Gorge, and I have a photograph of myself high up on the side of the gorge. We also went to Weymouth, Wells and Weston-super-Mare, but I don’t remember much about these places.
Long ago I decided that in the unlikely event that I was made a lord and had to decide where I would be lord of I would choose Hatfield Forest.