Whyteleafe was once a hamlet; now it is a bit of nothing between Caterham and Purley, south of Croydon in the south of England and a place to pass through. It sits pressed in one all sides by housing with the North Downs looming above it. It probably only functions still because there is a railway station there.
It was the place of my primary schooling, my first memories of a place where I spent a considerable amount of time away from my mother and home influences. A place where I had to negotiate a whole range of people and their personalities and not just the tyranny of an older brother; a place of rules, rigidly enforced even in their randomness; a place where girls existed in pinafore dresses and thick woollen tights ready to dispense humiliation on me without any warning or reason; and a place where I felt terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I was stretched, pushed, pummelled and sculpted both physically and emotionally.
I made friends, invented games, lost friends, felt deeply lonely, burst with pride and tried to hide in plain sight. I started a newspaper with three friends, wrote plays about train journeys based on Will Hay films from the 1930s and when asked to choose an adjective that best described me chose ‘boisterous’ much to my form master’s amusement. I experienced a clip round the ear, a stick across the bottom and a girl’s mouth, all of which weren’t enjoyable nor as bad as anticipated.
I stood at a bus stop when my mother swallowed a fly and refused to take my eyes off her until we returned home and she swallowed some antiseptic called T.C.P. I ran away from my mother when she tried to collect me in the then new family car because I wanted to walk home and keep my bus fare to buy a packet of sweet cigarettes: I was collecting the Thunderbird cards and desperate for that most rare of cards in that part of Surrey – Thunderbird 4, the yellow submersible. I never did get that card – no one did – and I still bear my mother a slight grudge for those lost 2d.
I learnt that I was good at maths; that I will never cartwheel; that some children were sewn into their clothes in winter; what ‘fatal’ meant in connection with an accident; and an abiding love of comics. I watched girls play netball in blue knickers and found it oddly interesting; I stood by when a friend had an epileptic fit, fascinated by the way his Adam’s apple seemed to wobble; I felt a football in the groin, a cricket ball on the end of my fingers and a tennis ball in the eye and still I love sport. I read clouds, traced vapour trails with my fingers, saw the inside of my eye on my eyelids when I looked at the sun. I made daisy chains, dens, catapults and dams across streams.
My mother lost countless years to my ability to fall out of trees, trip over stones, sit on sharp objects and swallow damn near anything; but despite having more stitches than a full sized patchwork, I never broke a bone.
I foughts boys, girls and dogs. I was chased by men, women and cows. I respected adults for what they could do to you rather than because I understood or agreed with their arbitrary rules. I loved ribena, hated marmite and when given sherry by my gran wondered what the fuss was all about.
I went out every night to play with my friends, wandering far and wide, exploring derelict buildings, barbed wire compounds, abandoned barns and empty air raid shelters. And still made it home by sunset to avoid my mother’s dragon breath.
In short I had a normal childhood in the 1960s, left as I was much to my own devices. And I did the most important thing anyone can do in those circumstances. I survived.