Chapter 19 (1946-1949)

The Post-War Years

During those early post-war years Brian thrived mightily on everything that came his way but the real burden of hardship, as is always the way, fell on Freda. My salary was miserable and she was always short of money, a situation made bearable only by the proximity of a friend in identical circumstances who lived opposite and shared cups of tea, cigarettes and grumbles with her. I earned a little money playing with the Windjammers Swingtette but this meant that Freda had to stay at home while I was out at dances and social events. She did have two keen interests, however. One was amateur dramatics, in pursuit of which she and some friends set up a group with the grandiose title of Pollard Productions which put on some very creditable performances. The other was politics. Being a keen supporter of the Labour Party, she joined a local Branch where she met two Croydon Councillors, Ethel and Fred Cook, whose advice and kindness were often amusing and useful. They became close friends though some years older than us, and their earthy knowledge and long political experience, coupled with a very real, practical idealism, provided an unexpected education which we have valued ever since.


At work, I was sent to an office located in Queen Anne's Mansions, a block of pre-war luxury flats near Victoria Station, towering to the then great height of eight stories but sadly dilapidated after six years of use as Government offices. When the task of repatriating ex-servicemen eventually neared its end, I was appointed to a Branch called Personnel (Miscellaneous), whose uninspiring name covered a hotch-potch of subjects from travelling and subsistence allowances to married quarters and pensions for the Navy. One of my tasks was to approve the living and entertaining allowances of Naval Attaches all over the world, in the course of which I first became aware of the true nature of the Communist system, namely, to secure the power and privileges of the few, by the few, for the few, while forcibly denying them to everyone else. I met many interesting and unusual naval officers and was invited by one of them to attend the 1948 Olympic Games at Wembley, a moving monument to harmony among nations still deeply afflicted by hatred and distrust from the war.


The work in PM Branch was more diverse and challenging than its name suggested, and I had a small staff which included two charming young ladies respectively named Miss Cheese and Miss Pickles, together with an elderly lady who acted as my secretary. Sometimes on a Saturday morning I would take Brian to the office with me where Gwen Cheese delighted in keeping him amused. We all worked on Saturday mornings then, but the men were permitted to exchange their weekday suits for a sports jacket and flannels - still with a collar and tie, of course. It was made clear, however, that officially we were committed to six full days' work each week and Saturday afternoons off were just a concession; not until April 1956 did the Civil Service adopt a 5-day week.


In spite of six years of hardship and shortages, pre-war standards of sober and respectable dress were demanded of everyone. It was usual for men's shirts to have separate collars, either matching or white, which could be washed more often than the shirt itself. They were affixed front and back by uncomfortable studs. A firm aptly named "Collars" provided a regular delivery of clean white collars to one's house and I used this service for some time. Women still received lower salaries than men and had to resign on marriage, a situation which continued for several years.


I shared a room with two young colleagues who had also served in the Navy. By coincidence, Jock Telfer had been a telegraphist in the destroyer HMS Lamerton, which regularly accompanied the Flores on our daily shoots along the Sicilian coast; while Bill Darracott, as a Lieutenant commanding a Motor Torpedo Boat, used to pass us at daybreak at the mouth of Augusta harbour returning with his chums from some piece of nocturnal piracy. Bill told strange stories of these fast, daring craft which fought a cat and mouse game against similar German and Italian boats among the islands that dotted the coast. Bill's boat eventually hit a mine and he was lucky to escape with only minor injuries.


The old Ariel motor bike which I owned before I joined the Navy had been disposed of. By chance, an acquaintance who worked on the Croydon Advertiser gave me a preview of one week's issue, wherein I saw an advertisement for a BSA "V-Twin" motorcycle at a cost of œ40. I selfishly scraped up the money from somewhere and purchased this gleaming machine, dated about 1933, which had once been used by the Police and bore the registration number ALY40, being at once christened Ali Baba. It was beautifully made and was a joy to ride, with its two 250cc cylinders purring away and its silky 4-speed gearbox. Freda and I occasionally dashed off to Brighton on it in the evening to partake of fish and chips on the sea-front, leaving Brian in the tender care of Mrs Andrews. It served us very well and I later added a box-like sidecar within which Freda and Brian could travel in relative though restricted comfort, if "comfort" be a suitable word for enforced proximity to a wriggling, kicking and often bawling infant. The sidecar had a strange sort of exposed dickyseat which, together with the bike's pillion seat, allowed us to add a couple of friends if the weather was bearable. The sight of four adults and a child on this machine would invite police attention today but no-one seemed to bother then.


Two friends who volunteered for this doubtful pleasure were Geoffrey and Joan Desprez, whom we had known in War Registry. Geoffrey was actually British, his name being of Huguenot origin, and he was born in Chile where his father, an engineer designing the Chilean railways, died shortly afterwards. His mother then took him to Paris where to make a living she set up a dancing school for genteel young ladies and soon enjoyed the patronage of the most wealthy people in the city. Her acceptance in this circle was not only due to her commanding personality but may also have been aided by the fact that her husband still carried the ancient title of Marquis de Desprez, which then passed to Geoffrey. Geoffrey was brought up in this atmosphere and became part of the privileged young elite of Paris whose lives revolved around parties, the Opera and expensive restaurants. He was on close terms with several European Royal families, whom he would occasionally call upon when they visited Britain after the war. He had a junior position with an exclusive Paris estate agent for a short time after leaving the University of Sorbonne but when war broke out obtained a job with the British Embassy in Paris. When it suddenly became clear that the Germans were about to over-run Paris, British staff at the Embassy were hurriedly evacuated and after a dangerous and terrifying journey down to Bordeaux, and an equally perilous voyage to Milford Haven at the extreme west of Wales, he arrived in Britain with only the clothes he was wearing. He never saw his mother again; she was interned by the Germans and sadly died just as the war ended.


Geoffrey was directed to work at the War Office where he met and married Joan, and a combination of circumstances brought them both to the Admiralty, on the same watch as Freda and myself. They had a flat on the top floor of a large Victorian house at Swiss Cottage, in North-west London, where we often stayed for a day or two after the war. It had two enormous rooms, one tiny box-room, a miniscule kitchen and a bathroom containing the inevitable lethal gas geyser for hot water. Brian enjoyed these trips and slept in the empty drawer of a large chest.


The winter of 1947 was devastatingly bitter and it was not unusual to find that damp washing put up to dry indoors was frozen stiff in the morning. Central heating was unknown in most houses and since we and nearly all our friends lived on upper floors we were dependent on paraffin heaters (if lucky enough to find one to buy, which we were not) or on coal fires in the tiny grates of what had originally been bedrooms or servants' rooms. Brian used to wake at around 6am and Freda would get up and light the front room fire which, if we had any decent coal or had been able to buy a bag of reconstituted Coalite, would be well alight by the time she woke me. But those were not days for picking and choosing one's coal, or of arguing with the coalman. Every bag was expected to contain a certain amount of "slack", which was another name for low-grade fragments or dust and often included the odd piece of stone which would explode in the hearth and shower burning embers into the room. Rumour had it that someone once found a piece of dynamite in their "slack".


Lighting the fire was not always plain sailing and the result was frequently a wretched, pitiful, smouldering mass without a glimmer of flame. Its progress could be encouraged by holding a newspaper in front of the chimney opening to increase the upward draught, but if one were inattentive the fire could suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames, resulting in the paper and often the chimney itself catching fire. The sight and smell of burning soot from someone's chimney was a daily feature of London in those days. For readers faced with such an emergency, which I trust will be never, the recommended way to extinguish a chimney fire was to smother the fireplace in salt, producing choking white smoke which would quench the flames and incidentally also put paid to one's intended source of warmth, which had to be laboriously re-laid. I clearly remember several of us sitting in Joan and Geoffrey's huge living room huddled round a fire so small and miserable that we were each swathed in a blanket for extra warmth. Brian slept in his drawer and was quite snug; he seemed impervious to all of this. But we were young, the war was over and things could only get better; and in the end we all just laughed.


In the immediate post-war days our holidays consisted of visiting Freda's mother at Rhiwbina, on the edge of Cardiff, in Wales, and it was an epic journey in the days before motorways. The shorter route lay across the broad River Severn via the Beachley-Aust Ferry, roughly where the Severn Bridge now stands. But the ferry was small and infrequent; missing it meant a 40-mile haul northwards to the first bridge across the Severn, at Gloucester, and a similar trek down winding, hilly roads through Chepstow to Newport and Cardiff. Rationing made it necessary to acquire petrol illegally and transport it in a large can along with our luggage in the cramped sidecar. This usually meant finding a friend who had coupons to spare or, more commonly, a friend of a friend who had extra coupons for business purposes and would part with them for a consideration. Petrol for farm and industrial use was coloured red and it was a serious offence to put it in private vehicles. Once we had reached Cardiff, it was possible to get illicit (white) petrol from a contact working at none other than the Inland Revenue Offices at Llanishen (which are still there to this day but no doubt more law-abiding). Money and a can were passed discreetly through the wire fence and the latter returned full of petrol.


Around 1948 I obtained several band engagements with a man called Harry Sharkey and through him acquired my first motor car, a 1929 fabric-covered Austin 7 with the registration number LJ207. It cost me œ50, largely recouped by the sale of faithful Ali Baba, and resembled a small greenhouse on largish bicycle wheels. Driving tests had been resumed after the war but the backlog of applicants was such that the authorities issued licences immediately to anyone who declared that they had driven during the war years. I confess that I allowed it to be assumed that my driving experience had included a car, and was duly given a licence to drive both car and motorcycle; I never did take the driving test. The joy which this vehicle gave us was unbounded and the experience of travelling in rain without getting soaked was quite novel. It had no self-starter, of course, and no automatic ignition timing, so that one had to set two levers on the steering column before swinging the engine over by hand-crank: one lever for throttle opening and one for ignition. Both had to be just right. A touch too much advance on the ignition and the engine would fire backwards, wrenching the starting-handle out of one's hand and bashing one's arm with a force which could break it. There was a correct way to grasp the handle so that one's thumb was not dislocated by a backfire. I quickly learned it. The greatest problem with this vehicle was that tyres for it had gone out of production at least ten years earlier and were impossible to obtain. Since it was subject to frequent punctures, I acquired great skill in removing and repairing tyres and inner tubes by the roadside, sometimes using freezing water in a ditch for finding the source of the leak. Our long journeys to Cardiff were marked by numerous stops to mend flat tyres. On one occasion, after several such unplanned delays, the gate of the day's last ferry at Beachley was shut in our faces and we were forced to make the 80-mile detour round Gloucester. Darkness fell and it began to rain. Headlights and windscreen wiper were basic in the sense of being marginally better than nothing, though I believe they did actually work most of the time. To add to our troubles, petrol was getting low and when we had to ascend a steep hill the engine, which was supplied by simple gravity from a petrol tank located in front of the dashboard, would suddenly die. I would then have to get out and shake the car till the carburettor filled up again and we could creep on for another half mile or so and reach the brow of the hill. There were no all-night garages in those days and the lights of Cardiff never looked so wonderful to our eyes as on that occasion.


In spite of its tiny 7 horse-power engine (around 650cc) and its great age, the Austin was ingeniously designed and very strongly built. Once started, it faithfully covered large distances, consuming very little petrol but rather more water, which seditiously leaked until halted by a concoction called Barrs Leaks which was poured into the radiator and temporarily filled the cracks. Someone told me that mustard powder would do the job much more cheaply, which indeed it did but tended to bung up all the waterways as well as the offending leak. Radiators of all cars were stuck on the front of the vehicle and not concealed beneath the bonnet, as they are today. The filling cap was often adorned with a splendidly-made meter through whose glass the driver could see an arrow pointing to the temperature of the water. But in our case this had long gone and was replaced by a large cork whose only indication of excessive temperature was to disappear with a loud bang, followed by a jet of steam. In spite of such minor distractions, Freda and I toured Southern England in it for one glorious week while Joan looked after Brian at Swiss Cottage.


The Austin 7 served us well for a couple of years and I then sold it to my friend from the Admiralty, Ray Allen, who proceeded to fill it with industrial petrol and was apprehended by the police while seeing off his girl-friend at Kings Cross. He was duly fined and we never saw him again, much to our sorrow. In its place, the same Sharkey sold us a 1933 Ford 8 Saloon, the first "œ100 car" for the common man, produced by the famous Company. Though nominally only one horsepower larger than the Austin, its engine and general design were of a later generation and seemed to us to propel the car so swiftly and luxuriously over the ground that the journeys to Cardiff now became almost a pleasure. (Unfortunately its brakes, which operated through a system of supposedly self-adjusting cables, were not so pleasurable but we managed to avoid mishaps by what would today be called defensive driving).


We were also tempted to travel as far as Cornwall, where we spent two marvellous holidays at a farm near Polperro. This was also the time when holiday camps, which had been commandeered by the Military for the duration of the war, began to be re-opened and we had a delightful holiday at one of these novel establishments at Nyetimber, near Bognor, on the South Coast.


Tragedy struck in 1948 when the Windjammers' trumpeter, Johnny Austin, a particularly close friend of both Freda and myself, was killed in a road accident. The band had been playing in Croydon and he left on his motorcycle while Freda and I took his wife Pat home in our car. At Norbury, I saw him fiddling with the bike by the roadside and stopped to offer help. He was crouching in the road when a tram went by and to my horror a car hurtled through the gap between the tram and the curb, sweeping him away before my eyes. He was taken to Mayday hospital and the following night I was summoned via a neighbour's telephone at 2am to take Pat to his bedside where we arrived just as he died. His death was a dreadful shock and we never replaced him in the band. Soon afterwards, the saxophonist also left and we played on as a 4-piece "intimate" group of piano, double bass, drums and guitar.


The nation now began to get restless at continued shortages and queues. People were heartily sick of bossy officials and overbearing shopkeepers who dished out rations as if they were doing one a favour. Unfortunately for the Labour Party, although still necessitated by our financial state, the restrictions on everyone's life became identified with Socialism and the Conservative Party naturally took advantage of this. Ethel lost her Council seat but Fred survived to become an Alderman, a prestigious permanent local office which was later abolished. In May 1949 there was a bonfire of many controls, including clothes rationing, but at the 1950 election Labour's majority was reduced to 5. Another election swiftly followed in 1951 which the Conservatives won by a small majority. More controls went, but food rationing did not completely die until 1954 having lasted in peacetime three years longer than the six years of war itself.


For the final years of the 1940s, our need for decent living accommodation became ever more pressing. Eventually Mrs Andrews became too weak to look after herself and was taken to live at her son's house. Her house was put up for sale and we made a bid to buy it as sitting tenants, but owing to a mistake by the agent another couple got it. Our tenure of the top floor was protected by law and fortunately we got on quite well with the new owners. However, we clearly could not go on for long like this. Finding rented accommodation was extremely difficult and usually required a large downpayment of "key-money" (later made illegal but continuing in other guises). We had insufficient "points" to entitle us to a council house and no money to buy anything. Fortunately for us, though not for thousands of others, the authorities at that point decided that two women sharing one kitchen constituted grounds for ejecting a protected tenant. At the same time, they said that being legally dispossessed would add greatly to one's rehousing entitlement.


Although it was not strictly true, we arranged for the new owners to take us to court on the grounds of a shared kitchen and were duly given notice to quit. To our joy and relief the Council immediately accepted us as priority applicants and offered us a downstairs flat at 42 Bensham Manor Road, Thornton Heath, into which we moved about the end of 1949. But it had still been touch-and-go. The housing people assumed that I had lived in Croydon continuously since 1928 and gave me points accordingly, but I had in fact left the town to live with my sister at Mill Hill for over a year on my father's death. The facts were recorded on the Identity Card which everyone was required to carry, but were covered by an extension page stuck over the original. The official tried to peer underneath it while I held my breath and prayed, and then he gave up and handed me the keys.


Thus I traversed the tumultuous 1940s, which began with the destruction of the world I had been born and brought up in and at the last minute closed with a new, happy and exciting life of optimism and opportunity.

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