Racism was not something I encountered from our white neighbours in Oakburn Road. I felt welcome at any time in their homes, and they spoiled me with kindness and cakes or other food. It was the same with school friends and some of my teachers. They took me with them on their family outings. I was part of their family life and grew up learning English culture as if it were my own. The problem was that I could not reciprocate their hospitality at my home, because I was not allowed to have my English friends into the house. I did not really know why this was. Was it because they were children? Or was it because they were English, with a different culture? I had no one of my own colour or culture and age to play with. Were the family reluctant to spend money feeding other people’s children even though those children’s parents, some of them far poorer than us, had fed me? They cannot have been embarrassed about their own living conditions, since after the pools win, they were considerably better off than most English families living in the area at that time. I often asked why I could not invite them in for tea and was always told “Next time, but not today”.
Uncle Tom, an elderly cobbler who lived on his own and who had fought and survived both World Wars showed me how to repair shoes, stain and polish them and fit “Blakeys” on them. I used to help him tidy and clean up his shop every day. I was reluctant to take money off him but he made me take it, so I used it to pay for school trips and Boys Brigade outings. He was like a granddad to me and even sometimes came to watch me play football and cricket at school. The very first dictionary I ever had was a present from him.
I suppose it was because I wanted to be able to do all the activities my school friends were involved with that I wanted to get away from all the chores I was expected to do in the household. There was no central heating in those days, so I had to get up at five in the morning before everyone else did to light the coal fires in all the rooms, and that meant clearing out all the ashes and fetching in the buckets of coal. I also had to carry buckets of hot water up the stairs from the geyser in the kitchen so all the adults could have baths in the upstairs bathroom which had no hot water. I went out to do my paper rounds and then came back for breakfast before going off to school. Weekends were the worst time because there was a lot more work to do then, especially on Sundays. Since they were now well off property owners following their Pools win, Duke and Jimmy were in a good position to welcome, entertain and rent rooms to all the other West Indian migrants arriving in London. At the time I never realised that they must have felt obliged to do this because racism made it very difficult for black migrants to find accommodation. It just made so much work for me to have to do. It kept me busy and fit but I had no life of my own. Because mum had felt obliged to cook morning and evening meals for them, there were sometimes three or four sittings at lunch. Weekends, when they entertained their friends as well, were a nightmare. I had to lay the tables and do the washing and drying up. It seemed like a never ending round of drudgery and I felt sorry for poor old mum slaving away in the kitchen for these people who were strangers to me. I could not wait to get away from there but I did my chores because I was grateful for being looked after by the Munroe family.
I took the “13 plus” exam when I was in form 2a at Hillbrook. My form teacher, Mr Ashley, an ex-soldier, spent a lot of time helping me to pronounce English words better. He had to prepare those of us who were eligible to take the 13 plus exam for entry to the grammar school. He believed I could pass it and I did. When the results came through, instead of going into form 3a at Hillbrook, I was put into 3b at Tooting Bec Grammar School. From the start, I did not like the place. Teachers wearing flowing black university gowns and mortar boards seemed cold and unfriendly. I felt out of place there, missing the warm, jovial and friendly teachers of Hillbrook. They played rugby at Tooting Bec, which I was not into at that time, and their cricket team was not very good. Hillbrook always used to beat them in matches. I didn’t like having to learn Latin and I missed my favourite after-school clubs. Fortunately, Hillbrook allowed me to stay as a member of these clubs after my day at Tooting Bec finished, so that was a consolation. However, before the end of the first term, I went to see Mr Mew (the year head at Tooting Bec) to ask him if I could go back to Hillbrook. He understood fully and agreed to speak to Mr Maggs to arrange for my return after Christmas.
Back at Hillbrook, Mr Ashley organised the sporting fixtures for the lower school and had started to get sporting celebrities to come to the school to teach us how to do their sport. On Saturdays, he would occasionally take us to see a football match, so my first visit to Stamford Bridge to see a Chelsea match was with him and thereafter I was a lifelong Chelsea fan. Another of my mentors was Mr Morris, who had been a young lieutenant in the army and had travelled Africa and the Far East during his service. He taught us geometry, maths and P.E. and ran the school gymnastics team (of which I was a member). He took us to the Balham Baths for swimming. We did lots of outdoor activities which were all new to me and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them.
My favourite teacher was Mr Alvey because he really liked me. I was very keen on history and geography which were his subjects, and the film club which he ran. I became his assistant and rewrote the school film catalogue before leaving Hillbrook in 1954. The family of deputy head Mr Grey, an ex-naval officer, who taught R.E. and acted as resources manager for the school, had connections with the British Council and so the school had access to many interesting films about the Empire. He also got land off the council for our gardening club and managed the cricket fixtures, so I had a lot of contact with him.
Our French teacher, Mr Scott, encouraged us to do cross country. He was the secretary of Herne Hill Harriers. He had been a Prisoner of War as an RAF pilot who had been shot down over France and captured. Watching him train at Tooting Bec track with the Herne Hill Harriers is where I got my interest in athletics and running from. (I never dreamed that 35 years later, I would be taking the athletics team that I managed (MKAC) to compete at that same track against the Herne Hill Harriers and other athletics clubs in a national competition.) Ernie Earle, an international athlete at that time, was a member of Herne Hill Athletics Club. I met him through Mr Scott and befriended him, so that when he gave up his paper round, I took it over. This was excellent running practice for me, delivering papers on a large round twice a day before and after school.
Not everyone at school had bicycles, as there was so much poverty then, but because traffic was increasing, so were road accidents. Mr Brewer took us on practical road safety lessons. I never owned a bicycle as a child but was allowed to borrow one of my friend’s bikes during these lessons. I grasped with enthusiasm the many extra-curricular activities my teachers offered us at school. Having so many ex-soldiers as teachers meant that we were expected to be tough and sporting at school and we had many opportunities for this because of the skills and interests of our teachers. Boxing was encouraged and our PE teacher, Mr Morris, entered us in boxing competitions in which we represented the school, Mr Brewer was the boxing judge. I not only enjoyed boxing, but was good at it. I never lost a fight and won many titles for the school.
My teachers at Hillbrook Secondary School constantly reiterated the need for getting good grades to get a good job. I had never thought about this before. They advised us to rise above “meaningless jobs” to better ourselves and encouraged us to work for our exams. I joined the debating society and became its youngest president. I was made a prefect, had to attend weekly meetings, and to my great pleasure, was nominated for a knighthood in my last year. What could go wrong for me now?
Daphne, as senior female next to mum, took on the role of disciplinarian in the household at Oakburn road. She was in her late twenties and unemployed while studying to qualify for a teaching job which she soon got. However, Daphne liked to control me and used to forbid me from going on trips as a sanction because she knew that I got such pleasure from them. Once, even though I paid the money for the Boys Brigade outing, she stopped me from going. The leaders came to my home to find out why I was not allowed to go and no one would answer the door to explain to them. It obviously had an effect on me but I never understood why she was this way with me and began to build up a resentment. She veered between being kind and nice to me sometimes and at others harsh and insulting.
It came to a head one hectic Sunday, when we were in the kitchen trying to cope with the three sittings we had for lunch that day with a house full of people, she hit me around the head because I was not drying the dishes quickly enough for her. I was wiping kitchen knives at the time. “If you hit me again, you’ll get this”, I threatened, brandishing a knife at her. There was uproar in the kitchen and I fled, slipping out over the back fence into the neighbour’s garden, shaking with temper and fright. I was consoled by Mrs Watts, the neighbour when I explained what had happened. She let me go upstairs and read in her daughter’s room until I calmed down. Later, I went back into the house and no one ever mentioned the incident again. It was a defining moment between her and me. Never again did she hit me.
I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of my secondary schooling at Hillbrook up until the summer term of 4T. In the penultimate year when we had to choose options, apart from the core subjects of maths, English, science, history and geography, the choice was between technical subjects, such as Technical drawing, joinery, and metalwork, leading to apprenticeships in planning, building and engineering work and commercial subjects including music, drama, languages and agriculture. I had no interest in technical things and was no good at them. I opted for the commercial choices as I had already been doing French and enjoyed gardening club. I also enjoyed music and had taken part in plays at school and church. Our music teacher up to now had been Mr Ward, a young guitarist who sang and played popular songs to us and brought in records for us to listen to and learn to enjoy, whether classical, jazz or pop. He also allowed us to bring in our own records. Unfortunately in 4T we had a new music teacher, Mr Stewart. He was a much older man and his repertoire of teaching methods relied on books and antiquated songs which were of no interest to me. I couldn’t see the point of singing them, so I became uncooperative in lessons and thus disruptive to his agenda.
He in turn began to make an example of me with sarcastic remarks and punishments such as ejection from the class, which, contrary to his aim, was my reward. The final reward came when singing a song about unicorns and donkeys, which I refused to sing, and was laughing. He stopped and asked me why I was laughing and so I told him that the words of the song were stupid. He replied that it was not the song that was stupid but the singer. At that point, I burst out in anger at him pointing out that his lessons were not as good as Mr Ward’s, so he got angry and as I got up, he pushed me back down. I took objection to this and told him that I was not coming back to his lessons. I walked out of his class, out of the school and never went back until time came for me to collect my report. I was legally allowed to leave school at this age and go to work, but Mr Maggs advised me to come back and do the leaving certificate year. I agreed to do so but owing to upheaval in the Munroe Household, I did not. This summer holiday coincided with a move for me away from Tooting.
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