“That old cheat,” says my mother wiping her hands on her apron. “He told me that he had
filleted it and look at all these bones.” That was all the excuse that was needed, “Uhh Mum,
can’t eat any more, too many bones, Mum don’t want it any more” and pushing my plate to the
centre of the table I would make as if to get up and go.
“Nonsense, sit down this minute, you ungrateful little boy, you’re to eat everything on that
plate, here give it to me and I’ll scrape off the bones.” But it was too late, for by then the spell
of Beatrix Potter had been broken and I was sent up to bed without any supper.
Howling and yelling I climbed up the stairs and fell asleep in my little bed, listening to the
wind sighing in the lime trees outside my window.
On those occasions I desperately wanted Robert to come and sleep with me, but my mother
didn’t believe in such things and as my life progressed, many other things as well I found –
especially when it came to a choice of bed companions.
Times were difficult in those post war years and England was still on food rationing, which is
why we were trudging up Barnfield Hill from the Valiant Soldier that miserable wet day, past
the surgery of the dreaded dentist to the Food Office.
“Now that reminds me,” says my mother to no one in particular, ”I must remember to make an
appointment to see Dr Samuels and also one for you boys as well.”
Grimacing under the onslaught of the rain, I turned my face up to my mother,” Not for me
mum, not today please.” Even at the tender age of three, or it may have been four, I had already
been traumatised by Dr Samuels and his antiquarian drill.
The house that contained his surgery had a vast emptiness like a cemetery at night, but without
the headstones. It also had its own peculiar smell that seemed to attach itself to you as you
entered the waiting room, with its hard upright chairs and old copies of the ‘Tatler’ and ‘Country
Just to have to walk past the surgery, gave me a pain in the jaw, let alone to step inside and hear
the heavy white-painted door creak shut, trapping me in the gloomy interior. The brass plate
on the outside, said ‘Dr S. Samuels– Dental Surgeon’ and then there was a string of meaningless
initials – at least they were meaningless to me then.
Graying, crinkly hair to match his graying crinkly face and always peering short sightedly over
thick horn rimmed spectacles, Dr Samuels wore a sort of double-breasted, button-over white
jacket as his working gear.
His smile through yellowed teeth was that of a predator and as I settled in the ‘chair’, my little
body was rigid with fear, feeling the ‘picker’, probing my childish mouth and ‘sticking'
momentarily as it honed in on yet another cavity. Tears came to my eyes and no amount of
promises by my mother of a bottle of ginger beer at the ‘Mount Radford’ pub afterwards could
loosen my fear. But at least I went. Not so my brother, who at the very mention of the dent…
was away as fast as a rabbit and not to be seen for the rest of the day. Me, I was just a softie -
as I didn’t want to hurt my mother, I was easily manipulated.
“Now you know it’s not going to hurt, just be a brave little boy for a few minutes…that’s all.
If you don’t have your teeth looked at they’ll all fall out.”
“No, no, no Mum,” I wailed my fists clenched in survivor mode.
“Now pull yourself together, you’re a big boy you’re nearly five years old…” Yes in about
another year or so, but of course I didn’t know that at the time.
And so it went on until in the end the trauma of going was so great, I prayed that something
terrible would happen to Dr Samuels and Barnfield Hill.
To this day I wonder if I will ever be forgiven for wreaking such vengeance on the people of
Barnfield Hill and Dr Samuels in particular. The good Doctor had a stroke and although he
went back to practice, it was not on me. Of course my mother was still keen that he remain the
family’s dentist, but one look at his crumpled body stooped over his walking cane and reaching
for the drill with his spare hand, propelled me into action.
The fulcrum of self-preservation, as against my mother’s feelings and embarrassment, swung
violently in my favour and I shot out of the chair, through the open French doors leading to the
back garden and fled wailing down the street.
It was only then that I realized that I didn’t have a penny to my name, so I hurried down towards
the Valiant Soldier, where I knew that there was a shabby little second hand shop and a
pawnbroker. All I had in my pockets were a battered pocket knife with plastic sides and a
picture of Tower Bridge on one side and a Beefeater on the other and my little black screw top
I loved my little knife, which my mother had brought me home from a trip she had made to
London, wherever that was. I also loved my little compass which I used on my imaginary
journeys through the ‘jungle’ by the river – full of wild beasts and hidden dangers. I had fallen
fair and square into the dilemma that dogged my dear mother so much of her life – she found
it difficult to make a decision.
I was a strange child, I’ll give you that, as I hung upside down from trees and slithered on my
tummy through the wet grass down by the little stream. Naughty, difficult, temperamental and
impossible would have been equally apt epithets.
“The sooner you go away to school the better for you my boy” was becoming one of my
mother’s more frequent sayings and she could easily have added “and for my sanity as well.”
This refrain from my mother seemed to increase in direct proportion to my misplaced sense of
adventure. Playing at ‘rafting’ on the stream at the bottom of our road, was a sure invitation to
have me wet to the skin, shoes and socks muddied and full of water, shorts torn and dirty.
“But Mum I was playing ‘Swallows and Amazons’’’ I would protest as my mother’s hand found
its mark on my wet backside.
“You’ll be the death of me, my boy, now get into that bath and wash yourself, you should be
ashamed of putting me to all of this work and it’s not even bath night – did you know that?”
I felt guilty and my eyes filled with tears for a minute or two, but then I was off again my
imagination taking me somewhere across the sea to a land full of sunshine and good things to
An hour or so later, freshly scrubbed, my face shining and wearing a warm pair of pyjamas, I
would come downstairs and sit by the fire looking through a pack of ‘Happy Families’ – at the
time my favourite - possibly only - card game.
I surreptitiously glance sideways at my mother to see if she is still cross with me, trying to sidle
a bit closer to her. She is reading in her armchair, the wireless playing, her fingers moving
jerkily as she knits a scarf or a jumper for me or my brother. I have never known anyone who
could do so many things at once – and she never dropped a stitch.
Years later she added watching television to her repertoire, as she read, listened to the radio or
the ‘ordinary’ wireless as she insisted on calling it and knitted increasingly complicated cable
stitch sweaters. She certainly could never be accused of wasting her leisure time.
But actually we did not have television until I was well into my twenties, which is why as
children it was such a treat to go to stay with my Grandmother at her home at Canford Cliffs
Granny had a huge black and white television set, around which we children would sit open
mouthed. Even the ubiquitous ‘snowstorms’ failed to dull our enthusiasm and when the vertical
hold, which had a mind of its own, started to misbehave, we sat patiently, staring at the screen
as it rolled drunkenly up and down and from side to side, waiting for it to clear itself.
The television was our God and my mother was able to exercise complete control over us, by
the simple expedient of threatening.
“No television until you put your toys away… clean up the dining room…. Wipe the mud off
your shoes…..wash your hands and faces…” The list was endless.
The actual control of the television itself, however, was another matter completely. Only
Granny was allowed to operate the controls, which were limited to the on/off switch.
Everything else, according to Granny, was superfluous. At least even if it was not, it was never
used. If the picture was too dark there was nothing that could be done. “But what about the
bright button Granny?” my brother or a cousin might say.
They were all ‘buttons’ regardless of what they did and how they did it.
“Certainly not! Those buttons have been specially set by the Television Man and they cannot
be moved. He told me never to touch them when he came to fit the roof aerial.”
It had taken Granny a lot of soul searching to have that television – it was rented, not purchased,
as she didn’t want to have an ugly ‘H’ shaped aerial permanently adorning the chimney.
“They’re just so unsightly Peggy and so ‘non-U’” Granny said to our mother, when she was
endeavouring to persuade herself that television was totally unnecessary. But in the end she
gave in for us children - God Bless her.
There were however strict rules for watching the television at Granny’s house. Nothing was to
be eaten in the Drawing Room in front of the television, so TV suppers were strictly not for us.
And that lead to another incident I recall.
Granny with the force of the Lord overwhelming the Egyptians as they crossed the Red Sea
after the fleeing Israelites, marched into the Drawing Room one evening and deftly turned off
the television, just as my brother and I were about to watch the climax to some childish thriller.
“Oh Granny but there’s only a couple of minutes to go before it’s over” we screamed in unison.
“We only want to see the end… please Granny turn it on just this once,” we pleaded.
Now the Television Man in his wisdom and in his instructions to Granny, that in her mind had
assumed the tablets of Moses, had ‘advised’ her never to click the television on and off without
giving it time to warm up and cool down.
Granny in her wisdom, had interpreted this tenet to mean that once the television was switched
off, then a period of at least five, but preferably ten, minutes must be allowed before it could
be switched back on again.
Without a second’s hesitation my brother, who was older and bolder than me, lunged at the
television and clicked on the switch even as Granny stood open mouthed at the Drawing Room
The television emitted a high pitched whine – somewhere between a shriek and a scream and
the next minute the Swedish crystal vase on the mantelpiece shattered spilling water and
flowers across the hearth.
Granny’s rules were never called into question again - at least not in so far as the operation of
the television was concerned.