I am waiting in the hall for my mother to get her hat and coat on. The Daily Mirror is on the hallstand. In those days it was compulsory to take the Mirror – I pick it up. The date is 29th March, 1943. I smile to myself. It’s my birthday – sort of. I’m 14 months old today. Still sitting in my pram, I take a quick look at the headlines. Liverpool took another pasting from the Luftwaffe the other night. Most people think it’s because its one of our biggest ports and most of the convoys from America dock there. My personal theory is that Goering has a hang-up about people with funny accents. Swansea gets bombed a lot for the same reason. Surprising that there’s anything left of Birmingham.
I’m just having a quick look at the crossword – I wish they’d get the Times, this one is too easy. Here comes Mum now, so I hurriedly put the paper back. She’s always boasting about how forward I am for a one year old, but she doesn’t know the half of it.
She puts on my pixie hat – in 1943 it was mandatory for everyone under six to wear a pixie hat. And uniformly hideous we all looked.
She puts up the hood of the pram, opens the front door and off we go.
Along the end of Beltring Road, we meet Mr Cross, the newsagent.
He is bustling importantly about, locking the door of ‘his’ air raid shelter. Since there was a ten seater shelter outside his shop, with two similar ones in the same parade of shops, on the outbreak of war Mr Cross had been declared our ‘Local Air Raid Warden.’ Although there hadn’t actually been an air raid on Tunbridge Wells since April, 1941, he was always rushing about with his ARP uniform on. My Mum always said that he was too busy polishing his helmet to do any proper work – and I’m still not sure why everyone thinks that is so funny.
We are just passing Mr Stone’s, the grocer, and heading south for Alice Cavey – greengrocer extraordinaire, when I spy Mrs Ducknell waddling towards us. Mother looks from one side to the other – a bit like a hunted rabbit, but there are no side turnings – we are caught.
I know precisely what Mrs Ducknell is going to do – and she does. She sticks her head under the pram canopy and treats me to her trademark single toothed smile.
CHRIST. Her breath is awful! My Dad, who is an expert in these matters, maintains that her halitosis can stop a Sherman tank at fifty paces. I think he’s exaggerating. It must be at least a hundred paces!
“Hasn’t he grown?” She croons.
‘What would you bloody well expect?’ I think. ‘Am I a fully grown dwarf at one foot eleven high? No! So babies have this unfortunate tendency to grow, you stupid woman.
“Coochie- coochie- coo,” is her opening conversational gambit to me.
Desperately, I try to think of a suitable riposte, commensurate with a fourteen month old. With inspired originality, I go “gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.” She seems to be contented with this level of intellectual intercourse, and, thank God, stands up straight again.
“How is little David?” enquires my Mother.
“Considering the poor little mite hasn’t got a daddy, not too bad,” says Mrs Ducknell. “His dad was killed at Dunkirk, you know.”
Since little David is about six months younger than I am, which means he was born in about June, 1942, it would seem that Mrs Ducknell enjoyed a gestation period of about two years.
“A bit like an elephant,” maintained my Dad, who had heard this particular story before. “And the similarity doesn’t end there. Still, no problem with contraception since she took to eating the garlic sandwiches for breakfast.”
I think that the conversation must have been too erudite for me, and I dropped off to sleep. When I woke up, we were in Alice Cavey’s shop. It was very like a cave. Half of the shop windows were blocked up with a large advert for Fyffe’s bananas, and the other half were hung with a series of potato sacks, these being Alice’s best attempt to conform to the blackout regulations. The trouble with this ‘window display’ was a), that no-one in this Country had seen a banana since 1939: and b) she never took down the potato sacks during the day, so the shop was in a permanent state of semi-darkness. Alice and her sister Lettice, yes, that really was her name, scuttled about retrieving potatoes, sprouts, and something called ‘greens.’
In stark contrast to Alice Cavey’s cave, was our next port of call – Mr Spicer’s butcher’s shop. This establishment was bright and meticulously clean.
The counter was a huge block of wood – at least half an oak tree, upon which, Mr Spicer used to chop great hunks of meat with the most fearsome cleaver you ever saw.
Meat rationing was incredibly strict in those days – I think it was four ounces per person per week. What sort of meat you could actually buy was in the lap of the Gods, and basically, you took whatever you could get.
Luckily, my Mum was a very attractive woman, and this fact was not lost on Mr Spicer. As soon as he had handed over one and a quarter pounds of sausages, this being the ration for five people, he looked both ways, reached under the counter, and surreptitiously extracted a pound of pigs liver, as a little bonus. I think the whole lot came to one and six, but I couldn’t be sure of that.
From Mr Spicer’s we went next door to Hooper’s the Chemists. I think the extent of our purchases there was a bottle of Aspros. Years later I would occasionally persuade Mum to buy me a tin of Ovaltine tablets, but these were austere times. In 1948, Aspros would become the foundations upon which the National Health Service would be built. We were sophisticated in those days!
At last, my Mother trundled me off home – we hurried to beat the blackout, and just made it before the daylight faded.
Looking back on those far-off days, I realise that not all babies were like me. The only problem with being an infant prodigy has been that, since 1943, it’s been all down hill. At forty, I lost the knack of doing crosswords; at fifty I forgot how to do simultaneous quadratic equations; and about sixty, I lost the ability to write.