Congratulations to John. Now aged 81, John has sent a photo of himself at the age he was at the time of his memoir, ‘My Little Life’.
John says: My roots are in a small mining village near Bridgend, South Wales. My schooling was local, and I obtained a degree in Philosophy at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
There being little demand for professional philosophers in early '60s Bridgend, I slid into teaching, mainly English, in secondary modern and, later, comprehensive schools in Luton. I found the work hard, but rewarding.
On retirement, I returned with my family to South Wales. (Elephants' graveyard syndrome perhaps?). I served on the local council and as governor of the neighbouring junior school. I also helped set up the local branch of the U3A.
Retirement has allowed me to pursue a variety of leisure activities. For a few years, I flirted with pottery (Plasticene for adults) and I persist in terrorising the neighbours with my on-going attempt to master the Saxophone. Vegetable gardening and walking get me out of the house and, assisted / driven by my wife, I've pursued practical family history research. (Poking about in graveyards rather than pressing computer buttons.)
Although I'm not a dedicated writer, I take it seriously, attending a regular writing group where I try to put into practice the advice I used to give my pupils. It seems to have worked as I've achieved some success in competitions and have had a couple of magazine articles published.
I don't have time to do all I'd like to do. I suppose I might be bored one day, but not yet!
MY LITTLE LIFE
My very early life has been reduced by failing memory and family gossip to a series of minor disasters mainly involving my older sister's possessions. After nearly eighty years, she still claims I broke her toys, tore her books and ate her sweets. I persist in my plea : 'innocent of all charges', including the allegation that I once ate a week's lard ration for a family of four. I ask you, would I?
It was possibly a good thing when, around my fourth birthday, I started school. I admit I was not looking forward to it until I was told my cousin, Tony, had already started and we'd be in the same class; we were even allowed to sit together.
But occasionally we fell out quite badly:
ME – 'Please, Miss, Tony Morgan had his eyes open during prayers.'
TONY – 'Oh no I never, Miss. They was shut tight.'
ME – 'Yes, he did Miss! He's a liar! His eyes was wide open. I saw them.'
MISS – 'If you saw them, you must have had your eyes open too.'
TONY – 'Yes, Miss, I saw him. He had his eyes open too.'
MISS (THINKS) – If I hadn't nodded off, I'd know who was telling the truth, but who cares?'
Then there was the occasion Tony showed me how to peel strips off the small chalk-boards we used for writing practice. I thought, 'That looks good fun,' and did the same. Not to be out-done, he peeled off another strip, and so did I. This continued until we'd stripped all the black off one side of our boards. We gave no thought to the consequences, but a few days later, when we held up our boards for Miss Price's inspection, she said, 'Show me the other side.'
Our sins were revealed, the entire class gasped at our monstrous behaviour and we were marched off to see the Headmistress. She turned out to be a nice old lady who looked a bit like my Gran. She told us not to do it again, so we didn't.
World War II almost coincided with my junior school career, though I don't think the Fuhrer did it on purpose! That's just how it turned out. Luckily, our village suffered no enemy action. My contribution to the overthrow of the Third Reich amounted to sitting with Tony and our sisters under the stairs in Gran's house singing 'Roll out the Barrel' and 'She'll be Coming round the Mountain'. Pointless, you might think, but it did keep the bombers at bay. We survived unscathed!
We were expected to take our gas-masks to school every day and obviously we needed instruction in their use:
- Gas mask on desk.
- By your desk, stand!
- Hook thumbs through straps!
- Place straps over head!
- Pull mask over face!
But I had a problem; I was very small for my age and even with the straps adjusted as tightly as possible, it still needed two safety pins to tighten them further – still not enough!
Once or twice, this drill was conducted on a whole-school basis and, masked up, we were marched in a never ending line round and round the play ground, like convicts on exercise. I remember my face becoming incredibly hot and sweaty and the celluloid eye piece became so misted up that I could see nothing through it. To add to my woes, my mask was so ill-fitting that air was expelled through the sides, causing the rubber to vibrate against my cheeks. This produced a rhythmic farting noise which delighted those around me – pupils and,I suspect, teachers too!
Another object that represented the war for me was the navy-blue balaclava my Mam knitted 'to keep your ears warm'. This was long before they became standard wear for down-hill skiers, bank robbers and French riot police. Half the boys in school wore them and I didn't object to wearing
mine. But one playtime, in the swirling mass of running and roaring kids, I was so engrossed in our game of hide and seek that, behind the air raid shelter, I failed to hear the bell that announced the end of break. I carried on hiding.
Minutes later, finally noticing the silence, I tentatively emerged from my hiding place to find the entire school, lined up in order of size, supervised by Evil Edna.
Like the voice of God, her roar cut through the silence of the playground. 'Why are you late?'
'Please, Miss, I didn't hear the bell.'
'I'm not surprised,' she retorted,'with that thing wrapped around your head. I'm amazed you can hear anything at all.'
Suppressed giggling rose from the gathered masses, adding to the shame that stung my eyes and stayed with me all the rest of the day.
When I got home, bare headed, I decided I'd never again face shame like that, so I'd have to lose the offending balaclava. But how and where?
I was always losing things unintentionally: marbles, crayons, conkers – usually down the side of the settee or behind the back kitchen dresser, which was far too big and clumsy to be moved. They were rarely recovered.
I made my decision. A quick flick and the offending headgear arced towards the ceiling and over the back of the dresser.
The next morning broke grey and windy – ideal balaclava weather. Of course, as I was sneaking out for school, Mam asked, 'Where's that nice balaclava I knitted you? You'll freeze without it.'
I pretended to search for it but, as time was pressing, I quickly gave up and said, 'I can't find it now. We can look for it when I come home tea time.'
I suppose Mam must have twigged what I'd done because, without hesitation, she answered, 'Don't worry. You can wear your oil-skin sou'wester instead.'
I was horrified. I couldn't appear in school looking like the man on the cod liver oil label. No body in real life wore a sou'wester anywhere, least of all to school.
Knowing I was beaten, I tried to save face by feigning inspiration. 'Perhaps it fell down the back of the dresser,' I suggested and, using the toasting fork, hooked it out covered in spiders and bread crumbs. I gave it a good shake, put it on and went out into the raw morning air.
One activity I really enjoyed was playing with Plasticine. I was not greatly troubled by the fact that the original bright colours had long since morphed into great uniformly grey/brown lumps containing balls of fluff and other unidentifiable bits. All the other kids worked frantically to produce snakes or worms, but I specialised in aeroplanes, and that's what led to my first fight in school. It started when Sylvia Jones took my Spitfire and squashed it flat, and it was the best one I'd ever made. I told Miss, but she was too busy to care and anyway, Sylvia was teacher's pet so it had to be my own fault.
'I'll get you after school, you big sneaky!' I muttered, rather recklessly.
'You and whose army?' she said. And she was a big girl!
As the day crawled by, I forgot about the squashed plane. After dinner, we did colouring and four times table. I was good at that!
As home time approached, there was a restless excitement in the air and I was shocked when I suddenly remembered that, in a sense, I was the cause of it.
The bell went and we poured out into the yard, the word 'fight' on everyone's lips. My half-formed plan, hatched with Tony, was to run home as fast as we could to avoid the conflict that would lead to probable injury and certain disgrace. But it was no good; I'd bargained without the baying crowd of spectators. Instead of dispersing as usual, the children formed a huge and growing group that was oddly centred on me and Sylvia Jones who, by now seemed to me to be big enough to be a lady.
When we reached the bottom of Garth Road, the crowd spontaneously spread out forming a circle leaving Sylvia and her cronies and me in the middle, Tony having wisely chosen the role of
spectator rather than my official second.
Sylvia was not popular, though I knew my supporters would be of no use when round one started. Despite my terror, I adopted the orthodox boxing stance – left fist extended for attack, right protecting my jaw which I tucked well into my shoulder. How could I fail?
Out of nowhere, a fist the size of a football arced round and caught me on the right ear. The crowd roared and I was on my bum.
Although there seemed little point in getting up, I struggled to my feet in time to see her line up for another swing.
A gasp went up from the spectators as, terrified, I cringed backwards and Sylvia's wild swing missed me by the best part of a foot. She screamed in pain as her fist collided with the garden wall of Number 14, and she dissolved into tears.
A huge cheer went up and, by universal acclaim, I was declared the winner.
A week later, she returned to school with her arm in a sling. Since the fight, I'd become a celebrity, but my unjustified feeling of superiority became drastically tempered by the whispered rumour of a rematch as soon as she could get the plaster off.
As it transpired, we never did meet again in combat. She probably found some older boys to beat up, or perhaps moved on to assault with a deadly weapon. Anyway she seemed to forget all about me!
Of course the War meant food shortages. Looking back, I think I felt permanently peckish (remember the lard?) but never starving, even metaphorically. Anyway, thanks to rationing, we were all in the same boat. People today are surprised by the many mundane consumables that, during the War, were either scarce or completely unobtainable, however long one queued . And queueing was a national pastime in those far-off times.
One day, Keith, a classmate, boasted that his father, who had come home on leave, had brought him a bunch of bananas.
After school, a sizeable group of us followed him home and stood respectfully in his back yard while he went in and closed the door.
Thirty seconds later, it opened revealing a beaming Keith holding up for our appreciation a bunch of six very small, dark green bananas.
There were expressions of wonder, muted by the disappointment regarding size and colour.
After a suitable pause, the exhibit was taken inside and the door firmly closed. There was an awed silence until one brave soul stated categorically, 'Them ain't real bananas. I seen a picture. Bananas are yellow, so they can't be real ones!'
And we all dispersed.
Another time, a few of us were playing British and Germans in the back field when Tony arrived and announced breathlessly, 'They've got crisps in Wilkins's' (our local corner shop)
The older children went wild and the excitement spread among us all. The cry was repeated over and over again: 'They've got crisps in Wilkins's! They've got crisps in Wilkins's!'
Everyone rushed off in different directions. Caught up in the frenzy, I ran home to break the news to my father: 'They've got crisps in Wilkins's!'
'Do you know what crisps are?' he asked.
'No,' I replied, panting with excitement, 'but they've got them in Wilkins's!'
I can't remember whether we bought any; I shouldn't think so.
All this happened a lifetime ago, but this morning, I received a surprise email:
'REMEMBER YOU BROKE MY ARM IN MISS PRICE'S CLASS? I STILL OWE YOU ONE, AND I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE! SYLVIA ROBERTS (NEE JONES).
I wonder, should I contact the Police, move house or even emigrate?