Learning to read

The Anglican cleric Reverend Wilbert Awdry (1911-97) is best known for his series of children’s books based around the now well-known Thomas the Tank Engine. He published his series of books about railways, The Railway Series, in 42 volumes between 1945 and 2011 (two were published posthumously). Each volume was a small colourfully illustrated story about railway engines with faces and personalities. Being a lover of trains from an early age, I devoured and enjoyed these stories from the earliest day that I was able to read to myself.

 

engines

 

One of my favourite of Awdry’s books was called Eight Famous Engines. I cannot remember why I liked it, but I do remember that I mis-read the word ‘famous’. For several years, I thought that ‘famous’ was pronounced ‘farm house’. It puzzled me that the book seemed to have little or nothing to do with agriculture, but that did not stop me from liking the book and re-reading it many times from cover to cover. It was only when I had outgrown these railway books that it dawned to me that  the letters f.a.m.o.u.s spelled ‘famous’ and not ‘farm house’.

In addition to the Awdry railway books, I enjoyed leafing through a particular  well-illustrated geography book, which I used to borrow often from the local public library. One of the many photographs in this book that caught my attention was captioned “A POLISH FIELD”. You can probably guess what I will write next. Yes, for years I thought that it was a picture of a field containing plants that when harvested became shoe polish. It was a long time before it dawned on me that it was a Polish field rather than a field of polish.

Now, many decades later, you might be pleased to know that I do not make mistakes like the above when I am reading.

 

 

 

Flying rats

pigeons

 

My late mother was awfully concerned about avoiding germs. For example, every can of food had to be washed before opening it just in case rats or mice had scampered across it in a warehouse.  Also, when we visited toilets in public places in the 1960s, we were told to put toilet paper on the seats so that we would not pick up germs that other users had left behind. Interestingly, in many public toilets nowadays, notably on aeroplanes, disposable toilet seat covers are provided. Mum would have approved of this development.

Recently while rummaging through some old photographs, I came across one of me, aged about 10, in Siena, Italy. I was kneeling on the floor feeding pigeons that had flown on to my hand. As a child, I loved doing this. My parents would buy me a paper cone filled with corn seeds. I would fill my palm with some of these, and then pigeons used to perch on my finger tips and pick up bits of corn with their beaks. I remember that the pigeon’s ‘feet’ felt quite soft. Feeding these creatures was a real treat.

Well, I was not unusual. Many people enjoy feeding birds from their hands. Today, in London’s Kensington Gardens there are flocks of green parakeets that happily feed from visitors’ hands.

The surprising thing was that my germ conscious mother permitted my sister and me to feed pigeons as described already. In New York, pigeons are known as ‘flying rats’. Pigeons are are actually less hygienic than rats and they carry mites, which irritate human skin. I cannot believe that pigeons in Italian cities in the 1960s were any cleaner than those flying about today. Had my mother been aware of the pigeons’ unsavoury lack of hygiene, feeding these creatures would have been totally forbidden to my sister and I. I am pleased that she did not realise that the dear flying rats are so filthy!

A puff of smoke

Three students

 

My father gave up smoking when I was about eight years old. As far as I know, my mother never smoked. I had an aunt who smoked, and entertained us by creating smoke rings with exhaled cigarette smoke. Visitors to our home smoked, so I was not completely isolated from cigarettes and so on during my earliest years. 

I was about 13 or 14 when I went on a field trip with other boys from my class. On that outing, I was shocked to see many of my fellow pupils lighting up cigarettes when we were out of sight of our teachers. I did not realise until that moment thay young children smoked.

In those early years, and possibly still today, I was a contrarian. Being that sort of person and seeing my peers smoking made me decide never to even try smoking, and  this situation remains unchanged tosay, so many decades later. It was not for health reasons nor because of economic problems that I have never taken up smoking. I simply did not want to be one of the crowd.

I often wonder if the situation had been reversed whether I would have become a smoker. If no one else had been smoking, would I have lit up just to be different? I doubt it because as a child I was far from adventurous.

A young explorer

Green signal_500

 

When I was a child, our local Underground station was Golders Green on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line. It was the first station on the stretch of the line, which remains open air, above ground, between Golders Green and Edgware. As a small child, I yearned to know what lay beyond Golders Green, where we always disembarked, but my parents did not share my yearning.

Long ago in the 1960s,  the trains bound for Edgware stopped at Golders Green on a stretch of line that ran between two platforms. The doors would open on both sides of the train. The platform on the left side of the train gave easy access to the centre of Golders Green and its large bus terminus. The right side, which we always used, led to an entrance that was on the way to Hampstead Garden Suburb, where our family home was located. 

One day, my father and I arrived at Golders Green after having spent some time in central London. As usual, we waited alongside a door on the right side of the train when we stopped in the station. Unusually, the doors on the right side of the train did not open, but those on the left did. By the time we realised that the right side doors were not going to open, the doors on the left side had closed, and we were beginning to travel beyond Golders Green above ground to Brent, the next station. My father was not happy, but I was delighted to be travelling along a stretch of the line that I had always wanted to see.

Since that time, I have always been excited at the prospect of travelling to the ends of the London Underground lines. Yesterday, I travelled to Watford, the terminus of one branch of the Metropolitan Line, and enjoyed it as much as I would have done when aged about ten!

Tastes differ

 

food toast meal morning

 

When I was a child, I spent a great deal of time with my aunt and her children. They lived a few minute’s walk from our family home and I enjoyed spending time with them. Often, my sister and I used to spend a whole day at my aunt’s house, sometimes over night especially when my parents were away on a trip.

My aunt fed us. Sometimes she made us fried eggs. Then, I was a very fussy eater. In those far-off days, I only liked the white part of the fried egg, not the central yellow bit. One of my cousins only liked the central yellow part, but disliked the white surrounding it.  My aunt was an extremely down-to-earth individual, laden with more than a fair share of common sense. Her solution to the fried egg situation was that after making the fried egg, she used to carefully dissect the yoke portion of the finished product and serve it to my cousin. I was given the white portion of the egg with a neat hole in it where the yellow had been.

Today, many decades later, I am not keen on any part of a fried egg and do not eat eggs prepared in this way. I much prefer omelettes and hard-boiled eggs. However, I do enjoy making them for other people, The challenge is to avoid breaking the yoke. 

 

 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The first time I ate rice

rice

 

I had a difficult birth. Both my mother and I nearly died when I was born. For the first few weeks of my life, I was not a healthy baby; my future was uncertain. Then, as I grew a little, I was a poor eater. My mother, who worried about me greatly, felt that it was best that I only ate what I liked. As a result, I became a fussy and unadventurous eater. My immediate reaction on being offered something that was outside the tiny range of foods that I was prepared to eat, was to refuse it.

Although at an early age, I was happy to eat tomato sauce either with pasta, which I still enjoy, or with baked beans, which I now dislike intensely. I recall eating a fresh (i.e. uncooked) tomato for the first time when I was about 13.

When I was 20, I joined some friends on a camping trip in France. We travelled around the country by car, camping at night. We would eat picnics for lunch and visit restaurants in the evening. One of our camping places was at Banyuls on the Mediterranean coast of France close to the Spanish border. One evening, we drove across the border to Port Bou in Spain. Naturally as we were in Spain, my friends ordered paella.

Paella, as many people know, is a rice based dish. I was a bit skeptical because I had managed to avoid eating rice (and rice pudding) prior to this brief trip to Spain. Something attracted me to the paella, maybe it was hunger or its delicious appearance, and I tried a portion. As for the rice, it was love at first bite. Since then, I have been a great fan of rice, which I had never tried during the first 20 years of my life. I still dislike rice pudding as it is made in the UK. In contrast, I really enjoy phirni, an Indian version of rice pudding.

Since that trip to Port Bou, my tastes have become quite adventurous. I rarely refuse trying something new, even if only once.

Looking back on my childhood, I now realise that my very conservative tastes deprived me of the delights of many of the gourmet meals, which my parents enjoyed while travelling with me and my sister. They would enjoy fine French or Italian food whilst I stuck to my ham or steak and chips. 

Well, as the French say À chacun son goût. I am glad that mygoût has become more exciting.

 

 

Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:

Amazon, bookfinder.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Wasting time by the pool

Pool side_240

 

My parents, like many other parents, wanted me to learn to swim. I was a reluctant learner. The reason was I could not believe that if I took my foot off the floor at the bottom of the pool or the sand beneath the sea, I would not sink like a stone. I could watch others swimming, but could not understand how they could do it and how much they enjoyed it.

Almost every Saturday morning, I used to be taken to one pool or another to get private swimming lessons. Year after year, these produced no results. I could not learn to swim. My parents must have spent a small fortune on these fruitless swimming lessons.

At school, we were taken to a public swimming bath at least once a week  during the Summer Term. The teachers supervising us were uninterested in those, like me, who were unable to swim. We were told to remain at the shallow end of the pool and not to move from there. This happened both at my primary school and also at secondary school.

Eventually my parents learnt of a Mr Brickett, who gave swimming lessons on Saturday ornings at the YWCA, which used to exist in Great Russell Street near Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. The red brick building still stands, but now it serves another purpose. 

Mr Brickett had a system that involved the pupil wearing an inflatable buoyancy arm-band arround each upper arm. Each armband had two separate inflatable chambers. With these fully inflated, I became convinced that I could make it across the pool without my feet touching the bottom. Each week, Mr Brickett would inflate the armbands a little less than the previous week, and then the pupil would be encouraged to swim to and fro across the pool. After a few weeks, I swam across the pool wearing my armbands. When I had done this, Mr Brickett revealed to me that he had not inflated the armband at all and that I was swimming without their assistance.  As I trusted Mr Brickett, I removed the bands and under his watchful eye I swam across the pool unaided. For this, I was awarded a certificate with my name and a Union Jack flag on it. It certified that I had swum 10 yards unaided, under my own steam.

 

I hardly ever swim any more, but I used to enjoy it a little bit, especially in the sea. I am glad that my parents persisted with the lessons, but regret that my slow progress led them to waste so much of their spare time by the pool.

 

A precocious child

Sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut at the dental surgery.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, our family dentist was a kindly German Jewish refugee called Dr Samuels. In those days, I learned later while I was studying dentistry, sugar used to be an ingredient of toothpaste made for use by children. I doubt that my mother provided us with children’s toothpaste, which she would have regarded as being gimmicky.

Dr Samuels had a very upmarket practice in London’s St John’s Wood. His waiting room floor was covered with thick pile oriental carpets and the reading matter was glossy journals such as Country Life.

The surgery, where Dr Samuels performed his dentistry, was old-fashioned. Instruments were kept on display in glass fronted metal cabinets. His x-ray machine looked antiquated even to my young, inexperienced eyes. So, did most of his other equipment, much of it made by the German Siemens company. One of my uncles, also a patient of Dr Samuels, once asked him if a museum might be interested in displaying this historic looking dental equipment. Samuels answer was that it was not quite old enough for a museum.

Dr Samuels drilled teeth with a cord driven dental handpiece. He told us that he had an air driven high speed dental drill, but he did not like it because it cut too fast in his opinion. So, having fillings in his surgery was quite a noisy and bumpy experience.

Dr Samuels was a gentle, kindly man, like a benevolent grandfather. He never frightened me.

At the end of an appointment, he used to reward me with a boiled sweet. I looked forward to receiving these. However, one day when I was about 8 or 9 years old and he offered me the sweet, I said to Dr Samuels: “No thank you. Sweets are filled with sugar and bad for my teeth.”

The price I paid for my precociousness was that he never again offered me a sweet at the end of my appointments with him. I should have kept my mouth shut and graciously accepted his kind but unhealthy gift.