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Posted Friday, September 21, 2012
The Sacred Dance of the Chameleon
A Non-Imaginary Autobiography
Neil David Atkin
Rev Neil D Lee
Rev Neil D Atkin BA
Lord Atkin of Lochaber
"No matter how old you are, you'll never be this young again" - Neil David Atkin
When writing in the first person singular and describing one’s triumphs and achievements, (providing of course, that one has triumphs and achievements) how does one avoid the pitfalls of ego? When lamenting mistakes or regrets and describing feelings, (providing of course, that one still has feelings) how does one avoid the degradation of self-pity?
Is it appropriate to sit in self-judgement, or acceptable to apportion praise or blame?
Or should one simply tell the truth and leave that to the reader? What does the reader want - or expect from an autobiography? What should the writer seek to achieve?
Why write autobiography at all?
These are the questions which any prospective auto-biographer needs to answer before ever setting pen to paper, and it may also help to know what other successful writers have to say on the subject of autobiography, that most narcissistic of literary indulgences.
Though basically essayists, two of my favourite writers were masters of the art of autobiography, yet employed different techniques and had different motivations for writing; and though Llewelyn Powys and Laurie Lee were as different in character as chalk and cheese, both subconsciously created mythical `hero’ impressions of themselves, which spilled out onto the pages of their lives. Llewelyn is his own hero, facing down death constantly with stoical rationalism, an endearing faith in the `poetry of existence’ and an acute sense of his own insignificance in the natural order of the cosmos; whilst Laurie is the bold adventurer, the wandering minstrel poet, heroic defender of the Spanish people against fascism; an authentic English poet and literary hero bridging the gap between Bloomsbury and The Angry Young Men of `Modernism’.
However, though Powys and Lee were both avid journal – keepers and made their respective literary reputations by writing autobiographically, apart from Love & Death Powys’s `imaginary autobiography’, neither of them ever wrote an autobiography. Neither of them `filled in the blanks’; they left that task to their future biographers – but they left some clues about writing autobiography.
This is what Laurie Lee had to say in his essay `Writing Autobiography’, published in his collection of essays under the title, “I Can’t Stay Long” (Penguin Books, 1975)
“Autobiography can be the laying to rest of ghosts as well as an ordering of the mind. But for me it is also a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations.”
This `celebration of living’ and `hoarding of sensations’ was also Powys’ main motivation; his autobiographical writings were a `hymn to the glory of life’, and throughout his life he kept a written record of his `sense impressions’.
Laurie Lee has more to say, and says it in the same colourful poetic style which imbues all his published work:
“The urge to write may also be the fear of death – particularly with autobiography – the need to leave messages for those who come after, saying, `I was here; I saw it too’. Then there are the other uses of autobiography, some less poignant than these assurances – exposure, confession, apologia, revenge, or even staking one’s claim to a Godhead’ “Which brings me to the question of truth, of fact, often raised about autobiography. If dates are wrong, can the book still be true? If facts err, can feelings be false? One would prefer to have truth both in fact and feeling (if either could ever be proved).”
Yes, Laurie, all of those, apart from `staking ones claim to a godhead’, but as far as truth and fact are concerned, surely a faulty or failing memory should be taken into consideration? Truth is not merely `preferred’ but is an essential ingredient – along with the caveat `as far as I’m aware’ or `as much as I remember’. Otherwise it’s not autobiography but fiction, and therein lie the seeds of conflict planted for every future biographer……..
Laurie Lee recognizes this prospective problem, and offers a neat excuse for all budding auto-biographers when he writes:
“But perhaps the widest pitfall in autobiography is the writer’s censorship of self. Unconscious or deliberate, it often releases an image of one who could never have lived. Flat, shadowy, prim and bloodless, it is a leaf pressed dry on the page, the surrogate chosen for public office so that the author might survive in secret.”
Surely, to be worthy of the name, an autobiography should be an accurate account, a historical chronological record of the writer’s life, and it should remain at his discretion to decide what to put in and what to leave out?
But he must tell the truth!
Laurie Lee picks up the thread when he pronounces:
“An ego that takes up too much of a book can often wither the rest of it.”
“The auto-biographer’s self can be a transmitter of life that is larger than his own – though it is best that he should be shown taking part in that life and involved in its dirt and splendours. The dead stick `I’, like the staff of the maypole, can be the centre of the turning world, or it can be the electric needle that picks up and relays the thronging choirs of life around it.”
(from `Writing Autobiography’, `I Can’t Stay Long’; Penguin Books, 1975)
In `The Sacred Dance of the Chameleon’ Tom Bates plants no seeds of conflict for any future biographer, but many bones of contention upon which the reader may masticate at leisure. He leaves little to the imagination and relates his life experiences with as much candour and accuracy as memory will allow, painting a remarkable portrait of an ordinary man living an extraordinary life.
Throughout this extraordinary life it would seem that the author, in his many guises, has indeed `chosen a surrogate for public office - so that he may survive in secret’.
Thus this `non-imaginary autobiography’ attempts to meld together these surrogate disguises in order to present the chameleon-like author as an individual entity, and in that it succeeds beyond measure.
The `sacred dance’ is Life with a capital L.
Tom Bates, or rather, Neil Atkin is the Chameleon.
Looking back from the pinnacle of a mountain almost three quarters of a century high, I can see behind me the vast expanse of the road I have travelled on my journey through the landscape of my life.
Now, as I stand at the threshold of the second decade of the new Millennium, looking back through the mists of time and gazing bleary eyed and traumatized at the second half of the 20th century, I am compelled by the remarkable wealth and diversity of my experience - and by the force and intensity of its sense-impressions, to write it down and record it for posterity.
I was born just after the Second World War in 1946 and limped my way through the treacherous foothills of childhood to the blighted orchard of my youth, where I could not resist the forbidden fruit. Thus I ate of the tree of knowledge and surrendering my innocence, was cast out of the garden.
Stumbling blindly along the rocky road of penury, I spent many years wandering in the wilderness before a `Damascus Road’ experience set me free from my prison of ignorance.
At the age of 35 my life finally began: once my fledgling spirit had mastered the aerodynamics of flight it soared to previously unknown heights and transported me in fleeting moments of ecstasy to heightened levels of conscious awareness.
Silhouetted against the infinite horizon of eternity, an enlightened insight invoked a sublime sense of earth-rootedness, and I have since frequently inhabited a realm enriched and pregnant with the poetry of existence.
The ephemeral nature of the permanent has sense-impressed itself upon me and my perception of conscious reality has been wrapped in a cosmic embrace; finally as the scales have fallen from my mind, I have seen into the future, and an unfathomable depth of oblivion as deep and unforgiving as the graves of all who have gone before lies in wait.
Living on the forward edge of the cresting wave of time, the sacred dance of the glory of life is all.
Space-ship Earth, this miniscule conglomeration of atoms hurtling through the vastness of infinite space; this organic mass of cooling molten matter - has collected a multitude of parasites on its evolutionary journey through time, none more virulent than the cancerous spores of the genus Homo-Sapiens, the genocidal Human Race.
I am no modern-day Jeremiah, no prophet of doom, for I bring only tidings of great joy and wonder at the miracle of life - and the message that the only resurrection of life is through nature, and human life through human nature.
So I am wringing the last drops of sweetness from the grapes of this wine of life like a true follower of Epicurus - before it is too late.
It is the only worthwhile pursuit that life has to offer, believe me I’ve tried all the others along the way.
This is a historical and chronological record of my journey and may act as a guide – or a warning – to those who would follow in my footsteps.
New Year’s Eve 2013
Neil Atkin: In the Beginning......
I was born at a very early age, under the sign of Libra in October 1946 the year after the Second World War had ended.
In fact, I probably came into being as an indirect result of the German surrender - conceived during the allies’ long and glorious celebrations of victory.....
That those celebrations were indeed long and glorious is a fact confirmed in the recording by social historians of a `post-war baby-boom’ during that period when austerity was the all-pervading atmosphere and worn like a greatcoat by the whole of the great British public; that period when we’d won a war, but lost an empire.
Left to her own devices nature compensates and redresses her own balance, and one can readily project that the post-war baby-boom was natures way of redressing the balance and compensating for the loss of so many of our island population who died in defiance of the oppressor and in defence of our freedom. Those who remain owe more than a mere debt of gratitude for their right to exist in a free society, both to old mother nature and to their heroic ancestors; they owe their very existence, their Being, their one single glorious chance opportunity for the conscious reality of life, to both.
For my own part, and I seek no forgiveness for my bold intransigence, I honour my mother and my father for I believe that they both had something to do with it too.
I was a lovely baby with masses of tight blond curls. I did not mewl and puke like most infants. In fact, I was an exceptionally well behaved baby.
This was probably on account of my vividly recollected introduction to the world when I was energetically struggling to extricate myself from the disposable bag whilst the short-sighted midwife was trying unsuccessfully to slap some life into the afterbirth….
As befits a child born to such true freedom I duly escaped from that harrowing experience, though it set the pattern for the next 35 years of escaping sequentially from any physically or psychologically claustrophobic environment.
Subsequently I escaped from school, making my initial bid for freedom on the very first day of my primary education, and making later successful bids from home; from borstal; from marriage and responsibility; from prison; and finally, from myself.
But if my journey has taught me anything, then it has taught me this valuable lesson; that there is no need of escape from conscious reality when life itself is deemed an inestimable privilege by the possessor of it.
That my subsequent urges to escape such confinements was due entirely to my ignorance of this fact, I am in no doubt.
However, I did not escape from that disposable bag (no Mother, I am not referring to you!) completely unscathed, for dear old mother nature, no doubt in compensation for the end that was covered in a mass of blond curls, balanced that yin of beauty with a yang of ugliness at the opposite end by providing me with deformed feet.
True to form I spent my entire childhood trying to escape from a series of orthopaedic surgeons, all intent on curtailing my freedom and disabling me further by their surgical attempts to alter the feet which nature had provided me with as my primary means of escape.
I was the eldest, and only male child of four delivered by my mother.
Nature had been kinder to the other three and they had no physical disabilities, except for the fact that they were all female.
I preceded the eldest of my three sisters by six years, all four of us beginning life in a tiny two-up, two-down terraced house on a steep street in a Derbyshire village, built when Victoria was Queen of England.
My mother brought us up in that little house which was home to me for the first thirteen years of my life just as her parents had brought up their brood of four children within those same walls, but with a difference.
My mother did it single-handed, Daddy having ridden west into the sunset in the direction of Manchester in pursuit of fame and fortune, and anything in skirts when I was ten and my youngest sister Marie was just one year old.
My father was one of those people for whom responsibility was anathema and throughout his life, when the burden became too heavy to bear he simply ran away and avoided it.
A wife and four young children was obviously too much for him; he was the kind of person who could never commit to a permanent relationship; a selfish man who cared primarily for himself, and strived only for his own pleasures and advancement in life, usually at the expense of others both financially and emotionally.
His background and upbringing must have had a major influence on his attitude of mind from an early age and throughout his life, as mine did with me, and I suppose, as it does with everyone.
He had no experience of any real family life, and knew only his mother, Elsie.
Elsie Johnson had been unmarried with a two year old son when she met Joe Atkin, by whom she became pregnant and whom she later married in May 1927.
My father, born three months later on August 15th was the result of that pre-marital pregnancy, but his half-brother Peter died from a brain tumour when he was 10 years old and by then Joe had disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.
It still irks me to this day that I have never been able to find any record of Joseph Atkin’s birth or death despite searching all the available official records.
My father was thus from the age of nine, an only child and brought up by his mother to whom he remained devoted for most of his adult life.
Elsie’s nomadic wanderings took her from her birth in Sheffield in 1902 to Chesterfield, London, Oldham, Bristol, and finally to the Lake District where she died aged 76 in 1977.
Her movements around the country mirrored my father’s, and when he left my mother in 1957 he went to Elsie’s apartment in Peabody Buildings in Great Peter Street, London, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament.
When he later moved to Oldham, his mother followed him, and she followed him to Bristol too, and then finally to the farmhouse near Coniston where she lived in a large caravan in the garden with her partner, George Picaver. She’d met George on the streets of London in 1949, a tramp down on his luck, and had taken him in and they’d stayed together for the rest of their lives, but had never married.
These were my paternal grandparents, and I have very vague memories of going on a long journey during the night in my father’s car to visit them at Peabody Buildings when I was about two years old; of sleeping on the leather seat in the back and being woken by the bright lights whenever we pulled into a petrol station to fill up. This was more than a decade before the M1 motorway was built, and the journey seemed to take forever.
I remember that dawn was breaking as we arrived, and milk was being delivered from a horse and cart. I have no memory of the apartment, of how long we stayed or anything about it, not even the journey back home, only that my father left again almost immediately, but this time without me. These constitute some of my earliest memories.
My mother remembers that when I was brought back my legs were covered in red welts and bruises, inflicted with a belt from a beating by Grandma Elsie, but I have no recollection of it.
Dave being her only son, was the apple of Elsie’s eye and could do no wrong, and she doted on him and indulged him to such a degree that he came to believe in his own divine right to preference.
Throughout his life he only ever associated with those who indulged him, those who didn’t he ignored and treat with disdain; they obviously didn’t recognize his genius so he rather imperiously regarded them as either ignorant or simply inferior beings.
He always boasted that he was the master of his own destiny; he inevitably discovered in the end, that none of us are.
I obviously inherited some genetic characteristics from dear old pater for I was to emulate many of his deeds in the years ahead.
He could have been a magician for he’d `disappeared’ regularly ever since he’d married my mother in May 1946 when she was already four months pregnant with me, and the periods of his absence simply grew longer, until eventually he `disappeared’ and never came back.
My memories of him at the house in Newbridge Street are both vague and sparse, the earliest perhaps that of being carried on his shoulders through the snowy churchyard at Old Whittington to a Carol Service one Christmas when I was perhaps three years old.
I seem to remember that he was away a lot, and for lengthy periods.
My mother does not feature much in my earliest recollections of childhood, for the first six or seven years of my life were largely spent next door being looked after by my `Auntie Nellie’ - actually my mother’s aunt - whilst my mother went to work at a local factory to pay of the debts that my father had left behind.
Occasionally when my mother was on the afternoon shift her brother, who was 17 or 18 at the time and courting, acted as babysitter. I remember one winter evening standing with my back to the open fire in the front room, and my Uncle Doug telling me that if I stood there much longer my backbone would melt. He obviously wanted me to go to bed and leave him alone with his girlfriend, but I believed him, and for years I avoided standing with my back to the fire in case I melted my backbone!
In those early dimly remembered years, it was Auntie Nellie who taught me to tell the time; Auntie Nellie who bathed me every Sunday evening in the tin bath which hung on a nail outside the back door; Auntie Nellie who accompanied me on my first day at school, and Auntie Nellie who told me regularly that `Daddy will be back soon”.
He came back after I started school at the local infants & junior school, and my mother gave birth to two girls in successive years; Lynne in 1953, and Jane in 1954.
She gave birth to Lynne at home attended by the local midwife, Nurse Slynn, and I vaguely remember being sent outside to play in the back yard, and wondering why most of my adult relatives were huddled around the back door as if they were waiting for something – or someone to arrive.
Auntie Nellie suddenly appeared at the door and announced, “It’s a girl”, and it certainly was, with lovely blue eyes, a gummy smile and wispy blonde curls, and she was called Lynne.
Dave stayed awhile, for five years in fact, and in that time he helped found the local village cricket club and sang in a successful vocal harmony group called the Four of Hearts.
He also fathered my mother’s third and fourth children, Jane arrived in February 1955 and my youngest sister Marie was born in November, on her mother’s 30th birthday in 1957.
Marie was also blonde at birth like Lynne, as was my mother, but Jane and I were both dark like my father, and Jane also bore a remarkable resemblance to Elsie, the grandmother she was destined never to meet.
My father left for good in 1958, the year after Marie was born.
Thus from the age of ten, in the absence of any other I was the `man of the house’ and I was called upon with increasing regularity to look after my three younger sisters.
I missed my father, and remember coming home from school on the bus and waiting with eager anticipation for the bus to stop at the bottom of the hill, and to get my first glimpse up the street to see if his car was there outside our house. When it was, my heart beat that much quicker with excitement and I ran up the street to see him; when it wasn’t, as increasingly was the case, then my heart sank and I dragged myself up the street with disappointment hanging heavy on my soul.
My mother’s side of the family were numerous and we had an aunt and uncle living next door at number 32 & Uncle Bob at number 30.
Uncle Bob was in his late seventies, and had a silver plate in his skull, courtesy of shrapnel wounds he’d brought home with him from the Boer War, along with a permanent limp, shell shock and eventually severe senile dementia.
He drank only hot water, smoked a pipe, and frequently sent me on errands to the local shop or to the bookies; sometimes he would reward me with a sixpence, sometimes a farthing, and sometimes with a clip round the ear.
Six or seven other aunts and uncles lived within a mile of us, and my mother’s parents were only two miles away, so there was lots of family support available, some more readily than others.
I suppose the reluctance of some was because they had adopted the attitude prevalent in society at the time of `you’ve made your bed and you must lie in it’ towards young family members whose actions met with disapproval, and felt as elders that perhaps a certain amount of moral indignation was justified.
This happened in my mother’s case, when from a respectable working class family she became the only one of four children to become pregnant and be `forced’ into marriage at the age of eighteen.
None of her parents or wider family approved of the marriage or of the lout who had made her pregnant, and when he left her a year later, they all felt smug and justified and she suffered the shame and embarrassment of the `I told you so s’ – until he came back the following year.
But his frequent absences, sometimes for as long as six months, his attitude and behaviour, his lifestyle and treatment of my mother, excluded him forever from the `family circle’ and he remained an outsider all his life.
I was to emulate him in the years ahead.
My mother was frequently urged to leave him, especially after the times he’d given her a black eye or a split lip, but she remained loyal and she claims to this day that he was the only man she ever loved, although she grew to despise him.
Within a year of her marriage she found herself alone with a seven month old child, with no money for rent or food, no income – and no furniture after the bailiffs came and took most of it in lieu of debts my father had accrued.
So for the first few years of my life I grew up in abject poverty, along with most of the other people on our street, but I was the only one of two dozen street children who didn’t have a breadwinner father at home.
Some families were so poor that they were forced to live in very unsanitary cramped conditions which today would never be tolerated or even allowed by law; none of the houses had inside toilets, hot water, or bathrooms, just an old black cast-iron range and a big pot sink with a large brass cold-water tap.
Down the street from us two families shared one of these tiny terraced houses, one living in the back two rooms which consisted of the kitchen and back bedroom, and one in the front which meant the front room and front bedroom. Four brothers lived in one half, and shared a double mattress, two at the top and two at the bottom and were so poor that they only had two pairs of shoes between them and took it in turns to go out!
Back then in the fifties our house was very sparsely furnished, mainly with cast-offs from neighbours or relatives, and whatever my mother had been able to afford `on the weekly’, and there were lots of times when there was nothing to eat.
Some days my main meal consisted of a mug full of boiling water poured over a crumbled Oxo cube, with two or three slices of dry bread broken up into the mug and salt & pepper added, and then eaten with a teaspoon.
Some days in the summer months when my grandfathers tomatoes were plentiful I had slices of fresh tomato sliced up in-between two pieces of dry bread, only very rarely did we have margarine, and never butter.
I can’t remember my mother ever cooking a `proper’ dinner in those early days. Mind you, we didn’t even have a gas cooker then, just a Victorian cast-iron range which doubled as an oven and hot water boiler, with an open fire grate in-between to provide the heat.
We ate mainly tinned food, tomatoes, beans, occasionally an egg, and on Sundays a rasher or two of streaky bacon. Mostly it was `bread and catch-it’, as my mother used to say when we asked what was for dinner, or `a run around the table and a kick at the pantry door’; sometimes the `catch-it’ on the bread was either sugar or jam.
We still had ration books then, and I remember the egg powder and something called `Frizettes’ which my mother provided regularly, probably owing to the simplicity of preparation; it was a flavoured pancake mix, a tablespoonful to a teaspoon of water, mix into a paste and drop into a heated frying pan and in seconds you have miniature tomato flavoured pancakes called…..Frizettes…..no nutritional value whatsoever, but quick, easy, and cheap. I always looked forward to Saturdays, the day when auntie Nellie went shopping to town and always brought back my favourite food, a compound of offal which masqueraded under the name of `Savoury Duck’. In parts of the country this mainly northern delicacy is known as `faggots’ and is delicious sliced and fried…
Thus, I learned to cook, or at least, to feed myself from a very early age, although everything was on a tight budget and real meat was a rarity, apart from the occasional chicken or rabbit as I grew older.
Perhaps one of the worst examples of our poverty that I can recall was in 1957 just after Marie was born and my father had left, when in desperation to provide something for her children to eat, my mother made a vegetable `stew’ using potato peelings left out for a neighbour’s hens.
Her pride would never allow her to beg and whatever help or assistance we were given was never asked for, especially from the family.
My maternal grandfather, Edward Bates, known by all as Ted was a keen gardener and had two allotments in the village and would often send some produce he’d grown, but he would never bring it himself.
No one visited us and the only way I ever saw my aunts and uncles or any of my relatives was to visit them, which I did most days simply to escape the confines of the poverty in the little house on Newbridge Street.
Occasionally I accompanied Auntie Nellie and Uncle Ern on visits up to Hadfield’s Farm next door to the Poplar Inn on the outskirts of the village. Norman Shaw, a friend of Ern’s worked there as a pig-man, and I recall summer evenings sitting on the wall of the piggery with a glass of pop whilst the adults were drinking in the Tap Room.
In those days Ernie Bramley was still playing football for Worksop Town, having previously been a professional footballer and captain of Mansfield Town both before and just after the Second World War. He had lots of sporting friends who sometimes turned up at the Poplar, amongst them were boxers Bruce Woodcock and Randolph Turpin, and snooker players Joe and Fred Davis who ran the Queens Hotel at nearby Whittington Moor.
I was always out playing, mostly down by the river on the water-meadows, known by locals as ’watter-fields’ at the bottom of the street from very early morning, until it went dark, and even then on some nights after my father had left I was allowed to stay out until eight or even nine o’clock.
At those times a small gang of a dozen or so would congregate beneath the gas lamp at the bottom of the street, using it as a base for a variety of children’s games, most of which involved expending a considerable amount of energy, but of course, my energy in those days was boundless, or so it seemed. I ran everywhere, always in a hurry to get from A to B, which seemed to form the basic pattern of my life throughout the years ahead.
I was brought up to believe in God and religiously taught to respect the tenets of the Church of England, and my mother, who has always had an unwavering belief in God, made sure that I attended Sunday School regularly from being seven years old.
A regular Sunday routine developed which saw me attending the service at the Parish Church, and leaving just before the sermon along with about a dozen other children to go across the road to the Church Hall for one hour of Sunday school lessons.
We were given an envelope-sized card full of small squares, and every Sunday upon attending Sunday School we were given an adhesive stamp to stick in one of the squares; each `stamp’ had a piece of armour, and when the card was completed it showed a knight in armour, with the motto `Fight the Good Fight’. At Easter a full card could be exchanged for a book token, but I only managed to put together half the knight on my card & never got a book.
At first attending church was a chore which I endured to keep my mother happy, as I would much rather have been out in the fields bird-nesting, or building a tree-house in the wood, or playing on the rope-swing across the river, all favourite pastimes – and all far more enjoyable than going to church.
But going to church began to have its attractions, not least because Valerie Graham attended the adjacent Methodist Chapel every week, and I was madly in love with her from being seven years old. We went through junior school together in the same class, and were both in the school athletics team as sprinters, in fact my adoration of her began largely because she was the fastest girl runner in the school, whilst I was only the second fastest boy.
I grew to love the atmosphere inside the church, especially on sunny mornings when the rays of the sun shone directly through the large stained glass windows behind the altar and lit the whole of the choir stalls and front pews with spectacular vivid hues of red, blue and green. It reflected off the brass plaques on the wall and lit up the bronze eagle atop the lectern, bringing everything alive with a kind of joy.
I loved the smell of age and incense which emanated from the stone pillars and fabric of the normally sombre interior, but most of all I loved the overwhelming sense of piety and peacefulness that the interior seemed to exude.
I developed a strong affinity with St. Bartholomew’s and came to regard it as a sort of spiritual home, especially after I learned that my parents, grandparents, and most of my uncles and aunts had all attended here and had all been baptised and later married here too; and although I didn’t know it at the time, my family connection went back even further to 1650 when my 11 x great grandfather, Rev James Hewitt was Rector of the Parish.
I have dim recollections of being a Wolf Cub when I was about seven or eight years old and attending every Sunday evening at Mount Tabor Methodist Chapel and learning to tie different kinds of knots. I also attended a massive gathering of Boy Scouts from all over the Commonwealth which was held at Chatsworth House. I can’t remember when this took place, only that I was some age between 5 and 9 years old at the time, which would set it sometime between 1951 and 1955.
It could have been in 1951 for the Festival of Britain Celebrations, or it could even have been in 1953 in celebration of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2nd. Memory fails me, so I suppose it could just as easily have been to celebrate the centenary of Baden-Powell’s birthday, in which case it would have been 1957....
Vague recollections of those days come to mind; when I was nine my father, at a cricket match and in the presence of two young ladies instructed me not to call him `Dad’ ever again, and thereafter to call him Dave like everyone else.
Another memory was my first game of football for my junior school team, my father came to the game and I scored both goals in a 2-0 win. He ruffled my hair and said `Well done, lad”, and I was very happy. I’d never scored a goal before. After he left us, I went into hospital for surgery on my feet, and remained on crutches for almost a year and was so disappointed that I could no longer play football.
The original surgery to correct my congenitally deformed feet was undertaken when I was eight years old, and was successful in correcting my right foot, but not the left. This time I had the bone structure altered and small pieces of synthetic bone fused in my left foot and after coming out of hospital, remained in plaster for three months.
During that time I fell out of a tree into the river and had to return to the hospital to have the plaster cast removed, and the foot, ankle and leg up to the knee re-plastered. This happened again a few weeks later and meant that I remained on crutches for about nine months before the plaster cast was removed permanently. These weren’t like the modern aluminium crutches, with hand grips and bands which fit just below the elbow, these were good old fashioned wooden crutches, made from solid beech, and quite heavy by comparison. Once I’d got them properly adjusted to fit snugly under each armpit, and using just my good right foot for propulsion, I was faster on my crutches than most of my mates were without them, and enjoyed playing football too in a local kick-about!
Those crutches became legendary in our family for the day in 1956 when one of them was used to very good effect to quell the threat of a violent neighbour. We lived next door to a family named Bamford with two daughters, the eldest of which had been told off by my mother for throwing an empty glass bottle over the wall into our garden. The girl complained to her mother, who then came round to remonstrate with my mother, and a fight ensued which ended with my mother dragging the other woman up the yard by the hair, and throwing her out into the street with the sound advice, “ never come round here threatening me again or next time you’ll need carrying out”. I remember my mother storming back into the house, and then suddenly breaking down and crying, and berating herself for losing her temper and making a spectacle of herself.
My sisters had been scared by all the commotion, and were huddled together in a corner of the room crying when there was a loud knock on the door. My mother quickly pulled herself together and opened it to find Mr Bamford standing there with his fists up, demanding that she `come outside and take me on’ and with a few choice expletives thrown in for good measure. He began dancing around her, so I pulled her back into the kitchen, stepped out into the yard and whacked him in the ear-hole with one of my crutches. The blow almost felled him and he staggered sideways for a moment then came forward with his hands outstretched to try and grab me, so I hit him with the other crutch and this time he toppled over. I broke my plaster-cast when it collided with a bony part of him, and he got up groggily and staggered out of the yard and went home. It’s a good job really - my mother would have killed him.
One traumatic event comes readily to mind from 1957, a few months after Auntie Nellie had moved from next door into a new council house about half a mile away on High Street in the village.
I was in the habit of walking up the hill to visit her and my great grandmother Minnie after I came home from school, and one day during that summer just as I was reaching the top of the hill, I met my Uncle Arthur coming in the opposite direction and he stopped me and sent me back home because his 89 year old mother - who was my great grandmother and had been in a coma for months - had just died. Almost in compensation for my great grandmother departing, my Uncle Doug and Auntie Audrey moved into the street next to ours, and I became a frequent visitor to the little terraced house on Whittington Hill, enticed not least by my Auntie Audrey’s home-made chocolate cake.
It was during this time that I started smoking.
At the bottom of our street lived Arnold Adams and his sister, both of them in their early eighties and neither ever married.
Arnold was a quiet, well-spoken gentleman with a thatch of pure white hair who loved the countryside and could remember the days when Old Whittington was a rural agricultural village.
Every Monday I would run an errand for him up to the post office to collect his pension. In the afternoon he would buy a packet of cigarettes, usually twenty Park Drive Tipped for 11d, and we’d walk up to the churchyard and sit on his favourite bench beneath a Yew tree and smoke the lot between us, whilst he regaled me with tales from his childhood.
Strangely, this was the only time that he ever smoked; he didn’t smoke at all during the rest of the week, just those twenty on Monday afternoons!
I think Arnold had been a school master, and I remember he’d been a conscientious objector in the second war, after the terrifying experiences he’d had during the first war between 1914-18 when he was called up as a young man and sent to fight in France.
Arnold died in 1959, when I was just 13, but I always remembered him with fondness, he was perhaps the gentlest man I’d ever known.
My mother couldn’t afford to give me pocket money, so my Auntie Nellie gave me sixpence every week, but it didn’t go very far, and by the time I’d reached twelve years of age, I wanted to buy more than just sweets and comics.
So I got a daily paper round, and later a butcher’s round on Saturday mornings delivering meat on a pushbike, and spent most of my earnings on cigarettes and going to the `pictures’.
These activities helped my rehabilitation from foot surgery, although I remained restricted from playing football until I was thirteen and in my second year at senior school.
One thing I remember above all is my mother saying to me with monotonous regularity, especially during the early transgressions of my formative years, `you’ll never be any good while you’re like your father’.
Well they do say `like father- like son’, and for most of the early part of my life he was my hero.
At any given time during a person’s life, they are the product of the sum total of their individual life experience to that date, governed by social circumstances, upbringing and environment.
Our perceptions change along with our life attitude as a result of time and on-going life experience, and so truth, like time, is fluid.
Our childhood heroes are very rarely the heroes of our adulthood as accumulated life experience raises our understanding and awareness levels and the mature perception usually proves our immature childhood perceptions to have been, in most instances quite infantile. In this respect I was no exception, except that my infantile paternal hero worship continued until I was thirty five years old.
In the late forties and early fifties there was a general air of expectation throughout English society; the long war had ended and the majority looked forward to returning to normal living after almost a decade of hardship, denial and sacrifice. There was an expectation, or at least, an anticipation of an era of austerity flowing naturally into a time of peaceful prosperity - much like that period that had graced the late twenties and early thirties; a time viewed as the `norm’ by those of the sturdy adult population who had survived the war. That expectation was not fulfilled until a decade later, and when it did finally arrive and we were told that we had `never had it so good’ by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, we were experiencing something which we had not only `never had so good’ but something which we had never had before at all.
The victory which ended the Second World War heralded the American emancipation of the English. P
Perhaps Hollywood had started it after the First World War, but the Yankie invasion of our culture which had taken root then, became firmly established in the late forties and early fifties.
Those yearning for a nostalgic return to the relative peaceful security and contentment of their halcyon yesteryears shining golden in the afterglow of pre-war memory, lived forever in disillusionment, for they were gone, consigned to history and never to return.
The England that rose like a phoenix from the ashes of devastation after the war bore more than a hint of the stars and stripes in the framework and fabric of its victorious Union Jack-covered foundational structure, and the star spangled blanket which superimposed itself over the patchwork-quilted Anglo-Saxon/Celtic overlay of English culture wrapped us snugly in a new modernity.
The Yanks brought the ethos of the modern metropolis to dear old mother England. They brought it in glossy magazine glamour; they brought it on the big silver screen; they brought it in glorious techni-colour; they brought America, bold, brash and larger-than-life.
The American cowboy was the biggest of England’s heroes as he rode in glory out of the sunset and the Wild West came two thousand miles east across the Atlantic in a wagon train of dreams driven by the fantasy peddling pioneers of Hollywood.
Neon began to light our cities now populated by dance halls and coffee-bars.
Cinemas were followed rapidly by bowling alleys and a new and exciting music was heard from the new-fangled juke-boxes as an array of American artistes began to take over the British hit-parade.
My own initiation to music was sitting in a café on Whittington Moor listening to the juke-box playing The Gal with the Yeller Shoes, and Frankie Layne singing Ghost Riders in the Sky and Cool Water.
My mother had a wind-up gramophone and a pile of old 78 rpm records, and here I discovered Johnny Ray Walking in the Rain and heard the song about the Naughty Lady of Shady Lane, whilst falling in love with Ann Shelton after listening to her lusty rendition of Lay Down Your Arms.
In the backstreets and bomb-sites of London; in the dark satanic mill-yards of the north; on every acre of public park and in every playground throughout the provinces kids ran around slapping their own backsides with one wildly flailing hand, whilst the other was held out in front clutching imaginary reins as they urged their dream horses ever faster and rode side by side with their screen heroes across the playground prairies of their dreams.
All over the country kids were playing Cowboys and Indians, and in the days when Tom Mix rode the range and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers vied for popularity as `authentic singing cowboys’ the hero worship of my adolescence had reached its peak.
I was the gloriously blessed `Son of David’ – who had witnessed his father’s miraculous transformation in truly Americanised Clark Kent into Superman style, from Derbyshire milkman David Harry Atkin, into Dave Darby, the (authentic!) Singing Cowboy from Canada!
National fame duly arrived for the Derbyshire Milkman when in 1958 Dave Darby was pictured riding his horse across the centre pages of the Daily Mirror.
Riding towards him from the opposite page was another of my childhood heroes, `The Cisco Kid’, - played by actor Duncan Renaldo, and emblazoned across the top of the double page was the caption, `HOWDY PARD’NER’S’.
The hero - worship had reached a crescendo, but of course, no one believed me when I told them that the `Cowboy’ was my father.
He became the first locally-born man to appear on national television when he appeared on `Bid for Fame’, an early talent show hosted by McDonald Hobley.
I must have been eleven or twelve at the time, and I remember not being able to get back home in time to catch the programme, so I knocked on a door on Newbridge Lane to ask the stranger who answered if she would let me in to watch her television for fifteen minutes because `my dad’s on the telly”.
Not only did she let me in to watch the show, she also gave me a glass of lemonade!
Dave sang two songs, `Goldmine in the Sky’ and `Sugar Moon’; won the contest and was invited back to appear on the show again the following week.
Life was becoming a little confusing and my world had developed into two separate halves, with my mother, sisters, relatives and friends on one side, and my errant show-business cowboy hero of a father on the other – and I was stuck in the middle.
Little was I aware that these were the years that would shape my life, or that this breeding ground of divided loyalties would continue to plague me and to haunt me for the rest of my days.
Looking back, it seems to me now that despite the poverty and family hardships, my childhood, which I perceive as that period between birth and puberty, was a golden time filled with happy memories. There was safety, if not stability, borne perhaps of innocence; all was wonderment and fresh experience and I squandered my hours in playful new discovery, eager for the fray.
For subsequent chapters contact Tom: email@example.com