Early Days

On the 28th of March 1812, my great, great, grandfather David was born in Calcutta, India. His father, Thomas Davis, was a Colour Sergeant in the 24th Regiment of Foot. He was a miner from Oswestry turned colonial soldier, married to Ann. Stationed at Dinapur in Bihar, India, the 1st Battalion of the 24th had been involved in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16 – an expensive but failed attempt at a landgrab for the East India Company. Thomas and Ann both died in Dinapur in 1818, possibly from a cholera epidemic, leaving three small children.

David was the eldest. Years later he joined the Royal Artillery and married Mary Casey from Clonmel, Ireland, having ten children with her. They were born between the corners of a triangle: Portsmouth to Tobago, to Piet Retief in South Africa. One of their daughters, Elizabeth, my great grandmother, born in South Africa in 1857, married an English District Commissioner and had all her children there, including Ellen in 1885, who herself had seven children before dying at 44. Zoë Christine, my mother, was the youngest. Her father, John, was a Geordie by birth and a Methodist missionary, while his own father, Richard Owen, had been an engineer in Newcastle. Richard had abandoned his wife and eight children and disappeared. John, who had fought in the Boer war, married three times and had nine children.

On the other side in 1867, on the 22nd of December, my grandfather Joseph was born in Belfast. His father, Patrick had been a saddle maker in Armagh, the ancestral line going back to Patrick Lynch of Lydican Castle, Galway, in the seventeenth century. Joseph was employed by Customs & Excise. He married Mabel, the orphaned daughter of a butler from Thame in England, and they had eight children. Bernard, my father, was the eldest.

My father was a keen photographer and kept a camera with him as he travelled with the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force. Over the years he assiduously filed his negatives, but it’s quite likely that since he was on the move so much of the time he rarely had the opportunity to print them. In the house where I grew up there was a box of contact prints and negatives but there were no prints of his on the walls. The box of negatives was an introduction to photography.

My mother had come to England aged nine, and on leaving school at sixteen she joined a hairdressing salon. She went to parties and played tennis and worked her way through the war. She married my dad. I was born. I was named. He died. I was renamed.

On my father’s gravestone in Hillingdon and Uxbridge Cemetery it is written that he died on the 2nd February 1953, age 57. It’s a mistake. He was born on the 19th January 1901, just a few days before the death of Queen Victoria, and died age 52.

I discovered this when I visited his grave for the first time in 1989. I mentioned the error to my mother but she showed no interest and I presume that she had never visited herself. I never met him; he died two weeks after I was born. My mother sold off most of his possessions and, at least partly inspired by Gone with the Wind, attempted to start a new life. She insisted she would never marry again.

That new life included two siblings and me. An uncle had offered to take me into his family, but my mother refused – a decision that would certainly have consequences further ahead. We spent the next four years in Elstree on the outskirts of London, but keeping the house going proved too difficult for her and she later decided to move.

We were already isolated as a family by virtue of the fact that both my parents were immigrants. My father had been brought up in Belfast and my mother in South Africa so there was no extended family around, and while I had many uncles, aunts and cousins, the few meetings that we had with any of them were extremely rare. An elderly step-uncle who had fought in the First World War would come to stay when he needed to, and for a while my mother hosted a refugee from the Hungarian revolution, but there were few other visitors to the house.

During the first three years I spent a lot of time in a playpen. The mornings I can remember were spent describing the rounded, vertical bars with my fingers, the square corners, the blues and the yellows of the blankets and cushions. I was near the stove for warmth, observing an empty room and the sunlight moving across the window. Now and again I was taken out and fed, and cleaned. In the late afternoons and evenings some other children came to the house. These were a brother and a sister, five and six years older than me. Was I actually welcome in this house? If I was, it didn’t feel like it.

“You’re not as intelligent as your brother.”

“But you’re just as creative.” My mother had a way with clichés and punch lines. We were passing a rainy afternoon on holiday, looking at some palaeontology exhibits in Belfast Museum: ape skulls and skeletons, and stuffed apes. She showed me the evidence. “You see my dear, that the back of this skull is longer than yours. Your brother has a long skull, too, and it’s a sign of intelligence.”

There was a lot to learn about the world. The behaviour of a tiger at Belfast zoo was particularly disturbing. Quite an old adult, it paced its cage continuously, a large callous on each temple, raised by scraping past each bar as it walked left, and then right, and then left again. Would people display this kind of stereotypical behaviour if we were trapped in a cage?

Just occasionally a quotation may be drilled into the memory by the context that surrounds it. At other times, it may be a visual image that is recorded. During one year my mother went to the cinema to see The Spanish Gardener, Moby Dick, and The King and I. I came away with a handful of mental images from each film, but only one quotation, “Do you collect stamps?” the odd first line of the Dirk Bogarde movie.

There would be trips to Dino’s in Hendon for a spaghetti Bolognese or to Regent Street in London to see the Christmas lights. Very little of London could be called pretty in 1957 – too many streets still had bombed out buildings, sometimes entire roads had been left as rubble from the war. It was an old world environment where the milkman had a horse and cart. But then we moved house, from the suburbs of London to a small new-build in an Oxfordshire village. There were still gas lamps in the streets, but the milkman drove a van.

Starting at school was a shock. The local primary had more children than I had ever seen, all in one place. I was given a seat at a desk. A boy called Nigel was sat in front of me. We stared mutely at each other. Later the teacher came along and put a card on the table in front of me, saying, “We’ll see what you can do with that.” The card had numbers and lines on it.

I struggled with numbers. The two times table seemed straightforward enough, it was easy to visualise and the number 24 had a comforting ring to it. The three times table was altogether more threatening – it was spiky, and the 36 looked ominously green whichever way you wrote it. The four times table was, in my mind, yellow and black, and ugly. I didn’t think I’d really need the six times table, though there was a certain relief at reaching a round 60.

I’d already learned that five divided by three was not an easy calculation for my mother. An uncle sent five pounds at Christmas time, which was to be divided between three children. In those days five pounds meant 100 shillings, or 1200 pennies, rather than 500 pence. It was decided that the fairest way to divide it was to give £2 each to my brother and sister and £1 to me. To her credit, my sister looked slightly embarrassed by this though my brother could not hide his glee.

Mother did her best to satisfy every request that arrived from my brother at boarding school, and laboured to produce birthday cakes on time, and in the shape and design required. One was a cake in the shape of a lunar base, with green icing; another was a cowboy ranch. She was quite an artist, and they looked brilliant. “I hope you’ll never ask me to do things like this when you go to boarding school,” she’d say. “Of course not, Mum,” I replied. That was the nature of our communication.

There was the distinct problem of bonding within the family, but this came on top of possible symptoms of autism which affected my ability to play in a childlike way. As in all households there were moments of hysterical laughter, but they were rare. From four to fourteen I was often anxious and depressed, something that has fluctuated with highs and lows in adult life.

I found things difficult to tolerate, with a parent I could not rely on and an older brother and sister who seemed strangers, issues that were exacerbated when I was sent away to a boarding school aged eight. This was paid for by my father’s RAF insurance. I wanted to do everything. Top of the list was piano lessons. “Well, you can have lessons for one term, if you really want them. But you have to remember that it’s very difficult for me to find the money. I can’t possibly pay for you to have music lessons while I’m paying for your brother’s.”

Everybody had a uniform. The boys wore grey shorts and the teachers wore black robes like dresses. They had words for us that I hadn’t heard before; we were called “evil” and told we were “possessed by the devil”. We were strapped, slapped, beaten and insulted. So we avoided them when we could and laughed cruelly at fat Irish Delia, and sniggered wistfully at sexy Una. Maids they were called, sent to England, no doubt for the birth of a baby that they would never see again. I didn’t think we were evil, but we became pretty nasty, growing up on a diet of cheese sauce and marmalade.

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I made friends, and seemingly for the first time I had people around me I could really talk to. My first friend in Elstree had been an orphan refugee from France who spoke a strange version of English. Later there was Jon who had learning difficulties, but here I found Simon, Paul, Timothy, Joseph and Anthony, all named after New Testament saints, and a sense of trust developed between us. One of them invited me to go and stay with them during a long holiday weekend and it was curious for me to see how other families worked. That visit prompted me to send a Mother’s Day card to my friend’s mum – it was the only one I ever sent.

I hadn’t really wanted to learn to read. I knew people who could read, and basically didn’t like them very much. I found them snobbish, rude and insincere, and assumed there must be some connection. And anyway you didn’t find books in the woods, and you didn’t need them for playing war, or cowboys. But gradually I got into it. I found I had an aversion to fictional stories and gravitated towards National Geographic magazines and the Reader’s Digest. The pictures fuelled the imagination, though there was a disconnect between the grey brick and stonework that surrounded me and what seemed to be the real world ‘out there’.

I had piano lessons for one term, but there was too much pressure on me to continue. Mother was very pleased when I told her I would stop. She was creating a garden, bottling vegetables and learning to knit on a machine. She busied herself in isolated self-sufficiency. I would try to invent and make things to fill the time. The occasional kit model aeroplane was intricate fun to put together and a challenge to my clumsy fingers, but then I could create a wholly imaginary vehicle by gluing the remaining off-cuts of plastic together.

The three children in the house opposite were actually locked in behind their parents’ front gate. Only later, when I could ride a bike alone and away from the village, could I see something of the wider world; and it was all fields, rail tracks, woods, streams, and abandoned buildings. Cycling meant freedom and the chance to get away from it all. Twelve years in that village and my mother must have visited no more than a dozen other houses, and only three of them contained children.

To some extent her own experiences had left her confused. She told me once that in her first nine years in South Africa she had rarely worn shoes and spoke Afrikaans more readily than English. Initially raised in a Methodist household, she moved towards her step-mother’s Church of England after her father died, and then into the Catholic Church after meeting Bernard, who already had two brothers as priests and a sister who had become a nun. She saw the Christian Brothers who ran the school as holy men, characters who belonged in the fantasy world of a Giotto fresco.

The grammar/public school was in a Neoclassical estate, grandiose and oppressive. It was also failing. The teachers were leerier, pervier, and seemingly far less articulate than ordinary humans. Normal human beings, as I saw them, being the ones in the movies – people who could talk, discuss, argue, and negotiate. We tried to compete against our teachers and got beaten for it. They themselves would sometimes turn up for class drunk, or sit back and smoke in class while we worked on our exercise books. The mail was censored, both on the way in and on the way out, which may explain why I never received a reply to my enquiry to join the Communist Party of Britain.

The Irish Catholic perspective on life was markedly negative in almost every respect. The teachers worried about living in a ‘heathen’ country and fretted over the history of the Catholic martyrs. They were a traumatised generation of teachers who clung to the promise of religious magic. The boys were warned of the consequences of ever getting involved with a local trollop, their word for a promiscuous girl. We should wait, they advised us, for when we were married we would have rights that a wife could never refuse.

My apparent handicap with numbers was problematic. I was interested in architecture and fascinated by astronomy, but there was little chance of going deeply into either subject without even a rudimentary understanding of how numbers worked. Numeric codes left me baffled, while visual images held a certain power over me.

I had won a painting competition and a debating shield, but my schooling had provided very little and so I drank what I could get hold of, whether from pubs or from the chemistry lab. After a record-breaking period of suspension, I was able to leave.

Next: Late Teens

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