|Henham History||Henham Parish Site||Contact Us|
A Personal Memoir by Timothy Johnston
Our grateful thanks for Timothy offering to type out his memories of the village and allowing us to publish it.
We moved into the White Cottage in the summer of 1945, when I was four years old, and my brother Guy just one (in the bitter winter of 1946/47, my sister Christine arrived, followed six years later, shortly before the Coronation, by my brother William).
The cottage had a rambling, unkempt garden, with three tumbledown sheds. Adjoining the kitchen was the Thatched Shed, part coal-shed, part repository for old newspapers, empty bottles, sacks of salt for the water-softener, and my mother’s family porcelain, which arrived in crates from wartime storage, smashed into tiny fragments, as well as cans and jars of ancient, uneatable food, hoarded by Grandma Johnston during the War and despatched south from St Andrews by Carter Paterson after she’d read in the Scotsman about England’s food shortage. Hard up against against the tangled hedge that separated us from the extensive vegetable garden of Mr White and Mr Blackwell was the Toy Shed, home also to bikes and garden furniture, and where Guy and I would later smoke ourselves green in the face on a month’s hoarded dog-ends, crumbled into our clay bubble-pipes. Finally, at the top of the cinder path through the kitchen garden, was the Fruit Shed, onto whose rusting tin roof I used to climb during the fruit season, to gather rotting, wasp-infested damsons. Next to it was the Garage, which opened onto Carters Lane.
The entire frontage facing the road south of the front gate consisted of a winding herbaceous border, stocked with exotic gladioli, peonies, irises, lupins, lilies-of-the-valley and hollyhocks (my first passion was flowers). Either side of the path to the never-used front door were two more borders, with more mundane michaelmas daisies, snap-dragons, sweet williams, pinks, carnations, petunias, asters, wallflowers, pansies, nasturtiums (good to eat after the blooms had died). At the back of the house, in damp beds bordering a row of young poplars and the White/Blackwell hedge, roses fought for survival with the choking ground elder and convulvulus that flourished on our soggy Essex clay.
There was also a kitchen garden, full of towering, gone-to-seed shallots, Brussels sprouts and broccoli — which my Viennese mother soon replaced with tasty, ‘foreign’ kohlrabi and Jerusalem artichokes. We were too late that year for the soft fruit, apart from a few over-sized, hairy goosegogs, but in subsequent years the raspberries and currant bushes, both black and red, would provide a summer-long feast. Only the strawberries were never a success; the heavy soil encouraged slugs. And what they didn't get, the birds pecked to pieces. We’d arrived at the height of the plum season. Our three small Victorias were so productive that we had to invite the village in to take away what we could no longer eat, or my mother bottle. The same went for greengages.
At the bottom of the garden lay a sinister black pond, which Father immediately fenced off with chicken wire. But that didn’t stop me investigating the equally murky ditch that fed it. Overgrown with bushes and rotting trees, its banks were scented with wild garlic and teemed with agile young frogs and the occasional grumpy toad, which peed on your fingers when you picked it up. Later, we kept ducks in an enclosure beside the pond, a flock of Khaki Campbells, which produced excellent eggs and became our friends. While we were arguing about which one should be sacrificed for Father’s birthday, a fox got in and killed the lot. We also purchased a box of day-old chicks from Van Driessche’s poultry farm, which occupied the triangle of land between Old Mead and the branch-line to Thaxted, and where you had to paddle through a trough of disinfectant in order to get in. The sweet, chirping, fluffy little yellow things soon developed into a gaggle of bad-tempered, scraggle-feathered cockerels, constantly quarrelling and pecking at one another. Morning and night, members of the family took it in turns to lift their coop from enclosure to garden, and back again. One evening, my older cousin Marisa, who was living with us after spending the war as a refugee in Buenos Aires, was over-hasty in depositing the coop inside the enclosure. In the morning when it was moved out again, we found one of the cockerels squashed pancake-flat beneath it, like a character in an animated cartoon. We ate some of them at birthdays and Christmas, but without great enthusiasm. The others all died — possibly of fowlpest (notwithstanding our disinfected feet), or maybe the fox got them too.
The garden had an abundance of ancient apple trees, stunted and gnarled, smothered in lichen. Their blossoms were spectacular, but apart from a sweet, red, early-fruiting Discovery and a couple of trees of Bramley cookers, their fruit was uneatable: hard, green, sour, resolutely white-pipped. Later, they would come in handy as missiles in pitched battles which I organised with my chums from Henham school. The garden would effectively become a sort of open-house, where three generations of kids (three years to my brother Guy, another three to sister Christine) could fight, play games, pick flowers, eat fruit — a social bridge between us middle-class incomers and our village friends. I don’t know whether my parents were consciously aware of this (more below on local social, economic and class divisions), but they were certainly exceptionally tolerant. Right is OSCA in 1977.
That autumn I started at Henham School, in Mrs Searles’s Infants’ Class. I wasn’t talented at infants’ things. My plasticine men fell apart, my spatter-spray went everywhere but on the paper, my crayons snapped with inexplicable frequency, my scissors were incapable of following the dotted line. But I could read. And I could do sums. Old Lob and Beacon Readers 1 and 2 were easy-peasy. I knew how many shillings there were to a pound, pence to a shilling, ha’pence and farthings to a penny, and how to add, subtract, multiply and divide them. Graduating speedily to the top of the class, I made friends with Diana, daughter of Mrs. Parkin, teacher of the Middle Class, and Linda Reed, sharp as a knife, owner of a bewitching, gap-toothed smile.
Our friendship was consummated in the reading of comics — Dandy and Beano — on the living-room floor of the Parkins' house behind Turners' builders’ yard, while Diana's father, recently repatriated from a Japanese POW camp, sat silently in the kitchen, bathing his ulcerated legs in a bucket of salt-water. There was a brief interlude when I transferred my allegiance to Tina Field from The Row, notorious flirt and heart-breaker, who spoke with a posh accent. But at heart I knew it wasn't serious: Diana and Linda were my true-loves.
However, there soon came a time when I realised that hanging out with girls was cissy. Ditto, my passion for collecting and pressing wild flowers, which grew in profusion among the sloe and hawthorn along the untrimmed verges of Hall Road. Every spring the family made excursions to Elsenham and Widdington woods to pick baskets of bluebells, cowslips, oxslips and wood anemones Possibly environmentally unsound; these days, doubtless a criminal offence. But the fact was that, however many baskets we filled, there were always more blooms the following year. More anti-social were the activities of the diddicoy (gypsy) women, whose encampments appeared from time to time on the village outskirts. They would dig up the primroses and violets that grew at the woods’ edges among the cowslips and oxslips and sell them door-to-door, having first cunningly scalded the roots so that they wouldn’t ‘take’ the following year.
The other major subject of family collecting activities was mushrooms. These were to be found all over the village and its Greens. They were regarded by the village people with deep suspicion: ‘toadstools’, work of the devil, even the common edible field mushroom (which might be a deadly poisonous variety in disguise). Best to be safe; kick them up, trample them into the ground. My parents, well-travelled and well-read, knew better. Armed with the King Penguin Illustrated Guides to Edible and Inedible Fungi, they were perfectly capable of distinguishing deadly, white-gilled Amanita phalloides (which lurked under the limes immediately outside our house) from pink/brown-gilled Agaricus campestris. The extensively cowpatted fields behind Parsonage Farm were a mushroom paradise. Farmer Pimblett — red-faced, bushey-eyebrowed— and his daughter, Miss Pimblett, who rode a huge horse, tall and powerful as an elephant, were tolerant people. Although they themselves wouldn’t allow the things anywhere near their plates, they were happy to allow the eccentric ‘foreign’ Johnstons to come in and fill their baskets, not only with field mushrooms and their ‘horse’cousins, but also parasols, blewits, shaggy inkwells, fairy-rings.
It was time to grow up, join the Big Boys — Brian ‘Hooky’ Hollingsworth, Keith Bailey, Len Camp, Arthur Thake, Cock and Pip Suckling — who played violent games of football on the Green after school, in which I longed to join.
Then I became friends with Graham Jaggard. ‘Billy’ Jaggard was a smartly turned-out, good-looking boy, a few months older than me, a lot bigger and stronger, winner of many playground fights. He lived in a council house, just down the road from the White Cottage. His father earned £5 a week driving a tractor. I had no idea what my father earned. He described himself as a ‘barrister’, a mysterious profession which I associated with the ‘barrier’ at Stortford station, from which he daily commuted to Liverpool Street. Eavesdropping on my parents, I’d heard the sum of £1,000 a year mentioned. I don’t know if that represented reality or mere aspiration. The fact was that, throughout my childhood and on into adolescence and adulthood — indeed, until the last of us, my brother William, had finally left the nest — my parents suffered from the classic middle-class syndrome of substantial assets but chronically poor cash-flow. The Jaggards seemed to live in a style vastly superior to ours. Tea was a feast: ham salad, doused in Heinz’s, sliced white bread-and-margarine with sandwich spread or lemon curd that melted in the mouth, tinned fruit salad with evaporated milk, or trifle with Bird’s Custard, fruit cake, unlimited orange squash (at home I was rationed to a single glass). They had a piano, a radio tuned to the Light Programme, which played our favourite songs: Now is the Hour; I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts; Put Another Nickel In, In The Nickelodeon; How Much Is That Doggy In The Window? My parents’ radio was tuned to the Third Programme, on which they listened to Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss, conducted by Arthur Tosser-Ninny.
Graham also introduced me to a superior grade of comic: Film Fun (Tarzan, Captain Blood, Laurel and Hardy) and, especially, Radio Fun, whose characters also featured on the Light Programme: Arthur Askey and His Daughter Anthea; Peter Brough and anarchic Archie Andrews, far more real to us than his ventriloquist creator; Jimmy Jewell and Ben Warris; Issy Bon; child-star Petula Clark; Valentine Dyall, The Man in Black; Inspector Stanley, whose full-length stories (no pictures, our most demanding form of literature) I would recount blow-by-blow to my long-suffering parents.
One of the most memorable episodes of my friendship with Graham was our discovery and destruction of the Bottle Dump. It lay inside a hollow — possibly an old quarry — hidden among thickets of hawthorn and brambles, down a cart-track behind the Catholic church. It contained hundreds of bottles and jars, possibly thousands. At first we brought our catapults and set up rows of Camp Coffee and HP Sauce bottles and Robertson’s Golliwog jamjars for target practice. But we soon lost patience, and took to simply smashing them at close quarters with stones and flints from Mr Pimblett’s nearby wheat-field. It took us several days to finish them all off. It was highly satisfying, yet seemed to leave a vague feeling of guilt; I don’t think we mentioned it to our parents.
Graham had a grown-up bicycle, with a sturdy luggage-carrier, whose low centre of gravity enabled me to learn to ride in a single afternoon, after which my parents grudgingly bought me my own second-hand, blue-painted, child’s machine with eighteen-inch wheels. Graham and his sister Heather always had new, up-to-date clothes, whereas I had to make do with hand-me-downs — unfashionable, unwearable, supplied by the dreaded parcel-load by my mother’s Austrian relatives. There were things called Ruderleiberln: colourfully striped, short-sleeved cotton vests, apparently much-favoured for sporting and leisure activities in 1930s Austria — today’s tee-shirts. My mother managed to get me into one for playing round the house and garden, but I wouldn’t have been seen dead wearing such a garment to school. A grey-flannel shirt with a proper collar, long sleeves and a full set of buttons; grey shorts, grey jacket, grey socks. That was what you wore, if you didn’t want to get laughed at, punched in the playground at break.
But there was worse: shirt-like items in primary colours, with laces or press-studs instead of buttons, made of some shiny, floppy material that made your hair crackle and stand on end when you pulled them over your head; collarless grey-felt jackets, edged with coloured piping, buttoned with sections of bone or horn. One had a profusion of zipped pockets, and pointed flaps that buttoned between the legs. The nadir was the arrival of a pair of Lederhosen. They stank of cowpats and could stand unsupported. Even my mother could see she’d never get me into those. They were duly Returned to Sender.
What I really hankered after was a pair of hobnailed boots, with 11 gleaming studs in each sole and 3 in the heel. Around the time I was promoted to Mrs. Parkin’s class, I got my wish. With the new boots, I was able to join the Big Boys, spark-sliding in the playground. Better still was doing it on our bikes. Racing down Crow Street, milling the pedals till we reached top speed, we would freewheel crouched on the crossbar, feathering the road surface with our studs to produce spectacular comet-trails of sparks.
It was Graham who integrated me into Henham society. Friendships with girls counted for nothing, you had to prove yourself among the boys. I was small for my age, younger than most of the others in the class, not particularly strong. Graham protected me from bullies, and especially from the Ugley Mugs. They arrived one day in 1947, after the Butler Education Act came into effect, taking the place of our Big Boys and Girls, who were banished to Stansted or Saffron Walden. They came each morning in a dirty bus, in which they returned after school. We Henhamites had as little as possible to do with them; they were another tribe. I have no recollection of names or faces, apart from ‘Etienne’, a Belgian refugee with facial moles and sinister gaps between his teeth like a cannibal. With one outsider’s nose for another, he began to persecute me, backing up his taunts with sly pinches and hair-pulling. Graham soon saw him off.
Graham and I became passionate collectors of cigarette packets, also tobacco wrappers and matchboxes. We pestered parents and grown-up relatives and friends, scoured litter-bins and gutters, roamed the verges of the local roads and lanes, and especially the A11 between Quendon and Stansted, a frightening place, thundering with traffic, where we’d been strictly forbidden to go, but a rich source of material. Even more strenuously forbidden was the main LNER line between Elsenham and Stansted. It was there, among the cinders and ballast, that we made our most spectacular finds: De Reszke, Black Cat, Empire State, Sweet Afton, Passing Clouds... Sometimes other boys persuaded us to let them join us: Porky Francis, who lived down the Row; Dennis Brooks, who was a bright boy, my main rival in the school’s weekly knock-out spelling and tables competitions, but temperamental and notoriously light-fingered. He was one of a number of village children in those post-war days who had no visible father. Once, Porky tripped over one of the signalling wires, wrenching it half off its pulley. We fled home, terrified we’d be arrested, in accordance with the embossed metal warnings — TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED — posted at every crossing.
When I got back the bobby from Elsenham was there on his huge bike. My mother had phoned him: I was two hours late for lunch. I said we’d been in Elsenham Wood and lost track of time. The bobby suggested my parents buy me a watch. This was to become a pattern for the future: I would disappear — at first on foot, later on my bicycle — miss a meal or bedtime, my mother would phone the police. Nothing even remotely untoward ever happened to me, though I once spent an entire afternoon alone with a stranger in the meadow behind the Bell pub, exploring jackdaws’ nests, which required him to lift me repeatedly onto his shoulders and grip my bare legs, while I groped in the holes where the birds nested. I’ve no idea who he was, and I never saw him again. I guess those were safer, more innocent times.
Also strictly forbidden were the Elsenham sandpit and the new, temptingly climbable electricity pylons, which marched across the fields beyond Hall Road like giant robots. The sandpit, with its sliding potential and clusters of sand-martins’ nest-holes was too attractive to be resisted. But we were careful to heed my mother’s warnings, reinforced with cautionary newspaper cuttings, about setting off a mini-avalanche and ending up suffocating to death beneath tons of sand. The pylons were another thing. The gleaming struts and girders, which looked to have been assembled from a giant Meccano set, were almost irresistible to an accomplished climber. But the buzz and fizz, and occasional sparks in wet weather, from the overhead cables gave credibility to my parents’cautionary tales — again supported by newspaper cuttings — about the lethal potential for small boys of high-voltage electricity.
I was already an expert, intrepid tree climber, boosting my status among the village boys by conquering all of the towering limes on the Green, and above all by being the only one able to reach the magpies’ and crows’ nests that we spotted in the tops of overgrown hawthorn hedges and isolated ashes and oaks on bird-nesting tours of the surrounding fields, which took us as far as Sibleys and Hamperden End. Otherwise, my athletic ability remained modest. In 1949, when I was eight, a selection race was held to represent Henham in the North Essex inter-schools event at Saffron Walden. It was run over approximately one hundred yards, on a bumpy, slightly downhill course on Pimblett’s cricket field. I narrowly managed to hold off Porky Francis for one-but-last. First and second were Barry Foster and Cliffy Camp, skinny, boys with thin streamlined faces, their running speed honed by regular flights from enraged farmers, gamekeepers, bobbies.
The following year, 1950, I got my revenge. After consultations between Father and Mr. Doe (‘Doey’), the new Henham headmaster, it was decided that there was nothing more that Henham could teach me. I was a ‘sure thing’ for an outstanding pass in the eleven-plus, and a place at Newport Grammar. However, that was still two years away. In the meantime, Father had higher ambitions for me: to follow in his footsteps as a King’s Scholar at Eton. So, that spring, in the middle of the bird-nesting season I was banished to boarding school.
Nowton Court was a small preparatory school of some fifty boys just outside Bury St Edmunds, run by two homosexual brothers and their lesbian sister. This is not the place to expatiate on the bizarreries of an English private-school education, ground amply covered by Evelyn Waugh, Simon Raven, Stephen Fry and others. However, whatever its faults, Nowton had one outstanding benefit as far as I was concerned: Charles, the dominant, macho element in the governing triumvirate, took sport seriously. In the school sports — properly organised, with heats, marked lanes, times recorded to a fifth of a second — I won the under-10s hundred yards and two-twenty, in times, respectively, of fifteen-and-two-fifths and thirty-five-and-one-fifth seconds. I also finished second in the high jump and the long jump. When I returned to Henham for the summer holidays, I was an athlete, afraid of nobody. In the evenings there were regular, fiercely contested games of hide-and-seek on the Green. Conscious of my new-found running ability, I rarely bother to hide. After the obligatory count to a hundred, I would saunter out from behind the pump, or the bushes at the entrance to the Vicarage, and challenge whoever was ‘It’—Barry Foster, Cliffy Camp, or my best friend Billy Jaggard — to catch me; they seldom succeeded.
The following year, at the Newport Bank Holiday Sports, I won the hundred, the two-twenty, the high jump, the long jump and throwing the cricket ball. For each of these victories I received a three-shillings-and-sixpence postal order in a manila envelope from the patron of the meeting, the Hon. Nancy Salaman, who, as well as being the wife of Arthur Salaman, our GP, was also the daughter of Viscount Samuel, Chairman of the Liberal Party and one of the founders of the Zionist movement. Later, when I went on to set national and international records and win titles, ultimately representing GB in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, nobody ever questioned my amateur status.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen, and we were already living at Stapleford, outside Cambridge, that I first did any actual running training, after Father had introduced me to Allan Malcolm, the Cambridge University coach. But in Henham I acquired an excellent aerobic background. For my ninth birthday — perhaps to compensate for my being sent away to boarding school — my parents gave me a proper boy’s bike, with 24-inch wheels and a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub gear, replacing my little blue, single-gear, 18-inch machine. I promptly equipped it with a mileometer, attached to the front fork and activated by a striker attached to one of the spokes.
Looking back, I can see now that everything I did as a child had an obsessive quality, a belief that there were no limits to what I could achieve: a determination to be top of the class in every subject, collect the most wild flowers, mushrooms, cigarette packets, pond-creatures, engine numbers. . . The same applied to physical achievements: I wanted to climb the highest tree, be the fastest runner, and now, on my new bike, go on the longest rides. Father’s One-Inch-to-the-Mile Ordnance Survey map, Saffron Walden sheet, terminated to the east just short of Clare. So I rode to Clare and back, undeterred by boys jeering and throwing stones as I sped through Steeple Bumpstead, crouched over the handlebars, legs whirling like Lance climbing Alpe d’Huez. Total distance, 50.7 miles. To the west, the outer limit was the intriguingly named Welwyn Garden City. Together with sixteen-year-old cousin Marisa, I set off into deepest Hertfordshire. On the hills beyond Buntingford I comprehensively dropped Marisa, who was labouring on my mother’s ungeared, pre-war Norman Conqueror, complete with baby basket. Thinking I must have taken a wrong turn, she took a short-cut back through Watton-at-Stone. Pushing on alone, I circled the Garden City town centre, not particularly impressed by the trees and flower-beds, then made my way home through Ware, the Hadhams and Bishops Stortford. Total distance, 66.6 miles. Once again my mother had called out the Elsenham bobby.
When, together with Guy, I started collecting engine numbers, it got worse. We soon exhausted the possibilities of Elsenham station. We’d copped all the local Britannias and ‘name’ B2s (football teams and famous country houses), got bored putting coppers on the line while waiting for the signal to go to ‘off’ again. My new targets were Witham, Hatfield and Stevenage, located on major Eastern Region lines out of London (the Liverpool Street/Cambridge/King’s Lynn line was no more than a glorified branch line, with a barely changing basic traffic of workhorse passenger B1s and WD goods locos). Total distances were no more than fifty or sixty miles, which I covered as fast as I could, aiming to average at least 12 mph. But sometimes I miscalculated, failed to allow for a head-wind, didn’t eat enough, got the ‘bonk’, didn’t get home till after dark. Each time, my mother called out the bobby, from whom I received a serious warning for riding during the hours of darkness without proper illumination. In terms of aerobic preparation for my future running career, it was the equivalent of the Kenyans spending their childhood running to and from school.
Gentler rides were with Ingrid, our Swedish au pair, to the open-air pool at Braintree. It was a long, complex route, a good fifteen miles, the second half of which, after Great Dunmow, was along Stane Street, the old Roman Road connecting Stortford with Colchester. Composed of concrete sections that threw the sun back in your eyes, while the melting tar between the sections spattered your legs, the road ran straight as a die, up and downhill, for some seven or eight miles, before finally depositing you outside the pool’s glittering blue rectangle. The only other local pool was the indoor one in Saffron Walden, where the school took us once a week for swimming lessons. It was small and crowded. The water was cold and heavily chlorinated (polio, curse of our generation, was an ever-present hazard). You were dangled in the water in a sling on the end of a pole, like a baby being delivered by the stork, and instructed to make froggy swimming motions, which you were supposed to have studied beforehand in an instructional booklet. I never got even close to learning. The Braintree pool, with its sparkling blue water, diving boards and sunbeds, was a delight, worth the long ride. An added bonus was the Brylcreem machine, where, after your swim, for a penny and skilful use of a comb, you could do yourself up to look like the cricketer Denis Compton.
The only other opportunity for swimming was at the annual school outing to Walton-on-Naze. The finest beach in Essex: warm, shallow sea, ideal for paddling and splashing; ice-cream cornets, candy-floss. . . Afterwards, Graham and I would lie on the warm sand and try to look up the girls’ dresses after they’d removed their damp costumes. Apart from family holidays to Scotland and Austria, it was our longest trip; the only longer one was in 1953, when, on a sweltering August day, Guy and I trekked by bus and train diagonally across the county to Southend, where we watched the touring Australians knock up one of the highest one-day scores of all time against poor Essex: 477 for 7, including an innings of 164 by Jim de Courcy, with four successive sixes into the crowd, from which a lady had to be removed on a stretcher. It was reported to be the hottest day of the summer.
In general, I don’t remember sport playing a big part in Henham. But we did have a cricket team, in which Father sometimes played. Opening both batting and bowling was Freddy Clayden, who had married Linda Reed’s mother, a delightful lady, of whom more later. Freddy would start his run-up from beyond the boundary. Father was somewhat sceptical; he may possibly have used the phrase ‘full of sound and fury. . .’ He himself bowled slow, cunningly flighted off-breaks, but was seldom put on, for fear that he would be swiped out of the field and the ball lost, needing to be expensively replaced. However, against Molehill Green he had his moment of glory. Molehill needed just four to win, with three wickets left and an over to play. With nothing to lose, the captain, John West from Cherry Green, put Father on. His first ball went through mid-off’s legs for two. Then he found his length. The remaining three batsmen were clean-bowled off successive balls. Henham had won by a single run; Father had achieved a hat-trick. ‘Well,’ he said modestly, ‘no need to make a mountain out of a molehill. But I have to say I almost lost my nerve when I saw their last batsman, that black chap, spitting image of Everton Weekes!’ For those of you who can’t remember that far back, Weekes, along with Worrall and Walcott, was one of the famous West Indian ‘3 Ws’, then touring England, breaking batting records in every match.
We also had a football team. My abiding memory is of a needle match against arch-rivals Elsenham. Our centre-forward Michael Leader was a flashy player with a tendency, whenever possible, to use his Brylcreem-quiffed head in place of his boot. A fast, low cross came in from the right wing at knee-height. Michael dived for it; the left back put up his boot. Michael was carried off the field, bleeding copiously from nose and mouth. The entire Henham team, and all of the home spectators, appealed for a penalty. The referee (who was from Elsenham) shook his head and signalled for a goal-kick. The field erupted in cries of KILL THE REF!!!, in which I eagerly joined. The match was stopped, the referee smuggled off the field under a blanket and into a locked Elsenham van.
One of Henham’s dominant features was its ponds. They stretched in a broken arc from outside the Thorns (of whom also more later) opposite Woodend Green, down past the Bundeys’ palatial residence at The Bury, then made a hidden left-turn at the War Memorial, to resurface beyond Willet’s sweetshop, getting gradually narrower, shallow enough to ride my bike through, until the last one, little more than a deep puddle, choked with duckweed, which lay across the road from the White Cottage. They swarmed with every kind of pond-life. In winter, when they froze over, through the ice you could see promiscuously intertwined clusters of hibernating frogs. In summer, Graham showed me how to catch newts with a piece of brightly coloured ribbon, in which they would snag their tiny teeth. Particularly productive was the pond in the Row. Its underwater clutter of old bikes, prams and vehicle parts, which turned the water orange with rust, provided the creatures with shelter and an abundance of insect food. You could capture them by hand, snatching them from the water as they came up for air. These were mostly the common smooth newt, a small, drab creature. The real prize was the great-crested variety, with its long, lizard-like tail, dragon’s dorsal crest and vivid, black-spotted orange belly. The place to catch these was Mr Pimblett’s horse-pond. An ancient fallen tree was a bridge out to the middle. Lying face-down, I would watch for one shimmying up to the surface to breathe. As it snatched a mouthful of air, I would slip a cupped hand beneath it, and grab it as it turned to dive.
In the spring the ponds became clogged with frog- and toadspawn. We filled jamjars with the stuff, which I then transferred to one of my mother’s big Kilner bottling jars, and later to an old glass battery housing, that I’d begged from Star garage at the top of the Row and fitted out with a lacustrine environment of mud, pebbles and pondweed. The result was always the same: I would forget to change the water regularly; deprived of fresh nutrients, the growing tadpoles would cannibalise one another and I would be left with a stinking mini-aquarium of hollowed-out corpses, among which swam a single bloated creature, paddling complacently with miniature frog’s legs.
My newts fared better. I kept them in an old enamel washing-up bowl, from which they generally had the agility to escape. The other creatures I regularly captured were giant water-beetles, which, having adopted the local north-Essex accent, I would pronounce ‘wa’er-bee’oo’’. My mother’s posh friend, Varda Proctor, wife of Sir Dennis (top civil servant, former member of the Cambridge Apostles, putative Soviet agent), who lived in Radwinter, was so impressed by my glottal stops — better than anything a Cockney could have managed — that, whenever she came to tea, she would ask me to say it over and over: ‘wa’er-bee’oo’’. . . ‘wa’er-bee’oo’’. . . ‘wa’er-bee’oo’’. . .
Henham’s population was then around eight hundred. Most people still worked on, or were connected with, the land. But there was a small body of middle-class incomers like my parents. Immediately behind our house, just across Carter’s Lane, were the Golds. They owned a nursery beside the ‘down’ line at Elsenham station and had a TV, on which, together with Ian and Priscilla, their children, Guy and I watched Annette Mills and her Muffin the Mule, as well as Hopalong Cassidy, regularly interrupted by a blizzard of grey snow, interspersed with shots of the transmission mast at Alexandra Palace. Pat Gold, Ian and Priscilla’s mother, was a former society beauty from a landed Stansted family who had a drink problem. Early one morning, as we were setting off for a bike ride, Graham and I discovered, in the middle of the Lane, right in front of our garage, a pile of silver coins and notes. It was like Treasure Island! While we were dividing up the booty, Father found us. The treasure was soon established as belonging to Pat Gold, having fallen out of her handbag when she’d come home drunk the previous night. Reluctantly, we allowed Father to return it. Mr Gold rewarded us with a half-crown each.
The only other owner of a TV in the village was Mr Turner, the builder (though I suppose the Bundeys (see below) might have had one, but were far too posh to have invited in outside viewers), on which, along with most of the village, we watched the Coronation. Later, Father returned the favour by giving Latin coaching to Mr Turner’s very bright son Michael, a gangling red-haired youth with an awkward manner and prominent Adam’s apple, and helping him get into Trinity, Cambridge. After a First in Modern Languages, Michael Turner joined Methuens publishers, where he became the moving spirit behind the English translation and publication of the Tintin books.
Down the Row lived the Fields, the Warburtons and the Fenbys. I vaguely remember Charles Fenby: a tall, avuncular man with a stoop. What I didn’t know at the time — and it would have meant nothing to me, if I had — was that he was a distinguished journalist, close friend of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. My parents saw a lot of the Fenbys, one of the rare intellectual families in the area. Their son Jonathan, now also a well-known writer and journalist, expert on China, was in Infants’ with me at Henham school.
Further down, where the Row turned left by the pond, lived the Colonel and his Lady, a pair of elderly spinsters who went about in thick tweed skirts and men’s brogues and wore trilby hats. Next to them was Miss Thorn, also old, also with hair cut short like a man’s. She was famous for the deep puddle outside her house, in which kids liked to play. Whereupon she would rush out waving her stick, shouting ‘You wicked children! Get out of my puddle!’
Also good friends of my parents were the Harveys (Air-Commodore George Harvey, later Air Vice-Marshal, Sir George Harvey), who lived with their three daughters in a house with an extensive orchard, just past the blacksmith’s, on the bend at the start of Hall Road. Once, with a gang of village boys, I went scrumping in their orchard. I was terrified the Harveys would catch me and shame me in front of my parents.
My parents’ closest friends were the Carnwaths, who had a large, rambling house on Old Mead, next to Van Driessche’s chicken farm, opposite the fabulously wealthy Nosworthys, who were completely out of our league and whom none of us ever got to know at all. The Carnwaths were Catholics: they kept producing children. Francis, the eldest, was my age; we regularly played card and board games together. For a while, he too was at Henham school. After he was sent away to prep school, where he soon claimed to be reading Plato in the original Greek, our friendship faded. Later, he succeeded his father Andy on the board of Barings Bank, where he was unfortunate enough to be in charge when Nick Leeson brought the bank to its knees. One of the younger boys, Robert, is now Lord Carnwath of Notting Hill, Justice of the Supreme Court.
If there had been a Lord of the Manor of Henham, it would have to have been Mr Bundey. The Bundeys lived at The Bury, a palatial residence thatched like a Roman villa, with extensive gardens, lying between two of the big ponds on the way from the Memorial to Woodend Green. I don’t know where their money came from: presumably — like most of the wealthy inhabitants of the area — from some City activity. They had two plain teenage daughters, Sarah and Jane, who were away at posh boarding schools, but also an afterthought, Ruth, who came along around the same time as my sister Christine, part of the post-War baby boom. Eve Bundey began a patronising relationship with my mother, consisting of joint local excursions with the girls: ‘little adventures’, as Eve called them; there was no question of family invitations. But once a year the Bundeys’ gardens were opened to the village for the Fete, where I once managed to win a half-bottle of Entre-Deux-Mers white Bordeaux on the Bottle Stall.
If we were middle middle-class, struggling to get by on a modest, professional man’s salary, there were others in the area who, like the Bundeys, appeared to have limitless wealth: the Mordens, who lived in a spectacular half-timbered manor house opposite Elsenham sandpit; the Mellons and the Dixeys at Broxted and Great Easton, the Lacostes in Cherry Green, the Butlers of Shotgrove Park, beyond Newport, the Harrisons of Quendon Hall. Most of the men in the family were Something in the City: bankers, stockbrokers. . . Like Father, they commuted daily to Liverpool Street from Audley End or Stortford. My parents, committed socialists — indeed, near fellow-travellers (Father brought the Daily Worker home from London, along with the Evening Standard; he had a subscription to Soviet News, world’s most boring publication, which arrived every week by post in a plain wrapper) — had little in common with these hard-core Tories. However, they were rapidly drawn into the social scene, which consisted of rounds of cocktail and dinner parties, where you could play footsie under the table with someone else’s spouse. We kids used to sneak down from our bedrooms and wander among the forest of legs, reaching up on tiptoe to snaffle from the plates of eats prepared by my mother and her daily help, Mrs Mansfield, who lived across the road, beside the last of the village ponds. Major beneficial spin-off was the round of kids’ parties which went on in parallel, especially in summer, when the wealthiest parents would organise private cricket matches and ingenious treasure-hunts, with lavish prizes.
Richest of all — indeed in a different league altogether — was the millionaire racehorse owner, Miss Dorothy Paget of Elsenham Hall. Miss Paget was said to be a very private person. The Hall was both secluded and convenient for Newmarket. It was surrounded by high flint walls, prominently signed: PRIVATE PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Inside was a large lake, reputed to be swarming with specimen roach, perch, carp and pike. Undeterred by the signs, Graham and I sneaked over the wall with improvised rods. While we were baiting up, we were attacked by wasps from an underground nest, which crawled up our legs, and on up our shorts and stung us savagely in our tenderest parts. As we fled on our bikes, unable to sit on the saddle, we wondered if Miss Paget had had her wasps specially trained, like performing fleas. Never again did we attempt to violate her privacy.
Henham supported two churches and a chapel, three-and-a-half shops, two pubs (the Cock and the Bell), a post office, a garage, a blacksmith’s, a builder’s, two farms and Elijah Barltrop, the coal merchant. It had two railway stations or ‘halts’ (Mill Road and Woodend Green) and buses twice weekly, on their respective market days, to Bishops Stortford and Saffron Walden. The two main grocer’s shops, one near the church (described in old postcards as the post office) and the other at Woodend Green, were both owned by Mr Mussell, who wore a long brown coat and stocked all the traditional items: flour, butter and margarine, lard, bacon, mousetrap cheese (cut with a two-handled wire garotte), white sugar, packaged white Wonderloaf, Bird’s custard powder, baking powder, cake-mix, Chivers’ jelly cubes, Camp’s Coffee Essence, Mazawattee tea, a range of biscuits in tins and packs, cans of baked beans, sardines and pilchards, semolina and rice pudding, condensed and evaporated milk, bottles of HP and Worcester sauce. . . They held little interest or appeal for us kids.
Our Aladdin’s Cave was Willet’s, a cramped lean-to, barely more than a porch, attached to one of the cottages opposite the school. There, if you had the coupons and the cash (our pocket-money was a penny per week, per year of age), you could gorge yourself on Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, Rowntrees Fruitgums, Sharpe’s Toffees, Trebor Mints, barley-sugar twist, bullseyes, peanut brittle. . . Our favourite was Barratt’s Sherbet Fountain. As eagerly as a modern coke-sniffer, you hoovered up the sherbet through a liquorice tube, which you then ate, then went back for another, along with a sugar cigarette and a bottle of Tizer. The sugar cigarettes were a particular favourite, preparing you for the real thing: Weights and Woodbines, which were sold in packs of five and ten; above all Turf, the only brand which had continued the pre-war practice of issuing cigarette cards, admittedly rather poor things, in their bichrome shades of blue and white, and which you had to scissor from the tray, compared with the pre-war coloured sets of cricketers, footballers, tennis players, athletes, filmstars, racing cars, locomotives, aircraft, etc. that some of the older boys had inherited from their parents. For most people, cars were an unaffordable luxury, but there was a keen interest in motorbikes (which would have tragic consequences in the village), and many of the Turf sets were devoted to stars of the sport: speedway riders Malcolm Craven and Ronnie Moore, Geoff Duke, king of the Isle of Man.
The half-shop was located around halfway between Mr Mussell’s two shops, the thinking being, presumably, that its central location would give it a commercial edge. I seem to recall that the shop had some kind of refrigeration or freezing facility — a rarity in the village, where few people had fridges (ours was a small, pre-war machine with bow legs, converted from gas) — enabling it to sell ice-cream and lollies. It also sold bubble-gum and cheap novelty and joke items, and Mills and Boon romances. Henham was a conservative place: in each new incarnation, the shop lasted a year or two, then failed. At one point it was owned by a family called Bailey, whose son, Peter, was at Henham school for a while.
The post office, at the entrance to the Row, next to Turner’s builder’s yard, was run by Mr Moss, a kindly man with glasses on a cord, who wore a beige cardigan. He had a genial, pink-cheeked boy called Sonny, a Big Boy at Henham school when I arrived, who left soon after to drive a delivery van. There was also a daughter, Brenda. She was one of the Big Girls, and played one of the Royal Couple in the school panto. The new allowances and benefits introduced by the Attlee government, as well as the extensive range of compulsory licences and coupons, kept Mr Moss occupied. But his main business was stamps (which he would carefully detach from perforated sheets, kept in a massive brown-covered book, long, broad and fat as a bible), savings books and postal orders. Bank accounts, cheque books and so on were for the nobs; the rest of the population transacted their business through the post office — above all their weekly flutter on Vernon’s or Littlewood’s pools.
Even in our time, well before ‘Dr’ Beeching had performed his radical surgery on the British Rail network, the Henham railway line had become something of an irrelevance. Built at the turn of the century as a branch line from Elsenham to service the Thaxted sweet factory, it had lost its raison d’être. The single-carriage train, with an occasional additional goods truck, propelled by a push-pull tank engine, was known in the family as the Puffer. The two halts were so far from the village that it was hardly worth the walk or cycle-ride, and the Puffer didn’t operate at night. Many a winter evening, after a visit to the Regent or Phoenix cinema at Stortford, I would walk or cycle home from Elsenham station, along the footpath that ran beside the Puffer track, feeling like the one who, in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round, turns no more his head, wishing that I could have taken the Puffer. After it was closed down, its residual attractions for us kids were the birds’ nests (yellow-hammers, bullfinches, wrens, great-tits, long-tails) that you might discover in the long grass and thorn bushes beside the abandoned track, and the frogs and toads who squatted in the damp pits beneath the cattle grids at the level crossings.
When I arrived at Henham school, in autumn 1945, the headmaster was Mr Herbert, a kindly, imaginative man, whose Christmas panto, the Queen of Hearts, enabled the entire school, from four- to fourteen-year-olds, to take part. The King and Queen of Hearts were played by two Big Girls, Brenda Moss and Pauline McMillan, the latter of whom I would bump into again years later in Cambridge, where she had a flourishing print and framing business. Mr Herbert’s own pretty, blond-ringleted daughter, Lesley, played Little Bo-Peep; whose sheep were initially accused of eating the Queen’s missing tarts. However the principal suspect was, of course, the Knave, the Principal Boy, played by Barbara Blackwell, a brunette, also very pretty and presumably the granddaughter or great-niece of our neighbour, Mr Blackwell. But the true culprits were the Elves and Fairies, played by the entire Infants’ class. We boys, the Elves, wore shirts and shorts made of orange-and-green crepe paper, while the girls, the Fairies, had crepe-paper dresses with paper wings sewn to the backs. We sang and danced barefoot as we ate the tarts, which were the real thing, baked by the girls and their mothers.
Sadly, soon afterwards, with the reorganisation of the education system under the new Butler Act, Mr Herbert left and was replaced by a dreadful man called Mr Rose. Mr Rose was a professional stand-in, that is, he went from job to job, filling the post temporarily until a suitable permanent person could be found. I understand that today such people are called ‘supply teachers’. Possibly because of his temporary status, or simply because of the kind of person he was, Mr Rose commanded little affection or respect, for which he compensated by bullying. He introduced public caning — three on the palm of the left hand, three more on the right for particularly serious offences. I had as little to do with him as possible — until the incident of my picture. I’d done a water-coloured drawing of which I was rather proud: a small boy in grey-flannel shorts with carefully drawn striped blue braces (my favourite colour), showing the three-button fastening, climbing a tree to reach a huge, thorny magpie’s nest. My parents thought it was good too; so much so that they suggested I take it to school for posting on the classroom wall. Fatal hubris! Nemesis arrived in the form of Mr Rose.
‘Who did this?’ he said, removing his plastic-framed glasses to peer more closely. And then: ‘What’s your name?’
‘Timmy Johnston, Mr Rose.’
‘What’s it supposed to be?’
‘It’s a boy, Mr Rose, climbing a tree.’
‘Yes, I can see that, I’m not blind! Why is he climbing the tree?’
‘To reach the nest, Sir?’
‘To steal the eggs? Don’t you know bird-nesting’s illegal?’
‘Um, it’s a magpie’s nest, Sir, they’re vermin, you’re allowed to take their eggs.’
‘Where are the leaves?’
‘Um, that green, Sir, at the end of the branches, those brown bits.’
‘They’re all just blobs! Brown and green blobs. And the boy’s half the size of the tree! Take it down and tear it up.’
‘Yes, Mr Rose, I’m sorry, Sir.’
After that I gave up on art; I can still only draw stick-men.
Mr Rose didn’t last long: parents complained to the County. He was replaced by Mr Doe (‘Doey’), a delightful man, whose young children became friends with my brother and sister.
My only other unpleasant memory of my time at Henham School is the Boys’ Lavs. I was an extremely sensitive, fastidious little boy (I couldn’t bear to watch Father eating a soft-boiled egg; when he got yolk on his chin, I had to leave the room). The Lavs. were a disgusting place. They stank of creosote and piss and shit. The pisser wasn’t too bad, as you could have competitions to see how high you could get your stream, where it showed up clearly on the matt-black wall behind the gutter. But the earth-closets were an abomination. I refused to set foot in there, once with disastrous results. Taken short after lunch, I tried to run home, but as I crossed the driveway leading to the Vicarage at the top of Carter’s Lane, I lost control and suffered the ultimate indignity.
We weren’t a very religious family. The vicar was a small, plump, affable man, who wore a belted, ankle-length, stained black smock. His wife had a wooden leg; the original was said to have been lost to a branch-line locomotive similar to the one that hauled the Thaxted Puffer — or possibly a tram. We were not a church-going family, but we kids attended Sunday School. We were taught the rudiments of Christianity by Miss Joyce Windmill1, a bossy lady with untidy hair, glasses and very pink cheeks, who lived in one of the cottages beside the church. There was a board with moveable felt figures, with which you could compose pictures of episodes from the Old Testament, such as Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (complete with felt sacrificial ram), Joseph and his Multi-Coloured Coat, David and Goliath, etc. The biggest inducement to attend regularly was the stamps. Each week that you turned up you received a large, colourful, properly perforated stamp, illustrating a scene from the New Testament, which you licked and stuck in a special book, each space of which bore the appropriate liturgical appellation: Septuagesima. . . Third after Trinity. . . Second before Advent, etc. None of this had the slightest significance for us, and nobody ever attempted to explain it. But they were fine stamps, comparable in size and detail to those issued by the Mongolian Socialist Republic of Tannou Touva, in which there was a flourishing trade. I don’t remember there being a trade in Sunday School stamps. If you didn’t turn up, you didn’t get your stamp, and were left with an ugly blank in your stamp-book. In a sense, the system’s rigidity was counter-productive. If, for one reason another (illness, holidays), you’d accumulated too many irredeemable blanks, you might as well not bother to turn up anymore.
The family became notorious in the village as a result of my brother Guy’s faux-pas. Every Sunday lunchtime my parents treated us to a small amount of beer, the level of inches in our glasses calculated according to our respective ages. I received a couple of inches, while Guy got just a single inch. My sister Christine (currently Professor of Late Mediaeval History at the University of Cambridge), who wasn’t yet old enough to talk properly, was simply awarded a ‘sick [sip]-a-beer’. One Sunday Miss Windmill asked the Sunday School class a fateful question: ‘Now, children, do any of you know why Sunday is special?’ Puzzled silence all round. Victor Napper from Old Mead, at the periphery of the class, continued to suck his thumb; Tommy Thake continued to scratch at one of his legs (which Guy, to his dismay, would subsequently unintentionally snap, with a noise like a breaking branch, in a sliding tackle on our back lawn); small, smirking Jonathan Fenby, future China expert, kept his own discreet counsel. Then little Guy piped up:
‘Please Miss, it’s because we have beer on Sundays.’
For entertainment, other than what we made for ourselves, there was the wireless. Children’s Hour was a bit cissy, but Toytown was OK: Larry the Lamb, played with a bleaaa…ting voice by Derek, ‘Uncle Mac’, McCullough (recently revealed to have been a serial sexual ‘fiddler’), and his smart, funny Cherman sidekick, Dennis the Dachshund, whose characterisation never descended into crude anti-Germanism. But focal point of the day came at 6.45 pm: that thrilling burst of music, the Devil’s Gallop, then: DICK BARTON, SPECIAL AGENT!!! In a sense, he was the model for James Bond, blundering with his sidekicks, Jock and Snowy, into one deadly situation after another. As with Bond, his opponents always made the same mistake. At the end of an episode the three would be knocked cold. At the start of the next episode, they would groggily come round (‘Oh, my head, what happened?’), in some ingeniously devised prison, where, instead of simply shooting them in the head, or dropping them into the sea in concrete waistcoats, as the Gestapo or the Mafia would have done, the chief villain came to gloat, explaining the cruel, ingenious death he had devised for them: ‘Goodbye, Mr Barton; Goodbye Mr Bond. . .’ It was all too clever by half. I recall one episode where the trio were locked in a cellar, bound hand and foot. Through a vent in the floor, deadly poisonous spiders and scorpions came creeping, fangs and tails poised to strike. From another, sea-water began foaming across the floor. Cue Devil’s Gallop, end of episode. At the start of the next, the deadly spiders and scorpions had all drowned in the foaming sea-water, which had lifted the trio (who meanwhile had unfastened one another’s wrist bonds with their teeth) to the ceiling-height window, whose grille Dick managed to kick out with his bound feet. Holding their breath, they crawled and dolphin-kicked to freedom. The script-writers, Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb, should have been given a Nobel!
Occasionally, Dick took a break and was briefly replaced by Jackson the Explorer, who tended to get into scrapes involving Chinamen with headsman’s axes, spear-wielding Zulus and Amazonian Indians firing poison-darts. Then suddenly, without warning, the blow fell: the Devil’s Gallop was replaced by a simple, foolish melody, designed to tell listeners that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds: DOO-TI-DOO-TI-DOO-TI-DOO. DOO-TI-DOO-DOO-TI-DOOOOO-DOO. THE ARCHERS, AN EVERYDAY STORY OF COUNTRY FOLK. I turned off the wireless and ran up to my room. It was one of those decisions in the BBC hierarchy, of which we would see many more, based not on commercial considerations (Dick Barton was pulling in 15 million listeners a week, half the country’s listeners of walking-and-talking age), but on a decision of the practitioners of a new religion: child psychology. Dick Barton was deemed to be a ‘corrupting influence’, ‘glorifying violence’.
There were occasional children’s Saturday morning film shows in the Village Hall: black and white, on a tiny roll-up screen. They may even have included Dick Barton, though I think they were mainly westerns and comedies: Tom Mix, Hopalong, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges. The projector was noisy; the film often broke. Fortunately, there was also the public cinema, where many of the films were in colour, and censorship was minimal. There were ‘X’ films, which supposedly showed naked ladies, and which you couldn’t get into until you could persuade the lady in the ticket-booth that you were over sixteen. To get into an ‘A’ film, which didn’t show naked ladies, but possibly involved talk of naked ladies, and which required you to be accompanied by an adult over sixteen, was child’s play: you simply waited by the box-office until you spotted an old chap going in on his own. Sometimes he would even pay for your ticket.
Stortford had two cinemas, the Regent and the Phoenix. There was also a cinema in Saffron Walden, the Plaza. The Regent was for first runs, the Phoenix for reprises, and the Plaza for ancient, scratchy revivals, where the film often snapped several times in the course of the showing, and for those which had never achieved a first run: I remember a film called Crosswinds, set in New Guinea, where several cast members were bloodily devoured by crocodiles. I seldom missed a Regent first run. Often my companion was cousin Marisa. The classic Ealing Comedies (Marisa’s mother, Aunt Lisl, worked as a set designer at Ealing Studios) were fun: Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, the Lavender Hill Mob. . . But what really had us on the edge of our half-price ninepenny seats were films like Scaramouche and Lorna Doone. Not only did they include terrific sword-play, but for me they had particular resonance: the example of the young lad who, initially humiliated, goes off to hone his skills in secret, then returns to humiliate his humiliator. Both films have some of the greatest, climactic, one-on-one cinematic sword-fights of all time: Scaramouche (Stewart Granger) v. the sadistic Marquis de la Tour (Mel Ferrer) in the Paris Opéra; John Ridd v Carver Doone in the grotto above the Doone Falls.
During my time in Henham there were a number of notable events. The first, the doodlebug attack, occurred a year before we arrived, but the results were still plain to see. In 1944 an off-course V-1 or flying bomb, the ‘revenge weapon’ with which Hitler planned to bring Britain and Mr Churchill to their knees, struck the top of the elms at the eastern edge of Mr. Pimblett’s cricket field. The resulting explosion removed the roof and most of the first floor from the house of the Napiers (who were absent at the time), our future neighbours. When we arrived in Henham, the Napiers’ house remained just as it had been when it was hit; the superficial damage to the White Cottage, just across the road, had already been repaired. I explored the Napier ruins with Father, a frightening experience that brought home to me life’s essential, serendipitous impermanence. The ground floor was fine, apart from the coating of fallen plaster: much the same as ours, though the kitchen was bigger and better equipped. Then we started to climb the stairs to the first floor. Like ours, they had a ninety-degree bend, where the stairs narrowed to triangles. But when you got round the bend, there was nothing! Just empty space, like a broken-off diving board. Higher up you could see the splintered ends of some floor joists, and then the open sky.
‘I think we’d better go down,’ said Father.
A few years later, when I came home from boarding school, I found that the house had been totally restored, complete with a five-barred gate marked ‘Bacons Farm’. That surprised me, because the Napiers, Murtagh and Bobbie, certainly weren’t farmers. They came round from time to time for cocktails with my parents. I believe they had lost their only son in the war, but nobody talked about him.
A year or two after our arrival, the Prefabs were delivered. There were about a dozen of them: little white dolls’ houses with green door and window frames, driven down Carter’s Lane on the backs of lorries, and planted in a neat row behind the White/Blackwell vegetable garden.
Of greater significance in the context of the wider world were visits by ‘Uncles’ Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, later to be unmasked as members of the ‘Cambridge Spies’. During the War, Father had served in MI5 at Blenheim Palace, where his unit regularly received intelligence intercepts from the code-breakers at Bletchley Park which enabled them to capture German spies landed by submarine off the East Anglian coast. These unfortunates would turn up, still with seaweed on their boots, in some Norfolk or Suffolk coastal village, dressed and talking like characters out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. They would be taken to the Tower of London and interrogated, after which they would either be ‘turned’, or hanged following a summary trial. Colleagues Blunt and Burgess, witty and cynical, committed to the Left, like all thinking people who had lived through the thirties and impotently watched weak or reactionary politicians fawning on ‘Herr’ Hitler, ‘Signor’ Mussolini and ‘Generalissimo’ Franco, provided a welcome distraction from this rebarbative work. When my brother Guy was born in 1944, he was named Guy Anthony, after his two MI5 godfathers.
The multiplicity of books on the ‘Cambridge Spies’ describe Guy Burgess as ‘charming’, ‘devastatingly good-looking’, etc., etc. . . The character who turned up at the White Cottage in an open-topped sports-car, tooting a Mr Toad klaxon, in May 1951, shortly before his defection to Moscow, was neither of the above. As a fastidious ten-year-old, I recall a sweaty, smelly, red-faced man with blubbery lips, whom Graham and I spotted peeing behind a bush outside the dining-room window, too drunk to have lunch with us. It’s a mystery how anyone could ever have taken him seriously. He left behind some clever cartoons that he’d drawn for brother Guy, his godson. After his defection, we could have got a lot of money for them from the Daily Express.
Uncle Anthony was a totally different kettle of fish. He and I played cards together, in particular Bezique, a complex and frustrating game. One of its particularly attractive features to me, as a seven-year-old, was the pasteboard score markers, with dials like tiny clocks, round which you moved a small gilt arrow each time you scored points. My hands weren’t big enough to hold a full hand of eight cards; I kept the extra cards on the floor beside my chair. Uncle Anthony, with his long, slim, aesthete’s fingers, had no trouble with his cards, which he held close to his chest. Bezique is a mirror of life: you are constantly obliged to take decisions that affect your future fate, and if you’re wrong there is no going back on them. I was often wrong, and if I made too many wrong decisions and lost the game, I cried. ‘Timothy,’ said Uncle Anthony, clasping his cards still closer to his chest, ‘if you must cry, please try to cry into your handkerchief and not into the cards.’
Later that day I had my revenge. After lunch Uncle Anthony decided to stretch out on the lawn for a snooze. The family had just acquired a kitten, black with a white shirt-front. We called him Popeye, after the cartoon character. As was the custom, we put butter on his paws to stop him running away. While Uncle Anthony was asleep, Popeye walked all the way up his left leg, his waistcoat and his jacket, as far as his left shoulder, then padded across his chest and walked all the way down his right side, leaving a trail of buttery paw-marks the length and breadth of Uncle Anthony’s perfectly tailored country tweeds.
After the excitement of Uncle Guy’s defection to Moscow, the next significant incident that I recall was the Great Fish and Chip Blaze. Every Friday a van marked T.J. Wright, St. Neots, came to deliver freshly fried fish and chips to the village. One day there was a flash of flame from inside the van and Mrs T.J. Wright came tumbling out with wisps of smoke and flame rising from her hair. Mr T.J. grabbed up a bucket of water and threw it over Mrs T.J’s head, which promptly burst into flames, Mr having failed to realise that throwing water on a fat fire is like adding petrol (or maybe he had. . .). Bystanders quickly smothered the flames with blankets and sacks. Mrs T.J. can’t have been seriously burnt, as I don’t recall any ambulance.
Another notable blaze was at the Kennas’ house. The Kennas were an intriguing couple. When we first arrived, they were living on the other side of the road from us, between the doodle bugged ruin of the Napiers’ house and Willet’s sweetshop. They were also middle-class, friends of my parents, around the same age. But they had no children. When I asked my mother why, she mumbled something about children not always coming along when you wanted them. When I asked what you had to do to make them come along, she changed the subject. Shortly afterwards the Kennas left the village. I had a vague idea that it was something to do with their childless state. A couple of years later they reappeared with a new baby and moved into a house near ours, on the Green, next to the Vicarage. When I pressed my mother on the origins of the new baby, she mumbled something about babies coming along when you’re not expecting them (later, shortly after my parents had sold the pram and the rest of the baby equipment, they announced the prospective arrival of a new little brother or sister. I was twelve, and highly embarrassed; it would turn out to be brother William, born a month before the Coronation). The Kennas’ house fire was dramatic. The Kennas and the baby escaped. Then they realised they’d forgotten bed-ridden Granny. Thirty years on, when I saw the Italian satirical comedy, Brutti, Sporchi e Cattivi, I had a powerful sense of déjà-vu. The impoverished Rome slum family watch their house burning. Then they realise they’ve forgotten Granny’s pension book, and dash back inside for it. Then they realise that, without Granny, they can’t claim her pension. . . As I recall, both in the film and in life all ended well.
Most dramatic of all was the fatal motorbike accident of young Tony Hayden, brother of the late Jack Hayden, whose wife Bessie currently runs the local Post Office. The Haydens lived beside the pond at Woodend Green. They were one of those multiple Henham families, like the Fosters, the Camps, the Thakes and the Sucklings. But so were prices. It was a time of chronic labour shortage: everyone, including children, could find jobs. The accident happened one Sunday morning, not long before lunch. Twenty-year-old Tony, accelerating out of Deadman’s Bend by the Catholic Church, which you couldn’t take at much over 20 mph gathering speed, up past the two rows of council houses, hit the left-hand bend by the White/Blackwell cottages. Mounting the right-hand verge, he collided head-on with a parked lorry. In my memory, it was Elijah Barltrop’s, delivering coal, and they covered the body with empty coal-sacks. However, according to Graham Jaggard, who had cycled by shortly afterwards, it was in fact a timber lorry, belonging to Tom Siney from Elsenham, and the accident left him with a permanent stammer.
Less dramatic, but with greater personal impact, was Jimmy’s accident. Jimmy was our car, a 1938 Vauxhall 14, reg. JMY 470. We were all very proud of him. Father, whose own father had once owned a massive, open-topped 30/98 sports model, would point out how superior he was to his post-war equivalent: bigger boot, longer bonnet, thicker chrome on the bonnet flashes. . . It may well have been his longer bonnet that saved Father and my Uncle Hans from serious injury. It was Boxing Day morning. Uncle Hans, my mother’s brother, who lived in London, was coming to lunch. Father had gone to pick him up from Stortford station. They were late. The phone rang; there’d been an accident. I jumped on my bike and tore off up Mill Road, followed by my mother on her Norman Conqueror. It had happened on one of the many bends on the Elsenham-to-Thaxted road, near the sandpit. Jimmy was on his own side of the road, on the outside of a right-hand bend, nearside front wheel wedged hard up against the grass bank. His bonnet had been forced up, and the radiator was steaming and leaking into the road, over which his innards were scattered. Thrust into his stoved-in radiator grille was the massive front bumper of a pale-blue, Q-registered vehicle, long, low and wide as a landing-craft. Hans was dabbing with his handkerchief at a bleeding gash on his forehead; Father was holding his ribs. When he’d seen the big car coming at him on the wrong side of the road, he’d swerved as far to the left as he could and braked hard. By the time the two vehicles hit, Jimmy had been virtually stationary. The other driver, an American serviceman from the Base at Wethersfield, was unhurt. The only damage to his car was the scratched and dented front bumper.
Then my mother arrived. Afterwards, Father said he was both proud and shocked: he’d not previously been aware of his foreign-born wife’s command of bad language in her adopted tongue. The Yank just stood there, mumbling apologies. I believe he was later fined for drunk driving. Hans quickly recovered from the gash he’d received from the rear-view mirror. Father had cracked ribs, from where he’d hit his chest on the steering-wheel. There were no immediate after-effects, but he became addicted to Aspirin, as a result of which, many years later, he had a near-fatal stomach haemorrhage.
My final memories of Henham are of working in the fields. In my last two years, when I was twelve and thirteen, and keen to supplement my limited pocket-money, Linda Reed’s mother (now Joan Clayden) took me pea and potato picking. A lorry picked us up from the War Memorial, and drove us out towards Broxted. Pea-picking was hard work: no selective herbicides or machinery. The rows of pea-vines were entangled with weeds: thistles, nettles, convolvulus. . . You had to uproot each vine, then strip the pea-pods (which were not easy to see) into your bucket. It took a great many buckets to fill a bag, for which you got 3/6d. At first, a bag took me 2 hours to fill: four bags, or 14 shillings, for the day’s work. Beautiful half-crowns and florins, which made a satisfying, rich-sounding rattle when transferred to my dosh-box. The champions were the Foster/Yarrow twin sisters, who, assisted by their many kids, could do seven bags. As I’ve said, for me everything was a competition. On Joan’s advice, I’d brought thick gardening gloves. Frenziedly uprooting and stripping, ignoring the thistles and nettles, working through the lunch break, I managed six bags. Then the farmer brought the price down: the market price of peas had fallen. It was a first lesson in practical economics.
Potatoes were harder work physically, but financially more rewarding. A full hundredweight bag brought in less than a shilling, and was hard to carry to the scales. But it didn’t take long to fill. The tractor, towing its multi-bladed spinner, went up one side of the field and down the other, lifting the potatoes from the ground, shaking them free of earth and whirling them out to the side, where they lay, clean and white, like a scatter of new-laid eggs. You were allocated a stretch of so many yards, from which you had to pick, bucket and bag the spuds before the spinner came round again. If you weren’t done in time, so that the spinner had to wait, your patch was reduced and the extra yardage allocated to your neighbour. It was hard on the back, but another opportunity for competition. I don’t recall ever being caught short and reduced. On the contrary, I always finished early, in the hope of picking up some yardage from a neighbour. My daily earnings were consistently over a pound. I worked right through to our very last day in Henham, in September 1954. When I was done, the removal vans had come and gone from the White Cottage; the family had departed in Jimmy. Carrying my bucket, I walked to Elsenham station and caught the train to Shelford. It was the end of childhood.
© Timothy F.K. Johnston, June 2014.
1I understand from the Henham History site that Joyce’s name was in fact ‘Winmill’, without a ‘d’. But to us she was always Miss Windmill, associated in our childish minds with the only extant local windmill, which stood on a hill outside Thaxted.