Thank you General de Gaulle (for my bubble car)

1965 was not a good year for me. As a student reading French I was required, not unreasonably, to spend a year teaching in France. This ought to have been a pleasure, but by and large it turned out not to be. However there was one unexpected consolation prize, thanks to General de Gaulle, then president of the republic.

For some unknown reason, that year he decided to pay an extra month’s wages to all those like me who had been engaged in the mostly futile task of teaching English to French schoolchildren. This inexplicable but welcome gesture enabled me to buy my first car – an Isetta bubble car.

From two wheeled hell to three wheeled heaven! Continue reading

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Me and my Palm Beach

In my teens, my liberation from the dull confines of life in NW9 was my bike – a Triumph Palm Beach 3 speed tourer, on which I used to escape to Hertfordfordshire and Buckinghamshire, or to my Auntie Ellen’s place in Kenton and later in Shepperton, or to spend the summer holidays on long distance youth hostelling jaunts.

I think I was fifteen or sixteen when I finally got the bike. For ages I had been lobbying for one, mainly on the reasonable grounds that everyone else had one, but my Dad was adamant, on equally reasonable grounds, that I would not last five minutes on London streets. As a result, when I did get my way, I had missed out on a few years of practice on the road, compared to other kids on the patch. I can’t remember anyone teaching me to ride, so I guess it’s ironic that I successfully taught my own children to ride a bike years later. Continue reading

Prefabs are back!

So the UK government has rediscovered prefabs! Well done – better late than never I guess. Anyone who had the privilege of growing up on one of Churchill’s post war prefab estates and has lived long enough to tell the tale could have told our leaders at any time since the sixties that prefabs have the potential to transform our endemic housing problem and even help banish enforced homelessness.

Perhaps the government has been influenced not so much by the  opinions of the diminishing number of people who, like me, experienced prefab life in post-war Britain, but by more recent and newsworthy examples of successful prefabricated housing interventions elsewhere, in response to chronic housing problems and international emergencies such as the 2011 Tsunami. For instance, since the only home to remain standing in one devastated Japanese village was a prefab made in the Philippines, business has apparently been booming:


Continue reading

Thank you, Miss Bugler

best_job_150Someone recently asked me what the best job I ever had was. I found it quite hard to answer. For a start, define “job”; would I include all paid employment, self employment and voluntary work? I decided to exclude voluntary work for the time being, but then I had to work out what I meant by “best”.

I decided that it meant the most enjoyable, rather than the best paid, or the easiest. The answer still did not jump out immediately; I have done a lot of jobs in my time. Running through the chronological list, they all seemed to have their pros and cons. So I took another angle, and rephrased the question – what job do I most regret not doing for longer? Continue reading

Fryent days

Do you remember your first day at school? I do, or at least I think I do.

Here is what I think I remember:

I am sitting at a desk in a room with a lot of other kids, many of whom are crying, and I am wondering why they are upset. The room has a blackboard at the front and the walls are decorated with brightly coloured pictures. Out of the windows I see a field, with houses in the distance. On each desk is a slate, in a wooden frame, with a kind of pencil made of stone or something. Some kids seem to know what these are for, and are using the strange pencils to scribble on the slates.

A nice lady stands at the front and is talking to us and showing us how  to draw on the slates. Pretty soon I notice that one boy is hiding his slate as he scratches away, occasionally looking round to see if we are watching him. Then he stops and holds up his slate, saying something like “See, I can do real writing. If you can’t do real writing you’d better learn fast or you’ll get the cane.” I am not convinced. After all, I have seen the real thing, and he’s an idiot anyway who I recognise from the prefab estate. Continue reading

Me and my Puch

I don’t know what became of my bike, but by the time I was in my second year at University in Leicester (1964), I had got it into my head that what I needed was a scooter. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford a Vespa or a Lambretta, the iconic machines beloved of the Mods, so I shopped around for something cheaper, and what I came up with was something called a Puch.

A what? Well, it looked bit like a Lambretta, but it was made by the Austrian Steyer-Daimler-Puch company. Perhaps I was impressed by the Daimler bit, and it seemed then like a trusty steed, suitable for local and long distance travel. Little did I know.

My cunning plan was to ride the scooter up to Leicester, where I was studying for a degree in French and Philosophy. London NW9 to Leicester is about 100 miles, so this was the first long haul test. The  Puch was fine, but I soon found out that journeys longer than a few miles were a severe test of human stamina, for which I was simply not prepared. Continue reading

Prefab days

I wrote this article for the Cottage Museum in Woodhall Spa, where an exhibition about prefab life opened this week. I now know that the thousands of prefabricated houses which sprang up after the second world war were Churchill’s response to the housing shortage caused by that war, but all I knew at the time was that something exciting was afoot.

Until 1947, when I was four, we were a family of four living with two of my mum’s half-sisters and their families in a rented house in Stonebridge Park, near Wembley. It seems we qualified to be rehoused on a prefab estate being constructed under Churchill’s scheme, probably because of the overcrowding and the fact that my dad was a returning serviceman.

Memories are elusive, and it’s difficult to disentangle genuine recollections from received accounts, mainly from my parents and other relatives. However, I am fairly certain that an image I have always had in my head of jumping in and out of frozen ruts in a muddy field must have been something to do either with visiting the site of our new home before it was constructed, or perhaps later, after we had moved in. This fits with the records of the terrible winter of 1947. Continue reading