Peter and Catherine Tovell. 1941

 

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Catherine with Peter and Philip David Murray Tovell. Little Mid Fearn, Ardgay, Sutherland. 1943

 

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Peter. 1958

 

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Taunton School

 

 

 


Book Four

 

'MADE IN 1941' an autobiography

Extract fom chapter: '...more first days at school.'

First day at prep school, 1950, aged 9. The 180 yard walk between Paddington tube station and the mainline train to Taunton and Thone Preparatory School...

March is a town in Cambridge-shire.

 

It's goodbye to March, as I find myself being driven to the station in a car.  We don't have a car and I doubt it's a taxi - another crowded detail discarded on the clipping-room floor.  Familiar views speed past the window and I wonder if I'll ever see them again, caring little whether I do or not.  The tyres swish as they turn into the forecourt and we park neatly outside the station entrance.  I'm more used to getting there by bike or bus.  There's a finality about that swish.
     It's goodbye to mother too, as I find myself installed like an unwanted treasure on the London train - Liverpool Street or bust, and the logistics leave little chance of bust. 
     A lady has been detailed to meet and escort me across London.  Who?  I don't know.  I don't need to know.  Along with Cash's name taping, packing, re-packing, and meticulous list-ticking, every eventuality has been catered for.
     Aside from the prime objective, mistakes have been eliminated.
     It's just me, nine years' know-how, and a brown leather suitcase.  Too late for turning back, the whistle blows for 'Over the top' and I begin my journey to London alone.
     Soon, later that day, I shall cease to be Peter.  Had I known, I might have counted the last few times I heard my name.  Peter, the compendium of one boy's childhood, is about to be decontaminated, broken down into component parts, and reconstituted as a new and greatly improved boy.
     Soon, I shall no longer be 'me'.
     I am about to become 'Tovell PWA' or, 'Tovell' for short.

#

"Next stop's ours," announces my escort lady, she matter-of-fact, me the excitement of the Circle Line fading the nearer we get, "which also happens to be the terminus of the world's first underground railway," she continues, not missing a chance to top up my education.
     Our train romps through its tunnel, people move toward the doors as if they actually want to get to Paddington.  It's just me now, me and my old enemy - time.  I sense its impatience, its quickening stride, its exquisite soon-ness.
     We screech to a stop.  For a moment the doors stay shut and then, not quite taking her hand, I step onto the platform.
     Sure enough, lying in wait at the top of the escalator is the mainline station.  Dwarfed by a scale that pins me to the floor, I see no escape from this cavernous womb.  It will be here that the final cords are snipped.  A tiny dot, a suitcase and my escort lady, we make our way toward the correct platform, at the correct time, correctly dressed, and ready for battle.  Breathless, tripping on fear, time drags its feet these last few steps, like before an exam, a fight, a crash, a confrontation with the unknown...
     At the beginning and end of every term I would be met at Liverpool Street or Paddington by my escort lady, and taken safely across the metropolis.  The stoic widow of a fallen hero - that's how I saw her.  I knew about Army Officer's wives.  Composed, worldly, built of backbone, I'd lived amongst them all my life.
     "We have twenty minutes, Peter.  Plenty of time." 
     Twenty minutes?  How long or short is that?  Less than I need to eat a bag of sweets or freeze to death in Hudson Bay?  More than enough to make a run from danger?
     Inserted into the responsibility of escorting me between mainline stations, she'd take me on educational excursions, one 'we'll just have time to fit this in before your train' each trip.  Six per year and none forgotten - echoes in the dome of St Paul's, tea with a view of the Houses of Parliament from where Michael Hopkins' building now stands, pennies on Big Ben's pendulum, the new Festival Hall, the Skylon, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square... lots and lots of educational treats.
     "You're alright, aren't you?" 
     No mention of my name this time.  Must be the beginning of the end, the letting go, the casting off.  Anyway, I'm never going to admit to how alright I really am.
     My dependence on her was absolute and she, without lazily falling back on soppiness or affection, carried out her duty faultlessly.  Yet, can I remember her name?  Did I ever truly know who she was, or where she came from?  It was that preoccupation thing again, the need to survive spilling over into selfishness.
     "I'm fine, thank you."  It is kind of her to enquire, and she gives me a 'chin up, it's not that bad' sort of smile.
     Maybe she was a family friend, a friend of a friend, a distant relative.  Maybe she came from the Officer's Family Fund, the financial vehicle that assisted my transfer from the bewilderment of Burrowmoor Road to the ivy-clad gangland of Thone Preparatory School.
     "I think that's our platform over there..." 
     I cannot reply.  I have no wish to be rude, but my mind's elsewhere and severed from its speechless throat.  Why just this once can't time hold still?  Why, if I never ask again, could it not grant me this one request, one favour, in recompense for all the times it's let me down?
     "...yes, and there are some boys with their parents." 
     And my request?  Stretch from me those yawning yards ahead, snatch their closeness from my trembling grasp, leapfrog them safely to the past so I need never know the horror they propose.  Too much to ask?
     I loved steam trains, stations, railway journeys - even carriages were quite interesting.  Inevitable, I suppose, for an infant born into his very own adventures steaming the arteries of Britain - King's Cross to Edinburgh, Euston to Glasgow, Waterloo to Portsmouth, Paddington to Bristol.  Pre-dating cheap flights, motorways, and cars that could be relied on, we were the flesh-clad component of a matrix of steel that straddled our island, binding it together as one Nation.
     "Would you like me to take that for you?"  I'm clutching my suitcase to my chest.  Ridiculous.  It's like carrying a small dog, a cushion, a shield, anything...
     "It's alright, thank you," and it drops to my side where it belongs, and in the heat of the day my spirits dampen, and my shoulders prickle with the chill.
     Stations, when I was very young, were lofty soot-black places, easy for a child to pass unnoticed.  Ant-busy with arrivals and departures, 'Just missed it... never mind, we'll take the next,' they were adult places run by clocks and watches, disciplined and single-minded.  At my level, so not that far from the ground, the panorama was of striding legs, hefty luggage, whizzing cabs, upside-down news and shivering porters waiting on the next train due.  Information chalked by hand on board or shouted out from speakers, was none of it my concern.  Adults looked things up in timetables or asked, and asked, and asked again to be sure.  And for me, there was being there, going where I was going, the sounds, the sights, the tastes, the smell, and cast iron chocolate dispensers wobbly on their pedestals sixpence if you have one.  In squeeze-full tea rooms powder-faced, fag-flicking, pillarbox-lipsticked women mingled with chatty hatted men.  Together they warmed themselves by real coal fires, and spoke knowledgeably about things I didn't understand.      
    Looking up at that adult world, I marvelled at its authority - not in those words, of course - and queried my impatience to acquire the status of a man.  Must I one day accept that distance, that importance, and do so willingly? 
     But, even as a child we have things to share.  A train journey for example.  Now, there's a drama we can all appreciate.  A flag, a whistle, a mighty puff to spin the wheels.  A throw-about jerk, carriages angry at being disturbed, heads that turn to scan the platform, '...are we moving yet?'  More puffs, more spins, but nothing like the first.  Then comes the silence, the silence of unfettered traction, the tingle of unmetered power, a tip-tap-tap of wheels on rails, a groan from the couplers, a squeal from the axles - and, gone.  Pounding the darkness of the night, always night, here to there, A to B, city to city, faces to places, 'what station's this?' leave at your peril, sit to attention, smut in your eye...
     "Oh look!  They're wearing your uniform."
     "So they are," I bite a lip, and retreat to my preoccupation.
     It's a brand new day that's barely unwrapped.  Shall we be met?  A drive to the house, crunch on gravel, hats on stands, breakfast on sideboards, food on plates, cups on saucers, dogs on mats, old relations, pots of tea, knees under tables, plans for later, wide-apart smiles, more tea...  suddenly, the clocks feel wrong.  Is it tomorrow?  Have we arrived?  Come on, wake up, we have arrived!
     And the steam engines?  Well, I haven't time for all that, not even a mention those oh-so-evocative names.  I haven't time for Gresley, Stainer, Churchward or Collett.  Mustn't go on about Pacifics and Kings.  No Castles, no Scots.  No room for a Princess.  And not a word about Britannia's, Patriots, Black Fives or 9F's, not even time for A1's, 2's, 3's or 4's.
     Well yes, there is... just a bit.
     "Aren't we a little early?"  I think we are, so it's a fair question.  "Must we join them straight away?" 
     "I know you're nervous, but try not to let it show," she lowers herself to my level, "I'm sure you'll be alright," and I feel a rallying squeeze on my hand.      
     I suppose it was an ancestor thing, going all the way back to the ironmasters of Coatbridge, that we should stop to acknowledge the machine that had battled through the night to carry us safely from one city to another.  Besides, what boy could not be impressed by the early morning sight of an A4 Pacific, the fastest engine in the world, hissing quietly to itself inches short of the King's Cross buffers after its run from Waverly?
     'So long as we have engineering such as this, our Nation is safe,' Grandfather Ross would say, dwarfed by the scale of the beast and poking the air with his stick.  Like that engine, my Scottish grandfather was a powerful man, and wore his authority with pride.
     "I'm fine, thank you," and I tell myself this can't be as bad as it seems, just one more bloody school to fit around.
     'We', when I was very young, referred to our country not ourselves.  The War was over, hardly mentioned, but still present in an occasional reference to those who hadn't made it.  Still witnessed in bomb sites and fractured cities.  Still felt in shortages and in relief that it was done with.  Still remembered in church.  Still let slip in reminiscence that might uncoil from adult conversation.  Still picked up from snippets on the wireless.  Still confronted in the 'Wounded in the War' beggars in the streets.
     Being the norm, it held no novelty for us.  We, the War Babies - the Coupon Kids - knew nothing different.  That, to us, was how it's always been.  No sweets but American chewing gum, no toys but some dog-eared fag cards, a few marbles and, if we were lucky, an assortment of passed-down Meccano.  Constantly a little bit hungry, we were part of 'it', part of the run-down fabric of our surroundings, not extras in a melodrama squeaky clean beneath our costumes.  Unwittingly typecast, we had no need to get in character.
     Arriving from a place of comfort - time travellers marooned in post-War Britain, let's say - a visitor might exclaim, 'Oh my God.  Look at this!  How awful it is for them to live in such conditions' not understanding that what they witnessed was all we'd ever known.  Whatever bother the Second War put us to, we remained proud of our King and Country, and of its achievements, morals and traditions.
     I sense a quickening of our pace, like before a charge...
     "Better now?" 
     I look up at her.  "Yes, much," and I think that's not a lie.
     Admiring the magnificence of an A4 Pacific in full steam, feeling proud of it, did not label you as a 'nerd' - whatever that might mean.  Certainly not.  Not when I was very young.  Others would join in, sharing the emotion.  Everyone would, adults too.
     It was a Tribal thing.
     "Here we are!"  She speaks cheerily of bad news, like a dentist.
     "Yes..."
     And now it's on me.  The clash.  My battle's met. 
     Threading through mind and vein, I feel its jungle beat.  Become its own narcotic, there is no pain.  It takes me for itself, it joins with me and, together, I know we shall be comrades.
     Beneath a canopy of mother's hats, I am a seedling on the forest floor.  The undergrowth jostles with boys competing for the light.  Already tall and strong, they are 'other boys'.  I am not one of them.  I am for later.
     "Let me take your case - do you think I should help you find a seat?"
     Probably not.  I'd better do this thing alone.    
     Our train, my train - the train - has carriages reserved for the school, whole carriages, lots of them, each with a 'Taunton School' name-board hanging centrally above the window-line one of which, perhaps for protection, is exclusively for 'Thone Preparatory School.'
     Given the tempestuous life I expect to live, this might not be the most significant journey I shall ever take.  But of hundreds so far completed, I fear it most.  A new school for sure, and another boarding school at that but, there is more.  Mentioned once in passing as the place of my father's death, I shall be returning to the West Country.  And the school?  His school too, and that's like stepping on joins or opening boxes tightly sealed and put away for good. 
     What might I find in his arena of abandoned gun emplacements once so urgently concreted into lonely hilltops?  Do anti-aircraft batteries have ghosts?  Might they outlive their spears of pain in blacked-out skies, their bombers caught in ring sights, their cities burning high into the night?  Or, did that end abruptly and without addendum in a military hospital, making one geography the exclusive place of happy times - of holidays, Instow, River's Meet, Edmondsham House, Heanton Court and, for the foreseeable future, the lush green meadows of Somerset?
     The time has come to part, my escort lady and I, and we must remember our manners. 
     "Thank you for meeting me," I accept a hand offered in a glove, "and for lunch," she's not much like my mother, "and for looking after me so well," more like one of my Hampshire Aunts, "it's been most kind of you."  She's been terrific, but time has let me down.  I knew it would.
     Our severance done with, neither having made a fuss, I'm quickly on my way.  Squeezed into the corner-most corner of the compartment I stare, mesmerised, at the trackside ribbon that tumbles toward me.  How easy it would be to join with it, let it snatch me for itself, escape into its flicking past, merge with its speeding invisibility.
     I haven't yet noticed I've been noticed - I know I have, but haven't noticed.
     Along with some other souls, I am one of the 'new bugs' and, without question, a legitimate target.  The feeling is of separation, of loosing the grip of a friendly hand - a feeling I'm not used to.  It's like being an astronaut or, imagining how that would be.  The unfamiliar is more easily understood by comparing it with the familiar, in the way the moon looks bigger on the horizon because it's next to trees and houses.  My moon is lost in space, a tiny speck exactly like that astronaut but without his tubes and things, without a connection to mother ship and no longer under 'ground control'.

#

From that day onward the entirety of my schooling would be away from home.  And the holidays?  Much of those were taken up with visits to aunts and uncles, my Hampshire Tovells, school friends, and an assortment of Boy Scout and Army camps.
     So far as the family was concerned - that's my mother, stepfather Bill, and half-brother and half-sister William and Bab - my inclusion was pretty much restricted to Scottish summers at Oriole Park, my maternal grandfather's house in Strathspey, and Christmas.
     That's more or less it, then.
     Pulling out of Paddington in a carriage reserved for Thone Preparatory School, riding the thump-thump-thump of the joins in the rails, listening to the chitter-chatter of the points criss-crossing beneath me, those were the first bars, the prelude, to another new beginning.

     No wonder that journey meant so much to me yet, preoccupied, I remember so little about it - the day I left home.     

 

   ###

    

Extract fom chapter: '...returning to Scotland.'

     Steam trains again, but for the last time...

If you are lucky, you might witness a 'non-stopper'.
     'The next train at Platform One will be the through express to Waverly, stopping at Crewe only,' a cautionary pause, 'this is a through train,' another, with reverence, 'please stand well back.'
     Good advice.  At first a speck, growing and growing.  Suddenly, as big as anything can be.  Trembling the weighty platform, exploding mighty close, sound so thick it squeezes heads, rattles chests, teeth clench, and feet shake in their shoes.  Admit it or not, we all draw breath.  We cower mid-sentence... ... to let the screaming pass.
     Such hurry, such urgency.  No call for courtesy, no need to apologise for all that fearsome din.
     Just as suddenly it is gone - angry, powerful, sniff of heat, coaches holding on as tight as tight.  Left-behind flurries spin at litter, ruffle hair, fall to ground.  Cables rattle, rails zing... a distant riff, and all is still again.  In a flick of a tail we have our silence back and in its vacuum find our voices, meek and shy.
     At last - no more day-dreaming - our train is announced.
     "This one's ours, Mum.  This one's ours," and how much better could it get, don't ask, "and it's an A4.  Yes - an A4!"
     "Yes, dear.  Keep back, and please be careful."
     The names of course were poetry, not that it would have mattered what they were called.  Even so - Mallard, Seagull, Merlin, Wild Swan, Osprey, Kingfisher, Golden Eagle...
     Alright, back to the journey.
     "Are we nearly there yet?"  No, not yet, not this place.  Arriving is important.  It needs status.  This is an in-between place.  Patience.
     Mortgaged from the debt of sleep, I exist in black-time now.  Mile on mile of ebony night, pin-small lights that dot the void, dance in the distance, catch the eye... flash by close to lick my face.  Gas-lit stations, unreal, remote, midnight stops 'for trains only', secrets the sun will never see.  A guard walks the platform, he carries a lamp, he shouts a name.  Any name will do.  Un-chanced upon by other routes, it is a brief component of that journey, a linear prompt like a tag on a measuring chain.  It is a name that hides in swirling mist, a gratuitous memory, never to be seen or thought of again.
     Travelling alongside and too polite to stare is my own reflection.  Sepia-tired but managing to keep up, it hovers in my little patch of window.  Ducking, dodging, weary, breathless, it's with me all the way.  Not speaking, not leaving unless I do, we avoid each other's eye.  Can it really be me?  No one sits that close.
     Filling up the rest of the big window - as well as things like the luggage rack, the dimmest of dim lights, and a framed advert insisting we should have gone to Skegness - are my looking-glass companions.  Two in reverse to me, but not to them, are images of my parents.  With them their two children, William and Bab, both fast asleep.  All four seem strange, as if I knew them differently and in another place, wherever that might be.  The other faces - definitely strangers.  They all talk amongst themselves as though they were acquainted, yet no one thinks to introduce me as they imagine I'm asleep.  Like a troupe of mimics, they are boisterous and opinionated and, as their familiarity grows, mine lessens, and not one of them will look me in the eye.
     I'm tempted to join in, but keep to the wings.  Instead, I listen.  I gather they have something to ask.  Their question, 'Who is who, and which of us is really real?'
     I'd claim it to be me, of course.  I'd insist on that.
     They'd have me join them, I suspect.  That's their true intention.  Politely - and, being so young, this suits me well enough - politely, I keep my distance, for we're still not introduced.   For now, I'll skip their little game, that toe-curling shock of being beckoned on stage, and keep my sanity for myself.
     And yet... were any of us behaving sensibly?
     Take, for example, my mother's irrational need for tea.
     "Ah, there's a platform trolley," we'd stopped again, "you're quick on your feet, dear..." I swear sometimes I felt her push me.
     Squandering precious seconds straying from my sanctuary, 'I will be back,' I beg the train, 'I know it's the middle of the night,' I feel it eyeing me with disapproval, 'but, please wait,' and taunting me over my unpropitious use of time, 'please don't leave without me?'
     I give it a go - but, for what?  For a golden chalice brimming with ambrosia?  Oh, no - for a few penneth of char served by a hag from bony hands in sawn-off gloves. 'Tea, thruppence...' ready-milked, urn-deep, spattered into an ex-utility mug, 'hand it back next stop, darlin,' she grins through chequered teeth, it doesn't matter, 'help yourself to sugar, dearie,' cubes of virgin white, some ochre-wet, 'keep the spoon,' tannin-primed, pre-plastic, well-travelled, harlequin - even spoons have chums.  Yes, hand it back next stop, go through it all again, it doesn't matter.  Nothing matters.
     It's that or the insane dash to the all-night tearoom.  The sluggish queue, legs crossed, lips bit, desperate for my turn whilst time, that insensitive bastard, steals my train away from me.  Time is always ahead in a queue, not moving forward properly, not following procedure.  Time is so rude.
     "Here's your tea, Mum."
     "You managed, dear.  I was worried we'd leave without you," and she takes the offending brew, my dice with dichotomy, and all is well again.
     Then what?  Back to dreams marshmallow-soft, sliced up by whistles, points and crossings, jarred by stops and passing trains, roused by dialogue and laughter.  This is Tom Tiddler's Ground. Name anything you want, imagine it... it's yours.  Yours to have but not to keep.
     "Try to keep still, dear.  Relax.  Try to sleep."
     We, the occupants of our compartment, are travelling at a speed relative to each other of zero - yes, zero.  Yet, the world speeds by.  Who can keep still whilst the world speeds by?  Who, lost in a Gothic landscape, can relax with a head skull-full of imagination?  Who, with conversations to listen to, can sleep in a cradle rocked by words that seduce like Sirens' song?  Not joined up, not part of sentences, glittery frivolous words, piercing enunciating words, Humpty Dumpty words that mean whatever I want them to mean.
     And those reflections?  I know they're there.  I know what they're asking me to do, and still we don't look each other in the eye.  I'll face them when I'm ready.  I'll face them all, but not just yet.  Besides, no one at the age of nine writes an autobiography, and that's what this is about, isn't it?
     Every age has its turn of the baton.  A year, to be precise - of playing the part not watching it, of making the history not recalling it, of being the composer not the listener.  Those looking-glass performers, they never write scripts, make history or compose stuff.  That's not their job - a job that cannot start until I look them in the eye.
     That's what clutters up my head, my leaden head heavy with sixty years of not looking back, of not acknowledging my own reflections.  If I'm weary now, it's with holding back against the coarse velour that rasps all over the not-so-comfy Third Class seats, and my head keeps flopping forward for the thousandth time.
     And my legs have pins and needles because my feet don't reach the floor.

###

 'Made in 1941 ' Autobiographic novel, Tovell PWA, in preparation.

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