NEW BOOK – THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS – ALAN HOWARD (OUT NOW)

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Biography of my childhood – for a child

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A mini biog of my childhood written to a ten-yr-old child in response to her email: OMG outstanding sweenie the heenie. Who would of thought of such a great chacter {he reminds me of alan himself maybe thats what its based on}” – Emma Thompson (At least – I don’t THINK it’s the actress?).

Hi Emma,
(and her teachers and fellow-pupils, as I now surmise)
I was so flummoxed by your email last night coming from the same email as Morgan that I entirely forgot my manners!
Thank you, too, so much for taking the trouble to write to me.

And, to answer your question, Sweeney the Heenie IS the closest to me (he's my favourite character) so, naturally, one might say, he is "outstanding" (heh, heh)!
Though my wife, Pauline, may beg to differ on this - she doesn't seem to think ME outstanding at all! (Standing out [side], more like).

Anyway, if you both go to my blog, you can see the first character-sketches I made for each of the main characters (left side, as a little slide show) and at the top you can see a two-picture slide show of a possible new character, Blunder the Elephant
http://alangilliland.blogspot.com  – called ‘Pencilnotes’
Thanks again,
Alan.

PS. I was puzzling this conundrum last night and it suddenly occurred to me that, with such a peculiar email address and two kids writing from it that it might just be a SKOOL! So here’s a story of

                    “HOW I WENT TO SKOOL (and later, SCHOOL)”
   I went to SKOOL once or twice. But my second one was MUCH BETTER than yours! It was on a beach. So we had LESSONS in the mornings and SWIMMINGS in the afternoon (or climbing coconut trees – my best friend fell out of one and broke his arm and had to go to hospital. He was also stung by a huge jellyfish and had to go to hospital again – he really didn’t have much luck, I guess).
   Our beach SKOOL was right on the seashore (as they often are) and the white sandy beach was about half a mile long, with coconut trees lining it (we had coconut milk and chunks of coconut for elevenses), a Malay kampong (fishing village at the furthest end (luckily – because they used to put out the fish to dry in the hot hot sun until they were nice and stinky). The fishermen paddled out to sea in sampans (like a big open canoe with an outrigger) to cast their nets or spear fish. We would watch them arrive home with the boats so full they were almost underwater to land their catch: the most dangerous were the sting-rays because when they landed them you had to keep well out of range of their tails, which they would whip around with poisonous barbs on them.
   At the other end of the beach a stream met the sea in a mangrove swamp (trees that like seawater and have roots that stick up in the air so that walking through them is quite tricky). Beyond the mangroves was a headland, easy to climb round, and beyond the headland was a ship half-sunken into the beach! Not that we were allowed to go there on our own (I was six).
   This SKOOL was a line of old army barracks. At one end the boys ‘dorm’ barrack, in the middle the classroom barrack, and at the other, the two-story Headmaster’s family house with the girls’ dorms upstairs. Our headmasters was DRUMTUM, an ex-army major with a huge belly and a swagger stick, who marched around looking frightfully important and, more importantly, portly! My most exciting illness there was when I had a raging fever and was put in the little room at the north end of the boy’s dorm barrack with no door, next to the land-drains lined with coconut trees leading to the beach. A HUGE black land-crab (they tear open coconuts with their HUGE claws to eat the flesh) decided he’d had enough coconut for the time being and thought he’d come and get ME! I remember him quite clearly, slowly walking towards me up the bank, clicking his great pincer, testing it for sharpness, over the doorsill and advancing relentlessly! (DARKNESS FOLLOWS.) After I was ‘saved’ they put me on the girl’s dorm floor, which was much, much nicer.
   Getting to my first SKOOL, before the one on the beach, when I was five was an ADVENTURE in itself. First, we drove to the airport in my dad’s car, a big 1930’s American car like the old gangsters used to drive in the movies, because it was the only car strong enough to carry the armour-plating. If you wound the steel windows up and dad put down the front windscreen vizor with a slit in it for the driver to see out of, it was what you imagine medieval knights in armour must have felt like – all dark and hot! Anyway, we drove out of our Rubber-estate compound with its machine-gun post and searchlights and soldiers, across “Puchong Puddle”, a flat swampy jungle which flooded every rainy season so that you had to drive along the road under a foot or so of water keeping close to the line of posts that marked the edge of the road to avoid going off the edge and bubbling into the swamp, and on to the airport at Kuala Lumpur. Here all the other planters’ children and I climbed on board a World War Two Dakota aeroplane with canvas seats and waved goodbye to our parents for another term. My parents were most upset, they told me later, because I just sat down and started reading my comics while all the other kids were blubbing at the windows. Two hundred and fifty miles north, we landed on an airfield at the bottom of the Cameron Highlands and climbed into a convoy of Saracen armoured cars, shaped like a pencil (hexagonal) with a gun-turret on top to drive to the top of the mountain where sat our SKOOL in one of the only cool places in Malaya (they had tea-plantations all around).
   It was very hot and dark in the armoured car and I was lucky enough to get to ride in the gun-turret with the gunner as we drove through the jungle with everyone else being horribly sick down below (phew!). The only thing I can remember is my surprise when I discovered what a knee-bone looked like after I fell down a hill and scraped the skin right off. So I can truthfully say, best part of that SKOOL was getting there.
   Our house was a big ‘bungalow’ with two floors (I know that sounds daft) and its windows – well, it had big windows, in fact the downstairs living-room seemed to be ALL-window – had no glass, just blinds you pulled down when it rained and mosquito-netting. It had a corrugated-iron roof which was brilliant, drumming you to sleep when it rained and you were tucked up in bed under your mosquito-net tent, all cosy and safe (except for the spiders and snakes that could creep and slither up the drains and into the bath-tub which was like a gigantic four-foot wide ceramic flour-mixing bowl with a plug-hole in the bottom).
   Our garden was about an acre with a twelve-foot barbed-wire fence keeping the jungle out. We had a miniature two-storey playhouse that we helped to build (and paint – what mess that was, especially when we slipped on its corrugated-iron roof in the wet paint and slid along the length of until we fell off the end all covered in white paint – which was quite often!).
   We had a concrete swimming pool where I learned to swim and my brother cracked his head open being silly on the steps and had to be taken to hospital.
   We had a chicken run with a very brave cockerel who fought off foxes and even a wild boar once that blundered into it. We had a vegetable patch that the wild boars tried hard to reach at night and a line of banana trees on the edge of the tennis-court. We had rambutans and mangosteens and sweetcorn and bananas and durian (a Malay delicacy: a fruit I grew up with that I’ve never found popular here in England – they tell me it’s the smell – durians fetch high prices and can be found now in Chinatown off Leicester Square – I commend them to you as the ultimate in succulence – if Camembert was a fruit!)
   We had twenty Special Constables (soldiers) in a barracks on one side, near the machine gun post, and one of them had a shiny new motorbike that my brother tried to climb on when it arrived and burnt his hand and had to be taken to hospital again. Dad had a two-way radio so that we could contact the outside world in case the telephone wires were cut and an armoured car visited once a week to check we were still alive.
   We used to visit other rubber estates (you only saw your friends in the holidays when you visited them or they visited you) and at one my brother set fire to the jungle learning what NOT to do with matches and was told off very severely by my dad (who had himself set fire to the South African Veldt at exactly that age when he was a boy growing up in South Africa). On another occasion my friend’s Amah (a nanny) gave us a can of pineapple chunks that was ‘blown’ and I was violently sick almost immediately and my brother was carted off to hospital (yet again) with botulism poisoning and was very ill with his legs all swollen up.
   Because we were brought up on a rubber-estate during the ‘Emergency’ when Communist guerrillas were trying to drive the British out of Malaya, we had to go on compulsory ‘leave’ for six months every three years (It was very stressful for parents there – my dad had to carry a sten gun and .45 revolver everywhere and even my mum, a .38 revolver – we were quite Kool about it: after all, we had cap-guns!).  On my first leave to England I caught tonsillitis, so had to go to hospital and have them out. This was at the time of the Queen’s Coronation and everyone in London (and England) was having fun with street-parties with cakes and ale and dancing, except me – I was watching from my hospital window and eating raw eggs and ice-cream.
   While on leave I was left for few days in a boarding school in Biddeford, Devon, while my parents enjoy a few kid-free days. A child was diagnosed with Polio and everyone was quarantined for (what seemed like) an awfully long time. I remember very clearly staring out of the big window down the hill to where the drive gates were, watching for my parents’ car to turn that corner, any minute now… I think it was around this time I decided I didn’t like England because it rained all year round. In the rainy season in Malaya you knew when it was going to rain like a power shower and you could go out in your shorts and walk, half-in half-out of the rain as the clouds came over to soak you daily.
   I had my reward on the way home, flying in a Comet Four (which seemed HUGE to me then – just go and see one at Duxford aerodrome RAF museum to see how small it is) over the Himalayas (tallest mountains in the world), sitting in the pilot’s seat looking down over the mountain-peaks in the clear moonlight, so close you felt you could reach out and touch them. Magic! (I was allowed in because everyone else was fast asleep and pilots back then hadn’t heard of Al-Qaeda nor kids of Al-Qopops!) That Comet Four crashed on its next trip out to South Africa (I heard later). So I was lucky, I guess.
   But my luck ran out when I came to England for good. On the trip home, aboard the Willem Ruys (pronounced VILLUM ROWSE), which took us around the Cape of Good Hope because the Suez Canal was still blocked, I caught Yellow Fever and was very ill when we docked at Southampton. With all my parents belongings being unloaded, crates and crates of them, we were bundled into the huge customs shed where the customs officer insisted on busting open every single crate and trunk and suitcase, which took more than three hours despite my father’s pleas that a seven-boy with a raging fever should not be kept there in that cold windy hangar.
Life on a rubber estate may seem peculiar to you, but England seemed very peculiar to me when I first arrived here!
   Now I was sent to a real SCHOOL, a boarding school, which I quite enjoyed once I had learned how to avoid getting beaten (they used to beat you in those days with rulers and canes and even cricket-bats – so don’t any of you go thinking school is tough!). We had a four hundred acre wood (much better than Pooh’s) and we would sneak down there and climb trees to make tree-houses (I had a jungle-saw, which was a saw-wire that rolled up into your pockets with two loops on the end with a pen-knife and you bent a strong but flexible stick with two notches in to make the bow and ‘hey, presto!’ – we were allowed such things way back then so could have really good adventures at school).
  We had calisthenics every day before classes (gymn exercises in the yard – or in the gymn if was raining), sports every afternoon, our own allotments to grow mustard and cress and spring onions and tomatoes and lettuce and watercress to have with the bottled chicken, that some of the richer kids’ dads used to bring in, at the midnight feasts held under the gymn floor where they kept their contraband goodies stashed in locked tin trunks.  We had ‘tuck’ once a week, on Wednesdays after lunch, a bar of chocolate or up to a quarter pound of sweets you had to make last all week (Rowntrees Fruit Gums or hard fruit gel discs which took hours to chew were favourites) dished out by Matron, a swarthy ‘Nurse Crabtree’ with huge dark mole on her chin sprouting hairs who used to ‘wash your ears out’ roughly with a flannel if she found you hadn’t passed the bath time ear inspection.
   It was at this school I encountered Colonel ‘Pepperpot’ Pearson – the Professor Balloonafuss of my story – who was the math’s master.  A World War One Cavalry officer, his face looked exactly as you see him on my cover, with his grand salt-and-pepper moustache and a large light-coloured tweed jacket that sported deep pockets. If you got your sums right, he would exclaim in a pleasantly surprised voice, “Well done, boy! Have a Nuttall’s Mintoe!” and extract a large wrapped peppermint sweet from the endless supply hidden in those deep pockets. In the afternoons we would see him flying across the fields astride his huge white charger (a cavalry horse), leaping the hedgerows without a helmet or a care!
   As an ace swimmer and diver (compared to the natives here) I had great fun in the school pool (outdoor – no heating) until one Easter holidays we went rock-climbing in our local chalk-quarry on the South Downs with our neighbour, the doctor, in charge organizing the barbecue at the base. Being a tree-monkey, I shot up one face ahead of the rest and back down again and stood waiting for a slowcoach to clear another route up when he set off an avalanche of small chunks of chalk that skittered down the cliff-face. Standing over ten feet away, looking the other way because I knew I was well clear. I suddenly I felt a squelchy-noise in my head and saw a large chalk-lump bounce merrily away into the quarry in front of me. I went to the doctor who wrapped a handkerchief over the wound and went on with the barbecue. Three hours later we arrived home and he set his aged mother the task of swabbing the ‘cut’. I nearly shot through the floor when she touched the spot and the canny doctor concluded it might be something more than a scratch and I was sent to hospital (you notice the role-reversal here between me and my brother?) in Worthing and then, after a brief pause for x-rays and being sick again, I was whisked by ambulance to the Atkinson Morley head hospital near London where I arrived to see Stirling Moss’s ambulance pip me to the post (he was England’s top racing driver and crashed at Goodwood on that Good Friday at about the time I had my head smashed). I remember thinking it was interesting how the whole top half of my stretcher was red (my poor father was having kittens) but I knew I was quite well so didn’t worry too much about that – I hadn’t seen the race but I did see the Ace!
   After a long wait for Stirling Moss’s head to be put back together, I was wheeled into the operating room to be operated on by the father of one of my school-friends as it turned out. When I was coming round (the anaesthetics were much cruder back then) I can only remember a matron constantly telling me to ‘lay still and stop whingeing’ only to discover, when they undid my head-bandages the next day, that someone had suck a nappy-sized safety-pin right through the lobe of my ear on my non-injured side and then made me lay on it! I think they must have left one of his bone-pieces on the operating table and then put it in my head because I’ve been driving like crazy ever since (once I’d passed my test, that is).
   When I was allowed back to school I was still, embarrassingly, nearly bald (this was the days before everyone over thirty shaved their heads to hide their onsetting baldness so it did look peculiar) and found I wasn’t allowed to play cricket any more or swim that summer or high-dive, ever again! As a budding leg-spin bowler I was confident of making the first team in my final year, but then, as I discovered when I went to my next school, being cricket-banned AND finding myself a member of the school swimming team at fourteen (against eighteen-year-olds: until that point I really believed that sporting heroes were a class apart from the rest of us – here I discovered that they were ordinary too) wasn’t such bad thing after all. We got to sunbathe and swim all week when ordinary mortals were only allowed in to the pool area during their designated swimming times! That was cool (when everyone else was hot and bothered)! It was nice being envied, I can admit.
  I had better stop this tale here, now that I’ve become a bit older than you and life gets a bit more complicated. I hope you enjoyed hearing about my childhood. Or the bits that seemed important enough to me to remember today.

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