After our six weeks in Mrs Angus’s boarding house we moved into a sixth-floor flat in Queensway, just off the Bayswater Road. The flat was okay – it had three bedrooms, a very small bathroom, a large through lounge-diner and a small kitchen but there was a good long corridor with quite a lot of storage space for clothes and other essentials.
The kitchen, normally the room everyone wants to congregate in nowadays, was at the end of the flat, tiny and had a door out onto a fire escape which faced west. There was a gas cooker which was old, even then, a butler’s sink in days before they were popular, with a wooden draining board, a gas-run refrigerator (!), one of those 50’s all-purpose kitchen cabinets and a very strange, cave-like cupboard, about four feet high and taking up an entire corner, remembered 58 years later as big enough for a large child to sit in comfortably if you removed the one L-shaped shelf. There was, of course, no window in this cupboard so a poor little child would be stuck there in the dark.
(Not our fridge but a similar one)
The fridge was run by gas because the electricity in the entire building was ‘direct current’ rather than the more usual ‘alternating current’. The reason for this strange set-up was that we were above an ice-skating rink which necessarily had ‘direct current’ (at least, I think this was the reason). This strange electricity meant that when our beautiful new American fridge, which we had just got in Cincinnati, arrived, it had to be sold immediately. This caused an immediate crisis in the family for two reasons. Imagine, first, an American family with a fridge which wouldn’t hold more than a couple of pints of milk, half a pound of butter and a pound packet of mince! And, secondly, because of taxes we couldn’t sell it to just anyone – it had to be an American who didn’t already have a decent fridge. In fact, fridges were a luxury, and most British families weren’t to have refrigerators for some years to come!
Post-war England (and Scotland, Wales and Ireland, I imagine) was still just recovering from the war, as I said before. Unbelievably to us, most people at the time didn’t have central heating or constant hot water and there were a great many homes without indoor toilets or baths! Luckily, we had all of those ‘luxuries’ and it was to be about eight years before we found out how other people had to cope.
Because of the direct current in our flat we couldn’t buy a television or even a radio! We had to rent a television but we did have ‘piped’ radio. The trouble with the radio was that there was no pop music on it at all, it’s being before Radio One. Once a week, on Saturday nights, from around 11pm we were able to receive Radio Luxembourg which DID play the latest in popular music but the reception was so terrible, with so much interference that we might as well not have bothered. This was hell for me as a typical American teenager!
Eventually we rented a tv and were disgusted to find that programmes were only on for several hours a day.
(This television is quite a bit more modern than the one we first rented!)
There were three of us girls (15, 13 and 10 years old) and my mother (older). When we moved into the flat we had wooden floor boards on all the floors. One of the most popular toys of the day was the hula hoop which has since made at least one comeback. We were lucky to win one of those desirable objects at a New Year’s Eve party at the Café Royale and fought over whose turn it was to use the thing. Within a few days of bringing it home, we were unable to use it as the old woman who lived underneath with her daughter, and had been through traumatic times during the war, found the noise of it landing on the floor whenever one of us dropped it, terribly upsetting. We were, however, able to resume the activity once we had carpeted the lounge floor which took some time a we had to save up to buy it.
For the next two years we went by school bus to the American schools in Bushy Park, somewhere to the west of London, I to Central High School, Jennie to the elementary school and Judy to both.
Judy was ‘a little devil’, as I intimated in Part One. She decided that she was madly in love with the sergeant in charge of transport whose first name was Fred. She would write his name on her books, gaze longingly out the bus window at him, talk about him incessantly if we let her, and once, jumped out of the bus, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek! Another of her many exploits was the ‘de-bagging’ of the bus driver, Stan, an Englishman who must have had the patience of a saint to put up with the usual noise of a group of about thirty young people, all shouting, laughing, arguing at the same time. For some reason the driver decided to quit and we who rode on his bus were aware of this. On his last day there was another driver who was learning the route and who, at some point, took over the driving. When he had handed over the steering wheel to the new guy, Judy and a bunch of younger boys rushed up to Stan, got him down on the floor of the bus and took off his trousers! (I think it’s an old English custom but I’ve never again come across it!)
(Photo from our school annual of school buses. Photo of Judy kissing ‘Stan’)
I was more interested in boys than old men and had several boyfriends (one at a time!) who also rode the same bus. There was an officers’ club for USAF personnel and in the basement were several rooms which they kindly gave over to the American teen-agers for a teen club which was called the TAC. My boyfriend, Mike, became the chairman of the club and I was first treasurer then secretary. I can’t actually remember doing much in the way of work but I did frequently go out to find old 45 records that we could play on our music system – which, I seem to remember, broke down quite often. There was also a PX in the basement where we could buy make-up, soft drinks and cigarettes with the coupons the Navy gave to all of us over sixteen! I think we had a ration of 200 per week each and they cost something like 10 cents a pack of 20! I imagine there wasn’t any US tax on them and there definitely wasn’t any UK tax.
(Judy doing a slow-dance with her boyfriend, Dan, at the TAC one Saturday night, 1960)
Now, I’m not going to mention names of specific teachers because it might upset or embarrass people who knew them! Miss Z., my English teacher during one of the two years I was there was also my French teacher for my sophomore year. I realised early on that I probably knew more French than she did, having had a couple of years of French in Cincinnati. Some weeks after we started school my mother decided we should have someone at home for the few hours between our return from school and her homecoming, so she hired an au pair. She was a young French woman, about two years older than I was, very sophisticated, and called Francine. She was fun and enjoyed many of the same things we did so we all got on really well.
One day I went to school and, in French class, Miss Z. had decided we would do a bit of French history. She mentioned an old French king called, she said, WERSENGETRIX. When I got home I mentioned this king to Francine who looked astonished, then horrified, as she realised I was talking about Vercingetorix (pronounced Ver (as in pair), Sin (as in san but saying the ‘n’ in a nasal way), zhay, tor, seeks). I could hardly go to school and correct this woman who supposedly knew what she was talking about but I never really trusted her pronunciation again.
In the first Easter school holiday, in 1959, Francine and her family invited me to come to France for a week. I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait. On the 28th of March, Francine and I left Victoria station for Dover where I saw, for the first time, the famous white cliffs then we sailed in the cross-channel ferry to Calais where we were picked up by mister P, Francine’s dad, who drove us to their seaside cottage in Le Touquet. I met Mme P and Jean-Louis, Francine’s younger brother, and Poupouss, their cat. We stayed in Le Touquet for six days where I enjoyed meeting French youth at the Whisky-a-Gogo, a nightclub, and went to the cinema twice. One evening we saw Le Fauve est Laché, which I don’t remember but the internet tells me was a French spy thriller. A couple of nights later it was Guinguette, which I also don’t remember and seems to have been about a girl who worked in a bar. Both films were in French without subtitles and it’s not surprising that I can’t really remember them!
(Photo of me driving ‘little red bug’ around Le Touquet and me looking very glamorous in Le Touquet – aged 16)
As well as going out at night, we did fun things like cycle, go to the beach for walks, climb to the top of the lighthouse, and shop. On the seventh day we drove to Paris and I had my first sight of a city I have loved ever since.
In Part Three I will scurry through the rest of my time at Central High, introduce you to my friend Sharon and go to A-level college etc.
[Note: PX is short for “Post Exchange” and is a tax free shop for the use of American army, navy and air force personnel and their dependents.]
[Note for English friends: Sophomore year at high school in US is year 10 in England]