Twickenham, 1964-5

Montpellier Row

When I started this blog, I projected a series on houses I have lived in. I got as far as the first house. I have now resumed the series. This is the second, chronologically speaking.

In August 1964, our family travelled to England: my father had a year’s sabbatical leave which he spent at Birkbeck College, London.  We travelled on the Orcades via Singapore, Colombo, Bombay, the the Suez Canal (including Aden and Port Said), Naples and Gibraltar. This is me with my sister at Pompeii:

M and sister at Pompeii

My sister managed to wind me up into quite a state about whether Vesuvius would erupt again while we were there.  Owing to fears about the potability of the water, we were allowed to drink Pepsi Cola.  This was a great treat.

After a short period in Earls Court (where else?) at the Overseas Visitors’ Club (the principal excitement was a leaking roof on the landing outside our room and a fire in an establishment over the road called “The Golden Egg”) we found a place in Twickenham, at 16 Montpellier Row.  Tennyson and Walter de la Mare had lived in the street.  The house was an early-Georgian Terrace with three storeys and a basement.  The picture above was taken some years later – I think the contemporary-looking upper floors next door date from after our time, but it may be that this is not in fact the right house, because for some reason my memory is of a front door and hallway on the left rather than the right.  That my father could afford it says something about the very low real estate prices in London at the time: the owner was a director of BP or something like that who had to go off for a year in the Bahamas or some other tax haven.  Perhaps my father’s recently-widowed mother, who came with us, helped to meet some of the expense.

After a term, I started school at the Orleans Street Infants School. The classes were numbered backwards – I spent a term in Class 6 and progressed to class 5. Already out-of-date, our playground chant was “We won the war in 1964.” You could still see war-damaged sites in London (am I imagining this?) and having won the war was obviously something which, twenty years on, still filtered through strongly to English children as a possible last vestige of national prestige. The war did not just hang over the heads of English children.  In (Australian) fifth and sixth classes, much of my set of friends’ staple reading was cartoon stories of wartime derring-do bought from the railway bookshops, and copiously illustrated books about WWII planes and other materiel.  And of course we all saw The Battle of Britain, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton.

Some friends up the road had a TV, and Dr Who entered our consciousness. Even my younger sister (who turned 3 at Gibraltar on the way home) could say “I-am-a-Dar-lek-and-I-will-de-stroy-you.”

There was much which made a deep impression on me, even at such a tender age. I acquired a plumby accent, probably a childish parody (I said “rarely” for “really”) which I stubbornly failed or in any event was unable to shed on my return to Australia. This caused me considerable grief, especially in infants school and the first years of primary school.  Eventually, funnily enough when my voice broke, I was able to tone it down.  We saw so many cathedrals that shortly our return to Australia, on being taken to hear the Carillon at Sydney University, my younger sister moaned to my mother “Not another church!” I formed an ambition to become a bishop.  My parents gave me a book, Many paths, one heaven by Nuri Mass which took an essentially comparative approach to the question.

My father drove to Paris with his (maternal) cousin, a descendant of one of Jane Austen’s brothers. My mother travelled there separately on her own, which was thought very adventurous of her.

We climbed the dome at St Paul’s cathedral, and I told my sister not to shout at the whispering wall (she was only whispering really); we didn’t make it up the last ladder into the ball and cross at the top. I lost my beanie in Westminster Hall.

On a more daily basis, we played in a park just near Eel-Pie island, and walked down the Thames to Richmond, where there was ice-skating. Hampton Court and Kew Gardens were within striking distance. A distant relative of my grandmother’s had a grace-and-favour apartment there. I am sure we were very much the colonial poor relations.

Before we went to England we (children, at least) had never seen a “Keep off the grass” sign.

After a year, we returned the way we came, this time on the Iberia, to Perth.  We stayed in WA for a month. My maternal grandmother had us all christened in York. My father was not present, having remained on the Iberia to return to Sydney for work.  We then followed him on the Orsova.

For years after, I recurringly dreamt that my father had taken us away again on sabbatical.  Waking, I counted the years to when we might go again. From time to time, we would see off colleagues of my father departing for their years away.  Up until about 1970 or 1971, this sometimes involved an exciting hour or so running all over the ship on which they were to depart, which only sharpened the pangs. In the end, I suspect because by then we were a two-income family and a trip away would have mean the loss of my mother’s income, we didn’t go again. This was a great disappointment.

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