Some people seem to be in the happy position of going through life making friends extremely easily and rising to the top in the popularity stakes of each group they become involved in. I’m definitely not one of them. I have had few really close friends over the years and fewer still when I was a child. Molly from No 31 York Road was something of an exception in that she remained my friend over a number of years and did not particularly criticise me or demand very much of me; perhaps she simply did not like me as much as I liked her but possibly a further clue lies in the fact that I never selected her as a suitable victim for my most manipulative schemes. My mother always maintained that my unpopularity lay in the fact that I was a very Quarrelsome Child. She spoke with a fair degree of accuracy although Quarrelsome was not a word I would have immediately chosen. However my general behaviour dictated that It was not completely unsurprising that I found it difficult to make and maintain close relationships as a child. Even at the time I knew there was a problem and half realised why but seemed unable to make the necessary changes for the better. I told myself that I didn’t really care – but of course I did.
It began whilst I was still a pre-schooler when Evalena the granddaughter of The Bassants Next Door would have become my friend very willingly had I only treated her a little better. But treating her well seemed unmanageable and whilst on the surface I appeared to be her friend, behind the scenes and out of the way of adult eyes I made her life as miserable as any four year old possibly could. I plagued her with taunts regarding her weight, jeered at the stories she told me about her mother swallowing open safety pins on a regular basis (that miraculously closed when they encountered mysteriously placed bones whilst navigating her digestive tract) and perhaps more spitefully, sent her on treasure hunts that forced her to purloin other people’s possessions. Even this thinly disguised theft might not have been so bad had Evalena been allowed to keep at least some of the plunder for herself but generally I required her to hand it over. One day she found a full sized cricket bat that had clearly been mistakenly left on The Old Green and she rushed with great excitement to tell me about it. We should play cricket together she told me, still glowing with the exhilaration of the find. Not wanting to admit that I had not a clue as to how cricket was played, however, I decided to spoil things for her by claiming loudly to her grandparents that in fact the bat had been found by me and Evalena had stolen it from me and I wanted it back. The grandparents looked doubtful but within minutes I was sobbing convincingly great victim sobs and so it was handed over. I’ve often wondered why I felt the need to do that as had no inclination to play sport and the bat was shoved under my bed and destined never to be used again.
I saved my most socially hostile schemes for my years at St Botolph’s School so that other, more amiable classmates, once they got the measure of me generally did their best not to get too close and in any activity where we had to Choose A Partner, I was invariably left unpartnered and for ever destined to work alongside whoever happened to be the other class misfit at the time. In Miss Biggs’class at the age of eight I found myself sitting next to another York Road resident, Peter Jackson, a fairly inoffensive boy as boys go who made it clear he would have much rather been placed beside another boy – any boy. For several weeks I made his life miserable by regularly writing the rudest words I knew in his exercise books in capital letters. By today’s standards the words were reasonably mundane and I remember SHIT, BUM, TITS and BUGGER but nothing more indecent than that. However Peter was outraged and when he importantly strode to the front of the room, exercise book in hand, to advise Miss Biggs of this ignominy I practised looking as guileless as possible and with a confused little shrug told her that I didn’t know why Peter said such things about me and I only wished he would stop writing rude words. I even contemplated asking her what TITS actually meant before deciding against the idea. She always believed me and invariably Peter would be told he had to stay in at playtime as a punishment – or given a hundred lines to remind himself that writing rude words was totally unacceptable. I finally stopped torturing him in this way when he was one day sent to Mr Cooke the new headmaster who caned him. Even I thought that was excessive and I found myself so strangely moved by his tears that I began to cry myself. Miss Biggs advised both of us to stop crying at once and reminded me that Peter had been a very naughty boy indeed – that I was the real victim and I should on no account feel sorry for him!
Back in the late nineteen forties Britain was just beginning to recover from the effects of the war, fathers mostly had regular jobs and even working class children like the majority of St Botolph’s pupils were given regular small amounts of pocket money. Although saving was encouraged by most adults the recipients of the money were much more keen to spend it on such delicacies as liquorice wood, sherbet dabs and locust beans from the newsagent and sweet shop next to Penney Son & Parkers on The Hill. To say I was envious of the recipients of these weekly sums is an understatement and I discussed it at some length with Molly who was another non receiver. Finally I hit upon the idea of collecting from what I saw as the more affluent homes in Springhead Road for a non-existent charity which I called the NSSSC (National Society for the Salvation of School Children). Molly declined to join me in this venture but eventually I persuaded a nicely behaved girl called Betty Haddon from Hartfield Place who said she was keen but only if the eventual collection really and truly benefited school children. I told her we were going to buy sherbet dabs and I would personally post them to children in Africa who needed saving. The scheme was not as successful as I had hoped and we were asked rather a lot of penetrating questions about how long we had been Registered but eventually we collected two shillings and nine pence which bought quite a number of sherbet dabs I seem to remember. I generously tried to give Betty one to take home with her but she said she didn’t want it and because I had never been totally wedded to the idea of posting such delightful goodies to Africa in the first place, I consumed the remainder myself over the next day or two. Sadly, when I approached Betty for a second round of collecting she firmly refused and at playtime went back to playing Skipping with Barbara Scutts and Rita Jenkins. Barbara said they had enough for their game and I was not allowed to join them. Feeling very wounded I told Barbara she had stinky knickers whereupon she said that my mother dressed me funny and I looked like a scarecrow. Because that might possibly be true given my mother’s poor dressmaking skills I ran away at that point and seethed in the Girls’Toilets planning payback. Walking home from school Molly said she had never thought Collecting was a very good idea in the first place.
A year or so later I briefly became friendly with Helen Gunner the local vicar’s daughter. I was in fact quite gratified to have been able to coerce her into friendship because she had an attractively posh voice and at that stage I was still trying to perfect my BBC accent and it was clear she was in a position to help being very nearly Posh herself. It was also clear that though they tried to push the rather un-Christian impression aside, her parents considered me to be a totally unsuitable friend for their daughter. Their gut feeling hardened when I encouraged her to play Noughts & Crosses for money and she ended up owing me nearly seven shillings. We had started off with very minor halfpenny stakes but after a while, to increase the excitement of the game I suggested we progress to Double Or Nothing and by that time I think I had also somehow or other rigged the outcome. The Reverend Gunner took us into his rather impressively book-lined study and gave us a gentle lecture on the evils of gambling during which I began to cry and told him that part of me knew it wasn’t right but I was saving up to buy my mother a brooch for her birthday. Helen began to cry as well at that stage and pointed out in a more than slightly moralistic and uptight manner that I had, after all, won the money fairly and squarely and it wasn’t really my fault that gambling was so unacceptable. She even ventured with some hesitation that it was possible no-one had ever explained that properly to me before. Her father began to falter and I saw him wavering, wanting to support his daughter’s sense of what was Fair, Moral, Just – more than a little bit proud of her. In fact exactly like a Father in a Story Book! I thought it must be reassuring to have parents like him although I could see the downside also – just imagine being constantly reminded about the rights and wrongs of your behaviour? At least bottom of the heap families like mine rarely went in for lectures on moral behaviour and most reprimands and punishment simply revolved around drawing attention to yourself by annoying an adult when it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so. Whilst I was meditating upon these differences between families, to my amazement Reverend Gunner handed over the seven shillings and said there would be no further debate on the matter. I did notice, however, that the following Monday at school Helen avoided me and had soon found a new Best Friend – Elizabeth. Feeling more than a little irked I asked her why and she justified the shift by telling me that Elizabeth went to the same tap dancing class as she did. How I envied those fortunate few who were allowed to attend dance classes and set off importantly each Wednesday after school clutching their tap shoes in shoe bags made by loving mothers.
By the time I was ten I had become more pragmatic about the difficult business of attracting friends. It was just possible I was a Late Developer as far as friends were concerned like my cousin Desmond who had caused a great deal of family gossip because he didn’t say a single word until he was three. Even Old Nan agreed that he was finally as Right As Rain and had simply been a Late Developer. Friendship might be something I would eventually Grow Into.