I’ve called this record “In a Corner” because, unless we are very lucky, that is the state in which most of us find ourselves toward the end of our lives — painted into a corner! I gather that publishers invariably have their own ideas on book titles, but since this saga is unlikely ever to see the light of day, other than to those who demanded that I write it, what the hell — “In A Corner” it is!
The direction we take in life may be a matter of fate, or as the Muslims would have it; “it is written”. But I set more store in the old English adage; “You make your bed…” or, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap”! Perhaps that’s another way of paying one’s dues to fate, I’m not sure. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt that it’s a pity that we don’t know as youngsters what is so clear in the sixth or seventh decade. I doubt that I am speaking for myself alone when I look back and see opportunities missed. But then of course, one should never look back and who can say that things would have turned out any differently, or better, or worse, anyway. What we do and why we do it, is probably a study in itself and has doubtless already been well canvassed. I sense that our imagination leads us on a constant search — for something — for what? Maybe we try to escape, escape from our life, escape from the mundane, escape from the concerned and sometimes stifling control of parents, or just to escape from circumstances. Certainly teenagers feel an inexorable urge to break free and confront the world on their own terms. But in fairness I don’t think that my mother and father ever stifled me in any way and I am amazed in retrospect at just how much freedom I always enjoyed. Sometimes I think that perhaps they didn’t want to know, but there were times when maybe they knew too much.
In those days, before, during and just after World War Two, our home town, St. Ives, on the river Great Ouse, about 20 kilometres North West of Cambridge was still small. The population was about 3,500 people and everyone just about knew everyone else and so it was difficult to do anything without word getting back to headquarters — so maybe they knew and didn’t let on. A sort of quiet, benign, and caring surveillance, I don’t know.
Society was certainly very different in those days and the war notwithstanding, there was an equilibrium to life, there seemed to be fewer threats; no-one was uptight about the safety of children — at least not in our neck of the woods. Sure, there were scandals and dark goings on, which all made for juicy gossip, and whispering behind adult hands. But these were mainly about illicit affairs, couples living in sin, consequent progeny, and those who offended, or who were suspected of offending against the norms and mores of the day. The lives of ordinary people were not so subject to prurient scrutiny and I suspect that there was more tolerance.
My mother’s greatest ambition for me was that I should join the post office and become a postman — the kind that used to flat foot it around English towns in all weathers. Maybe Eviline Mary had a thing about uniforms and felt that represented my best chance of laying claim to one. Dark blue with elegant red piping and a brass cap badge. One bleak December when I was fifteen and on holiday from school for Christmas, I did become a postman for a few weeks, rising about 4.00am, in the cold and dark, to sort mail that I would deliver later in the morning. That alone would have cured me of any such ambition, but by then I was into books in a big way and my horizons had already begun to expand.
I developed a feeling, an urge, that I must visit foreign parts, to see the world, and as I became more and more engrossed in books, a career at sea seemed like a sound and secure solution — though I doubt that I was then thinking much about security. There was precedent in the family; dad had been a soldier, a cavalryman when the Army still used horses and he spent about five years in India before the First World War. Elder brother Ted spent six wartime years with the Royal Navy, a year in the North Atlantic in the old “Mooltan” and then at the RNAS at Piaco in Trinidad. Dad’s brother, my uncle Alfred Wright, a boatswain in the merchant service, died and is buried at Santander in Spain. An indeterminate section of the Wright family settled in upstate New York where dad’s sister Florence spent a year with them around 1912. Florence told me that she had been due to sail in the Titanic, but for some reason was unable to do so—she was delayed. Another Wright sister, Lizzy, is said to have ended up in Buenos Aires. Actually, I think she was more likely my cousin. Certainly another Wright aunt, Margery, was later revealed as a cousin. Lizzy, with her son Onde visited St Ives in the 1920s when Onde and Brother Ted could not agree and, family legend has it, they fought.
I have literally lost count of the number from the maternal, Attwood, line who migrated to Provo in Utah in the mid-19th century and became Mormon pioneers.
Apart from the Mormons, on my mother’s side of the family, I know of none who ventured abroad — save for two ill-fated uncles who each died in foreign parts, one at Passchendaele in 1917, and one at Gallipoli in 1915. Their names figure on the war memorial on Market Hill, St Ives; Sergeant Ted Attwood and Sergeant Bert Attwood.
Their father, my grandfather Sam, told me that he twice walked to London, 65 miles, no great feat, but he never told me the purpose of his journey.
Among those who have urged me to put something on paper about what I have seen and done, are my elder son William, and more recently my friend Nick Tiscenko, husband of Helga who herself has written a family memoir entitled “Strawberries with the Fuhrer”. Nick enjoys my stories of life in Africa and on the Arabian littoral, all extending over 20 years from 1950 to 1970.
I tell these stories, look back, and wonder did all that actually happen to me. Then I reflect that I wouldn’t blame people for regarding me as some sort of Walter Mitty, living in a fantasy world. Although the edges may have become blurred and the names of some of the participants in my adventures have become lost as memory fails, essentially these things did happen. That perhaps is another reason for recording them.
As I’ve said, I have always felt this curious urge to travel and even now I recall the thrill of leaving Newhaven harbour in the cross-channel ferry “Arromanche” in the summer of 1947 on my way to the first post-war World Scout Jamboree at Moisson near Paris. Another revelation at that time was the fact that ships do not simply travel in a level, straight line, but actually move in a seaway — but on that occasion I arrived at Dieppe without disgracing myself.