An Anxious Life – first chapter

I’m in the process of writing another memoir, which is now the fifth one. Does the world need another memoir by Rob Godfrey..? probably not, but this one is an attempt to explain the anxiety attacks that have plagued my entire life. In chronological order this is actually the first memoir. It covers from when I was born until when I reached the age of 18. From that point the other memoirs take over.

To give a flavour, the following photograph was taken in 1970, when I was six years old. It shows the pathway leading down to King Arthurs’ castle in Tintagel, Cornwall. You’ll notice that there are no parents around (they were probably in the pub).

From left to right: my cousin Gary, cousin Andrew, cousin Ronnie, in front of Ronnie is my sister Sue, holding a monkey (Sue is 18 months older than me), cousin Lorraine, in front of Lorraine is my cousin Tracy, and on the right is me, with a parrot on my head. I’m actually the youngest person in this photograph, being a year younger than cousin Andrew and cousin Tracy, and even at the tender age of six it was apparent that I would grow into a big, strapping lad.

The parrot and the monkey belonged to a photographer who hanged around at the top of the path and charged tourists for photos. That parrot was a vicious creature and would later take a chunk out of my cousin Ronnie’s shoulder. Ah, happy days…

And here’s some extracts from the first chapter of my latest memoir, An Anxious Life

I was no stranger to hospitals during my childhood. There were regularly accidents in which my head would get cracked open, requiring stitches. One such was during my tenth birthday party. We were playing hide and seek. I found somewhere to hide under my father’s truck in the driveway. One of my chums discovered where I was. In all the excitement I suddenly leapt up, forgetting that I was beneath a truck. It necessitated a trip to the casualty department of Dartford hospital.

These cracked heads were not always my own fault. On one occasion my father took me to the Crook Log indoor swimming pool in Bexleyheath. I was in the ducklings pool, being teased by Colin, who was one of the hooligans. Colin was two years older than me and he had a really pointy chin. He dived into the pool, and yes, you’ve guessed it, his chin hit my head and cracked it open. The ducklings pool turned red and they had to close it. Don’t ask me why, but my father took me to the Queen Elizabeth military hospital at the bottom end of Shooters Hill (so-called because in days of old it was a favoured spot for highway robbery). Likewise, at the hospital my father gave them a phoney rank and number. I had my head stitched by someone who looked like the Brigadier in Doctor Who.

Pull your trousers and pants down and bend over, boy
Mr Jakeways then proceeded to give me two lashes with the cane, punishment for having broken a school window with a cricket ball. I tried not to cry. Mr Jakeways was a tall man and knew how to use a cane. He had balding hair, a lined face and was well into his sixties. In fact, I was probably one of the last boys he canned because he retired that year, the summer of 1972, after being Headmaster at Mayplace school for nineteen years. The old boy used to keep a school diary and this is his final entry in it:

July 1972
I reached my last day of teaching service, after exactly forty five years in the profession, nineteen of them here.
Mr T. Gibbs is to take up the Headship in September. I extend to him my warmest wishes, and the hope that his stay at Mayplace will be no less pleasurable than mine has been to me.

Mr Gibbs was a lot younger than Mr Jakeways and was well into 1970s fashion, including hairstyle. His arrival generated a lot of excitement in the school, amongst both staff and pupils. During his first week he shocked everyone during a morning assembly. He was addressing us and then turned his back. Turning round again he suddenly threw a ball across the assembly hall with great force. It bounced harmlessly off the large window at the back of the hall. It was a plastic aeroball. Mr Gibbs told us that from now on we must use aeroballs in the playground, and not things like cricket balls.

My friends weren’t all from Mayplace school. Paul Gordon also lived in Midfield Avenue, one block up from me. I’d walk up there and knock on the door: Miss, can Paul come out to play? Paul was a small boy and another little horror who went to a different primary school. Paul and I built a go-cart using old pram wheels. We painted the go-cart blue and called it Annabelle. That slope on Midfield Avenue was great for go-carts, and roller skates and bikes. I came down there one time on my bike going way too fast. Just as I was approaching our house I completely lost control of the bike and smashed into our low, brick garden wall. By some miracle I didn’t break any bones, yet it did entail a visit to Doctor Lewis, who prescribed opium poultace for the bruising.

If it was raining we’d play endless games of Subbuteo in Paul’s house. There were Scalextric as well, quite a big circuit. We cut the plastic away from a section of track and placed a biscuit tin lid beneath it. The biscuit tin lid was filled with methylated spirit and ignited. We clapped and cheered as the racing cars went through the flames, that is until the plastic track on either side caught fire and started melting, singeing the carpet. On one very rainy day we decided to play football in the garden, just for the hell of it. The back lawn was not particularly big yet it was well manicured. As we kicked the ball around we were slipping and sliding on the grass, laughing our heads off. Our game lasted for about 20 minutes and at the end of it we were soaked to the skin and plastered with mud. The prim lawn had been turned into a mud bath. Paul’s parents were going through relationship difficulties and his father wasn’t there very often. Paul’s mother Janet could just about handle one little horror, but two little horrors was a bit much.

On another occasion which involved methylated spirit, Paul and I were ‘experimenting’ in the garage of my parent’s house. Things got a bit out of control and some rolls of wallpaper caught fire. The flames were soon leaping across other combustibles in the garage. Paul and I rushed to get buckets of water to put out the fire. After some hair raising moments we did manage to extinguish the fire. However, there were thick clouds of smoke pouring out of the garage. At this point my father pulled into the driveway, having arrived home early from work. Father was furious, and what really angered him was that I had used his favourite umbrella to try and beat out the flames, the umbrella that he always took with him to the races. My efforts had been in vain, because the umbrella caught fire and was now totally ruined. I got the biggest whack of my life that day…

… London was not a safe place back then. In 1974 my parents and Sue and I were at the Boat Show at Earls Court Exhibition Centre. We were in the bar having a drink when an announcement came over the Tannoy system: evacuate the building immediately. We were just two blocks away from the Exhibition Centre when the bomb went off. The ground shook violently. At the time it was the biggest Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb to have been exploded in London. We later found out that the bomb had been placed in a rubbish bin in the very bar where we’d been having a drink. At almost the same minute on that day the IRA also exploded a bomb at Madame Tussauds. 1974 was the height of the IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain and barely a week went by without another incident. Many people were killed. During my early childhood the IRA were my biggest nightmare, what with their bombs and black balaclavas.

My father’s interest in boats extended to a small fibreglass dingy with an outboard motor. It was absolutely brill for us kids. We used to take the boat out on Crayford Creek, the river Medway and on seaside holidays. On one such occasion we were holidaying in Brixham, in the county of Devon in the south west of England. Me, Sue and cousin Andrew launched the boat into Brixham harbour. We loaded our gear aboard. There was a lot of gear, which included a chunky radio and cassette player and a big picnic hamper. By the time the three of us climbed on board the boat the gunnels were just inches above the water line. I started up the Seagull outboard motor and we puttered across the mirror calm harbour. Our plan was to cross the mile or so of Torbay to Torquay. However, it was a windy day and as we left the harbour the water started getting rather choppy. By the time we reached the middle of Torbay the waves were quite big and the boat started taking on water. Quick! Quick! Bail out! Bail out! Sue and Andrew began frantically trying to get the water out of the boat. We had intended to head for Torquay harbour, but now I pointed the boat at the nearest land, which was a beach. Sue and Andrew were on a losing battle and just yards from the beach the boat started sinking. We abandoned ship. The ship in question got smashed to bits in the surf. We lost all of our possessions, although I did manage to rescue the Seagull outboard motor. We caught a bus back to Brixham harbour, where our parents were ensconsed in a pub. I had to stand on the bus because I was carrying the outboard motor, which leaked petrol. In those days everyone used to smoke on public transport…

… Cows Newsagents in Midfield Parade had now become Hoskins Newsagents. On a freezing and gloomy February day in 1974 I called in there to buy some sweets. The usually bright strip lights in the shop were dead. The lighting was being provided instead by much duller hurricane lamps. We were having another power cut. The power cuts began at the start of the year and to begin with I thought they were quite exciting; that is, until I started missing some of my favourite tv programmes. Also since the start of the year our school days had been reduced to just three days a week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Yippee! This was all courtesy of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) who had gone on strike for higher pay. There wasn’t any coal getting through to the power stations and the result was a drastic shortage of electricity.

What became known as ‘the three-day week’ was introduced by the prime minister, Edward Heath, on 1st January 1974. All major businesses were only allowed to work for three days each week. The idea being to reduce electricity consumption and thus conserve coal stocks. Despite this there were still lots of power cuts during those first few months of 1974. To make matters worse, the bin men had gone on strike in sympathy with the miners and there was rubbish piling up everywhere.

All this came right after the ‘energy crisis’, when wars in the Middle East caused the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in late 1973 to start an embargo which dramatically raised the value of oil. Petrol prices went through the roof. Father’s big Jag with its two fuel tanks was exchanged for a Ford Cortina estate.

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2 Responses to An Anxious Life – first chapter

  1. JOML says:

    Entertaining reading, Rob. Reminds me of the time I blew up my face with a bag of gunpowder when I was 8. Bad enough the pain of the injuries (no long term damage) but it meant the gunpowder was locked away thereafter! My most bizarre incident was when I used to get my fingers nipped by the electric clothes wringer… when one day the rollers caught my fingers and took me off the ground, swallowing my arm right passed my elbow! No broken bones but bit of a friction burn – and a new twin tub for the family. Born in 1965, so similar era to yourself – remember the bin strikes you mentioned, in Glasgow where we spent 2 years of my childhood. down from the Highlands. The motorway was being built through the city, with streets being pulled down, giving my brother and myself unlimited cash from the scrap lead and copper. I should perhaps write my own memoirs! Thanks for the memories.

    • Rob Godfrey Rob Godfrey says:

      John, you’ve got some great anecdotes there (a bag of gunpowder?!). Go for it, write a memoir. From what you’ve said about yourself – the Highlands, a croft, 2 years in Glasgow, etc – it would make interesting reading.

      I left Mayplace primary school in the summer of 1975 (I failed my 11-plus exam, by the way). Looking back on it, 1975 was one hell of a year for pop music. Amongst many, many others we had Please Mr. Postman by The Carpenters, Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Send in the Clowns by Judy Collins, I’m Not in Love by 10cc, Sailing by Rod Stewart, SOS by ABBA, Imagine by John Lennon, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen and a (re-released) Space Oddity by David Bowie. Bowie’s song was of course inspired by the Apollo 11 mission and the 1969 moon landings. The moon landings are the first strong memory I have. We had a big black and white tv set and as a five-year-old child I watched the tv coverage totally gobsmacked, because I was half able to understand what was going on: those grainy pictures of men in space suits, bouncing around in dusty slow motion on a glowing orb that hung in the night sky.

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