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Chapter One - The Early Years 1952-1963

Life in 1952 - the year when I was born- was quieter and much simpler than the years towards the end of the century. I was an only child born to Arthur and Phyllis Steward in Hellesdon which is about three miles from the centre of Norwich.

At the time of my birth and during my first 10 years my parents owned a greengrocer's shop on Reepham Road. Many is the happy hours I spent chatting with customers and helping myself to sweets from the numerous jars on the shelves. My grandparents on my father's side lived directly opposite. Legend had it that my grandfather was one of the first residents in Hellesdon when it was a village and before it grew out of all recognition. I don't know how true this was but I do know the family also owned a dairy. By trade my grandfather - also named Arthur - was a painter and decorator. He was a jovial extrovert who had a great influence on my early years and I loved him dearly.

A short history of Hellesdon

My father was a television engineer in those days being unable to make a good enough living through the shop which was run by my mother. I believe that the business failed to flourish because of her kindness and insistence on charging fair prices not to undercut any other businesses but because she wanted her customers to have good value. I hope that this trait of generosity and kindness has been with me all my life and will continue to be so in the future.

Greengate Groceries was not only a place where local people came for their vegetables, sweets and cigarettes but also a place where people came for a chat and to unload their problems. My mother was always a willing listener. Again I hope that I have inherited this aspect of her.

The grocery shop struggled along for many years and was a focal point for my pre-school years. I still vividly remember Friday afternoons when my mother would divide the week's housekeeping money into various tins to help meet the bills. It was also the afternoon when local deliveries came and I happily spent time sorting through oranges and apples. Looking back it was an immensely happy time and I suppose at that time I thought it would go on for ever. A number of particular memories flow from those times - all very ordinary in the great scheme of things but all of which left their imprint on a toddler and young boy.

Those memories include stand up washes in a tin bath by the fire because it was too cold to go upstairs for a real bath, having measles and being made to take disgusting medicine, kind Doctor Cowan who came to see me and remarked on my model soldiers on the mantelpiece. Isn't it strange how such a small thing can bring such a lasting memory. Dr Cowan probably thought nothing of it, but I remember it 40 years later.

I also remember being in a cot, being in a playpen, going to visit friends at the age of four when I thought I was really grown up and also regular bus trips into town on Wednesday afternoons when the shop was closed. From the city we went to visit my maternal grandmother who was a widow and lived in a terrace house in Rupert Street.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born. He was apparently an accomplished musician and I am sure that is from where I inherited my love of music. I also inherited the middle name of Owen from him. I have in turn passed this on as the middle name of my eldest son and hope that this has become a family tradition and he in turn will pass it on if and when he has a son of his own.

My maternal grandmother was another kind woman to whom I was very close.

The greengrocer's shop was next to a large ironmongers store called Dixons. They always had a line of dustbins and other items outside on the forecourt. These effectively cut the forecourt in two. I used these to make a racing circuit for my pedal car and subsequently my small four wheeled bikes. Years later Dixons turned into a number of individual franchise stores and the forecourt was turned into a car park. More of that later.

I vividly remember my first day at school. The infants' school was about 10 to 15 minutes walk away although in later years 10 minutes turned into an hour as my friends and I played games on the way home. It is amazing how the imagination can extend time. In those days nobody told us to hurry home. We were free to take our time unworried about being attacked or anything macabre happening to us.

At this point I must apologies if I get anybody's names wrong in what follows. Memory can play tricks - particularly 40 years on.

I believe that my first teacher was Mrs Thaxten - a kindly lady as I recall. My first reaction to school was one of confusion similar to that of generations of children both before and after me. Of course like all children I believed I only had to go for the one day and that when I returned home in the afternoon it was a part of my life that had finished. It was a part of my life that wouldn't finish for another 15 years. I couldn't understand what I was doing in this large brick building with other children in a room dominated by a complete stranger who was neither my mother nor that of any of the others there. The tears flowed - it was a difficult time and I can't remember anyone preparing me for the shock of it all.

It took at least two days for me to realise that things were not as black as they seemed at first. I settled in quickly and soon those early days at home themselves became a memory.

I only vaguely remember learning to read and write. I suppose that suggests that both came reasonably easy to me. I suppose these basic things become shrouded in the mists of time. You always believe that you have been able to read and write for ever.

I must have made good progress as by the age of 10 I was starring as Dick Whittington in the school Christmas play. I still remember the luxury of being able to eat a buttered crust of bread on stage (another one of those minuscule events that stand out in the mind). I also remember the school Christmas parties with the sandwiches with that awful salad dressing spread which seemed to be full of bits of peas and other rubbish.

I came home for lunch. My father did the same and gave me a lift back to school in his works' van. I must have been picked up from school in those early days but I cannot remember.

I progressed through school very nicely thank you (I forgot to say it was Kinsale Avenue Infants and Junior School in Hellesdon) until I came across a gorgon of a teacher Miss Q. I believe this brought me my first personality clash. For some reason we did not get on, although I know not why. Other teachers had been kind and supportive. I worked hard but continually got shouted at for no apparent reason. My work suffered and on at least two occasions I was accused of something I did not do.

At that early age I realised how frustrating life could be. I was accused of knocking a balsa wood model over. I never touched it, but my protestations of innocence were wasted on Miss Q who had decided I did it. This all seemed unfair and unreasonable. I knew I had done nothing wrong but was being punished for it.

I began to understand that teachers could be unreasonable and not the wise and fair people I had thought. The matter was sorted out when my parents went to school to complain, although I still believe Miss Q thought me guilty.

The next year couldn't have brought a bigger contrast. I idolised Mrs Sloane (I believe this was her name). She treated me like an adult and helped me to understand throughout my life that if you treat people with respect and understanding they usually respond. I remember the pride I felt at coming top of the class. Mrs Sloane told the class that there was a surprise over top place. I couldn't understand that as I expected to be top. That was not arrogance but just a culmination of the effort and work I had put in over the year.

My confidence had returned and I beat my arch rival Malcolm Stokes to top place. Malcolm and I were best friends - thus proving that rivals can be mates as well. We saw our friendship as part of the rivalry between us.

Another of those irrelevant memories comes from those days when I went out collecting census forms with Malcolm and his father. We drove some considerable distance in their car and at the end I felt extremely travel sick. I suppose that must have been the 1961 census.

Midway through the next year Malcolm and his family moved away. I can't remember where and haven't seen or heard of him since. I would love to know where he is. If by chance anybody is reading this and knows of a Malcolm Stokes who lived in Hellesdon around 1960 please let me know.

Returning to Mrs Sloane. She really was one of the kindest people I had ever met. It mortified me the one time when she raised her voice to me. That was when I was caught red handed spraying water around the boys cloakroom by placing fingers over the holes of the water fountain. I do not know what made me do it. It upset me that I felt I had let the teacher down. I still hate letting people down and feel guilty when I do.

I think at the time that Mrs Sloane was not really Mrs Sloane but got married during the year. I remember her coming to our shop to show my mother her wedding photos. I think she must have liked me and my family as much as I liked her.

I have other vivid memories of these times - memories of playing conkers and marbles in the playground and of moving into the junior school where I was thought to be intelligent and able enough to move up a year with older children.

As a consequence my handwriting suffered as I went from a class which printed its letters into one which had already learned to join them up. I never learned this art and even today my writing is disjointed and uneven and at times resembles a spider's scrawl.

Happy years were spent in the classes of Mr Spinks, the wonderful Mr Potter and then my second Bette Noir Miss W.

Above is a photograph of myself and fellow pupils at Kinsale Avenue School. I would estimate that this was taken in 1959 and 1960. I am very grateful to Janet Statham for letting me have a copy of this. Janet is the young lady on the left three rows from the back in the white blouse. I am in the front row three from the left. The teacher is the wonderfully kind Mr Potter. Malcolm Stokes, who I also mention in this piece is three rows from the back in the centre (the smiling lad next to the one putting his tongue out). I am also indebted to Linda Williams who is in the front row on the right. Linda has e-mailed me from her present home in California with the names of some of those pictured. They are Michael Betts, Michael Claridge, Martin Clapton, Janet Statham, Malcolm Stokes, Sally and Susan Abel, Rosemary King, Sally Pitcher, Lizzy Burton, Karen McGee, Bridget Palmer, Linda Williams, Catherine Andrews, Shirley Howes, Graham Snelling, Ian Mallett and Lesley Bloom.

 

By the time I made it to her class it was the top one at the school and I was probably struggling to keep up with students a year older than myself. At this point we were approaching the dreaded 11 plus exam which would decide which senior school we would go to. A pass meant grammar school, a fail meant secondary modern. It was as much a class thing as an academic. Secondary schoolers were losers consigned to the scrap heap of life.

To say Miss W didn't like me was an understatement. Why does success in life come down so much to people's opinions of you? I consider that I have been the same person throughout my life with the same values and beliefs. At times I have forged ahead and at others have been completely stuck depending on what people thought of me at any one time.

As far as Miss W was concerned I couldn't do anything right and I was the same person who came top of the class and was promoted ahead a year. The class was lined up in columns of desks according to perceived ability. There were five lines with the "brightest" pupils in line one and the "stupidest" in line five.

I started off somewhere in line three which probably was a fair reflection of my ability. I then dropped down to line 5 after once again being wrongly blamed for something inconsequential.

This time I was accused of writing a rude message in my homework book. My parents were summoned and apparently the dreadful sentence turned out to be totally harmless. It read "This is Miss W's writing" - scarcely a hanging offence. The teacher was obviously paranoid about something or other. I did not write that message and to this day do not know who did. Once again I felt the hurt that young children can of being wrongly accused.

So I sank without trace until the day when fate took a hand. Miss W moved house. She didn't just move house, she moved next to my grandfather and opposite our home.

When I heard about this I was appalled and unhappy to say the least. It turned out to be sunshine on a cold day, however. Miss W took immediately to my grandfather who helped her in many ways, particularly with the garden and odd jobs. Suddenly my success at school began to increase in direct proportion to the help he was giving her.

Messages in books were forgotten. I was on the way up through lines five, four, three and two and yes into the top line. I don't remember how this was justified but practically overnight I turned from a bad pupil into one of the tip-top elite. This inconsistency was almost numbing. It was certainly something I would experience again in later life. It was a case of on Monday morning being incompetent and useless but by Friday being a shining beacon. And of course I claim that all the while I had not changed.

Suddenly teachers were talking about what would be in my best interests. It was decided that I shouldn't take the 11 plus a year ahead and that I should stay another year in junior school and go back to my right age group. This brought more disruption, but I enjoyed the extra year under the teaching of Mr London who, despite sarcastic outbursts at times, was a reasonably solid teacher. I notice that on the friends re-united web site there are many reminiscences regarding Jack London.

I eventually breezed through the 11 plus. I found it very easy. The result is that I won one of only a handful of free places available in the county for what was regarded as the top school in Norwich. At King Edward VI (The Norwich School) I found things very different.

Note added (July 31st, 2008)

I still think of myself as primarily a child of the 60s as those were my formative years. Indeed it wasn't until I began reading books on the fifties that I realised how austere the times were. I was born at a time when rationing was still in place - although of course I had no concept of this as I never went hungry. I was also born at a time when the Second World War still played a large part in the lives and memories of those who served in it. Just seven years after the war, the country was full of current or ex servicemen who had survived along with their stores. Today of course these people will be in their eighties and there will be fewer and fewer of them and soon the memories will be consigned to books and documents.

Memories of the first decade of life are probably more confused than at any other period. I have vague recollections as I have already said of the years from about 1955 but they are certainly not vivid and I certainly wasn't aware of what year it was anyhow. So I have to learn about the decade of my birth primarily from books - something that is now opening up a whole new world to me. It is all too easy to look at the past through the eyes of the present and this is wrong. To genuinely go back tot he fifties you have to blot out memories of everything that went on after the decade. That includes all the technological advances, along with all the advances in science and the arts, in literature and music and all the world events that have helped what what we are today. That is the only way I can genuinely rekindle what it was like growing up in a decade that seemed to bring the transition from the ancient to the modern.