It's bad enough being treated as an orphan and having to endure a succession of foster homes, living in an orphanage, or being farmed out to a succession of 'Aunties' and not knowing who your biological parents are. It gets a lot worse when your skin is 'coffee-coloured' and your mother, when you finally confront her, refuses to allow you to call her 'Mother'. This was the situation that John Edward Bankole Jones found himself in. Nevertheless, he manages to forge himself a highly successful life as a diplomat, journalist and lawyer. He vividly describes the contrast between living in the developing world in Sierra Leone with his African father and his White mother in England. This is his story.
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© 2018 novum publishing
ISBN print edition: 978-3-99064-392-1
ISBN e-book: 978-3-99064-393-8
Editor: Hugo Chandler, BA
Cover images: Prillfoto, Igor Stevanovic | Dreamstime.com, John Edward Bankole Jones
Coverdesign, Layout & Type: novum publishing
Images: John Edward Bankole Jones
This is dedicated to my dearest wife Evangeline, to my son Stefan and to my daughters Jenny, Gwendoline and Evelyn and to my grandchildren Ashton, Seriya, Kumari and Kara.
A special thanks to my dear friends Amelia Broderick and to Mary O’Reilly, who both took a lively and linguistic interest
I have fleshed out my life story as best as I can. I have been able to complete this project with much support from my precious wife Evangeline and with consistent prodding from my children and grandchildren who I am ashamed to say do not know that much about their Gramps.
My hesitation in pursuing this project with any urgency has been that I do not like writing about myself at all. Ego and vanity has that streak, but I find it hard from so many different perspectives to go down that road. On the other hand, I realize that there is some virtue in handing down the family heirlooms. For instance, there is much to be gained from avoiding the pitfalls I have fallen into, so that others do not make the same errors of judgment.
I was born at a time when there was a great divide between black and white and the culture that it spawned. British white colonialism was running rampant around the world. As the imperial culture its rules of behaviour, its laws and its interpretation of history and geography predominated and defined all, indigenous cultures were, where possible, obliterated.
This was the era in which I was born. But my story needs to be put into perspective. Everyone has a story. Mine is just one of them. It is not a rant against anyone who was responsible for my upbringing either. They did the best they knew how, in the context of their individual circumstances. It was what it was, and it is what it is.
My early life takes up a significant part of the story. My working life and anecdotal stories of what happened to me as an unlikely diplomat and civil servant creep in towards the middle and end of the story. It was an uneasy confrontation with power. My father’s rooting in education was firmly based on the rule of law and on democracy in a multi-party system that naturally rubbed off on me and led to amusing confrontations between me and authority; not only in politics and the civil service but also among the cobwebs of the judicial system.
I take full responsibility for historical inaccuracies which may appear from time to time. They are merely used to illustrate certain points. This is not a historical document.
I hope that after a good read that my children and my grandchildren will unwrap more easily the enigma that is John Edward Bankole Jones. My story is not written for publication. But if anyone thinks its worthy of such merit I will not stand in their way.
I did not know who my mother or my father were until I was about ten to eleven years old. Until then I was solely in the charge of someone who I grew up to know as, and to call Auntie Winnie. At the age of ten or thereabouts I met my father for the first time and his wife, who was introduced to me as my birth mother (Mummy as I called her from then on). It all seemed to fit. She was light skinned in colour and my father was black. In my mind that explained my own complexion well enough and why I was not white like all the other children who I grew up with. At last all the nagging questions about my personal identity and that of my parents were answered, or so I thought. Not quite. Barely a year had passed when Mummy, my father and I were on a passenger vessel on our way home to Sierra Leone. The day after we sailed out of Liverpool my father told me out of the blue, that Auntie Winnie was in fact my real birth mother and not Mummy! What follows is my story.
Although Aunt Winnie was just Aunt Winnie to me until I left England for Sierra Leone she remained Aunt Winnie to me for the rest of her life until she passed away in 1991. She never ever allowed me to call her Mother! In the story that follows I of course freely, albeit posthumously, refer to her (at last) as Mother to avoid any possible ambiguity.
As a child I had no idea why I was here or where I came from. I had a sense of being alive, of being conscious, of my own physicality and boundless energy. None of this was open to question. That is how it was. It took some time before the brutal realisation of the world into which I was born, sunk in – its cruelty, its prejudices and society’s vacuous cultural norms behind which human decency, love and compassion were interned. I wish I was ever the child and never the father of the man who I became.
I was a coloured baby, not black but, more to the point not white either. I was born in Essex in England on the 1stof September 1936 of a white English unmarried mother and an African unmarried father from Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. It was an England as far removed socially and culturally from the present day as is planet earth from the sun or the moon. My arrival would have been the subject of vicious gossip among my mother’s family, friends, associates and workmates. Unmarried and a black father, despicable!
My mother therefore made absolutely sure that my arrival was kept as secret as possible. It had to be on astrictly need to know basis only. For my delivery, she made her way from her home in an elite London suburb in Hampstead to the obscurity of a town called Havering in the outer east London suburb of Romford. From then on, I existed in a twilight zone and was shunted around covertly from one family to another and from one part of London to the other.
I remember very little about the first three to four years of my life. This never struck me as strange or in any way odd until much later. In my random philosophical and religious readings, I found out, apocryphal or otherwise, that some people could narrate in some detail, experiences of their early childhood, including awareness of being in their mother’s womb. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for me, my memory does not go back that far.
Nevertheless, I have always been curious about my early years. There are still gaps of course, but I have tried to piece together as much of my story as I can. Most of what I think I now know is based upon conjecture, hearsay and half-truths. Snippets of information were slowly drawn out of my mother who preferred not to talk about those years. For her own sanity she actively blocked chunks of my early childhood from memory. Nothing but irritation and a brewing temper surfaced whenever I questioned her about my past.
My father volunteered some facts over the years, but he was not particularly forthcoming either. I was an episode in their lives that was buried in the past and too painful to exhume. They were understandably reluctant or embarrassed to talk to me about it, although, strangely, I always sensed and still do, that each in their different ways – albeit never demonstrably – had a deep affection for me. It is strange isn’t it how enslaved we can become to the cultural values and mores of our times? It is so dehumanising when in the name of conformity, we find the need to incinerate our innermost feelings and cease to be human.
Those who attended my birth must have jumped out of their skins when out of my mother’s womb popped this unusually dark baby with curly matted African hair. Bizarrely my mother complained that my father was nowhere to be seen at the time of my birth. I can’t imagine why. After all she had gone to great lengths to make my arrival as secret as possible.
The last thing that she would have wanted was to have her coloured child’s father bouncing around attentively in the labour ward! There is some evidence however to suggest that he was in touch with my mother around the time of my birth or soon after. Some of my father’s friends from those years, whom I met and got to know later on in life, and who knew both my mother and I as a baby, contradict my mother’s implied assertion that my father had somehow dishonourably absconded.
They remembered carrying me as a baby and always referred to my mother as “Win” – short for Winifred – and as someone who they knew quite well. A close friend of my father never missed an opportunity of reminding me that he carried me in his arms in swaddling clothes as a baby. I too recall seeing a rare photograph of myself being carried by my father. Even more conclusively, my name on my birth certificate appears as John Jones which presumably could not have happened without my father’s consent. I suspect that my poor student father went undercover for a while until he deemed it safe to join the white race again! Such were the times in which they had lived. Appearances had to be maintained at any cost.
Thus began the story of my life. I was a coloured baby born at a time when society was viciously intolerant of unmarried mothers. My mother was trapped in a web of hostility from most of her family, as well as from society in general and she had to decide what to do with me. To her credit she never sought an abortion when she probably could have or an adoption after my birth.
Instead she chose to find foster parents to look after me. That speaks volumes. It tells me that she stubbornly resisted societal disapproval and was determined to keep me, albeit at a distance. But I was never abandoned by her. She had made a choice. She did not want me around but she never let go either. It was a difficult choice to make in the times in which she lived. No one would choose to be jeered at and taunted by their peers and lose everything. She had to move on and live her life and more importantly, earn a living to pay for my keep, once the choice had been made.
Although my mother and I were often seen together publicly she owed no one an explanation. It was not anyone’s business. She had an uncomfortable year or two of intrusive questioning and probing by the community in which she lived, as well as by close and distant friends. But they soon learned the hard way to shut up, rather than incur her wrath. Of course, the gossip and twittering never ended; it merely retreated to a safe distance. When I came back to England years later she told me that no one outside the immediate circle of her family ever knew that I was her son. As far as the rest of the world was concerned I was an orphaned child whom she had adopted. My past was not a subject she liked to revisit. She dealt with it by blanking it out as completely as she could; a form of selective amnesia I suppose.
For this reason, I was never allowed to call her mother in public or in private. She was always Aunt Winnie to me. As a child it never mattered. I hardly knew the difference between a mother and an aunt anyway! Little did I know that the foundation had been laid for a troubled and tempestuous relationship that never completely resolved itself until dementia or some such affliction set in. Being two people at the same time is never easy. To conceal the fact that she was my mother and to pretend that she was just my aunt must have been a considerable strain on her faculties. It certainly brought into our lives unforeseen, embarrassing and dare I say, hilarious scenarios. The further away from the truth one travels the more complicated life becomes.
Be it mother or Aunt Winnie she was always there for me though. She paid the fostering fees and chose my foster parents with great care and she meticulously monitored my upbringing as closely as she was able to. Throughout my childhood she was the only constant figure in my life. My relationship with the person who I called Aunt Winnie never bothered me until much, much later when I started to go to school. Other children had aunts and uncles and mothers. I recall asking Mother once whether I had a mother like other boys did.
All she said with a broad smile was,“Don’t be silly, of course you have a mother and you will find out who she is one day.”
That was as far as I ever ventured. My asking questions about the mother who I thought I had never met made her very cross. I stopped asking. Fathers were not too much of a problem. Children rarely spoke about them. If they weren’t already dead most of them were in the army fighting to prevent Britain from being overrun by Hitler’s Germany.
It is difficult for me to narrate events in my life in a strictly chronological order or to relate them to any particular age. There were no birthday parties that stand out in my memory. Of course I have flashbacks. They come in quick succession like flashes from a photographer’s camera, flashbacks of events in my very early childhood, all jumbled together meaninglessly. Kids’ stuff – climbing walls, walking along beaches, being hoisted onto some man’s shoulders and then tossed up into the sky and caught again, bread and butter sandwiches spread with lashings of raspberry jam, listening to Winston Churchill’s voice booming through the airways whilst toasting crumpets by the fire, the threatening sound of war sirens and dashes to bomb proof shelters – kids’ stuff.
As I grew older and I became more aware of my surroundings my life developed a fairly regular pattern. I had a sense of constantly being on the move, on foot, on buses, on trains and in cars, as my mother shuttled me from one foster parent to another or back and forth from the same one. This was my normality. I looked forward to these moments I had with her and to the bus and train rides with anticipation and excitement. To this day I get a kick when I remember being out there in the manic rush of human existence, constantly guided by a protecting hand.
As long as my mother was around I felt protected. She was the only person who I knew and who I had a relationship with until her sister, my dearest Auntie Vi, bounced into my life. Away from my mother with strange people and in different environments I felt vulnerable. I sensed my foster parent’s embarrassment each time that they took me down the high street or when visitors came. I heard the gossip, most of it unpleasant. Their curiosity never waned as I was the only coloured child who they had seen in their neighbourhoods.
I wanted my mother to come and take me away from these people, knowing instinctively that I did not belong with them. She came to my foster homes from time to time to take me out for the day or for the weekend. I felt happy then. Being with her was enough. I felt secure. We usually stayed at a hotel for several days or with friends of hers until she had a home of her own.
And then came the dreaded parting and the journey back to wherever with tears and goodbyes until the next time. It was around this time probably at the age of four or five that I became aware of my colour and that I was different from others around me. It never bothered me unduly. It was a problem for other people but never for me. If anything, it made me feel rather special. The world around me took an interest in this strange phenomenon in their midst.
My mother’s family and maiden name was Bale. The Bale’s are from Wellington in Somerset. Her mother died early in life, tragically. Her father was a train driver on the line from Paddington to the West Country. She had five sisters, Aunts Violet, Sybil, Edith, Ethel and Ivy. She spoke proudly of her heritage.
In a country and at a time of strict class consciousness and divisions she never tired of saying to me,“We don’t come from nothing you know. We are descendants of the Duke of Wellington.”
A surreal flight of the imagination I thought. But a lineage to the man who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and was twice Prime Minister of Britain is worth holding on to. Each time she repeated this narrative to me down the years I was tempted to ask her whether the lineage to which she lay claim was a direct line from the duke or whether he was up to some mischief of his own. But my dear mother never appreciated this kind of dark humour, so I let sleeping dukes lie!
My Aunt Edith has written copiously in her diaries about the Bale side of the family and its family connections. Unfortunately, I am unable to decipher her handwriting sufficiently to grasp a coherent understanding or picture of the story she tells. A large part of the diaries look like a daily account of the goings on and toing and froing of her sisters, family and friends which are what diaries are about anyway.
Aunt Edith was the eldest of the sisters and after her mother’s death, she took on the role of the head of the family and stayed with and looked after her father (my maternal grandfather) until his death. She ran the family home. Although the sisters were dispersed around the country they always returned home periodically to bond with one another. When I did eventually meet Aunt Edith she was always kind and affectionate towards me and never shied away from taking me in her arms and stuffing me with cakes and biscuits. She was very “proper” though and she saw the world in simplistic terms. Everything was black and white with no greys in between. Things were either right or wrong. I must have been “wrong” in her eyes but she never voiced or demonstrated her disapproval of me. She and her sisters forgave their sister Winifred for her alleged indiscretions and they all embraced me as their own. And then there was Aunt Vi who was as different from Aunt Edith and the rest of her sisters as a priestess was from a music hall variety entertainer.
I have memories of visiting my grandfather at his home in Wellington after he had retired. I never got to know him that well, but he was very supportive of my mother during those difficult early years of hers and my life. Going home to Wellington was like going into a retreat for my mother, an escape from a harsh and unrelenting world. I remember him as tall and distinguished in appearance. He and my mother looked remarkably alike, almost military in their bearing, with long pointed noses. On my visits I spent most of my time in the back garden lined with apple trees. I loved climbing the trees and picking apples. After a while we stopped visiting and he was never mentioned to me again. He had clearly passed on without me knowing anything about when or how he had passed.
Death is not something that the English are comfortable with. It is spoken about in hushed tones. The memories of the dead live on no doubt as they did in my mother’s case (she never stopped talking about how wonderful a man her father was) but the actual passing and its accompanying rituals are quickly despatched with. The body is interred and life seemingly returns to normal as if death itself came as an unexpected surprise and should never have happened.
Strangely, whenever I look in the mirror I think of my grandfather, as my mother forever drummed into me that I have a Bale nose. I guess this was part of her subliminal dislike of my father who, in her eyes, had wronged her deeply. From her point of view, she had nothing to do with her own perceived misfortune even though she was a willing participant in it!
God forbid that I should look like the Bankole Jones who she spurned! Bale-Jones or Jones-Bale would have suited her nicely! It is farcical the lengths to which people will go to obliterate a bad memory. Sadly, for my mother, I was that memory and I remained so right there in her face until in her late eighties and early nineties, when her brain cells were no longer able to reach out into the distant past. The angst had gone and my father had miraculously morphed into a gentleman and a fine specimen of a man!
My mother was a dress designer and a seamstress. In the early nineteen thirties she moved away from her home in Wellington to London where she had learned her trade in the big fashion houses of that great city and eventually she got a fairly high-ranking post in one of them. In those more prosperous times of her life, she lived in the exclusive suburb of Hampstead with her sisters Sybil and Violet. She looked back on those years nostalgically and she proclaimed that they were the happiest years of their lives.
Mother loved London’s West End with its theatres, music halls and cinemas. She and her sisters had a ball. They were musically inclined (they could hold a tune through several notes until it all went awry!) and they loved to go out dancing. There is no doubt that they were gay, immensely happy and carefree. When I grew up and I got to know them they lived out their memories in song and dance. I suppose it’s all a matter of perception. The early nineteen thirties were the years of the Great Depression. At the end of that decade the Second World War began. My mother and sisters lived through both World Wars with the Depression sandwiched in between.
We all make a habit of looking back on our youth through rose tinted glasses. How rosy was it for my mother? Two World Wars, the Depression and a baby thrown into the mix. I suppose the reality is that we all live through good times and bad times. It is the good times that make the bad time bearable. In my story, echoes of this state of the human condition bounce back and forth all the time.
Mother was a tallish, imposing woman with a good crop of hair cut short, a longish face, a prominent nose and a sharp chin, good looking and quite striking without being pretty. Her demeanour was always severe. It repelled rather than attracted conversation. People had to mind their Ps and their Qs with her. Since my arrival on the scene she was imprisoned behind her own skin, in case anyone asked her about me. She could look really thunderous if she wanted to. She firmly believed that people should mind their own business and that it was rude to ask personal questions.
It was only when I was in my mid-twenties that my mother first told me how she and my father had met. She was taken to a party by a friend when she was living in Hampstead. My father was at that party. He and some of his fellow African students were living in student accommodation nearby. They partied a lot as Africans do. My father had come to London from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to study law at the Middle Temple, just off London’s Fleet Street. The Middle Temple was one of four Inns of Court where prospective lawyers studied for their Bachelor of Law degree. At that time this qualification was essential for all barristers who wished to practice law in the British colonies.
Fast forward a year or so after I was born, and my father had qualified as a barrister and returned to Freetown. After his departure he had nothing to do with either me or my mother for the next eight or nine years – at least this was according to my mother who had more than one axe to grind with him. There was a war in between my father’s departure and his return to England years later. Communications would have been difficult, especially as he had no forwarding address. During that, period thousands of people in England, including my mother, were displaced and were of no fixed abode. Add to this the little matter of who my father had married in 1942. At least at home in Freetown he made no secret of my existence. His family knew all about me. But yes, my old man must have spent those years seated on the uncomfortable horns of a dilemma. That dilemma was later to be resolved in a most surprising and unexpected manner.
My mother’s account of her relationship with my father was unsurprisingly full of anger and bitterness. It was the usual tiresome mantra. Theirs was a chance encounter at a party thrown by a group of African law students from Africa who lived across the road from where she lived in Hampstead. My father was to blame for ruining her life which went steadily downhill after my birth. She had lost her job and was socially isolated from her friends and most of her family.
On the other hand, my father rarely spoke to me about his relationship with my mother, other than to say that she was a very nice person and that he had fond memories of her. He never impeached her dignity in any way. To tell the truth it never really mattered to me that much what their relationship was or how it came about or who did what to whom. It takes two to tango. I am here, and I am glad to be here and alive to witness the unfolding wonders of the world, our planet and the universe.
During my very early years as a baby and a toddler I lived in London and was there when the Second World War broke out in 1939. My recollection of that period of my life is sketchy. Such memories that I have, come floating back through a haze, as in a vanishing dream. Perhaps it was the drama of the occasion that sealed them somewhere in the dark recesses of my memory. I hear screams that remind me of being hauled out of a cot and carried in someone’s arms as the part of London where I was being fostered at the time was being bombed.
I remember clearly floating through the air and being taken to a place of safety. During the London blitz I remember the sound of the air raid sirens that preceded bombing raids. There was panic and fear all around, as everyone scuttled under beds and tables or to the nearest bomb shelters either at the back of the garden or in public spaces. There was an odd excitement in the air. Though apprehensive, I looked forward to the sound of the siren and seeing all the grownups scampering and scuttling all over the place. At first it seemed like a game to me. It was so much fun. I saw aeroplanes flying above and chasing the doodlebugs away. The occasional one dropped and exploded in the distance. As the bombing of London intensified people sought refuge in underground tube stations. On more than one occasion, usually at night, I was taken to Marble Arch tube station where we huddled together with hundreds of other people until the darkness lifted. This was because the bombing was mostly at night.
As there was no let-up in the blitz of London my mother decided to relocate to Weston-super-Mare. Aunt Violet (Aunt Vi to me) had already left London earlier and had set up home in Weston at number eleven, The Boulevard, in the centre of town, and the main thoroughfare in and out of Weston. I must have been about five or six at the time. The journey to Weston was exciting. It was my first over ground train journey. Paddington Station was full of young uniformed soldiers with heavy back packs. I had played with toy soldiers and toy trains before, but this was the real thing.
The train slowly made its cumbersome way out of the station, picking up speed as it travelled along leaving a cloud of heavy, black, gritty smoke in its trail. I had started a journey that I never wanted to end. Each time the train shunted slowly to a final stop at the stations along the way I was full of foreboding that the journey’s end had come. Then the uniformed guard blew his whistle, the doors slammed, the train funnel gave a full throttled roar and huffed and puffed its way out of the station to the next one, until finally we arrived at Weston-super-Mare.
Weston had an American Air Force base in Locking and it was a prime target for bombing by the Germans. Areas adjacent to the base were often hit too. Weston itself is not such a large town. Bombs could and did fall anywhere, including sites along its main boulevard and high street. When we arrived in Weston it had been hit a few days or weeks earlier. We had to walk from the train station to Aunt Vi’s house in the Boulevard, through the rubble of bombed out houses and shops. This was the first bomb site I had ever seen and had walked through.
I was apprehensive and I was scared. I wondered where on earth my mother had brought me to. After all, we were supposed to be escaping from the London blitz. It did not seem like that to me! All I wanted to do then was to get back on the train in the hope that it would take me to a safer place. As it turned out however, the move to Weston was the best thing that could have happened to me. It became my home. It was a place that I often left, but a place to which I always returned. I think of its streets, its lanes, its alleyways, its parks, its hills, its forests, its beaches and the Grand Pier that stretched out into the Bristol Channel with great love and affection. They became part of me and will always remain so.
Number eleven, The Boulevard became my haven, even though mother and I only lived there for a short while after our arrival. She rented rooms at the Atlantic Hotel along the beach front where we lived until she had found suitable accommodation for herself. But during the day I spent most of my time at number eleven with Aunt Vi, who I was only really getting to know for the first time. Having me with her in the house filled her heart with boundless love. It was a love that came from deep within, and I learned to love her in equal measure. She smothered me in hugs and kisses and her smiles beamed right through me with radar precision. I was the child she had never had.
My mother, on the other hand, was always restrained in her emotions towards me. Her hugs were few and far between. Her kisses were quick, obligatory and cold. Of course, she smiled and laughed, sometimes hilariously. But she always held herself in check, as if to show too much hilarity was not quite the right thing to do.
“Where’s my manners,”she would say as she caught herself off guard.
I suspect she consciously built a wall around herself. To get too close to me would have given the game away and marred her standing in this new town where she had just begun to build up her reputation as a dressmaker and as a designer again.
It could not have been easy for a single mother in those days, let alone a single mother with a coloured child. She bore full responsibility for my upbringing as best she could. However, I sensed, even as a young child, that my mere presence must have filled her with resentment. I was a constant reminder of an act of perceived indiscretion that she tried to blank out of her mind but never could.
Years later when I got to know and to understand her better I realised that she never had the strength of character to move on and live a happier more fulfilling life. Bizarrely it was drummed into me that it was my fault that she had never married. She would have had to declare me if she ever wanted to import me into a marital home. That would have meant un-parcelling her past. It was a parcel that had too many knots in it that she had no desire to unravel. She carried the burden of what she perceived as “her shame” to the grave.
Aunt Vi was unlike any of her sisters. She was a free spirit and was considered by the Weston community to be quite eccentric. She believed that life should be lived and enjoyed to the full.
“You only have one chance at it,”she used to say.“So, make the best of it.”
She thought her sisters were too conventional, and too stuffy. She could not be reined in by society’s pretentions and she was a constant embarrassment to her siblings, who gave her as wide a berth as possible short of disowning her.
She wasn’t tall like my mother. She had lovely shiny black hair that curled back and hung down to her shoulders and she had a soft, beautiful, expressive face that beamed unashamedly with broad smiles, even though most of her teeth (the few that she still had) were blackened with nicotine. She was unrecognisable without a fag dangling from the corner of her mouth! She was slim, petite and quick and nimble on her feet. At the slightest excuse she would twirl and dance around the room or even along the Boulevard to any tune that blared out from a neighbour’s radio. Anything from Swan Lake to the Charleston was fair game for her. People stared but she didn’t care. She rather liked the attention.
When I first encountered this ball of fire on the day that we arrived in Weston from London, she swept me off my feet and she almost suffocated me with kisses. It was a new experience. No one had ever filled me with such a warm glow as Aunt Vi did on that day. A great love and affection grew between us over the years, which unfortunately, sowed seeds of discord between herself and my mother.
As close as I was to my mother I never felt the same towards her as I did towards Aunt Vi. I was never able to play or to romp around with her. She never fussed over me, told me bed time stories or tucked me into bed. She kept me at bay and I kept my distance. I knew that she was jealous, almost insanely jealous of my love for Aunt Vi.
I remember her saying to me once.“I don’t know what you see in Vi, she’s just a tramp. I’m the one who looks after you and gives you all that you need, and you show no appreciation whatsoever. What has Vi ever done for you?”
A few months after our arrival, mother had found a flat and a work room at number 69A on the main high street, above what was then Bryan’s shoe shop. We moved out of the Atlantic Hotel and we settled into our new home. Having already established a reputation as a skilled designer and dressmaker in London, she had little difficulty in landing substantial contracts for handmade blouses and dresses for some of the big London-based clothing stores.
As her reputation spread she took on contract work for local shops as well. These shops were so appreciative of the quality of her work that they often recommended her to make outfits for local celebrities. She had so much work that she had to employ local seamstresses to help her. Throughout the mid nineteen forties and fifties she never wanted for work. It was only when clothing began to be mass produced that the volume of work she was offered from London declined considerably. In Weston itself she became so well known that she always had more than enough work to keep her busy. She never retired and worked well into her eighties.
The next few years were spent in Weston, staying at short intervals with Aunt Vi or one foster parent or another, or with a work mate of my mother named Winnie Board who lived on a farm in Uphill on the outskirts of Weston. This was usually in between moving from one foster parent to another. Winnie Board worked with my mother in the workshop for many years and they became very good friends. So, I had two Aunt Whinnies! But I cleverly dropped the “Win” and called each one just “Auntie.” I don’t remember much about the foster homes that I stayed in. All I know is that there were quite a few. This was a time of my life about which very little has ever been said. My mother clearly didn’t like the idea of farming me out to different families, but said that she had very little choice as she had to work long hours to earn the money to pay for mine and her upkeep.
The most that was ever said was that she made sure that I went into the best homes that she could find and never too far away from where she lived. She made impromptu visits to ensure that I was well turned out, clean, happy and well fed. I remember a time when I stole a shilling from the purse of one of my foster parents. I denied this of course. When a complaint was made to my mother she was so indignant that she removed me from the home instantly, and took me over to Aunt Vi until she found another foster home.
“John would never steal a penny,”she said indignantly.
I had a rollicking time in Weston. I was just a kid experiencing the world and all its wonders for the first time. I remember so much of those long endless, magical times. I was probably around five or six years old then. I went to school for a while, but because of the war and the bombing it was never regular. I didn’t like going to school anyway. Often, I just never turned up. School cramped my style! I wanted to be outside and under the skies as that is where I felt that I really belonged, doing what I liked and going where I wanted to, unchallenged.
I loved going down to the seafront or to the bowling alley near one of the homes in which I lived, to watch the old men playing bowls with the big white balls which they rather patronisingly allowed me to fetch and carry for them. Playing with other boys and wandering around Weston all day long was another enjoyable preoccupation of mine. There was so much to see and so many places to go to. I got to know the place like the back of my hand. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone whether I went to school or not. By the time I left Weston on another long train journey at about the age of seven my knowledge of the three Rs was woeful.
On the seafront I spent hours building sand castles, knocking them down and starting all over again or I walked as far into the sea as I dared. One day I had stripped myself naked so that I could sit and splash around in the water. When I went to put my clothes on they had been stolen from where I had left them! So, without a care in the world I ran home as fast as I could in my birthday suit! Aunt Vi could not stop laughing for days. My mother of course took it much more seriously and told Aunt Vi that she should never have left me to go out alone. Not long after that, I was out playing and riding the train on the Grand Pier when the siren went off and we had to make a dash for the nearest shelter. I ran so fast that as I entered the shelter I lost my balance and crashed into the brick wall scarring my forehead very badly.
Once, when I was in between foster homes and staying at number eleven, The Boulevard, Aunt Vi took me to the American Air Force Base in Locking as she couldn’t leave me at home by myself. The base was a frequent rendezvous of hers and I’m sure that she secretly wanted to show me off to the American GIs! They drooled all over her as she enticed and beguiled them with her sensuality. She sang and danced to the ditties of the day, showing a bit of stocking as she did so. As for me, the GIs stuffed me with sandwiches, jelly, ice cream and cakes until I was bursting at the seams. When it was time to go home one of the GIs bundled us into his van and took us home loaded with butter, jam, cakes, eggs, bacon, sausages and tins and bottles of every food item you could possibly think of! It was war time. Food was scarce and rationed. Aunt Vi knew how to fill up her larder! As soon as the larder began to look bare, off we went again to the Air Force Base! Dear Aunt Vi, may have had other ideas that I was too young to apprehend. If singing for her supper was one of them, we certainly supped in style.
There were times when I stayed at my mother’s flat on the High Street. But it was only for short stretches when Aunt Vi had taken in lodgers or was out of town and there was nowhere else for me to stay. Aunt Vi was a single woman and earned her living by renting out rooms to elderly people who did not have homes of their own. Some of them stayed on for years, but this never stopped me from freely moving in and out of the house. If a day went by without seeing me, Aunt Vi would go round to my mother’s workshop whilst she was out shopping just to see if I was all right, bearing gifts of sweets and chocolates.
In the work room my mother kept me busy. She gave me a magnet to pick up pins from the floor. I was intrigued by this and would pick them up and then throw them down and pick them up again! Sometimes, when I was really bored I deliberately made such a nuisance of myself that I was told to go over to Aunt Vi or take a bus up to Aunt Winnie’s farm house in Uphill. This was a much better idea than sitting in a dusty work room all day, often sneezing and coughing up dust that went up my nose and down onto my chest. At Aunt Vi’s I was sure to have much more fun and in Uphill Aunt Winnie’s husband took me for horse rides around the farm until I learned to ride the horse all by myself.
It was an idyllic life. The fact that I was coloured did not seem to matter to anyone even though I was probably one of very few coloured children in Weston. People were naturally curious of course, but their curiosity did not affect the way that I was treated. The great migration of black faces out of the West Indies and Africa was in the future. Colour and race was not then a national issue. People were curious but not openly racist. My colour was probably an embarrassment to my mother whenever I was out on the beach or in the shops or in public places with her. She was burdened with forever having to conceal my true relationship to her. But that was her problem not mine. She credibly explained it away by passing me off as an adopted child. Children were adopted in their thousands during the war and distributed all over the country; the odd coloured one too.
As I was regularly in and out of my mother’s work room her customers could not hold back their curiosity.
They would say things like,“My God he looks just like you Winn, just look at that nose.”
Depending on the mood my mother was in she would say jocularly,“He is such a lovely boy isn’t he, I sometimes wish he was mine.”On another day she would say aloud, but to no one in particular,“I wish that people would just mind their own business.”
Being in denial of your own child whilst he was sitting right in front of you must have been painful. Her explanation was that she had to respond in that way in order to keep her clientele, otherwise she would have had little or no money to look after me. This was another of my mother’s mantras. She had sacrificed her life I was constantly told, so that she could provide for me. I didn’t doubt her sincerity. I sensed though, that she wanted me to hump around her burden of perceived guilt with her.
The idyll came to an end one day in October 1943. Mother told me that I was going to leave Weston. She said she was going to take me to a boarding school where I would live with boys of my own age and have a more structured life. Leaving Weston, and particularly Aunt Vi, was a torment I could hardly endure. I was inconsolable.
I cried and cried until there were no more tears left to cry. I thought that I was leaving Weston and the Grand Pier and its sandy beaches forever, and that I would never ever see Aunt Vi again. My only consolation was that I was told that I would be able to return home during the school holidays. However, the prospect of going on another train journey after such a long time cheered me up a bit, although I would have rather stayed than to venture into an unknown and unfamiliar world. However, my forebodings were misplaced. A new and an exciting life awaited me.
Although I was filled with anxiety and forebodings on the day that mother and I left Weston, I was nevertheless excited at the prospect of travelling again. It made me feel very important, especially as some of the boys I used to play with were at the station to see me board the train and leave. The ins and outs and nooks and crannies of the mainline station at Weston were well known to me and my friends. We had spent hours there, patiently waiting for the arrival and the departure of trains and noting down their numbers on their way to Exeter or London; an early form of train spotting if you like.
We stood on the platform at the point where the engines usually came to a halt and took down the engine numbers and names. We watched the train drivers and their mates stoke up the furnaces with coal and screamed with excitement when the train blew its whistle and puffed its way out of the station. Sometimes coal grit got into the corners of our eyes causing them to itch and to go blood red.
Now, it was my turn to board one of those trains and to leave my familiar world behind. Aunt Vi was at the station to see me off. As we wept and hugged one another and said our goodbyes, I shed tears of sadness on leaving, mingled with tears of joy at being once more on this moving miracle that hurled along at breakneck speed. I never thought much about or even cared where we were going. I just enjoyed the moment.
I stayed awake for as long as I could, and I walked aimlessly up and down the corridors, peering in at uniformed soldiers and vowing that I too would become a soldier one day. I finally settled down in my own carriage and I fell asleep to the rhythm of the wheels as they sped along the track. My mother woke me up as our train shunted into Paddington Station. We had to change trains to go to the boarding school. I was too weary eyed by then and I was dragged along to a taxi which took us to another station, where we boarded a train for the last lap of the journey.
We arrived at our final destination and we took a taxi to the boarding school. It was the 27thof October 1943 and I had just turned seven. The taxi left us at the school’s large imposing iron wrought gates. The entire school grounds as far as the eye could see, were surrounded by a six to ten-foot wall. We walked up the long drive with its tall sturdy oak trees on either side, towards the main school building.
As we walked along and got closer my mother said,“This is your school and this is where you are going to live. You will be very happy here.”
To me her words sounded so final with a hint of relief in her tone, that I thought that I would never see her again. I burst into tears and clung onto her coat and felt, strangely, that we were connected to one another in some mysterious way. Even though I clung onto her coat we never embraced one another. That would have been one step too far. I did not know that she was my mother, of course. She was only Aunt Winnie to me. But on that day, I knew intuitively that there was something more in our relationship than I could figure out, a bond that dares not speak its name.
At the school’s reception area after the preliminary registration procedures were completed one of the teachers gently prised me away from my mother and asked her to leave, promising that they would settle me down. Her presence was not helping very much, as I was screaming the roof down. And so, my boarding school life began with screams of apprehension about what the future had in store for me. I had been wrenched away from all the people I had known and taken to a place surrounded by stern looking teachers and intimidating matrons.
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