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The story of my first thirty years, 1936-66, from India to ITN


Gordon  Honeycombe



And now, as I look up from my writing, these memories seem like reflections in a glass, reflections which are becoming more and more easy to distinguish.   Sitting here, with my slowly moving thoughts, I rediscover many little details, known only to myself, details otherwise dead and forgotten with all who shared that time.

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Siegfried Sassoon






1.           Introduction

2.           Gordon and Louie

3.           Karachi, 1936-46

4.           Edinburgh, 1946-50

5.           Edinburgh, 1950-53

6.           Edinburgh, 1953-55

7.           Oswestry and Woolwich, 1955-56

8.           Hong Kong, 1956-57

9.           Oxford and Pinewood, 1957-59

10.         Oxford and The Miracles, 1959-61

11.         London and Tomorrow’s Audience, 1961-62

12.         Stratford and London, 1962-63

13.         London, 1963-64

14.         Scandinavia, 1964

15.         London and ITN, 1964-66






     An actor can remember, night after night, long speeches and lengthy roles in a play, and a pianist’s eight fingers, when he plays without music, will somehow remember to hit all the right notes, often at speed, in a piano concerto or in the playing of any complicated piano pieces, those fingers flying in different directions over the keys.   Both learn by repetition.   Yet the actor’s and the pianist’s feats of memory will fade away in time and be largely, if not entirely, forgotten when supplanted by other words and music and not repeated, although some snatches of words and music will linger in the mind.    On the other hand, the trick of balancing on a bicycle and riding it is never forgotten, although the routines of existence generally are – washing, dressing, eating, going to work and work itself – unless there is something odd and unusual about an event, and also when something happens for the first time, a one-off event, and never again.    

     Memories are uncertain, incomplete and delusional, rather like dreams.    More than once I’ve wondered when writing these memoirs of times long past and of places far away from where I am now, whether the events, and even the spoken sentences that are summoned up in my mind, actually happened or were said.   There is no way of verifying if this or that happened in the dream-like way that I recall, unless I confer with someone who was present at the time.   And then that person will remember things differently, if at all, and will seldom if ever be able to fully substantiate what I recall as having actually occurred.   What is recalled, by him or me, is also always partial and curiously selective.   When there is no one available to verify a certain happening, I have then no alternative but to believe that my memory of an event is true, that it really did take place, more or less as I remember, and that I didn’t imagine it.   After all, how could I remember things that never happened?   Why would I?  

     In this respect I’m not like Theseus’ poet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream whose pen, as his imagination ‘bodies forth the forms of things unknown … gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.’   Memory isn’t creative, although in the telling one may choose to elaborate a scene creatively – as some biographers and autobiographers do, sometimes excessively, mixing fiction with fact, imagining lengthy scenes and conversations, feelings and thoughts.   I haven’t done so, only doing so in part when a memory is backed up and supported by evidence from factual sources – from photos, maps, from pocket diary entries, newspaper articles and reviews, from school reports, postcards, letters and various documents.   In this I’ve been lucky, having many such sources at hand.

     I’ve also gleaned invaluable information from tape-recordings, from one made by Helen Johnson, from the letters of Mrs Bond, from taped conversations that I had with Mrs Hutchison, with Alison and Johnny Walker in the 1980s, and from material contained in Wikipedia and the Net.   Magnus Magnusson’s book about the Edinburgh Academy, The Clacken and the Slate, published by Collins, was very helpful, as was A History of University College, Oxford by Robin Darwall-Smith, published by Oxford University Press, which also published a useful history about OUDS by Humphrey Carpenter.   Most invaluable of all have been the three volumes of my Aunt Dorothy’s Memories and the three CDs of taped conversations I had with my sister, Marion, at Peebles in 1981.

     Yet still I doubt and wonder.   Did my father really say, ‘Why are you so beautiful?’   Did an American really say, ‘I sure would like to seduce you?’  Did my mother really tell me I was conceived on the bedroom floor?   Did I really do all the things I remember doing?   And did they really happen the way they did and when I think they did?   Did I also see, and hear, ghosts?

     Many events I can’t remember at all.   And I wonder why this is.   My Troop Commander in Hong Kong wrote in my Service Record that I was ‘a popular entertainer at Troop Smokers,’ and that I showed ‘organising ability in this line.’   I remember nothing at all about any Troop Smoker.   Absolutely nothing.   Nor do I remember much about relationships or why they were sustained or dropped.   Why do we like some people more than others and why do we not respond to some people in a positive way?   Why are we attracted to some and dislike others?    Why do we continue or discontinue relationships?   Those that have lasted have altered so much in the passage of time that what they were like originally is lost in the mists of days long past.   And yet some of them, a few, have been maintained in friendship’s name, and for the sake of some kind of continuity, in keeping hold of times past, of what went before.

     I’ve tended to avoid personal revelations.   They are another story, another sort of story.   I was never good at taking the initiative and I can’t believe how often over the years that I was taken by surprise.   I still am.

     That might have been the title of this book, Taken by Surprise.   For I’m constantly being surprised by what people do and say, by how things turn out the way they do, by seemingly chance and accidental meetings and events.   Is there ‘a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will?’  Is there a pattern, a hidden purpose, a weaving together of events and people, like a tapestry?   And what part do luck and chance play?   Or rather is it all a mix of happenstance, decisions and choices, made by others as well as by oneself, that determine what happens along the way?   

     And then there are the hidden influences of what happened before we were born.   It seems to me not impossible that genetic borrowings from our parents’ and grandparents’ memories and lives, and from even further back, somehow influence our characters and our lives.   We are all part of what went before, and also of who went before.  

     In writing these memoirs I have been hearing echoes of myself in other people, and echoes of people and places that others knew.   Australia and India re-echo throughout these chapters.   Some people and some places seem comfortable and familiar, as if I had known them before, as if I had been there before.   And I wonder whether deeply buried ancestral memories are stored in the recesses of our minds – racial memories of long-past people, places and events.    For everywhere and always everyone leaves behind them something of themselves.

     What follows is a partly remembered story, pieced together, of my first thirty years.    Make of it what you will.



                                     2.   GORDON AND LOUIE


      I was born in Karachi, which was then in British India, in September 1936, three years before the start of the Second World War.     

     The hospital where I was born was the Lady Dufferin Hospital, a long, two-storey building, with many arches like a minor Indian palace, in north Karachi.   Built in the 1890s it was due west of St Andrew’s Church where my parents had married in 1927.

     My birth certificate, taken from a ‘True Extract from Duplicate of Register of Births in the Municipal Limits of Karachi’ tells me that I weighed 104 ounces, was alive when born at 8.20 am on 27 September, a Sunday, and that my father, Gordon Samuel Honeycombe, was a merchant, and that his ‘caste’ was European.   There is no mention of my mother.

    Our address, in September 1936, is given as 3 Bath Island Road in the Frere Town quarter of Karachi.   But my memory tells me I was brought up at 4 Bath Island Road.   Why we moved from number 3 to number 4 I do not know.   There were four houses, 1, 2, 3 and 4, in that section of Bath Island Road, which was backed by Clifton Road, and each house had four flats – two on the ground floor, two on the first floor.   Number 4 Bath Island Road was called Variawa House.    During the war it was the last house in the road.   Beyond it was a flat and treeless maidan, a marshy plain.    In 1927, when my parents married, my father was living next door to Variawa House, ie, in number 3, not in number 4.   Presumably my mother joined him there after their honeymoon, not going to live in number 4 until 1937, after I was born and after a family holiday we all had in Scotland. 

     All the flats were rented.   Number 4 was owned by a Parsee family, who in 1936 lived in the other half of Variawa House.   The British occupants of the flats in Bath Island Road were temporary and mobile – they came and went.    They came to Karachi to work there, and moved elsewhere when they were posted to another part of India or returned to the UK.    

     My sister, who was six years older than me, told me that during the first seven years of her life, from 1930 or so to 1937, she was brought up, not in Variawa House, number 4, but in the top floor right-hand flat of number 3 as seen from the front.   When she was removed from her boarding-school in Edinburgh in 1940 and brought back to India, she joined the rest of the family in the top left-hand flat of number 4 – the one I remember – which was beside the right-hand flat of number 3, whose ground-floor flat was occupied by a family called Maish.   From my point of view, number 4, Variawa House, was always my Indian home.


     After my birth, ‘The True Extract’ of my birth certificate was forwarded to my father on 8 January 1937.   At the bottom of the True Extract a note was added which said that I was vaccinated by Dr Thomas Draper on 21 January 1937 -- and presumably circumcised, a Scottish custom (and a Royal one) about that time.   It’s nice to know I have something in common with Prince Charles and his brothers, not to mention most Jews and Arabs and up to a third of the male population in the world.

     In reply to a letter from my father to the Home Office in October 1952 -- for some reason he needed official confirmation at that time that my place of birth didn’t mean I had Indian or Pakistani nationality – a Mr Robinson assured him that ‘your son acquired British nationality at birth by reason of his birth in what was British India and still retains that status.’   And because my father was born in the United Kingdom, wrote Mr Robinson -- and thanks to a certain section of the British Nationality Act of 1948 -- I automatically became ‘a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies.’

    It wasn’t until 1989 that I applied for and received a copy of my baptismal certificate from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.   In the India Office’s records they had a ‘Register of Baptisms in Karachi in connection with the Church of Scotland, AD 1936’ and this revealed that I was indeed baptised as Ronald Gordon Honeycombe on 8 November 1936 by a Church of Scotland chaplain, George MD Short.  

     Ronald, though a Scottish name, was also the first name of a famous English film actor of the 1920s and 30s, Ronald Colman, whom my mother much admired.   Aged 45 in 1936 he had a fine voice and a pencil-line moustache.   His first major success was in a silent film, Beau Geste, in 1927.   Two years later, Bulldog Drummond was the first talkie in which he starred.   In 1935 he was in Clive of India and A Tale of Two Cities, and in Under Two Flags in 1936.   Lost Horizon followed in 1937.   I saw this film when I was a child.

     In the baptismal certificate both my parents’ names were this time noted, my mother’s being given as Dorothy Louise Honeycombe.

     Her maiden name was in fact Dorothy Louise Reid Fraser, Reid being her mother’s family’s name.   She was known as Louie.   I have to believe her that I was conceived on their bedroom floor in Variawa House after a New Year’s Eve fancy dress dance party in Karachi, for she added the telling detail – there must have been an Indian carpet on the floor -- that in the process my father’s knees were grazed.

     I was their fourth child.   But before proceeding further I should say where they came from and how they met.


     My father was born in the New Town of Edinburgh, in a flat at Duke Street, on 23 July 1898, in the last glorious years of the reign of Queen Victoria.   The street was one of several that sloped downhill from George Street and had views from top floor rooms, which looked north, of the Firth of Forth and the low hills of Fife.  

     About the time that my father was born, perhaps on that very day, the First Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders marched along Princes Street, their kilts swinging and their pipe-band playing, before entraining and embarking for India.   Among the cheering crowds was my grandfather, Henry Honeycombe, and he decided there and then that his new-born son should be named Gordon, and that his second name should be Samuel, which was Henry’s father’s first name.   

     Two years later, on 6 October 1900, a daughter was born, in a flat in Dublin Street, Edinburgh, not far from Duke Street.   She was christened Dorothy Henrietta Honeycombe and was generally known as Donny.   This was because when she was a baby Gordon, who was two, couldn’t pronounce the ‘r’ in Dorothy and used to say ‘Donny’, which he repeated so often that the name became the one always used by family and close friends.

     My grandparents had, according to my Aunt Donny, met at a dance in Edinburgh early in 1897, when Henry Honeycombe was 36 and Mary Spiers was 21.   If they met in this way it was probably because Mary was serving behind a bar, and not one of the dancers.   For at the time she was a barmaid.   Henry was employed by a large catering organisation as manager and supervisor of the LNER’s new Pullman dining-cars, which had recently been introduced on the express trains running from London, King’s Cross, to Edinburgh, Waverley.   After they were married, Mary travelled south with him on more than one occasion, no doubt much enjoying the excitement of visiting London – she had probably never been to England – and the novel experience of dining on a train.    This was something that I would also much enjoy, especially on that particular east coast route.    Before this Henry had been catering manager of the refreshment rooms at Waverley Station, and before that he had had a similar job in London and had been manager of a pub, the Old King’s Head at Hampton Wick, near Hampton Court Palace.

     He and Mary were married at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kelso, a small market town in Roxburghshire, not far from the English border.   The marriage took place on 15 December 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.   Mary, one of the younger members of a very large family, nine of whom survived beyond infancy, was born in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, where her father was a baker.   At the time of her marriage Mary’s home was in Kelso, where she probably stayed with an older married sister.    Her father was a ‘Fruit Merchant’ according to the marriage certificate.  The certificate also states that Henry was a ‘Manager to Refreshment Caterer’ and that Mary was a barmaid. 

     When I told my Aunt Donny that this was the occupation given on the certificate, she emphatically declared, ‘My mother was never a barmaid!’   But that was how Mary and Henry may well have met, most likely in the Waverley Hotel in Princes Street, where Henry must have stayed when he was in Edinburgh.   They couldn’t have met in the vast Royal British Hotel, situated above the Station, as it didn’t open for business until 1902.   It’s now called the Balmoral Hotel.   It’s possible that Henry made Mary’s acquaintance in the late Victorian equivalent of a cocktail bar in the Waverley Hotel. 

     She was petite (5 feet 2), full-bosomed and extremely attractive, with her luxurious dark brown hair fashionably piled up on her head.  Her eyes were blue-grey, her nose very straight, her eyebrows well-defined and her skin was creamy.   She used a touch of face powder but no rouge.   Henry was about 5 feet 7, well-groomed and sturdily built, verging on being portly, and wore a modest moustache.  They called each other Harry and Minnie.   They honeymooned in Dublin – a curious choice for a honeymoon in winter and at Christmas.   Perhaps Henry had some business contacts there.

     Their marriage certificate says that Henry was a ‘Bachelor’.   He wasn’t.   He had been married before.

     He had married his first wife, Ada Lizzie Phillips, at Paddington in London in October 1887, when he was 26 and she was 19.   In this marriage certificate he is described as a ‘Licensed Victualler’ – which was also the trade of Lizzie’s father ‘deceased’.    Both men managed pubs.   It’s likely that Lizzie worked for him as a barmaid and if so, he married two barmaids.   He and Lizzie had a son, Henry George, born at the Old King’s Head at Hampton Wick in June 1889.   Another baby was born prematurely in Battersea in November 1890.   Named Winifred Ada, she died in March the following year.  The marriage ended when Lizzie ran off with a barman, Henry Cooper.   She married him in May 1895 – they were both 27 at the time -- after she and Henry Honeycombe were divorced. 

     After the divorce, the son of Henry and Lizzie, Henry George, who was nicknamed Lal according to my aunt, lived with and was brought up by his mother at 560 Mile End Road in the East End of London, where she and her second husband, Henry Cooper, ran a pub.    When Lal was 10 or 11 he came north once or twice on holiday and stayed with his father’s new family in Dublin Street in Edinburgh.   But when Henry and his family moved back down south in 1903, to Wimbledon and then in 1905 to Torquay in Devon, where Henry managed the St James Hotel, the visits ceased.   


     Torquay was a fashionable sea-side resort, with a harbour full of sailing-boats.   Regatta Week, climaxing with a firework display, was one of the highlights of the summer.   Clubs and societies abounded, as did dances, excursions, garden parties, concerts and all kinds of social activities that were particularly enjoyed by the affluent middle classes of the Edwardian age.   Queen Victoria had died in 1901 and Edward VII was now king.   In her autobiography, Memories, Donny wrote, ‘Before long my parents became quite well-known in the town and popular with the local inhabitants, and my mother told me that the St James Hotel became known, especially among the yachting fraternity, as the “Beehive” and my mother the “Queen Bee”.   Henry Honeycombe joined a swimming club and participated in diving displays.  

     The St James Hotel was a three-storey building situated on the quayside and overlooking the harbour.   It was fully licensed and had a bar and restaurant.  Mary assisted Henry in the running of the hotel, supervising the staff, welcoming visitors, and arranging the vases of fresh flowers that were a feature of most of the rooms.   The family had their own apartment within the hotel and Gordon and his sister, Donny, had a nanny and their own sitting-room where they had their meals.   Gordon, who was seven in July 1905, was put in a private day school for boys and girls aged between five and ten.   It was run by two elderly unmarried sisters and was within walking distance of the hotel.   The family were in Torquay for three years.

     Donny wrote that ‘Gordon was a quiet, shy and rather nervous little boy, whereas I was a tom-boy and always the ringleader in all our escapades.   Gordon was particular about his appearance – even at such an early age – and hated to have dirty hands or grubby fingers.   He was also neat and tidy in his bedroom, never leaving books or toys lying around on the floor when he had finished with them.   I, on the other hand, was untidy in my room and careless of my appearance.   I was full of high spirits and always up to mischief in one form or another.’    Donny described a party she and Gordon attended.   She wrote, ‘My parents had made friends with the manager of the Imperial Hotel.   This was a most luxurious, expensive and exclusive hotel set in spacious grounds on the cliff-top half-way between Torquay and Babbacombe.   In December the manager kindly invited Gordon and me to a children’s Fancy Dress Christmas Party.   My mother dressed Gordon as Sir Walter Raleigh … When Gordon saw what he had to wear he was miserable … There were tears in his eyes … He was sensitive and felt he would be a laughing-stock at the party … I, on the other hand, was dressed as Cigarette, Daughter of the Regiment, and I loved it.’   When the time came for the children to assemble for a Grand Parade and their costumes be judged, Gordon had disappeared.   Donny won a prize.

     During the summer he usually wore a sailor-suit of pale-blue linen and a round sailor hat.   In the winter he wore a similar outfit in navy-blue serge.   In wet weather he and Donny had oilskins with sou-wester hats – black for him and yellow for her.   They were taken for walks in the Pleasure Gardens and listened to the band.   Sometimes they were taken on a tram-car by the nanny to play on the sands at Paignton, where there was a Punch and Judy show.   They weren’t allowed to bathe and had to be content with paddling on the water’s edge.   Gordon was happy building sand-castles, and according to his sister ‘he was very good at it.’   Picnics on Dartmoor were a special delight.   Their father, Henry Honeycombe, would organise an outing involving ten of twelve adults and their children and off they would go in a horse-driven shooting-brake, laden with hampers of food and drink, to enjoy a day on the moors.

     Henry was a gourmet, with a liking for exotic foods and delicacies and expensive wines.   Parsimonious otherwise, he gave his wife a small allowance, out of which she had to provide clothes for herself and her children, who were given a penny a week as pocket money, although they received more at Christmas and on their birthdays.   He was also a bit of a disciplinarian, insisting on good manners and courteous behaviour at all times.   In 1907 both Gordon and Donny contracted mild attacks of measles and quickly recovered.   But the following year she became seriously ill with scarlet fever and was in a sanatorium for six weeks.

     A family called the Millers lived in a big house called Ashfield at the top of Barton Road.   The father, an American stockbroker, had died in 1901.   His English widow, Clara Miller, struggled to bring up her three children, the youngest being a daughter, Agatha Miller, a tall girl with long fair hair who was 17 in 1907 and socially very active.   Whether she ever encountered any of the Honeycombes isn’t known.   Possibly, although the Honeycombes were ‘trade’, she might have met them at some function, perhaps at the St James Hotel.   In October 1912, at a dinner-dance at a stately mansion near Exeter, she met her future husband, a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, Archie Christie, and they were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.    Agatha Christie’s first crime novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published six years later, by which time Henry Honeycombe had died, Gordon was in India and Mary Honeycombe and her daughter, Donny, in Scotland.


     Mary Honeycombe had never been particularly happy in England, either in Wimbledon or Torquay, and wanted to return to her native land.   So in the summer of 1908 Henry Honeycombe brought his small family back to Edinburgh, where he took over the management of the Queen’s Bay Hotel at Joppa, a northern suburb on the edge of the Firth of Forth.  

     It was about this time that Gordon’s and Donny’s grandfather, Samuel Honeycombe came to visit them, travelling up from Kent.  Donny, who would be six in October 1908, wrote in her Memories, ‘It was the first time I can remember meeting him.   He seemed to me, in my young eyes, to be a very old gentleman, of medium height and broadly built.   He was well-dressed, bald, had side-whiskers and stooped slightly.    He didn’t have much patience with children.’   He had a gold watch-chain and watch and a small snuff-box, and when he left Joppa he gave Gordon and Donny a gold sovereign each.  

     The following year, 1909, the Honeycombe marriage seemed likely to fall apart and end in a divorce.   Though Donny’s father was, as she wrote, convivial, jocular, and a good story-teller in male company, he was taciturn and undemonstrative with his wife, who, according to Donny, found him to be a hard man, controlling, unsympathetic and cold.   Like his father he was also indifferent to children, even his own, apart from caring for their welfare.   He rarely displayed any affection for them, and if Donny sought to give him a hug or a kiss, she would be pushed, albeit gently, aside.

     What happened was that Mary Honeycombe, according to her daughter, had fallen in love with a Scottish engineer, whose firm was sending him to Australia, and he wanted her to come with him.   But she decided that she could never leave her children and the crisis passed.

      Meanwhile, the children were being schooled at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Donny at the Ladies’ College.   Both schools were near each other. The boys’ school was then in Archibald Place and the girls’ in George Square.  Gordon and Donny travelled from Joppa up to Edinburgh by train, and although central Edinburgh was served by trams hauled through the streets by cables, they would more than likely have walked up to the High Street and then on to Lauriston Place and their respective schools.   People walked more in those days.    Public transport was still something of a novelty.

     Gordon, who was now 10, was a shy, quiet boy, who didn’t enjoy playing rugby but enjoyed his piano lessons.    When he was older he could play popular tunes from memory, not needing any sheet music.   At Christmas time, in 1909, he and Donny both had mumps. 

      In June 1910, a few weeks after the death of Edward VII, the family moved again, this time to the Queen’s Hotel in Bridge of Allan, a village north of Stirling made picturesque by its setting than by its rather plain buildings.   Henry had taken the hotel on a ten-year lease.   It was owned by a widow, Mrs Mary Jane Hawks, and it had been run by her for 12 years.   There was, however, a dispute to be settled first, over the licensing of the hotel for Sunday drinking.

     At the Licensing Appeal Court held in the County Buildings in Stirling on Monday, 6 June 1910, Mrs Hawks and Henry Honeycombe appealed against the Licensing Board’s refusal to renew or transfer the hotel’s license.   A Miss Annie Smillie had objected to Sunday drinking at the hotel, and her objection was supported by the Chief Constable.  The proceedings were reported at great length in The Bridge of Allan Gazette.

      When Mr Horne, KC, who appeared for Mrs Hawks and Henry Honeycombe, addressed the Court, he said, according to the Gazette, that in regard to the proposed new tenant, Mr Honeycombe was very well acquainted with the trade, and that ‘he did not mean to become tenant with a six days’ license -- he became tenant on the basis of a seven days’ license, and the agreement necessarily fell, if only a six days’ license was granted.’   Mr Horne said that the Queen’s Hotel had been licensed for 60 years.   It had 23 bedrooms, a considerable business and commercial travellers frequently stayed.   On average, he said, between 25 and 30 people slept there every week.   Mr Horne commented that ‘very recently there was a call made by an Army official with regard to finding accommodation in connection with Army mobilisation.’   An interesting remark, as the start of the Great War was still four years away. 

     A petition signed by 447 people against a Sunday license was not admitted by the Court as it was ‘incompetent’.   Nor was the Chief Constable allowed to produce his witnesses.    He remarked rather sourly and somewhat pointedly that ‘if the same class of men as went to the Queen’s Hotel went to the Royal Hotel they would not be admitted.’  

     By a majority of nine votes to six the appeal was sustained and a Sunday license allowed.   The Court then asked the new tenant, Mr Honeycombe, to ensure that care would be taken that ‘the class of people complained of were not so freely admitted as they seemed to have been in the past.’   Mr Horne replied that he had been instructed by Mr Honeycombe to say that he would do his very best ‘to make the drinking there on Sunday as reasonable as possible, and to conduct the house in such a way as to entirely satisfy their honours.’

     A Valuation Roll for the County of Stirling, 1910-1911, lists Mary Jane Hawks, widow, as the Proprietor of the Queen’s Hotel and notes that she was the ‘hotel-keeper’ of the Osborne Hotel in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow – which, being situated in the city’s main shopping and entertainment area, was probably larger and a lot rowdier than the Queen’s.   Henry Honeycombe, ‘hotel-keeper’, is listed as the tenant of the Queen’s and its yearly rent is given as £88.

     And so, the licensing problem having been resolved, the Honeycombe family made the move to Bridge of Allan, a move that would greatly influence the future direction of all their lives.


     The village took its name from an old stone bridge over a small shallow river called the Allan Water, which flowed southwards past the village towards Stirling.   Its main, tree-lined street, where most of the better-off families lived in large grey-stone houses, was called Henderson Street, now part of the A9.   The Queen’s Hotel was situated among the shops and stores at the western end of the village not far from the bridge.   A larger hotel, the Royal, was almost opposite.   Although most people were accustomed to walking everywhere, or occasionally riding in horse-drawn vehicles and travelling in trains, some motor cars, owned and driven by wealthy persons, had begun to appear.    As a boy, Robert Louis Stevenson had holidayed in the area, as had Thackeray and Frederic Chopin, both of whom stayed at Keir House as guests of the Laird.   Keir House was the local stately home, owned and occupied by the Stirling family since the 15th century, and its 15,000 acres were situated about one and a half miles northwest of Bridge of Allan.   Another visitor to the area was Charles Dickens, who recovered in Bridge of Allan after one of his reading tours, staying at the Royal Hotel.

     In September 1910, Gordon and Donny resumed their education at the fee-paying High School in Stirling, which entailed a three-mile journey there and back by horse-drawn tram-car.  This took about 20 minutes.  The tram-cars, with open top decks, were drawn by two horses.   In the summer single-deck trams were used.   They were long and low and were known as ‘toast-racks’, with adjustable backs to the seats that could be altered to suit the tram’s direction.   The track was a single one, with loop-lines at certain points to enable trams to pass each other.   There were a few small hills on the journey, and an extra trace-horse would be hitched onto a tram to assist its progress up the rise.   Some bold and hyper-active children used to jump off the tram and run alongside – a practice not encouraged by the tram-driver.

     Lessons began in the new Primary School at 9.15 am.   A two-course lunch, taken on the premises, cost sixpence.    My father and Donny were less than average students, but in July 1911 Gordon, who was in Class 3, received a prize for swimming.   A year later, he was one of 14 boys and girls who were given special prizes for 99 per cent attendance at school.   Dorothy received a Class prize and a prize for Sewing.   In July 1914, she received a prize for Bible Knowledge and Gordon one for Physical Exercises.   He also exhibited a palm stand he had made at the school’s annual exhibition of pupils’ handiwork.    Many of his Honeycombe ancestors had been carpenters.   Hundreds of prizes were handed out at the end of the school year in June, mostly for non-academic achievements.   It seems that every pupil in the school received a heart-warming prize of some sort.   In addition to Class prizes, there were prizes for Dress-making, Needlework, Book-keeping, Cookery, Laundry Work, Woodwork and Metalwork, for Singing and Pianoforte, for Writing, Drawing, Painting, Clay-modelling, for Diligence and Progress.

     In the spring of 1911, the children’s grandfather, Samuel Honeycombe, had travelled north again, this time with his unmarried daughter, Emma.   He was 82 and Emma was 48.   Dorothy described Auntie Mem, as she was known, as being ‘very small, about five feet tall.’   She had dark curly hair dressed high on her head and the characteristic small round eyes of the Honeycombes.   She wore a long, flowing black dress, with a very tight bodice, white collar and cuffs.   She much admired Stirling Castle and the magnificent views from the battlements, as well as the soldiers in their kilts and the sound of bagpipes.   When taken to the Wallace Monument she insisted on climbing to the top.

     But within a week of Samuel’s arrival he became seriously ill.   The family’s doctor, Dr Fraser, who lived further along Henderson Street with his large family, was summoned and the old man was confined to his room, sufficiently recovering within two or three weeks to be able to return with Emma to his home in Gravesend.   Perhaps he insisted on going home.    For within a few days he died there, of cystitis, in June 1911.

     His son, Henry, and his grandchildren continued to prosper and flourish in Bridge of Allan.   Teenage Gordon, who was admitted to the Senior School in Stirling High School in September 1912, now had a bicycle.   In the holidays he went away to Boy Scout camps.   He continued to have piano lessons.   Donny was having singing and dancing lessons at the school.   On her twelfth birthday she was given a bicycle and at Christmas 1913 a small wire-haired terrier, whom she called Prince.  

     The following month, on Friday, 30 January 1914, the all-male Curling Club of Bridge of Allan held its annual dinner at the Queen’s Hotel.   The Bridge of Allan Gazette reported that it was ‘an excellent dinner, which reflected credit on the purveying of Mr Honeycombe.’   The first toast to be drunk was to the King, George V, the second to the Queen, the third to the Prince of Wales and other members of the Royal Family.   Other toasts followed – to the Imperial Forces, to other Curling Clubs, to the Patronesses, President and Vice-Presidents.   Speeches were made, songs were sung, poems recited, ‘and to the delight of the company Mr Turnbull in his inimitable style gave “Tam o’ Shanter.” ’   The dinner concluded with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.   There would have been much drinking and the smoking of cigars, and Henry, the genial host, would have much enjoyed himself.

     In the spring of 1914 teenage Gordon was ill with bronchitis, but recovered a few weeks later, in time to be among the many who celebrated an unprecedented event in the village’s history, a royal visit.   This happened on Saturday, 11 July.    King George V, Queen Mary and Princess Mary, who were touring Scotland, arrived by car in Bridge of Allan at 12.15, passing under a triumphal arch bearing a floral crown and the one word, WELCOME.   Red, white and purple drapes, edged with gold, adorned the arch, which was festooned with evergreens, Canterbury Bells and sweet-peas.   They then passed by the Queen’s Hotel, through the cheering crowds that lined Henderson Street, and turned into Well Street, where a Royal Pavilion had been erected for the official reception and the presentations, all of which were swiftly dealt with, as was the National Anthem.   Within ten minutes the royal party had driven away.   Among the 86 village grandees occupying seats on the grandstand beside the Pavilion were Dr and Mrs Fraser.   Henry Honeycombe and his wife, being trade, were excluded.

     That summer, after the excitement of the royal visit had faded away,

Gordon and Donny were out and about on their bicycles, making the most of the school holidays and the better weather, trekking over the hills and having picnics with their friends.   She wrote, ‘We were happily enjoying ourselves in this way when one day, suddenly, everything changed.   It was the fourth of August, 1914 – we were at war.’


     The Queen’s Hotel and the Royal Hotel were commandeered by the Army at the start of the war.   The Royal accommodated the General Staff and senior officers, and the top two floors of the Queen’s were occupied by junior officers and NCOs, leaving the first floor for the Honeycombe family.  The bar-lounge and the dining-room remained open for meals and drinks.    Other ranks encamped in nearby open spaces and fields.   Stirling Castle was the HQ of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and the Cameron Highlanders, the KOSBs and the Black Watch were all quartered in and around the town.   Uniformed men and men in kilts were everywhere.  

     It was all very exciting for a while, and the local population did all they could to entertain the troops, with parties, variety concerts and sporting fixtures.   But then casualty lists began to appear in the newspapers, and those of the war-wounded who had been hospitalised in Keir House, where Dr Fraser was in attendance, began appearing in the village, some heavily bandaged and some without limbs.   Village life steadied and settled into doing what could also be done for the soldiers in France and elsewhere.   Older women formed knitting groups to knit wearable comforts for the troops, like socks and scarves and jerseys.   Younger women volunteered for forms of war service that accepted women or joined the Red Cross.   

     Gordon was a patrol-leader in the Boy Scouts and he and his best friend, Bill Harris, were selected, among others, to go north to Nairn, to join other scouts assisting the coastguards to keep watch and guard the southerly coast-line of the Moray Firth in the spring of 1915. 

     His parents and Donny managed to get away for a two-week holiday in Rothesay on the island of Bute, which was to the west of the River Clyde and Glasgow.   It was their first holiday together, and their last.   They stayed at the large and luxurious Glenburn Hydro high on a hillside above the town.   One morning, on opening The Scotsman, Henry gasped with horror on reading that an ocean liner, the Lusitania, on her way from New York to Liverpool, had been torpedoed by a German submarine on 7 May with the loss of over 1,000 lives.

     One of the reasons for this holiday was that Henry had been off-colour, and complained of feeling unduly tired.   But once back home at the Queen’s among the military, he continued to play the part of the hearty, generous host.   A heavy smoker and drinker, he enjoyed his food, cigars and whiskies, and over the next six months became even more portly.    He began to feel not just tired, but unwell, and conscientiously he made his will on 23 November 1915, three days before he died.  

     My Aunt wrote about the Thursday night before her father died in the first volume of her Memories.   She was 15 then and her brother, Gordon, was 17.   Both of them were musical, like their mother, who played the mandolin and belonged to a sextet of local musicians.   Both of the children had been taught to play the piano, although Donny had soon opted out of that, preferring to sing and dance.

    She wrote, ‘It was bitterly cold, I remember, and my father, wearing his thick woollen dressing-gown, was sitting in his armchair in front of a bright coal fire … When Gordon had finished playing one of his favourite numbers on the piano, my father said to me, “Sing me one more song, Donny, and then I’m going to bed.”   I asked what he would like me to sing and he replied, “Sing that new song, There’s a long, long trail a-winding.  I like it, and you sing it nicely.”   So with Gordon at the piano and my mother playing the mandolin I sang, and when I had finished, he said, “Thank you, Donny.  I enjoyed that.”  Then saying he felt a bit tired, he went to bed.’  

     He had a heart attack that night and died the following day, on 26 November 1915, aged 54.   He was also suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and nephritis.   His obituary in the Bridge of Allan Gazette said, ‘He was a bright and cheery personality, of kindly disposition, and an attractive conversationalist … Since taking up residence at “The Queen’s” he manifested an intelligent interest in everything pertaining to the welfare of the village.’  

     Although Henry left £881-19s-10d in his Will, he had accumulated a great many debts.   Once these were paid off, further cutbacks had to be made and Donny, now aged 17, was removed from Stirling High School.   Gordon had already left school when he was 17, in July 1915, and through a friend of his father had obtained employment as a junior clerk in a merchant company in Glasgow.   He travelled there daily by train on a season ticket.   He had done moderately well at school but was not a brilliant scholar.   However, his arithmetic and spelling were good.

     Beset by financial problems, and as the hotel trade had been much diminished by the war, when it ended Mary Honeycombe decided not to renew the hotel’s lease.    She was still there, however, in 1920, as the Valuation Roll for 1919-1920 names her as the tenant and hotel-keeper of the Queen’s, which now had a garage, and whose yearly rent had fallen to £80.    Mrs Hawks, now Mrs Robertson, was listed as the proprietrix, and having given up the Osborne Hotel in Glasgow, was seemingly back in Bridge of Allan.

     A few doors away from the Queen’s in Henderson Street was a shop and bakehouse owned by a retired schoolmaster, Thomas Braidwood.   The tenant was a master baker, William Elder, and it was his son, Billy Elder, whom Mary Honeycombe married on 24 April 1920.   He was also a baker, as her father had been when she was young (before he became a fruit merchant).   Her second husband was 29, a solid young man, round-eyed and plain, with a drinking problem, of which she was as yet unaware.   She was 44, although on the marriage certificate she claimed to be 41.


     Back in 1916, some four months after Henry Honeycombe died, his first-born son, Henry George Honeycombe, who by this time was 26 and calling himself Harry, not Lal, appeared unexpectedly at the Queen’s Hotel.   He had voyaged from New York across the dangerous war-torn waters of the Atlantic to see his step-mother, his half-brother and sister, and to find out whether he had been left anything in his father’s will. 

    Of this visit my Aunt wrote, ‘He said he lived in America, and that when he heard the news of his father’s death – through some relative of his mother in England – he decided he would come over to Scotland because, as the eldest son, he thought he might be entitled to some money or possessions belonging to his father.   My mother told him how much we were in debt, but as he had made such a long journey she invited him to stay for a few days.   This he did and was made welcome.   He was a tall, thin, pleasant enough young man.   He wore glasses, and in America had been an electrical engineer.   Before he left, my mother gave him my father’s gold watch and chain, and a diamond tie-pin, which had been presented to him as a parting gift from a few friends when we left Torquay.   She also gave him a sum of money (it could only have been a small amount) as he said he had barely sufficient for his return fare to America.’ 

    Harry Honeycombe, who was nine years older than his half-brother, Gordon, probably stayed in Bridge of Allan for five days, if not for a week, during which it seems he met the Fraser family at Fernfield.    Louie’s oldest sister, Ada, was 24 at the time, and their oldest brother, Lovat, was 23.   Louie herself was 17, as was Gordon.   They would all have been curious to know what America and Americans were like, and whether he was married – which he apparently wasn’t, and why would he lie if he was?   If Harry was in Bridge of Allan in early March, there might have an excursion to Stirling to see the Castle and also the Wallace Monument.   But the weather would not have been conducive for outdoor activities, for touring, picnics and tennis.

     Harry said his goodbyes and boarded the Tuscania, which had sailed up from Liverpool, on 17 March 1916.   The passenger list of ‘aliens’ notes that his ‘last permanent residence’ was Bridge of Allan, where he’d been staying with his ‘mother’, Mrs Honeycombe, in the Queen’s Hotel.   He disembarked in New York on the 29th, giving his destination as Philadelphia.   Donny wrote, ‘He said he would write and return the borrowed money as soon as he arrived in America.   But we never saw or heard from him again.’ 

     Although I periodically did some genealogical research trying to find out what happened to my uncle, Henry George, I never did.   But in 2013, thanks to Peter Calver of www.lostcousins, some answers to Harry Honeycombe’s apparent disappearance in America -- did he marry? -- did he have children? – did he enlist in the American army and fight in northern France? – was he killed there? -- at last emerged.   Calver was also able to establish when Harry first went to America.  

     A passenger list or manifest proved that when Harry was 21 he had sailed initially to America on the SS Merion from Liverpool to Philadelphia, her regular run, arriving there on 6 April 1910.   The one-funnel Merion had been built on Clydebank, Glasgow, for the American Line in 1901 and carried 1,700 second class passengers.   Breakfast was at 8.0 am, lunch at 12.30, and dinner at 6.0 or 7.15   Supper was at 9.0 and the bar closed at 11.0.   Deck chairs and rugs could be obtained for four shillings from the Second Steward, and the Purser was able to exchange one pound sterling for $4.80.   Disguised later on as a decoy battle-cruiser in WW1 the Merion was torpedoed in the Aegean Sea in May 1915 by a German submarine and sank. 

     In April 1910 the ship’s passenger list noted that Harry Honeycombe was 21.9 and a labourer.   His home town or place of work had been in Hollinwood in Greater Manchester, and his address before the voyage had been the Bell Hotel in Derby, where he had been staying with F Phillips – clearly a brother of his mother, Lizzie Cooper, née Lizzie Phillips, and accordingly his uncle.   The passenger list says that Harry’s final destination in the USA was Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.   He was in America (as he would tell the Honeycombes) for the next six years, until he returned to Britain in 1916.

     The Tuscania’s passenger list, dated 17 March 1916, states that Harry’s health was ‘good’, that he had brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion.   His place of birth is correctly given as Hampton Wick in Middlesex.   His final destination after the ship docked in New York was, again, Pittsburg, and his ‘intended future permanent residence’ is noted as the home of a ‘friend’, RG Reid, who lived at 809 Maple Avenue, Turtle Creek, PA.   Turtle Creek was a township 12 miles south-east of Pittsburg and in 1910 it had a population of 5,000 people.

     Who was RG Reid and what was his occupation?   The Census Return for Turtle Creek, dated 1 January 1920, tells us that Robert G Reid, aged 46 (he was therefore born in 1874) was living in a mortgaged house in Oak (not Maple) Avenue, Turtle Creek.   It seems that he and his family had recently moved there from Maple Avenue   He was a sheet metal worker.   His wife, Maud, was two years older than him and they had five children: Nellie, Mary, Margaret, Phoebe and Robert, who was 9.   The two eldest girls, aged 23 and 22, were clerks.   Everyone in the family was able to read and write.   The Census says that Robert Reid emigrated in 1890 and he was naturalised in 1895.   He was born in Canada (in 1874).   So he must have emigrated to America from Canada, not from the UK.   His father, the Census says, was Scottish and his mother Irish.  

      It seems more than likely that Robert Reid was related to the Fraser family in Bridge of Allan.   My mother was baptised Dorothy Louise Reid Fraser; her mother’s maiden name was Christina Reid, and her grandfather was the Rev John Reid.   Christina Reid, who was 19 in 1889 when she married, was born in 1870.   Robert Reid was born in Canada in 1874.    Can it be that his Scottish father was a brother of the Rev John Reid and that he was therefore a cousin of Mrs Christina Fraser?    Can it be that in 1916 when Harry Honeycombe met up with the Frasers in Bridge of Allan, he was provided with the name and address of a cousin of Mrs Fraser, RG Reid, who happened, not only to be living in America, but not far from Pittsburg?

      But what happened after Harry reached Turtle Creek in 1916?    Did the Reids’ domestic situation or work opportunities prove not to his liking?    Did he in fact never get to Turtle Creek, having heard from people he met on the ship or in New York of better job opportunities elsewhere?   For within a few years he was in Canada.  

      We know this because he is named in 1920 in a manifest of persons applying to enter the USA from Canada.   The manifest was drawn up at the so-called Port of Niagara Falls and is dated 24 October 1920 – this was the point of entry for persons crossing the border, via the Rainbow Bridge across the Niagara River.   It says that Harry Honeycombe, aged 31, a Canadian and an electrician, who had been residing in Hamilton, Ontario was heading for Miami in Florida.   And he was not alone.    With him were Mary Honeycombe, aged 29, and Jeanie Honeycombe, aged 8, who were also said to be Canadians and to have been living in Hamilton.   Although Harry is said to be married (M), Mary is noted as being single (S) – which could be a clerical error.    Whether married or single she told the Niagara authorities that her surname was Honeycombe, as was that of her daughter.

     Four years earlier in Bridge of Allan, Harry never mentioned the fact that he had a daughter, and a wife.   He must have been asked whether he was married and whether he had any children.   And if he was married, why would he lie?   Besides, a dependent wife and child would have increased his chances of benefiting more largely from the financial generosity of his step-mother, another Mary Honeycombe.  

     It seems to me he said nothing about a wife and child because there were none.   It seems to me more than likely that when he was in Canada during WW1 (and after 1916 – remember he told the Honeycombes he had been living in America), he met a young widow called Mary, who had a child, Jeanie, born in January 1911.    Mary’s husband had died in Toronto, at 249 Ontario Street, in September 1912, aged 37.  This can only be Thomas Hislop Eaton, a stonecutter.   The parents of Jeanie Eaton are named in an Ontario birth register as Thomas Eaton and Mary Clyde, and when Jeanie was born they were living at 23 Guelph Avenue.   They had married in York County, ie, Toronto, in 1906.   Mary is a Scottish name, as are Clyde and Jeanie.   There is no proof, so far, that Mary married Harry.    But married or not it seems that they decided to seek a new life far away from Canada and thus the move to Florida.

     So it transpires that Harry survived the flu pandemic and never, as far as we know, fought in northern France, leaving Canada in 1920 and moving down to Miami, accompanied by Mary and Jeanie Honeycombe.   The last we hear of them is in a City Directory entry for Miami in 1923, when he and Mary are listed as living in a houseboat – three years before the hugely destructive hurricane of 1926 that devastated Miami and in which hundreds died, went missing and were never seen again.   The houseboat was variously listed, in 1921, 1922 and 1923, as being in the North Bay Shore drive at the foot of 7th, at the foot of NE 6th Street, and then between NE 5th and 6th streets.   This was virtually in Downtown Miami, over which the eye of the hurricane passed in the early morning of 18 September.   There was a 35 minute lull when this happened, and many people, unused to the habits of hurricanes, left their shelters and crowded the streets to inspect the damage.    When the eye of the storm moved on with even more ferocity, accompanied by a ten-foot storm surge, many people were caught out of doors, were overwhelmed and died.

     Had Harry left Miami before the hurricane or had he found some alternative accommodation on land?    We do not know.    The last record we have of him is that he and Mary, and presumably Jeanie, were living in a houseboat in Miami in 1923.   There we have to leave him, as nothing more is known, so far, about his life, or death, and return to the life of his half-brother, my father, and to what happened to him during the First World War.


     Not long after the departure of Harry Honeycombe from Bridge of Allan, my father left his clerical job in Glasgow when he became 18, in July 1916, and enlisted in the Army.   I imagine he did so dutifully though reluctantly.  He did his training as a cadet with the EUOTC (Edinburgh University Officers Training Corps) in Edinburgh, where he stayed in digs and travelled back to Bridge of Allan at weekends and whenever he could.   Joining the EUOTC was the suggestion of an Edinburgh lawyer, Mr Ross, to whom Gordon’s mother had written for advice.   She dreaded that he might have to serve in the ranks.   She had heard many tales from officers and men who had returned on leave to Bridge of Allan about the horrors of war and trench warfare.   She had seen many who had suffered terrible wounds.   If Gordon was an officer he would be spared at least a few of the privations and hardships that had to be endured.   As far as he was concerned, being trained as a cadet was tough enough, and he was glad to get away and travel back to Bridge of Allan at weekends, wearing his officer cadet uniform and a dashing Glengarry, which, according to his sister, impressed the village girls, in particular Milly Duncan and her younger sister, Florence.

     Early in 1917 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in an English regiment, not a Scottish one as he had hoped.   According to his sister he was displeased – despite the fact that his father had been English.   Perhaps this fact influenced the posting.   The following week he was posted to the HQ of the KRRC (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) at Sheerness in Kent, where he remained for several months.    It was not until the end of the year that he was sent to join his new Battalion in Salonika, travelling by boat and train right across Europe.   His sister wrote, ‘He was a sensitive boy, hated violence of any kind, and the thought of using a bayonet filled him with horror.’

      2/Lt GS Honeycombe, aged 19, left Southampton on a troopship on 31 December 1917 and reached the KRRC camp near the town of Salonika by 1 February, a journey of 27 days.  There he joined the 4th Battalion.   He was in the area for four and a half months, until 12 June.   He would have been paid 17/6 a day and have received a field allowance of three shillings a day, totalling 20/6.    Privates were paid six shillings a day, most of which was saved up by the Army and sent to a designated relative at home.

     Salonika (now Thessaloniki) was a major port in Macedonia at the head of the Gulf of Salonika, which opened into the Aegean Sea.   Macedonia was the birthplace and home of Alexander the Great, who had set out in 336 BC to conquer the known nations of the world.   In 1917 a provincial government of insurgent Greeks, recognised by the Allies, was based in Salonika, and in that year they had declared war on neighbouring Bulgaria and forced the abdication of King Constantine.   Bulgaria had allied itself to Germany.   Thus the presence in Macedonia of a large Allied Army, which included Serbs, Greeks, Italians and Czechs and was primed to resist any invasion by the Bulgars and the Germans.   The KRRC had been in the area for over a year.

     There was more inactivity than action on this front.    Major Alfred Bundy, who had been in Salonika since October and was based at the Summerhill Camp’s School of Instruction near Salonika, told his diary in March, ‘Am getting tired of the humdrum monotony of life here.’   

     He wrote later, ‘Party of us went to Lake Laganze today (10 kilometres) to try for some duck that rumour says are so plentiful here.   The Motor Transport people lent us a lorry and the British Red Cross Society sent us sporting guns and 1000 cartridges.   It was great fun … We never even saw a single duck and the total bag was one emaciated crow.’     He was eventually posted to the front line.    ‘Inspected men.  They seemed stale and listless.   Some have been here for two years without leave! … The men play football and cricket on No Man’s Land and the Bulgars never interfere, so I am told, but the least sign of military training brings shells over.’   In April he wrote, ‘The days are getting insufferably hot and with no rain the beautiful flowers and greenery are all drying up.   The Bulgars now use a searchlight at night and every few minutes they sweep No Man’s Land with it.’


      My father had a Collins pocket diary with him (I have it with me now) in which he noted, in pencil, what he did -- like battalion drills, route marches, range practice, going on working parties, attending church parades, being orderly officer, building bivouacs and fortifying the River Line, the river being the wide Vardar River, to the west of Salonika.   Occasional air-raids and some shelling are mentioned in the diary, although no one was killed, and the weather ranged from heavy snow in February to spring and summer torrents of rain and thunderstorms, and to scorching heat, dust and mud.   But there were rest days and weekend excursions into Salonika.    Officers dined at the White Tower and saw some shows at the French Club, where girls and champagne abounded.   ‘SOME EVENING’ Gordon wrote of one riotous night.   There were also cross-country runs, boxing contests, football games, Brigade and Divisional Games, in which he took part, winning the 100 yards dash.   Now and then the officers went out hunting wild pigs and duck-shooting.   He noted, ‘Swallows build nest in our mess.  Storks on roof, also crows.’

      In a page headed Personal Memoranda he enters, in ink, his watch number, his revolver number, his compass number, his bank pass-book number and the telephone number of the Queen’s Hotel, as well as its Telegraphic Address.   His glove size was 8; his collar size 16; his hat size 7 ; his boot size 9; and he weighed 11 stones 10 lbs.   He doesn’t give his height.   But his sister says in her Memories that he was 5ft 8ins.   Her birthday, 6 October, is noted, as well as the arrival of a letter from Donny and one from a girl called Norah Stewart.

     In June there was a change of command.   The French General commanding the Allies was replaced by another more fiery French General, who told his troops on his arrival, ‘I expect from you savage vigour.’    As a result, the Allies opposing the Bulgars and Germans went on the offensive in September, with disastrous results.   In the Battle of Doiran 165 officers were killed and injured and over 3,000 other ranks.   On 25 September Bulgaria called for a truce, and an armistice, predating by six weeks the German one in November, was signed a few days later.

     My father was not involved in the September offensive and the ensuing slaughter.   His Battalion had been ordered on 11 June to proceed to the killing fields of Northern France.   It left Salonika on the 12th.    After a long and tiring journey lasting over a month, travelling on foot, on lorries, by trains and boats, the Battalion reached Serqueux in Upper Normandy, 30 miles southeast of Dieppe.   A few days later, on 15 July, the Battalion’s officers and men moved to Martin-Eglise, a few miles from Dieppe. 

     Two weeks before this move my father became ill with influenza and a chest infection and was hospitalised on 4 July.   If this bout of flu was what became known as the Spanish Flu, he was lucky to survive.   It was believed to have originated in April in Spain, where occurred the first major European outbreak of the disease.    Its first appearance was, however, in the spring of 1918, in Kansas in the USA, and over the next two years it killed over 675,000 Americans.   Among them might have been Gordon’s half-brother, Harry, who was heading for Philadelphia when he returned to the USA.   That city was one of the worst to be affected in America.   But Harry, even if he became ill,  survived.   World-wide some 500 million people were infected, of whom more than 50 million died.   Most were young adults, between the ages of 20 and 40.   The most devastating pandemic in recorded history, it killed more people than all those who died in the Great War.   In Britain some 250,000 people died.

     Luck was with my father in 1918.   Having missed the slaughter of the September offensive against the Bulgarians, and having recovered from an attack of non-fatal flu, by chance he then missed the final offensives against the Germans in France.    As it was, he was discharged from hospital after four days, on 8 July, and spent a few pleasurable days in Paris.   He then rejoined the Battalion and was once again caught up in the physically demanding drudgery of route marches, parades and drills.    

     On his 20th birthday, 23 July, a Tuesday, he noted, ‘My birthday.  Weather awful.   Very heavy showers of rain.    Lecture in afternoon by Brigadier on Defence.’   There were enjoyable excursions into Dieppe, a highlight being a Divisional Horse Show at Dieppe Racecourse on a Sunday after church parade.   He wrote, ‘Thousands of people present including soldiers & civilians.   Hotel Metropole in evening.   Drove home by car (Some night).’

     Towards the end of August he was ill again, with a bronchial infection and a very high temperature, and this time he was given 14 days sick leave.   It took him three days to get back to Bridge of Allan.  

     His sister wrote in her Memories, ‘Gordon looked tired on his arrival, and had obviously lost weight.   But he still managed to look immaculate in his khaki uniform with its Sam Browne belt … He told us he had applied for a transfer to the RFC (Royal Flying Corps).   He liked the idea of flying and thought that aerial combat would be preferable to foot-slogging and trench warfare.’    In fact the RFC and the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) had been amalgamated and officially became the Royal Air Force in April 1918.    The RAF’s HQ was in part of the requisitioned and vast (800-room) Hotel Cecil situated between the Embankment and the Strand.

     He went to a local variety show to see his sister perform with three other girls in their Pierrot Troupe and sought out several of his school-friends.   He also called on Dr Fraser and his family.  

     The previous year, the Frasers’ eldest son, Lt Lovat Fraser, aged 24, who had been with the Machine Gun Corps in France, had been shot through the head by a German sniper, on 12 February 1917.    An obituary in The Bridge of Allan Gazette said that Lovat was ‘an architect in Edinburgh when war broke out, and enlisted in the Lovat Scouts, afterwards getting a commission in the Cameron Highlanders before transferring to the Machine Gun Corps.   He had seen considerable service, and was a fine-looking soldier in the kilt, being a handsome young fellow, 6ft 2in in height.   A kindly lad, Lovat was very popular with everybody who knew him.’    On the tall dark family gravestone in Logie Cemetery is written, ‘He died the noblest death a man may die, fighting for God & Right & Liberty.’

     All five of Lovat’s younger brothers and his three younger sisters were still living in Fernfield, a large house on Henderson Street with a long, large garden at the rear.   One of the girls was my mother, Louie Fraser, aged 20, the same age as Gordon.   They met on several occasions while his leave lasted.   But on Thursday, 12 September 1918 he had to return to the war.   The last entry in his pocket diary says, ‘Left Stirling 3.53 pm en route for FRANCE.’   All the ensuing pages are blank.   He may have thought he would never return.

     Knowing from the newspapers what dangers and horrors faced him, his mother wept and wailed, ‘Oh, Gordon, I don’t want you to go!  I can’t bear to let you go!’   A car was waiting for him outside the Queen’s Hotel and after giving his mother and sister a hasty kiss he said, ‘Don’t worry.  I’ll be back all right,’ and hurried away.

     He rejoined his Battalion in France on 14 September.   Although the first attack made by the Battalion on the German lines didn’t occur until 3 October, the Battalion War Records of the KRRC indicate there was much toing and froing before that.   ‘On September 16th we entrained at Dieppe station at 7.30 am and went into billets at Beaudricourt near Lens’ -- 18 miles west of Arras.  ‘The next day we received orders to move to the 4th Army Area; we paraded in fighting order in the afternoon, and moved by road to Bertangles, and after remaining there until 28th, we again travelled to Armes, Albert, Mametz and Moislains; here we found the roads were blocked with traffic, and we finally pulled up at about 10 pm at a wood one and a quarter miles southwest of Nurlu; here we bivouacked for the night … On the 29th the future was obviously uncertain, as we frequently received orders to move forward, which were all cancelled … Our strength by September 30th was 47 officers and 952 other ranks.’

     My father would have been a Platoon Commander.   Three platoons, each of about 30 men led by a junior officer, constituted a Company, which was led by a Company Commander, usually a Captain.   Every officer would also have had a batman, whom officers in WW1 called ‘my servant’.   A batman would have been an ordinary soldier, a private, usually chosen by an officer from the soldiers in his Company.   He would have looked after the officer, seeing to his personal needs, his meals, uniform and equipment, doing any washing and cleaning that was possible, delivering messages and driving the officer’s vehicle, if he had one, or tending to his horse.   In some case the two men formed strong relationships, and sometimes they fought, and died, together.

     The official history of WW1 says that ‘the final phase of the War on the Western Front’ began on 26 September and ended on 11 November.   It says, ‘In these seven weeks, the greatest advance of the War in breadth and depth was achieved.   For the first time in the War all the Allied Armies on the Western Front, from the Meuse to the sea, were on the move together, and they continued advancing, with short intermissions, either attacking or pursuing, until the end … (The enemy) was attacked everywhere at once, was forced to disperse his reserves, and, although the Allied margin of numerical superiority was not very great, he was, in the result, nowhere strong enough to hold his ground.’    

     At dawn on 3 October the Battalion took part in one of the last offensives, having been allotted the task of clearing the villages of Le Catelet and Gouy on the River Escaut, about ten miles north of St Quentin, which was about 27 miles south of Cambrai.   Assisted by an English Brigade on the left and Australian infantry on the right, they attacked the German trenches and machine-gun posts.   As no reconnaissance had been possible the previous night and as no guides were available, losses were heavy.   It also rained.   Units became disorganised and scattered in the bitter fighting that ensued, while small groups of men tried to hold a line 2,000 yards long on the northern side of Le Catelet, helped in part by artillery fire. 

     In the evening the KRRC were relieved and withdrew a few miles southwards to the village of Bony in the Hindenburg line.   Three officers were killed and six wounded in this action and there were many casualties among the soldiery.   Nonetheless they captured one German officer, 252 other ranks and 35 machine guns.   It was the first bloody action in which my father was involved.   Armed only with a revolver, officers were supposed to lead their platoons and companies into battle, into a hail of bullets and the slicing shrapnel of exploding shells.    Face to face with the enemy there was no choice, unless the enemy surrendered – it was kill or be killed.

      At dusk on 4 October the KRRC attacked again, as ordered, their objective this time being a line of fortified enemy positions on high ground on the other side of the Escaut River.   The attack was launched with such energy and speed that all the positions were taken and held.   The Germans that were not killed or captured fled.   This time the KRRC casualties were slight.   Four days later, on 8 October, a third attack on machine-gun posts dug in around a farm was less successful, although one German officer, 111 other ranks and 49 machine guns were captured.   Among the KRRC an officer, Lt Preece, was killed, as well as 12 other ranks.   Two officers and 40 other ranks were wounded.

     Corporal Jame Murrell of the 2/4th York and Lancasters, who was in the area, wrote about ‘the big push’ in a letter to his parents.   He said, ‘I have been in the the thick of the fighting from the commencement … It has been a hard task of endurance as well as the fighting and really wants a strong will to carry one through it all, but thank God we are made of the right stuff.   Jerry is now beginning to realise that we are the master, and before many more weeks he will cry out for mercy, just now it is hell upon earth for him … The prisoners we take are a very dejected lot and are absolutely fed up with it, they say down with the Kaiser … We were ordered to take a village which we took easily with very small losses, but when we got through that village we were held up by an enemy machine-gun which was knocking our boys out wholesale, so I at once volunteered to go forward on my own and capture it, which I did, killing the five Jerrys that were working the gun.’   Off one of them he took an iron cross, ‘2nd class’, as a souvenir.

     2nd Lieutenant Clifford Carter, who was also with the York and Lancasters, was involved in an attack on 17 October, part of an offensive that included among its targets the village of Le Cateau, which was several miles to the southeast of the gaunt, burning ruins of Cambrai, where Third Army patrols from the south had met up with Canadian forces entering the town from the north on 9 October.

     In his diary Carter wrote, ‘Attacked at 7 a.m … I was in charge of 9 Platoon, C Company.   We took up our position at the edge of a wood at 6 a.m.   There was a dense fog and we had no idea who or what was in front of us.   We had to rely entirely on map-reading and compasses.   Promptly at 7 our bombardment started up and the guns put up a perfect barrage – a real wall of fire – just ahead.   It was too near to be pleasant and we had to lie flat with our faces in the grass.   After a few minutes the barrage advanced 100 yards and we were just preparing to follow it when a great shout went up from behind and three tanks came lumbering out of the wood.   We dashed after them seeing nothing but fog, fog, fog and not knowing when we should come across the enemy.   But the guns had done their work and only a few Germans popped up here and there out of shell-holes and dugouts.   If they seemed prepared to put up a fight our fellows gave them three rounds “rapid” – most of them just put up their hands and surrendered, crying “Kamerad”.    We soon collected a score or so and after depriving them of bayonets, knives and so forth, I sent them marching off with an NCO and two men.’   Carter deprived a captured German officer of his field-glasses and iron-pointed stick ‘as mementos of the occasion.’

     The KRRC were involved in the fighting in that area on the 17th and 18th of October.   Aided by other battalions and an American force, the KRRC succeeded in crossing the River Selle under heavy fire and in dense fog.   They pushed on, captured a railway embankment and advanced across open country pitted with German machine-gun nests.   Seven officers with the KRRC and 117 other ranks were killed or injured.   110 Germans, two field guns and many machine-guns were captured.  

     My father must have wondered how long his luck would last and whether he would survive the war, which the soldiery on both sides knew was coming to an end.   Rumours of an Armistice were being spread around and many of the combatants were now especially fearful of being seriously wounded, of being maimed, gassed and blinded, or being unluckily killed in the last few weeks of the war – as many were, including the war poet, 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, shot in the head by a sniper on the morning of 4 November during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal near the village of Ors.

     But on 19 October the KRRC withdrew and moved into billets at Avelu, where they remained for 10 days, better fed and rested, but with no let-up in parades and drills, lectures and kit inspections.   Here they were inspected and congratulated by a succession of bluff and beribboned Brigade, Divisional and Corps Commanders.  Then reinforcements arrived, and on 30 October the KRRC was sent for the last time into battle.   The Battalion moved off to Le Cateau for a final series of attacks, some of which were in heavy rain and under an enemy bombardment, and in which eight officers and 173 other ranks would be killed or wounded, including five 2nd Lieutenants. 

     But 2nd Lieutenant GS Honeycombe was not among them.   As the Battalion paraded before marching off to Le Cateau, he was told to fall out and report to the Battalion Office.   He did so and learned that his transfer to the RAF had come through that very day.   His orders were to report forthwith to the War Office in London.

     In Bridge of Allan a small brown envelope that usually brought bad tidings was opened by his fearful sister.   It said that Gordon was in London and would be home the following day.   At the RAF HQ in the Hotel Cecil he had been interviewed and then sent home to await further instructions.

     His sister thought he looked extremely tired, pale and very thin when he arrived at the Queen’s Hotel.   He said he had felt quite bewildered as he watched his Battalion march away to the next offensive.   It seemed a providential escape – he might have been among the eight officers who were killed.   And his story, and mine, would never have been written. 

     Then, after seven or eight days, instructions arrived recalling him to London for another interview at the Hotel Cecil, where he was told to go away yet again, to take seven days leave and await instructions.   And so it happened that when he returned again to London it was on Monday, 11 November 1918, the day the Armistice became official – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

     Depending on where they were and on what they were doing at the time, the news of the Armistice was received very differently by the Allied combatants, by the officers and the men.   Some rejoiced; some were sad and silent.    Lt Dixon of the 53rd Brigade, Royal Garrison Artillery, was on a leave ship crossing the Channel, and as they entered Folkestone’s harbour he was taken aback by the blasting of ships’ sirens and the cheering and waving of their crews.   ‘The bloody war’s over!’ he said to a friend, adding thoughtfully, ‘I now have a future.’  ‘Yes,’ the other man, a Captain, replied.  ‘And so have I.   I wonder what we’ll do with it, and what it will be like.’   Dixon looked back across the Channel at the distant unseen coast of France, shrouded with clouds and rain, and remembered the thousands of men who had no future, and what those who had survived the war had left behind.

     He wrote, ‘No more slaughter, no more maiming, no more mud and blood, and no more killing and disembowelling of horses and mules … No more of those hopeless dawns with the rain chilling the spirits, no more crouching in inadequate dugouts scooped out of trench walls, no more dodging of snipers’ bullets, no more of that terrible shell-fire.   No more shovelling up bits of men’s bodies and dumping them into sandbags; no more cries of “Stretcher-bear-ERS!” and no more of those beastly gas-masks and the odious smell of pear-drops which was deadly to the lungs, and no more writing of those dreadfully difficult letters to the next-of-kin of the dead.   There was silence along the miles and miles of the thundering battle-fronts from the North Sea to the borders of Switzerland … The whole vast business of the war was finished.   It was over.’

     In France, in a trench at the Front, Private Arthur Wrench of the 51st (Highland) Division, remembered the death of his younger brother, Bill, killed a year ago.   In his diary he wrote, ‘I wonder what thanks he’ll get, and we who survive too.’    Where Wrench was dug in, the Armistice was greeted with ‘a riot of enthusiasm.’    He wrote, ‘It is pandemonium and I am sure we must all be mad.’   He added, ‘While we are letting ourselves get loose it is certain that each one of us has time to give a thought of regret for our late pals who have “gone west” and have not been spared to go mad like us.   It is yet to be seen whether the price they have paid will be in vain or will be truly honoured and appreciated.’    He concluded, ‘I think it is quite hopeless to describe what today means to us all.   We who will return to tell people what war really is surely hope that 11am this day will be of great significance to generations to come.’

     My father never spoke of what he had done and where he had been in the war, and I never asked him about it.   I never knew that he had been in Salonika and France until, years later when I was a teenager, my Aunt Donny told me.   But self-absorbed as I was, I wasn’t interested – it was all so long ago.

     In London on Armistice Day it was cold and wet.   The Times said, ‘The

unceasing drizzle was powerless to dampen the high spirits of the people … The air was full of the intoxicating spirit of joy.’   Theatres were packed, with audiences everywhere ‘a-quiver with half suppressed feeling, and ready to give it vent as fully and as often as they could.’   They loudly sang the national anthem and gave three cheers for the King.

     A Londoner, Fred Robinson, wrote in his diary, ‘A day never to be forgotten! … Practically all work was suspended, and the streets became packed with people, including great numbers of soldiers on leave and thousands in hospital blue – most of these, accompanbied by their lady friends, shouted themselves hoarse and waved flags, made many loud noises on improvised instruments. Others danced informal quadrilles.   All was one vast pandemonium … In the Mall was an exhibition of hundreds of cannon captured from the enemy which formed a very appropriate background to the crowds here assembled.   In front of Buckingham Place was one vast flock of people, many of whom had found positions of advantage on Queen Victoria’s monument just opposite, and when the King and Queen appeared from time to time on the balcony of the Palace, the enthusiasm simply knew no bounds … As darkness drew on it was realised that the lighting regulations had been withdrawn, and though there had not been time to clean the black shading off most of the street lamps, this had been done in many cases, and the streets, particularly Piccadilly, were comparatively well lighted.   The clubs and hotels had their outside lights on and their blinds up, which added to the general brightness.    Passing the Houses of Parliament on our way home, we saw the great clock once more illuminated and heard the thundering tones of Big Ben reverberating the great fact of peace.’

     In London that night my father celebrated with other young officers by going to see Oscar Asche in Chu Chin Chow in His Majesty’s Theatre.   A musical fantasy, its large cast included a camel, a donkey, poultry and a chorus of scantily clad slave girls.   Joyful and riotous celebrations continued in London on 12 November and Gordon and some friends went to see Phyllis Monckton in Tails Up at the Comedy Theatre.   The next day he returned home by train to Bridge of Allan.   I imagine he slept most of the way.


     It was not until the summer of 1919 that my father was demobilised.    This was not unusual, and the months of delay before surviving combatants were relieved from their military duties and allowed to resume their civilian lives caused a good deal of grumbling, resentment and active protest.    The KRRC returned to garrison duties in India.   Their losses had been great – 12,800 officers and men had been killed.   Seven had been awarded a Victoria Cross.   

     Gordon came home for a rest and a holiday before resuming his pre-war clerical employment at William Graham & Company in Glasgow.   His sister wrote, ‘He was keen to get on and do well, and he was always painstaking in any work he had to do.’

     But by the summer of 1919 his wartime experiences were having a delayed traumatic effect.   ‘His nerves were on edge, and he jumped at every sound,’ wrote his sister.  ‘He had nightmares and cried out in his sleep, and he couldn’t sit still for five minutes.’   Dr Fraser, the family doctor, was sent for and diagnosed rheumatic fever.   My Aunt wrote, ‘He considered that the strain of the war was largely responsible for this illness.   Nervous tension, exposure in the trenches in all kinds of weather and long marches in the hot sun had overtaxed Gordon’s strength.’ 

     Gradually his health was restored and he returned to his desk job at Graham’s offices in Glasgow.

      In October 1919 he was offered a job as an assistant manager in Graham’s overseas branch in India, in Bombay.   He was now 21 and the prospect of working abroad excited him.   At the end of November he sailed from Liverpool to Bombay, taking with him a large new cabin trunk containing a topee and tropical outfits, which were needed for his new life in India.   His mother and sister travelled by train to Liverpool to see him off, and the night before his departure he took them to a very smart restaurant where, when asked by a waiter if they had a favourite melody the three-piece band might play for them, he chose Peaches down in Georgia, which had, it seems, some personal associations.   Perhaps these were of the French girls in Salonika, or the girls he met in Paris and Dieppe.  

     His mother, Mary, and his sister, Donny, said goodbye to him back at the hotel.   They were not to see him again for five years.

     Several months later, in Bridge of Allan, they would have read in the Stirling Journal of Thursday, 8 July 1920 about ‘a pretty wedding’ in the parish church, on the Wednesday at 2.0 pm.   They were probably not among the guests.   The bride was Dr Fraser’s second daughter, Madge, aged 25.   The groom was Robert Dundas Duncan, eldest son of John Duncan of Kirkmay, Crail, in Fife.   The bride ‘wore a dress of white charmeuse, trimmed with gold brocade, with a wreath of orange blossom, tulle veil, and carried a bouquet of pink roses.’   Cecil Duncan ‘acted as groomsman to his brother, while the bride was attended by her youngest sister, Miss Dorothy Louisa Fraser … A reception was held in Fernfield after the ceremony.   The happy couple left per motor for the north, where the honeymoon will be spent.’

     Just over two years later, on 21 September 1921, the Stirling Journal reported that Dr Fraser had been presented with the ‘Medaille du Roi Albert’ at a ceremony in Glasgow, ‘in recognition of the valuable services he rendered to Belgian soldiers during the war’ – they had been hospitalised in Keir House, which had been utilised as a hospital for the war-wounded.   Decorations were also bestowed on other guests.   Before the ceremony, the guests, who included Mrs Fraser, were taken on a trip downriver on the turbine steamer, Duchess of Argyll, as far as Loch Goil.  They then had lunch.


     Nothing is known of my father’s life in Bombay, except that he had a horse called Billy.   None of his letters has survived.   He did well in Bombay, but after a year or so had passed, when an opportunity arrived in 1921, through a friend, for him to move to the less hot and humid climes of Karachi and be paid a higher salary, he left Graham’s and travelled by a coastal steamer up to Karachi, where he joined the Vacuum Oil Company of America.   The company later on merged with the Standard Oil Company in 1931, becoming the Standard Vacuum Oil Company, until it changed its name again, in 1955, to the Socony Mobil Oil Company.   It is now part of Exxon Mobil.  

     Gordon was an assistant sales manager, supervising the work of the Indian clerks.   Most of his Standard Vac colleagues were American, like Orlo Bond, Bob Markley and Bill Van Dusen.   He lived in what was known as a chummery, a house where several young bachelors lived together.  

     Two photos of him exist taken in the mid-1920s on a beach at Sandspit near Karachi.   He is with a group of nine adults and two children.   Most are wearing topees and the men shirts and trousers.   One has a jacket and tie.   Gordon seems to be the only one wearing shorts.   His legs are skinny.    Among the others are a couple called Dick and Sybil Pollard and a man called Cyril Beaty.   In those days Gordon was known as Honey, and Honey is the caption below another happy photo of him on a golf course, wearing a topee, shirt and shorts.

     It was not until he had been with the company in Karachi for two years that he was granted, as was customary, an extended period of leave.   Meanwhile, he wrote home regularly and sent his sister and mother (now Mrs Billy Elder) some exotic Indian gifts.   By this time the Elders, and Donny, were living in a flat conversion on the ground floor of a house called Birnock at the far end of Henderson Street, beyond Fernfield. 

     In March 1925 Gordon was back in Bridge of Allan, sun-tanned and rested after a three-week voyage. 

     Now aged 26, he was fit and well, and his sister thought what ‘an extremely good-looking young man he was, with his thick, black and glossy hair, and his blue eyes, which seemed more blue than ever against the sun tan of his skin.’   Before the war she had commented on his ‘very white teeth and an attractive smile’ and the fact that he ‘was well built and carried himself well’ and had many admirers, ‘especially among the girls.’

     A week after his arrival he was at the first night of the Bridge of Allan Operatic Society’s production of The Yeomen of the Guard, staged in the Museum Hall.   He went to the last night as well.  His sister, Donny, now 24, had the leading role of Elsie Maynard.   She had already performed in several other amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, like The Gondoliers and The Mikado, always playing the female lead.   She had been having singing lessons once a week in Glasgow, and emboldened by her stage successes and the unhappy domestic situation at Birnock, where Billy Elder was drinking heavily and neglecting his business, she had decided to leave home.   She had been earning a pittance in a stuffy solicitor’s office in Stirling, book-keeping and typing, but now resolved to abandon the job, and Bridge of Allan, and try to get into the D’Oyly Carte Company in London as a professional singer and sing in the Gilbert and Sullivan operattas.

      When Gordon told her he was being sent by Vacuum Oil to New York on a special training course and that he would be working in the company’s London offices for two weeks before that, she decided to go with him to London, ostensibly for a holiday, and come what may, not to return to Bridge of Allan.

     Meanwhile, he was enjoying his leave in Bridge of Allan, playing golf and renewing old acquaintances, and seeing some girl-friends, like Milly and Florence Duncan – and Louie Fraser.   His piano-playing of romantic ballads, Scottish songs and dance tunes would have entertained them and their parents at various social gatherings.   He was much in demand for parties and dances and no doubt became even more popular when he bought a second-hand Morris Ten car for £50, and with favoured girl-friends, or his mother and sister, motored around the countryside in the spring of 1925, touring the Trossachs, and, sometimes with the hood down, going as far as Perth, Crieff and the Borders.   More often than not his companion on these excursions was Louie Fraser, Doctor Fraser’s youngest daughter.  

     They were virtually the same age – he was almost three weeks older, having been born on 23 July 1898 and she on 9 August, the sixth of Dr Fraser’s ten children – and both became 27 in the summer of 1925.   Although she played tennis and would become a reasonable golfer in India, she wasn’t particularly musical, despite the fact that her mother was a talented pianist.   It seems she never learned to play the piano.   Nor did her two older sisters.   She preferred more solitary, lady-like pursuits like gardening, needlework, drawing and painting.   On the other hand she was lively, extrovert and outspoken and liked to have fun.   She was merry and carefree and laughed a lot.   She and Gordon must have been the most handsome and outgoing couple in the village.

     The Frasers’ house at Fernfield had a very long secluded, luxuriant garden at the rear set with large ornamental vases.   They had a gardener, and as they were such a large family they had several servants indoors.   There was no need for a doctor’s daughter to do any housework and cook – as Mary Elder now had to do at Birnock.   In Memories my Aunt wrote, ‘Louie was a strikingly good-looking girl, tall, with black hair which she pleated and coiled around her ears like earphones.  She had brown eyes, good features, and a flamboyant style of dressing that was eye-catching.’

     A Mrs Ella MacLean who wrote to me in 1979 from Bridge of Allan said, ‘Fernfield is only three houses east of my own home, so your Mother passed by almost daily.   How I admired her!   She was tall, and very pretty.    She always dressed in such an attractive feminine way – bright like herself.’

     She was in fact an inch taller than my father.   Her two older sisters were also tall and all her brothers were six-footers.   The family had moved into Fernfield about 1900.   Previously they had lived in Bridge of Allan in a house called Bellfield, where Louie was born.   Her father is described in the birth certificate as ‘Medical Practitioner’, ie, a GP.   Her mother was a tall handsome woman who wore her hair on top of her head, as was the fashion.   She was the daughter of a much respected local minister, John Reid, known as Honest John, and Margaret Buchanan Reid, nee Wilson.   Christened as Christina Brown Reid, she lived at her father’s manse, and was 19 when she married John Hossack Fraser, MB, at the parish church in Bridge of Allan on 20 November 1889.   He was 32, one of five children, and was born on 5 August 1857 in Inverness.    No doubt her father, John Reid, was the officiating minister at the marriage.

     My mother would later extol her Scottish origins and the fact that she was a doctor’s daughter and a Fraser, whereas the Honeycombes were not only English but presumably bee-keepers and had been tradesmen if not actually peasants.   Gordon’s father had been a publican after all and was involved in catering before becoming manager of a hotel which he didn’t actually own.   I don’t think she can ever have known, fortunately, that Gordon’s mother had been a barmaid – she never mentioned this.   She also claimed that the best English was spoken in the Inverness area, and indeed she never had a Scottish accent.   Nor did my father, who was half-English.   And nor did I.


     Dr John Hossack Fraser was the middle child of five children, four of whom were boys.   He was born on 5 August 1857.   For a time he was the Resident Physician in the University Clinical Wards of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and then the House Surgeon at Lancaster Infirmary.   He sailed around the world as a ship’s surgeon for P & O before settling down as a physician in Bridge of Allan in 1890, at the time of his marriage to Christina Reid.

     The youngest of his brothers, Charles Fraser, was born on 10 August 1873 in Inverness – a long time after the other boys, who were born in 1855, 57 and 59.   He had a go at being an actor and used to entertain the Fraser children in Fernfield with dramatic renderings of speeches from Shakespeare’s plays.  Louie’s Uncle Charles was, however, apparently unable to sustain a career as an actor, as later on he became manager of the Picture House at 140 Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow – it was opened in 1910 and had a Palm Court and a Wurlitzer Organ -- and then the manager of a dance hall and restaurant in Newcastle.

     The father of Dr Fraser and his three brothers was James Fraser, Junior, who was born about 1819 in Nigg, Ross-shire.  He was an ironmonger at the time of his marriage to Isabella Hossack of Dingwall in January 1852, when he was about 33 and she 21.   Nigg and Dingwall are both north of Inverness, and about 15 miles away from the town.   He later described himself as a merchant and also as an iron merchant.   Why he was called James Fraser, Junior, isn’t clear, as his father was an Alexander.   Perhaps there was an unknown uncle called James.  

     James Fraser Junior was living at Castle Street in Inverness in 1856.   As its name suggests the street was beside and below the red-stone castle that had been rebuilt in 1836.   Described as an ironmonger he was declared bankrupt and then discharged from bankruptcy three years later.   It seems he overstretched himself by acquiring a house and property called Bellevue, west of Inverness.   But his financial situation and prospects must have improved as at some point he and his family moved to Edinburgh.   The Census of 1881 shows them to be living at 18 Lonsdale Terrace on the north side of a wide treeless, grassy area called the Meadows.   He was now said to be a wine and spirit agent and to be aged 62.   Isabella, his wife, was 51, and two of his sons, John Hossack and William Donald, were studying medicine, presumably at Edinburgh University.   The youngest, Charles, was seven.   William Donald later moved to London.

     James Fraser, no longer called Junior, and now said to be a commercial traveller, died at 25 Warrender Park Terrace, on the south side of the Meadows, on 4 April 1890.   Aged 71 he died of jaundice from enlargement of his liver, due to cirrhosis, and mitral disease of the heart (the mitral valve was leaking blood).   His son, Charles, was present at his father’s death.   Having moved to Glasgow, Charles was not present at his mother’s death and was merely the informant. 

     Charles’s mother, Isabella Fraser, died, aged 88, in December 1916 in a flat in Roseburn Gardens, a run-down tenement building near the Water of Leith in Murrayfield.    The cause of death was given as ‘Constipation, slight catarrhal jaundice, retching and consequent exhaustion in an aged and feeble woman.’   It took her 12 days to die.

     James Fraser Junior’s father, Alexander Fraser, was a farmer at Nigg in Ross and Cromarty.   The farm was called Westfield.   In the Census for 1841 he is said to be 50 – which means he was born about 1791.   His wife, Janet, was 45 and two offspring were in the house – Alexander, aged 15 and Ann, aged 11 – as well as a 20-year-old servant, Janet Ross.   The surname of Alexander’s wife is believed to have been Robertson.   It appears as such on James Junior’s death certificate.   No record of the marriage of Alexander and Janet has been found.  

     And that’s all I’ve been able to unearth about my mother’s ancestors.


     My father’s ancestors are chronicled in the Honeycombe Archive on the Internet, on    Suffice it here to say that his grandfather, Samuel, had been a carpenter and undertaker and later on the Surveyor and Inspector of Nuisances for the town of Northfleet in Kent.   He was also the founder and captain of the town’s first Fire Brigade.   Born in Plymouth in 1828, Samuel was the tenth and last child, and the only surviving son, of William and Dorothy Honeycombe.   William, a millwright and sawyer, had been born in 1786 at Liskeard in Cornwall, Cornwall being the ancestral heartland of all the Honeycombes in the world.   Their spread across the world, and the global movement of many other families, is typified by the fact that William was born in Liskeard, Samuel in Plymouth, Henry in Gravesend, Gordon in Edinburgh and I in India.


     It was in the May and June of 1925 that Gordon and Louie became more than friends and achieved some kind of understanding about a relationship, even one involving marriage.   They would both become 27 that summer.

     When he travelled south to work in Vacuum Oil’s office in London for two weeks before sailing to New York, his sister, Donny, went with him.   They stayed in a small hotel in Westbourne Terrace.   On their first day there together, a Sunday, they walked into Hyde Park, around Kensington Gardens and along Bayswater Road and then they went to the Zoo.   On subsequent evenings he showed her around the West End, travelling by the Underground, which scared her.   They saw Rose Marie at the Drury Lane Theatre.   She auditioned for the D’Oyly Carte Company but to her dismay wasn’t accepted.   Now she had to find a job – and tell her brother that she was not going home.   ‘What!’ he shouted.   They argued and both became very upset.   He wrote to their mother, and Mary Elder sent letters and telegrams to Donny telling her not to be so silly, and insisting and then begging that she return home, to no avail.  

     In the meantime Donny obtained a job as a book-keeper ‘with knowledge of typing an advantage’, and on their last Saturday together Gordon took her to see No, No, Nanette at the Palace Theatre, starring Binnie Hale.   On the Monday they separated, he on the first stage of his journey to New York and she to her first day of work at a Wholesale Furriers in Hanover Street.   It didn’t last long.

      The rest of her story is told in amazingly well-remembered detail in her Memories.   His story will have to be told, imperfectly, by me.

      After completing the course in New York, Gordon returned to Bridge of Allan in October 1925, and towards the end of the month he travelled down to London to see Donny before sailing back to India.   She was now working, unhappily, as a receptionist in a hotel in Westbourne Terrace, a short distance from where they both had stayed.   He took her out to dinner at the Criterion Restaurant and over coffee and liqueurs suddenly said that he was going to marry Louie Fraser and that their engagement had just been officially announced.   They would be married in Karachi in a year or two.   In the meantime he said he would have to work hard and save as much money as possible to provide for their future home.   He was back in Karachi by November 1925.


     It was about this time, in the mid-1920s, that my father used to visit the aerodrome at Drigh Road, northeast of Karachi, as Vacuum Oil’s sales representative.   He went there in connection with the refuelling of the 4-engined, silvered passenger biplanes of Imperial Airways, made by Handley Page, which had begun flying from London to Karachi in 1924 and merged with BOAC in 1939.   At that time the flight to England took three days and wasn’t that safe.   21 of their planes crashed and 75 people were killed.   All of the planes had names that began with an H.   The Hengist, which first flew in 1931, was destroyed in a hangar fire at Drigh Road in May 1937.

     Drigh Road was also used by the RAF, and in January 1927 Aircraftsman TE Shaw (TE Lawrence) was posted there to assist in clerical office duties concerning the RAF.   In his spare time he was writing an account of his activities with Arab tribes fighting the Turks in the First World War and corresponding regularly with Charlotte Shaw, the 70-year-old wife of George Bernard Shaw.   In one of those quirky connections that chance creates, when Lawrence tried to join the RAF in 1922 he had been rejected by the recruiting officer in London, who happened to be Captain WE Johns, the future author of the Biggles books, many of which I was to read later on.

     It seems that all the British in Karachi knew who TE Shaw really was – the celebrated Lawrence of Arabia.   I have a faint memory of being told that my father, possibly even my mother, saw Lawrence out at Drigh Road while he was there and thought him rather odd.   For he turned down all invitations and never left the base.   He was a little man, with a slight, boyish figure and a big head.

     Lawrence described the RAF base at Drigh Road in his letters to Charlotte Shaw.  In January 1927 he wrote, ‘The Depot is dreary, to a degree, and its background makes me shiver.   It is a desert.’   In March 1927 he wrote, ‘The aerodrome, a mile-square flat place, just faintly tinted green … (lies) between the main railway and a dry, four-mile wide valley of sand ridges overgrown with dust-coloured tamarisk.   At the end of the aerodrome is a stony bank, perhaps 20 feet high, on which I sit beside a cactus, and look back at the camp; from here rather like a broken Roman aqueduct, with its rows of dark arches on two storeys, and a flat roof of tiles above.   North of the railway is a mass of building, married quarters, officers houses, mess and hospital.   Unattractive, since it has no plan.’ 

    Cattle roamed here and there, and camels were tethered in the little shade there was.   Lawrence left Drigh Road in May 1928.


    Meanwhile, back in August 1926 in London, Donny had been given a two-week break from her duties in Westbourne Terrace and returned to Bridge of Allan, where she helped her mother and Billy Elder move into another ground-floor flat conversion in a house called Kelvingrove. 

    She also saw Louie at Fernfield.   Louie said that it had not been possible for her to journey to India that year, as she had hoped, mainly for financial reasons.   She expected to be on her way by next autumn and would be married almost immediately after her arrival.   She showed Donny some of the wedding gifts she had already received and part of her trousseau.   She told Donny how much she was looking forward to her marriage and her new life in India.    I imagine she now found her cloistered life in Bridge of Allan, living with her parents, to be somewhat inhibiting and oppressive.   

     It was not in fact until November 1927 that Louie sailed from Liverpool to India.   As far as I know she had never been out of Scotland, not even to England, and now she was voyaging to faraway foreign climes and shores, of which she knew little, apart from what Gordon had told her and about which she may have read in magazines. 

    Curiously, before she was born, the Census of 1891 tells us that a young woman, Mary Farquharson, had lodged with Dr Fraser and his wife, Christina, in their first house, Dunallan.   This Mary was 21, the same age as Christina Fraser, and had been born in Lower Bengal in the east of India.   If she was a friend of the family and of Louie’s mother she, if still living in Bridge of Allan, could have described what she knew of India’s climate, culture and customs.   As it was, there was probably some retired officer or businessman in the village, who might have advised her, as could employees of Graham’s in Glasgow, about what to wear and what not to eat or drink.  

     The four-week voyage from Liverpool to Bombay would have been a daily thrill and wonder to Louie -- the ship’s passage across the wide blue sea, the foreign ports, the shipboard dances, the gala and tombola nights, the cocktail parties and the deck-games.   She would have exulted in her freedom and the admiration of the male passengers and the merry conversations with other women sunning themselves in deckchairs on the upper decks.   There was also a daily sweepstake, in which passengers had to guess how far the ship had sailed in the prvious 24 hours.   It’s probable she travelled with and shared a cabin with Mrs Jean Carstairs, who would later be a witness at Louie’s wedding, and who may have acted as a casual chaperone.   Mr Carstairs was Secretary of the Golf Club in Karachi.   But Louie was now 29, old enough not to need a chaperone, nor want one.   She was also a bit of a flirt, and would have taken a romantic interest in the ship’s uniformed officers and any unattached, clean-cut, nice-looking and well-mannered young man.   She was much attracted to a tall handsome Scot, Yule Rennie, another passenger, and told me later on that she would have married him, were it not for the fact that he was a minister and was going to marry her to Gordon in Karachi.

     From Bombay she would have travelled up to Karachi in a cargo boat that carried goods as well as passengers and the mail.   It arrived at Karachi about 10 pm and passengers’ luggage wasn’t delivered to where they were staying until four or five hours later.

     It seems that Louie stayed with Jean Carstairs and her husband before the marriage.   For I have a torn envelope – the letter is missing -- addressed by Louie’s mother to ‘Miss DL Fraser, c/o Mrs Carstairs, Bleak House Road, Karachi.’   Here her trousseau would have been unpacked, cleaned and pressed and the wedding presents she had brought with her removed from her cabin trunk.   She would have begun to experience the social pleasures of Karachi, the sunshine, the servants, the clubs (for the British only), the parties and days at the beach.

     On Tuesday, 20 December 1927, the marriage took place in St Andrew’s Church, Karachi, of Louie Fraser and Gordon Honeycombe.   The pale brown church had a tall thin steeple and a long nave, a large rose window with no stained glass, and like other late Victorian buildings erected by the British was oversized and unadorned.   

     Gordon was living at the time of the marriage at Variawa House, Bath Island Road (the number isn’t given in the marriage certificate) and is described in the certificate as a ‘Merchant’.   He was now in fact a sales manager, in charge of a department.   Both of them were aged 29.  The witnesses were Jean Carstairs and John Wylie Anderson.   The ceremony was performed by the handsome chaplain of St Andrew’s Church, J Yule Rennie.

      Louie wore a short white dress, its zig-zag hem just covering her knees.   She had white silk stockings and simple Mary Jane shoes.   A long loose veil attached to a head-hugging bandana or cloche, fashionable then, hid her forehead and ears.   In a photograph of the wedding reception it looks as if her arms were covered by transparent gossamer sleeves.  Gordon wore a high white collar and tails and white spats.   She seems, in a photo taken at the church door, to be two inches taller than him.   Unsmiling, she clutches a large bouquet.   Gordon looks cheerful and smiles.

     The reception was held out of doors in someone’s garden.   The guests would have included his business colleagues and their wives, as well as some civic and military friends.   At one table sat a group of Indian businessmen or customers of Vacuum Oil and at another their wives all garbed in saris.   At least ten white-coated and turbaned Indian servants were in attendance, serving drinks, snacks and pieces of wedding cake.   Where Gordon and Louie went on their honeymoon is not known.


     Their first child, a daughter, was born just over a year later, on 30 December 1928.   Christened Phyllis Irene, none of which were family names, the baby died within four days. 

     A light-hearted letter written by Louie’s mother before this, on Sunday, 12 August 1928, describes various social summer events that she and Dr Fraser had attended, along with their eldest daughter, Ada.    She can’t have been well as her doctor gave her strict instructions not to go to a Garden Party at Stirling Castle.    She disobeyed him and went.   ‘I am glad to hear you have started taking porridge again,’ she told Louie.  ‘It will be very good for you just now.  I hope you are feeling well.’   She remarked that she had sent copies of two local papers to Karachi – ‘They will interest you both.’    The letter ended ‘With much love to you both … Your affectionate Mother … CB Fraser.’

     This letter was kept by Louie, as it was the last one she received from her mother, who died on Friday, 22 March 1929 at the age of 59.    As it happens, I also kept the last letter my mother wrote to me.

     In Bridge of Allan, after a service in the parish church, where her father, the Rev John Reid, had been the minister for 35 years, Christina Fraser was buried the following Monday in Logie Churchyard.    At the service the current minister, the Rev Wilson, spoke of her as ‘a care-free girl, faithful wife, devoted mother, sympathetic counsellor, and loyal friend.’   He said, ‘She was loved and respected by all who knew her, and most of all by those who knew her best … She was a lover of all true, good and beautiful things – flowers, music and friends.   Hers was indeed a happy life.’


     In 1930 Louie was pregnant again.   She wanted the birth to be in Scotland, in order that the birth and the baby could receive the best attention.   So in July Gordon and Louie voyaged back to Britain.   They stayed at Fernfield with the ageing Dr Fraser, and his eldest daughter, Ada, now 39.   Unmarried, Ada was looking after the family home as well as her father.   She was an expert cook, having been a pupil at Atholl Crescent, a well-known Domestic Science School in Edinburgh. 

     Also in July, in Bournemouth, Dorothy Honeycombe married Harold Barry, a wealthy gentleman of independent means (he didn’t work).   He was 48 and had been married before.   She was 29 and they had met at the Burlington Hotel in Bournemouth where she’d been working as a hotel receptionist.   The similarities between her marriage and the first marriage of her mother are more than coincidental.   Both met their future husbands in a hotel.   Both men were much older than their brides, were comparatively well-off, had been married before and had children.

     However, Donny’s wedding ceremony was very basic and business-like and not at all like her mother’s.   It was in a register office and attended by no family members and only two guests, both friends of Harold.   There was no wedding reception or lunch.   The newly-weds set off on their honeymoon in Harold’s smart new Chrysler car, doing a leisurely tour of Wales, the Lake District, and southern Scotland.   In Glasgow, Mary Elder and Billy came up from Kilmarnock to meet the Barrys at the Grosvenor Hotel.   The Barrys then drove on to Bridge of Allan and booked into the Royal Hotel.

     The following afternoon, early in August 1930, Donny and Harold had tea at Fernfield with Gordon, Louie and Dr Fraser.   It was an elaborate affair, supervised by Ada, assisted by a maid.   A silver tea service was laden with an assortment of pancakes, scones and cakes and several pots of home-made jams, all made by Ada.   There was much to talk about, as Harold Barry had never met any of the others and Donny hadn’t seen Gordon for five years.   The Frasers would have marvelled that Donny had married so well, her husband being a wealthy, albeit middle-aged, Englishman.   Inevitably the three men ended up conversing together, as did the three women.    Donny thought that Louie, heavily pregnant, looked well and happy, and that Dr Fraser was ‘visibly failing.’   She was right – Dr Fraser died four months later, on 14 December 1930; he was 73.  

     The next day Harold and Donny toured Stirling Castle and visited Logie Cemetery where her father was buried – and where she herself would be buried in 2003.   There was no gravestone and Harold said he would have one erected in due course.   And he did.   That evening Gordon dined with the Barrys at the Royal Hotel.   He arrived on his own as Louie was sensitive about being seen in public with a swollen belly and Ada and Dr Fraser thought that Gordon and Donny would have much to discuss, as it was likely that they wouldn’t meet again before he and Louie returned to India, hopefully with the baby.

     The Barrys then continued on their grand tour of Scotland, driving as far as Inverness and on to John o’ Groats.   On their return they moved into a residential hotel, called Solent Pines, in Bournemouth and collected Harold’s two small dogs, wire-haired terriers called Jo-Jo and Tuppence.  But before long they were off again, to visit some friends of Harold in Rye. 

    It was in Winchelsea that Donny saw an announcement in a morning paper that a baby daughter had been born in Edinburgh to Gordon and Louie Honeycombe on 28 August 1930.   She was christened Dorothy Marion but was known only by her second name.   This must have been a compromise, as Louie wasn’t that fond of the first name, Dorothy, and Gordon’s sister was not a special friend.   Marion’s name, which was originally meant to be Mary Ann, was based on the name of one of Louie’s girl-friends, Marie.   The names of her first baby, Phyllis Irene, had probably also been those of friends or possibly of stage or film actresses.

     Louie and Gordon, taking baby Marion with them, sailed back to India a few months later, probably in October.   And when Louie became pregnant again, in 1931, she was determined, because of Marion’s successful birth, to return to Scotland for the third.   This time she hoped to have a son.  

     And so, in April 1932, Louie, Gordon and Marion, who would be two in August, sailed again for Britain, arriving early in May.  They stayed in Edinburgh, in a rented flat at 9 Grosvenor Street off Shandwick Place, as Dr Fraser had died in December 1930 and the family home at Fernfield had been sold.  

     A baby boy was born there, prematurely, at 4.40 pm on 29 May 1932.   Christened Henry Gordon, he died some two weeks later, at 7.45 pm on 16 June.  Louie registered his birth the following day and was the informant on both occasions.   She gave her address on the death certificate as 3 Bath Island Road, Karachi.    Her third child apparently died because of his premature birth and also of marasmus, a wasting disease.   He was buried in Morningside Cemetery in Edinburgh.  

     A week or so later, while Gordon was away in London on a visit to his company’s offices – it was now called Standard Vacuum, abbreviated to Standard Vac, two American oil companies having merged in 1931 – Louie took Marion down to Kilmarnock to show her off to her grandmother, Mary Elder, and her Aunt Donny.   Donny was now visiting Scotland once a year, without Harold, to see her mother and her friends in Bridge of Allan.   Louie, wrote Donny, was ‘still strikingly attractive and smartly dressed, but was thinner and depressed since losing her baby son.’   She described Marion as being not a very pretty child but remarkably self-possessed and talkative, though she was not yet two.

     A month or so later, Louie, Gordon and Marion were back in Karachi, at their first-floor flat in 3 Bath Island Road.  

     But Louie was not one to be a stay-at-home wife and mother.   She liked having a good time, as well as the special glamour of a four-week voyage on an ocean-liner, and in 1934, she and Gordon returned yet again to Scotland.   She undoubtedly also missed seeing her brothers and sisters and her friends. 

     All these trips, by boat, train and car, were quite costly, as was Louie’s liking for the latest fashions and the life-style of living in hotels, where regular meals and service, if not servants, were provided.  Not that Gordon seemed to mind.   He also enjoyed the social life and activities that were to be had on board an ocean liner, not to mention the extended holiday that took him away from the heat and demands of office work in Karachi.   Scotland was also home to him – he had been born there and his mother was still living there – and the green, hilly golf-courses of Edinburgh were much superior to the flat desert sands and ‘browns’ of the Karachi Golf Club, the ‘greens’ being made of sand mixed with oil and flattened with a heavy roller.

     There is no mention of this visit in my Aunt’s Memories, perhaps because she and Harold did an exceptional amount of travelling in 1934, spending several months in Switzerland and Paris, before entertaining the players who took part in the British Hard Court Championships at the West Hants Tennis Club in Bournemouth.   Their guests were an Australian couple, Harry Hopman and his wife – the Hopman Cup, a tennis competition named after him, would later be played annually in Perth, Western Australia, where I live now.  

     Donny and Harold then drove all over Ireland, and in July moved into a top-floor flat in Toft House on Manor Road.   In August, travelling by train, they visited Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Nuremburg and Cologne and saw a performance of the Passion Play at Oberammergau.   Not knowing of this, I would write my own passion play, based on the English cycles of mystery plays when I was at Oxford.   Throughout this holiday Donny and Harold were discomfited by the ubiquitous Nazi uniforms and German flags and people saying ‘Heil Hitler!’   It was not until October that Donny journeyed north to see her mother and Billy in Kilmarnock.   By then the Honeycombe family was back in India.

     Confirmation of their summer in Scotland is in a filmed record made by Gordon and called On Leave.  

     He had bought a ciné-camera, and the first silent scenes he filmed – Louie also filmed a few -- were of the family playing about on Bruntsfield Links beside the Meadows.  Trams pass along a road in the background and it’s possible they were staying in the nearby Leamington Hotel or another in Leamington Terrace.   Other scenes show Louie and Marion walking past the Scottish War Memorial in Princes Street Gardens, various scenes in Princes Street itself, and a day they spent on the beach at North Berwick.   Marion, not yet four, is generally unsmiling and even grumpy, obviously disinclined to co-operate, to smile and perform for the camera.

     The next scenes are of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Edinburgh in the first week of July 1934.   Gordon manages to get quite near the royal car and carriage, but these move so quickly that the occupants pass by in a blur.   A decorated floral tram-car rattling along Princes Street is an eye-catching sight.   Louie, looking very smart, is seen out shopping with Marion in Princes Street, which is full of people and traffic -- cars, trams, a horse and cart.   As there weren’t any pedestrian crossings then, people mill about, haphazardly crossing the road and casually walking along it.  Gordon and Louie are filmed playing golf at Mortonhall, on the south side of the Braid Hills, he in plus fours and she in slacks, and then there’s a trip to the Zoo, to view Highland cattle, lions, penguins, a polar bear and some seals.   Marion is shown playing with her four-year-old, fair-haired cousin, Gordon Fraser, in the Meadows.  He was the only son of Louie’s older brother, Alastair.   His wife, Jenny Fraser, appears in this episode with Louie and laughingly, to oblige the cameraman, they push each other over.

     In September, Louie, Gordon and Marion sailed back to India and to their other life in the British Raj.   1935 passed by and the world moved nearer to total war and the British towards the dissolution of British India.

     Louie and Gordon had planned no other children.   But after the rowdy New Year celebrations at the balloon-decked, brightly lit Gymkhana, where a fancy-dress dance party culminated at midnight with all the revellers forming a large circle, holding each other’s crossed hands and singing Auld Lang Syne, my parents floated home about 5.0 am or so, to the crowing of distant cocks, and it was probably then that my father grazed his knees on the Indian carpet on the bedroom floor of their flat.    

     Early in 1936, Louie, who was 37, found she was pregnant again.


     One of the many British, American and European married couples attending that jolly New Year’s Eve fancy dress party at the Gymkhana were Marjorie and Orlo Bond -- he was one of my father’s older and senior colleagues in Standard Vac.   They had married in 1928, produced three little girls and lived in a two-storey rented house with a large garden at 7 Mary Road, across the road from our flat in Variawa House.    Mrs Bond wrote home regularly to her parents in the USA and her letters provide a lively and interesting account of the social and domestic details of life in Karachi in 1936.    In addition to all the bridge parties, cocktail parties, fancy dress parties, receptions, dinners, dances, weekend days at the beach, at the Boat Club and the Country Club, she wrote about the children’s illnesses, about her difficulties with servants and nannies, and listed the films she and her husband saw – Mutiny on the Bounty, with Clark Gable, Curly Top, with Shirley Temple, Rose Marie, with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Showboat, with Paul Robeson.    She also noted the various national and international events in 1936 that impinged on their lives.  

     In January she mentions that my parents visited the Bonds’ home in Mary Road accompanied by a young Australian pilot called Grapler – ‘a shy and uninteresting sort of fellow,’ according to Mrs Bond -- who was flying from England to Australia, no doubt in pursuit of some record flight in a fragile biplane, as others were doing at that time – like Amy Johnson, a pioneering English aviator who set up numerous long-distance records in the 1930s.    A major event that affected everyone early in 1936 was the death at Sandringham on 20 January of King George V, aged 70.   He was succeeded by his oldest son, Edward the Prince of Wales, known by his family as David.    A lengthy period of official mourning caused the cancellation of all social gatherings in Karachi, like parties, dances and race meetings.   Cinemas also closed, as well as some major stores.    But a fancy dress party for children at the Gymkhana on 31 January went ahead, at which, Mrs Bond complained, ‘two ugly clowns’ frightened the younger children.  

     After a visit by the Aga Khan in February, the new Governor of Sind (until then part of the Bombay presidency) arrived in Karachi on 1 April.   At 8.25 am Sir Lancelot and Lady Graham stepped ashore from HMIS Indus at the docks at Keamari and, accompanied by a scarlet-coated entourage wearing plumed helmets and greeted by a 17-gun salute, they proceeded along a red carpet to one of the large warehouse sheds, where speeches and presentations were made and a band played appropriately rousing British tunes.   As the British community was still in official mourning for the death of George V, people were required to wear black or white or a mix of both.   I expect my parents were there and may even have been, being British, among those who were presented.    The Bonds, being American, may not have been.

     Mrs Bond notes in her letters that the luxury liner, the Queen Mary, made her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 27 May and that the huge German dirigible, the Hindenburg, was crossing the Atlantic three times a month.    A year later the Hindenburg caught fire as she was docking at a mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey and crashed spectacularly in flames.   13 passengers, 22 of the crew and one of the ground crew were killed.  Amazingly 62 people survived.

     In June 1936 the new Governor took the salute at the march-past and fly-past celebrating the new king’s Birthday Parade, greeted this time by a 31-gun salute, and in August the Bonds were glued to their new radio, marvelling at the American commentaries broadcast live during the Berlin Olympic Games.    On 28 August Marion was six and her birthday party was attended by about a dozen little girls and boys, including the three Bond girls and, if Mrs Bond’s menu for children’s parties can be taken as a guide, they feasted on five different types of sandwiches – salmon, sardine, egg, tomato and asparagus – gingersnaps, chocolate and digestive biscuits, sausage rolls, curry puffs, cupcakes, raisin cake and of course ice cream.   There would also have been games and prizes and probably a magician or conjuror to entertain them.

     I was there as well of course, as Louie was now eight months pregnant.   She must have felt quite exhausted by all the restless energy of the children, by the shrieks, squeals, arguments and possibly tears, and by the heat of an Indian summer.

     A month later I was born, on 27 September.



                                     3.    KARACHI, 1936-1946       


     Karachi, capital of the province of Sind, was then part of British India and since 1947 has become the largest city in what is now Pakistan.   This change would cause nationality problems later on, as to whether I was British or Pakistani.   I was also born in the brief reign of Edward VIII, who abdicated on 10 December that year as a result of his scandalous affair with a divorced American, Mrs Simpson, and was immediately succeeded by his younger brother, King George VI – all of which would have been extensively covered, photographically, in the new American magazine, Life,

     I was christened Ronald Gordon Honeycombe and called Ronald up to the age of 19.   I was Ronnie in India and Ron at school in Edinburgh but always Ronald to my mother.    Margaret Hankinson, who lived in Mary Road, which was parallel to Bath Island Road, wrote to me years later and said, ‘I remember when you were very new & cried a lot at night, your father slept on.   Your mother said she walked about saying, “Oh God help me.”   She did not bear grudges.  She was tall, thin, dark & very amusing, full of fun, often very naughty.’ 

     She probably found time to be among the 525 guests who attended the Government House Garden Party on 24 November and were presented to the Governor while the band played and tea was served in marquees.    And then in December there was a Reception for 300 guests on board a new liner, the City of Benares, and a cocktail party on a visiting British cruiser, HMS Norfolk, followed by the Sind Club Ball, where the lawns were covered with Indian carpets to help the ladies smoothly walk about while a dance band played.   A champagne supper was served in a palatial tent decorated with poinsettias and large bunches of chrysanthemums.    In 3 Bath Island Road Christmas decorations and a tree would have adorned the living-room, now heated by oil stoves or electric fires, and Indian agents and businessmen who dealt with Standard Vac would have delivered lavish gifts of fruit and nuts, dried fruit and cakes, and bottles of wine and whisky.   The children of the servants who lived in the old stables at the rear of Number 3 were presented in turn with Christmas-wrapped gifts of toys, sweets, cakes and fruit.

     As a baby I wasn’t in Bath Island Road for very long.   Although I had a short, dumpy and very dark-skinned ayah, the Indian equivalent of a nanny, who performed the necessary services involved in bringing up baby, she didn’t breast-feed me.   I assume this because within five months of my birth, early in March 1937, my mother, who was now 38, and Marion, now 6, and my very small self, were on a liner bound once again for England, but this time for the port of Plymouth in Devon.

     Why Plymouth, rather than Southampton or Liverpool?   There can’t have been many liners from India that anchored at Plymouth.   But the idea was that my mother and her charges would entrain from Plymouth to Bournemouth and acquire some suitable accommodation there for a few weeks while they became acclimatised to British weather conditions.   They would then proceed north to chilly Scotland.   This was Gordon’s explanation in a letter he wrote in April to his sister, Donny.   He said he would follow his family to Britain in May or June and be at home on leave in Scotland during the summer.   I imagine my mother also wished to display me to her family and friends in Scotland and protect me from the summer heat of India.   There was also another reason for this return – Marion was going to be put in a boarding-school.

     Donny looked at the calendar and saw that the date of the ship’s arrival in Plymouth would be on Easter Monday, 29 March, one of the busiest weekends in England on the trains and on the roads.   Harold Barry decided that he and Donny would have to drive to Plymouth, pick the family up and let our luggage follow on by train.   In the meantime, Donny booked us into a small inexpensive residential hotel, Elstead, in tree-lined Knyveton Road, which was three streets away from Toft House, 43 Manor Road, where the Barrys were living in a top-floor self-contained flat set back from the cliff and overlooking the sea.

     My Aunt would spend the last years of her life, from 1988, in a rest home for elderly ladies in Knyveton Road; it was called Knyveton Hall.   I often visited her there.   Long before this, in the summer of 1959, I happened to teach a group of Scandinavian students English in a house right next door to the Victorian house that later on became Knyveton Hall, and where Aunt Donny would die, in March 2003, aged 102.

     Having stayed in a hotel on Plymouth Hoe overnight, Donny and Harold were waiting at a landing-stage when a tender brought Louie, me and Marion ashore from the liner anchored out in the bay.   How strange that circumstances had combined to ensure that I landed, the last of my line, in the Honeycombes’ ancestral sea-port of Plymouth, which was on the Devon bank of the River Tamar where it met the sea.   And ten miles or so up-river in Cornwall was the ancestral village of Calstock and Honeycombe House.

     Donny wrote that Louie ‘was carrying the baby in her arms, Marion was clutching her mother’s coat, and a porter was alongside holding a suitcase and a carry-cot … I wanted to look at the baby.  He was so warmly wrapped up in shawls, all I could see uncovered was a small face.    He was awake and as I looked at him he gave a little gurgle and smiled.’

     They drove away from Plymouth, pausing for lunch at a hotel in Honiton.   My Aunt wrote, ‘While Louie was in the cloak-room attending to the baby’s requirements I was able to talk to Marion.   She was now six and a half years’ old, a bright, intelligent girl without a trace of shyness.’   When Louie returned, ‘the carry-cot with Ronald inside was placed on two chairs alongside the table, where we could all see him, and then we settled down to our meal and to hear more details of the voyage.’

     What does a baby make of what it sees and hears?   A melange of voices, sounds and movements that are seen and heard as wondrously curious and interesting novelties.   Everything is accepted and absorbed without judgement, and incidents, places and people are noted and stored away until things very slowly begin to make some sort of sense.   I was a placid, happy baby and smiled a lot.   Now in my second childhood I’m placid and happy, most of the time, and smile a lot.   But I’ve learned, at last, a lot and have begun, at last, to know myself.

     In Bournemouth Louie unpacked and settled into the Elstead Hotel in Knyveton Road, which was at the other end of the road from the future Knyveton Hall.   We had a room on the ground floor, which had two beds and a cot, a wash-basin with H and C, and there was a bathroom next door.   Donny contrived to spend as much time as she could with Marion and me.   Me she wheeled out in my pram to Boscombe Gardens, where spring flowers were in full bloom and the tennis courts in use.   ‘I was a very good baby,’ she said.

     She saw Louie frequently and began to form some opinions that were not that favourable to her sister-in-law.   Donny wrote that Louie was a complex character and unpredictable.   It astonished her that Louie should need a nanny – a young girl had been hired straightaway.   But Louie of course was used to ayahs minding the children and tending to their washing and other needs.   Donny also noted that Louie was extravagant in other ways.   ‘She would walk idly around a shop looking at articles she didn’t require, but which she liked and thought might come in useful one day.   She would buy these things, and on one occasion I remember being quite shocked when she insisted on buying some expensive cups and saucers.   She admitted she didn’t need them, but thought they were so pretty she couldn’t resist them.   She never returned from a shopping expedition without two or three glossy magazines and sweets for Marion and the nanny.’

     Louie took Marion and me for tea at the Toft several times and on several occasions Harold took everyone for a car drive in the New Forest or along the coast.   They always stopped somewhere to enjoy a Dorset cream tea.   Harold, wrote Donny, got along quite well with Louie.  ‘She flattered him and paid him pretty compliments, which amused him.’   One day she suddenly announced that she would be leaving the following week.   Her older sister, Ada, had booked Louie and the children into a small hotel in Leamington Terrace, in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh.   Harold made all the travel arrangements and a few days later he and Donny saw us off at Bournemouth’s Central Station for the long train journey, via London, to Edinburgh, where we shared a room in a small hotel in Leamington Terrace.

     Marion remembered later that she and I were taken by our mother to play on nearby Bruntsfield Links.   She also remembered that when taken into a dark or darkened room in the hotel, my eyes opened very wide – which amused my mother, and Marion.   Another source of amusement was my thin brown hair, which was resolutely straight.   To remedy this, my mother tried to curl it, and succeeded in turning it into a shape like a palm-tree on the top of my head.    In those days, babies, whether boy or girl, were dressed in smocks, and there is a studio photo of me sitting happily on a carpeted table with waved strands of hair above my ears and a seedling palm-tree over all.   Marion described me as a ‘very bonny’ baby.

     In June or July my father joined the family in Edinburgh and we all moved into the three-storey Donisla Hotel in the Mayfields Gardens section of Craigmillar Park Road.   A young Scottish nanny called Elma was employed to look after me and Marion and visited us daily during the week.   There was another reason for this move to the Donisla – St Margaret’s School, where Marion was about to become a boarder, wasn’t far away.

     While in Edinburgh my father once again acquired or hired a ciné-camera and filmed several scenes involving the whole family.   In one scene, I am watching Marion play patience, peering at the cards from the edge of the table.    In another I am on my feet and walking somewhat unsteadily, with my feet wide apart, and carrying a large picture book.   Then I am sitting in an easy chair with the picture-book while Marion hides behind the chair, makes animal noises and causes me to look around to see who or what is doing so.    Scenes indoors are lit by sunshine pouring in from a window.   Outdoor scenes are of me and Elma, me and my mother in the Botanical Gardens, and of me in a small pram.   There are no golfing scenes this time or of the decorations that must have been everywhere in Princes Street for the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937.   Gordon probably didn’t reach Edinburgh until a month or more after that.

      In July or August he travelled down to Bournemouth for a week to see his sister.   He stayed at the Toft and was taken for drives in the New Forest and around Dorset villages with their thatched cottages and flower-filled gardens.   The greenness of it all delighted him, as did drinks at the Tennis Club and a round or two of golf.

     One day he told Donny that he and Louie were planning to put Marion into a boarding-school and leave her there when they returned to Karachi.   This was the general practice then of parents living in India or stationed abroad – even young children became boarders, only seeing their parents every two or three years, usually during the summer months.   But Donny was astonished – Marion was seven that August – and she wondered how her parents could bear to leave Marion behind.   But Louie believed that her children, and not just her son, should receive the best education, and the best to her was a Scottish one.   Neither she nor her sisters had been given a full education, which had benefited some of her brothers.  She would also have been averse to her children growing up in India and being exposed to the all that sun and the heat and to the possibility of contracting any tropical or other diseases.   Marion would be better off in Scotland from every point of view. 

     Towards the end of that summer Louie, Marion and I spent a week or so holidaying at Crail on the coast of Fife – Elma went with us.   This probably occurred when Gordon was down in Bournemouth and was my first experience of sandy beaches, sandcastles and the cold North Sea.    Or this may have occurred when Gordon found the time, as he would have done, to visit his mother in Kilmarnock.

     In September 1937, when the next school year began, an excited and eager Marion was taken to St Margaret’s School in East Suffolk Road, a five-minute walk away from the Donisla Hotel, and was left in the hands of the matron at the school, Miss Peat, who came from Bridge of Allan, as did her sisters and a brother.   In the holidays Marion would be taken into one or other of their homes, and in Edinburgh, during term-time, she was regularly taken out on Saturdays by Aunt Ada, who was now employed as a companion to a woman living in Corstorphine.   Ada bought Marion sweets and comics.   At St Margaret’s the sweets had to go into a communal tin, to be shared by the girls in Marion’s class after the evening meal.

     Gordon and Louie continued to live nearby, at the Donisla.   Gordon had told Donny that he and Louie wanted to see Marion happily settled in her new school before they returned to India with baby Ronald in October.   But when Donny travelled to Edinburgh for three days at the beginning of October, after seeing her mother and Billy in Kilmarnock, she was disappointed when, hoping to see her niece, she was advised that ‘too many visits’ might upset Marion, and that her parents were only going to visit the school when they went to say goodbye.   ‘Baby Ronald had grown noticeably,’ Donny noted.

     In fact, a few days later, Marion was taken by Miss Peat to Waverley Station and waved a cheerful goodbye to her parents and baby Ronald, now aged one.

     By November 1937 Louie, my father and I were back in Karachi and now safely installed in Variawa House, 4 Bath Island Road.


     It had been a four month holiday for my father, including the time spent at sea, and I wonder how it was possible for him to take so much time off work, and that he could afford to do so.   My mother had been in Scotland even longer, staying in hotels with a baby and a nanny.

     Before leaving Scotland, Gordon had asked Donny if Marion could stay with her during the summer holidays.   Harold, when the matter had been cautiously mentioned by Donny, agreed.   And so, in July 1938, Donny headed north and stayed with her mother, before collecting Marion from St Margaret’s and bringing her across to Kilmarnock for a few days.   A long train journey, which meant changing trains several times, eventually brought them both to Bournemouth, and for a month all went well.   Dorothy wrote that Marion was ‘a dear little girl and a delightful companion: intelligent, alert and easy to please.’  

     Then two days before Marion’s eighth birthday, on 28 August 1938, a telegram arrived from the school asking that she should be returned to St Margaret’s as soon as possible.   This was because the headmistress thought that the situation in Europe and Germany was such – Hitler had invaded Austria and other countries were threatened -- that war was imminent and that England was in danger of invasion.   She told Harold, who had telephoned her, that she was responsible for Marion’s safety while her parents were in India.

     So on 29 August Donny escorted Marion back to Edinburgh before going to see her mother, while the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to meet Adolf Hitler for the third time.  The Munich Agreement was signed and on his return Chamberlain waved the piece of paper containing the Agreement at the cheering airport crowd.   Later, he addressed the crowd in Downing Street.   He said, ‘I believe it is peace for our time.’

     In March 1939 Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Britain prepared for war.   Defences and air-raid shelters were built in English towns and cities, gas-masks were issued, conscription was introduced and the evacuation of children from London was planned.   But it was not until 1 September 1939 that the Germans invaded Poland.   Two days later, on 3 September, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.

     In her Memories Aunt Donny wrote, ‘It was a Sunday at eleven o’clock in the morning, when we heard the dread news over the radio.   Harold and I looked at each other, and without speaking walked out onto our balcony.   The sun was shining brilliantly, the sea was calm and not a cloud in the sky.   We could see from the Needles off the Isle of Wight to the Old Harry Rocks at Swanage.   It was a picture of beauty and peace.   After a moment Harold turned to me and said, “Take a good look, Donny.  From today our whole world is going to change.  Nothing will ever be the same again.” 

     St Margaret’s School was evacuated first of all to Aberfeldy in Perthshire, where Marion spent the winter, then to Strathtay, where she shared a bed with a girl who wet the bed most nights, and finally, in January 1940, to Dunkeld, where she started having piano lessons and in August picked raspberries.

     Mrs Bond had visited the USA with her three children in 1937.   Orlo Bond remained behind and hosted Amelia Earhart in June 1937 when she flew through Karachi on what turned out to be her last flight -- her twin-engined plane and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared somewhere in the Pacific Ocean in July.

     Mrs Bond, who returned to Karachi in 1938 with her youngest daughters, leaving Barbara behind to begin her education, commented in a letter dated 8 January 1940, that everyone hoped for an Allied victory in the Spring.   She also noted later that month that they had heard a new band on the radio – the Glen Miller Band.   In March they were excited about an English actress called Vivien Leigh, who was born in India, and appearing in a movie called Gone With The Wind, which had just opened in Bombay.   On 10 May she wrote that this was a day they would not soon forget – ‘The radio news from Holland and Belgium is very sad and disheartening.   The real war has started now.   Hope that Hitler will stop this awful aggression.’    On 26 May – ‘War situation looks very grave (France had fallen).’   On 16 June – ‘We are all feeling very sad about France and the taking over of Paris.   So many children are coming out from England.’    On 13 October 1940 – ‘We heard Presiden Roosevelt’s broadcast … We do not listen to the awful lies over the German wireless, but we are encouraged by the very wise thinking America is doing and the splendid courage of the British people.’ 

     In October the Bonds had their very own hut at Hawkes Bay, called the Caravan (It had wheels).   They left Karachi in 1941, not returning to India until after the war.


     The evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk began at the end of May 1940; the Germans entered Paris in June; and in July the Battle of Britain began in the skies over southern England.

     By this time Marion was on her way to India.   Gordon and Louie had decided that in view of the threatened invasion of England, Marion would be safer in India, and it had been arranged that she leave on a ship from Liverpool, the Orion, in the company of the Mackenzies, a family whose father worked with Gordon in Karachi.   Donny was appalled – ‘The thought of that little girl travelling thousands of miles through enemy submarine-infested waters and dive-bombing attacks from the air filled me with horror and apprehension.  Our losses at sea, particularly in the Merchant Navy, were frighteningly heavy; our warships suffered too.’  

     Despite much wartime secrecy and confusion Donny and Harold saw Marion on her way.   She was wearing her school uniform when they met her in Liverpool.   She had been brought there by a schoolteacher.   On the following day, after a night spent in a hotel, they took her by train down to London and managed to meet up with Mrs Mackenzie and her two daughters, Marjorie and Barbara.   Marion joined their little group,’ wrote Donny.   ‘She appeared to be quite unconcerned at what was happening.   To her it was just another journey, and she would soon be with her parents again in India … It was a very long train.   Marion had a window-seat and waved gaily to us as the boat-train moved off … I could scarcely control my emotions.’

     Donny was right to be anxious.   The liner, RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Orion, which had made her maiden voyage from Tilbury to Australia in September 1935 and had been converted into a troopship four years later, sailed from Liverpool up to Clydebank, west of Glasgow, to join a convoy.    She developed engine trouble and the convoy sailed without her.   Repairs took almost a week.  The Orion, with over 2,000 troops and civilians on board, then set off again, on her own, without any naval protection.   She docked for a day at the British naval base at Freetown in Sierra Leone before heading south to Cape Town.   There the Orion caught up with the convoy and the passengers were allowed ashore.   Marion, who was sharing a cabin with the Mackenzies, was entranced by Cape Town’s scenic beauty, by the mountains, flowers, tree-lined streets and the heat.   Her school uniform had long since been stowed away and now she wore cotton dresses and sandals.

     A feature of the voyage, which lasted two months, was the frequency of the life-boat drills, some being held when it was wet and stormy – people were sick.   The drills were precautionary and necessary, for German U-boats lurked in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.   But although there were scares, the ship safely reached Bombay.  

     Not so fortunate was the City of Benares, which Mrs Bond had admired in Karachi in 1936.   The brand-new liner had left Bombay on her maiden voyage on 7 December that year.    In September 1940 she was in convoy with other ships, having left Liverpool for Canada with about 90 children, evacuees, and other passengers on board.    She was torpedoed, twice, by a German U-boat and sank within half an hour.  77 of the children died; there were 105 survivors.

     From Bombay Marion and the Mackenzies travelled by train up to Karachi, where she was reunited with her parents and me in 4 Bath Island Road.   Marion was now 10 years old and on 27 September 1940 I was four.


     My parents and I had been in Karachi since November 1938.   Cared for by an ayah and my mother and frequently fed and cleaned, I was oblivious to everything apart from my surroundings and any persons who surrounded me.   No memories of my beginnings and the start of the war have of course remained, although vague, misty images and sensations begin to surface about the time I was two and three. 

     My first memory is of a blinding sun and being in a pram, a high pram, and being very and uncomfortably hot.   I think this was because my ayah had taken me out for an airing and had left me too long in the sun.   Perhaps she had an assignation.   More likely, she was gossiping with some other ayahs.   They used to gather under trees at the end of our road or further away at a piece of hillocky ground that was the original Bath Island.

     But perhaps, before I deal with other early memories, I should say something to add to what Mrs Bond wrote about in her letters, and fill in the background to my first nine years and the last years of the British Raj.   


     Karachi in 1936, when I was born, was the main sea-port of the Punjab and Sind, and after Bombay it was the largest port and city on India’s western coast.    Its population was made up of Hindus and Muslims and many other ethnic groups, like Sikhs and Parsees, plus a mix of Europeans, some Americans, and a collection of British military personnel.   Known as the City of Lights, and now in Pakistan, Karachi these days has an even more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan population of 18 million and is one of the largest cities in the world.    Coincidentally, Perth in Western Australia, where I live now, has been dubbed the City of Light, so-called by American astronauts passing overhead and noting how the city’s isolation made its lights stand out in the general darkness of the west.

     From the site of what would become Karachi, Alexander the Great, after his partial conquest of northern India, sent his purpose-built fleet back to Persia while he took his depleted and exhausted forces overland, via the desert country bordered by the Arabian Sea.   The fleet had been assembled within a natural harbour between the mainland and Manora, a rocky island connected to the mainland by a long sand-bar, some seven miles long, which sheltered the seaward approaches to Karachi.   Further south were the many mouths and mangrove swamps of the River Indus.

    The climate of Karachi was and is relatively mild and sub-tropical, with not much rain, except in the July/August monsoon season, when torrential rain sometimes turned roads into rivers. 

     Margaret Hankinson told me in a letter, ‘Karachi was very flat, with wide open spaces, the airport seven miles inland … Sandstorms were the curse, liable to blow up at any time without warning, specially trying when you were giving a dinner party … Rain amounted to ¼ inch a year with occasional exceptions.   The sunsets during the supposed “rainy” season were famous, once seen never forgotten.   Dinner was literally impossible before 9 pm & then everyone wore evening clothes … Frocks were always floor-length for evening, but variable during the day.   The men wore white drill trousers both for office and with the dinner jacket.   Tailored shirts in the office.   Shorts & sports shirts for golf.   Women were just beginning to wear slacks in winter but few were seen.’  

     My mother was one of those women.   She wore slacks when riding a bicycle, and when playing golf she daringly began to wear sleeveless tops and shorts.    Margaret Hankinson continued, ‘During the war when petrol was rationed, your mother was among the very few women to buy & ride a bike.   I can see her now, gay as ever & going strong.’

     Sea-breezes alleviated the summer’s humid heat, which averaged 34º but could climb to 44º.   From the beginning of October the weather changed and it became very dry.   Loud cracking sounds from wooden furniture would startle people, especially at night.   During the brief winter months the nights got quite cold, and the British wives wore fur-coats when going out to a club or to a party.   Warmer winter wear was discarded towards the end of March.   One night there was an under-sea earthquake and a tidal wave flooded the harbour area.   Helen Johnson said that the punkah in her bedroom shook like a leaf in a strong gale.   Marion remembered that her bed shook for some seconds and that, shrieking, she fled to her parents’ bedroom.   Apparently I slept on.

     Before the Second World War, while the British still governed India, it was a wonderful place to live, especially for the wives and children.   The men went to work mainly in and near McLeod Road, where there were several major business and banking institutions and the main railway station.   The offices of Standard Vacuum were on the first floor of Finlay House in McLeod Road.   The building was the HQ of James Finlay & Co, a Scottish import and export company dealing in tea, textiles and cotton.   They were also agents for Lloyds of London and acted as shipping agents for the Clan and Ellerman lines.   Frank Maish, our next door neighbour in Bath Island Road, was a director with Spencer & Co, the main importer of wines, spirits, beer and soft drinks in Western India.

     Colin Campbell, who as a young man was posted to Karachi in 1937 and worked at Finlay’s, wrote to me in the Seventies.  He said, ‘It was a pretty good place to be … In those days Karachi was a real upcountry town compared to Bombay.’   It was also, he said, ‘the cleanest town in India’ and had a population of 200,000.   Colin was paid 700 rupees a month at Finlay’s and managed to maintain two ‘very slow’ race-horses, which he exercised at the racecourse at 7.0 am, as well as having a half-share in a sailing-dinghy and a half share in a hut at Sandspit.   He was in the Indian Army during the war, with the 19th KGVO Lancers, and served in Burma.   He married in St Andrew’s Church in March 1946 – one of the bridesmaids was 17-year-old Alison Walker, my sister’s best friend – and returned with his wife to Bombay.   I remember him, faintly, in association with Alison and my sister.

     Victoria Road and Elphinstone Street were the centres of other businesses, where families shopped, sometimes making inroads into one of the bazaars, like the Bohri Bazaar.   Bliss the chemist was, to me, a haven of soapy smells and weighing-machines.   The streets were always busy, thronging with people, cars, camel-carts, donkey-carts, bullock-carts and horse-drawn conveyances called gharrys.   Animals were everywhere, as cows and pi-dogs (scraggy, yellowy or rust-coloured native dogs like dingos) freely roamed the streets, and crows and kites and sparrows added their voices to the medley of traffic, tooting horns and disputatious Indians.

     Every British and American family had servants, and consequently social activities, at home and elsewhere, were extensive, concentrating in the town on several whites-only clubs, where anything bought in the way of food or drink, or given as a tip, was paid for by signing a chit.   Few people bothered to carry any money on them – they ran up bills.   It was easy to buy and spend, and the modest salaries earned by the men were frittered away on living expenses and social pleasures.   Little was saved.   Very few, if any, of the flats or houses were owned – they were rented.   Money was spent on making ends meet and maintaining a showy and costly colonial way of life, especially at the clubs, the most exclusive being a large European-looking edifice with extensive grounds called the Sind Club, a gentlemen’s club where single men stayed, as well as military, married and businessmen when passing through Karachi.   Women were allowed in if accompanied by a man.   Children weren’t welcome.   Nor was the Aga Khan.   Much more welcome were Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India from 1943 to 47, and his replacement, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who were both entertained at the Sind Club.  

     Other clubs included the Golf Club and the Boat Club, the Tennis Club, the Country Club and the Yacht Club.   Mrs Hankinson said, ‘Even in the early days of the war the parties were terrific & the drinking beggars description … Dinner parties went out to some extent & cocktails took their place.   They would begin about 7 pm & finish, if successful, about 2 am.  The main social event of the year was the Sind Club Ball.   The fancy dress party at the Gymkhana on New Year’s Eve was less formal & often quite wild.’

     It was at the Boat Club that I was taught by an officer to swim, rather apprehensively, in the dark water-snake and crab-infested waters of the creek below the clubhouse, which was accessed by pontoons and diving platforms covered with coconut matting.   The creek was tidal, with a 10-feet fall in the water when the tide went out, and Marion and her girl-friends had to be careful not to be swept away when the ebb was in full flow.   In the airy club-rooms above I would avidly consume, until rebuked, peanuts, chips and small brown sausages that you dipped in tomato sauce.   Glasses of cold lemonade and cherryade were favourite drinks.   The Boat Club was a popular venue on Sunday mornings before lunch.

     At the Sind Club the women had their own lounge, where a special pleasure, according to Mrs Hutchison and Mrs Hankinson, were oysters served with Black Velvet.   Both women agreed that when couples went out for dinner, it was rather late, about nine o’clock.    When seeing a film at a cinema across the road from the Sind Club, people used to hasten to the club at the interval for a drink.   

     Rounds of golf were played at the Golf Club in the morning, or in the late afternoon after work.   Wives with their children would sit in cane chairs on the terrace, being waited on by white-coated Indians and enjoying cool drinks or a pot of tea.   My father was a very good player and won several cups.  My mother, playing on the ladies’ nine-hole course, also won the occasional cup.   Chokras served as caddies and were paid four annas a round.

     The club most frequented by families was the Gymkhana, a low mock-Tudor gabled building, where there were lawns, lounges, billiard tables, bars, a reading-room, a library and a dining-room, where tiffin, a light lunch, might be enjoyed.  There were swings for the children, trees to climb, and a cricket ground and tennis courts nearby, where Marion played tennis with her girl-friends or some young officers.   The grounds of Government House were on the other side of a perimeter wall.   On Saturdays, the smart and well-drilled Baluch pipe-band, in their tunics, turbans, knee-length trousers and white leggings, paraded up and down on the lawn before the terrace or played arranged in a circle.   The man vigorously banging the big bass drum and wearing a tiger-skin over his shoulders was the most admired by me.   Some of the boys would lie on the grass in the path of the marching pipers, forcing them to step over them or around them.

     When I was about five, I used to go to the Gymkhana regularly on a Tuesday, as well as at weekends.   There is a photo of me and my ayah sitting at the back of a pony and trap and facing the rear.   My mother must have sent it to her sister Madge, for on the back she has written, ‘Ronald & his Ayah getting a lift in a friend’s trap to the Gym.  He goes in it every Tuesday.’   This ayah was called Angeline.   At the Gymkhana the ayahs sat together on the grass under the shade of the trees, patiently waiting until their charges had to be taken home.

     On the Gymkhana’s broad terrace overlooking the lawn, the wives sat in wicker chairs, their legs aslant and their knees together, sipping their gins and tonics and gimlets, or brandy and ginger ales, gossiping and keeping an eye on their children.   The men stood at the bars, wearing white shirts, ties and well-pressed trousers, smoking cigarettes and downing their chilled beers and chota pegs (tots of whisky and soda) or playing billiards and snooker in a wood-panelled room adorned with trophies, where turbaned male servants brought drinks to them on silver trays.   This room was much frequented by my father, who was a very good billiards player.   Here he taught Marion how to play snooker.   I remember sitting on a leather bench by the wall, my feet not touching the floor, watching him play billiards with three other men and being engrossed by their angular movements, by the colours of the balls on the green baize, and by the sharp sounds the balls made when struck or when rocketing satisfyingly into a pocket.

     Silver ash-trays were everywhere in the clubs and small glass bowls of unskinned peanuts sat on tables and bar-tops.   Few of the women smoked.   If they did, they would use a cigarette-holder.   My mother never smoked.   My father smoked a lot, at work, at night and at the weekend, inhaling, without filters, at least 20 cigarettes a day.  

     Marion learned to tap-dance at the Gymkhana, taught by an American called Monkey.    When she was in her middle teens she and some of the other girls occasionally tap-danced for the entertainment of the adults at parties.   For this she wore a red blouse, a short pleated black skirt, and black shoes with red ribbons.   She was said to look like Ginger Rogers, with her long hair, bleached by the sun, arranged in a bang on her forehead.   

     Every month there were parties, dinner-parties and Sunday lunches at the various clubs and at people’s homes, where the main activity, apart from listening to the radio and reading magazines, as well as the local paper and papers sent out from Britain, was playing bridge or Mah Jong.    On the radio, the six o’clock news, transmitted by the BBC’s World Service and heralded by Lillibulero, its signature tune, was a ritualistic event, the more so during the war years.   Listening to the clear and polished English voices, all male, who read the news, was reassuring to the adults, and the green fields of ‘Home’ didn’t seem so far away.

    Other rituals were children’s birthday parties and fancy-dress parties, usually involving a gulli-gulli man (a conjuror) and a ride for the children on a camel cart.  There are photos of me in a Turkish costume, with a red fez, a black velvet bolero jacket, baggy white trousers and a red sash.

    At Christmas time decorations were brought out of a big cardboard box and, having been made in India, were large, lavish and colourful.   There were no streamers as such.   Our paper decorations were concertinaed and strung overhead in long swooping lines in the sitting-room and dining-room.   A wreath interwoven with holly and ivy (transported from the northern hill-stations where they grew) was hung on the front door, and there was even a tall Christmas tree, covered in tinsel and shiny coloured balls.   At its base there were the assorted shapes of brightly wrapped presents adorned with bows.  And there was ice-cream and exotic Indian sweetmeats, glacé and sticky, and bowls of fruit – which had to be washed in water stained dark pink by a sprinkling of permanganate of potash crystals.   Vegetables were also washed like this, and all drinking water and milk had to be boiled.   Boiled water was kept in lemonade bottles in the fridge.

      We didn’t go to church.   Not that I remember.   Being of Scottish origin, we were Presbyterians.   But I don’t think my parents ever returned to St Andrew’s Church where they were married.   However, towards the end of the war, Marion used to sing in the choir at St Andrew’s evening services, when Mr Trotter was the minister.   At home, over Christmas, festive music, including carols, would have been played on our wind-up gramophone.   At the Sind Club, on Christmas Eve, some of the wives, having practised as a choir, sang carols arrayed in silk and satin evening dresses on one of the staircases.

     Carol-singers from some church or charitable society may have sung to us outside Variawa House.   If they did, they would have been invited up for a drink and given some money.   Being a mostly Scottish family, my father and mother would have celebrated New Year’s Eve with other Scottish and English grown-ups at the Gymkhana or Sind Club -- as they did before I was born -- forming a circle and singing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’   At the Gymkhana, the music stopped playing at midnight, the lights were switched off and then switched on again to mark the start of the New Year.   But I would have been in bed long before that, having been put to bed at seven.

     I shared a bedroom with my sister.   We both had single beds.   Marion objected to my habit when I was four or five of waking her up by peeing into a potty placed for that purpose under my bed.   Eventually I learned to visit the bathroom and WC next to our room, which was situated at the side of the house.   She objected to quite a lot, and described herself to me as a ‘very bossy’ little girl.   At a birthday party she objected so strongly to other little girls playing with her presents that she had to be locked in our bedroom.   She also used to correct my manners and appearance, telling me to do up a button or tie up a shoelace and say ‘Yes, please’ and ‘Thank you’.  

     There was a punkah in the ceiling of our bedroom and we were instructed by our mother to ensure that our middles were always covered by a sheet – stomachs mustn’t catch cold.    We pulled our sheets over our heads when the occasional bat flew in through the barred but open window.   Sometimes we slept under mosquito nets, but mosquitos, and malaria, were not a Karachi problem.   In the bathroom cockroaches scuttled along a drain that led from the sink to under the bath and small lizards flicked over walls.   Ants were a pest, and everything edible, especially jam, butter and sugar, had to be covered if left on a table.

     My parents had a large bedroom at the front, with a large tiled bathroom beside it.   Our flat was on the first floor, on the left as you looked at Variawa House from the front.   The house was divided into four flats, with a central wide and dark wooden staircase with a landing, which then divided into two separate flights leading up to the first floor. 

     On entering our flat through a big dark wooden door, you walked into an enclosed verandah with patterned tiles on the floor and furnished with wicker chairs, plants and, for a time, a sizeable cage with wooden bars, which contained a mix of little sparrow-like rice-birds, cheeping and hopping about.   The verandah overlooked the fairly formal, dusty, front garden.   Turning to your right you entered the sitting-room through one of two arched doorways.   This was a spacious room, with a high ceiling and an ornate Indian red patterned carpet on the tiled floor.   Side tables, with brass tops, stood by the sofa and armchairs, and in a cabinet were various Indian ornaments, family photos, and sandalwood and ivory carvings of animals like elephants and deer.   Two white pillars, with a folding screen of some dark green material between them separated the sitting-room from the dining-room beyond, which had row of windows, usually shut, overlooking the courtyard and servants’ quarters at the back.   In addition to the wind-up gramophone on a table, there was an upright piano in the dining-room, which my father played now and then, and on which Marion practised her exercises and scales.

     A spiral iron staircase led down to the godown or courtyard at the back of the house and near the top of the spiral was the hot and odorous kitchen.   Apart from here, and the bathrooms, punkahs in all the ceilings fanned the air, cooling it down, and in the summer they were on full blast, humming rhythmically as they span around.

     The flat was rented from a Parsee family who lived in the other half of the building.   We never met, socially or otherwise.   The flat below us was occupied by a British couple called the Geldards.   At the front of the house there were tall trees inhabited by a brain-fever bird, a type of cuckoo, which had a rising three-note call.   Gaudy, chattering parrots flew about and brown kites and the occasional vulture circled high overhead.   Shrubs and flowering plants in pots lined the drive and more potted plants sat on the steps to the entrance to the house.   The driveway was entered by one of two open gates and arched around to the steps.   We once had a car, but because petrol was rationed when the war began and was expensive, it was sold.   My father, who was a sales manager, was given a lift to and from his office at Standard Vac by a colleague.   In the Bath Island area, my mother, Marion and I got about on foot, or on our bicycles, or in a gharry.   North of us was a railway line, and a road bridge took us over it to the Sind Club, the Gymkhana, and into town.

     I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about six.   I didn’t use it much, less so after I nearly crashed.    Once on the way back from Clifton, a southern suburb above a long beach, the brakes on my bicycle failed.   I plummeted down the hill and across the maidan, clinging to the handle-bars and hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much when I crashed.   The bicycle remained upright and I was able to run it onto the maidan and slow it down.  

     A photo of my sister on a bicycle, taken in 1941, has been inscribed on the back by my mother, ‘Marion eleven years old on her Birthday present.   She goes to school on it and carries books in the basket.’    When Marion arrived back in Karachi in September 1940, she went for a year to Miss Hickie’s War School – by which time Miss Hickie had retired -- and then to St Joseph’s Convent School for Girls in the Sadaar District.   Every weekday a group of girls used to assemble in Bath Island Road and cycle to the school and back.   St Joseph’s had been founded by Belgian nuns in 1862 and its buildings, as well as the number of its pupils, had expanded over the years.   It also had ample sports facilities and very fine gardens.   Out of doors at lunch-breaks, the girls had to be careful, as hawks would swoop down and take the sandwiches out of their hands. 

     Most of the girls were Anglo-Indians.  Some were Polish girls, who had fled overland with their mothers when the Germans invaded Poland.   Marion was taught sewing and crochet and was given piano lessons by a Scottish nun.   She excelled at this, passing the required five grades of exams.   She played the piano at school concerts and sometimes played the piano for the hymns sung in the school chapel.    She also played tennis and netball, the latter being watched later on, and cheered, by American troops sitting on a wall – some of them were billeted nearby.   American soldiers and airmen didn’t appear in Karachi until early in 1942, after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour in December the previous year.

     Apart from concerts, the school put on plays, and I recall seeing my sister, aged 15 or so, playing Theseus in a lavish all-girl production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.   It was all very mystifying to me, especially the language.  But the costumes were colourful, and there were fairies and some comical characters with funny names.   Who would ever have guessed that nearly 20 years later I would be playing one of Theseus’s attendants in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Dream at the Aldwych Theatre in London?   And one night we performed before the Queen and Queen Mother and the King and Queen of Greece.

     On the few occasions when Marion and I went into town with our mother, we were conveyed thither in a gharry.   An open, horse-drawn four-wheeled carriage, it had a folded awning which could be raised to enclose us if it rained, but usually we sat there like royalty, while the driver perched on a seat up front, behind the horse, which apart from defecating before our eyes while trotting along, used to let fly with fulsome farts.   Gharrys were much used by the Americans, who treated them like taxis.

     Any cars were garaged in the godown, in what used to be stables, facing inwards on either side of the yard behind houses like Variawa.  The first floor and some of the ground floor spaces served as the servants’ quarters, where families lived and ate and washed themselves at taps.  They slept on charpoys, low wooden framed beds with an interlacing woven support as a mattress.   Here and there were splashes like dried blood on the ground, caused by Indians who chewed betel leaves and then spat out the saliva-soaked remnants.   How the servants lived was a matter of some curiosity to a child, but fraternisation was generally not encouraged. 

     I don’t recall any Indian businessmen ever coming to our flat for drinks.   The only Indians allowed inside were sellers of silks, ornaments and bales of cloth, who peddled their wares, by bicycle, from house to house.   A Chinese salesman, with bags full of embroidered items, like tablecloths, mats, silk handkerchiefs, scarves and female underwear visited now and then.   He would ring his bicycle bell outside the house and be invited up to display his wares on our verandah.   A knife-sharpener also came to the house.   All the Indians with whom I had any social interaction were ayahs, servants or tradesmen.    I was aware, however, that my father dealt with some Indian men in the way of business and was entertained by them.   Some of these Indians sent us huge baskets of fruit, dates and nuts at Christmas.   Sometimes small gifts, like watches, were secreted within.

     On one occasion my mother, making conversation, remarked that an Indian salesman had wonderful white teeth.   Saying, ‘Yes, jolly good,’ he took them out and showed them to her.

    I had more than one ayah when I was young.   Apart from washing and dressing me -- my mother it was who bathed me – the ayah accompanied me on visits to the Gymkhana, to my kindergarten, to social gatherings and to parties, consorting with other ayahs while I played with the other children.   If I was ill, the ayah would sleep on the floor outside the bedroom door.   My last nanny was the attractive young wife of a British NCO.   Called Merle, she may have been Anglo-Indian, although she was pale-skinned and didn’t have an Indian accent.   But she didn’t last very long.

    Anglo-Indians, especially the women, were sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as chi-chi, which apparently characterised the sing-song way they usually talked.

    We had three permanent servants and shared three others with the other people in the flats – the dhobi, who did all the laundry, the mali or gardener, who wandered about watering the bushes and all the plants in pots with an outsize watering-can, and a dherzi, who dealt with anything requiring sewing and repairs to clothes and linen.   They were paid very little, even the dhobi, who provided households with fresh linen every day.

    Our chief servant was the bearer, a sort of butler, who was paid about 40 rupees a month.   He had a grey moustache, wore a white turban and was always dressed in white.   His name was Jairam.   He was well-spoken, serious and respectful, without ever being obsequious.   Our hamal, or housekeeper, was shorter than Jairam.   He was moustached and turbaned, more solidly built and wore loose clothing and sandals.   His name I can’t recall.   He did all the cleaning, polishing, sweeping and dusting.   He also made the beds, changed the sheets, and swabbed and disinfected the floors.   Ants were dealt with, and flies ensnared by strips of sticky paper hung in strategic places.   Wasps and hornets could be a menace and liked building their nests in ceiling corners.   Marion was once stung by a wasp that fell down the back of her dress.

     Our cook, or mistri, who was clean-shaven and younger than the other two, had very dark skin -- he must have come from southern India.   In his small hot kitchen at the back, where there was a clay oven, heated by glowing charcoal, he showed me how to make chapathis.   He made all our meals, and the meal I remember most is our Sunday lunch, when he served a tasty chicken pilau, with white rice, raisins and nuts and a thin but spicy tomato sauce.   Mulligatawny soup and chicken broth also feature in my memories – and desserts like trifles and queen puddings (a meringue concoction), fruit baskets (with handles) made of toffee, also scooped-out oranges filled with orange jelly, and ice-creams topped with wafers.   At bridge parties and cold suppers jellied tomato soup was served, along with corn and prawn frittesr, plates of tongue, canned asparagus and potato chips.   Some items, like tea, flour, butter and sugar were rationed during the war but not noticeably so, as the portions permitted were quite substantial.   Food prices were very low.   Bananas, according to Mrs Hankinson, were practically given away.   A pineapple, she said, cost six annas, and a chicken twelve.

     I was the chota sahib (small master) to the servants.   My mother was the memsahib and my father the sahib, even the burra sahib (big or important master).   A pukka sahib was a real or proper gentleman – pukka originally meant ‘baked’ and was applied to the solid bricks with which many Indian buildings were constructed when there was no stone.  In their way our servants were devoted to us, and my parents relied on them a good deal and trusted them implicitly.   My mother was not worried at all about me being harmed or even molested by any Indian – they were very kind and good with children of whatever race – and I was allowed to roam about the neighbourhood, with or without other children.   I was in fact more in danger from Anglo-Saxon, older boys.   She was mainly concerned about rabid dogs and that I wore a topee, didn’t get sunstroke, and didn’t drink unboiled water.

     I learned some Indian words, including some swear words, and could count up to ten.   I don’t recall any words for ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’.

     Indian festivals, like the Hindu Diwali, with its exploding crackers and fireworks, were eye-catching and exciting.   Colourful crowds passed our back yard and the servants’ quarters, parading along Clifton Road.   Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated at the Gymkhana with a firework display.

     It’s almost impossible to be precise about the dates of events in my childhood, even to say how old I was at a particular time.   Photos in family albums help.   But between the ages of three and nine, images that have stayed with me and surface even now are effused with a sunshine that cast no shadows.   Every new day replaced what had gone before.   The only constant was me, although I was changing as the days and months passed, growing up without a thought, taken up and taken in by everything that happened, gazing with wide-eyed innocence at the world I saw.   There was a war, and millions were dying, but all that was somewhere else.


     In 1939 when war was declared, I was three.   It hardly impinged on my childhood, apart from the plethora of tinned, mostly American foods, and the collections we children were urged to make for the War Effort, whatever that was, of bottle-tops and tin cans and silver paper.   Men in uniform were to be seen at clubs and in the town.   The Americans were popular when they began invading Karachi in 1942 because they gave families gifts of food and drink and cigarettes, and had sweets and packets of chewing-gum for the children.   They established their own air-base at Mauripur, sharing it with the RAF.  Operational from 1943, it eventually became the main air-base of the Pakistan Air Force and was renamed Masroor.

     Some American officers used to visit our flat.   But I never connected them, or the British troops, with events elsewhere.   Europe meant nothing to me.   Somewhere called Burma meant something – it was somewhere near India, though still a million miles from our blue horizons.   Some people called the Japs, whoever they were, were seemingly to be feared.   But the grown-ups’ talk was remote and generally meaningless, about the war and virtually everything.   I was too young and active to listen to the wireless, although I responded to the melodies and songs I overheard.  

     I learned to read early on, but I never read newspapers or magazines, just comics, like Superman and Captain Marvel.   Their colourful covers had a silky feel and a distinct, indefinable aroma.   The childrens’ books, with pictures, that I perused the most were those about Little Grey Rabbit by Alison Uttley, and Babar the Elephant, and the Tales of Beatrix Potter.   Pigling Bland was my favourite, followed by Samuel Whiskers and Timmy Tiptoes, and of course there was the adventurous Little Pig Robinson.   Years later pigs and piglets aroused an ecstatic reaction in me, derived, I think, from my mother’s tickling game when I was very young that started with my fingers or toes, ‘This little pig went to market,’ and ended with me squealing as the last little pig ‘went wee-wee-wee all the way home.’

     Later on I read the magical Wind in the Willows, and whatever books I could find about Richmal Crompton’s William, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle, and the Biggles of Captain WE Johns.   Most of these stories were set in an England which was eternally sunny and where it never rained, and featured a magical English countryside, English towns and villages, English animals, and the whiteness of snow.   Whether these tales animated my imagination and sparked a fascination with words, and the telling of stories, I do not know.   But before I left India I had written several very basic childish poems and Chapter One of a story called Mole. 

     Why I did so is a mystery to me.   Where did the impulse to write and an intense interest in anything to do with matters artistic come from – and an innate and compulsive urge to create something?    Neither of my parents was scholarly, and although my mother was a talented painter and my father played the piano and his mother a mandolin – and I had an aunt who sang and danced and a great-uncle who was an actor – this was not unusual.   Families used to rely on each other for entertainment.   They sang, they played the piano and other instruments; they recited poems and danced; they performed in amateur productions; and they read a lot.  

     An avid reader myself, I was also entranced by the films I saw.  There was a cinema across the road from the Sind Club.   I was taken by my mother to see the special sad magic of Disney’s films, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi , which were all released during the war.   And there was the utterly wondrous The Wizard of Oz, which reached India in 1940.   All these entertainments were enhanced by memorable songs and music.    Music of a different sort featured in A Song to Remember, shown in 1945.    It was what’s now called a biopic about the pianist and composer, Frederic Chopin, who died of TB when he was 39.    I well remember, towards the end of the film when Cornel Wilde as Chopin was playing, passionately, the Polonaise in A Flat Major, the vivid image of a drop of red blood splashing onto the white keys between his hands. 

     Some of the songs I liked, to which I responded, were White Christmas and Beyond the Blue Horizon, which had a haunting melody and lyrics that might have applied to me – ‘Beyond the blue horizon waits a beautiful day … I see a new horizon; my life has only begun; beyond the blue horizon lies the rising sun.’   This was sung in the 1944 film, Follow the Boys, in the high thin soprano of Jeannette McDonald.   Another song I remember from 1945 was Can’t Help Singing, sung by Deanna Durbin in the film of that name.   I would sometimes play records on the gramophone on a table in a corner of our dining-room, and dance around the dinner table to The Waltz of the Flowers and jig about to Jealousy.   When even older and at school in Edinburgh I enjoyed Scottish country dancing at seasonal dances and performing on stage in school productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.   But I never had any official lessons in acting, signing or dancing.

     Cinema-going was a fairly regular event.   Shows began at 7.0 pm and we had to book, as for a theatre, in advance.   We didn’t mix with the Indians.   The whites-only section was in effect a dress circle, where we sat on couches, with the Indians on chairs down below.   They would clatter out noisily at the end, while a scratchy record of ‘God Save the Queen’ was played and the whites all dutifully stood to attention facing the screen.    My mother was somewhat indifferent to what I saw – although I saw all the Disney films and The Wizard of Oz.   I also saw what she wanted to see.   Sitting beside her in the dark, I was agog at the dramatic, mind-boggling and emotional mysteries of such films that were released in India during the war, like Eagle Squadron, Wake Island, the marvellous Mrs Miniver, and that most engrossing epic movie, Gone with the Wind.    During the latter, when my mother thought I had had enough at the interval and suggested we leave, I apparently said to her, ‘You can go if you like, but I’m staying!’

     War, as shown in these last four films, was clearly very dangerous and destructive, and people were killed.   In fact all the heroic American defenders of Wake Island died in the film, blown up by Japanese bombs.   But I didn’t associate anything of what I saw in the cinema with what was really happening in the world elsewhere.    Bad people called Germans and Japs were the killers in the WW2 films, but there weren’t any in Karachi, and the combatants in Gone with the Wind were fighting long ago.    Besides, they looked nothing like the friendly Americans who visited our flat.

    The fact that I had already starred in my father’s films at the age of one and that he had a ciné-projector at home that showed an assortment of short black and white films, may have inculcated a life-long liking for movies.   But it was the life-like people and places in the films that grabbed me, the drama of their lives, which also had a beginning and an end.

     My father’s short films on large round reels, which included some Pathé Gazettes, were now and then taken by him to be shown to ill and injured soldiers in the military hospital.   More often they were shown at parties, to children squatting on the big sitting-room carpet at our home.   Mickey Mouse cartoons ensured hilarity.   But for me the best were not the films featuring Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton, but the Charlie Chaplin films, like The Cure, and above all, The Gold Rush.   The films were shown on a pull-up silvered screen set on the sofa parked between the two pillars in the middle of the room.   We children sat on the floor with our backs to the verandah, to my father and the loudly whirring projector which he’d set on a table, while its flickering light streamed over our heads and black and white figures cavorted on the screen.

     Toys weren’t played with much, although I had a train set, whose trains ran in a monotonous circle, and some Dinky toys, cars and racing cars that could be crashed.   My companion was a small white Rupert bear and I think I also had a large yellow bear.   But I never had many stuffed toys, not as many as Christopher Robin, whose stories I liked, as well as the poems about him. 

     Playing with my toys was confined to the bedroom.   One day, when retrieving a toy from under a piece of furniture, which had to be moved to one side, I uncovered a large grey corpse-like spider on the wall.   That was very scary.   A snake didn’t bother me when seen in the garden as it was dead -- nor did the bats that sometimes flew into our bedroom through the open window.   I used to study the march of ants across the tiled floor and tried to reroute them, also to distract them with offerings of dead flies.

     I liked animals and talked to them.   I still do.   My first pet was a white rabbit.   This may have had something to do with the rabbits in the tales of Beatrix Potter and Alison Uttley.   The rabbit was kept in a hutch outside our flat (because it smelled) on top of the small porch above the communal entrance, and it was allowed out to scamper about and explore the flat.   Who fed it and cleaned the hutch I do not know.   It wasn’t me.   One day my mother noticed that the rabbit was pulling a piece of cloth, perhaps a duster, along the tiled floor, and kept on impeding its progress by standing on the cloth.   She and Marion followed the rabbit to the boxroom, where all our cases and other items were stored, and found that a hole had been gnawed in one of the cases.  The rabbit was building a nest inside.   Her nest was moved into the hutch and here the rabbit gave birth to two babies, whom she made more at home by padding the nest with white fur taken from her chest.    In due course the rabbit and her young disappeared, as all my pets did. 

    They were replaced by a kitten, which soon became less cuddly and turned into a feral tom.   He spent most of the time out of doors, and his yowling at night and the fights he had annoyed our neighbours, who complained.    When we left Karachi, my mother took him to the Zoo, where he was supposed to be employed as a mouser.   She cycled there with the cat plonked in the basket hanging from the handle-bars, and all the way he sat there facing her, gazing up at her accusingly and reproachfully.   Poor Tom.


     When I was very young, I used to clap my hands and bang a spoon on the tray of my high chair when food arrived.   An extension of this was the habit I developed of rubbing my hands together, with my mouth open, in anticipation of a meal – something I used to do for many years, even into my twenties.  

     One early memory is of my sister being slapped.    The four of us were having breakfast on the verandah when Marion, aged about 10, said something cheeky, whereupon my father slapped her face.   Crying, she fled, and I also had to be led away, as I burst into tears, whether in sympathy or out of fear I do not know.   Probably the former, as my father was not physically or verbally abusive.   He once told my mother, when she was protecting me from chastisement after I had committed some misdemeanour, ‘You’re like a tigress with your young.’

     One weekend, however, he chased me around the house with a leather razor-strop in his hand – he used a cut-throat razor to shave – because I’d been naughty.   There were paths and plants down the sides of the house and I’d been making mud-pies with a playmate, Joan Bebbington.   The earth around the plants must have been recently watered by the mali and was easily reshaped into mud-pies or balls.   Our natural urge was of course to throw them.   This we did, at the wall of the ground floor flat, which must have been stuccoed as they stuck there very agreeably.   But, alas, somebody’s aim -- it must have been Joan’s -- went amiss, and a mud-ball flew through the open window of a ground-floor bathroom.   I believe it landed in a bath, and Mrs Geldard may even have been in it.   We fled, and when Mr Geldard went upstairs to complain, my father sought me out to punish me.   Thus the chase around Variawa House.    But he didn’t catch me and nothing more was done.   The tigress must have snarled.    But I feel sure my parents would have laughed about it afterwards.   

     I fled another time, when a doctor came to vaccinate me, to scratch my upper arm with a needle and then inject some vaccine against cholera or smallpox.   I hated such violence being done to my small person.   I struggled and fought and cried most bitterly when I had to submit.   Vaccinations and inoculations were almost annual when I was small, and as needles were thicker in those days I developed a horror of needles, and doctors, which lasted a very long time.

     This aversion wasn’t eased by my medical misfortunes, the first of which was when I had my tonsils and adenoids removed.

     Whether I had throat infections or other symptoms, like breathing through my mouth, I don’t know.   But I remember being taken to a nursing-home run by French-Canadian nuns and invited by one of them to see if I could climb onto a long white table.   If I did I’d be rewarded, she said, with a sweet.   When I succeeded, trustingly, I was invited to lie down, and instantly a damp pad was clamped over my mouth and nose.   Chloroformed, I passed out, and awoke in a strange bed with a very sore throat.   There was red blood on the pillow.  I had never seen blood before, and it was mine.

     After about ten days I recovered.   My body has always mended quickly and well.   Perhaps it was because my tonsils and adenoids were removed that my voice was given a clarity and resonance that would later be deemed suitable for reading the television news.

     Another nasty experience was when I was smitten at the same time by whooping-cough and measles when I was about four or five.   I was very ill.   I remember lying in a tented cot in my parents’ bedroom, feeling very hot, feverish and uncomfortable and coughing convulsively.   This seemed to last forever.   Marion was told to be very quiet.   Her friend, Margaret Hutchison, who lived at number 2, contracted whooping-cough at the same time.   Mrs Hutchison told me that Margaret had a temperature of 107º.   She blamed the illness on the diseases brought out by children evacuated from England in the summer of 1940, before the Battle of Britain.

     Yet another unpleasantness, a few years later, was when I had a stye under an eye-lid, caused, it was thought, by a bacterial infection picked up when I was cooling off with some other boys in a water tank in Government House, where there must have been some social function to which children were invited.   These tanks – every house had one -- were used by the malis to water their garden.   The stye had to be cauterised by a blue object that was rubbed against it by a doctor, and this meant the upper eye-lid had to be pulled inside out.   All somewhat painful.   This entailed several visits to the doctor and this time I didn’t make a fuss, possibly because I was older.   At any rate my mother and sister were impressed and thought I was very brave.

     For a time I also had worms.  These grew from parasites that lodged in the intestines and fed from what they found there.   This had several side-effects, including irritability, restlessness and diarrhoea.   The main one was a low blood count, anaemia, and I became quite pale and even thinner.    Marion was instructed by my mother not to tell anyone that I was thus afflicted.   The worm, or worms -- they were much longer than earth-worms -- had to be slaughtered inside me by pills or medicines and their thin white corpses evacuated by the only possible exit.

     Growing up in India seldom guaranteed good health, though malaria was not a problem in Karachi.   For some reason boys were thought to be more susceptible than girls to the climate and the various diseases that could be caught.   And then one day I nearly drowned.

     It was the custom at weekends for grown-ups to head for the beach when not enjoying the amenities of the various clubs.   Laden with food and drink in ice-boxes and hampers, families and their children would drive north out of Karachi and around to Hawkes Bay, or get a bunda-boat at Keamari, a large boat with sails, which was crewed by two fishermen and took us across the harbour to Sandspit, the lengthy sand-bar that connected Manora Island to the mainland.   There, as at Hawkes Bay, wooden beach huts dotted the sandy ridge above the beach.   The 14-mile drive to Hawkes Bay, which didn’t become popular until 1936, was quite bumpy and dusty, as dry riverbeds had to be crossed and their banks unsteadily descended and ascended.   The road also passed by the squalid, smelly settlements where poorer Indians lived in ramshackle huts on the fringes of the town.

     Most of the roomy beach-huts of the British were owned by various banks and companies and loaned to employees.   Some could be rented.   The Maish family, who lived next door to us, in the right-hand ground-floor flat of number 3, had their own hut at Buleji, near a fishing village further along the coast beyond Hawkes Bay.  

     These sunny days and weekend outings by the sea were much enjoyed by everyone.   We would spend the day or even a night (if there were bunks), roughing it without any servants, and picnicking during the war years on tins of corned beef, beetroot, pears and peaches, all favourites of mine.   The adults ate, smoked, drank beer and whisky, played cards, went for walks, and swam.   Some of the men might hire a boat and go fishing out at sea.   Apart from an afternoon siesta, we children were out of doors most of the time, digging holes in the sand under the hut, where it was cooler, and making sand-castles on the beach that faced the incoming salty, foaming waves of the Indian Ocean.   I must have been about five or six and hadn’t as yet been taught how to swim.   I would paddle in the warm, frothy waters, my head protected from the sun by a topee, and my little boy’s skinny frame clad in a one-piece swimsuit.   Mounds of stranded translucent jelly-fish could be found on the shore and strange dead fish, and the bluish remains of Portuguese men of war.   Playful porpoises occasionally appeared beyond the waves.   Sometimes we came across a turtle’s nest and their buried eggs.   Drunk or brutish young men made a sport of turning turtles onto their backs.

     Once I paddled out too far in the salty water.   The waves came in on top of each other now and then, but there were also wide gaps of calmer water between them.   Suddenly a wall of frothing water swept towards me.   I turned but was overwhelmed and dragged away in the undertow and disappeared.   All that the adults saw was my topee floating on the water.   They dashed into the sea -- led by my mother I expect.   Found and rescued, choking and gasping, I was carried ashore, screaming blue murder when I could.

     This happened before I was seven years old, as did the episodes of whooping cough and measles, the extraction of my tonsils and adenoids and bouts of coughs and colds.   The stye and worms occurred when I was seven or eight.   My late educational start was probably occasioned by my various medical mishaps, as I didn’t go to school until I was five or six.   Before that, using children’s books and stories, my mother must have taught me to read, to draw and write.

     The school was a kindergarten, run by two women, sisters I think, a Miss Norah Rogers, who was rather scrawny, and a plumper Mrs Shelagh Carter.  The school-room was in a front room of their home near the railway line and on the other side of Clifton Road, not far from us.   An ayah accompanied me there and back.   Lessons, such as they were, only took place in the morning and included reading, writing, arithmetic and the colouring of picture-books.   About ten of us children, boys and girls, had to learn multiplication tables by heart and recite them in unison.   We also learned how to write by copying copperplate exemplars and manipulated toy bricks and plasticine.   Games were played in Mrs Carter’s garden, mostly ball games, and we also had to circle about, holding hands, enacting ‘Ring-a-ring of roses, a pocket full of posies, all fall down.’

     Among the boys at the kindergarten was Mrs Carter’s son, Peter Carter, boisterous and badly behaved; hyper-active Johnny Walker, brother of Alison Walker, Marion’s best friend; Jerry Mahon, a small, pale, frail and skinny boy; and Michael Cummings, who was unsmiling and slightly evil.   Later on there was a slow, solid boy who when asked what he had for breakfast said he’d had eggy for breakfast.   He was known as ‘Eggy’ after that.

     Although we lived near the school, it took about half an hour for us to trail back across Clifton Road with our ayahs.   The more energetic boys, like Johnny Walker, would throw stones at lamp-posts, trees, and pi-dogs, at chokras and each other.   Johnny was much more adventurous than me and would cycle all over the place, even into town.   He visited his servants’ quarters so often he was able to speak Urdu.   He would cycle to Clifton across the maidan, where goats were pastured, where cricket was played and kites were flown on windy days.   At night-time pi-dogs howled mournfully there.

     Another place for play was the crumbling sandy hillock of Bath Island, which we turned into a fortress, with defenders and attackers, and bombarded each other with paper bags filled with sand.   We had no pistols or bows and arrows, and never played using imaginary ones or took part in imaginary wars.  The only weapons owned by some boys were catapults, used to zap cats and dogs and birds in trees.    

     I was at the kindergarten for three years, after which I may have had a private tutor, so that I wouldn’t be too far behind when starting school in Scotland.   I should have gone to the Grammar School in the city, like the other boys, but my mother wasn’t keen on the imagined rough and tumble of the school, nor of its distance from where we lived.   The children with whom I associated and played were neighbours’ children or children of my parents’ friends, like Jane and Billy Maish, who lived in number 3 next door, and Johnny Walker, Jerry Mahon and Michael Cummings, who all lived in Mary Road or Bath Island Road.   I used to play with Jane rather than with Billy, as he was almost three years older than me.   He was a Grammar School boy and later on was a boarder at the Breeks Memorial School in Ootacamund, a hill-station in the Nilgeri Hills in southern India.   In pretended domesticity Jane and I made houses out of chairs and tablecloths or bedcovers on the back verandah of her ground-floor flat.   We probably also had pretend tea-parties and meals.   Board games, like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, were popular, as well as drawing and filling in colouring books.   

     Other occasional playmates, like the children of the Goodhands and the Godberts, lived further away, as did girls like Joan Bebbington and Phyllida Priestley.   Although my mother and father called me Ronald, the children called me Ronnie.    But more about some of them later.  

     Our neighbours in Bath Island Road varied.   The Hutchisons – he was an accountant -- lived for a time in number 2.   They had a daughter about Marion’s age called Margaret.   Yule Rennie and his wife lived for a while in a flat below them.   Helen Johnson and her husband, Johnny Johnson, who were the best friends of Margaret Hankinson and her husband, were in number 3, as were Frank and Nancy Maish, the parents of Billy and Jane.   Their surname, of German origin, was pronounced ‘Maysh’.   The Cummings family were briefly in number 2.    

     Below us in number 4 were Ruth and Ronnie Geldard.    He worked for BOAC.   Helen Johnson, who was Greek, spoke several languages and played the piano, was a friend of Ruth Geldard.   She told me in a letter that Ruth, a wealthy American, was not a happy woman as her husband was so jealous.   They had no children until after the war, when a boy and girl were born.   The marriage eventually failed altogether and divorce proceedings were underway when Ronnie Geldard, now with BOAC in Beirut, persuaded his wife, who was in England, to pay him a visit and bring the children with her.   Because of his employment by BOAC he was able to get good seats for them on one of the new jet-liners, a Comet, and in January 1954 they returned to England on another Comet, Flight 781.   It never arrived.   After leaving Rome the Comet broke apart in mid-air, bits of it crashing into the Mediterranean off the Italian island of Elba.   All 35 people on board were killed – ten of the 29 passengers were children.

     Another family tragedy involved the brother of Nancy Maish, Jerry Bolton, the government’s chief accountant in Sind.    He was taking his family on holiday to a hill-station, Srinagar, in a chauffeur-driven car.   On a dark and rainy day there was some kind of mishap or accident and the car plunged down a ramp beside a bridge into a fast-flowing river.   Jerry Bolton managed to push his pregnant wife out of the passenger door.   She survived, but he, his three little girls and their ayah were all drowned.

     Twice my mother, Marion and I travelled by train and local bus to hill-stations in the north of India to escape the humid heat of summer.    I don’t think my father was with us on the second occasion.   He had to work, to keep the family in the style of living to which my mother had become accustomed.   Another reason for the family’s sojourn in the north may have been because the Japanese had invaded Burma in 1942, had taken Rangoon and overrun the country.   The Allied armies had retreated into India and there were fears that an attack on India, even an invasion, would be next.   My father was co-opted for the equivalent of the Home Guard, the Sind Rifles, and promoted to full Lieutenant and then Captain towards the end of the war.

     Our first trip was in 1942, when I was nearly six.   We went to Naini Tal, which was in the high foot-hills of the Himalayas, near the border with Nepal.    This involved a hot and dusty, wearisome three-day journey across India by train.   There were none of the lush jungles of Kipling’s stories, nothing but mile upon mile of beige scrub and desert dotted with ramshackle, huddled villages, with thorn trees and emaciated oxen pulling ploughs, and kites and vultures wheeling in a white-hot sky.   The engines, fired up by coal, were huge black steaming monsters, belching smoke, with shrill whistles that sounded often -- when starting and stopping, when clanking through villages and when there was a cow on the line.   If the cow didn’t move, the whole train came to a halt and had to wait, hissing, until it did.   We had pull-down bunks in our first-class compartment and took some food and drink with us in an ice-box, though bottled drinks and fruit like bananas could be bought from platform vendors, who moved along the train as it stood in a station.   When it did, we would get out and stretch our legs.   There was also a restaurant car.   When we went there, in our absence an attendant would refill the ice-tub and in the evening pull down and make up our bunks.   At the end of each coach was a smelly thunderbox in a cupboard.    On this journey we probably changed trains at Delhi.

     The railway stations were always crowded, and Indians packed into their carriages and sometimes clung to the outside or sat on the roof.    At stops where the train refuelled with coal and water, swift monkeys were a menace, especially at Bareilly, seeking snacks and adept at snatching small objects.   Three-layered compartment windows, with glass, mesh and shutters, had to be closed.   This made the compartments even hotter and more stuffy, though a primitive sort of air-conditioning was provided by a flimsy overhead punkah fanning tubs containing a block of ice in a tub on the floor between the seats.

    Crossing rivers by iron bridges was riveting, as the slow-moving muddy brown rivers were so wide, the bridges so narrow, and it took so long to reach the other shore.   The Indus was traversed more than once, as well as the upper reaches of the Ganges.

     I remember the names of two stations beyond the Ganges – Bareilly and Kathgodam.   The latter was at the end of the line.   We spent the night there in the house of one of my parents’ acquaintances.   I don’t know what he did, but there were snakes in glass jars of formaldehyde and other scary objects.   I slept uneasily in a big bed under a voluminous mosquito net and could hear the mosquitos’ evil song as they hungrily hovered outside.

     From Kathgodam we travelled in a hired car up to Naini Tal along winding roads, with hair-pin bends and steep drops.   Marion urged our mother to look at the view.   ‘Look down!’ she cried, and more than once the car had to stop to let Louie be sick.   The town itself was banked on mountain slopes on three sides of a large dark lake and surrounded by pine forests.   The air was clean and fresh.   We were there, in a high colonial hotel with verandahs, for about two months, during which a small tough-looking boy called John made friends with me and I had riding lessons on a horse.   So did Marion.

     I didn’t feel safe on a horse, nor all that safe with little John.   I’ve never liked horses, mainly because of their extraordinary shape, their spindly legs, their crazy eyes, their wilfulness and stupidity.   I bumped along uncomfortably – I was very thin -- on the back of the horse and was glad when I was lifted off.

     Little John got me into trouble more than once.   But the only mischief I recall was when we tried on some of my mother’s garments, hats and shoes.   She discovered us thus attired and after a scolding probably laughed a lot.  

     Going for walks through the silent pine forests was what one did at Naini Tal.   There was little for the adults to do in the evenings, apart from playing bridge, Monopoly and Mah Jong.   At the end of one walk was a small spectral lake with a sinister black surface set in a secluded valley.   Leeches lurked there and secretly attached themselves to you and disgustingly drank your blood, until salt was poured on them to make them let go.   Here I learned how to skip flat stones along the still surface of the water.   The forested valley also had an echo, and I think my father must have been with us for a short time, as it was probably he who showed me how to skip the stones and hid himself and startled me with an echo … ‘Hallooooo.’  

     Marion remembered that our mother was fond of repeating what I had once said on one of these excursions.   Some little girl remarked that when she grew up she was going to have several children.  I said, no doubt with solemn conviction, ‘I’m just going to have animals.’

     Attending a Sunday school at Naini Tal was something new to me.   We children sat on low chairs while a female teacher told or read New Testament stories about gentle Jesus.   No doubt we also sang hymns.   There were elements in the stories, however, that didn’t make sense to me, like the miracles, angels and God, and that this Jesus had died but was still alive and all around us, even in the room.   It also puzzled me that this tall, long-haired and bearded white man – no man I’d met had long hair and a beard -- had something called a halo attached to his head, wore a white nightie and was Jewish.   He was nothing like the few Jews I’d met – my sister had a Jewish friend called Wendy, the daughter of a judge.   And why was this man so fond of lambs and little children of different colours?    He seemed to be a sort of magician who performed what were called miracles.   He had no more reality than Pigling Bland and much less charm.   But the stories about him were quite dramatic. 

     There were parties and amateur variety concerts in Naini Tal.   At one concert Marion was persuaded to sing, with some other girls, a song with a curious chorus that began ‘Cab-bages, ca-beans and car-rots.’   There was also a cinema in the town.   My mother had been alarmed by bangs and shouting issuing from the bazaar down below.   But one afternoon, she took me and another little boy to see They Died With Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn.   Returning to our hotel in a gharry we encountered a noisy demonstration, mobs of men running about and shouting.   My mother raised the hood of the gharry, shutting out the rioting crowds, though not the noise.   It all meant less to me than the film, which had been much more alarming and real.   I never thought of danger.   For we were British after all, invulnerable, as we had always been, and uninvolved.


     Our second hill-station holiday was, I think, in the summer of 1944.   By this time the Japanese were massed on the eastern border of India, posing even more of a threat.   In April they had invaded Assam and attacked Kohima and Imphal.   This time my mother, my sister and myself travelled as far as we could in the opposite direction, to the Northwest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan.   Again, the train journey was a long one and several broad rivers were crossed, like the Jhelum and the Sutlej.   In Lahore we stayed for a day or so at the prestigious Faletti’s Hotel, established in 1880.   It had big opulent rooms and indoor palms, a banquet hall, and grandly garbed staff.   There was a smelly Zoo in Lahore, which we visited, and in the Botanical Gardens hundreds of large fruit-bats hung blackly upside down in giant trees.   It was fun to clap my hands and make them fly away in swirling clouds before they returned to their roosts, noisily chattering as they settled down. 

     After Lahore, trains took us on to Rawalpindi and Peshawar, and thence to Abbottabad which, as I discovered many years later, had been named after a British army officer and administrator, James Abbott, who was born in 1807 and joined the Bengal Artillery when he was 16.   He was the third of four sons and had five sons of his own (and two daughters) and fought in several wars in the Punjab, eventually becoming Deputy Commissioner of Hazara, the most northern part of the North West Frontier Province.   Much admired by the people and soldiery of the local tribes, when he moved his HQ from Haripur in 1852, founding a town further north, it was was given his name   

     Abbottabad in 1944 was a small nondescript town surrounded by the low wooded hills of the lower Himalayas.  I don’t remember much about it.   To the east, at Kakul, was an Army base with many tents in ordered rows occupied by the Gurkha Rifles.   The hotel we were in had a swimming-pool, in which I would have spent some time.   Marion remembered swimming in the pool in the rain and that a soldier drowned there.   What I recall of Abbottabad has a supernatural tinge.

     Despite my doubting response to religious instruction at the Sunday School in Naini Tal, in Abbotabad I began writing notes to God.   Some adult female, probably not my mother, must have told me that my wishes – as with Santa Claus – would be heard.   These notes had to be hidden in secret places, and these places happened to be under plant pots in the gardens of the hotel, which were full of colourful zinnias.    Magically, when I checked under a plant pot the following morning to see whether my note had been received, it had gone!    Some heavenly agency, like an angel, had taken it to God.   He never wrote back, which was disappointing, but that didn’t really matter, as I knew my wishes had been heard.

     It was only in Abbottabad that for a while I believed.   The doubts, verging on disbelief, soon returned.   

     I know now that although I was never spiritual or religious, I have always been susceptible to the negative or positive impressions made by places and people, to vibrations or auras – call them what you will.   Perhaps an atmosphere of wartime uncertainty and fear communicated itself to me in Abbottabad.    I wasn’t very playful or at ease there.

     Fear certainly hit home when my mother, careless about what films I saw, took me one afternoon to see King Kong.    It was very frightening.   That night in my bedroom I had a waking nightmare, in which I imagined that the gorilla’s huge face was outside the bedroom window, peering in.    I’m sure I must have cried out and that Marion, with whom I shared the bedroom, must have been alarmed, as well as annoyed at being rudely awakened, and fetched my mother.   It was in Abbottabad that she was also frightened by seeing another film, The Hound of the Baskervilles. 


    I had a vivid imagination and this kind of night-time terror would occur more than once later on.   As it was, I had already seen and heard what might be said to be ghosts.   Is it possible?   Did I really see and hear what I remember I saw and heard?   And if these things actually happened, what rational explanation for them can be found?   In Karachi there was a catalyst, as I think of him now, a small boy who attended my kindergarten.

     Michael Cummings was an odd boy.  He once told me that the dinner-table chair on which I was sitting had been wired and that I would be electrocuted if I misbehaved or didn’t do as he wished.   Another time he got me to climb onto a chair and peer through a fan-light into a bedroom where a woman, presumably his mother, was having a siesta and exposing her rather large breasts.    He was one of those very English flaxen-haired boys with a high forehead and very blue eyes.   He was smaller than me and we were both about six.   I didn’t much like him and only went to play with him as he lived nearby, in a first-floor flat in number 2 similar to ours.   I didn’t see much of him.   According to a 1932 directory for Karachi, his father was the City Deputy Collector (whatever that was) and, according to Mrs Hutchison, not socially acceptable – he was black-balled at the Sind Club and refused membership.

     The first incident didn’t involve blond Michael directly.   We were chasing about, perhaps playing hide-and-seek, and I opened a door that led to the sitting-room.   At the other end of the room sunlight was streaming obliquely across the verandah, through the arches.   As the houses in Bath Island Road faced west, this must have occurred in the late afternoon.   What I saw was a woman, what seemed to be a woman, standing in one of the arches.   I presumed it was a woman as she seemed to be wearing a long dress that reached to the floor.   But she had no features and no other details were defined.   She was like a grey silhouette and the sunshine’s specks of light didn’t shine through her.   The grey shape was blotting them out.

     Startled at seeing what looked like a strange woman in the room I shut the door and ran away.

     Was what followed connected to this?   Because Michael – I imagine it was him – devised a game in which we sat side by side on a sofa-sized wicker chair on his verandah, our backs to the windows, with the big dark-wood front door on our left.   And I sang.   No words, nor any particular song.   I just made it up, singing ‘La, la, la’.   And after a time we heard someone, or some thing, coming up the broad wooden flight of stairs outside.   The door was closed but we could hear this heavy, slow tread ascending the stairs.   And then there was silence, as whatever it was silently crossed the tiled floor between the top of the stairs and the front door.   There was a pause while I sang on.   And then the door opened!   The door opened and there was no one there!   We shrieked and ran.

     How is this to be explained?   In view of other similar events that manifested themselves over the years in rooms that I later learned were supposed to be haunted -- not to mention further night terrors – I developed a theory.   But more about that later.

     Other games had more of a sexual slant.   But I knew nothing about such matters, and only became involved through a child’s curiosity and a polite willingness to please anyone older than me.


     A tall and manly boy called Erskine Abbott, who was about six years older than me, showed me and another small boy his operational scar.   Erskine lived in Mary Road and his father was an assistant traffic manager at the docks at Keamari.   It’s possible he was a descendant of the one of the five sons of General Sir James Abbott who gave his name to Abbottabad.    We were behind a tree and Erskine lowered his pants and, without showing his genitals, displayed a diagonal scar low down on his stomach that ended at his groin.   The scar was made lurid by what looked like yellow paint.   I know now that the yellow was an iodine wash, used in those days, and that the operation may have been done in connection with his appendix or an undescended testicle.

     Erskine was also responsible, I think, for a game at the Goodhands, whose three lively fair-haired children, two boys and a girl, were having a party.   The younger children, including me, sat on the floor, while the older ones played some game based on Forfeits, during which items of clothing were discarded, though not everything, and a boy or girl paraded between the other children.   It was puzzling and odd, but quite innocent -- as far as I know.

     Billy Maish once wanted to tell me how babies were made, and another boy once wanted me to come and see two Indians copulating somewhere.   But I pretended that I knew all about babies – my mother must have provided me with some suitably euphemistic and implausible information – and wasn’t interested in seeing any Indians making babies.   I’d seen cats and dogs copulating, but only wondered why they were attacking each other in that rather curious way.

     John Mahon, the older brother of skinny little Jerry, with whom I sometimes played, had a desire (I now realise) to play immodest games with me that were variations of Fathers and Mothers, although I don’t recall that he actually touched me or that anything sexual occurred.   Nonetheless it was all very puzzling and odd.

     A group of four other teenage boys, on holiday from boarding-schools, had similar designs.   In one of their homes, I was instructed to drop my shorts and pants and lie face-down on the edge of a bed.   This was also rather unusual and peculiar, but I wasn’t going to dispute anything they said as they were bigger and older.   Either I looked too unattractive and pathetic, or my trusting innocence and compliance defeated their aims.   I was told to pull my shorts up and go away.   Maybe one of the boys took pity on me.   But I never reacted, then and thereafter, as if I expected to be or played the role of a victim.   As some of these older boys happened to be at boarding-schools in Kashmir or Bangalore, they would have been well aware that certain pleasures might be enjoyed with younger boys.   But never of course with your contemporaries and friends.    And not with me.

      John Mahon had a bland but thuggish appearance.   Aged 13 or so, he once egged on Johnny Walker and me to fight each other, to wrestle and hit each other.   He was killed in a car crash after the war.      

     His father, Colonel Mahon, known as Harry John, was Secretary of the Sind Club for five years, despite the fact that he had an Anglo-Indian second wife, or mistress, who was probably Jerry’s mother, possibly John’s.   Her name was Eileen.   I remember her as being overweight and sloppily dressed.   Helen Johnson told me that Mrs Mahon was an alcoholic, that she was treated for her addiction, unsuccessfully, and when denied drink on her return from a hospital, used to down turpentine and eau de cologne.   Colonel Mahon was himself a notorious drunk: his nose was purple and had holes in it.  

     My sister’s friends were mostly girls of her own age.   She was six years older than me, so when I was eight she would be 14.   I was used to seeing her with Alison Walker, Margaret Hutchison, Pepita Wishaw, Joy Rossiter, Deirdre Clegg, Wendy Davis and the McKenzie sisters, with whom she had voyaged to India during the war.   Diana Bond, the second of the Bonds’ three girls, was friendly with them.   I rather liked the older girls, though they were noisy and screamed a lot, and I had a secret liking for a quieter girl with long blonde hair called Jennifer Blackwell.   But something happened to her – she disappeared.   She had some sort of accident.   On the other hand, her father, who was a senior executive with Shell Oil, may have been posted to another part of India.   Alternatively, she might have gone to South Africa, as several families did, fleeing thither when the Japanese advanced to the edge of India.  

     A thin and sunburnt, freckled boy, David Thornton, was part of my sister’s group, as were the Herman brothers, teaming up with the girls at weekends and during the school holidays.   Some young officers also sought the company of the girls, although, being 14 or 15, they were considered to be far too young to have boy-friends, and liaisons with older men, even those aged 20 or 21, were not approved.   As a safeguard, a mother or some older woman always accompanied their teenage daughters to parties.  There were very few young adults in Karachi.   Most young men would have been in the services, and their wives would have been with them or back in England.   During the war the clubs were peopled by married couples in their forties, teenagers and children.   It was an unusual social mix of executives’ families and officers.

     Marion and Alison Walker associated more with the British officers than the American ones, although it was an American who taught Marion how to jive.   Officers in a Scottish regiment, the Black Watch, who played rugby on the maidan near Bath Island Road, were favoured more than others.   There was Sandy Buchanan and Marshal Pugh, who was known as Puffer.   He was from Dundee and a bit of a dreamer according to Marion, although she found his habit of quoting poetry quite romantic.   Any romances only blossomed during the day, as the girls had to be home when it got dark – they were not to be out cycling at night.   They were also not to wear high heels, not until they were 15, and at parties they were chaperoned.   Any romances were inevitably nipped in the bud when officers were posted elsewhere.

     When Marion was 14, in August 1944, she joined the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services), which had been founded in June 1938.   Proudly wearing a green uniform, a beret and a badge, she was taken twice a week in an ambulance to military hospitals to get ill and injured servicemen to take up sewing as occupational therapy.   She carried a tray of coloured threads, needles and examples of what might be made into the wards, and in one of them she was told not to react when confronted by airmen whose faces had been burnt and were disfigured.   She also took part in sewing-bees, winding bandages and making pyjamas for the troops, and helped out at canteens for the soldiers, called Tommies, who were excluded from the whites-only, officers-only clubs.   Apart from the canteens the soldiers could only frequent Indian cafés where they might eat and drink.

     Most of Marion’s socialising was done at the Gymkhana and the Boat Club, where she played tennis and where she swam.   Daytime outings at Sandspit or Hawkes Bay were other occasions when parents, teenagers and children spent the most time together, and during the war, military types (officers only) would be invited to join in the fun.

     There is a sunny photo of me, aged five or six, sitting on a sandy beach with my father and a big, burly older man, Colonel Jackson (Jacko).   He was a colonel in the Punjab Regiment.   He was also one of my mother’s boy-friends, possibly the first, though there must have been others and brief affairs with an occasional married man.   She had a lot of time on her hands.   Other wives found things to do, like working part-time for the Red Cross or in a hospital, or doing some charity work, or serving at canteens, but none of that was for her, although she joined a sewing group.   A photo of my mother, taken about 1940 or 1941, when she would have been 42 or 43, shows her in a white swim-suit, full-bosomed and sitting seductively in a shallow sea wearing a white bathing-cap.

     She still dressed colourfully and fashionably and wore bright red lipstick and a touch of rouge.   I have visions of her renewing her lipstick, peering into a round hand-mirror, and powdering her nose.   She was said to look like Edwina, Countess Mountbatten, and the American film-star, Jane Russell, though she was not as voluptuous as Jane Russell, being much less curvy overall, with thin arms and long slim legs.

     Helen Johnson remembered that at wartime sewing parties Louie was full of humour, ‘a wicked lady’, and that the other wives missed her company when she stayed away.   Margaret Hankinson wrote, ‘I had a working party in the flat for the Red Cross.   Your mother joined us and kept us amused.   I nagged her into knitting.   She was always full of fun and well known in the social world.’   Theoretically, when she absented herself from such activities as these, and didn’t participate in canteen work or setting up tea-stations at the docks, giving cakes and sweets to departing soldiers, it was to care for her children.  She may have been caring for the military in other ways.  

     Jacko was succeeded by an American air-force officer, Dod Shepherd, stationed at the American air-base at Muripur.   He was about 28, tall, sun-tanned, wavy-haired and boyish.   Another boy-friend was Harry Bradley, but he doesn’t appear in any photo and I don’t recall anything about him.   He or Dod Shepherd may have been the man who, accompanied by my mother, woke me up one night to show me where he had been wounded in a leg, in his thigh – another odd thing I remember.   The Americans could be rumbustious.   One of their number, said Helen Johnson, threw a tear-gas bomb onto the dance floor of the ballroom at the Gymkhana during a New Year’s Eve dance.   Another once led a camel onto the floor. 

     After Dod Shepherd and Harry Bradley there was an Australian, Arthur Macrae, a sergeant in the RAF in his thirties and a bit of a rough diamond, sunburnt and tough-looking, with sleeked back dark hair and a wide grin.   Finally there was a youngish Scot, Bob Finlayson, a jocular RAF corporal with a moustache.   He must have been in his late twenties, was tall and pallid and wore baggy shorts.   I imagine my mother’s boy-friends dropped in when my father was at work and I and my sister were at school and the servants had been dismissed for the day.   

     What seems amusing to me now is that my mother’s boy-friends got younger as she got older.   She was 47 in August 1945.   Not only that – their ranks diminished along with their ages, going from colonel to flight-lieutenant, from sergeant to corporal.    The lovers of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, also got younger and of lesser rank as she aged.

     I can’t think why I remember the names of these men, but there are a few photos of me with all of them, except Harry Bradley.   Perhaps they were surrogates for my father, who began fading from the scene, as far as I was concerned, as the war progressed.    He was now spending a lot of his spare time at the clubs, drinking and smoking and playing billiards.   I think he was but briefly with us at Naini Tal and not at all at Abbottabad.   The only event I associate with him later in the war was a murder trial, when he was on the jury.   The accused was a man who had allegedly pushed his wife off the Oyster Rocks.      

     Helen Johnson’s husband, Johnny, was also on the jury.   She told me that the couple involved were Indian and newly married, and that the husband had insured his wife’s life for a large sum of money.   They went by boat for a picnic on the Oyster Rocks on a windy day.   The husband’s story was that a strong gust had caught his wife’s sari and blown her off a cliff.   Threads of the sari were later said to have been found on his clothes.   The woman’s body was retrieved and shown to the jury.   It had been partly eaten by crabs.  The man was found guilty and hanged.

     This was the first murder that came to my notice and the drama of it intrigued and interested me, even then – as others were to do much later on.  

     My father was now no longer as handsome as he used to be, mainly because he wore thick-rimmed glasses all the time.   They dented the bridge of his nose, which was developing the swollen, veined and discoloured hue of a heavy drinker.   But he didn’t put on much weight.    Whether he had girl-friends, married or otherwise, I do not know.   Somehow I doubt it.   Margaret Hankinson wrote, ‘They built a hotel at Drigh Road – it became the custom for those wanting secret meetings with the wrong wives to take them over there.’   But I don’t think my father was one of these errant husbands.


     By 1944 the Germans had been driven out of North Africa and were being driven out of Italy.   Everywhere the Allies were winning the war.   And then, on D-Day, the sixth of June, the Allied invasion of the northwest of France began.  The following year Berlin was surrounded by the Russians in April 1945 and they linked up with the Americans.   Mussolini was shot by Italian partisans, and on 30 April Hitler shot and killed himself.   World War Two officially ended on 8 May. The war in the Pacific against the Japanese continued, however, until on 15 August Japan surrendered.

     Most of Marion’s girl-friends had left Karachi long before this, apart from Alison Walker and Joy Rossiter.   Some feared a Japanese invasion of India.  The Mackenzie sisters, as well as Margaret Hutchison, David Thornton and the Herman brothers all left Karachi.   Deirdre Clegg went to America and Pepita  Wishaw to South Africa.    American families returning to the USA had the longest of sea journeys, having to voyage to Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean, or eastwards to the Far East and then across the Pacific.

     Early in 1945 I was given an Autograph book, made up of coloured pages on which family and friends inscribed not just their names but paintings, drawings, and assorted verses.   Most of the pages are blank.   However, there is a coloured drawing of Dolly Duck by Jane Maish and one by Billy Maish of Spitfires shooting down German fighters, copied from a comic, Rockfist Rogan RAF.   Appropriately, in later life he joined the RAF and became an Air Commodore.    My mother (‘Mummy, 3/3/45’) did a pretty painting of an English cottage and garden, with the loving, thoughtful message, ‘Live happy; tend thy flowers; be tended by my blessing’ – a message much more meaningful to me these days.   She and my sister were both neat and careful painters.   Marion’s contribution, dated 12 April, was a comic cartoon.   Three comic verses called ‘Foolish Questions’ came from Erskine Abbott, to which he had added ‘written with a broken arm.’   This is a surprising entry, dated 2 April, as I don’t recall that he was ever a friend, although I would have liked him to be my older brother.   One of my kindergarten teachers, Norah Rogers, penned a useful adage on 10 April, as did her sister, Shelagh Carter, the day before, as well as a cute Lucie Attwill type of painting.   Other paintings and verses were contributed by women whose names mean nothing to me now. 

     Later on, in Scotland, contributions would come from my Aunt Ada, my Cousin Eileen and a few others, the last being dated 2 June 1953.    In the centre of the book is a painted Friendship Wall, with bricks signed by some of the above, including Jerry Mahon (on 19 October 1945) and others by Bill Nicoll and JD Lennie from my school in Edinburgh – again, I don’t recall that Lennie was a friend.


     According to Marion, our father had a nervous break-down towards the end of the war.   It was caused, she said, by pressures of work.   He’d had no leave since 1938, and Marion said that he returned to Scotland and stayed with my Uncle Alastair and Aunt Jenny in Glasgow – and presumably visited his mother and Billy Elder.   Of this I remember nothing, and my aunt makes no mention of this in her Memories.   As it is, I have few visual memories of him in the last years of the war.   He seems to have faded away from my life, until he reappeared later on in Edinburgh.

     But the fact that he did return to Scotland is confirmed by a detailed four-page article he wrote, possibly for a newspaper or magazine, about his trip back to India, which is entitled ‘Notes on the voyage from Liverpool to Bombay by HMT, MV Britannic, 8th to 29th September, 1945’.   He was now 47.   He had left India on the Queen of Bermuda in May.


    He wrote, ‘On Saturday afternoon, 1st September, I received a telegram from the India Office offering me a passage from Liverpool to Bombay about the 8th.   I replied accepting it.   On Wednesday, 5th Sept – the very date on which my 4 months leave at Home expired – I received a long letter from the India Office telling me to whom I was to report, time and date, etc.   Although the war in Europe and the Far East had terminated, the vessel by which I was to sail was referred to as “Code A5E”.   All baggage, therefore, had to be labelled with this code number.   On no account was “destination” to be shown!’

     Travelling overnight between Glasgow and Liverpool by a crowded train was made difficult and vexatious by a shortage of porters, by queues, by having to transport his two suitcases and a kitbag by taxi from Lime Street station to the dock.   He was travelling with a man called Platt.

     ‘On Saturday, 8th Sept, about 1,000 passengers must have arrived from various parts of England and Scotland to embark on A5E, and what a job they had getting their luggage to the Landing Stage.   The STO (Sea Transport Officer) came in for a lot of criticism, but of course he blamed the Owners of the ship for not supplying transport, whereas they blamed him!   The Customs shed was packed with passengers and it was impossible to move about in freedom.   After Passports had been examined we collected our luggage and were told that WE were to put it on board ourselves!   Porters were NOT allowed on the ship.   Those who had heavy and large steel cabin trunks had some difficulty in enlisting the services of other passengers to help them carry the trunks on board.   For the most part of the day the staircase and alley-ways were packed with passengers struggling with their luggage.

     ‘MV Britannic is owned by the Cunard White Star Line, and is a very fine ship indeed.   But she was never built for service in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.   She was not air-conditioned, had no “blowers” and there was NOT a single fan in any of the Public rooms.   There were about 4,000 troops and 1,000 1st Class passengers on board when we sailed on Sunday, 9th Sept.   The number of lifeboats aboard would have accommodated – so I was told – about 1,600 souls.   Certainly not more than 2,000.   Seating accommodation worked out to about ONE seat for every 4 passengers!   The starboard deck, which was allotted to us, was packed all the time and it was impossible to walk about without bumping into someone.   The 1st Class Saloon accommodated about 300 persons at the most.’

      Crowded conditions, pointless orders, rules and drills – passengers had to carry life-belts with them all the time, even in the Suez Canal – were a feature of the voyage.   There were two sittings for meals, breakfast being at 8.0 am, lunch at 12 noon, and dinner at 6.0 pm, and there was no morning or afternoon tea.   No bread was served at any meal, although there was plenty of fresh butter and sugar.   Green vegetables were served only once and oranges now and then.   Nothing alcoholic could be bought or drunk on board, and civilian passengers were rationed to 150 Woodbine cigarettes, four bars of chocolate and three packets of biscuits a week.   Every morning, at 10.15, there were boat drills lasting half an hour.   Life-belts had to be worn and to start with no one was allowed to talk or smoke during the drills.

     The Britannic docked at Port Said for 36 hours.  No one was allowed ashore – not even the ship’s crew – and no trading with the bum-boats was allowed.   An air letter that Gordon sent to Louie arrived in Karachi four days after he did.   Two soldiers were taken ashore on stretchers.   Another one died of heart failure and was buried at sea.   The 120-mile journey down the Canal took 12 hours, during which the Britannic passed the wrecks of two small ships that had been bombed and sunk by German aircraft during the war.    

     After a stop of two hours at Suez the ship entered the Red Sea, where my father said it was ‘Just Hell!’   Nearly all the male passengers and troops discarded their shirts and vests.   ‘Bare backs and chests were glistening with sweat,’ he wrote, ‘and as were unable to walk about or move anywhere in freedom, the smell of hot flesh and dirty shorts almost became unbearable at times!’   At 10.0 pm every night the passengers were ordered off the open decks as these had been allotted overnight to the troops, who presumably suffered more from the heat down below, with no blowers and no portholes.    My father shared an L-shaped cabin, which had a porthole, with eight other men.  They slept in narrow three and two tier bunks, closely stacked on top of each other.  It was impossible to read in bed – my father’s bunk was just off the floor, and it had no bed-light.   Movement was impeded by the piled up luggage of the eight men, who had to share a solitary wash-hand basin.   ‘What a job it was in the morning trying to shave!’ he wrote.  ‘I used to get so mad at the others bumping into me!   For five nights the temperature in the cabin was 98F minimum and 106F maximum … and it was NOT a “dry” heat but an excessively DAMP one.   Talk about sweat! … We took turns at sitting under the one and only little fan … What a nightmare it all was.   And there was no cool or iced water to drink.’

      After four nights of this ‘discomfort and misery,’ Gordon’s right foot swelled and became painful, and the skin taut and blue.   He saw a doctor who diagnosed arthritis, caused by the heat and the limited diet, and he was sent to the passengers’ hospital, where lay three others similarly afflicted.   There a medical orderly applied a lead and opium poultice to his foot twice a day and gave him some pills to help him to sleep.   This lasted for five days, until the ship reached Bombay where, unable to wear a shoe, he wore a carpet slipper until he got to Karachi.   While in the hospital he complained about the ward he was in – it wasn’t too clean and there was cigarette ash and fag-ends all over the floor.   The wash-hand basin was also dirty and the bath so dirty he refused to use it, hopping instead all the way back to the bathroom by his cabin.   He disliked having to make his own bed and do his own washing, and complained about the food he was being served.   In the end he told the orderly ‘to bring me a plate of soup, a milk pudding and a cup of tea.  Really, my patience was coming to an end.’   He and Platt also had a row with an executive officer, Major Ray – a ‘perfect twirp’ – about how the civilian passengers were being treated.   ‘Well after all,’ said Major Ray, ‘you have NO right to be on a transport.’   Platt almost hit him.

     The Britannic anchored off Bombay at noon on Thursday, 27 September, docking the following day.   However, no one was to be allowed ashore until the morning of the Saturday.  

     ‘This order,’ wrote my father, ‘was modifed a little later after the Police came on board, and passengers who lived in Bombay or had a place to go to were permitted to land.   At 6.30 pm a shipping clerk from my Bombay Office arrived with a car and a letter from Van Dusen who said that he would be pleased to put me up if I could get off the ship that evening.   I never left a ship in such a hurry! … When I got to Van’s house I had a delightful whisky and soda and a freshwater bath – the first for 18 days.’

     He returned to the ship on the Saturday to collect his luggage and pass through Customs.   His Head Office had managed to get an Air Priority flight for him, and he left Bombay on the Sunday morning.   He was lucky -- travelling by train would have taken four days and four nights.   The plane, a Dakota DC3, landed with its 26 passengers at Mauripur Airport after a flight of 3½ hours.   ‘Most enjoyable,’ he wrote.  

     His account ends with some comments about his weight.   ‘When I left Glasgow I weighed 12 stone 5 lbs.   When I weighed myself the other day I was 11 stone 3 lbs – just a mere 1 stone and 2 lbs difference.   No more voyages in Transports for me!’

     The Britannic was in service throughout the war as a troopship and carried some 180,000 troops, usually 5,000 at a time.   It had two low funnels and was the third Cunard liner to bear the name.   After the war it was returned to Cunard, refitted and went back at work as a luxury liner in 1948.

     It’s rather pleasing to me to realise from this account that my father was easily upset by irrational, unreasonable and authoritarian behaviour – as I am.   And if this solitary example of his literary talents is anything to go by, does it indicate that I may have inherited my talent for writing from him?      


     Meanwhile, in Karachi, everything had begun to change, as the hedonistic life the British had led in the Raj neared its close.   After the war against Germany ended, the Japanese, driven out of Burma and all the islands and territories they had occupied, had surrendered unconditionally in August, 1945 after atomic-bombs had exploded over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   One far-off day I would be involved in the publication of a book by a Japanese doctor about the destruction of Nagasaki and the aftermath.

     VJ Day, Victory over Japan, was celebrated on 15 August.   I was nine that September – on the day that my father arrived at Bombay on the Britannic.   Already the ending of British rule in India was being negotiated by the Indian leaders and Mountbatten, as well as the partition of what had been the British Raj.   The British, marooned in India by the war, had made the most of the last years of the Raj and now it was time to go home.  

     I have no recollection of any of these events, and had no idea then or later on that the partition of British India into India and Pakistan would lead to the consequent wholesale movement and slaughter of millions.   However, an echo of the troubles ahead resounded in Karachi in February 1946 when on a Monday morning the Royal Indian Navy bombarded the town.

     This was occasioned by a total strike and subsequent mutiny by the Indian sailors of the RIN in Bombay, in protest at the general poor conditions in the Indian navy and the even poorer food.   The strike spread throughout India.   The mutinous crew on an Indian destroyer, the Hindustan, moored off Manora, were given an ultimatum by the British authorities – surrender the ship or be fired on by a battery of Royal Artillery 4-inch guns that had been positioned on the opposing dockside.   When the ultimatum expired the RA opened fire, badly damaging the Hindustan and killing some of her crew.   In response, naval ratings on the destroyer trained her guns on the docks and the town and fired on both.   But the shells the Indians used weren’t primed and didn’t explode.   Some damage was caused but there were no casualties.  

     I remember the sound of distant guns, and for a moment it seemed, though the war was over, that it was beginning all over again.


     It was time to go, and so, in April 1946, my mother, Marion and I, having said our various goodbyes, left Bath Island Road by car for the docks with all our luggage.   From there we embarked on a small coastal steamer that took us down to Bombay.   It was overcrowded with Indian families heading south, in anticipation of the partition of India.   Most slept on the deck.   Out at sea porpoises accompanied us and once there were whales.   My father stayed behind in Karachi, and moved into bachelor quarters in the Sind Club.  

     Because of my anaemia and recurring illnesses and complaints, my mother had managed to get a certificate from a doctor saying I should return to Britain sooner than later, and this got us onto one of the first ships leaving India, HMT (His Majesty’s Troopship) Andes, which had room for some civilians.   The Maishes would follow on the next trip the Andes made back to England.

     My mother, Marion and I spent two nights in a hotel in Bombay and had dinner in the apartment of the Manager of the National Bank of India, whom my father had known in Karachi since 1921.   Bill Harris was another Scot.   His apartment extended over the entire top floor of the Bank.   In the centre was a roof garden which, though lit up for us that night, was not as impressive as the views of the city from the windows and a terrace.   Sounds of distant rioting could be heard in the city and they made my mother even more anxious to leave.   But it all seemed very unreal and remote to me, for my life in India had already begun to fade from my mind.   My future life – though faintly alarming as everything about it was unknown – would soon be filled with everything that was new.   There was a long sea voyage before us and at journey’s end a landing in a country which everyone referred to as Home.   But for a long time Scotland, and England, never seemed like Home.   I was a child of the Raj, and much of what I experienced thereafter was alien in every way.    It was dismal, cold and grey in this dingy, grimy place called Home.   There was rationing and austerity, and no servants to look after us and see to our needs.  

     I expect that my mother, aside from the matter of my health, wanted Marion and me to have a proper Scottish education in Edinburgh, and she would have hoped to return to Scotland the minute the European war ended in 1945.   We could have flown back in one of the BOAC flying-boats that took three days to travel from Karachi to London.   But that would have cost too much.

     Before we left 4 Bath Island Road, the servants lined up outside Variawa House to say their goodbyes.   They bowed and blessed us.   We shook their hands.   I was taken aback when our hamal seized my hand in both of his and softly wept.   Silent tears ran down his face.   He would have been aware of the imminent, destructive end of the old order and that he would never see his chota sahib again.  

     I of course, aged nine, was blissfully unaware that I was leaving my sublimely untrammelled childhood, happy and free, in the heat and dust of Karachi.   Excited to be leaving, I had no notion that I was heading for a grey and rainy northern country, to the drabness and rationing of post-war Scotland, where the cold east wind of Edinburgh would freeze my skinny body and blight my trustful nature, as would school regimes and organised games.  

     My wide-eyed innocence, which had survived untarnished in India, would slowly corrode in Scotland.   I would also be swapping the medical rigours of the Raj for recurring rounds of persistent colds, coughs, chilblains, hay fever and flu.  And I would no longer be able to greet with non-judgemental curiosity the ever-exciting novelties of each brand new Indian day.



                                   4.   EDINBURGH, 1946-50


     The Andes was a newish ship, having been launched in Belfast just before the war.   She was painted white and had a wide yellow funnel.   Marion thought she was enormous.   Although only supposed to carry 600 passengers, she may have had as many as 2,000 on this voyage, most of them troops.     

      On boarding, I was separated from my mother and Marion and lodged in a sort of dormitory with other boys and young males.   When my mother found out that I was eating nothing but ice-cream and soup – I ate at a different mess from hers -- she made a fuss and removed me from the dormitory and into her cabin, which was already packed with nine other women and girls, including Marion.    According to Marion, I slept from then on in my mother’s bunk, head to tail.   I don’t remember that.   But it can’t have been comfortable for either of us and may have been responsible for my later reluctance to share my bed with anyone.

    The cabin we were in had a port-hole and was on the second deck.   There were three sittings for meals.   We were on the first sitting, and when we emerged from our sitting we would tell those who were queueing outside, awaiting their turn, what was on the menu that day – and what not to have.

     I had travelled this way before, when I was a baby.   But this time I was on my feet at the railings of the Andes when the ship approached the entrance to the Suez Canal after sailing up the hot and strangely blue Red Sea.   The hazy coast of Egypt was on our left.   I would go ashore there in November 1985, when the Sea Princess, a P & O cruise ship I was on, moored at Safaga, and then be driven the 140 miles overland, with others from the ship, to see the ancient ruined splendours of Luxor, the Tombs of the Nobles, the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings.    It was all very rushed, with little time to look, and less to think about what these places and the people had been like thousands of years ago.

     The Andes anchored off the town of Suez before proceeding at a stately pace up the length of the Canal, in single file with other ships, through the Great and Little Bitter Lakes to Port Said.   On the starboard side of the Andes were the Biblical barren wastes of the Sinai.   Approaching Port Said a train-track and a road ran alongside the canal on our left.   Camels and donkeys sauntered along the road, and the occasional rude Egyptian raised the skirts of what he wore, bent and showed us his bum.    I ran from side to side of the ship as she slowly moved up the Canal, having to push through the troops who crowded the railings, and finally squeezed myself at the front of an exterior deck overlooking the bow.   I was gone so long that my mother, by then distraught and in tears, had a tannoyed broadcast made – ‘Mrs Honeycombe has lost her little boy’ –  asking anyone who found me to take me to the Purser’s Office.   It was Marion, none too pleased, who found me, and she upbraided our mother for being so stupid as to think, with hundreds of troops at the railings, that no one would notice if I happened to fall overboard.

     We didn’t go ashore at Port Said, and so I never saw Simon Arzt, a famous colonnaded emporium, where in previous years my mother and father must have acquired fginely carved ornaments and pieces of furniture, like alabaster ash-trays, leather poufs, replicas of Egyptian statues and animals, and ornate side-tables and lamps made of brass, wood, ebony and ivory – all of which had decorated British homes for many years.    But there was much to look at from the ship’s upper decks, peering down at the town and the bum-boats that came alongside and besought us to buy some item from the variety of souvenirs they carried.   Vociferous, eager boatmen threw a doubled system of ropes up to a port-hole or a deck, and a buyer, having chosen from above what he wanted and debated the price, put his money in a bag, and as the money was pulled down, the item came up to the trusting customer.   Gulli-gulli men were allowed on board to entertain the children, magically producing a coin or an egg or a little yellow chick from our ears.

     In 1985, I was on a lecture cruise on the Sea Princess, and when she inched her way at sunset from the quay at Port Said and glided out of the Canal, something magical happened.   I was standing, on my own, in the centre of the walkway below the bridge when suddenly the opening chords of the Overture to Lawrence of Arabia rang out, the music soaring with the main and most romantic theme of that most excellent movie as the great ship moved slowly towards the sunset and the open sea.   It was heart-stirring, and I revere the ship’s officer who chose that music to be played as the liner left Port Said.

     Another piece of music played back in 1946 meant more to my mother than to me.   Every morning on the Andes the same piano music was played to announce the start of the new day.   It was Sinding’s Rustle of Spring.   My mother told me that her mother used to play the Rustle of Spring in their Henderson Street home in Bridge of Allan.   It must have seemed to her that she was being welcomed back to her Scottish homeland.   My sister tried to play the piece later on, but it was too quick and complicated for her – and quite impossible for me when I tried.  

     After Port Said there were no more stops, and although a pale smudge of the coast of northern Africa was glimpsed, I have no recollection of Gibraltar.   We must have passed by at night.   In the Bay of Biscay we were given our chocolate ration, all of which was avidly consumed.   As it was quite stormy in the Bay, not a few on board were rather sick.


     On a sunny day in April 1946, or early in May, the Andes inched her way up the Solent to Southampton and edged her bulk along her dock-side berth.   Amid much hustle and bustle we disembarked and found our way onto a train.

     I had been born and lived in India, and now surveyed what I had been led to believe was Home.   Although the sun shone and everything was very green, what I saw bore little resemblance to the charming and delightful pictures of the English countryside in the books I’d read.   Seen from the train taking us from Southampton to Waterloo, everything seemed cramped and dowdy.   Small grey houses were squashed together in rows; fields seemed no bigger than handkerchiefs and were dotted with cows and sheep that looked like toys.  There were white puffs of clouds like smoke in the sky.   There were no vast vistas, as in India, no mountains or forests, no mile-wide rivers.   The overall impression was that everything had been compressed and reduced to a toy-town size and had suffered from years of neglect.   Bomb-ruined buildings and damage in London added to the general picture of decay.   Home didn’t look at all attractive or appealing.

     My home of course was in India.   I had known nowhere else.   It was not until I bought my first home in 1965 that I had a home I could call my own.  Up to then I had always lived in hotels or rented accommodation, as my parents had done since their marriage and continued to do so until they died.   They never owned a house, a family home.   There was nowhere I could really call home, where I belonged – except 4 Bath Island Road.   And in August 1982, when I flew to Karachi for a three-day visit, 36 years after I had left, somewhere over Europe I realised that I was really going home.   I was seized with the emotion of a returning prodigal son and tears came to my eyes.


     Home to begin with in Edinburgh was the Leamington Hotel, a small hotel at the higher end of Leamington Terrace.   The three of us shared an attic-like room on the top floor at the back, our three single beds in a cramped row along one wall.   There can’t have been much room for our clothes and luggage and there was no wash-stand.   We ate in a dining-room on the ground floor at the front and having arrived from exotic India must have excited the curiosity of the other guests, one of whom was a loud and large horsy lady called Miss Hudson.   Marion ate a lot and put on weight.   She developed a cold and sinus trouble.   My mother enjoyed herself by entertaining the other guests with saucy tales about the Raj and being entertained by the gossip and intrigues of the inmates within the hotel.

     At the top of Leamington Terrace were the open grassy spaces of Bruntsfield Links and the Meadows.   My mother must have liked the area, as this was where Marion had been filmed with her mother and Aunt Jenny in 1934.   It was also where her grandfather, James Fraser Junior had lived, and died, in the 1880s and 90s.

     I remember being dragged about, most unwillingly, by my mother when she went shopping in Bruntsfield Place, along which trams rattled and banged in both directions in the centre of the road, on their way south to Morningside or north to Tollcross and Princes Street.   Trams were double-deckers, connected to overhead wires by a long arm which had to be swung around and reversed at a tram terminus.   Seats were also reversible, and as trams could be driven from either end, the driver went and sat at what had been the rear and was now the front.   Tram destinations displayed at the front had to be changed by the conductor unwinding a boxed roll.   

     The Edinburgh trams were flat-topped and painted a dark maroon with white bands.   Later makes of trams were more rounded and less noisy.   The conductor was always on the move, collecting money and issuing tickets from a machine at his hip.   As the trams had no doors, you could always leap off or jump on when the tram was moving, although this was frowned on.   Trams were fun.   Despite the fact that they had to rattle down some fairly steep roads – Edinburgh was built on hills – I don’t recall that any ever went out of control and crashed.   They must have had very strong brakes.

     On both sides of Bruntsfield Place were those tall, four-storey tenement buildings so typical of Scottish cities.   Once their granite blocks had been clean-looking and pinky grey and pale.   Now they were darkly discoloured and almost black with years of smoky soot from millions of chimneys adhering to damp, wet walls.   Not for nothing was the city called Auld Reekie.   On the ground floor of one of these buildings I made the ever-painful and dreaded acquaintance of a dentist, Mr Maclean.

    My mother must have liked him as he remained as our dentist even after we had moved house (as it were) several times.   My teeth, ruined by excesses of eating sweets, were in need of repair and I suffered the first of many visits to dentists over the years.   In 1946 the drills were jarring lumps of steel and the needles much thicker than now.   But Mr Maclean didn’t believe in injections and although I wriggled and squeaked he only paused to adjust the angle of the drill.  

     My poor teeth were part of my genetic inheritance from the Frasers.   My father not only had all his hair when he died, he had all his teeth.   My mother had dentures, as had my mother’s oldest and unmarried sister, Aunt Ada, a severely handsome, grey-haired woman, whose dentures were rather loose.   She appeared on the scene at this time.   My other aunt and my Fraser uncles had still to be met.   In winter-time Aunt Ada also had a semi-permanent drip at the end of her nose – something that bothers me now.

     We didn’t stay long at the Leamington Hotel.   Marion, now aged 15, was sent to continue her education at St Margaret’s School, and a temporary school was found for me until I entered the Edinburgh Academy in September.   I was not of course consulted about this, nor about any future aspects of my education.   My mother’s eldest brother, Lovat, had gone to the Academy and that’s where I had to go too.   He was there in his middle teens for two years, from 1907 to 1909, in Class IVb then IVa.  There were other schools in the city, but the Edinburgh Academy was the best public school from my mother’s point of view.   George Watson’s, where my father and his sister had briefly been schooled, was never considered.    Nor was Heriot’s, nor the Royal High. 

     I must have been taken to the Academy to be inspected and to do some simple tests.   But the fact that I had a heroic uncle, who’d been killed in the Great War and trained as an architect after leaving the Academy, may have eased my acceptance there.   I would have met Miss Smith, the head teacher of the Preparatory School, to which I was assigned, and she it was who probably suggested that I should become acclimatised to the basics of a Scottish education by being sent, for the summer term, to a primary school. 

     Before long we left the Leamington Hotel, and one morning I found myself, equipped with a satchel, pencils, a rubber and whatever else might be needed at this rather basic school, on a tram trundling southwards from Craigmillar Park Road and up a long slope to the Liberton terminus.    My schooling, and Marion’s, had initiated the move from Leamington Terrace to a small hotel in Craigmillar Park Road, which was further down the road from our former lodging at the Donisla Hotel nine years ago.   The siting of this hotel enabled Marion to walk to St Margaret’s School and me to get a tram to Liberton from a stop across the road.    I think that once again we were all in the same bedroom and that I now had a pet mouse in a tiny cage with an exercise wheel.

     Liberton derived its name from the area’s use, centuries ago, as a leper colony, or Leper Toun.   The school was a short walk away from the tram terminus along Gilmerton Road.   What I learned I don’t remember.   The schoolchildren there, both boys and girls, seemed strange to me with their Scottish accents, their thick working-class clothes and solemn attention in classes.   I must have seemed even stranger to them – I was from India, but wasn’t brown or black.   And I didn’t speak like them.   There was a distance between us and I didn’t make any friends.   For the first time I became acquainted with grammar and arithmetic.

     The term passed and culminated in a Sports Day on some parkland opposite the school.   I participated, without winning anything, in some peculiar (to me) ritualistic games, like a three-legged race and an egg and spoon race.

     It was a relief to leave school at the end of the day and get back to the hotel.   But escaping from the hotel and roaming about, as I’d done in Karachi, wasn’t sanctioned, although I remember taking an interest in people’s gardens near the hotel and in holly-bush hedges, where birds’ nests might be found.   Birdsongs were the only songs I heard at this time, apart from those on the radio.   I’d heard nothing like the songs the Scottish birds sang.   The cascading melodies of blackbirds and thrushes made me listen, and hearing and seeing robins and blue tits, just as Beatrix Potter had painted them, was a special delight.

     Less of a pleasure was my mother’s insistence in taking me on outings to Blackford Hill, where there was a pond and some ducks.   Marion went with us.   I was a very reluctant participant in such outings, as I didn’t want to do what I was told I should or ought to do, and walking tired me.   I was still thin and anaemic and strongly opposed to any lengthy physical activity.   But resistance was useless.   At that time, in a contest of wills, my mother always won.   With her Bridge of Allan village background, she was a walker and a believer in fresh air.   And so we walked a mile or so there and a mile or so back, passing the dark, forbidding bulk of the Hydropathic Establishment, which in WW1 had been the Craiglockhart War Hospital where the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen had met while recovering from the traumas of that war.

     The only thing for me to do when we got to Blackford Hill was to chase the ducks and climb to the top of the hill, from where there was a fine view of the Pentland Hills, of the city, of the Castle, of Salisbury Crags, of the volcanic excrescence of Arthur’s Seat, and of the distant Firth of Forth and the sea.

     At weekends and during the summer my mother dragged me with her, sometimes literally, when she went shopping, and at some point during that summer she took me with her to London.   She had previously only passed through London, travelling on her way from a South Coast port to Scotland and vice versa.    I expect that the trip, a crazy idea, perhaps not hers, was intended to be educational where I was concerned and a pleasure-living escape from domestic drudgery for her.

     For we had a companion -- Bob Finlayson, the RAF corporal in Karachi and my mother’s final boy-friend, who had returned to Glasgow after the war.   Marion didn’t come with us.   She probably refused to go on the trip and instead stayed with some girl-friend.   I also refused to go unless my mouse, Molly, who had just given birth to six pink blind mice, came too.   And she did, confined to a small box cage for the week-long trip.    We travelled in the cramped and odorous discomfort of a coach.   It was a very long and dreary journey – much worse for Molly and her babies lodged in their cage under my seat -- with an overnight stop in a small, dark and dingy hotel in Newcastle.    When we got to London I was most reluctantly taken hither and thither, by noisy bus and even noisier Tube trains when not trudging through the dismal, crowded streets, to the Tower of London, to Westminster Abbey and other touristy places, in which I had little or no interest.   We stayed in a shabby hotel off Russell Square, opposite a bomb-site.   I presumed, if I presumed at all, that Bob Finlayson had a separate bedroom like me.

     London was a dark and dirty city with gaps in its buildings like missing teeth.   It was ugly and grey, and it probably rained.   I disliked everything about it and resented the daily presence of my mother’s companion.   His moustache and Scottish accent annoyed me, as did his attempts at humour.   I behaved badly, didn’t speak at meals, and was so provoked in the hotel one day by something that I hit my mother on the chest.   Somehow we all survived the week, including Molly and her brood.  

     Back in Edinburgh she and they were then housed in a larger cage, and when the babies were old enough they were sold for a few pennies back at the store whence Molly came.   What happened to her after that I don’t remember.   She disappeared, like the mouse who must have been her spouse, like the other pets I had.   I imagine my mother said they had died, escaped or run away.   It was she who fed them and cleaned the cages.   I just played with them.

     As I’ve said, Bob Finlayson lived in Glasgow, and I think it was during that summer that we went to Glasgow for the weekend.   Marion was with us and she stayed with Uncle Kenneth and Auntie Biddy, and my mother and I with Uncle Alastair and Auntie Jenny.   The two men were brothers of my mother.   The idea was for Marion and I to meet our relatives and our cousins, and for them to meet us.   My mother most probably contrived to meet up with Bob Finlayson for a couple of hours.    Kenneth was the only one of her brothers to have what she would have deemed to be a respectable occupation -- he was an architect.   He and Biddy had a son called John, and when the only son of Alastair and Jenny died, John Fraser became the only surviving son of Dr Fraser’s six boys.   Lovat, the eldest, had been killed in WW1.   His younger brothers, Ian, Archie and Harry, had no children and led disadvantaged or disreputable lives.   Harry, the youngest, was an alcoholic, Archie was lame, and Ian was somehow sinister.   Although he and his wife lived in Edinburgh I was never taken to meet them.   I suspect that the problem with him was a sexual one, even that something of that sort had happened in Bridge of Allan.

     Alastair and Jenny’s son was called Gordon.   They lived in a ground-floor flat in a working-class area, Cardonald.   It was a bleak, treeless environment and made more desolate by derelict air-raid shelters.   Alastair and Jenny, however, were both cheery, amiable people.   In their cluttered home we played card-games at night, like Canasta and Beggar my Neighbour and Whist, and the grown-ups laughed a lot.   Gordon was a weedy, fair-haired youth with a soft whiny voice.   I remember him once wailing in a Glasgow accent, ‘But I like ma porridge.’   He had asthma.   He was about the same age as my sister, and she was 16 in August 1946.   Uncle Alastair had an amusing grey parrot which talked, whistled and danced.   He had bought it during his years in the Merchant Navy and it was kept in the living-room in a large barred cage.   Whether the parrot’s feathers and the cage caused Gordon’s asthma I do not know.   But indirectly or directly it caused his death.   A year later Gordon Fraser had an asthmatic attack and died.


     I was ten on 27 September and on Wednesday 2 October 1946 my mother took me to the Edinburgh Academy in Henderson Row and left me with Miss Smith who, apart from being Senior Mistress of the Prep, taught Va, which was the top class in the Prep.   Miss Smith was severe-looking, tall and thin, with thin grey hair and staring pale blue eyes.  She was in fact quite kindly.

     Class Va was situated on the first floor of a building at the rear of the Upper School, above the school’s dining-hall and kitchens.   Other classes, like Vb and Vc, IVa, b and c, were adjacent.   The Prep’s teachers were all female.  The lower classes of the Junior Prep were lodged at the newly established Denham Green House, half a mile from New Field, where were the playing fields of the Academy and the three boarding-houses that accommodated boys whose parents were overseas or somewhere other than in the city.   That year there were 780 boys in the Prep and Upper School.

     At the mid-morning break there would be a stampede for the tuck-shop at the foot of our stairs, for iced buns with pink and yellow tops and jam within them, and half pints of bottled milk, and at the lunch break there was a rush to get seats at the far end of the dining-hall where the Prep boys ate.   In the gravelled school yard outside the Prep ball games were played.   Those involving a bat I avoided, including a game peculiar to the school, in which a rubber ball was batted from end to end of a chosen area in the gravelled Yards.   The bat was a wooden stick like a flattened spoon, a clacken.   The game was called Hailes.   

     I don’t recall having to play rugby that winter or cricket in the summer.  I had never played either, and no one ever explained the rules to me.   My dread of games days and their wintry torment awaited me in the Upper School. 

     My first day at the Academy was only memorable in that I turned up wearing long trousers.   No one else did.   This made me conspicuous, which I didn’t want to be.   The following day I wore shorts, and continued to do so, like all the other boys, for three years.   Most boys’ clothes were dark blue or grey, shirts were white and school ties were worn, along with plain short-sleeved jerseys.   Sturdy shoes and stockings held up by elastic bands completed our rig.   Mackintoshes (macs) and overcoats (coats) were worn on rainy days and in the winter.   Some boys, like myself, also wore scarves when it was cold.   And of course we all had satchels, which were worn on our backs.  They contained basic school equipment, like a geometry set, a ruler, pencils and a rubber, as well as kit for PT and for playing sports, including our boots.   A fountain pen, a handkerchief and some money were stuffed in our jackets.   School blazers, dark blue with a badge on the pocket were not obligatory, but a school cap was, especially outside the school.   Dark blue, and trimmed with silvered thread, the cap bore the badge of a silver laurel wreath surrounding a silver EA.   

     The Edinburgh Academy had been established in the 1820s by a group of Scottish Tories and city worthies including Sir Walter Scott, who all felt that the city needed a school that would promote classical learning and teach not just Latin but Greek.   The school song, Floreat Academia, was in Latin, but above the six Doric columns that fronted the main building was a Greek saying, which, translated, said, ‘Education is the mother of both wisdom and virtue.’   Inscribed on the organ within the main hall was a Greek motto.   Translated it said, ‘Always excel.’   The Academy, purpose-built on the northern fringe of the New Town, opened for business in October 1824, and Sir Walter Scott himself addressed the assembled dignitaries, masters, and the first intake of 372 boys.   Other buildings were added much later – the school library in 1900, the Prep and dining-hall in 1912, and the Gym after the Great War, when it was also dedicated as a war memorial, inscribed with the names of those boys who had died in WW1 and later on those who died in WW2.    Below the Gym was a long room with benches where we were taught woodwork and made simple artefacts.   Despite the fact that my Honeycombe ancestors had been carpenters and sawyers, I wasn’t very good at measuring things and at using a carpenter’s tools.

     Some famous writers were taught, though briefly, at the Academy, like RM Ballantyne and Robert Louis Stevenson.   Another pupil, Dr Joseph Bell, is now recognised as the model for Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes.   Most former pupils had careers in the law, the church, the military, accountancy and in various business enterprises, often abroad.


     I began well at the Academy.   At the end of my first term, in December 1946, I was surprisingly graded 1 overall, out of a class of 25 boys.   My Punctuality and Conduct were ‘VG’.   Miss Smith, who wrote my school report, said, ‘He is a very capable, conscientious worker, and in his general attitude to school life has already proved to be an asset to the class,’ to which the Rector (or Headmaster), CME Seaman appended, ‘A splendid start.’ 

    I was graded 1 in English and Writing.   Miss Smith said, ‘Spelling and Dictation very good.   He has had some difficulty with Grammar as much of it is new to him, but he is daily making excellent progress.   Composition and English exercises very well done.   He has an appreciation of Poetry and Literature.’   Of my Writing she said, ‘Very good.  His books are very well-kept and he has learnt a new style of writing rapidly.’  Of my Drawing she said, ‘He has marked ability, and draws very well.’   Miss Hagart took us for History.   She wrote, ‘He has done some very satisfactory work in History.’  In the next report she said, ‘In History he has supplied some admirable illustrations for the class chart.’    In Arithmetic I was graded 1 (for the first and last time).   Miss Smith said, ‘He has a clear grasp of rules and works quickly with a good degree of accuracy.’  Of my Latin, where I was graded 2, she said, ‘He is succeeding in mastering his difficulties (chiefly with “case”) and is making good progress.’

     At the end of the Second or Spring Term, in March 1947 the Rector wrote, ‘I like all I hear of his modest and responsible attitude.   He should do very well.’   Miss Smith wrote, ‘He has worked as before, with keen and thoughtful interest & can always be trusted to maintain a high standard of work.’   At the end of the Summer Term, when my grades in both Latin and Arithmetic had dropped to 2, Miss Smith wrote, ‘His very keen intelligence and conscientious work, with practical ability and imaginative powers equally well-developed, promise very well for the future.’  ‘Excellent,’ wrote the Rector.

     My mother must have been well pleased.   She kept all my school reports.   I never saw them until they came to me after her death.   The comments that the masters made were usually quite brief, until my last three years, when they expressed themselves more fully.   In general,  considering the amount of reports they had to write three times a year, they applied some thought to what they wrote, the Rector most of all.   It amazes me now to think that three times a year the Rector had to write something apposite and useful about every boy in the school.

     The Rector, Mr CME Seaman, had only been Rector of the Academy for a year.   Educated at Christ’s Hospital in England, he gained Firsts in Classical Mods and Greats at Oxford, where he was at St John’s College, and had taught at Bedford School and Rugby.   He was 37 when he came to the Academy, a short, stocky man with bright eyes, a small smile and a neat aquiline nose.  He was known to his family and friends as George.

     At the start of 1947, while still in the Prep, I began having piano lessons once a week.   The lessons lasted until March 1952.   Initially I was taught by Mrs Howells.   But in the Upper School Mr Howells, the school’s organist and choir-master, took over.   He was a thin, balding, bony, choleric man, and he was once so enraged by the errors I made, and possibly my attitude, that he boxed my ears, which is to say that he struck the left side of my head with his clenched and bony fist.   I went scarlet with rage at this assault on my person, and as a result I eventually abandoned the lessons -- also because I didn’t want to do the exams.   I had learned enough to play the piano moderately well, although I could never cope with anything requiring nimble fingers and marked Allegro, and I never learned anything but the simplest pieces by ear.    As my family didn’t acquire a piano until the 1950s, I had to practice, unwillingly, on upright pianos at school. 

      In his thrice yearly reports Mr Howells deplored my ‘lack of regular practice’ while adding that I was ‘a very valuable member of the school choir.’   He said I had ‘the necessary ability to make a very good player’ but would only become one ‘by more regular and conscientious preparation for his lessons.’   I was ‘a genuinely musical boy,’ he said, and had an ‘ability far above the average.’   In 1951 ‘considerable progress’ had been made, and Mr Howells even wrote that I ‘should be able to take a leading place among school pianists of the future.’   But then my keenness and concentration waned and after the Easter Term my piano lessons ended.   For two terms in 1954 I went back to Mr Howells to study Theory – harmony, counterpoint and composition.   But that was only because I was writing a musical and needed to know how to put into written notes the songs that were in my head.


     Of the other boys in Class Va in my first year at the Academy I recall very little, except that as we were arranged alphabetically at the desks in our classroom, a pleasing juxtaposition of surnames resulted – Heavens, Honeycombe and Kindness.

     One boy I remember because I had to kiss him – or rather pretend to kiss him.   This was JD Caute, a pretty, lively auburn-haired boy, known at school as John and to an admiring public later on as the novelist David Caute, pronounced Coat.   For some suspect reasons we were cast by female teachers as the leads in a little entertainment performed in the main hall by boys from the Prep.   It was called The Princess and the Swineherd – Caute was the Princess, and I, very aptly in view of my secret liking for Pigling Bland and his kind, as the Swineherd.   The piece was directed by a Prep mistress, Miss McKellar, and it was, I have to say, a very odd choice, as at the conclusion of the play, the Princess’s maidens, all young boys in long frocks and wimples, made a circle around me and the Princess and cheered us on as I pretended to kiss the air on either side of the Princess’s head 20 times – at the end of which I turned into a Prince.  

     I don’t think either of us was damaged by the experience, or put off from performing on stage – the first time that I did so – for we were paired together again the following year, this time as men.   However, my fascination with red hair and freckles might date from this time.

     At the end of the summer term I was announced to be, not top of the class, but second, and as a prize I was given a lavishly illustrated book, called Birds, Trees & Flowers, for being Second in Class – I still have it.   HG (Harry) Usher was top of Va.   He went on to be Dux of the whole school in 1955.

     Academically it was all downhill for me from then on.   It was a gradual process, but never again did I get such glowing school reports.


     Meanwhile, we had moved yet again.   The move was probably made towards the end of 1946.   This time a self-contained flat was rented on the top or third floor of a house at 34 Murrayfield Avenue, and this time my mother, sister and myself had small but separate bedrooms.   Mine overlooked the Avenue and the steps leading up to a pocket garden and the front door.   In addition we had a living-room that included a dinner-table wedged into a corner, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen lit by a sky-light.   I realise now that my mother, who had been attended by servants in Bridge of Allan and in Karachi, had at the age of 48 not only to cook three breakfasts and three evening meals every day, but also to wash up, clean and dust, and do any sewing, mending and ironing as well as the laundry.   All this she did from now on without any help from me and perhaps a little help from my sister.   She never complained.   She even cleaned my shoes.

     The owner of the property, who lived on the first two floors, was Mrs Bucher.   I believe she was the divorced wife of General Sir Roy Bucher, who had attended the Academy from 1905 to 1913.   He served with the Cameronians in France in WW1 and was in Iraq and India in WW2.   In 1948 he became the last Commander in Chief of the British Indian Army.   Our connections with both India and the Academy must have recommended us to Mrs Bucher.   Her presence was an evanescent one to me and we had little to do with her.   She had three scruffy small dogs of indeterminate breed, which crapped in the front garden.   This practice and the fact that they slept on her bed at night – I saw this for myself when her bedroom door was open as I went upstairs -- didn’t endear them, or her, to me.

     The cage containing my mouse, or mice, was kept in the kitchen, which didn’t endear them, or me, to my sister.   She was 17 in August 1947 and I was 11 the following month.   She quite rightly used to comment on how spoilt I was.   I regret to say that my mother used to soap me in my bath, using a sponge or facecloth, until I was pubescent, when I became self-conscious about my body.   My assisted bath-times ended when the sponge that I employed to cover my embarrassment kept on floating away.   Up to then I had presumed, as a child does, that what happened in my home happened in every home, and that parents generally behaved in the same parental way.   Now the bathing didn’t seem quite proper or right.

     During the summer of 1947 the three of us journeyed by train and boat to Northern Ireland, to Belfast, where lived my mother’s other older sister, Madge.   She had married an engineer, Dundas Duncan, a fierce-looking, controlling and matter-of-fact man, and they’d had a daughter and a son, Eileen and Alistair, who was a year younger than Marion – Eileen was older.   Madge, three years older than Louie, had a soft, babyish voice and giggled a lot.   They lived in a house, a real home, in Stormont, not far from the impressive Parliament building up on a hill.   They also had a car and a style of life of which I approved.   Out for a drive we would stop somewhere and pick the blackberries that grew in profusion along some country roads.   We must have been there in September.   Raspberries and rhubarb also seemed to be plentiful.   Although Dundas Duncan was a bit scary, and Alistair a bit uptight, Eileen was fun and laughed in a barking, mannish sort of way.   Much later I learned that she had a special female friend called Amy.   It was the best holiday I’d had since leaving India.

     A curious incident occurred in the house of a neighbour called Godfrey.   I’d gone there to borrow some book, and was scanning his bookshelves when I became aware that he was standing very close behind me – so close that he rubbed against me.   I moved away as his proximity was unwelcome and as whatever he was doing was odd – to be added to the list of odd events that at the time were meaningless.   However, I didn’t borrow a book and have viewed with suspicion anyone called Godfrey ever since.

     Another holiday I had while we were living in Murrayfield Avenue was when I went by coach down to Hawick to stay with the Maish family, when I met up again with Jane and Billy Maish.   After leaving India on the Andes at the end of May 1946 (after us), they had gone to Hawick to stay with Nancy Maish’s mother, Mrs Bolton.   I shared a bed with Billy – something I had never done before, except with my mother on the Andes.   Billy must have been about 13.   As I liked him, I didn’t mind his close proximity nor his warm embrace.   I stayed with the Maish family later on in England, but this time I had a bed to myself.   As it was, I was never easy about sharing my bed with anyone.   I was too aware of the breathing person beside me and tended to become annoyed when woken up if bumped by an elbow or foot.

     My mother kept in touch with other families who had left India, with married couples about her age, and my sister corresponded with Alison Walker, with the Mackenzie girls, with Margaret Hutchison and others.   But none of the children I had known in Karachi did I ever see again, apart from Johnny Walker and Jane and Billy Maish.   My life in India had been overtaken and overprinted by all the new experiences and people of my schooling and life in Scotland.


     At the start of my first year in the Upper School and the start of the Winter Term, which lasted from the end of September to just before Christmas 1947, I bypassed Classes 1a and 1b and was put in Lower II.   Divisions were now assigned to us.   There were four Divisions in the school, corresponding to competing Houses in boarding-schools.   I was in Carmichael.   Then there was Cockburn, Kinross and Houses – which was made up from the boys, known as house-boys, who lived in the three boarding–houses at New Field.   These houses were called Dundas, Jeffrey and Scott and from the top floors had panoramic views of the Edinburgh skyline.    We still wore shorts and continued to do so until we reached Class IV.   I was now aged 11.  

     Lower II was ruled by Mr Hempson, a cheerful, angular, jaunty man who used to throw pieces of chalk or blackboard rubbers at us if we were not paying attention or whispering.   We sat at single desks, which had ink-wells – the Academy used blue-black Quink ink – and were seated alphabetically, with A and B at the front and W and Y at the rear.   Mr Hempson took us for Geography, Scripture and Mathematics.  Other masters in other classes took us for English, History, Latin, Science, Drawing and Woodwork.   Drawing was taught by the Art master, bald-headed Mr Dodds, who only had one arm.   But I only benefited from his teaching about line, form, perspective and other matters for two years.   Drawing and Woodwork, taught by Mr Robertson, who had pebble-lensed glasses, were dropped when I reached Class IV.   Lessons lasted for three-quarters of an hour, and the lunch break for an hour.

     Lunch consisted of three courses, starting with soup and sliced bread – Brown Windsor soup, tomato soup and Scotch broth made regular appearances.   I also remember mince and rice, fish dishes (haddock), and puddings made from tapioca, sago and semolina.    We hungrily devoured everything that was put before us.  The youngest classes were placed at one end of the dining-hall and the senior classes at the other end, nearer the dais on which the senior ephors (prefects) and the Rector lunched.   Masters sat at the ends of all the other long tables, ensuring there were no disturbances or throwing of bread.

     Once-a-week sessions in the Gym, where we were regularly weighed and our heights noted, now became part of the curriculum.  The instructor there was Sergeant-Major SJ Atkinson, known as ‘The Bud’.   He had been employed at the Academy, as Assistant Gymnastic and Drill Instructor, back in 1910 and was wounded in the First World War, where he lost the finger-tips of one of his hands.  He was a short, fit and stocky, grey-haired man in his early sixties and encouraged us to climb ropes, hang from the wooden bars around the Gym, vault over wooden horses, and box each other.   Not having much strength, I was hopeless at all of this.   Besides, I didn’t like hitting anyone or being hit.   Nonetheless, the Bud got me to stand up straight.   When I first came to him I was rather droopy.

     To one side of the Gym and at the rear of the Science section were the dark and antiquated toilets and urinals.   To reach them boys had to go down a flight of wide stone steps, and a visit to the toilets was known as ‘going down the hill.’   Behind the toilets, a few of the older boys who smoked cigarettes indulged their secret vice there.

     The Bud also conducted the daily ten-minute PT sessions in the Yards for the whole of the Upper School.   This occurred during the mid-morning Break, weather permitting.   These sessions were patrolled by the junior and senior ephors, who might penalise any slackers or mischievous boys with 100 lines – which meant that a relevant phrase would have to be written out 100 times and the pages handed the following day to the ephor concerned.   The Bud would stand in a white singlet or sweater and track-suit trousers between the two central pillars of the school hall portico and bellow the timing – ‘One!  Two!  Three!  Four!’ -- of whatever exercise we were doing in parallel long lines facing him, and show us how it should be done.   He retired in 1950 and his place was taken by Sgt-Major McCarron.    After I left the Academy, the PT sessions were discontinued.  

     When I reached a more senior level in the school the sessions in the Gym were devoted to indoor ball games and eventually dropped out of my weekly class-list.   When I was in my last year, I was freed from rugby or cricket on games-days, and given wasted instructions in playing tennis and putting the shot.    Both the instructor and I were relieved when these useless practice sessions were over.   But in the beginning of my time in the Upper School rugby or cricket practice was compulsory every Tuesday and Thursday after lessons ended at 3.15.  

     You could be excused from games practice, but you had to produce a note from a parent or doctor and hand it to your class master.   As I suffered from colds and coughs and outgrew my strength as I grew taller and even thinner, I was able, most gladly and not often enough, to escape the twice-weekly, 20-minute trek to New Field, where there were the three boarding-houses, the pavilion and acres of playing-fields.   To get there, we had to walk out of the back of the Academy, satchels on our backs and caps on our heads, across a bridge over the Water of Leith, through a wooded dell, and up Arboretum Road, chatting and fooling on the way.   Inverleith Park was on the left and the Botanical Gardens, where my mother used to take me when I was one going on two, was on the right.   Butterflies and bees interested me.   I would point at bees and say, ‘B!’

     In the pavilion we changed into our sporting gear.   In wintertime I wore my rugger jersey over my vest in a vain attempt to keep warm, and on the playing field I avoided what I could of any action centred on the ball, oppressed by my feeling that the pursuit of the odd-shaped ball and other boys was a futile occupation.   As I was usually put in the second row of the scrum, and later on nominated by the master refereeing a game as the lock (because of my height), I was able to disengage myself tardily from the scrum and trudge or trot after the backs as they passed and kicked the ball.   The shoving and pushing and warmth of bodies in the scrum at least had the merit of warming you up, though the embracing of other boys’ backsides seemed a mite intimate.   If by accident I somehow got the ball, I promptly got rid of it before I could be tackled and hurled to the cold hard ground.   The final whistle was a blessed relief.   I never used the showers in the pavilion, being embarrassed by my weedy physique and the nakedness of others, and scraped off whatever mud had adhered to me and my boots before dressing as quickly as I could.

     Of course if you wore a vest and never got your knees dirty, you were regarded with tolerant scorn as a bit of a mummy’s boy.   But as I became even more self-conscious when puberty struck, I wasn’t going to expose my skinny, white body, now sprouting embarrassing hairs, to anyone, or participate in the extrovert horseplay of the showers.  

     The ethos of playing games, so admired at the school, was completely alien to me.  This was partly because I was not a team player and because no one had ever explained the rules of the games and what they were all about.   Nor was I very strong.   Cricket was at least played when it was warmer, but having hay-fever didn’t help, and again I tried to avoid the action by standing as far away from it as possible, hopefully on the boundary, all the while dreading that some ball would hurtle my way.

     For the record I once scored a try in a practice game of rugby.   The ball veered towards me and I instinctively caught it.   I couldn’t pass it on as no one was near me, and as a muddy oaf from the opposing side was charging towards me I had no option but to run – to avoid being tackled.   He didn’t catch me.   Placing the ball between the posts, I then wandered back, gasping for air, feeling exhausted but curiously proud.   But no one said, ‘Well done.’   Nor did they comment when I scored seven runs in a practice game of cricket and in the same game, to everyone’s surprise, including mine, bowled someone out.     

     There was no alternative to the two terms of rugby and one of cricket – both were compulsory.   There was hockey, which was not only fast but violent.   If swimming or basketball had been available I might have begun to enjoy games days.   As it was, I just dumbly endured.  


     There were 27 boys in Lower II and over the year my place in the class drifted from 4 to 5, then 6 -- this despite the fact that my work was deemed to be ‘satisfactory,’ ‘good’ and ‘very good.’ 

     Back in 1922 Mr Hempson had sung the part of the Defendant in a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.   He then sang the leading tenor role in three subsequent G & S productions at the Academy.   In 1929 he co-opted Aileen Davies, who had been a D’Oyly Carte principal singer and was now the wife of an international cricketer, DS Weir, to help him stage The Gondoliers, and for the next 21 years they directed the Academy’s biennial G & S productions, in which I would soon appear.

    At the end of the Winter Term of 1947 the Rector, Mr Seaman, commenting in my school report on what the masters had said about my work, wrote ‘Very good.   I should think he ought to be a recruit to my Greek class next session.    I am grateful to him for reading the lesson very well at the Carol Service.’   

     I have no recollection of reading any lessons, although I remember being entered for a Reading Prize, and not winning it, I think because I mispronounced ‘pharaoh’, which I read as ‘pharoah.’   However, one of my other talents received unexpected recognition when Mr Hempson, who over the year had graded my work in his Geography class from 10, to 8, to 1, marked a painting I had made of Archimedes holding a globe of the world not 10 out of 10, but 11 out of 10.   That was surprisingly gratifying.

    During the Spring Term, which ran from the second week in January to the end of March, my test and exam results were less than satisfactory, eliciting school report comments like ‘disappointing,’ ‘very fair,’ ‘did poorly,’ ‘could do better.’   The Rector wrote, ‘Good of course.   But is it good enough?’   Over the Summer Term, however, my academic performances in class improved, and the masters were writing phrases like, ‘good work,’ and ‘very good.’   Mr Hempson concluded, ‘He has a real flair for English work.   A very satisfactory session on the whole.’   And the Rector wrote, ‘Very good indeed, except in Maths.   The indication that Maths is not his bent makes me think it a grave error for him not to do Greek.’

     One of the reasons for my poor academic performances in the Spring Term of 1948 may have been that I was rehearsing for my appearance in a dramatised version of RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which was presented by the newly minted and short-lived Junior Dramatic Society in the School Hall on Monday 12 July.   Directed by the energetic Miss McKellar, assisted by Miss Urquhart – they also enjoyed making us up in a backstage classroom -- it had a large cast and five different scenes.    Miss McKellar once said I had beautiful hands, a remark I remembered as it was so odd and the idea had never occurred to me.

     According to the reviewer writing in the Edinburgh Academy Chronicle, the play was admirably staged and lighted … ‘All the scenes were effective, but a spontaneous round of applause greeted the really beautiful setting of the deck of the Hispaniola, the stockade at night, and Spyglass Hill at dawn.’   However, he sadly failed to mention my stolid performance as Squire Trelawney, nor did he speak of JD Caute’s as Captain Smollet.   Instead, WSM Nicoll (Long John Silver), EAW Slater (Dr Livesey) and his younger brother JCK Slater (Jim Hawkins) were singled out for praise, as was MG Elder, who played Pew and the Voice of the Parrot.   Perky little JCK (Jock) Slater, while hiding in the apple barrel on the ship, did some of his Latin homework for the following day.   But more about him later.

     It seems remarkable to me now that I happened to be cast as Squire Trelawney, a Cornishman like my Cornish Honeycombe ancestors, one of whom fought in Trelawney’s troop in the English Civil War.

     Partly because of the time we spent rehearsing, I began associating with the oddball elements in it, like Tony Slater (Dr Livesey), Adrian Carswell (Mrs Hawkins) and Bill Nicoll (Long John Silver), though not with Jock Slater, who was a year and a half younger than me, nor with John Caute, who was an intellectual boy and somewhat sporty, being a speedy runner.   I was invited to the homes of the first three, Tony Slater, Carswell and Nicoll, but never invited them to our cramped and threadbare, rented flat in Murrayfield Avenue.   They had proper homes.   It was interesting to see what these and their parents were like.   Their homes were grander, but none had a mother as colourful as mine.   Nicoll was an only child, as was Carswell, who was also adopted.    He lived in a house, as opposed to Nicoll and the Slaters, who lived in rather large and gloomy flats.  Tony Slater, as his younger brother, Jock, would do the following year, left the Academy at the end of the Summer Term and went to an English boarding-school in Cumberland, Sedbergh.   Their father was an Edinburgh physician and they were both great-nephews of Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, Admiral of the Fleet in WW2.

     Shakespearian productions were revived in that same summer of 1948 with a production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by my future English master, WH Hook.   I was in the audience, and despite the hard wooden chairs of the hall and the limited sight-lines – the cast were partly masked by the people in front of me, for the platform under the organ that was used as a stage was less than four feet high – I was intrigued by what I saw.   It was the second play I had ever seen and the second I’d seen by William Shakespeare, the first having been A Midsummer Night’s Dream at my sister’s school in Karachi.    I was particularly impressed by the Romeo, played by a senior boy called Magnus Magnusson.

     It was his last term – he was seven years older than me.   He was tall and fair-haired, of Icelandic origins, and was a figure of awe about the school, as he was captain of nearly everything, as well as Head Ephor – ephor being a term borrowed from ancient Sparta and corresponding to prefect.   At the end of that term he would be designated Dux (academic head of the school).   Apart from the Academy connection, he and I would have television and authorship in common later on – he translated several Icelandic sagas, presented Mastermind on BBC TV for 25 years, and as President of the Royal Society of Birds, he involved me in a staged reading about birds and introduced me to the Queen at St James’s Palace in 1989.   But that’s another story.

     My mother, after seeing me perform in the Academy’s plays, may have realised that I not only enjoyed acting but was also good at it, and accordingly encouraged my nascent interest in the theatre.   She was already aware that I liked going to the cinema.   And so, apart from visits to the annual pantomime at the King’s Theatre at Christmas, she took me, though possibly not Marion, to see some productions at the King’s and Empire Theatres and some of the plays put on by the Wilson Barrett repertory company at the Lyceum Theatre.  

     I remember that I was much affected and enthralled by their production of JM Barrie’s haunting play, Mary Rose.    When a girl, she vanishes on a remote Scottish island while on holiday with her parents.   She reappears 21 days later, unaware that time has passed.   Years later, and now married with an infant son, she revisits the island with her husband and vanishes again, this time for 25 years.   When she returns, she fails to recognise her middle-aged parents, her husband and her grown-up son, whom she accuses of stealing her baby.    Reconciled with them and her ghostly situation, she returns to the other world of the island.   There are echoes of Mary Rose in my first TV play, Time and Again, and in my first novel.

     Towards the end of 1946, when I was ten, my mother had taken me to see a pre-London tour of a production of Crime and Punishment.   It had a large cast, led by John Gielgud as Raskolnikov, with Peter Ustinov and Edith Evans, and a complex, shadowed set that matched the grimness of the story about a brutal murder.   It was the custom then for the audience to applaud the first appearance of leading actors on the stage.   But this didn’t happen when Gielgud appeared in November 1953 in a touring production of NC Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, which I saw.   His co-stars were Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike and Irene Worth.   A few weeks before the tour began he’d been arrested for importuning men in a public toilet in Chelsea.   He pleaded guilty, said he was drunk, and a magistrate fined him £10.    When the production opened in Liverpool, the audience applauded when he appeared on stage.   Some cheered.   But in Edinburgh the audience expressed their disapproval by not applauding.   And of course, at the time, I didn’t know why.

     Edinburgh had five main theatres and about 40 cinemas, some of which were converted music halls.   The Regal cinema in Lothian Road showed main-line films, as did the Dominion cinema in Churchill.   The Cameo in Tollcross showed foreign films, and at Poole’s Synod Hall in Castle Street films set in ancient Greece and Rome were shown in which the actors had enviable physiques and wore very few clothes.   Usherettes with torches showed you to your seats, and at the interval they appeared in the stalls below the screen with trays of ice-cream and soft drinks before walking slowly up the aisles, still selling their wares.   There was also a small cinema in Princes Street, the Monseigneur, which showed hour-long programmes of newsreels and cartoons.   

     Time now to return to Murrayfield Avenue.


     We were in the upstairs flat for three years.   There were less lengthy walks now and more excursions, by tram and coach, although Arthur’s Seat was extensively explored and climbed.   We visited Edinburgh Castle and the Zoo, where a small female orangutan in a narrow cage stared at me with very sad eyes.   Disconcertingly she looked at me and no one else.    We took coaches from St Andrew’s Square to the beaches at Gullane and North Berwick and had tea at Melville Castle.   Sometimes Marion was with my mother and me and sometimes not.   On my own I fished for minnows in the Water of Leith that ran under the road-bridge at the bottom of our road.   Further away was Murrayfield Stadium and there, with a companion or two from school, I watched Scotland play rugby in the mist and on the muddy pitches of freezing Scottish winters.  Only the grandstand had seats and impassioned crowds of roaring spectators stood on stepped banks on the other three sides of the ground, while trains on their way to the Haymarket clanked and whistled as they slid by beyond.  

     In our flat, when I was not doing my homework, I was modelling things out of plasticine or painting imaginary scenes of the Battle of Britain or of a train being bombed, or of Vesuvius erupting, or a sailing ship in a storm, as well as the anthropomorphic activities of an insect village.   Less successful were my attempts at reality -- a vase of flowers and even the modest church that was in our road.   We never attended a service there. 

     Indoors the radio would be on in the evenings for the BBC’s six o’clock news, and in June 1946 we heard that the USA had carried out atom-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.  In November 1947 the radio and the papers were full of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten.   Prince Charles was born a year later.   In the meantime, I was listening weekly to such early evening radio programmes as Dick Barton, Special Agent and the Paul Temple series.   They had memorable theme tunes (the Devil’s Gallop and Coronation Scot) as had Family Favourites at Sunday lunchtimes (With a Song in my Heart).   Every morning there was Housewives Choice.   In 1948 the comedy half-hour, ITMA, began to be overtaken by Take it from Here.   These were early evening programmes and listened to, religiously, before I went to bed.

     I enjoyed going down to the shops at Roseburn and buying fish and chips or white pudding and chips or black pudding and chips for our evening meal.   Fish and chips were about the only food that wasn’t rationed then.   Food rationing, which had begun in 1940, lasted until July 1954.   Even bread was rationed from 1946 for two years and the sweet ration was halved.   Potatoes were rationed the following year.  

     Whenever we went shopping we took our brown or blue ration books, which had to be handed to a shopkeeper every time any rationed goods were bought, whereupon he crossed off the listed item.   One adult was allowed, per week, two ounces of cheese, four ounces of bacon, eight ounces of sugar and one fresh egg.   A packet of dried eggs was supposed to last four weeks.   Butter, jam, meat and tea were rationed, as was milk.   Meat could be supplemented by whale meat, which was called snook.   We also had ration books for clothing.   They contained coloured coupons, which were cut out when an item was bought.   Every item of clothing was given a value in coupons and every person had 60 coupons to last for a year.   Raincoats for adults used up 16 coupons; jackets 13; pyjamas, shirts and trousers 8; and shoes 7.   Children’s clothes used up less.

     Apart from being shamed by our impoverished circumstances, compared with those of other boys at the Academy, I was increasingly embarrassed by my extrovert mother, who was now dying her hair black.   When going out, she wore fashionable but ostentatious hats and clothes, bright red lipstick and a dab of rouge.   Her favourite scent was Lily of the Valley.   She was not abashed at digging a compact mirror out of her handbag, wherever she was, and renewing her lipstick or repowdering her nose.    She also had a clear voice and talked loudly and joked with every shopkeeper and with practically everyone she met on a tram or in the street.      

     And then Bob Finlayson began to visit us at weekends.   When he was with the RAF at Drigh Road, I imagine that he worked in an office, in some clerical capacity.   He probably did something similar in Glasgow where he now lived.  

     My mother was 50 in August 1948 and he would have been in his early thirties.   How she explained his presence in our flat I don’t know.   I didn’t want to know anything about him.   If I wondered where he slept I blotted the thought from my mind.   I avoided him as much as possible.   But this wasn’t possible at meal-times.   These were conducted in resolute silence by my sister and me, but if spoken to we replied, politely enough but briefly.   What was most off-putting to me was the fact that his jaws cracked as he ate and that in the evening he smoked a pipe.

     He was, I’m sure, a kind man, with a sense of humour, and he no doubt did his best to thaw the frosty reception he received from Marion and me.   On every visit he brought gifts, like oranges or bananas, which were not available in our local shops.   He also brought large home-made apple pies, made by his mother, I suppose, and books for me.   It’s possible he worked in a second-hand book-shop.   He was certainly an avid reader and an admirer of an English philosopher, Herbert Spencer.   Some of the books he gave me were old pocket editions, like Addison’s essays, the tales of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, published by Collins in six volumes which were bound in red leather and arrayed in a box.   Another set was the complete works of George Bernard Shaw, published in 1926.   I have them still, as well as the 12 volumes of the third edition of Everyman’s Encyclopaedia, published in 1949-50.  

     This set may have marked the end of his association with my mother, as my father returned to Scotland in 1950.   On the other hand she used to travel over to Glasgow in the fifties to see some of her brothers, and she may have continued to meet up with Bob Finlayson then.   She was with me when in the summer of 1958 I did a three-month stint as a radio announcer with the Scottish Home Service in Glasgow.   But more about that later.


     At the end of September 1948 I moved into Class III, where our class master was MH (Maurice) Cooke.   There were 27 of us in his class and I was now aged 12.   Mr Cooke took us for English, History, and Scripture, and in addition to Latin, Maths, Science, Drawing and Woodwork, I began having lessons in French and Greek.  

     Outside the set of classrooms, of which Class III was a part, was a lobby.   All the classrooms in the school had lobbies of different shapes and sizes, where boys hung their caps, coats, macs and satchels on pegs along the walls.  The lobby outside Class III also had a row of wash-basins and a towel on a roller, and a separate tap from which cold drinking water could be released into a steel mug, steel being tougher than tin and less likely to be damaged.    Water has never tasted so cold and refreshing as when it was gulped out of that mug on a hot summer’s day.

     The Rector, Mr Seaman, took us for Greek, and at the end of the Winter Term he wrote, reporting on my Greek classes, ‘Very good work and progress; he is developing, as I should expect, a pleasant Greek script.’   I was placed third out of 22 boys in that class. 

     In his Rector’s Report, commenting on what the other masters had written about me, he said, ‘Many good things this term – Edinburgh Castle, the small choir and a high standard of work in most subjects.   But he should also ponder well the wise words of his Class Master.’   Mr Cooke had written, ‘He enjoys subjects that appeal to the eye or feelings and he appreciates beauty.   I hope he will realise that some subjects cannot become interesting until a lot of dull work is overcome.’

     The Rector’s reference to Edinburgh Castle was occasioned by a plasticine model of the Castle that I had made for the one-day Exhibition of boys’ hobbies that were displayed in the school hall that term.   It was about a foot square, took a lot of finicky work, and was based on pictures and maps in a guidebook, on photos, postcards and my own visits to the Castle.   It must have looked quite impressive.   The previous year, my contribution to the Exhibition had been a two-level portrayal of dinosaurs in a Jurassic setting.   The dinosaurs, which were based on what I remembered of that superbly imagined and crafted Disney film, Fantasia, and saw in picture-books, were all made from plasticine, while their background of bushes and trees was made from a mix of plasticine and other materials.

     The small choir, to which he refers, must have sung at the Carol Service or at a School Concert.   But I remember nothing of this.

     At the end of the Spring Term, when I was placed ninth in the class, both Mr Cooke and the Rector commented on the fact that I had not been at the school for several months.   Mr Cooke wrote, ‘His work has been much affected by his absence … He is an intelligent boy and it seems a very great pity that such a strain should be put upon his intelligence by his frequent absence.’   Other masters wrote, ‘Fair’ ‘Very fair’ ‘Fair only’ and only three said, ‘Good.’   The Rector wrote, as if to ameliorate their view of my decline, ‘He does not cease to deserve our praise.’

    What had happened was that both my sister and my mother contracted mumps, one after the other, and I was quarantined for three weeks at a time, if not more.   As a result, I was away from the Academy for two months or so, including the beginning of the Summer Term.   To keep abreast of what the other boys were being taught I was sent lists of school-work to be done at home.    Somehow I wasn’t also smitten with mumps.

    There was another result, which depressed me, although this was countered by the fact that while I was quarantined I didn’t have to trudge up to New Field twice a week to play rugby during the bitter-cold months of the year.   As I was away from school so much in this period, I was removed from playing a leading role in the forthcoming Academy production of The Gondoliers.


     I had been cast as Gianetta (the role my Aunt Donny had played long ago) after various boys with treble voices had been tested at the start of the Winter Term by the producers, Aileen Weir and Mr Hempson.   No doubt Mr Howells, who would have played the piano during the auditions, also expressed an opinion.   The fact that I had already appeared in two Academy productions, albeit junior ones, may have influenced my casting.   

     Playing a girl didn’t present much of a problem.   Acting was all about dressing up after all, about playing a part, and anyway all the girls’ roles and the female chorus were played by boys.   I knew nothing about the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan but was rather pleased to discover that there were so many tuneful songs and that Gianetta had so much to sing and so many words to say.    Rehearsals were in the school hall on Fridays after lessons ended and lasted about an hour.   They started in the Winter Term and continued during the Spring Term, leading up to the staged performances in May 1949. 

     When my sister and mother got mumps I couldn’t rehearse and accordingly the role of Gianetta had to be given to someone else.   That someone turned out to be the Jim Hawkins of the previous year’s Treasure Island, JCK (Jock) Slater.     However, after the Easter holiday, when I returned to the school, having been demoted to the female chorus, I was informed that I had been promoted to be the leading chorus-girl, Fiametta.   RDD Scott, who had been cast as Fiametta, had either been replaced or had left the Academy – I think the latter.   There were some solo lines to sing and at least I didn’t have to strain to reach the high G of Gianetta’s solo song.

     Unfortunately, the typed slips of the programme still carried RDD Scott’s name, not mine, so my first singing role was uncredited.   That hurt.

     The female chorus of Contadine was remarkably flat-chested as, quite sensibly, we didn’t wear any padding or bras, and apart from our Italian peasant-like outfits, we wore white gym-shoes and had bare and (mostly) unhairy legs.    Wigs were superfluous as we had snoods or bandanas around our heads, with tufts of curls poking out of them over our ears.   Prep mistresses, such as Miss McTavish and Miss McKellar, deftly dabbed us with some rouge and powder to modify any sweaty, shiny faces.   The classroom backstage where the female principals and the Contadine changed and were made up was separate from the men’s changing-room.  

     The show opened, after the Overture, with a group of boys, while pretending to be 20 love-sick maidens and making up posies of fake roses, sang the opening chorus – ‘List and learn, ye dainty roses, roses white and roses red, why we bind you into posies ere your morning bloom has fled.’   ‘Two there are for whom, in duty, every maid in Venice sighs,’ I warbled in the first solo.   The male and female chorus numbered in fact about 34, the male chorus being boosted vocally by five of the masters, including Mr Hempson.   How the whole cast of about 45 boys and masters fitted onto that postage stamp of a stage for the boisterous dancing of the cachuca in the Finale I do not know.

     Between us and the audience there was a small orchestra, which was vigorously conducted by Mr Howells, and the performances over three nights were hugely enjoyable.  The Gondoliers is the happiest and best of Gilbert and Sullivan shows.   If I had had a really good voice I would have liked to have been an opera singer.   For singing as well as acting on a stage are, I think, the most satisfying ways of expressing oneself as a performer.

     The reviewer of the show wrote in The EA Chronicle, ‘The best of the principals were excellent; but, perhaps, there were not quite so many as usual of a high order.   The chorus sang excellently and danced the cachuca with sprightliness; but some of the contadine (not the principals) looked rather muscular, and scarcely handled their roses white and roses red in a manner likely to win the heart of a gondolier.’   Having (mostly) praised the principals he dwelt on Gianetta and Tessa.   He said, ‘Tessa (I Dewar) was pert and coquettish, in the true Savoyard tradition, and, for a Venetian, surprisingly blonde.   Gianetta (JCK Slater) captivated the audience by her diminutive size, her solemn innocence, and her well-drilled singing; she deserves special credit for so quickly mastering her part as understudy … Contadine (RG Honeycombe, AAN Carswell and GAH Walker) gave good performances, if sometimes we remembered the Academy and forgot Barataria.’

     There was no doubt, I have to say, that Jock Slater was a better Gianetta than I would have been.   I was gawky, tall and skinny.   Little Jock was what is now called cute.   He had a sweet face and smile and the doe-eyed slightly slanting eyes of an Audrey Hepburn.   He also sang very well.    As he left at the end of that term I never saw him again, until … But that’s another story -- which I might as well spell out now.


     In September 1969 the Queen visited the new premises of ITN in Wells Street.   On entering the newsroom she was introduced to assorted heads of departments and to Andrew Gardner and Reginald Bosanquet.   Ivor Mills and I, though not chosen to be presented, decided to be present, and lurked as if we were engaged on some important business at the other end of the newsroom.   Suddenly one of the royal entourage, a vision in naval uniform with gold-braid accoutrements, detached himself from the group and headed straight for me with hand outstretched.   ‘Jock Slater!’ he exclaimed with a smile.  ‘Remember me?   I was at the Academy.’   ‘Oh yes,’ I said, duly astonished and somewhat amazed. 

     It turned out that having pursued a naval career Jock Slater was now Equerry to the Queen.   He said he would love to have a chat and that I must come to dinner.   Within a week or so I did – at St James’s Palace, where he was accommodated.   There were about twelve guests, all with rather superior ranks and titles, at the dinner-table, which was laden with monogrammed silver, gilt plates and such a variety of wine glasses, forks and knives that, never having seen anything like this before, I didn’t know where to begin and had to watch what others did, to see the order and use of each glass, knife and fork.   Meanwhile, liveried palace flunkeys served us.  

     Way out of my depth, I must have drunk too much, as I remember little else, except that one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, Lady Mary Morrison, who was sitting on my right, remarked, indiscreetly but generously, that I was the Queen’s favourite newsreader.   Well!   This predilection was no doubt due to a certain empathy among Scots – the Queen being half Scottish, and me being three-quarters Scottish.   Lady Mary was also a Scot.

     In later years Jock Slater rose to even greater heights, being knighted and becoming First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff in 1996.   How apposite, it seems now, that his two appearances on stage at the Academy should take him to sea and that Gianetta should sing about how glorious it was to be ‘a right-down regular Royal Queen,’ sitting on a golden throne, ‘with a crown instead of a hat on her head and diamonds all her own.’


    In my school report at the end of the Summer Term I was placed ninth out of the 26 boys in Class III.   My schoolwork was generally considered to be ‘satisfactory.’   Mr Cooke wrote, ‘He is a very sensible boy who does not easily become flustered.   I hope that his growing pains are over and that he will have better health to consolidate next year.’    It seems that it wasn’t just mumps that kept me away from school.   The Rector wrote, ‘He has once again done very well and I hope for great things from him.’

     Maurice Cooke was a pleasant, thin-faced man with short grey hair and a way of speaking that sounded as if he was chewing something.   I would learn much later that he had been wounded in WW2 and awarded the Military Cross.   He was in the habit of having an annual photo taken of all the boys in each of his Class IIIs.   The one taken in the summer of 1949 shows him to one side of the 26 of us arranged on four rows on the steps leading up to the main doors of the Gym.   I’m the tallest one in the back row, standing between DM Baxendine and Adrian Carswell and smiling cheerfully, with a characteristic scoop of dark brown hair falling over my right forehead -- my hair was parted on the left.  The other three tall boys in the back row were CF Stewart, HG Usher and GPT Whurr.   I got on well enough with all the boys, but tended to associate with the oddball and clever ones, like WSM Nicoll (Long John Silver) and WP Gracie, and not with the sporty types and the country boys.   Although JD Caute and I had some things in common, both being good at English and History and having been born abroad, I had very little to do with him.   This could have been because of our enforced intimacy in The Princess and the Swineherd.

     In the Collection of Biographical Sketches called 175 Accies, published in 1999 to coincide with the 175th anniversary of the founding of the school, (John) David Caute wrote, ‘From the age of nine to twelve I wore the blue blazer and silver laurels of the Academy, a rather fierce initiation in academic education which, in my increasingly fragmented memory, boils down to variations of clacken-and-ball, a few strong personalities, masters and boys -- and the barbaric tawse.’    More about the tawse later. 

     He continued, ‘I learned to disguise my attachment to the England whence I came, and to cheer on the schoolboy terraces of Murrayfield when the white shirts [England] were trounced by the blues [Scotland] … I had a number of things to disguise and hide, including being half-Jewish, born in Egypt, christened a Catholic, and too fond of Miss McKellar’s adjustments to my velvet costume as Captain Smollet in Treasure Island … While at the Academy and before taking the Common Entrance exam to Wellington (where the cane replaced the tawse but rarely for faulty scholarship), I had written numerous short stories for Mr Cooke and for myself.   English and History were my subjects … Due to Hitler I was no good at Latin, Maths and French and invariably emerged at the end of term cringing in the bottom half of the class.’

     I wonder if Mr Cooke ever imagined he might have two best-selling authors in his Class of 1948-1949 who also wrote plays.   And one day I would act in a play written by David Caute.   But more about that later.


     During the spring and summer holidays of 1949 there had been more outings by coach or train to North Berwick, one with Aunt Ada, and a trip that took in Linlithgow Palace, once home of Mary Queen of Scots.   Again this meant little to me.   The ruins themselves appealed, but their history was too fractured to be interesting.   Although I was at a Scottish school, the Scottish history we were taught was cursory and superficlal.   Recent history wasn’t covered at all.   We learned nothing about the Crimean War, the Boer War and the two World Wars, and little about the events of the previous century. 

     Although the ruins of castles and abbeys have always appealed to me, a few, as with other sites of ruined cities, like Ephesus, have had a special attraction or significance.   They have seemed familiar, as if I had been there before.    The Lowlands of Scotland are littered with the remains of what were once small but sturdy castles, but in only one have I felt at home.   This was Crichton Castle, about 12 miles south-east of Edinburgh.    I became aware of it during some CCF exercises in the area and made a point of visiting the site when I could – although I don’t remember when or with whom.  

     Crichton, constructed in the last years of the 14th century, was rebuilt about 1450 and given to the first Earl of Bothwell in 1488.   It was the home of the fourth Earl, James Hepburn, who married Mary Queen of Scots after the murder of her young husband, Lord Darnley.   Mary visited Crichton more than once.   The castle was built around a courtyard, its four sides or ranges variously designed and of different heights.   The north range had an unusual Italianate facade and a stone staircase with a landing – the first of its kind in Scotland – which led up the main dining hall on the first floor.   To say that I recognised these features seems absurd.   But it wouldn’t surprise me if one of my Scottish ancestors, not necessarily one of the Bothwells, had lived there long ago. 


     In 1949 I acquired a camera, a box Brownie, and took some snaps of our outings and of Oxgangs Road.   These I dated in my albums by the year and not the month and year, never the day.   They show that in 1949 there were coach trips to Loch Katrine and Aberfoyle, to Melville Castle for tea, and that there was a picnic by a road overlooking the Forth Bridge, across which trains crawled along, passing to and from Fife.   The picnic was made possible because Aunt Ada, who was a cook/companion to a widow, Mrs Henderson, at Gilmerton, used to drive Mrs Henderson’s car.   My mother and I used to visit Mrs Henderson’ s house now and then, where Ada served us lavish teas and I kept quiet as the women talked, never speaking unless spoken to.

     I was still my mother’s regular companion.   Her restless and energetic nature required activity, such as shopping expeditions and outings, and she also required my presence, so that I might benefit theoretically from fresh air and some exercise and she be admired for having such a handsome young escort in tow.   I was her prize possession.   Where food, whether lunch or tea, was included I put up with the tedium of being with middle-aged women.   I was only there for the fare.

     In August 1949, Marion, my mother and I had a week-long holiday in St Andrew’s.   I didn’t like the place, and it was there that I had one of those nights of terror, in which I awoke in a pitch-black bedroom and knew that there was something terrible, blacker than the night, standing at the foot of my bed.   I couldn’t move, petrified with fear, but endeavoured to inch a hand under the bedclothes, unseen by the thing, towards the bedside lamp.   With a final fearful lunge I switched it on.   And there was nothing there!   After a while, after I had calmed, I was able to switch off the lamp and drift off uneasily to sleep.

      St Andrew’s, with its ruined cathedral and castle ruins, had a reputation for ghosts as well as golf, and I might have been spooked by reading something about a ghostly monk in the guidebook.   But I wasn’t dreaming.   I was awake.   A similar night-terror happened in Cornwall when I was a student at Oxford -- more about that later -- and related events have occurred since, in which I not only saw an apparition but in one instance heard it.   Years later I developed a theory about how these inexplicable happenings might be explained.   The mind is a strange place, a most complex machine wired in a million ways that we may never fully understand.   But more of this later too.

     About this time the parents of WP Gracie contacted my mother and asked if I would go on holiday with them.   I was no particular friend of their son, who was an odd-looking boy with a droopy lower lip and lank brown hair.   At Prayers one morning he had unhappily wet himself and was known from then on as Wet-Pants Gracie (his initials being WP).   With my vivid imagination heightened by listening to Dick Barton and Paul Temple I indicated I didn’t want to go on holiday with the Gracies, all virtual strangers, and my refusal was also prompted by my conviction that they planned to kill me.   Gracie’s parents went as far as visiting my mother in an attempt to persuade her, and me, that they’d like me to holiday with them, to no avail.   I hid in my bedroom, even more convinced that the parents, and WP, had evil intentions.   I didn’t go.   


     When the Winter Term began I moved up into Class IV, a larger classroom than Mr Cooke’s.  It was off the school hall at the front of the main building, and junior ephors made their formal entrance into the school hall through a double door at one end of the room when the school assembled in the hall every morning for Prayers.   During Prayers, a prayer was read, a hymn was sung, and announcements were made by the Rector from the platform below the organ.   The youngest boys sat in the hard wooden chairs at the front, and the other boys and classes were graded from front to back, with the oldest and senior boys, those in the Seventh classes, at the rear.   The hall was oval, and a raised walkway led around the well of the hall from the main doors, which opened out onto the temple-like portico with its six grey Doric columns.

     Inside the hall the walkways curved around the hall to the central dais or platform.   Some masters, but by no means all, sat in chairs nearest the platform, while senior ephors sat on one side of the walkway, with junior ephors opposite them.   Behind both sets of ephors paintings and pictures of distinguished Academicals lined the walls and silver sporting trophies stood in niches.   A narrow gallery below the oval glass-panelled drum that crowned the hall followed the curves of the walkways below.   It was lined with chairs and along the gallery’s edge were inscribed the names, in gold, of all the boys who had ever been Dux.  

     We were summoned by a bell for the start of Prayers at 9.0 am and the ding-dong of the bell announced the end of every class.   This bell was positioned at one end of the library, and activated by the Janitor pulling on a rope.   When not in use the rope was locked inside an oblong box on the wall to prevent its misuse, mischievous or otherwise.

     Magnus Magnusson, in his history of the school, The Clacken and the Slate, wrote, ‘To schoolboys, Janitors are simply there.   They don’t have names or private lives … They tend to be somewhat anonymous men, and the School records do little to invest them with personality.   But most of them had something memorable about them to schoolboy eyes – a ruddy face, a missing hand, a blind eye.’   The Janitor and his wife lived in the Janitor’s lodge, which was beside the third set of gates that led from Henderson Row into the school Yards (as they were called).   The Masters’ Lodge, on the other side of the Yards, was beside the first set of gates.   A new Janitor arrived at the school at the same time as me.  This was CQMS Peter McKeich, whose name I never knew at the time.   He had worked as an office boy at the Academy before WW2, during which he saw action with the Royal Scots.   The most memorable thing about him was his thin, flushed, red face, his formal costume of white tie and tails, and a top hat.

     The Class Master of Class IV was BGW Atkinson, nicknamed ‘the Bag’, a shortened version of ‘Bagwash’, derived from his initials.   A tall, gaunt, ascetic-looking man, he came to the Academy in 1925 with a formidable reputation as a rugby player and a cricketer – he batted for Middlesex and played for Scotland against Australia, whacking a six off Keith Miller.   At the Academy he was the coach of the Firsts in both cricket and rugby.   Years later I learned, to my surprise, that he lived with Mr Cooke.

     Mr Atkinson also had a formidable reputation as the most fearsome wielder of the tawse of all the masters.   Mr Hempson (but not Mr Cooke) had used it to discipline or punish back-sliding, badly behaved or inattentive boys.   JD Caute would write that Mr Atkinson ‘translated terra firma as “firmer terror” ’.   The Bag was usually late arriving in class at the start of lessons and someone in the class would act as look-out as we awaited his arrival.   When he was sighted striding across the Yards, his black gown, grown greenish with age, billowing behind him, we all hushed, sat still and became instantly studious.   In Class IV we sat side by side, two to a desk, as we did in most classrooms.

     The tawse was a long black leather strap, which Mr Atkinson kept in the drawer of his high desk coiled up like a snake.   He had a laconic and terse style of speaking, and when indicating his exasperation with someone or something would exclaim, disgustedly, ‘Christmas on wheels!’   When an offence had been committed, whether of an academic or anarchic sort – you might be tawsed for coming last in a test – he would say, almost wearily, ‘Come out here,’ open the lid of his desk drawer and unleash the tawse within.   A thrill of something like horror would run through the class as he told the miscreant to hold out his hand -- his left hand if he was right-handed.   We watched unblinking as the unhappy, tight-lipped boy extended his arm with the palm of his hand upward.   That was what was so awful about this type of beating, for the hand held out in such a trusting way was then dealt a most violent blow – not across the hand, as with most masters, but from fingers to wrist.   Usually only one blow was struck, but sometimes there were three.   The offender tried not to wince or cry, but tears would come to his eyes and he might squeak or gasp.   With his good hand he would clutch his injured arm and return to his seat, where he sat, rocking himself and hunched, sometimes with tears running down his cheeks, his throbbing hand between his legs or thrust into his arm-pit.   The rest of us shuddered and grieved for him.

      It once happened to me.   I was probably whispering to my neighbour when I should have been silently doing a Latin test.   ‘Honeycombe!   Come out here!’    Fearfully I did as I was bid.   I don’t know whether Mr Atkinson derived a certain amount of sadistic satisfaction from tawsing us.   He certainly swung the arm holding one end of the tawse as if he were a fast bowler hurling a ball at a batsman.   Such was the force of the blow that it sometimes drew blood from the thin skin of the lower arm that was exposed when a jacket and shirt-sleeve rode up the extended arm.   My hurt hand went red and seemed to swell up.   It hurt horribly, as if it had been inside a hive of bees, and tears came to my eyes.

    Other masters were comparatively benign.   Not so the senior ephors when they administered six of the best in the Ephors’ Room in the Master’s Lodge.   Here the accused had to wait outside the door until summoned inside.   Some uselessly thought to protect their bottoms by magazine papers or even slim books.   Once inside, the offender was faced by a tribunal of all seven ephors, sitting behind a table.   They outlined the offence and asked if the accused had anything to say in his defence.   If found guilty he was solemnly sentenced to two, four or six wallops given by a clacken.   Magnus Magnusson, describing this in his book about the Academy, wrote, ‘Unless the boy exercised his right of appeal to the Rector (which did not happen often), he was required to place his head under the edge of the large table in the Ephors’ Room, with his hands on top, whereupon the ephors, in turn, would deal him a stinging blow on the buttocks … Left-handed ephors were considered a great asset.’

     This never happened to me, and I don’t think these beatings instilled any discipline in unruly boys or caused any mental or physical harm.   Though now considered to be barbaric, they probably did some good.   No one, I imagine, was so traumatised by being beaten by clacken or tawse that he acquired a lust for self-flagellation or a desire to whip his children or wife.   Nonetheless the threat of being beaten and tawsed promoted a degree of fear in me, to the extent that I sometimes dreaded going to school, especially on a games day, and quailed when a junior or senior ephor spoke to me.    Now I think about it, muted fear characterised my years at the Academy – fear of authority figures and older boys, fear of what others might say about me, or say to me, or do.   And every week after school there were games days to be endured, and the CCF.   I was only untroubled and comparatively happy at school in my last two years.

     Friday afternoons after school were now occupied with the activities of the Combined Cadet Force, the CCF, which had been in existence as such since the war.   An Air Force unit was also part of the CCF, as was a Pipe Band, which practised in classrooms with their chanters and by drumming on the desks, or with their proper drums and bagpipes out in the Yards.   When on show or on parade they wore kilts with a Black Watch tartan, as did the rest of us at summer camps.  At school we wore full battledress, gaiters, boots, belts and Lowland bonnets, and sometimes drilled with .303 rifles.  

     There is a photograph, taken in the spring of 1952, of the CCF marching past the pillars of the school hall.   CSM Marr in a kilt with no sporran leads the column, which includes JW Gordon, RK Anderson, WP Gracie and myself.   We look rather untidy and the rifles slope at uneven angles.   Captain PDL Ford, in a kilt, no sporran, and wearing glasses, observes us with his back to the Library, where the time on the clock is half-past three.   I surmise that the full parade of the CCF began at 3.15, lasting perhaps until 4.15.

     As cadets we were drilled in platoons by boys promoted to corporal or sergeant.   They, or a master in uniform, instructed us in map-reading and we learned about the cleaning and firing of the rifles.   Later on we had target practice, with live rounds, at a rifle-range.   Sometimes we were bussed out into the Scottish countryside, where, sweatily crawling among thistles, flies and cowpats, we uselessly pretended to be a platoon or company in attack.   Our hiding-places were usually given away by my explosive hay-fever sneezes during the last two weeks of June.

     My mother, who was in the habit of boldly writing to the papers when some incident or grievance inspired her, penned a blast to the Evening News about this time.   She kept cuttings of nine of the letters she wrote over a 15-year period, signing herself as ‘Choking’ ‘Irritated’ ‘Maddened’ ‘Unbiased’ ‘Sympathetic’ and ‘Bankrupt.’   The reproving letter she wrote concerning my CCF activities was signed ‘A Mother.’

     She demanded, ‘Who is responsible for this vigorous Army training for school-boys of 14 years of age?   I strongly protest!    It is not in the school curriculum … The child, for he is only a child, comes home at 5.30 pm or later on Thursdays, tired after Rugby, has his home lessons to do, which takes him until 10 pm to finish, then he has his Army harness to polish and clean.   Boys of 14 years are in the growing and developing stage, and I strongly disapprove of Army training at this age.   Surely 16 years is quite soon enough.   They are not so likely then to suffer from overtiredness and strain … Also, is it necessary to produce such enormous Army boots for boys?’   

     The CCF ‘harness’ consisted of a belt and boots, and they would have been polished and cleaned on a Sunday.    Fridays after school were given over to activities involving various societies and to rehearsals for concerts and plays.


     Mr Atkinson took us for Scripture, History, English Composition and Literature.   In History I was placed sixth at the end of the Summer Term, in a class of 20 boys, and was seventh overall in English.   Drawing and Woodwork had now been dropped.

     In Class IV, we were being taken for English one day by Bag Atkinson and were reading aloud from a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, taking it in turns to read when nominated by him.   A pointless exercise, but it passed the time.   The Bag, checking that Morrison was awake and attentive, called his name, and JDR (Poker) Morrison, not a good reader, began to read.  He was a tall, black-haired, good-looking boy with a high colour and pouting lips.   He was also a House-boy.   Whether his nickname had anything to do with his red cheeks or an outsize penis I do not know.   But thus the other boys in Houses had baptised him.   A pallid contemporary of his, another House-boy, was called, because he had bulbous eyes, Fish Macmillan.

      We were somnolently following what Poker Morrison was reading in our copies of the book when he misread the text and announced, ‘Mr Lorry let off.’   Unfortunately he failed to correct his error and paused, giving the rest of us a chance to interpret what he had said and be seized by muted hysteria, by waves of suppressed giggling and choking.   The Bag, no doubt controlling his own amusement, ordered us to settle down and appointed someone else to carry on.   Poker Morrison should of course have said, ‘Mr Lorry left off.’

      My general progress in class continued to decline.   At the end of December Mr Atkinson merely remarked that I had done ‘A good term’s work.’   Mr Heath, who was now teaching us Latin and Greek, and liked to sit beside us, usually with an arm uncomfortbly draped around our shoulders, was more complimentary.   My best subject was now French – I was fourth in that class -- and the worst was Mathematics (22nd out of the 28 boys in that class).   Amazingly I was also fourth in Science.   Overall, out of the 22 boys in Class IV, I was eleventh.   By the end of the Spring Term I had dropped to twelfth, having improved in English but worsened in Latin and French.   ‘A satisfactory term’s work, with fairly steady progress,’ opined Mr Atkinson.   However, at the end of the Summer Term, in July 1950, I was back to being eleventh in the class, which was not the improvement it seems, as the class had shrunk to 20.   Two of the boys in Class IV had left the school.  One was probably JD Caute.

      The masters who taught me commented on my poor end of term exam results.   But the Rector was pleased to note that in Maths I had moved up to 18th out of 29 boys in that class.   He wrote, ‘I am glad to see the promised improvement in Maths, which he will, I hope, maintain.   Admirable as a “gilded serpent” and in most other ways as well.’

      This was a reference to my appearance, in May 1950, as Goneril in the school production of King Lear.


     The play was directed by Mr Hook and staged on that impossible low platform at the end of the school hall.   It was given three performances, beginning on Tuesday, 23 May.   It had a huge cast of 49 boys – no parts were doubled -- and featured some of those who had played leading roles in The Gondoliers.   Don Alhambra, WJS Fleming, was King Lear; the Duchess of Plaza-Toro, WF Harris, was Edgar; Giorgio, a minor gondolier, CDL Clark, was Edmund, and Inez, RM Greenshields, who had also played Juliet to Magnus Magnusson’s Romeo, was the Duke of Gloucester.   Rehearsals, on Mondays and Wednesdays after school, began in the Winter Term and sometimes lasted for two hours.

     Albany, Goneril’s husband, was played by JJ Clyde.   Though a pale-faced Scot, he was far from being the ‘milk-livered man’ and ‘vain fool’ of Goneril’s scorn.   He was Dux of the school in 1951, went on to study law and was called to the Scottish Bar.   A Supreme Court judge, he was given a life peerage in 1996 and made a member of the Privy Council.  

     Tessa in The Gondoliers, Ian Dewar, was cast as my sister, Regan, in King Lear, but he didn’t take rehearsals too seriously and was soon replaced by AC (Anton) McLauchlan.   Ian was a tall, fair-haired congenial fellow, with a big mouth and big lips.   When rehearsing a scene together at the beginning of Lear, he would burst out laughing when I said to him, with evil and sinister meaning, ‘Pray you, let us hit together,’ and ‘We must do something!  And i’ the heat!’    Ironically Ian went on to be a professional actor and a director, mainly of musicals, and was based, when I last heard of him, at the London Studio Centre in North London.

     In rehearsing King Lear I had no idea what I was saying most of the time, although I said it nastily and with some vigour.   Lear was even nastier, especially to me.  ‘Thou marble-hearted fiend!’ he stormed at me.  ‘More hideous when thou show’st with child than the sea-monster!’   ‘Detested kite!’ he shouted, and cursed me and my womb tremendously -- ‘If she must teem, create her child of spleen, that it may live and be a thwart disnatured torment to her! … that she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’   I was quite upset by all this verbal vitriol, and when Lear wept self-pitying tears of rage, tears came to my own eyes.   With a long white beard and greying hair, Fleming was a wonderful Lear. 

     Even though I was only 13½ I was now six feet tall and taller than Lear.  I must have looked rather like my mother.   Wearing an excess of rouge, a dab of lipstick and a high tiara on my dark red wig with two long plaits that dangled down my chest, I was also taller than Goneril’s lover, Edmund, whom I had to kiss towards the end of the play, saying seductively as I did so, ‘This kiss, if it durst speak, would stretch thy spirits up into the air.  Conceive and fare thee well.’   Whereupon he bowed his head and I chastely kissed his page-boy wig.   More about him later.


     As rehearsals gathered momentum during the Spring Term of 1950 my academic performances suffered.   I was beginning to enjoy being on a stage and those magic moments when the curtain rose on a fantasy world.   In fact our stage curtains parted.   The audience sat in the dark, looking and listening to us as, well lit and costumed, we played our parts, emoting and expostulating as the play required, acting out a story.   And then there was the loud applause that greeted the actors at the end.

     There were other reasons for my lapses during lessons and exams.   I was post-pubescent, we had moved out of Murrayfield Avenue, and in the early summer of 1950 my father retired and came to live with us in a bungalow at Fairmilehead.



                                    5.   EDINBURGH, 1950-53


     The move from 34 Murrayfield Avenue to a rented bungalow at 48 Oxgangs Road in Fairmilehead may have been made in May 1950, a few weeks before my father returned to Scotland.   On the other hand, we may have moved several months earlier, as there are three photos, taken outside 48 Oxgangs Road, which follow photos of The Gondoliers in an album and are on a page marked 1949.   My mother might have decided on the move when she knew my father was going to retire and would receive a retirement payment from Standard Vacuum, as well as an annuity.   Perhaps there had also been some bother with Mrs Bucher, our landlady.   In any event, the rents for the flat and the house would have been about the same, as the bungalow was so far from the centre of the city, on its southern boundary.

     Number 48 was a house of reddish stone with a red-tiled roof and an unadorned garden at the front and rear, each with areas of grass.  A yellowish laurel hedge lined the wall at the front, where there was a garden gate.   Marion occupied the upstairs attic-like room, whose window overlooked the road.   My mother’s and father’s bedroom was on the left of the front door; the sitting-room was on the right; and at the rear were my bedroom, the dining-room and the kitchen, which had a back door leading down steps to the rear garden.   The bathroom was between the kitchen and the sitting-room and at the opposite end of the hall were the stairs that led up to Marion’s room.

     Fairmilehead was about four miles south of the city centre and at the end of a tram terminus at the top of Comiston Road.   The view looking south from our bungalow was of the Pentland Hills, a view dominated by the highest of these grass-covered hills, Caerketton and Allermuir, a prospect I would see, in all weathers, for the next four years.   The hills had also been visible from the rear windows of the Murrayfield flat. 

     Down in the valley between them and nearer us was the village of Swanston, where Robert Louis Stevenson, at the Academy from the age of 11 for a couple of years, from 1861, had spent a few summers in a large white-washed house, called Swanston Cottage, which his parents had leased from 1867 to 1880.   Swanston was an idyllic place: with a small wood, thatched cottages (unusual in Scotland) and a babbling brook running through the village and past some old farm buildings.   Below the steep screes of Caerketton was the T Wood, which in fact was cruciform in shape, its topmost arm being hidden in a dip in the hillside from anyone seeing it from Oxgangs Road.

     I rambled over the hills, with or without a companion, every year, once in winter.   I scaled the screes until I got scared as they broke and slid beneath me; I explored the shadowy recesses of the T Wood; I reached the summits of Caerketton and Allermuir; and once with MG Harvey (Mick) trekked beyond Allermuir, along the hills on the other side and down into a valley, where we pushed over the trunks of a few rotted trees as if we were the children of Hercules.   We came back by coach.   But never did I visit RL Stevenson’s old home in Swanston.   I wasn’t interested.   I knew nothing about him, apart from the fact that he’d been at the Academy, and I’d read none of his books.   Besides, I was becoming totally absorbed in my own interests and creative pursuits and even more so in myself.


     My body bothered me – my feeble, thin and bony frame, which had the meanest of muscles and not much strength.   Spoonfuls of thick Radio Malt, urged on me by my mother, seemed to have no improving effect.   But in most of the comics that were read by boys, and in some magazines, body-building courses were consistently advertised, which promised to turn a weedy youth into a strong and fit muscle-man, like the godlike originator of these courses, Charles Atlas, who was always pictured posing in rather brief briefs.  He was said to have once been a seven stone weakling whom big bullies on a beach would humiliate by kicking sand on him as they passed.   So that this would never happen again to him or to other young men he had developed a body-building system known as Dynamic Tension, which would turn weaklings into supermen like him.  

     Feeling pathetic as well as puny I cut out a request for more information and secretly sent it off.   In reply, an envelope with Charles Atlas written all over it arrived and was seen by my mother, and my shameful interest was exposed.   Instead of paying for a course she quite sensibly bought me a chest expander, which required more strength than I had to extend its triple metal springs, and if let go, would smite me violently in the face.   I abandoned any hope of being like Charles Atlas and when on a beach never lay down, in case a bully would kick sand over me and laugh.


     From the upper slopes of Caerketton and Allermuir there were magnificent panoramic views of Edinburgh -- the silhouetted Castle, Arthur’s Seat, far-off Fife, the Forth Bridge, the Firth of Forth and away to the right the open sea.   Even further to the left were the distant, dim blue lower mountains of the western Highlands.   From the top of Allermuir, where there was a cairn and a sense of satisfied achievement, you could see for miles in every direction and were master, for a while, of all you surveyed.

     One trip, that we made by boat in 1950, was to a small island in the Firth of Forth, Inchcolm, separated from Aberdour in Fife by a deep-water channel known as Mortimer’s Deep.   From the island you had a reverse vista of the city and the Pentland Hills.  

     If any place was haunted, this was it.   It had an atmosphere and spoke to me, but I wasn’t listening then.   When I went there with my sister and her husband, Jim, in the 1990s it made a strong impression, and even now, as in JM Barrie’s play, Mary Rose, I hear it calling.   Perhaps some ancestral Fraser lived or died there. 

     Inchcolm had had a long and violent history.   It was known as the Iona of the East.   Hermits lived there and invading Danes buried their dead there to prevent their being dug up and eaten by the feral dogs and wolves that roamed the mainland.   King Alexander I founded an Augustinian monastery on the island which in time became an abbey.   It was raided and plundered several times by seafaring Danes, Scots and the English.   Much still stands of the ruined abbey, its square tower, cloisters, refectory and chapter house, and a hermit’s cell.   In the 1880s an upright skeleton was found encased in the abbey’s walls.   In both World Wars the island was fortified, and guns were sited at its eastern end to protect the Forth Bridge and the naval base at Rosyth.   The west of the island was and is guarded by nesting gulls and fulmars, which attack visitors and drive them off.   There is a story to be told here but it won’t be told by me, not now.

     Scotland and Cornwall are my ancestral homes, and Karachi my actual home.   I feel comfortable in these places, as I do in unexpected other places, like Ephesus, the Valley of the Kings and the Scilly Isles.   They have a certain familiarity, and I feel I should and could be telling stories about them.   I devised plots for novels about Ephesus, where Paul preached and where John and Mary lived and probably died, and about the island of Samson in the Isles of Scilly, but I never developed them. 

     Islands have always had a special attraction for me.   My first two novels were set on islands, Jersey and Lindisfarne, as was The Edge of Heaven, on Cyprus.   Other books, true stories, dealt with insular and segregated communities, like the police, firemen and the Royal Navy.   And now I live in the biggest island of all, Australia.


     We were at 48 Oxgangs Road for over four years and the bungalow was the first and only place in which I ever lived that was a house.  The others were all flats.   Not only that, our family of four was all there together.   

     Down south, in England, Donny and her husband, Harold, had moved into a cosy but commodious bungalow in Bournemouth in 1945.   This was Cliff Cottage, built in the grounds of and alongside Dorchester Mansions in Manor Road.   It had a Dutch green-tiled roof and cost about £5,500.  The Barrys moved in during the summer and were still occupied in furnishing the house when atom bombs exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Soon thereafter Harold suffered a heart attack and when he had recovered he became involved with another woman.  This distressed Donny so much that she went off on her own on a coal-carrying cargo-boat to the West Indies and the USA and became very attached to the ship’s Captain.   She was away for more than three months, which extended to five months as she then stayed with her mother and Billy Elder, who were now living at Stevenston in Ayrshire, in a small terrace house at 54 Caledonian Road.   Billy was employed as foreman baker.

     After an uneasy reconciliation back in Bournemouth, Donny and Harold sailed to Australia in November 1949 on a six-month trip that took them to Melbourne, Sydney, Fremantle and Perth, where I would settle as a permanent resident in November 1993.   On their return to Cliff Cottage in Bournemouth in April 1950 she deferred her annual visit to Scotland until her brother retired and settled in Edinburgh in June.  

     Since 1946 he had been staying in the Sind Club in Karachi, and his early retirement was due to the deterioration in his health, caused by the climate, by his smoking and drinking, which was inevitably influenced by the heavy drinkers and smokers who assembled in the Sind Club bar every night – and perhaps by his wartime experiences.   He would be 52 on 23 July.

     It was strange seeing him again, and to have him with us all the time, except when he wandered off to the Hillburn Roadhouse in the evening or at lunchtime, to socialise with some other middle-aged drinkers and down some beers.   He seemed smaller – as he was, seen from my much taller perspective.   Otherwise he was unchanged, and quite lively.   His glasses were still a permanent fixture.   His hair had slightly greyed above his ears, but even when he died he still had a full head of hair and all his own teeth – a genetic inheritance that may have come from his mother’s Scottish ancestors, rather than from the Honeycombes, the genetic curse of the Honeycombes being piles.   By this time I was also wearing glasses, for reading.   But it wasn’t until many years later that I needed glasses to sharpen the images on film and TV screens.

     Soon after my father moved in with us in Oxgangs Road, he went by train from Edinburgh to Glasgow and thence down to Stevenston to see his mother.    Donny wrote in her Memories that Mary Elder was overjoyed to see him after his twelve-year absence in India.   He thought she was looking well, and after a few days, during which they talked a great deal about the past, the present and his future, he returned to Edinburgh.   She came to the station to see him off and wave goodbye.  

     In less than a week he was back in Stevenston – his mother had had a heart attack.   He was with her, as was Billy, when she died, on 4 July 1950.   Mary Elder, former barmaid and wife of Henry Honeycombe and daughter of William Spiers, fruit merchant, died of a coronary embolism, aged 74.

     The day before this, on 3 July, Harold and Donny had driven up to Wimbledon for the Lawn Tennis championships and to meet some of their tennis-playing friends.   As it was very hot and Harold was suffering, the following day, the 4th, they curtailed their visit and decided to lodge overnight at a guesthouse run by an old friend of Donny, Norah, in a village near Huntingdon.   She and Donny had met in 1928 when both were working, Donny as a receptionist, at the Burlington Hotel – where she also met and was courted by one of the guests, Harold Barry.   About 11.0 pm on the 3 July, Donny retired to her bedroom and was reading in bed when Harold entered the room and told her that her mother had died earlier that night.   Gordon, in Stevenston, had phoned Cliff Cottage that afternoon to tell his sister that their mother was very ill, and receiving no reply had asked the police to contact the All England Club at Wimbledon, where an urgent message was broadcast (it wouldn’t happen now) at the Centre Court – which the Barrys had left half an hour before.  

    After the funeral service Gordon and Donny stayed on for a few days in Stevenston and then returned to their respective homes.   Billy Elder moved to Prestwick, where he became the manager of a bakery business owned by a young couple called Carle.

     I was indifferent to my grandmother’s death.   As I remember I met her only once, when my mother and I went down to Stevenston, presumably while we were staying in Glasgow.   The house she lived in was a pokey little place, in a featureless terrace of working-men’s houses near the station, and the sitting-room was crammed with furnishings and rather dark.   Mary Elder was a composed, short, stout, elderly woman, with frizzy grey hair and narrow eyes.   Her face was well-powdered.   It looked, as my mother said, as if she had dipped it in a bag of flour.   Billy Elder was a large, overweight man in a suit.   I didn’t much care for Stevenston or their home, but was interested in the Indian ornaments that my father had sent as gifts from India.   We had hardly any, my mother having pawned or sold most of them.

     In August 1950 all four of us Honeycombes had a week-long holiday in the Lake District.   We stayed at a hotel in Bowness on Lake Windermere and went for walks and a trip in a launch on the lake.   This took us to Keswick at the lake’s northern end and I tried to identify Wild Cat Island, Cormorant Island and the Amazon, places where Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons had had such enviable adventures.   But these islands were at the southern end of the lake.  However, I was able to spot the mouth of the Amazon.   On the way up the lake we passed a 20-year-old girl, Maureen Picton, who was attempting to swim the 10½ mile length of the lake.   We learned later that she got within 200 yards of the finish but had to give up because of the cold and her exhaustion.   I don’t think we had very good weather and spent some time indoors because of the rain.   So I never saw the cottage home of Beatrix Potter, the creator of Pigling Bland and Samuel Whiskers, nor where Wordsworth had lived.

     On our return, there was an outing, among others, to plain-looking Melville Castle, where we had tea and where in a field behind the castle were some Highland Cattle to be admired.    We always travelled by train or coach.    We never had a car.    Nor did any of the senior boys at the Academy have a car, as far as I know.    Nor did I ever acquire one myself, although I learned to drive.

     By this time I had acquired some Scottish attire, and was now an object of female admiration when kitted out in a kilt of red and black Fraser tartan, a leather sporran, green jacket, tartan tie, and green stockings with red flashes.   All this I wore on special occasions and on the Sundays when we went to church, to the plain Presbyterian church situated by the cross-roads at the end of Oxgangs Road.   This church-going became an irregular event while we lived in Fairmilehead, my mother believing that it was good for me, though my father preferred to spend Sunday lunchtime in the Hillburn Roadhouse, and my sister was often away with her girl-friends.   Church-going must have also revived memories for my mother of Bridge of Allan, and of her grandfather, Honest John, and it enabled her to meet people, and participate in the social activities, like garden fetes, that church-goers enjoyed.  

     The only thing I enjoyed about church-going was the singing of hymns.   In between there were prayers and readings from the Bible and announcements about local events connected with the church.   The half-hour-long sermon was stupefying, and I used to look at the Rev Gillan in his glasses and black gown, and wonder what qualified him to stand above us in a pulpit and preach, to literally talk down to us about such unlikely (to me) concepts like Heaven and Hell and tell us not to refrain from sinning.   I had no belief in him or in what he said.   Even the Christian symbol of the cross, to which a man had been nailed, suffered and died, seemed a very strange, barbaric and bloody object of worship.   And what about all the millions of people who had lived and died before 1 AD?   Were they all damned, and if so, why -- not to mention the millions who followed other religions?    It also didn’t seem right to me to worship a person, or persons.   Natural wonders, like mountains, rivers, rocks and trees, seemed more natural objects of worship, as well as the moon and the sun and the stars.    The worship of idols by other religions, by Catholics, Jews, Muslims and even Anglicans seemed very strange to me.    And did the Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops really believe that they were going to live for ever, when no living creature on Earth, not a single species or kind of flora and fauna  ever did?  

     On Sundays we met some of our neighbours, none of whom was of much interest except for Patricia, Sandra and Charlotte Bateman, who lived in a house three along from us.   They went to St George’s School in the city, the female equivalent of the Academy.   Patricia was older than me, while Sandra was a year younger.   Once or twice I went over to their house, but from a teenage boy’s point of view they were silly creatures and only interested in girlish things.   Meanwhile, Marion, who was 20 in August 1950, had become interested in the eldest of the two boys who lived next door to us.   His name was Leslie and I thought him to be a bit of a drip.   His younger brother, Bruce, had a more manly name and was nice-looking and sandy-haired, but too old, at 18, to be friends with me.   There was no boy of my own age in the neighbourhood.

     Our neighbours on the other side of the garden fence at the rear of our house were the Rodgers, a retired colonel and his wife, Anne.   They had a fine vegetable garden that backed onto our property, which was lacking not just vegetables but plants.   Motivated by their example and a newly discovered creative urge to grow things, I set about planting seeds in rows in the wide oblong plot on the other side of the lawn at the rear of our house.   There were errors and failures and some vegetables were nibbled and eaten by pesky caterpillars and rabbits.   But over the next four years we had a quite an extensive vegetable garden that produced lettuces, cauliflowers, carrots, onions, turnips and peas, as well as rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries.   Colourful, scented sweet-peas arrayed along a wired wall and nasturtiums were persuaded to climb up the garden fence. 

     Gardening was an oddly satisfying occupation – the earthy smell and feel of the soil, the pungent aromas of the plants and flowers, the tending of them and seeing them grow.   But I was never comfortable with worms, either picking them up or killing them.   I always avoided killing anything if I could.

     It was because I was sensitive about visible death -- by the squashed body of a cat, for instance, run over by a car in the road -- that I never knew what happened to Ham and Eggy, two golden hamsters that I acquired when we moved to Oxgangs Road.  

     The mice I’d had as pets periodically disappeared -- got rid of, somehow, by my mother.   Perhaps she took them back to the pet-shop off the High Street where they’d been bought.   Ham and Eggy also came from there and lived in the kitchen in a wooden box, which had two levels and a glass front.   It also had a lid which, when lifted, exposed the hamsters’ upstairs nest.   Ham used to make a delightfully peeved and chirring noise when aroused from his slumbers and poked.   When allowed to run around the sitting-room with Eggy he used to climb the curtains and, halfway up, fall off.   Like a cat he fell on his feet and seemed none the worse.   All this activity usually fired him into mounting Eggy for a five-second burst of surprisingly rapid action.   This was very misleading in every way from a human point of view, but educational, I suppose.   Then one morning my mother announced that Ham was dead.   She showed me his sad little curled up corpse and I buried him in a cigarette tin under the ornamental cherry tree in the front garden.

     Eggy, who was larger and more svelte than Ham, must have been traumatised in some way by his demise.   She was pregnant, and when she gave birth ate some of her babies.   I was told this by my mother – unusually, for she tended not to pass on any bad news and hid magazines with gory pictures.   Eggy and what was left of her brood then disappeared.  

     To salve my sorrow I was given a kitten, part grey tabby, part white, which when a cat, spent a lot of time out of doors, hunting mice and rabbits, and bodies of mice began to appear on the steps at the kitchen door.   She had a white chest and nose and lasted a year or so.  And then she too disappeared.   In this case I think she was run over.

     Gardening helped to take my mind off these tragedies, as well as the tragedy of King Lear, and my grandmother’s death.   For in addition to the vegetables planted at the back, I was engaged in adding colour and flowers to the front, where the path from the gate to the front door became edged with mauve aubretia and white alyssum.   Small rhododendron bushes, clumps of lavender, tall colourful lupins and golden rod filled the empty spaces behind.   In the spring, snowdrops, tulips and daffodils, planted in groups, duly appeared.   My sister would occasionally assist me with the vegetable plot and my father helped out by pushing the lawn mower over our two lawns, front and back.  When it was warm and sunny, we would have tea on the daisy-covered lawn at the back of the bungalow, and deck-chairs were purchased so that we could pretend we were on holiday.   At night we now and then played cards or Mah Jong – when I was on holiday or free from dealing with school homework.   My parents taught me how to play bridge.   And my father, having bought the necessary brush, soap and a safety-razor, showed me how to shave.   I stood beside him in the bathroom as he demonstrated what to do.   It was probably the first time I had ever been so near him and regarded him so closely.  A few minutes of physical intimacy that would never happen again

     At lunchtime during the week, and on Saturday, he regularly visited the Hillburn Roadhouse for a few beers or whiskies.   Sometimes he walked there in the early evening.   At the Roadhouse, which was about half a mile away, he found congenial company in a group of older, retired men.   After a lunchtime session he would fall asleep in his armchair on the right of the fireplace.   I once took a photo of him having a siesta and entered it in a photographic competition in a magazine.   I called the photo ‘Beauty Sleep’.   It won a prize and I received a small amount of money.

     On birthdays, in August and September – I was 14 that September -- we had special teas.   Now that we had a house and a garden, more people visited us, like my sister’s girl-friends, my mother’s women-friends and the favoured members of her family, like Uncle Alastair and Aunt Jenny, Aunt Ada and Auntie Madge.   My mother also still kept in touch with some of the married couples she’d known in India, as my sister did with some of her friends.   Sometimes a certain resentment was obliquely shown by those in England and Scotland who had endured the bombs and hardships of the war, and directed at those of us who had sat out the war, safe and well-fed, in India.   Though more evident in cities that had been heavily bombed by German planes, like Glasgow, Liverpool, Coventry, Plymouth, Southampton and London, this veiled resentment was rarely shown in Edinburgh, which hadn’t suffered from being bombed, only two bombs having been unloaded on the city, causing little damage and no deaths. 

     At some point after my father’s return, a piano was hired or bought and parked in the sitting-room by the door.   My sister was quite a good player, better than me, although she seldom sat down to rattle off something she knew.   My father also played but did so rarely.   When he did, he played without music some bouncy tune he had learned long ago, and as he played his right hand would jerk and shake – as mine does now when I brush my teeth.   

     My mother was now cooking for four people.   But she now had my father to help her with the housework, and help he did, putting on an apron, doing some dusting and polishing and running a carpet-sweeper over the floor.   I was no help, though co-opted now and then to wield a dish-towel and dry the cutlery, glasses and dishes.   My sister always seemed to be out.

     On 20 November 1950 all four of us were invited to the Rodgers’ bungalow to celebrate their wedding anniversary.   My father and the colonel wore DJs, the women full-length gowns and I my kilt.   At Christmas 1950 there was a family celebration in Number 48, our first Christmas together as a family since 1945.   Also present were Aunt Ada and Uncle Alastair and Jenny.   Crackers were pulled, paper hats were worn, roast turkey and plum pudding were eaten and a merry time was had by all, I’m sure, with lots of laughs.   For the first time, since Karachi, we had a Christmas tree and traditional decorations, like sprigs of holly draped over pictures and a piece of mistletoe hanging from an overhead light in the hall.   A stocking hung from the end of my bed overnight on Christmas Eve was found to be stuffed with small gifts in the morning, such as games and sweets.   There was always an orange at the bottom of the stocking and a Christmas cracker at the top.

     That winter there was more snow than usual.   But this could have been because we were not in the lower, warmer city and were higher up.   Oxgangs Road ran along a ridge and on its southern side the land sloped down through fields to the Swanston Burn and then up to the high hills.   I had never seen so much snow, and it added a romantic aspect to the hills, all now garbed in white.  

     It also meant that it was colder where we were, and when trudging to school on cold dark mornings, to the tram terminus at the end of Oxgangs Road where the 11,15 and 16 trams turned around, with a bitter wind blowing and slush underfoot, my extremities froze, despite the woollen gloves I wore and the woollen scarf round my neck.   The Number 11 tram at the terminus was a bright, warm and welcome sight.   It rattled downhill towards the city centre, three miles away, and I would get off the tram at Morningside and transfer to a Number 23, which took me, via Tollcross, across the High Street and steeply down the Mound, and then in an angle across Princes Street and down to Henderson Row, past the house where my father was born (though I didn’t know that then).   The whole journey took about half an hour.

     Playing rugby in the depths of winter, on rock-hard frozen pitches, added to my loathing of organised games, although the gathering darkness meant we ended earlier.   It was dark of course when I returned home.   When I went to bed it was partially warmed by a rubberised hot water bottle in a woollen wrap.   The extremities of the bed were still like ice.   On some winter mornings when my mother woke me by switching on the overhead light in my bedroom there was ice on the inside of the window.   She then switched on the single bar of a small electric fire, and crouching and shivering in front of it I hastily dressed before downing a breakfast of porridge, bacon and eggs, and a cup of milky, sugared tea.

     Our bungalow had no heating.   A coal fire warmed up the sitting-room and there were electric fires in the bedrooms.   But nothing warmed the bathroom.   It was the coldest place in the bungalow, and every activity there during the winter was performed by me in double quick time, including stripping before a bath and drying myself.   In those days I only had a bath once a week.

     Meanwhile, at the Academy, I had moved up another class.


    The master in charge of Upper IV was Mr West, a scraggy and somewhat cynical Irishman from Cork, whose speciality was Mathematics.   As my standing in Maths wasn’t good, I was in an inferior section of the class and was taught Maths by someone else.   Paddy West, as my Class Master, only gave me and the others Scripture lessons.   These were a waste of time, as nothing was learned and no one, as far as I was aware, was at all religious.   For English I went to Jack Bevan; for History to Mr King, and for Latin and Greek to Mr MacEwen, otherwise known as Bob Begg.    I also continued with classes in Science and French.  

     Mr MacEwen once asked six of us, those he favoured among the brighter boys in the class, to tea at his home in Murrayfield.   His wife served us and conversation was awkwardly made.   After tea we played written and verbal games, which he supervised.   In one, the only one I remember, we had to guess when a minute was up, counting the seconds silently to ourselves.   Harry Usher won that game, the rest of us under-estimating how slow a minute was.    I later learned that a minute is best counted by adding ‘and’ to the count, eg, ‘one and, two and, three and,’ etc.

     Over the 1950-51 year, although my exam results were disappointing, I ended the Summer Term third out of the 23 boys in Upper IV, being placed second in English, sixth in History, fifth in Latin, second in Greek, fourth in French and fourteenth in Maths.   Mr West summed up, ‘He has clearly made a steady improvement during the session and was much more purposeful at the end.’   The Rector wrote, ‘Very promising; I’m particularly glad to see his progress in his weakest subject.   He should do something very good in the world.   My best wishes – CMES.’

      This was the Rector’s valediction.   At the end of the Summer Term Mr Seaman left the Academy to be Headmaster of Bedford School, having been Rector of the Academy since 1945.    More than half of the masters that I knew had been appointed during his time, although several of those who had arrived in the 20s and 30s remained – Messrs Hempson, Cooke, Atkinson, Heath, West, Scott, Read and Munro.    Among the new masters were Mr Hook, Mr Head, Mr McIlwaine, Mr Bevan and Mr Ford.   PDL (Puddle) Ford took over the school productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and the Shakespeare plays.  

     During Mr Seaman’s rectorship Divisional Music Competitions were instituted, the first being organised and run in 1951 by the Dux that year, JJ Clyde, and the Head Ephor, CDL Clark.   I must have taken part in this, in the Carmichael Choir, although I can’t recall what we sang – and if we won.   At the Exhibition, which was the Academy’s name for the prize-giving and speeches that ended the Summer Term and the school year, Mr Seaman described the Concert that followed the Competitions, ‘as the most interesting and musical event’ of his six years at the Academy.   He said, ‘It does seem to me that when upwards of seventy boys give up their time – and in some cases very much time – for so good and so musical an enterprise, a very important process is at work.’   In my last year I would organise the Music Competitions and the Concert.

     I believe that Mr Seaman was instrumental, in collusion with my mother, in establishing the fact that when I left the Academy I would be awarded a Close Scholarship to University College, Oxford.   It had recently been endowed in memory of KD Thompson (EA 1892-1905, killed in action in 1916), by legacies of £3,000 each from two of his sisters.   Of all these matters I was of course ignorant at the time.

     The new Rector was Mr RC Watt, Rob Watt.   He was the same age as my father and had served in the First World War.   He came to the Academy from Rugby School, where he was Head of the History Department as well as a Housemaster.   A Scot and the son of a minister, his schooling had been at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and at the Academy’s neighbouring school and rival, Fettes, where he was Head of the School.

     The Summer Term saw the next production of a G & S operetta, Patience -- in which I did not appear.   The main reason was that my voice was breaking.   It was neither alto nor baritone – nor treble, though I could still manage some painful high notes.   The only part I might have played was Lady Jane.   But that went to Ian Dewar, who left the Academy soon afterwards.   Bunthorne was JJ Clyde.   I could have been in the Chorus but was reluctant to demean myself after starring as Goneril, and I declined the opportunity of being in the Chorus of Rapturous Maidens.   I would have been quite a sight as a Rapturous Maiden as I was now about 6 feet 3.

     This absence from rehearsals and performances probably improved my position in class, and it also made it more possible in the Easter holiday for me go on a journey down south.

     In March 1951 Donny was in Edinburgh for a few days – she had been staying with Billy Elder in Prestwick – and paid us a visit.   I don’t think she was ever invited to stay with us.   We didn’t have a guest bedroom, and my mother wouldn’t have relished cooking and housekeeping for this monied and somewhat graciously condescending visitor.   Describing this visit in her Memories, Donny said she questioned her brother about the reasons for his retirement.   ‘It transpired,’ she wrote, ‘that Gordon had contracted emphysema and a heart condition aggravated by his wartime service in Salonika and France.  This illness and unexpected early retirement would cause Gordon serious financial problems and this was worrying him hugely.’

     None of this was made known to me.   As far as I was concerned my father was smoking and drinking as much as he had before and was cheerful and quite active.   He once walked with me to Swanston and part of the way up Allermuir, and of course he was walking every week to and from the Hillburn Roadhouse.

     During Donny’s visit, when I probably played the piano for her, it was suggested that I might go down to Bournemouth and stay with her and Harold Barry.   The suggestion might have come from my mother, who was always keen that I should expand my horizons.   Anyway she approved of the idea and in April off I went.

     This was my third visit to England, the first two being the trip to London with the mice, and the holiday in the Lake District.   It was the longest train journey I had ever made on my own, a journey, between Edinburgh and London, that I would make many, many, many times in later years.   From King’s Cross I found my way by the London Underground to Waterloo and entrained for Bournemouth, another journey I would make off and on for the next 50 years.

    At the Central Station I was met by my Aunt and driven to Cliff Cottage in Manor Road.   Although it was adjacent to a mansion block, it had a little garden, and from there I could reach the East Overcliff Drive that ran along the top of the sandy cliffs lining the beach and the extensive sweep of the bay below them.   On the far right of the bay was Sandbanks and the entrance to Poole Harbour.   Further out were the Old Harry Rocks that concealed Swanage and the barely visible silhouette of Corfe Castle.   On the far left were the hazy white smudges of the west-facing Needles marking the Isle of Wight.   Bournemouth seemed like a very pleasant place: the sun shone and it was warm.   I soaked up the sun sitting on a garden bench and read a book.  

     Cliff Cottage was well furnished and had some antiques, some of which I would eventually inherit.   It also had a baby grand piano, and sight reading from sheets of music, I accompanied Aunt Donny as she sang lush and sentimental ballads from her repertoire, like Far Away Places, One Night of Love, Glamorous Night and Some Day My Heart Will Awake, the last two by Ivor Novello.   One day I would devise and narrate a staged production of his life and music for the Bournemouth Operatic Society, which was performed twice in the Winter Gardens on a Sunday.   It was called Waltz of my Heart.  

     I took several photographs of my Aunt in the garden, posing in a satin gown, as if she were singing on stage.   In one photo she cradled a bunch of daffodils.  I had now begun calling Aunt Donny AD, which she said was better than being called BC.   She wrote about my two-week visit in her Memories.

     ‘Ronald,’ she said, ‘was totally different in temperament from his sister, Marion … [She] was a lively young girl, uninhibited, full of energy and always ready to chat about whatever happened to be in her thoughts at the moment.   Ronald, however, was unusually quiet, and gave little indication of his likes or dislikes.   It worried me at first, but Harold told me to leave him alone and not fuss so much about him … I soon noticed that Ronald was content to be left alone with a book – or books – of which he never seemed to tire of reading.   I discovered he was artistic, fond of music and showed an interest in the theatre; he had taken part in his school’s drama and musical productions and spoke of them with obvious enjoyment.   This discovery pleased and interested me, for it was something I could relate to so easily, bringing back memories of my own youthful aspirations … I enjoyed taking him to the theatre and to the Winter Gardens to hear some excellent concerts by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.   Harold, never a talkative man himself, preferred to take us out in the car, where he could point out places of interest.   We visited the cottage at Higher Bockhampton, the birthplace of Thomas Hardy, and the Hardy Museum at Dorchester … We also explored the New Forest and enjoyed some picturesque drives through Dorset villages and along the coast.’

     I’d never read any of the novels of Thomas Hardy – I began reading them during this visit -- and knew nothing about TE Lawrence, who had in fact lived in the area.   But I was much enamoured with the verdant sunny countryside and entranced by the magnificent ruins of Corfe Castle, perched on a mound in a dip in the Purbeck Hills.   Harold, bald-headed and sporting a grey moustache, was taciturn and gruff and at meal-times AD did most of the talking.   She was now 50 and he was 69, the oldest man I’d ever met.   I was inhibited by his age and personality and didn’t know what to say to him, and he didn’t help by saying not much to me.   I was also constrained by showing good manners and by the presence of a middle-aged home-help and cook, ironically called Louie.

    Someone who was much, much older and consequently became the oldest woman I’d ever met was my Great-Aunt Mem.   She was AD’s aunt, Aunt Emma, and was one of my grandfather Henry Honeycombe’s three sisters.   Henry and his family had had little to do with his sisters since his marriages, although his father, Samuel, twice visited the Honeycombes in Scotland, once with Emma, his unmarried daughter.   With Samuel’s death in 1911 and Henry’s death in 1915, all contact diminished and ceased. 

     But it so happened that Auntie Mem came to Bournemouth on a visit before the war, to be company for a younger married sister, Nellie, who had settled in Bournemouth with her husband, Fred Hoskins.   Both of the Hoskins were school-teachers and they had a son called Eric.   Emma became a frequent visitor, and when Fred and then Nellie died, she stayed on in Bournemouth to keep house for Eric until he married.    It was not until 1939 that Emma learned in a roundabout way that Henry’s daughter, Donny, was also in Bournemouth and got in touch with her.

     Great-Aunt Mem was tiny, about 4 feet 10, aged 88, and quaintly dressed in black.   She wore spectacles and was amazed at my height – nearly 6 feet 4.   I was also amazed at her lack of height and great age, and that she was a Honeycombe.   Born in October 1862, she had been a postmistress at Northfleet in Kent, where her father, Samuel, the Surveyor and Inspector of Nuisances, had lived.   I met her twice on this visit to Bournemouth, and although she told me something of her father and his family, I made no notes and soon forgot what she had told me. 

     There are few things I regret.   But now I much regret that although I became interested in the origins and history of the Cornish Honeycombes in the 1960s, it was the ancient Honeycombes who interested me then, not what Great-Aunt Emma, who lived to be over 100, could have told me about my very own Honeycombe ancestors, about her father, Samuel, who was born in Plymouth in 1828, and about her grandfather, William, born in Liskeard in Cornwall in 1786.   Her recollections of what she knew and had heard would have covered 150 years, including the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean war, the Boer War and two world wars, as well as all the social changes of the Victorian Age and of the first half of the 20th century.   But all this was lost when she died in Dartford in July 1963, three months before her 101st birthday.   If only I had talked to her, tape-recorded her while she lived!

     At the end of the two-week visit, AD came with me to London, in case I was not sure about crossing London, from station to station, and about using the Underground.   ‘I needn’t have worried,’ she wrote in Memories.   ‘It was he who studied the Underground map and led me safely from Waterloo to King’s Cross; he even decided what would be best for us to eat at lunch, having studied the somewhat dreary menu at the station Buffet Restaurant.   His confidence and self-assurance quite impressed me, and I felt that this boy, fast approaching manhood, would soon be making his own decisions, and mapping out his chosen career with the strength of character and determination that would  achieve success.’

     In fact I hardly ever mapped out anything, nor chose a career.   Others made career choices for me, although some decisions I made on my own.

     During the summer holidays there were more train journeys and travelling.   Early in August 1951 I went down to Eastbourne to stay with the Maish family and saw Jane and Billy for the last time.   Billy was now 17 and at Taunton School, where he did his A Levels in Maths and Physics, played cricket, rugby, hockey and tennis, became Head Boy and left in 1952.   Erskine Abbott was coincidentally also at the school, though briefly.   Billy did his National Service in the RAF, signing on at the end of his two years for a commission and permanent employment therein, eventually ending up as an Air Commodore.

     The Maishes lived in a house on Decoy Drive, and one day, when visiting an amusement arcade on Eastbourne’s pier, I won some glassware, a jug and two bowls, which I gave to Jane.   She still has them.   We made car trips to Brighton and to Rye, but the main excursion, by train, was to the South Bank Exhibition site of the Festival of Britain.   Many British cities, besides London, still showed the ruinous aftermath of war, rationing still continued amid post-war shortages and general gloom, and the Festival was dreamed up by the Labour government – the Prime Minister was Clement Attlee – to encourage positive attitudes and emphasise the nation’s progress and recovery.

     It was a grey day when we were there, and we wandered about gazing at the thin steel Skylon seemingly floating in the air, at the metallic fountain, at the Shott Tower, and wandered through the Dome of Discovery, the Transport Pavilion, the Ship Pavilion and other examples of British industry and invention.   It was all rather ugly.   The most attractive buildings were the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion and the Restaurant.   None of the structures has survived, apart from the Royal Festival Hall.  

     Stamps were issued to commemorate the Festival and I added them to my stamp collection, which I’d started about 1947, concentrating on British and Commonwealth stamps issued during the reign of George VI.   There were some series of George V stamps, some British Indian ones, some first-day-of issue envelopes, and ultimately a mix of foreign stamps with different shapes, bright colours and designs.   I stopped collecting when I left school, where there was a minor trade in swapping stamps.

     The next time I met up with Jane, now Mrs Whittle-Herbert, was in Perth, Western Australia, in October 2012, more than 60 years after the Eastbourne visit.   After spending most of her married life in South Africa, where her mother, Nancy, died, aged 100, Jane and her husband, Andrew, were now living in Queensland, on the Gold Coast.  

     On my return to Scotland I was off again, this time on a camping weekend with Bill Nicoll and Adrian Carswell -- something I had never done before, and didn’t want to do again.   But I did.   More of that later.   Mrs Nicoll drove us down to the Yarrow Valley, south of Peebles, and retrieved us after one night.   I had never slept out of doors, albeit in a tent, nor had I ever cooked anything, apart from chapathis.   Bill Nicoll did the cooking, frying everything in a pan.   We rambled along the Yarrow Water and climbed a hill.   What I remember most is being awoken and astonished by the noise made by the dawn chorus of birds.  

     This was followed, in September, by a week’s holiday in Rothesay, the main town on the Isle of Bute.   I went with my parents – Marion must have been off somewhere, possibly youth-hostelling with one or other of her girl-friends.   We stayed in a guest-house on the sea-front promenade.   Street photographers snapped us wearing or carrying raincoats and although some other photos are sunny, it seems to have been cloudy most of the time.   These photos show my mother and me feeding pigeons on the main promenade; a boat-trip on the three-funnel steamer, SS Columba, to Tarbert and Ardrishaig on the shores of Loch Fyne; a trip around Rothesay Bay in small motor-boat made by me and my father; and a day-trip on the steamer, Duchess of Hamilton, past the Isle of Arran to Campbeltown on the lower extremity of Argyllshire.   From there we were driven to Machrihanish on the other side of the peninsula, from where you could allegedly see the distant coast of Northern Ireland.   On another occasion we had tea at the large Victorian edifice of the Glenburn Hotel, where Henry Honeycombe and his family had once stayed and where he had read about the sinking of the Lusitania.    We walked along the coast to Ascog, where I paddled in the icy water looking for interesting shells.   Between us and the mainland large ships sailed to and from the approaches to the River Clyde and Glasgow.

     At the guest-house some of the adults organised a series of party games one night after dinner.   In one of them I and a girl called Stella Moss had to chew on the opposite ends of a piece of string.   She was a little bit older than me and was staying there with her older sister.   Neither of us liked this game, which meant packing the soggy string into our mouths until our lips met in the middle, while the adults egged us on.   We chewed reluctantly but didn’t get close to each other until one of the men banged our heads and mouths together.   It was all very embarrassing.   Saliva-soaked string is not a pleasant prelude to a kiss.

     A photograph taken by a street photographer in Rothesay of my father, mother and myself reminds me that hats were still being worn by women and men when out of doors.   Working-class men wore flat caps and middle-class men trilby or homburg hats.   When on holiday my father wore a tweed cap.   Bowlers were still being worn by some city businessmen, especially in London, and top hats were the fashion at weddings and gala events.   Women also wore hats when going to the cinema or theatre, even when in their seats, and to any social function.   They had their hair permed in those days, wore nylon stockings, fur wraps and in the winter long fur coats.   My mother did her best to keep up with the latest fashions and was always smartly dressed.

     On 27 September I was 15 and it was back to school again for the Winter Term of 1951.


     I was now 6 feet 4½ and at this point I fortunately stopped growing.   Why I sprouted when I did and then stopped growing is a mystery to me.   But thank goodness I did.   My mother’s brothers were six feet or so, and I might have shot up to 6 feet 7 or 8, which would have been far too tall.   As it was, I was now the tallest boy in the school and, as I eventually came to realise, the tallest Honeycombe in the world.

     Not that I was self-conscious about my height.   Indeed I was always mystified when people referred to me as a ‘giant’ or irritated me by asking if it was ‘cold up there.’    It wasn’t until I got to Oxford that I encountered anyone taller than me – two of the students at my college who were 6 feet 5 and 6.   I don’t recall even coming across anyone taller than me during my National Service.   However, whenever I saw another man in the street who was very tall, or stood beside someone as tall as me, I realised I must after all be very tall, like him.   But generally I didn’t, and don’t, think like that, that I’m very tall, thinking instead that practically everyone I know is shorter or smaller than me.   And I’m used to that.   That’s normal.   Yet when I meet someone who is 6 feet 6 or 7, or more, I revert to being a polite and respectful schoolboy again – which was the last time, up to the age of 15, when senior boys and masters were taller than me.

     The Class Master of Class V was HR (Scabby) Scott, who was brusque and militaristic and a golfer.   He had a toothbrush moustache.   Magnus Magnusson wrote of him that, ‘He always had an Englishman’s horror of the Edinburgh weather, and once suggested that the Winter, Spring and Summer Terms should be renamed Winter I, Winter II and Winter III.’   I second that.   But I was getting used to the rigours of playing rugby and the freezing cold of Edinburgh winters -- and springs.

     Mr Scott took us for French, and Scripture – though what we were taught in Scripture lessons, whatever it was, was as usual wasted on me and the other boys.   The new Rector, Mr Watt, taught us History, and rated me as first in his class (‘A promising performance’), as I was in English.   My placing in Latin (‘Fairly steady improvement’), Greek (‘Steady and competent work’), French (‘Usually good’) and Science (‘A neat and thorough worker’) remained about the same, and my worst placing was inevitably Maths, despite some extra tuition.   This excited the concern of the new Rector, who, commenting on what Scabby Scott wrote in his Report at the end of the Winter Term  -- ‘A good report & well deserved’ -- said, ‘Nor does it reveal all of his talents; but his “steady progress” in a subject which doesn’t come naturally to him is most creditable.’

    They were less forgiving at the end of the Spring Term of 1952.   Mr Scott wrote, ‘He seems to have been taking a bit of an “easy” recently.  This must not be extended beyond the holidays.’   The Rector said, ‘Rapid growth and the demands of the drama may provide some excuse, but he must revert soon to his best form if he is ever to reach Scholarship level.’

     The drama to which the Rector referred was Julius Caesar, which was presented in the school hall on 29, 30 and 31 May 1952.   I played Brutus.

     We now had a proper stage that was built over the platform used for Prayers and projected further out, as well as having more width.   It was four feet high and had a painted proscenium arch and wings and two sets of curtains which could be used for inner scenes.   Lighting was also much improved.   WH (Wilf) Hook, who had directed Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, took a back seat on Julius Caesar, which was chiefly produced and directed by PDL (Puddle) Ford.    Mr Hook had intended to present The Tempest as the Summer Term production, and in the Winter Term I was tried out and rehearsed by him as Prospero.   But apart from the fact that he made me feel uneasy, I can’t have been very convincing as an elderly magician and the idea was abandoned in favour of a play with a big cast and a historical content, more accessible to schoolboys in every way.   Rather than Roman togas, we all wore Elizabethan costume – cloaks, doublets and hose, flat hats and boots – and neat Elizabethan moustaches and beards.

     Three of the older boys, who had played leading roles in previous school productions, now played their last.   CDL (Chick) Clark was Cassius; AJC Cochrane (Giuseppe in The Gondoliers) was Octavius; and RM Greenshields (previously Juliet, and then Inez inThe Gondoliers) was Caesar.   AC (Anton) McLauchlan, who had been Regan, doubled as Decius Brutus and Titinius; WF (Fergus) Harris (previously the Duchess of Plaza Toro) was an unathletic Antony, and several stalwarts from the Sixth and Seventh and the school Fifteens and Elevens filled in the other roles, doubling as soldiers, servants and citizens.   I was not quite the youngest boy in the cast, as Calpurnia, Portia and Lucius were played by boys younger than me.   My wife, Portia, spoke clearly but wasn’t very wifely.   JWF Learmonth was also much smaller than me and his real existence as a plain, podgy boy couldn’t be concealed from me by an Elizabethan head-dress and gown.

    Casca was played by DA (Douglas) Cameron, who would one day become the top announcer in Radio London.  JDR (Poker) Morrison was a Citizen, and others, like JB Neill, JD Crerar and JK Millar I would get to know when I was in Seventh Modern.   Older boys didn’t alarm me now and I was used to the humiliation, when rugby and cricket teams were being picked, of being among the last three.   Having a heroic leading role in the play gave me a certain status, even among the sporty types.   At the end of the play four of them had to hoist me onto their shoulders and bear me as the dead Brutus on my back, my head hanging down between and behind the last two as Antony intoned, ‘This was the noblest Roman of them all.’    I rather enjoyed being a serious, noble and honourable Roman and committing suicide by falling on my sword.

     I was an instinctive actor.   Having learned the words and thought about the character I was supposed to be, I spoke the words the way I imagined that the character might speak, adding extra emphasis and emotion when it seemed, and felt, right to do so.   Unknowingly, I had a clear speaking voice.    Even so, I was always conscious that what I spoke had to be heard clearly by everyone in the audience.

     It was while we were rehearsing Julius Caesar that I had what can only be called a vision.

     One dark night in February or March I was sitting at the back of the top deck of a Number 11 tram.   No one else was up there as we neared the Fairmilehead terminus.   I was probably quite tired, having been on my feet for 12 hours, and was mentally drained by the demands of the rehearsal.   Gazing out of the window at the empty blackness on my left devoid of houses, my imagination, mind or spirit – what you will – flew out and into that blackness, into the vast and star-filled darkness of space.   It flew on and on, deeper and deeper into the dark and eternal silence.    And I understood that there was nothing and no one there, no one like us, no God, and I realised that here on Earth we humans were the only humanoid creatures in the universe, and that we were alone.


    Rehearsals for Julius Caesar began in the Winter Term and continued once a week during the Spring Term and twice a week in the Summer Term.   On the last weekend in May the big new stage was erected and dress rehearsals were held on the evenings before the first performance, which this time was on a Thursday.   Lessons and piano lessons had inevitably suffered in the lengthy period of rehearsal, and over the Easter holiday I decided not to continue with my piano lessons.   I didn’t have time to practice, nor did I want to take piano exams and get grades.   I had my own piano now at Oxgangs Road and could enjoy myself, playing whatever I wanted, fortissimo and with feeling, without being particular about accuracy, and without having to practice those tiresome interminable scales.

     What might also have suffered in the first half of the year were my preparations for the Ordinary Level of the GCE exam in July.   But in June I studied the questions in previous exam papers and learned what I hoped would be useful quotes, and in the end I didn’t do too badly.   In due course I received a certificate saying that Ronald G Honeyconbe had ‘satisfied the examiners in the following seven subjects of the General Certificate Examination of the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board,’ the subjects being English Language, English Literature, English History, Latin, Greek, French and Elementary Mathematics.

     Despite the play’s rehearsals and then the performances, at the end of the Summer Term my School report wasn’t too bad either.   The masters seemed satisfied.   English … ‘His work is of a very good standard.’   History … ‘His best is very good.’   Greek … ‘Neat and sensible work.’   French … ‘A very useful term’s work.’    My best subjects were English and History, and despite some extra tuition in Maths I had sunk to 23rd out of 25 boys.   Nonetheless, my Class Master, Scabby Scott, wrote, ‘An excellent term’s work in all spheres of school activity,’ – which must have included the School Concert and Divisional Competitions – and the Rector wrote, ‘I hope he has polished off the Maths & can concentrate on the work which he enjoys.’ 

     Unknown to me, the Rector and certain masters must have decided, when the GCE results arrived, that I was a suitable candidate for Oxford or Cambridge and that a Scholarship might help to get me there.   If I had been heading for a Scottish university I would have entered the examinations for the Scottish Leaving Certificate.   But now that I had passed the first stage in qualifying for an English university by obtaining seven ‘O Levels, I would next do the GCE ‘A’ Level exams.   All this meant that I would bypass the Sixth classes at the school and spend the next three years in Seventh Modern, preparing for entry into an Oxford or Cambridge college.   I was never asked if I had a preference for a Scottish or an English university, or even if I wanted to attend a university at all – rather than a drama school.   It was assumed, by my mother and the Academy, that a university education would follow the one I’d had at school.   Decisions and choices were being made for me that would determine the directions of much that followed thereafter.

     In the meantime, King George VI had died at Sandringham on 6 February 1952, and Harold Barry had died in Bournemouth on 20 March.   Through a peculiar set of circumstances and the callous greed of Harold’s son and daughter, AD was left without a home.


     After Harold Barry and AD had spent two weeks on Jersey in the Channel Islands in October the previous year he had decided that they should live there.   AD was reluctant, but the low rate of Income Tax and no death duties influenced his decision and he made an offer to buy Chantry Cottage, situated in the parish of St Lawrence, for £10,000, a very high price for a house in those days.   A deposit was paid and completion would occur when the Barrys arrived in Jersey in March, a few days before moving into the house.   Cliff Cottage was sold, furniture would be shipped to Jersey on 23 March, and the new owners would take possession on 24 March.   Farewell parties and visits preceded the Barrys’ departure.   In the early hours of 20 March Harold had a heart attack and died.  

     It then transpired that according to Jersey law the purchase of a house was not complete until the final settlement price had been paid.   Moreover, death cancelled all contracts.   As Cliff Cottage had already been sold, Donny had no home.   In Harold’s will she received an annuity of £800, and she was also given some shares.   His son, Jummie, who lived with another man, informed her that as the proceeds of the sale of Cliff Cottage would form part of the residue of Harold’s estate, which went to him and his sister, Joan, this would be divided between the two of them.   All Donny would have was the annuity and all the furniture and contents of Cliff Cottage.  

     She was 51, a widow with a small income and no home.   She moved into the Anglo-Swiss Hotel, which was part-owned by her long-time friend, Doris Schwyn.   But as she couldn’t afford the higher summer rates of rooms at the hotel she travelled north in June or July to stay with Billy Elder in Prestwick, not returning to Bournemouth until September.   While in Scotland she visited Edinburgh and friends in Stirling.   She had decided not to contest the will and Jummie’s claims, and he agreed to give her £1000 as a gesture of goodwill.   Nonetheless, Donny couldn’t afford the costs of living in the Anglo-Swiss Hotel in Gervis Road and in November moved, as a paying guest, into the flat of an older friend, Muriel Gent, who had also recently been widowed.   She was there for almost a year.


     I was ignorant of most of this at the time, and for many years afterwards.   If Harold had not died when he did and AD had become in time the owner of Chantry Cottage, not only would her life have been very different but so, to a lesser but large degree, would mine.   Bournemouth would have dropped out of the picture and she would not have needed my later financial support.

    AD was able to visit us in Edinburgh in the summer of 1952, as it seems that we didn’t go away on holiday that year.    No doubt there were trips by train or coach here and there, but I think we were all rather enjoying the novelty of having a house as a home, a house with a garden, which by now was flourishing.    Marion had a regular boy-friend, whom she had met at the Plaza dance-hall, where she used to go dancing accompanied by a girl-friend.   In August she was 22.   AD described her as ‘a tall and attractive young woman.’   The boy-friend was Jim Campbell, aged 28, an engaging, lively man with a great sense of humour.   An accountant, he was 6 feet 3 and the son of an Edinburgh policeman.   During the war he had served with the RAF as a navigator on Lancaster bombers, and had not only bombed Dresden and Berlin but survived.   Once he came with us on a birthday picnic at Swanston (Marion’s or mine) and in the winter we went sledging down snowy slopes.

     The following year he proposed to her, and asked my father’s permission to marry his only daughter.   My mother thought Marion might have done better than marry an accountant, the son of a policeman.   She had hoped that her talented and attractive daughter, who had had a good education, and could play the piano, paint, sing, sew and cook, would marry a doctor, a lawyer, or some nice young man from a good middle-class family.   Marion was on tenterhooks when Jim was closeted with her father in the sitting-room.   I had no idea what was going on, and when I entered the sitting-room later was taken aback to see them kissing in the middle of the room.   I had only seen this happen in films, not in real life.

     Film-going was a weekly event in those years at Oxgangs Road.  There were quite a few cinemas in Edinburgh, of various sizes and with various interiors.   One had a cinema organ that rose out the pit in front of the screen.   Most showed newsreels and most had usherettes who paraded up the aisles during intervals selling ice-creams in tubs and orange squash.   Most played the National Anthem at the end of the last screening of a film.   We were supposed to stand for this, and did.   But some people didn’t.   I began to avoid this antiquated custom by speeding out of the cinema as soon as the film ended and before the National Anthem began.   But I had to be quick.   If caught by the crashing opening chords I dutifully came to a halt in the aisle, turned round and embarrassedly faced the screen, on which a colour film of the Queen at Trooping the Colour was shown.

     My mother liked going with me to the pictures (as they were called then).   It was one of the few times she could have me to herself.  Once when I announced I was going out to see a certain film she said she would also like to see it.   I indicated, firmly, that I wanted to see it on my own, and she wailed, ‘But I want to go!’ and almost wept.   That was embarrassing, but one of the reasons I wasn’t pleased to have her with me was that her presence was distracting and drew attention to me -- apart from the fact that it wasn’t normal for a teenage boy to go to the pictures with his mother and be seen with her.   She dressed up for the cinema, as she did for any outdoor excursion, and inevitably drew attention to herself, and therefore to me, by the way she was made up and dressed and because she talked to people.   She always wore a hat, as virtually every woman did when at a cinema and a theatre, and these hats were generally quite high and showy.   But at least she didn’t smoke.   She once embarrassed me at the conclusion of the playing of a violin concerto in a film called Rhapsody, starring Elizabeth Taylor, by vigorously applauding.   People looked around to see who was clapping with such fervour.   I could have died.

     Films set in ancient Rome were popular then, films like Fabiola and Quo Vadis, both of which were released in 1951.   Death of a Salesman, which I saw in 1952, made a lasting impression on me for other reasons, mainly because it was about a son’s relationship, or lack of it, with his father, and because the son looked and sounded, as I thought, just like me.   Kevin McCarthy was the son, Biff Loman, and Fredric March the father.   Although McCarthy was 37 when the film was made I totally identified with him – he looked like me -- and was quite shaken by the passionate frustration he felt about his father.   I next saw McCarthy in his most well-known film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

     A puritanical disapproval of my father’s drinking was my main area of dissatisfaction.   Sometimes he drank too much during his sessions at the Hillburn Roadhouse and staggered home.   One night he couldn’t find his front door key and had to ring the bell.   I opened the door and there he was, swaying and smiling apologetically, with blood on his face.   He had fallen down and cut himself.   I was disgusted.   He never, however, became disgustingly or aggressively drunk, and was more tipsy and merry than a menace, and I rarely saw him fully inebriated, as my mother used to hide him away in their bedroom – as she hid everything from me that I was not supposed to see or know.

     I exploited this once or twice – I wasn’t always disapproving – by hiding under his bed when he was in the bathroom and when he clambered into his bed (they had single beds) I slowly began to pull the bedcover off him, with the blanket and the sheets, from below.   In his fuddled state he couldn’t work out why the bedclothes were sliding off him and accused my mother of being frisky.   She, in her bed, was having hysterics, trying to stifle her laughter.

     When I was a child in India he used to tell me a story about Johnny and his Cherries.   It was a sad story and much affected me, and it apparently used to reduce me to tears.   What it was about I can’t remember, but it was probably based on a sentimental Victorian tale and may have been told or read to him by his mother.   I recall that in Edinburgh he divulged, to my surprise, the punning titles of two imagined books – Pools of Water, by IP Squint, and Noises in the Night, by Wee Tin Po(t).    He seemed to like puns.   In Karachi Orlo Bond was used to repeat what my father once happily said – ‘There’s nothing like a roll with Honey!”   I recall a saucy story he told about an abbot in a monastery, who lined up the monks and, to test their devotion to celibacy and non-interest in females, had little bells tied to their penises and then showed them pictures of naked women.   All the bells remained motionless and silent, apart from one attached to a young monk’s willie.   It jangled and jerked so vigorously that it fell off his willie, and when he bent down to pick it up all the other bells began to ring.   I imagine this was something he heard from one of his cronies in the Roadhouse.   

     My father was actually a very nice, kind man, good-humoured, pleasant and affable.   Family occasions, like birthdays and Christmas, and the occasional outing, were enjoyable and enjoyed by all.   After he returned to Edinburgh the four of us went every year to the pantomime at the King’s Theatre.   We went on Boxing Day and had seats in the Upper Circle.   Scottish masters of comedy, like Jimmy Logan and Stanley Baxter, played the Dame.   The pantomimes were a wonderful mix of comedy, colour costumes and settings, drama and song.   Almost 40 years later I would twice appear in pantomimes myself.

     One night something happened which I can’t explain.    I was doing my homework, studying or writing something on my knees while perched on the sofa opposite the fireplace.    My mother was in an easy chair on my left, knitting or sewing, and my father was in his chair on my right.   He seemed to be dozing but must have been watching me, or perhaps he suddenly woke up and saw me, in profile, engrossed in what I was doing.   And he said, bemusedly, ‘Why are you so beautiful?’

     I was taken aback, and mystified.   My mother made some dismissive but humorous comment, and we resumed what we were doing as if nothing at all had been said.   But I remembered, and have wondered now and then what prompted his remark.

     Photographs of him as a young man show that he was more than handsome.   With his regular features, straight nose, generous mouth and fine blue eyes, he was beautiful in his way.   Perhaps he saw something of himself in me -- as he used to be.   I also think I amazed him because I was so tall, so self-absorbed, so talented, and a complete mystery to him -- he had fathered a monster.   Apart from calling me ‘Ronald boy,’ there were no words or displays of affection.   My mother was the dominant presence in the family, and although he was present and part of my life, I remember next to nothing of what he said and did.   He was just there.   I remember the four of us going to the pantomimes and on holidays and outings, but I have no recollection of him attending any of the productions in which I appeared at the Academy, nor what he said about them or me.

     He was not as convinced as my mother was about me having a full education.   Paying for it was costly (about £200 a term) and his income could hardly afford it.   He thought that I should leave school, as he had done when he was 16, and begin to earn a living.   My mother was of course totally opposed to this, and it was my father who got a job – as a salesman selling encyclopaedias.   This didn’t last for very long.   He must have felt demeaned by it, knocking on doors and being told to go away.


     And so I continued my schooling at the Academy, after which a university education had been mapped out for me at either Oxford or Cambridge, although there were times when it seemed to my masters, and the Rector, as if I wouldn’t make it to either place.   Not that I cared one way or the other.   I couldn’t think that far ahead.   Nonetheless, entering Seventh Modern at the start of the Winter Term of 1952 seemed a significant and important move, even to me.  

     I was now 16.   Having survived my first six years at the Academy and established a reputation of a sort, which increased my confidence, I was able to relish the greater freedom of being in Seventh Modern, which included those boys studying English, History, Latin, French and German with universities in view.   There was also a Seventh Science and Maths, and a Seventh Classics, ie, Latin and Greek.   Seventh Classics was in a wing of the Library and was entered by a door beside a covered area where school notices were posted, notices about sporting activities, play rehearsals, CCF events, team and other promotions, and rules and regulations.    I was once listed, to my dismay, in a Third Fifteen team scheduled to play rugby against a similar third-rate side from George Watson’s, at their ground.    I trotted about the muddy field for the length of a lack-lustre game, avoiding the ball and the other side, and I noticed I was not alone in doing so.

     The classes of the Seventh were occupied by boys aiming for scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge colleges or expected to gain entry through passing Common Entrance examinations.   Boys in the Sixth were heading for Scottish universities or for further education elsewhere or jobs in the services, the law or business worlds.   I was destined, without being fully aware of this, to take my ‘A’ Level exams the following summer, and was being prepared in Seventh Modern for a degree in English or History at either Oxford or Cambridge.    The Class Master was WH (Wilf) Hook, who taught English.   He was backed up by JH (Jack) Bevan.   History was taught by the Rector, RC (Rob) Watt and by Dr DGD Isaac.   There were also occasional classes in French and Latin, and a Scripture lesson continued to be suffered by the Rector and some of us once a week.

     Seventh Modern met at the far end of the Inner Library at two tables pushed together and overlooking the Yards.   Here ten of us had our classes in English, History and Scripture.   The master teaching us sat at one end.   For classes in Latin, French and German we went elsewhere.   We were a very mixed bag.   I was the youngest, having only become 16 in September.   Billy Balfour was a senior ephor and in the First Fifteen; Molly Miller, our only House-boy, was in the First Fifteen and the First Eleven; Tommy Baxendine was in the Second Fifteen and a sergeant in the CCF; Marr was the CCF’s CSM.   Mick Harvey, sparky, small and dark, was captain of the Second Fifteen, a sergeant in the CCF and habitually won prizes, including English ones.  Then there was Fergus Harris, JD (Ego or James) Crerar, Anthony (Anton) McLauchlan, who was in the RAF section of the CCF and in the Shooting Eight (he shot at Bisley), John Gordon, a rugby-playing hearty, and myself.   Half of them would leave the Academy the following year and be replaced by some other university-bound boys. 

     As there were fewer of us now doing English and History the classes were more like tutorials.   There was theoretically more give and take, more question and answer, more conversational exchanges.   In this I didn’t excel, for if I had nothing to say or wasn’t interested, or had insufficient knowledge, I said nothing at all.   If we were ever invited to the Rector’s home for tea, as happened later on, and were supposed to take part in a debate or discussion, I was silent throughout, partly because I didn’t want to display my ignorance or say something stupid.   This was a trait that continued into my days at ITN, where at production meetings I contributed nothing whatever, as the others there were more expert and knowledgeable than me.   I was only there, as far as I was concerned, to read the news – which meant putting it across with clarity and some expression (as if I was telling a story) but without knowing much more than what was on the script.   We had correspondents and reporters to interpret national and international events and explain.

    At the end of the Winter Term, Dr Isaac reported, ‘While his narrative essays give evidence of a willingness to read, his answers to scholarship-type questions as yet show little fluency in the construction of argument.’   Wilf Hook wrote of my English work, ‘His essays are limited by some immaturity, and show a more developed capacity for feeling than for thought.’   In his Class Master’s report he said, ‘The jump from V to VII has not been too much for him … He should encourage himself to be more forthcoming on paper and in class (this latter particularly), for his thoughts, though doubtless deep, would gain in flexibility through exercise.’

     It was during this term that I wrote my Ode to the Seventh Modern, which was inspired by the fact that we were reading and studying Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.  

     The Ode, which is dated 26 November 1952, was a spoof or imitation of the Prologue, and after the ten characters in Seventh Modern were described, I intended to get each of the ten to tell stories, as they did in Chaucer’s Tales.  Although I started on one tale, I soon abandoned it, as my interest in the project and its versification was diverted by other subjects and verse forms.  The Ode was well received, even by the satirised ten.   It began:


     ‘When November with shiny blast and chill

      Has freezed the autumn leaves of holt and hill;

      When clammy mists invade the smoky town,

      Which now for smoky winter settles down

      And ever colder greyness blurs the sun,

      Then time is slow, and sleepy lessons done,

      The sluggish schoolboy crawls around the Yards,

      Depressed by fog which chokes and him retards,

      At Break, to peer at lists and notices

      Of Corps – what toil – and Rugger practices;

      Or scuffles shouting at his merry game

      Of footer, fives, or something much the same.

      It so befell that on one murky day,

      I chanced in sloth in Library to stray …

      And having naught to do and feeling wise,

      And full of joie de vivre and entreprise,

      I undertook this work of worthy note;

      For so I think and you, I hope, will vote.’


     In one free period – and we had free periods in Seventh Modern – I read the finished poem to the assembled class, without complaint, and Wilf Hook, given a copy, indicated his approval by reading selected excerpts from it to other classes, without mentioning the characters’ names, and asking his audience to guess who was being described.

     Fergus Harris, I said, used to ‘colour red in laughing joke’ and when he laughed he ‘rubbed his hands … On every master’s words he hung with yearning, and gazèd deep for knowledge in his face.’   AC (Anton) McLauchlan, I said, was ‘sweetly dressed in tailored clothes of pastel colours stressed’ and he had careful wavy hair, squarely arched eyebrows and thick lips ‘through which his voice, as treacle smoothly slips from off a spoon, did issue sugared rich.’  JW (John) Gordon’s face was effused with a ‘ruddy healthy glow’ and ‘his eyebrows crossed down low.’    ‘Hysterical he laughed and heartily,’ I said, and ‘Prodigious length of essays long he wrote by scrawling fast, which left me far remote.’   Of myself I said that ‘It shamed him sore to hear of all things vile, or bullying or anything impure; a gentle soul he had, of that I’m sure.’   I went on, ‘Singing he was or humming all the year with varying key – a pain it was to hear,’ and ‘He worked not hard, but which, he should, of course; his English essays were of subtle force … Still he survived and got on best he could.’

     In December 1952, my creative energies were directed towards a new and different venture, the making of a record.   I don’t recall whose idea it was, but Marion and I recorded two songs on a small disc -- I played the piano, an upright -- in a cramped studio somewhere in Edinburgh and sent the result to AD, who was still in Muriel Gent’s flat. 

     In the third volume of her Memories AD wrote, ‘On Christmas Eve … a parcel addressed to me was delivered by post, and when I opened it I found it contained a gramophone record.   I couldn’t imagine what it could be, and asked Muriel if she would play it for me on her radiogram … To my astonishment and delighted surprise I heard a voice, “Hello, Auntie Donny!   This is Marion and Ronald talking to you from Edinburgh.”   Marion said they thought it might please me more this Christmas to have a record from them rather than the usual greetings card.   They had rehearsed two musical items, she said, which they hoped I would enjoy.   Then followed a short duet from The Mikado, sung by Marion and Ronald … This in turn was followed by Marion singing “Oh, for the wings of a dove,”   The record ended with a cheerful ‘Happy Christmas, Auntie Donny!” ’   She continued, ‘In my loneliness and general unhappiness the very thought that I had not been forgotten by the two young people most dear to me was too much for my pent-up emotions.   My eyes filled with tears and I wept.’

     The song from The Mikado was the one in Act II that followed the entrance of the Mikado and Katisha – ‘From every kind of man obedience I expect.’   This tells me that I had already been cast as the Mikado in the Academy’s next production of a G & S operetta and had begun rehearsing the songs he would sing.   This might also partly explain why, at the end of the Spring Term of 1953, the masters’ reports were more impatient.  

     Dr Isaac (History) wrote, ‘His essays are dull and uninspired.  He does not sparkle in argument, nor is his reading particularly deep.’   Jack Bevan (English) wrote, ‘He is not showing the qualities of a scholar which I hoped to expect from him.’   And Wilf Hook wrote, ‘The reserve of his character is rather overdone and he must commit himself more fully in his essays, which suffer from brevity and some impatience.’   The Rector commented, ‘I know he has talents & interests outside the subjects here mentioned, but if his ambition is to attain scholarship he must give more of himself to the work it involves … He is expressive on the stage, but, in propria persona, too reticent.’

     I expressed myself in another poem at the end of the Spring Term. Entitled Lament on the Second Last Day of Term, it had five stanzas of hyperbolic reaction to the fact that Jack Bevan had given us some extra work.   The third stanza said:


             ‘The day before the holidays,

              So much of torture was his craze,

              He smashed each schoolboy’s soothing dream –

              “On Liberty” – oh, what a theme!

              By Mill, that tiresome, verbose drudge,

              Whose work is thick and dark as fudge;

                         You may, I say,

                         Make screaming cries:

              That book he set – to summarise!’


     This poem was not presented to Jack Bevan, although it might well have amused him.   He was a boyish, enthusiastic master, with pink-rimmed eyes, and when he addressed us he leaned forward, clasping his hands.   Newly arrived at the Academy, in 1949, he had played rugby for Oxford University and he coached the First Fifteen at the school.   Wilf Hook, who had arrived in 1947, used to sit in his chair, hunched and with his legs crossed.   His hands were like paws, an aspect of them rendered sinister by the black hairs on his knuckles.   He tended to look at us sideways, almost slyly, and had a choking, wheezy laugh.   Dr Isaac was a stocky, heavily built and energetic Welshman.   He wore glasses with thick rims and spoke through his nose.   He also coached rugby at the school.   The Rector had bristly eyebrows and bristly grey hair and generally stood when talking to us, peering at the floor.   When he asked a question, abruptly, he used to stare at us with a penetrating big-blue-eyed gaze, as if he were a bird of prey.   All the masters wore full-length black academic gowns and when proceeding to and from classes carried books and files under an arm or in a brief-case.   In Seventh Modern I was intimidated by the proximity of these older, erudite men, and in their presence was never relaxed.


     During the Easter holidays I travelled with a school party, led by a couple of masters, one of whom was Mr Head, to Lugano and Venice.    We travelled by train and boat.  This two-week trip, my first in Europe, was paid for by AD. 

     What happened was that my mother wrote to AD telling her about the proposed school trip.  She very likely hinted that my father couldn’t afford the cost.   AD wrote to the Rector asking for details and whether he thought I would benefit from such a trip.   He replied that I was a good pupil, likely to succeed in whatever career I chose, and would benefit in many ways from such a holiday.   She then wrote to me, telling me she wanted me to go on the trip and I replied with an unctuous, formal letter of gratitude on 3 February.  

     I told her there would be about 40 boys in the party, and although only one was from the Seventh (Bill Nicoll) there were many of my own age from the Sixths.    I continued, ‘The majority of us are going down to London by the night-train on Tuesday 7th, arriving very early on Wednesday morning.   As the boat train doesn’t leave until about twelve, we will be let loose upon London … I have promised to show Nicoll the sights – he has not been to London before – going the rounds by Tube, which is quite easy to follow … At the moment, I have just started rehearsing “The Mikado”, and it is quite different from the rehearsals for “Julius Caesar”.   We only spent an hour today rehearsing, while as Brutus I used to stay three hours; also, the producer, Mr Hempson, is not so commanding as the former producer.’    I then said I’d seen films like The Sound Barrier and Limelight, which starred Charlie Chaplin and Claire Bloom, and was going to see Quo Vadis … ‘The weather here has been much colder since the gales of Saturday.   At the end of the road a fence was blown down and a tree uprooted … I remain your affectionate nephew, Ronald.’

     I wrote several letters to AD about the trip.  My parents, and Marion and Jim, only received postcards, most of which were written on Thursday 9 April, 1953.  Taken together, what follows, in part, is what I wrote to them all.

     ‘We reached London at 6.27 and spent most of the day sitting on suitcases and in restaurants.   The crossing Folkestone-Calais was hazy and quite calm: we spent more time at the English Customs than with the French.   We reached Basle at 5.0 am after an eleven hour journey across France in the continental Express.  The seats were narrow and not very comfortable and people kept passing through our small compartment – divided by a corridor.   We passed three factories ruined by war damage and noticed the absence of hedges.   We arrived here [Lugano] at 2.5 pm after having a glorious steamer trip across Lake Lucerne … It was misty and drizzly when we arrived and we wandered about looking for a Post Office.   A meal is to be served at 6.30.   Am writing this on my bed at 4.55 in our Hotel, which is situated in a sort of side street behind the buildings bordering the Lake … There are four of us in the one room, which has very heavy old-fashioned furniture; 2 single beds and a tremendous four-poster type of double bed, in which we intend to take turns in sleeping.   The other bed occupants are Martin, Anderson and Carswell.’

     These three, and Bill Nicoll, were among the school oddballs with whom I generally associated, those who wore glasses, like Martin and Anderson, and those who were inept at games.   I also began wearing glasses for reading about this time.   Adrian Carswell was a bit girly, but a fast runner, a nifty tennis player and a competent pianist.

     I continued, ‘We have two balconies looking onto the road … We are all worn out with the two days travelling, mostly by night, and some boys have gone to bed already having bathed, which costs 2 francs … We have a stuffed eiderdown as sheets.   Most things are quite expensive except the necessities and cigarettes, cameras and cuckoo-clocks.   You don’t really need to know Italian – the girl in a camera shop spoke fluent English.’   All the postcards ended ‘Love Ronald.’

     AD was showered with more detail.   Writing from the Hotel Condor Rigi, Lugano, Switzerland on 10 April I said, ‘This morning it was raining, but nevertheless we went another round of the town finding out things.  The rain had stopped by lunch so we took a 2fr 60 funicular ride to the top of Mt San Salvatore … Yesterday coming from Basle to Lucerne we passed through all the cherry tree country which was in full bloom.   The pack lunches, stations and trains are much cleaner than ours.   We sailed from Lucerne to Fluelen from 9 – 1130 about, stopping at all the little harbours.   The sun was shining and everything seemed fresh and attractive … The mountains with snow on the top reared up all around.   From Fluelen to Lugano we kept passing through all the tunnels … The scenery was terrific … From Calais to Basle we took eleven hours in a sleeperless compartment, most uncomfortable … In London when we arrived at 6.20 we hung around most of the while till 11.50, sitting in ABC restaurants or waiting in the station.   We were allowed to walk in a party for a short while: Tube to Westminster then walked up to Trafalgar Square via Whitehall, then on to Piccadilly … The stands for the Coronation were going up and there were not many people around … On Monday we are going on a tour to St Moritz.’

     On Monday, 13 April, I wrote, ‘I am writing in the Lounge in the Roof Garden – it is raining outside.   The Hotel as I think I said is five stories high plus the two halves of the Roof Garden … Here people read, write and play Bridge or Canasta, which we play every night … On Saturday night we four who share a bedroom went rowing on the Lake – two in each boat.   The sun was shining brilliantly and we were out for and hour and a quarter.   Anderson and I should have been out for just an hour, but we went so far and he kept rowing in circles.   A steamer was coming in to the pier near our boating station just as Anderson was rowing us in.   He kept going the wrong way but we got clear.   The promenade is lined with chestnut trees with their tops cut off to enable the houses behind to see over: here and there are tall cypress-looking trees and other shrubs are scattered over the grass, along with magnolia bushes in full bloom, japonica, eucalyptus trees and flowers.’  I also referred to the ‘blue lilacs’ which is what I called the mauve hanging clusters of the climbing wisteria trees.  They in fact impressed me the most.  

     In the afternoon we went by steamer to Morcote.   ‘Going down the Lake we passed under the bridge which divides the Lake in two and which made the steamer lower its funnel … Morcote itself is a lovely lakeside village.   It straggles up the hills in the rear, and we puffed our way up thousands of steps to see the Church which has a restful atmosphere – the whole village is very peaceful – something like San Michele of the book of the same name … It was very hot … Lots of lizards, small ones, ran around the rocks.’   We inspected a cemetery and an artist’s studio and wandered about.   I wrote, ‘There was nobody about, in fact most towns seem to have no people in them and very few cats and dogs.   At the pier we bought ices of five colours, and cherries, nuts, etc, shaped like a slice of cake – it was very good and called Cassata.’

     Cassata was a revelation – I loved it – not to mention the Swiss and Italian meals we had, which were so different from the Windsor soup, mince and rice, semolina and sago puddings served at school, and the prevalence of bacon and eggs and roast beef and vegetables at home.

     I continued, ‘On Sunday we were woken at 7.30 by the church bells.   The sun was not shining but it was a nice morning.   We bedroom four went for a walk in the park.  It is not very big, but the flowers were blossoming, and it seemed proper to sit in the park on a Sunday.   There was an artist painting and fish swimming in the Lake … We had been told to be enterprising, so we four booked a coach tour to Monte Lema … The tour, which left at 2.0, cost 10 francs.   It was hair-raising in parts, for we had to go up and down three valley sides with terribly steep hair-pin bends … up to Miglieglia.   There we got a chair-lift to the top of Monte Lema 5328 ft.   It took almost 18 minutes going almost straight up and was colder when we reached the top.   The view would have been magnificent, but there was a strong heat haze and thick clouds covered the sun.   Snow was lying around in patches, and having looked over to Lake Maggiore shining red in the sun, we walked into Italy – the boundary runs along the top of the mountain.   Two frontier guards chatted nearby.   Going down was more scaring but you get accustomed to it and there is certainly a thrill in the whole thing … The tour took four hours.’

      There were dramas.   ‘Yesterday Anderson leaned against one of our balcony windows and the thing crashed onto his bed.   The landlady was a bit peeved as already some people had left because of the noise some of our drinking and smoking boys made in the night, though we never heard it.’   And then on the Monday Adrian Carswell had his money stolen.   ‘He had left his wallet for a moment in the Post Office and some woman had apparently stolen the money and returned the wallet minus all his Italian money and the remains of his Swiss francs.   So far he has not been told anything by the Police.   He had been crying and was sitting in silence.’

     On the morning of Monday, 13 April, we were woken at 6.30 by one of the masters for a four-hour coach trip to St Moritz.   The coach took us on a dull and cloudy day through rock tunnels along Lake Como and in and out of Switzerland and Italy.   Each time our passports had to be stamped.   Mist hid the mountains for most of the journey, but at St Moritz the weather cleared.    I wrote, ‘The Lake was covered with ice except for a thin rim round the edge and a cold wind blew.   But the town was dead.   I saw three black cats, three dogs, children, about ten adults, two moving cars in the whole town plus our own party and tourists.   Most of the hotels were all shuttered and the shops closed.’

     On the Tuesday it rained all day and I played Canasta, or talked with the others.   In the evening I went with Anderson to the Super Cinema to see an American film, Lydia Bailey, with French and German sub-titles, about a negro revolt in Haiti in Napoleon’s time.   The film was interrupted by an unexpected interval.   The next day there was a coach tour to Como, which I thought was ‘rather dirty.’   Back in Lugano, Nicoll, Gracie and I visited a small zoo, which contained ‘a bear, which we gave an apple to, a leopard, a lion, a lioness and two cubs, two seals, snakes and assorted birds and smaller animals.’    From Lugano we entrained for Venice.

      Reading these letters now it all comes back to me.   I notice that even then I was precise about names, numbers and dates.   My last letter in this sequence is dated Sunday, 19 April.    We were now in Venice.   I wrote after lunch sitting in a chair on the terrace of the gabled, three-storied Villa Laguna, on the lagoon side of the Lido and facing the distant outline of Venice itself.   I shared a room on the first floor with RM Martin.   The room faced the street where single-decker trolley buses occasionally passed by.   There was a shortage of hot water and the meals were sparse.   They were supplemented by intakes of another delicious cassata-like ice-cream called Torta-Tita.

     I thought Venice was magical and full of wonders, architectural and artistic.   I wrote that it was ‘a fascinating city, full of heat, colour and smells, not one of them odious.   The back streets, which you can easily lose your way in, are very narrow and always interesting.   Although the houses appear dingy, the people are for the most part well-dressed … The centre of the city is the Piazza of S. Marco where hundreds of pigeons and people flock together.   Men accost you trying to sell their wares and café music comes across the chatter.   For the last three mornings the Piazza has been the centre of our excursions, which we reach by water bus.   In the afternoon we explore the Lido and the huge stretch of beach on the other side of the island.   At the moment parts are being dug up for the summer season.’   

     On those excursions we visited the glass-making island, Murano, and viewed the city’s ancient churches containing some of the finest paintings by Italian artists that I had ever seen.   But little did I know at the time of its extraordinary history and its glamorous connections with the English aristocracy, with writers and poets.   As if in acknowledgement of this immersion in art and my own interest in it, I took to wearing a black beret.   And no doubt as a former Contadine I periodically sang extracts from The Gondoliers and performed a modified cachuca in St Mark’s Square.

     I was back in Oxgangs Road on Tuesday, 28 April, when I wrote an oily bread-and-butter letter of thanks to AD.   I told her about my preparations for the previous Thursday’s train journey from Venice to Basle, for which we had to provide our own sustenance.   I said I went shopping with Gracie and bought ‘11 bananas, 6 apples and 5 oranges, 3 cherry cake things and 4 orange sweet tubes.’   I also had my last taste sensation of Italian ice-cream.   After supper at the hotel ‘when I managed to snaffle two rolls for the journey,’ Martin and I went upstairs to pack.   I stuffed all the fruit and food into a basket, along with a pair of shoes, a jacket, and a glass horse I bought at Murano.   Other glass animals were protected in my suitcase by piles of dirty handkerchiefs, shirts and ties – and underwear I expect – and an ironwork ornament of Swiss cow-bells, which would be hung at the front door of Number 48, and a cuckoo-clock, which became a wedding present for my sister and Jim and kept time all their married life.   Into my raincoat’s pockets I crammed brochures, pamphlets, books and my washing-bag.   We were in our beds about 8.45.

     Breakfast was at 6.15, and laden with luggage the school group travelled through a sunny Venice on a waterbus to the station.   An American cruiser anchored off St Mark’s Square had been joined by a destroyer.   Our train left soon after 8.0 am.  As before, all the school’s compartments were reserved.   We changed trains at Milan, where we transferred to an electric train that took us across Switzerland, reaching Basle at 9.30 pm.  On the way I had an accident.   I was looking out of the open window at the view, leaning my elbows on it, and when I drew my head in the window jerked up and hit me under my jaw.   I was momentarily stunned and my lips, bitten in the blow, began to bleed.   But I was able to eat a full and lengthy meal at the Hotel Bristol in Basle opposite the station.   Passing through French Customs, we boarded another train which left Basle after midnight.  

     Sleeping was difficult, although the seven in our compartment yielded the extra seat to me ‘because I was so long.’   Calais was reached about 11.0 and so, via Customs, it was onto a steamer for the Channel crossing, and then a train from Folkestone took us to London, where we arrived about 4.05.   On the way we played cards and finished the food I had purchased in Venice.   This time we had sleeping berths on the overnight train to Edinburgh from King’s Cross.   Our luggage was dumped there and the Lugano Four headed via the Underground to Leicester Square to see Richard Burton in a war film, The Desert Rats.    A meal was scoffed in Cambridge Circus, where I noted that a new show, The Glorious Days, starring Anna Neagle, was being staged.

     My last long letter to AD ended, ‘I slept this time going up in the night train and it was about 5.30 when we started getting up.   We watched the mists clear away across the fields of Scotland, and the morning sun rose in a clear sky.   We reached Edinburgh at 6.55.   I got a tram to myself all the way home where Mummy was up.’

     Travel educates the mind apart from broadening it – the different languages, scenery, cultures, towns and food – and I learned more from that two-week journey than I ever learned from John Stuart Mill.


     Back at the Academy for the start of the Spring Term I was plunged into the increasing pace and complexity of the rehearsals for The Mikado, directed by Mr Hempson, assisted by Puddle Ford, who also designed and painted the scenery.   While this was happening, I sang in the School Concert with Ian Dewar.   We performed The Two Gendarmes.   The EA Chronicle’ s reviewer remarked, ‘Dewar and Honeycombe presented Offenbach’s Gendarmes with precision and assurance, as befitted Savoyards in training.   Honeycombe’s serene falsetto in particular was a howling success.’   Of this I have no memory whatsoever.

     The Mikado was presented on the big new stage for four nights, from Wednesday, 20 to Saturday, 23 May 1953.   In the cast were Fergus Harris as Ko-Ko, Ian Dewar as Pooh-Bah, HJL (Hughie) Allan as Nanki-Poo, and the three little maids were played by KH Murcott, RM (Ronnie) Sinclair (who had been my servant, Lucius, in Julius Caesar) and AM Kerr.  Besides having a fine tenor voice, Hughie Allan was an excellent cricketer and captain of the First Eleven.   He was also a senior ephor, the pipe-major of the CCF Pipe Band, vice-captain of the First Fifteen and captain of squash.

     There were 43 boys and three masters in the Chorus of Japanese gentlemen and school-girls, and among the former were Billy Balfour, Adrian Carswell and my alphabetical classmates in Class Va in the Prep, PJ Heavens and HMJ Kindness.   Among the school-girls was GAE (Giles) Gordon.   But more about him later.

     Although spoken about in Act One, the Mikado doesn’t actually appear until a third of the way through Act Two.   Preceded by the Chorus, he makes a grand entrance, with his daughter-in-law, Katisha.   When the production was being cast I had boldly put myself forward as suitable to play Katisha, who had more to sing and do than the Mikado.   I could still manage a kind of contralto and would have made a huge and hideous Katisha.   The boy chosen to play her, GM Cairns, was short and dumpy, with neither a strong voice nor much of a presence.   This made my performance as the Mikado the more effective as I towered over him and had one of the best songs in the show.   I also had a splendid pink and gold costume, with a dragon on it, a close-fitting bald wig with a Japanese head-dress, and a large fan, which I wielded with vigour.   I was never comfortable with the traditional laugh in the Mikado’s song, which is supposed to end with a mirthless screech.   I embarrassed myself doing it.   But in costume and on stage I was able to let fly – as if I was about to be sick.

     The Chronicle’s reviewer found nice things to say about everyone.   About my performance he wrote, ‘Last to enter upon the scene, but certainly not least, was the Mikado himself, whose majestic figure towered over all others.   Here was the most accomplished actor and singer of all this gifted company.   One had always imagined that particular brand of laugh to be the exclusive property of Darrell Fancourt, and if Honeycombe was seeking to mould himself on that actor, his object was indeed achieved.’

     For the Curtain Call at the end of the performance I was placed centre stage, between Murcott and Cairns.   I liked being there.

     AD, who had driven up to Prestwick to stay with Billy Elder for three weeks, made several short visits to Stirling and Edinburgh, and saw the last night of The Mikado – with my parents and Marion, I presume.   In her Memories she wrote, ‘Ronald’s appearance and performance exceeded all my expectations.  He was six feet four inches tall and ramrod straight.  He wore a magnificent costume and his first entrance was truly impressive.   He had a strong and articulate voice and acted well.   In my opinion he was an outstanding success: I was delighted.’

     Many years later I would play the Emperor of China in the pantomime of Aladdin (twice); and in Australia, even later on, I appeared again in The Mikado for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Perth.    But this time I wasn’t cast as the Mikado, for which I auditioned, but as Pooh-Bah.

     It was in this year, or the year before, that a group of senior boys from the Academy was invited to sing in the chorus at a performance of St Matthew’s Passion by Bach.    It took place in the Usher Hall and the chorus was made up, for some reason, from teenage boys and girls from all the major schools in Edinburgh.   The soloists were professional singers, and the music, the place and the performance were excitingly different and grand.    Later on, I would sing, mainly as a soloist, at a wide variety of theatrical venues – including the Players Theatre in London, the Aldwych Theatre, the Wimbledon Theatre, the Dominion Theatre, the Old Vic, the London Palladium, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and even the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.    The last five in that list were gala events, most for special charities, the last being in a show staged by the Friends of the Opera House and performed before the Prince and Princess of Wales.   In this I sang a Victorian ballad, ‘Shall I be an Angel, Daddy?’ with Anne Diamond (we were both at TV-am at the time).   Taking the Curtain Call on that huge stage, where the most famous opera-singers and ballet-dancers in the world had stood and been applauded, was supremely exhilarating and unreal.


     In the summer of 1953 we were visited at Oxgangs Road by Diana Bond, who had known Marion in Karachi and whose American father, Orlo Bond, had worked at the offices of Standard Vacuum in McLeod Road.   Diana was two years younger than Marion and four years older than me.   Aged 20 she had come to Scotland in September 1952 to study English Literature, Geography and Psychology at Edinburgh University, which she left in June 1953.    ‘I took the exams but failed miserably,’ she told me years later.   However, she learned the joys of Scottish Country Dancing and fell in love with Scotland.   Having spent Christmas with Yule Rennie and his wife, Jennie, in the minister’s manse in a village called Fowlis Wester in Perthshire, where he officiated at the ancient church of St Bean’s, she then lodged with us at Oxgangs Road until her Edinburgh hostel, St Leonards Hall near Arthur’s Seat, opened for students after the Christmas holiday.   She had a bad cold and remembered being served breakfast in bed by my mother and me – she’d been accommodated in my sister’s bedroom upstairs.   Marion must have temporarily lodged elsewhere.    Diana also went with me and my mother to see a touring production of The Mikado by the D’Oyly Carte Company, during which I paid particular attention to the performance of the Mikado and his laugh.

     ‘Your family were so wonderful to me,’ Diana said.   ‘I think I was at your house every week for tea, and you and Marion were so kind to squire me round the city.   Jim and Marion took me to places too.’    Diana gave me the piano music of The King and I, which she had seen in New York in 1951, when it was premiered on Broadway starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner.   Some 60 years later she sent me copies of her mother’s letters written in 1936.

     As with my mother, Marion had kept in touch with some of her Karachi friends apart from Diana Bond – Alison Walker had visited Edinburgh in 1949 – and no doubt Marion went south more than once to stay with Alison.   She also went youth-hostelling more than once with a girl-friend called Heather Bell.   Her best friend, Joan, had married in April 1952.   Another visitor was my cousin, Eileen Duncan, who for a time worked in Edinburgh in a geography department at the University.

     There was a continuous contact between the Frasers, the Duncans and us, as well as with some families from Karachi.   In April 1953, to everyone’e surprise, my mother’s lame and younger brother, Archie Fraser, an accountant’s clerk, married a 53-year old dressmaker, Eveline Gordon, in April 1953, when he was 50.   They lived in a dingy flat in Glasgow.   She was a dumpy, dour and rather ugly woman.   Five years later she had a heart attack and died.   When Archie, now a widower, retired, he settled in Edinburgh, coincidentally in the Queens Bay Hotel in Joppa, which had been managed by Henry Honeycombe for a few years before the First World War, and had been home for a while to my father and his sister.   It was now a gloomy, run-down, residential establishment, being used by the aged and infirm.   I was taken by my mother to visit Uncle Archie there.   Now in his early 60s, he was ill-looking, with large discoloured hands, a thin, high, weedy voice and very little to say.   He wasn’t interested in me, nor I with him.   He played a lot of bridge to pass the time and died, aged 86, in 1989. 

     I never met my mother’s older brother, Ian, although he lived in Edinburgh, and I only met her youngest brother, Harry Fraser, once, in Glasgow.   In the 1970s, while I was still at ITN, a call was put through to me from the police in Glasgow.   The caller, sounding rather constrained, asked me if I was acquainted with a certain Henry Fraser, who claimed to be an uncle of mine.  I said I didn’t have an uncle of that name, and was told that Henry Fraser had recently died and used to tell people I was his nephew.   Though mystified for a while, I eventually realised that Henry must be Harry.   It transpired that Harry, an alcoholic, had died in a hostel for down-and-outs in Glasgow, where he used to tell the disbelieving inmates, when they watched the TV News, that I was his nephew.   Alas, poor Harry.   I gave the policeman my mother’s address.


     A television event that had a hidden significance for me, apart from the fact that it was the first time I had seen a TV set or any television programme, was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday, 2 June 1953.   The occasion had been declared a public holiday, and like more than 20 million other people we crowded into a neighbour’s house – few homes had TV then -- to view the resplendent ceremonies as they happened, broadcast from far away London in blurry black and white tinged with blue.   It was totally fascinating, amazing and thrilling – the historic scene in the Abbey, the royal family, the opulent robes of the royals, of the nobility and the clergy, the stirring shouts of ‘Vivat!’ and the stupendous choral music of Zadok the Priest.  

     One day I would be presented to the Queen and meet and write about her daughter-in-law, Diana, the Princess of Wales.



                                  6.   EDINBURGH, 1953-55


       My end of term report in July 1953 was better than the two previous ones.   The Rector, Rob Watt, commenting on my history lessons with him, said, ‘He has come on considerably during the session, in appreciation of the significance of a question & in the relevance & effectiveness of his reply.   His work now shows good promise.’   Dr Isaac said, ‘His work has been of a serious nature only since the performance of “The Mikado”.   His essays now reveal fair reading and some thought.’   Speaking as my Class Master, Wilf Hook said, ‘I do not feel that he is yet fully committed to his work: he still lives too much in the interior of his mind.   The next six months will really be decisive for his future.’   The trouble was that my creative energies and interests were directed elsewhere.   Not being an intellectual or a scholar, at school I did what was asked of me but little more, except when I was on stage or writing for myself.

     Despite the masters’ doubts and reservations, I again ‘satisfied the examiners’ in July in two subjects of the GCE Examinations at Advanced Level, the subjects being English and History.   Considering that I was not yet 17, and had polished off both my ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels at the ages of 15 and 16, it was a creditable performance.   The following summer I added another subject to my list, having obtained a pass in Higher Latin in the exams for the Scottish Leaving Certificate.   This was the equivalent of getting a GCE ‘A’ Level in Latin and provided me with enough academic qualifications to enter Oxford or Cambridge.   I have no recollection of studying for these exams or of where they were held.   As before, I looked at previous papers, worked out the most likely questions concerning persons and periods and learned some quotations that seemed as if they might be useful.

      Somehow I found the time to write another poem, my third.  It was called Ode on the Eve of James’ Departure and was dated 9 July 1953.   Addressed to the favourite Seventh Modern clown, James Crerar, it had four sections, each with a different verse and rhyming scheme, and was in imitation of the overblown poems of the seventeenth century, with their classical references, their adulatory and admonitory language.   Shelley was also an influence.   The Invocation began as follows …


                ‘Oh, Muse, descend from off thy courtly throne!

                Invest thy youngest son, as yet unknown,

                With fairest honoured laurels of thine own,

        From hands so pure the summit’s snow doth weep to earth!’


      Next came the Exaltation, the Exhortation and lastly the Valediction.   The Exaltation included references to the high jinks and horseplay that happened during free periods and breaks.


            ‘When thou hast gone, this room shall lose thy merry fame:

             No more shalt thou our sorrows, sulky fears and spite,

             By virtue of thy sudden wit and humoured sort

             In postures strange, achieved in playful sport;

             No more shalt thou disperse our woes with thy sad plight.

             Where shall we find that musical hilarity,

             Which thou inspiredst into our quartet’s madrigal?

             Or where again shall that delight so comical

             Break forth to see thee floorward sprawl precipitously?


     The Exhortation was suitably solemn and portentous …


                     ‘Look round, O James, at this thy School,

                      Where thou hast played, so oft, the fool;

                      What clear accomplishments are yours?

                      Whence came for you the loud applause?

                      What cups and caps and books have you?

                      Where are the stripes and colours new?

                      If that thy thoughts are heavenly,

                      Such things, ‘tis true, are vanity;

                      But men attach great cost to such,

                      And foolish count their price too much.’                     


     And so on.   Despite his fooling about, James secured a place in a Cambridge college and we never saw him again.  

     His place and that of the others who left Seventh Modern at the end of the Summer Term was taken by JB (Brian) Neill, MJ Donaldson, Michael Somen and an American, Ken McIntosh.   Others, like Adrian Carswell, though part of Seventh Modern, weren’t tutored in the Library.   John Gordon, Fergus Harris, Anton McLauchlan and I were the Library stalwarts.   In Free periods or in Breaks we sometimes played chess.   I was never very good at this and usually lost.   Mostly we fooled about, doing Goon Show imitations.   Anarchic and surreal, the comedy half-hour of The Goon Show performed by Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, was transmitted on BBC Radio’s Home Service, from 1951 to 1960.   Harry Secombe was Neddie Seagoon.   John Gordon was so successful at assuming the catch-phrases, bluster and posturing of Neddie Seagoon, that he became known as Neddie.

     During the summer holidays I seem not to have gone away.   I think this was because I was now immersed in gardening, in piano-playing and composing when I wasn’t reading.   I also went to the cinema nearly every week and occasionally to the theatre.   It was in September 1953 tht I saw the Old Vic production of Hamlet in the Assembly Hall, with Richard Burton as Hamlet, Claire Bloom as Ophelia and Michael Hordern as Polonius.   It didn’t impress me.   Burton, who was at that time 28 and, though married to his first wife, was conducting a blatant affair with Claire Bloom and drinking heavily, was, I thought, too moody, stone-faced and baleful.    Little did I know that one day I would bump into Richard Burton, understudy Michael Hordern, and picnic with Claire Bloom.

     To return to what I was reading in 1953.   What I was reading every week were mainly comics.

     Comics must have become the most frequent feature of my reading, from when I came to Edinburgh in 1946.   American comics, like Captain Marvel and Superman, had been devoured, when available, in Karachi, but they had nothing to do with real people and what I knew of life.   This was everywhere reflected in the English comics.   Most of the characters in the comic strips were also about my age.  The Beano and The Dandy, created and published in Dundee, were the most popular comics, with pages devoted to regular characters like Lord Snooty and his Pals and Dennis the Menace in The Beano, and Korky the Cat, Beryl the Peril, Black Bob and Desperate Dan in The Dandy.   The Hotspur, The Wizard and The Rover contained the adventures of older boys and adults in short story form, and when the Eagle appeared in April 1950, it was not only in colour, had glossy pages and was larger than other comics, but contained a wide range of stories and items of an improving or instructional nature.   Its main hero was Dan Dare, a space pilot with a crooked eyebrow, who battled against the forces of evil on Earth and on other planets, most notably the bad and big-brained Mekon.   The Sunday papers had comic strips of course, the most avidly read being Oor Wullie and The Broons in the Sunday Post.

     The daily papers were not much read by me – I never saw The Times.   But the Sunday papers, like the Sunday Express and the News of the World, were read right through.    

     My father did the Littlewood’s football pools every week, and now and then asked me to fill up a column of home wins, away wins and draws.   I won something infinitesimal once, but he twice shared in a fourth dividend and received about £30.   Walking to the end of our road to get the Sunday papers from the corner store on Sunday mornings became something of a ritual for me and while there I would buy some sweets or an iced lolly.   Sweet rationing ended in February 1953, and so visits to the dentist became almost annual.   Sugar rationing ended seven months later.  

     Picture Post, and occasionally the Illustrated London News, was always lying about at home, along with some women’s magazines.   I flicked through them all.   My mother removed any material that she thought I shouldn’t see, but she had to be quick.   An article, with photos, about Roberta Cowell, the first man to be made into a woman, in 1951 – he had been a Spitfire pilot and a racing-driver -- disappeared.   But I had already read his extraordinary story. 

     In the 1950s I was running out of books to read, having read all 12 of Arthur Ransome’s books about the Swallows and Amazons (the last of them, Great Northern? was published in 1947) and nearly all the books about Biggles and most of the 39 books Richmal Crompton wrote about William and his chums.   I discovered the few books written by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, the first, The Far-Distant Oxus being about a group of children, with ponies, on Exmoor.   It was written when they were teenagers and still at school, and that book and the sequels were even better than Arthur Ransome’s stories.   Crowns, published in 1947, is the most magical children’s book ever written, surpassing anything about H Potter.   Literary classics by Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy (my favourite author – I read all his novels eventually), I was prompted to read by my English masters.   And I tried to read the novels of Virginia Woolf, the most accessible (to me) being Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.   Trollope, Jane Austen and George Eliot I didn’t read until I was at Oxford.

     Such was the shortage of new reading material when we went to live in Oxgangs Road that I began going through my sister’s collection of novels, in particular the ones she had by Peter Cheyney.   These books, mainly published during the war, centred on a seedy private detective called Slim Callaghan.   In a way they foreshadowed James Bond, and had titles like Dangerous Curves.   The ones with ‘Dark’ in the title, like Dark Interlude, were the best.   Fictional family sagas like The Herb of Grace, by Elizabeth Goudge, were compulsive reading, and her Green Dolphin Country, which was set on the Channel Islands and in New Zealand, both of which I would visit in due course, was a powerful influence on my imagination and future story-telling.   It even inspired me to write a musical. 

     Ever since we acquired an upright piano, I had been hammering out simplified versions of Rachmaninov’s and Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos, among other classical pieces, as well as songs from shows like South Pacific, and songs written by Ivor Novello.   Songs of my own came to life when my fingers wandered idly over the black and white keys.   Usually they arose when I was experimenting with chords and key changes.   Eventually I decided to write a musical, words and music.   It was called Virginia and was set, not in America, but in New Zealand, of which I knew nothing at all, apart from what I’d read in Green Dolphin Country.   My ignorance was slightly reduced by browsing through Bob Finlayson’s gift to me of the 12 volumes of Everyman’s Encyclopaedia. 

     The actual composing of the music for Virginia probably didn’t happen until 1954, as it was in January 1954 I went back to Mr Howells for lessons in Music Theory.   At the end of the Easter Term, ie, in March, he wrote in a brief report, ‘Excellent.  Should soon commence to study Harmony.’   This was followed at the end of the Summer Term by ‘Very good progress in his study of harmony.  He is inclined to be too ambitious for the amount of theoretical knowledge he has so far acquired, but he certainly has ideas and should be encouraged to develop these.   Further study of harmony and counterpoint is required, as well as a knowledge of orchestration.’ 

     But as far as I was concerned I had learned enough to translate my melodies into musical notations on a blank page of ruled bass and treble clefs, and I abandoned any further studies in counterpoint and orchestration.   I was only interested in the magical process of composing, of putting what was in my head and what I was playing into the written equivalents on a page.   I was a writer more than anything else, and became absorbed by what I wrote – music had a language.   It was a creative process similar to that involved in writing a sentence, a chapter, a book.   I would stare at the blank sheet of music as I would later stare at a blank page, and if what was in my mind sounded right, I wrote it down, making something out of nothing.

     Virginia was about a group of pioneering families in New Zealand, who were being menaced by warring Maoris.   It ended with a spectacular earthquake.   There were young lovers and an elderly widow who found happiness with a sea-captain.   Some of the piano music has survived -- mixed up with a piano sonata and songs I wrote at Oxford for another musical (more of that later) -- but not the lyrics or the libretto.  They were later destroyed.   Nonetheless, after Bill Nicoll’s mother had kindly typed out the libretto for me, I took a copy of that and some of the songs to the George Hotel in George Street, where Anna Neagle was staying.   She must have been touring in The Glorious Days.   I think there was an acknowledgement that the script and songs had been received, but that was all.   An elderly widow in New Zealand can’t have been the kind of part Anna Neagle wanted to play. 

     Undaunted, I then began another musical.   This one was called Girl in Love and centred on two separate school parties, of boys and girls, ready-made choruses, on holiday in Switzerland.   Teachers, male and female filled out the cast and the adult roles.   However, the plot-lines eluded me, as well as the characters, and I abandoned the whole thing.

     It seems quite unbelievable to me now that I wrote one and a half musicals by the age of 18, on top of everything else.   But in doing so I realised that I was, sadly, not destined to be the next Ivor Novello, and that although I was full of imaginative ideas, I was restricted by my age and lack of experience from giving them any credibility.   Having already discarded the possibilities of making a living by sculpting, or painting, or singing or acting – all of which I considered – I thought about writing a book.   After all, Alec Waugh had been 17 when he wrote The Loom of Youth, which Aunt Ada had given to me as a birthday present as long ago as 1947.   And Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock had still been at school when they wrote their first Oxus story.   It seemed that I had no alternative to be a writer – and had I not written poems and the opening chapter of Mole when I was not yet seven?   Realistically, the only thing I knew anything about was schoolboys and my school.   But what would be the story?   What would it be about, and who would be the hero?   This bothered me until I began reading some of the novels of Virginia Woolf in 1954.

     In the meantime, the new session at the Academy began with the start of the Winter Term of 1953.   I was now 17.   It was announced that the play by Shakespeare to be staged in May 1954 was Twelfth Night, which I’d never read.  It would be directed by Puddle Ford and I would play Malvolio.   There were never any formal auditions.   Some boys were selected to read scenes from the play, their height, vocal clarity and (apparent) understanding of what they read determining what parts they played.   Rehearsals began in a leisurely fashion that term.

     It was about this time that the gravel of the Yards was replaced by a much smoother surface of asphalt, and the incidence of cut knees and grazes was markedly reduced.      

     During this term I wrote two more poems, both about rugby, in the same loose format but from opposing points of view   The Rugby Match was dated 31 October and was occasioned by a Divisional game on a Saturday at which I was a disenchanted and very cold spectator.   It began:


                       ‘A cold wind blowing, swirling a fly

                           Down among the crowd;

                        People watch with hands thrust deep

                           In gloves, in pockets;

                       Faces pinched, grey-lined, as if a corpse

                           Had slipped its shroud.

                       Some masters, standing back, breaking the blast,

                           Moving in restless sockets

                       Their eyes, thinking of things obtuse –

                           These boys will soon have left –

                       They couldn’t care.  A hypocrite crew,

                            Crying, “Oh, well played!”

                       What is their life?  The same empty phrases

                            Split from minds bereft

                       Of new truth, new thought, new hope,

                            But dogmas decayed,

                       Dry, with a loser’s delight in wielding

                            A power on boys.

                       No doers they … What is their life?

                            Not even they can tell.


     The rest of the poem was about the spectators’ and players’ reactions to an unexceptional game.   It ended …


                      “What was the score?  Six-nil?  Not too bad.

                             God, what a shag!”

                       There’s no applause on the rumpled field,

                             No crash tackle on the wing,

                       No bitter scrummage when we nearly scored,

                             No spectators, no one there.

                       Dead as the autumn leaves twirling

                             Between the tall posts,

                       Vaporising like steamy breathing

                             In the ashen air.

                       Nothing of the rugger match, nothing.

                             The clouds sweep up the ghosts.

                       There’s a cold wind blowing and the rain is coming.


     The other poem, Carmichael v Cockburn, was a player’s paean in praise of the game and was dated 5 November.   It began:


                        God, what a great game rugger is!

                              Nothing like it!

                        Streaking down the field with the ball

                              In a fearsome clinch,

                        Then battering through the tackling backs,

                              Who clog your strength and strike it

                        With their filthy arms, until the ball has gone,

                              And down you go to pinch

                         The greasy grass with a twelve-stone weight

                              Heaving across your legs.


     I was imagining the player to be John Gordon, who was in Carmichael like me.   It ended:


                               A near thing, but two

                         Of our best men were injured in the Firsts.

                               Oh, the blissful ache of winning,

                         Talking it tiredly over with the rest

                               Of the team, then the few

                          Your friends, relaxing, sweetly exhausted

                               In the tram, thoughts spinning

                          Yet knowing – God, what a great game rugger is!


     These effusions were not shown to any master, but copies would have been given to those in Seventh Modern, like John Gordon, who had played rugby in the Divisional Competitions.  

     It was probably in October that my mother button-holed Laurence Olivier at the stage door of the King’s Theatre.   He and his wife, Vivien Leigh, were on a try-out tour of a few provincial cities before the first night, at the Phoenix Theatre in London on 5 November, of Terence Rattigan’s new play, The Sleeping Prince.   It was Vivien Leigh’s 40th birthday.   She had only recently recovered from a complete mental and emotional breakdown in Hollywood during the filming of Elephant Walk.    My mother was very eager to tell Olivier about her talented son, the budding actor.   Fortunately I only heard about this later.   I hate to think what she said to him, and how she must have flirted with him.   What he said in reply – what could he say? – was probably polite.   I expect that he recommended that her talented son should go to a drama school. 

     Olivier’s next major project was the film of Richard III.   And one day I auditioned for him.   But more about that later.


     At the end of the Winter Term my school report was more favourable than usual.   Dr Isaac wrote, ‘His essays have improved not only in the reading revealed but also in the weight of opinion expressed in them.’   Jack Bevan said, ‘The standard of his written work has improved considerably.   He is now much more confident and authoritative: with the quality improving, it is to be hoped that the quantity will be unrationed.’   Mr Heath, who was taking me for Latin this session, wrote, ‘He has done enterprising and even distinguished work.’    Heath had been an Oxford Greyhound but was now rather solidly built.   In his class he had an uncomfortable habit, as I’ve said, of sitting beside you and putting his arm around you while he assisted you with some problem with the Latin text.   He and his wife had established a Play-reading Society, the plays being read after school in their comfortable home in one of the Houses, where cups of tea and biscuits were provided.  There was a certain amount of doubling of parts and any female roles were read, diffidently, by the boys.  I recall playing the leading role in Journey’s End and the female lead in Idiot’s Delight by Robert Sherwood.    Readings took place infrequently, perhaps only twice a year.   Heath himself was at the Academy for 40 years.

     Wilf Hook, however, was still doubtful about my academic capabilities.   He wrote, ‘His chief work this term has been in Shakespeare.   His critical essays continue to improve, but there is still a curious parsimony about his exertions … He is certainly a puzzle – what is he after?’   Hook’s Class Master report ended with, ‘His chief difficulty is a temperamental one: he is too aloof to commit himself wholeheartedly; but he can certainly work hard when he cares about it.’   Very true.

     I came in for more criticism in the annual school Chronicle, when the School Concert, given in the Spring Term, on Friday, 26 February 1954, was reviewed.   The short programme included items by Mozart and Bach and ended with a Choral Fantasia on Gounod’s Faust.   Our American, Ken McIntosh, who played the horn and left the Academy in the summer, was praised for his ‘remarkable virtuosity’ in the Andante from Mozart’s Horn Concerto.   Fergus Harris and myself, who both sang two songs from Sandford’s Songs of the Sea, were not so highly rated.   The reviewer wrote, ‘The voices of WF Harris and RG Honeycombe did not seem to be sufficiently robust to deal adequately with rollicking parts and they were obviously happier in the comparative peace of the other songs.’ 

     Very true as far as I was concerned.   I felt exposed on the platform, facing the audience as myself, with no costume or character to hide me.   The songs I sang, which I didn’t choose and didn’t much like, were Homeward Bound and The Old Superb.   Despite the inadequacy of Harris and myself, the reviewer concluded that it was ‘a concert of real merit’ and he deplored the smallness of the audience.

      I was singing in public again at what the Chronicle called ‘a short informal concert’ given by the school orchestra on Wednesday 31 March, the last day of the Spring Term.   The programme included music by Mozart, Delibes and Elgar’s March, Pomp and Circumstance No 4.   Adrian Carswell’s playing of a Sibelius waltz was ‘sensitive and controlled’ according to the reviewer, who described the solos sung by me and Fergus Harris as ‘comparatively disappointing.’   I’m not surprised.   The piece chosen for me was Schubert’s passionately romantic To Music.   What did I know of love and romance?    Nothing, as yet.

     My worst report followed.   Hook said of my English lessons, ‘From time to time he gives glimpses of some authentic ability.  He is still unwilling or unable to contribute anything to class discussion.   His progress is not decisive enough to give well founded hopes of an English scholarship next year.’   As my Class Master, he wrote, ‘His attitude is too negative.  Much of the work set (provided it does not call for serious thinking) is done competently, but beyond this there is an iron curtain: rumour and speculation do not hint at much activity in this zone of silence.’

     If I had known about what he wrote, or cared, this might have sounded fairly dire.   As it is, it sounds to me now as if he took my indifference personally and as if he reacted strangely to me.   I didn’t care for him.   I didn’t care for the sarcastic jibes and little sneers and sniffs he directed at me.    Bevan of course backed him up, for although he thought the quality of my written work had improved, he said, ‘Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to do much owing to his preoccupations with other things.   His lack of enthusiasm and zest is somewhat disconcerting.’   Mr Heath was more complimentary – I was placed second out of the eight in his Latin class and he expected me to pass Higher Grade in Latin in the Scottish Leaving Certificate quite comfortably, as I did.

     Meanwhile, I had begun writing sonnets, the first being dated 7 February 1954.   I wrote 22 in all over the next five years, plus some other short poems.   The sonnets were written with Gerald Manley Hopkins’ innovative versifying in mind.   They didn’t rhyme, apart from the couplet at the end.  They were full of assonance and internal rhymes, and the verse patterns of the first six lines were repeated in the second six.

     The first sonnet, called October: Conversation, was written when I was in bed with a cold – as was the second, dated 9 February.   This one was called Cold Comfort.


     ‘This wall is mine, this bed, this room is mine,

      But meaningless am I among them as they less me:

      Do I so serve who only sit and sneeze?

      Unreal existence, dowsing morning in absurdity,

      Annulled from reality, dully wheeling like seagulls

      Adrift below summer blue.   Where’s your intention, your use?

         Is each in life this dead that meets no man,

      Companionless exists, seeking none and sought by none?

      Is living then to seize, to suck life blood?

      No, drowsing speculation surfaces from memory,

      To languish like jelly-fish lulled on shore till withdrawing,

      And brings a new awareness of things of deep wonder suborned.

             Tomorrow’s morning another performance shall start:

             Fit time is this to sit and learn my part.’


     Other sonnets were about Melrose Abbey and Dryburgh Abbey, which I must have visited in the summer of 1954.   I was most pleased with the one about Dryburgh Abbey, which began, ‘Lilac and laburnum lambent low hung there.’  

In 1955 the sonnets became more personal.    My greatest work, in terms of length, was personal but quite different, a mock epic poem based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, called Jake, which was written over the winter of 1954-55 and wasn’t completed until March 1955.


     At some point in the Spring of 1954, in March or April, we left 48 Oxgangs Road and moved back into the city, into a flat at 16 Great King Street, which was in the New Town.   Great King Street ran east and west across Dundas Street, and was only ten minutes away from Henderson Row.   This meant that I didn’t have to get up so early and could walk down the hill to the Academy.   But after a full day at school, that included rehearsals for Twelfth Night and CCF drills, etc, I usually got a tram up the hill.   After rugby practice or cricket, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I always got a tram back home from New Field.

     I have no idea why we moved from the edge of the city to its middle, to a flat which occupied the top two floors of a town house and was reached by two flights of stairs.   There was also a flight of stairs within the flat to the bedrooms at the top.   From my north-facing bedroom the Firth of Forth and the hills of Fife could be glimpsed beyond the roof-tops of Cumberland Street.   The flat wasn’t as comfortable as the bungalow in Oxgangs Road – the ceilings were high, the furnishings old-fashioned and worn.   And I missed the garden and gardening.   However, it may have had some form of central heating.

     It was a smart address, but an odd choice in view of my father’s deteriorating health.   He had emphysema, and climbing two flights of stairs and then another to get to his bedroom must have been a struggle for him and have done him no good at all.   It seems, from what AD says in her Memories, that he didn’t see my performance as Malvolio as he was staying in Prestwick with Billy Elder in the second half of May.   It’s odd that he went away then, unless he found the stairs too much for him and needed a rest.

     Twelfth Night was performed at the Academy for four nights, beginning on Wednesday, 19 May.   Puddle Ford, who directed the play, had a recording made of one of the performances and when I hear it now I am astonished by the apparent professionalism of the cast – the vivid characterisations, the vocal energy, the seemingly expert timing of lines and jokes, and the gales of laughter emanating from the audience.   John Gordon was Orsino, GC Averill was Sir Toby, Adrian Carswell Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Ronnie Sinclair Maria, Ross Anderson the Priest, and Fergus Harris Feste.  KH Murcott, previously Yum-Yum, was Viola and AM Kerr Olivia.   Several junior and senior ephors played minor parts: Poker Morrison was an Officer, JK (Jake) Millar was a Sea Captain, and FHD (Nuts or Nutty) Walker Antonio.  Bill Nicoll was a recorder-playing musician and Anton McLauchlan an assistant electrician.

     Jake, a rough diamond playing a rough sea-dog with a gruff voice, did his best to make Orsino sound like Arsino, and in saying, ‘A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count,’ contrived at a Dress Rehearsal to leave the ‘o’ out of ‘count’.   And he managed to make it sound rather rude in performance, even with the ‘o’.  

     The production, simply presented on an open stage in Elizabethan costume, was reviewed for the Chronicle by an eminent Scottish playwright, Robert Kemp, whose two sons were at the Academy.

     He wrote, ‘The play flowed sweetly (the result of good planning and rehearsal).   Its lyricism was allowed to well up in a natural and unforced way, and the comic business was extremely well conceived and carried out … It is hard not to single out for comment first the Malvolio of RG Honeycombe, partly because this is the “biggest” and most difficult part in the play, calling for depth and quality in the actor, and partly because Honeycombe seems to be advancing beyond the stage where all is natural to the more interesting realm where art is controlled and conscious … It was not by mere height that he dominated the scene, but by a well-co-ordinated conception of the character, in which pompous speech, Puritan black and final outrage all played their parts.’   Kemp went on to praise in some measure all the main characters, especially Averill and Carswell, and spoke of the ‘vigorous and deservedly popular performance of the Sea Captain by JK Millar, matched by FHD Walker’s sterling Antonio.’

     We were well tutored by Puddle Ford, and once we had learned to assume certain vocal and physical characteristics and keep the pace up, instinct and a gleeful enjoyment in the playing of the scenes took over.   To a degree the personalities we took on were extensions of our own.   My skinny legs in black and my stork-like postures boosted the comic effect.   I also combed my hair forward, shaping it into a fancy fringe, and sported a small beard on my chin.

     My successes as Malvolio and the Mikado added to my status among the ephors and other boys in the school, especially among the sporting heroes, like Jake Millar and Nuts (or Nutty) Walker, who were my age and with whom I associated during rehearsals.   At the Curtain Call they were at either end of the line-up when I was centre stage.   I was now welcomed into their orbits and greeted as if I were an honorary member of the school elite, whose various achievements raised them above the commonalty of the 503 boys who were in the Upper School at the start of the Summer Term.  Jake now addressed me as ‘Honey’ and Nuts hailed me as ‘Ron.’

     Jake, Nuts and John Gordon formed a triumvirate and were often together.   Nuts was 6 feet 4, ie, half an inch shorter than me, fresh-faced, sandy-haired, slim and wiry, with very clear blue eyes.   Jake and John, who was also known as Neddie or Glug, were an inch or two shorter.   Jake cultivated a tough guy image and voice and used well-placed four-letter words to comic effect.   He had a habit of asserting his dominance over his adherents and younger boys by lunging at their groins as if to grab their genitals.   Sometimes he did, and sometimes the boys thus assailed were debagged.   This would be vigorously resisted, and in the struggle Jake co-opted the help of a henchman or two.   But generally he had only to make a sudden move, a lunge, in the direction of someone’s crotch for that person to double up in defence and comically protect his marriage prospects with both his hands.

     There was I believe no bullying at the Academy, and no fights.  The most violence was perpetrated before Prayers, when all the classes were seated in their assigned rows.   A boy might be suddenly slammed on the head for no apparent reason with a hymn-book, by a boy sitting behind him.   This might result in attempts at retaliation and threats, and hymn-books would be hurled across the hall.


     In England AD had moved at the end of 1953 into a single room in a guest-house in the Queen’s Park area of Bournemouth.   Towards the end of May she received a letter from Billy Elder, saying that her brother, Gordon, who had been staying with Billy, had been taken ill and was in hospital.   AD drove north to Prestwick straightaway and learned that Louie had only visited Gordon once, on a day-visit, not even staying the night.   AD talked to his doctors, who told her he was lucky to be alive.   She was told that, ‘Emphysema and a heart condition, a legacy from the First World War, were the causes of his illness, and a long convalescence would be required.’   He remained in hospital for three or four weeks, after which AD took her brother back to Billy’s home for a week to regain some of his strength, and then drove him home to Edinburgh.   He was eager to return to Great King Street and hoped to be fit enough to attend Marion’s wedding to Jim Campbell.

     This took place in the Fairmilehead parish church on 10 July 1954 and the ceremony was performed by the Rev Gillan.   Marion wore a plain white wedding dress and a simple head-dress.   Two of her girl-friends were bridesmaids.  The groom, as well as my father and I, wore (hired) tails and carried top hats.   My mother wore a more subdued dress than usual, pale silvery blue, with a corsage on her left shoulder.   Among the guests were Aunt Donny, Aunt Ada, Uncle Alastair and Jenny, and Jim’s mother.   The wedding presents, as was the custom, were displayed in our dining-room.

     In her Memories AD wrote, ‘A reception was held at the Roxburghe Hotel in Charlotte Square.   Gordon summoned up his strength and managed to keep going all day.   He was a proud man as he escorted Marion up the aisle to meet her bridegroom, Jim Campbell.   She looked lovely in her bridal outfit and was smiling happily as she walked back down the aisle with her tall husband, an accountant and an Edinburgh policeman’s son.   At the reception, exchanges of friendship and good-will were made amongst the relatives and friends who had travelled many miles to be present on this special occasion.’    AD then returned to Billy Elder in Prestwick and dutifully took him for a week’s motoring holiday around the Lowlands of Scotland in August.  In September it was Doris Schwyn’s turn to be driven around the Highlands.   It wasn’t until October that AD made the long drive back to Bournemouth, to the small guest-house where reduced winter terms were now in operation.

     After a brief honeymoon Marion and Jim moved into a dark bed-sit in a basement in Dean Park Crescent, while awaiting the completion of a house being built on a new estate west of the city.   Occasionally I was invited to have dinner with them and heard about their problems with the flat and their Polish landlord.   The following year they moved into a semi-detached house at 117 Broomhall Crescent, Broomhall.


     My school report at the end of the Summer Term was generally rather disparaging, although I still did well enough in Latin and French.   I was no longer having any History lessons.   In place of them I was writing some General Paper essays set by the Rector, who said of my work, ‘Interesting in parts, but not yet as a whole, & he must exercise greater precision in his use of words.’   Of my English lessons Hook said, ‘His work shows occasional flashes of quality, but the immaturity of his judgement is clearly shown by a rather indecisive performance in comprehension and interpretation.   His general essays can lay little claim to the distinction of style expected from a potential English scholar.’   Bevan said, ‘He still has a very long way to go until he reaches the required standard.’ 

      It was evident by now – as it had been for some time -- that I would never succeed in getting a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, and that, if I passed the Common Entrance Examination, I would therefore enter these universities as a Commoner.   I was not devoted to study and not a serious student, and Hook and the Rector now faced up to these failings, as it must have seemed to them.   They relaxed and so did I.  

     Commenting as my Class Master, Hook wrote, ‘His attitude has improved and I hope he will continue to be more forthcoming.   He has achieved a great deal both in school work and in some creative school activities, and yet, curiously, the general make-up of his mind remains immature.   I am not in favour of forcing the mind’s development, but scholarships are awarded partly on evidence of being wise beyond one’s years.’    The Rector commented, ‘Both his work, his aesthetic interests & activities (less widely shared than they should be) & his liabilities (sp, his excessive height) tend to set him apart & make it difficult for him to unbend & to open out.   But the former will only be effectively developed if he submits them to the cut & thrust of criticism & is willing to learn from the critics.   The problem of communication with other minds, orally or on paper (or by other media) is one which the artist -- & the scholar – must solve, & I wish him success in his efforts in the ensuing session.’

     These remarks were sensible and wise.   I never did learn from critics, relying almost wholly on my own opinions and judgement as I came to realise that the opinions and judgements of others could be as defective, if not more so, than mine. 


     Soon after the end of the Summer Term, on Tuesday, 27 July, the full complement of the CCF paraded in the Yards, attired in battledress blouses, Black Watch tartan kilts, full-length whiskery sporrans with three white tassels, Lowland bonnets, stockings with red flashes, and black boots.   Preceded by the Pipe Band we marched in one long column from the Academy up the slope to George Street and then to St Andrew’s Square and down to Waverley Station, where we entrained in a special train for the CCF’s Summer Camp at Comrie in Perthshire. 

     My CCF Record of Service tells me that I had passed my map-reading, shooting, drilling and other military tests at Dreghorn Barracks on 5 March 1951 and again on the same date a year later, also that I was proficient in handling a Bren gun, was a second class shot and that I was qualified to instruct cadets in drill, the rifle, tactics and map-reading in 1953.   And yet I wasn’t promoted to Corporal until May 1955, having been, I presume, made a L/Cpl the previous year.   This was a source of continuing humiliation and shame, as other smaller boys, whom I thought were less able, and younger, were promoted over me.   Mr MacIlwaine, who as a Major was the Officer Commanding the CCF, must have thought I lacked leadership qualities.   Whatever the reason I was a mere cadet for four years.

     The Record of Service also says, erroneously, that I attended two annual CCF camps, at Dallaghy in 1952 and at Barry in 1953.   In fact I attended neither.  My mother, who was averse to the school’s military activities, probably persuaded a doctor to provide a letter saying that I had a cold or was otherwise unfit or incapacitated.    My first CCF camp was at Cultybraggan, near Comrie, in July 1954, and being my first camp it made a lasting impression on me.

     When the CCF contingent paraded in the school Yards on 27 July, I was made right marker, for no other reason than that I was the tallest cadet in the parade.   On the command, ‘Right marker!’ I marched out importantly to a designated spot in front of the uniformed and kilted assemblage, all bearing rifles, who, when commanded, lined up beside me, on my left in one long line, and were then rearranged, three abreast.   Following on behind the CSM, Jake Millar, and the Pipe Band, in effect I led the long column all the way to Waverley Station.   Trams stopped for us and policemen cleared the way.   It was immensely satisfying, marching to the skirl of the pipes and the rhythmic rat-a-tat of the drums, with swinging kilts and swaying sporrans and Edinburgh citizens pausing to stand and stare.

     Arriving at Comrie after a short and rowdy train journey, we marched two miles south to an old Army camp called Cultybraggan, where we played at being soldiers for a week.

     It wasn’t until I did a search for Cultybraggan on the Internet that I learned that it had been a POW Camp during the war.   Built in 1939 as a maximum security prison, it had housed up to 4,000 German and Italian prisoners of war.   The Germans included soldiers of the Afrika Korps and the SS, and even Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.   Towards the end of the war an unpopular German sergeant-major was murdered there, brutally beaten and kicked by five young German soldiers, aged 20 or 21, and then hanged in a hut latrine.   All five were later hanged themselves by Albert Pierrepoint at Pentonville in October 1945.    After the war Cultybraggan was used as a training site by the Ministry of Defence.   Now schoolboys slept in Nissen huts with curving roofs and windows that projected along both sides, in huts where real soldiers had once slept and dreamed of war and death.

     For us, playing at being soldiers was almost like a holiday.   We had few worries and didn’t have to wonder what to do.   Our days were organised, our meals were sufficient, and off-duty we indulged ourselves with communal activities.   The wearing of a uniform, as with other uniforms, provided a cloak of anonymity and shared purpose, and promoted feelings of solidarity and comradeship. 

     The following winter I wrote a blank verse poem of about 900 lines which I called Jake, a modern epic.   It was in a mock heroic, MIltonic style, with extensive metaphors, generally classical in content, and its hero was Jake, who left the Academy that summer.   The crown of being the CSM then passed to Nuts Walker.   Other characters included John Gordon (Neddie), Brian Neil (Podge), Fergus Robertson (Robbie), AG McGregor (Sergeant Fester) and Ron.   We were still avid listeners of The Goon Show on the radio.   By this time John Gordon was universally known as Neddie.   Robbie imitated Bluebottle, Alan McGregor Moriarty, and I both Henry and Minnie Crun.

     I wasn’t very good at dialogue, especially my own, but the description of what we did is detailed and informative, and some edited passages follow in the ensuing paragraphs, with the blank verse lines of the epic run together as prose.

    The poem began on the Wednesday morning.


     ‘Jake was cold.   He thrashed around his bed and hitched a rough brown blanket off the floor; but yet the crumpled mattress-sheet seemed ice, and sparse the straw within congealed in lumps defied his heavy efforts to conform its shape to his.   He swore, for every time he turned his bedsprings creaked and discords sang till, sullen with discomfort, Jake lay still, and squinting down the hut’s decreasing length, recalled the martial Corps in Column of March but yesterday, preceded by the Band … Some thirty wretches who in conscious pride had then flung stern regards on civil life now fretted flattened pillows in vague unease … Pale sunshine laid an elbow here and there, on rusted stove, on cracked and dusty floor, on dull brass buckles, blancoed belts rubbed grey, on sloppy kilts, on scattered kit and clothes.’

     Jake’s hut is aroused at 6.30 by a sergeant-major banging his stick on the iron ribs of the curved roof of the hut.   He then barges in, slamming the door, and shouts at those still in bed to get up.   Jake puts on his denims, and with a towel slung over his shoulder, he leaves the hut in Fester’s hands and strolls out for a wash.   ‘Freshly gleamed the dew-lined grass and walls.   No pools yet swamped the wash-house floor, no tap’s persistent drip wore hours away.’ 

     Here he is joined by Nuts and Neddie, who at the Academy, as at Cultybraggan, was Nuts’ principal adherent and attendant.   Meanwhile, ‘Fester floundered up and down the hut, submerged in waves of dust and drifting fluff, continually uttering cries abrupt or choked if broom or bucket missed some speck of dirt.’   At half-past seven, ‘clutching tin mugs, plates and eating-tools,’ the huts’ inmates head off for breakfast, which is provided in a large marquee or tent, where ‘two great squares of bread were dealt to them, topped by two meagre blobs of marge and jam,’ where ‘their plates were swilled with gruel, salty, thin, and stained with obscene sausage, bacon, egg, which sickly in their stomachs mixed, washed down by scented tea.’ 

     After depositing his slops in garbage cans outside the tent and scrubbing his plates and eating utensils in a kitchen sink, Jake scans the notice-board.   He reads, ‘Platoon and Section in Attack this morning – lunch at 13.15 hours – Demonstration: Night Patrol – at four, inspection – supper, 5.15 – in huts by 10.15 – lights out at half-past ten.’  Next he visits Neddie’s hut.  ‘Metalled

boots and bedsteads screeched on stone, directed here and there by Neddie’s cries hysterical, part deafened by the din, upon his whim to line up every bed symmetrical and straight.   He jerked around, nervous of an officer, saw Jake, and hailed him:  “Oh!   Hallo!   Quite sweaty – eh?”   Distracted, back he whirled to put things right: “Oo, but you mustn’t do that!   Move back – too much!” '

     Jake and Neddie then visit Nuts’s hut.   ‘A decent atmosphere inspired his hut, that seemed to hold the sunlight more than most.   Nuts stretched his length along his bed, and leaned upon an elbow … Around him grouped his subjects, shyly bold, whom he amused with bantering and chaff, while they inconsequential tossed him sweets.’   The three of them then seek out Podge and Robbie.   ‘The latter was a wee, waistcoated thing, dapper, sleek, attired with suave perfection … His glossy hair, combed flat, increased, it seemed, his boots’ black brilliance, as varnish bright; his gentle pleading eyes became intent when furtively he gleaned subversive talk.’   Podge, also known as Caesar and the Emperor, was ‘a portly plutocrat among the proles, still well-conditioned, fit, his solid white-skinned body in the pink, not gone to pot … His jutting hair, pale-coloured, fiercely swept his forehead low and little eyes … His voice, like grated cheese, twanged ominous.’   ‘Tee-hee,’ titters Robbie.

     The next four days pass by in a blur of military activity. 

     ‘They toiled up hills: near Blairinroar, like puffins ledged aslant on spray-wet rocks, they sat on heather tufts dewed with a shower that swept the slopes and arched a rainbow over the glistening glen.   Sweatily they slogged on pebbled roads, embarked on exercises, clearing woods, while over hedges brown-hide cows cud chewed, steaming and giving odour.  They by-passed farms, like Tyghnablair … and cottages, whose wickets green enclosed carnations creamy-frilled, Sweet Wiliiam, nasturtiums burnished red and gold, and roses velvet, damson-hued, blue podded lupins, hollyhocks all pollen-furred, and stock of varied pink and white and mauve perfumed.   They crushed a path on steep Allt Tairbh’s thick banks; they trampled tussocks on the moors, crushed sprouts of heather, furze, and feathery bracken bent; and sheep, and hares, and grouse, avoided them.   Their bodies ached, then totally relaxed … They dozed at demonstrations: armoured cars, patrols, machine-guns, mortars, camouflage; they marched and drilled till socks stuck to their feet; they queued for meals and famished ate each scrap.   From rifle, foot, inspections once dismissed, insatiable they thronged the cinema, unwearied gorged the NAAFI’s groceries, and sang tremendous choruses untired, when malleable performers could be found; or under naked lights they flicked their cards in general disarray of shorts and shirts … Jake despondent grew; for sometimes now he saw how they from citizens disrupted put on habits of the herd.’

     On the Sunday there is a Church Parade.   ‘Rare slate-bellied clouds trailed, ship-like, shadows over contours curving wide … Major Mac reviewed the whole contingent … In column sized they stood erect.   A drum-beat rapped – they tautened.   Jake roared down the line: “Company!   By the left!   Quick march!”   The bagpipes wailed, picked up their tune, and forward stepped each man … They came back drowsed by holy monotones and lunched religiously.’

     The rest of Sunday is spent as individuals wish, lounging about, driving off with parents, bird-watching, bussing into Crieff, and using one of the stoves to make a feast of baked beans on toast.   Jake, Nuts and Ron deal with this, assisted by others, like Charles, Mike and Greg.   Pleasantries are exchanged and stories told and Nuts, who is taking over from Jake as CSM, begins to dominate the scene.   Jake is leaving a day early, on the Tuesday, his birthday, to take part in a cricket match in England, on 4 July.

    After supper most of that company assemble in the NAAFI and Neddie is prevailed upon to play the piano and strum accompaniments to grand old songs. 

    ‘They bellowed, bawled, they sometimes sang, and strove for glorious harmony.   With Jake to lead, they sang and ceased to be themselves, became a Voice, inspiring primitive emotions in those who heard … with choruses to Moses, and John Brown, Lloyd George, the Quarter-Master, Kirriemuir, and lastly to the Hippopotamus.’   They then sing the school song, Floreat Academia, before going outside for some Scottish country dancing in a field.   Pipers are summoned and some officers and timid plebs turn up to watch.   Jake invites Major Mac to be his partner and Neddie dances with Puddle Ford, Podge with Robbie, and Ron with Nuts.   Three circles form up to dance an eightsome.

     ‘A pine-tree, tall and bent, quite near the field, upreared against the west an outline black; beyond it over Dunmore Hill the flames of sunset faded: orange now, then  crimson darkling flared; the dusky east pricked forth a star, as evening ceded place to night.   The dancers noticed not the gradual change, save where reflected on their partner’s face, nor felt the midges bite, nor thistles nettle.   Fast they caught the hand the arm that clutched and loosed their own, kept balance on the grass.   They stopped for rest, applauded solo turns of pipes or Highland dance, and swung away again, the drone and chant of bagpipes pierced with yells … Great gusto Jake and Neddie both displayed, galumphing up and down in beastly glee; but Neddie more than Jake did splendid bounds: he gambolled like a small monster, that gaily on Jurassic shores in spring-time flicks its hind-legs blithe and vibrant on the sand.’

     Major Mac brings the dancing to a close and the dancers return to their huts, where Jake converses in the wash-house with Ron and then with Nuts and Neddie.   After bidding each other good-night, they settle down in their huts.   Jake switches the lights out in his hut and silences the raucous sallies and rude sniggers among his troops.   He says to himself, ‘Tomorrow we’ll set out and sweat again, attacking, purposeless, those damned great hills.   What did Ron say?   “They’ll still be here, enduring, when we’re gone.  But we endure as well.   That’s what it’s all about.”   Before dropping off to sleep Jake yawns and murmurs to himself, ‘A place in the sun, at the end, is what one wants.’

     The poem ends as it begins, with a roll-call of place-names and the eternal silence of the hills.   ‘Lonely came a bugle call: two notes in unfulfilled sad cadence rose and stayed; a wall-tap in the wash-house ran unseen incessant down the drain; the grasses, ferns, immobile as the weapons of a war-lord laid aside, how they were left, they lay.   And came a breeze, in darkness sifting through the gorse and wide expanses of the hills.   On Tyghnablair, and Blairinroar, Allt Tarbh and Ruchill Water, rain began to fall.’

     The original typescript is dated 22 March 1955, which is when I read it to the senior ephors in the Ephors’ Room, to Nutty Walker, now Head Ephor, to John Gordon, Brian Neill, David Gardner-Medwin, and AJ Munro.   I stood and they sat around the table where miscreants were walloped, and heard me through in silence.   It was a rare event, for them, and for me – an echo of what happened in ancient times, when a court poet or bard sang or recited verses about their deeds and lineage to the king and his retainers feasting in a hall.


     The Edinburgh Festival was gathering momentum now and getting bigger.  From its inception in 1948 I had seen one or more of the productions on display every year.   Hardly any do I remember now, apart from seeing Paul Scofield in The River Line in 1952, and in the first week of September 1954, an elaborate production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Empire Theatre, in which Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer, as Oberon and Titania, flew into the wings to the music of Mendelssohn.   They had both starred in that impressive and powerful film, The Red Shoes, which I saw in 1948.  

     In the second week of September I went on holiday with my cousin, Eileen Duncan.   Although she must have been in her late twenties, we had always got on quite well, and had once climbed the hills behind Swanston together.   She wasn’t intimidating, like most young women, and was dark-haired, brown-eyed, and rather jolly, sturdy and blokey, with a hearty laugh – a Fraser more than a Duncan.   I don’t know whose idea it was, but the holiday was strangely prophetic, as it centred on Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford. 

    On the other hand, the Academy and my mother may well have decided that I would enter an Oxford college as a Commoner, in 1955 or 1957 -- before or after compulsory two years of National Service, and provided that I passed an Entrance Examination.   So it may have been deemed a good idea if I had a look at Oxford in advance and, as I had acted in two plays by Shakespeare and would be in a third, I might as well visit Stratford and see how professional actors performed the plays.

     Postcards written to my parents on Saturday 11 September, reveal that Friday was showery and that after some shopping Eileen and I went on a coach-trip of the Cotswolds, to Bourton-on-the Water, where there was a scaled down model of the village.   Here there was a large brown hairy pig in a field and, as I would do whenever I saw a pig and had a camera, I took a photo of it looking up at me.   On the Saturday morning we hired a double canoe and explored the upper reaches of the River Avon, taking photos of swans and the parish church as seen from the river.   Then it was a tour by coach to Warwick and Kenilworth Castles.   I wrote in a postcard that Warwick had a great collection of paintings and that there were peacocks in the grounds … ‘There was a thunderstorm while we lunched there, but by the time we reached the huge red sandstone ruins of Kenilworth Castle the sun was streaming.   Tonight there is Othello and supper at the Theatre afterwards.’    

     Anthony Quayle, who was the director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, as it was called then, played Othello.   Little did I imagine, as I sat there gazing at the stage, that less than four years later I would also play Othello, and that eight years later I would be standing on that stage myself.

     On the Sunday we visited the parish church where Shakespeare was buried and viewed his minatory memorial.   Like most people I was completely ignorant about his life and times, and made no imaginative connection with the fact that he had lived in Stratford and gone to school there, and that I was seeing some of his plays there, two of which I had acted in, and had spoken the words that he had written.   That afternoon an excursion to Welford was rained off and we returned to Stratford and did some more canoeing.   On the Monday we walked on a fine, hot day along a canal to Mary Arden’s house at Wilmcote, eight miles there and back, and in the evening we saw The Taming of the Shrew, of which I recall nothing at all.   Many years later, in Perth, Western Australia, I would appear as Gremio in an open-air production of The Shrew in King’s Park.

      Laurence Olivier was in the Stratford company that season, appearing in Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus with Vivien Leigh, the plays being directed, respectively, by John Gielgud, Glen Byam Shaw and Peter Brook.   Alan Webb and Ian Holm were also in the company, the latter making his first professional appearance, as Donalbain in Macbeth but mainly as a spear carrier -- as I would do in eight years’ time.   The Observer’s critic, Kenneth Tynan, while praising Olivier’s widely praised performances, said that his wife’s Lady Macbeth was ‘more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery … but still quite competent in its small way.’   Of her showing in Titus he wrote, ‘As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh received the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.’   This calculatedly clever and amusing but nasty remark (typical of some critics) was said of the Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind, which had been premiered in Atlanta, Georgia in December 1939, her performance winning an Oscar the following year (the film won 10 Oscars).

     From Stratford, Eileen and I then did a coach tour of Blenheim Palace and some of the Oxford colleges.   We didn’t go inside the Palace, which was immensely grand and impressive, but wandered around the grounds, viewing the gardens and the lake.   At Oxford we looked into five colleges, Magdalen, St Edmund Hall, Oriel, Corpus Christi and University College, where my university education would begin in 1957.   My favourite college was Teddy Hall, because it was small and homely.   It also seemed really old and had wisteria growing on its walls, as had the buildings in Lugano.  

     And then it was back to Edinburgh for the start of my last year at the Academy, a year there that I enjoyed the most.   I was 18 that September.


     My last appearance in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was going to be as Private Willis in Iolanthe.   This was something of a comedown after the Mikado, as there was even less to do, sing or say.   Willis, like the Mikado, only appeared in Act II.   I had thought I might be chosen to play Mountararat or Tolloller.   But Willis’s famous solo had the distinction of opening Act II, and as he was a guardsman and wore a bearskin, I couldn’t help making an impression as I would be seven feet tall. 

     Besides, I would be busy organising three other events.   The Division Music Competitions and the Concert devolved on me that year, and from somewhere or someone, probably Nutty Walker as Head Ephor, came the idea that a Free and Easy Concert might also be staged.   His father had also been Head Ephor at the Academy and organised a Free and Easy.   This was an informal variety show in which boys who wouldn’t normally appear on stage in school productions were given the chance to display any musical or other talents they possessed.   The last Free and Easy – they had usually been organised by the senior ephors – had been 21 years ago.  

     So in the Winter Term I was preoccupied, thinking about and planning future musical and dramatic events.   Nonetheless, now that my class masters’ scholarship expectations had faded away and I had been given a freer hand with what I was studying and reading, what I did was better received.

     Hook wrote of my English work, ‘He has been more ready to give himself to his work this term, but there is still something reluctant about the frequency and volume of his output … I think his work may make some impression by its authority or consequence of style, but the examiners will look in vain for quickness of imagination, close knowledge, or intellectual resourcefulness.’   Bevan said, ‘He listens well but seems reluctant to contribute his opinions to general class discussion.   He is undoubtedly profiting from his wider reading and the general quality and tone of his writing continues to improve.’   The Rector agreed, writing about the General Papers that had taken the place of History lessons, ‘There has been an appreciable advance this term in the quality of his essays.’

     In his Class Master’s Report, Hook said, ‘None of us has all the virtues, but I hope his will commend themselves to the Oxford examiners in January.’   His wish would be fulfilled.  

     It seems that I applied via the Academy for an English Scholarship at Jesus College in Oxford, and in early January I travelled down to London by train and thence on to Oxford.   After taking a taxi from the station to Jesus I was lodged in a double room on the ground floor of the main quad, in a sitting-room and bedroom, strangely colourless, dark and bare, which turned out to be occupied during term time by a blind man.   Books in Braille were lying about.   The overhead light was dim, and the cold and darkness of the depth of winter was what I remember of those few days spent there.   I ate in the college hall along with the hundred or so other boys taking similar exams and compared notes with my neighbours, as to where they were from and what their subjects were.   But that was all.   At night I read any notes I had with me and books that were relevant to the morrow’s exams.   After the scholarship exams it was back to wintry Edinburgh and the start of the Spring Term.

     I was unsuccessful in my application for an English Scholarship at Jesus but was offered a place at the college as a Commoner.   Because my mother didn’t have the money to pay for the three years of my further education at Oxford, the Academy then proposed that if I did my National Service first – rather than after Oxford – I could be the recipient of a Thomson Scholarship.   This was an arrangement between the Academy and University College and was worth about £100 a year.   All I had to do to receive it was to pass the Common Entrance Examination.   The Thomson Scholarship had been recently endowed in memory of KD Thomson (EA 1892-1905), killed in 1916 in WW1. 

     In 1954 the Scholarship had been taken up by AJC (Cameron) Cochrane, who’d been Giuseppe in The Gondoliers as well as Captain of the First XI.   He had left the Academy in 1952 and had done his National Service with the Royal Artillery in Hong Kong (as I would do), and in 1954 had gone to University College to read English (as I would do).   Cochrane had been in 45 Field Regiment in Hong Kong as a subaltern (which I never was).   He went on to captain Univ at rugby and cricket and played for the university at both games (which I wouldn’t do).   Ultimately he was headmaster of Fettes for nine years.  

     His three years at Oxford would conclude in 1957, which meant that if I did my National Service from September 55 to September 57, I would follow him  

to Univ in October 57.   So my future academic career was decided by the relevant powers-that-be in Edinburgh and Oxford.  

     The Rector at the Academy, Robert Watt, wrote to Giles Alington, the Senior Tutor at Univ, saying that the Academy recommended that I would be the next suitable recipient of the Thomson Scholarship and would come up to Oxford after I’d completed my National Service.   The Principal of Jesus also wrote to Giles Alington, saying, ‘I should liked to have given him an Exhibition, but he was not quite good enough in a strong year, and being a Scotsman he has not the resources to take up a place as a Commoner which we offered him.   I gather that you have a Close Award for boys from Edinburgh and I merely write to say that he is, in my opinion, a delightful person.’   What, I wonder, did he mean by that?   He must have interviewed me.   I didn’t know about his letter until over 55 years later, and can’t imagine in what way I was ‘delightful’ then.  

     The Principal’s reference to me being a Scotsman acknowledged the fact that no Scottish education authority would give any of its sons any financial backing, or grant, to attend an English university.   Nonetheless my mother was able to extract an additional bursary from someone, somewhere (possibly the City of Edinburgh) of about £37 a year.

     I wasn’t consulted about any of this, although I had expressed a preference for doing my National Service before going to Oxford, so that whatever I did thereafter would not be interrupted.   As it was, this sequence of events, two years of National Service and then four (interrupted) years at Univ, rather than at Jesus, would determine much of what happened in the rest of my life – as would the students I met at Univ rather than those at Jesus.   And by doing my National Service first I gained a measure of that maturity that the Academy masters thought I lacked.


    The Spring Term of 1955 passed in preparations for the musical events of the Summer Term.  There were meetings and discussions with all the boys involved, and many rehearsals.   At the same time I was filling in the gaps in my knowledge of literature by reading the works of some of the metaphysical poets and a few of the novels of Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, Sterne and Virginia Woolf, though none by Trollope.   Those of DH Lawrence I read later.

     By this time, although I still had weekly lessons in Latin, French and English, the General Paper sessions had been dropped and I had Free Periods virtually every day.   This was utilised by the Librarian, Wilf Hook, who got me and a few others to employ our spare time by marking, in white ink, the spines of every book in the Library with initials and reference numbers.   This took some time, and curiously presaged what I would be doing in my first few days of National Service.   To this day, there are books in the Library that bear the marks I made.

     It was, I think, during this term, that I had weekly sessions with a tutor, who visited the Academy to instruct me in the poems of the 17th century, like those written by John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan and John Dryden.   The ideas expressed in these poems were too intellectual and clever for me, although I liked the poems of Donne and Marvell.   The tutor was a young man, slim and fair, aged about 24, who had recently graduated at Cambridge.   We met in an empty class room.   I was somewhat inhibited by this intimacy and by the fact that he sometimes came and sat beside me.   He invited me to visit him at his nearby flat for further conversations, but I was suspicious about his motives and declined the invitation.    I also didn’t fancy socialising with a teacher.

     It was at the end of this term, on 22 March, that I was invited to read Jake to the assembled senior ephors in the Ephors’ Room.   Jake had of course left the school the previous summer and I sent him a copy.

     I travelled down to Oxford a few days later, to sit the Univ Entrance Exam on 24/25 March 1955.   By then the weather was less dark and cold and Univ made a better impression on me than Jesus.   I also made a good impression, although I was nervous, on the dons who interviewed me in the Senior Common Room after the Exams, which included two General Papers, an Unseen, and a Science Paper.   These must have covered subjects to do with English and History, as well as Latin.   I was awarded the following marks – A, AB, BA, B, BC and C.   These, as well as my GCE O and A Level results, were noted on an aide-memoire used by the five or six interviewers, one of whom was my future English tutor, Peter Bayley.   He commented at the bottom of the page, ‘Very, very tall.  Is nice.’   Another don scrawled, ‘Wrote an epic.’    Across the page someone wrote, in red crayon, ‘Accept.’    A letter to this effect was sent to Robert Watt at the Academy on 28 March.

    In my Spring Term report Wilf Hook wrote, ‘He has not been hard pressed this term.  His reading has been rather more general, and his essays and comments show maturing understanding.’   Bevan said, ‘With the pressure of examinations removed, he seems to be producing much better written work.’   In French and Latin I was said to be ‘competent’ and ‘capable’ and the Rector concluded, ‘His wide range of interests is now finding scope & he is learning to use his time effectively – the most valuable lesson a future undergraduate can learn.’


     The Summer Term was my last at the Academy and witnessed the full flowering of some of my talents and interests.   It was not exactly an apotheosis, but there was glory of a sort.

     I hardly did any school work as there was so much to prepare and rehearse.   But on Saturdays I sometimes took a tram down to New Field to enjoy the archetypal sight and sound of the First XI, captained by Nutty Walker, playing cricket on an idyllic summer’s day – the thwack of bat on ball and the running of figures in white between the wickets and when chasing a ball.   Once I performed the duties of a scorer.   I knew everyone there and they all knew me.   I viewed the dream-like scene with a certain sadness, aware that my schooldays were coming to an end and that the vague awfulness of adult life would soon overwhelm me.

     The ‘School Notes’ in the EA Chronicle, written in November 1955, commented, ‘The cold but dry month of May was the prelude to a glorious summer.   At the start of this Term the Fields were almost too hard for Rugger owing to the continued drought … Unusual events last term included the sight of the senior ephors taking the School PT Parade at 11.15 during Sgt Major McCarron’s illness … and the revival of the “Free and Easy” ’.   The Notes congratulated those of us who had won various Scholarships.   D Gardner-Medwin had been awarded a State Scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, and I was congratulated ‘on being awarded the Thomson Scholarship, a Close Scholarship from the Academy to University College, Oxford.’

     At the beginning of the Summer Term I was promoted at last to Corporal, and on Thursday, 30 June, the inter-house Platoon Competition, an annual event, was held at the Academy and at a Gorebridge farm.   As reported in the Chronicle our military capabilities, including drills, were tested by serving officers and an RSM of the Royal Scots.   Houses, led by PSM Kindness, won the Competition, and my division, Carmichael, was third.  

     There was much mention of my name elsewhere in this issue of the Chronicle, which didn’t appear until the following term.

     Firstly, in chronological order, there was my performance in Iolanthe, presented in the School Hall for four nights, from 1 to 4 June, and directed by Mr and Mrs Hempson.   The main parts were all played by boys younger than me, none of whom was an associate or a friend.   But in the Chorus of Peers, apart from three of the masters, were Gardner-Medwin, KH Murcott, RM Sinclair and IDM Chalmers (more about him later).   None of the boys who were in the Chorus of Fairies was known to me unless they were in the School Choir.   But the Fairy Queen, GAE (Giles) Gordon would become known to me in very different circumstances when as a publisher’s editor he turned down my first novel.

      He was a short and sturdy, rather scruffy schoolboy with a brush of hair and a scrubbed look -- a most unlikely-looking fairy, let alone a Fairy Queen.   He went through the motions but he was obviously very uncomfortable in the part and especially when he had to express his suppressed feelings for me as Private Willis.   He had to say, ‘Do you suppose that I am insensible to the effect of manly beauty? … Now here is a man whose physical attributes are simply god-like.   That man has a most extraordinary effect upon me.   If I yielded to a natural impulse, I should fall down and worship that man.   But I mortify this inclination.’

     At the end of the operetta the Fairy Queen has to marry Willis and turns him into ‘a fairy guardsman’.   Wings sprouted from my shoulders, as they did from the Chorus of Peers, and in the Finale the whole cast sang ‘Everyone is now a fairy’ and we all danced.   This was the bit that GAE Gordon and I liked least of all as he was a rotten dancer and we had to hold hands.

     At the Curtain Call I stepped forward and, reading partly from notes, made a speech thanking all those involved in the production.

     AD came up from Prestwick from Edinburgh to see the last school production in which I would appear.   She wrote, ‘In his guardsman’s uniform, with scarlet tunic and bearskin, which considerably increased his height, he presented a handsome and colourful picture.   He was alone on stage at the start of Act Two and his solo was rendered in a strong baritone voice.   I was pleased and proud of his performance.’   I hope that both my parents were there, as well as Marion and Jim, but I don’t remember whether they were.

     AD returned to Edinburgh to see the Division Music Competitions and Concert on Wednesday, 20 July.   She wrote that I conducted ‘the large school choir without a trace of nervousness and with a confidence that surprised and pleased me.’   Again, I hope that my parents were also there, but again, I don’t recall if they were.

     In the Music Competitions I conducted the Carmichael Choir.   The tricky test song, sung by all four Divisional choirs, was ‘Diaphenia’ by CV Stanford.   There was also an Instrumental Competition, which included a composition specifically written by me for the best instrumentalists that Carmichael had, for violin, cello, clarinet, flute and piano.   I played the piano; Bill Nicoll the clarinet.   My composition was called ‘Theme and Variations’ and was simple, tuneful and not too fast, so that we could all keep up and not make too many mistakes.   It was up against a Rondo by Mozart, a Serenade by Schubert, and a Minuet by William Boyce, played by a trio and two quartets.   The adjudicator was Mr Herrick Bunney.

      The Chronicle’s reviewer said, ‘The vocal competition was won for the second year running by a sound performance from Carmichael, in which the only material flaw was an occasional slight flatness in the treble line … All the instrumental entries were well worth hearing, and Carmichael once again produced a Kapellmeisterwerk by Honeycombe; but the most musical and well-integrated combination was beyond doubt that of Kinross.’   Kinross won; Carmichael was second.

     In the Concert that followed the interval, I conducted the two choirs, large and small, and chose, after seeking advice about this, what they might sing – the Welcome Chorus by Bach from Phoebus and Pan, and the Faery Chorus from The Immortal Hour by Rutland Boughton.   The Madrigal Choir sang ‘April is in my Mistress’ face’ by John Morley.   The solo pianist, Fergus Harris’s younger brother, AL Harris, the instrumental quartet and the trio, all chose what they wanted to play.   I played the piano for MJS Chesnutt, who sang (my choice as it was a slow number) ‘Solveig’s Song’ from Peer Gynt by Greig.  

    Chesnutt was a sweet-faced small boy with dark hair – a smaller version of me, I suppose, at that age -- and I thought he would enchant the female members of the audience.   He didn’t enchant the reviewer, nor did my choice of ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ as the final item in the programme.

    The reviewer wrote, ‘After so satisfactory a first half to the evening the audience were in an expectant mood, and their expectations were not disappointed.   There were two miscalculations … It would have been a miracle if Mozart’s intimate and intensely devotional “Ave Verum” had made an appropriate ending to such an occasion, and with all respect for Chesnutt’s brave effort, no boy of twelve can realise the mature and essentially feminine emotions of Solveig’s song …’   He was right in both instances.   He continued, ‘The combined choir had been admirably trained by Honeycombe, not only in the technique of their business but in what a famous Academical once called “the great task of happiness”;  and the small choir sang some beautiful and exacting music with a competence only slightly qualified by a certain thinness in the alto part.’    I conducted without a baton and was pleased that the choirs and other performers hadn’t let themselves down, nor me.

     Many years later I learned that little Chesnutt had a crush on me.   I was completely unaware of this.   He was just another small boy, though more neatly dressed than most and with a nice face.

     Three days later, on Saturday, 23 July, the Free and Easy took over the school hall.   It began at eight o’clock and lasted, with an interval, for three hours.   While congratulating the Head Ephor, Nutty Walker, and myself, ‘the chief organiser’, for putting on the show, the Chronicle’s reviewer opined, rightly, that it ‘suffered from lack of rehearsal and would have been much improved if almost every item had been reduced in length.’  

     There were 15 items in the programme and if the performers had stuck to the 10-minute slots they were given we might have come in under 2½ hours (with an interval).   But virtually every item overran, partly because groups were slow getting on the stage and getting off, and once on they indulged themselves.   The trouble was that I hadn’t seen any of the acts in full, or in costume.   The Ben Dorain Choral Union, in recreating their nights on mountaineering expeditions, sitting around a mock fire, enjoyed themselves so much that they went on singing for twice as long as their allotted time.   In the wings I was going berserk, agitatedly waving at them and mouthing ‘Get off!’   To no avail.  

     Some of the groups had comic names, like ‘Cotton Walker on his syncopated Squeeze-Box’, ‘The Florence Chapeau Trio’, and ‘Hop Scotch Fowlie and his Small Scotch Trio’.   JS Fowlie was one of the masters.   A boy called Melrose, made-up and costumed like a flapper (his idea) and calling himself Miss Semolina Smog, sang and danced a daring Charleston.   Drag was also adopted by Puddle Ford, posing as a Victorian lady, Miss Florrie Att.

     The last item in the Free and Easy was a take-off of The Goon Show, written by me and called Neddie Seagoon’s Schooldays, which was stuffed with sound effects, musical and otherwise, and well-known catch-phrases.   It starred John Gordon as Neddie, GC Averill as Eccles, Fergus Robertson as Bluebottle, AG McGregor as Moriarty, and myself as Minnie Crun – as an offstage voice.   The Announcer was DM Baxendine.

      After ‘God Save the Queen’ the Free and Easy began.   The Chronicle’s review of it was a full one and very fair.

     ‘After a rousing opening Chorus by the School Ephors, resplendent in straw hats, striped blazers and white flannels and brandishing brand-new clackens, RG Honeycombe and AL Stewart sang ‘The Two Gendarmes’ and CTK Walker performed on the accordion.   Dr Isaac, in a magnificent beard, then gave a delightful piano recital “Ancient Welsh Psalm Tunes” (so-called) and became involved in mysterious operations with Messrs Booth and Marshall.   EM Sandland showed his skill on the piano, GF Melrose danced the Charleston, and a harmonica trio produced more music.  Then came “The Florence Chapeau Trio,” featuring “Miss Florrie Att, Mus. Spin, (piano forte); Herr Mata Peah (recorder) and Hank Amamus, Esq. (cor français).”   Messrs Ford, B Cook and Dawson (almost) recognisable behind a Victorian façade, gave a moving rendering of a period ballad “Ring the bell softly, there’s crape on the door.”   After this there followed, in complete contrast, “Happy-Cat-Kemp and his Hot-Time-Tom-Cats.”   When they ceased “hitting the high spots,” the exhausted audience welcomed an interval and some fresh air.’

     The senior ephors chorus, written by me, was a version of the Peers chorus in Iolanthe – ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!  Bow, bow, ye plebs, ye proles, ye masses!  Cringe before us!   Grovel and adore us!  Tantantara!   Tzing boom!’   The duet sung by AL Stewart and myself, ‘A conductor’s lot is not a happy one.’ was a variation, by me, on another G & S song.   Stewart had been Strephon in Iolanthe and had conducted Kinross in the Music Competitons.   With conductors’ batons in our hands we sang, ‘When the tenors go to sleep and sing soprano – Sing soprano.   And the altos lose their wits and join the bass – Join the bass.   When they should be singing loud and will sing piano – Will sing piano.   The result is very far from commonplace.’

     These songs, with lyrics by me, were the first, along with my first play, Neddie Seagoon’s Schooldays, to be given public performances.  

     Part Two of the show was described by the Chronicle’s man thus:  ‘The programme began with an invasion of the Hall by what appeared at first sight to be a gang of ruffians but who turned out to be “The Ben Dorain Choral Union.”   After these “hill-billies” had taken the “Road to the Isles” and departed, the Head Ephor and his second-in-command, JW Gordon, followed the old Free and Easy tradition by singing a “Topical Song,” recounting in verse the features of the past year.’   This they wrote themselves.   ‘The same pair then sang the “Hippopotamus Song,” the audience joining with immense enthusiasm in the chorus of “Mud!   Mud!  Glorious Mud!”   A Foursome Reel by the Academy Highland Dancing Team, some music by the Country Dance Band, with Mr Fowlie in charge, and a Sword Dance, led up to the “world premiere” of a “gigantic” production, bearing some resemblance to a popular radio programme … This had a cast of about two dozen, several scenes, various impersonations, numerous topical allusions, and a finale in which (as was only right and proper) the School Ephors restored order where chaos had been raging … With, appropriately, “Miss Florrie Att” presiding at the “ grand organ” the evening’s entertainment had finally reached a triumphant conclusion.’

    Despite the show’s length and its failings, it was much enjoyed by all those who were there.   It also made me realise that I could not only perform adequately on stage but organise and direct large-scale stage productions, as I would do at Oxford and in later years.   But it was as a writer that I hoped to make a mark.   I dreamed of being famous.    But how might this happen?

     It was in the mid-fifties that I formulated a mantra instead of a prayer that I repeated to myself before going to sleep – ‘I’m going to be a great success, my work will be immortal.’   Even then I had begun to believe that the mind has a controlling influence of not just the body but your well-being, outlook, attitudes and very existence.


     My years at the Academy concluded at the Exhibition held in the School Hall on the afternoon of Monday, 25 July 1955, at which I received the Douglas English Prize (The Works of Sir Thomas Malory), and an ER Balfour Music Prize (Poems & Songs of Robert Burns).   The Malory would be put to good use when I dramatised part of it as Lancelot and Guinevere, which was broadcast on Radio 4 in January 1976 and in September 1980 was staged at the Old Vic.  I still have these books, as well as five others I received in previous years. 

     It was the custom during the Exhibition for the Rector to review the sporting and scholastic events and achievements of the year.   The latter included the Scholarships to Cambridge won by HG (Harry) Usher, who was Dux, by AJ Munro and Bill Nicoll.   FHD Walker (Nutty -- his Christian name was Francis) won an Exhibition in Mathematics to Clare College.   The Rector also mentioned that ‘there are some good Commoners going to Oxford.’    Individual successes in games and other activities were delineated and Nutty Walker’s leadership and example praised in full.   He was ultimately Captain of Everything – rugby, cricket and athletics, as well as CSM and Head Ephor.   To my pleased but blushing amazement the Rector spoke about me twice.   Were my parents present to hear what he said?   I hope so.

     He said, ‘It is sad to reflect that the famous soliloquy of Private Willis was the swansong in legitimate drama of one who has held the Academy stage for so many years and in such a variety of towering parts, RG Honeycombe.   To the many participants and helpers, visible and invisible, he paid eloquent tribute, and I can only invite you here to applaud the skill, the patience and the tact with which so complex a collection were handled to such admirable effect by Mr and Mrs Hempson.’

    The Rector went on to comment on the initiative and organising abilities of those boys who were involved in new ventures and the Divisional Music Competitions and the Concert.   He said, ‘This year the conductor, not content with a performance of good Home Service quality went on to organise a variety show on a Light Programme model, a revival of the long-defunct but once prosperous “Free and Easy.”   Our collars might wilt, but the energy and vivacity of the performers never flagged.   Sounds harmonious and cacophonous, on every type of instrument and every register of the human voice, dances domestic and dances of alien origin, strange operations and familiar phrases, provided a remarkable medley culminating in the triumph of virtue over vice.   No doubt the versatility of the producer derives from his study of the first Elizabethan age.   When he returns from Army life, enriched and matured by experiences which most Elizabethans shared, Honeycombe, our Thomson Scholar to University College, Oxford, will contribute much to its revels, as he has to our entertainment.’

     This was praise indeed, and what he said so positively about my future activities in Oxford actually came to pass.   In his final comments in my School Report, the Rector wrote, ‘His exceptional height inevitably marks him out from the common throng & his zest for dramatic activity has brought him frequently & to good effect into the limelight … His enterprise & enthusiasm have contributed much to our entertainments, in music and drama; the coming years of Army life will test to the full his adaptability and tolerance.   Development of these qualities will fit him well for the intellectual stimulus of Oxford work & Oxford discussions, in which I wish him a happy & successful career.’

     Wilf Hook concluded, typically snide, ‘His mind is less that of a scholar than of an artist, and we do not expect our artists to be at all points well adjusted to life!   I hope he will have an interesting and successful career.’

     It turned out to be a career unforeseen by anyone, least of all by me.


    But then there was the CCF Camp.   That summer it was at Fort George, Ardesier, in Inverness-shire.   Now that I was a Corporal and a junior ephor and had been publicly singled out for special mention in the Rector’s address, I felt a modicum of pride in leading the column as right marker from the school’s Yards to Waverley Station, behind the Pipe Band and our CSM, Nutty Walker.  

     At 8.05 am on 26 July we paraded in the School Yards and marched up to Waverley Station.   At the station we entrained for Inverness – the journey took 6½ hours -- and were then transported to Fort George, where we were housed in tents on a large grassy area before the Fort.

     The Chronicle reported, ‘Training began lightly with demonstrations by Eaton Hall Officer Cadets on Platoon composition, Platoon in attack, and night patrols.  The lessons learnt were put into practice by carrying out several Platoon attacks in the afternoon.  The training areas were ideal except that, owing to the drought, they tended to catch fire rather easily; indeed, one of the highlights was a heather fire which, at times, had two fronts each of 400 yards; Saturday afternoon was devoted to extinguishing it.   Platoon in defence, the 2-inch mortar, house clearing, map-reading and “Exercise Sniper” were all practised … The night exercise was favoured by good weather and was a distinct success.   On Monday, a map-reading exercise, with the youngest cadets doing the work, brought the four divisional platoons to the eastern boundary of the training area for a haversack lunch … A realistic and successful Company in attack was performed on the Tuesday morning.   On Sunday we attended Service in the Fort Chapel.   Over the weekend we were pleased to have visits from the Rector and Mrs Watt, and from Mr MH Cooke and Mr West.   The success of Camp depends largely on the food and the weather.   This year we were extremely lucky with both and were also able to enjoy good bathing in the Moray Firth.   We returned overnight, arriving at Waverley at 6.30 am, and duly disturbed Edinburgh with our pipes.’

     I remember very little of the above, except that it was warm and sunny and that one of the overweight cadets was said to have been black-balled, literally – his testicles smeared with black boot polish.    I dimly recall the heather fire and the overnight train journey at the end.   I would not have been one of those who went for a swim in the icy waters of the Firth.

     In my tent I was with about another eight or ten corporals and sergeants, one of whom was John Gordon.    But for those of us whose time at the Academy had ended there was little interest in our amateur military activities when two years of National Service loomed over us.   Not only that, everything and everyone we had known while we were at school, and everything we had done and achieved, was fading away and becoming meaningless, while our futures were largely a blank, a new dawn, a dawn of nothing.

     Fort George, however, was an interesting place.   It was a big and sprawling 18th century star-shaped fortress, built after the Jacobite rising of 1745 to check and suppress any further trouble from the Scottish clans.   It stood on a windy, treeless promontory jutting out into the Moray Firth, and its nucleus of three-storey barrack-like buildings was entered by a narrow bridge across a dry moat.   At the weekend I wandered along the grassed tops of the extensive bastions surrounding the fort, sat down, and in a melancholy mood contemplated the steely waters of the Firth and the blue hills beyond them and wondered what would happen next.

     Nutty Walker, who left us a day or so before we returned to Edinburgh, to play cricket for the Edinburgh Academicals, visited our tent to say goodbye to John Gordon.   He also shook my hand, and smiled, broadly and warmly.    For me, it would be a very long goodbye. 

     We were polar opposites in our achievements – he was the Captain of Everything, and I was in effect the Captain of Everything Else.   All we had in common was the fact that we were virtually the same height and the same age.   ‘In amity disparity revealed,’ as I said in a sonnet.    Words, however, were insufficient to describe how I felt about him -- the strong emotion, the impossible, inexpressible liking.   Only once was I alone with him, and that was when I took him through his songs for the Free and Easy in a small basement room in the Masters’ Lodge where there was an upright piano, where Mr Howells had given me lessons.   He stood very near me and I sat.   It might have been a very warm day, because his face became quite flushed, as mine did I expect.   The atmosphere in the room seemed supercharged, so much so that I couldn’t continue, stood up and said, ‘That’s fine.  That’ll do.’   I looked at him and he looked at me and nodded.   ‘Thanks,’ he said and went away.

     I felt very low and sorrowed for a long time.   I wouldn’t see him again for 44 years, not until the 175th anniversary dinner of the Edinburgh Academy held at the school on 1 October 1999.   He looked and sounded much the same, except that he was bald, like me.   He smiled, broadly and warmly, shook my hand, and said, in his strong and mellow voice, ‘Hello, Ron.’  


     Back in Edinburgh, AD visited us in Great King Street more than once.   She wrote in her Memories, ‘Ronald was now over 18 years of age and eligible to be called up for his two years’ compulsory National Service, along with a number of classmates.   They were all awaiting their call-up papers with mixed feelings; some were eager to begin their training; others, like Ronald, were less enthusiastic … He did not exactly relish the prospect of the next two years being spent in military training, but was philosophical about it … I can recall seeing one of the young boys, John Gordon, come bounding up the stairs of the Great King Street flat, his face flushed with excitement, to tell Ronald that his call-up papers had arrived and that he would be leaving home the following week to report for duty.   Listening to their animated conversation and with memories of two world wars behind me, I ardently hoped that all this training would never have to be used for anything other than peacetime activities.’

     In fact it was.   National Service, which had been scrapped at the end of WW2, was reimposed in January 1949 for a period of 18 months, and extended to two years in October 1950 because of the Korean War.   204 National Servicemen were killed in that war and others later on in Malaya, Suez, Aden and Cyprus, where John Gordon did his NS.   Out of over one million young men who served from 1948 to 1963, 395 were killed in combat situations.   National Service ended on 31 December 1960, the very last National Serviceman being discharged in May 1963.

     It was now my turn to serve.   When summoned in August 1955 to a local branch of the Ministry of Labour in Edinburgh for a preliminary assessment, which included an interview, some basic aptitude tests and a medical, I applied for the Royal Navy, not wishing to be in the infantry and in direct contact with an enemy.    But this was not possible as I was short-sighted.   So I opted for the Royal Artillery, as guns were positioned well to the rear of any actual hand-to-hand fighting and I would probably not have to shoot or bayonet anyone or be shot at in return.  

     Out of that decision – and it was a decision made not by others but by me --much resulted, not just during the next two years, but in much that happened in the years that lay ahead.


     A week or so before my 19th birthday my enlistment notice arrived in a brown War Office envelope, containing a travel warrant and various instructions telling me to report to a Royal Artillery training regiment at a place called Oswestry in Shropshire.   I set off gloomily, with a sinking feeling, into the Great Unknown.




                          7.   OSWESTRY and WOOLWICH, 1955-56


      I entrained on the morning of 29 September 1955, a Wednesday, two days after my nineteenth birthday.

      I was seen off by my mother and father at smoky, clamorous Waverley Station, facing a blank two years and clutching a bag, in which were mainly socks and underwear, handkerchiefs and toiletries and things for keeping me warm.   A paper bag would have contained some wrapped sandwiches and an apple, and perhaps a bar of chocolate or a Mars bar, as I mustn’t go hungry and had to maintain my strength.   For the journey was a long one, lasting about six hours, and it would mean changing trains twice, at stations I had never seen before.   I was entering an unknown part of England as well as an unknown life. 

     My father, wearing a hat and a coat and glasses, and looking smaller and thinner and older, wasn’t well.   But no one had told me what was wrong with him, and I never asked.   No doubt he shook hands with me, his only surviving son, and perhaps he patted my arm and called me “Ronald boy” as was his wont.    I would have given my mother a peck on her cheek.   As a family we never embraced.   No one did in those days.   Only mothers and aged female relatives received an occasional kiss.   Any display of physical intimacy, even among married couples, was very rare.

     The Army’s travel warrant gave me a seat in a Third Class carriage.   There was no Second Class, the designation having been abolished many years ago, about 1900.   There was only First and Third Class now.   But nine months later Third Class ceased to exist, when it was renamed Second Class. 

     With four people sharing a long seat with no arm-rests, Third Class compartments forced people into unwelcome physical contact, with shoulders, arms or elbows touching.   It was best to tuck yourself into a seat by the window, where you might avoid contact with your neighbour and be able to gaze at the passing countryside.    People-watching passed the time, as did trying to read the backs of others’ newspapers, or the titles of books and the contents of magazines.   Most men smoked in those days, and the train compartments, in which as many as eight people sat facing each other, four on each side, were generally overheated and the windows dirty.   It was always a matter of dispute or discussed agreement as to whether the latched window in the compartment door should be shut or partly open and whether the slotted window above the main window should be open or shut.   Racketing thunderously through dark and smokily acrid tunnels required that all windows should be closed.   If you looked out of any window, especially a corridor window, you were likely to get a painful piece of smoke-stack grit in an eye.

     The journey would have necessitated changing trains at Carstairs, where I joined the express from Glasgow to London Euston, and then again at Crewe.   At Crewe, a major railway junction, there were connections with train services from all over Britain.   At Crewe I would have noticed numbers of other pale, skinny and solemn youths singly boarding the train that would take us all to our common doom.    It wasn’t as if we had to walk the plank or face a firing squad, but there was a fearful uncertainty about the hereafter, about what would happen.   We had been cocooned by family life and now, released into the wild, wide world we were on our own

     The train I boarded at Crewe left the main line at Gobowen and chugged its way in a southwesterly direction through the autumnal countryside to the town of Oswestry, which was in Shropshire, along a line that doesn’t exist now, having been closed in the 1960s.  

      If I had known that Oswestry, some five miles from the Welsh border, had been an ancient settlement, with an Iron Age hill-fort nearby, a thousand-year-old church, some remnants of castle ruins, and the site of a battle in 642 AD between kings of the Dark Ages, Oswald and Penda, I might have looked about with some interest.   Offa’s Dyke wasn’t far away.   But when I arrived all I saw was a large brick railway station, and vociferous men in uniform, and Army lorries waiting to take us away.   In that long ago Dark Age battle, Oswald, who became a saint, was slain and dismembered, his right arm reputedly being carried by an eagle to an ash tree, where miracles were later said to have occurred.    Oswald’s Tree became Oswestry in due course.

      The area had for centuries been a base and battle-ground for thousands of warring soldiers.   In the twentieth century, although sportsmen were its most famous sons, one was the young soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in World War One, seven days before the end of the World War One.   The town was now a training ground for the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Park Hall Camp and had been so since before WW2, accommodating over 2,000 men.   Park Hall itself, taken over by the Army before WW1, had once been a magnificent Tudor mansion, until it was destroyed by fire in 1918.

     Herded into lorries like sheep, we headed, dumbly regarding each other, to the 17th Training Regiment of the Royal Artillery, where we would be penned for the next eight weeks.

     Park Hall Camp was outside the town, a dreary treeless place of huts and long low wooden buildings.   In one we queued up to be identified and registered by a clerk, to sign on and sign the Official Secrets Act.   We were given a number and the name of our Battery, which in my case was 148 (Meiktila) Battery, 68 Regiment RA.   A Battery was the equivalent of a Company, which normally had three platoons.   In our case they were called sections, or squads.   I was put in 6 Section, 148 Battery, which contained 36 squaddies in all.   My NS number, never to be forgotten, was 23184340.

     Wherever we went thenceforth we formed a queue.   We were always queuing, when not doing drills or marching, sometimes at the double.   There were cook-house queues, NAAFI queues, queues to see an MO, queues to see lectures, to get anything and to see anyone official, even to enter a toilet or use a urinal or basin in the wash-house.   Queuing had become a national pastime during WW2, especially when rationing began.   Rationing had only ended the previous year, in July 1954, meat being the last item to be de-rationed, along with cheese.   Tea had been rationed until 1952, sugar and eggs till 1953.   Our families had become used to hardships and postwar shortages and so, unknowingly, had we.

     After the signing on, a Lance-Bombardier (L/Bdr), reshaped us into a squad and marched us off to the QM (Quarter-Master) stores, where we were required to stuff a kitbag with all our Army gear, which included two battledress uniforms, best and second best, two pairs of boots, best and second best, an Army greatcoat, three khaki shirts, two pairs of dark green underpants (early versions of boxer shorts), three pairs of thick grey socks, two pairs of PT shorts, two vests, one red, one white, a pair of striped pyjamas, two black berets, two badges, two pairs of gaiters, two webbing belts, backpacks and other webbing, and a set of overalls.   A mess-tin, a white tin mug and a metal knife, fork and spoon, called ‘eating irons’, were also issued to each of us, as were a WW2 helmet and a gasmask, neither of which, I think, was ever worn.  

     The cook-house and the NAAFI were pointed out and, heavily laden, 36 of us were marched off to our spiders, as our one-floor only, wooden barrack rooms were known. 

     Our section was divided up between two spiders, six spiders (the hypothetical legs of a spider) sharing one wash-house, consisting of 24 basins, showers, urinals and toilets, lit overhead by low-strength naked bulbs.   As about 18 home-sick, bleary conscripts occupied each spider, over 100 of us had to hover and queue every early morning to shave and perform our wash-house ablutions.    Most of the chained plugs in the basins had disappeared, so you had to provide your own, or stuff toilet paper in the plug-hole.  

     Beds in each spider were allocated in alphabetical order and faced each other in two parallel rows.   There were no floor coverings, and on the walls there were posters concerning weapons, regimental orders and fire precautions.   The windows had no curtains and I think there was no heating, although any heating wouldn’t have been operating until December.   I seem to remember that a highly polished but unused black stove gleamed at us at one end, near the door.   Also adjacent to the door was a partitioned cubicle, in which our very own Lance/Bombardier lived and lurked.    But whether he was awakened at 6.30 am, like us, or went to bed, like us, when the lights were switched off at 10.00 pm, I do not know.   Nor did he use our wash-house.  

     I have an end-of-training photo of 6 Section, lined up in three rows, the first row seated.   We look tolerably presentable and cheerful, though most berets are too high and show too much forehead.   As usual I’m in the middle of the back row.   The faces I remember, but not the squaddies’ names, apart from that of a Scottish lad, Hendry.   Very few of them, I think, had been to a public school.   The names of the L/Bdr and the Sergeant in charge of us also escape me.   Seated in the middle of the group they were slim, pleasant young men in their twenties, and didn’t abuse us unnecessarily.   Both were also doing their National Service.

     That first evening our L/Bdr must have given us various instructions concerning Royal Artillery routine and discipline – like saluting every officer and reading the Orders of the Day on notice-boards every day -- and the making up and stripping of the coverings on our narrow iron beds, which few if any of us had ever done before, having left such menial activities to our mothers. 

     Four blankets, two sheets and two pillows were provided for each bed, as was a thin mattress.   Every morning the entire bed had to be stripped, and three of the blankets and the two sheets folded neatly and precisely.   The fourth blanket had to be wrapped around them, making a layered oblong sandwich at the head of the bed, with the pillows on top.   Everything had to be squared off, including the backpacks, which were stuffed with newspapers and lined with cardboard and had to be stowed, along with our helmets, on top of a metal locker, which stood between the beds.   My mania for squaring things off and lining things up probably dates from this time.     

     The bed-making instructions and a demonstration thereof probably happened after we were marched off by our L/Bdr at 6.0 pm for a meal, called Tea, in the cook-house, having been instructed to hold our eating utensils in our right hands behind our backs, while swinging our left arms shoulder-high.   The mid-day meal, lunch, was called Dinner.   Tea would have consisted of bread and jam, a rock cake, fried fish, potatoes and peas, and a mug of tea untapped from a large tea-urn.   The tea was allegedly doctored with something called bromide, which was supposed to curb any impulse for self-abuse, as well as any lustful feelings we might have for any female, or even for each other.   Exhaustion, lack of funds, of privacy and opportunity were more debilitating than any bromide.

     After Tea, our implements had to be swilled and washed under a tap above a round vat of greasy water outside the cook-house.  

     A visit to the NAAFI may have followed this, as we had been instructed to buy tins of Brasso and Kiwi polish for cleaning our kit, as well as yellow dusters, and olive-green oval blocks of Blanco No 1, which when wetted would be brushed onto and into our webbing.   All that would have cost 3s 9d.   We had also been told to write to our parents to let them know we had arrived at our destination.   Plain post-cards had accordingly to be bought, as well as stamps.

     That night we were worn out as well as miserable.   Someone further down the hut was softly sobbing.


      In the morning, while it was still dark, we were rudely woken by the Orderly Sergeant, switching on the lights and rapping his cane on the rails at the foot of our beds and yelling the time-honoured phrase, ‘Hands off cocks, feet in socks!’ among other orders and imprecations.   He might also have hurled one of the metal buckets marked FIRE down the length of the hut.   It was 6.00 am and we had to be shaved, washed and dressed and ready at 6.30 to be marched to the cookhouse for breakfast.   Afterwards, we were allowed to make our own way back to our spider.

     At meal-times an excessively smart young ‘one pip’, a second lieutenant, would sometimes appear and swagger among the tables inquiring genially if the food was all right.   We never dared to criticise or complain, feebly saying, ‘Yes, sir.  Good, sir.’

     Back at our spider all our civvy clothes had now to be parcelled up and sent home, except our shoes.   Sheets of brown paper were provided and balls of string.   We belonged to the Artillery now, and were confined to barracks for two weeks.   There was no escape. 

     We were then marched off to have a crude regulation Army hair-cut – short, back and sides.  This meant more queuing, as there were only two hair-cutters, who wielded their heavy clippers with clumsy haste.   Then we were told to strip, remove everything, and we lined up, naked, before being inspected by an MO (Medical Officer), who examined our chests, our eyes, our teeth, before telling us to adopt that most submissive and humiliating posture, to bend over and cough.   

     Our first session of drill on the parade-ground followed.  

     It was a shambles, as most conscripts seemed not to know their left from their right nor to understand or even hear the shouted orders.   Any rebellious attitude or remark resulted in the miscreant being ordered to double around the parade-ground.   We were supposed to have already learned our full Army numbers, the last three digits in particular.   A surly Scot or Northerner, when asked what his was, replied, ‘Fuck knows.’  ‘Don’t you fucking swear at me!’ yelled the NCO and made the offender double around the parade-ground twice.

     A great deal that was new was happening then and I may well have misremembered the sequence of events, then and later on.   But our first full day, Thursday, was pay-day, and we would have received our weekly wage of £1-8-0 (one pound, eight shillings).   Not a lot.  The average working wage at that time was £8 a week.

     For the next two weeks of basic training we would be on the move and fully occupied for twelve hours every day.   In the evenings we spent most of the time cleaning our kit, brushing wetted blanco onto our gaiters and belt and polishing its brass attachments.   An implement called a button-stick, slid under the individual buttons of our greatcoats, prevented the coarse material being besmirched with Brasso, which was also applied to the Royal Artillery badges on our berets.   

     Polishing the toecaps of our best boots until they gleamed like the black glass of our L/Bdr’s toecaps was the most tedious labour.   There were bumps or bubbles on the leather of our new boots and those on the toecaps had to be pressed flat with a heated spoon, then dowsed in cold water and religiously rubbed in a circular motion with a mix of spit and polish.   Some bold squaddies used a hot iron.   We also had to learn how to iron our trousers, and sometimes our shirts – something only mothers had done for us till then.   Damp brown paper, as we learned from squaddies whose ex-Army older brothers had passed on useful tips, could produce the perfect knife-edge creases like those on our Sergeant’s trousers.   Few of us, however, succeeded in getting our trousers to fold so neatly and uniformly over our gaiters as he did.   Ours rode up.   His secret, it was rumoured, was that he used weights, or even stitches, or both.

     ‘Bull’ was the word describing what we did to the toecaps of our boots -- as well as to all the other tasks involving polishing, cleaning, shovelling, painting, sweeping and getting down and dirty.    And a ‘bollocking’ was what we received when we got anything wrong.   The worst bollocking I got, and to begin with they happened daily, was when I saluted an RSM by mistake.  ‘Bollocks!’ was also a way of contemptuously saying ‘Rubbish!’ -- as well as a word for one’s testicles.  

      Even at weekends we might be ordered to perform various menial tasks in our overalls or fatigues, like cleaning floors, or shovelling lumps of coke into and out of a truck, or sweeping up fallen autumn leaves, or whitewashing large stones along some of the roads.   I did all of that.   We were told, ‘If it moves, salute it!   If it doesn’t, whitewash it!’   Once I was ordered to clip the ragged grassy edges along a road, crawling along on my hands and knees and using a pair of scissors. 

      Our Sergeant probably entered our lives that first Thursday morning.   He it was who would order us about for the next two weeks, shouting at us more than most, though not that savagely, especially when drilling us on the bleak expanse of the parade ground.   

      I presume we were allocated our .303 Enfield rifles that morning and given instructions in their care, cleaning and safety.   This mainly required us to remove the bolt, wipe it with an oily rag and then pull it through the barrel using (what else?) a pull-through, a slim metal weight at the end of a piece of string.   We were encouraged to love and cherish our rifles, the loss and damage of which would result in the most severe and awful punishments.   The rifles were kept in a rack in the barrack room, chained and padlocked.   The loss of any Army item was also deplored, resulting, we were told, in disciplinary charges being laid and the offender being charged with the cost of replacing the missing item.   Later on we were taught about the dismantling, loading and firing of a Bren gun, a lightweight quick-firing machine-gun, whose name derived from the Czech town where it was originally made, Brno.

     Rifles would not have been borne on parade that day as we first had to get used to marching – to falling in, falling out, stepping off with the left foot, snappily halting, and changing direction while on the move.   Because I had been in the CCF at school, I knew what to do.   Not so most of the others in the squad.   ‘About turn!’ seemed to cause the most confusion.

     Being the tallest in the squad, I was again the right marker, as I had been at school.   Wearing boots I was 6 feet 5.   The Army liked grading and graduating its platoons or squads, and one of the first things our Sergeant did was to get us to stand in a long line with the tallest, me, on the right.   We then had to shout out our positional numbers – ‘One! Two! Three!’ etc, up to 36.   Since we marched in rows three abreast, Two and Three were told to fall in behind me.  That left Four beside me and Five and Six behind Four, and so on.   This meant that the squad sloped slightly, with the tallest at the front when marching and the shortest at the rear. 

     In some cases the tallest were positioned at the front and rear, with the smallest in the middle.   Inept and scruffy soldiers might be placed in the middle row, so that they would be partly masked by the first and third rows on either side of them.   Within two weeks we marched and drilled almost like automata and at the passing-out parade were judged to be the top squad in the Battery.  

    That day was a long way off, however, and that weekend a long one.   Confined to barracks for two weeks, we were kept busy with all manner of servile jobs called General Duties -- apart from applying Blanco, Brasso and Kiwi polish to our kits.   Like virtually everyone else I was not acquainted with the list of things every squaddie must know, one of which was ‘Never volunteer for anything.’   For instance anyone who said he could play the piano would be detailed to shift it from one place to another in the NAAFI or to some other site.   So when some genial sergeant inquired whether any of us had done any drawing or painting and I indicated that I had, I was given the task of numbering all the metal items that each squaddie possessed with his full Army number.

     As every soldier’s Army number contained eight digits, the eight had to be individually indented in a tidy row on each item, which included every squaddie’s knife, fork and spoon and his mess-tin.   I was provided with a box of small spikes with numbers from 1 to 9 plus 0 at one end of each spike, and with a small hammer had to bash each number into every metal item.   As there were 36 of us in the squad, eight digits had to be carefully hammered, 36 times and without any errors, into the reverse or bottom of every item – a total of some 1,440 times.  

     As I remember, this took me the whole weekend, isolating me at a table, with mounds of kit, small numbered spikes and a hammer.   The only consolation was that I was excused General Duties.   At the same time each of us had to put our Army numbers on other items, like our webbing.   This was done by painting on the numbers using a stencil.   Some kindly squaddie helped me out by stencilling some of my gear.

     Before I came to Oswestry I had been apprehensive about the thuggish working-class boys I imagined I was going to have to live with and share a barrack room with.   Coming from a middle-class family and having been educated at a public school I had never met any working-class boys, who were supposedly foul-mouthed, coarse and crude, with violent dispositions and a liking for fights and drink.   I was accordingly wary of lads with regional and uncouth accents and naturally gravitated towards the few well-spoken boys among us.   But once I had become accustomed to the assorted accents of the others, the most impenetrable accents belonging to squaddies from Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle, I began to feel more at ease with them.   We were, after all, far from home and were all beset with similar anxieties and uncertainties, by harsh regimes and ferocious voices.   We were also the same age, 18 or 19, and were united by our sufferings, and being in a squad and living together promoted a supportive family feeling.   It was Us against Them.

     I also discovered that the supposedly thuggish working-class boys were actually brighter, more humourous and quick-witted, than some of the boys at my school.   Nor did they swear that much.   And although they might not know any Latin or Greek, they knew about Life.   They knew about work and money and people and social conditions and politics, all of which were obscure matters to me.   Some knew about girls, and sex.   But most of us were virgin soldiers, and most, I believe, remained so for the next two years.

     Apart from mainly and inevitably associating with any grammar school or public school types in the squad, I associated with other Scots and anyone approaching my height.   No one made any lasting friendships.   We were aware that although our present situation seemed interminable and occasionally intolerable, it was temporary.   In two weeks we would be somewhere else, with other people and otherwise employed.    Nonetheless we shared hardships and our meals together and in the NAAFI we relaxed enjoyably enough over beans on toast (3d) and an orange squash (3d) or a plate of chips (2d).   There was a piano in the NAAFI and once or twice I was persuaded to play, but as I knew little by heart apart from the theme from The Third Man and some songs from South Pacific, I soon retreated, yielding the chair to a squaddie who, like my father, could played by ear, without music, and rattled out some wartime songs and popular songs of the day.

     A jukebox in the NAAFI churned out songs from the hit parade.   In 1955 these song-hits included Mambo Italiano (Rosemary Clooney), Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White (Herb Alpert), Stranger in Paradise (Tony Bennett), Unchained Melody (Jimmy Young), and Rose Marie (Slim Whitman).   In November that year a new sound could be heard – Bill Haley’s Rock around the Clock reached No 1 in the UK charts – and a new singer, Elvis Presley, aged 20, was signed up by RCA.   For some reason, maybe it was a bit of wan and wishful thinking, the song I used to hum the most at Oswestry was Peggy Lee’s It’s a Good Day (from morning to night).

     That first weekend something happened that may, obscurely, have changed the pattern of my life.   For I changed my first name.

     I had never been fond of my first name, Ronald, nor of being called Ron, and I hated Ronnie.   At school I was Ron or Honey.   In the 1960s I would sometimes devise other stage or authorship names for myself, like Jordan or Jon Honicombe, names that didn’t belong to someone or something else.   To this end I studied numerology -- numbers that were attached to each letter of the alphabet and to the cumulative totals of names.   Some were lucky numbers and promised great things.   But it was a radio programme that prompted my name-change at Oswestry.

     A comedy half-hour on BBC Radio’s Light Programme, Take It From Here, first aired in 1948, had in the 1950s acquired a family called the Glums.   Ron was a soppy young man (Dick Bentley), a weak and idle loser, whose girl-friend was Eth (June Whitfield), and whose boisterous and prospective father-in-law was Jimmy Edwards.   ‘Oh, Ron!’ she used to cry pathetically when Ron was being pathetic.   At Oswestry I didn’t want the soldiery to imitate Eth’s wailing cry and connect me with a pathetic loser.   So I boldly replied, when asked what my name was – ‘Gordon’ – my father’s name.   And Gordon Honeycombe I became from then on, as an author, actor and TV newsreader, although my mother and sister continued to call me Ronald all their lives.

     Coincidentally, at the end of the radio series, in 1960, the Glums emigrated to Australia -- as I intended to do in 1965 and did almost 30 years after that.

     Why did I take my father’s name?   He had sired me but had hardly impinged on my existence.   No one unconnected with my National Service life knew I was really Ronald and none of my family knew I was Gordon now.   For a time there were two Gordons, separated by thousands of miles.   But by the end of my National Service there was only one.


     In Oswestry that October, time passed in a blur of drills, weapons training, PT (in navy blue shorts and white vests), kit inspections, room inspections and shouted orders.   Evening fatigues involved sweeping and ‘bumping’ floors, and cleaning and polishing our kit.    Meanwhile, the days were getting colder, shorter, and the nights longer, and when they got so cold there was frost on the windows, we spread our greatcoats on top of our blankets to keep us warm.   At night, before I slept, I could hear the distant clanking of