I was never interested in flying. It held no fascination for me. I suppose when I fell out of a tree as a young lad it might have been useful, but that's as far as it goes.
I had a happy childhood, as much a can be compared with what came later. Dad had a steady job with the government, so we didn't suffer so badly as some in the depression. We had to live a little frugally, but we weren't short of coal like in the war. The house was always warm in winter.
I was one of three children: My brother Joe, my sister Joyce, and me, Charlie, the youngest. One time I remember Dad taking us up to Lord's to see Middlesex. I saw Patsy Hendren, and Jim Smith hit a six into the crowd just a few rows from me. Even Joyce enjoyed it a little.
My dad was always keen on us mapping out our careers. "What are you going to do with your lives?" he would ask. That applied to Joyce as well as Joe and me. Dad was very progressive that way.
He wasn't so progressive when Joe decided what he wanted to do: He left school and joined the army. I was only thirteen at the time, just old enough to know what was going on, but I'm ashamed to say that I retreated into the bedroom and tried not to listen to the raised voices. It all ended in slamming doors. Then there was an awkward moment when Joe came upstairs. He had the kind of look he'd given me when he caught me playing on the railway tracks.
He only said one word: "Out!"
I went. Ten minutes later he emerged with a packed duffel bag, and went out into the night, without a second look at Dad.
I thought that I'd never see him again, but he sent letters. Mum read out some of them, but others they kept to themselves. Around six months later Joe turned up on the doorstep. I didn't know about it at first, as I was at school at the time. I knew something was up as soon as I came in, for I could smell something nice cooking.
"What's that, mum?"
"It's a steak and kidney pie, dear. Your brother has come back to stay for a day or two."
"Yes, dear, but he's out. Your father and he have gone off down the pub for a chat."
When they got back, I hardly recognised Joe. He seemed much older, and in some way wider, than I remembered. That, and he seemed a little shorter, but I'd grown a couple of inches in the meantime.
He tousled my hair in that annoying way older brothers do.
"Now, tail-ender, let's look at you, you're really shooting up!"
Then the meal was served, and the fight was on. I could usually sneak a spud while Joe wasn't looking in the old days, but this time both my sister and I let him have his fill first. He ate more than I thought possible.
He told us about the army. Even Joyce wanted to hear about the army boys. Dad had a strange look on his face, which I only later realised was a mix of concern and pride. I asked him later, but he wouldn't talk about what Joe and he had discussed. "When you're older..." was all he would say.
All too soon, Joe was gone. Aden first, then Kenya. Infrequently we got letters from him. He became Lance Corporal Briggs.
I didn't know much about the world or politics. I can just about remember Mr. MacDonald, and some big argument. Then there was Mr. Baldwin.
Around this time all that terrible bother with Abyssinia started up, and then there was trouble in Spain. Mr. Baldwin was succeeded by Mr. Chamberlain.
My best chum at school was Peter Harmer. Sometimes he was the more daring one, and sometimes me. The things we got up to. Mind you, it was a lot less dangerous then. We didn't have to worry about land mines or other dangers, and that was all before rationing.
He introduced me to cigarettes. It was all a pose, to show off to the Saggers. That's what we used to call the pupils at the girl's school: St. Andrew's Girls, hence Saggers. My sister Joyce was a Sagger, but she was a couple of years older and didn't count.
So we used to chat up the girls and give them fags. I can’t remember ever being serious about any of them. But of course, one of the girls had an older sister Joyce's age, and news traveled fast. In recollection, I think that my sister was more amused than outraged at her younger brother, but she liked to turn the screw a little bit, and see what she could get out of me for staying silent. She cashed in that chittie when she got her first boyfriend.
It was around this time that Dad started to get concerned about rumblings on the continent. He was a civil servant, responsible for drawing up rules on river and canal navigation. I wasn't at all interested in such things. He did get to hear some things about other parts of government.
I remember from an early age Dad sitting in the big chair in the living room, reading the Sunday paper. He used to muse on the world events. This was well above my head when I was small, and by the time I was a young lad I was bored by it. However, events had a way of intruding.
I had been more interested in the Saggers and the touring Australians that summer. Then I saw my father really concerned in that Autumn, 1938. Mr. Chamberlain had to go off to talk to that Mr. Hitler, and my parents were on tenterhooks for a while. I thought it was because Dad had fought in the great war, but really it was about Joe. If a new war broke out, Joe would be in the front line PDQ.
So for a few days we gathered every night around the wireless to hear the news. I felt strangely detached, and somehow enervated. It was the first time the news had really held my attention. Then I felt guilty when I noticed how concerned my parents were.
Then we were all relieved as it all worked out. We discussed it at school, and Peter was awfully disappointed that nothing had happened. Dad was happy for a while, but all too soon he became glum again. He had quiet discussions with Mum, and sent several letters to Joe.
Nothing much happened. We had Christmas, and Grandpa and Grandma came to visit as always, and my mind turned to other things. So we thought that it had all blown over.
By the next summer, I was working hard for School Cert, and cramming my head with information. I wasn’t a swot by any means, but did well enough when I got the results. I’d be staying at school to read the Higher. The big fuss was over Joyce, who passed the Higher the same summer, and got a place to study Biology at UCL. Dad was pleased as punch.
I was preoccupied with Eve, a Sagger I’d met last term. I thought she was awfully sweet, and she let me kiss her after we got our results. I was looking forward to seeing more of her.
Then the balloon went up. We heard Mr. Chamberlain’s address, and suddenly we were at war.