I suppose by this time you’ve got a kind of picture of me in your mind—a fat middle-aged bloke with false teeth and a red face—and subconsciously you’ve been imagining that I was just the same even when I was in my cradle. But forty-five years is a long time, and though some people don’t change and develop, others do. I’ve changed a great deal, and I’ve had my ups and downs, mostly ups. It may seem queer, but my father would probably be rather proud of me if he could see me now. He’d think it a wonderful thing that a son of his should own a motor-car and live in a house with a bathroom. Even now I’m a little above my origin, and at other times I’ve touched levels that we should never have dreamed of in those old days before the war.
Before the war! How long shall we go on saying that, I wonder? How long before the answer will be ‘Which war?’ In my case the never-never land that people are thinking of when they say ‘before the war’ might almost be before the Boer War. I was born in ‘93, and I can actually remember the outbreak of the Boer War, because of the first-class row that Father and Uncle Ezekiel had about it. I’ve several other memories that would date from about a year earlier than that.
The very first thing I remember is the smell of sainfoin chaff. You went up the stone passage that led from the kitchen to the shop, and the smell of sainfoin got stronger all the way. Mother had fixed a wooden gate in the doorway to prevent Joe and myself (Joe was my elder brother) from getting into the shop. I can still remember standing there clutching the bars, and the smell of sainfoin mixed up with the damp plastery smell that belonged to the passage. It wasn’t till years later that I somehow managed to crash the gate and get into the shop when nobody was there. A mouse that had been having a go at one of the meal-bins suddenly plopped out and ran between my feet. It was quite white with meal. This must have happened when I was about six.
When you’re very young you seem to suddenly become conscious of things that have been under your nose for a long time past. The things round about you swim into your mind one at a time, rather as they do when you’re waking from sleep. For instance, it was only when I was nearly four that I suddenly realized that we owned a dog. Nailer, his name was, an old white English terrier of the breed that’s gone out nowadays. I met him under the kitchen table and in some way seemed to grasp, having only learnt it that moment, that he belonged to us and that his name was Nailer. In the same way, a bit earlier, I’d discovered that beyond the gate at the end of the passage there was a place where the smell of sainfoin came from. And the shop itself, with the huge scales and the wooden measures and the tin shovel, and the white lettering on the window, and the bullfinch in its cage—which you couldn’t see very well even from the pavement, because the window was always dusty—all these things dropped into place in my mind one by one, like bits of a jig-saw puzzle.
Time goes on, you get stronger on your legs, and by degrees you begin to get a grasp of geography. I suppose Lower Binfield was just like any other market town of about two thousand inhabitants. It was in Oxfordshire—I keep saying was, you notice, though after all the place still exists—about five miles from the Thames. It lay in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind. On top of the hills there were woods in sort of dim blue masses among which you could see a great white house with a colonnade. This was Binfield House (‘The Hall’, everybody called it), and the top of the hill was known as Upper Binfield, though there was no village there and hadn’t been for a hundred years or more. I must have been nearly seven before I noticed the existence of Binfield House. When you’re very small you don’t look into the distance. But by that time I knew every inch of the town, which was shaped roughly like a cross with the market-place in the middle. Our shop was in the High Street a little before you got to the market-place, and on the corner there was Mrs Wheeler’s sweet-shop where you spent a halfpenny when you had one. Mother Wheeler was a dirty old witch and people suspected her of sucking the bull’s-eyes and putting them back in the bottle, though this was never proved. Farther down there was the barber’s shop with the advert for Abdulla cigarettes—the one with the Egyptian soldiers on it, and curiously enough they’re using the same advert to this day—and the rich boozy smell of bay rum and latakia. Behind the houses you could see the chimneys of the brewery. In the middle of the market-place there was the stone horse-trough, and on top of the water there was always a fine film of dust and chaff.
Before the war, and especially before the Boer War, it was summer all the year round. I’m quite aware that that’s a delusion. I’m merely trying to tell you how things come back to me. If I shut my eyes and think of Lower Binfield any time before I was, say, eight, it’s always in summer weather that I remember it. Either it’s the market-place at dinner-time, with a sort of sleepy dusty hush over everything and the carrier’s horse with his nose dug well into his nose-bag, munching away, or it’s a hot afternoon in the great green juicy meadows round the town, or it’s about dusk in the lane behind the allotments, and there’s a smell of pipe-tobacco and night-stocks floating through the hedge. But in a sense I do remember different seasons, because all my memories are bound up with things to eat, which varied at different times of the year. Especially the things you used to find in the hedges. In July there were dewberries—but they’re very rare—and the blackberries were getting red enough to eat. In September there were sloes and hazel-nuts. The best hazelnuts were always out of reach. Later on there were beech-nuts and crab-apples. Then there were the kind of minor foods that you used to eat when there was nothing better going. Haws—but they’re not much good—and hips, which have a nice sharp taste if you clean the hairs out of them. Angelica is good in early summer, especially when you’re thirsty, and so are the stems of various grasses. Then there’s sorrel, which is good with bread and butter, and pig-nuts, and a kind of wood shamrock which has a sour taste. Even plantain seeds are better than nothing when you’re a long way from home and very hungry.
Joe was two years older than myself. When we were very small Mother used to pay Katie Simmons eighteen pence a week to take us out for walks in the afternoons. Katie’s father worked in the brewery and had fourteen children, so that the family were always on the lookout for odd jobs. She was only twelve when Joe was seven and I was five, and her mental level wasn’t very different from ours. She used to drag me by the arm and call me ‘Baby’, and she had just enough authority over us to prevent us from being run over by dogcarts or chased by bulls, but so far as conversation went we were almost on equal terms. We used to go for long, trailing kind of walks—always, of course, picking and eating things all the way—down the lane past the allotments, across Roper’s Meadows, and down to the Mill Farm, where there was a pool with newts and tiny carp in it (Joe and I used to go fishing there when we were a bit older), and back by the Upper Binfield Road so as to pass the sweet-shop that stood on the edge of the town. This shop was in such a bad position that anyone who took it went bankrupt, and to my own knowledge it was three times a sweet-shop, once a grocer’s, and once a bicycle-repair shop, but it had a peculiar fascination for children. Even when we had no money, we’d go that way so as to glue our noses against the window. Katie wasn’t in the least above sharing a farthing’s worth of sweets and quarrelling over her share. You could buy things worth having for a farthing in those days. Most sweets were four ounces a penny, and there was even some stuff called Paradise Mixture, mostly broken sweets from other bottles, which was six. Then there were Farthing Everlastings, which were a yard long and couldn’t be finished inside half an hour. Sugar mice and sugar pigs were eight a penny, and so were liquorice pistols, popcorn was a halfpenny for a large bag, and a prize packet which contained several different kinds of sweets, a gold ring, and sometimes a whistle, was a penny. You don’t see prize packets nowadays. A whole lot of the kinds of sweets we had in those days have gone out. There was a kind of flat white sweet with mottoes printed on them, and also a kind of sticky pink stuff in an oval matchwood box with a tiny tin spoon to eat it with, which cost a halfpenny. Both of those have disappeared. So have Caraway Comfits, and so have chocolate pipes and sugar matches, and even Hundreds and Thousands you hardly ever see. Hundreds and Thousands were a great standby when you’d only a farthing. And what about Penny Monsters? Does one ever see a Penny Monster nowadays? It was a huge bottle, holding more than a quart of fizzy lemonade, all for a penny. That’s another thing that the war killed stone dead.
It always seems to be summer when I look back. I can feel the grass round me as tall as myself, and the heat coming out of the earth. And the dust in the lane, and the warm greeny light coming through the hazel boughs. I can see the three of us trailing along, eating stuff out of the hedge, with Katie dragging at my arm and saying ‘Come on, Baby!’ and sometimes yelling ahead to Joe, ‘Joe! You come back ’ere this minute! You’ll catch it!’ Joe was a hefty boy with a big, lumpy sort of head and tremendous calves, the kind of boy who’s always doing something dangerous. At seven he’d already got into short trousers, with the thick black stockings drawn up over the knee and the great clumping boots that boys had to wear in those days. I was still in frocks—a kind of holland overall that Mother used to make for me. Katie used to wear a dreadful ragged parody of a grown-up dress that descended from sister to sister in her family. She had a ridiculous great hat with her pigtails hanging down behind it, and a long, draggled skirt which trailed on the ground, and button boots with the heels trodden down. She was a tiny thing, not much taller than Joe, but not bad at ‘minding’ children. In a family like that a child is ‘minding’ other children about as soon as it’s weaned. At times she’d try to be grown-up and ladylike, and she had a way of cutting you short with a proverb, which to her mind was something unanswerable. If you said ‘Don’t care’, she’d answer immediately:
‘Don’t care was made to care, Don’t care was hung, Don’t care was put in a pot And boiled till he was done.’
Or if you called her names it would be ‘Hard words break no bones’, or, when you’d been boasting, ‘Pride comes before a fall’. This came very true one day when I was strutting along pretending to be a soldier and fell into a cowpat. Her family lived in a filthy little rat-hole of a place in the slummy street behind the brewery. The place swarmed with children like a kind of vermin. The whole family had managed to dodge going to school, which was fairly easy to do in those days, and started running errands and doing other odd jobs as soon as they could walk. One of the elder brothers got a month for stealing turnips. She stopped taking us out for walks a year later when Joe was eight and getting too tough for a girl to handle. He’d discovered that in Katie’s home they slept five in a bed, and used to tease the life out of her about it.
Poor Katie! She had her first baby when she was fifteen. No one knew who was the father, and probably Katie wasn’t too certain herself. Most people believe it was one of her brothers. The workhouse people took the baby, and Katie went into service in Walton. Some time afterwards she married a tinker, which even by the standards of her family was a come-down. The last time I saw her was in 1913. I was biking through Walton, and I passed some dreadful wooden shacks beside the railway line, with fences round them made out of barrel-staves, where the gypsies used to camp at certain times of the year, when the police would let them. A wrinkled-up hag of a woman, with her hair coming down and a smoky face, looking at least fifty years old, came out of one of the huts and began shaking out a rag mat. It was Katie, who must have been twenty-seven.