I warn anyone attempting this post, that it is over 3,000 words, and will require endurance. It may best be consumed in bite-size chunks. I appreciate that I could have split this into a series, but I have chosen not to.
This is not the first time that I have moved from London, to a place in the country. The main difference, is that this time, it was my own choice to do so. Forty-six years ago, in 1967, my parents made the choice for me, and I was far from happy about it.
Bexley is now part of Greater London. It is a borough to the South-East of the Capital, bordering the county of Kent. It was only 14 miles from where I lived at the time, in Bermondsey, just South of Tower Bridge. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been 1400 miles away.
Like everyone I knew then, we lived in a Council-owned property, for which we paid rent, and could never own. For us, this was a nice maisonette, a flat, but with an upstairs, and a small balcony off the living room. It was recently built, eight years earlier, and we were among the first families to live there. I had a short walk to school, and lived very close to all my friends, and to most of my family, at least on my maternal side. My father was doing quite well at the time, working in the burgeoning music industry; but he felt ashamed of being a tenant, and wanted to own his own house. He wanted a garden, bigger rooms, and a suburban location, well away from the working class area where he had grown up. He wanted to join the Freemasons, and to feel proud to entertain business colleagues in his nice home. One day, they arrived back from the estate agent, and told me that we were moving to Old Bexley. I didn’t get a say in the matter. I was only fifteen, and still at school.
I didn’t know hardly anyone who bought their own house in those days; it wasn’t something people like us did then. I was told that we would have a three bedroom semi-detached house, with a long garden, garage, and separate dining room. It also had an extension, acting as a sun room at the rear. The house was built in the 1930’s, so solid and respectable; none of your 1960’s rubbish, according to my dad. I would be able to stay on at my school, they assured me. I would just have to get two trains each way, and then a bus, to be able to do so. For my dad, travelling around the country with his job, using a company car, his start location was immaterial. As for my mum, she would get a job locally, or failing that, commute by train to her job in the City. She was a bookkeeper, so would easily find employment. All she wanted, was to be able to have a pet dog, something not allowed where we lived in the flats. As long as she could get her pet, she was prepared to move anywhere. The house was going to cost just under £5,000. This seemed an incredible amount of money to me then, as I didn’t really know about deposits and mortgages. What I did know, was that you could buy a decent new car for less than £500, so ten times that for a house seemed like a lot to me. (Strangely enough, that same equation holds good today…)
I was taken to see Old Bexley, also called Bexley Village. It was in Kent, so had no postal district on the road signs, something of a novelty in itself. The High Street had a period feel, unchanged since the 1930’s, like a scene from a pre-war film. There were a couple of Banks, the Estate Agent’s premises, and a shop that just sold sweets and cigarettes. There was a small Grocer, and a Florist, located near the Station, so handy for forgotten birthdays, or last-minute neglected anniversaries. The main Pub was the King’s Head, proud Tory watering hole, and meeting place for the local Round Table of Businessman. There was a picture of the local M.P. above the bar. His name was Edward Heath, and three years later, he would become the Prime Minister. St John’s Church was at the end of the High Street, and we were next right, first left. It was a ten-minute walk to the station, at a leisurely pace.
I was also shown the nearby districts of Sidcup, Welling, Bexleyheath, Albany Park, and Blackfen. They all looked the same; streets of mock-Tudor dwellings, punctuated by small rows of shops. Today, they are all part of the huge London Borough; in those days, they had their own identities, and class distinctions. Bexley Village was by far the most prestigious place around, I was reliably informed by my parents. Over the last twenty years, the whole area has become associated with working-class Londoners moving South, lowering the tone, and cheapening the reputation. The far right became established there, and neo-facists met in the King’s Head, replacing cigar-puffing Rotarians. Football fans lived there, and arranged to meet in gangs, to travel back to the clubs they supported, and cause trouble with opposition supporters.
In 1967, we were the only low-class newcomers there. We stood out like sore thumbs, in a sea of civil servants, hat-wearing commuters, and office girls heading off to jobs in the centre of London. The smart uniforms of the local school children, with piping on their lapels, and pleated skirts for the girls, contrasted greatly with what I was turned out in. Our neighbours were firmly upper middle class on one side, to their relief, the side that was not attached to our semi. Coming late to parenthood, they had two children, younger than me, who were both prone to tantrums, and sullen moods. They would nod a hello, and wave over the garden fence, but did not invite us in. On the other side, there was a policeman, with his wife and much younger children. As he was from Yorkshire, he avoided stereotyping of class, but his job, low paid as it was, still afforded him the respectability of officialdom. I didn’t just feel out of place, I was out of place, in every way imaginable.
After the bustle of moving in, I got my bike out, and cycled around the area, hoping to familiarise myself. The present day motorway, that becomes the M2 to Dover, was then a normal main road, and even current through routes like North Cray Road, were then unadopted tracks, leading to farms, and riding stables. There was nothing to interest me there, and the only place where any young people congregated, was the sheltered bus stop at the end of the village. As a fifteen year old Bermondsey boy, uprooted from all I knew and loved, I thought that I was in Hell itself. But that was only the beginning, and much worse was to come.
I soon started the commute to school. Arriving at Bexley Station, I was amazed at the crowd cramming the platform. When the train arrived, they surged forward, squeezing into a train carriage already full to bursting with other travellers, from the coastal regions of Kent. I did just one stop, then had to get off, to await the stopping train that called into Sidcup station, and would take me to my destination of New Cross. This was a test of endurance, as the train grew ever more crowded with each subsequent halt. More and more commuters filled every inch of space, and when I finally arrived at my stop, I found it almost impossible to get off. I then had to wait for a bus, which would sit in the rush hour traffic towards Central London, until finally arriving at the end of the street where my school was located. By then, I was already exhausted, with the whole day before me. I had to get up at least ninety minutes earlier than I ever had before, and the whole thing seemed incredible to me, and I could not imagine having to do this for five days a week, every week. Fortunately, the return journey was outside the rush hour, and considerably more civilised.
Once home, I was still in Bexley of course. No popping round to see a cousin, or school friend in the evening. No chance of hanging around after school with mates, perhaps going to the Wimpy Bar, or looking around the shops locally. They could not come around my flat to listen to the latest records either, or to discuss our favourite groups or singers. There were still only two channels on TV then, so I would normally retreat to my room, to listen to music on the record player, and get on with my homework. My mum would not be home until after 6pm, and my dad would probably be away for work until the weekend. I felt as if I had been punished, they felt that they had given me the earth. When I eventually went to bed, I would lay there dreading the next day’s long train journey, with the carriages full of newspaper folding commuters, who all seemed to have to constantly blow their noses. I would worry about the prospect of trying to avoid the eyes of the younger women, in their fashionable mini-skirts, as they caught me me looking at their legs, or better still up their dresses, as they sat awkwardly on the train seats. I actually longed to be in school, for the companionship, and the familiar surroundings.
Then came the weekends.
My dad would arrive home, from wherever he had been, promoting this or that group, or a new record release. He was determined to almost re-build his new pride and joy, and he would start with a complete landscaping of the back garden. There were also plans to install a greenhouse, a shed, and an aviary, for ornamental birds. Part of the lawn would have to go, to make room for a fish-pond, and the area of fruit trees to the back, would be levelled out, so as to be more manageable. He was a very handy, and skilled man, who could set his mind to almost any task, and manage to carry it out. And I was to be his reluctant labourer. This was the price I must pay for being able to live in this paradise that I saw as a prison. I was repeatedly informed, that as an only child, it would all eventually be mine anyway, so any work I did now, would be rewarded by future ownership of this valuable and desirable residence. In my mind, I plotted to sell it immediately that happened, if only to get my own back.
Saturday mornings in London had been a time of great relaxation for me. Getting up late, after a long week at school, followed by a late breakfast, or early lunch, and reading my comics or magazines. I would then go to meet a friend or friends, in Walworth Road, or East Street Market; perhaps finishing the day with a trip to the cinema, at nearby Elephant and Castle. This was all to be a memory. I now had to work for my dad, and there was no harder taskmaster since the building of The Pyramids. For what seemed forever, but was actually a few months, I laboured every weekend; mostly filling wheelbarrows with earth or shingle, then trundling them from the street level, up the steep driveway, and then through a small alley, to the garden at the rear. This may not sound a lot, but I assure you that it was. I was blessed with an inquiring mind, and a sociable personality, and hour upon hour of being a mindless drudge left me sullen, resentful, and unhappier than I was already.
So, there I was. No local friends or family, imprisoned by distance from anything, and now slaving at the Gulag of dad’s reconstruction. What to do? I had to get away. I started to ‘stop over’ after school. This took many forms, whether sleeping over at a friend’s house, or having to endure a night at my Nan’s. Whatever I chose, it soon became a better prospect than the alternative. Dad wasn’t happy, as he had lost a worker, and he wanted someone to sit with mum when he went out, or left for the week’s work. Our relationship, shaky at best since I became a teenager, began to spiral downwards, and was soon damaged beyond repair. I no longer liked the man that I had once looked up to, loved, and admired. For him, his worst fears were confirmed. His only son and heir had become a shiftless, workshy pseudo-intellectual, who had forgotten his roots, and abandoned his family. He was very wrong, of course. I wanted to get back to those roots, and to re-embrace the family and the area that he had arbitrarily removed me from. I was in some bizarre Kafkaesque situation, where my dad had become judge and jury, and pronounced sentence, based on my dislike of garden re-modelling.
If he couldn’t have his apprentice, he would have results another way. He informed me that I had to get at least four A levels, and apply for entry into a decent university. (“Not one of those rubbish ones, up North”) In return, he would sort me out a car, and driving lessons, and support me to stay on at school, until I was 18. He would also allow me to stop over in London more often, as long as it was all properly arranged, with a friend’s family, or my own relatives. Staying over in London did not really turn out as I had hoped. I was at the whim of others, minding my P’s and Q’s, and unable to work properly, read quietly, and access all my books and personal things. I had to return to the chore of commuting, and quiet evenings in Bexley, watching my mum watch TV. At least, that was, until I had that car. Cars seemed to represent freedom then. As a non-driving teen, it never entered your head to think about running costs, insurance, breakdowns, or even passing your test. You just presumed that you would pass, and that the car would always start. As for the costs, that would be down to mum and dad; after all, they wanted me to have a car, so presumably would finance it.
Then I got a girlfriend. She lived back in Bermondsey of course; she was already working, and was a full year older than me. The nightmare that was travelling to Bexley, had just got a lot worse. I would go round to see her one night in the week, after school. Staying as late as possible, I then had to run all the way to the station at New Cross, desperate to get the last train, the 11.37. If I thought that there was any chance that I might miss it, I would run the extra two miles to Lewisham, and pick up a train on a different line instead. I was doing the equivalent of a 19 hour day, and only getting five hours sleep. At weekends, I would stop at a friend’s house, so that we could do the usual Saturday night out, but I had to be home for Sunday lunch, and to show that my massive amounts of homework were being completed, as agreed.
In 1969, I finally passed my driving test, on the second try, and got to use the car. It had been in the garage for almost a year, a stationary incentive for my studies. My first solo trip was straight to London. I circled Hyde Park Corner, cruised Leicester Square, and ended the day at my girlfriend’s place, showing off the new motor. This was where I belonged, I firmly believed, and the car would be my escape module, firing me away from the dying planet that was Bexley. I also decided to abandon my studies, and leave school without taking the four A levels that were consuming all my time and thoughts. My dad could hardly look at me as I broke the news, but persuasion from mum made him arrange a job for me later, in a very small part of the record industry, where he still worked.
By now, my dad was consumed with extra-marital affairs, and fears that his job would soon disappear. I was off his radar, and he had well and truly written me off, as he secretly contrived his own escape. Mum soldiered on, determined to continue to provide a home, head in the sand, and drawing on all her traditional values. Six years later, and the dream was over. I was working as a taxi driver, and never at home. Dad was always ‘out’, no questions asked, and when I did bump onto him, we didn’t speak. One day, returning from a long commute to her job in West London, mum saw her own house for sale, advertised in the same estate agent’s window where they had first seen it, nine years earlier. She would not take legal advice, and allowed it to be sold, for a bargain price.
Bexley had not only gone sour for me, from the start; it had also turned out not to be the Shangri-La that my parents had desired either. Strains in the family unit, distance from the support of relatives and friends, and never quite fitting in, had proved too much, for all of us. Only mum regretted the loss of the home, and the end of it all. I still regretted the beginning. Right or wrong, I blamed this move for all that had changed in my life, and vowed never to reside in the countryside again. Who can say what might have been different, if we had never moved? It is all too long ago, to speculate on how we might have all turned out differently. Well, thirty-seven years later, and here I am again, back in the countryside, where I once swore that I would never dwell.
It is a different place to Bexley, but still a different place.