US AND THEM
by Anton Wills-Eve
<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/west-end-girls/”>West End Girls</a>
on the prejudices of my childhood world : hyperbole in places, but only in the telling.
US AND THEM
I never found the silver spoon that so many of my friends thought I had in my mouth when I was born, but for several years something akin to it was definitely spoon-feeding my life. My family had access to considerable wealth and many of them very famous, from May 1942 to April 1956, my sister and I first lived in a mixture of fairyland and Heaven. I am just thankful that Heaven is still a possible final dwelling place. But Oh, were we the anomalies of our age. Let me give you a flavour.
I spent the years aged three to fourteen in the most beautiful suburb of London, in a thirty seven room Georgian mansion which we finally had to sell to pay the bills we ran up over ten years. The bank knew we were good for them. We got £2.5 million for it in early 1957 so you can imagine how beautiful it was. And the location! Richmond Park and Sheen Common, bordering our house with Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, etc all a five minute drive along the beautiul banks of the Thames where Surrey made it so attractive. Also only fourteen minutes on the train to the very heart of the city.
Our house was totally secluded from prying neighbours with an enormous ten foot high wall and holly hedge round three quarters of the estate which also included an orchard of six different types of fruit trees, four summer houses, a pond and huge elm tree in the 3 acres of garden plus a separate walled rose garden. You get the idyllic picture. My sister and I went to an expensive, private school from the ages of three to eight (she’s a year older). BUT we weren’t allowed to play with any children except our vetted school friends. You would only believe this if you had known my mother and her side of the family! Not snobs, no, far worse. Content to be different, recognised and obeyed.
So, given the setting, what in life could not possibly be very pleasant when all the rooms in the house were huge, superbly decorated and especially the living room with a bay window and door onto the rose garden and a grand piano where I spent eleven years learning and playing at least three hours a day. Dad even had to have it sound proofed without spoiling the decoration or the superb Adam fireplace which burned whole tree trunks. At one end was the sliding glass door to the huge conservatory with real grape vines and a marble fountain which was turned off at Christmas to accommodate the twelve foot Christmas tree? So where was the prejudice?
I never saw a coloured person, any colour other than white, in the area I lived in until I went back thirty years later. In the late nineteen forties there just were none. At the local pub some fifty regulars from our incredibly select road, the most sought after in South West London, met each Sunday lunch time for drinks and they agreed never to talk religion or politics at the bar. Unfortunately mum’s notoriety as a famous entertainer let her get away with murder and insult whomsoever she chose. Dad was accepted as her pleasant, Australian, other half who had one of the top jobs in British journalism. As bars closed at 2.00pm on Sundays in those days we usually had about 20 people back to our house for drinks and finally had lunch around 4.00pm. That house swam in booze every day I spent there.
So who were the baddies, ie those not accepted by our ‘clique’? WelI everybody who did not know any of us. If they came in expecting to buy a drink, as they would in any pub, they were simply ignored totally by staff and customers unless they were guests of the set. Most gave up and walked out dejected after recognising most of the people in the pub. But even within the accepted drinkers there was a hidden class of stereotyped prejudice that would make you sick. They all smiled and laughed together but detested, in order of priority, first and foremost socialists, then Catholics or any non-conformists, then Jews but worst by far the thought of an American tourist ever being let near the place. Not famous Americans like three of my family members among the regulars whom they had got to know, but the conviction that US citizens only came to London to gloat over how they had won the war for us after raping all our virgins. (Both of them). Quite seriously, in that environment that was a prejudice which lasted until the Conservative government was returned to power again in 1951. The American presence in Britain towards the end of the war left a horrible anti-US feeling of pure jealousy because they were, to use the famous quote of ‘Mr. Average Brit’, “over sexed, over fed, over paid and over here!” My uncle in the US air force reserve had a PX card, though we never told anyone.
But my sister and I just led a strangely unique and unreal life until I went to the most exspensive Catholic boys school in London and again mixed only with my school friends. Fortunately we had all colours and races in the school, mostly sons of foreign Catholic diplomats, rich businessmen and 33% of the upper school from the age of 11 were on totally free scholarships gained through the state scholarship system. Thank heavens for this because the only way I ever have met ‘ordinary’ people was through my school.
Yet even within this strange mix of a world when we were ten and eleven the Catholic/Anglican/Jewish divide was huge. Many of my family’s clique were Jews, we were Catholics and in every case it was humour that saved the day and calmed things down. Naturally being Irish was not acceptable either, but Irish, Jewish and Catholic jokes were the backbone of the pub conversations. Imagine this scene. A Jewish fellow who owned a company the equivalent of Hertz in the States, with a lovely French titled wife, once teased my mother; she was excused the politics and religion rule on account of her wit, “Vel, yor Jesus voz a Jew? Vozn’t ‘e?”
To which mum snapped back in miliseconds,”Yes, Bernie, but we were taught that out of humility He chose to come to earth in the guise of the lowest form of humanity known to man!” What response would that have got anywhere in the western world today? The whole pub, Bernie most of all, just creased with laughter. But that was 1950. There was no malice, just relief that you could laugh in peace and honestly no offence was taken by anybody.
Are you all wondering what my sister and I were doing in a pub barred to kids when we were that age? Well at least nine other children our age of members of the set were also there most weekends because the pub owner wanted his customers money and could not give a fig for the licensing laws. Catholic priest and Jewish Rabbi jokes were also all the rage because the Anglicans laughed at every opportunity to see the absurd side of Catholicism and Judaism. One such joke that went down very well was told by a Catholic Irish crooner who lived four houses away from us and was never off the radio. (Is the awful hypocracy coming through?). I heard this one when I was ten and took a few minutes wondering the meaning of a word when the loud mouthed, blousey wife (?) of a member of parliament whispered the meaning in my ear. You’ll spot it.
“Der was dis priest on a bus and who should sit next to him but de local Rabbi? They smiled and de priest said,’Ah god bless ye’ Rabbi, now isn’t it a lovely day for me to be covertin’ Jews?” They laughed.
“Not me, fadder,” the rabbi replied. At the next turning the bus skidded into a ditch and turned on its side. Nobody was badly hurt as they scrambled off, but the priest stared in disbelief as he watched the Rabbi place his right hand on his forehead, then his lower stomach, then his right breast and then his heart. A miracle! He was blessing himself. But the rabbi smiled and, shaking his head, said,
“Sorry, Fadder, bud I alvays do dat after an accident just to check. Spectacles, testacles, wallet and watch.” Again total collapse of all present and the story teller was bought several large libations. But these were not snobbish people, just totally self satisfied. There were two occasions only before I went to my final school when I felt the heart stabbing horror of the only prejudice that directly affected me. The first was at the age of seven when the son of my parents’ best friends was getting married in the local Anglican Church just two roads away from us. Our own parish priest would not let us attend the church service because we were Catholic. In those days (1949) catholics still prayed for the conversion of England to Rome. The reformation was still alive and kicking. I prayed for weeks to try to understand, but eventually got my own back by first marrying a Buddhist in a Catholic church in Saigon, and after she was killed, my present wife who is a Liverpool Anglican. But we go to each other’s churches, so the world is a lot better than it was.
My second horrible experience of religious prejudice was aged eight and one month, when, on the day I had made my first Communion that Sunday morning I did not go to the pub, but one of those ‘regulars’ mentioned above, said to me back at our house after the usual exodus from the boozer,
“Here, Anton. Have a coke and get that awful taste out of your mouth!” He was rich, influential, forty seven and I hit him so hard he lost two teeth. I was ushered from the room and was obviously never going to apologise. He made no fuss, but never spoke to me again. I also broke a finger.
Well, My last example of early 1950’s prejudice was also my first brush with racial prejudice. In the summer of 1952 my mum’s sister and her American husband, were starring in a very popular revue at the Piccadilly Theatre . The vaudeville show had been packed out for eighteen months and one of the hit turns was a young American half coloured half Hispanic singer. She was 22, a real poppet and my sister and I loved her. As mum was in hospital after major surgery, (my sister asked the surgeon if mum was having her gin and tonic removed), and dad was on an assignment in New York we asked our aunt and uncle if we could ask our friend back to spend the weekend at our house. They agreed and so we all went home after the Saturday night performance. My American uncle was by far my favourite relation. He taught me baseball and I taught him cricket when he was starring in the West End production of Damn Yankees. He supported the Pittsburg Pirates and I still do. Anyway, to the terrible bit. Perhaps my life’s main introduction to just how awful some people and groups of people can be.
As my uncle was well known at the pub he suggested we all go down for a drink at lunchtime as usual. My Aunt pleaded a headache. We had just started the first round of drinks when the pub owner came up to my uncle and took him aside. He said he did not want to upset him but no way was he allowing a coloured girl, however much a friend of ours, to drink in his bar. He would lose all his customers. I won’t say what he said to her but the singer just smiled and told my uncle it happened all the time in London. She understood and told the three of us we’d better go home.
My Uncle, God bless him, never entered that pub again. My drunken, cowardly aunt did not even warn us but did at least tell us she had telephoned the pub owner during our five minute walk round there to say who was about to arrive.
So, like a pleasant encore at a piano recital I shall finish with an encore on the subject. But a nice one. My grandmother made two little woollen dolls for my sister and me when we were five and six. They were black with big smiles, fuzzy hair, and E.P.Christie minstrel outfits. We loved them. They were called Golly and Sambo and we took them to bed with us every night. As we grew up we never lost them and both of us still have them and love them. But we can’t call them by their names in front of other people. So, out of love and respect, we don’t.