The move to Bowers Gifford in 1964 was a Godier win-win. Eric got his own garage and driveway, and Phyllis a home that was un-overlooked. Neil and I had a sizeable garden, and the back of the house was flanked by a barley field, with countryside stretching away in the distance. We had a coal cellar, whose door would flap free on windy nights and conjure images of ghouls. Dad upped the ante, by revealing that pterodactyls lurked under my bed. Needing the toilet in the night was torment. Creeping to the end of the bed, leaping off, and sprinting to the door before its jaws wrapped around my ankles.
I got a James Bond annual one Christmas. Dad took me to see the great man in Goldfinger, showing at a cinema in Southend, and then Zulu at the same emporium. The goodies triumphed. I rejoiced, and feverishly anticipated when I could start to slaughter hundreds of brown-skinned tribesmen. I practised killing hordes of Germans with my Action Man.
In my head I was already a son of the empire, further inspired by reading Biggles and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Neil and I would hunt for treasure in local woods and copses, whooping insanely at the discovery of old bits of plastic in ditches. Or we would take our bikes down Church Hill, accelerating down to the flat stretch and slamming on the brakes by the church gates. Once, just for the dare of it, I rode the bike into a small haystack placed by the local farmer at the foot of the hill. I lifted into the air and landed on the top, followed by the bike. Not a scratch. In later years I would stroll out on a summer’s day with an axe and a saw lifted from Eric’s garage, go to one of the local woods, and cut down a tree or two. It made me feel powerful and furtive.
Education took place at St Margarets, a nearby Church of England school. I was moved up a year at one stage to test me more fully. Mum would say later that it was a poor school. Great memories of snow in the schoolyard, and sliding through the mud in my new school shoes, to be bollocked furiously by my mother once home. I liked this lad called Alex Markham, and sprang to his defence one day over something trifling. We marched arm-in-arm around the playground, locked together in a best friend’s ritual.
Girls liked me. Jackeline Harvey gave me my first kiss outside the school chapel, a bliss that I still remember. We were boy- and girl-friend for two weeks, and then lost interest in each other. There were other lovelies, notably June Cooper and Ruth Miller, whose memories I could mourn, if pushed. Then Sally Cloe arrived at the school, in my last year. Sally had wicked eyes. No sooner had she transfixed one lad than she would be off to cajole the next target. She approached one day and gave me a huge kiss. Next day, she was snogging Ralph Cousins, and the day after that Richard Lovett. There was talk of divorced parents.
It mattered little, as sport had come to dominate my life. Our back garden was now a training ground for aspiring professional footballers. In summer, the cricket stumps and bat appeared. Dad joined in and made life hard for us, bowling fast and shooting hard. So we learned competitiveness alongside fun. Neil and I would play the minute we returned from school, sometimes knocking the small or large ball into Dad’s garage, where there worked – on a part-time basis – a local old boy named Tim. We were massively witty, and dubbed him “New Formula Vim”, the name of a cleaning product advertised on TV. The fact that Eric could employ somebody was a sign of financial progress, but we saw him only as a symbol of middle to old age, and a bugger to get the ball back from.
The first time I played cricket with a hard ball, at school, I knocked it to the boundary with ease, discovering a timing and fluency with the bat that would compress into images that I still carry around. Likewise, there was a soccer game between Green House and our biggest rivals, Blue. I received the ball on the right and cut infield before measuring an inch-perfect pass to Michael Bellamy on the left wing. Odd the things that we recall.
The only visit I can recall from my old friend fear came after I decided to punch a lad at school called Neil Driver. He was a tough lad, from a rougher part of Benfleet, but had said or done something that obviously called for a fist. I let him have it on the chin, like the cowboys in the films. But he didn’t seem to be hurt, unlike my knuckles. I legged it, and was wary of him for days afterwards.
In my last year I was chosen as school Head Boy. The main job was to accompany Leonard Sweet, the headmaster, as he swept into morning assembly, and to stand nearby as he drawled on. I sometimes pinched myself to remain alert, such was the tedium of the singing, prayer and sermons. One particularly wet winter lunchtime, I was scraping the mud off my school uniform in the toilets. These were covered in wet paper towels from other lads doing the same. In walked Mr Sweet. I guess he thought that I had single-handedly caused the carnage. He gave me a lecture on cleanliness and said I was the “worst head boy the school had ever had”.
My reaction was a thrill of recognition. Yes, yes, I probably am, I thought silently. One morning our form teacher, Mr Thompson, lost his rag at an ever-increasing volume of noise from the class. He was a frightening figure when he worked up a full head of steam, and his pistons were working overtime on this occasion, having warned us before about the noise.
Tommo lined himself up beautifully. “Do you think that I am going to waste my time, standing here, trying to educate you, trying to help you progress, while you make this noise?” he roared, voice shaking the windowpanes. Complete silence. I couldn’t resist. “Yes sir, I do.” Just for the walk into the unknown, and the dice with consequence. Another ride into the haystacks.
I was sent outside, given lines to write out, warned about my future behaviour. The respect this earned from my peers was enormous. I took some revenge, in my daft young head, by extracting and then wiping a string of large green bogies under my desk, which settled into a stalactite formation undiscovered by the cleaning ladies.
Not everyone will remember these days so happily. A girl in our year called Sharon Brown somehow acquired the nickname ‘Fleabag’. I don’t know how poor Sharon can have coped then, or in later life, with the stigma of that name. I recall her weeing herself in class once, and the smell of it on her clothes afterwards. I have thought hard about this, and cannot remember ever being personally unkind to Sharon. I don’t think it was in my nature. But I was as guilty as anyone by not standing up to those who wielded the ‘fleabag’ moniker. Maybe that stored up karma for me, down the line.
In the last year, I saw my first set of pictures involving naked women. In a copy of ‘Parade’ magazine, which was circulated around the top two years. It was mentally inflammatory material, clearly signalling an unknown world. I told Phyllis, as she did the ironing. She wasn’t as excited as me. Then discussed it over lunch next day with one of my brother’s friends, Stephen Harvey. Two years younger than me, he explained with confidence that babies were made by men inserting their willies in girls’ bottoms. I wasn’t so sure.
In my last year at St Margarets I hit a 97% score in my 11-plus, opening the doors for grammar school. No longer to be a big fish in a small pond.