Peter was born in Gravesend, Kent in 1920. His father had been a priest in Bagthorpe, Nottinghamshire before moving south. After Peter was born, his father obtained a living in Lightwater, Surrey. Peter first attended Lancing House Prep School in Lowestoft and then St John’s School in Leatherhead and, finally, King Alfred’s School in Wantage.
You left the King Alfred’s School in Wantage in 1937 … so what happened after that?
My Dad got me a job in Thrapston Council and he said that if I did all right, I could have a permanent job. And I was given a typewriter and the usual practice typing things. And when I hadn’t got anything to do I practised the typing and I soon got used to doing the practice typing and the chappie downstairs heard me typing and he thought I was an expert already.. And immediately offered me a job! And I found that I didn’t like it – it was boring doing accounts and things like that so I turned it down.
And my Dad got me another job in the factory in Market Harborough – aircraft factory – doing odd bits. I was supposed to be going through the factory learning bits and pieces and then going in the office. I started off by doing filing – metal filing – you had rough parachute hooks and they had to be filed to exact proportions. And you had a”go” and a “no-go” – all sorts of things. And the chap who was teaching me how to do it had been doing this sort of thing for several years and he was quite good at it.
How long did you work each working day?
It was usual – start off at nine, I think, and finish at five – something like that.
I was in lodgings. We didn’t get much pay but … having paid for the lodgings and the food you had a small amount for pocket money which we didn’t really need anyway. I soon learnt this filing business and being a bit bombastic (both laugh) – I challenged him to a day’s output.
That’s not a bit rash, was it? (both laugh)
I thought he’d probably beat me heads down but, to my amazement, I beat him, ‘cause he had more rejections than I did. Well!
So, the work was inspected afterwards?
Yes, the inspector came around afterwards and tested all the ones that you’d done and it had to be exact. Anyway, I beat him and I was immediately moved off that, next day, to another bench, further over, doing sawing. And I found that extremely dull. I was on my own; not much to do. The only thing that really made the day was, occasionally, a bell used to go and there was a rush to the particular window and you were given things that had to be drilled – holes drilled in various things. And that was the extra cash. And, of course, everybody, all these folks, knew exactly which drills were best. They were all run on belts in those days. And the only drill that wasn’t in use was the one fairly near me and I soon discovered that as soon as you used it, the belt came off! So you had to stop and put the belt back on and have another go. And the slightest pressure on this wretched handle, the belt came off! So I thought I’ll never finish drilling these holes. I’ll have to work it – so I invented a wire cage, which I put over the top of the belt and stopped it coming off. And I was able to work my drill then as well as anybody else. And I finally made the amount that I was suppose to – the same as everybody else. And some considerable time later, I discovered that they’d taken up this idea of mine – of course, refined it from bent wire and so on that I’d done with it to a bit more sophisticated and put this thing on all the belts so that they didn’t come off.
But you never got any credit for it?
Oh no. I didn’t get any credit for it (laughs).
By that time, I’d decided … that the war had just started … I would leave and join the Army.
So I gave in my notice and went down to London and signed up. Went back home and had a letter from the Army saying they didn’t want me for another year. And I thought oh gosh! Thrown the job up! Now I have got nothing to do for a year – I’ll have to get a job. So I looked in the paper and there were various things. There was one I found – they wanted a temporary teacher in a prep school in Southampton. So I applied for the job. And to my amazement, I got it. Huh! So that was the whole of the summer term by that time it was 1940, just. And I was in lodgings – spare house – and teaching in the prep school during the day and then going back to the lodgings where I stayed.
And a bit further on, about half a mile away, was the place where they had all the anti-aircraft guns. And, of course, as soon as these aircraft guns went off, my goodness, it woke you up and … Hah (laughs) – and I thought that’s all right – as soon as the guns went off, I’d know there was going to be an air-raid and I could go down to the official school underground air-raid shelter. And this particular night was the worst air-raid they’d ever had on Southampton. It really wrecked all the front of the … and for some unknown reason I never woke up! Never heard a thing! And next morning, of course, I was all smiles and so on and they were all bleary-eyed and said, “Where on earth were you?”, “You silly thing”, you know, (Hah) “Why didn’t you come to the air-raid shelter?” I said, “Why, I never heard anything.” They wouldn’t believe me – with all that noise – and I couldn’t believe it because I had heard the guns before and how loud they were and not very far away. I was sure I’d wake up. But somehow or other, I must have been so tired that I just slept completely through it. (Huh) And after that … then I was called up to the Army.
So when you were at this school, what subjects did you teach them?
This was general teaching subjects.
So it was like across the board teaching?
Yes. Yes. They were fairly young children, you know – seven – seven to eight I think – something like that.
Did they behave themselves?
There were two children there – who had difficulties. One had difficulty with spelling and the other one – a girl – had difficulty with mathematics. And I managed to get both of them over their problems. And at the end of the term both parents came to the school and I was called out to the headmaster’s room and both the parents congratulated me on how well I’d done with their children. (Laughs) It amazed me, you know. And I thought that, well, that was just plain teaching – of course you’d help them if they couldn’t do sums. And that made me interested in teaching. And having dyslexic-type tendencies myself – and having got over them – I knew the difficulties of these children. And from them on I was particularly interested in children with difficulties – within teaching.
You were called up at the end of 1940 but before we go onto that, can you just say a bit about health and safety at work in the aircraft factory?
Yes (laughing) – there wasn’t any! I don’t remember a single thing that you were told that you shouldn’t do. You had a job to do and you just got on and did it. The only thing that amazed me was, as soon as the bell went for stopping work for some reason or other, you had to put your tools down – and if you didn’t you were yelled at immediately. Oh, yes. That amazed me that you couldn’t even finish what you were doing – you had to stop at once. But this was according to the Union rules, evidently.
There was nobody … If you did have any accidents was there any person who had medical knowledge?
Oh, I expect so. There was a chap who was the inspector – who looked after me and helped me with mechanical drawing after work. He was very good. I don’t remember any nurses or medical folks or anything.
I don’t think it was even a profession in those days in workplaces.
No. No. No, you had the work to do and you just got on and did it – the best you could. The phrase in those days: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” I got sick of those words. Huh, huh.
So when you were called up in the end of 1940, that was when you said you had to undergo some training first of all?
Yes, initially everybody who was starting off in the Army – you went to the basic training camp. And this particular one was in Bedford, near the river. And I hadn’t been there more than a week, when I heard this plane overhead and didn’t pay any attention to it and off it went. We thought it was probably one of ours. And we heard afterwards that this particular plane had dropped two landmines: one had gone in the river and the other one hit the allotments – which was very, very close indeed to our camp – another two or three hundred yards and it would have been our camp and that would have been the end of us. They didn’t explode these particular ones. And those were the only bombs that we came across then.
So what happened after that? Were you posted anywhere else?
You did the initial training – drill and this, that and the other – and you had a Bren gun and you learnt to put that – to take it to bits and put it together. Of course, I found things like that extremely easy and you could do it with your eyes shut, in the dark, and all the rest of it: very simple. And then, at the end of the training, a group of us were all given a sheet of paper and it had ‘choice of OCTU’ – officer cadet training unit – on it and you had to choose which officer cadet training unit you wanted to go to. Well nobody said what they were like; no advice; absolutely nothing. And I thought again – the wretched Air Force … I thought, well, something that would be useful – I could say, “Yes”, I’d chose the machine gun OPTU. And of course I thought that if I’d knowledge of machine guns and working them and this, that and the other, it would be useful to say that I’d got that expertise when I wanted to transfer to the Air Force. And they didn’t tell me until right the last minute, “You know you’ve picked one that’s a six month course and the Infantry are only three months”. So I thought, “Ah, blow it.” You know. “Six months course. Huh! Never mind, I’ll stick it.”
So I went on this officer cadet training unit course – was in Droitwich. The first thing you had to do, the first week you were there, was a test, on knowledge of gas. You were given a lecture and a list of various gases. And you had to learn them all and know what to do for each of these gases. And you even went through a hut which was … had this various gas in it. Huh! And anyway, everybody on this first, initial course were wondering if they’d managed to pass this exam for up to a week. Most of them managed it. Those that didn’t: straight back to their unit – were thrown out. So, I managed to pass all right.
Then, the next thing you had to do was a drill. There were two groups and the Staff Sergeant, who was taking this lot, was an ex-Guardsman. And, of course, he knew his drills all right. And you really had to be good. It was not just the ordinary training that you’d been through – it was making it really good. And it was a competition between these two groups. And I was lucky – I was in the winning group. Ha!
And there were various other things that … Another thing that they did was, every so often, about every fortnight or something or every month – they pulled out a Lewis machine gun and had it all in bits and you were shown how it was put together, you know. And you were lucky if you managed to get a piece, actually to put in yourself, which was, to my mind, a funny way to teach you how to do it. Instead of saying, “There’s a thing. Put it together” and, “Try it yourself. The whole thing” – no, just one piece. And you put your piece in and (then) so-and-so have a go. And pick up the piece and, “No, not the right one. Try this, that and the other. And put it in.” And the Staff Sergeant got really annoyed if you couldn’t pick up the right piece at once and put it in.
And the thing that happened then, was, my father died. And my mother had to leave the rectory – and my brother, who’s born deaf, was really incapacitated – and so she had to look after this boy who was in difficulties and needed help – all on her own – and she couldn’t manage in this big rectory right out in the country. And so she gave it up and got a little stone – not a cottage – a stone detached house. Very tiny: just one room and one bedroom upstairs. And she had that and it was very near Droitwich and so I applied to go and see her, you know. Have the time off; go and see her. That was a mistake; I shouldn’t have done that. But then I was immediately given the chit saying I could have the time off, which I did. Went to see her and got a hitch-hike most of the way. And was dropped off; and it was dark; and I’d lost me way. I’d got to try to find my way … I knew I had to go uphill and round somewhere or other … and another half mile, to find this cottage. And I wandered around and I couldn’t find the wretched thing anywhere. Anyway, on the way up the hill, I passed a church and opposite was a big house. And I thought, “Ah, that must be the rectory”. So I called at the rectory, knocked on the door: not a sign of anyone. Nobody had opened the door at all. And so in the end I was that tired and the churches in those days were open. So I went in the church and laid down on one of the benches and went to sleep. And I slept all that night on this wooden bench. Woke up next morning; I could hear sheep bells outside; the sun coming in. Cor! It was really biblical. And came out; walked up the hill and I knew immediately where I was and found the house. Mother was surprised to see me so early in the morning then.
Did you stay for a bit before going …? You had to go back to the Army?
I had to go back that day, of course. I only had about 24 or 48 hours or so, something like that. Not very long. And I walked back to the main road and got a hitch-hike back. Very easily; no bother at all. The only trouble was that soon after that there was another test – they gave us a compass. And there’s a sheet of instructions: “Walk so many paces at this particular compass reading. And then change to another compass reading and walk so many more paces”. And you gradually worked your way down the list. And if you were lucky you got … you found your way back to the beginning, where you should start off. And I found it easy, because me Dad gave us very similar sort of instructions when we were on holiday in the country for things to do, you know, on a summer afternoon. So I enjoyed doing it and found my way back absolutely dead on. And some of the others were covered in mud; they’d been through ponds and all sorts of things. They were gradually getting the wrong compass reading. I found it very easy.
So did they … so that was one part of the training. So then, how much training did you get before they’d say we going to send you to … Was there much more training after that?
Well it was a six months’ course. And up to then … my Dad died and Mum left the rectory and got into this tiny, little stone building for the winter. I was worried for her, really, but there absolutely nothing I could do. It was entirely up to her what she did and I didn’t know what she could do, you know … She’d got enough sense to work things out and she said she wanted to try and find a school – country school – which had a house to live in. And she actually found one in Great Rollright in Oxfordshire. A nice little house and there was a playground beside of it and then the school building – not very big – I should think about fifteen, twenty children altogether.
By that time I’d done five months of the six months’ training and I thought, well, I’ll ask about transfer to the Air Force. And, of course, the look of disgust on the CO’s face, you know. “Once a machine gun officer, always a machine gun officer! Dismissed!” And that was it, you know, my name was mud from then on. And the Staff Sergeant running the thing seemed to be after me as well. And I wasn’t surprised when he pulled out this Lewis gun and the others, evidently, had spent the time when I was seeing my Mum, with this Lewis gun out and practising it for themselves – so they all knew it. So, muggins came along and there was one part that the chap had been unable to find the right place – the next bit goes there – and he couldn’t find the right bit and I’d never heard which bit it was. And so when the Staff Sergeant said, “Your go”, of course I didn’t know. But I thought that it’s not that difficult – it was the sort of mechanical thing that I was good at – given a little bit of a chance of doing it. Anyway, that was it. He was that disgusted and what with this asking to transfer to the Air Force – that was the end. And, he thought … “Ah, I know” … he said, “I know what your trouble is, you’re lacking in initiative”. And, blow me, if he didn’t put that down on the report: “No initiative.” Hah. And I nearly put my finger up and said, “I’d got more initiative in this little finger than you. Cor! But being in the Army you can’t do that sort of thing. Anyway, that was the end of it. I was kicked out – five months or not.
So you didn’t actually do any active service or anything?
Yes, yes. Not then. But I’d been kicked out of the officer training thing. So all the others in another month would be made officers and I was back in the Unit as a private soldier. Nothing, you know! Anyway, I saw the CO at the Unit and he said he was surprised to see me back. And I said, well, really what I wanted to do was to transfer to the Air Force. He said, “Oh. I can get you in there”. So he went to Cardington – which was not far off from Bedford – and I was called into Cardington and given a thing: “Can you do this, that and the other?” “Yes, yes, yes.” I managed to do these various things. And they said, “Okay. You’ll be hearing”. Back I went and I waited a week. And I waited a fortnight. Nothing happened! So I went to the office and said, “What’s happened? I was supposed to be transferring to the Air Force”. “Oh, all transfers to the Air Force have been cancelled.” There I was back to where I’d started. All my friends were now officers. And I’d met a number of them and they weren’t too happy with the life they were living. And there I was, back as a private soldier – absolutely doing nothing.
And this lasted to the end of the war? Did it?
Virtually. With the report that I’d been given, “No initiative”, as soon as anybody looked at that, “Oh, he’s no good! Don’t give him anything!” That was more or less me, as far as doing anything was concerned.
So, then after the war …?
So, I was completely ‘off’ during the War. Anyway, I came to some place or other – oh, it was back to Lowestoft where the Unit had gone. And you had to … you were supposed to be guarding the – or looking after the cliff-top, in case of invasion. And to get there was a narrow, little path – that the only way you could get down this bit was to crawl along it. And we were told, “Don’t, whatever you do, go over the edge of the cliff” – because the cliffs all … were done with bombs and things in it – so nobody would dare fall over. So, it was a case of crawling along this thing. Anyway, it was winter time and my state of health wasn’t an awful lot of good – ‘cause when I was two year’s old I had diphtheria – which I managed to get over – and I’d had just about every other things like measles, mumps, scarlet fever, the lot – in between – so my state of health wasn’t terribly robust. And having to crawl in mud and rain along this lot – I had flu – in hospital. And when I was in there, the Germans came over and dropped a bomb on the people coming out of the cinema. And there was a terrific number of casualties. And I was immediately cleared out of this hospital into a big house in the country somewhere. Huh!
Did you stay there until the end of the War?
No. I stayed there about three days. And that was … and they thought my flu symptoms had gone: out I go! That was what they did in those days. No sort of recuperation or anything. As soon as your temperature was down, you were out. And that was it – so back I went to the thing. And I remember the bosses saying, “About time you’re back! We’re going on manoeuvres tomorrow.” And, of course, I’d got a thing that I’d been given: “Light duties for a week”. Oh, he didn’t like that. So, I had to stay behind with a lump of cheese and bread and walk round this deserted village all next day. And that night, I had to sleep in a tiny, little, ancient cottage. You went up the stairs and you were immediately in a bedroom. And you had to sleep on the floor with a straw mattress. And I didn’t feel at all well again. So, I managed to, next day, get out and walk up the hill – it was a mile or more – up this hill to the big house to see the doctor. And as soon as he saw me and got my temperature – and back I was in hospital with gastric flu. And I was there for three or four days – got over that.
Back I came … The CO had seen that I’d been in hospital twice so he said, “It doesn’t look as if this is going to suit you. What do you reckon to do?” – you know. I said, “I’d like to have a go at the motor vehicles”. So, he put me in the motor vehicles section which I quite enjoyed doing. Not doing much at all – just fiddling around – driving one here and moving another one there, and so on. And driving an officer down to London and back.
Anyway, I managed to get into a thing where the officer gave me an IQ test. And anyway, I found the IQ test easy enough and they saw that I’d got quite a high IQ. So, he said, “Oh, you can do anything. I’d suggest you went into Signals”. And I’d been in Signals … had Signals training, and so on and so forth at school. And I didn’t like it very much – having the dyslexic tendencies made me slower than a lot. Huh. So, I said, “I didn’t like that”. And so he said, “What do you want then?” I said, “I’d like to go in to a motor section – something to do with engines. So he said, “Oh, if that’s what you want to do, okay”. And so I was sent on a … it was suppose to be a six months’ course – in Manchester. And it turned out to be a three months’ course – because some materials didn’t turn up. Very perfunctory they were – all the lot. And, anyway, I got through this course. I found it quite interesting but very basic. And evidently I came top of the course. I was called in at the end of the year and he said, “Oh, you’ve come top of the course. Have you had any previous experience with mechanical things?” And, proudly, I said, “No, I haven’t had any”. Huh! And I thought afterwards, if I’d said, “Oh, my uncle is a garage owner”, I might have got somewhere. But, I didn’t. And, anyway, down to London and within less than a week, notice, “Posted abroad”. And so that was in the end of ’41.
Right then, so, did you spend the rest of the War abroad?
The rest of the War was abroad. In Egypt and Palestine.
I was out there then until ’45. And eventually came home.
Were you given any re-training to start up a new career, after that?
Well, I asked and there were two sections: one section if you were an officer – you had choice of the best jobs – if you weren’t, you had what was left. It wasn’t much at all. One of the best was teaching. So I plumped for going into teaching.
“Get a teaching qualification”, I thought. I could then apply to join the Army again and go into the Army Education Corps. Cause at the end of my session in the … shuffling between Egypt and Palestine – was a couple or three years doing this mechanical job. Well, that’s another tale.
I tried to get out of this boring lot. You had a group of Arabs and the job might have been to strip a lorry down and repair it. And off it went – and then you got another lorry and a new set of Arabs. And you had to try and deal with them. Eventually, that finished ‘cause the War was done. There was a time when they wanted the workshop I was in to be the best one for turning out engines and vehicles in the whole area – in the whole of the base camp. And they thought … they’d meant to get up to a hundred a week. And they were getting up to about fifty and the order came through, “End of the war! That’s the end of it!” – or “The war is going to be at the end!”. ‘Cause by that time they’d gone all the way through North Africa and they – and this and that …
Once you were back over here, were you able to follow through with what you wanted to do and rejoin the Army?
Then. I volunteered for Parachute Regiment, all sorts of things – and never got on any of them. I don’t know whether it was the thing, “No initiative”, that made the difference but never got on a single one. Until, finally, I did get on one: the invasion of Sicily. So I got in this group and actually met a friend there. We were both interested in the same sort of thing: engines and … Of course, the sort of thing you were given then was … Oh, that’s another bit … I wanted to be … I was a third class fitter and there was no way, I kept applying to be second class – and nothing happened. And so I found this friend and he said, “Why don’t you apply for first class? It bypasses all the others and you can take the first class test”. And so I did and got the … passed the first class test, all right – and came back – and, of course, my name’s absolute mud then. All the others in the workshop, they wanted to be first class fitters. “If C can do it, we can!” So they went in for this first class test and they really made a mess of it. Huh! I think one of them actually got the first class. One who was already first class was demoted. Huh! So my name was absolute mud, you know. Huh!
So then I found that I managed to get on this ‘invasion of Sicily’ thing. Went through all the training and everything for about a month. And the week before we were due to be posted out, I had jaundice and was in hospital. And when I got rid of the jaundice – came out, I’d lost them – they’d gone. So I was put in this big base camp – this base camp. The first thing they did, as soon as you arrived, they gave you an IQ test. And I was so used to doing these IQ tests, I whipped through this. (Laughs) The chap looking up at me whistled and said, “Oh, you can do anything you want!”. (Laughs) That was a fat lot of use!
Were you able to go back to teaching then, eventually, after the War?
Then, this was the part. He said that I could do anything I wanted and so I thought, “That’s not much help!”. But using my “Nil initiative”, I wandered around the base and found the library. It was only a small library and it was being run in real, pukka library fashion by a chappie who was a qualified mason – rock expert, you know – and they want him back home, quick. And so, I took over the library and ran it. And I soon found that I was needed to do other things, as well as just run the library. And so, I asked if I could join the Royal Army Education Corps. And they sent me up to Cairo and an interview with an officer there. And he said, “Why you?”. And I said, “I’m interested in teaching and so on. I thought I might carry on in the Education Corps at the end of the time – when we were kicked out”. So, he said, “Okay, you are in the Education Corps”. And I was immediately promoted up to Sergeant and back I came. And a real nice – comparatively nice life: of course I had a hut to myself to sleep in; a servant to look after me and clean the place, and so on.
You were then able to do teaching then?
I was doing bits of teaching but it was not only that, I was running this library – and I had to reorganise the library ‘cause it had to be run by – or needed to be run by – ladies who came in who knew nothing about libraries, or books, or anything but it had to be simple enough for them to work while I organised the mobile library.
This was Southern Palestine.
This was the end of the War then – when it had finished. Came back to England – and applied for … As I say, all the decent jobs were reserved for officers. They wouldn’t even tell you any of the jobs that were going if you weren’t … hadn’t been an officer. So, I thought I’ll go and take the teacher training thing. So I thought if I had teacher training and then applied to go back in the Army, I’d have the teacher qualifications then. And I could get commissioned. Plus I didn’t want to be a buckshee Sergeant running round there. And, anyway, I had to do three years’ teaching. What I wanted to do was to teach woodwork and so on. I passed the City and Guilds woodwork thing. I got 98 per cent with that, so I was quite pleased. But then I found, when I actually started, in Manchester, that woodwork teachers were the ‘lowest of the low’. No woodwork teacher had ever managed to get promotion to anything in teaching.
This was ’45 or ’47.
The best class I had was a class of special school children who were supposed to be a bit dim, this, that and the other but they were the best class I had. They paid attention to what they were told. They really tried to use the tools properly and were the best class of the lot. The others were – majority of them were – Jews and Jewish schools, round about, and they couldn’t have cared less about woodwork or anything else. So I thought, “A waste of time, this”. So I packed up teaching woodwork. And I thought I’d pack up teaching altogether and see what else there was. Packed it up. And thought I’d have a go at selling but all sales jobs, you looked up, and they were – you had to have proof of what you’d done and expert and this, that and the other – and if you’d never done it, how could you get the jolly expertise? So, anyway, I got a job selling Encyclopaedia Britannicas. And, of course, they put me in an area which had been sold and sold and sold – they didn’t expect me to sell a single one. But, I don’t know – I was just lucky or something – I did all right.
Did you have to go round calling on people’s houses?
Yes. … calling on people’s houses; knocking on front … giving them a leaflet; going back and picking it up; giving them the spiel, and so on. And, I sold one or two. And so they said, “You seem to be doing all right. Why don’t you go up to Norfolk – there’s plenty of money up there. And there’s nobody up there doing it”. So up I came.
Travelled around Norfolk and Norwich and I was doing very nicely. The only trouble was it was hard work. In the meantime, then, I’d met a lady who’d been looking after her mother all her life. And she seemed to be absolutely perfect. And, so I asked her if she would marry me and she said she would. So I thought, it would be a bit unfair … she thought it was a bit silly to be selling Encyclopaedia Britannicas when I’d got a teaching qualification.
When you were doing the encyclopaedias, did you have to go round on public transport to the different places?
No. I had a motorbike.
I had a booklet – the sort of coloured magazines that were describing the various things. And I used to give that out to the people. And if they were interested and they said “Yes”, they want to find out and they were interested, I went in and there was a sort of talk that you gave that covered what the Encyclopaedia Britannica was about, what it could do if you had it and how good it was. And it was good; it really was good in those days and it would do all sorts of things for you. If you had it and you were the sort that really wanted to use the information – or wanted information available to use. And there were various bindings – various covers.
And different prices presumably, depending on the binding?
… going up to the most expensive one which had beautiful leather binding – lovely one(s) they were. I sold one of those to a farmer’s wife. She wanted one – a set for her son who was at university. She thought it would be useful for him and I agreed. And so she had this most expensive set.
So then you presumably applied for a commission depending on how many you sold?
So if you managed to get rid of the expensive ones, your commission would be higher?
Yes, much higher. According to how many you sold or how well you’d done after six months or so, you were notified of the prizes and things. And I know I had a thing saying that I could go and get the most expensive pair of shoes that I could find. There were two or three other prizes that you had, you know, which was handy. Meantime, of course, I thought that it was unfair … My wife didn’t like motorbikes – she didn’t want to ride on it – so I sold the motorbike and got an old car. And I remember the chap in the garage saying he wouldn’t guarantee it over the … a threshold. So anyway, knowing about cars and how they worked and so on, I was able to run it and when it stopped, I was able to diagnose exactly what was wrong, put it right and off I went again.
So you used the car for the Encyclopaedias as well? So how many miles did you travel each day when you used to do these calls?
Oh, I don’t know. Altogether, with this old car I did 14,000 miles. Anyway, altogether.
That would be over what length of time?
About two years.
Then after that you decided that was – or your wife decided that was time for you to stop?
In the end, I swapped this car for another one which was a bit better. The only trouble was it had … one of the big ends was very noisy and was obviously going to drop off any minute. Huh, huh. And I remember jacking it up and I’d worked out that if I took the sump off, I could get to the big end and repair it, without having to take the engine out which garages would automatically do. Anyway, I did it and we were due to go on holiday and my wife wanted me to hurry up and do it, you know. Anyway, I finished it and did it and drove down … I was going down to the coast – the south coast somewhere. And got as far as Kent and I got a terrible headache – absolutely shocking migraine. I didn’t know in those days what it was. It was because going along I’d been plied with chocolates all the way down and it was the worst thing I could have possibly done. Anyway, (Laughs) that was an adventure.
Did you get money for your fuel when you were doing encyclopaedias? Did they … or did you have to pay for out of your own …?
Oh, yes. You had to pay for your fuel, everything yourself.
Did that come out of the money you earned?
You just got your commission and that was it. That’s why (I) packed up doing the Encyclopaedia Britannica and got a job actually teaching – teaching in Norwich for a bit. And the first job I got was at Larkman Lane School which was supposed to be one of the roughest areas in the city. Huh.
This was the end of the ‘50s – ’59, ’60. Teaching general subjects.
Junior Schools. I found, to specialise, which I wanted to do, in dyslexic tendencies and things like that, you had to have three years’ practice of ordinary teaching. So I just had to do the three years and that was it.
And then I managed to get on a year’s course – Oxford – this specialist course in dyslexic troubles and training difficulties and so on. And I got that and then I applied for a job specialising in that and managed to get one in the Buckinghamshire area.
I had to leave Norfolk then and go down there. And my wife, being a Norfolk girl, wasn’t too keen on that area at all but we stuck it for about fifteen years.
When I retired in ’83, I had the opportunity, of course, of living anywhere in the country, providing it was Norfolk and preferably Norwich! (Laughs)
So you stayed at the school in Northampton (Buckinghamshire) then until you retired after that, presumably?
No, I was … the job was … I was told my job was, “To prevent non-readers getting into the Secondary School”. They didn’t care how I did it, providing I stopped the non-readers – you know, kids who couldn’t read – getting into the Secondary School. ‘Cause when I went there, they had two large classes of thirty in each class, and none of these kids could read. Sixty kids! Cor! I thought that was terrible. Anyway, after several years the numbers went down. When I left, they didn’t have any. And that was my undoing, really, there, because they reckon that the area of North Bucks was too sophisticated for non-readers to exist. Such a load of rubbish!
So what happened to the poor children, then?
Oh, they just had to go without – they were back to being ignored. Huh! So anyway, I didn’t want to stop there – I had a chance of – had the opportunity – they wanted me to stop down there and … And for twelve years, I’d been secretary of the nine joint Parish Councils down there. And the chappie who was representative of that area decided he would leave – give up – and it was automatically understood that I would take over. In fact, it was understood so much that nobody else bothered applying at all. And when I decided I wasn’t going to do it anyway, come back to Norfolk, they had to do the election all over again because there wasn’t anyone. (Laughs)
So when you came back here, was that when you went to Larkman?
No that was all finished.
No that was beforehand, wasn’t it? So, then you did another school after that?
Yes, I did George White School. Not far from here. I play bowls now with some of the girls who used to be pupils in George White School.
That was just a general Secondary School? Was there special needs, as well?
No, no there was no special needs. I wanted a special needs job in Norfolk but they didn’t believe in it – they didn’t want anybody doing that. I had to go down to Northants (North Bucks) for this particular job and, even now, they don’t bother with that sort of thing. So when I retired, I decided to write it all up so I’d written a book – I should have brought one out – I’ve got them over there – about the difficulties of dyslexic-type tendencies. And it amused me because a couple of years ago, I remember, it was all over the papers and the radio – they’d discovered, in Scotland, some psychologist had taken over this area and they were certain they’d been able to find methods of being able to teach children so that they didn’t have any difficulties at all. And every week, or every month, it went through, “How good they” … “Yes, they were doing beautifully and standing out” … And, then, the end of it, it suddenly all went flat – they’d discovered there were some, about ten, fifteen per cent of them, were struggling – they couldn’t learn to read – they were having problems, this, that and the other. Everything went very quiet after that. Nobody had discovered anything. Huh! Clearly, because I’d spent fifteen years dealing with troubles like that and I could have told them what would happen. They just don’t seem to believe it. Only the other week, they were saying that there was some children were having difficulties and the psychologist wouldn’t start dealing with them until they were after eight years old. And my point is, that they need to be dealt with when they’re between six and seven. And by the time they’re eight, they’ve got over the difficulties and they’re virtually all right – they can learn to read. I had the same problems myself when I was ten – couldn’t read – didn’t know how to do it – this, that and the other. I didn’t want to, for a start. And then, what started me off, was, I went by a newspaper shop and in it they had magazines – Boy’s Own, Skipper, Champion they were called – and I found these stories in … and I couldn’t read them but the pictures that they showed were so interesting but I wanted to find out what happened. And it took me a week to read the first story, when I first had it. And me Dad said, “Cor, fancy wasting your pocket money on that rubbish and look at all the beautiful books we’ve got here” which he had.
So you were able to use your early experiences for when you were teaching the children with dyslexia, later on?
Yes. Yes, I’d been through it all myself. But it took me some considerable time to find out. And even now, experts reading my book … one thing that I discovered was that a lot of children who have difficulty have a tendency to be a little better if they … in the sort of visual area. And my point is, those sort of children liked drawing and painting and so on. They tend more to write looking at things – looking more carefully at things. And the other sort are the ones who are very keen on musical-type things – they like sound – therefore, you can attack a word through sound rather than sight. You ask these … and, “Oh, there’s been no proof of that, whatsoever”. Well I couldn’t care less, really. Proof or not, I found that’s what worked and it seems sensible. So that was it. And these stupid nits … (Laughs) … won’t do it!
I put that in my book. And it’s one of the things that was condemned straight away. 2006 it was published.
Peter’s book is called “Reading: Revival and Rescue of Poor Readers” by Peter Coleman. Published by Hillmead Books, 2006.