Working Lives

Egypt, encyclopaedias, education (1937-2006)

Location: Thrapston, Norwich, North Bucks, Lowestoft

Peter recalls his varied army career, from Lowestoft to Egypt and his post-war career as a special needs teacher, as a dyslexic himself.

Early years

I was born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1920. My father had been a priest in Bagthorpe, Nottinghamshire, before moving south.  After I was born my father obtained a living in Lightwater, Surrey. I first went to Lancing House Prep School in Lowestoft and then St. John’s School in Leatherhead and, finally, King Alfred’s School in Wantage, which I left in 1937.

My Dad got me a job on Thrapston Council and said if I did all right I could have a permanent job. I was given a typewriter and when I hadn’t got anything to do I practised typing and the chappie downstairs heard me typing and thought I was an expert already, and immediately offered me a job! I didn’t like it, it was boring doing accounts and things like that so I turned it down.

Metal filing and hole drilling at the aircraft factory

My Dad then got me another job in the aircraft factory in Market Harborough, doing odd bits. I started work at nine and finished at five. I was in lodgings. We didn’t get much pay and having paid for lodgings and food you had a small amount for pocket money, which we didn’t really need anyway. I was supposed to be going through the factory learning bits and pieces and then going in the office. I started off doing metal filing. You had rough parachute hooks which had to be filed to exact proportions and you had a ‘go’ and ‘no-go’, all sorts of things. The inspector came around afterwards and tested them and they had to be exact.

The chap who was teaching me had been doing it for several years and was quite good at it. I soon learnt this filing business and being a bit bombastic I challenged him to a day’s output. I thought he’d probably beat me heads down but, to my amazement, I beat him ‘cause he had more rejections that I did.  Well!  I was immediately moved off that to another bench doing sawing and I found that extremely dull. I was on my own, not much to do. What made the day was when a bell went and there was a rush to a particular window where you were given things that needed holes drilled into them. That was the extra cash. Of course, everybody knew exactly which drills were best. They were all run on belts in those days. The only drill not in use was close to me and I soon discovered that as soon as you used it, the belt came off and you had to stop to put it back on, which slowed you down. So I invented a wire cage which went over the top of the belt to stop it coming off. It then worked as well as any and I made up the amount I was supposed to. Later I discovered they’d taken up my idea, refined it and put it on all the belts, but I didn’t get any credit for it.

I don’t remember being told anything about health and safety in the factory. You had a job to do and you just got on with it. I got sick of the phrase ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’. The only thing that amazed me was, as soon as the bell went for stopping work for whatever reason, you had to put your tools down and if you didn’t you were yelled at immediately. This was Union rules evidently. There was an 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 folk.

Joining up on hold, temporary teaching and sleeping through an air-raid

By that time the war had just started and I decided to leave and join the Army. I went down to London and signed up but received a letter from the Army saying they didn’t want me for another year. Having given in my notice I had nothing to do for a year and had to get a job. They wanted a temporary teacher in a prep school in Southampton so I applied and got the job and spent the summer term of 1940 there, living in lodgings.  Half a mile away they had all the aircraft guns and when they went off it woke you up. As soon as they went off I’d know there was going to be an air-raid and I could go to the official school underground air-raid shelter. One night they had the worst air-raid on Southampton and I never woke up! Next morning I was all smiles and they were all bleary-eyed saying ‘Where on earth were you?’. I said ‘Why, I never heard anything’. I must have been so tired I just slept through it.

I was teaching general subjects to seven and eight year olds. One child had difficulty spelling and another with mathematics and I managed to get both of them over their problems. At the end of term the parents congratulated me on how well I’d done with their children, and that made me interested in teaching. Having got over dyslexic problems myself I was particularly interested in teaching children with difficulties.

Army training, courses and getting lost

At the end of 1940 I was called up and went to the basic training camp in Bedford, near the river. A week after I arrived a plane went over and later we heard that it had dropped two landmines, one in the river and the other hit the allotments, very close indeed to our camp. They didn’t explode and were the only bombs that we came across then. You did the initial training, including putting a Bren gun together and then we were given a sheet of paper with a choice of OCTU, Officer Cadet Training Units, and you chose which you wanted to join. We were given no advice and I thought it would be useful to choose the machine gun OPTU and be able to say I’d got that expertise when I wanted to transfer to the Air Force. At the last minute they said ‘You know you’ve picked a six month course and the Infantry are only three months’ but I thought ‘Never mind, I’ll stick it’.

The course was in Droitwich. The first thing was a test on knowledge of gas. You were given a lecture and had to learn a list of various gases. Most of us passed the exam and those that didn’t went straight back to their unit and were thrown out. The next thing was a drill. There were two groups and the Staff Sergeant taking it was an ex-Guardsman and you really had to be good. It was a competition between these two groups and luckily I was in the winning group. Every fortnight or so they pulled out a Lewis gun in bits and you were shown how it was put together. It was a funny way to teach you how to do it. Instead of saying ‘There’s a thing, put it together, try it yourself’. You just had one piece which you put in. The Staff Sergeant got really annoyed if you couldn’t pick up the right piece at once and put it in.

Then my father died and my mother had to leave the rectory with my brother, who was born deaf and was really incapacitated. She got a little detached stone house very near Droitwich so I applied to go and see her. I hitch-hiked most of the way and was dropped off in the dark and I lost my way. I knew I had to go uphill and round somewhere or other. I wandered around and on the way up the hill I passed a church and opposite was the rectory. I knocked on the door but there was no sign of anyone. In the end I was that tired and in those days the churches were open so I laid down on one of the benches and slept there all night. Next morning I could hear sheep bells and the sun was coming in, it was really biblical. When I came out I walked up the hill and knew immediately where I was. Mother was surprised to see me so early in the morning. I had to go back that day, hitch-hiked back very easily, no bother at all. Soon after there was another test. They gave us a compass and a sheet of instructions. You worked your way down the list and, if you were lucky, you found your way back to the beginning. I found it easy because me Dad gave us similar sort of instructions when we were on holiday, for something to do.

Off the course and onto a cliff-top, with unfortunate consequences

After I’d done five months of the course I asked about a transfer to the Air Force. The look of disgust on the C.O.’s face! ‘Once a machine gun officer, always a machine gun officer! Dismissed!’. My name was mud from then on. The Staff Sergeant seemed to be after me as well. When I was seeing my Mum the others had evidently spent the time practising with this Lewis gun so they all knew it. When the Staff Sergeant said ‘Your go’ of course I didn’t know. Anyway, that was it. He said ‘I know what your trouble is, you’re lacking in initiative’. And blow me, he put that down on my report. I nearly put my finger up and said ‘I’ve got more initiative in this little finger that you’. But being in the Army you can’t do that sort of thing. I was kicked off the OCTU and in another month all the others would be made officers and I was back in the Unit as a private soldier. The C.O. at the Unit said he was surprised to see me back and I told him that I really wanted to transfer to the Air Force. He said ‘Oh, I can get you in there’ and I was called to Cardington and asked to do various things and they said ‘Okay, you’ll be hearing from us’. I waited and waited and nothing happened and when I asked at the office I was told ‘Oh, all transfers have been cancelled’. So there I was, back as a private soldier doing absolutely nothing.

I joined the Unit in Lowestoft where we were supposed to be looking after the cliff-top in case of invasion. The only way to get down was to crawl along a narrow little path and we were told ‘Don’t, whatever you do, go over the edge of the cliff’ because there were bombs and things in it. It was winter and my health wasn’t an awful lot of good. When I was two I had diptheria which I managed to get over, and I’d had measles, mumps, scarlet fever, the lot so my health wasn’t terribly robust. After crawling in mud and rain I got ‘flu and was in hospital. When I was there the Germans dropped a bomb on people coming out of the cinema and there was a terrific number of casualties. I was immediately moved into a big country house somewhere. After about three days they thought I was better and out I went! No recuperation or anything. As soon as your temperature was down you were out. I returned to the Unit and the boss said ‘About time you’re back, we’re going on manoeuvres tomorrow’. I told him I was supposed to be on light duties for a week and he didn’t like that. I had to stay behind with a lump of cheese and bread and walk round this deserted village all next day. That night I slept on a straw mattress in a tiny ancient cottage and I didn’t feel at all well again. Next day I managed to walk a mile or more up the hill to the big house to see the doctor and I was back in hospital for a few days with gastric ‘flu.

When I got back the C.O. said ‘It doesn’t look as if this is going to suit you. What do you reckon to do?’ 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, just fiddling around, driving one here and moving another there, and driving an officer down to London and back. Then I was given an IQ test which I found easy and they saw that I’d got quite a high IQ and the officer said ‘I’d suggest you went into Signals’ but I’d had Signals training at school and didn’t like it very much because my dyslexia slowed me down. I said ‘I’d like to go into something to do with engines’ so I was sent on a six months’ course in Manchester which turned out to be three months because some materials didn’t turn up. The course was quite interesting but very basic and I came out top.

How I missed the invasion of Sicily!

At the end of ‘41 I went down to London and within a week I was posted abroad and I spent the rest of the war in Egypt and Palestine, until 1945. I spent two or three years showing a group of Arabs how to strip a lorry down and repair it, seeing it off and getting another lorry and a new set of Arabs and same again. It was quite boring so I volunteered for the Parachute Regiment amongst other things and never got anywhere. Finally I did get on to one, the invasion of Sicily and I met a friend who was interested in the same sorts of things. I was a third class fitter and I kept applying to be second class without success. My friend said ‘Why don’t you apply for first class?’. So I did, and I passed and, of course, my name’s absolute mud. All the others in the workshop wanted to be first class fitters. ‘If C can do it, we can.’ They went in for it and really made a mess of it. One of them got first class and one who was already first class was demoted.

I went through a month’s training for this invasion of Sicily thing and a week before we were to be posted out there I had jaundice and was in hospital and when I came out I’d lost them, they’d gone. So I was put in this big base camp and given an IQ test. I was so used to doing these tests I whipped through it. The chap looked at me, whistled and said ‘Oh, you can do anything you want!’. That was a fat lot of use.  I wandered round the base and found the small library, run in real pukka fashion by a chappie who was a qualified mason. They wanted him back home, quick, so I took over the library and other duties. I asked if I could join the Royal Army Education Corps and was sent to Cairo for an interview with an officer. I was accepted and was immediately promoted to Sergeant and it was a comparatively nice life. I had a hut to myself and a servant to look after me and clean the place. I was teaching a bit and I had to reorganise the library so the ladies who came in, knowing nothing about libraries or books, could run it themselves while I organised the mobile library.

From teaching woodwork to selling encylopaedia

At the end of the war I came back to England and, as all the decent jobs were reserved for officers, I applied for the teacher training thing. I wanted to teach woodwork and I passed the City and Guilds woodwork thing, got 98 per cent with that so I was quite pleased. However, when I started working in a secondary school in Manchester I found that woodwork teachers were the lowest of the low. No woodwork teacher had ever managed to get promotion to anything in teaching. The best class I had was a class of special school children who were supposed to be a bit dim. They paid attention to what they were told and tried to use the tools properly. The local Jewish schools couldn’t have cared less about woodwork and I thought ‘A waste of time, this’, so I packed up teaching woodwork.

I though about sales jobs but you needed experience but I got a job selling Encyclopaedia Britannica. I knocked on front doors, gave them a booklet describing various things. If they were interested I would go back and give them the spiel, telling them what it was about and how good it was.  I sold one or two and 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 no-one else is doing it’. So up I came. I travelled around Norfolk and Norwich on a motorbike and was doing very nicely though it was hard work. There were various bindings and I sold the most expensive set, which had beautiful leather bindings, to a farmer’s wife who thought it would be useful for her son who was at university. I’d get commission depending on how many I sold, and it was higher if you managed to sell the expensive ones. You were notified of prizes according to how many you sold or how well you’d done after six months. I had a thing saying I could get the most expensive pair of shoes I could find, and there were other prizes which was handy. You had to pay for your own fuel, just got your commission and that was it.

In the meantime I’d met a lady who’d been looking after her mother all her life and she seemed to be absolutely perfect, and she agreed to marry me. She didn’t like motorbikes so I sold mine and got an old car in which I did 14,000 miles over about two years. I swapped it for a better one but I did have to repair the big end, in time to go on holiday to the south coast. A memorable journey as I’d been plied with chocolates all the way down, which resulted in a shocking migraine.

Back to teaching and back to Norfolk

My wife thought it was a bit silly selling encyclopaedia when I’d got a teaching qualification so, at the end of the ‘50s, I got a job teaching general subjects at Larkman Lane Junior School, supposedly in one of the roughest areas in Norwich. I wanted to specialise in teaching dyslexics but had to gain three years ordinary teaching experience, which I did. Then I managed to get on a year’s specialist course in dyslexic troubles and training difficulties, in Oxford, and subsequently got a job in the Buckinghamshire area. My wife, being a Norfolk girl, wasn’t too keen on that area but we stuck it for about 15 years.

I was told my job was ‘To prevent non-readers getting into the secondary school’. They didn’t care how I did it. When I arrived there were two large classes of thirty in each, and none of these kids could read. I thought it was terrible. Several years later the numbers went down, and when I left they didn’t have any.

When we came back to Norfolk I worked at the George White School, a secondary school with no special needs, not far from here. I play bowls now with some of the girls who used to be pupils there.  I wanted a special needs job in Norfolk but they didn’t believe in it – they didn’t want anybody doing that. Even now they don’t bother with that sort of thing. When I retired I decided to write about the difficulties of dyslexic-type tendencies. It amused me because a couple of years ago, in Scotland, a psychologist looking into dyslexia, was certain they’d found methods of teaching children to overcome their difficulties completely. It went well to begin with and then it suddenly all went flat. They’d discovered about ten to fifteen per cent of them were having problems. Nobody had discovered anything. I’d spent fifteen years dealing with troubles like that I could have told them what would happen.

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, they can learn to read. I had the same problems myself when I was ten, couldn’t read, didn’t know how to. What started me off was magazines, Boy’s Own, Skipper, Champion. I couldn’t read them but the pictures were so interesting I wanted to find out what happened. It took me a week to read the first story and me Dad said ‘Cor, fancy wasting your pocket money on that rubbish, look at all the beautiful books we’ve got here’. When I was teaching children with dyslexia I could use my own experience.

I discovered that a lot of children who have difficulty tend to be better if they work visually. Those sort of children liked drawing and painting. They tend to write more looking carefully at things and some are very keen on musical things so you can attack a word through sound rather than sight. I put that in my book which was published in 2006, and it’s one of the things that was condemned by the experts straight away.’

Peter (1920-2015)  talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 10th April 2014.

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