By Roger G. Lewis
Date Posted: June 15 2013
Roger Lewis, who lives in Watford has a Masters degree in Education and he is a retired education manager and teacher. His particular concern has been the education of children and young people with special needs. He is also an accomplished and celebrated musician.
The Influence of Chance and Luck in childhood
by Roger G. Lewis
Childhood can be a complex path of providence and misfortune depending upon the family you were born into, where you lived and went to school, the friends you made and the experiences you had. Things like your level of self-esteem, your determination, the support you get etc. undoubtedly make a difference to how you deal with life and how you get on in the world. The political scene, both locally and nationally, can also help or hinder those aspirations.
My East End roots
My father’s side of the family came from Bethnal Green. Going back several generations to the late 18th century, the men were weavers, cordwainers and in the furniture trade. My grandparents married in 1909 and promptly moved out to North London. With the coming of various education acts in the late 19th and early 20th century my father, brought up in a Guinness Trust Buildings in North London, achieved an education that would enable him to eventually become the main secretary to a posh West End London tailor.
On my mother’s side little is known about my grandfather who emigrated from one of the Baltic countries in the 1900s. He became a Printer’s Devil living in Spitalfields after ‘marrying’ my grandmother. Both were Jewish immigrants. My aunt and mother were born at the London Hospital, Whitechapel. Following an industrial injury he bought a coffee house in Birmingham in the 1920s with the compensation, where my mother, due to bronchial difficulties, attended one of the first open air schools in England. At the time of the Depression the family returned to London living in Stoke Newington until my parents married in 1939 just prior to the war.
Mum and Dad moved into four unfurnished rented rooms in a late Victorian house in Islington shared by two other families, one being my mother’s parents and her sister.
My father was a lance-corporal in the army 1941 – 1947 but was wounded in action 1944, was hospitalized for several months before being employed by the army as a clerical worker. He was musical and could play both classics and stride piano. After the war he returned to his job. He also joined a combo and gigged around London most Saturday nights.
Where I lived as a child
I was born in 1946 at a nursing home at Devonport as my parents were living in army married quarters. Both my parents were aged 30 and my dad’s father had died 6 months previously. As a result of my birth mum acquiring Puerperal Depression (a severe form of post-baby blues) she had extended hospitalization. The following year dad was demobbed and we moved back to the rooms in Islington. I expect there was support from my mum’s side of the family, however her parents died in my early years.
I was born when the ‘spirit of 1945’ was still alive and thriving with the Labour Government introducing fine aspects of socialism into the country. The two that affected me most were the NHS and housing. Both my parents were strong Labour supporters.
Prior to the war mum had been a clerk but she never returned to that trade becoming a mother and housewife (when she wasn’t depressed). She experienced stays in mental hospitals during the late 1940s and early 1950s and was treated with electric shock treatment, a lobotomy and medication.
For a few months in 1950, while mum had one of her hospital stays, I was sent to a council run children’s home in South London with just dad visiting me every Sunday.
I attended a church primary school (as mum thought the local school was too rough). I made a few friends but became aware of my sensitivity and could not laugh things off such as teasing and name calling like many children with greater self-esteem and confidence in themselves. You could say I was bit of a loner most of the time – my aunt later stated that I was going wild!.
My tonsils were removed when I was about 8 and I spent some time away from home convalescing.
During Dad’s two weeks holidays from work, mum, dad and I went to a different holiday camp each year. All three of us joined in such things as fancy dress competitions. It was quite a happy time.
Like many children of that age I acquired the skill of stealing from my mother’s purse. Eventually fate caught up with me several times and severe corporal punishment was administered by my father, whilst mum cried.
When I was 9 two things happened: my father’s mother died and we were moved by the council to a maisonette in a block of recently built flats in another part of Islington. The local junior schools were full so I continued my primary education at a school a mile or so’s walk away. I was happier there.
During the summer months I was sent to stay at various children’s holiday homes organized by the council, probably to give mum some rest bite. The pluses were meeting other children, exploring with them but under a fair but strict regime. The minus was being away from mum and dad.
My aunt and her husband, an accountant, I saw at birthdays. They played a much larger role in my life after my parents died.
In 1957 I left primary and joined a central school. I was less happy here as I suffered bullying throughout my years there. In fact I played truant from school after I was threatened by another boy. In my first year I spent several months each day riding up and down the London Underground with my 1d ticket returning now and then to school with a forged sick note!
Luck was against me in my 2nd year when I broke my elbow in a PE lesson, ended up in hospital for several months, was misdiagnosed with scarlet fever and was sent to a fever hospital where they discovered I was allergic to penicillin.
It wasn’t until the 5th year that my confidence grew by which time I has started to learn to play drums and joined a school pop group. This interest in playing music was encouraged by my father.
About this time I was doing a paper round and helped with milk deliveries. This meant I met other young people who extended my interest in music including several with whom I am still in touch. The school pop group did gigs around North London and I also visited folk and jazz clubs.
Life became too much for mum and at just 48 she committed suicide in 1963. On returning from school one afternoon I found her in bed having taken a barbiturate overdose. The effect upon me was understandably grief. However, I also felt guilt about my sense of relief!
I left school with just ‘O’ level Art and joined an art reproductions firm. After a year I followed a friend into warehouse work, clerical work with a beer company, the dole for a short while and eventually warehouse and delivery work for an educational suppliers.
Simultaneously through gigging I met various people in the arts and alternative people who encouraged and supported me when I moved out for several months and lived in one room accommodation before finally moving back to the flat.
Eventually a girlfriend persuaded me to apply for further education, which I did, and she encouraged me through.
In 1966 my father, who had married a cousin the year previously, died from cancer and eventually I was finally asked to move out of the council flat after she went back to her family on the East Coast. My aunt and uncle supported my living in one room accommodation and found me a job as a dishwasher in a West End restaurant. This enabled me to complete my FE. As my father had left no will, they also successfully fought my step-mother for a chunk of his estate.
The following year at 21 with a full grant, I was accepted at a teacher training college, the same as my girlfriend’s!
Reflections on luck and chance in childhood.
Upbringing : I had a fairly comfortable lower middle class upbringing. Despite her illness mum and dad taught me manners and instilled in me the difference between right and wrong. Also the importance of speaking correctly and not using slang – which I rebelled against occasionally! They both wanted me to aspire to do better than they did. I think they also taught me be concerned about the needs of others.
Material things : They were careful about shopping, we did the Co-op and we never took out HP or borrowed money. In my early years we had a radio, a cooker, tin baths and a mangle. There was no running hot water so my parents boiled up water for washing. In the sitting room, we had a coal fire, a piano and a three piece suite. In the flat we had a TV (1956), a new three piece suite, the same cooker and mangle and a coal fire with a back boiler. We didn’t have central heating at either place.
Both gave me a love of music : My father and his musical friends encouraged me in the joy of learning musical instruments and eventually having the confidence to perform in public and entertain others. Meeting and playing with other musicians was also beneficial.
Housing : We didn’t suffer poverty, squalor and poor housing. We were fortunate enough to have a Labour council and government.
Health : My family ate a healthy diet which my mother (or father when she was ill) cooked. She received good hospital care. We had a GP whose surgery was a few doors away. A journey to hospital was within walking distance.
Education : A disrupted and disappointing education was probably result of instability in the family. With chance I was accepted into Further Education at the age of 18 (usually 16). I eventually acquired sufficient qualifications to get me to teachers’ training college, achieve a teaching certificate and a job.
Self-esteem : A lack of confidence probably happened as a result of lack of early contact and disrupted relationship with my mother in particular. It was luck that being born into a musical family that music helped me develop that confidence in myself. Also the encouragement of teachers, particularly in my Further and Higher Education, helped developed my self-esteem to take academic examinations to further my education.
Unfortunately the academic doors that were open to ‘post war babies’ like me are now currently closed to many of the next generation.