Category Archives: Autobiographical

Mostly autobiographical but with occasional comment on life today

Elstree Airfield, 1937

Elstree Musings 2014-01-03 at 11.04.34

Ever heard of it? Elstree? In 1937 it was a village a couple of miles east of Watford, Herts. It had a golf club and an airfield – and a batch of film studios, where many internationally famous titles were produced. Heard of ‘Star Wars’? Yes, the studios are still very much in Elstree – and so is its airfield. Have a look at this and then at this and you will see the way things are nowadays.

In the late 1930s my friend and I loved the place. The airfield, I mean. It was ours. Have a look at my illustration above and you’ll get a fair idea of what it used to be like (although I can’t guarantee the authenticity of those two sheer-guesswork hangars on the right.) Just a couple of hundred yards away to the South the enormous Elstree Reservoir spread itself; it’s still there, re-named Aldenham Reservoir but as beautiful as ever. It is a reservoir yet, to all intents and purposes, it is a lake.

Every Saturday afternoon we’d be off to it, this favourite hideout of ours, Elstree Airfield. Naturally, this came after the shoe-cleaning and general helping-Mum jobs were done. My friend would appear with his bike at our Bushey back door with ‘Anyone home?’ and we’d be off, standing on pedals, swerving round the bends of Little Bushey Lane on the two or three-mile trip to this very small but active flying field. One game on the journey was to count the number of vehicles seen (anything except bikes), guesses being made before we started. The highest ever would have been around ten.

From our grassy vantage point by the side of the lane we would watch pilots taxiing round to the end of the (then) grass runway or approaching from far off among the clouds and preparing to land. Some of the pilots were trainees and, being the experts we were, we would judge the quality of their landings and take-offs and give points and make notes. We gave them 10 points to start with. Every bounce lost a point, every lopsided one-wheel touchdown lost another.

Aircraft and flying were our hobbies. Both of us had, in our bedrooms, a cotton thread tied at one end to the high curtain rail and down to a low anchorage on the other side of the room. At the top of the thread dangled a model aircraft. One light twitch on a release line freed the aircraft to glide down beautifully across the room to an admittedly sudden and graceless landing. Books on flying, pictures of aerobatics, jigsaws about aeroplanes – both of us could claim to have a real bedroom.

Watching aircraft in real life was better, though. There was always the (unspoken) possibility of a mishap and seeing the pilot leaping from the cockpit and floating gently to earth under his parachute. And the lemonade-and-snacks, the occasional whiff of exhaust,  the sounds  – the companionship of two people enjoying the same things – all this made it a treasure. Elstree Aerodrome today is, I’m sure, wonderful. But I don’t think I want to go and see it.

NOTE: For those who are interested, like many other illustrations in these musings, the sketch was made entirely on computer with the long-defunct Apple program called ‘ClarisWorks.’ I ask myself what made Apple throw this gem overboard? PW.

Tagore: the Long Walk


There was a sudden thrashing of wings on the left and a black shape flashed across.

Have you ever been lost? Of course you have. And I’ll bet the first thing you did was to ask the first person you saw how to get to… wherever it was you wanted to reach. Most importantly, you knew where you wanted to be. I was once lost in the middle of Calcutta but I didn’t. I had no idea of where I wanted to be. I was a young RAF man. I’d arrived by air from Rangoon that afternoon with two other chaps and we’d been driven from the airport straight to a new unit.

But surely I’d been told the name of the place? The name of the RAF Unit? Oh, yes. I’m quite sure I had. But – well, I’ll explain. In the armed forces you have your hand held. At times like unit transfer there’s no need for you to concentrate. You are given your papers which include the name of the place, the RAF station you’re going to and the number of the Unit. You have no need to refer to your papers. RAF vehicles will take you to railway stations, RAF Police Corporals will point you to your train and more RAF Police will be waiting for your arrival and get you to your waiting jeep, and that’ll take you to your new unit. So you dwell dreamily on the scenery and the people. Well, I do. I had my identity card. Of course, my papers would have helped. But they were lying on my bed in our new unit.

As soon as we had arrived there we were told that, if we were interested, there’d be a ‘Liberty Run’ into Calcutta in half an hour’s time and we could hop on the truck if we liked, have a look round. The truck would pick us up again at the same place at ten o’clock and bring us back. We all said yes, and threw our bags and papers onto our beds, found the showers, changed, and, with about a dozen others, we climbed up into the back of the lorry. From my seat at the rear I watched the retreating road. It was a long, straight road.

We were dropped off outside a huge cinema. The driver told us all again to be waiting on the same spot at ten. He would pick us up.

I saw on the cinema’s programme board that, later, they would showing something I’d heard of and wanted to see. Neither of the other two did, so we wandered along the wide and noisy street called Chowringhee and had a meal at the famous Firpo’s restaurant. Firpo's

I said cheerio and I’d be waiting outside the cinema at ten, as directed.

The film came to its end and I went out into the the heat and noise of Chowringhee and waited. It was five to ten. I waited for ten more minutes. No sign of the other two, no sign of the truck. I waited another ten minutes. So, either it had left early with them or I’d got the time wrong – and I knew I hadn’t.

I called a taxi – and it was only then that it dawned on me. Taxis are for people who know where they want to go. I didn’t. I was in the middle of a densely-populated city of the 1940s, crammed with impatient tonga-wallahs and ricksha-wallahs and several men and boys on either side of me as I waved the taxi driver on to do business elsewhere. I pondered, as best I could with the noise. I had watched the road from the back of the lorry as we entered the city and I remembered we’d crossed a bridge just before we got to the cinema. So what I had to do was to ask people for directions to the bridge and after that it should be simple – walk along that  long, straight road and thumb a lift when anything came up behind.

I found the bridge. They called it the Hooghly Bridge, which was reasonable because I did know there was a River Hooghly that flows through Calcutta. Once over the bridge I found the beginning of the long, straight road. I started along it. Compared with the lights of the city it was dark, very, very dark. Thick forestry encompassed little me and the traffic noise, which had been slightly comforting in my situation, was now abating behind me. I could actually hear my footsteps. My imagination was beginning to suggest unpleasant things. Was this the right road?

There came a sudden thrashing of wings on the left and a black shape flew across in front of me. I heard my heart pumping. Then there were voices. Very subdued voices, in the way that two people speak when they are far apart and don’t want to be heard by others. It was father and son hunting that bird, wasn’t it. Nothing dangerous. I was getting shivery. Then, from behind me I heard a vehicle in the far distance. It was the first one I’d seen or heard since I left the city lights. I stopped and turned, waiting to hail the driver and ask for a lift to – or, rather, tell them I was lost, virtually, and ask them if they could help. Its lights became brighter. I stood well into the edge of the road and held up a hand in the way hitch-hikers do. But it roared past, its rear lights fading into the distance to two very small red dots. Silence again. I heard no voices now, but unidentifiable forest sounds that came and went, very quiet, rustling sounds.

And then, behind me, I heard a sound I knew well. It was the sound of a Jeep. I turned, and waited. It was an American Air Force jeep, and the driver gave his headlights a couple of flashes before pulling up beside me.

‘Well, Hi, there, fella. Wanna lift?’

I explained. The huge engine idled, crackling away, and they shook their heads and drew on their cigars. Then one of them snapped his fingers. ‘Climb in,’ he said. He had an idea. They would take me to their own unit and get their files out and phone around. Ten minutes later we turned into a brightly-lit yard. I was shown into the unit’s canteen. Coffee and a plate of snacks was brought. They were still phoning round. The lights, the casually friendly atmosphere and the relief melted me. I could have hugged them all. They found my unit, gave them the gist and told them they would drive me over next day. Then they took me to my room.

In the morning I found a magnificent breakfast waiting for me, huge, hot and aromatic. The white-aproned GI chef came across to me, smiling and standing back, arms folded in self-congratulatory mode.

‘English breakfast, huh?’ he said.  I thanked him from the heart.

An hour later I stood to attention in front of my own Commanding Officer at what I now knew was No 329 Maintenance Unit in the area called Bally. I had been on the right road.  He was brisk and to the point. He started by telling me that their driver the previous evening had indeed arrived early at the cinema and he and the others had forgotten me. He then read me King’s Regulations on the topic of carrying one’s documents.


Footnote: On the following day, further inspection showed this new RAF Unit, or rather its living quarters, to be a magnificent mansion – and to have been the home of the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. PW.


The Pile of Sand

We live in South Gloucestershire. Last week, someone, a complete stranger from the little Hertfordshire town of Bushey, where I’d lived as a child, emailed to say he’d read about me on a website and knew I had lived in Bushey back in the 1930s. He and his family had lived there for some years. He was now building a collection of old photos and information about the Bushey area. His reason for getting in touch was to ask if I happened to have any old photos.

In a closing sentence he told me the name of their road and the number of the house. I was startled to realise that he now lived only a few houses away from my own boyhood home, in the same road. He added that his house was built in about 1938. That was the time I was there myself, now 13. I sat gazing at his email like a zombie. From the number of his house I knew exactly where it was and that it was being built at the time my father’s bicycle crash when his brakes failed as he shot down our road, going faster and faster, unable to stop. Across the road ahead of him was a five-barred gate, marking the end of the cul-de-sac road. He had spotted a heap of builders’ sand just ahead of the barrier, on the left, and headed for that. He hit it, flew over his handlebars and somersaulted, head first, into the sand. It had probably saved him from serious injury, possibly death.

I remember hearing someone banging the front-door knocker. I jumped up and opened it. There stood Dad. He was covered in wet sand and holding on to his twisted bike.

‘Huh! Brakes failed’, he said.

I checked the position of the house on Google StreetView. It was on the left-hand side of the road and exactly where the five-barred gate had stood and, by 1938, had been moved away. I  found myself in a daze as I realised I was writing to the man who had bought the house that was being built at the time my Dad crashed – crashed into the heap of sand being used. Looking at it in another way: of all the people who might have read the same website item about me, the one person who wrote to me did so from that house.

Coincidences come and go and most of them are forgotten after a day or two. This one, if coincidence it actually is, will stay with me for some time.

No Small Wonder


Canterbury choir

The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral, 1986. Dr Barry Rose invited me to shoot a series of pictures on the day they recorded the carol. (On ‘LP’.)

Earworm. This, I am told, is the correct name for that annoying scrap of music that insists on ringing in the ears and round and round the brain from the moment you wake in the morning until you fall asleep at night. You cannot stop it. One November morning in 1983 I woke to find I had an earworm. But mine wasn’t music. I am a lyricist, so my earworm was considerate enough to present itself in words. Two words. ‘Small wonder.’

Small wonder small wonder small wonder small wonder – it went on and on throughout the morning, the afternoon, the evening. It was the same the next morning. I had to do something to stop it.

And then I had a bright idea. I was in the middle of writing lyrics for a new collection of Christmas carols. Suppose I wrote one using the words ‘small wonder’? Might that stop it? I began writing. And so the carol No Small Wonder began to emerge. And, yes, the earworm stopped.

I wrote the three short verses about the wonders of the Christmas story. The crowd of singing angels! The strange star seen by the three wise men! The shepherd being told by the angels where the baby, Jesus, could be found! However, all through these three short verses there is a ‘but’. All these wonders were small wonders when you consider the astonishing fact that God himself was coming to Earth as a human being! Over all these lesser wonders came that one truly enormous wonder; no small wonder indeed.

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The poem was written. I sent a letter to my dear composer friend, Paul Edwards, enclosing my poem. Paul remembers the day it arrived. He writes:

I well remember Friday 18th November 1983, when the morning post brought Paul’s text beginning, “Small wonder the star. . .  I was on my way to the nearby ‘Washeteria’, so I took the verses and some manuscript paper with me to while away an idle hour. And so it was that No Small Wonder (op. 204) came into being.”

His idyllic composition knocked me out. I had never heard anything quite so lovely. It transformed the words. Not long after it was published by Animus it spread across the country and round the world. Cathedral choirs, small church choirs and choirs of many kinds embraced it. The BBC included it in its televised Christmas 2000 broadcast of carols sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Animus tells me that this earworm-cum-washeteria production has broken their records

NOTE: Some internet references mistakenly refer to it by its first line, ‘Small wonder the star’. but the title remains, No Small Wonder.

Now see and hear the recording made in Paul Edwards’s own church, with Paul himself accompanying.

The Jason Stories

A buzzer sounded. We all stood. Quietly, we moved from our circle of chairs and made for the doorway leading out to the narrow staircase and down to the church below. There were about twenty, the Choirmaster and myself. The youngest boy was seven years old, the oldest thirteen. Each of us was dressed in a dark blue cassock and white surplice. The Choirmaster led the way, and I followed at the rear.

I had been reading a story to them. Below us, in the big redbrick church building, the Vicar was coming to the end of his Sunday morning sermon. The buzzer had been operated by the Organist, informing us that it was time for us prepare for processing into the church and the choirstalls, ready to lead the rest of the congregation in song.

The story was mine. I had never tried writing fiction before. Two weeks or so earlier, shortly before the Harvest season, the Choirmaster had booked me to take a turn as ‘guest speaker’ in these weekly gathering of the boys and I had wondered how I would do it. I decided to tell a story about Harvest and its meaning. The characters became a boy called Jason and his three school friends; the youngest of these, Cedric, was the terror of the village and the three friends agreed that his chief job seemed to be to annoy them. In fact, he often meant well but things just went wrong. The story had a fleeting message within it that I hoped would help the boys understand something of the Christian faith. As I read it on this Sunday morning the circle of thirty-odd boys was utterly silent and motionless. Were they interested or or just polite?

It seemed it was interest, because I heard they had asked for another story. St Cecilia’s Day was approaching so I wrote one called ‘The Musical Saint’. After that they wanted another, and slowly I covered the whole church year. It came to an end after the fourteenth, when Sunday mornings began to be organised differently.

Later, I was helping in the production of a BBC Radio London programme for children called The Orange and Lemon Club. A weekly story was wanted and Jason seemed to fill the requirements. The weekly story had to be recorded and sent up to the London studio so every now and then I had to ask for 20 minutes of silence in the house while I read to my tape recorder. Gradually the stories gained favour around London and eventually I decided to see if a publisher might be interested. The Canterbury Press, Norwich, were brave enough to give it an airing and, to my pride and joy, said Yes, please. The stories had begun in the 1970s. The book came out in 1990 and it sold.

I Googled the Jason title the other day and a sad one or two looked out at me. I fell to wondering if it would attract an audience among the children of church-going parents today. If I re-wrote it, bringing the characters and their ways into the current scene, would it it stand a chance? I shall think about it.

Do you think it might?