We were all children. I, and probably most of the others, had just left school, aged about 14. Frightened, we all filed into a huge, high-ceilinged room with neat rows of desks facing us. We were in this strange school-like room because (expressing things in the language of our parents) we wanted to become His Majesty’s Civil Servants, His Majesty being King George V. If we passed the exam we would work as his non-political staff. I had gathered that I would first become a messenger-boy, then, when I had learned all the rules and was doing all the right things and obeying instructions, I stood a chance of being made a Senior messenger boy. After that, all sorts of wonderful things could happen and I would become one of those smartly-dressed men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats striding along London’s streets, swinging their rolled umbrellas and looking important.
Personally, I was unsure about it all; I had the vague feeling that becoming important was not my goal in life. A pianist, yes. An actor, yes. A painter of portraits in a suitably untidy studio, yes. Definitely. But my father had other ideas for me and this day in 1937 (or was it 1938?), in this room, King George V would find out if I was cut out for the job.
We sat where we were told to sit. A man was standing at the front of the desks and, after a moment’s silence, he began to tell us what we were about to do. A pen and a sheet of printed paper lay on each desk and looked important. Pale faces all round me gazed at him, alert and cautious. North London traffic noises seeped through closed windows, London Underground trains, one of which had just brought me here, slowed and stopped at Colindale station, just visible from where I sat.
The examination began. I dipped my pen into an inkwell that resembled the one on my desk at school, and wrote my name, the date, and my home address. Pens scratched paper, little clearings-of-throat came from round the room, unnatural, nervous. Then, oddly, I felt my eyes smarting – the sort of feeling you get in the kitchen when dinner’s being prepared and raw onions feature. I became aware that the boy next to my desk was rubbing his eyes. Then the boy in front. Then there was a murmuring of voices and the man got up from his desk at the front, from which he had been watching us, and went to the door. My eyes were watering, I felt strange.
Then things happened very quickly indeed. We were bundled from the room and taken outside, handkerchieves at our eyes and asking each other what on earth was going on. Asking, and getting no replies.
Tear gas? From that day to this I have heard nothing of the event. I must have asked people but the memory of the day goes hazy and I remember nothing of family discussions or of questions being asked. Recently, spurred on by growing curiosity concerning that single, isolated five-minute memory that has stayed with me for over seventy years, I have peered into the internet’s historical corners and seen replicas of the 1937-38 news items and memories of incidents and accidents. But the mystery remains. The Metropolitan Police Headquarters, I have been told, was housed at Colindale at the time, and I have been reminded that tear gas was used in the training of ARP (Air Raid Precautions) staff: war was soon to break out. Was there a training course in progress in or near the building and did a gas cylinder get set off accidentally? Or was it possible that I was being involved in something more interesting, something darker, something a 14-year-old would have been able to brag about for months, years?
I never took that exam. Never got anywhere near His Majesty’s civil business. But for a couple of years I did achieve the always disputable distinction of wearing an un-pinstriped suit, a trilby hat and, rather impressively I felt, swinging a rolled umbrella as I walked along Kingsway every weekday morning and evening between Holborn Underground station and the London headquarters of Kodak Limited.