The bungalow at Beach Green in Shoreham-by-Sea was the third place I lived, but the first place I have clear memories of.
Memory … is a commonplace, a rag-bag stuffed with a few familiar facts and much unnecessary rubbish that we cannot bring ourselves to part with. But if we examine it with care, and make it work, and live with it and possess it like a fresh and extraordinary sense, we discover at the end of long and tangled skeins a bright pin of truth; the silvery needle through whose sharp eye we learn to observe ourselves …James Kirkup in the Foreword to A Child of the Tyne
In his memoir, A Child of the Tyne, poet and translator James Kirkup demonstrates an almost superhuman capacity to recall the minutia of his childhood. Some of the earlier chapters, which detail events and people from when he was just 2 or 3 years old, are fascinating for what they describe, as much as they are astounding if truly remembered.
The bright pin of truth
I wrote most of the following before I read A Child of the Tyne. Clearly I’ve been unravelling the tangle yarn in the rag-bag of my memory, looking for that bright pin of truth, for a good long time. Yet I still don’t have as many memories, or as detailed a recollection of my childhood, as Kirkup does.
My childhood memories are often anchored in a physical place. The following began life as a writing and memory exercise. The idea was to remember rooms in the houses where I’ve lived and find any stories connected with them. We lived in the bungalow at Beach Green for perhaps two years, from soon after my sister was born in February 1961. Linda is 2½ years my junior, so these memories must come from when I was about 3 or at most 4 years old.
There are three true memories here, but I’ve added a fictional one just to see if I can do it. Gentle reader, can you sift my invented memory from my true memories?
Baby scales at Beach Green
The bungalow at Beach Green was newly built when we moved there. I’m not sure whether Dad or my grandfather Harry Nixon was involved in the building. Harry might have been, as a one-time builder and (in family accounts) an architect. We lived for a year in Qatar before Linda was born, so if Dad was involved in the building it was entirely at a distance. We flew back to England in time for Mum to give birth at Southlands Hospital, the same place I was born, and must have moved into the bungalow quite soon after. I know this because of the baby scales.
In the bungalow’s living room, over the mantelpiece was a big round mirror that my Mum still has. And in one corner of the room was a big, black, and in my adult memory old-fashioned pair of scales, with a wide, woven basket. These were the scales my sister was weighed in.
Linda had been born, I suppose, not more than a few weeks. The midwife or the local nurse was coming to our house and using these scales to weigh Linda to see she was growing. I know now, as an adult, that there was a problem. That Linda was very underweight when she was born. Everyone was concerned about her putting on weight.
Crying like a baby
Dad was home too, and he was playing with me. He hoisted me up on his shoulders and we stood in front of the mirror. I can see my reflection, sitting awkwardly on his shoulders. His hands are on my thighs, holding me, and my head seems very close to the ceiling. He bounces me higher to get me to sit more comfortably and I am afraid I will bang my head. But I’m also afraid to be up so high, and I’m twisting about, wanting to get down, even though I’m frightened of falling.
I’m crying because of being frightened, and Dad threatens to weigh me in the scales. Weigh me like a baby, because I am crying like a baby. I’m so angry about being called a baby, though still frightened and still crying, and I squirm about even more. He holds me tighter, lifts me down and swings me towards the scales.
I’m not sure whether he managed to get me into the scales, but I can see those scales and the woven basket coming at me. I don’t know how that struggle resolved itself. I can’t remember actually being weighed, so it was perhaps a tease. But that is my memory from the Beach Green living room.
Avoiding the tradesman
Another memory I have is of the kitchen. There was a back door to the house from the kitchen and it had a frosted glass pane in it, quite high up. There was also a kitchen table. What the table looked like, I can’t recall, but I do remember hiding under it with Mum.
I don’t know when this happened or the background to it, but there was a man who used to deliver. I don’t think he was the milkman, so he must have been delivering from a shop, perhaps the grocer’s. Mum didn’t want to meet him. I don’t know why, but I think it was because she didn’t want pay, or she didn’t have the money to pay him. It might also be that she just didn’t like him.
In my memory we are together under the kitchen table so that he can’t look through the kitchen window and see us. The lights are out and I can see his silhouette against the frosted glass. He is shading his face with his hands and peering through the frosting and calling. And we are under the table. I think it’s a great joke. Mum is trying to stop me from laughing. So that’s the memory I have of the kitchen.
At the bottom of the back garden we had access to the towpath. This was a path running along the top of an embankment that separated Beach Green from the River Adur. It’s still there, Google’s satelite picture shows me, but it’s not the river itself beyond the embankment. It seems to be a water cul-de-sac, a dead-end branch of the river. Today, just as I remember, there are houseboats moored on the other side of the towpath.
There were was a women friend of Mum’s who lived in one of the houseboats. I think they had met in post-natal classes. Mum, carrying my baby sister, took me with her to visit the houseboat at least once. I remember walking across a gangplank from the towpath to get onto the houseboat deck, and then climbing down a very steep stair into a dark room.
A whole family, three generations, lived on the boat. I remember a very fat older woman who I suppose was Mum’s friend’s own mother. Plus the friend had two older children besides her newborn baby. The daughter was about my age, but the son was much older, had already started school. He was maybe 6 or 7. I don’t remember his name, but I have a picture of him in my head as round-faced, stocky and surly. His hands are curled into fists.
One day I got out of the back garden and went exploring on my own. I climbed up onto the towpath. I knew I was not supposed to do this. It felt thrilling to be naughty. That was when I met the son who told me off. How did he know I wasn’t supposed to be on the towpath on my own, I wondered, and felt contrite.
He threatened to tell my mother and told me how she would spank me for climbing up on the towpath. Mum never spanked me, but for some reason I believed him. I pleaded with him not to tell. You’ll have to give me something, he said. I didn’t have anything to give him. I think he wanted money, perhaps he wanted my pocket money. Perhaps he was used to bullying other kids at school. Or perhaps (I think now, as an adult) he was himself the victim of bullies at school and was trying out their techniques on me. Whatever, I ran home crying.
I don’t think I was often naughty, but my other memory from the bungalow is another time when I was.
Making the bed
Although it was a bungalow, there was an upstairs, and an open sided staircase led up from the entrance hall. At the top of the stairs was a landing and a door into the main bedroom. In this memory I am helping Mum to make the bed. As I was 3 or at most 4, “helping” goes very much in inverted commas, even if I’d been behaving myself. But I was not behaving myself.
Mum took a sheet and whisked it out to cover the bed. It flew out and the idea was that I, on the opposite side of the bed from her, would catch a corner of the sheet. I was supposed to hold onto it and help the sheet land neatly on the bed so she could tuck it in. Instead what I did, catching the corner of the sheet, was to pull it sharply so it glided off the bed onto the floor. Mum had to gather it up and try again. I think I wanted to see the sheet fly again. It looked fantastic when it was flying through the air.
I don’t know how long this went on, how often I snatched the sheet onto the floor. Maybe it was just the once, though I suppose it happened more than once. But I can only recall the one glorious flight of the sheet across the bed.
The reason I think it happened more than once was that Mum got frustrated by my “helping ” her. She came around the bed, chased me and caught me and put me outside the bedroom door. I was laughing when she did this. She shut the door and she locked it. I think she locked it. I remember standing outside with my hands flat on the door, calling to her and begging to be let back in. Promising not to do it again. But all the time I wanted to do it again. I remember a mixed emotion delight and joy that I was playing this game with her, and sadness that I’d been put outside.
And that’s my final memory from Beach Green.
Note on illustrations
Both illustrations are borrowed. The one is a screen grab of Google’s satellite picture of Beach Green and the houseboats. The other is a creative commons picture of Shoreham-by-Sea houseboats from Wikimedia. The photgrapher is Arild Vågen.