Memories of Ronnie Potter

My first memory is of Mrs Rivers pushing me down Baldwyns Road in a pram. There are flags and bunting strung across the road so it must be some kind of street party. The only party we had at about that time was for the Coronation. My mum says I was too young to remember anything at two or three years old, but I do. Thereafter I don't remember anything until my first day at school. I recall sitting mid-way down the left hand side of the classroom and being told that dinner wouldn't be too long. It ruddy well was! I remember that, and I lost a little respect for the teaching profession that day. If you can't trust them to bring your dinner along when they say they will, what chance have they got of convincing you that there was a battle in Hastings in 1066? I reckon it could have been anytime between 1060 and 1070, and that's giving them the benefit of the doubt. I began to question things from about that time. "Today we're going to learn about the Hundred Years War." "I say it was seventy five. Any advance on seventy five?" "Ronald Potter, go and stand in the corner." That's my third memory. And fourth. And fifth.

The corners of various classrooms in the Maypole County Primary School. Later, and I mean much later, I found out why I don't remember much of my early years. One of my teachers, concerned about this apparently serene youngster in the class who had no interest in the blackboard or what the teacher was doing out there in front of him, asked my mother if I had problems with my sight. My mother said "Of course not! Not my little boy," but anyway, she took me to an opticians where it was discovered that I had abysmal vision in my left eye, and not too bright in the right either. From that day I've worn glasses. I was dragged from my reverie, that delightful dream world of dismembered voices and hazy shapes into the stark world of sharp images and 20/20ish vision and the sad realisation that voices came from people and not out of the ether. Wearing glasses was never the traumatic experience that people think it should be. I don't think any of the children noticed to be quite honest. We all accepted things without prejudice. It was not until I was in my teens that I realised that you had to learn prejudice, it's not a thing you're born with. For example, Richard Wight had contracted Polio at some stage and wore leg-irons. The only difference that that made to us was that we learned very quickly to get out of his way during the games of football we played with a tennis ball in the school playground. He would come charging stiff-legged through the middle of us all and God help anyone who got in his way. His legs were supported either side by metal rods and this made tackling him extremely dangerous. He was always picked first when it came to team-picking time.

The biggest problem with wearing glasses was that they got broken every week. There were several stages in the life of a pair of schoolboy glasses. The first things to go were the arms. This was an easy job to fix. Sellotape! Don't ask me why it had to be Sellotape for the arms, but Sellotape it was. It normally lasted for two or three days until the sticky started to wear off, and then it needed some more. This continued until the glasses were sticking out an inch from your head and the Sellotape started sticking in your hair. In those days we all had short back and sides, with a quiff hanging down the front. Or in my case, having wavy hair, kiss curls. When the hair got stuck in your glasses you swept it out of the way and inevitably knocked the glasses off your head and smashed the left lens on the floor. Always the left, thank goodness. The right and I would have been blind. The only way to fix broken lenses is, of course, pink Elastoplast! And that is how you walked around for about three weeks of every month, for that is how long it took to get replacement glasses. You had a great ball of hair-covered Sellotape sticking out of the side of your head and a junior version of Blackbeard's patch in pink over one eye. It was so commonplace as to arouse no comment. Any more than your front teeth falling out and making you talk with a lisp. Can you imagine what you'd feel like as an adult if all these things happened to you at the same time? You'd be afraid to go out of the house and face your peers.

Life at Maypole County Primary School was never very stressful as I remember. Lots of playtimes and swimming lessons at Hextable. School sports days where none of the children cared who won or lost. We'd all had numerous races in the playground and knew who were the best runners, jumpers or throwers. Richard Wight was in great demand for the Three-Legged race, for obvious reasons, and always won, whosoever was strapped to his port side leg-iron. The able-legged person was the one who had the greatest problem, trying to keep up with the expert. Opposite the school was Bexley Mental Hospital, another great influence on my life. Life on our estate revolved around the Hospital. A lot of the mothers did cleaning jobs during school hours to help make ends meet. The patients themselves were all relatively harmless, the violent ones being locked in closed wards. We soon got to know the regulars. There was the Black Widow. Always dressed in black, she had taken a shine to blond, angelic Simon. Every time she saw him she would give him sixpence. He was a little scared at the fact that he had been picked out from the rest of us and tried to hide down the alley when he saw her. We, on the other hand, would keep an eye out for her and drag Simon up to her so's he could get his tanner Then it was toffee chews all round. Poor Simon had to spend the money as he would got a clip around the ear if his Mum and Dad found out he was taking money, "Off a Patient." That is what they were called. Patients. There was never a case that I can remember from the children or the parents of cruelty concerning the Patients. They were a part of life and accepted as such. Even when one shat on the doormat I can remember my sister Anne saying, "I'll clear it up Mum. It was only one of the Patients." Mind you, Anne always was a little saintly and later went to Africa as a missionary.

There were times when the Patients did things which did reflect a bit on the community. The worst case didn't affect the Maypole Estate kids, but the kids being brought to school by bus. There was a Patient without a name but known to all the kids because she often wore a wedding dress. Rumour had it that she had been jilted at the altar and that that had turned her. This particular morning at about ten to eight, resplendent in her wedding dress, she dived under the school bus and the wheels ran over her head. There was a lot of screaming and puking, mainly by the adults, and none of the teachers would talk about it at school. We all knew, of course, because the kids on the bus had been sent home for the day and there were empty places in the classroom. We all rushed out at the end of school to see the blood, but the Fire Brigade had hosed it all away. That made it even more spooky. We began to wonder if it had really happened, and became a little jealous when the kids who had seen it came to school the following day and told us all about it. One of them said he had been thrown in the air and had landed in the aisle when the wheels ran over her head, but I'm not sure I believed him. In retrospect, I suppose the most dangerous of the lot were the Patients with sexual problems.

The Hospital and indeed the school bordered onto Dartford Heath, and these Patients used to wander the Heath exposing themselves to the children. The first time it happened to me was scary because I'd never seen a mature erect penis. I thought the poor bloke was deformed or had had an accident. I remember crawling into bed with my Mum later that night and her consoling me and explaining that they were Patients and that they didn't know what they were doing. She told me that I should run away if it happened again. I became a very good runner after that. There was one Patient who used to expose himself to the school bus bringing the older kids home from the Secondary Schools in Dartford. He used to leap out from behind the same bush every afternoon. The police used to nick him every so often, but he was a Patient so they couldn't do much about it. I did hear one of the parents say that he should, "Be bound over to keep the piece in his trousers," but I didn't get the joke at the time. Dartford Heath was good fun. We had a gang, me and David McKeough, Richard Wight, Paul Elliman and his brother John, the Conboy brothers, Richard and Kevin, (Kevin smoked!) And John Warwick came along later. We would play Commandos and build swings down the Dell. These swings were built on the side of a hill and you could swing out to about thirty feet above the ground. The Heathkeepers used to come around every so often and catch us if they were quick enough and tell us off and cut down the swing. Once in a while one of us would fall off the swing and break something. This gave you a great deal of status, of course, and you could boast about how much it hurt and what it was like to have an X-ray and how brave everyone had said you had been. Never mind the fact that you'd screamed like a stuck pig when it happened, so much so that all your friends had run away at first, in case you died and they got a belting for playing on the swing.

Mr. Winter owned Maypole House, a big castellated house to one side of the estate. He had large grounds to the house and the whole was protected by hedges or high fences or walls. Mr. Stotford was his groundsman and he lived a few doors down from us. He had lived all his life on the estate and knew all of us and all of our parents. The problem with the Winter grounds were that they were between the Maypole Estate and the best playing areas of the Dell and the Dip. So we used to climb over the wall at the back of Dave McKeough's house and run the hundred yards or so to the chain link fence at the other side of a shallow valley, clamber over this and make our way into the woods and down into the Dell. At first Old Stottie couldn't catch us. And then he got a Power Mower. The first time that he came roaring out from his shed and down the valley, we all froze. It must have been hilarious to watch. We all ran in different directions howling at the top of our voices. Richard got caught because he couldn't get over the wall with his calipers on, and none of us stayed around to help him. Later that day Mr Stotford came round to all our houses told our parents that we had been trespassing and that next time it would be the Police. Richard had been taken to his house by Mr Stotford and Mrs Wight kept him in for the weekend. We all thought that Mr Stotford had tortured Richard to get our names and then buried him in the grounds. Stottie had been in the Army during the war and wore a thick leather belt with Regimental cap-badges studded all round it, so he knew how to kill people. You can imagine our relief when Richard turned up for school on Monday. I was always a bit wary of old Mr Stotford after that, though. He looked like he would have liked to kill or torture us when he was charging down the valley astride his motor-mower, like a motorised member of The Light Brigade. We weren't really naughty, just adventurous and full of life. Sometimes we would overstep the mark and the Police got involved. The first involved a scrumping expedition into the orchards of the Hospital. We kicked in a couple of fence palings, climbed through and filled our jumpers with cherry-plums. Then we moved along to the apple orchards. I had no more room up my jumper and was a bit scared so I told the others I would wait outside and keep watch. It couldn't have been two minutes later that the Police drove past and saw me lurking guiltily next to the hole in the fence. They stopped and came across and I came close to peeing in my pants.

My Dad had been a copper and I knew what would happen to me when I got home. They indicated that I should get in the car without saying a word and settled down to wait for the others. As each of them came out of the hole in the fence they were lifted by the collar and stood to one side of the hole out of sight of those still inside. When we were all out they bundled us into the car and took us to the porters gate at the entrance to the Hospital, where the porters took our names and addresses which they used to send our parents bills for the repair of the fence and for the stolen fruit. Of course none of us told our parents what had happened, and about three or four days later and two minutes after the postman had been, what sounded like air-raid sirens could be heard from half a dozen houses on the estate. It was, of course, each of us wailing after being slapped or belted by our parents. Three shillings and ninepence was the bill. When my sisters heard about it I got another telling-off and poking me they said, "You're supposed to be a boy. We never got caught when we went scrumping." My mother wanted to know where the fruit was. I told her that I had been too scared to bring it home in case she found out. She then did something I'll never forget. She sent me out to "Get three shillings and ninepence worth of fruit and don't get caught this time!" I don't think any of the other kids got these instructions because this time I carried out a lone mission. I was terrified in case I got caught by the Police again or even worse, by a Patient. No-one has ever hopped over a fence and filled his jumper full of cherry-plums so quickly in their life. And all the time sobbing, with my eyes filling up with tears. It did the job though, and I never scrumped in the Hospital after that. We targeted the orchard next to St Mary’s Graveyard instead, where it was quieter and the Police didn't drive past. We discovered it when we were covering for the choir in the St Mary's, who were away camping. We all belonged to the local choir at St Barnabas Church. Every Wednesday evening we would turn up for choir practice, except for the Conboy brothers who were Catholics, whatever that meant. As soon as practice was finished we would go down to the fish and chip shop at the bottom of the Dip and get fourpen'th of chips and some crackling. Then we would walk back up the hill to the Estate climbing the lampposts and swinging on the cross-trees at the top. Dave McKeough did the best impression of a monkey, especially with a bag of chips in his hand. The road was badly lit and ran past the Hospital which had a high wall and a fence atop it. On the other side of the road was an annexe to the Hospital, which was in fact a convalescent home for minor mental cases like nervous breakdowns or alcoholics with DT's. The Annexe had a cowfield around it into which St Barnabas protruded. Every time the organ played in the church the cows would come and lean over the barbed wire fence at the back and gently chew the cud and low. That was until we came charging out of the vestry after choir practice or a service and shooed them all away. Luckily they were only heifers or goodness knows what damage we would have caused. The cowfield was a useful short-cut to the allotments if Stottie was about in the Winter's garden. It was a longer way round and you had to run the gauntlet of the cows and the staff of the convalescent home. There was a bit of dead ground you could use though, and this was fun to crawl along. The allotments had a stream running through them. It wasn't really a stream, it was a ditch for the run-off water from the roadside gutters in the Dip. We used to dam it and get our socks wet and get covered in mud and have a great time there. Only if our Dads weren't working on the allotments though.

On a Sunday one of us in our family would have to take Dad his Sunday dinner to the allotments. Mum would serve it out onto his plate and it would be covered with another plate and wrapped in tea-towels. A pint of tea would be put into a milk bottle and that would be wrapped in tea towels too. Then whoever had been chosen to take it down, usually Anne, would have to get to the allotments as quickly as possible. Dad had two plots, one with fruit bushes and one with vegetables. He used to spend all day Sunday there, whether to get away from us or not I don't know. We lived well from the allotments, always plenty of veg in season and loads of different types of jam. Mum was good at jam. But not at chips. Dad worked for Barclays Bank; District, Colonial and Overseas, in London. He was a messenger and went off to work at six thirty every morning in a navy blue suit with silver buttons and a bowler hat and umbrella. He was always immaculate for work with his starched detachable collar and black tie. It was lucky that he did work for the Bank, for we were one of the first ones in the street to have our own house, bought and paid for. It cost £1100. When Mum blew the roof out of the scullery whilst cooking chips, Dad was able to borrow money from the bank and we had the scullery knocked down and an extension put on the back of the house with a kitchen downstairs and a bathroom and toilet above. It cost £800 to build. Before we had this luxury, we had had an outside loo, which Dad had brought into the dry by building a lean-to conservatory onto the back of the house. Baths had been taken in a tin bath for the grown-ups, or in the scullery sink for the kids. We heated the water in a copper boiler, and this was also used for boiling the sheets once a week, or for making spotted dick. We also had a number of sheds. Dad liked building sheds, so we had one for the bikes and Dad's tools, a coal shed and a back shed which was always full of things for the garden, like spades and forks, and for the clothes props. You had to climb over everything to get at whatever you wanted, because whatever it was, it was always at the back. I used to use the clothes props for pole-vaulting off of the shed roof and into the garden. My Mum used to go frantic and said I'd break my leg, but I never did.

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