Text Size

Article Index

Foreign Parts

Going abroad, or any contact with people from other countries, was a rare and glamorous thing. I saw foreign seamen and immigrants in the East End, and would have given anything to go into one of the dark-shuttered Chinese restaurants in Limehouse (not foreseeing a time when every shopping street round London would have a Chinese take-away). I liked the Sikhs who came from door to door, in Walthamstow and Chingford and everywhere else, with suitcases full of cheap haberdashery to sell. My father talked about India, where he had spent several years as a soldier. He knew Hindustani words, and although he had no taste for classical music he would always listen to Ravel's 'Bolero' on the radio because it reminded him of music in the Indian bazaars. Boys of my time could hardly imagine what life in foreign lands, even in Europe, was like; what we saw in films and read in stories only added to its mystery.

There was a trip to Denmark when I was in the fourth form. I think it lasted eight or nine days, and the cost was £9. I did not go, and did not mention it at home. Afterwards my parents were reproachful because I had not asked them: I should not have missed the opportunity for such an experience. The trouble was that they talked like that when things were all right financially, but were only too likely to fly off the handle if I made requests at other times: I never knew what to do. But the boys who went were not thrilled, as they had expected to be. John Cohen told me that it was slightly dull, and they spent their pocket-money on white bread because the black bread given to them was horrid.

We also had visits from boys whose languages we studied. In 1936 Arturo Rico came from Spain, but he returned hurriedly because of the outbreak of the Civil War; and the following year there were German boys. There were about eight of them, 15 and 16-year-olds from a school at Frankfurt-on-Main. I do not know if they were specially picked, but they were a magnificent advertisement for their regime and made a little blaze of excitement in the school. Fair-haired and fit-looking, they all had good clothes and exuded self confidence. On our Sports Day one of them gave a display of javelin-throwing - we had never seen it before. They joined in a concert in the hail and sang rousing songs to us, and one recited a poem from the Hitler Youth. It was in German, but the lad's face shone with fervour and his voice rang out as he delivered the verses; he was applauded wildly.

A number of boys were strongly impressed by these young Germans. Everything about them made a striking contrast with the meagreness of life for youth in Britain; 1 heard boys say openly that they would like to be on the tree which bore such fruit. At the same time, there were chilling stories of goings-on in Germany My Jewish friend David showed me photographs of elderly Jews being forced to scrub the streets, and accounts of atrocious things being done to their bodies. We heard, repeatedly, references to concentration camps.

"Horace" Hammer, the German master, gave the senior forms a talk on life in Nazi Germany. He stressed the achievements, the revitalising which had taken place, and treated other aspects with guarded frankness. He knew of a man who had criticised the regime in a restaurant, and was now in a concentration camp - many things which were best not commented on. Hammer was a decent man, and probably more upset than he showed. It was the orthodoxy of the time: don't enquire, don't make trouble.