Tuesday 18 September 2018

An Introduction to my Autobiography

I have had the text of this autobiography prepared for a long time and finally I have posted it online. But who will read it? A few friends maybe. But I am not famous so I won't make any money out of it and I want to make money writing. I have had my fair share of narrow escapes from disaster... .and in some cases, I did not escape. So what I will do now is create a novel from this story. I can change names, even my name because it will be written in the third person. And I can include events which I can't relate here. And of course, I will invent events, or take events which are real but alter what happened afterwards. The novel is already in progress and I hope to finish it around the end of the year. It is called Logic Park.

Although this is a blog, the posts are in reverse order to the events as they happened so that you read it like a book. Otherwise, you will have had to go to the end of the blog to read the first chapter!  

I thought a lot about doing this and I am a little bit scared. Many of the things here, I haven't even said to close friends. But I wanted do do it, to say, "This is who I am." In the Sunday colour supplements sometimes celebrities open their souls which is very brave. I am not famous, what I am doing is not brave!

Pre teens

This story begins with a myth. I wanted to start this book with a young couple making love in a secluded forest glade, rolling around in the warm damp grass but since it was December 1942, the chances are that it would have been rather too cold for that and instead my conception would have been in a rather dull street in Chepstow in Wales...  warmer. But I still like to think that my parents had lots of fun making me. So amazed was I that my father managed to get back to the UK during the Second World War that later in life I sometimes wondered whether my mum had a little bit on the side, so to speak. I know she was rather enamoured of a doctor chappie but I quickly dismissed this and in any case, people say that I look like my dad. So let’s put that daft theory aside. Or maybe he left a small phial at home when he went to war and she kept it in the fridge…. Or maybe not. That is funny! Imagine, the world’s first test-tube baby in 1943!

So, my father went back to Africa and as the nine months passed, my mum returned to assailing him with almost daily letters about how life was in Chepstow. (This was a complete falacy which I believed for a long time! I just didn't think about it too seriously. I imagined somehow that he had come back from Africa but, at the time of my conception, he would have been based in the UK. He went to Africa, sure. but not "back" to Africa.)

So there I was. Born in August 1943 during the Second World War. So that made me a “war-baby”. My mother had been billeted with a couple (who later became my God-parents) in order to avoid the bombs being dropped on London. “Baby Boomers”, which one often reads about, came later when the war ended and the men who survived came home. What is frustrating is that most of my mother’s letters bear the date but not the year. They were generally mundane but also full of passion looking to the time when they would be together again. They wrote to each other using pet names which bore no relation to their real names.  But I have very few of the letters he wrote to her.

I have one letter that she wrote and it is what one would describe as a love letter, fairly unambiguous about what she was talking about. Sometimes I like to imagine that is when I was conceived because I guess it was some time during the war.

I even have the letter where she tells him about my birth (I also have the telegram “Boy, both well” which you can see). I guess they must have talked about a name for me – in those days of course they had no idea what sex their child would be. I think if I had been a girl, they would have chosen Jennifer. However, when it came to naming me, my father was back in Africa and mum agonised over the name and wrote a letter to him about it. But of course, before she received a reply, she had to make a decision and went for Stephen (she wrote that Steve sounded “racy”!!)

She then wrote about what she called the “circum op”. In those days from what I gather circumcision was common for babies, so it was routine to do it to me. For most of my life I accepted that and had no problem with it but only recently I started to think how brutal that is. To take a baby only a few days old and subject it to an operation to remove part of its body, not for medical reasons which was given later as the motive, but simply because it was the fashion. I am not even sure if an anaesthetic was used.

More letters followed, about my progress, how I was being fed, all kinds of trivia and also news about my brother Philip who was at school in Chepstow, being 7 years older than me. From what I remember, my mother had a miscarriage after Phil which accounts for the large gap between us. I was born quite late for her.

After the war, my father returned and we moved back to Woodford Green in Essex and he took up a teaching post in east London. After the passionate exchange of letters during the war, things were not so rosy in the real world. My father had a 3 year-old usurper to contend with – my mother absolutely doted on me which didn’t help further male bonding with my father. I often used to wonder to what extent this formed the way I am. But then physically I am a little different, not terribly masculine and I can’t blame my parents for that. 

Here are a few pre-teen photos.....
In my Red School uniform at 7 years of age.

I call the second photo, "pee in the sea", but I am sure I am just keeping my shorts dry!

And so my life progressed fairly conventionally towards adolescence in a primary school called the Red School. But I was a bit of a drip, and rather priggish. I remember walking through a fairly rough area, we called it a council estate, in order to get to school wearing my bright red uniform. Talk about red rag to a bull! I don’t remember being beaten up but I certainly deserved it - probably too naïve to expect it. Later, Phil used to call me “Stainless Stephen”, which I guess I deserved.

I used to love this pool in Folkestone, now long gone of course. My father arranged for an Egyptian cross-channel swimmer who was training in the pool to give me lessons.

By this time, Phil was at Chigwell School in Essex which is a public school in the old tradition – boys only of course. And, the year after he left to go to university at Oxford, I managed to pass an entrance exam and followed him there in his footsteps. I think his being at school there made a big difference to my being accepted.

This book is a kind of opening up of parts of my life and parts of me which previously I have only told to very close friends, if that… or psychologists because I have met a few of those. It is a sort of coming out in the way that men who are gay decide to announce to an expectant public that they are homosexual (big yawn!). Who really wants to know that Fred Bloggs is the first openly gay shadow cabinet minister? I am not gay although I have had my doubts from time to time. I love women but the reason I am writing this here is that something strange happened when I was at the tender age of 10. I asked my mother if I could borrow some of her clothes and dress up in them and I had erotic fantasies about it. Sometimes I think maybe I made a mistake with my memory but I remember the house and we moved home at about the same time as I went to Chigwell at the age of 11. Erotic fantasies at the age of 10? That is weird I think!


Arriving at “big school” is always a big step for any child but more so for a drip who is the “baby” of the class, having been born in August which is close to the cut-off point between the school years. So I was one of the youngest in the class, if not the baby of the class.

I have one memory from that time, my first year at Chigwell. The kids were playing some early rock music in the classroom and because I had been brought up in a strict religious household, I had been made to believe this was sinful. So I cried.. and of course was ridiculed for that. Elvis Presley with his gyrating hips gave my father apoplexy so anything to do with Rock ‘n Roll was the work of the devil and his stainless little boy should keep his mind pure with Purcell. Not Persil; that is a soap powder.

I was not popular because I was a religious prig! That was how I had been brought up. I remember once being punched in the face by a bigger boy who said, “Now let Jesus save you!” Unfortunately Jesus didn’t respond with a bolt of lightning. Anyway, we were inside a bus. I was also very childish when most of the boys were being terribly male and grown up. Some of them may have passed on by now. And I am still here... and childish (now, I would call it "girly"!), even at 75. You only have to look at the photos of me in my teens (which I hate) to see what a self-satisfied smile I had. No wonder I wasn't much liked. I like myself much more now, then I didn't like myself at all.

Academically, I did well at school, 8 O levels and then at 18, I gained Maths and Physics at A Level which enabled me to join the BBC which had been my dream. By contrast many of my contemporaries went to university, in some cases to put off the decision on what to do with their lives. Or maybe just to have fun! I knew what I wanted to do. The photo below is of me after a cross-country run looking very breathless - I had problems with breathing. I was always amused by what looks like a discarded leg behind me!

I haven’t written much about my time at Chigwell because it is all a distant blur and maybe it wouldn’t be very interesting to you anyway. I guess I wasn’t very happy, I had no real friends. At that stage in my life, I had no clue how to make friends. I remember being caned by a master and also hit with a slipper by a Prefect (one of the senior boys). Homosexual games between the boys were quite common - the school was boys-only but I guess most of my friends grew up to be happily married. Many people dismiss this period of adolescence as a “phase”. I was on the point of being carried off somewhere to be molested but the other boys seemed to lose interest and I walked away unscathed.One event with a little irony was when in the changing rooms another boy put his hand up inside my shorts and threatened to grab my private bits, I am not sure what I was supposed to do to stop its progress. A couple of years later I was very keen on a girl from the local girls' school. And guess who ended up marrying her!

The girls from the school were all very beautiful to me but I had no idea what to do, I was so innocent! One girl who I was in love with allowed me to put my hand on the front of her jumper as a treat at my birthday party, that was about as far as it got till much later.

I was never told the facts of life. Friends at school circulated obscure facts which I didn't really understand so I was none the wiser. I had spots, really awful spots which destroyed any confidence I might otherwise have had with girls. I bought creams and TCP and was scared that my mum would find out. I had an orthodontic device to push my top teeth forward but it incorporated a plastic panel which fitted over the roof of my mouth, so you can imagine how garbled my voice was. And then my voice broke which added to my woes. But I was relieved about that obviously, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life hairless with a girl's voice!

I also went through a phase of repetitive obsessions, counting a set number of times, that kind of thing. But fortunately I got out of that.

Anyway, back to my school. One old boy came back one day to talk to us about careers and he was cameraman for the weather forecast. Wow, imagine that! The glamour!  But it sold me on TV and sound in particular because I was always fiddling with loudspeakers and amplifiers, in those days using valves. There was a famous kit amplifier called the Mullard 5-10 and I built two of those in order to have stereo sound. I built a huge folded-horn speaker in wood.

I never kept a diary, so the chronology of my story is a little mixed but it was about this time, when I was in my teens when I had a traffic accident which quite possibly changed the course of my life. The road running through Woodford Green was the A11, it still is I guess but now there is a motorway, the M11 linking East Anglia with London. It was the main road carrying all the traffic ultimately to Norwich. Even then, it was very busy and potentially dangerous as I discovered. My friend Richard had lent me a bike with a small petrol engine which, when lowered onto the rear wheel, drove the thing forward. In order to turn into the road where I lived, I had to take a right turn in the A11 which meant going to the middle of the road with hand outstretched. I would never do that now on busy roads but that is way we were taught to cross roads and now I always wear a helmet. Then, it was not so common and this was a bicycle wasn’t it? Unfortunately a car coming the other way decided to overtake another car and failed to see me till the last minute. It hit me head-on and my head struck the road or the car sufficiently hard to fracture the skull and I was unconscious for a while as I was propped up at the side of the road. I was very disappointed that I didn’t go to hospital in what we used to call blood-waggons with blue light flashing. Instead, ironically, it was the driver who had hit me who drove me to hospital where I remained for a week with concussion while the skull healed itself. When I returned to school, my friends said that I was different and I was never sure if they were joking or not.

For me the worst thing which certainly did change my life is that I lost much of the hearing of my right ear where my skull was fractured. And for a boy interested in sound, this was a major disaster and I got very depressed because I could only hear low frequencies on that side. Over the years it has improved and I don’t think about it now. But later it possibly affected my career in the BBC because I became convinced I could never reach the highest level especially as stereo sound for TV was being discussed. As you can imagine, the accident could have been a whole lot worse.

My parents, my father in particular, disapproved of my friend Richard. I always remember him zooming down our road on his smart Vespa. I longed to have such a machine but maybe I should have kept quiet. My parents took me at my word and I clearly remember being woken on the morning of my birthday, the curtains were drawn and there on the lawn was a…… NSU Quickly. It was a moped basically, with pedals to get it moving and turned in the reverse direction for braking. It is was often called NSU Slowly. A Vespa it was not. But of course my parents could not have possibly afforded one of those. My heart sank into my boots, or maybe slippers. I guess I would have been wearing slippers. I put on as good an act as I could muster but after a few months, I part exchanged it for a small motor-bike.

I was very keen on photography and took loads of photos of girls at the church youth club. These were innocent times so forget any ideas about the casting couch! I can't remember her name but we had lots of fun together.

She really liked me and, I (stupid), only realised I liked her as well, far too late!
Away from my academic life, things were not good; lots of things troubling me. I felt a deep sadness inside me which I couldn’t understand and of course I was entering the minefield called adolescence without the equipment of knowledge because nothing was ever explained to me about the facts of life either at home or at school. My parents simply assumed that I would find out somehow or other. But in fact I was too embarrassed to ask. I do remember saying to my father when I was in bed that I didn’t think my penis was growing properly. I assumed he would have a quick look and say, “That’s OK son, nothing to worry about”, but he recounted being hit by a cricket ball in the balls and reasoning that because I was in existence, then nothing was damaged. That is assuming it was before my conception! So the bedroom light went out and I was still in the dark. Actually I think he sent my mum up to talk to me but she was hopeless. Maybe she didn’t know much either. Actually, they knew plenty! But I guess they were embarrassed to pass on what fun sex could be. At another time I remember being in the toilet and wondering what the two little balls inside a sack were for, but I never asked. I know now.

In these days we are more enlightened, almost too much so with very young children being exposed to information which they could not possibly understand, such as being given the choice of being a boy or a girl. Understandably, young girl Brownies would be a little disconcerted about sharing a bedroom with small boys, albeit claiming to be girls really. Now it has gone crazy.

I was into religion and attended bible classes called The Crusaders.  And I went to church a lot and attended Sunday school regularly – I still have the Bible which I was given for attending 100 meetings. It is in very good condition but maybe that’s more of an admission of failure in not using it rather than a pride in taking care of it!

A Crusaders Camp on the Norfolk Broads

But I have an enduring memory of my bible classes and a little red book which we boys were given. Presumably the girls were at home helping mum in the kitchen. It listed all the sins which we had to confess to God. One was, “did I have impure thoughts about girls?” Of course I did, I met lots of them, beautiful young girls in the church youth club. I took lots of photos. How is the human race supposed to survive if young boys don’t have impure thoughts about girls? It didn’t say anything about impure thoughts about other boys! This was an innocent age. And the obvious sin in the book, probably in capitals and underlined in red (I can’t remember), was that of self-abuse - what a spoil-sport the church was! So I grew up under the distinct impression that church was the opposite of fun.

I used to ask lots of questions as to why I felt so bad. I still do that but far less these days because it is all fairly academic. I used to agonise over the past too much, parents, childhood, religion. I visited psychologists and wasted lots of money in the process. And for what? I’m still the same. Modern teaching is to “live the moment”.

But I was discovering girls, usually meeting them at the church youth club. And falling in love. And I was very keen on photography, I still am. And I took loads of photos of young girls from the youth club (hey, fully clothed). It always used to amuse my mum to see the wet prints stuck to the inside of the bath in order to dry.

But it wasn’t till I was 20, the year President Kennedy was assassinated, that I touched a breast for the first time. It felt rather strange, soft and squelchy because the girl was quite plump. But I had very little interest in what went on down below. I was introduced to Bobbie by a girlfriend who I was very keen on but she had no interest in me. Maybe she thought at the age of 20 it was about time I started to discover these things so she sent me along to Bobbie.

I remember when I was much younger, I guess around 5 or 6 asking my mother about breasts, “what are those for?” I can’t remember her reply, maybe she was embarrassed. The logical answer would have been to say they were to feed me when I was a baby! (I know that from her letters).

So all my relationships up to the time I met my wife were chaste affairs, maybe a little fumble but no more than that. One girl I was very keen on was a member of the church youth club and we went on holiday together with four of her friends who were couples. But my dreams of becoming part of a third couple were frustrated, that was never on the cards. But the name of the town we visited echoes down through the years because it pointed to where I would end up living 50 years later: Llafranc in Spain, in Catalunya. The Costa Brava was the dream destination for us Brits a few years ago. Now of course people travel further afield but Llafranc is still very popular with the British. And from my home in Spain I can get there in 40 minutes instead of two days of endless tree-lined roads in France with a grey choppy sea crossing to add a little excitement.

Llafranc in 1963

Another time, the boot was on the other foot and I went on holiday in a group and one of the girls was very keen on me but I felt nothing for her. So it was a difficult time for her.

I also included a sheet from my father's note-book which he wrote many years ago. He dreamt about going by train to Barcelona and worked out all the train times. It is very touching because that is more or less where I am now. So I made the trip for him. A little faster than he would have planned and now, of course, we have a high-speed train all the way to Paris and then through the Channel Tunnel to the UK. He would have loved to have seen that!

I write later about my time at the BBC from when I left school and how, with huge regret, finally I decided it was not really for me. Or they decided I was not for them! But how much of that was due to my impaired hearing? I will never know. Maybe I was not a corporation man anyway.