On a hot summer day, very close to the beginning of the Second World War, my father ferried me right across London to Euston Station, where he handed me over to the care of the guard of a train going north to Macclesfield. My first dated memories are all of the War, which started four days before my seventh birthday. Everything that lies before that stays vague, or at any rate timeless and dateless: the Thirties. The Thirties, in the general record, are Age of the Depression, but that is not really how I remember them. For me, or my family, they were the age of Metroland, the era of suburban London, the time of the clerks. My own father was a clerk, who worked for the London and North Eastern Railway, and had moved down from the North – Manchester, Sheffield – to take a job in London. He worked at Liverpool Street Station, then a steam-filled, glass-framed trainshed with a striking clock tower over its portico, and to my mind the finest gentlemen's lavatories in the world. His office, high in a neo-Gothic office block that has only just lately been demolished, looked out through smut-grimed windows at the array of platforms below. They showed a daily scene of extraordinary human movement. Bankers and stockbrokers and businessmen, with briefcases, pipes and umbrellas, came out of the Great Eastern Hotel to take their seats in the dining cars of the evening trains. Clerks with watch-chains across their suits, typists in slim thin dresses, hurried into the cramped third-class compartments of the smoky commuter trains.
In summer, steaming excursion-trains stood in platform after platform, headed for Clacton-on-Sea and Southend, Great Yarmouth and the North Norfolk coast. These were places romanticized on the billboards and on the elegant carriage panels that decorated every train compartment, which my father commissioned and had designed. They crowded with the summer holidaymakers, in pullovers and sandals, wool cardigans and floral dresses, carrying mock-leather brown suitcases and fishnets in their hands; the Thirties was the age of the excursion and the claims of the great outdoors. "Harwich – Hook of Holland" said the exciting signs for the continental services, the boat trains, surrounded by advertisements for the glowing bulbfields of Holland and the ancient pleasures of the city of Bruges, which, again, my father had had designed. Then, sometime in the Thirties, in this booming railway age, he moved over to King's Cross, where he became "Head of General Section," looking after advertising, design, the planning of stations on the East Coast lines, including many of the stations on the long, slow line out to Norwich – the place where I now happen to live.
Nowadays the clerks in the City lived not so much in Essex but out toward the West, where the great new suburban estates where going up, as the Metropolitan and the Piccadilly tube lines pushed ever further out, into Middlesex and toward the wooded countryside. They rode home in the evening on the red and white tube trains, through the dark underground tunnels, then out into the bright open air. Out past Harrow-on-the-Hill, where the large Edwardian villas stood in shrubbed-filled gardens beneath the church spire high up on the peak, everything suddenly grew newer and neater. The houses were smaller and squatter, the streets more schematic and easier to understand. The new brick and tile tube stations were designed in modernist style, with their lettering in blue and white Gill Sans. Around them the new conurbations grew, tract after tract of houses designed by the same builder, with stain-glass door panels, small tidy gardens, shops near to hand. In the year of my birth my father and mother bought their first house, new, "labour-saving," builder-fresh, at Rayner's Lane. "A Masterpiece of Efficiency, a Freehold 3-bed House for £595," says the advertisement of the builders, Nash's, which I still have, "Why pay the landlord?" Why, indeed, when you could have a brand new house in a neat row of four, a mortgage, a long garden of your own, still to be dug, a neat simple kitchen, an easy walk to the shops and a school for the children. The shops on the main street, just as new, were filled with mythological names: Dolcis and Saxone, Home and Colonial, Sainsbury's, and an elegant new Odeon in the art deco style. Rayner's Lane was neither city nor country, but something of neither and a little bit of both. Returning there today, you find it still keeps its unitary character, its Thirties wholeness, its houses all of a piece (then they were, and looked, modern; now, the modern having moved relentlessly on, they are simply "Tudorbethan"), even though the clerks have long gone, and the houses, heavily remodelled in the DIY boom of the Eighties, now house Asian families and craftsmen and workers from Heathrow Airport, not so far away and getting ever nearer. The men commuted each day to their jobs in the city, the wives stayed at home and shopped and reared their children; everything was clean and neat and new and safe, and very modern. There were weekly trips to the cinema, occasional visits to the London shows, and then in summer the holidays: at Broadstairs, Minehead, or Mr Billy Butlin's new chalet holiday camps at Clacton and Skegness-on-Sea, where the air was so bracing.
The Thirties stopped short on September 3, 1939, the day, a Sunday, when the families all sat round their bakelite radios, and the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that all negotiations with Mr Hitler had failed, and Britain was now at war with Germany. Soon afterwards, right across London, the air raid sirens wailed in a test sounding that marked the collapse of an age. This is my first date-fixed memory, and it is the memory of a feeling, of incomprehension and fear. The safe world was not safe any longer, and I realised, with all the terror of childhood, that the adults who ordered and controlled the world were no longer in control, and could do nothing at all to change or prevent whatever was now about to happen. To the houses in the long neat streets corrugated iron air-raid shelters were delivered; my father, who had proudly planted his garden with standard roses, now planted this fragile defence in the rose-bed. Ration books and gas-masks were issued, and my father made a neat plywood wooden box to carry his with him to work every day. We were all given identity cards, and numbers; mine was BIBR 41 3. At school, Roxbourne Infants' School, we practised doing lessons in the new brick and concrete shelters in the playground, looking pig-like with our gas-masks on, trying to listen in a stink of rubber and urine. Silver-grey barrage balloons rose up over the red-tiled rooftops; we were near to the military aerodrome at Northolt. Then there were aerial dog-fights low over the houses, and the night-time raids began. I would lie in bed in terror as the sirens sounded, and then my father would come and collect me, and, ignoring the inefficient tin shelter, huddle us together, my father, mother and younger brother, under the stairs until the all clear came. In the morning we went to school, through streets filled with shrapnel and new war damage; one of Mr Nash's houses now obliterated by a land-mine, or a house roof still burning from an incendiary bomb.
When the school summer holidays came, the War was already looking worse, and London under threat. My parents decided to send me to Macclesfield, the town on the Cheshire edge of the Penines where my father had grown up, and where my grandparents lived. I had been there before, briefly, with my parents, but now, for the summer, I would go there alone. My mother packed a case. My father, with his black homberg hat, his leather briefcase, his gas-mask in its plywood box, took me on the tube into central London, a shattered, shaken London, many of its buildings already battered, sandbags stacked in front of all the windows and doorways. The windows on the shaking tube train had been covered in sticky paper, the light-bulbs removed or replaced by small blue lamps. We came to a crowded Euston Station, where the troop-packed wartime trains, large white numbers on their smoke-boxes, stood. My father tied a luggage label to my lapel, found a train guard and, one railwayman to another, tipped him and asked him to see me safe off the train at my destination. Then he found me a seat, shook my hand, and, in his homberg, with his gasmask, he hurried off to work. I sat in the crowded compartment, waiting for the train to move, and wondered what would happen to me now.
I didn't want to go to Macclesfield. I simply wanted to stay with my family, in the place I trusted, with the people I trusted; I didn't want to go north. And I didn't want to be with my grandparents; my grandparents, waiting at the other end, were not modern, and I was almost as afraid of them as I was of the war itself. They came, it seemed to me then, and still, out of a nineteenth century that had somehow never ended – or rather, since the idea of the turning of centuries and the shifting of values wasn't then clear to me, they came from an eternal and timeless past that was nothing like my present. I knew them a little – I had visited them briefly before, and they had come to stay with us in Rayner's Lane – and found them severe. They belonged to a world of rules and strict behaviour, a time when children had to be seen and not heard. They were my father's parents, and I now suspect that my mother, who had lived with them for a short time at the beginning of the marriage, had not got on with them at all. In our pleasant small family, such things were never said, but they could be sensed. Both of them were formidable, square, and somehow black. My grandfather was chapel, a builder's foreman and, as I later learned, a very fine craftsman; he was a Methodist lay preacher and a man of strict and clear principles. He wore – always, it seemed – a thick black suit, a white shirt with a loose high collar, a black silk cravat held with a tie-pin, and a large grey-white moustache that matched his shock of grey-white hair. A silver wind-up hunter watch hung, audibly ticking, in his waistcoat pocket, with a stone on the fob that hung on the other side of his chest. He was also a great handyman, always at work on something: a writing desk, a bookcase, a chair. My grandmother was small and squat, with grey hair in a tight bun; she wore high-necked floral blouses and a black skirt that reached from high above her waist to her ankles, sweeping along the ground. Over this she generally wore a black coat-jacket, and, even in the house, a vast domed black straw-hat, with a big buckle decoration on the front. She suffered from ailments, used smelling salts, took a great deal of patent medicine, and rested frequently, when she was not to be disturbed, even by the noise of play. Indeed the Victorian horse-hair sofa seemed to have been invented exactly for her needs.
At this time, and predictably enough, I was not interested in the past. In fact I was disturbed by it; it seemed to me oppressive, threatening – perhaps, I now think, because my father was so obviously in escape from it, leaving his own past behind for new opportunities, a career, new prospects, modern times. It was not a good feeling to be going northwards, backwards, and I blamed this on Hitler and the Germans, just as I blamed all pain and evil on them too. The train moved on toward them, stopping frequently, at stations where, to confuse the Germans when they landed, most of the signs had been removed – bleak, urban, shuttered, shattered places, all bathed in the uneasy half-silence of wartime, when so many were away at the fronts. Even in the general gloom of wartime, the greater gloom of the North -– with its unrolling trackside factories, camouflaged in dun and grey against the bombing, the long unbroken terraced streets of workers' houses, the little yards with their outside lavatories – was plain. There were the vast dirty marshalling yards and trainsheds of Crewe, the bottled shaped potbanks of Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries. The long journey confused me, made me anxious; I sat in the crowded compartment, with soldiers and wartime travellers, and had no idea where I was or when it would end. At some unmarked station the train stopped, started, then stopped again. A railwayman from off the platform came along the corridor; the guard had forgotten me, but some station foreman who knew my father (he had worked at this station once) was waiting, and he found me and collected me off the train. I got out onto the platform and into a Macclesfield smell – the smell of coke from the steaming, stinking gasworks, near to the line.
An aunt, Auntie Laura, in steel-framed glasses, was waiting for me, in the station waiting room. She took me by the hand and led me through the town. There, across the market square, was the blackened stone Parish Church, and leading up to it the 108 Steps, which someone my father knew had driven up in the first car to arrive in Macclesfield, before the previous war. We went through the great arches of the railway bridges, and walked past the great glass-windowed emporium of Arighi Bianci's, the Macclesfield furniture store, which provided the contents for most of the houses in the town. Everywhere there was the sound of clacking looms; Macclesfield, a town of silk mills, was busy in the war, making parachutes for the air-force, and the mills were busier than they had been for a long time. There were the stained brown waters of the River Bollin, smelling of industrial waste. We walked through cobbled streets, past mill-workers' cottages in long rows. Many were three-storied, with a long row of upstairs windows, meaning that home weaving went on there. My aunt, whom I liked, was elderly; she lived in a back street near my grandparents, with another aunt, Auntie Louie; neither was really my aunt. We turned up Hurdsfield Road, a steep cobbled climb up past Brocklehurst's Mill, one of the biggest in Macclesfield, a great industrial monument from the Victorian age. Horse-drawn drays came out of its yards, and mill-girls in snoods sat or stood on the steps. Hurdsfield Road went up to the Penine Hills, on the edge of which the town was set; halfway up it was the tower of Hurdsfield Church. Just below it, opposite the little general shop with the Hovis sign and the Rising Sun pub, in a terrace with raised steps and railings, was No 191, the small, stone-fronted row house in which my grandparents lived.