Life before 23 January 1958

Switching on my computer monitor, the old man waiting by his horse and cart to cross the railway at Lancing in Sussex is facing me on the unmade-up road. His confident stance makes me think that he owns the cart. The crossing gate is closed and a train is on the line to Brighton. The tank engine is tiny in relation to the carriages, It might be an empty stock working from the nearby carriage works rather than a passenger train. That would make it after 1888 so I’d guess the date of the picture is between 1890 and 1905.

A half century later, in the 1950s, I used this crossing to get to school. Some things are recognisable which have since disappeared, the old signal box and the Victorian station building on the up side, now replaced by a streamlined halt, bleaker but easy to maintain. The buildings on the down side remain intact, pleasingly Victorian. By the crossing a concrete block. still there in the 1950s when I wondered what it was for.

A footbridge has also been built but I only used it in dire moments like when I hurried home crying after I’d tripped and broken my recorder on my way to a school concert. My father, kind man but not musically adept, filed down the broken pieces and fitted them together; my discordant note was soon detected and I was re-equipped with a public spare, which stank of disinfectant. My musical education was short as, while I understood that the conductor had a role to play, I could never interpret what he or she wanted and needed to concentrate on playing my notes as they came, as quickly as I could, without taking breaks to look at the conductor.

By my time, a third electric rail had been added to the track, dull grey, sinister and frightening. The line skirted around the school playing ground; I had no problem abiding by the strict instructions not to climb over the fence.

I was not quite so compliant when my mother warned me vaguely about “funny men” (odd). It wasn’t a problem at Liverpool St station in London when a man pressed himself against me as I watched the trains from the taxi access road. Definitely a funny man and I took to my heels as fast as I could run and disappeared on the underground to Euston. But the signalman on Worthing station who offered to show me the signal box seemed reasonable enough and I followed him gladly up to the box, scared stiff of being so close to the electric rail as we walked along the trackside. After half an hour or so, I returned to the station intact and unabused, happily clutching a bundle of paper with all the times of the trains you couldn’t see in the public timetable. And there was another occasion at Shoreham harbour where I was shown around a freight ship by another friendly man which also passed without mishap.

I’ve thought afterwards that these incidents could have ended differently and that my parents’ shy awkward warnings didn’t really serve their purpose (although I’m not sure I improved so much on their act when I became a parent).

I had a lot of freedom to explore as I wished. I was allowed to travel the 60 miles to London by myself at an early age (far earlier than I would let my own children make the journey to nearby Stockholm). I was given strict instructions on my first solo trip to the metropolis not to travel through the centre of London so the easy route by underground from Victoria to Euston via Charing Cross and the Northern Line was closed to me. Surprisingly, in retrospect, I complied with the letter of this instruction but hardly with the spirit as I found a route in my A to Z away from the city to the west on the District Line then via a since closed underground branch in Acton, after which I walked or took a bus to Harlesden and back on the train to Willesden where I wanted to get to.

There was also a road near home which I was instructed not to cycle on as my mother had read of some man-child incident there. This I studiously complied with, cycling instead on the other side of the River Adur past the weird dusty whiteness of the cement plant at Beeding and the Downs villages. I never used the “funny man” road until I was in my sixties and then it all seemed very peaceful.

When thought ripe to share the facts of life, a book that pedagogically started with the habits of rabbits was pressed into my hand. My parents’ new found enthusiasm for rabbits was something of a mystery and I abandoned it after a few pages, soothingly reassuring them that I had read the book from cover to cover and relieving them of the “hot potato” issue. I wasn’t much interested in how we reproduce and only gradually pieced everything together without the help of the rabbits.

The village has changed since I lived there as a child. There were plenty of pre-war cars around then and crowds of railway carriage workers cycled past my parents’ shop twice a day. It was a more proletarian place than nearby Worthing with its focus on the genteel retired or racier Brighton a bit further along the coast. It felt stable and secure and hardly marked by the war. The coastal zone had been a restricted area which you had to get permission to enter. I have memories of my father counting ration coupons in his grocery shop and trips to the Women’s Voluntary Service to collect orange juice in bottles with bright blue caps, and a bedside table made from an old crate and painted a pleasing apple green as well the dukws, amphibious vehicles on the beach. It remains a popular place for ordinary folk but on my infrequent trips there it’s felt edgier, still an area of cheaper housing but a less structured community after the carriage works closed. Now cheap takeaway food places and a tattoo parlour make their presence felt in what was once a staid progression of radio shop, ironmongers, drapers and a grocer’s with the odd name of Calvary Stores.

My parents’ grocery shop was called Station Stores. There was a flat above and behind the shop, poor-quality housing with no bathroom and limited running hot water with an outside toilet at the bottom of the small garden. One room had working gas lighting which we used on ceremonial occasions. I liked living there but it must have been a backbreaking place to bring up a child, especially as my father’s ability to do heavier tasks was limited by his having an artificial leg. Presumably my parents wanted to save money in preparation for my father’s retirement when they intended to buy a house in the West Country and it was too tempting not to use the free accommodation that went with the shop; they could have had a council house of much better standard but were also burdened by feeling too fine for that.

We moved to Somerset on 23 January 1958, soon 64 years ago.

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