Place of Birth

I was born on a billiard table in the Crown and Anchor Edmonton in north London. On my birth certificate under ‘When and where born’ is handwritten by J.N. Saxby, interim registrar for the district of Edmonton: ‘Twenty sixth August 1940, 222 Fore Street.’ Mother got the day confused, forgivably, when she registered my arrival on ‘Tenth October’, 46 days later.

Births must be registered at the local register office within 42 days of a child being born. My brother Mark was born on 25 September 1935, my brother Robert on 26 April 1938. Mother knew I was either the 25th or 26th. She had needed to get out of the Crown and Anchor and out of Edmonton. I was born on the 25th of August 1940. She opted for the 26th. So I have two birthdays to celebrate. The actual and the official.

The Crown and Anchor, Edmonton

It was a Sunday. My mother’s sister Sadie was married to the publican Charles Cary. The Cary family were successful publicans. They also owned The Alliance in Mill Lane, West Hampstead, the street where I grew up. Charles Cary was a bomber pilot at the time of my birth.

‘It’s mothers like you I feel sorry for’ the doctor said. (Mother told me that, though she was not always a reliable witness and rather given to hyperbole.) There was an air raid at the time of my birth. It was the first raid on London, an unexpected attack from Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Between 23:00 hours on 24 August and 03.40 on 25 August, HE 111 bomber planes dropped their loads on East Ham, West Ham, Stepney, Bethnal Green, Hackney, Leyton, Walthamstow, Edmonton, Islington and Bloomsbury. As a reprisal the first RAF raid on Berlin was carried out the following day. 81 bombs were dropped in and around Berlin. From then on the war escalated. Hitler’s blitz on London lasted from September 7th 1940 to 11th May 1941.

The Wednesday after I was born Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary:

the air raids are now at their prelude. Invasion, if it comes, must come within 3 weeks. The harrying of the public is now in full swing. The air saws; the wasps drone; the siren – it’s now Weeping Willie in the papers – is as punctual as the vespers.

Three days later, on the Saturday, she wrote

Now we are in the war. England is being attacked. I got this feeling for the first time completely yesterday. The feeling of pressure, danger, horror.

Edmonton Bombing Map
From Bomb Sight

My mother said she and I were carried down to the pub’s cellar as soon as I was born, and that her legs were dangling and got bruised on the ladder. She said New Zealand servicemen in the pub sang Maori songs to herald my birth. Later on my father nicknamed me doodlebug which got shortened to doodie. One or two people still call me that.

It was a record heat wave that August.

Even now when I hear those sirens in documentaries or films I have a sense of dread.

On the certificate under ‘Occupation of father’, Saxby the interim Edmonton registrar wrote ‘Aircraft worker of 84 City Road Cardiff.’ I think my father was working for Vickers Armstrong, on something to do with making parts for bomber planes. I suppose he was lodging at 84 City Road. It is now an unsalubrious barber’s shop.

84 City Road, Cardiff

I don’t know where my brothers were on that Sunday. Perhaps they were in the pub too. They were evacuated later in the war. Under ‘Signature, description and residence of informant’, on the certificate Saxby wrote: ‘Freda M Souhami Mother 2 Crescent Road, Tilehurst, Reading, as per declaration dated 30th September 1940.’ My mother’s mother was living in Tilehurst which was quite rural at the time. I suppose we were all taken for refuge there. By 30 September mother had three children under five and there was the prospect of invasion. And she was Jewish. She was 29. Soon after, we all joined father in Cardiff, because I remember her saying she got on a slow train by mistake and one or other or all of us wet ourselves causing stains from the red dye of the seats.

Much can be deduced from one certificate. That was my entrance into a manmade war. What beats me, contemplating the world which Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler made, their colossal plans for killing in cold blood millions of human beings simply because they belonged to a race or religion they did not like, is how anyone now can now be so cavalier as to choose to weaken the European Union. I cannot understand why people do not cherish this Union. How they can want to sever from it.

First school

Mother, who for all my childhood fascinated me and scared me witless, taught her babies to read. In my case it must have been soon after I was off the billiard table and up from the cellar, for I cannot remember a time when I did not find escape in a book. Her technique was to read a bedtime story and point at the words as she said them until they sprang from the page and became mine. I soon preferred reading to myself rather than being read to. I thought she put on a silly voice and often I would cover the pictures because they did not match what I thought I should see.

I was 4 on my second day of infant school in August 1944. Emmanuel School in NW6 was Church of England and only for girls. I was, and remain, on the small side. Mrs Roberts put me on top of the grand piano, played Happy Birthday to You, and corralled the other children to sing along. Of course I cried. Who wouldn’t. The exposure was intolerable, the perch unsafe. To comfort me Mrs Roberts then put me on her lap which was worse than the piano. I recall a sense of abduction and a smell of wool. Then she found I could write. Up to a point. I had a problem with the direction of bs and ds. ‘the bog hab deen dab’. To this day I reverse right and left when attempting to follow or give directions and can easily mirror-write like Leonardo da Vinci.

Miss Sinclair was called over to witness my precocity. She was Scottish, said incomprehensible things and weighed six and a half stone. She distributed reward cards for random acts of grace: postcards of unicorns and crucified martyrs. I never understood what one had to do to merit these rewards and I didn’t want them anyway. When Miss Sinclair became mortally ill, mother once took homemade soup to her house.

I did not want to go to school the next day or ever again. School was not for me. But I had to go so I went. Lessons were at first held in a hall that had been turned into an air raid shelter with blast walls, in a turning off Mill Lane NW6 – the street where we lived for my childhood. There were not many children in London at that time. Most, like my two elder brothers, had been evacuated. My brothers were sent by train to aunt Lily, another of mother’s sisters, in Wales during the worst of the bombing. I was thought too young to be packed off. Or maybe Lily could only manage two extra children for she had three of her own. The only record I am aware of from that time was a letter from my brother Mark which read, ‘yesterday I put on Ruth’s knickers. Your food parcel lower my expectation, so please send a bit of cake’.

On Friday afternoons in the bunkered hall a taste of glory came to me from the teachers. The school week always ended with a sort of karaoke session where children stood on the mat and gave renditions: Baa baa black sheep, Away in a Manger and Why did the chicken cross the Road. That was the recurring programme. I sang the songs father taught me. Father would not have known the lyrics for black sheep and bags of wool. He was a jokey man with a liking for musical hall numbers. I starred with

I like pickled onions
I like piccalilli
Pickled cabbage is all right
With a bit of cold meat on a Sunday night
I can grow termartoeses, but what I do prefer
Is a little bit of cu-cum-cu-cum-cu-cum
Little bit of cu-cum-ber.

That got me a postcard of St Jerome in the Wilderness. Harry Champion used to sing it, along with ‘Boiled Beef and Carrots’, ‘Any Old Iron’ and ‘I’m Henry the Eighth I am’. I knew every word of them all by the time I was four. Harry Champion also had a prosperous business hiring out horse drawn broughams in the East End. My pièce de résistance which perhaps rounded off the teachers week was

Don’t cry Daddy
Mummy will soon be back
She’s only gone for a trip round the world
In a Grimsby fishing smack.

I took the narrative seriously and was relieved for daddy of mummy’s imminent return but Mrs Roberts, Miss Sinclair and Miss Stanyon fell about laughing. Unwanted postcards accrued.

Another ditty with which I starred had the lines ‘there’s a naughty little twinkle in your eye eye eye, So let’s go round the corner and have a bit on the sly.’ Googling, I find no reference to it now, though I see that in December 1915 the manager of the Empire Music Hall Birmingham was fined £5 for permitting things to be sung by Harry Champion which were indecent and improper. Champion told the court ‘I am paid for making people laugh, not for singing hymns.’

Harry Champion
Harry Champion

I did not show off or curry favour with my performances. I obliged with what I was asked to do and this was preferable to being hoiked atop the piano. Years later I asked father why he taught me these songs. He said he didn’t know I was taking it all in. But of course children the world over do just that. Take it all in. Every bit of it. However weird, wonderful or awful.

Father was a small dapper man with a scrubby little moustache and brilliantined hair. He loved a laugh, shunned conversation he suspected of being deep, was never greedy, sulky or bad tempered. He was not a man who would take the largest piece of cake, dominate a conversation or insist on a point of view. He had no searching interest in what might be going on in his children’s hearts and minds. When as an adult I published my first book he said ‘I didn’t know you had it in you.’ I think his preoccupation was to keep out of trouble with mother, whom he adored and obeyed. My brother Mark’s theory was that he couldn’t believe his luck that anyone so pretty had married him. Mother was a looker.

Once only did father come home roaring drunk, hang his trilby hat on the newel post of the stairs, sing all the verses of ‘O the chapel bells were ringing, in the little valley town,’ and call mother an effing old something.

He lived to be 92. He was seldom unwell, never had a hospital admission or visit to the doctor. His cure for a sore throat or boredom, was to have a whisky and water. That was an evening ritual, his way of taking the edge off the day and killing all known germs. He liked Jane Austen’s novels, Pepys’s diaries and the music of Scott Joplin. He would not have given a thank you for the best seats at Bayreuth for Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In my pained adolescence when I tried to kill myself he asked me Why. ‘I want to be,’ I blurted in reply. ‘You want to be what?’ he asked. ‘A comptometer operator, a hairdresser?’ I could not answer, but I suppose wanting to be, is what this LGBT plus business is all about.

I did not form a close relationship with him. I think he might have liked to have adored me in an ordinary popsy and daughter way. But mother was jealous or perhaps it was more that he was afraid she might be. His life spent trying to please her was quite a task. He tried to show me affection and attention when she wasn’t looking and I came to feel like the ‘other woman’. And anyway it was her attention I would have liked not his.

I suppose I went to school in the hall with blast walls until the bombing stopped in 1945. I don’t remember when my brothers came home from Wales but one day my brother Robert was waiting outside to take me home. He was seven. A small girl from the school followed us at a fair distance repeatedly shouting ‘Old Jew Girl, Old Jew Girl’ at me. My brother told me she was ignorant, took my hand and said I must not look round. I only looked round once, though I was longing to do so more often. She was no bigger than I and had light brown curly hair. I had no particular understanding of her taunts. Her chant sounded melodious, like Any Old Iron. My brother who in 1965 I think became one of the founding members of CARD, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, perhaps even then had a sense of the war’s corruption. I only vaguely knew Hitler intended to gas me and other Jews which was why I had a gas mask that looked like an elephant, which I quite liked trying on except that it smelled of rubber.

I was though acutely aware of the moral superiority of my brother and I as we walked ahead hand in hand not looking round. It was about that time I first saw the Start Rite advertisement for children’s shoes. Whenever I saw the picture I imagined the child behind them with her goad of ‘Old Jew Girl, Old Jew Girl,’ while brother and sister walk hand in hand down their straight and sunlit path, to their goal of infinite light, never looking back.

Start Rite advertisement

Thought for the day: Just back from a week in Crete. Can’t bear to watch the news about Little England.

More Emmanuel School

Children moved from the bunkered hall back to Emmanuel School when the bombing eased. It was a small Victorian single storey house built in 1845 with a separate cottage in the playground where the teachers had tea. ‘Early Will I Seek Thee’ was carved in squiggly letters over the school’s entrance door. I thought this message was from some creepy man, like the shadow at the window and the person in the cupboard and under the bed.

The school was at 101 Mill Lane on the corner of West End Lane. Our house was at 144 on the corner of Holmdale Road. Both buildings were viciously cold: icicles on the window sills, patterns of frost on the panes, the school’s outside lavatory was no place to linger. Electric lighting was installed in the classrooms in 1949 at a cost of £117 15s 4d. Friends of Emmanuel contributed £40 and the children £8 19s 6d. I found that information online.

The war’s end coincided with the school’s centenary. There was much thanking of God, a party with sandwiches and lemonade, a magician did things with a red handkerchief up his sleeve and a live bird in his hat and a Punch and Judy show made me fearful. We were given tins of chocolate powder and dried egg yolk from the Americans who had delivered us from the Germans. Germans were bad, Americans were saviours from a paradisal place. With their power and glory and love they had rescued us from carnage, doodlebugs and Weeping Willies. On VE day father took us up to Trafalgar Square to be part of the crowd who hoped to see the King and Winston Churchill. And we listened on the wireless to the King, struggling with his stammer, and talking about the darkness and danger being over, and thanking us all and remembering those who would not come back.

What we learn as children is anything we are told. At Emmanuel School morning and evening prayers and songs were in praise of Jesus, his mother Mary and his father the Lord God who made all creatures great and small. On Mondays we all went to a service across from the school at Emmanuel Church in West End Lane. My cousin Susan who lived with us for a year, after the Crown and Anchor was bombed, her war hero father married another woman and her mother went to Canada, thought the Lord’s Prayer began ‘Our Father which art in Heaven Harold be thy name.’ I was pretty sure the Lord’s name was Hallowed, which seemed no odder than a duck named Donald.

Souhami is a Sephardic Jewish name. Father’s ancestors, driven from Spain as heretics in the fifteenth century by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, made their way to Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1940s mother wanted me and my brothers out of the house at weekends. We went, somewhere in St John’s Wood, to children’s synagogue on Saturdays and Hebrew Classes on Sundays – then, for me, church on Mondays. I learned to read Hebrew without knowing what any of it meant. It was fairly enjoyable Jabberwocky, like “’Twas brillig and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” This was the world: doodlebugs, sirens, Away in a Manger, Hebrew and anxiety. I got a prize for reading Hebrew, an unreadable book about exoduses, called The Great March. I preferred The Famous Five and The Naughtiest Girl in the School.

I had little interest in lessons, though I recall peculiarities of the teachers, all long dead. Mrs Roberts took the newcomers, Miss Sinclair the ‘tweenies’, between infants and juniors, and Miss Stanyon took the third class. Arithmetic progressed to fractions, and spelling to words like psalm, drought, bough and cough. Miss Stanyon was dishevelled and up close her breath did not smell right. Much later I realised it was the acrid smell of stale alcohol from the night before. She scratched her back with a ruler while she told us about the Gunpowder plot. She scratched a lot. She pushed the ruler down behind her collar to reach some deep down unresolved itch. Even at seven I thought it one of those things you ought only do when alone.

At break we were all given a third of a pint of milk in a little bottle with a silver top. Ellen Wilkinson, Minister of Education in the Attlee government, the first woman to take the post, passed the Free School Milk Act, along with free school meals. Miss Stanyon used take the silver cap off each bottle and lick it before handing the bottle and a straw to each of us. Even without this, I disliked the smell and taste of milk.

Different teachers took the ‘top’ class. None stayed. Miss Potter, or was she Miss Pitt, anyway she was large with a mound of purplish hair, for some reason on one occasion sang all the verses of ‘O No John, No John, No John No.’

On yonder hill there stands a creature
Who she is I do not know;
I’ll go ask her hand in marriage
She must answer yes or no.
‘Oh No John, No John, No John, No.’

O Madam in your face is beauty,
On your lips red roses grow,
Will you take me for your husband
Madam answer yes or no.
‘Oh, Oh no John, No John, No John No.’

Even as a child I wondered why John had been all that keen on Miss Potter or Miss Pitt.

Another fleeting teacher, Miss Johnson, rather thrilled me when she kept me in the classroom at break as punishment. I liked the attention. And she tormented Kathy Browes whose father drove a London tube train. Kathy Browes was round-shouldered and Miss Johnson made her walk in front of the class with a broom handle stuck across her back and under her upper arms. Her dignity was restored when she took three of us in the cabin of the train her father was driving and we saw the dark tunnel snaking ahead. Miss Johnson left without warning. I think she got the sack.

When no teacher showed up the headmistress Miss Corbett took the class. She had a pageboy hairdo of dark hair and a shrill irascibility. Once when none of us knew what she was talking about she raged ‘Not even Diana Souhami knows’ and I felt picked on, yet special. For all we did not know there was the threat we’d fail the 11 plus exam and go to the Harben secondary modern school which came to loom in our thinking like a gulag.

I fear Kathy Browes went to the Harben.