Turning Points & Influences

I loved the odd, vegetarian, almost Quaker, coeducational boarding school, St Christopher School that I went to from the age of eleven to seventeen. I was always on the brink of being chucked out. One night when I had been caught out of bed mucking about at about midnight  I was lucky enough to talk to Tony Mercer a history teacher. I had been sent to run around the large school field and told to keep going until I was worn out (a bit of a challenge as the master had to stay out in the cold to check on me). The conclusion being when I was tired enough I would stop being excited and settle down for the night (a standard punishment). Tony, after watching me do a couple of circuits, decided to run with me and chat a bit; he brought up the subject of books. I only could quote reading Jelly Roll Morton’s biography and Really the Blues by Mezz Mezrow, two works on my beloved Jazz. Tony suggested that I tried reading George Orwell’s essays. A few days later I took him up on it. It changed my life and my vision forever. I read his essay on Salvador Dali and also the one on Henry Miller. From that date on I was fascinated by surrealism and searched out paintings wherever I went, it was reading that essay that set me on my career in art. Also I followed up on Miller for reading matter, funnily enough not the outrageous ‘Tropics’ which I have never read, but many of his other works especially the short stories in ‘The Cosmological Eye’ Miller gave me the confidence to think for myself and say what I thought whatever the consequences. I love his iconoclastic viewpoint. From that time on I started to question every thing and every statement and rule. My next reading matter was Plato and I discovered that he had spent a great deal of time questioning pomposity, it cost him his life, but in my youthful enthusiasm for questioning all authority I thought it was worth it.

Roger 1991

Another influence from those early days is Mrs Bromberg the botany teacher. She had a theory that eventually natural selection would lead to man looking like a tape worm. A very large head with a superbly powerful brain, the rest of the body would have degenerated due to transport doing away with the need for legs and mechanical aids doing away with the need for arms and hands. The stomach would have become redundant due to foods being administered in a totally pre-digested form directly to the blood supply, ready to supply the energy needed to the brain. She was a powerful teacher and as you can see capable of inspiring the pupils under her tutelage.

Thought about my parents, my mother Elsie came from Shropshire farming stock and was afraid of nobody; some thing that drove her mad was a notice in a tea shop saying closed, if she could see that there was still anybody inside she would pound on the door until they had to come out to shut her up, she would then plead dying of thirst until they opened up and served us. My father Philip’s family came from Rhodes outside Manchester, they were all tea-total. His oldest sisters Phoebe married into a tea-total family, her about to be father-in-law had only two claims to fame he and his about to be married son kept prize winning Cochin chickens, the claim was that he won a case of scotch in a golf tournament. His reaction was to take the case onto the first tee and smash every bottle with his driver. All this lack of booze went down very badly with my father. The story has it that at Phoebe’s wedding he bought a selection of booze and hid it in the garden shed. Half way through the proceedings a blind man came up to him and said; “Were is it? I can smell it” My father then led him down the back garden path and he was let in to the secret store. I was not born at this time but I had a similar experience, his brother Bill got married rather late in life, I was about 15 at the time. Philip filled the car boot with whisky and sherry and we drove to the church for the ceremony. We parked quite near the entrance and my father would say to me ask that man to step over and then they were given a drink from the car boot. He could recognise a drinker a mile away. When we got back to the house for the celebrations there we moved the drink from the cart and hid it under the curtain that hung down from the window seat. I was told to give his other two sisters Mildred and Lillian a drink and when I asked them they said yes but in a cup.

Whilst doing my training in Winnipeg as an Air Force navigator, I had started to think about my life and what I was doing, influenced by Henry Miller and his anarchic thinking. I came to the conclusion that I could not carry on in the military, it seemed to me very simple, learning how to kill people was not a something that I was ambitious to develop. Thus, one morning I went to see my commanding officer and said that I was not prepared to carry on. His response; “Oh my god you are going to cause me so much paper-work.” It turned out that unbeknown to me an officer could not be locked up –the normal punishment for other ranks, and thus there was really no way that he could act.

It was beyond his competence to deal with this sort of problem, so I was sent back to Britain as soon as it could be arranged. I then languished in a camp in Devon until a meeting could be fixed with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor the ultimate headman of the Air Force. At our brief private meeting, he explained the current nuclear deterrent position to me, Slessor played a key role in promoting nuclear weapons as an effective instrument of deterrence in early Cold War British strategy. What he said was; “On the one hand you have the Americans and on the other hand the Russians, both of them unstable and unreliable, if any one of them makes a move, we Britain can step between them and bring them back under control”. I thanked him for his explanation and smiling, said that I couldn’t swallow it. He smiled back and said that he understood. He then went on to sign my release.

self portrait 1954Thus after having done one year of my National Service I was back home, but within a few days I was called up again. This time I registered as a pacifist and fairly rapidly I was summoned to Fulham Majistrates Court for a tribunal. Prior to the tribunal you had to produce a document in support of your position; mine must have been rubbish as the members of the bench gave me a very hard time. Even though my uncle the journalist Frances Williams (later Lord Francis Williams) vouched for my sincerity and honesty. A turning point came when the military man on the bench looked at my documents and said; “You have already been in the Air Force, how did you get out?” I explained, that Marshal Slessor had signed my release. All changed. They dropped their aggressive manner and asked me what I proposed to do for my remaining  years service, I proposed the hospital service and it was instantly granted.

Somehow when I was at the Winnipeg camp I had found out about art evening classes at the University of Manitoba and so a few weeks before being sent back to England I enrolled for life drawing classes, with a wonderful teacher called Roland Wise, there was only time for three classes before I was sent home. But it, and Rolland, had convinced me that learning to draw was what I wanted to do.

During the war my brother Bobby and I were sent to live on my grandparent’s farm in Flaunden Hertfordshire. It was during this time that I first had anything to do with mushrooms, we had some really fruitful seasons in the forties and Bobby and I would collect field mushrooms, often as many as three or four milking buckets full each day. The mushrooms would be picked up by the man who collected granddad’s milk churns every morning and somehow he arranged for them to be sold. This was at a time of food shortages and strict rationing, so unrationed foods were very welcome. We got as much as two shillings and six pence a pound for them, untold riches in those days!

My grandparents were lovely people Granddad Eddie was calm and patient and treated all his animals with great respect; he won prizes for the quality of his milk. Modern thinking would be that as all his cows had names they gave more milk. Grandma Sally was passionate about the family she believed totally in us and our abilities. Her son Francis Williams was encouraged to leave the land and become a journalist. She told the story of him as a junior reporter working for Beaverbrook during the great strike. A driver was trying to drive a cart-load of papers out of the yard in Fleet Street but was stopped by the crowds at the gate, the horses panicked and the carter lost control. Frank, so the story goes was looking out of the window and ran down stairs, jumped up on the cart took control whipped up the horses and drove straight through the crowds at the gate. Beaverbrook was also watching the commotion and problems at the gate and saw all the action. On return Frank was called up to his office and told that he was earmarked for great things, in fact very rapidly he advanced to be editor of what was then Britain’s largest selling newspaper. The Daily Herald, (although it was not one of Beaverbrook’s papers).

Grandma sat in a chair at the table with little holes in the woodwork, these had been made by a careless uncle who had fired off a shotgun that he thought was unloaded, and my cousin Betty still has the chair.

Another story grandma was very keen to tell her grandchildren was about her great uncle John Francis who had spent his life and all his money in New York trying to prove that the family owned half Manhattan Island! Grandma claimed that there was a missing deed, that great uncle John was searching for which would prove our rightful ownership, she propounded that it had fallen behind the alter of Trinity church near Wall Street. My cousin Betty investigated the story to find that there is a basis of fact behind it. It seems that this ancient ancestor Robert Edwards owned a farm on Manhattan and at some point decided to up stakes and head west, at which point he granted, according to the story, the local Trinity Church a lease to manage the land for 99 years. He never returned, although he did died without issue he apparently left a will leaving everything to his nieces. Eventually the land was allowed, by the church, to used for development, this area of New York includes Wall Street. No doubt by now it would now be worth trillions of dollars. Anyway Betty discovered that there were about 4,000 other families that had the same story handed down and they had formed a group together and even gone as far as hiring a lawyer to try to advance the claim. It sounds like the largest pie in the sky imaginable to me. [Put Edwards Heirs into Google for some background]

Whilst living with my grandparents in Flaunden I was sent to a tiny school in Sarratt run by an eccentric bohemian lady called Miss Raymond, she always appeared draped in enormous amber beads, The school was in  a large house in the village called Great Sarratt Hall. There were about five children of various ages and loads of babies that she, and Miss Humphrey, the teacher, looked after. One of the main duties of the five children was to help feed the babies. My most vivid memory is going out in the morning collecting stinging nettle tops that would then be cooked up and we would help spooning them into the babies for their lunch, not always successful, if they were not enjoyed they would  summilarily be ejected into the face of the server. This was to be my introduction to living off the land.