At primary school, I was studious and enjoyed school. I never thought of that as the reason for my lack of either physical fitness or enthusiasm for sports. Eventually, around the age of seven, my parents began to realise that something was amiss. I just thought I got out of breath, but they saw me lying on the couch in distress. I was diagnosed with asthma, severe but not life-threatening. It was decided to get me to a cleaner environment for a while. (As a young adult, I decided that this was a pretext to get me away from what they saw as a coddling mother and any psychosomatic factors but I now realise that the ‘clean air’ option was genuine.)
At school, my excellent, creative teacher, Miss Hughes, had us writing newspapers and I have no doubt that my departure featured in one issue. On my last day before I left, there was a little farewell ceremony in my class. She gave me a green, cloth-bound copy of ‘The Water Babies’ that I read avidly and treasured for years.
I spent a few weeks for observation on a ward in the local, semi-rural Law Hospital. I made a fortune there, running errands to the shop for the older patients. One other boy my age, Gordon Whitelaw, was in for the same reason and from the same area. He got a place in a facility in nearby Peebles. I was going much further afield.
I had my eighth birthday on 4th April 1961, the day before I left, and the extended family was invited to see me off. That was unusual. Our families were not well off and we didn’t invite cousins or friends round for birthday parties. The next day, when it was time to leave, my dad handed me a 10 shilling note, to buy lunch on the train south. I was only eight and that was a lot of money then, especially as he was just finishing a university degree course.
We travelled from Glasgow Central to Euston. I recall sitting beside my Mum on the train in the dining car (an exotic experience for a boy whose family didn’t even have a television), with a young soldier returning from leave sitting opposite. When the bill came, my Mum went for her purse but I said “No, Mammy, I’ll get it.” I left the money and a tip, which dumbfounded my mother. How did he know to do that?
When we arrived in London, there was an ambulance waiting to pick us up and we got to sit up front. The driver soon learned that I had never been to London — not even outside Scotland. I didn’t even know Airdrie, the town next to mine, very well. Rather than the short, two and half mile journey along Marylebone Road, he took a circuitous route to Paddington Station, to show me the sights, like the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. My mouth must have been catching flies all the way.
We arrived in Swindon and got transport to the Convalescent Hospital, in Hyde Lane, and what’s now St Luke’s Court, on the north edge of the town. After the usual routines, we got shown to my dormitory, on the first floor. My Mum stayed the night but had to leave the next day and return home by herself. That was heart-wrenching for both of us, probably more so for her because I had distractions: she only had the thoughts of her wee boy to occupy her.
I had no idea how long I was supposed to stay and, after a week, I asked “Can I go home now?” The staff were diligent and kind, but firm. I wrote a sad letter (signed ‘Billy’ in those days) pleading my Mum to come and take me home, but it never got posted.
However, I eventually settled in (but still wanted home). School lessons in the Hospital were fairly easy. Because of the differences in Scottish and English school systems, I was ahead of what was expected for my age. I had been the youngest in my class at home but was now the oldest. (On the other hand, that was to prove a handicap when I got back home and found that I was behind my new classmates.) Multiplication tables threw me a little because we did them the opposite way round in Scotland: one was “four fives are…, five fives are…, six fives are…” and the other “five fours…, five fives…, six fives…”. I don’t recall which is which.
Having made friends, I got the nickname ‘Jock’ and we formed a ‘gang’. Although I had always been shy and unassertive, I somehow became the leader. I wanted to see myself as a lovable rogue, vainly longing to emulate my disreputable namesake, William Brown, from the Just William books. In those days, there a was a hedgerow (giant, as it seemed to us at the time) in front of the cemetery, just a couple of hundred yards along from the front of the Hospital. It’s now cut much lower, but it had clearly been used by generations of kids because there were ‘stairs’ and ‘tunnels’, floored with hard-packed soil from many small feet, hidden in the hedge. These led to our gang den, which had a ‘balcony’ overlooking the Common.
Although the staff looked after us pretty well, certain aspects seem lax now. We were often unsupervised and seemed free to roam the countryside (or to hide in a hedgerow) but these people had a duty of care. I was only eight! One day, two friends and I decided we were going to leave and walk home, so we packed a few things in our pockets, went to the gate and started walking. One lived west, the other east and I was from way up north. We said our goodbyes and headed off. We each lasted about 10 or 20 minutes. Just as well. We were all going in the wrong directions. I was going north-west, along Free’s Avenue, past the Common, and wouldn’t even have hit Swindon.
When we got back, no-one noticed we had left. Similarly, we were supposed to report for doses of some foul-tasting supplements every day. No-one told me and it was a month before I discovered where everyone disappeared to mid-morning.
To keep me in touch with home, my mother sent me comics twice a week, the Beano and the Dandy, rolled up in brown paper, often with a letter. There was a white-tiled toilet block on the north-east side of the courtyard. I used to go there to read my comics in peace. They had a distinctive but not unpleasant smell and, sometimes, the smell of old Victorian public toilets brings back a nostalgic memory.
Our parents also sent us postal orders for pocket money and the nurses kept a bank of it for us. I sometimes felt that my ‘balance’ was a bit short but I thought “Surely not.” I later learned that it is not unusual for such funds to go astray, especially when some of the kids can’t count so well.
I was always more interested in cricket than football and we sometimes went — with approval this time — to watch the matches on the ground off Hyde Lane, behind the Hospital.
I arrived in spring and, although I was only eight, the sap was rising. The girls’ dormitory was next to our’s, with no closed or locked doors, so my pals and I decided on a raid. In our pyjamas, we all sat on the beds of the girls whom we had had our eyes on. And I got my first tentative kiss. She liked me but was reluctant: she didn’t want to give me her cold. I didn’t care. Then we heard the matron approaching from downstairs and, asthmatic or not, we ran for it.
Apart from the fresh air and ‘breathing exercises’, those who had asthma received no serious medical interventions. I got off fairly lightly, but others didn’t. One of the doctors who worked there wrote:
During the early sixties asthma was becoming an increasing problem and accounted for many of our admissions; many children were dying from asthma. We still had a waiting list and some deaths occurred amongst children in other hospitals waiting to come to Marlborough. Sadly, three children died in the Convalescent Home from acute asthma. In each case I was there within a few minutes but the child was dead. (Maurice, 1994)
Fortunately, I was never aware of any of this at the time.
One of my happier memories was wandering down through the lanes, to visit the summer fair. As we emerged into the High Street, probably from Chandler’s Yard, I recall one of the fairground rides playing ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ by Helen Shapiro.
My parents and two younger brothers only got to visit me once. My Dad had just finished university and there was little money to spare. They made the long journey in his little green Austin A40, stopping at a hotel partway. No M6 or service stations back then. In Marlborough, they stayed at the Green Dragon, on the High Street, and said that the staff made them most welcome and comfortable. That was an adventure for my brothers (4 and 6). This was the furthest they too had been from home and they had never stayed in a hotel.
When they came to the Hospital, I was waiting at the gate for them. My Mum was horrified. I had been there over three months and no-one had thought to get my hair cut. I had a mop-top a year before the Beatles came to fame. The next few days are only a vague memory.
First order of business was for my staunch Catholic mother to check out my religious welfare. I had, of course, been taken to church every Sunday. As they learned, it was Church of England, but ‘high’ church, and it looked much the same to me.
They soon found a Catholic church. When they met the priest, Father Besant, my Dad (as staunch a socialist as he was a Catholic) asked “Any relation to…?” The priest interrupted him with a smile and said “Yes.” He was related (nephew, I think) to the famous socialist and women’s rights campaigner, Annie Besant. From then on, the rest of us were temporarily forgotten while they enthusiastically chatted about Annie.
Next, we had a trip to Swindon for a haircut and a visit to a tea-room for what my Just William books would have called a ‘slap-up meal’ (not an expression we ever used in Scotland). A nice change from the vile bubble and squeak in the Hospital. (To be fair, the Hospital food was mostly fine. But then I always did like school dinners.) We had a picnic in Savernake Forest and I used a toy plastic saxophone to try to charm the adders that my Dad assured me were there. To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t take me to Stonehenge and I still haven’t seen it.
And then they were gone.
My only other visit was from one of my Mum’s cousins who was down there working. I recall that he took me down to the town for ice cream. He also took me to a bookshop, the White Horse, which, I am glad to say, is still there, and offered to buy me a couple of books. I chose a Rupert Bear book and an atlas. When he got home, he told my parents “I told him he could have anything he wanted so the wee besom picked the dearest book in the shop!” (He probably didn’t say ‘besom’ but that was the version I was told!) I recall that one of my erstwhile pals was from Stoke-on-Trent, because we looked it up in the atlas and defaced that beautiful book by writing it in black crayon.
When it was finally time to leave, my Aunt Mary, my godmother, was sent to get me. My Dad was at teaching college and my Mum had two other sons, one at school, to look after. Aunt Mary was a serious figure and could be forbidding but she cared deeply about me and I was never more pleased to see her. The train journey back saw no guided tour of London but I didn’t care. She said I never stopped talking all the way to Coatbridge.
My arrival home felt a bit anti-climactic. My brothers, whom I used to play with, had found other friends over the school summer holidays (July to mid-August in Scotland). There was no-one my age in our street or the ones nearby. But I was home. Going back to school was a bit odd. I had been called ‘Jock’ in Marlborough, but I now had a full-blown, mellifluous Wiltshire accent. It soon faded.
Marlborough was never home and I always wanted to get away but it was an adventure for a little boy who rarely left his home town. I was never made to feel like an outsider, just a welcome visitor. I have now travelled all over the world but, some day, I must go back to Marlborough.