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And Other Celluloid Adventures
By Alec Mills
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Alec Mills
All rights reserved.
THE EARLY YEARS
'Mills ... this is just awful ... really awful!'
Mr Lee, my long-suffering school teacher carefully studied my paper, occasionally changing his vision by taking off his spectacles to study my nervous state as I stood in front of his desk. He tapped his ruler on the small table in the way we students recognised as a bad omen and he followed the gesture with the predictable overstated deep sigh before returning to read the drivel in front of him – my 'composition', as it was called in those days.
He was right, of course; we both knew that. His comment simply underlined an attitude that I had to my early schooling in the years during the Second World War, now long past. It would be fair to say that under the teaching skills of Mr Lee my school days could be described as nothing short of disastrous. Now, seventy years later, I sit in front of the computer facing up to the reality of his teaching, hoping to reclaim past history which at times may well be embarrassing. I still remember the grin on his face, the nodding head suggesting that I was doomed to fail in life. At the time I would have agreed with his judgement; I was without doubt a terrible student. To complete the image I paint of my teacher, a veteran of the First World War, this sad human being had a dreadful habit of spitting into the coal fire that warmed the classroom, claiming this peculiarity to be the result of a gas attack during the conflict. I can offer no such excuse to salvage my lack of interest in his teachings.
The groundwork of my education continued to drag on with little expectation of achieving medals of any kind, either academic or on the sporting field – just another frail specimen of youth who struggled to keep up with other athletes at school. In my defence, this was partly due to bad attacks of asthma, most of which were blamed on the black and yellow smoke pouring out of the tall chimneys that spread their pollution across the capital, the main contributor to the famous London fogs. Even so, it cannot really be used as an excuse as I do not recall ever staying away from school because of my condition – Lil would make sure of that. Should I look for any excuse for my academic failings, I would point to Hitler's never-ending bombing of London and the changing of schools with different teachers due to the bomb damage, which I hope gives some explanation for the continual interruptions in my education. In all honesty, I should also admit to a certain lack of self-discipline. Whatever excuse I may offer, there was little continuity in my schooling during those dark days when living in the capital was dangerous, although for a youngster it could also be exciting. Now, of course, I regret those wasted years; I am what I am and the clock cannot be turned back.
Even so, images from those war-torn years would linger, and still remain in my memory. One recollection was of Lil with concern on her face as she put her comforting arms around me as the bombs of the nightly visits of the Luftwaffe fell around us. It is an unfading image of a loving mother which is perhaps difficult for the current generation to understand.
I was relating these experiences to Suzy, who threw down the gauntlet challenging me to mention these experiences in these memoirs.
'Did you tell Simon or Belinda about your war?' she asked, using my children to highlight my parental failings.
Strangely enough, I had never considered it. Suzy made an interesting point with that comment, so now it was necessary for me to think more about my offspring and give them something of my past history to remember me by, digging deeper into the library of memories where I hoped something would remain from my early years. Faint they may be, but they are necessary, otherwise my story would make little sense. Bear with me ...
I remember little of my early childhood, apart from the occasional flashback triggered by a photograph in the family album. As a child I never had my own bedroom. I slept in the sitting room on a put-u-up, as they were called – a couch during the day opening out to a double bed at night. When I lay in bed everything seemed scary as I stared at the distorted shadows flickering on the ceiling, projected images from the paraffin oil heater that took the chill off the cold room – central heating did not exist in humble homes then – leaving cold, unpleasant memories. My eyes scanned the dark surroundings for unwelcome ghosts who might be present, perhaps exaggerated by the crying wind coming through the poorly fitting windows. Pulling up the eiderdown, I would cover my face and I could at least take comfort from the hot-water bottle. It was frightening, but this is how things seem to a small boy.
Lil was a tailor's assistant in London's Savile Row, where her working life was spent making trousers for the wealthy. Mum took pride in her work and was pleased to be associated with the elite tailors, but with the passing of time her hands became arthritic and her tailoring days were no more. She was a mother who scrubbed the front stone doorstep once a week, suggesting the cleanliness of the inhabitants within – a habit not uncommon in those days. Luxuries were few and far between, but a certain dignity existed in working-class families. Alf, my dad, a porter and decorator by trade, came home from work on a Friday night and gave Mum her 'weekly allowance' to feed and clothe us, while I would be spoilt with a small bar of Cadbury's milk chocolate – a joy that has never left me.
My two older brothers, Alfie and John, were vaguely around. I say 'vaguely' with respect to them both, particularly Alfie. He died early, as a 16-year-old, having suffered the agony of infantile paralysis, which was not uncommon in those days. I remember little of Alfie, but what I do recall is the pain my parents went through when he passed away. Alfie was a much-loved son but due to his condition his legs were fitted with callipers (braces) so he could only walk with the aid of crutches. I can only imagine how life was for this young man. Should his name come up in a casual conversation, you could be sure that tears would appear in Lil's eyes, even many years after his passing.
Yet, in spite of all the difficulties described, a highlight was the yearly ritual of going on holiday to Margate, where we would meet up with other family members to enjoy the wonders of the sea air. A daily ritual of hired deckchairs on the beach would take place as the family claimed our spot in a circle, warding off others from intruding on our territory. To complete this idyllic scene, loudspeakers on the sea front would play 'I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside' – such joy! With the sun slowly burning its way into flesh, handkerchiefs now suddenly appear with four corners tied in knots fitting snugly on heads to give added protection from the fierce rays, our red faces suggesting we had had a wonderful holiday. Images still remain of ladies' skirts pulled above the knees, their brown linen stockings allowed to roll down to their ankles – memories now long past ...
Strangely enough, I still have pictures in my mind of visiting my grandparents. Ted Hodgson was a giant of a man, who to a small boy appeared to rule his household with great authority. Their home was always impeccably clean and had a strong Dickensian atmosphere: a mantelpiece with a dark green pelmet covering a highly polished black-leaded fireplace, not forgetting the traditional aspidistra plant housed in a flowered china pot – a typical feature of the time. Gas mantles complete the image – electricity had yet to arrive in their house. Ted Hodgson was king in his castle, while my grandmother Mary, a sweet kindly lady, appeared to know her place; but, again, all this was seen through young eyes.CHAPTER 2
WAR AND PEACE
The year 1939 saw the outbreak of war, which to a 7-year-old would mean little. To be honest, I don't recall Lil or Alf being too concerned about it at the time; if they were, they certainly didn't show it. Anyway, I had my own problems to deal with in the daily ritual of going to school – war or no war, nothing would change that!
Family discussions about the conflict remained frequent, where Dad would tell of his involvement in the First World War. If pressed, he would tell his part in the Battle of the Somme, his memories of the dreadful conditions in the trenches. Regrettably, I paid little attention to his wartime exploits, although it will be necessary to return to this sad history when I later discover more about my hero.
Home was a small ground-floor flat in a three-storey Victorian dwelling in Croxley Road, housing three families. The house had a small backyard with sheds for storing coal for the fires – the main source of heating in the home. In consultation with the other families, Alf built a small air-raid shelter in the yard which we could all squeeze into should it be necessary. Constructed of corrugated iron and concrete and fitted with basic wooden benches, the shelter would be strong enough to save our lives should the house be hit during the Blitz. As our family was housed on the ground floor we were also supplied with a Morrison shelter – an iron frame covering the bed with wire mesh to the sides – though everyone preferred to visit Alf's work of art in the backyard.
With the Luftwaffe losing the Battle of Britain to the Royal Air Force, Hitler decided to bomb London into submission at night, the only way the Luftwaffe could protect their bombers from the British fighter pilots. This was a strange and interesting episode, if seen through young eyes. With the radar system picking up the German aircraft crossing the English Channel, an air-raid siren would tell of an imminent attack on the capital, forewarning families to rush to Alf's safe haven. There we would all squeeze into the cramped shelter, soon to hear the pulsing sound of the German aircraft arriving above.
The bombers' arrival automatically brought a nervous silence; no one spoke as the bombs rained down, fingers crossed as one or two exploded nearby – another even closer! This may seem strange, but I don't recall ever being frightened by this: concerned possibly, interested certainly, but terrified – I don't think so. Everything seemed unreal ... A strange atmosphere now takes over as ladies silently pray under their breath, their moving lips betraying their inner thoughts; God's protection was needed now more than ever! One night their prayers failed when relatives living in nearby in Woodchester Street were killed in the bombing; their home was flattened by a German bomb. My cousin Brian was the only survivor from the devastation, and he would help me later with these recollections.
The bombing of London continued, and my ninth birthday present from Hitler was the heaviest night of destruction recorded on London. As the clock passed midnight, Lil led the way with a subdued verse of 'Happy Birthday': a weird moment as bombs fell around us. With the sound of aircraft moving away, the tension finally started to ease, the concern now was for others with all the destruction going on around us. I leave the rest to the imagination.
When the dreaded school day was over I would amuse myself playing around on an old upright piano which, believe me, had seen better days. While my attempt at playing was not serious, I quickly mastered 'Chopsticks', before the reality of the night bombers returned. Self-taught, I was soon able to play the popular tunes of the day, which somehow came easily to me. 'God's gift', Lil claimed, with this sudden talent emerging, and another sacrifice would be made for my piano lessons.
The selected tutor, Mr Braithwaite, was impressed with my playing by ear, but it would be a different matter when a sheet of music was placed in front of me. In spite of this, after a period of his expert tuition my never-say-die tutor was convinced that I should go the Royal Academy of Music in London and try for their junior exam. Lil was pleased that I did 'reasonably well', but with a changed music sheet put in front of me I was slow in transferring the challenge to the keyboard. To everyone's surprise – not least my own – I passed the exam, if not enough to win their 'plaudit of merit'.
Although this was an achievement, even with this so-called 'gift' I really wanted to give up the piano lessons, knowing that I was a 'tinkler' rather than a real pianist. Lil later came to accept the inevitable, realising it was a waste of time and money, though probably more noticeable was my lack of interest in becoming a musician. If truth be known, not at any time was my heart set on a music career and with a little nudge I was allowed to abandon that most unlikely idea. Perhaps in time I might have achieved Lil's ambition, but this young lad was not appreciative of the possibilities put his way.
Lil had not given up that easily. With the accolade of my achievement at the Royal Academy, she now planned her next overconfident move, this time without telling me what she had in mind. It was time to prove what her son could do on Opportunity Knocks, the famed talent show in the days before the X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, compered by Hughie Green. Auditions for those to take part in the show would be held at the London Palladium; it appeared that confirmation of my entry had already arrived in the post.
Lil's big day finally arrived. With the other young hopefuls – and their equally doting parents – we all stood in an orderly line in the wings of the vast London Palladium stage, waiting for our names to be called out. Parents prayed that their offspring would win a place on the show and I shook nervously in the background, thinking of the disaster which surely lies ahead.
At the time, Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto was a popular piece which had captured the nation's imagination. In all humility, I suppose I played the concerto reasonably well, though apparently not as well as Anton Walbrook who in the film played a shell-shocked Polish pilot who also happened to be a famous pianist. I had practised hard to get the concerto as near to perfection as my tiny hands could stretch.
The routine was simple. When your name was called by the 'talent master' – an indistinct figure sitting in the shadows of the auditorium – you walked to centre stage, confirming your name and what you were going to do; then you got on with it without further ado. With over a hundred auditions to be held, limited time was allocated to each 'artiste': a singer might get an opportunity to prove their worth, a musician possibly got a little extra time to play his piece, while a comedian's 'jokes' would allow the poor talent master to cringe further into the shadows.
Slowly the queue moved forward as we watched the hopefuls performing their various talents to the talent master, whose sighs at the torment he was suffering were clearly audible before he yelled out, 'NEXT!' The obvious failure would then quietly exit stage right in tears as the next package of talent took centre stage and the ritual started over again, as the hopefuls indicated what particular gift they had to offer to the world of show business before proving it.
With Lil and her favourite musician at last reaching the front of the queue, the moment of truth had come. Carefully watching those who went before, Lil was convinced that the talent master would appreciate the value of this young artiste and would allow the concerto to be played without interruption. The moment Lil had been dreaming of finally arrived.
'ALEC MILLS!' the shadowy figure called out from the darkness.
Excerpted from Shooting 007 by Alec Mills. Copyright © 2014 Alec Mills. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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