When I was very young my great pleasure was to spend time with my father. One of the reasons I liked spending time with him was that he used to talk to me telling me the names of flowers and trees and the stars, for although he lived and worked in the city he was at heart a countryman. He did not talk much about himself or about his own early life, though he may well have told me much that I have forgotten. His father having died when he was a few years old, his mother had sent him to live with his grandmother in Besthorpe, a village near Attleborough in Norfolk, where she herself had been born and brought up. There my father attended the village school. I remember once seeing a group photo of the children of the school, perhaps two or three dozen in number, seated in rows in front of the school building. Boys and girls alike, they all wore white pinafores. In the middle of one of the rows sat the small figure of my father. I cannot remember whether I was able to recognize him or whether my father pointed him out to me. My father was very fond of his grandmother, and must have lived with her and her blind husband for much of his childhood. He more than once told me how he went scrumping with the village boys and how they used to be chased by the farmers whose fruit they stole.
How old my father was when his mother brought him back to London, to live with her and his younger sister and, later, with his stepfather, I do not know. She must have been living at 23 Sellincourt Road, Tooting, where I was to spend my own childhood, for I know that my father attended the Sellincourt Road School. He had little or nothing to say about his schooldays, except that he used to fight with other boys. Like them, he must have left school at fourteen and started looking for work.
It would appear that he was soon working for a jeweller. Whether he had been apprenticed in the traditional way, or was simply an employee, was never clear to me. The only reason I think he may have been apprenticed is that he ‘lived in’ and that with him there were other boys, whether apprentices or not. They were mischievous boys and played tricks on the establishment’s elderly housekeeper. One of their tricks, my father once told me, was to catch cockroaches and string them at eye level across the passage where the short-sighted woman would, to her horror, bump into them. My father remembered the jeweller quite fondly, for he seems to have been a favourite of his. From time to time he would give him semi-precious stones, including several garnets, all of which in time came into my possession.
Then came the war, and it was not long before my father enlisted. ‘Mum,’ he told his mother, ‘I’ve joined up.’ She was not a woman of many words. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s your decision, and you will have to live with it.’ In what year my father enlisted I do not know, but at the time he could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen. Like many other young men at that time, he had given a false age and the authorities were naturally disinclined to question his word. I remember seeing a photograph taken of him shortly after he enlisted. The face that looked out from under the peak of the big army hat had an expression of shyness and self-consciousness, though at the same time it was evident that young Philip Lingwood was not devoid of self-assurance. Soon he was in France and living in the mud and blood of the trenches with other young men, hearing the dull thud of the heavy artillery of both sides and the screaming of shells overhead. Fragments from one of these shells hit him, and when he regained consciousness he was lying in a field hospital tent with a badly damaged and very painful right arm and hand. My memory next finds him an inmate of St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, and wearing, like the other inmates, the light blue suit and red tie of the convalescent soldier. As a young man he had a hot temper, and he once told me that while at St Benedict’s he had fought with another soldier, despite his injured arm, and had been pulled off him by one of the nurses in a way he found excruciatingly painful. His only other anecdote from this period of his life related to my mother. She was then a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and her work sometimes took her to the hospital, which is how she and my father met. They used to go out together and sometimes, when he had stayed out after hours, she would help him climb back over the wall. From St Benedict’s my father went to the Lord Roberts Workshops by which time he must have been discharged from the army. At the Lord Roberts Workshops, where disabled ex-servicemen were taught a trade, he opted for French polishing, and soon was able to earn a living. One day he said to his mother, ‘Mum, I am going to get married.’
‘Well,’ she said laconically, in words she had once used before, ‘It’s your decision, and you will have to live with it.’