The journey to London was memorable for several reasons. We travelled first class on one of P & O's great ocean liners, RMS Stratheden. RMS stands for Royal Mail Steamer, an interesting reflection on world communications and how it has changed in my lifetime. The primary means of communication then was by snail mail and P & O had a contract to carry the mail. The contract was of such long standing that the ships bore the title, RMS.
My experience of ship board life owes more to Rudyard Kipling's world than today's. Despite Mrs David Beckham's attempt to copyright it, the word posh comes from the era of sea travel when those who could afford it always booked a cabin on the port side of the ship, the shaded northern side, on the way out to the East and one on the starboard side, also the shaded northern side, on the way home - Port Out Starboard Home hence posh. I travelled posh to England. This was the high life with the best food and with stewards to do everything that needed to be done. There were lascar seamen from somewhere in the east. They were not seen in the first class accommodation any more than the tourist class passengers were, but I used to see them netting for prawns whenever we docked. I had no frame of reference which I could bring to bear on what I saw and it wasn't until later that I realised that enormous class divisions were the norm in the world I inhabited.
The places we visited were exotic in many ways to a middle class Australian boy. Bombay, now called Mumbai, was fascinating. A local school teacher was earning some extra cash by offering to act a guide for such as us. He showed us all the sights including the Jain temple with the mortuary tower where the bodies of the dead were put to be eaten by the vultures. We also visited the markets to do some shopping and the butcher shop sticks in my mind because the street was cobble-stoned with an open drain running down the middle. The carcasses were butchered in the street so that the blood would run away down the drain.
My first sight of England was the coast of Devon. It was spring and the sun was shining and the land was covered with vegetation of the most incredible green. We arrived at Tilbury docks near London and I was startled to find my father dressed in his number one dress uniform, navy blue with bright red trim and lots of gold braid. Getting through customs has never been easier but I guess he wore the uniform, which he didn't enjoy wearing, because he was representing the service in this far off country called "home".
We lived for the first six months in London in a terrace house in Eton Square, an area bordering Belgravia, the stamping ground of the Sloane Rangers, the daughters of London's independently rich.
One of my early memories of London was travelling in a double-decker bus past a butcher shop and seeing a cat rub its back on a carcass hanging in the doorway as it went inside the shop. Coming from a land where health inspectors would come down like a ton of bricks on any butchers who had a even small hole in his fly-screen door, I didn't quite know what I was coming to. On another occasion, I held the door to Harrods open for a lady to go through as any polite young man would. Not only did she not thank me but other ladies walked through without so much as a nod of the head. I realised that the social rules were different here so I let the door go on the backside of the last of these good ladies of upper class London.
Having left school in Australia before the exams, I had to finish my secondary education. This required me to pass the English GCE exams in Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Physics, and Chemistry at Advanced level but also a "humanity" at Ordinary level. My Victorian Leaving Certificate included Economics as my one non technical subject other than English but London University didn't accept this as a "humanity" so I had to pass an exam in a language. I had studied French in Sydney up to Year 9 at North Sydney Boys High and I chose to go to a summer cram school so that I could sit the exam in July or August. I passed despite the fact that my oral exam was conducted entirely in English because my Australian accent made my French totally incomprehensible to the examiner.
I discovered that I could do the necessary four A level subjects at an institution called Battersea Polytechnic, colloquially known as Poly, which was quite close by. This also meant I didn't have to go back to "school". The academic year runs from September to June in England so I was able to pick up my education with little delay.
Of the 36 people in my first class, only 6 were white. The others came from all parts of the world. This was something of a shock to a young white Australian boy whose only contact with non-white people had been when I was four years old and that in a social climate of master and servant. I am very grateful that I chanced to fall into this social situation because I learned deeply and without any drama that all human beings are born equal and that race is no indicator of anything other than origin.
After six months, we moved from Eton Square to a house in Richmond which was much nicer with a big garden dominated by two very old copper beech trees and with Kew Gardens just a few metres away and just tuppence entrance fee. I travelled to Poly and back by train every day but quickly learned that the social life took place on Friday evenings so I took to staying at Poly for the evening, catching the last train home.
The Queen's coronation on 2nd June 1953 was towards the end of my first year at Battersea. My parents were given seats in one of the official grandstands along the route. A group of us from Poly decided to celebrate by joining the crowd lining the Mall just outside Buckingham Palace. We had to sleep on the footpath overnight in order to get a good position. One of our number was an Indian and he naturally brought a carpet with him so we spent a relatively comfortable night sleeping on the carpet.
When I turned seventeen, my father sent me to a driving school run by what turned out to be a typical London wide boy. He used a pre-war Austin Seven not because it was cheap but because, he said, the hand-brake could stop the car whatever the driver was doing. This was true as I discovered one Saturday morning in the middle of a major intersection in Notting Hill Gate. I had driven through a red traffic light and suddenly found myself stationary in the middle of the road when the instructor pulled on the handbrake. When I went to do the driving test, the examiner told me that he couldn't pass me if I didn't travel at 30 mph. Up to that time, I had never driven faster than 25 mph. Before the test, the instructor had told me to give the examiner ten shillings. I was so naive that I didn't understand that this was a bribe and openly handed the money to the examiner at the end of the test. He admonished me for letting everyone see the transaction but he took the money and I passed the test.
My father bought a Vauxhall Velox six cylinder sedan with about ten times the power of the Austin Seven and I really learned to drive after I had got my licence. We went touring on the Continent and around England and Scotland and I did my share of the driving. I learned exactly how wide the car was in a country lane in Cornwall when I ran into a dry stone wall doing some damage to the left front wing. My father was not best pleased but I didn't have my driving privileges taken away. My only memory of driving on the Continent is of getting totally confused in a large intersection in Paris and finishing up on the wrong side of the road with all the Parisians making way for me as though this were an everyday occurrence. I guess they were shrugging their shoulders and saying "Par bleu, these English drivers!"
It was on 6th September 1952 that we went to the Farnborough air show. This was a time of great excitement in the British aircraft industry. The war had required as much aircraft construction as the work force could support and they was plenty of activity designing the next generation of both military and civil aircraft. The V bombers with four jet engines and bomb bays designed to carry nuclear weapons were just being built and the fighter force was being converted to jets as well. The sound barrier had just been broken in powered diving flight by several different aircraft and the air show included a demonstration of this.
The DH110, a twin boomed fighter and forerunner of the Sea Venom, flying at right angles to the runway dived straight at the crowd so that we would all hear the loudest sonic boom. Unfortunately, the aircraft structure failed and it crashed. The cockpit module fell on the runway just short of the crowd but one of the engines fell into the crowd and 31 people died. My memory of this event is quite vivid. I see the aircraft nose up and tail down in nine or ten pieces with every piece in the correct place but not quite joined to the adjacent piece but with a jumble of small pieces in the gaps like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces in the right place but not yet joined. The engines were missing and I later discovered from a colleague at the Poly that one had flown over our heads into the carpark and destroyed his motorcycle. We were up the hill behind most of the crowd and I have a vivid memory of the crowd in front of me turn their backs to the accident and bend over like a field of grain in the wind. I must have followed suit because when I got home I found blood on the back of my raincoat. I have confirmed the details of this story by reference to a Wikipedia article
Some time after the start of my A level year, the London University entrance requirements for engineering were altered to no longer require Chemistry. All the other potential engineers immediately dropped the subject but my father insisted that I continue with it so that I wouldn't have any spare time on my hands. I believe he thought I might be tempted to get up to no good if I wasn't busy in class. I was therefore the only engineering student studying Chemistry and I was lucky to have a good teacher. He devised a special course for me which concentrated on Physical Chemistry while all the Science students did the conventional course. This has always stood me in good stead during my career as I had a better appreciation than many of my colleagues of the chemistry involved in whatever engineering we were doing. I was later able to piggy-back on a surveying course for civil engineers and that was equally useful later on.