Early Years 1

2-1. EARLY YEARS

Discovering life, a jumble of memories.


My sister, Ingeborg, was born two years before me. True to family tradition, at three years old she was run over by a lorry after wandering into the road whilst my father was replacing a punctured wheel. She took the full force on her face, losing most of her milk teeth, and spent a long time in hospital.

My parents divorced when I was around two years old. My mother would later remark that it was because of the strains of a mixed marriage; She was a down to earth, self-dependent colonial; He was a sophisticated, upper class Norwegian. As much as anything it boiled down to his wanting breakfast coffee and her wanting tea. She expecting him to be dutifully home early each day; he more concerned with work. I was blithely unaware of the whole period.

The first "adventure" of which I have any awareness, was when I managed to damage my head, just above my left eye, with an iron spike. Apparently I was nearly three years old and wanted to open a door, so I grabbed a folding, three legged camping stool, set it up by the door, climbed on to it and opened the door. Unfortunately, the door opened inwards, the stool folded, and I landed, head first, on the sharp end of one of the iron legs. I woke up in hospital. My one memory of the incident is being in darkness and feeling a large, dark, rough mass on my forehead, only just above my left eye. I'm told I cracked my skull, the only occasion during the first 70 years of my life that any bone in my body suffered. That is, apart from the very tip of my left hip, where a bullet from a policeman’s 9mm Browning revolver skimmed over it on an uninvited journey from my belly to my back. But that is a much later tale.

Pardon me this digression, but why do estate agents insist on calling even a one bedroom Spanish shack a villa? In my house, here in Mojacar, I have a 100 year old grandfather clock which belonged to my grandmother and with which I feel a special affinity. While I was in between fathers, the family stayed with my grandmother on her dairy farm at Karen. We children were looked after by an ayah, who spoke to us in swahili and referred to our grandmother as “Mummy Ingeni” literally meaning another mother. The name stuck and she remained forever Mummy Ingeni. The grandfather clock stood in an alcove set into the entrance hall of her house, from which a staircase swept up to the bedrooms. Tall archways to the left and right of the hall, adorned by elephant tusks and huge brass shell cases, led into the lounge and dining room respectively. To the left of the stairway was a wide space leading to the downstairs cloak room, the entire entrance hall being large enough to suffice as a full size lounge in its own right.

Early years 2

To this day, as I listen to the clock’s Westminster chime every quarter hour and its sonorous striking as it beats out the appropriate hour, I am reminded of the cool comfort of that manorial house, nay! Villa, standing in a terraced garden complete with fountains spraying into goldfish populated pools, with avenues of Jacaranda trees and views down the hill and across the dam to the dairy buildings. But the clock has an even more personal history. At three years of age I was enchanted by it and wanted to see how it worked, so one day when the glass fronted door to the housing for the pendulum and three heavy weights had been left ajar, I climbed in and investigated thoroughly. The clock had been specially imported from Germany years before, and it cost Mummy Ingeni a fortune to have her pride and joy repaired. You may still be puzzled as to why estate agents refer to shacks as villas, but at least you know why I insisted on inheriting that clock!

I suppose I was what today would be called a “special needs” child, except that I hate such “politically correct” euphemisms. I could be a brat; possibly mildly autistic and certainly able to switch out the world when it didn’t interest me, or go my own sweet way to explore it when something did. I don’t think I was maliciously naughty, I just wanted to do the things I liked, rather than those things I was told to do. My wife says I’m still like that!

My mother re-married, to a British Army captain, and they purchased a dairy farm near Limuru, which is in the highlands to the north and slightly west of Nairobi, some 20 miles away and 9,000 feet above sea level. Here my half sister and half brother were born. I was also legally adopted by my step father, Bill, and so bore his surname of Helliwell. I liked him. He explained things and set my mind working. For instance, he taught me how numbers can add up and I learned to rattle off sequences like two, four, six, eight ... or three, six, nine, twelve ... etc. adding them in my head as I went along. I was also patiently taught to read and to spell.

Although less than 50 miles from the equator, Limuru temperatures, tempered by the altitude, seldom go above 29 degrees each day but at night that high altitude means they can drop to below freezing. Most mornings, in the cold, grey light of early dawn, there was white frost on the grass, which crackled and slid between my toes as I went, bare chested and bare footed, to “help” in the milking sheds. My small hands learned to milk a cow and I copied the farm labourers’ habit of diverting a stream of milk from a teat straight into their mouths if they felt thirsty. I also learned from them how to eat with one’s hands by moulding a piece of “ugali” (cooked maize meal) into a ball, making a hollow in it with one’s thumb and then dipping it into a gravy of “mboga” and “nyama” (green veg and meat).

My half sister is younger by four years, so at five I was usually alone or with my “ayah”, as my big sister was already away at school. For most of the day I would wander around the farm minimally dressed, if at all, enjoying nature in an idyllic setting of green grass, trees, and tropical sunshine. I investigated everything. Unfortunately, I also damaged my eyesight.

Early years 3

Ever curious, I wanted to see the sun properly and lay on a grassy slope looking up at it - forcing my tear streamed eyes to stay open, until I could see what appeared to be a swirling blue ball. The damage was permanent. From that day on anything in the very centre of my vision, in either eye, has been partially obscured by a circular whitish haze and I have to glance slightly away from something in order to see it more clearly.

Growing up on an isolated farm meant that, athough I knew a certain amount of English, my language of choice was Swahili. It wasn’t until I discovered the joys of reading that English gained importance. Eventually, like most “Kenya Cowboys”, I was truly bilingual, able to switch from one tongue to the other in mid-sentence without even realising which I was using.

In 1947, when I was six years old, I was enrolled in Miss Dors’ weekly boarding school, called “Woodlands”, 40 minutes drive away on the outskirts of Nairobi. I think it was in the Lower Kabete area. Every week, after a long drive on rough dirt roads, I would be dropped off on a Monday morning, and collected on Friday afternoon. On the roll were around a dozen girls and initially three boys, but one of them soon left, and in self defence the other boy and I soon bonded. His name was Jonathon and together we suffered - mainly diarrhoea. Whether it was due to poor hygiene standards or unusual foods I know not, but “Johna” and I suffered terribly. Our suffering was compounded by having to go to the loo at night, which meant passing Miss Dors open bedroom door.

“Who’s there?” She would call out.

“Me” Johnna, or I, would reply.

“Who’s me?” Came the peremptory demand. We would state our name with trepidation, whereupon Miss Dors would chastise us - convinced that we were up to no good and using our trip to the loo as an excuse to be out of bed, especially if it were our second trip that night. Miss Dors did not like little boys, and in return neither Johna nor I liked her. However, the poor girls also suffered, and many mornings one would see soiled bed sheets drying on the line, yet Miss Dors, who was of an age when most women would be well into their Mrs era, seemed blithely convinced that there was no problem.

There was only one classroom and, I think, only one class. What I do remember, because it left an indelible mark on me, was an incident right at the start of my schooling when Miss Dors asked if anyone knew their two times table. A girl stood up and chanted some mumbo-jumbo, followed each time by a sequence I recognised; it went two ... four ... six ... eight and so on. Then Miss Dors asked if anyone knew their three times table and I excitedly raised my hand.

“Yes?”

“Three .. six ... nine ... twelve ...” I rattled off before being interrupted.

Early years 4

“Wrong! You’re showing off. You’re stupid. Go and stand in the corner with the dunce’s cap on. Face the wall!” I was shattered. I heard a girl stand up and recite some mumbo-jumbo, always finishing with the next number in the same sequence I had just given. My sense of justice had been offended. Eventually, Miss Dors told the class that the first pupil who could correctly recite all their times tables up to twelve would get a special prize. In hatred, I analysed the mumbo-jumbo and worked out that it was a patter involving how far someone had gone along the number sequence and the number it concerned. “One two is two, two twos are four, three twos are six, etc.” Now I knew how it went, but why hadn’t I been lovingly told, in the way my stepfather did, that I needed to recite the mumbo-jumbo before mentally working out the next number in the sequence? My brother, Glyn, tells me that Bill, his real father, taught him to understand numbers the same way. Although educated entirely in England, Glyn too never paid much attention to the “mumbo jumbo”! However, we’re both pretty good at mental arithmetic.

Anyway, the gauntlet had been thrown down and long before any of the others knew their tables I stood up in class, recited every one, threw in the thirteen times table for good measure and asked her if I was still a stupid show off. Retribution was mine, and it was sweet! I virtually spat my demand for the prize at Miss Dors. I don’t know what it was: To this day I despise her memory.

In my early twenties, in the company of Johna, we went looking for the house that had once been the site of Woodlands school. We drove past a couple of old, wood and iron houses (so called because they had wood plank walls and a corrugated iron roof) that looked familiar but we never managed to pinpoint the exact one.

My next school, Greensteds, was 80 miles away from the farm, in the opposite direction. My big sister was already at this co-educational, full boarding school and it was tough, really tough. All the boys’ and girls’ dormitories comprised low walls, perhaps two and half feet high, interspersed with pillars supporting a roof, and the open spaces had canvas blinds that could be rolled down. However, we were only permitted to roll them down when it was raining, and even then only on the side where the rain was coming in. In effect we slept in the open air. I was not yet eight and some of the inmates, alias pupils, were even younger. At dawn we had to assemble on the lawn, dressed in vest, shorts and tackies (gym shoes). We then had to run to the main gate and back, a distance of around a mile, before standing stock still in rows on the lawn, in the freezing cold typical of any morning in the rift valley, and perform “neck exercises”, followed by traditional physical training. The PT master, called “Pa Tick” (I think his surname was Taylor), always wore long sleeves to hide the wooden chair leg he carried, and he would let it drop into his hand and then use it whack the legs of anyone he thought was slacking. Boys and girls then went to their respective ablutions blocks for a bath - queueing to share metal tubs that contained ice-cold water.

Early years 5

Years later, in Mojacar, I met Dee, a girl who had suffered Greensteds a couple of years before me, and was not surprised to learn that she, too, had an abiding dislike for peremptory authority and cold water!

During my time at Greensteds many pupils ran away, and those who did so three times were expelled. I ran away only once, managing a distance of some 20 miles from the school before being caught and subsequently caned for my efforts. An enterprising young boy managed to jump a goods train for part of his escape and made it all the way to his home in Nairobi, a hundred miles away. He grew up to become the headmaster of a superb prep school where his pupils adored both him and his wife. However, not all the staff were ogres; for instance with some I enjoyed field trips in the arid countryside around lake Elementaita, a soda lake, finding and identifying the plentiful stone age relics in the area, like tools and arrow heads, and the house matron was really kindly - but the disciplinary headmaster, Redhead, made Greensteds itself into an inherently tough school, supposedly to build “character”. I suspect he was at heart a sadist. Surely he couldn’t have thought that forceful and continuous corporal punishment would truly benefit boys and, for that matter, girls? Whatever the answer, between Taylor and Redhead I had two years worth of “character” regularly beaten into my skinny, eight year old body.

I think it was twice a term that there was a school visiting Sunday, when parents could come and spend time with their progeny, often enjoying a picnic in the grounds. Locked in my mind is a memory of one such Sunday, because I remember feeling so proud. Not all parents would, or more accurately could, come and so those who were lucky would invite friends to join their picnic. During one visit Bill was handing a sweet to the first person each time who could correctly spell each word he called out, taking it in turns as to the order in which we attempted the task. Many of the children who had joined us were my sister’s friends and two to three years older than me, but I was holding my own. I think Bill was “adjusting” the difficulty according to each child. Then Bill called out the word “yacht”. It was nowhere near my turn to answer first, but some tried and failed while others admitted they did not know. When eventually I had my go I rattled it off correctly and was highly admired by the other pupils but to me, most importantly, by Bill. I feel too many parents fail to appreciate the importance of well earned praise to a child.

Until my sister, Ingeborg, reminded me, I had almost forgotten about the bush fires that occasionally broke out in the dry countryside near the school. Young or old, staff or pupil, we would all be out there beating at the fire with branches torn from the thorn bushes and getting the occasional burn. So what about Health and Safety? .... At Greensteds?

Early years 6

Ingeborg, broke the school record for, I think, the 100 yards sprint; not the girls’ record for her particular year at the school - the all time school record! She was as athletic as I was not.

My mother used to say that when she took her first baby out people would look into the pram and say, “What a lovely boy.”

“She’s a girl.” My mother would tell them and then hear the reply, “Oh! Fine child.”

Ingeborg has always been athletic and even now, in her mid seventies, rides a quad bike and thinks nothing of hand picking olives and almonds on the large spread in Spain that she shares with her husband, assorted Rotweilers and a nut case of a sort of long tailed “Boxer”. She definitely inherited a large chunk of Mummy Ingeni’s most potent genes, though not her height.

After the Limuru farm was sold, Rose and I lived with our mother and Bill in a house Mummy Ingeni had built on “Morning Side”, a 70 acre or so annexe to her farm that faced on to the Karen “Dukas”. (Nowadays a huge shopping complex, although the original dukas are still there.) It got the name because on many mornings the cattle would be driven there to graze, before being taken back to the main farm for the afternoon. Later, Mummy Ingeni gave away land on Morning Side for a catholic church and further land for a convent, and eventually 10 more acres of Morning Side for the catholic church to establish a craftmanship school. To maintain “balance” she also gave a chunk of land at the bottom end of the main farm to the Protestant Church. In another area in this triangle of land local Africans had established an unofficial football pitch, and many a Sunday I would watch barefooted players kicking a ball high into the air to pass it, mainly because the ground was too rough for accurate dribbling. More of Morning Side eventually was donated to the city council to be used as a public “common”.

Around this time my mother again divorced, and I was swapped around between my grandmother and my father, as were my three siblings. When my brother, Glyn, was four he went to England to live with Bill and his new step mother, who I believe was the reason for the divorce.

My big sister, when she became eleven, was taken by Mummy Ingeni to England and eventually entrusted to my aunt Edel, in Norway. The reason was because my father did not not believe that Kenya’s secondary girls’ schools were even remotely able to achieve the high standard of the private boarding school he had selected for her in Norway. However, having arrived in Norway, Ingeborg objected vehemently. She too had suffered Greensteds, remember, and another boarding school, as far as she was concerned, was out of the question. Eventually Ingeborg lived with aunt Edel in Norway and attended the nearby, state run, day school. Here she learned to speak Norwegian, sail and ski, even representing Norway at a school event.

Early years 7

I have a faded scar on my left calf, from the time when I was chasing my sister around the perimeter of Mummy Ingeni’s house, where we were living at the time. There was an Alsation dog chained up on a terrace, with which I would often play, but the dog must have become over-excited by our game of catch and as I ran past his kennel he lunged and bit my lower leg. It was a pretty serious bite, bleeding on both sides, and ever curious I limped over to the edge of the lawn, plucked a long stalk of grass and, with my sister watching, tested the hole. Yes! I was right. The dog’s teeth had definitely met because the stalk of grass could be passed right through. That was my cue to start bawling; until then the injury hadn’t seemed to be mine and the over-riding curiosity of a new experience had kept pain at bay. (It must be an evolutionary human survival trait; I’ve had this initial “disconnected” feeling after serious injury time and again over the years.)

One of my mother’s reminiscences was about a neighbourhood friend who had come round one day during this period and started the conversation by saying, "Peter's got the face of an angel, but he isn't, is he?"

I remember the reason for her outburst well enough. I was eight or nine years old and had been reading about how lumberjacks would cut a deep wedge into the side of a tree directly opposite the direction they wanted it to fall. Then, they would cut an even deeper wedge on the side where they did want it to fall, slightly lower than the first wedge, and continue cutting until the tree fell exactly where they wanted. This seemed like interesting, technical stuff that deserved investigation, so I found a medium sized tree that would do very nicely, thankyou. It was near both the fence and the house, and therefore it would require precise felling to avoid doing damage to either. I took a panga (East Africa's answer to the machete) and started to hack. After much hard work the tree eventually creaked and fell - in the exact line I had predicted, missing both the house and the fence. So, what the “George-Washington-Cherry-Tree” was the problem? Well, it was neither our house nor our garden!


For the next chapter click on“An unfettered Era”in the (left side)CONTENTScolumn.