Thursday, 29 March 2012


I began to speak English reasonably well by the middle of 1939 when I was eight albeit with a strong French accent.
 As a family we had settled in our idyllic Pangbourne house. Nanny and cook had left us and gone back to France, it was time for my sister Régine and I to resume our education so our parents decided we should attend the village school believing this was a good way to integrate with the locals.
 Had we read Oliver Twist  rather than Collette’s Claudine, Gigi or Cheri as younger children, we might have been a little more prepared for what we were to experience.
 It was mid-term. Up till then my sister, four years older than I, had been a pupil at a Roman Catholic convent in Hendon where all the girls wore navy blue uniforms, so she wore that, and I sported my first school’s green blazer and matching cap. The children at the village school wore whatever they pleased, rather shabby clothes I thought, some even with no socks, their bare feet stuck in heavy duty leather shoes.
 On arrival at this institution, we were made to stand among an unruly mob of girls and boys in the playground under the supervision of the fierce headmaster who took the roll call.
 He shouted out everyone’s names, they shouted something back in unintelligible Berkshire accents then, after a pause and a deliberate smirk in our direction, he called out ‘Ray Gin Laundry’ and ‘Aundry Laundry’ which got a lot of unpleasant laughs..
 My sister was jostled off to Form A, I was pushed and elbowed  to Form C, a dimly lit classroom where the headmaster caught a boy spitting at another and caned them both sadistically on the palms of their hands.
 During the mid-day break an older girl pulled my sister’s hair and told her to ‘Piss orf Miss Lahdy Dah’ so, fearful,  we decided to leave, jeered and whistled at as we ran off through the gates.
 Safely back home we recounted our ordeal to a disbelieving mother and begged her not to send us back.
 That evening our father listened to the pitiful story with concern. He realized that, as we had all lived within a French community in London we did not fully understand the true English village way of life and that we might be disliked not only for being foreign but also for appearing to be better off than we really were,  ‘A bit
like Marie Antoinette and Louis XV, before they were guillotined,’  my sister suggested, a remark my father chose to ignore.
 He rang an English friend to ask his opinion about the situation. The friend was amused on learning about the indignities we had suffered and diplomatically informed him that the free educational system in England was not like the lycées in France. 'The British are extremely class conscious,' he said. 'It would be best to find your children suitable private schools.'
 And so, glory of glories, a suitable girl's private school was found very quickly for my sister but not for me, so I stayed at home with Mummy. who lost no time in getting a resident French cook who would enable her to devote several hours a day to my education.
 My mother, it turned out, was not the best teacher in the world. She did not understand algebra but was pretty good at geometry, so we drew a lot of isosceles triangles English grammar also defeated her so she had me copy out pages from The Picturegoer, a popular film magazine and took me to the cinema to see Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (English history) Conquest, starring Charles Boyer as Napoleon (French history) and Vivienne Leigh in Gone With the Wind (North American history).

Bette Davies, Charles Boyer and Vivian Leigh.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


Early in 1939, when I was eight, I was playing in the garden of our Finchley house when I looked up and saw a most extraordinary grey object in the sky. It was massive, soft and menacing  'It’s only a barrage balloon,' my sister, thirteen, said all knowingly. 'The Royal Air Force at Hendon are testing it. A network of them will stop Zeppelins coming over and dropping bombs on us..’
 I had no idea what Zeppelins could be nor why they would drop bombs on us, but soon learned that war was imminent.
 The sighting of the balloon signalled a change in the direction of our lives for it spurred my parents on to take evasive action. They bought a property in the country, well away from London before panic broke out and everyone thought of doing the same thing.
 Within a few months we moved from our familiar French enclave in suburbia to Pangbourne, a beautiful Thames side village in very English Berkshire and an even more beautiful house that overlooked the weir.
 Once a small cottage, ‘Weir Pool’ as it was named, had been added onto over the centuries and comprised six bedrooms, five reception rooms, three staircases, two inglenook fireplaces, and lots of unusual cupboards to hide in.  Its garden ran along the waterfront for a hundred yards or so and there was a rope and plank bridge across to a small island, part of the property, which was overgrown with willow trees, wild mint and nettles where otters left the carcasses of fish.              
 The island was reputed to have been the setting for much of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, who had lived in the village, and the house had previously belonged to a relative of Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster in the 1860s. Basil Rathbone, the film actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, had rented it for holidays where he had entertained a number of well known stars, a fact which thrilled my mother much to the irritation of my father who considered anything connected with the cinema to be trivial.
  Life became unexpectedly blissful. As my parents busied themselves unpacking tea chests containing all our worldly goods or buying second hand furniture to fill the empty rooms, I spent most of my time discovering nature, for much of the garden, unlike the one in Finchley, was wild and untended. Birds nested low in the bushes, tiger patterned spiders spun their webs across hedges and, under rocks and stones, earwigs, woodlice and worms lived their dark undisturbed contented lives till I came along.
 During my earlier bouts of breathing problems, from which I no longer suffered, I had been sent to various spas and had learned to swim. Though there was always a risk that I might fall into the river and drown, I was allowed to paddle the long, narrow punt that had come with the property up and down the rive, while my sister, also discovering her new found freedom, took a great delight in climbing the apple and pear trees pretending to be a damsel in distress or something equally daft.
 These exceptional pleasures, however, were not to last. As a family we were quite unaware that it was unwise for foreigners like us to purchase one of the most idyllic houses in the centre of a home counties village and expect to be welcomed with open arms by the locals.
 My sister and I were the first to suffer their indignation...

Weir Pool House, Pangbourne.
Regine and Simone over the river.

Monday, 26 March 2012


The scene is a 14 year old boy’s bedroom.
The boy, in pyjamas, is sitting upright in bed, his mother, in a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette, sits close to him, her lover, in a dressing gown stands by the window looking out at the night sky. It is three o’clock in the morning, the atmosphere is tense between them.
The boy speaks.
'If Dad is not my Father, who is ? '
It is an important question. It is the most important question he has ever asked.
His mother draws lengthily on her cigarette and blows out a cloud of smoke before answering.
'He is Belgian and a very respectable and influential man..'
'What’s his name ? ' the boy asks.

 'I’ll tell you his name when you’re older. I don’t want you to try and find him, writing to him, or anything like   that.'
 'Why not ? '
 'He’s married with two daughters. He’s in the diplomatic service and if it got known that he had had an extra marital affair and that you were the result it would cause a scandal which could wreck his career.'
 The boy, unsettled, takes this in, then asks, 'Does he know about me ? Does he know I’m his son ? '
  'Does Dad....'he hesitates at the word....' Does...Father know I’m not his son ?'
  'Yes, but he must never know that you know. That would be terrible for him.'  The boy throws himself back on his pillows closing his eyes. His mother glances at her lover unsure of her son’s reaction.
   The boy, his eyes still closed, smiles to himself ‘ I’m no longer Daddy’s son then......Well, that’s a relief. ‘
   ’He can be severe sometimes, I know, but he’s a good man,' his mother says. 'He has been very good to me and to you. Now that you know the truth it is imperative that you go on behaving as though you were his. You must promise me that you’ll do that. He’s made himself believe that you’re his son and is proud of what you may turn out to be due to him.'
   'Does he live in England, my real father ?' the boy asks.
   'I don’t know, but I don’t think so. We lost contact with each other before you were born and I’ve heard nothing about him since. He was probably in Belgium when the country was invaded by the Germans. He may not be alive.'
  There is silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts, then his mother says 'I’ll tell you everything you want to know in more detail in the morning. but it’s very late now and we must all get some sleep.'
   The boy was me.
  I couldn’t sleep of course, so I got out of bed, went to what we called the music room, closed the door, sat down at the drum kit I had been given for my last birthday and, for about ten minutes, beat the hell out of the snare drum, the base drum, the bongos and the cymbals. 

Thursday, 22 March 2012


My mother, Simone, Adele, Bremond ( Simmy ) aged 16, was married to Edward Joseph Launay ( Eddy ) aged 27, in August 1921 at the church of Notre Dame in Nice.
 It was not a happy union.
 After the ceremony, Eddy whisked Simmy off from the sunny summery Cote d’Azur to grey, rainy London where they were to live with his humourless parents ( Swiss mother, French father ) in a suburban villa in Finchley.
 Simmy very soon missed the company of her fun friends, swimming in the blue Mediterranean and the beach parties, but she did manage to delay becoming pregnant for five years though Eddy was very keen to have a son and heir as soon as possible.
 When she finally delivered him a child it turned out to be a girl and he was very disappointed. But four years later, I was born, which should have put things right.
 Eddy was over the moon and immediately started making plans for my education and apprenticeship in the catering business as it was never put in question that I would not follow in his footsteps.
 But then things went wrong.
 On a bright April morning in 1931,  the trained nanny hired to look after me, wheeled my pram out into the back garden of the family house so that I could benefit from a little fresh air. She was a trifle annoyed when my mother followed right behind, thinking she was going to be reprimanded as the day was decidedly chilly, but all my loving mummy wanted to do was marvel at what nature had helped her produce.     
 'He really is quite well made,' my mother said, smiling proudly down at me as I kicked my little fat legs in the air discovering the joys of life.
 ' I've seen better,' the dour Scottish nanny replied, then added, 'and in my opinion he looks remarkably like that foreign gentleman friend of yours who lived next door.'   

The wedding

Simone and baby Andre

Friday, 16 March 2012


My mother, Simone, Adele, Bremond, was beset by a major problem most of her life. She was undeniably attractive and knew it.
  With raven black hair, large, deep brown olive shaped eyes and long eye lashes which she quickly learned to bat innocently at vulnerably sensitive men of all ages, she had no trouble at all as a child getting what she wanted.  Born in Monte Carlo in 1905 she grew up in the fashionable Edwardian world of the Cote d’Azur and by the time she was fifteen she had developed into such an attractive and accomplished young girl that Maman (her mother), saw in her the potential of an advantageous marriage and pushed her to meet the ‘beau monde’ when opportunities presented themselves.
 Rich eligible young men were sought, the majority of whom Simone found quite uninteresting. She liked a supposed White Russian prince of eighteen who was discouraged from seeing her again when it came to light that he had no money. The son of a Swedish millionaire proved to be more interested in men, and Giovanni, an  Italian count who taught her how to kiss during a ride in a fiacre without a chaperone was sent packing when ‘Maman’ found out he was already married.

  One afternoon Simone was introduced to a gentleman from London at the house of a mutual family friend. She thought him rather attractive, he was ten years older than her and she was very flattered when he suggested they should take a walk together down the garden path after a traditional English tea. The meeting had been arranged by her mother, but she was unaware of that.
  His name was Edward, like the Prince of Wales, Maman pointed out. He was smartly dressed  ‘á l’anglaise’ , a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, white shirt, striped tie, white flannel trousers.
  When they were some distance from the rest of the tea party and they had conversed politely about the weather and the beautiful flowers on display, he told her she could call him ‘Eddy’. She was then taken aback when he asked her, straight out, whether she was a virgin.
  ‘I’m only fifteen’ she protested
  ‘I just wanted to make sure, ‘ he replied. ' It is important that you should be. '
  On the way home young Simone realized her mother was taking it for granted that she would accept ‘Eddy’ as a husband. Incredulous at the thought of marrying anyone so soon, she kept quiet hoping the ridiculous idea would be forgotten. But from that tea party onwards the beauty of England, the glories of London, the admiration for George V and Queen Mary and the gossip about the aristocratic English visitors on the coast, were hammered into her young head to the point that she eventually believed herself to be the luckiest girl in the world to have the opportunity of such a brilliant union.
 The following Easter, Eddy turned up to propose.
 One evening the couple were left alone in the drawing room for this purpose. They sat next to each other on the sofa, he reached for her hand and said, very seriously,  'Simone, you are a very young, innocent, beautiful girl who needs to be protected from the evils of the world. I would like to do this for you and am asking for your hand in marriage.'
 'Yes, alright, ' she apparently answered, with not quite as much enthusiasm as he clearly would have wished. He then, for the first time, kissed her on both cheeks, then on the mouth. She parted her lips and stuck her tongue out a little as Giovanni the Italian count had taught her, and Eddy leapt back in shock.
 'Where did you learn that ? '
  'What ?' she asked, wide eyed.
  'Who taught you to kiss like that ?'
   'Like what ?'
   'You opened your lips !'
   'I was gasping for breath,'  she said batting her long eye lashes. 'You so took me by surprise.'
    It was to be the first lie of very many to come.

The proposal

 Young Simone and Eddie

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH... a soothsayer whispered in Julius Caesar’s ear in Shakespear’s drama, warning him that on the 15th of that month something somewhat untoward would happen. I know this because I played the emperor in a school production of the play and, more significantly, that date was my mother’s birthday but also the day a surgeon chose to remove my appendix when I was 14 which, in a roundabout way, led to the biggest upheaval of my life.
 I was convalescing at home from the operation. My father was away, so was my sister, the only people in the house were my mother, myself and a guest lodger, Pierre, a twenty two year old film technician working at Denham Studios whom I worshipped, for he not only came back in the evenings with stories about the stars, the directors and producers but he had set up a dark room in our attic where he developed stills of scenes he had been engaged in filming. I was stage struck following my performance as the Roman ruler and wanted to be an actor.
 One night I got out of bed to go to the bathroom and was puzzled by a pink glow emanating from Pierre’s room,     

 I padded down the corridor, peeped in through the half open door and found myself staring at a red kerchief draped over the bedside lamp and Pierre, stark naked, on top of my mother who wasn’t wearing much either.
 I remained rooted long enough for them to become aware of my presence and, when Pierre looked round and saw me, and my mother stared up at me in disbelief, I turned on my heels and ran back to my room.
 Shock was not what I experienced.
 Shock suggests surprise, distress, bewilderment, hurt.
 That is not what I felt.
 I was simply dumbfounded at my own naivety, by my lack of perception, not having twigged that a relationship between them had developed under my nose.
 Of course! My mother and Pierre were lovers. She had probably fallen in love with him from the moment she had set eyes on him. And why not ? He was very good looking, fascinating, lively, cultured, fun, a lot more fun than poor old Dad.
 I got back into bed and, minutes later, there was a very soft knock on the door. Nobody ever knocked on my door.
 My mother, in Pierre’s bathrobe, came in and stood looking at me, her eyes searching mine for any indication of my feelings. 

 Guilt was written all over her face, etched in her frown. She was biting her lower lip. She was not my mother at that moment, and I was not her little boy. The roles were reversed. She was a young girl who had erred and I possibly a very unforgiving adult.   
 She sat down on my bed, reached out for me, pulled me to her and hugged me like never before.
 I wanted to reassure her that everything was alright, that I wasn’t offended, that it didn’t matter, but had no idea what to say.
 Pierre then came in and stood by the doorway looking doleful. He was wearing my father’s dressing gown.
 They looked at each other. They looked at me.
  ‘You mustn’t tell your father,’ my mother said after a moment. ‘You mustn’t tell him because..... well.... because..... he’s not your father.'

My mother as a wild teenager 

My mother in 1946 with Somerset Maugham and one of her lovers.

Friday, 9 March 2012


It is unlikely that anyone reading this will immediately see a connection between apples and World War II gas masks but, as far as I am concerned, there is one.
 I live in Spain most of the time but occasionally visit my daughter in London in order to keep up with modern trends as the world I live in tends to be a fraction behind the times.
 On my last trip a couple of weeks ago, I promptly lost my old mobile which was a tragedy because it had taken me some time to master its complexities and I dreaded getting a new fangled one which would complicate my life even more, worse, when I informed my daughter of this set back she just shrugged and said 'No problem, we’ll go to the apple store.’
 I was puzzled, presuming she was planning to cook apple crumble for dinner, but she was apparently referring to a famous computer technology emporium in Regent Street which we would visit that afternoon so that I could see all the up-to-date gadgets available on the market, be instructed on how to use one I liked, then buy one linked to my contract when back in Spain, or something equally complicated.
 The moment we walked in through the impressive entrance, a number of wildly intelligent looking geeks in blue shirts, with half eaten apple logos on their chests, closed in on us offering assistance...
 Looking around me, I calculated that the average age of the other shoppers was probably fourteen. Most were dexterously flicking fingers over the screens of various iDevices or glueing iPhones to their ears. My daughter helped me choose the simplest application and asked an assistant to instruct me on how to use it.
  'Please concentrate, Daddy,' she said.

 I instantly slipped into second childhood mode, panic stricken that I would not understand anything. Back in 1939, when I was eight, I remembered being in a similar life threatening situation.  
 My parents, my sister, cook and the gardener had all piled into the family car to be driven to a centre where we were to be issued with gas masks.
 When each of us were handed a rubber and metal device, we were all shown how to slip it over our heads after adjusting vital straps to make sure that no poisonous gasses would get in round the ears, down through the eyebrows and under the chin or we would die horribly.
 'Do you understand what you have to do ? ' my mother asked me, extremely concerned. 'You may be on your own when there is an attack.'
 'He’s got all the straps wrong and he can’t wear his spectacles with the mask on.' the instructor said.
  Adjusting the straps was an art, I could not get the hang of how to do it and I gave up, proof to my father that I was an imbecile. 
  A few days later, when the first air raid warning blared out, everyone got very frightened and scuttled to their improvised shelters. Wearing the mask but no glasses, I was led blindly to ours, a mattress in a cupboard under the stairs on which we sat closely together to await death. 
  Nothing happened for half an hour then the All Clear sounded and we went out into the garden to search for the pussy cat that had risked annihilation by not joining us.
  There was never any need for me to wear the gas mask again that was discarded, unlike the new iPhone I have saddled myself with which I am trying to fathom. So far I have made contact with The Mayflower Tea Rooms in Northampton, a donkey sanctuary in Holland and my cantankerous ex brother in law who has refused to speak to me since I divorced his sister forty five years ago.  

My mother, the cook, the maid, the nanny, my sister and me 1939.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


Towards the end of my first term at the Finchley school where  my parents decided  to send me, Miss Kennedy, my less than accommodating teacher, was made aware that I did not understand English and that I was so short sighted I couldn’t see the blackboard.
  She did not take to this situation kindly and apparently rang my mother to tell her that I was as blind as a bat and that something should be done about it.
  When I got home my extremely anxious mother, sister, nanny and cook met me on the doorstep worried that I might not have seen a double decker bus and got run over.
  I was taken straight to the drawing room, told to sit in a deep armchair while my mother sat some distance away in another.
  She held up a blurred hand.
  'How many fingers ?' she asked.
  'Three.....four....two....?'  I tried.
   'Mon Dieu ! Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu.....' my mother uttered in shock, and my sister sighed deeply  'So he’ll have to wear glasses, poor thing.'
  I was not sent back to the school for the rest of that term. Instead, I was taken by my slim, always elegantly dressed, attractive mother, to a number of Harley Street specialists who seemed more interested in her than me but who were all of the same opinion. I was short sighted, myopic, my sister had been right, I would have to wear spectacles with thick lenses which would not improve my angelic looks, rather the contrary.
  Armed with an impressive prescription, my mother took me to an optician who measured the distance between my eyes and the bridge of my nose, the centre of my pupils and the backs of my ears. Within days I was fitted with my first pair of very round spectacles and invited to look at my reflection in a mirror.
  Quite frankly, I didn’t much like what I saw, but I didn’t think my new appearance warranted the despair my mother displayed.
  'Mon pauvre, pauvre, petit,' she said, giving me a rare hug, 'You must remember that many important men have worn and wear glasses, so you are not the only one.....Schubert....Roosevelt..... Groucho Marx....' She had obviously looked them up for the occasion. And that afternoon, to add insult to injury, she ushered  my sister, Nanny, and Cook into the garden, handed them each a pair of old spectacles and took a photograph of me surrounded by all of them wearing the horrid things. The idea was to stop me feeling different, but it naturally had the opposite effect as the minute the photo-call was over, everyone whipped of their offending glasses and went happily about their own business.
  Later, my sister voiced the opinion that, if I had been brighter, I might have looked like a wise old owl, but as I was a bit dim I would have to be satisfied with looking like a frog, which I did not think at all funny as I was already being called ‘froggy’ at school.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


I was seven when it was decided I should be given an English education, hardly surprising since I was London born and lived in Finchley. We were a very middle class french family governed, it seemed to me, by our own and other people’s intake of food, for my father ran a successful business manufacturing and importing high class table delicacies.
 My mother spent most of her mornings discussing the day’s menus with our fat, french, resident cook and, on Sundays, gourmet friends were entertained to luncheon or dinner,  interminable meals during which I had  to sit at the table with the adults in order to learn about life and improve my mind. The educational conversations that I remember from that time,  when not about the last amazing meal consumed or the next amazing meal planned, was centred round the abdication of  Edward VIII because of some American woman sleeping with him, an Italian called Mussolini invading Addis Ababa, a Spaniard called Franco killing his own people and, in 1938 a very important agreement being signed by politicians in Munich which was a relief to all as it meant that my father would still be able to import Foie Gras from Strasbourg and caviare from the Caspian Sea.
 Up till then I had been taught how to read and write in french by a Nanny from Toulouse who had dry hands, wore a starched uniform to impress the neighbours and had the unpleasant habit of hitting me with a hairbrush when I got things wrong.
 One fatal day, despite protestations and ignored bouts of pretended coughs, I was delivered into the hands of a Miss Fern who ran a local establishment of learning. I was made to wear an apple green cap and apple green blazer with a crest on the breast pocket bearing the legend ‘Fern Bank School’,
 The school  was a living hell for me from day one. I had hardly ever mixed with other children and the sharp nosed teacher of my class was a Miss Kennedy from Ireland who had a remarkably short fuse.  She took an instant dislike to me and, to avoid the irritation of my inane expression which signified a total lack of comprehension about anything, she put me right at the back of the classroom. Towards the end of the first hideous term when, I suppose, she had to think of writing  a report on my progress, she made the effort of checking what I might have learnt. Having written a simple mathematical problem on the blackboard to test my multiplication abilities and asked me for an answer, she completely lost it when I remained silent and petrified. Storming down to my desk she pulled me up, shook me violently by the shoulders and screamed into my face ‘ Three times seven is twenty one, you stupid boy, have you learnt absolutely nothing since you’ve been here !!!?’
 I naturally burst into tears.
 ‘Excuse me miss, ‘ the little boy at the desk next to me bravely dared, ‘ but I don’t think he can see the blackboard miss.’
  ‘Can’t see the blackboard? Then why the hell didn’t he say so ?’
  ‘He doesn’t speak our language miss.’