Adventures in aviation
I had reached the stage that Jean Piaget, the once-fashionable child psychologist described as ‘concrete operational’. I could conserve mass and weight. That means I knew that large solid things could not go through small holes. I understood now that if I sat on the adult toilet I would not fall through the seat and even if I did, I was too big to be flushed away round the bend.
How was it that I still believed Santa Claus could come down our narrow chimney to deliver presents? I had heard about boy chimney sweeps who, driven by cruel masters, in former centuries had to climb inside flues with brushes to remove soot. I also knew that they lived, and died, miserably, in that dreadful time. Chimneys in mansions then were very big and wide. Little boys did indeed climb up inside them. It could never happen in our ordinary house with ordinary grates in ordinary fireplaces. I knew that, Dr Piaget.
Yet we, my sister Audrey and I, used to send letters to Father Christmas by writing our wishes on paper (or getting Mummy to write them) and floating them up the chimney in the smoke. The upward draught from the fire was quite strong enough to carry them away. Since Santa had to come down the chimney, we supposed, if we sent a message up that way he would be sure to get it.
I did notice that sometimes a letter to Santa would re-appear mysteriously, a little smudged and charred, in the fireplace ashes next morning. He must have read it during the night before letting it fall.
On this first-remembered occasion, days in advance, I begged Santa to bring me an aeroplane.
On Christmas morning when I awoke there was a shiny tin tower standing on the floor near the bed. On top of it, there were mounted two small aeroplanes with propellers, at each end of a horizontal rod which could be pushed round and round rapidly to make the propellers spin. If I pushed it the other way round, the aeroplanes went backwards and the propellers rotated the other way too. The gift was well meant, but the planes didn’t really fly and I was soon bored with them. Didn’t Father Christmas understand that I wanted a proper aeroplane, not a silly tin toy? I hope my disappointment was not too obvious.
More interesting was a gift that came later, perhaps for my birthday. It was an elaborate, laminated cardboard representation of Croydon Airport. There was a horizontal base for the grass field with a stand-up background painting of hangars, the control tower and terminal building. Included were several large and shiny pre-cut sheets of card, with images of aeroplanes of all sorts. The green base and the sky background had numerous slots. After separating the aircraft from the sheets they could be slotted into the field or the sky, in any one of a score of different positions. There were some passengers and a few servicing vehicles too. This game occupied me for hours because all the things could be moved about and fitted into different places. It needed only a little imagination to make up stories from this. I could even have people and refuelling bowsers up in the sky if I felt silly. I felt silly sometimes.
Yet these cardboard aeroplanes, even the one representing the gigantic Handley Page, four-engined biplanes, didn’t really fly.
Handley Page HP 42
Grandpa and Grandma came to visit us once for Guy Fawkes Night, November 5th. I guess it was 1935. They brought a box of fireworks and after dark we assembled in the garden to set them off. We ate roast potatoes cooked on our family bonfire and ate home made treacle toffee. It tasted delightfully of smoke. We kids had sparklers to wave about as they fizzed and made little shooting stars. Rockets were stood on their sticks in empty bottles and fired, Catherine wheels were pinned onto fence posts to spin round and round delightfully until they died with a last incomplete turn. Roman candles shot brilliant lights into the air. There was a sort of volcano that poured out ugly, smoking lava.
Most exciting of all, there was a little rocket aeroplane! How wonderful! It had a cylindrical body and cardboard wings. Surely it would fly!
The instructions were to lay it horizontally on some sort of raised platform or table, pointing into a clear space. We had no convenient launching platform so it was placed on one of the house windowsills, directed along the garden. Daddy lit the blue touchpaper, and as instructed, stood clear. The touchpaper fizzed and seemed to go out. Grandpa went over and put his hand over the firework, I suppose to feel if it was still alight. It was. The plane shot off, leaving him swearing with a burned hand.
The flight was most disappointing. The aeroplane only went a few yards and crashed, fizzing away and rotating uselessly on the damp lawn. Grandpa complained bitterly and said that such fireworks should be forbidden.
Marie and Winnie Hayes were sisters. They had never married. There were a vast number of unmarried young women after the First World War, because so many men had been killed. To Audrey and me, they were courtesy aunts. They arrived one bright summer day with gifts.
Audrey got one of those pretty paper and bamboo parasols and I got an aeroplane. It was made quite stoutly of heavy cardboard with a piece of lead stuck to the nose to balance it properly. Whoever designed this knew something. Getting the balance right was all-important. A length of string was attached to one wing tip. The idea was to stand in a clear space and whirl the aeroplane round and round on the cord. By raising or lowering the hand holding the tether, the plane could be made to go up and down a little. Before long I discovered that it could be whipped round really fast, emitting a whirring noise. One could almost believe it had an engine!
On one of these trials the string slipped from my hand and the aeroplane shot across the garden to arrive heavily in the bushes. It flew!
I started doing this regularly. Mummy with the two aunties, and Audrey with her parasol deployed in the sun, were sitting outside the French window on deck chairs. Mum suddenly realised that my releasing the aeroplane when it was going so fast created some risk. It might crash into a window with its leaden nose weight! I was told to stop letting go of the string.
I was usually a good little boy but this time, for once, I disobeyed. The disaster happened. The ‘plane flew away from me beautifully all along the length of the garden and smashed, not the window, but Audrey’s lovely parasol! She wept and, rightly, I was blamed. The parasol was irreparable. I lost the aeroplane too, though not because it was damaged. The Aunties were too polite to say anything.
But my aeroplane had flown!
 This was a famous example of modern architecture. It is now a listed building housing a photo museum and restaurant.