Chapter 3

Chapter 3




I left Stowe at the end of the Easter term in 1929, when I was 18 years of age, and Dick and I both went out to Mexico, for the summer holidays, to stay with the parents who were still together, Ruth being already out there, and it was to be our last time together as a family. We journeyed out there in a German freighter that carried twelve passengers, and was scheduled to take two weeks for the voyage to Vera Cruz, We called in at Havana, and spent the best part of a day there when it was pre Batista, and pre Castro, and a very free and easy city. After leaving Cuba a storm known as a “Norte” blew up, and the ship had to hove to, head to sea, for three days. Most of the passengers were in a miserable state from sea sickness as the ship was only a small one and the waves enormous. We were young and loved it!


Father met us in Vera Cruz in his private railway carriage “Malinche” which had been built for a Cuban millionaire, but not taken over by him. It was all brass and mahogany, had three bedrooms, a shower, a dining-sitting room, an observation platform, and of course a kitchen etc. There were two stewards with it, one to cook, and the other to look after us and wait at table etc. Both were American blacks and great fun, especially the cook, Dave, who was enormously fat , and could hardly manage the corridor. The railway from Vera Cruz to Mexico City must be one of the most scenic in the world, going as it does from sea level tropical country to a temperate climate 8000 feet up, and it was a most interesting journey, and especially nice to be rejoining the family.


Mexico at that time was a very wild and lawless country, with bandits roaming in the countryside away from the larger cities, and every train had an armoured carriage at its end in which were a body of soldiers, to protect the passengers. It was commonly said, that in the event of a bandit hold up, the soldiers were of more danger to the passengers than the bandits, being better armed and just as poor, more inclined to kill and rob rather than just rob. Not surprising really as they were nearly all conscripts, seldom paid, and expected to live off the land. Fortunately we never encountered any bandits on the railway, but did occasionally see, when travelling around the country by car, the body of an alleged bandit by the roadside, summarily shot by the army, or so one was told, but it was quite as likely that sometimes they were simply peasants who had refused a demand for cash or food.


We had a wonderful holiday, riding in the early morning, playing golf and swimming at the Country Club, and perhaps tennis in the afternoon, and then probably a party at night. Most weekends we would go to Cuernavaca about two hours drive west of the City, and only 4000 feet above sea level, where Father had a small house with a swimming pool, on the outskirts of a very charming, and unspoilt small town.


Sadly our idyllic stay came to an end, and Mother, Ruth, Dick and I travelled up to San Antonio, with Father, in his private railway coach, and from there to Montreal whence we all returned to England, on the Duchess of Richmond, a Canadian Pacific liner, and had an interesting journey up the St. Lawrence river.


Mother who remained in England permanently, met again with Gordon-Walker, but tragically, when he and she had both obtained their divorces, and were about to marry, he died suddenly of pneumonia, while they were on holiday in Paris.


Father later, in 1935, married Jane and they had a daughter in due course whom they christened Stella.


We went to Cambridge in October, Dick into lodgings, and I into rather gloomy rooms on the ground floor of the college in the second court over looking a not very attractive stretch of the Cam. By this time I had decided to read the Mechanical Sciences Tripos, while Dick read Military Subjects. It was always rather a sore point with me that my tuition fees were more than three times the cost of Dick’s, but Father gave us both exactly the same allowance to pay all our expenses for the whole year viz; £400 per year. My college fees were always about £90 a term and I had to live and clothe myself on the £150 left which was not easy, but I seem to have managed although I did leave Cambridge eventually with a debt to my tailor of over £20, in those days quite a lot of money, which Father kindly paid.


In spite of my good pass into Cambridge, I found the work for the Tripos very hard, and clearly I did not work nearly hard enough, which, regretfully was the pattern of my whole time at Cambridge. I think that I was the only person at Magdalene doing the Tripos or indeed Engineering, and there was only one don remotely interested in the subject, an elderly mathematician called Talbot Peel who thereby was appointed my Tutor, and to whom I had to present myself once a week or less, to help me with any difficulties that I might have in my work. This was a very unsatisfactory way of learning, especially for me who was not wildly enthusiastic about the subject and had more or less drifted into it for want of knowing what I wanted to do. I found the Calculus particularly difficult as we had had no grounding in it at school, although I had been in the top section. The result was that I did rather badly in the first year’s preliminary exam for the Tripos and Peel said that he thought that there was more to Cambridge than the hard slogging which I would have to do if I wanted to pass the Tripos, and suggested that I take the Ordinary degree instead. This I did and I am ashamed to confess that I worked even less in the last two years. Looking back I think that if I had seen my father more often, and had a settled family home to return to in the vacations I would have probably done more work and done better. As it was all I omitted to learn at Cambridge, I had to learn the hard way in later life.


Magdalene was one of the smaller Colleges, and had a disproportionate number of boys from Eton and Winchester and had earned the reputation of being a sort of finishing school for the rich. There were however many others from other schools, and in general our friends came from these, and from other Colleges. I am afraid that we were “hearties”, and not given to intellectual discussion. Early on I joined the O.T.C. in the Cavalry, and although I was already a competent rider, I learnt a great deal more in my three years in the Cavalry. We had a sergeant-major riding instructor from the 17/21st Lancers, and once a week we would parade at a nearby livery stables at 6 in the morning and ride bareback over jumps and in normal cavalry formation drill. It seems odd nowadays to think that in the early 1930s we were still learning to charge with drawn sabres at straw filled dummies, and all the other cavalry manoeuvres that had not changed much since the Crimean War. The worst part of the Cavalry was getting up on a freezing winter morning in a freezing bedroom, lit only by gas, on to a linoleum floor, and having put on uniform, bicycling two miles to the stables. Summer camps however were great fun, usually in Arundel Park in Sussex, as we finished the day’s parades at lunch time, and having fed, watered, and groomed our horses, usually made a bee line for Brighton, or some other place where there were pubs, and girls, in that order of importance. Watering the horses had its excitements, the three troops taking it in turns to water all the squadron horses, so that one rode one horse on a blanket with its rope halter through its mouth as some sort of control, and led two others. The water was some way away from the horse lines, and as one neared the water the horses would quicken their paces sometimes ending in a full gallop, depending on how thirsty they were. The trick was to dismount at the gallop just before the horses halted abruptly at the troughs, and lowered their heads to drink, or one ended in the trough oneself.


Dick, and I both joined the Boxing Club, as we did not feel inclined to play in college team games, especially in summer. In the winter terms we went most evenings to the club which had very inadequate premises very close to Magdalene, which it shared with the fencing club.There we sparred and had lessons and took a lot of exercise. I never attained much eminence, but did meet my brother in the finals of the novices tournament, and boxed in the University team once or twice. In the aforesaid tournament, Dick being three inches taller, and with two good eyes beat me on points, and went on to be reserve lightweight for the Oxford-Cambridge meeting


The three years at Cambridge went all too quickly, and the time had come for Dick and me to think about what we were going to do to earn our livings. Dick had already made up his mind that he was going to join the Army, and had applied to be accepted into the Royal Berkshire Regiment and had been accepted, so went more or less immediately to their Depot. I had thought of joining the Royal Tank Regt, but enquiries made it plain that this was out of the question with one blind eye. I was determined that I would not work in an office, but out of doors, and preferably abroad. In 1932 there was a world wide slump, and jobs were very hard to find. Father then wrote to me and suggested that I return to Mexico to stay with him, and work unpaid with the Railway and learn some practical engineering until things got better. Naturally I jumped at the chance, and in due course sailed on the Cunard liner Scythia for New York. The ship was delayed a bit due to Atlantic storms, and we docked at Boston a few hours late in the early morning. My steward woke me up, to tell me that I must get up immediately, and pack, and disembark as the Railway Agent was on the Dockside waiting to put me on the train for New York. The Agent had realised that our late arrival would mean that I would miss the connecting ship for Mexico in New York, and had sensibly decided that I should proceed by train to N.Y. to save time, but had not been able to forewarn me. There was no chance that I could manage to get ready in the very short time available, and I arrived on deck in time to wave goodbye to him on the dock


As we approached N.Y. I was warned that I would be disembarking before we docked, and to be ready, and shortly as we approached the Docks I saw a launch coming towards us on which was the Agent. The Scythia hove to, and the launch came alongside, and I got aboard it down the gangway. The ship’s passengers were lining the rails to see what very important person was disembarking, and a cheer went up when they saw that it was a young unimportant man, followed by, on the end of a rope, a pencil thick bag with four golf clubs in it. So we made our way across the harbour in the launch, which carried a Customs and an Immigration official on board, and soon came alongside the Ward Liner which had been waiting at dockside for several hours much to the fury of the passengers who had embarked much earlier. I embarked through a side portal and was led with great deference to the best suite on the ship which was to be my cabin for the voyage to Vera Cruz. Amongst the passengers was the Chief Engineer of the Mexican Railway and his wife, and they were especially furious when they saw it was I, and not Father for whom the sailing had been held up for so long, and their anger was by no means diminished when they found out what cabin I had been allotted. Later it transpired that the Ward Line officials too thought that Father was to be the passenger, he being an important customer as No 1 in the Railway and Vera Cruz Harbour and Docks .


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