I can be fairly certain this was the first photograph I ever took. It is in the back garden at Alstead Avenue and I would be using the only camera the family owned for years – the Kodak Brownie 127. ” Be careful, don’t drop it, press the shutter once, don’t forget to wind it on” would have been just a selection of the instructions received from my ever-vigilant mother. In perfect nosey-neighbour fashion, Mrs Hillier is watching proceedings from an upper window. She would have felt very much at home in the Stasi.
The trellis fence in the background divided east from west and would take my weight for all the years it was necessary. Retrieval of footballs, tennis balls, paper aeroplanes and cricket stumps/harpoons was a constant necessity and inevitably resulted in shouted orders from either side of the divide. Children in the 1950s were at best tolerated, always mistrusted, invariably harshly punished. We knew our place.
Mr Hillier was ex-RAF and ‘affectionately’ known as “Hillybum” – I have no idea why. He drove a cream Mk VIII Hillman Minx at a time when all cars were black. The connection between Hillman, Hillier and Hillybum was reassuringly alliterative, entirely logical. He would pass away not long after this was taken but not before we all ended up on the same beach in Wales one bright summer. This was entirely by coincidence, happy or otherwise. The gathering from left to right comprises Mrs Hillier (taking notes), their daughter Joy (eternally single), me (performing cat impressions), sister Pat (eating as always), mother (presiding over the sandwich tin), ‘Hillybum’, cousin Brian, uncle Ed and aunt Bet:
I learned to keep a distance from mother – an arm’s length being the absolute minimum. I seem to have been caught off-guard in this frozen moment. I am dangerously within striking distance. My behaviour was a constant cause for concern and always threatened the involvement of a third party if my dad was not immediately available.
In my teenage years, the dynamics had not changed. I can’t remember which particular boundary I had crossed or to which mortal sin I had succumbed but, mother was determined to fetch an outsider ‘to sort me out’. I was used to these threats and was fairly sure this one was empty but I made my escape regardless. A few minutes later, Kent cigarette in hand, from the darkness of the alleyway across the road I saw my mother return, alone and without a house key. Hysterical shouts echoed across the street – “What are you doing in there, don’t play with matches, you will set the house on fire – ROBIN, LET, ME, IN!” Her leaps of the imagination finally overwhelmed any sense of reason as the night air filled with the sound of breaking glass. If I wasn’t before, I was certainly in trouble now.