For a boy with such a Welsh name, Ivor Davies knew remarkably little about the land of his fathers. Indeed, he knew very little about his own particular father, struck fatally by a Number 53 bus while he was crossing the Old Kent Road in driving rain after several hours and pints too many in the Dun Cow.
Ivor’s parents had moved to Greenwich in South East London shortly after they were married. His father, apparently wistful for broader horizons, had exchanged his job as a booking clerk at Cardiff’s Queen Street Station for a similar post at London Bridge. Ivor was born a year later, but there were what his mother darkly called “complications” and he was never blessed with brothers or sisters, so they were a small family. His father was not a happy man in his new job and environment and would occasionally sit at the foot of Ivor’s bed late at night lamenting the day that he had ever exchanged South Wales for London, sentiments entirely wasted on Ivor who was less than two years old and generally fast asleep anyway.
Had his father not vanished from his life so rapidly a few months later, Ivor would still have rejected those anti-London sentiments in the years that followed. He liked London very much indeed, particularly the wide green spaces of Greenwich Park, less than a half a mile down Greenwich High Road from their council flat. He loved the short walk past the Cutty Sark and the Royal Naval College. When he was small he loved primary school walks to the park with his little friends, and racing them up the steep path past the Royal Observatory and over the line of the Greenwich Meridian to the statue of James Wolfe, gazing keenly out over the naval college and the National Maritime Museum, where he spent so many hours on winter weekends, to the Isle of Dogs.
As the years passed, if he and one or two of his friends from school grew bored with the park on a Saturday afternoon, they might gallop back down to the bottom and past the Cutty Sark again to the foot tunnel under the river. The docklands on the other side - strictly out of bounds to them, but who was to know? - had yet to be re-developed and there were plenty of exciting places to explore along Limehouse Reach and West India Dock.
His mother seemed settled enough in her life as he grew up. She became manageress of a shoe shop in Lewisham. She was never home until past six in the evenings. On Wednesday afternoons she spent her time off window-shopping for display and sales ideas in the Oxford Street stores of the West End, only half an hour away on the train from Greenwich via Deptford, and the tube, and treating herself to lunch out. In school holidays she would take Ivor with her and they would go to a film in one of the palatial Leicester Square cinemas – all seats five bob before 4pm – or maybe walk in Regent’s Park from where you could see the polar bears and the head of the occasional giraffe in the nearby zoo.
Saturday was her busiest day. She left early and was home late, sometimes not till past seven if head office wanted the books cleared by Monday morning. And yet, much as Ivor loved his mother in the few short hours he saw her – she would spend almost all of Sunday resting in bed – Saturday was his favourite day.
As he grew older, he gradually drifted away from his own circle of school friends who became no more than casual classroom company. Every other Saturday they would go up the road to watch Charlton Athletic at The Valley, but he would still take his favourite walk up through the park, past Wolfe and beyond to the big gates that opened on to Blackheath where he would hop on to a Number 53 bus, the same route that caused his father’s sad demise, and, seizing one of the front seats upstairs when it became vacant, would ride blissfully into the West End on his own.
On his own – that was what he came to love best. He might wander down Shaftesbury Avenue, examining the blown up photographs of the great stage stars, some of whose names and faces he recognised from films he had seen with his mother, or from plays they had watched together on their little ten-inch television. He would imagine the author’s name over the theatre was his own. The Birthday Party by Ivor Davies, Look Back in Anger by Ivor Davies.
He would drift round Trafalgar Square, ducking the low flying clouds of wheeling pigeons showing off in front of the tourists who eagerly bought bags of corn to feed them and seemed oddly amused when the birds unloaded their previous meal in a milky mess on their shoulders or sleeves. Sometimes a couple of Japanese or American tourists would hand him their cameras and ask him to take their pictures with the fountains splashing behind them, pointing up at the distant Nelson at the top of his column, or up on the steps of the National Gallery.
On wet days he preferred the National Portrait Gallery next door which had an immediacy he found lacking in paintings of landscapes and other subjects. He was very young. Sometimes there were special photographic exhibitions: he imagined Portraits of Ivor Davies, striking views of a man of our time. On the other hand, if he wandered back to Charing Cross and headed down Villiers Street to cross the river by Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank opposite, he would see himself replacing Peter Katin on the posters outside the Festival Hall: Ivor Davies plays Chopin. Perhaps Special Ivor Davies Season.
Sometimes after a bun and a glass of pop in the Lyon’s Corner House next to Charing Cross station he would wander up the Strand past the Savoy and then on to Fleet Street and then admire the imposing offices of the great national newspapers, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, the smaller London offices of the Irish Times, The Scotsman. The Western Morning Post, international news agencies, countless pubs and cafes from which a gratifying number of men in trilby hats and trench coats, all smoking frantically and clearly in a hurry emerged at frequent intervals.
He imagined the placards: Ivor Davies reports from the war front. Ivor Davies on the Churchill I know. He loved the view up Ludgate Hill with the backdrop of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and on one of his walks once arrived outside the Old Bailey just as the major characters of a cause celebre were emerging from the Central Criminal Court to be greeted by a barrage of flashing cameras, cries of “This way, Your Ladyship!” and more of the trench coats complete with notebooks and pencils. It was more like a film than the films themselves. Brilliant advocate Sir Ivor Davies QC told our correspondent: “I always knew Lady Bountiful would be proved innocent“.
Up above, the figure of Justice with her scales looked out across London, just as she did in so many Edgar Lustgarten second features he had seen with his mother. Ivor Davies Introduces… more stories of Scotland Yard.
From all of this it can be seen that Ivor loved London very dearly and was also something of a Walter Mitty, a dreamer, although this was less romantically paraphrased on his dismal school reports: “C. He lacks concentration”. “C-. He makes little effort.” “D. Lazy and inattentive. He plays no part in classroom discussions.” These reports would have been depressing enough for his poor mother had he been labouring to keep up with sharp minds in a good London grammar school. But he had not passed the eleven-plus and the secondary modern school where he ended up was not the best in the borough.
He was the most anonymous of pupils, his activities on the sports field being as undistinguished as those in the classroom. He remained on friendly enough terms with most of the boys in his form as he made no enemies and hardly offered any sort of threat to the ambitions or well-being of others. He would still occasionally meet them in the park after school on summer evenings or at weekends, drift off to the chip shop with them on the way home on a winter afternoon and on rare occasions join them in the library to do homework. They rapidly grew tired of the peace of the library and went on their way soon enough, or were evicted by the irate chief librarian for eating or laughing or sniggering over art book nudes, but Ivor would remain until closing time at seven. He was not actually working by now, but reading the latest novels on the New Fiction trolley, looking for what he called controversial bits. There were disappointingly few, but he came to enjoy a surprising number of the new novelists of the 1950s, Kingsley Amis being his favourite. And when all else failed, there were shelves of matchless Just William stories and Capt W.E. Johns’ Biggles adventures in the adjacent children’s library
These library sessions had the advantage of allowing him to arrive home to watch television with no work to worry about and also spared him getting supper for his mother and himself, although he did this readily enough on other evenings during the week.
He was held in no particular esteem or affection by neighbours and the few friends of his mother who, if they had given him a moment’s thought, would not have considered him a boy to be particularly missed if he vanished from the face of the earth overnight.
This, in effect, was what he did do, as far as most of them were concerned when his mother, whose health was less robust than she had realised, collapsed at work one lunchtime and never regained consciousness. Her heart had given out. The news was brought by a kindly constable from the local police station at the bottom of Hyde Vale, another of Ivor’s alternative routes up to Blackheath and the main entrance to Greenwich Park. He had just eaten his scrambled eggs and fetched out a tin of baked beans ready for his mother’s supper when the doorbell rang.
The policeman, who had been dreading the call, was relieved that the young chap took it so well. An obliging neighbour, Mr Burnage, an elderly widower who had exchanged occasional greetings with Ivor’s mother over the years and even accompanied them both on the odd bank holiday outing to the park, offered to take him in for the night until relatives were informed. When the policeman found that Mr Burnage had been a special constable himself during the war years, he accepted the offer gratefully and added it to his report.
Ivor later had virtually no recollection of that night. He made polite conversation with the old gentleman and begged him not to turn the television off on his account so together they watched, unseeing, a variety of programmes from The Grove Family to Sportsview before close-down at 10.30pm when another policeman arrived on the doorstep. He reported that relatives of Ivor’s father – his mother had none – had been informed of the situation and would be in touch in due course.
Ivor was shown up to the Spartan spare bedroom where he climbed into the hard little bed with cold crisp sheets and cried himself to sleep over the next two hours as the unfortunate Mr Burnage agonised in the bedroom next door over whether he should comfort him or not, but decided, probably correctly, that the boy was best left to mourn his mother alone.
He mourned her because she had been a good and loving mother and particularly because he thought it sad that she had nobody else in the world to mourn her or miss her. That seemed to him to be very upsetting and it was the thought with which he eventually drifted off to sleep.