John Willson

This is an autobiographical account of a post second world war childhood and schooldays in the High Wycombe area, during the forties and fifties.

Reading in essence like a novel there is a real sense of time and place as those knowing High Wycombe will recognise, in particular for those who knew and perhaps still know the northwest of the town. There are elements of nostalgia, resonant of Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’, or William in the ‘Just William’ stories but Comer avoids sentimentality. He describes his early life as it was -  the austerity of the times but with the freedoms enjoyed by children  -  freedoms now gone in a changed world.

Comer lived on the edge of a town which has itself changed irrecoverably in the last half century and in describing his life, thinly disguises (or not!) references to people’s real names.

There is a universal appeal in the evocation of the joys, puzzles and fears of growing up but with its specific sense of place this book will fascinate the reader familiar with the area and searching perhaps for similarities to their own early experience.

 

There are three sections to the book:  

The Chiltern Hills.  
Grammar School Boy  
Charmed Lives.


The first describes his boyhood territory - Plomer Hill, and Branchwood -   conflicts with  the Downley kids (‘and then it dawned on us, the Downley kids have got him’…’they’d beat you up’) and West Wycombe school  - Gaffer and maypole dancing, school blackberrying expeditions, crazes,  the caves and grass sledging on the hill. Then working towards the 11 plus…

The second section describes his time at the Royal Grammar School (interspersed by a couple of years living in Canterbury).  He says,     ‘school for me was like the sea or the mountains, it was there, I went to it without a thought’. Comer’s matter of fact descriptions of the stern, formal, ‘public school’ ethos of  the RGS with its formality and its punishments (Pilgy pinging ears with elastic bands and annual canings by the Head ) contrast with those of the village school at West Wycombe. His time at Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury was a happier one. He was encouraged to write, and one story, loosely based on the radio programme ‘Dick Barton, Special Agent’ was in the form magazine, however his teacher had to edit the final lines as ‘It was too gruesome, he said…. the audience wouldn’t enjoy reading it; it would upset them’.

Then back to Wycombe, the RGS, rugby, boxing, the cadet force , dancing classes with the High School girls and meeting his girl friend outside the Rex cinema on a Saturday night. There is a wonderful word picture of the entertainment available in the town then  -   coffee bars, the Liberal Club and the cinemas –  '… the Rex, not as posh as the Odeon, but higher up than the Palace which was a flea pit, but the real flea pit was the Grand in Desborough Road…’

The final section, ‘Charmed Lives’, describes the beginnings of his escape from High Wycombe, before university  - trips down to the West Country, camping and using empty houses for shelter with his friends. There is a great sense of freeing the bonds, with French girls and cider in Sidmouth, ‘ on the road’… a long way from home.  But back, for a while, to Ma, the bungalow, and Branchwood. Comer writes, of 1961, the year he left home,‘ the losses, the deaths, the fragmentation hadn’t even begun. We had lived charmed lives until then. We had been the most fortunate generation on earth, born during the war but not of it, and we had a wonderful innocence inside us which vanished like the summer mist from then on’.

 This book must touch many readers in the High Wycombe area as it is a kaleidoscope of memories and experiences which will be familiar to many who grew up here in those post war years. However the sense of time and place and the classic ‘growing up/rite of passage’ format give the book a general appeal and makes a poignant but ironic contrast to the more affluent but more regimented and protected childhoods of today.

John Willson, High Wycombe Society Newsletter, 2010


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