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First taste of school


Outbreak of World War II seals our fate
Frederic Raphael Writer
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So I got to... to a flat on Putney Heath and I was sent to a little school in Putney which was called Leinster House. The headmaster was called Mr Moyles, and I there began to do the things which small boys did in those days, i.e. copybook writing, adding up sums and all those other things. And I'm a docile person. Show me how you want it done or how it's best done and I will mimic that, just as my voice mimics the voice of English gentlemen whether or not I am one. I learned very quickly in 1938 that it was not a good idea to have an accent which was not 'proper'. Not everyone in Leinster School had proper accents, and one of the people that I got to know was called Martin, who was my friend. And I took him home one day to Manor Fields and Martin had... I don't know if it was a Cockney accent or what it was but it wasn't... I'm tempted to say a kosher accent – it was not a correct English accent! And my parents were not, as far as I know, snobbish; they were more afraid than they were snobbish, my mother certainly because she was now an American Jewish woman in an English environment and she was 27 years old... 26 years old, I think, actually. Anyway, she was frightened of being thought ill of, she always was frightened of being thought ill of and she was very good at not being thought ill of because a) she was beautiful, b) she was charming and c) she never ever said anything which would offend people, not if she could help it. 

So I quickly became a facsimile of a little English boy, and since I was quite good at mimicry – it is, I'm told, a racial characteristic though, I fancy nearly everybody does their share of mimicry, that's what human beings do as soon as they put their clothes on, and sometimes when they take them off, but we'll let that go. 

[Q] I hope we won't!


[Q] I hope we won't!

So I went to Leinster House. And the war situation got worse and worse and... the international situation, I mean. And as 1939 came and we were... I was hoping still to go back to New York and assuming that I would. Shell then asked my father whether he would stay in London because they needed brains to help run the office, particularly since the younger people looked as though they were going to get called up. So from being merely on leave, so to speak, from New York, we suddenly were going to stay in London. I am told by my father – I was told by my father – that they considered sending me back to America, it was not an unknown thing to happen in 1939, but for whatever reason they decided that we should all stay together. I think my mother might have gone with me, but anyway, for whatever reason they decided not to do that. So one of the not particularly terrible consequences of the war was that I stayed in England. And I went to school in Sussex first.

We went actually in 1939, September 1939... for some reason we went to stay with Teddy Schlesinger, the surgeon who had ruined my father's life, and his wife whose name, I think, was Gladys – it would be. And they had a son called John who had an electric motor car with which he drove around the grounds of their Sussex House. It was quite a big place. And he had a boiled egg for breakfast, but since I was, so to speak, a charity patient I didn't get one. And I never drove his Daimler... electric Daimler, but I sat with him in it once or twice. And on September the 3rd 1939, we all went onto the tennis court for some reason with a portable radio and heard Neville Chamberlain say that we were now in a state of war with Germany. I think it came as something of a relief to my parents, though I don't know. My father was then 39 and he was not, of course, going to get called up. Not that he would have been sorry; he had been called up in the First World War, but he just missed it because he was 18 when it ended. He had actually, I remember, been in camp on Wimbledon Common when the war was still going on in November of 1918, and they were all given rather rancid bacon for breakfast. My father then elected to become Jewish and he went to the commanding officer and said that it was unfortunately against his religion to eat bacon for breakfast, could he have something else? And the commanding officers in those days, you know, listened to people who had religious reasons, and he arranged for my father to have fried egg for breakfast upon which a number of people came up to my father and asked him what you had to do to be Jewish and when he told them they decided, well, it wasn't worth the sacrifice. Anyway, there it all was.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Leinster House, 1939

Duration: 5 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 13 August 2014