Chapter 2 : First Lessons in Life
In many ways, the early years of a person’s life lay down the rules by which they live the rest of it, and a combination of my physical constitution and the circumstances of being born into an army family made a significant impact on my developing personality. If there were three clear lessons that implanted themselves in my young soul, they were: how you need to care of your physical body; how the world is full of gross injustice; and how even our dearest friendships can be as fleeting as the night.
In my first couple of years, I was a very sickly child, and for a long time I suffered from pyloric stenosis, which meant that I was continually projectile-vomiting. The problem was that my pyloric sphincter muscle hadn’t developed enough, so the food would go down my throat, but once it reached the muscle at the base of my stomach, the sphincter would panic. As the food went down, the sphincter muscle went ‘Aaaah!’ and the food would come straight back up and hit the wall – or my mother – whichever was closer.
Poor Daph didn’t know what to do. The doctors said that, in the end, the condition would right itself and she just had to persevere. ‘Persevere,’ said the doctors, as if perseverance was somehow going to cure everything. That’s what they always said in Africa in those days. ‘I want to be an actor,’ you’d say. ‘Well, persevere,’ they’d say. By the time you hit 80, you’d still be playing Yorrick’s grave digger, but at least you’d kept ‘persevering’.
In the end, my mother stopped persevering, and instead she used to feed me my regurgitated supper. Perhaps because the food was a little softer – after all, it had been through my mouth several times – the process started to work. Maybe my pyloric sphincter realised it was best to accept the food the first time round rather than having bits of my mother’s jumper fluff or flecks of wall paint attached to my dinner all the time.
So yes, I was sickly. And I’m sure it goes back to Poo Mackay dropping me on my head on the swimming pool floor, as I used to get all kinds of headaches and often had to have a ‘little lie-down’. Not that my physical fragility lasted long – I went on to become a schoolboy athlete and I grew up to become a lover of physical acting challenges, like the time I played Peter Pan, not to mention my stint as a stuntman. And as for food, I’ve always loved cooking – for huge numbers of people and all kinds of cuisine. So maybe my early inability to hold down my own food kindled within me a desire to nurture others.
* * * *
It was during those early years that I quickly learnt how spiritual well-being was as important as physical well-being, and by the age of 6 I’d developed an acute sense of moral injustice. It all began at St Michaels School in Salisbury.
St Michael’s was a Catholic school run by nuns, but other Christians were allowed to attend ‘under supervision’, so I went with my older brother John. This was the second school I’d been to, my first being Treetops where my very first best friend was Tommy Mabin. Tommy had been something of a sickly child too – he was a hole-in-the-heart baby. But by the time I met him aged 5, he was always doing things, exploring and investigating with bits of cork and a rubber band. It came as no surprise when in his early adulthood, he went on to study heart surgery in South Africa. During his student years, he invented a thing called a ‘stent’ (though it may have been called something else in those days). A ‘stent’ is a bit like a paper clip which they insert into the vein of the heart to keep it open so that the blood can flow easily. (Knowing Tommy, it probably was a paper clip.) Now stents are used right across the globe, so had he been a practising doctor at the time rather than a mere student, he’d be a multi-multi-millionaire by now. As it is, the research hospital holds the patent. I don’t really know whether that counts as ‘injustice’ or ‘just life’, but it always slightly bothered me – though probably not as much as it bothered Tommy!
Back at St Michaels, I was in Class 1 and our teacher was Sister Christina. Sister Christina was the most beautiful woman in the whole world, even more beautiful than Antoinette Passaportis, and I fell hopelessly in love with her. In fact, I fell in love with lots of my teachers during the course of my school days, usually because they were wonderful tutors. Much later when I was at Prince Edward school in Salisbury, I developed a passion for language, probably because I fell in love with my English teacher. Patricia Skyrme-Jones was sexy and sassy and sarcastic. She used the English language with panache and aplomb. Her lessons weren’t just about nouns and verbs and pronouns. With her, it was the way you used English, the way you delivered language, the way you constructed sentences. She was probably the person who ignited my love of Shakespeare. But she certainly wasn’t the only teacher I fell in love with at Prince Edward, oh no! When I was somewhat older but not much wiser, I fell in love with Miss Letcher, my Maths teacher, but that’s quite another story…
So yes, at the tender age of 6 I was in love with a nun! And who wouldn’t have been? When Sister Christina smiled, she was open and beautiful. And when she played football, she’d just hoist up her skirts and run. She was probably only 23 or 24, with a pale, pale complexion and a soft Irish accent. And you knew that with Sister Christina, two and two was absolutely four. (Which wasn’t always the case with Miss Letcher, the Maths teacher, but – as I say – that’s quite another story…)
Maybe because my love for Sister Christina was so profound, it was very upsetting for me when certain other nuns at St Michael’s schools revealed a rather less beautiful streak. Class 1 was housed in a little thatched hut and every morning we all had to go to assembly in the main building. One of the nuns would come out with a huge gong –‘Gong, gong, gong, gong, gong!’ – and everyone would troop in to assembly. I was often late. Doing things or daydreaming. But if we were late – and there were usually five or six of us – one of the nuns would stop us and send us to line up outside Mother Oliver’s office.
Once we were summoned inside Mother Oliver’s office, she’d say, ‘Right, you’re late. Bend over.’
And one by one we’d bend over, and one by one she’d go, ‘Whack! Whack!’ on our 6-year-old bottoms. And this was a nun. And there in front of her was a figure of Jesus on the cross! Crucified! With blood dripping out of his hands! And yet, there she was – thrashing us little boys, just for being late!
My sense of the moral and the immoral was highly acute at 6, and I thought that the beatings were definitely immoral – even though I understood that the nuns only beat us for doing something naughty. Not that I was ever really naughty, even though my brothers and I did do certain things of questionable morality at various points in our young lives. Like the times we used to hunt plaathanners. Plaathanners were flat, black frogs – there were millions of them in our pond – and the noise they made was amazing. We developed a way of spearing these frogs, which were impossible to fish in a conventional way. We’d each get a long bamboo pole with a needle on the end of it and we’d push a piece of bread or sadza onto the needle. With these long bamboo poles we could stand quite a long way away from the frogs on the bank of the pond. A plaathanner would come up and grab the piece of dough, and we’d whack the bamboo pole straight through its body. Then we’d flick it off the spike and it would crawl off into the bush somewhere to die. That’s what you did to things in those days, so I guess we weren’t so different from Mother Oliver after all.
* * * *
In 1954, I left St Michael’s, when for six months my family went to Lusaka in Northern Rhodesia. We moved back to Southern Rhodesia at the beginning of 1955, this time down to Bulawayo when Jock (who was commanding the Rhodesian African Rifles) was stationed at the newly expanded Llewellin Barracks. It was during this time – at the impressionable age of 8 – that I learnt one of the most influential lessons of my life: the value of friendship and the pain of its loss.
Because we were an army family, we were always moving, so much of my early life was spent creating friendships – friendships which became very intense because they only existed for a very short time. (A bit like my life as an actor, I was to discover.) And it was at Milton Junior School in Bulawayo that I met Terry Cutter, the boy with the horses.
Terry was a charmer beyond charm, he just oozed charm. He was my introduction to charm and how to employ charm tactics. (A lesson I would carry through into my adult life.) Even though we were only 8, Terry simply had to look at the girls and go, ‘Hi, my name is Terry Cutter. You’re gorgeous. And I’m 8!’ and they’d be instantly charmed.
From the moment we met, Terry and I were inseparable. We did everything together, horses, adventures, running, playing – and marbles. We just loved marbles. Marbles was the game of Milton Junior, and Terry and I used to play by a big, red stone wall where at break-time there’d be dozens and dozens of schoolboys marbling together.
I suppose I’d always liked things that sparkled or shone – maybe that was what would draw me one day to the bright lights of London’s West End. But in those days, it was the little things – like the quartz crystals that John and I had found as small kids when we’d been at St Michael’s Catholic school. Each morning, Mum would drop us off at the end of the long driveway and in the gravel lay hundreds and hundreds of quartz crystals. They were absolutely clear and bright and glistening, and our walk to school was totally focused on hunting for crystals in the drive. I used to have pockets full of them, from half-an-inch to an inch-and-a-half, and I’d keep them in a special little cloth bag that Mum had made for me. Daph used to make us little bags for everything – stones, crystals, pennies. And she made us bags for our marbles when we got to Milton Junior school.
But Terry and I didn’t just have marbles. We had goons (which were ball bearings); then there were clays (which weren’t worth a lot); and then there were lovely china marbles which were all the colours of the rainbow – like the cats’ eyes with their wonderful ambers and reds and greens. Yes, Terry and I loved marbles. One day he taught me how to flick with my middle finger, which improved my game enormously. And if we were doing particularly well, by the end of the week we’d have a fist full of marbles which we kept in our little cloth bags.
I used to marvel in Terry Cutter. I loved him and he loved me, though he was terribly naughty and rather a bad influence on me. We shouldn’t have been friends really: it was one of the unwritten laws of the Army at that time that officers never mixed with the other ranks, and Terry’s dad was only a sergeant. Not that Daph and I cared; my mother and I used to break that taboo all the time. And while Daph had some great friends among the sergeants’ wives, I had Terry Cutter. We practically begged my father to make Terry’s dad, Ted, an officer so that we could legitimately be near the Cutters.
Actually, Jock was very fond of Ted Cutter. And it was hardly surprising. If Terry was charming, Ted was beyond charming, he was ultra-ultra charm and terribly good at almost everything he did. He was a brilliant cricketer, he was very good at rugby, and he always did everything with such utter charm. He loved life. And he loved his boys. And he loved us Andersons, too.
Ted used to spoil his children absolutely rotten – until it came to schooling. The reason for this was that Ted Cutter was essentially an uneducated chap who couldn’t pass written exams. He desperately wanted to be a career guy, but as the son of army parents, he’d been to so many different schools that his interrupted schooling had often let him down in life. He could do practically anything else, but he couldn’t pass written exams. And he was determined that Terry wouldn’t follow in his footsteps – that Terry would achieve some academic acumen. But of course Terry didn’t achieve any academic acumen. He was far too charming for that.
What bonded me and Terry most of all was our relationship to the Africans. Terry was always very friendly with them, and I never heard him call a black man a ‘kaffir’. He always spoke to them with the same deference that I did. And Ted was the same. There was no ‘out of race’ among the Cutter family, no discrimination.
Yes, for two wonderful years, Terry and I were inseparable. Yet, with the inevitability of army life and the poignancy of passing friendships, the day came when Terry and I had to part. The regiment was going to Malaya to fight the jungle war there, but the Cutters didn’t want to take Terry. He’d just secured a place at Plumtree School, and – not wanting to repeat the patterns of his father’s chequered education – his parents decided to send him there as a boarder.
‘I can’t believe you’re going to leave me,’ he wailed. ‘Why don’t you say to your mum, “I don’t want to go, I want to be a boarder, too.” Please come with me to Plumtree, Miles.’
‘But I don’t want to be a boarder at Plumtree.’
‘Go on, just come with me to Plumtree, we can be boarders together.’
‘But I want to go to Malaya with my family.’
Terry was distraught. So I begged my mother: ‘Please, please, please! Can’t we persuade the Cutters to let Terry come with us?’ I was so desperate that I shouldn’t lose my beloved friend. But what could I do? I didn’t want to lose my family either.
And my mum said to his mum, ‘Please, Pam, please, let Terry come to Malaya. We’ll look after him if you want us to.’
But it wasn’t a question of that. ‘No,’ said Pam. ‘Ted’s insistent that Terry goes to Plumtree. He’s got the chance to go to Plumtree and he really has to go. It’s a great school.’
The Cutters took their other son, Mark, to Malaya with them, but the separation screwed up Terry’s life. He didn’t see his parents for two significant years between the ages of 10 and 11, and it took him a long time to get over it and to accept me again as his friend. He really thought that I’d abandoned him by going with my own parents to Malaya. And as I would come to learn in my own time, abandonment feels cruel and raw and lonely.
As it turned out, Terry hated Plumtree. The school was way out in the middle of nowhere, south of Bulawayo (on the South African border) and north of Mafeking on a completely isolated hillside called Plumtree. It was an outpost alright. That said, Plumtree School was a wonderful school. Just not for Terry.
We bumped into each other a few times when we were in our late teens. We would fall into each other arms and go off to have tea together somewhere. Then when I was 18 and went over to England to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Terry got married. He grew up fast.
We didn’t see much of each other after that and the last I heard of him was some time in the mid-’70s. His dad, Ted, had bought a small farm in Chipinge, and Terry was one of the first Rhodesians to farm coffee. For several years, while I was training to be an actor, he had a highly lucrative coffee farming business.
Then one night he was driving home, and on a twisting mountain road he wrapped his car around a tree. And that was it. Terry’s charm had run its course. No more bank-robberies. No more marbles. No more memories.
His widow was left to work the farm. For all, I know she’s still there.
I learnt that even true friendships are fragile, and that the lessons learnt as children can re-echo through our lives.