My name is Harold Pollins. In my divers contributions to this website I have
said a lot about myself. Here I shall summarise various bits and add a few.
I was born in 1924 in Leytonstone. This was then part of the Urban District of Leyton, which soon became the Municipal Borough of Leyton and then in the 1960s it came within the enlarged London Borough of Waltham Forest, part of Greater London. As this name suggest Leyton and Leytonstone (and Walthamstow to which they were amalgamated as part of the Waltham Forest Borough), although part of built-up London, were in the county of Essex and abutted Epping Forest. Round the corner from where we lived was open ground, part of Epping Forest, which was called Wanstead Flats. (During World War II Wanstead Flats was dug up for allotments, to grow vegetables.)
My father had served in the army in WWI and was invalided out towards the end of the war. His parents were immigrants from what is now Belarus and he was the first child to be born in Britain, in Stepney, East London. Like his father, my grandfather, he became a cabinet-maker. My mother's family also came from Belarus where my mother was born. They arrived in Britain when she was about three years old and also lived in Stepney. I have a copy of a document relating to her father, my maternal grandfather, in the Russian language which are about his reporting for militia duty in the Russian army. He was placed on the reserve. He died at the young age of 33 some thirty years before I was born. My father was a member of the left-wing Clarion Cycling Club and he befriended one of the members who introduced him to his sister, who became my mother. They were married in 1913 and between 1915 and 1924 they had five children of whom four survived into adulthood. The second child, born in 1916, when my father was in the army, died at the age of one.
I went, first, to a primary school literally round the corner. Davies Lane School was an old School Board school built in 1902, an austere redbrick building in three stories. On the bottom floor, the Infants, while in the top class (aged 7) I had a patch over my left eye in order to make my ‘lazy’ eye, the right one, work harder. As a result when we came to look at a bit of English history, I was automatically chosen as Nelson.
After a few years on the second floor, in the junior school, and following a success in the scholarship |what the 11 plus was then called) I attended the Leyton County High School for Boys. (there was a separate school for girls.) I understand that the neighbouring London County Council had abolished cadet corps in their schools. We came under Essex County Council and, whatever their policy was, we also did not have one at my school. If it had been introduced it would not have been popular. This was the anti-war 1930s. At my school we had a branch of the League of Nations Union which although not specifically pacifist certainly had a strong bent towards peace and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
To appreciate the sentiment : I understand that at one time the headmaster displayed on a notice board
a poster advertising a Royal Air Force event of some kind. Some prefects, in the sixth form, placed next to it a League of Nations poster with a slogan to the effect that a warplane anywhere was a menace somewhere.
The war of course made a difference. One of the teachers who pressed us to attend the meetings in school of the League of Nations Union branch was the woodwork teacher. Some years later, by chance, I taught his son. He told me that his mother had told him that the teacher had been a pacifist yet in the war he became a commando and died in action a few weeks before the war ended.
I went to the London School of Economics at the age of 18, then evacuated to Cambridge. We were allowed to study for one year provided we attested for one of the armed forces, were placed on the reserve, and did military training. As a result, when I was eventually called up I was technically a volunteer.
My first unit in the army was at a Primary Training Unit at Perth, in Scotland, originally the depot of the Black Watch but now the permanent staff consisted of that regiment and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Being a Londoner, and this being the first time I had been in Scotland, I had some difficulty in understanding the Scottish accent yet I came to like bagpipe music. This was especially so when marching behind a pipe band.
My next unit was an Infantry Training Centre in Maidstone, Kent. This was a joint operation of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and the one I had been transferred to, the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment. In fact many students, in the same position as me, were posted to the Queen’s.
In the film, Privates Progress, David Attenborough gave a talk on ‘Transport’ in which he described buying a return ticket to the next station but then travelling on to an unmanned station of destination. I am sure that Alan Hackney, the author of the book on which the film was based, must have been at Maidstone for that is what we did. We would buy a return ticket to, if I remember correctly, Malling station, then get off at New Cross station and then get on to the tube. I think at the tube station where we alighted we would say we had come from the previous station. However, on one occasion, when a carriage-full of us on the train were ready to move off the Regimental Sergeant-Major came and joined us. He asked us where we were going and demanded to see out tickets. So we had to get off at the next station.
The RSM was a little man, probably no more than five feet tall. His name was Percy and he never wore battle-dress but preferred his best suit (but not his dress uniform.) He always carried a pace-stick and was keen on discipline, as might be expected. On one occasion, when I went sick, he inspected the sick parade, interrogating each soldier about his (alleged) illness. He then made us run to the medical unit. And on another, when I was sweeping up the roadway, he insisted that we sweep parallel to the kerb so that any dribbles of dirt left behind by the broom would be neatly in parallel with the kerb.
I was medically downgraded during training for poor eyesight, was taken off training and made an assistant store man in the company. This was soon after D-day and a request came round for people to volunteer to go to France to become interpreters. I had studied French at school and, disobeying the soldier’s injunction - ‘never volunteer for anything’ - I did volunteer to go. I was prepared to pack up when an order came down that as I was a potential officer I had to stay. I was a potential officer because I had trained with the Cambridge University Senior Training Corps when spending my one year as a student. However I failed the War Office Selection Board and was then sent to a unit in Yorkshire. It was in the very bad winter of 1944-5 and we were in Nissen huts in the middle of the Yorkshire moors.
The war ended and eventually I became a Sergeant doing Personnel Selection - giving intelligence and aptitude tests to recruits. I was demobbed in September 1947 and went back to college.
After doing several years of research in the social sciences and history (during which I was employed by London Transport and the National Coal Board) I ended up as a Tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, from which I retired in 1989.