'I remember the smell of black, dusty sacks of coal'; WHERE I GREW UP

Joss Ackland, one of Britain's finest actors, began life in a humble flat in North Kensington

Joss Ackland
Saturday 06 September 1997 23:02

Where And how I grew up has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the man I am today. I was brought up almost solely by my mother. My father was an Irish journalist who was never around but it wasn't until years later that I learned of his drinking and womanising.

I was born, below the ground, in a basement flat in North Kensington on 29 February 1928 - a leap year - so it was four years before I had my first birthday. One of my earliest memories is being pushed up the steps of our flat, which was just one in a string of similar places. There was always one bedroom and the absolute bare essentials. We were very poor but poverty was accepted, like life itself.

I remember the railway bridge over Ladbroke Grove. Every time a train passed over I imagined it would come crashing down on top of me. I would sit on the ledge outside the window, spending hours watching the back gardens, the houses, and the trains rushing past. It had a big impact on me. It made me think of the world as a place where one was just waiting for something.

I spent little time indoors in our cramped flat. As we didn't have a garden I played in the streets. I remember the smell of black, dusty sacks of coal drawn by aged horses, but most of all I remember the fog. To be in the fog was to be in an adventure where the imagination could stretch itself, allowing me to be anywhere in the world. Houses and streets would disappear and a lamppost would faintly emerge from the gloom and become a pirate ship.

My first friend was my age; a black kid called Tino. We were great friends and together we had tremendous adventures. One day, his mother committed suicide, and after that I didn't see him anymore. It was a tough area in those days, but funnily enough I think I was quite happy.

I remember my first cinema visit - to see Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery in Min and Bill - was not a success. When the moment came where they began throwing tables and chairs at each other, I burst out crying and had to be taken, sobbing uncontrollably, from the cinema.

To be a child in the London of the 1930s was to live in the capital of the British Empire. Our comic strips encouraged us to beware of sly Chinese devils, scalp-hunting redskins, greasy dagoes and Russian anarchists. Armed with a good straight left and a stiff upper lip anything could be achieved.

My secret wish was for us all to be together for Christmas but invariably my mother, sister, and I would pack our bags and catch the Birmingham train to join her mother and hordes of other relatives for the festivities. For some reason my mother was always quiet on the journey.

I recall one Christmas Eve when we didn't go to Birmingham. Paddy, my elder brother and idol - who was 13 years older than me - woke me up cursing as he tried to get the top of my Christmas stocking over the bedpost. "Try the other one," I whispered. "Thanks," he whispered back, and then suddenly realised I was awake. "Shut up and go back to sleep," he grinned sheepishly.

On the way to and from school I would play marbles or conkers - depending on the season. I would saturate the conkers in vinegar and leave them on the hearth to harden. I cannot remember ever just walking to school. If there were no marbles or conkers, I would make sure not to step on the cracks between the paving stones lest some catastrophe occurred.

One morning I was walking down the street when a man wrongly accused me of stealing a half pint carton of cream from his doorstep. "Right, where do you live?" he raged. I gave him a false address. "Well, I want that cream back on my doorstep within half an hour or I'll call the police and it's off to prison with you my lad."

I raced off home and my mother, who could see how distraught I was, asked me what was wrong. I told her and my father, who was actually home, overheard. "My God," he roared as his Irish temper rose, "how dare the man. I'll soon settle this, just show me the way."

We went back to the man's house and rang the bell. I waited with bated breath for my father to render the man unconscious. After a few moments the door was opened by the man's wife. She was beautiful. As I looked at my father his anger dissipated in an instant, a strange light came into his eyes, and he apologised for coming. I knew I would get no retribution.

One of the saddest things for me is the knowledge that hardship was all my mother really knew. One of her dreams was to see me perform at the Old Vic. I was a struggling actor of 29 when she passed away and ironically two months later, I began to work there.

When I look back to those early years the colours I see are browns and greys, but rich browns and greys nevertheless.

8 Joss Ackland was speaking to Gareth Lloyd

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