In August 1923, twenty years old, I was at the door of a bug-ridden hotel called Mega Ethnikon whose name meant Great Nation and which was supposed to indicate Greece's future prospects as the leading country in Asia Minor. I had just been dumped there by a miserable old brigand of a coachman who screwed me out of twenty times the proper fare from Piraeus where I had just landed. Dad had missed the boat. Things started that way, badly, and kept on right to the end. I couldn't have arrived in the godforsaken city of Athens at a worse time. The very hot weather was just beginning; the sewage system (an aqueduct built by Hadrian) broke down; the toilets overflowed; all drinking water had to be brought in by hand. The stench in the street in the early morning took my appetite away, luckily, for there was nothing I wanted to eat. I didn't expect bacon and eggs but I was dying for a bit of butter to put on the stale rolls.
The night before was bad enough. My bed was a mattress on the floor of my father's small room. I woke up, turned on the light and saw hundreds of little round black objects scurrying to the wall. It was their bites that had woken me. I got up and got dressed and sat in an armchair in the corridor only to be prey again. My father woke at the same time and I saw that he'd been left completely alone - too tough, I suppose! It was beginning to get light so in desperation I went out to become the first tourist forced by bedbugs to admire Greece's most beautiful buildings as I watched the sunrise standing on the Acropolis that morning.
The Greek army had been smashed by the Turks and a million Greek refugees from around Smyrna had descended on Athens, causing chaos on all sides.
My father, though, seemed to be able to function normally. After all, he'd probably been through tougher times in his past. He opened an office opposite the cathedral and filled it with shelves of cotton textiles from Manchester. The smell there from bad drains was terrible. I forget the details of the next six weeks, except for taking Greek lessons from a refugee, Dr Michelopous, former head of the Asia Minor colony's education service. He was very pleased with my progress but unfortunately, when he handed his bill to my father, the lessons came to an abrupt end. All that was left for me to do was to hang around my father until the next mealtime.
My father had several young men in his shop helping to serve. When they discovered that I was twenty and had never had anything to do with the opposite sex, they were amazed and very amused and they spent a lot of time urging me to do something about it by going to a brothel for my health's sake. They didn't realise how completely messed up I was because of my upbringing in puritanical England. On the one hand we had it dinned into us that masturbation inevitably led to insanity; on the other that sex led to VD, insanity and death. We chose the lesser evil and masturbated only. I kept finding little notes I'd left myself cursing myself for doing it again and swearing never to do it any more. So I was quite deaf to my Greek pals. To complicate matters further, I was very romantic and, when I made friends with a girl, I was careful not even to kiss her lest she get the idea I was in love with her. All this must seem quite insane to modern youth, but that's how it was: inside me I was really sixteen, not twenty. In Urmston, my feeble attempts at getting to know women came to nothing. I watched a blonde come out of John Heywoods department store several evenings and determined to speak to her and invite her out for a drink. When I asked my father for half a crown spending money, he cross-examined me. I blushed violently gave the game away. Later on, in London, after spending the day with him doing business, I asked him for a pound. Same rigmarole. He handed the money over. I spent the night with a plump prostitute in Clapham somewhere without anything really happening.
To get back to mealtimes, lunch was at twelve o'clock, fairly sparse and then the daily famine set in. At seven thirty, father and five or six of his cronies marched all over Athens scrutinising the outside menus of all the medium-priced restaurants to find out which one offered the biggest bargain to two points of decimals. Finally, fainting from hunger, exhausted from listening to hours of gibberish in Greek, at nine o'clock I followed them into the chosen place. This was merely a repetition of my Manchester life where I waited for my father in a little Greek restaurant run by friends of his where several of his rich Greek friends discussed interminably where the best lunch for half a crown was to be had. So completely had my father accepted for others the social rules of Salford that, had I suddenly said, "I feel like a woman tonight," he would not have been able to take the culture shock.
So, after spending weeks amongst them, I liked Greek businessmen less than ever. Everything was against me. The extreme heat which I've always hated, the stench, the bad food, the alphabet which made learning the language so difficult - all this began to affect my health. My father listening to my complaints about the bugs, found a nice, clean room for me in the suburbs where sandflies replaced the bugs and I turned up at his hotel covered with small red bites. Father began to realise that I was a hopeless case. He made one more suggestion, "Would you like to go to Delphi where it's cool in the mountains?" I didn't think so. The final Sunday was a mixture of Dad's carelessness and a delightful evening spent in a garden listening to guitar playing and singing. I'll never forget that day for another reason, too. We were on the way to Kifissia in the countryside five miles out of Athens. We went on a small, modern electric train, stopping frequently. About half way, my father got off to go to the gents. Needless to say, the train went off without him leaving me marooned with hardly a word of Greek to my name. We got together again somehow. The rest of the evening was idyllic and I shortly found myself on a lovely liner bound for Corfu going through the canal at Corinth, ending up in Brindisi and, after two days sleeping on the hard, dirty floor of a crowded second class compartment, home. A handful of gravel against the front bedroom window brought my mother's face into view and that afternoon I was walking around the Urmston cricket club grounds. Paradise regained.
Yes, that's what the next two years turned out to be. I'm not quite sure but I think my uncle Harry, the silliest man I ever met, had vanished with the remainder of the broomstick money and half the office furniture. When my father came back, we went to see Uncle Harry and my father said in such a ferocious voice, "Put the light on, Polly", that Uncle Harry immediately gave back the furniture which we carted away there and then. Before all this happened, I was quite alone pretending to run the business. I was quite irresponsible. I paid a short visit to the office every day, typed out a few test match scores, "George Coulouris, 49 not out after having taken five wickets for 32..." and so on. " I devoured Neville Cardus every day. His "aesthetic" treatment of the players and all their strokes pleased me greatly. I joined the Lancashire Cricket Club and went directly from the office to Old Trafford, knocked on the door of the Players' dressing room and shortly a human bowling machine came out and did his mandatory twenty minutes' bowling at the batting crease. I then went home and had another go at the Volga Boat song, or some other of Chaliapin's Russian songs.
Later on, I went to see one of the only two fellow intellectuals I had discovered in Urmston. Mr Platt was a branch manager of the Union Bank in Deansgate, Manchester. I stated talking to him on the train one day. He lived in Flixton, the next stop to Urmston. We got along very well right from the start. We both loved books, classical music and, above all, cricket. My other friend was a young Irishman. He loved music and sometimes read difficult scores at sight. He thumped them out rather than played them. We had just discovered Eric Satie and found him a great joke. Then I would attempt the big monologue of Boris. Every morning I lay in bed trying out my voice which always sounded very good when I was relaxed lying in bed waiting for my loving mother to appear with a lovely breakfast. This went on for many months and really put paid to any idea my father had of making me go into business. When he came back I was full to the brim with a passion for Shakespeare (the four great parts - Shylock, Lear Othello and Macbeth only) and all the Russian songs I knew plus a lot of Schubert, Schuman and Brahms. All this bottled up culture made life in Urmston intolerable when my father got back. Just before he returned, I was summoned to the office by the local income tax inspector who started the interview with, "Do you realise you father has not made any tax return for the last eighteen years?" I didn't know what to reply except, "I'm just eighteen years old. Perhaps I put him off!" But I just kept quiet and left.
Almost as soon as he arrived, Dad began buying things without waiting to see how things were. He bought a thousand pound's worth of assorted screws. I spent a long day repacking them from their rust-stained paper containers into new packages. This happened where he bought them, in Liverpool, but I could already see myself mooching around in the yard in Salford refurbishing varied junk for ever.
I couldn't stand the idea. I began to make plans. I talked to my mother and she decided she'd be able to let me have two pounds a week kept back from her housekeeping money. This was much easier than normally because we had been forced to look after the former head of the Nicolopoulos firm, Mr Bucura. He was about 80 years old and had had a stroke and was senile. Every afternoon he got hold of a mop and began to parade around the house attempting to sing the first few lines of Leporello's song, Madamina. It was tiresome having him around but the extra money his firm gave provided my allowance from my mother. Finally, one August night, I followed my parents up to bed, waited until I heard my father snoring, crept downstairs, took my bike and campbed from the shed and started off on my attempt to do a Rastignac on London.
Next morning at eight o'clock I was sitting on a bench at Euston station wondering what my father said to mother when he read my note on the hall table. Its few words said "You force me to go to London to try and become an actor because you wouldn't hear of it."
London was a complete flop. After about six weeks of writing to the few managers who ran Shakespeare companies, I had two offers. Both from third rate companies, one to tour at thirty shillings a week. I didn't think it possible to live on such a salary. I was wrong. The other manager was based in Australia. He told me that if I worked my passage there, he'd give me a job. Both didn't hide their low opinion of my rawness and lack of polish but they didn't tell me the real truth why no decent manager had offered me a job, no matter how much passion I'd put into my recitation of my setpiece Anthony over the body of Caesar.
Robert Atkins was the man who was cruel enough to tell me the truth and to send me out of the Old Vic with my stomach down to my toes. It was my northern accent which I had been too obtuse to hear in myself. In those days it was a fatal impediment. Anybody with such an accent was a vocal leper. Things are very different now, but that didn't help me then. I went back to my headquarters, the Y and reproved the four or five intellectual friends I'd made there for not telling me the dreadful truth, although I'd recited for them often enough. I wrote one more letter that meant something to Sybil Thorndike. She received me during a matinee of 'St Joan" in full armour. I began my usual bellowing, scaring her mother a bit, sitting in the corner of the dressingroom. Miss Thorndike was as usual generous and kind and advised me to apply for a scholarship at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art where, she told me, was to be found the best person for correcting local speech defects. The difficulty was the scholarship, even if I got it, wouldn't start for several months. What was I to live on till then. My money was running low, in spite of my mother's help. I couldn't go home under any circumstances.
That day as I was walking down Tottenham Court Road I saw a face that was vaguely familiar, a podgy Armenian face, a fellow traveller along Church Road every morning. We hailed each other like old friends, or rather fellow escapees from family tyranny: he from a brother who was trying to force him into the carpet business. He asked me up to his room, a shabby little bedsitter nearby. I asked what he was working at. He said "Nothing." He'd caught a dose of clap for which he had to go for treatment every morning. "Up till then, I was a waiter, or rather a commis, and assistant waiter." "Do you know anything about waiting?" "What is there to know? You pick it up as you go along. Why don't you try it? You say you're getting hard up."