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This is a short personal history, deliberately focusing on names and places. The reason is that while I never lost touch with some of these names and have rediscovered others over time, most are still elusive. If you're one of the people I mention here, or a relative of one, please write to me and make my day.
I was born in England on 26th March, 1971, in a small Essex town called Billericay which soon became overrun by ravenous yuppies. I was delivered by a midwife in what became my sister's bedroom in our house at 6, Station Road. My father, Michael (or Mike or Mick) was the deputy headmaster of St. Thomas of Canterbury Junior School in the neighbouring town of Brentwood; and my mother, Pamela (always Pam, née Robinson) stayed home and ran the household. I was christened Henry Charles Francis Astell, after the second names of my father and my two granddads, but I was always known at home as Hal from day one.
Mary Astell was my dad's mum, who was widowed in 1944 (see Norman F. Astell and the Raiding Support Regiment) and who never remarried. She was a teacher too, a headmistress no less, though I only remember her retired. She used to own the house on the corner of Station Road and Western Road, a large white house known unimaginatively as The White House. When my parents married, she sold it but kept some of the land on which to build our homes. She built a couple of semi-detached houses, and while we lived at number six, she lived next door at number four.
My mother's parents lived in the nearby town of Grays, though my nanna died when I was eleven. My granddad was Stanley Charles Robinson, though we all called him Bobo. He was my favourite relative, both for reasons that I understood and didn't understand at the time. He was very bright and he taught me chess, but he was also very stubborn and I'm sure that the stubbornness in my blood came down to me from him.
Quilters Junior and Infant School, Billericay
I went to Quilters Junior and Infant School, which were two schools situated only a little apart but on the same road. I didn't enjoy the Infant School in the slightest, mostly because the teachers refused to acknowledge that I could read. Both my parents and my grandma were avid readers and they made sure that there were always books around for me to pick up, so I could read, write and spell before I started school at four. Unfortunately the teachers at Quilters didn't believe me. At one point they even called my mother in to the school to complain that she had taught me to read, which after all was their job! I wrote what felt like a novel while at the Infant School, about dinosaurs who climbed up the banks at one side of the playing field (where the adders were) and attacked the school. I'm sure it was beyond awful but I would love to still have a copy.
I don't remember anyone in particular until I moved up to the Junior School. My first year teacher was Miss Pike, an elderly lady close to retirement, and she was wonderful. Suddenly I enjoyed schoolwork and took part in whatever she had planned for us all rather than spiralling out of control as I had at the Infant School. She had a magic cupboard that contained everything in the known universe, even though it wasn't really very big, and I helped her out with a bunch of stuff. I missed her for years after I moved up to the second year and I honestly don't think I ever had a better teacher.
I made a good friend in the first year by the name of John Stevens, the son of a priest from one of the surrounding parishes. He was the very best thing for me at that point because he was a gifted child too and we pushed each other for higher marks in tests. I remember the two of us scoring off the board for the entire year. Unfortunately John soon left the school, possibly at the end of that first year and probably because his father moved to a new parish.
I had other friends, of course, and I remember hanging round with two of them in particular. One was called Nicholas Stitson and the other was a Gary, though I don't remember his surname. We played over at each other's houses often and I remember that someone around this time had a Grandstand video game system on which we played games like Pong.
Later at Quilters, as I moved through the years, I became friends with the son of the caretaker, who actually lived right there at the school. It was great fun having the playground or the field all to ourselves. I don't remember his name but I do remember that his family kept a huge dog, a dalmatian or a great dane, that used to eat anything it could find. I'm pretty sure I was introduced to the television show Monkey at his house too.
After Miss Pike, my next teacher was always going to be a disappointment. As it turned out though, I didn't get a next teacher. We had at least three supply teachers during my second year and none of them grabbed my interest once. I don't remember the name of my third year teacher, but do remember that she was female and she wasn't any good either.
Only in my last year at juniors, the fourth year, did things improve. Mr. Griffiths really tried to get me interested and he succeeded a little, but I think I had finally had enough of school education at that point. With the odd notable exception later, I gave up trying at school and consequently learned far more at home from my mother, from books and from quizzes on which we often tested each other's general knowledge.
The only other name I remember at all from Quilters was a girl in the fourth year by the name of Emma Vose. I can't remember what she looked like, and I wasn't really a friend of hers. I just remember her name and that she was probably my first crush.
Tyringham Slot Car Racing
Quilters had fund-raising events like any other school, and I remember well the slot car racing track that was brought in by a local club called Tyringham. They were serious racers and used serious equipment. They built their own cars which ran way faster than any toy Scalextric cars would ever do. They raised money by charging people to race and gave a prize to whoever had the fastest lap by the end of the day. I had great fun each year but my dad got really into it. One year he managed the fastest lap and went on to join the club and race competitively.
Tyringham was run by someone called John Neill, out of his own house, and when we moved to Yorkshire in 1982 he gave us one of their old tracks to start up a club up north. We tried a few times but unfortunately it never got off the ground. I still have a Tyringham t-shirt somewhere and a couple of the monthly newsletters that they put out.
King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford
After I passed my 11+ exam, I had only a single year at the prestigious King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford before we moved north. I really enjoyed my year there but I didn't do too well academically. My dad had told me that grammar school was going to be very different to what I was used to and he was right. I had to learn real subjects and had to actually work to get results. Unfortunately by that time I'd given up on schoolwork and, even though I was bright enough to do anything they threw at me, I didn't really try. For every year from then on, my school reports always said the same thing: "Could do much better if he tried".
I only have vague memories of KEGS. I remember that we were referred to by surname rather than Christian name, so I was now Astell not Henry. My dad wanted me to join the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) to follow in his footsteps but that was so not for me. Instead I remember putting in some serious effort in the printing room helping out the teacher who ran the yearbook and other publications, a passion that still hasn't left me. I also spent a huge amount of time in the computer labs, which had me mesmerised. We had an Acorn BBC Model B at home and my dad and I played around customising program listings that we typed in from magazines, but the kids at KEGS were programming in assembler and I was in awe.
I had an English teacher called Mr. John who had been a contestant on University Challenge. We called him Bajba, because of his initials and degree: B. A. John, B.A. I had run-ins with him because of my taste in literature. He was a serious Dickens fan, which I wasn't, and I dared to write up things like the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy or even The Three Investigators for book reports. He called my mother in after that one but, when she pointed out that I was also engrossed in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral at home, he calmed down somewhat.
There was another teacher who had the unfortunate name of Miss Donkersloot and who, I think, taught geography. The only student I remember was one that my dad had taught the year before at St. Thomas's, but I don't recall his name.
St. Thomas's Church, Brentwood
We were a church family who had attended the main church in Billericay for years. My dad had been a server there and I remember having a nosebleed over the balcony at a Christmas midnight mass. Even aged eight or nine, I had already fallen in love with the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. By choice, I went to communion at the 8:00am spoken service that used the Prayer Book, rather than the standard Family Service at a far more reasonable time of the morning that used service books with modern language and a bunch of hymns or songs.
The new rector at Billericay was a radical. He pulled out all the oaken pews and saw things like the Book of Common Prayer as hopelessly out of date. The services became mere singalongs and we soon left. The natural choice to transfer to was St. Thomas's Church in Brentwood, which was allied to the Church of England school of the same name at which my dad was deputy head.
The priest was Fr. Francis Tester, whom my dad already knew well. He was a wonderful priest, even though he was a lot higher church than I was, much closer to my dad's preferences. We kept in touch with him after we moved north and visited him a few years ago in his working retirement at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, not far from Walsingham, which we had visited in pilgrimage. I sent him my first Christmas newsletter at the end of 2004 but got no response. I hope he's still alive and doing well.
In 1982 we moved from Billericay, an urban town in the south east of England, to Barkisland, a rural Yorkshire village in the north of England. This was because my dad had taken a headship at Barkisland C. of E. Junior School. We had roots in Yorkshire on my dad's side, as my grandma had come from Goole and both my dad and his dad had attended Leeds University. Both the village and the county were still massive culture shocks for me, but I fell in love with Barkisland as soon as I saw it. It was simply a different way of life and I felt far more at home there than I've ever felt anywhere else.
I remember Barkisland and Yorkshire well, and so there's no need as of yet to keep writing. Maybe one day.
Last update: 15th February, 2019