A hero at 14…

(Part two of John’s adolescent dilemma)

In the first episode which we ran in June, 13-year-old John Anderson is acclaimed for his heroism – rescuing his 18-month-old brother from a charging bull in post- war Britain. He makes the front pages of national newspapers is feted in London along with other young heroes – and dies just a little bit each time…. Here’s the sequel to his dip into the waters of celebrity…

When I was just 14, the movie The King and I was all the rage. You may remember it starred Yul Brynner who had less hair than I have now. My dear old grandma wanted to see it and asked me to take her, so I did. As we came out of the cinema my mother was waiting with our car. Was she there to drive my grandmother home? No, she had some news for me.

The Woman’s Mirror magazine had been in touch with her to say they were holding a Christmas party in London for Young Heroes of the Year. She had accepted the invitation and we were both going to London in December for the event. I did not want to go. It must have been like this when men were sent back to the trenches in the First World War. People did not mess with my mother and certainly not a now 14-year-old boy with acne and a propensity for embarrassment. It was a done deal.

We were to travel overnight by first class sleeper and stay two nights in The Bonnington Hotel in Holborn, which everyone in Hartlepool everyone called Hol-born.

I expect my mother was allowed some expenses as well. I hated the idea of going to a Christmas party for Young Heroes – especially when I had done nothing heroic, but I was in no place to argue. It was a done deal. My mother had the details of what to expect. In addition to the young heroes there were to be a number of famous entertainers there. I don’t think they were called celebrities in those days but that is what they were.

If I had been a girl I would have had new frock and loved the whole lot, celebrities and all. But I was not. I was just embarrassed.

Some weeks later at about 11:20 on a cold December night my mother and I waited as the night train from Newcastle to Kings Cross pulled into West Hartlepool station. We didn’t call them train stations then – it went without saying that a station was a railway station.

After the train squealed to a halt we were welcomed by the conductor into the luxury of the first class sleeper to Kings Cross where we had adjoining cabins: In my case sullenly. Before eight o’clock the next morning we arrived at Kings Cross and took a taxi to the Bonnington. To a reluctant guest, the hotel looked impressive as indeed it does today, although in 1956 it did not cost the £287 per night as it does now.

That afternoon it was party time and I had no choice but to go. The party was perhaps the worst part of the whole affair. I can only remember three of the glitterati present. There was a singer called Alma Cogan and a dreadful ventriloquist called Terry Hall with a dummy called Lennie the Lion. There was also an actress called Anne Heywood, who I thought was very attractive. Although that afternoon she was not disporting herself in a bathing suit, as she so often did when she won many beauty contests. They were the type of beauty contests which are now regarded as not PC. She did however have acres of flesh on display, which any 14-year-old boy couldn’t help but notice.

I think I was the oldest hero there and the biggest sham when it was read out what all the other guests had done. We were given a Christmas gift and we had a meal. It was high tea. Not the sort of high tea that ladies from Remuera have in The Langham in Auckland. That is an American high tea. This was proper high tea which we ate with a knife and fork.

I can’t remember what we ate but the whole event was ghastly. Like all else in life it passed. After the celebrities performed for us and we’d eaten our high tea and  received our presents, my mother and I went back to the Bonnington. That evening we went to the movies to see High Society with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly.

Not exactly what a 14-year-old boy wanted to see. I would rather have gone to the Odeon in Leicester Square to see The Battle of the River Plate and see how the New Zealanders on HMNZS Achilles helped us to win the war. A 14-year-old girl would have enjoyed High Society, but not a boy.

The next day we boarded our first class carriage to return to Hartlepool and that was the end of it. My mother had enjoyed the whole thing. If she had had a daughter instead of an embarrassed and gauche son she would have enjoyed it more. Some time later, photos of the young heroes enjoying their party appeared in the Woman’s Mirror. Fortunately my picture did not feature. Perhaps I looked too glum.

As the years went by the whole business was never mentioned except within our immediate family. If the subject did arise, it was usually in the context of me saying to my youngest brother. “I should have let the bull have you.” But the truth usually catches up with you– in my case when I was in my 40s and my kids heard the story. By that time I had moved away from my home town. I was no longer a pimply youth and I was able to laugh without embarrassment at the whole affair.

It did however leave me with two abiding rules after being so misrepresented:

Don’t always believe what you read in the papers, especially if they are human interest stories. Secondly, never agree to a newspaper, radio or TV interview.

But I reckon there’s an exception – girls. Girls will, without hesitation, touch up their lipstick and talk to anyone who will listen. It’s easier for girls – though I have three daughters who might disagree.

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John Anderson is a retired, British born steelworker. He enjoys writing exaggerated versions of the truth and is as wary of news media interviews as he was 53 years ago.