Nessie, when I first saw her, was 17, honey-blonde, pretty rather than beautiful, the owner of a voluptuous but somehow innocent body and a pair of legs that went on forever. She was a Piccadilly whore.
I was a 14-year-old heterosexual schoolboy and I met her thanks to my stepfather. I had a stepfather because my father, along with 90 per cent of his comrades in the Berkshire Yeomanry, had landed with immense panache at Suvla Bay, on the Aegean coast in World War One.
Unfortunately, the Turks were given ample time to receive them. A combination of barbed wire below the surface and machine guns to cover the barbed wire provided a devastating welcome. My father’s death meant little or nothing to me at the time, in 1915. I was just five years old. Later, it meant a great deal.
Cloche hats, flesh-coloured stockings and short skirts being the vogue, I saw a great many female legs and ankles twinkling their way up and down the streets. One night, in Bond Street, I saw a really superior pair of legs in front of me, and became so fascinated that I followed for quite a distance
Everyone, my mother included, had been under the misapprehension that my father was very rich. He had gone off to war like a knight of old, taking as troopers his valet, his under-gardener and two grooms. He also took his hunters, but the horses were exchanged for rifles in Egypt.
After my father, along with the valet and a groom, was slaughtered, it transpired he was hugely in debt. Our house in Gloucestershire was sold, and so was the one in Argyllshire. My mother, my brother Max, my sisters Joyce and Grizel and I moved to a large, damp house in Belgravia.
My mother was very beautiful, very musical and very sad. A character called Uncle Tommy soon made his appearance and became a permanent part of the male entourage paying court to her.
Uncle Tommy’s real name was Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt, who liked to be known as the ‘mystery man of the Conservative Party’, though his political career didn’t get much further than contesting Portsmouth Central in the 1929 General Election.
I fidgeted and picked my nose till an aquiline creature came to comfort me, whereupon I loudly and repeatedly proclaimed to the congregation that she was a witch. The aquiline creature was later identified as Margot Asquith, society hostess and wife of the former Prime Minister
Uncle Tommy’s marriage to my mother in 1917 coincided with my sixth birthday. The wedding took place at All Saints, Sloane Street, and I did everything I could to wreck the show. I fidgeted and picked my nose till an aquiline creature came to comfort me, whereupon I loudly and repeatedly proclaimed to the congregation that she was a witch.
The aquiline creature was later identified as Margot Asquith, society hostess and wife of the former Prime Minister. Uncle Tommy, forever politically sensitive, treated me from that moment on with frosty distaste. He soon saw to it that I was packed off to boarding school, and I discovered that life could be hell.
There was a great deal of bullying and, for a six-year-old, the spectacle of a gang of 12-year-olds bearing down, cracking wet towels like whips, can be terrifying.
For the most part, the masters were even more frightening — sadistic perverts dredged up from the bottom of the educational barrel at a time of acute manpower shortage.
One, a Mr Croome, when he tired of pulling ears halfway out of our heads (I still have one that sticks out almost at right-angles) and delivering, for the smallest mistake in Latin declension, backhanded slaps that knocked one off one’s bench, delighted in saying, ‘Show me the hand that wrote this’ — then bringing down the sharp edge of a heavy ruler across the offending wrist. My next school, Heatherdown, was intended to prepare me for Eton. It was very protected, very soft, very snobbish, very different.
Released from fear and oppression, the whole thing went to my head and I became something of a clown.
Over-confidence felled me. A series of mischief was recorded against my name: first the theft of a marrow, then the distress of a matron in sick bay who opened a package intended for a pal (it contained dog’s mess — not my funniest joke). Aged ten-and-a-half, I was expelled.
Slowly it dawned on me that I would not be going to Eton. In fact, I’d be lucky to be accepted anywhere. Even the Navy turned me down, at 12, as a boy midshipman. Expulsion was an indelible disgrace.
But if, Dear Reader, you should think that I was a victim of circumstances, I beg you also to consider the possibility that I was a thoroughly poisonous little boy.
Life was made more difficult by my stepfather’s ambitions as a property developer. He bought a poky little house in a back street behind Windsor Castle, whose sole charm lay in the fact that it had once belonged to Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwyn.
Then we moved to a small house on many floors in Sloane Street, which rattled every time the steam-powered white National omnibuses trundled past. My older brother left the Navy, owing to chronic seasickness, and I was squeezed out.
Aged 14, I found myself living in a boarding house cubicle on St James’s Street, with a washbasin, an iron bed and a po under it.
Left to my own devices, I began walking round Picadilly in the evenings, admiring the neon signs, and was soon exploring Mayfair and Soho. It seemed perfectly natural for a boy to be wandering the West End at night, so I saw nothing out of the ordinary in the number of girls doing the same.
‘Ever seen a naked woman before? Well, this is what it looks like — ‘ow d’yer like it?’ Nessie started to giggle again, a deliciously infectious sound. ‘Why don’t you take off your clobber too and hop into bed?’ she suggested [File photo]
Cloche hats, flesh-coloured stockings and short skirts being the vogue, I saw a great many female legs and ankles twinkling their way up and down the streets. One night, in Bond Street, I saw a really superior pair of legs in front of me, and became so fascinated that I followed for quite a distance.
Their owner seemed to have many friends and I watched her laughing and talking. Her face was was beautiful in an open, fresh, English rose way … you know the kind of thing.
The next morning, I knew I must be in love, and that evening I followed her again. She met a distinguished, grey-haired man smoking a cigar and wearing a dinner jacket — obviously her father. She took him to a house in Cork Street. Now I knew where she lived!
I could not go unobserved forever, and one evening she turned and challenged me. ‘Wot the ’ell are you followin’ me for?’ she demanded. Then she softened and smiled. ‘All right, it’s still early and you’re a bit young, but come on home and I’ll give yer a good time.’
A good time … a ginger beer and a gramophone, perhaps. I followed uncertainly to a flat above a tailor’s shop, with a large divan strewn with satin cushions and a few dolls, and a small lamp with a red shade.
Just discernible in the gloom of the next room was a large bed that seemed to sag rather badly in the middle. ‘Three quid,’ she said, as she took off her coat. ‘Three quid, for the best you’ve ever had. But then, you ’aven’t ’ad a lot, ave you? ‘Ow old are yer anyway?’
I mumbled the truth. ‘Fourteen!?’ she shrieked. ‘Wot the ’ell do yer fink I am, a bleedin’ nanny?’ Then she started giggling. ‘Ow old do yer fink I am?’ I guessed at 20 and she shrieked again: ‘Three years before that ’appens.’
I watched half in fascination, half in apprehension as she walked about the living room, taking off her little hat and blouse and unhooking her skirt. She disappeared into the bedroom, and returned naked except for black stockings, held up above the knees by pink garters with blue roses on, and pink high-heeled shoes.
‘Come along, ducks, get a move on,’ she said. ‘You don’t get all night for three quid, you know.’ Then she looked at me reflectively. ‘Ever seen a naked woman before? Well, this is what it looks like — ‘ow d’yer like it?’
Nessie started to giggle again, a deliciously infectious sound. ‘Why don’t you take off your clobber too and hop into bed?’ she suggested. ‘Christ, I never thought I’d be seducing children … 14!’
By the time the Easter holidays had ended, Nessie had become the most important thing in my life: my education at her hands had continued. She ‘worked’ at night and slept late, but on many afternoons we went to the music halls to hoot at the comedians and marvel at the acrobats.
The seats cost one shilling and threepence, and after the shows we had a cup of tea and a bun, or more often skipped the tea shop and went back to her flat.
My life had changed fundamentally in other ways: I had been admitted into a school, Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where the inspirational headmaster, J.F. Roxburgh, seemed ready to overlook what he called my ‘ups and downs’.
Roxburgh nurtured and fostered every boy. We were always addressed by our first names and encouraged to build radio sets, to fence and play golf and tennis, to paint or play the bagpipes, and to keep pets. This last got a little out of control as rabbits and ferrets were replaced by better status symbols, until monkeys, bears, hyenas and skunks filled the cages.Finally the zoo was shut down for reasons of noise, and smell.
Nessie, who had never been out of London, came to Stowe to see me and brought a picnic basket and a tartan rug. We took full advantage of the beauties of the school grounds.
She became so intrigued by my hero worship of Roxburgh that she insisted on meeting him. Basely, I tried to avoid this confrontation but Nessie was not easily put off. ‘Look, dear, ’e’ll never know I’m an ’ore. ‘E’ll think I’m yer bleedin’ aunt. Do I look like an ’ore?’
I said she looked like a duchess, not that looking like a duchess was much of a compliment but she was as easily flattered as she was hard to dissuade. ‘That’s ’im, innit?’ she cried one Saturday afternoon, looking across towards the cricket pavilion. Roxburgh was approaching our tartan rug, resplendent in a pale grey suit topped by the inevitable spotted bow tie.
Nessie stood up, bathed in sunlight. She was wearing a short, white silk dress that clung lovingly to her beautiful body; her hair was cut in the fashion of the time — the shingle; she had a small upturned nose; she looked wonderfully young and fresh.
Roxburgh came over smiling his famous smile, ‘May I join you?’ I introduced him. ‘He’s just like you told me,’ said Nessie. ‘He’s beautiful,’ and then to Roxburgh: ‘Don’t look a bit like a schoolmaster, do yew, dear?’
J.F. — settling himself on the rug — missed a tiny beat but thereafter never gave any indication that he was not talking to a beautiful duchess. He stayed about ten minutes, extolling the glories of Stowe House and its history, and Nessie bathed in the full glow of his charm.
Never once did he ask any loaded questions and when he got up to leave, he said, ‘David is very lucky to have such a charming visitor’.
The charming visitor nearly got me expelled a year later but it was certainly not her fault. One Saturday during the exam season, Nessie was due at Buckingham station at noon. In order to meet her there and not waste a second of our time together, I arranged to bolt through my Latin paper.
Since I had already muffed maths and didn’t have any possibility of passing the School Certificate, I considered this was not technically cheating.
The paper had two parts, prose and verse: while I did the first part, the boy on my right did the second, made a copy, crumpled it and threw it on the floor. Surreptitiously I picked it up, dashed off my own copy, and raced away to meet Nessie.
We spent a blissful day together, eating shrimp paste sandwiches and sausage rolls, drinking ginger beer shandy and rolling around on the rug.
Nessie had begun to tell me a little more about herself and I listened adoringly to her descriptions of her childhood in a Hoxton slum; six children in a tiny room, the three youngest in the bed, the others sleeping on the floor and all cowering from the drunken Friday night battles between the parents.
At 15, she and her sister of a year older had run away. They found work as waitresses in dingy tea shops.
A few months later they were engaged as hostesses in a sleazy ‘club’ in Wardour Street. Then the sister started taking drugs and told Nessie she was going north with a boyfriend to avoid the police.
When Nessie went back to London after these outings, I always felt terribly lonely. I felt worse when J.F. announced to the whole school at chapel that two boys had been discovered cheating in the Latin exam
Nessie was soon employed by Mrs. Kate Meyrick at the 43 Club. She had to be on hand in evening dress as a ‘dancing partner’, making a fuss of ‘the rather high-class clientele and persuading them to buy champagne at exorbitant prices.
She was not allowed to solicit on the premises — a rule that was strictly enforced because ‘Ma’ Meyrick’s establishment was often infiltrated by police in evening clothes, posing as the tipsy aftermath of regimental dinners or bachelor parties.
But contacts were easily enough made and Nessie soon built up the basis of an enthusiastic clientele.
‘I’m not an ’ore wiv an ’eart of bleedin gold, you know, dear,’ she said. ‘I’m out for everything I can get for another couple of years — then I’m going to marry some nice Yank or Canadian and **** off abroad and ’ave kids.
‘A lot of blokes want to ’ave me all to themselves,’ she told me. ‘You know, set me up in a bleedin’ flat in Maida Vale with a maid and a bleedin’ puppy, but when the time comes, I’ll set meself up.’ It was all so different to my own hopes of progressing to the Army officer’s training school at Sandhurst.
When Nessie went back to London after these outings, I always felt terribly lonely. I felt worse when J.F. announced to the whole school at chapel that two boys had been discovered cheating in the Latin exam.
In the headmaster’s study, I told the truth: I had failed the exam already and wanted to get out early. I added that the other boy was blameless.
I fully expected to be expelled, and so lose any hope of Sandhurst. Instead, J.F. gave me one last chance … and 12 strokes of the cane. I was ordered to lift my coat, bend over and make no noise.
The first three or four blows hurt so much that the shock somehow cushioned the next four, but the last strokes were unforgettable. That night, in the dormitory with about 25 other boys, I felt mortified.
Our housemaster, Major Howarth, inspected the damage: ‘Pretty good shooting, I should say,’ he declared.
‘Looks like a two-inch group’ — as if the headmaster’s cane was a rifle and my backside was the target.
The Major then told my classmates that the incident was ‘closed and will not be referred to again by anyone’.
He added with a wink to me: ‘When that sort of thing happened to me, I used to sleep on my stomach and have my breakfast off the mantelpiece.’
I wish I could report that from this day I was a reformed character. Instead, during the summer holidays in Bembridge with my mother and sisters, my friend Brian and I set up a sailing club for children aged 12 to 18. We had a 14ft sailing dinghy that was 25 years old. My mother had bought it for £12.
Brian was captain and I was secretary. At the end of the first year, we showed a profit of two pounds, 12 shillings and sixpence, which Brian and I transferred into liqueur brandy.
We were both found next morning, face down in some nettles.
Extracted from The Moon’s A Balloon by David Niven, published by Penguin, £9.99. © David Niven 1971.