Up close and personal: a world of difference

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 3:13pm

As a white-haired grandfather, I often ponder my happy childhood when I customarily sported a grubby face and scratched knees. I have one younger sister, who was a bit of a tomboy, and we had the free run of a large builder's yard adjacent to our house. There was also a flower garden, a vegetable garden and a paddock on which our horses grazed.

I was born in 1920, in the horse age, albeit at the tail end. My sister and I were brought up to care for all creatures great and small, and our pets included cats, dogs, white mice, pigeons and rabbits. Life in the 1920s was in many ways more simple and straightforward than it is now. For a young boy growing up, our market town in Watton, in eastern England could be a little quiet at times. It only had 1,331 residents in a census of 1931 - and 13 pubs.

There's no doubt parents and teachers were stricter when I was growing up. If my father made a decision it wouldn't have occurred to me not to obey or to discuss it with him. But in other ways there was much more freedom to run around than children have here. I was a bit of a Huckleberry Finn in some ways in the countryside. There are so many here who have never seen a cow chewing the cud, or even know where milk comes from, although they can still get away from it all a bit in the New Territories.

Back in the 1920s, at our home in the Norfolk countryside, I was proud that we had a magnificent walnut tree in the district and tree climbing was one of my hallowed activities as a youngster. I shudder to recall the risks I took. But, in tree climbing as in life, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Overall, I'm sure risky experiences did me good. Playing, for children, is very much a learning experience. Yet there are children on the large estate where I live now, in Mid-Levels, who never seem to play or go out other than to school or with their parents. They are made to study much of the time. All children should be entitled to enjoy their childhood.

At the age of nine I was packed off to boarding school. I was never really happy there and since I was a weekly boarder, I lived for Saturday afternoons when I could go home again for the rest of the weekend. But my father ruled the roost, so that was that. Things aren't as strict now as they were in my day. I was only caned once, and that was when my ball went on to the roof of a classroom and I climbed up to get it. I was caught red-handed by the caretaker. I always felt that caning didn't do me any harm but, at the same time, I wasn't sure it did me much good either. Brutality tends to breed brutality.

I was 18 years old when Germany invaded Poland. I tried to join up, but because of the family business I was in what was called a "reserved trade" so the army didn't accept me. My mum knew I was very upset about this. So I went back and said I was a truck driver, which was true; the building business had a truck which I drove around. I was given a small payment and off to war I went. My father thought I was crazy.

Looking back the war must have been a terrible ordeal for my mother and all mothers. I still have shrapnel in my body from North Africa and three times my mum would have received notification that I had been wounded.

When the war finished in Europe in May 1945, I was in Trieste. We went back by train through Germany and I remember seeing at the stations so many soldiers who had returned from the front minus a leg or arm.

I remember urgently pressing the door bell when I arrived home, and shouting, and my father poking his head out of the upstairs window to see what the fuss was about. He looked old to me, but that was because he was still in his pyjamas and hadn't shaved. I hadn't seen my parents for more than three years so they were very surprised and pleased to see me.

When I look at my two grandchildren, they have more freedom in terms of doing what they want. I want them to be happy, although I don't see them very often as we live thousands of miles from one another. I have always been impressed by the accent on family in Chinese culture, when, in days gone by, the extended family meant far more than it does today. With people marrying young, five generations under one roof was by no means uncommon.

I have a friend here who has four children and 12 grandchildren. In old age I would love to have 12 grandchildren! I would love it if we could have four generations in my family, if my grandchildren have children of their own, but not four generations under one roof. And for them to look back after I've gone and think: What a quaint old fellow he was.

British-born historian Dan Waters, who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly 60 years, is a grandfather of two.