In the 1920s, Olney's, the butcher's, was at the corner of Wilton Rd and Colney Hatch Lane. It had an open front, closed at night with shutters and inside, large hanging rails for sides of meat. In Wilton Rd was a side entrance to the back of the shop which was furnished like a stable. Just before Christmas each year a young heifer and a few sheep were herded to the shop from some farm and stabled there. The animals were penned as if in a zoo, bedded in thick straw and fed from large troughs. The Roman Catholic church was showing its model of Christ in the manger and here was a real example. We thought, as children, that the live animals seemed better versions of the models. We visited the stable several times and fed the animals with grass, but when we returned one day the animals were gone.
Mother had great difficulty in explaining that the animals had been killed for Christmas. Their bodies now hung in the shop as sides of beef and mutton for people to eat. It was a traumatic shock. Until then meat and animals had been completely different things, as they are to children buying meat in supermarkets today. Now reality had entered and I was never to see a painting of the Nativity after this without wondering what had happened to the animals when the artist had finished painting.
On the opposite corner of Wilton Road was an off-license and next door a newsagent. Further along came an ironmonger's, with garden tools, brooms and all the other clutter spread over the pavement, selling a multitude of things, mostly loose. Nails and screws were weighed or counted, but many other things which we now buy packaged, or do not buy at all, were sold loose. Loose washing soda; balls of whiting used to whiten the front steps; creosote bought by the pint - bring your own tin; putty from a barrel; spirits of salts for cleaning the lavatory; and a hundred other things.
When I was twelve I first saw the effect of dipping copper or brass into acid. Dull metal quickly gleamed bright, transformed in a moment. From this I read about etching and engraving and decided that, while I could not yet engrave metal, I could etch. Engraving involved careful cutting of metal with a sharp burin. Clearly this was a skilled job, while etching was mere scratching through a protective surface so that the acid could cut into the metal. I could certainly etch.
I filed a rectangle of copper to the size of a visiting card and polished it highly. I covered the copper with beeswax, the nearest I could think of to an etcher's protective ground, and scratched my name neatly through it with a large needle. When the metal was put in a bath of acid, the beeswax would protect the copper from the acid. The acid would cut away only along the lines of the name. This would give a set of grooves like engraved lines and the card could be printed. Nothing could be simpler.
I washed a small stoneware oven dish to make my etching bath and went off to the ironmonger to buy some spirits of salts. The ironmonger had no bottles, so he sold me, a twelve year old boy, two pennyworth of hydrochloric acid - spirits of salts - in an open baked bean tin, the only container he could find. This I carried the full length of Wilton Road and the copper was etched with my name and a small leaf pattern. With no etching press I had to print the cards by squeezing them in a vise, an awkward, cack-handed process. The card was just about acceptable. The etching had disappointing blotches, the lettering was shaky and imperfect. It was interesting to have done, but I abandoned etching for many years.