Melon Farming for Beginners: A Brief History of Swearing in the Movies

up the down escalator

one of her five-a-day

Back in the days of silent films, packed picture houses enjoyed the latest offerings of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd to the accompaniment of suitable piano music. At one screening, a stereotypical villain, dressed in top hat and cape, strokes his moustache and then points a finger skyward as though a thought has struck him. The audience are told what this thought is in the form of a caption which reads: “I’m gonna nail that motherf—“. Cut.

Of course, this never really happened, because, for one thing I’m not sure how popular the ‘melon farmer’ word was back in those days (although it is said that the word can be lip-read, drowned out by a honking horn in the 1936 Fred Astaire film, Swing Time), and for another there was to be no mainstream on-screen swearing for many years to come.

The spoken…

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Games Among the Graves

cross

the cemetery today

The residential area of Cowpen Newtown, where I lived as a child, consisted of three rows of terraced houses. The back lane of the westernmost of these, John Street, looked onto a cemetery that was in a state of some decay. The partly-demolished perimeter wall of this broken-down bone garden acted as a gateway to a huge playground for my friends and me. While we respected the actual graves, we couldn’t resist the other temptations that lay within. There were trees to climb, walls to scale and fires to set among the leaning headstones..

Our little gang would gather beneath the huge stone cross that stood (and still stands) in the centre of the cemetery. From here we would decide what we were going to play, be it hide and seek, a go on the rope swing, or perhaps a shootout between the gravestones with our Sekiden guns. There was always some adventure or other to be had.

My friend, David, and I once tried to make a mini-treehouse by securing an old zinc bath to a bough with a length of rope. The entire structure slid off the supporting branch with both of us sitting in it, but the rope held and we managed to hang on without either of us falling to the ground.

One Saturday afternoon, four of us were playing among the gravestones, when we were accosted by one of the ‘big lads’ from the street, who would have been about thirteen. He carried an air pistol and he corralled us at gunpoint with the intention of taking us to the priest, who lived on the other side of a busy road. Our captor marched us toward the main road, waving the gun about and telling us that we would be punished for playing in the cemetery. He lined us up on the kerb and, as he watched for a gap in the traffic, my fellow prisoners and I simultaneously made a bolt for it. Our escape was entirely successful, although I did spend the rest of that weekend in dread of a visit from the priest.

When I was about five-years-old, someone dumped an old mattress in a corner of the cemetery a few feet from the wall, and a new game of paratroopers was devised. I enviously watched, as a queue of older children leaped from the wall onto the mattress, doing various dramatic rolls on landing. I declined their invitation to join in, but later on, when I was alone, I drummed up the courage to have a go myself.

I climbed the wall, and took up my position by the battered mattress. A thick bed of nettles stood between me and my target but, undeterred, I stood on the edge of the wall and prepared to jump. I kept getting a powerful urge to leap, but this was quickly stifled as caution regained control of my mind. Finally, after a lot of dithering, I went for it.

I didn’t make it. I fell short and the nettles stung my bare legs but my momentum carried me forward, and I stumbled onto the damp mattress. It hurt like the devil, but I was satisfied that I had made the jump.

I also learned something very important that day, and on many other occasions when I attempted similar feats; I learned my own limitations. Through my mishap on the mattress I had given myself a better indication of how far I could jump. Via a similar process of trial and error, I identified other boundaries, such as whether a tree branch was too high to drop from safely, or the stick that acted as a seat on a rope swing would bear my weight.

For this is how it goes throughout the animal kingdom. A small kitten may fail in its attempt to leap between settee and armchair, but it will know better next time. Polar bear cubs will frolic as they explore snow for the first time, but they are familiarising themselves with the environment in which they will have to survive. And, in a dilapidated graveyard, a young boy leaping onto an old mattress learned that next time he must go an extra foot. Discovering our limitations is not something that can be taught indoors on a games console.

There was an article on the radio recently about so-called cotton-wool kids, these being children who are kept indoors because their parents fear they might get hurt while playing outside. In a recent survey, over 40% of adults suggested fourteen as the minimum age for children to be allowed out on their own, while only 17% said this freedom should be given to children under ten..

I learned several hard lessons as a child, and my mother would have had kittens if she’d known everything I got up to. But I came through it all relatively unscathed, and those scrapes and bumps and nettle stings I picked up taught me at an early age that life does not always run as smoothly I’d like it to.

I’m no child psychologist, but perhaps a lot of the entitlement we see in young adults these days stems from them not learning that lesson as children

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Learning to Ride a Bike: From Grazes to Glee

jcycling

Jeepster

As a child, my inauguration into the world of two-wheeled cycling was a painful one. My friend David was younger than me, but already he was tearing around the streets on a small bike with large pneumatic tyres. I’d had several attempts at riding on two wheels, but I just didn’t get it.

Then one day I got a machine of my own, and so learning to ride became a priority. Directly opposite our street there stood a huge tailoring factory, in whose employ was a mysterious character known as the Boiler Man. He was a friend of my uncle Charlie, who used to repair and assemble bicycles as a sideline, and it was via this source that my uncle procured my very first two-wheeled bicycle.

My new, and by ‘new’ I mean ‘second-hand’, machine was a Hercules Jeep, which had been built in Birmingham. It was a bright blue mechanical monster that came with a sprung leather seat, moustache handlebars and roller-lever brakes (rigid steel rods rather than flexible cables). It was also, I felt, a bit too big for me, but undeterred, I set about trying to ride the blue beast.

With my uncle holding the saddle, I gripped the handlebars firmly and gave the thumbs-up to his instructions to keep pedalling and not to stare at the front wheel. Several children from the street had lined the pavement to watch the big event, and I imagined them cheering me as I pedalled past unaided.

After a little wobble at the start, we were off. My uncle’s stride got longer as my speed increased, and I nodded vigorously when he told me he was about to let go. A few yards after my uncle’s support was withdrawn, I came a cropper.

There was blood. There were tears. An entanglement of boy and machine lay in a heap on the road under the gaze of a generally sympathetic audience. After the Jeep and I had been unravelled, we saw that my injuries weren’t too severe, and a grazed elbow, a snotty nose and twisted handlebars were all that needed seeing to. I was sent home to be patched up and my uncle straightened the handlebars of my bike by gripping the front wheel between his knees and turning the bars back into position.

After this latest failed attempt to get mobile, it would have surprised no-one if I’d given up on ever becoming a cyclist, and taken the pedestrian pledge. Several bruising encounters with the road surface had served as a hefty dose of aversion therapy to my young bones. Maybe cycling and I were never meant to be, and I should look elsewhere for thrills on wheels. After all, my brother had a pair of roller skates.

But no.

Something had happened during my latest failed test run; for a brief moment before my fall, I actually had got it. I had ridden the thing.

Rather than wallowing in my failure, I took the view that hope springs eternal; the darkest hour is just before dawn, and a winner is just a loser who tried one more time. Instead of moping, I was about to enter the third act of a feel-good movie in which grim determination would prevail. I’d watched the family pets find their way to their new home in The Incredible Journey, and I witnessed the wooden puppet become a real boy in Pinocchio. In this spirit of overcoming challenging situations, a young lad on Beecher Street was about to ride a bike.

Working alone, I took my Jeep down to the gable end of the street, and took the handlebars. Gingerly, I pushed off and cocked my leg over the crossbar. I overcame the familiar steering wobble on starting, and I pushed the pedals firmly enough to maintain the momentum required to stay upright. And stay upright I did. Many years later, I still recall that sense of elation as I rode unaided for the first time. As I approached a row of garages in the back lane, I braked, leaned the bike over and hopped to a halt. In a state bordering on euphoria, I remounted and rode back to my starting point. I had definitely cracked it.

A boy called Norman from the next street had, of all things, a Hercules Jeep. His was a much newer model than my old boneshaker – it had straight handlebars and brake cables. In my blog post The Daredevil, I mentioned that I formed a bond with my friend Jimmy because he owned an identical scooter to the one I had. Similarly, Norman and I did lap after lap round the block on our Jeeps like we were best friends. I went home that evening saddle-sore and smiling.

Over the next few years, my friends and I cobbled together several bikes from reclaimed frames and handlebars. I got to know basic cycle repair, and I could mend a puncture with my eyes closed.

Then, one Christmas when I was in my early teens, I got my first new bike. It was a bright red Dawes Zipper I had picked out myself from Sep Mole’s shop in the town centre. As soon as I saw it suspended from the ceiling I knew it was the one for me.

The Zipper was similar to the Raleigh Chopper, and at £34 it cost the same, but with several better features. Whereas the Chopper had handlebars that were welded into position, my Zipper had cool adjustable ape-hangers that I liked to pull right back for that Easy Rider look. My bike also had a curved banana seat and an adjustable chrome backrest that was so long, I could press the back of my head against it. Despite several thorough Internet searches over the years, I have been unable to find a photo of the Dawes Zipper.

Memories of those early painful attempts at learning to ride a bike faded and I became a proficient cyclist. Of course, being able to ride a bike is no guarantee against coming off one, and over the years I’ve had my fair share of cycling spills. In 1988, I had an accident that knocked me clean unconscious and very nearly saw me parking up in that great big bike shed in the sky. I suffered a fractured skull and a shattered scapula, and I spent six days in hospital. It certainly put my grazed elbow in the shade.

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London, Here I Come!

joetrafalgarsq

London belongs to me

I made my first trip to London when I was ten-years-old. My grandparents took me to see an aunt, who had the curious name of Dorrie, and who lived in Burnt Oak, a suburb in the Edgware district of North London. My older brother had made the trip the previous year, and he had returned with tales of tube trains, waxworks and two apple trees in the garden.

We went by overnight coach from Newcastle, but even at that young age I was never the best of sleepers. As my grandparents dozed, I leaned into the aisle so that I could stare through the windscreen at the giant passing road signs, waiting for the magic name to appear (it came around the Sheffield area if I remember rightly). I was enthralled by this nocturnal world of cats-eyes, blazing headlights and motorway services that stayed open all night.

By the time we reached London, just as the local populace headed for work, I was shattered. A short taxi ride later and we were knocking at the door of our destination, and I met Dorrie for the first time. After tea and toast, I was dispatched to a small bedroom on the ground floor. It was clean and comfortable and I was soon fast asleep.

We did nothing that day, but in the evening my auntie and grandparents went out to a pub at the bottom of the road, leaving me alone in the strange house after I’d assured them I’d be all right. I had a plentiful supply of sweets and pop, and I tried reading my Beano Summer Special, but I couldn’t settle in the unusual surroundings, especially when dusk fell. A wooden standard lamp with fringed shade cast a gloomy light upon a huge old sideboard on which stood a mantel clock with a loud tick and a framed photograph of a soldier in uniform.

Somewhat spooked, I went outside, where I felt safer because people were on the street. I took a stroll down to the pub where my grandparents sat, and I returned to the house, where I spent the rest of the night leaning on the gate. I darted indoors when I saw my grandparents approaching.

The following day, we set about exploring the capital and I took my first trip on the tube. I was fascinated by the long wooden escalators which gave off a smell that I assumed to be warm lubricating oil. The walls of the stations and escalators were awash with posters advertising new films, and I was somewhat disturbed by the defiant two-fingered salute given by Billy Casper on posters advertising Kes. Another film that was advertised at that time was The Watermelon Man. I saw both of these when I got older and one remains a much-loved favourite, while the other was as forgettable as an advert for grass seed. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which is which.

We were on the Northern Line, and the stations we passed through had names that were new to me: Brent Cross, Belsize Park and Chalk Farm. I loved the rocking of the train as it sped through dark tunnels; the screeches and the flashes. We visited Buckingham Palace (I wasn’t impressed) and Trafalgar Square, where I got my photo taken with some feathered friends (that’s my gran behind me on the right, getting ready to hand her money over to Del Boy for the snaps). I went to bed that night in that state of tiredness that only comes after a day spent traipsing around a busy town or city.

I woke up the next morning to the sound of someone rapping on the window of my bedroom. Puzzled, I got up and, rather gingerly, pulled back the curtain. I don’t think the word gobsmacked was in use at that time, but it would have been the perfect way to describe what I saw. There, in the garden, were my two brothers and, further back, my parents. My solo jaunt had turned into a family holiday.

When my grandparents got over the shock of the new arrivals, we went for the only time the other way on the tube, to Edgware. All I remember of that trip is being in a pub drinking lemonade while a band played on the stage. My older brother drew my attention to the rather stout saxophonist, and the comical way he sucked in breath as he played. His lips were tight around the mouthpiece, until he gulped in air, when the side of his mouth would open up, and then snap shut as sharply as a mousetrap. I found this hilarious.

London had shown me many things I’d never seen before, but one place we visited left me green with envy – and it wasn’t on the usual tourist trail. We were in Battersea (minus grandparents and Dorrie), and my dad took us into an adventure playground. To a street urchin like me, this rickety-looking rat-run was a merger of Shangri La, Utopia and El Dorado, all held together with nails and rope.

I ran and climbed and swung without parental yells to come down before I hurt myself. I loved the whole idea of a home-made assault course, cobbled together with old doors, car tyres and telegraph poles. The Battersea Adventure Playground was probably my favourite part of the entire London trip.

During my research for this post, I checked out the adventure playground to see if it was still going. I was pleased to see that it is, but saddened to see that it is no longer free and that the original structure was demolished in 2014. Fourteen staff were employed in the playground, supervising activities and running workshops for children. Of course, during these austere times, there is no room for paid staff, so the new park is safe and unsupervised – and it costs money to enter.

I wrote in a previous post of the way my local swimming pool closed a warm and inviting cafe, which was part of the appeal of a trip to the baths, to be replaced by soulless vending machines situated in empty seating areas. It would appear that the cuts that did for my cafe have also done for the Battersea Adventure Playground.

This is not a political blog, but I am sick to the teeth of seeing services that were used and loved being either closed down or run on the cheap in the name of cutting our way to growth. Swimmers of the vending machine generation know only the bare, unstaffed seating area. They missed out on the post-swim banter with staff over a frothy Horlicks while waiting for a hot dog. And what price would you put on the childrens’ workshops at the Battersea Adventure Playground which have been discontinued because saving money is, to some, more important than broadening the mind of a child (read that link above for the whole sorry tale). It all makes for a colder, less communicative world. And it stinks.

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What I Learned on Beecher Street

beecherbricksbw

the street on which I was born

In the Family Guy episode Brian Griffin’s House of Payne, Brian has written a TV script, the title of which is What I Learned on Jefferson Street. This got me thinking of things I learned, not via school or my parents, but on the street. As the following examples demonstrate, my peers did not offer the best advice.

Birds Can Count

My friend Stuart showed off a display box he had been given by his uncle. It was a shallow cardboard affair in which the blown eggs of several different species of bird reposed on a bed of sand. While I was quite enthralled by the range of sizes, colours and patterns of the eggs, I was never tempted to start my own collection, partly because I was the world’s worst tree-climber, and partly because my dad was dead against the activity.

Several of my friends did take up bird nesting though, and one piece of nonsense I swallowed at the time was the notion that birds can count the number of eggs they lay. It was a girl from my street who started it all when she sad that if a blackbird has five eggs in her nest, you can safely take two because blackbirds can only count to three. I didn’t know how she knew this, but I believed her and so did others. She became quite the oracle of oology, dishing out advice for guilt-free nesting, and delivering her teachings with such confidence I envisaged bird nesters coming from surrounding estates and beyond to seek her wisdom.

“O Great One, I know of a partridge’s nest in a field up the road that has sixteen eggs. How many may I take?”

“The partridge can count up to twelve, my son, so you may take four.”

This didn’t happen though, because the bandwagon was jumped upon and suddenly everyone was an expert on birds and how many eggs they could count. Then the whole racket fell into rapid decline when an older boy, whose views on such matters were respected, dismissed the entire craft as bunkum. Of course, on learning this, we said that we knew all along that it was nonsense, and that we were just pretending to believe in it.

I did pick up some useful information in the company of these nest looters, though. One of their favourite pastimes was to brag about the rare eggs they had (at home, of course, where no-one could see them). Through this, I learned the names of exotic sounding birds, such as the redstart, the ring ouzel and the mysterious, and completely non-existent, nettle weaver.

Bitumen is Edible

There was an outsider on our patch. He was a little older than me and we came across him skulking about by the derelict flats at the bottom of the street. Our little gang befriended the stranger, whose name was Kev, and once the ice was broken, our new friend suggested putting a football team together.

He marched us up to the top of the street, where a huge lawn at the front of a tailoring factory served as our football pitch. We knew our new manager was serious, because he soon had us doing sprints and running on the spot. As we paused to get our breath back after a strenuous stint, Kev spotted a huge chunk of bitumen as used by roofers, under a bush.

“Anyone fancy some tarry-toot?” he said. He picked up the chunk and threw it onto the concrete road, where many shards shattered off it, shiny and untouched. To our astonishment, he put a small piece in his mouth and began chewing it. He gathered a handful of the shards, which he offered to us like they were foil wrapped chocolate balls, popular at ambassadors’ parties. Gingerly, we took a piece each and began chewing.

It wasn’t like chewing gum at all. It was hard and nowhere near as pliable as the gum I knew and loved, and its bitter taste reminded me of coal-tar soap. After some chewing the bitumen did soften, but only to the consistency of well-chewed toffee, so blowing bubbles with it was out. Once in this pliable state, the bitumen could be moulded, and we had many laughs making out we had missing teeth, or no teeth at all.

Despite its unappetising appearance and unpleasant taste, we took a large chunk of the bitumen, or tarry-toot as we now called it, down to our end of the street after practice so it was on hand should we fancy a chew. Rumours as to the harmful effects of chewing bitumen merely served as encouragement to fly in the face of danger and chew some more. Girls would recoil in disgust on being offered a piece, and that would be our cue to start chewing a slab like some GI in a war film.

But bravado was really its only attraction. There was minty fresh chewing gum available for coppers, and Anglo Bubbly (I must have chewed my own weight in those) and Bazooka Joe bubble gums were soft and chewy, not hard and brittle, and what trickled down your throat was sweet, delicious and safe.

Kev disappeared, the football team folded and we left the bitumen to the roofers.

W.I.M.P.E.Y

At the bottom of our street there was a sizeable area of scrub that led down to the river. One day, the excavators moved in, as work began on a new factory development. There was plenty of earth to shift, and so a fleet of yellow tipper trucks, each emblazoned with the name WIMPEY along the side, set about the task. I liked to watch these mechanical monsters rumble along the main road at the top of our street like a brightly coloured version of the 1957 film Hell Drivers. Some of the trucks had faces drawn on their radiator grills, and one driver gave me the thumbs-up as he drove past.

At school I told my friends of the trucks with the cartoon faces and the thumbs-up sign. When we were let out for playtime, we went up to the gates that looked onto the main road, even though this was strictly out of bounds. We didn’t wait long for our first yellow truck, and we all stuck up our thumbs. The driver responded and we were delighted. Someone told me that Wimpey was not a name, but an acronym (although he didn’t use that word). He said it stood for We Imploy More People Every Year. At that age I was unfamiliar with the word ‘employ’, so I accepted it as fact.

Our new game drew the attention of other pupils, and pretty soon almost the entire school was gathered at the gates, giving the thumbs-up to passing Wimpey trucks. When the teacher came out to an empty yard, she must have almost had kittens as the thought of mass abduction flashed through her mind.
The headmistress gave the whole school a warning that any further trips to the top of the yard would result in punishment. And that was that, because by the time we got home from school and had our teas, the trucks had knocked off for the day.

When we were having our tea one night, my dad brought up the subject of the Wimpey trucks. He said that they had almost made him miss his bus for work that morning, as he couldn’t cross the road because of them. I saw this as a chance to show off my knowledge on the subject. “Did you know,” I said, “that Wimpey stands for We Imploy More People Every Year?” My dad laughed and explained why that couldn’t be so.

What I learned on Beecher Street that day was that ‘employ’ starts with an ‘e’.

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Pop: The Soundtrack to My Childhood

heathkitcatalogue

pop, pop, pop music

I fell in love with music at an early age. My young ears listened appreciatively to chart hits that my parents played on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. These included Sacha Distel’s This Guy’s in Love with You, Chris Montez’s The More I see You and The Green Green Grass of Home by Tom Jones. My real love during these formative years was, however, The Beatles.

My dad, owner of the aforementioned tape recorder, was a bit of a home audio buff. He constructed a stereo record player from a kit (catalogue above), which he tested out with a James Last album. I remember being almost mesmerised at the way individual instruments came through the separate wooden speakers. I got to appreciate my dad’s efforts even more when he bought the Beatles’ album A Hard Day’s Night, which was played frequently.

With the soundtrack to my childhood provided by Radio One and Top of the Pops, I went on to be a pretty clued-up kid on the pop music scene. I knew my Dylan from my Donovan, my Honeycombs from my Honeybus, and my PJ Proby from my Billy J Kramer. I loved the wacky weirdness of the fashions and the hairstyles, and, even at that young age, I became thoroughly absorbed in this fresh and vibrant culture that was all over the (rather limited) media of the day. Then, as now, some acts had gimmicks and traits that they hoped would make them stand out from the crowd. I GAWPED at PJ Proby’s ponytail. I MARVELLED at Arthur Brown’s blazing headgear, and I GASPED at Sandie Shaw singing in her bare feet.

Of course, at that young age I assumed that everyone on the planet appreciated pop music in general, and The Beatles in particular, as much as I did. Radio DJs enthused over the latest releases and the audience on Top of the Pops looked to be having a gas as they got down and got with it every Thursday evening. The charts were awash with songs about love and peace, and young people were growing their hair and then wearing flowers in it. The world, to my innocent eyes, was one big pop festival.

Of course, I knew that there were squares from the older generation who didn’t appreciate the sound of a tinny transistor belting out the latest hits on the bus or down the caff, but they were yesterday’s news. One night, though, I discovered at first hand that not everyone was as hip to the groove as I was, and I witnessed one man demonstrate, rather dramatically, that pop music just wasn’t his bag.

I was at the theatre with my mother, grandma and two brothers to see the king of the Curly Wurly ads himself, Terry Scott in pantomime. I do not remember which tale we were watching, but I can date the trip, and all because of that great wonder of the age, pop music. On a pre-show visit to the shops, my older brother bought the Jethro Tull single, The Witch’s Promise, which, my research tells me, was released in January 1970, so that pins down the year (I bought a plastic gun).

Inside the theatre, the panto got into full swing and after the interval there came a musical interlude in the form of a short live set by a pop group whose name is lost, but I’d never heard of them anyway. As the band prepared to play, a cast member, possibly Mr. Scott himself, asked the audience “Do you like pop music?”

Virtually the entire audience squealed the affirmative, but I was somewhat dismayed when a man who was seated in the row directly in front of us responded with a hearty cry of No! When the guy on the stage assured us that we could do better than that, he repeated the question and again, amid the chorus of approval, the man in front yelled the negative. Who was this pompous party-pooper, I wondered, and what did he have against my favourite genre of music?

The stage lit up and the band started playing the first of their three numbers. Amid the screams of the audience, the objector from the row in front rose from his seat and, in a state of high dudgeon, physically hauled his young son by the arm towards the aisle, uttering angry excuse mes as he went. His wife and another son followed and they stomped out of the theatre, not to return.

I wasn’t too concerned about the father, but I did feel sorry for his children who, I imagined, were being deprived of a world of wonderful and exciting music. The incident left a lasting impression on me, and I have a vivid recollection of the bespectacled father dragging that boy out of his seat. This incident made me appreciate even more that I came from a home that belted out enough pop music to give Radio Caroline a run for its money.

I learned that day that not everyone shared my passion for pop music, and that, in the words of The Kinks, It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world.

By the way,  The Witch’s Promise sounded great on my dad’s stereo.

 

 

 

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Frights and Scares, Under the Stairs

ghosts

‘effulgent effigies. . .’

I lived with my brothers and parents in Beecher Street, which was in some state of dilapidation at the bottom end. Conditions were such that I remember the landlord coming one day to cold-chisel off the plaster in the tiny bedroom I shared with my elder brother because of damp in the wall. These conditions were not conducive to good health, but to my young mind the damp wall offered the means to cool down during hot summer nights. I remember pressing my bare legs against the peeling Yogi Bear wallpaper for relief.

When I was seven-years-old, the breakfast cereal Sugar Puffs ran a promotion in which a ghostly glow-in-the-dark plastic figure came free in each pack. These included a bat, a broomstick-riding witch, a ghostly suit of armour, a spook, a skull and crossbones, a grandfather clock, a startled cat and a ghostly woman in a long dress (I took this woman for a Miss Havisham type as a child, but, thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I see now that she is sporting a ruff, making her a Mary Queen of Scots figure.) To display this collection of effulgent effigies, the empty cereal box could be made into a creepy Haunted Manor set, complete with sweeping staircase and Gothic windows.

As far as I remember, we had the complete set. My mother assembled the display box  and the figures were put into place. Then came a problem. We had already waited ages to collect the figures, now we would have to wait until nightfall before we could see them in their glowing glory. As everyone knows, children are not the most patient of animals, so an interim solution had to be found.

My mother stood the display on a shelf in the roomy cupboard that stood in the passage, beneath the stairs that led to the flat above. We peered in and I was immediately fascinated, and not a little unnerved, at the sight of these ghostly figures glowing in the darkness. I found ‘Miss Havisham’ most frightening, but this was possibly because she perfectly resembled an image I had formed in my mind of the ghostly apparition Ginny Green Eyes, a local phantom whose hauntings had been related to us by my dad.

When my mother had a clear-out of the cupboard one day, it was like the Generation Game conveyor belt to me, as she unearthed items I had never seen before: toys that had been my older brother’s, including a plastic squeaking clothes peg, a gas mask and my dad’s forage cap from his national service in the RAF.

One Boxing Day, when I still had faith in the big guy in the red suit, my dad put his coat in the cupboard and I spied within its darkened depths a box with a brightly coloured lid. When the opportunity arose, I sneaked a peek into the cupboard, and I found the box from the Airfix Motor Racing track we had received for Christmas, and which had been set up in the living room – by Santa himself, I presumed. Other boxes from our Christmas haul were there too. I tried to pictured Santa stuffing the boxes into the cupboard as he made his silent escape, but it didn’t feel right and the seeds of doubt as to his existence had been sown.

One time, my father had to attend a residential training course. This meant that my brothers and I could sleep in the ‘giant’ double bed in my parents’ room. The three of us sleeping in our parents’ bed was a novelty, to be taken full advantage of. We used it as a trampoline, held wrestling bouts on its great surface area, and generally larked about until my mother restored order, and we settled down for the night. She sat on the edge of the bed to tell a bedtime story to my younger brother, who was little more than a baby. My other brother and I were happy to listen in to the tale, albeit while kicking each other under the blankets.

As we began to drift off to our mother’s gentle voice, there came the sound of an abrupt snap, which halted the narration. This woke me up, and I opened my eyes to see my mother rising from the edge of the bed. She left the bedroom and walked into the passage outside, followed by two of her three ducklings.

She went into the cupboard under the stairs, and pulled out a mouse trap with a freshly killed victim. I got a good look at the corpse as she walked past on her way to the bin, and I noticed a dark beady eye looking at me. While my mother was away, my brother and I heard movement inside the cupboard. We hurried back to the safety of the bed and my mother returned, but the story would be interrupted a further two times that night by the snapping of the trap.

Looking back now on the sound of movement coming from the darkness of the cupboard, and the three mice that were caught in one night, I would say that our pest problems were approaching infestation levels. The cupboard under the stairs was clearly Mouse HQ, but the bedroom in which my elder brother and I slept was at the back of the flat, away from the scourge that inhabited the cupboard. Until that night, we were unaware of the seriousness of the situation.

Obviously, something had to be done, and we were eventually re-housed in a brand new three-bedroom semi on a nearby council estate. The good thing was that a sizeable chunk of our street had been condemned alongside our flat, so many of my friends moved into the same estate and we all stayed together. As far as I am aware, the mice were not re-housed.

 

 

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The Daredevil

daredevil

The wild one

The bunting that stretched between lamp posts, and the cheering crowd that lined the route were only present in my imagination, but when I wheeled my MoBo scooter up to the top of the street, I felt like Evel Kinevil himself (although the famous daredevil didn’t adopt that name until 1966 – possibly after this event took place).

I had received the scooter as a Christmas present, and it was my pride and joy for a long time. This was the first scooter I had ridden that didn’t have two rear wheels; it was a machine for a boy, not a kid. It was green with a metal footplate and a foot-operated back brake pedal. It even had a stand so I could prop it up and admire it. My friend, Jimmy, had an identical scooter and we went about together on them. There was a special bonding in having identical machines, and I understood at an early age the attraction of groups like Hell’s Angels and (motor) scooter gangs.

Motivated by a motorcycle jump I had seen on television, I hatched a plan to emulate the feat by constructing a crude ramp on the road outside my front door. This structure was nothing more than a drop down door from one of those kitchen pantry affairs that everyone seemed to have back then (it still had the chrome handle attached), resting two house bricks laid end to end.

We did not have the luxury of tarmac on the road like neighbouring streets; ours was little more than a dirt track. As I grew up, my knees and elbows became well acquainted with this uneven, gritty surface, but the road did have its plus points.

When it rained, some of the potholes became super deep puddles for us to splash in, or sail small boats. Over many years going back well before I was born, the flow of heavy rainfall had cut channels into the road’s surface. During such downpours, these ruts became fast-flowing rivulets that acted as child magnets to draw children from the comfort of the fireside. At the bottom of the street, the streams petered out, and this is where my friends and I would try to stem the flow by damming the road with mud.

With half a dozen eager beavers toiling away in raincoats and wellies, the dam was soon complete. It stood only about four inches high, but it stretched almost the entire width of the road, creating an impressive mini lake. It was not entirely watertight though, and before it drained away, we threw stones at it until it burst. There was a keen sense of satisfaction in seeing the wall break and the torrent pour forth, especially for the one whose stone had caused the burst.

On dry days, we would use the edge of a flat lolly stick to scrape away the top layer of dirt, to create roads for our Corgi model cars to drive on.We scraped out a whole mini- town, with T-junctions, roundabouts, lay-bys and a car park. This looked great to begin with, but with a gang of kids crawling over it as their cars went from A to B, the roads soon disappeared and arguments often broke out.

But today was the day of the big scooter jump.

I felt no apprehension as I pushed off on my first daredevil attempt. I built up speed, carefully weaving between the many potholes that pitted the road. I lined up my front wheel with the centre of the ramp, and gave an extra burst of foot power for that much needed accelleration boost. In the moments before lift-off, I pictured myself soaring gracefully through the air before landing perfectly and doing a skid as I slid gracefully to a halt in the manner of a ski-jumper. Here I go, I thought.

I missed the ramp but hit one of the bricks. Far from taking off, my vehicle stopped dead, nudging the brick along an inch. The handlebars went forward, and I followed, landing face first on the road. This was the first time I had been dazed by a blow to the head, and I didn’t like the combination of pain and giddiness.

Issuing a screeching wail that the residents of my street had already heard many times, I picked myself up and repeatedly rang the doorbell at my front door. As I waited for someone to answer, I stood facing the wall with my forehead resting on my forearm. I must have been aware of the potential seriousness of head injuries’, because I began reciting my five times table aloud. When my mother answered the door in a state of some alarm, Stuart informed her of my extra-curricular activity.

My mother ushered me indoors to be patched up, but I had sustained no visible injuries. I had suffered a shock at the new sensation of being dazed. With soothing words and cajoling from my parents, the wails soon turned to sniffles that petered out to giggles.

As I look back on my moment of alarm, I notice that I opted for one of the easier times tables. I would never have attempted the dreaded seven.

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Grammar School, Here I Come

JYSchool

…about to make his way in the world

At the end of the school day, everyone in the fourth year of the juniors was given a sealed buff envelope to take home. What these envelopes contained were our futures: the results of our eleven plus exams we had sat a few weeks earlier.

I arrived home and handed the envelope to my mother, who opened it and read the letter. It began, We are pleased to offer your son a place at grammar school, or words to that effect. I was delighted to have passed, as I had heard of all kinds of rewards being dished out to successful eleven plussers, from bikes to watches, and some even received hard cash. The tales I had heard about new starters at the local grammar school being thrown over goalposts and having their heads shoved down toilets didn’t matter right now – I was focused on what was in it for me.

When I told my dad the news on his return from work, his incredulous response was “You haven’t, have you?” He read the letter and then put it down, and then he picked it up and read it again, without even taking off his coat.  He was delighted.

After tea, I was dispatched on the bus to my grandparents’ house to relay the good news. I received a small financial reward from my grandad, but the trip was memorable for what he said to me before I left to catch the bus home.

He beckoned me over to the armchair where he sat. “I have something important to tell you,” he said, “and you must tell your dad when you get home.” I nodded to show that I understood. He held up his right hand and placed the index finger of his l  left hand acrosss the index and middle fingers of his right. “I have to go into hospital to have these two fingers amputated,” he said, “because of the steering wheel”. I was taken aback, but I gave an assurance that I wouldn’t forget  to pass on the message, and I left to give my dad some bad news on top of the good.

I couldn’t understand how a steering wheel might be responsible for the amputation of my grandad’s fingers. He had driven a truck during the war, and he drove a bin wagon for many years after that. Looking at his situation now, I would guess that he was suffering from vibration white finger, caused by years of gripping the steering wheel of an idling truck. There were no ‘where there’s blame, there’s a claim’ ads on the TV back then, so he went in for the amputation without any fuss. He died the following year.

Back at my house, the eleven plus afterglow continued and over the days following the result, I garnered a tidy sum in reward money. I spent some of this when I went with my mother to be kitted out with my uniform and other necessities at the local Co-op department store: football boots, running vest, pencil case, and all the accoutrements that were needed by a schoolboy about to make his way in the world. To cap it all I was given a Timex watch that had square holes in the black leather strap and which showed the date where the number three should have been. I couldn’t have felt more grown-up if I’d sprouted a beard.

After much anticipation, my first day at my new school arrived. I was excited, but nervous too. I had been the only boy from my junior class to pass the exam, so I didn’t know anyone. I expected pupils from bigger schools to have rekindled past friendships and formed little cliques. On that first morning, as I sat in class while our teacher dealt with an administration task, I struck up a conversation with the boy at the next desk along. We were getting on famously, and I thought I’d made my first friend.

Then the classroom door opened and a pupil came in. He spoke to the teacher at his desk, and the teacher then addressed the class.

“Is there a Joseph Young here?” he said. I raised my hand nervously. “You’re in the wrong class. This is One South, you need to be in One East. Go with this lad.”

“Huh! Some best mate,” said my now ex-friend.

With the entire class watching me and probably wondering how this idiot, who didn’t even know which class he belonged to, had passed the eleven plus exam, I left the classroom with the missing pupil retriever. I then went through the embarrassing process again as I took my seat in the correct class.

What a fine start to my secondary education.

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Child Exploitation

ladle

The tool of exploitation

In the small two-street enclave of Cowpen where I grew up, my friends and I got to know by name virtually all the adults who lived there. It didn’t take us long to suss out which housewives paid the best rates for errand-running, and when and where wedding scrambles were to take place. Our little syndicate of street cubs knew not to go carol singing at old Mrs W’s, as she was stone deaf, that we’d be chased away if we played football outside ‘misery-guts’ Barton’s door, and to steer clear of the Ramsays’ when playing knock-door-ginger, as the dad was a wild beast with a furious temper.

One of the scarier characters from my childhood was old Fraser, who lived at the top of my street. He had a shed at the bottom of the back lane in which he kept his bicycle and assorted tools. He was quite a surly man, and we would always stop whatever game we were playing to let him pass on his way to the shed. He had little time for children, and I was rather afraid of him.

Fraser had a crude NO PARKING sign in the bedroom window of his ground floor flat. He didn’t own a car himself, so I assume this sign was just his way of showing the world he was a busybody, and not to be messed with. For some reason I also remember him stopping on his way to his shed once to show us that he could still touch his toes at his age, and he challenged us to do the same (he caught me bending my knees, so I failed).

My friends and I had rescued a battered old pedal car from the rubbish and, with a toy machine gun fitted to the back, this became an armoured vehicle. An artistic member of our gang made the transition more believable by daubing military symbols onto the bodywork with white paint. Our brush wizard made the unfortunate choice of painting on symbols that had been adopted by the enemy during World War II.

I don’t know if old Fraser had fought in the War, or if he’d lost close relatives in that almighty ruckus, but when he saw the car in its new livery, he blew a gasket, ranting about murderers and threatening to tell our parents. We had no idea at that young age of the offensive nature of these symbols. We had seen them all over war films on TV and in our blissfully politics-free minds they just looked cool. A few days later the bin men took the car away.

My strongest memory of old Fraser though is one of a dirty trick and child exploitation. I was five or six at the time.

While hanging about alone at the gable end of our terraced street, I watched Fraser cycle to his shed on the other side of the road. He whistled a tune as he pulled a bunch of keys from his pocket, and he glanced over at me. After the old man had opened the shed and put away his bicycle, I was stricken with butterflies in the stomach when he beckoned me over. Rather nervously, I walked across the road to see what he wanted. Standing astride a fairly large puddle on the road right outside his shed, he plunged his hand into its depths and pulled out a small square grating.

“I’ve dropped half a dollar down there,” he said, “if you can find it, you can keep it.” He disappeared into the shed and returned moments later with a large ladle, which he handed to me.
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I had no idea what ‘half a dollar’ was, but I was sure that I’d be able to buy chocolate with it. I got on my knees and lowered the ladle into the black water. I scraped it along the bottom, and pulled up a dirty sludge of water, gravel and mud, which I dumped on the kerb. Old Fraser saw this, and he fetched a galvanized pail for me to put the sludge into.

I toiled hard, eagerly looking out for the faintest glint in the mud. Eventually though, after many ladels, the puddle drained away and there was only a small pool left at the bottom. Fraser took the ladle from me and picked up the pail.

“It must have been washed away,” he said, and he returned to his shed. I went home with nothing more to show for my efforts than a wet sleeve.

At that age I was, like many children, trusting of adults, even those I was afraid of. As I got older, and childhood innocence was replaced by hard cynicism, I realised that there never had been a coin down that muddy sinkhole, and old Fraser had simply used me to drain the puddle from outside his shed. He could have at least given me a tanner for my labour.

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