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.
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’.