Saturday, 11 April 2009

Easter - bunnies, chickens, chocolate and Jesus

When I was a child, Easter was one of the few, very special and exciting events of the year. Although it didn’t have the raw excitement of Christmas, it seemed like a symbol of many enjoyable aspects all rolled into one. Although I wasn’t knowledgeable about botany, biology and the mechanics of the seasons, it was obvious that the world around me was awakening again after winter and seemed so much brighter and alive – a positive ‘buzz’ prevailed. It signalled the start of good times again. Spring heralded lighter nights, which meant we could ‘play out’ with our friends after school again. It preceded my birthday by a few weeks, another exciting event. Then there were all the chocolate eggs given to us by relatives and friends. Remember, in the 50s chocolate was a real luxury and not a regular indulgence like it is for young people now. My parents usually gave us a special egg. It was in two halves and when opened, revealed a bag of sweets inside. I was quite cautious with my egg consumption, unlike my friend Barry, who would have eaten all of his by the end of the week. I would always keep one back so that I could have more little treats when Easter was long past. I’d break off a tiny piece to eat every so often and sometimes that egg would last for months!

I must say that the actual meaning of Easter was a puzzle to me. It was all the uplifting, positive things I mentioned, symbolised by cute bunnies, chickens and yummy chocolate eggs but it was also a downbeat religious celebration. God, Jesus and Christian religion was something we were aware of from our Sunday school and normal school lessons, but I had no real understanding of it at all. It seemed to be a series of stories about foreign people and strange events and times long, long ago. Jesus was the hero, I knew that, but the Easter story was completely baffling and conflicting with the rest of the Easter mood in my world. The story started out well with a donkey ride and people throwing palm leaves. Jesus and his disciples seemed to be having a good time and even having a party but from there, things turned decidedly nasty. How could a man who was clearly a force for good, be treated like a nasty criminal and eventually nailed to a wooden cross? What had all this to do with bunnies, chickens and chocolate? And who was the man with the weird name - Pontius Pilate and why was he washing his hands. Why did Jesus have to die to save us from our sins? The saving grace to this horrendous story was the fact that he came back to life again. I clearly had a lot to learn about the world and the people in it.

As a last and serious note, it wasn’t until a few years ago that the whole story actually made sense to me. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ is an incredibly brutal and graphic film and a very moving one for me. It did however, put the whole confusing jumble of Easter tales into perspective, which I had never really understood until I saw it. The saddest aspect is, that after 2000 years, the human race has not learned to live peacefully and is still capable of inflicting immense pain and suffering on it’s fellow men.

Monday, 6 April 2009

The cinema

After the last two depressing posts I thought I’d write about something more fun – going to the cinema. We called it ‘the pictures’ or ‘the flicks’ when we got older and wanted to sound more cool. We had two cinemas in our small town and sometimes my parents took us to see the latest ‘blockbuster’ films. They were usually musicals or biblical films: South Pacific; The King and I; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; Inn of the Seventh Happiness; Genevieve; ‘The Ten Commandments’; King of Kings; Spartacus; do you remember any of those? Better still were the Elvis and Cliff Richard films. Blue Hawaii; Jailhouse Rock; GI Blues; Summer Holiday etc. This was major entertainment for us and incredibly exciting.

My, how things have changed since then! You got two films – the main film preceded by a small production ‘B’ film usually in black and white. Virtually no adverts but sometimes you got some sort of short world-wide newsreel film about post war developments in Gibralter, Aden or somewhere I’d never heard of. Before the film started, there was a man sat at an organ in front of the curtain. He was playing to entertain us. He and organ would slowly disappear through a trapdoor when it started and emerge again at the interval. A lady then walked down the aisle with a tray (it had a small lamp attached so you could see the goods) full of ice-creams, iced lollies and crisps to buy. No bucketfuls of popcorn, Pepsi or burgers at inflated prices then. The ice-cream was usually in a small waxed cardboard tub and you got a flat wooden spoon to eat it. I’d scrape every last morsel of out of it and then chew the wood to get the last atom of flavour. Sometime we got a Jubbly, which was frozen orange juice in a weird triangular shaped waxed box. It was almost impossible to get into and you’d end up trying to bite the thing open.

People were allowed to smoke and there were small ashtrays on the backs of the seats. They swivelled around so they could be emptied. A lot of men wore trilby hats in the 50s and the worst thing for a child was getting one of them sitting in front of you. At the end of the film they played the National Anthem. People would already be getting up and making there way up the aisles but as soon as it started, everyone would freeze in their tracks and remain silent. I remember being totally puzzled by this weird behaviour and any communication with my parents was totally without a response until it had finished. It was like pressing the pause button on the DVD player. I was often amazed when we got out to find that either daylight had become night-time or it was still daylight and after the two or three hours of darkness inside I expected it to be dark.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Doctors, illness and death

I’ve told you about the dentist, so I might as well describe the other scary man – the doctor. In the 1950s there were no health centres and everyone was allocated a family doctor who always treated you each time. We had two doctors though, a father and son. Both seemed very tall, skinny, well dressed in suits and spoke with ‘posh’ accents. The father was ill-tempered, impatient and gave the impression that he detested having to deal with you and didn’t really believe you were ill in the first place. The son was the opposite, so I prayed that it was him who would treat me.

Home visits were easily arranged then. No dragon on reception to give you the third degree or a three-day delay for a visit. Sometimes we attended their surgery, which was a big old house similar to the dentist’s. It was their home but they had converted rooms for waiting and treatment. I seem to remember the waiting room had dark wooden panelling around the walls and similar battered old magazines and Rupert Bear annuals that the dentist had for entertainment.

Most childhood illnesses simply involved a few quick checks on your vital functions whilst the thermometer was slipped under your tongue. The urge to bite or chew it was almost irresistible. Doctors’ instruments were not as scary as the dentists. He had a round mirror with a hole in the middle, strapped to his head. I’ve no idea what function that had. Sometimes he’d shine a small torch into your mouth and eyes, poke a stick onto your tongue and of course, the cold stethoscope would be clapped onto your chest and back. It was an incredible relief when he finally declared you were going to live and informed mum that you had some weird sounding condition called measles, mumps, chicken pox or tonsillitis. The best part was hearing that you had to miss school for a week or two - yesssss.

As I write this, it doesn’t seem scary at all now. I guess it was the fear of illness and death that frightened me. As a young child, it seemed that these two scary monsters were always lurking around the corner. Although I didn’t experience a death until much older, I was often aware of it as a serious threat to my well-being! Death seemed like a sort of eternal, dreamless sleep – a blackness, a nothingness. The concept of non-existence or permanent loss of parents, family or friends was hard to accept. Promises of living in heaven with God were no less scary. He was an old man with a beard that I had never met before. No substitute for mum and dad.

I remember when very young, thinking about this ‘death’ state and becoming overwhelmingly sad and scared. One time I burst into floods of tears. When mum asked what was wrong, I told her ‘I didn’t want to die’ and sobbed uncontrollably. She must have been mystified by this outburst but consoled me with hugs and assurance and ‘Don’t be silly, you’re not going to die.’ Although I am in my 50s now, those two monsters (illness and death) occasionally stalk me. I don’t fear death or the possibility of oblivion much now, but I’ve seen so many friends and loved ones suffer illness and eventual death, that the thought of them and leaving or losing loved ones permanently, still causes some anguish. Mum’s hugs and assurances of eternal life don’t work anymore.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

the dentist

The mere mention of dentist used to send me into a state of fear and panic. There were two varieties – school dentists and national health dentists. Occasionally, the schools had a visit by a dentist and all the kids had to line up and have a quick inspection. He had a drinking glass full of some sort of pink disinfectant and a wooden spatula that he dipped in after each child had been inspected. He held your tongue down with it while having a cursory glance around your teeth. Some kids would have a revisit to him if they needed treatment, others would go to their own N.H. dentist. I have no idea why anyone would go to the school dentists, neither cost their parents money and they had a horrendous reputation verging on sadism.

We had the dubious option of going to our own dentist. Mum knew we would be scared and so usually sprung it on us just before the appointment. Sometimes she took us into town on the pretext of buying something. I learned to spot the signs after a few visits. The dental surgery was situated in a big rambling Victorian house at the end of the main street. There were no more shops there so as soon as we passed the last one, the game was up. No other reason to be venturing further.

The waiting room would originally have been the front room or ‘parlour’ of this grand house. It seemed huge and there was little in the way of furniture. Just a large table and several old chairs dotted around the edges of the highly polished wooden floor. Copies of very old books, comics and magazines were scattered around for our leisurely entertainment whilst we waited nervously for ‘our turn’. I was too petrified to even enjoy the japes of the Bash Street Kids and Minnie the Minx in the old Beano annuals. A nervous silence hung over the room.

Eventually a middle-aged, white-coated man with wire-rimmed spectacles appeared at the door. He reminded me of the Nazi officers I’d seen in my war comics. He would call my name and lead me to his 'torture' room. In retrospect, he was a very nice man but the sinister looking equipment suggested otherwise. The leather chair stood in the middle of the room. The drill consisted of various canti-levered metal arms, with pulleys and pieces of string driving it. There was small plate that held a glass of the same pink liquid seen at school but it had a tiny blue flame underneath to keep it warm. It was offered you to rinse with after he had mangled your mouth. Over by the window was a large chrome-plated box. His assistant would open it now and then, releasing clouds of steam from which unspeakable implements were removed and handed to the dentist. The scariest piece of equipment was a trolley holding gas cylinders and a large rubber gas mask. That clinched it – he was a Nazi officer, he was going to torture me and I would be lucky to get out alive.

I had to climb into the big nasty chair, which he pumped into the air with his foot. After poking and tugging at my teeth with pointed spikes he would inevitably declare that I needed some fillings. The pulleys and pieces of string trundled around whilst he drilled my teeth. I remember the coarse vibrations of it and the sharp pain as he hit the nerve. Sorry if this is painful reading. After what seemed like hours, he was ready to fill the hole. The assistant mixed up the amalgam on a battered glass dish with a hollow in the middle. The dentist packed my mouth with numerous wads of cotton wool and squeezed the fillings in, which made a strange squeaking noise. When he was done, we were released again to great relief. Mum might buy us a few sweets as a reward for our bravery and to ensure the dentist had a repeat business!

Sometimes, things were more desperate . Extractions were needed. This was where the gas mask came in. I remember the strong smell of rubber as it was clamped over my face. Then the sickly smell of the gas followed by a sensation of floating and …..

The next thing I was aware of was the dentist’s voice, coaxing me back to consciousness, followed by the taste of blood. I remember tentatively probing the place where the tooth had been with my tongue. A soggy, metallic-tasting hole greeted it. Mum provided a clean, folded handkerchief to hold over my mouth as we walked back along the street to freedom. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out she was as scared of the dentist as me. She once gave me one of the best pieces of advice and comfort I have ever had. Before going in for some nasty treatment she said,

‘Remember, nothing lasts forever. It will soon be over.’

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Colin - my pal

We rode our bikes to Fewston and bought Barrs shandy from the tiny Post Office shop. I envied his bike. It had four gears.
We set fire to the grass verge with a magnifying glass. Scared, we turned back. We never pedalled so fast.
We climbed our neighbours’ fences when it was dark and nicked apples from their trees. We ate them in an old hen-hut on an abandoned allotment.
We spent our pocket money in the corner shops – Morgans, Turners and Hudsons.
We bought cigarettes in fives – Cadets, Woodbines, Buckingham and two ounces of sweets - Midget Gems, Riley’s Toffee Rolls, Mint Imperials and Yorkshire Mixture.
We climbed up the back of advertising hordings, sat on the girders and smoked.
We played three and in football and cricket with a bald tennis ball. We had a rule – no slogging – but we still did.
We spent hours by the river: catching bullhead; skimming stones to seeing how many bounces we could get; throwing stones and trying to hit sand martins as they swooped and dived. Of course we never could.
We played ponks in the gutter with our marbles, passing time on our way home from school.
Colin had a cool money-box. It was shaped like the top half of a negro man. You put a coin in his hand and he swallowed it.
He made me Marmite sandwiches for tea. We played Rummy.
We grew up, left school, got jobs. Girlfriends became more interesting than each other.
I haven’t seen him since.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

the bogey

Only people of a certain age will know what a bogey is. I’m not talking about something nasty that lives up your nose. I’m talking about one of the best possessions a 1950/60s boy could have. A bogey was a hand-made, four-wheeled cart. The base was usually a few planks of wood nailed together, mounted on four old pram wheels. It was narrower at the front to take an axle that pivoted in the middle. You placed your feet on the axle and steered with them. There was usually a loop of rope attached to it for you to hang on to. You really needed two people to use it. One sat at the front steering and the other ran at the back pushing you as fast as he could. When you got a decent speed up, the lad at the back jumped on too and enjoyed the ride.

Well I never had my own but my best friend Barry turned up one day with one. I think he bought it from a school pal for 2/6d (12.5p in today’s money). Boy, did we have some fun with that thing. We built a chicane at the end of the front path using concrete building blocks. It was positioned to take us around the corner and onto a rough stony road that led downhill to the main road at the bottom. We took it in turns to push or steer. The game was to try to get as much speed as possible, steer through the chicane without hitting it and then hurtle towards the main road at break-neck speed. At the latest moment, the driver had to avoid running onto it and being crushed by a passing vehicle by turning the axle sharply, putting the bogey into a sideways skid until it finally stopped.

The aim was to get as close to the road as possible. Often we’d miss the corner and fall headlong into a patch of nettles. Many times, after achieving top speed, the sideways skid would throw us off and onto the gravelly side road to shred a few layers of skin from our legs and arms. Health and safety – thankfully it hadn’t been invented.

We buckled quite a few wheels but usually found another pair and nailed them in place. Barry decided one day to build a small trailer to attach to the back. We hooked it up and invited all the neighbouring kids to pile onto it. I think we got about a dozen on before all the wheels collapsed under the weight. It was too large a task to find enough replacement wheels so I think the bogey was swapped for something like a few plastic soldiers or a bag of conkers.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

the camera

I have long held a fascination for photography and cameras. They fall into my category of ‘magical’ things, along with magnets, gyroscopes, magnifying glasses and fire. The ability to capture a visual moment in time is fantastic and still excites me. My earliest experience of photography goes back to the age of around four years old. Two friends of my mother arrived one evening to take some family photos, this was a first for me. Not only did they have a rather impressive camera but also lights on stands and large flashbulbs. The whole affair was quite exciting, although I didn’t understand what it was all leading to until we got copies of the pictures a few weeks later. This was the start.

Photography for ordinary folk was rare, reserved mainly for special occasions such as holidays, and visits from far-off relatives. Film and processing were an expensive luxury. We had a simple Ensign box camera. It was an ugly thing but provided my first glimpse into this visual sorcery. There was a small internal mirror that reflected the image onto a large magnifying glass on top, which you used to compose the picture. I remember mum allowing me to look down into it and being entranced by the miniature picture of the world around me. I wasn’t allowed to press the shutter button and take a photo for a long time. That was something only adults were entrusted with. It was a pity because mum had poor eyesight and most of her photos were lopsided or cut off half of the subject.

Photos were black and white, colour had been around a long time but it was far too expensive. The roll films held only 12 pictures, unlike the almost limitless capacity of digital photography nowadays, so you couldn’t afford to be extravagant with them. That means that we have relatively few photos to look back on those times but makes them precious. Changing a film was another act of sorcery. You had to find a dark place – a cupboard or shady spot for this procedure. That added to the air of secrecy and mystery about photography that appealed to me. It was usually a job for dad who always seemed a little stressed, as if it was a major responsibility. Once the film was loaded you looked into a small transparent red window on the camera whilst you wound it on. Small arrows could be seen passing by until the number one appeared and it was ready to use.

Our camera eventually started to allow light to leak into it, causing white patches around the edges of the photos. Mum eventually stopped using it and I was allowed to play with it at last. It had only been used for taking photos of people, but I discovered the wider potential of photography as an exciting art, composing pictures in the viewfinder of landscapes, flowers, buildings and unusual angles on the world around me. I pretended there was film inside and got great pleasure from pretending to ‘take’ these pictures. I was about thirteen when I convinced mum to give me the camera and allow me to buy a film. She tried her best to put me off the idea because it leaked light and the pictures would be useless and a waste of money but I didn’t care. I was incredibly excited at the prospect of finding something interesting and making my own pictures. I took my first photos and handed the film in to the chemist shop to get them developed. I had to wait about a week for them. What an exciting time that was when I picked them up. Yes the photos were badly blotched but they were my work. I was hooked.

Mum must have noted this enthusiasm and on my fourteenth birthday, I was presented with one of the wonderful, newly invented, Kodak Instamatic cameras. This was state of the art equipment for the man-in-the-street photographer. The film was held in a lightproof cartridge that you simply dropped into the camera, wound on a few times and was ready to go in seconds. No need for dark cupboards and no blotchy white photos. There was a clip-on flash adaptor that took tiny disposable flashbulbs for indoor shots. I used this little camera for years and eventually started shooting colour slides with it. That took me into another dimension in this magical world. I still have that little camera.

I now have a couple of digital cameras and although they have taken some of the anticipation out of the hobby, I still get that excited buzz from composing a scene in the viewfinder and pressing the button, knowing I have captured something special, a moment in time and space where I stood and the thrill of seeing it later on my computer screen.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

the wireless

The wireless

Home entertainment in the 1950s was minimal, in terms of equipment. A television was the main luxury item but not all households had one. We didn’t get one until around 1960 and so for many years the wireless radio was the only electrical equipment that brought the outside world into our homes. We listened to the news, plays, comedy sketches and music from it. Ours was a brown, Bakelite, Philips valve radio. When you turned it on, it took a few minutes for the valves to heat up and sound to emanate from the beige cloth speaker grille. There was a particular smell that I quite liked when it got hot. It probably came from the paxolin circuit board and components, a sort of hot, dusty, waxy smell. When you turned it off, the sound continued for a few seconds as the valves cooled.

There were three wavebands to choose from - Long, Medium and Short. On the Medium wave, the BBC provided our choice of listening, through stations called The Light, Home and Third. Shortwave produced various eerie whistles and bleeps which dad identified as morse code. Longwave had some strange, exotic sounding names such as Hilversum, Prague, Oslo, Allouis and Luxemburg. When you tuned to them, you could listen to foreign gobbledegook. Luxemburg later turned out to be pivotal in our musical education though.

On Sunday lunch times, there was a variety program called Billy Cotton’s Band Show. It was a cheesy mix of old-fashioned variety-hall style humour and music. His star singer had the unlikely name of Alan Breeze. Billy did a weird comic monologue piece where God appeared to be talking down to him. It would start with God shouting to get his attention and Billy answering him. The clever and whitty dialogue would go something like -

‘Hey you.’
'You down there.'
‘Who me?’
‘Yeah you down there with the glasses.’

It was a chronic show from our point of view and Billy had a catch phrase that he bellowed at the start of the program - ‘wakey-wakey’. The second ‘wakey’ was drawn out for several seconds and it was our aim to dash to the wireless and turn it off before he finished the second ‘wakey’. As the sound faded, it was as if he was disappearing down a deep well, which is exactly what we hoped for.

Other programs you may remember from that period were Jimmy Clitheroe and The Clitheroe Kid. He was a sort of early version of The Crankies - a middle aged man playing the part of a mischievous schoolboy. One of the weirdest acts was Archie Andrews. Can you believe it, he was a ventriloquist on the radio! There was Children’s Favourites, I think on Saturday mornings, where you could request songs such as The railroad runs through the middle of the house; Billy goat’s gruff; the rather spooky Sparky who might have been a talking piano and my favourite – Tommy Steele’s Little white bull.

Occasionally the wireless would die on us and it would have to be sent to the repairman to get a new valve fitted (tube for our US readers). When it finally packed up, we got the radiogram. This was a huge piece of wooden furniture that not only housed a wireless but also a record deck. My uncle Frank acquired this for us from the saleroom. It was second-hand of course and only played the old fashioned 78 rpm records. The heavy Bakelite and metal arm held a needle (stylus) that looked like a small panel-pin nail. There was a dish built into the deck to hold spare ones. At that time the new 45 rpm records were becoming popular and we desperately wanted to be able to play them on our new machine. Uncle Frank was a bit of a dabbler with electrical things and figured he could modify it to play them. There was a lever that varied the turntable speed slightly. With some clever engineering he could get the thing to play anywhere between zero and 100 rpm which was fantastic fun for me, making crooners such as Bing Crosby sound like The Chipmunks on laughing gas. When Frank was finished fiddling with it and about to switch the electricity on, I thought it would be a wheeze if I fired my toy gun containing a small explosive cap. It did the trick – he nearly s**t himself. Our first 45 rpm record was Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. At first it sounded great but after 20 plays, the heavy weight of the record arm had almost ground it’s way through to the other side of the record and ruined it. We didn’t keep the radiogram for long. Soon we would have a telly and proper record player. More about those later.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Grandad Burridge

My mum’s dad was of a generation that no longer exists. Born in the late 1800s he lived through two world wars and hardships we have never experienced. He was a gunner in WW1 and was struck by a deadly mustard gas attack that severely burnt his lungs. Doctors didn’t expect him to live beyond his 20s but he kept going well into his 80s. To make matters worse, whilst he was lying injured on the battlefield, one of his fellow soldiers ran over his leg with a mule and cannon and broke it.

He loved to tell us tales of his younger life. I can see him sitting in his armchair smoking his pipe and the Robin Redbreast tobacco he loved whilst he entertained us with his stories. He spent his early life in Barnoldswick, a small mill town in Yorkshire. His father was the caretaker at the local Baptist church. Grandad told us of the times when he was a child and used to operate the manual bellows that powered the organ pipes. He had to sit inside a small cupboard and wait until the organist was ready to play and then start pumping. One day, bored of waiting, he fell asleep and failed to pump when it was needed. He got a severe rollocking from the irate, red-faced minister and organist.

His stories sometimes had a slightly risqué element or naughtiness that we loved to hear - like the one about the fair that came to town. He spent several hours there and won a heap of coconuts, which he ate with delight, until their laxative qualities started to take effect. He had to run for home but unfortunately didn’t make it in time leaving an embarrassing and messy trail! At this point in the story, grandma would chip and give him a telling-off for being so rude in front of us. He would just give one of his devilish chuckles.

After the war he took a job as a postman. The doctor thought the fresh air and exercise would be good for his damaged lungs. He and his young family moved to Dartmouth in Devon, thinking that the milder climate would be beneficial too. He told us of the day when he accidentally got drunk on his round. As he delivered his mail to various farms and homes, he was offered glasses of home made scrumpy cider. It was thirsty work so he accepted them all gratefully, not realising it was pretty potent stuff. Somebody eventually found him sitting on the grass verge, smashed out of his head on scrumpy, with his mail strewn all around him.

He sometimes seemed quite stern, as did most of that generation but on the whole he liked to have a little fun, entertaining in his own simple way. I’ve already told you about his alter ego ‘the cuckoo’. He also performed occasional magic tricks for us. One involved drawing the curtains to darken the room. When we ventured in, he would be sitting in his chair with arms outstretched. In front of him was a metal poker, apparently floating in mid air. He could make it rise and fall or move from side to side just by waving his arms. Fantastic. It took a few years for me to figure out he had it suspended between his hands on lengths of black cotton threads.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year

A post to say Happy New Year to you all and thanks for visiting this site. I hope it’s given you some pleasure. I’ve enjoyed writing it and getting the occasional comment back from some of you. It has brought some new friendships and rekindled one or two old ones. Nowadays, more than any other time in my life, I am appreciating that gift of friendship. I don’t want this to sound like some sort of sermon or lecture but because I consider you all to be my friends to some degree or other, I’d like to offer you a little comfort if possible.

You know, there’s a lot of craziness going on in the world today, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. It can make us feel quite insecure and wonder where the hell it’s leading to. The trouble is, there’s virtually nothing we can do to avoid it or improve it. We can’t make changes on a global or national scale, we have to leave that to the madmen who are in charge. That’s the scary bit, and feeling powerless. But we can change our own little worlds. We do have the power to do that to some extent. So that’s my bit of advice to you all. We can try to make our immediate environment a place where we can feel more at ease. We can offer some comfort and support to those we meet during our daily lives.

I am constantly puzzled as to why anyone should want suffering of any kind to continue in the world. Why would anyone choose war, pain, fear and anguish over peace, love, comfort and happiness? We can have the latter just as easy as we can have the former. I had one of my moments of inspiration the other day. I was thinking about all the badness that goes on in the world and trying to understand where it comes from. I’d say it mostly comes from greed and selfishness. That’s why countries fight each other, why arguments start, why people steal from others. Then I tried to think of the solution. That’s when it came to me. It’s so simple and here it is. Just be nice. How difficult is that? We all have the choice of being nasty or nice. Nobody can force us to be mean, lying, violent or greedy. If everyone just behaved in the way that they would like others to treat them, we’d have it cracked in no time. There are enough resources in the world for everyone to have a decent life, if governments and world leaders co-operated and looked after each other.

OK I’m deluded if I think I’ve solved the world’s problems here but it really could be that simple if only everyone could embrace the principle. That’s the problem though. For some reason, many people seem incapable. Well here’s my slant on what we can do. Firstly, try to embrace those nice principles ourselves as much as we can. There are many good people out there who already do. In fact I believe there are more forces for good than bad but unfortunately, many of the people in positions of power don’t practise it enough. We can always do a bit more though can’t we.

Secondly, have a little courage and empower yourself – make your personal world one you can enjoy. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, follow your dreams, talk to a stranger, put a coin in a busker’s hat, sing out loud, say sorry when you know you’re wrong. Take time to visit an old friend or make new ones, take up a new hobby or learn a new skill, grow some fruit or flowers, or just sit quietly and listen to the birds sing and feel the sun on your face. Don’t be afraid to try something new because you think you’ll be no good at it or someone will disapprove. I can’t remember which rock star said ‘no-one gets out of here alive’ but it’s a great line and also true. The point I’m making is - it’s these small things that add quality to our lives and to those of others. The warmongers and governments can’t take those away from us. This is the world we can create for ourselves whenever we wish to.

Sorry for the rant. It started out as a short post to wish you the best for the new year but I got carried away. Take care, have fun.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Christmas presents

I was trying to remember some of the presents I loved in my childhood. See if you remember any of them.

'Baco' sets - you got plans and could build small houses with them. They were made from bakelite, there were bases with lots of holes that you placed rods in. The bricks and windows slotted in between the rods. There were ready made roofs of different sizes to finish them off.

'John Bull printing outfit' - There were lots of small rubber letters and numbers which slid into slots in wooden blocks. You made up a few lines of text and pressed it onto an ink pad and then stamped it the text onto paper.

'Meccano set' - I'm sure we all remember those. Various metal shapes, wheels, nuts and bolts for making all sorts of models.

'Triang and Hornby Double O electric train sets' - Every boy's dream. I didn't think my parents could afford one and found a smaller version in a Grattan's catalogue. It was a 'triple O' scale and that's what I thought they would buy for me. They came up trumps and bought me the Triang set. Do you remember the fantastic smell of ozone from the electric sparks of the engines.

'Sweet shop' - I though this was great. It had small tubes of candy/sweets and some weighing scales. The box made up into a shop.

'Chemistry set' - Lots of test tubes and powders. I thought it was really exciting at first but it soon turned boring when I realised you couldn't do anything very interesting with it. No explosions or nasty smells!

'Mechanical penguin' - Simple little toy. Strangely enough it was green and white. Made from pressed metal it had a wind up mechanism and two wheels. The wings flapped up and down and it moved around, changing direction every so often.

'Wigwam tent' - I went downstairs one Christmas to find it standing there. I loved this and had many good times with my mates in it.

'Desk and chair' - One year, both me and my sister got one. Made by triang, they had a little ink well and a lift up lid where you could keep paper and things underneath it and. We played at schools with them (strange since I hated school), wrote stories, drew and painted etc.

'Bagatelle' - A weird toy, it was a board with a curved wall around the edge. Inside were small cupped holes with nails around them. There was a plunger thing that fired glass marbles into the board and you had to try to get them to land in the cups which had various scores.

If I can think of any more I'll add them later.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Christmas approaching

It’s that time of year again. What was it like in the 1950s? For children of any generation, it is a time of great excitement. 1950s-style Christmas was quite different to what it is today and I have to say, it was much better. Bear in mind that treats were few and far between and television was still a rarity in many homes. We weren’t pummelled with advertising every fifteen minutes like we are now and it didn’t start in October either! So when it did come, it was the most exciting and welcomed part of the year for us (maybe not for our parents though).

Winters were colder and snow more frequent, so the setting was more naturally ‘Christmassy’ than it is now. For us it would start with the odd brown paper parcel from the postman, which mum would quickly ferret away out of our sight. We had a lot of aunties and uncles who sent us gifts but we didn’t figure that was what the parcels were until much older. We still believed in Santa for a long time. The first exciting event was probably helping mum make the Christmas cake. Putting all the lovely ingredients into a big bowl and helping mix it up. Of course, the best part was scraping the bowl clean and eating the sweet, gooey mixture. It always caused arguments between my sister and I so we used to draw a line halfway across the bowl – mine and hers.

Next piece of fun was decorating the rooms. An old cardboard box, full decorations appeared along with a small artificial tree. It had a small round wooden base, which was too small to support the tree, so dad wedged it into a fruit bowl, packed the sides with sand and covered it with cotton wool to make it look like snow. Mum did the tree decorating, assisted by my sister and I. We took it in turns to pick out a piece, which we had carefully wrapped in newspaper after the previous Christmas. There were certain favourites that we hoped we would find when we opened them. There was a green, frosted-glass church with sparkly snow on the roof and a bauble with a long spike and an indented face that looked like an old-fashioned car headlight. That one went on the top (no fairy). Our most favourites were two small glass birds with nylon brushes for tails. They had a clip on the bottom to attach them to the tree. Shirley and I had one each. I think mine was yellow and hers pink. We didn’t have any lights for the tree but I really longed for some. We finished it off with a long string of pink, glassy beads and small lumps of cotton wool for snow.

Meanwhile, dad would be getting fraught with the paper streamers that were hung from corner to corner of the ceilings in the two downstairs rooms. I didn’t understand why he seemed so cross about the affair until I grew up and had the job to do myself. I reckon it was mostly the frustration of drawing pins. You teeter on the top of a stepladder, stretching over the settee and trying to pin the streamers to the wall. Your back is killing you and you either drop the pin first or find that it is bent and have to come down for another one. You try to push that into the hard plaster and that one bends too, or the streamer rips. Over-excited kids getting under your feet and demanding you put this one up now doesn’t help either. Plus you know it’s all to take down and put away again in a couple of weeks. Bah humbug – anyway back to the reminiscences of childhood.

My favourites decorations were the ball and bell shaped things that started out flat. You opened them like a book and clipped the two edges together to make a coloured, paper, 3D decoration. We usually made some paper chains and lanterns from different-coloured, gummed, paper strips. Blowing up balloons was always fun, making us dizzy. Some would escape our grip and fly around the room making a loud farting noise. Sometimes they’d go completely haywire and disappear up the chimney. Best was if one burst whilst someone was blowing it up. Lastly were the small figures that we put on the mantelpieces. There was a set of three small fir trees that looked like tapered bottle-brushes. I think we had one of those clear plastic domes that were filled with water and white flakes. There was a snowman inside and you shook the thing to create a small snowstorm inside it. I think we had a small plaster santa that held one of the trees.

The scene was set and we were pumped up with excitement. Mum would soon be busy baking buns and cakes, making trifle etc ready for the BIG DAY. Christmas Eve arrived and we were so excited we thought we’d simply explode. Usually, my parents arranged a pie and pea supper for the adults – mum and dad, mum’s parents and my auntie and uncle who all lived in the same town. They were never big boozers, a couple of bottles of pale ale each for the men and a glass of QC sherry or port for the ladies. Sometimes grandad would bring a big cigar each for the men. We were never allowed to stay up for the supper and it was one day in the year that we didn’t argue. We figured that the sooner the night was over the better, then it would be Christmas Day and the real fun would start.

Usually on Christmas Eve my sister and I slept in the same double bed. I think it started when one of my uncles was staying and was using my bed. After that, we always wanted to stay together on Christmas Eve because we were so excited we couldn’t sleep at all and we could talk and pass the night away better. Grandad would usually come upstairs to say goodnight and spin one of his yarns about how he’s just seen Santa and his sleigh on one of the roofs down the road, but we had to be good and go to sleep before he would come here. The night seemed so long and we would keep peeping out of the bedroom door to see if ‘he’d been yet’. The tradition in our house was to leave our presents in pillow-cases on the stair landing. After several disappointing investigations, I guess we eventually fell asleep in the wee hours. We’d soon be awake again though! Probably around five or six am we’d see the pillow-cases there, bursting with parcels. Sometimes we had a furtive feel to see if we could guess what was in them. I remember one year, an umbrella-shaped parcel in my sister’s sack – no surprises there then! Eventually we woke our parents and begged them to let us open the presents…………More to follow.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

some wintry memories

Coming home from school to a cold house, warmed only by paraffin heater. Do you remember the smell? Or maybe mum had lit a fire but you couldn’t feel it because there was a clothes-horse around it, full of damp, steaming washing.

Buttercup syrup or Gees Linctus to sooth your cough. Having Vic ointment rubbed on your chest and nose when you had a cold – boy did it sting if you had a sore nose. Sena pod and raisin tea when you were constipated

Chilblains and sore calves from cold, wet wellies and lads dropping snowballs inside them. Why did your socks always slip down and end up in a ball on the end of your foot? Ballaclavas mum had knitted and woolly mittens held together with string and threaded through your coat sleeves, so that you didn’t lose them.

Ponds, lakes and rivers freezing over. Long icicles hanging from dripping overflow pipes. Bottles of milk on your doorstep that had frozen. The solid milk expanded and pushed the tops off. Sometimes bluetits had pecked the foil open to drink the cream.

Cars that wouldn’t start in the morning and had to be ‘pushed off’ or started by cranking a huge handle through the radiator.

Being the first one out in the morning and running through the fresh, virgin snow to leave your tracks. The fun of just watching your breath coming out as steam. Looking to the sky, watching snowflakes falling, how they hurt when they hit your eyeball.

Power cuts and the excitement of having to use candles to light the house.

Having a bath in front of the fire, then toasting bread or crumpets on a fork. Drinking hot milk and honey and snuggling up to mum or dad for a story before bedtime.

Monday, 10 November 2008

lost in time

Can you remember any of these? They were part of our lives in the 50s and 60s but mostly have been lost in the mists of time.

Women who went to the local shop in slippers and wearing curlers in their hair.

Hairstyles on men that had a ‘quiff’ at the front.

Coconut macaroons with a cherry on top, mum made them in an eggcup.

Double seats at the back of the cinema, young couples could enjoy ‘a bit of slap and tickle’ and probably saw little of the film.

Boys shouting to cyclists, ‘Get off and milk it’ and ‘Is it a bike or a bedstead?’

Dipping a small stick of rhubarb into an eggcup-full of sugar and eating it.

Your sister ironing her long hair on the ironing board in order to straighten it. Or cellotaping curls to her cheeks until they had dried and set to get a Cilla Black bob style look.

Boy scouts ‘bob-a-job’ week

Cow-horn handlebars

The ‘pop-man’ - he used to bring a truck full of fizzy pop to the street. Ours was Barrs pop.

Taking empty pop bottles back to the corner shop and getting a few pennies for them.

Making a peashooter from and empty biro pen and blowing grains of uncooked rice through it.

Knitting long woollen ‘tails’ using a cotton bobbin with four small nails in the end. The tail emerged from the hole in the bobbin.

Playing a game of ‘ponks’ with glass marbles. We used to play it in the gutter of the road all the way from school and back home.

Making a toy ‘tank’ out of an empty bobbin, a slice of candle, a rubber band and a used matchstick.

Girls doing handstands against a wall and tucking their dresses/skirts into the legs of their knickers to hide their modesty.

Seeing your breath as steam on a cold frosty morning – in your bedroom!

Making a sort of gunpowder out of weed-killer and sugar. We made a trail with it on a wall and when lit it would fizz and sparkle and work its way along the line.

Collecting empty cigarette packets and cutting the front and backs off to make playing cards. We played ‘snap’ with them and did swaps. Some favourites brands were: Bachelors, Senior Service, Capstan Full Strength, Craven A, Kensitas.

Barbers shops where men had their split ends singed off with a lighted taper. The mysterious ‘Something for the weekend sir?’

Stuffing your bra with paper hankies

Sitting on the wall by the road and writing down every car registration that passed.

Drying your hair in front of the open fire and seeing steam rising off it.

Paraffin heaters and Esso Blue

Folding cigarette cards and pegging them to the struts on your bicycle, the spokes on the wheels would make them flap and create a sound like a motorbike (so we thought).

Friday, 7 November 2008

a christmas party

I was reminded today that Christmas will soon be here and it brought back a really warm memory. I must have been about nine years old. Every year in our school, a small group of children were chosen to attend a party held by the young girl students at the local College of Housecraft. The college seems like a quaint concept nowadays. The students were taught the crafts of cooking, sewing and other domestic activities. I guess they would later progress to be teachers in what was called Domestic Science at school (a remarkably p.c. title considering it was the 1950s). That was another quaint concept whereby girls were basically taught how to be housewives. (This subject was dropped from the school curriculum many years ago but many believe it should be re-introduced now to address the problem of a generation living on junk food).

Back to the story – well I was part of the chosen group one year. As I remember, we were to give the students a carol service and they would provide us with some food that they had prepared. On the day, one of the teachers walked us out of the town and up the steep hill to the edge of the moors, where the college was situated. There was deep snow all around, which set the Yuletide theme nicely. The large Victorian building was very grand and we sat cross-legged on a highly polished floor in a large, dark and wood panelled room. Three or four young, women students looked after us very well. There was a grand piano which one of them played whilst we sang our carols. They plied us with sandwiches, cakes, buns and probably jelly and ice cream. I seem to think we played some games and the students helped us make some Christmas cards.

It was such a refreshing change for me, to be attended and cosseted by these lovely, gentle young women, instead of the usual rough treatment we got from our teachers at school. I recall it was dark when we walked back into town and a warm, happy glow filled me. One I can still feel faintly from time to time, when I remember that day.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

bonfire night

Bonfire night was the culmination of great excitement that had started weeks before the 5th November. Health and Safety wasn’t the national disease it’s become nowadays and children could buy fireworks without their parents’ presence. There were few organised bonfires in the fifties and sixties but most streets had at least one, organised by the local kids. Fireworks appeared in the corner shops – the newsagents and general stores, two or three weeks previous. We spent all our pocket money on them, which were sold separately, for a few (old) pennies. They were displayed in glass sweetie jars and we pondered for minutes over which to buy. Some of the names I remember were: golden rain and silver rain, volcanoes, jumping jacks, snowstorm, Catherine wheels, and the bangers were penny and two-penny canons and little demons.

Boys bought dozens of bangers to light before bonfire night. We were often reckless but nobody wanted to get burnt. I don’t remember anyone getting hurt. We used to stick a banger in the soil, light it and put an empty baked bean tin over it and watch it launch into the air. We put them in milk bottles and threw them in the river to get a satisfying deep thump sound and a puff of smoke from the water. Not very popular with anglers!

The main activity was building the bonfire, which was normally on our vegetable garden. We called on neighbours asking if they had any old wood or furniture and usually collected a big pile. Often there was an old armchair or settee, which we made good use of before it was burnt. There was no plastic foam in furniture, so no toxic fumes to worry about. Dad usually started the building of it by lashing branches together to form a wigwam shape. The centre was filled with smaller stuff. There was competition amongst kids over the size of their bonfires. Raiding from rivals was a threat and had to be guarded against. It doubled as a den to play in before ‘the night’.

Sometimes we made a guy with the help of mum and we took it around the neighbourhood, asking if anyone had ‘a penny for the guy.’ The money bought more fireworks. Mum made toffee and parkin nearer the day. Family and close neighbours would be joining us for the fun.

When November the 5th came, we couldn’t wait to get home from school. We stuffed the bonfire with old newspapers and cardboard and dad soaked it in paraffin. All the fireworks were pooled together, ready for the adults to light. We’d be running around the houses with our torches, passing time until everyone arrived and watching the sky for signs of the first lighted bonfires. Before long the sky was glowing and filled with smoke and rockets. The fire was lit and we delighted at the crackling and spitting as it intensified. The heat could be felt many yards away and the damp soil around it steamed. After a while the fireworks were lit and we took it in turns to pick one out of the box, seeking out our own special favourites. Drinks and food soon followed: toffee, jacket potatoes, parkin, pop for the kids, cups of tea for the ladies and sometimes a bottle of beer for the men.

When all the fireworks had gone and the fire died down, we gathered around, poking at it with sticks, trying to light the ends so we could wave them around making glowing patterns in the air. We’d search around desperately to find a firework that hadn’t been lit, just to keep the excitement going. Sometimes we tried to bake potatoes in the embers. I remember the taste of spuds that were almost burnt to a cinder.

The following day we rushed home after school and went straight to the old fire. Often it was still glowing underneath the pile of ash. We poked it, blew on it and gathered any small pieces of wood we could find to revive it. We looked around for the spent firework cases that still littered the area. Throwing them on the glowing embers often caused a small fizz or sputter. It was an incredibly exciting time, almost as good as birthdays and Christmas.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

first day at school

At the tender age of five, freedom and a carefree lifestyle were about to end. My parents tried to ease me into the prospect of school, by taking me to see the classroom where my older sister attended. Presumably they thought I would find it acceptable, knowing that she returned home each day in one piece! They pointed out the fun elements: the children’s paintings; colourful numbers and alphabet decorating the walls; Janet and John books; a tank of water containing small toy boats; a bucket of modelling clay etc. It certainly looked promising but I had a heavy feeling in my gut that forewarned of things to come. My enduring memory is one of desks. Neatly placed on each was a small blackboard. On that were a knitted, square, board rubber and a piece of chalk.

Inevitably, the day arrived that would herald the start of an eleven-year nightmare. Suitably primed for the experience by mother, we walked the quarter mile to the infant school for my ‘first day’. Smells of polish, disinfectant and unidentifiable food greeted me. In the corridor were rows of coat hooks - we called them pegs – and each child was allocated one for their coat and ‘pump bag’. Under each peg was a small picture of a piece of fruit to help us remember which was ours. Mine was a banana.

The mothers and children fussed around in the classroom. Some children were crying by now, but some seemed excited. As soon as mum informed me that she was leaving me there, I joined the first category and bawled my eyes out. I pleaded with her not to go. I don’t remember much more of that first day except we were allocated a desk and chair each. They were arranged in groups of four and I was seated with three girls. Two of them were non-identical twins – Pat and Angela. Angela was the quiet one and had a sweet, pretty face that befitted her name. I fell slightly in love with her eventually and decided I wanted to marry an Angela when I grew up. Nearly twenty years later, I did (but not the same one)!

Initially I think I settled in quite well, but before long an incident occurred that mentally scarred me for many years. At break times we were instructed to visit the toilets. Five-year olds don’t have full bladder control. I entered the communal boys’ room one day, to find one character wielding a knotted towel. He was swinging it around and whacking everyone about the head as they entered. He seemed like the devil incarnate and gave me a hefty blow. My young, impressionable mind imagined he would be there every time. I decided it was not a place for me in future and avoided it at all costs. The price to pay was having a bladder that felt like bursting. The benefit was it taught me some control, though there was the occasional embarrassing accident.

The first teacher was a placid and skinny, mouse-like lady, called Mrs Osmond. She seemed ancient but probably no more than 50 years old. She always wore a long, flowery, housecoat type of overall. It hung straight down off her bony shoulders, showing no hint of a womanly figure beneath. I distinctly remember that from the back she looked like our ironing board.

Lessons consisted mainly of learning numbers and the alphabet. With the aid of flashcards, we learned basic words like: the, and, it, to, for etc. There were a few long or difficult words that I liked because they made me feel knowledgeable: aeroplane, zebra and xylophone. Great to have in your vocabulary! We had stories read to us such as: Chicken Licken; Hansel and Gretel; Three Little Pigs; Red Riding Hood etc. Sometimes we painted pictures of: a house; a cat; the sun; a tree or our mummy. In the afternoons we had a short rest period when we laid our heads on the desks and closed our eyes. Whether that was for our benefit of Mrs Osmond’s, I’m not sure!

Discipline was drummed into us in two ways. Folding our arms across our chests whilst sitting bolt upright was a call for stillness and attention. A shout of ‘QUIET CHILDREN’ and ‘HANDS ON HEADS’ was all that was necessary to restore order in those days.

Much more about school to come later.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

the toy cupboard

It was known as the “toy cupboard” but to me, it was the portal to another world.

It was next to the bath I spoke about earlier. Built into an alcove, there was a large copper water cylinder above, which kept it comfortably warm. The toy cupboard measured about three by four feet and a couple of feet high. There were lead water pipes running around the bottom of the walls, where spiders and silverfish sometimes lurked. Two old wooden boxes were kept inside to hold most of our toys. I would often climb into one of them and shut the door. It was a place where I felt safe and private, a haven from a world I was still unsure of. Sometimes I’d fall asleep.

Other times it was a place of excitement – a cinema, a car or a spaceship. It was our stage for make-belief adventures. I had a toy battery operated slide projector. The slides had images from the comic strip Dan Dare. Sometimes the four of us – me, Barry and the two Shirleys – would climb into the toy boxes that became our seats of a 1950s space rocket! I would sit in the front and be the projectionist, illuminating the flaky whitewashed wall, transforming it into a window to outer space. We spent many hours exploring this new universe, fighting aliens and out-running them in our low-tech, toy box rocket. Eventually it would get unbearably hot or the appearance of a spider would ensure a hasty exit from the escape hatch!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

freedom at last

I can't let today go by without a post here. I resigned my job after suffering enormous stress after the company was bought out a couple of years ago. I decided to retire early and today was my last at work. Free at last. Kind of a weird feeling after 40+ years of working. Not much else to say about it, just wanted to record it here as part of my story.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

great uncle Jack

Here's me with my great auntie Ria and her husband Jack. They had no children of their own. I only saw them a few times in my life. Jack was a simple, uncomplicated man who apparently was pretty useless at anything but keeping bees, which was his passion and forte. He had few social skills and said little, as demonstrated one day when they came to visit us. He offered to take my sister and I for a walk and eventually we came to a corner shop near the childrens playground. It was hot and sunny and we were all wilting.

"Uncle" Jack, as we called him, announced that we should wait outside while he went to get an ice cream. We waited with baited breath for the certain treat we were about to get to revive us. He duly appeared brandishing a single cone topped with a lovely flourish of ice cream. I can imagine my sister having the same thought as me, that we would have to share it, but hey that was better than none. Not so, without a word spoken he carried on walking, slowly devouring his ice cream whilst we trailed on behind, ice cream-less!