Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Running Wild


Perhaps my arrival in 1921 was a bit of a surprise to Sam and Grace when they were by then aged 40 but it never-the-less did not result in me being in any way un-cared for. It was just that they were possibly so busy trying to screw a living out of that era that left little time to keep an eye on my boyhood activities in that period before the war.

One of the earliest memories was being dumped up to my neck in a lime pit. Houses build in the 20’s involved having a big pit containing a ready mixed lot of lime for the business of building with bricks. When the builders had pushed off for the day the site was left unguarded and at the mercy of the local kids. One of the older girls cajoled me to walk to the end of this long plank leading out to the middle of the pit. Being about aged four at the time the outcome never entered my innocent mind but when she stepped off her end I finished up covered in slimy mess.

This was a time of no radio, television and no computers so the big out-doors was where every child finished up to burn of their energy no matter the weather. In the winter the promenade was a roller-skater’s paradise especially the slopes down to the beach. The evenings would be spent racing around until it was time to go home. Adult strangers would be approached in the street or on the promenade and asked if they had any cigarette cards: ”Any cig cards mister?”.

The beach in the summertime provided all sorts of scope for fun and mischief and an opportunity to earn some coppers. One scheme was to dig a bridge of sand across the wet patches between the islands of sand left by the receding tide and then with a cheeky grin hold out a hand for anything the visitor would care to give.

A more devilish scheme was to dig a hole in the sand about a couple of feet deep and then cover the hole with a newspaper and a sprinkling of sand and wait for some unfortunate to fall into the hole. Call it what you will but shear devilment was the uppermost aspect of outdoor life.

Once we found the burning properties of magnifying glasses more havoc remained to be wrought. I could not say whether it was matches or the burning glass that set fire to a large expanse of sand dunes at the wild area that existed at that time south of the Pleasure Beach. However I feel the bit of play was not expected to get beyond our control but it did and the only answer for us was to get on our bikes and hare it back home passing coming in the opposite direction, the fire brigade coming to deal with our mischief.

I am sure I was not alone in finding a more mischievous activity for the burning glass. Sunday afternoons could be pretty quiet along the Dickson Road and I found myself idly focusing the glass on the inside of the local chemist’s window. The item that eventually got me interested was the hot-water bottle being displayed on this sunny autumn day. The smoke from the rubber was soon curling upwards and a sort of brown hole was forming on the target. What thrilled me more than anything was the thought of this bottle eventually leaking out in some unfortunate's bed.

This caper was much better than the practice of tying up a house brick in brown paper and fancy string and placing it in the path of pedestrian traffic. We figured that anyone coming across the 'parcel' would firstly give it a kick followed by a yelp. I can’t say this ever came about but even thinking about these devilish schemes was a scallywag's delight.

We all had bikes of course and a long ride out into the countryside was a Sunday occupation. The foothills of the Pennines was the farthest we would go but plenty of fun was available with the possibility of being able to swim in the lakes and go out to the islands where seagulls were nesting. There we could swim back with eggs and set about eating them raw. We would often be out all day and return home exhausted late in the evening.

I had fitted out my bike with a fairly unique form of lighting. Carbide lamps were quite a novelty and gave a lovely white light. Carbide being a white chemical in powder form which when water is added forms a gas. The lamp was usually on the front of the bike and the container was fixed in the rear with the gas travelling along a rubber tube via the crossbar. By adjusting the drip of water to the powder enough gas was made and the lamp could be lit.

The gas we found could also be used to make minor explosives. An inverted pop bottle filled with gas made a mini projectile. Pop bottles were soon found to be a bit tame and one eventful day was when we filled old oil drum mounted on bricks and waited till we could smell the distinctive gas coming out of the opening. The effect was dramatic, the drum went way up into the air but instead of landing back in the friends garden made its landing known with the sound of tinkling glass. We quickly vanished from the scene and just hoped we could remain in the clear.

I remarked earlier that there was no radio but of course in due time this was to be part of everyday life. Amateur radio was a flourishing hobby for lots of boys who could afford the parts and buy the magazines giving the latest one or two valve circuits. Making up these little radios was a regular pastime among the local chums. As we spent most of our time on bikes it was not long before radios were being made with the batteries in the saddle bag and the radio parts in front to twiddle the knobs and search the airwaves. With a pair of head-phones on and tuned in to the latest popular number life was a breeze.

This new craze could not be funded out of sixpence a week pocket money so other means had to be found. The local golf links were a good source of spare cash. Norbreck Hydro had a links attached to the hotel and a few miles further north was Cleveleys links. Four or five lads used to gather outside the golf pro’s office to await the sign to carry someone's bag. The going rate was 2 shillings for the 18 holes but quite often the chap would make it half a crown. I used to wear a very bright yellow jersey I used to fondly think that it used to nearly blind the pro as quite often he would call out “you with the yellow jersey” regardless of any rota. It was possible to get a round in morning afternoon and evening if the light held out. I remember a time when it cost sixpence to get in the cinema and I had thirty shillings in my pocket. A fondness for money never left me.

When the links were too wet to play the time could be taken up with looking for lost golf balls. This was not really allowed by the golf course but that did not stop us from scouring the roughs and into the ponds knee deep in bare feet trying to locate what had sunk in the mud. A maximum of sixpence for a good ball or much less for balls that the men would use for practice hits. Searching in the deep grass was not with out its hazards. One Sunday afternoon had me walking into the barbed wire fence producing a deep gash in my cheek which scared my face for twenty odd years.

This need for ready cash would lead eventually to an activity which crossed the legal boundaries. Whisky needs soda and soda in those days came in large soda siphons which were quite a solid piece of glass ware. These were a returnable item and from memory the money back was either 2 shillings or half a crown a time. These were returnable to chemist shops as well as off-licences. Who thought up this dodgy activity I fail to recall but I fell in with the scheme. Sunday afternoons were the best time to climb over into the back yards of a chemist shop and see if any of these items were to be had. It was decided that no more that say two were to be filched so as to allay any suspicion. It would have been too much of a cheek to take it in to the same chemist to get the refund so after cleaning them up they would cashed in somewhere else. This stunt was pulled off a few times until the shop owners figured something was amiss and kept the siphons safely doors We were lucky to getaway with this one but one of the group took up serious thieving and finished up in court. The year would be about 1936/7 when the authorities were stepping up the recruiting drive to boost the armed forces as things were looking grim in Europe. The offender was given the choice of either doing some time in a Borstal institution or joining one of the forces. He decided to join the Air Force and we thought that would be the last we would see of him but strangely after the war when Peg and I lived in London we came across this chap on a pitch in the Ideal Homes Exhibition demonstrating a potato peeler. Whether he was one of the few we never found out but he would have had the makings to break a few barriers.

It’s an age-old question, what were the parents doing, did mine know what I was getting up to?  Dad was busy at the shop desperately trying to screw a living wage out of his corner shop. Mother was probably laid low with the dicky tummy that seemed to plague her life. Her diet seemed to consist of tripe, tomatoes and a strange kind of bread that was called scofar bread only obtainable from Yates Wine Lodge in Talbert Square in Blackpool.  Of the rest of the family, Cyril was no doubt away in Birmingham working as a journeyman joiner. Grace and Phyllis were busy trying to make a living in Fleetwood market selling cheap clothing or it could have been cheap jewellery. I am sure if Dad had known of what I was up to I would have been on the end of some physicality. I know of only two occasions when he let fly at me.

When I was about seven we lived in a two roomed basement flat in Station Road South Shore in Blackpool. It had an old type kitchen range fired by coal. What was in the oven at this time I can’t remember, could have been bread or a rice pudding, however Mum and Dad were peering into the open oven to see what was in there was getting on and I said “Let’s 'av a scen then“ --- with that Dad turned round and I finished up on the other side of the room having got a good clout on the head. The word "scen" had really annoyed him. Scen was street talk that I had picked up from other kids and he wasn’t having that word in the house.

The other time was years later when I was in sole charge of the shop whilst Dad was in the flat above having his dinner. Nestle's Milk was sold in a very small size and I had taken a fancy to helping myself to one of these and enjoying the sweet milky contents. One day he confronted me with the empty tin which he had fished out of the dust bin. “What’s this?”. Quick as a flash, “Oh, I saw Jacky Dixon kicking it about on the pavement outside so I fetched it in” … ”Little liar”, followed with hard thump to the head. Bad enough mice eating his cheese or fruit going bad but to have his kid nicking stuff was just too much. Jacky was my local chum and we used to give ourselves electric shocks. The light switches in the house were a brass type with a cover that could be un-screwed revealing the connections. We would stick our fingers on the points and see how much we could stand or hold hands and with the free hand stick a finger on either the plus or minus. Wouldn’t like to try it now.

What remains in my head about school is virtually nil. I do know there were around 42 pupils in the class and I always came somewhere in the middle for marks. The boy next to me was Billy Broadly who became a friend. So it was Broadly & Smalley --- Smalley & Broadly. His family had a pig farm which I used to visit on occasions. One day we were leaping across a dyke near the farm and I misjudged the distance and fell waist deep in what could only be pig slurry from the stink that followed me home. Coming home after school I had to pass a nice house at a corner and one day the Lady of the house stopped me and asked if I would come in the house where she had lots of toys I could play with. Who these toys belonged to I could not say. Could be that they had perhaps lost a son and they wanted to see another boy playing with them. I guess I would have a drink and a bun and then off I would go. What I do remember about school was the caning I had a few times for inattention I guess and the pain and loss of half a front tooth falling in the school playground. Pain would appear to have a lasting effect on me.

At the time we lived in Alexandra Road at the flat above the shops I formed a friendship with a boy further down the road where the houses were quite large. The boy's father was a school master and they were quite well off in relation to my family with mother going out in the evenings selling door to door some rather nice yellow powder to make a refreshing drink.  At the rear of the big house was a garage run commercially. I always assumed it belonged to the school master but I could be wrong. The boy who’s name was Desmond Hough (pronounced Huff) his next door neighbour was his girl playmate Brenda Duff! She always reminded me of Elizabeth in the Just William books probably as she had a pigtail. The Hough family cultivated me no doubt as I made a play-mate for their dear spoilt boy. I had no complaints as I went everywhere with them. One year I joined them for a week in the Lake District and often we would drive out in his big car which had a folding canvas hood.

They were typical middle-class. I can’t recall the mother but the father would be dressed in a tweed double-breasted suit plus deer stalker. A meal at a restaurant after a fun was always Steak and Chips which went well with his florid round face. I made a mistake a decade later in seeking Desmond out. I was just curious to see what had happened to him. They were at a different address by then and he was different too. He didn’t want to know me, I soon got the drift. It was the class thing. By then I had joined up and childhood days were well in the past.


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