We used to invade the cinema and fidget about upstairs, munching appalling concoctions of sticky goo.
Looking back into the dim and distant past, it seems that my childhood was poor in material things but rich in the simple pleasures of life, such as being an established member of a gang of mischievous urchins, whose ‘territory’ extended far and wide, from the local fish quay and surrounding derelict river banks, to the ‘respectable’ built-up area in which I now reside.
When I use the term ‘gang’, I do not mean that there was anything violent contained within us, other than the normal exuberance of childhood, which was allowed full rein during the Saturday afternoon matinees, when ‘en masse’, we used to invade the local cinema and fidget about upstairs, alternating between munching appalling concoctions of sticky goo, swapping seats time and time again and either hurling pieces of paper into the beam filtering from the projection room or discharging other miscellaneous objects over the rim of the circle, causing consternation among the unfortunate recipients below!
During the last war, the incomes of many families were reduced through having the main breadwinner serving in the armed forces and ours was no exception. My father served for six years in the army, and my mother worked hard in a local timber yard to help to keep my sister and myself. As a result, I imagine that, being the youngest, my appearance at school left much to be desired, but I can still remember vividly, being asked rather pityingly by a fellow classmate, “Are you poor?”. This anecdote was trotted out at regular intervals at home afterwards and soon became a standard family joke. I was often the butt of similar ridicule when my family used to question me about a strange little friend known as ‘The Little Green Man’, who managed to materialise before me and no one else in the privacy of our antiquated, outside lavatory and who was held to be responsible for my frequent, long absences there when I used to indulge in lengthy fantasies on this and that. Another favourite query when I began to recite something that had happened in the past was, “When you were five?” relating to the fact that I always seemed to start almost everything of interest with that phrase.
The war years, as well as bringing deprivation, few sweets and luxuries for instance, brought their own brand of excitement into our young lives. Ugly brick air-raid shelters sprang up on areas formerly occupied by uglier decaying dwellings and when the alert sounded with depressing frequency, to hear the adults talk, we children would huddle, bleary-eyed, on sacking-covered makeshift bunks within these buildings and chatter and sing, refusing to share in, or unheeding of, the danger without.
On one occasion, I evaded my mother’s restraining hand for a brief moment and stood outside the shelter door, gazing up at a velvety black sky, patterned with searchlights, seeking desperately to pinpoint a brace of German planes. The next morning, much time was devoted to combing our territory carefully for scraps of shrapnel, a few lucky people swanking off at school about how they had witnessed a huge air-battle, involving numbers suggesting that the whole of Goering’s Luftwaffe and at least half of Fighter Command had taken part!
School was something to be suffered. Teachers were people who had to be suffered, in every sense of the word! How well I recall those foot-dragging “miles” between home and school, which distance I can now cover in a brisk, ten minute walk. The agony of the times tables, repeated regularly each morning, from two times (with which I could cope), to twelve times (with which I failed miserably), each ‘rhyme’ marked by the staccato rhythm of the teacher’s ruler striking the front desk with alarming force and sickening monotony.
How I seethe when I think of the decrepit, ancient spinster who taught English and punctuated each important word with a knuckle in the back of some unfortunate, whose book her eagle eye had chanced to alight upon.
The playground was a release, a heaven-sent opportunity to race round and round with no object in mind but that of freedom, if only for ten minutes or so.
The holidays were an extension of this freedom, a magic time when, blessed with sun in the summer, our gang used to assemble on the dirty river beaches, newly-opened after the war and used to pounce upon any suitable wreckage which could support lithe young bodies. Fires of driftwood having been lit, we would squat, shivering in wet costumes beneath grubby towels, earnestly assuring one another, through chattering teeth, that the water was lovely and warm! Those lucky enough to own rickety cycles, took off on other occasions, to delight in the pastoral beauty of either Holywell Dene or Plessey Woods, “At least forty miles”, we would announce, breathlessly, to those minus cycles, on our return.
In retrospect, my childhood memories have been liberally sprinkled with laughter, tears, awe and indignation, emotions in fact which I have observed, from time to time, in my own two children, but which are not to be thought of as peculiar to youth alone, but rather to the majority of humans, whatever their age.