Undoubtedly, next to provisioning, drinking water was our main problem; and sinking wells wasn't the answer, for we had two. One within six feet of the back door, with the familiar cast iron manhole cover over it. The contents of this had a peculiar taste, which Ma always described as "limey", which probably really meant a chalk substrata. The second well at the far end of the garden had the additional refinement of a long-handled metal pump, with a cast-iron hinged lid. He latter had the appearance of an ornate tea-pot lid, which might have been appropriate if the apparatus had ever produced enough water to brew a pot of tea. Occasionally, we would give it a trial, by lifting the lid and pouring in about a gallon of water to prime the pump; next move was to grab the handle and start pumping like the "clappers of hell" for a few hectic minuter; after considerable clanking and gurgling one would eventually be rewarded with about half the water that had originally been put in. "Some sow their seeds in sandy soil", to paraphrase the Scriptures. It soon fell into disuse; its' wooden supporting platform gradually disintegrated; and with a helpful push from my twin brothers, it ended its days with a suitably soggy "slosh" at the bottom of the abortive creation. There it remains, perhaps at some far distant date to be dis-interred with unrestrained glee by some unborn archaeologist. Unfortunately, he'll have to move a couple of "semi-detached" to get to it.
The top of the well near the house was flush with the concrete that formed part of the back yard, and one evening at
dusk I had drawn a couple of buckets of water for the horses. One of the twins shouted "Tea time" and I was in like a
shot, forgetting that I'd left the cover off the fairly deep shaft. Darkness had fallen ad we were finishing our
meal, when suddenly we heard piercing cries of "Help! Edie! Help" You're right, - Dad had plummeted straight through
the aperture or cover-frame. His urgent yells should have brought the neighbours in for miles around, for he couldn't swim a stroke, and all he knew about treading water was what he'd picked up in a Bible class. We all rushed out with Ma in the lead, and by the dim light that filtered through the scullery door it must have looked like one of those hilarious scenes from an early Hal Roach film. With Ma hanging on one arm and us three kids on the other, we finally hauled him out on to the concrete surround, here he lay for a few minutes---more shocked than exhausted. An outburst of rage would have been more than justifiable; he was just grateful to have escaped with a few minor bruises and a good soaking up to his waist. He later made a strict rule that. In the future, no one was to ever draw water but he; and to my knowledge, no one ever did.
A further example of his extreme tolerance was when he happened to be late home for his Sunday dinner. As I've
previously explained the latter was inclined to be a weekly culinary ritual; the preparation for this was certainly
no sinecure, what with the failings of a primitive stove and four boisterous children in the offing. An important
part of the ceremony required the man of the house to do the carving. His absence was akin to that of the Worshipful
Master at the opening of a Masonic meeting.. Between 1.30 and 1.45 p.m, was the appointed time; unfortunately, our
"old man" had dallied at the "local". He ambled light-heartedly into our kitchen cum living- room about 2.5pm, with
an alcoholically-assisted beam of bonhomie on his flushed countenance, and to the delight of us kids, broke into a
little step-dance on the door-mat. The most humorous aspect was, of course, that we didn't know that he could dance.
Considering his disability, it was a very commendable effort, and we clapped our approval. This newly discovered
terpsichorean ability was, however, lost on Ma, who. Raising from her seat, mustered that look of shear disgust, the
import of which only a man beast with years of matrimony can rightly recognise. "Bloody old fool", said she, in a
bitterly acid tone that only a much harassed mother can achieve. Delicately balancing one of her treasured
"willow pattern" plates in her hand, she continued (as wives sometimes do)"why can't you come home and serve dinner
like any other decent man-they're your kids as well as mine, 'ya know-you drunken sot!". This last verbal sally sent
Dad into a fit of laughter, for he wasn't really drunk-just merry. This was the last straw. Ma turned like lightning
and wham! Brought the dinner plate down with some force on the top of his head. Even good old Staffordshire ware couldn't stand this, and it went-straight down the middle, thereby ensuring for ever the safety of this particular pair of eloping cobalt blue figures from the irate, pursuing father. Typically, there stood Dad, his face clouding over, "Now look what you've done-one of your best plates, too!" said he calmly. He was genuinely sorry, for he knew that the shattered platter formed part of a dinner service, a wedding present from Gran. Dad sat down quietly in his accustomed place, and the meal was consumed without further incident. He always enjoyed his Sunday dinner, and he wasn't going to spoil his appetite with dissentious argument. We, in turn, knew when silence was more appropriate than valour, for Ma kept a short length of cane at the side of her plate to ensure a reasonable standard of table manners without rising from her seat. Someone had to be the disciplinarian, for I can assure you that we weren't an easy bunch to handle. We were strongly individualistic in temperament, and by the time you've read my story, I believe you will appreciate how this came to be accentuated as we grew older.
The thin, 15 inch cane was, apparently, an essential part of our household equipment. Occasionally it would be missing, it'd disappearance either a mute form of protest, or because it made a useful arrow for our home-made elm bows, suitably tipped with a sharpened end of elder wood. Eventually, Ma would ferret out who the culprit was, and the appropriate punishment for this particular delinquency was to be sent to the only hardware store to buy a replacement. If it fell to my lot, I would shuffle up to the counter with a very subdued look, for I felt certain the proprietor knew full well the purpose of the purchase. My immature mind hadn't perceived that this feeling of guilt could easily have been avoided by craftily carrying my bow with me, and breezing up to the counter with a cheerful, "A penny arrow, Sir, please" For we frequently counselled to always be polite; to a point where if I had been unfortunate enough to become a "hangman", I could have imagined myself saying, "I do beg your pardon, Sir, but I do hope that you won't find this too tight for you"! It was "Doff your cap if you meet a lady you recognise, or who speaks to you"! We were probably committed to considerable superfluous cap-raising by being too young to appreciate who would appropriately be considered a "lady". Perhaps it was merely an early lesson in diplomacy.
As previously mentioned, one of our problems was water. Nearly everyone collected rainwater from their roofs in various types of receptacle; our earliest was a 40 gallon wooden barrel. Coopering was a very active craft in that era, for this was the popular container (not only for water). Ma, having been long accustomed to the hard water of the Metropoles didn't take kindly to this, apart from the aspect of seagulls, pigeons, and other bird-life regularly leaving their "visiting cards", she declared it was too "soft"!
Thus taking too much tannic acid out of the tea. It was delightful to wash in, very beneficial to the complexion, and
made a little soap go a long way. So, from the time of their marriage father used to bring palatable water from an
old iron pump which used to stand at the top of what is appropriately named Well House Hill. Apparently, the pump had
originally been installed by a benevolent farmer from the adjacent Well house Farm, where it tapped a natural spring.
It is noticeable that the naming indicates the due regard for something we all tend to take for granted now. I've had
to stomach some very odd-tasting, so called drinking water during my peregrinations, and I'll always settle for a
little from a genuine spring. It's as well to catch it just where it issues from the earth, for heaven only know what
it's likely to be polluted with if it's allowed to travel any distance. When the Chinese recon that a pint of hot water taken first thing in the morning is good for the kidneys, one tends to think that, as one of the oldest civilisations, they ought to know. Anyway, I always consider a glassful can't do any harm. The last time I was able to afford to stay in a hotel, the receptionist was kindly asked if she could arrange for a glass of hot water to be sent up with the morning tea. She replied, "Oh, you needn't worry about that, Sir, there's a razor plug in every room". "Ah, says I, it's for drinking-not shaving"! She looked at me as querulously as if I'd just dropped off another planet.
After my father started working for a "gov'nor", it wasn't long before it fell to my lot to see that the six-gallon
earthenware pot that we called "the crock" was kept reasonably full. Fortunately for me there was a nearer sauce of supply, just beyond the Parish church,. The container, a 4 ½ gallon cask! The vehicle, a wooden box-barrow on four small pram wheels. Naturally, there were times when I jibbed at this tri-weekly pilgrimage, and would then furtively top the crook from the rain-water butt. It was evident that the pure, crystal liquid, that ran continuously irrespective of drought conditions or not, was greatly appreciated. So much was it considered a heaven-sent boon, that it was appropriately named St. Peter's Well. A huge oaken box-like structure had been dropped over the actual spring, and re-enforced with two substantial metal rods, bolted at each end where they protruded through the woodwork, where it flowed through a short length of 2 inch diameter steel tube. It would have been almost impossible to have found better water anywhere, but it soon fell into disuse once folks had the more convenient facility of a tap near the kitchen sink. An additional benefaction was a good growth of water-cress in a shallow hollow a few yards away. Now, nothing remains to be seen of nature's bounty; only an exuberant growth of brambles, shrubs, elders and other ever-lasting vegetation.
It occurs to me that whatever we do to ensure the supply of an essential in all its pristine purity, there's bound to be a hazard somewhere. Our crock was kept in our timber and corrugated iron scullery, which after dark was dimly lit by a very small paraffin lamp, which merely split the gloom sufficiently to enable one to ladle water into a kettle or saucepan with a wooden-handled metal scoop. The earthenware pot was normally covered with a round wooden lid to keep out dust, flies, spiders, beetles, crickets, crane-flies, or other venturesome members of the insect world. One evening the old iron kettle was singing away merrily on the stove, suddenly giving its usual staccato signal on its ill-fitting lid, and tea was made. With us it was customary to drink one's tea before the meal was actually begun. We sipped away, then looked at each other quizzically; Ma had consumed about half the contents of her cup, when she suddenly exclaimed,
"What's wrong with this tea then? It tastes more like stew" A hasty examination of the tea-caddy ensured; the
contents were stirred over, felt and smelt - no, nothing untoward there. Next. The water container in the
scullery - no, nothing wrong there. Then it must be something in the kettle - it was a very dead well-boiled mouse!
I don't think I shall ever forget the intense look of horror and disgust on mother's face. She rushed straight to the privy and was violently sick, which, in the circumstances, was the best possible thing to happen. Us children sat around the table looking very glum, partly because we weren't so fortunate, but mainly because we dreaded the inevitable "inquest". Providentially, this did not take place owing to the continuing indisposition of the "coroner". Dad opined that we'd be lucky if far worse things didn't happen to us before we ended our days. Thus philosophically fortified, the meal continued in a rather half-hearted way. No-one fancied anything else to drink that evening, certainly not from the contaminated crook; undoubtedly, one of us had left the lid off, and the foraging rodent had over-balanced from an adjacent table, taking a header straight into our precious drinking water. From then on, whether in daylight or dark, the brick-red jar never parted with its lid, except when actually being used.
The little episode related above is typical of what can happen to folks accustomed to conducting their daily lives
without the manifold benefits of electricity. For one often went to bed, got up, went out to see friends, pursued
some social activity, or visited that lonely looking little hut at the bottom of the garden, all in the dark. If it
happened there was two feet of snow and freezing hard enough to take the glitter off a pawnbroker's balls - you had
no option, for when you gotta go - you gotta go! Having the benefit of living in a slightly more up-to-date abode,
we had the mixed blessing of a throne room just outside the scullery door, and which was built into the main structure of the house. The far-sighted builder had optimistically concluded that it would be so much easier to convert to a water-closet when we received the benefit of a proper sewerage system. Which wasn't bad reasoning, for there are few people who can see twenty years ahead; if there were, the obsolescent projects of many of our past so-called town-planners wouldn't have proved such abortive and costly ventures. Not that they were always entirely to blame, for oft-times they had to conform to the ideas of "shot-sighted" and parsimonious councillors.
Meantime, our cludgy consisted of a tongue and groove box-like structure, with a hinged frontal door, which housed a
sturdy galvanised bucket with a particularly wide top; thus constructing to cope with those who were either careless
or "suffering". This container was emptied once a week by what were known by the more polite as the "night cart"
man; two sturdy, long-suffering individuals, who were probably driven into this very unhealthy and congenial
occupation by the existing economic conditions, viz. considerable unemployment. One can imagine the long walks in the
dark, often in wet, cold or icy conditions, to those isolated little cabins in odd positions on each individual domain. Usually, anything up to fifty yards distance, at the end of the garden. A rural postman's work was a sinecure by comparison, at least he had the daylight, and if one located the front door then the letter box couldn't be far away.
They would usually carry a hurricane lamp, with a smoked-up glass, caused by the swinging to-and-fro movement by the
user. By the end of their round one could have expected more light from a constipated glow-worm.
The night cart itself had a distinctly eighteenth century look about it, in fact, if its two attendants had been
suitably attired and ringing a hand-bell, yelling lustily "Bring out yer dead" one could have imagined oneself back
in the year 1665. Their vehicle was a large metal-lined box-like container, supported on a sturdy cranked axle with
two large diameter wagon-type wheels. The axle, being off-set at each end, allowing the capacious body to be
suspended closer to the ground. As one of the worthies commented, "It's bad enough 'avin' ter lug it, wi'out 'avin' ter climb on eight foot ladder t' tip it"! He wasn't joking-for depositing the contents of buckets from households with large families wasn't a job for weaklings. I wonder how our Unions would have tackled this from a work-evaluation standpoint. One would be hard put to think of a more menial or unpleasant job. Even though they were probably looked on in a manner akin to that of the browbeaten" untouchables" of India, they were, in fact, performing a very important rural public services; in the general scheme of life, they were of greater import than many of the dapper "umbrella and brief-case" fraternity, who had probably never even once been called on to even empty their own buckets; "Mais o'est selate la vie"! Being extremely jokers usually do.
It was due to periodically erratic variations in their expected weekly visits that we decided it might prove more
satisfactory hygienically if we dispensed with the: night carriers" somewhat irregular service. For, by the time they
got round to us, our pail would be too full to be easily transportable in the dark. After all, it was scarcely in the
same category as an ever-filled dustbin. We frequently found part of the contents spilled on the concrete path that
led to our back door. Ma, being fastidious in such matters, felt that it was slightly superfluous to leave such
evidence that they had actually called. After a family conference, with Main the "chair". It was decided that dad
should get the job of burying the offensive matter about eighteen inches deep in suitable trenches on the fallow plot
at the end of the garden. The following year, brassicas would be planted in the latter, producing Brussel sprouts,
cabbages and cauliflowers that were the envy of his fellow gardeners. As the "old chap" had left school at the age of
eight, they could hardly have expected a profound dissertation on agronomics or the horticultural benefits of
certain chemical compounds. He would just grin and declare that it was due to a secret soil treatment that he had
picked up from a Chinese sailor. Which reminds me of a perfectly true story of a very keen gardener who did
remarkably well at the "show" with his tomatoes, which had a practically fine flavour. Several evenings each week
he would visit his favourite tavern, and on his return his wife was rather puzzled that he always went quietly down
to his vegetable plot before entering to house. Deciding to satisfy her curiosity, as wives sometimes do, one evening
she crept down there after him. There he was - with a small electric torch in his other hand, carefully "watering" the roots of his valued plants. Your guess is as good as mine as to what the outraged lady's immediate reaction was, but it appeared that after a short argument (indoors)she convinced him that she'd be more than satisfied with the flavour of his fruit if normally nurtured on water from the butt. Ah, well, one can't expect to win all the time.
During the war years I cannot imagine how we should have survived without Father's gardening ability. With a fair
supply of vegetables, and a resourceful cook, it was surprising what tasty meals reached the table. On the odd occasions when both fish and meat were unobtainable,
I've known "the old chap" (as we referred to him in later years) to get up at three o'clock in the morning to catch
the tide at low ebb to gather mussels before going to work at seven. This involved an approximately four mile walk,
much of it across some very "gluey" mud. Menu; Slowly cooked mussels with a dash of vinegar in the water, mashed
potatoes, spinach, and a white cornflour sauce containing chopped parsley; plain roly-poly with molasses (which we
always referred to as black treacle). Not sumptuous, but it made a very fair meal. Some years later, I was helping on
a local farm, when I went into a small annexe to the cow-shed to help prepare their food. We'd cut chaff and
mangolds, and mixed this up, when Joss the cowman picked up a large metal measure and approached a forty gallon drum
on trestles. He proceeded to fill the jug with a sweet smelling black "coey" liquid, I said, "What's that then Zach?"
He replied, "That be molasses, boyee". "Blind me" says I, "we were putting that on our duff two or three years
ago". "Ah, well", he continued, "it be mighty nourishin!" .As the sage said "Different times, different manners". Knowing me as I do, I'd have eaten the ruddy mangold as well, if it meant keeping alive! I happened to glance through a fairly thick volume of modern history recently, and the writer blandly dismissed the widespread shortages of the period thus, "There was some food shortages, due to bad distribution, before rationing was introduced in February, 1918". I came to the conclusion that the author must either have been in privileged circumstances during that period, or hadn't joined us till later. He continues, "The civilian population suffered little physically, unless the deaths from influenza in the winter of 1918/19 can be ascribed to the war". As approximately 150.000 in Britain died during this epidemic, I should have thought that the lack of sufficient nutritious food over several years could have had quite a lot to do with it. If he had stated that there had been no recorded cases of scurvy or beriberi, he may have been right. In my humble opinion there have been fat too many histories written as though it was something mainly concerned with the activities and life cycle of either Royalty, statesmen, or prominent politicians. Conveniently forgetting that it is the ordinary people in society that form the broad base of the "pyramid" that supports the apex.
Just as some authors and playwrights are fond of depicting miners bathing in a tin bath in front of a stove as though this was something rare and unusual. Of the time I write, probably around 85% of the populace bathed in this sociable manner, apart from those who thought that bathing in hot water was injurious to the spine. I was well past 16 years before being introduced to the luxury of a "proper bath".
Come rain. Hail. or sun, Monday was always "wash day"! and the water was heated in a large copper cauldron sunk into a brickwork surround with a "grated" aperture underneath to contain the requisite fuel. It was one of household chores after school to bail out the used contents of the "copper", clean out the grates, and relay the dire ready for the Friday night ablutions. Obviously, this rather primitive means of heating didn't allow of fresh clean water for everyone. So it was youngest first, and so on along the line. By the time it got to my turn, it was usual to skim the floating murky suds off the surface with a slightly concave brass skimmer with small holes in it, something like a miniature "old-time" chestnut roaster. The now cooling water would then be optimistically "gee-ed-up" by the addition of the contents of the old black kettle from the top of the stove. After a quick rub-down, donning my vest and shirt, I'd be up the stairs two at a time before one could say Jack-never mind "Robinson". How Mum and Dad fared - I never found out.
When you're young you don't even give it a thought, and if you did - it would probably be "Oh well, they're old
enough to take care of themselves"! We don't usually appreciate the sacrifices our parents make for us until we're mature enough to have to start making a few ourselves. Monday was never Ma's best day, with six (at that time) to launder for in addition to a housewife's usual routine tasks. All by hand, sheets, blankets, towels-the lot; with only the mechanical aid of the wooden-rollered, heavy, cast-iron wringer. The manipulation of which usually devolved to me if anywhere within hailing distance. As one might expect, there were times when I openly rebelled, such as the time when she asked me to rinse out a "clutch" of my sisters napkins in a bucket before they were consigned to the "copper for a "boiling-up". Ma was busy peeling potatoes with a stubby, sharp-pointed knife, when I made a dash for the scullery door, yelling that "this wasn't a boy's job". She swung round, shaking her fist at me (or so she insisted), and before I could establish a safety margin, distance wise, I had the potato-knife sticking into my right arm like a short dagger. Naturally, Ma was terribly upset, and swore that, being wet, it had accidently slipped from her hand. The resultant half inch scar near my right elbow has been borne with some pride over the years. Not masochistically, but merely because it is a fairly constant reminder of how harassed and distressed a mother can become in trying to cope with a larger physical and mental burden than a woman should be called upon to bare. For this wasn't a job that terminated sharply at 5 o'clock on Friday, with two whole days for quiet reflection or the pursuit of a favourite hobby. It was over fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, month in-month out-year after year!
Like most boys, there were certain jobs I found congenial, such as gathering cockles and winkles in the estuary as the tide ebbed out. The knack as far as cockles were concerned was to keep reasonably close to the ebbing waterline, when many would be found still on the surface. To keep them out of the muddy sand with the forefinger could eventually make the quick of the finger-nail quite painful; once the skin was broken the action on the salt water didn't help either. One just became accustomed to it, and the backache. If it meant a change from bread and jam for tea it was well worth it, besides, there was often a chance of selling some for pocket money. Not that these shell-fish were plentiful, for the area had been well "combed" over the years. The more assiduously they were gathered, the less there were to breed. Picking up winkles was a bit more arduous, as it seemed to take ages to find a quart or so, to us, they meant a well-appreciated Sunday tea.
One could say that our taste was rather spoiled for facing the later technological progress of the modern food
industry, for although we were forced to live extremely simply, nearly everything we consumed was really fresh.
Generally, food seemed to have that much more flavour - unless it's my dentures - which I doubt. For example, our milk came straight from the cow to the table. Tuberculin-tested cows and pasteurization hadn't been heard of in our area, and it's quite likely that individuals reared on it from infancy acquired an inbuilt resistance to tuberculosis; on the same principle that one is inoculated with cow-pox to obtain immunisation against small-pox. It was most unusual to hear of anyone in the district dying from this then prevalent disease, It is not surprising either that my nose wrinkles slightly when my wife walks in with a packet of some well-advertised frozen fish fillet; and she looks askance when I laughingly remark, "how many candles do we put on the cake for that fish" it's as well to know when to be jocular rather than annoyingly facetious.
It is difficult not to bark back to when a local fisherman's small blue-jerseyed son would amble round to our back
door with a few "strings "of slimy samples of the days catch. Half-a-dozen fair sized plaice or flounders for a
shilling! After all, there was a war on! We used to feel quite dejected when occasionally Ma had to say "No",
because she hadn't a shilling to spare. It seems a bit odd now to think that "fresh fish for tea" had to be considered a minor luxury. Sensing our disappointment, Ma would explain that the disciples and the later saints had firmly believed that frugality and a modicum of self-denial was of immense benefit to their souls. To have rejoinder that it wasn't or souls we were thinking about would have been considered extremely impertinent. Occasionally, herring went at a "giveaway" price when someone had had a really super catch: the problem was then how to conserve such bounty dad solved this by pickling several dozen in rough salt for a few days, then strung them by the gills on thin bamboo canes in the wind under a lean-to roof. This is the nearest you'll get to produce a bloater without "smoking: it. As one of my twin brothers was wont to remark, "I'll be bloody glad when I've had enough of these!"
Western civilisations greatest holocaust ground inevitably to a halt, with scant realisation by the working classes that having paid in blood, suffering and general deprivation, they were destined to start paying again; by this inflationary tendencies generated by man's warfare, and gross unemployment. The impact was lost on us, for, in common with the majority, we had grown accustomed to getting short. Had the pattern been different, it may well have changed us individually. Rightly or wrongly, I feel there is greater potentiality for a little real character building where one has too little rather than too much. It enables one to cope better with the vicissitudes of an uncertain future. Also, in a small community where nearly everyone was steadfastly trying to make ends meet there was little chance of masking covetous comparisons.
One of the immediate effects of demobilisation, as far as we were concerned, was that Father found himself out of a
job. Two of his employer's men had returned from the Forces, and the boss naturally considered it his duty to
re-instate them. Being unable to find work locally, Dad decided, with the aid of a small loan from his sister, to buy
a horse and become self-employed once more. He had retained one two-wheeled cart, which needed a little renovation through standing in an old shed for several years. It needed strengthening here and there with new bolts, and as dad never possessed much in the way of tools, he relied on improvisation. Any drilling of woodwork would be accomplished with the aid of two worn, sharp-ended pokers of differing thickness. These would be placed alternately in the kitchen fire until red hot, when it was my job to run up the yard with one of the "borers", whilst the second one was heating up. It was a primitive process, but it worked, on the principle of "handsome is as handsome does"! The bright chap who said that "necessity is the mother of invention" should have had the task of chasing with these bits of hot metal before they seared the skin off his hands. With the benefit of hindsight, it's a pity one of us hadn't thought of taking the old Primus stove to the scene of operations.
Having organised things to the beast of his moderate ability, Dad resumed his business of having locally caught fish, oysters and shell-fish; transporting them to the town for sale by wholesale or retail. It was certainly a precarious trade to be in mainly supplies were sporadic.
This was due to the fact that the trawling was by old-type sailing smacks, and unless conditions were bordering on the ideal, the fishermen just weren't interested. The local fishing grounds seldom yielded a really good catch, as there was but little real incentive. We thought of then as: fair weather fishers", whilst allowing for their points of view. It certainly didn't help in trying to build a regular business connection with the town's retailers; so, consequently, more often than not, he had to retail his stock round the back streets of the town, where money was usually about as plentiful as Hottentots at the North Pole. Many of the tales of woe he heard were undoubtedly genuine, but it didn't take long for dad to be recognised as a "soft touch", and I gather that at least a quarter of his ensuing debts were never collected. I suppose he thought he may as well take a chance on getting paid, as an alternative to dumping his surplus highly perishable goods back in the sea. One could say that he fumbled along financially from day to day, and as I look back I realise that he would not appreciate that the whole pattern of trading methods was rapidly changing. No matter how small, a business progresses or it retrogresses. To be really successful in business a man (or woman) needs two qualifies above all others, a special flair for his (or her) particular venture, plus the capacity for really hard work. Unfortunately, poor old dad had but the second quality.
Misfortunes seemed to follow him like a row of ducklings following their proud parent, as it really wasn't unusual
that he was to lose his equine partner in the following circumstances. There was an early winter, and he was returning from town on a freezing cold night when it started to snow heavily; he had nearly reached the beginning of a rather treacherous hill. It wasn't only the steep incline, but the presence of a nearby spring, which often found an outlet in the bank and trickled obliquely across the roadway. The presence of the resulting icy patch and the fact that fresh snow quickly "balls" under a horse's hoof's was more than sufficient to throw "Blackie" of balance. He not only fell heavily, but the weight of the cart behind him caused him to slide several feet in the snow. Such carts were not constructed with the luxury of a hand or foot-brake. In spite of the fact that Dad was badly bruised through being suddenly thrown off his seat (his fall had been broken by the horse's rump), his first concern was for the poor animal. He sensed trouble when "Blackie" had immediately failed to try and regain his feet; the now frightened beast had apparently slightly injured one of its legs. In an almost total obscurity, relieved only by the pale glimmer of the vehicle's side-lamps. Father strove, struggled and cajoled for nearly half-an-hour before he was able to get the recalcitrant creature to stand again. Typical of the period, and because of the existing weather, not a soul came nearby; except for one small cottage, there wasn't a dwelling for over a mile in either direction. In any case, he wouldn't have left the stricken "Blackie" alone in order to seek assistance. Though I record the incident second-hand, it wasn't difficult to visualise my luckless parent limping resolutely for over six miles through the driving snow, leading the equally unfortunate horse.
When we heard activity in the vicinity of the stable, we knew Dad well enough to know that he wouldn't put in an appearance until he had properly tended to his helpmate. When he eventually entered our living-room, looking care-worn and slightly dejected, he sat down heavily in an offered chair, whilst Ma poured him some tea. Even then, his chief concern was evident, as he briefly related what had delayed him, for he ended by saying
"I can't understand it, I've rubbed him down, given him extra straw and oats-but he won't touch his feed-and he
merely sipped his water". At Ma's bidding we discreetly retired When we were very young, it was customary to kneel
for a brief prayer, but when one disrobes in an unheated, lino-floored bedroom on a frosty night, one can be forgiven for feeling that a brief word of thanks for a dry roof and one good fire (with one's feet on a stone hot water bottle), will quite suffice. Not that praying would have been likely to avert that night's events, for I was rudely awakened about one a.m. by what sounded like a gang of navies armed with sledge-hammers trying to demolish the stables. Trotting along the landing in my shirt and bare feet to the front bedroom. I quickly aroused Dad. Lighting a candle and hurriedly dressing, I joined him in the scullery, where he was already lighting the "hurricane' lamp. Although the snow-storm had abated, it had left adequate evidence of its visit. From the continuing violent banging and crashing noise, it was evident that "Blackie" had gone berserk with pain, and was intent on kicking down the sides of his stall. Ma had never credited Dad with having much courage, he was scared stiff of lightning for a start, but I reckon it takes more than a little to enter a small stable containing a fair-sized, half-crazed horse
aided by the faint glow of an oil-lamp. Undoubtedly, it was the courage of compassion, for after long association
with them, he considered that horses had been man's best friend. He was certainly in a quandary about this one.
What does one do with a very sick beast in the middle of the night, with the nearest "vet" ten miles away with no
ready means of communication suddenly he says "Hot beer, boy - that's it - hot beer!" He hurried off to the cart-shed, and after foraging around for a few minutes, re-appearing with a quart bottle of ale. "I'll bet that's one that Ma doesn't know of" thought I; but this certainly wasn't the time to discuss personal ethics. Whilst he hurried to the scullery to heat this old-fashioned remedy on the primus, I kept a wary eye on "Blackie-with the bottom half of the door closed and bolted. I was so god-dammed cold my urgent impulse was to hop up and down to try to get warm, but refrained for fear of scaring the restless animal... After what seemed an age, back came Dad with the same
bottle wrapped in an old towel. I queried the use of the bottle; back came the terse reply,"D'ya think we'd get it
down his throat in a jug then?" Whilst I stood hunched in the now open doorway with my old woollen hat own over my
ears, and trembling visibly, with both cold and apprehension, Dad skilfully fitted Blackie with a tight bridle. Next,
he threaded a strong piece of line through the rings of the bit, and threw the free end over a cross-rafter in the
roof. Going to a dusty cob-webbed shelf in the corner, muttering almost inaudibly something about "horse drops", he
found a small bottle and proceeded to pour some of its dark, oily-looking contents into the beer-bottle. Replacing
the stopper of the latter and giving the still hot mixture a violent shake, he then turned to me. "Boy, I want you to
catch hold o' that line - stand'other side o' the partition - and when I say "pull" you gently haul up his head so
I can get this stuff down "im!" This wasn't a venture I'd take to gladly with a fit animal, never mind one in Blackie's condition; There was Dad, precariously perched on an orange crate the other side of the five foot high timber division, holding grimly on to the bridle with one hand and the unwieldy glass container in the other .As I carefully hoisted the frightened beast's head upwards Dad was talking soothingly all the time. The position was about right, the neck of the bottle was inserted in the side of Blackie's mouth-when up he reared, out went his hind legs - and with them another two boards in the stable wall. There was a rare occasion when father would be very determined man - this was one. Time after time we tried to get the demented creature to stand steady.
I think the potion must have been nearly cold before we more or less succeeded in getting some two-thirds of the medicine down his quivering throat. If any of my readers have ever tried this in similar circumstances, then they'll appreciate that you are dead lucky if you can get as much of the liquid down the inside as the outside. Dejectedly, Dad threw an extra cover over the "patient's" back, and quietly closed the doors.
At break of day Blackie was stretched out on his thick bed of straw, and breathing noisily. All the fight had left him, and he could scarcely raise his head; Dad at once sent for the "vet" via the Post Office (one of the few places that boasted a telephone). The latter arrived about two hours later, pronouncing, after a quick examination, that it would cost more to try and restore Blackie's fitness than he was really worth. Considerately, us children were sent on various errands; by the time we returned he had been put down". Only dad ever saw him again, and that was when three men came in the afternoon to collect the carcase. We were not even allowed to witness this event, for Ma felt that as we journeyed through life we'd learn enough about tragedies, both major and minor. Dad returned from the yard with thirty shillings in his hand, which he slowly placed on the kitchen table, saying, "Never in my life have I felt more like Judas". As the simile was lost on Ma, even if there was one, and no one seemed like talking, I transferred the kettle from the kitchen stove to the Primus. No matter how tough the going, I don't remember a time when we lacked the essential for making a cup of tea.
To use a modern idiom, the family was back in square one, or, to be more correct, square one minus, for the loan for Blackie's purchase was still outstanding. To us kids it was just another depressing millstone on our journey through a troublesome childhood. It certainly does nothing to improve the outlook of youthful minds to be reared in an atmosphere of continual acrimonious argument between parents regarding the lack of monetary provision for covering merely the sheer necessities of life. And I am certainly not referring to what are frequently considered to be "necessities" by today's standards. Any budding children's psychologist would have had several lengths start if he had had the extremely fitting experience of being raised in our particular circumstances. However, there was to be little disagreement about Dad's future plans. Ma had decided that, in spite of the parlous state of the labour market, he was henceforth to seek ordinary employment. As she said, "You'll know what hours you have to work, and what you can expect at the end of the week, etc." Fortunately, in the main, Dad was a docile and receptive
listener; and, one beautifully redeeming feature - he really loved my mother. He must have done, otherwise he would have skedaddled years before.
In the lengthy search for a job started - to have said "suitable employment" would be merely facetious. Matters of
congeniality were most irrelevant. Phrases such as "unsocial hours" and "unsociable workmates" were unheard of. The
contemporary operating phrase was, "to get a job - any job?! In keeping with the proverb "You can drive a horse to
the water ... ", Dad had his particular aversions. He wouldn't on farm-work; not merely because it was the
lowest-paid class of work throughout the country. But because he was taken away from school at the age of eight owing
to the fact that his parents felt they wouldn't afford the fourpence a week that his Board |School education cost them. (If his rather egotistical old farther had adjusted his beer intake they could have done so). His first job was "crow scaring" on a local farm at two shillings a week. Though he had no problem on this score, he declared nothing would get him down a mine.
He just could not understand the reason for sending some of the best citizens burrowing and grovelling in filthy
sludge in the bowels of the earth, whilst some of its worst spent much of their time relaxing in comparatively warm and comfortable cells above it.
The pressing question was, what could a man do without craft or trade? Labouring, that often despised form of work
that the world will always need. So he worked, when he could find it, as drayman, navvy, builder's labourer,
gardener ... anything where good honest toil was the main requisite. How times have changed, and so many of the
succeeding generations have been better trained, their efforts being channelled into more rewarding grooves, that the
ordinary labourer has become somewhat scarcer. So much so that even the normally conservative Civil Service has given
special designations to this usually unpopular form of labour, (1) Labourer (2) Semi-skilled Labourer (3) Skilled
Labourer! Seems to be a slight contradiction in terms, but one doesn't worry unduly about the "glorified" status,
when each step up this mumble ladder means a little extra in the weekly pay packet. There's nothing like experience,
for I've climbed it - twice. It was just an additional misfortune for Dad that he was born too soon.
He stolidly withstood the trials and tribulations of this unhappy period, which he rightly judged to be the most
trying of his whole life. Being on the edge of the coast, we were in an economic backwater, for apart from the scarcely viable fishing and farming prospects were practically nil. Though the town offered some opportunities, it was ten miles away, with the crowning disadvantage that there were no adequate transport facilities. Hardy souls cycled to and fro, six days a week, and in all weather. As one might well expect, our "old chap" had never learned to ride a cycle (even if he could have afforded one). I sadly recall one occasion when he had heard via the jungle telegraph, to wit, the postman, that a road-works contractor needed a few men for construction work between Heybridge and Maldon. Off went Dad, well before seven in the morning, with a packet of sandwiches and a lone shilling in his pocket. Ma was "edgy" all day, which indicated she was perturbed at the thought of a man with a crippled ankle having to walk over twenty-two miles on a rough country road. He returned about four o'clock in the afternoon, limping more noticeably than usual, aided by a sturdy stick that he had cut out from a hedgerow on route.
He slumped heavily into Ma's fireside chair, which was most unusual; we'd never seen him use her chair before.
We didn't have to ask the result, and in any case, we weren't allowed to ask questions. Father wasn't the type of man
to sit, disconsolate, with his head in his hands. The life he had been accustomed to since he was a child didn't
produce that sort of reaction. As the old kettle had been singing cheerfully on the hob, as if anticipating the
return, he was soon relaxing awhile with a mug of his second favourite cupper in his hands. After quietly sipping the
hot beverage for a few moments, he looked up at Ma saying "Edie, there's just one thing that would improve this
tea - a dash o' good whisky". I never forgot and whenever I visited the "old chap" in later years, there was no need
to try and puzzle out the most acceptable present. My only regret is that it usually had to be a half-bottle. He had
considerable faith in the medicinal value of a drop o' Scotch. He reckoned that even a dessert-spoonful in his first
cup of tea in the morning made the dawn look much rosier,
(And my Dad continued this daily routine by his father until the day he died). Not that he enjoyed many rosy dawns while we were young.
In a small community it's a seldom long before your good points are recognised (as well as your bad ones), and as
Dad's capacity for hard work was common knowledge, a job on a small building site eventually came his way. After
several distressing weeks, Ma could at last discern a gleam of hope at the end of what had been a dreamy, uncertain,
and thorny path. As a potential source of income had to be exploited, when one of the local dairymen wanted a boy to
assist deliveries in the early morning, I was candidate. Though not yet eleven, I had the very doubtful advantage of
being tall for my age. There were no tedious bye-laws then to prevent children from getting used to the idea of
eventually having to work for a living. On the contrary, the contemporary educational authority co-operated by
allowing such industrious youngsters to attend school at 9.30am, on the basis that "God also helps those who help
themselves". Not that Ma had any intention that the spiritual side of any education should be neglected. Although
Sunday school already formed part of the weekly curriculum, it was decided that I should join the choir.
(Dad loved to sing and had a good singing voice, he joined many theatrical groups in his older years, and met a
few actors who later became famous) Besides, this also provided material benefits in the form of a: bun-fight", a trip to London (e.g. to Westminster, St. Paul's or the Tower) and twelve shillings and sixpence annually. Choir practice every Thursday, at the Vicars modest dwelling, to the accompaniment of his good lady on the particularly wheezy harmonium, was thrown in as a makeweight. Ma tactfully pointed out that I was indeed fortunate in being permitted to join this particular "convey of celestial canaries", inasmuch that vacancies were usually reserved for the male off-spring of regular "church-goers". As our family figured reasonably frequently round the font, and Ma vote in accordance with our priest's particular political inclinations, apparently we just managed to satisfy the conditions of entry. It was also propitious that the existing choristers were not quite as keen as a rather devout and older cousin of mine, or I'd have been on the "waiting list" yet; he was with this joyous little group for nearly half a century.
My early introduction to paid employment was slightly alleviated by the fact that Dad always rose first in the
morning; he would rouse me quietly (in order not to disturb my brothers) with the encouraging words, hurry up; it's
quarter to six - teas made!" That was a bit more comforting than the irritating jangle of a cheap alarm clock. Not
that Pa ever needed the aid of "the worker's friend" (?), he was a natural early riser. After a quick wash in a well-chipped enamel bowl, which stood on the scullery table, I would munch a jam sandwich and sup my tea, with one eye on the clock. As the farm was a mile and a half away, I usually had to jog-trot most of the way to get there by six-thirty. The cow-man had usually lit the lamp in the dairy if it was a dull morning. When he had made an early start, the warm buckets of frothy milk would be ready lined up for staining through what was, in effect, a fine muslin gauze sieve. It took but a few minutes for the cow-man to tip the foamy liquid into the two large, bright churns, one of which was fitted with a shining brass tap in its base. By this time, Mr. Bailey, the proprietor, had arrived with the milk float. This purpose-made vehicle was constructed after the style of a low-slung Roman chariot. Except that it was of square section rather than half-rounded, and completely open at the rear just like its ancient predecessor. The front rail supported a short length of metal rod, upturned at each end to prevent the rains slipping out. In the front part of the float was a raised box-like section across its whole width eighteen inches above the floor level, on which the two churns were stood.
The height of this platform was necessary to enable smaller cans to be filled, including the two 2 ½ gallon hand cans, from the tap-fitted container. At the rear of the conveyance was a low-placed drop-step, which also stretched the width of the bodywork, and assisted mounting and alighting whilst the "chariot" was still in motion. This was prior to the milk-bottle era, and whilst Mr. Bailey served the nearest houses straight from his 2 ½ gallon can, I ran to the more distant dwellings with either ½ pint, 1 pint, or quart metal-lidded containers, according to the customers normal requirements. .One of my main recollections is of the strength and workmanship of all the receptacles I have mentioned. They all suddenly seem to have disappeared as if by magic. When one thinks of the millions that must have been in use throughout the country, it seems hard to believe that scarcely any have survived. They were mainly made of a non-rusting alloy, similar to "Britannia" metal, so it is unlikely that they disintegrated on some farm-yard scrap-heap. Perhaps I am being merely nostalgic in hoping that one day a specimen or two come my way. They certainly stood a fair amount of bashing, particularly if there was a prospect of my being late for school. The thing that quickly dispelled my "charioteer" illusion was "Algy", the horse, who clip-clopped along just about fast enough to avoid falling over. If one let him stand for more than ten minutes he would actually go to sleep. No horse ever benefited more from having four legs. An old lady came out one day with a bag of stale crusts (there wasn't such a glut of National Health teeth then) Algy seemingly ignored the proffered handful of the usually acceptable morsels. "what a peculiar nag", muttered his would be benefactor, not realising that he had "dropped off" There was one sure way of bringing him to, that was to violently rattle two or three of the small empty cans in the vicinity of his left ear. It appeared his hearing was better that side.
My weekly wage was set at four shillings and sixpence, of which it was ordained by the "Chancellor "that I would
receive threepence. I remonstrated rather vehemently than usual with Ma, feeling that my new status as a minor
breadwinner should receive due consideration. "For a start:, says she, "you'll be wearing out more cloths and
shoe-leather you'll still get your Saturday's penny for cleaning the cutlery besides, if I know you you'll pick up
nearly a shilling a week doing extra errands - Mrs, Green will want a letter posted - Mrs. Brown will want a half
o' cheese on the quick - Mrs. Gibson's scruffy little Yorkshire terrier will need a bit of exercise"! Undoubtedly,
she qualified for future membership of the Whitley Council - on the employer's side. There was no question of appeal
to a higher tribunal in the shape of father, she was the tribunal. To me, the unkindest cut of all was the cutlery,
which I had optimistically imagined would now be passed on weekly to one of my younger brothers. I wondered whether the principle of a fair division of labour was being equitably applied. If there was one job I heartily detested, it was laboriously rubbing up and down those bloody awful Sheffield Steel knives on an abrasive knife board. This messy task was aided by the application to the board of a rough brown powder which could well have been mistaken for gritty gravy browning. This aid to gracious living was apparently produced by someone known as "Oakley", with his picture and the appropriate emblem on the side of the tin to prove it. Whether the fact that it was well advertised as "Wellington" knife Polish alluded to the possibility that the worthy duke polished his sword with it, I've yet to discover. The knives were the type that almost blackened if you just waved them over a plate tainted with vinegar or fruit juice; so after a week's use by our lot, they looked like something that had just been recovered from a sunken 18th century galleon.
I still have three of these childhood "torments", which I salvaged from the dustbin after Ma's belongings had been
sorted out by my sister. There was no disagreement with her point of view. They look a trifle woe-be-gone now,
about two-thirds their original length. But they keep their cutting edge remarkably - they have to for the "cut" of
meat that I can afford. The legend on them is as plain as ever, "V.R and the Royal Crown, Harrison Bros. and Howson,
Cutlers to Her Majesty". Well, the old Queen certainly knew a bit of good steel when she saw it - but then, she
didn't have to clean the dammed things. It galled me slightly when I visited a nearby aunt, to find that they
possessed an apparatus, shaped like a shallow drum on its side, supported on a wooden base, with an iron handle on
its flat side. There were several apertures in the 5 inch wide outer edge of the "drum", wherein the knives were
inserted after being suitably coated with the moistened cleaning powder. The cranked handle was then rapidly turned
(similar action to the old type clothes -wringer), which apparently activated internal brushes; and, hay presto! when the cutlery was withdrawn, it shone like new. When I mentioned my discovery to Ma, she replied casually "Oh yes, they keep one of those in all the big houses where there are servants". I walked out of the kitchen whistling nonchalantly "Less than dust", but it went right over her head.
There is no means of knowing whether Dad's brand of luck was contagious, but about two months after I joined
Mr Bailey, the latter was stopped in the street by an inspector from the Weights and Measures Department. He took
the usual two samples for analysis, with the unfortunate result that within a couple of months my employer received
a summons for selling milk deficient in fat content. In a purely rural community such as this had almost the impact
of a criminal offence. It was obvious that Mr Bailey was very worried man. Anything the least bit of the ordinary
day routine was "hot news", and likely to be rapidly disseminated by the gossips without delay; gathering in enormity
as it progressed from mouth to mouth. Strangely, this potentially damaging story hadn't leaked up to the appointed day. My employer had wisely hired the shrewdest advocate in the town, who in turn called this cowman and myself as prime witnesses for the defence. The Bench listened in a seemingly disinterested way to the usual preliminaries. Eventually, and hesitantly, I crept up the two steps to the witness box, and a small rosy-cheeked face made itself visible over the edge of the "gripping rail "; I like to think of it in this way, because folks familiar with such matters know what a comfort it is to have something solid to grip on these harassing occasions. Any a sagacious judge has weighed the quality of a person's evidence by watching the play of the hands on this smooth piece of timber, rather than concentrating on the witness's face. But I was gripping hard for an entirely different reason, feeling that if I could add another inch or so to my height I might gain greater credibility. The defence solicitor's questions were kindly, but precise, and mainly relating to the early morning procedure at the farm. His final
question came, "Did you at any time see water added to the milk?" At my tender age, the idea of anyone adding water
to the milk at the farm was a thought of a most abhorrent character. "Oh no, Sir," I piped up with all the emphasis
I could muster. That, plus my air of unruffled innocence, swayed the magistrates sufficiently to get the case
dismissed. Without having costs awarded against him, Mr Bailey could afford to be generous. He took the cowman and me
into the best restaurant in the High Street which also boasted the prettiest waitresses (a thing I didn't notice till
many years afterwards).
The tea and superb fancy cakes really made my day, for I had a very "sweet tooth", with "hollow legs" to match. After my employer presented me with five shillings as we were leaving for home, there came an instant recognition of a streak of gratitude I hadn't previously suspected. On reflection, it is obvious that he was guilty of this minor offence. He must always face facts exactly as they are. Conversely, he couldn't be held to blame if the metabolism of what particular breed of cow wasn't producing enough cream with its milk. Short of having an analytical laboratory, plus a qualified chemist attached to every milking-shed, it was difficult to see the answer to this lactic problem.
My first experience of the vagaries of the law had been enhanced by the fact that an affiliation case had immediately
preceded ours. Thankfully, these cases are now held in "closed" Court, a social justice that was long overdue. For, the smaller the community, the harsher the ignominy. There was a rather lurid passage in the proceedings as to where the actual seduction of the attractive young maid, by her master's son, had taken place. Apparently, he had been chasing the hapless maiden, in an unbridled rush of high spirits, whilst the remainder of the household were elsewhere. There seemed to be a divergence of opinion as to whether he had finally caught her in her bedroom or the conservatory. As the cowman surlily muttered "Oi don't know what thet lot are on about, by the look o' the evidence that ole dear at the end o' the row is carryin', oi don't see that it matters much where they 'ad it". Our friend didn't appreciate that it was imperative that the lawyer should, at least, give some semblance of justifying his fee. Three cheers for the blood test. One of the things I felt most keenly as a boy was the lack of books at home. After finishing my weekly copy of the "The Champion" one evening, I ferreted round till I unearthed a couple of
Victorian novels of Mother's. They had coloured cover of young dames and their swains; I tried both books in turn,
eventually throwing them down in disgust as "dead punk". By comparison, "Peg's Paper" was a saucy thriller. A cheap
edition of "Mrs. Beaton's" complete our library. We still hadn't got round to possessing a cheap dictionary, and of
times when I came across a word that was unintelligible to me, I formed the habit of writing these down - later
looking them up at school. It was usually useless to ask Ma, who would be too busy trying to make one shilling do the
work of two. Her stock reply," Oh, don't bother me - go and ask your father!" She must have been kidding. It was a
standing joke among his offspring that he'd never been known to write a letter in his life. Yet I have in my
possession a treasured latter boldly inscribed on the accompanying envelope "The only letter I ever received from Dad
It was legibly written in a rather scrawling hand, with only three spelling mistakes. It is difficult to describe the feeling of pride it gave me to realise that the old chap wasn't illiterate after all. As eminently He'd just been dodging his filial duty all those years; he was then seventy-four years old. It was really an achievement for a man so lacking in formal education. Apart from anything else, his hands were so gnarled through really hard manual labour, in all weathers, for over sixty-five years, he could scarcely hold a pen. Recently, I was visiting Hatfield House, and I perused a letter written by the aged Queen Victoria to the Marquis of Salisbury of the era. I hope I can be forgiven for reflecting that Father's writing is eminently legible by comparison. In actual fact, I turned to my wife, saying "Why, my old chap could write plainer than that"! Perhaps one may say, "Well, little things please little minds"-and one may well be right.
It is a poor village that lacks "characters", and, apart from the vicar, there was the usual local drunk, whose only other vice was a bit of crafty cuckolding.
The one I remember was a Mr. Mayhew, reputedly a retired author, who would walk swiftly along for about twenty yards,
then stop suddenly and jump nimbly into the air like a ballet dancer about to perform some intricate arabesque. He
would continue his hurried hike shouting, "Ty-ger! Ty-ger! Ty-ger!", his head twitching convulsively on every syllable. As one would expect, the local kids (children can be unwittingly cruel at times) would prance along behind him, arms in air, with hands dropped, simulating the paws of a tiger, calling "Ty-ger! Ty-ger!" in unison. The retched man would suddenly stop again, and with a completely sane manner say "Ah-ha, you must want sweets, do you?" He'd kindly grasp the hand of the nearest child, and back we would troop to the little sweetshop by the church, where he would buy a couple of bags of wine-gums, for us. Waving jauntily, he would resume his interrupted morning airing in a kind of detached tranquillity but still twitching a jerky accompaniment to a rather softer "Ty-ger! Ty-ger!" I thought it must be terribly risky to be a writer, if this was an example of what it could do to one. Now I have doubtful consolation of knowing that I can't twitch for long at my age anyway.
There was the unfrocked priest, a very charming and likeable man, with worldly failings unbecoming to the cloth.
Not that they were particularly noticeable to the villagers, who always respectfully referred to him as Rev. or
Reverend. He hailed from a famous literary family, and it was said that his father had been Headmaster at Eton. For some irrational reason, it seems that a celibate cleric of the Protestant fold is always slightly suspect. Then there was the young man who used to bring his rather shy girl-friend into our shop (when it was operative) for a bunch of spring onions, whereupon they would canter off arm-in-arm for the solitude of the sea-wall. I've heard of garlic "putting off" sailors visiting Greek ports, as it's possible that the resultant aroma of their purchases kept them from becoming too arduous in their courting habits. Inevitably, it was jocularly suggested by one of the wags that they had possibly discovered a previously aphrodisiac. The odd behaviour of the old lady who carefully pegged out her sheets on wash-day and then laboriously lugged water from her well to throw over them, was attributed to the fact that she lacked a kitchen sink. Didn't we all? Whenever a church or chapel social took place, it was a certain that a quiet, friendly little man named Walter would be there. It was just as certain that, although he didn't figure on the programme, he would ultimately be a performer. When things seemed to need livening up a bit, there'd be a concerted clamour from us "young uns", "C'mon Walter! Give us Clementine!" He needed no second bidding; it was the only song in his repertoire, but like any good artist, he believed in giving his audience what it wanted. There were no music-shuffling preliminaries. All the local accompanists were well primed for this one. In a loud, deep, gravelly voice, Walter could be guaranteed to give the heartiest rendering of this old favourite that one would ever be likely to hear. He came to the chorus; his "Altogether now!" was wasted-we'd already started. He'd be beating time with his right foot with such gusto that the ill-tuned piano shock so violently on the rickety staging that we feared (or hoped) that it might drop clean through at any time. We'd all be singing lustily and clapping the time-Light she was, and like a fairy,--and her boots were number nine"
How we loved it. Not that one could describe the overall as musical, but it was infectious; for us it was the highlight of our evening. I don't suppose any village could possibly have provided more fun with one solitary song.
There is sometimes a tendency to think of the tallyman as a comparatively recent accessory to modern household economics, or at least, an often useful inconvenience that came in with the advent of the motor vehicle. It wouldn't surprise me to find that they originally plied their trade from a pack-horse. It often puzzled me as to who the dapper, bowler-hatted little man was, who would appear at our back door regularly every fortnight, with a note-book in his hand and a brown paper parcel under his arm. I knew how strongly Ma felt about running into debt. Mr. Oxley was a rather officious, business-like personality, who seemed to be the epitome of perpetual motion. Even when he climbed on to the high seat at the front of his van, he wouldn't be content with giving the reins a normal shake to get his steed into motion, he frantically jerking them up and down all the way along the road as though he was jockeying for position in a pony-trotting contest. This was in direct contrast to the appearance of his black enamelled four-wheeled vehicle, which was always spotlessly clean and had the outward appearance of a totally enclosed hearse, with appropriately, two doors at the rear. With my ever-curious turn of mind, I would wonder how he managed to ever retrieve anything that he might require from the front end of this elongated contraption. I would imagine him burrowing head first through his miscellaneous assortment of vests, pants, socks, trousers, boots slippers and assorted drapery, like an amorous male seeking its mate. One day I quizzed Ma as to why she didn't purchase these sort of goods from the town. I was promptly told to be quiet and warned never to tell anyone in the village that Mr, Oxley called on us. This seemed slightly perplexing to my young mind, especially as his poor old horse languished wearily against the shafts for up to fifteen minutes, plumb outside our front gate, whilst his energetic master trotted to and fro with various sizes. And samples. For Ma to have been seen at the doors of this traveling drapers, cum haberdashery, cum shoe-shop, "Come and have a look, Ma'am," would have been terribly intruding". I'd hardly yet begun to probe the illogicalities of the female's mind - but I was getting a fair start. It is normally an economic necessity to obtain as much for one's labour as ones can, providing of course, that this does not in turn
jeopardise the well-being of others. The usual tendency is to put one's well-being first, so when this opportunity
arose of transporting the world's second most important natural product from a nearer source, I took it. My gross
wage would increase by a shilling; it meant harder work, but then, higher wages sometimes do. Ma astutely suggested
that my "cut" should rise to sixpence. Increasing commercial experience was by now improving my arithmetic, so I
quickly pointed out that I appeared to be getting the mucky end of the stick. There's nothing harsher than "petticoat
government", so I had to acquiesce. With all this additional exercise I was eating more, and if I was all that keen on money there was a small Sunday morning paper round available. As she was vigorously hacking away at a rabbit carcass with a chopping knife, I moved warily to the exit side of the kitchen door before replying. O hell with that, I'd sooner have a sit-down between hymns at church!
At the best times of the year it was extremely pleasant half-mile to the farm, the music of the song-birds would caress my ears as the chill morning air lightly tickled my nostrils, enticing one almost involuntarily to breathe ore deeply this invigorating tonic.
For there's no sweeter air than that with the indefinable smell of ozone in it. It was on such a morning that I was
passing the roadside hedgerow when a bird nearly the size of a pigeon flew out from the other side. To many boys of
my age it wouldn't have meant a thing more than just another bird. But country life teaches one to be that much more
observant. The first reaction on me was - that's a cuckoo, and they don't normally frequent hedges - so there must be
a reason for it being there at all. Stepping into the dry ditch, I keenly searched the thorny growth, pushing the leafy twigs to one side with a short stick. Ha! a hedge-sparrow's nest. Hoisting myself into a position where I could pear into its interior, I saw that it contained four eggs, three small pale blue, the fourth mottled and almost twice the size as the others. Being a keen egg-collector, my feelings can only be described as akin to those of an art connoisseur who has discovered an "unknown" Rembrandt. And the latter is a much more likely eventuality than finding a cuckoo's nest. So the find was one to my collection. Nearby, in the coarse grass still glistening with the morning dew, lay the mall shattered egg that the parasitic invader had cast unceremoniously from its victim's neat, feather-lined abode. It's not surprising that the predator had flown to a nearby tree, and was cheerfully proclaiming the beginning of another spring. It must have been a very crafty old bird indeed that initiated this gross scheme for absolving itself entirely of its parental responsibility. Not that this practice is without human parallel. Continuing my short journey with the precious egg carefully wrapped in a dry dock leaf in the front of my cap, and reflecting, "Well, that's one potential embryo that won't grow up to express its gratitude by pushing its erstwhile brethren out of their rightful crib" Now I can merely reflect that the farm, its cottages, the trees and ditches all gone. The hedgerow replaced by an unedifying row of council houses. Traversing the same road now, one is scarcely likely to hear more than the uninspiring chirp of a house-sparrow.
On my now round there was no milk-float, only "Shank's pony", with a 2 ½ gallon can in one hand and a 2 gallon one in the other. It's a wonder I didn't end up with a permanent list to starboard. But you've guessed - changing hands
about every yards, and start serving from the biggest can first. The calls, like the dwellings, were fairly widely scattered, for our locality was served by three dairies, and strangely enough, still is, though the housing has
increased more than six-fold. It is gratifying, in an ever changing scene, to note that the two main suppliers are
still of the original families. My round trip was about two and a half miles, with the comparative pleasure of
trotting back to base with the nearly empty cans. As my home was approximately the half way point, this meant a
twenty minute break for breakfast - if I could get my hands on the frying pan! We had been trained to prepare our own breakfasts, but it often involved a minor battle with brothers as to who should use the pan first. Meany a rasher and "dollop of bubble and squeak" ended up on the concrete scullery floor. Appeals up the stairs for Ma's arbitration was very unwise, as she was very averse to being disturbed until she was really ready to put in an appearance. A premature interruption of her routine usually resulted in at least one of the disputant not getting any breakfast. We knew little of Ma's descent from a military family, we just felt that it may have been from a long line of sergeant-majors!
My immediate employer was the farmer's wife, a very precise old lady, who meticulously measured the content of the containers each morning. If she said, "You've four and a quarter gallons this morning. George," then that was it-no more-no less. One had to have some
space at the top of each can to get the pint and ½ pint measure which suspended from a half inch strip soldered on the inside of each receptacle. Before departing, she liked to see me wash my hands at the old pump that stood in the centre of the yard. For it was impossible to reach the measures without dipping one's fingers in the contents when making the first few calls; having to lick one's fingers clean could hardly be considered hygienic. I countered my misgivings on this score, by the thought that folks were never fussy about where the bread rounds man had had his hands. Bread is often handled by half-dozen different pairs of hands before it reaches the housewife. Imagine that just one of the handler's has a practically "runny" nose, carries a grimy, well-used mucus-sodden handkerchief, blow his nose frequently on this germ-sodden square, and then pushes it back unconcernedly into an equally contaminated pocket. Like all of us, the rounds man must attend to the routine necessities of nature, and even more so if he happens to have a touch of the "turkey-trots" or what is popularly known at Heathrow and in shipping circles as "Delhi belly". It is generally accepted that particular complot is much more prevalent now. So he must stop at the nearest possible "convenience", possibly there is no paper available, or in his haste he may accidentally have pushed his fingers through the "baby-soft" tissue. There may be no hand-washing facilities available where he had to make his "urgent" visit. Then again, he may only have needed what is known in the more polite circles as a "strain-off", he'd look a "right charley" supporting his person with a pair of sugar tongs. Or he calls at a café for a quick "cuppa char", whilst his long-haired assistant relates that he had a "lovely bit o' crumpet" in the park last night-"Didn't it 'ome till gorn two"! Blissfully unaware that the playmate had picked up an "invisible import" from a carefree foreign sailor a couple of nights earlier. "I was fair clapped-out this mornin'; didn't 'ear the alarm-didn't even 'ave time for a wash"! No wonder I look askance at each unwrapped "farmhouse" loaf as my wife drops it nonchalantly into the bread-bin.
When my first few daily deliveries had been made, it was soon brought to my notice that the entries in my small "delivery book" didn't quite tally with the amount I'd set off with; allowing for what had been returned. It didn't take too much thought to solve that one. There were several wheedling matrons who almost invariably, in a jocularly persuasive manner, would say, "Don't forget the drop for the cat"! as I measured out their required quantity. Naturally, being green, I generously complied, not realising that I was the twit who would ultimately be accountable for this daily bonus. It soon occurred to me that as Ma was a customer, any shortage could be due to the fact that I was being free with the measure at our own back door. Endeavouring to enlighten Mrs. Dann as to the real reason for any discrepancy I mentioned the old dears who were wont to solicit sustenance for their feline companions; back came the tart reply, "We only reckon to take 'em really fresh milk, come hail, rain or sun, for three hundred and sixty-five days in the year, and that doesn't include free milk for their mangy 'moggies!" In order to sustain
my reputation as "an obliging little lad", there had to be a solution to this. There was - lean well over the can whilst quickly filling the measure to within about half an inch from the top, then swiftly pour into the customer's jug. Take a second dip for the missing half inch, observing cheerfully, "And, the little drop for the cat"! (Or thereabout, as our legal friends might say) Learning to accomplish this artifice with considerable dexterity, it worked like a charm; and, incidentally, helped enlarge the traditional Christmas box.
When the lush spring grass was improving both the quality and quantity of the yield, Mrs. Dann would make extra
butter with the surplus product. As the liquid accumulated in the large, shallow metal pans on the slate-topped
stands in the flagstone floored milk-parlour, my covetous eyes would wander over the beautifully rich golden
surfaces. Given the opportunity, it was difficult to resist the temptation of swiftly dipping one's forefinger in
for a "taster". It was delicious, and certainly bore no resemblance to the flavour of the contents of my present
small weekly carton. There was no glass in the north-facing window frame, merely a galvanized mesh fly-screen.
Leaving the door ajar ensured a cool flow of air; a reasonably effective form of refrigeration with no expense to be
passed on to the consumer. Mrs. Dann was no longer young, and had reared a large family, but certainly showed no lack
of energy when it came to vigorously shaking up the cream in the old-fashioned metal churn. The resultant butter
looked even more tempting than the cream, though I would never bring myself to ask her if I could purchase a
half-pound. You know the feeling - that it may be thought you're trying to get it "on the cheap". However, one day she overheard me tell one of her charming daughters that it was my birthday; in an unaccountable burst of generosity she presented me with the desired quantity, expertly wrapped in a heavy grease-proof paper of parchment like quality. She hadn't bothered to weigh it-she didn't need to, I'd have laid a small wager that it wasn't a gran out. When she had used the churn on a Friday, an extra shilling would come my way on Saturday, by taking out three or four gallons of "skim", after my normal round. At threepence a quart, there was no need to take it far. It was personally gratifying that the old lady was more liberal with her measures of the lowly by-product. One day, as I sat on one of the cans at the edge of a pleasant, but deserted footpath, slowly drinking from the half-pint measure, I reflected that the chap who coined the phrase "As sweet as buttermilk" was probably a farmer's son. Dreamily musing on, it struck me that someone had to put in a lot of hard work before you would scrape a few pounds of butter
from the churn, If one started from the newly-born calf; it had to be reared with considerable attention for at least two years; when it reached maturity it had to be mated (allowing for the fact that it isn't always necessary now) and bulls cost money, whether one hires or keeps one; the heifer then has to calve before it starts to produce milk; it then has to feed the calf for many weeks before becoming milk-productive, well, you know the rest of the cycle. Yes, fresh butter was definably cheap at fourteen pence a pound-if one had that amount to spare. For whether you're the wife of a labourer or a millionaire, the price is the same. The reason I had time for reflection on such Saturday mornings was because I would farm out the tiresome job cutlery-cleaning to one of my brothers for tuppence. It had to be pointed out that the lucky one was getting well above the basic rate the pill was sugared by assuring them that the helpful one would get a recommendation for the milk job when I left school. One of them did, and when he left school the job passed on to my youngest brother. (Francis, who left home at an early age to
live South Africa, he had two children Denice and Geoffrey never returned and lived a long life) Thus were we taught in turn the true value of money-and the stern necessity of earning it. Though it seemed slightly harsh and unfair at the time, it implanted in use a strong sense of self-dependence. Ma was determined that we shouldn't go out into an often harsh environment with the erroneous feeling that the world owed us a living.
Occasionally, other little jobs would come my way on the farm in connection with tending the cows, threshing or ploughing. One such time was when I was asked to help Zach, who doubled as cowman, to plough one of the large fields that sloped down towards the adjacent marshes. Two horses were necessary because of the gradient and the fairly heavy soil. My task couldn't have been simpler, it was merely to lead them up and down and then turn carefully at each end so that the plough dropped neatly into the appropriate returning furrow. From the top of the field there was a semi-circular panoramic view across the river of the open, unspoiled countryside of the mainland; looking much the same as it had for the last couple of centuries, give or take a farm building here and there. It was that and the hordes of wheeling, gliding, diving, and screeching seagulls that helped to relieve the tedium of the extremely boring task. Zach wasn't the talkative type, not that a sustained conversation would have been easy, with me by the head of the leading horse. The second animal was a black mare, which would, on occasion, stop in
mid-field to stale. The preliminary to this was for "Sally" to raise her short-clipped tail into the air, whereupon
Zach would yell, "She wants to water the plough again". He would then at once relapse into a resigned silence until
this part of the action was completed, or nearly. Then it would be "Gid-dup" "Gid-dup" and we would be off again to a
steady pace set by the two animals themselves. But the old mare seemed to resent having her normal functions
subjected to undue haste, and she would retain, her stubby tail in the near perpendicular meanwhile repeatedly
twitching her vaginal orifice as if in mute protest. Her rather odd spasmodic effort in this area was probably to
flick any remaining acidic droplets off these sensitive parts. Zach wouldn't accept it, and took this example of
equine eccentricity as a personal affront. He would yell, "The dirty old bastard it's winkin' at me agan!" stop the
plough and belay the unfortunate creature with considerable vigour until she reared up in prostate and quickly
dropped her tail over the offending part of her anatomy This little scene would be repeated every time she stopped
to urinate. He'd return to the plough-shafts mumbling, "I'll cure that old sod o' winkin' at me!" I have long
puzzled over such behaviour by this seemingly otherwise normal being. Jung, Feud, or even Havelock Ellis may have
provided some clue, not that I've ever consulted their works. Undoubtedly, this man was a master of his craft - each
rich brown furrow was perfectly aligned, and the width of each "turn-up" varied by such a mere fraction as to be
indiscernible. He was a regular chapel-goer, within the limits of his duties as cowman! For the cows had to be milked
twice a day - every day. Looking back, his mental deviation may have been just an excuse to break the sheer monotony
of his existence; or could it be that he had been relegated to the back bedroom of his "two up and two down"
cottage, and was suffering the frustrating aftermath of his marital partners menopause? I had thought of anonymously
consulting the oracle in the form of the over-helpful "Auntie Agatha" of "Peg's Paper", but know that if Ma
intercepted the reply, it would be bread and water at tea-time for at least a week.
Harvesting will never seem quite the same now that the combine harvester sounded the death knell of the former static, noisy, but efficient threading machine. We greeted winnowing time as the culminating point of the farmer's annual effort, and, as portending extra earnings. It was the only time I could play truant with Ma's full approval, not for altruistic reason, but because of considerably enhanced rates of pay. It was five shillings a day for a "chaff-boy".
My job was to collect and tip the huge bags of chaff, a by-product of the operation that descended in a never-ending
deluge from the twin-exit chute, which projected from the side of the violently vibrating monster and worked in a
constant cloud of fine grey powder, which needed but a gusty wind to complete the illusion of being caught in a
Oklahoma dust-storm. The minute particles afflicted one with an equally throatily dryness, which would be partially
counteracted with frequent swigs of cold, sweet tea - till the tea ran out - then it was "Adam's Ale". Before the
thresher began its cavernous cavorting, it was necessary to tie a couple of the large hessian bags (which were as long as I was tall) on to what looked like small pointed coat-hocks. This had to be done with some care, or one risked being showered with a very unpleasant blast of dusty clinging chaff, especially if they happened to be treating barley. An external lever operated the wooden internal guide which directed this constant stream into the required outlet. Thus the bags were charged alternately; whilst one was filling. I trotted off to tip the contents of its capacious twin on the rapidly growing heap. This vexatious refuse had but one use, and that was as "scratching material" in fowl-houses, where it also helped to absorb the droppings. Without such floor covering, the removal of the latter is akin to scraping glue from a woolly blanket!
It's a poor occupation that lacks the accompaniment of a minor diversion of some kind. When the corn was actually being reaped it was rabbits, now its rats. They were, undoubtedly, among the farmer's worst enemies. Rightly, these filthy, loathsome and destructive creatures are universally detested, except in experimental laboratories. Which is probably the most suitable pace for them, for they seem to have a remarkable in-built physiological resistance to all forms of disease. A corn-stack provided the height of luxury, being warm, dry, and abundant in food.
Before threshing began, a staked length of wire netting, about two feet high would be paced round the whole
circumference of the base of the rick. Once the machinery started, a couple of lively terriers were unleashed to run
loose in the vicinity of the trap. Rats are among the most crafty of the animal pests, and a few would try to escape
as soon as they became aware of the unusual activity around them. It was quite exciting to see the dogs' nimby
jumping the wire as soon as they sighted their quarry. As the rick slowly lost weight, so more and more of the
disturbed vermin vainly sought cover elsewhere. Being short in leg, the rodents presented no problems, until the occasional old buck appeared. He would turn and fight back; the terriers would snarl and bark more angrily; the two "pitchers" would stop pitching, which was the signal for nearly everyone to watch the skirmish. The contest was short lived when the farmer's son was handy for he had no intention of seeing one of his helpmates bitten through the nose. He would quickly bring his pitchfork into play, which meant either a speared enemy or one hopelessly pinned down so that one of the dogs could more readily despatch it. A kill of twenty-one from this particular haven gives one a fair idea of an additional valuable side benefits from the use of modern reaping methods. As I sat comfortably on a heap of straw, with my back against the side of the barn, gratefully basking in the warm autumn sunshine which filtered through the now almost leafless group of fine old elms, I suddenly became aware of a stealthy movement just inside the barn doors. I nearly choked on my cold sausage sandwich when the almost simultaneous discharge of a double-barrelled 12 bore shot-gun nearly blasted my ears off. A hatless, grinning face poked round the edge of the door;
"Hell, Herbie, you nearly frightened the skin off me!" Chuckling away, he replied, "I recon I took the sin right off them sparrows on your chaff heap". He had too-more or less, for we counted twenty-nine that wouldn't get any more corn. "Make a nice sparrow pie" said he, cheerily. "Well, if you'll pluck 'em and gut 'em I'll take 'em home," I replied. He didn't appreciate that I meant it, because I've always understood that they were once considered to be a delicacy, not that one would be likely to feel bloated after such a meal. All in all, when the weather was right, garnering the grain had its lighter moments, even if your tonsils were crying out for mercy at the end of the third day.
Towards the end of the summer, the villagers had had the opportunity of sharing in the harvest in a minor way. That was in the customary "gleaning". As children, we really enjoyed doing this. Wheat fields were the most popular venue. As soon as the farmer had harvested the ripened corn, and finally cleared the field with his wide, metal-pronged, horse-drawn rake, it became "open house" for all to come and collect any stray ears. We would keep a sharp eye on the fields at this season, for timing was an all-important factor; first in the field meant best results, Woe betide anyone who jumped the gun, for it meant a severe verbal lashing for those who invaded the area before the owner had had his "rake-off", for his motley looking lot of fowls needed feeding too. Once the starter's flag had dropped, via the playground "telegraph", we'd hurry home from school, picking up an optimistically-sized sack, a sharp knife, a packet of hastily wrapped jam sandwiches and a beer bottle filled with home-made lemonade (more often than not concocted with flavoured and highly-coloured crystals). It was "back-aching" task, even for our
strong, lithe, young backs; searching and stooping every few yards to gather the somewhat scarce "leavings". Sliding
the straw stalks through one's clutched hand, so that the ears stood proud in a pleasingly tight cluster above one's
fist; meanwhile working one's way carefully back to the site of the sack as the bunch quickly outgrew the size of our eager young hands. The prized heads would then be quickly severed from the superfluous stalks over the open mouth of the sack. This would continue till dusk, or backache set in, whichever event occurred first; when we would tiredly set off for home with the result of our labour perched on our shoulders. There was no financial rewards for this, Ma would usually show her appreciation by providing a slightly better tea than usual. Understandably, the old hens did better out of this than we did, for our efforts usually kept them going for at least two months. Not that they showed any appreciation in the form of more eggs; they were the most baron lot of birds that ever disgraced a back-yard. It never made sense to me to feed a group of voracious chickens on the off-chance of getting a few eggs in the spring. The trouble was we never seemed to know which were earning their keep.
I once helped a local poultry-keeper for a few weeks. Because of his unorthodox methods he was to be somewhat eccentric. He reared all his own poultry by incubation, and when they reached laying age they were double-ringed before being placed in the main fowl-house. The first plastic, coloured ring placed on the leg indicated the bird's age, and the second aluminium ring bore a number. Each house had a projecting row of laying boxes along the exterior, with a lid to each half-dozen for raising to extract the eggs. On the interior each box had a small trap-door which would automatically drop as soon as the hen entered. Collections were made about every three hours. One of us would lift the bird from an occupied box, whilst the other extracted the egg.
The one with "layer" called out the ring number, which was then entered in a dated notebook. The fowl was then
released through the trap and the raised door re-set on a small spring-catch. As he had about four hundred potential layers in all, this little chore together with watering, feeding and cleaning not to mention the incubators, certainly didn't allow any time for cogitating, One day I timidly said "Takes a fair time checkin' all the bird's numbers, Mr. Brown". "Ah-ha, my boy,' replied he, economic poultry-keeping doesn't permit provision for parasites".
Brown was obviously a dedicated man. I didn't stay long enough to find out whether this performance probe continued throughout the year; and I didn't fancy being involved in chasing the flock round to sort out those that figured among the non-layers. At least it gave me a fair idea of the main reason for the advent of battery production and I viewed our scrawny bunch of malingerers with a more kindly eye.
Whilst I was still a milk-boy, we had a camp for German prisoners of war in our midst. It was in a secluded spot behind a huge timber building known as Hall Barn. Its proximity to our very ancient church indicated that it had probably been erected on what had earlier been the site of a tithe barn. At that time it belonged to a modest estate where my uncle was head gardener for most of his working life. I reckoned this gave us a right of entry to the actual barbed wire enclosure, a privilege that was shared only with the military and certain authorised suppliers. Not that I ever saw much sign of guards, apparently they really didn't need any. The poor devils had evidently seen enough horrors and carnage of the Western Front to last them till they were eventually repatriated, which in many cases was a damnably long time after the cessation of hostilities. Human feelings get scant consideration in times of war, and prisoners make excellent bargaining counters... To my sensitive young mind, it seemed a terrible thing to see these fine-looking young men cooped up, year after year, like so many cattle. Many bore their lot with
cheerful resignation, but the mental suffering was plain to see in the vacant, unhappy faces of others. These are the
kind of situations that gnaw into a man's very soul, irrespective of nationality. Every morning of their bleak lives
to awaken with the cheerless thought "I wonder if (or when) I'll ever see my home and family again"? For I could see
thousands and thousands of other forlorn, helpless creatures - in khaki uniforms.
Locally, no one was wittingly unkind, perhaps it was because by a mere change of uniform they would have looked so
much like our own lads. To make them easily identifiable, their bluish-grey uniforms bore hideously unsightly coloured patches; a red patch across the shoulders of a jacket; a yellow across the seat of the trousers; a blue superimposed on a knee. Early each working day, they would march off in small groups to work on allotted farms; seldom accompanied by a guard. In fact, not one of them ever tried to escape. It was one of those little things that help to make a man proud of his race. They were very kind to me; perhaps my tri-weekly visits brought back nostalgic memories of their own childhood (or children) in some pretty little German "dorf" . Many of them had gradually learnt a fair amount of English; but one, Heinrich. Tried to teach me a phase or two of his mother tongue when I called on my clandestine delivery days. As my visits were unauthorised, my route was by way of a small orchard on the edge of the grounds. They seldom received more than a pint, for the simple reason that Mrs. Dann would have been more than surprised if she had discovered a new customer, Herr Kurshaus, in my book, particularly so, if he
happened to be one of the helpers on the farm.
Twice a week I would get them a loaf of bread from a nearby bakery, they favoured a long crusty one, baked on the floor of the oven. Heinrich would often test my linguistic progress; "Guten Morgen, wie geht's Bringen Se heute das Brot?" Haltingly I would reply, "Ja main liebr Freund, ich bringe Mittag".It all helped to make, life a bit more interesting, and might come in useful one day. It did. He would hand me money, plus threepence for myself. I was very loath to accept his gift, for these men received but a few coppers a day for their work. He was always adamant. A boy never forgets such generosity. There was exultation in my heart when I eventually saw the depressing pronged wire being removed from around this now empty and silent compound; a relief not untinged with a certain sadness.
A few years ago. I was working as a labourer at a large military depot, when I sat down to eat my lunch-hour
sandwiches with my co-worker, a cheerful personality named Harry. He was relating some of his experiences whist a
prisoner of the Japanese. Incidentally, he was still under medical treatment for an obscure kidney disease as the
result of over three years of hellish humiliation and deplorable conditions. He continued. "I recon I owe my survival
to the fact that I was given a job as cleaner at the military brothel on the edge of the town. I was given a pass to
enable me to leave the camp and make my own way to the hore-houses. A sort of "trusty" you might say". Humorously,
I chipped in, "I expect you did yourself a bit good there, Harry, they wouldn't be likely to miss a slice off a cut
loaf". "Like hell I did! On a bowl o' rice and some fish soup every day; but there was one little gal who was very
kind to me - beautiful raven-black hair and 'come hither' sloe eyes; often she'd slip me a hard-boiled egg, a
handful of almonds, or other titbits, It was a bit of a disappointment - I'd always had a sly hankering for one o' those Eastern fan-flippers. Anyway, after working on my own there all day, I had hardly enough strength left to stagger back to camp - never mind anything else. Another thing - my mates used to cheer me up by warning me, 'Don't let them Nips catch yer on the nest Harry, they'd 'ae yer "doctored' as soon as look at yer'! Yes, I reckon the bit of help she gave me saved my life!" Regretfully, there's a sad ending; although several years my junior, Harry is no longer with me.
There is nothing more likely to make my hackles rise than to be greeted by some over-cheery character on a bitterly
cold morning with, "Lovely fresh morning - nice nip in the air!" Politely, I usually manage to hiss through clenched
teeth, "Yes very nice for those that likes it", and stride grimly on my way. It seems that some of us are better fitted physically and physiologically to stand extremes of climate than others. Females in particular, have been better provided by nature they must be, otherwise thin tights would quickly go out of fashion in the winter, with recourse to long, thick woollen pants. Personally, I'm the "sooner sweat than freeze" brigade, and my feelings haven't changed over the years.
In my twelfth year, when the best months had flown, with the tolerable ones following close behind, we struck a hard winter. In the mornings Dad would give me a shake, and leave a lighted candle by my bed. The small bamboo-legged table stood under the window, but the fitful gleam of the flickering flame scarcely revealed the intricately delicate tracery of frost particles on the interior of the window panes. The bedclothes were wrapped tightly around my shoulders and head, with an opening near my nostrils, after the style of a seal's breathing hole in the ice.
I had a slight advantage over the layer, for my nose also served a dual purpose as a thermometer. Gently raising my hand I tried the indicator with my thumb and forefinger-just as I thought-ice-cold. Probably means snow as well. It did. As I stretched out, my feet encountered the flannel-cased brick that had long since lost its fast-fleeting warmth. (There were never enough stone-bottles to go round). The thought of a hot cup of tea awaiting me below was just sufficient to spur me to make the effort to venture into the chilling air of the bedroom. We'd never heard of pyjamas, so there was only trousers to swiftly don; grabbing socks, pullover and the candle, I rushed downstairs to the slightly warmer atmosphere of the kitchen. Having drunk my tea, and still munching my bread and dripping, I pulled on my clumsy, well-dubbed boots, roughly cobbled with strips of old harness, and re-enforced with steel studs. Dad had been obliged to start cutting up his saddlery during the war years; He found it wore so well that we were doomed to this form of repair for our working footwear till the supply ran out. As I trudged through the
virgin snow, the silence broken only by the crisp crunch of my measured tread where even surface had frozen, there
was no comfort in the thought that I was the first on the road that morning. A black and white cat minced
disdainfully across the road ahead of me, its natural nocturnal ebullience somewhat moderated by the sharp drop in
the temperature. Walking into the keen, icy blast of the piercing Nor'-Easter, the beauty of the white mantle on the
leafless trees and hedges aroused little feeling of appreciation in my heart. This was for the poet, gazing out
reflectively from the comfort of a nicely warmed bedroom. By the time I reached the farm my hands and ears were numb.
Flapping my arms vigorously across my chest gradually restoring enough warmth to my fingers to grasp the can-handles.
Plodding down the narrow road to my first call, about two hundred yards distant, and stopping about every fifty yards
for another bout of flapping, I began to feel confident that I could complete my task and still reach school on time.
Suddenly I felt my right foot slide under me-, there must have been an icy patch under the snow. Somehow I managed to
keep the largest can on an even keel, but the other flew from benumbed fingers, springing the lid as it fell...
It was all I needed - I sat on the other can and burst into tears, watching the warm milk melting the snow as it
spread in an ever-widening circle. Pulling myself together, without any mental recourse to the hoary old adage, I
despondently retraced my earlier tracks back to the farm, fearing a slightly wrathful reception. As I related my
mishap, my anxiety was much relieved to find that Mrs. Dunn showed little sign of anger. Her natural intuition
immediately cautioned her that I was already upset. Turning to enter the dairy, she said, evenly, "there goes my
buttermilk; troubles never come singly; the cows aren't yielding well; Mabel's still feeding her calf." (Apparently
this was one of Percy the bull's unseasonable indiscretions when he had trapped the amiable Mabel in a quiet corner
of the pasture, after awkwardly negotiating a triple-strand barbed wire fence without marring his prospects.) "Oh
well," continued she, "There's another gallon and a half - eke it out as best you can" It was very convenient that there was another dairy about fifty yards from my home; that was Ma's usual pint and a half saved; whilst almost bolting my hurried breakfast, I sent one of my brothers for a further quart to replenish my can. The customers were unlikely to wish to tarry unduly on an icy doorstep to listen to my personal tale of woe, the prevailing paucity of pasture, or a humorous recital of Percy's peccadillos.
Our early training in self-sufficiency was an ever-continuing process, no amount of "moaning" or subtle excuses were ever effective. "I can't "had no place in Ma's vocabulary.
At least, she went to considerable trouble to impress on us that there was no such word. After wash day, and she
found someone's socks needed darning (except Dad's), over the table they would come, as soon as the tea-time crocks
had been cleared. To claim exemption on the grounds that you'd just washed-up the tea things was useless; she'd put
the darning needle and wool on the table, "There you are - now get on with it!"
Later on, in various Services, I had cause to be grateful - for that's another of my pet aversions - hole in the
heel. Being old fashioned in some ways, wool or a good wool/fibre mixture still ensures that I keep my hand in.
Again, one didn't complain, "There's no button on my shirt cuff, Ma" - though one would be safe in enquiring the
whereabouts of the button box, so readily recognised by its well-worn decorative motif of coloured images of various
members of the Royal Family. Inevitably, Victoria took pride of place on the lid.
Keeping footwear clean and dry was quite a problem; so there'd be the nightly inspection before one was allowed to
place one's boots inside the old iron fender to dry out ready for the morning. Only the middle-class upwards could
afford the luxury of a wax-based polish, for us it was normally a two-penny tin of "Day and Martins". This was a
solid cake of a Berlin black substance, which one frequently spat upon to loosen its surface, and as far as I'm
concerned that's the genuine origin of the phase so repugnant to most military men of low order. In particular,
because it was such damned hard work getting even the semblance of a polish. That it was most economical in use is
indisputable, for rust would disintegrate the container before the contents were half used. Impoverished as we were,
each had to have a pair of "Sunday best", with dire penalties for those coming home with cuts in the toe-cap caused
by propelling an empty tin can along the road after Sunday school. Like the Spanish, Ma felt that there was something
essential to personal pride in the meticulous maintenance of footwear. This, and a clean collar, even though there
was no backside to the shirt, would ensure that one was unlikely to be mistaken for a tramp - or so she said. Another of her often quaint ideas was if she had cause to embarrass another female without being openly rude, particularly if the other's shoes needed a clean, was to keep glancing downwards; the puzzled creature would be placed in a real mental quandary wondering whether it was the actual shoes or the size of her feet that attracted so much attention. As a mere male, it was a feminine subtlety that went over my head.
There was at least one time when Ma's indoctrination of the merit of self-confidence misfired, with near tragic results. It was during the autumn prior to the episode of the upturned milk-can. We'd been blessed with a warm summer, when the sea usually tends to retain its temperature a few weeks longer. Dad had been telling us how he nearly drowned when he was working on a coastal barge during his teens; the mainsail had swung over rather violently in an unexpected wind causing the vessel to violently lurch, with the result that he lost his balance and took a "header" into the Thames. He couldn't swim, but the speedy use of a long boat-hook by the agile mate probably saved his life. Knowing him, we were impressed that fortune had favoured him at least once. The conversation continued on the importance of youngsters being able to swim; expectedly, Ma opined that in the main it was only a matter of confidence. Taking her at her word, I secretly decided that on the first afternoon the tide was right her theory should be tested. As you may have surmised, she couldn't swim either; though I didn't know this at the time.
Having often been in to bathe, the arm movements of the breast stroke weren't unfamiliar. One of my older schoolmates
had impressed on me that the drill for teaching oneself was to get to a depth where the water was just above
waist-high; then plunge forward using the breast stroke, and with the left foot raised off the bottom, propel
oneself forward with the right foot on the sea-floor. A deserted part of the beach at the end of a narrow lane was
chosen, there was but one building that directly overlooked the scene, a boathouse, occupied only in the summer
month. On reflection, to try to teach oneself in such lonely circumstances was foolhardy. Actually it was merely
because of being self-conscious about someone witnessing my erratic efforts. Unknown to me, the tide had already
started to turn when I began to put my friend's suggestion into practice. Marvellously, it seemed to work -
confidence - that's what ma said, and aided by my unsuspected enemy I confidently pushed myself into deeper water. Then - calamity - pushing my foot down at a sharp angle, there was no longer a reassuring contact with the sea-bed. (Perhaps it was a trough excavated by some keen angler in a quest for lugworms.) I could feel myself gently being borne seawards-panic-stricken, I started to flounder, shouting, "Help! Help!" What a hope, never more forlorn! Then as I managed to turn myself-the miracle-there on the edge of the beach stood the bulky blue helmeted figure of a police man. As I struggled wildly in that fairly calm sea which may well have been a favourable factor, the old bobby strolled as unconcernedly down towards the water's edge as if he was about to shoo a straying cow off the highway! Come this way!, waving his hefty arms in a simulated movement of the breaststroke. Getting nearer the water, still fagging his arms.it was, "Strike out your feet! Strike out your feet! "I've never listened to instructions more intensely in my whole existence; and in a clumsy way be but they worked. Battling beach wards against the pull of the ebb tide I gradually reached a position where it felt safe to try for the bottom. Thank god! It was there! Another couple of yards and then wearily regaining my feet, I waded dejectedly ashore. There stood my benefactor, arms akimbo, calm and unruffled still' "What were ya doin' in there byee?' 'Learning to swim sir" said I "then ya've nearly learnt then, havnt ya", and he strolled off towards the lane just as quietly as he came.. It was just that he didn't realize he had undoubtedly saved my life, or that he was, the most modest man it would ever be my good fortune to meat. As I sat on the sand with my head in my hands to regain composure, I asked myself who this man could be, we had but one gentleman of the law, my friend Fred's father, who was as much a part of the place as the village church. Who was this unassuming protector of life and property? Fred didn't know the answer, and I've yet to meet anyone who did, for I had never seen the man before-and I've never seen him since. Ma was
indirectly right - it was mainly confidence; but she never did ask me how I learned to swim. This little episode is
recorded truly, precisely, and without embellishment; water has given me considerable pleasure in many parts of the globe, but that was the only swimming lesson I ever received.
School days must have passed uneventfully; absorbing facts such as geography, history or grammar requires, seemed to present little mental difficulty. Apart from this, if forced to make a candid self-analysis- a dreamer-and thus a slow thinker. Not that I haven't had to cope with situations that needed more than my customary speed of mental reaction; but people of my type don't usually take kindly to this. Like most youngsters of my age, I had an enquiring nature, so when asked by another lad if I would like to see a bullock killed,
I rashly agreed to accompany him. It was a stupid decision, for I couldn't even bear to watch dad kill a fowl (I think he had been trained by a very conscientious Rabbi); nothing so clean as just wringing its neck. At this time, any village that had a butcher's shop was usually completed by the proprietor's private abattoir. (This unpointed word doesn't present such bloody overtones to the sensitive British ear.) The doomed animals were usually purchased from local farmers, which avoided transportation problems. The sole incidental cost being the low wage of the farmer's dimmest-witted, straw sucking farmhand, who generally seemed to gain considerable personal satisfaction from shouting vociferously at his accompanying mongrel (whose sole claim to being a sheep-dog was a shaggy coat). Meanwhile energetically cutting swaths of air with his knobbly rustic stick. My companion led me into the small, evil smelling building, festooned with coloured and dark blue bottles,; as befitted their location. We awaited the arrival of the victim with some trepidation, accentuated by the ominous sound of the slaughter carefully sharpening a
ludicrous - looking knife on a hand stone. I tried hard to suppress an involuntary shudder as he passed to near his
thumb across the edge to test the sharpness of the shinning blade. Mr. Crawford was a rather tall, spare figure, of
about forty-five years, and his black drooping moustache did little to improve his slightly pale solemn features. I
had never associated him in my mind with this grisly role when he was serving behind the huge wavy surfaced chopping
block; nor did it equate with his spirited rendering of Stephen Fosters works on his banjo during social evenings.
Dad was probably right, one half of the world really didn't know how the other half lived. I had a strong feeling that Mr. Crawford was not altogether pleased with our presence; it was scarcely the sort of sceptical that warranted a youthful audience. He would have preferred to perform his grim and thankless task alone. This was borne out by the fact that he hardly spoke a word the whole of the time we were there.
Near where we stood, at the opposite side to the wide, stable type doors, was a winch on a vertical, metal,
stabilized stand, with a large, detachable cranked iron handle at either side. A thick length dirty, greasy looking rope, with a strong, steel chain attached to its fee end, was wounded neatly round the cylinder of the winch, Mr. Crawford picked up the chain and strode toward the door way, the winch handle clanking noisily as the uncoiling rope snaked silently across the black, rough tiled floor behind him. The heavy young bullock had by now been driven into the compact adjoining yard, and was moving around restively a few feet from the door; with the dog snapping and barking angrily at one side of the confused creature's head, whilst the drover hung grimly on to one of its horns at the other. As soon as a suitable opportunity presented its self the chain was quickly slid round the ox's neck and snapped fast in a tight loop with a spring loaded clips. The butcher then walked swiftly to the winch and dropped the solid catch piece into the large, rusty cogwheel, thus preventing any further extension to the rope, The unaccustomed grips of the harsh noose on the beast's neck was changing its mere restlessness to bear panic, and as, Mr. Crawford started to turn the winch the cable gradually tautened. This was the signal; it was as though the animal had suddenly become aware of its fate, it backed frenziedly against the ever increasing tension, while the yelling drover rained terrific blows on its rump with his thick staff. This nerveless goading had but scant effect, but the winch was slowly doing its deadly work. As I watched this luckless animal quivering with fear; snorting loudly through widey dilated nostrils; terror in its eyes; discharging excrement down its hind quarters, it was distressingly obvious it had fully sensed the doom of the death house. It tossed its head wildly as it gradually gave ground to the
relentless pull of the hawser; it was violently brought to its knees as its front hooves sought to secure a foothold on the edge of the tiles at the doorway; only to stagger valiantly to regain his position as the well trained dog leapt with a snarl at its head. As the butcher doggedly tugged and the winch handle the drover was striving to free one of the horns which had shallowly imbedded itself in the upright of the door frame. Slowly this particular victim to man's chivalrous appetite was dragged inside; the struggling was nearly over, and just as if the weary beast acknowledged and accepted defeat, it allowed itself to be hauled the last few feet with scarcely a hint of its former strength. As soon as the required position was reached over a small iron-grated drain Mr. Crawford released the wood-encased handle; drawing himself to his full height as though to ease his aching back muscles, he took a few deep breaths whilst wiping his shirt sleeve in a short swipe across his forehead. Apart from a long drawn out "Ah-h--" he said nothing, save " S' long Sam" to the stocky cowhand, as the latter, his morning's work done, made a beeline across the yard, dog heel as though his dinner was already served and getting cold.
There are often things that never seem to make sense, for the hapless steer simply stood there breathing heavily, buy scarce a movement save for the heaving of its flanks. Being especially averse to the sight of blood, (in particular his own, many times I had to rescue him before he fainted...) my imagination sought to guide my feet to the door, but the thought of the sort of tail that would escalate among my schoolmates on the morrow deterred me. It's often so easy to deliberately dodge the unpleasant realities of life. So, though it remains the most harrowing experience of my young life, I determined to see it through. Like the petrified victim, I just stood there, almost transfixed with apprehension it certainly isn't easy to watch something that one's inner self strongly rebels against.
Although I saw Mr. Crawford reach for the pole-axe, a tool like a mi minuter sharp pointed pick-axe, I scarcely saw
the swift downward blow that drove the bright metal spike straight through the bovine scull to a depth of several
inches. Surprisingly, apart from a loud grunt and a momentary sagging of the knees, the wretched beast stood stunned, but fairly and squarely on its four legs, with a quick twisting action the executioner hurriedly removed the weapon from the animal's head; he then picked up what appeared in the half-light to be a short length of cane. Trusting this down sharply through the open incision, he twisted vigorously till finally the poor creature collapsed dropping with a heavy thud on to the stark unyielding floor. Mr. Crawford anticipating the fall, gave a sharp tug on its tether as it fell, apparently with just sufficient strength to throw it off balance, for as it hit the floor it rolled over on its side, with it's under belly directly opposite the sloping gradient to the drain. The practised reason for this was made horribly apparent as the leading man in this gruesome drama came round to the side of the weirdly snorting carcass, and deftly made a deep incision along the whole length of its abdomen,. This immediately released a minor torrent of dark looking blood, which gushed in causewaying rivets along the serrations of the tiles towards the gully. What really appalled me was the hideous doubt in my mind as to whether the bullock was really dead; its continuing convulsions did nothing to appease my deep sense of shock.
By now, nothing short of sheer force could have kept me in this carnage-house; I dashed for the door and managed to reach the side of the building before vomiting violently.
Half running, half stumbling the mile or so home, I found the family all tucking in to a large rabbit pie, hurriedly,
I helped myself to a cup of water from the earthen ware crock in the scullery; then flopped down in the only
available chair, that stood in a corner, Ma glanced up-then half turned in her chair "What's up boy"! Say's she,
"You look as though you've seen a ghost". Scanning my usually healthy red face, Dad chimed in, "Don't about seeing
one, 'e looks like one"! "Get your dinner then, it's in the oven" "don't want any, thanks Ma"! Ma had an admirable
way of gauging whether any of her brood were really unwell when they were off their food. "When any of my lot can't
eat - then they must be ill"! My twin brothers exchanged sly glances at the welcome prospect of having my dinner, a
hope quickly dispelled by Ma when she said "I'll keep it for your tea - better go and lie down." It was well over
a month before I would be persuaded to eat beef in any form; but according to one's temperament and mode of living,
some memories are best buried in the sub-conscious. I made a vow that I would never willingly witness large animals
being despatched specifically for human food again. That was over fifty years ago; it wasn't a difficult vow to
keep, for how many head meat-eaters have seen a number of the bovine, a sheep or a pig despatched for their ultimate
delectation except for the anomaly of two sets of laws to cover the situation, it is gratifying to know that the
humane-killer has taken over.
This horrible barbaric method of killing may well have affected the mind of the seemingly genital youth effacing Mr. Crawford. But in the harsh labour market conditions of the early 1920's, a man with a family responsibilities had little scope for being choosy about his occupation. By careful observation one gains in intuition as well as mere knowledge. It is reasonable to conclude that this man's given and untimely end was largely contributed to by his grossly foul searing task; he was found one morning, a few years later, with his throat cut; one of his butchery knives close beside him.
It is no doubt very satisfying in a negative way, for some complacent folk to harp on the theme, "What you never
have, you never miss." For us growing children, there was a singular lack in provision of anything of group interest,
there were no cubs, no scouts, (sea or usual kind) no Boy's Brigade, no cadets, no clubs, no nothing. Occasionally,
some helpful and well-meaning soul would endeavour to introduce something likely to hold our interest or inject a
modicum of culture into our otherwise barren evenings. Such a one was Miss Fanny Priddle, a rather prim be-spectacled
old maid, fortunate perhaps in not being lumbered with possibly an uncouth husband and a clutch of noisy brats. She
decided to start free dancing classes weekly, for eleven year olds upwards. On the opening night ten aspiring
students of the art of the light fantastic arrived; but only two girls. Apparently, parents weren't very keen on
allowing their young daughters to traverse our unlit roads after dark. Heaven knows why, considering that our reasonable law abiding community has yet to beseech its fair name with a serious criminal. Owing to the
imbalance, it meant boy's dancing with boys which was unwelcome; apart from feeling self-conscious, the lads didn't like to feel they were acquiring odd habits too early in life. As I had been unable to prevail on Ma to allow me to don my best boots, it meant me forming one of the two wearing steel shod "beetle crushers". An ungainly and grossly overweight lad, Charlie Hodge, was within this number. Medical opinion confirmed that he had mal- functional glands, not that this can have been entirely chronic, for he eventually fathered ten children. After about an hour's diligent tuition, with Eva Addey pounding at the ancient piano as though it had done her an injury,
Miss Priddle, peered reprovingly over her lenses at Fred and I, suggesting that we might have performed more satisfactory round a camp fire-if she could have laid hands on a couple of tomahawks. Our efforts at the dances looked and sounded the charge of a group of enraged hippopotami. After our instructress had received a nasty tap on the ankle, and Charlie had jumped twice on my toes during his elephantine effort at a spirited polka, it was decided to end the lesson. The following week's meeting was attended by the same ardent enthusiastic, but the continuing lack of young female tended to dampen everyone's ardour. Later, the vicar decided that, by the look of the floor, the future of more formal and profitable social ventures might be endangering; so that was the end of that. Pity, after I'd just beginning to enjoy it.
The next cultural effort here was when some handy, musical fan decided to start a brass band. Being loath to anything. After all, most of us appreciated music in some form or another. The conductor and organizer suggested that as I couldn't provide myself with an instrument, the only thing available was the humble triangle; "You won't need to read music to play that" says he cheeringly. On my first attendance it appeared that they had unearthed most of the usual instruments, allowing for the dubious vintage. Someone had even optimistically turned up with a war souvenir, a balalaika. As the rather corpulent trombonist remarked "I'm not squatting on my withers riskin' a hernia when he starts tawangin' that ruddy thing" undoubtedly, the most talented member was the master, who's stance and vigorous, manipulation of the baton befitted the Albert Hall. One deceived much more enjoyment from watching him, than listening to the weird mixture of false notes produced by his "musicians". Like me, most of them didn't know a crochet from a quaver. It didn't take long to realize that I'd learn more trying to get a hymn out of my wheezy
harmonica. When I did figure on the score, I'll get about three taps at my tuneful bit of steel; and, even then,
usually manage to drowsily come in on the wrong beat. The only time I really got a look in was the night they
practised the "Anvil Chorus".
About this time one of my school mates told me that his father had bought him a birthday present that enabled him to
listen to the news, talks, and music direct from London. Understandably, not knowing the first thing about wireless
telegraphy, I thought he was having me on. Realizing my doubts when I facetiously remarked, "Are ya teaching ya
granny to dance to the music then?", he replied "Alright, come round tonight and listen if you don't believe me".
Accepting that there's no point being envious unless learn something, the visit was duly made Having taken at least
some interest in the Sunday lessons my impressionable mind readily perceived that this was indeed the miracle of the
time. My mind had not been tuned to events of this nature, for I had yet to walk the acquaintance of Jules Verne.
Pensively wending my way homeward, I thought of all those beautiful unheard notes floating through the air above me;
and all one needed was a length of wire and an insignificant little box to trap them. It wasn't a long jump to
swiftly change the trend of thoughts to the thriftily garnered thirty shillings in my money box ear-marked for that
long coveted second-hand bicycle; I had been looking forward so much to that first bike.
Within a week the aerial was stringed up between the gable end of the stable and bedroom window, suitably suspended from a ships four inch wooden pulley to ensure that the neighbours were aware that we were in step with progress. My thirty-bob's worth certainly wasn't much to look at, it consisted of a small cylindrical Bakelite case, about six inches high and four inches
in diameter. On the top it had a small metal clip which held a ball-swivelled two inch movable metal arm, attached to
this was a very thin slivery wire coil, with a pointed end, appropriately known as the "cat's Whiskers" (Today when we refer to the "cat's Whiskers" (we're barking up a very different kind of tree). Next to this little contrivance was a small brass, turn-screw holder that held firmly a pea-sized piece of quartz known as thee "crystal" which gave the set its name. The art of getting the best possible reception was ticklishly locating the most sensitive area of the minute particle of mineral with the pinpoint of the whisker. Taking advantage of the march of science doesn't always come easy. The centre of the top surface was the black plastic knob of the volume control, the most optimistic adjustment of the instrument; immediately after installation one turned it to "maximum output" and promptly forgot about it! At each side of this embellishment was a pair of brass screw terminals, to which one connected the aerial and earth wires on one hand, and the headphones on the other. Needless to say, if one wished to hear at all plainly, the peace and quiet of one's bedroom was imperative. It was usual to placate my younger brothers with a "little listen" in order to ensure their cat like movements across the floor, for the slightest vibration would disturb the whimsical whisker. Apart from such vagaries, for such a simple device to pick up "broadcast signals without any form of power-boost, such as a dry battery was really remarkable! It strikes one as being slightly bumoroul now when we hear "2LO' (the first B.B.C station) mentioned, or when someone fussily complains that the colour of the grass on his T.V. doesn't seem to be quite natural. We were grateful that our primary receivers dud much to alleviate our former sense of isolation. If, perchance, you should come across such a set in your loft, don't cast it disdainfully in the dustbin; for today it will fetch much more than its original low cost.
There is a tendency to think that the majority of elementary school children didn't have a chance of higher education
fifty years ago; of course they had a chance, albeit a very slim one About twelve months before leaving school, I
was entered with an intelligent girl of slightly more affluent parentage for a grammar school entry exam. We were
the only two from the village that year; some years there were no entrants. It was an unnerving experience to sit in
the strange surroundings of a town school among fellow entrants who were all complete strangers. I felt like a fish
out of water; without even the moral support of my co-pupil, for she was in a different room. Elementary mathematics
was my weak subject, and home-study had been wellnigh impossible in our tumultuous household. There was no one to
seek assistance from in any case. Factual questions, to which one either knew the answer or not, presented no difficulty; they had merely to be answered in a clear way. No doubt, many thousands, of adults, let alone children, have had cherished hope, strangled by the awful nervous tension generated by such occasions such mental torment usually succeeds in destroying all one's normal power of concentration. Simply, I failed, in the expected subject. Acrimony, like comparison, is sometimes odious, but it probably hadn't helped to be often reminded that the family couldn't stand any further financial burdens which might accrue in the event of my being successful. It's just one of the early bitter memories which stay. Three extra years at a really sound grammar school can make such a difference to one's life. For the failure is often faced with the difficulty of continually having to adjust the balance of the permanent chips on his shoulders. To persistently pretend it isn't there is merely a futile form of self-delusion. The realizing atom that there are countless thousands of one's compatriot in the same boat provides scant comfort.
Doubtless, similar numbers suffer from that modern scourge, promises, but no matter how minutely sympathetic, we will
have to contend with our own etching.