Nothing from Marigold this time. She's on strike. There's a lot of that going around lately, so you're stuck with me.
We get quite a lot of feedback from readers of our blog. Most of them complimentary, some keen to suggest subjects for a blog post. The most common refrain amongst our (presumably) older readers, the veteran and vintage section, is for more about days gone by. Specifically memories of childhood. Ever since Marigold announced one January 1st that her New Year Resolution was to be ‘kind and helpful’ we have aimed to please. In my case, with wretched results, but here is a request granted: jottings on the theme of long ago.
I spent all the school holidays of my childhood in Liverpool. We had, theoretically, moved away, but my mother preferred life back ‘home’ and Lime Street Station was as familiar to me as the local co-op. On one of the moving in/moving out occasions I remember being told to shut my pie hole. I was what a charitable person would call a chatterbox. I didn’t come across many people with a charitable nature. Certainly not in my immediate family. Perhaps kindness and understanding were as much affected by rationing as meat and sugar in the decade following the Second World War.
I’d been advised to shut my cake hole on many occasions, but now it was a pie hole I had to keep closed. Was this simply a regional difference or was the reference to a pie hole a more downmarket reference? I rarely ate cake, that was for special occasions, but pies were common enough. I asked the opinion of my Uncle Joe. He’d been in the Merchant Navy and had voyaged all over the world, so was the wisest man I knew. Uncle Joe shook his head and suggested I may be seriously overthinking the reference. ‘Stick to keeping yer gob shut’ was the gist of his advice.
Marie Antoinette’s suggestion to a starving populace, ‘let them eat cake,’ would have resonated with me if I had come across it in my early childhood. We ‘enjoyed’ a fairly dismal diet, heavily reliant on potatoes and lacking most of the foodstuffs we take for granted now. Marigold calls me ‘war boy’ because those retained memories of food rationing are deeply entrenched. Clearing your plate was an absolute requirement. Scraping it, maybe less so, but old habits die hard.
I was 8 years old, almost 9, when food rationing ended. That’s a child’s formative years with no treats on the menu. No wonder I’m an emaciated husk of a man!
With hindsight I realise food rationing may have been strangely beneficial.Rationing meant we all ate the same food. Potatoes, dense brown bread, cabbage, peas and on a good day, a chunk of meat. It wasn’t food to stir the senses but it filled you up. I was shocked to read recently that the rationing system was based on 3,000 calories a day for an adult male. That sounds a lot. Especially since I can’t remember ever seeing an obese child. Of course, I didn’t know anyone whose parents owned a car. We walked everywhere. Just about everybody did the same.
Last night at our house we had smoked salmon, avocado and olive oil on our dinner plates. At the time I was in Junior School I had never even dreamt of such items. I had a passing knowledge of olive oil: it was found in tiny bottles sold in chemists’ shops for the relief of painful ears by helping to loosen ear wax. We live a life of untrammelled luxury now, the Beckhams are frequent house guests and chefs from The Ivy ring Marigold for recipe advice.
Children should be seen and not heard was a basic rule of my grandmother’s house. Actually, she would have preferred to extend this to ‘children should be neither seen nor heard,’ but in a tiny terraced house this was not easy. My sister and I learned to play quietly without bothering adults and endeavoured to achieve silent invisibility.
Committing the sin of ‘talking’ usually meant banishment to the back yard to chop sticks in the Anderson Shelter which took up virtually all the available space. I often wondered at the protection this flimsy construction would have offered if any of the bombs that had reduced much of the surrounding area to rubble had actually landed on top of it, but verbalising these concerns produced yet another ‘shut your cake hole’ outburst. Chopping scrap offcuts of wood into sticks for lighting the fires was no hardship. I liked doing it, but had enough sense not to let this become generally known. As punishments go swiping away at pieces of wood with a fiercely sharp machete was one of the better chores. I never actually chopped off a finger but there were many close calls.
Many of my best friends, the boys I played with in the street, went barefoot as they didn’t possess shoes. The boy who lived next door but one, Billy Price, wasn’t supposed to play football with us because his parents had tuberculosis. Of course he did, he was the best player in the street. We played football or Cowboys and Indians for hours in a designated ‘Play Street’ where no cars were allowed to enter. Residents wishing to park their cars outside the house was never an issue as car ownership was not even dreamt of.
Signs saying ‘no spitting’ were common as TB was widespread. Virtually everyone over the age of ten puffed away on Woodbines, Park Drive or similar cheap cigarettes and spitting was endemic. TB concerns notwithstanding.
My Grandma occasionally smoked a clay pipe. I don’t recall what rubbing tobacco she stuffed it with, but I doubt it was a brand that has stood the test of time. Cigarettes were not rationed. Denial of food was presumably acceptable, but no cigarettes would lead to riots in the street. Our corner shop sold 5 Park Drive and a (single) match, presumably in acceptance that chain smoking would be the norm.
Billy Price, the one with the consumptive parents, was an avid smoker and kept a dozen or so ‘dabs’ – the tiny remnants of discarded cigarettes he found in the street – in his ‘baccy tin’ which he guarded jealously. Whenever he discovered one tinged with lipstick he adopted a lascivious smirk as he lit it. Years later I came across Billy Price again. He was mowing the grass on a bowling green in West Kirby. So, the professional footballer dream didn’t work out too well. Very sad. He was (still) smoking though, full length ones as well.
Scotland Road, Liverpool, where my grandma lived, is no more. Well, the road name soldiers on as a busy dual carriageway leading to and from the two tunnels under the Mersey, but it’s a very different area now. The back to back terraced houses were all swept away in a vast slum clearance policy. My Grandma, along with everyone else, was relocated by the Council to newly built towns outside the city. She was packed off to Huyton, at that time a pleasant small village, but her close neighbours went to new estates in Kirkby or Skelmerdale. With hindsight Huyton was by some distance the best option.
I didn’t like Huyton at all. None of my friends had moved there so I had nobody to play with and the new house, which wasn’t really ‘new’ at all, was a massive disappointment. I was expecting an array of luxurious modern conveniences. The ‘facilities’ as my Aunty Sally always called the lavatory were now inside the house, not at the bottom of the yard, but the tiny bathroom was virtually inaccessible for much of the time as clothes were washed in the bath and hung up there to dry. ‘Not even a mangle here,’ my Grandma complained.
A few years later I made use of the washboard and a borrowed metal thimble in the erroneous belief that a total absence of musical talent would be no barrier to a budding career in a skiffle group. Lonnie Donegan’s band featured a washboard player and even the Beatles started off as a skiffle group in their Quarrymen incarnation. It wasn’t as easy as it looked on television and fame continued to elude me.
A trip to the Pier Head was always a pleasure. I went quite often with my Uncle Joe, walking the whole way as he refused to use the ‘robbing Corporation buses’ after they put the journey price up by ten percent. We went there so my uncle could engage with the men, they were always men, who stood on soapboxes and harangued the crowd. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman in the crowd. Every single man wore a hat or a cap and was smoking a cigarette.
The Pier Head, directly in front of the Liver Building, was Liverpool’s version of Speakers Corner. Fifteen years later, by then living in London, Marigold and I often walked through Hyde Park and listened to those impassioned souls who offered their views on life to anyone who cared to listen.
The Liverpool version was much rowdier, due in no small measure to my Uncle Joe. My mother often said, ‘our Joe could pick a fight in a telephone box.’ He was only a small man, but with a big voice and an aggressive attitude. Liverpool remains to this day the last bastion of Hard Left Socialism in England and in the 1950s it was ideologically a virtual clone of Moscow. Even so, my uncle would take issue with all and sundry, insisting the struggles of the proletariat were being crushed under the heels of the ruling classes and much else in the same manner. Given such a role model it’s astonishing I have never once considered emigrating to the workers’ paradise of Russia. Cuba, perhaps, but only for the sunshine.
My favourite part of visiting the Pier Head was the Overhead Railway which another uncle, Fred, took me on several times, travelling the full length of the docks and calling at the various warehouses along the way. Uncle Fred was the clever one in the family and had an office job involving transporting goods from the tobacco warehouse, the sugar warehouse and several others. He was largely shunned by the family as he had married a woman, my Aunty Lily, who was not only a ‘Roman Catholic’ – a bad enough crime for a Methodist household – but was also known to have once voted ‘Tory.’ That was a giant step too far.