Until I was 5 years old, we lived in a small bungalow near the corner of a quiet road, in a sleepy town in the middle of the Cotswolds called Carterton. Until I was 5 years old I really had no idea about the wider world, because the limits of my existence were pretty much the front gate of the house, and the seemingly vast expanse of the back garden.
The house on our left was owned by a pretty lady called Jackie, who sunbathed in the garden wearing paisley bikinis (I was only five, but I knew I wanted her to like me). The only time I can really remember visiting her house was to wash her car in return for a milkshake. Being only five years old, I can only imagine the mess we made of her car, and we probably got more soapy water on ourselves than the car, but that memory has stuck with me for nearly forty years now.
On the other side of the house lived a boy called Stephen that was older than me. I would walk to the wall separating our houses and have conversations with him about our dog, Sheena. He seemed tremendously grown up and knowledgeable about the world. He was probably eight or nine years old. Sheena was a rough collie (Lassie, for anybody that remembers her – although if you’re as Nerdy as me, you also know that Lassie was played by male dogs – one of which was called Bruce), owned by my Dad before he met my Mum. My Grandparents also had a King Charles spaniel that seemingly bit anybody and everything in sight – I’ll return to her later.
The front garden of our house was surrounded by an impossibly high (2ft) red brick wall with castellations. The drive that stretched along the side of the house was met by an wrought iron gate, that my brother once got his head stuck in the bars of. Apparently a very strong man from across the road called Alistair had to bend the gate to release him.
Both the front and back gardens were covered in grass – and the back garden had a step in it, with a small wall stretching across the width of the garden to separate the levels. In the far left corner of the back garden was a tree that my cousin Brian once fell out of. I remember the panic in his voice and the snapping sound the branches made as he slid down the trunk, before trying to dust himself off and not burst into tears once back on his feet.
Beyond the end of the garden was a sudden drop – the height of an adult. I don’t really recall what stopped us falling over the edge – blind fear, or a wall. It may forever remain a hole in my memory – much like the footpath that ran down the back side of the house. I have absolutely no recollection of the footpath existing, and yet in cine film that appeared twenty or so years later, there was the path, and a sudden realisation that you really cannot trust memory at all.
I have countless memories playing in the back garden with my brother and his friends.
I remember picking a large toy rubber spider up one day that had been left out in the grass, not realising it had been sitting on an ants nest. After having something of a fit, brushing imaginary ants from my clothes and hair as one might if putting flames out, I composed myself and returned with a bucket and spade. I hit the bejeesus out of that poor rubber spider in order to rid it of ants, and pretty successfully dismembered it in the process.
I also remember our chocolate box cat decimating the population of racing pigeons being bred by a house that backed onto us, and my Mum clearing the feathers up so we didn’t get into trouble.
One of the highlights of being five years old was almost certainly hearing the distant chimes of the Ice Cream van as it approached, and racing to find my parents to ask if I could get one. Apparently my older brother once hung out of the window as Dad walked off to the van, and shouted “I WANT ONE WITH A HANDLE ON” (he meant a cornet).
For most of my formative years, Dad was building a boat on the driveway. In a scene not dissimilar to Gibbs in the TV Show NCIS, he would come home from work, eat his dinner, and then spend his evening building a bit more of the boat. We would “help” him.
I can very clearly remember one evening – shortly before heading to my grandparents to visit (we always visited on Tuesday nights) both myself and my brother were trying to get off the boat at once after “helping” Dad. I have a very clear memory of being shoulder barged, and falling to the left, off the ladder, and onto the concrete of the drive. I can’t remember being at the dentist, but I do remember the story being related to my Gran as I sat in her house with a mouth full of wadding later that evening. Apparently my mouth had filled with blood pretty spectacularly after splitting my lip on the ladder, the boat, and the floor.
One evening – while doing whatever it is that five year olds do while carrying out secret missions outside the back door of their house, the Ice Cream man stopped his van to talk to my Dad. He leaned out of the hatch on the side of the van and shouted “I wish I could get out of the van to come and have a look!”. And so the belief was formed in my young mind that Ice Cream men lived in their vans. I have never been allowed to forget this moment for the rest of my life – it became a part of the payload related to my future wife when she first met my parents. Of course now I have my own children, and will one day delight in telling similar stories to their potential suitors.
The Ice Cream Man origin story wasn’t the only thing I got wrong when I was young. One lunchtime, my Dad came home from work and was making a ball out of two different coloured lumps of Play-Doh that were left on the kitchen table. He made one thumb bowl red, and the other thumb bowl blue, before joining them together and admiring his handiwork. I watched him throughout in that way small children do, and was finally handed the finished product.
“This is the world”, he said. “On this side is England, where we live, and on the other side, is America, where Uncle John lives”.
And so it was that for years I believed the world was red and blue when viewed from space, and consisted of two countries – England, and America.
Uncle John was a huge figure in our young lives. He was my Mum’s brother, and had left to work in the merchant navy after several failed marriages. Of course we knew none of this – we just knew he now lived in America, and came to visit every couple of years bearing the kinds of gifts we could only imagine. He also looked like Popeye, which added an immediate appeal to any five year old of that era.
On Thursdays an open-air market would take place in the centre of town, filled with row upon row of knock-off clothes stalls, brick-a-brack stalls, dodgy electrical goods stores, and all manner of other questionable items. Being so young, I would be fixed to my Mum’s side as she held clothes against her, and bartered with the often Indian and Pakistani stall holders. My Grandparents would visit on Thursdays on their way home from the market – my Grandad on his moped, or my Gran on her bicycle. My brother took great delight in pedalling the moped up and and down the drive while my Mum told him off repeatedly. Quite often he would leave with Grandad, sitting on his lap on the moped with no helmet – to visit their house for the afternoon. I can’t imagine what a police officer would do these days if witnessing such an act.
In the centre of town stood a particular shop that essentially sold dreams to all the children in the area. It was owned by the Giles family. A toy shop. If given a piece of paper and a pencil, I could draw you the exact layout of Giles toy shop as it stood in the late 1970s right now. I could tell you what was in each aisle. From stationary, to plaster-of-paris figuirines, airfix model kits, star wars figures, pre-school toys, action figures, bicycles… you name it – I could tell you what they had. On a Saturday we would march into the shop brandishing our pocket money, and peruse the entire contents of the shop for what seemed like hours (it probably was hours). In reality we could only ever afford a dinky toy car because money burned holes in our pockets so fast we couldn’t possibly save it – but we would still look at all the things we couldn’t afford anyway.
Looking back, my Dad would have been taking us to the toy shop before dropping in at the local pub where his parents lived for the hour it opened on a Saturday lunchtime. Another source of countless memories that will have an entire chapter devoted to it. No wonder he used to grow impatient with us. I have very strong memories of playing with the Corgi helicopter from “Chopper Squad” in the garden of the pub. Chopper Squad was an imported television show where a rescue team essentially repeated the same story every single week, and we ate it up.
By far my favourite toy growing up was “Action Man”. I the US, the comparable line of toys would probably have been “G I Joe”. Action Man figures stood about 8” tall, and typically came in either adventure/explorer clothing, or in various soldier uniforms. They had bristly hair on their heads, a scar on their cheek, and later models had “gripping hands”, and “eagle eyes” (a lever at the back of their head caused their eyes to look left and right when manipulated).
Over time (birthdays and christmases) myself and my brother amassed further uniforms, weapons, and vehicles for your action man figures – but nothing really compared to the Christmas at Burswin Road when Dad must have hit the jackpot or something. We’re talking about a chieftain tank, an armoured car, an assault tower with a zip line, and a working submarine. The zip line alone caused absolute mayhem around the house, with balls of wool quickly substituting for the zip line that came with it – wool that would rapidly be wound around every door handle in the house, forming a spiders web that nobody taller than about 3ft could pass.
The zip lines were not the most dangerous Action Man accessory though – that prize goes to the replica second world war field gun that fired rubber tipped bullets some considerable distance. In the manner of most small children we would often get up incredibly early on Saturday mornings, and completely wreck the lounge before my parents appeared. I have very clear memories indeed of sitting in wait in the middle of the lounge, with the field gun armed, and aimed directly at the bedroom door. At the first signs of moment, a salvo would be fired the length of the lounge – either hitting Dad on the arse, or slamming against the opened door and skittering into the bedroom as he stomped off towards the kitchen to make breakfast.
It wasn’t ALL about Action Man though – even if he did look awesome. There was another TV show during those years that spawned the most awesome toy any of us had ever seen – The “Six Million Dollar Man”.
From memory, a military test pilot called Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors, who was married to Farrah Fawcett for a time at the height of their respective fames – the Brad and Angelina of their day) crashed a test plane and was horifically injured. It just so happened that there was a secret test going on with robotic body parts, and Steve was an ideal test case. In the words of the TV show intro – “we have the technology, we can rebuild him”. In reality, The Six Million Dollar Man was a ridiculous fore-runner of the likes of The A-Team, where the show’s budget meant the only “bionic”things Steve did were either in slow motion (he could run faster than a sports car), or via a zoom lens (he had a robot eye). It’s worth noting that Lee Majors had a squint, which was used to great effect when using his “Bionic Eye” – quite how I didn’t also enter adult life with the same squint is a miracle really, given the hours I spent squinting my way through imaginary adventures in our back garden.
Anyway! (got sidetracked there) – The Six Million Dollar Man spawned quite possibly the most awesome action figure that ever went on sale. Not only could you look through his head to see through a zoom lens in his eye, you could also peel back the skin on his arm to reveal robotics, and press a button in his back to ratchet his arm upwards – displaying his robot muscle strength for all to see. We never did figure out why the doll couldn’t do things like winching the couch, the dinner table, or the cat into the air though.
There are so many stories I could tell about growing up at 4 Burswin Road – like running into the house while bursting for the toilet as fast as my five year old legs could carry me, and ending up in the bedroom instead of the bathroom, wondering what the hell was going on (the two rooms were next to each other off the hallway).
I shared a bedroom with my brother – our beds were on opposite sides of the room. He had a huge wooden toybox at the end of his bed with a lid that required the strength of Hercules to lift open, and that always seemed might chop your fingers clean off it it came down on you. Looking back, it was probably no more than a blanket box, but it seemed cavernous. I had a chest of drawers at the end of my bed, which I would sit on while reading out instructions to my brother as he jumped on the beds like an Olympic gymnast – invariably reading out clever sounding aerial maneouvers from a copy of Brer Rabbit held upside down.
I found the copy of Brer Rabbit years later, and discovered some rather impressive Captain Scarlett, and Star Wars spaceships secretly drawn inside the covers. Drawing and colouring were a huge part of our childhood – I imagine because they kept us occupied, and didn’t cost much to do. I would draw on anything – old bits of wallpaper, the edges of the newspaper – whatever was to hand. If my Nan loaned me her bingo pen to draw with I thought I was bee’s knees (does anybody even use that expression any more?).
Our bedroom opened onto the hallway, one turn away from the lounge, and a short walk to the kitchen. I remember getting up late at night once to steal pickled onions from the kitchen table, and getting my hand stuck in the jar. I didn’t quite have the motor skills, or the intelligence to let go of the handful of pickles in order to make my escape.
I don’t really remember the kitchen table, which is strange – because I do remember sitting at it for all manner of adventures. If we had egg and beans at dinner time, I would mop up the yolk and sauce with a piece of bread, pretending I was product testing a new kitchen floor cleaner before popping it in my mouth (true story! – I was quite, quite mad). I also remember fighting over leftover cake mixture with my brother – and one night in particular when it all ended in tears.
It’s funny how specific memories remain crystal clear. I remember having my hands on one side of the glass bowl, and remember my brother sitting with his back to the door, gripping the other side of the bowl. I can also remember losing the battle, and watching the glass bowl whistle past my brother in slow motion before exploding on the tiled floor below.
I will never forget my Mum’s words:
“Well now nobody is having any. Bed! NOW!”
One of my more fond memories of Burswin Road was almost certainly pretending I was interested in football to stay up and watch “Match of the Day”. In reality I thought football was as dull as ditch water (and still do), but thought myself tremendously clever in my deceit. I only knew one player’s name – Kevin Keegan – and only then because Dad thought he was the best on the Superstars TV show.
Of course Kevin Keegan paled in comparison to Evil Kinevil, but that’s another story, for another chapter.