I took part in NaNoWriMo this year, and set about recording a slew of memories from my early life. This is a small excerpt. Enjoy!
When I was five years old we moved to a much bigger house on the other side of town. Suddenly I had my own bedroom, a new garden to explore, and new friends to make that lived nearby. To begin with we couldn’t afford much – I remember sleeping for some time on a mattress on bare floorboards. When carpet did finally arrive, it was the late 1970s carpet so many people had – a synthetic off-yellow foam packed carpet that could generate real lightning bolts if you slid your socks on it fast enough.
The kitchen was lined with “G-Plan” units, surrounding a pine dinner table – my Mum’s first major purchase in the new house, and her pride and joy. I still can’t imagine her horror when one of my brother’s friends pulled a model knife across the table while building an Airfix model kit, a few days after it’s delivery. Years later we discovered she had shut herself in the toilet and cried.
Here’s the thing about my parents – about twenty years ago now they retired early – and moved to the coast (I’ll tell the story elsewhere), and people started making snap judgements I guess – that they were wealthy enough to do that – that they had always been that wealthy – and they could not be further from the truth.
If I get anything from my parents, it’s my work ethic, and the value of everything – even the smallest things. As mentioned – I had no carpet on my bedroom floor for quite some time – neither did the rest of the house. The house got furnished bit-by-bit as things could be afforded, and by golly those things were looked after. My Mum stopped working when we were young, so she cooked, cleaned (our house, and our grandparents house), did the grocery shopping, and walked us to and from school every day. I can still remember the excitement of the first new television we had – of it having a remote control, and teletext.
I had only ever known teletext at my Grandparents house. My Dad’s Dad was a life-long gadget freak – from the hilarious frankenstein three-phase switch he had installed on the cooker in the kitchen one day (Nan never let him forget it), to the calculator watch he proudly showed everybody in later years – that he had no idea how to use. Teletext was magic though – you could key a number into the television, and after a few minutes wait, a page of text would appear. Most people used it for TV listings, or the weather forecast – I used it to read jokes. Looking back, it was hilariously slow and convoluted, but in was the closest we would get to an internet-like experience for at least another ten years.
The house at Burswin Road had been a bungalow – sold to my parents by my Uncle when his marriage failed, and he ran away to sea in the merchant navy to find himself. The new house had an upstairs. This was huge – because – stairs! I can’t begin to count the number of times myself and my brother were told off for running up and down the stairs, skidding down the stairs, jumping down the stairs, and so on. If it involved any amount of daring, or stupidity, we probably put each other up to it. Stairs aren’t without their dangers though – many years later my Dad was stumbling around in the dark early one morning, when he fell down the stairs – putting a foot through the banister half-way down, and trapping himself, upside down, battered and bruised, and furious. We thought the house was falling down – or that there was an earthquake. Then we heard a quiet call from my Mum as she rushed from their bedroom;
“Dave? Are you alright?”
She turned the landing light on, and saw him, upside down, holding his trapped leg, with his eyes tightly shut;
“WHAT THE FUCKING HELL DO YOU THINK!”, he shouted at the top of his voice.
I’m still not sure how we didn’t laugh.
At five years old the garden at the new house seemed to go on for miles – I remember digging around in what had once been a rockery at the far end, and finding the remains of a dog from many years before – I proudly took the skull into the kitchen to show Mum, and was shouted at pretty spectacularly.
Our golden retriever, “Ben”, thought the garden was fantastic, and wasted no time in dumping spectacularly all over it. I think one of my first chores at the new house was walking around the garden with a refuse sack, and a shovel. Not fun – particularly in the summer, when you had to fight the flies to retrieve what the dog had proudly left for you.
After a few days we began to discover the next door neighbours. The house was in the bottom of a cul-de-sac, so was surrounded by other family homes. To our immediate right lived a dinner lady I had known from infant school – Mrs Ruddock. She had a son and daughter who were older than us – I inherited her son’s collection of “Look-In” magazines – an early weekly teen magazine filled with stories about the pop-stars of the day. I seem to remember a recurring photo comic-strip about somebody becoming best friends with Limahl from Kajagoogoo, and having all sorts of innocent adventures with him. I also inherited an accoustic guitar, which I never did learn to play properly.
To the left side of the house, an old scottish woman lived on her own. She was feared by all of the children in the neighbourhood – mostly because the footpath outside her house had a slight incline up to a grassy area that swept behind the row of houses. We always referred to the area at the top of that footpath as “on the hill”, even though the grass was only a few feet higher than the road.
The inclined section of footpath was of course a natural ramp – and we are talking about 1979. BMX bikes hadn’t arrived yet, but all the bike designs were headed that way. As children came hurtling along the footpath towards “The Hill”, with hopes of a spectacular Evil-Kinevil style stunt, the old scottish woman would either bash on her window, or come dashing from the house, shouting at you all to go away.
One day years later, the council put railings on the footpath ramp, stopping all the fun. I was old enough by then not to care very much, but the younger children in the street thought their world had come to an end (well – those not small enough to carry on hurtling under the railings without taking any notice of them).
My brother and I got BMX bikes in about 1983. Apparently I came down from my bedroom on Christmas morning and walked straight past my new bike in the hallway. My grandparents were staying with us over Christmas, and asked me to go look in the hallway – I walked back through, straight past it for a second time, and my Granddad laughed in that long “hahaaaaa” way he had of laughing.
We treated those bikes like they were made of gold. For my brother, the BMW was a tremendous upgrade – he had previously had a Raleigh Grifter – a bike that seemed to be made from leftover parts from a construction site. You know when you see a motorbike rider struggling to pick a bike up after falling off it? The grifter was like that – made from lead pipe and angle-iron probably. If you had run into a brick wall with it, there was every chance you would have been fine, and the wall would have disintegrated on impact. That didn’t stop my brother from trying to jump the grifter on “the hill” though.
I can still remember his final attempt. The Grifter was equipped with Sturmey Archer drum gears – operated from a lever on the handlebars. This meant it could reach pretty death defying speeds. Unfortunately drum gears tended to also incorporate an accidental “slip gear”, where all resistance was removed from the pedals without warning – removing the rider’s ability to have children at a moment’s notice. And that’s almost what happened to my brother. Just as he reached perhaps thirty miles an hour (not bad going for a 9 year old) on his two ton bike, immediately outside our house – with yards left until the base of “the hill”, the bike went into slip gear. I can still see him sliding along the footpath in his nylon running shorts, everybody stopping in a stunned silence, and then him getting up, dancing about a bit while beginning to cry, and then running indoors.
He didn’t come out, but we heard him. Other kids in the neighbourhood knocked on our door to see if he was ok – when in reality all they really wanted to see was how gruesome it really was. He had to wear shorts for WEEKS.
Davis Close provided a wonderful childhood. Apart from the odd strange neighbour (I’m sure every street has them), we lucked into moving in during a time when lots of children of similar ages also lived in the street – and as children do, we made friends immediately. Their was Claire, and Anna, the daughters of the local policeman that lived opposide. There was the very friendly (later discovered very homosexual) man that lived next door to them, the scottish couple (everybody called her Aggie, but I don’t think it was her real name) and her quiet husband, then “The Pinks”. I think they moved to England in the 1950s along with lots of other immigrants from Africa, Asia, India, and the Carribean – they had a beautiful daughter that turned heads when she walked home from work called “Monique”. Further along the road lived “The Seaths” – a family from Wales – the Dad became the manager of the local newspaper shop, and his daughters firm friends of my brother and I. At the far end of the street a little Irish man called Sean always seemed to be working on his garden. I think this was a ruse – to trap people in conversation as they wandered past. If you got caught by Sean, you were there for quite some time. His wife Cynthia would either excuse herself from conversations before they got started, or interrupt him to allow your escape – a co-conspirator of sorts, that he had no idea about.
Like I said – we were lucky. Lucky to have such wonderful friends and neighbours. We were probably shaped far more than we ever realised by the friendships, games, and idiotic scrapes we got into. It’s interesting – looking on Google Street View – to see the old house, and wonder how many more children have grown up in the houses on that street – and if they still all play in the road together on an evening after school. Somehow, with the advent of computers, and the internet, I doubt it.
I think we saw the beginning of that happening with the family that lived on the end. The Dad was a salesman for some sort of engineering company, and the Mum was a nurse. They had a pretty daughter called Julie that was really a bit too proud of her body for her Mum’s liking, and a son called Andrew that we rarely saw. Actually – scratch that – from the point Andrew was perhaps seven or eight, we didn’t see him for perhaps five or six years. Eight bit computers arrived just in time to capture his imagination. For all I know, he’s a dot com millionaire now.
I lived at Davis Close with my parents until my mid-twenties. During those latter years I really lost touch with everybody in the street, because the only times I saw anybody was while going to work, coming home from work, or heading out for a night out. Sean would still stop me in the street to say hello, but beyond that, the only people I really knew were the next door neighbours.
Mrs Ruddock moved away when I was perhaps eleven years old – I seem to remember conversations between my parents about the company her husband worked for going broke, I really have no idea though. Mr and Mrs Griffiths replaced them – she was a supply teacher at the secondary school, and he was a high ranking officer in the Royal Air Force. They had two children – a boy called Paul, and a girl called Hannah, who we became friends with immediately. Paul was a few years younger, but age doesn’t make much difference before you become a teenager – not in my experience anyway.
I don’t want this trip down memory lane to become an essay filled with foaming invective about elitism and snobbishness – but I will say that as soon as Paul was about nine years old he was packed off to boarding school. When he returned the next summer, he was a very different person – no longer mixing with any of us. I suppose it was my first experience of any sort of class system, and I didn’t like it one bit.
One day – while home from school at lunchtime – there was a knock on the door, and Mrs Griffiths stood in our doorway, asking for me. I rushed to the door – wondering what on earth I might have done wrong (a natural reaction to anybody asking for me – even now) – and discovered that she had locked herself out of her house, and could I break in through the open upstairs bedroom window above the flat roof for her ?
A few minutes later, after pretending I was some sort of cat-burglar, I let her back into her own house, and was given a hug for my troubles. I can’t tell you how many shades of crimson I probably turned. I also realised that day that any ideas of a career as a cat burglar were gone – although I pretended I was brave while stood on her roof, my knees were shaking so badly I thought I might collapse.
Can you even imagine the insurance claim – “I broke my arm after the eleven year old boy that was breaking into my bedroom fell off the roof and kicked me”.
The Griffiths family eventually moved – I think Mr Griffiths was posted to a different area of the country with the Air Force – it had happened to a lot of my friends over the years.
They were eventually replaced by the Knight family – she was something to do with every social group imaginable at the air base, and he was an ex-fighter pilot, now teaching pilots to fly VC-10s. They had children too – younger than my brother and I, but pleasant enough. For several years I thought the son incredibly funny because he picked up his father’s RAF radio voice, and spoke incredibly correctly. All of this reverse-snobbishness flew out of the window when he took my flying one day (part of an effort to get his flying hours up), and I found out just how useful a perfect, clipped RAF English accent was when communicating on the radio. My entire view of him changed – seeing the usually distracted, daydreaming boy from next door become a thoroughly professional pilot.
Occasionally, while cutting the grass in the back garden, stories would be told about past adventures. Mr Knight had been scrambled on Christmas morning one year during the tail-end of the cold war. He had flown Phantoms – racing out over the north sea to turn Russian bombers around.
I can’t imagine what that must be like for forces families at the sharp end – knowing that each day an exercise might be the real thing – and that somebody might not come home.
The Knights were our next-door neighbours right up until our house was sold in 2000. And therein lies a story – but I’ll tell you about Mr Mays first.
When we moved into the street when I was young – as mentioned earlier – there was an old scottish woman that lived next door. I don’t remember if she moved away, died, or moved into a home – but eventually she was replaced by an engineer that had retired from London. His name was Mr Mays, and he lived alone with his dog “Bob”, a black labrador, and a sister that regularly visited in a muddy estate car.
Years later we discovered that Mr Mays moved away from the city because he saw so many of his co-workers retire, and sink into a life of pubs, beer, and not much else. He was determined that wasn’t going to happen to him, so bought a house in a small town in the Cotswolds, and left everything he had known behind.
We heard banging and crashing in his garage for years. Literally years – and always wondered what he was doing. And then one day a locomotive train appeared on his driveway. It had taken something in the region of five years, and he had scratch-built it in his garage. For the remaining years we lived there, he toured the nearby counties – towing children on railway tracks for fun.
I looked him up last year on the internet, and discovered he was still alive and well, and the president of an esteemed fellowship of master engineers in Oxford – he had only stood down a year or two previously. I read the article, and wished I had known him better – wished I had taken the time to get to know him. I bet he had amazing stories to tell.