Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Sitting here today after almost 20 hours of continuous rainfall and watching the rain pouring down the gutters to a drain nearby, I suddenly found myself transported back to my childhood in Sheerness amid such weather. With my street being fairly flat the rain didn't exactly pour down the gutter but it did at least trundle along towards the drains, trundling enough for us 7-8 year old boys to have boat races, using old lolly sticks as the boats. There in our short trousers and plimsolls after a night's rain we could imagine our boats racing through all the oceans of the world, and we were pirates and buccaneers and the heroes who saved souls on the Seven Seas. As a child in the 1950's an imagination was the finest gift that you could have, for a while it could lift you out of the back streets, the alleys, the ownership of nothing, and could even turn lolly sticks into boats!
Unity Street was a narrow street among several similar streets, there were no horizons down there, just houses either side, an ambulance station at one end and a secondary school at the other. The sun only shone down from high above, you could never see it rise or set or travel across the sky, you had to go up to the seafront to see that. In our back alley, between our backyard and that of the pub in the next street, was a lamp post with a large glass bowl on top that lit up yellow at night and from my bedroom in my very early years, I thought that that was the moon. My father always entered the pub, the "Blacksmith's Arms", across the alley and through its back yard and sometimes he would take me with him and sit me in the landlord's back room. There, with a Vimto and a large, round arrowroot biscuit, I would be left on my own for a couple of hours to enjoy two things that we never had in our house, electricity and a tiny black and white television. Even rarer, sometimes I would be allowed to watch him play in an inter-pubs darts match and to enjoy the succulent treat afterwards of the traditional toast and dripping. Many years later when playing pub darts myself, I found out how beautiful toast and dripping tastes with a pint of beer as well.
The alley was between our street and the next one, called Clyde Street, and coupled with the road, served as the main play areas for us then, through far too many summers and winters. Here we would play games such as hopscotch, "feet off ground" and marbles and around fireworks night would watch the older boys put bangers in heaps of dog poo and watch it explode up the walls.
Life in those days generally went in cycles or seasons, there was none of the always on-tap entertainment that there is today and so even small events were always exciting when they occurred. The rag-bone man was one of these events. Several times a year he could be heard in the distance gradually making his way towards and down our street, constantly shouting out for rags, bones and old iron, newspapers even. Newspapers though tended to be a valuable asset around the house - being used to light the fire, draw the fire when first lit and surprisingly often, cut up in squares and hung up in the outside toilet as toilet paper.
The rag - bone man's cart would be followed down the length of the street by most of the children, all echoing his cries and the lucky ones would scrape up some old rags, jam jars, etc and swap them for a goldfish to take home - the unlucky kids were those sent out with a bucket and coal shovel to collect the fresh horse dung for father's garden. Another event, rare enough to only happen every few years, was the arrival of the road repairers. For us kids this really was an event of great magnitude, never to be forgotten, the arrival of the steam roller. Forget the gravel and the tar that stuck to our socks and shoes, resulting in a slap or an early bed, when that great monster came down the road with its prancing white horse, Kentish Invicta badge on the front, occasionally making loud train whistle noises, well us boys were in heaven. We would run alongside and throw lolly sticks or fag packets under its rollers to be pressed into the road surface until it huffed and puffed its way out of the street and be gone.
Sometimes we would have street parties such as the one above, which I believe was for the Queen's coronation in 1953. Apparently I'm one of the cowboys in the front and I can see that my mother is the curly-haired lady third from left at the back. (Double click on the photo to enlarge it a bit).
Under a street lamp half way down the street, for evening illumination (we only had gas lamps indoors), a stage would be erected and bunting put across the street from house to house. Alongside the stage a barrel of beer and several crates of brown ale would be placed and as the evening wore on the men folk would get up and sing, accompanied by mouth organs and rattling sticks. These sticks were something like a broom pole, often with an old boot at the bottom, to which had been loosely nailed dozens of beer bottle tops, when the post was thumped up and down it acted as a form of musical back up, sometimes you see them today being used by Morris Men. Us kids and their mothers, well we had to make do with table loads of home-cooked food and lemonade that were placed down the length of the street, although sometimes the mothers would have a sly drop of sherry or a milk stout or two.
Events like that would normally be our only entertainment during a year, none of us had electricity or television and the radios were powered by accumulators, a form of wet battery, that needed exchanging for a re-charged one each week. The radio therefore wasn't simply left on all day, as they often are now, they were only put on at certain times of the day, in my house at least, in the early evenings or Sunday dinner times. Sunday roast was always eaten in the company of "Three Way Family Favourites", "The Billy Cotton Band Show" and finally "Beyond our Ken". The Sunday roast was nearly always beef or lamb because chicken was expensive and a luxury, often only eaten at Christmas. With it came fresh cooked vegetables, Yorkshire pudding cooked underneath the joint to catch the juices, and suet pudding cooked in a well-used suet cloth. The suet pudding was made big enough so that some slices could be served up with sugar, jam or treacle on as afters. Sometimes one was made with sultanas and currants and served up for afters as "Spotted Dick" - what a treat!