IN THIS CHAPTER:
- Religious Persuasion
- No Grandads
- Step Uncles
- WWII Impact
- All-weather sports
- Thin on books
- Bristol Ls
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Adventure of the Cardboard Box provided Holmes with this observation,
‘What is the meaning of it, Watson? […] What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.’
In more recent times publisher and TV and movie directors appear to have chosen to overlook Holmes’s recreational use of cocaine, morphine and opium – which may have had much to do with the tone of this quote.
The astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) also saw a guiding hand, concluding that
‘random events and chance occurrences are insufficient to account for the complexity of living organisms.’ Fred Hoyle
The philosophers and scientists do not believe in blind chance, physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) commented that
‘God does not play dice.’ Albert Einstein
But to a large extent where we begin our life’s journey does feel more like an accident. It is sobering to think that even minor changes of 1% in space or time would have significantly altered if and who I became.
My mother was from Bristol and my father from Manchester. The chance of any two specified individuals ever meeting is quite unlikely, but place them 175 miles apart at birth and factor in a time of low social mobility and the odds get longer. Before they met they both had to survive World War II, a war that killed 450,000 of the UK’s 47million population (or around 1%). My father’s aircraft carrier was headed towards Singapore as the Japanese took it, my mother’s home in the centre of Bristol was bombed and gutted while the family sheltered beneath it. Thus, their eventual meeting must be given a very high level of improbability.
Add to this the fact that my grandmother was from Willenhall in the Black Country and my grandfather from Bishops Auckland in Durham – and the odds lengthen further.
If I had been born fifty miles west of Bristol then I might have been Welsh. Two hundred miles west I could have been Irish, 200 miles south and I might have been French, a little over 200 miles east and I would have been Dutch. Two hundred miles is an insignificant shift of under 1% across the earth’s circumference!
If I had been born fifty years earlier, I would have been sixteen when World War I broke out and prime cannon fodder. Born a hundred years earlier I would have emerged into one of my home town’s worst cholera outbreaks. Two hundred years earlier and I would have been born into what was then Britain’s busiest slave-trading port and given my social class may well have become a Redemptioner, taking indentured servitude to get free passage to the American colonies and seek my fortune. A hundred years is around four generations and thus a little over 1% of human recorded history.
Three different shifts of just 1% that would have erased or changed me fundamentally!
Our year of birth, postcode and family circumstances are completely outside our control and yet they decide the access we have to good nutrition, the parental education we receive, how our limbic system evolves our emotions and drives, our cultural environment, the values and religious framework within which we are raised. We can influence very little of this – we must accept that it is what it is and give our best shot at making the most of the meagre hand that we happen to be dealt.
A weak no trump, yet still achieved the contract
This lottery begins in the womb. In 1948 around thirty-nine in every 1000 new-born babies were stillborn or died within a week (today it’s thankfully just eight). The lottery continued postnatally, then a further thirty-six in every 1000 births did not survive their first year.
Ten years after my birth, mothers were prescribed thalidomide during pregnancy to ease anxiety and insomnia. Worldwide 10,000 babies were adversely affected, half survived with severe defects. One such girl lived ten doors from my home in Bristol and was born with her hands emerging directly from her shoulders.
A 1990s scandal at my local teaching hospital, the Bristol Royal Infirmary, emerged when the paediatric cardiac surgery team recorded unusually high death rates; a subsequent report concluded that treatment had not been ‘fit for purpose’.
One last matter of chance worth mentioning is that I was born on 7 May 1948 at Bristol Maternity Hospital, then located at the top of St Michael’s Hill in the centre of Bristol. My mother’s home had been gutted nearby but these grim old buildings managed to survive the WWII hammering the city had sustained. My birth predated the National Health Service by sixty days (It started on 5 Jul 1948).
Just 208 days after my swimming into the light, in the very same hospital, my future wife Jane Alison Allen arrived on 11 Dec 1948. Our families lived four miles apart across this busy (then 450,00 population) city, yet we each took our first breath in the same place.
One thing that defines me is my dislike, no I’ll ‘fess up, my fear of spiders. I have always believed them sneaky, scuttling things that startle and need to be stomped on. Jane, my wife, will pick up large specimens and put them outside, personalising them all as Sammy, I prefer to rename them Splat.
This may have derived from my Uncle Bert who dairy-farmed near Shepton Mallet. To us city-dwelling Bristolians this seemed many miles away and deep in alien countryside. In fact this was only 27 miles, but back then it felt like a visit to another planet, or an earlier age.
We didn’t visit often. My memory is of his parlour dominated by a large scrubbed pine table but I was perhaps five years old so it may not have been quite as large as I recall. Above it were hung a dozen or so rabbits, shot by Uncle Bert to control the myxomatosis that was rife at the time. These were nothing like pet bunnies. They sickeningly hung there, sightlessly and silently, their skinny bodies distended and rear legs stretched by their own weight as they steadily dripped blood onto the table below. The family gathered around the table talking of I know not what; my attention was fully taken up by these furry cadavers.
At some stage I needed the loo and was shown the route to the outside privy. We had one at this time too, but ours was just across the porch directly outside our rear door. This one was many cautious steps away over an overgrown patch of uneven earth and vegetation that was down-trodden by marauding cows whose swollen gait appeared awkward and unpredictable. The privy had a door that did not fill the gap, leaving six-inch voids at top and bottom, which effectively meant you were still connected with that backyard full of threat, hearing the furtive movements (both sorts) of the cows.
The privy was a simple brick-built affair, the walls distempered long enough ago to be cracking and flaking. The big cistern was precariously hanging about seven feet above the pan with a long rusty chain that looked capable of bringing the whole contraption down on your head. Uncle Bert was obviously ‘posh’ because he had a roll of shiny single-ply Izal toilet paper (few other brands existed back then) on a piece of wire. Cut pieces of newspaper held together by a piece of string were still prevalent at that time, sourced from those newspapers not commandeered by the chip shop.
But that wasn’t what held my attention. It was the huge cobwebs in every corner and across the ceiling. Each was presided over by a fat spider, appearing older and wiser than me. These spiders were not the modern spindly type, they looked fat and fleshy enough to take down and consume a sparrow. They were all studying me from their eyries with their eight eyes and legs, just a short leap or abseil away. I was quick, did not trust the flush and was out in a flash. The memory remains fresh.
Leaping forward forty years we were living in a typical Fulham terrace with a front ‘garden’ less than six feet wide. Jane often disposed of the regular house spiders by throwing them out through the front door. I would point out that if I was walking down the pavement and hit by an ejected spider, I would be eternally scarred.
A dozen years later than that, living in Spain, we met a phenomenon that no-one had warned us to expect. At a certain time of the year tarantulas would appear at the bottom of our pool, apparently dead, but actually in a protective cocoon of air, cooling themselves. When I relate this anecdote Jane interjects that these were small tarantulas but they were quite big enough for me. A neighbour was bitten by one she disturbed under a pile of dead leaves and described the damage as like a ‘paper-cut’. None of this changed my views.
The very first tarantula we encountered I scooped out with a net and went to our wall, looping the net over my head to fling the intruder onto some wasteland. When I went back indoors (to recover) I looked down to find it clinging to the back of my bare calf. I yelled in horror but fortunately I was wearing heavy sandals and rapidly dubbed it. Splat!
Let me make clear that I am agnostic. I would love to be convinced but nothing has yet ‘tipped me over’. My mum professed her Christian beliefs though to my knowledge only visited a church for births, deaths and marriages, satisfied in her belief that attendance was not essential for being Christian. As the eldest child I was expected to be the one who attended the local St Gregory the Great, a red-brick High Anglican Church [St Gregory was Pope from 590-604 CE, and associated with the Western plainchant or Gregorian chant].
I first attended church for church parades with my Cub group, the 234th Bristol North Winds. I became a choir boy, but this had self-interest because I could earn money, particularly for weddings. We earned two shillings (10p) for a wedding and occasionally there would be more than one on a Saturday. This was real money when you could get four blackjack sweets for an old penny; my material needs then seldom extended beyond sweets.
I enjoyed the ceremony and later became a server (at the altar), carrying candles. I was also trusted to wave around the thurible and censer full of burning charcoal and incense.
ASIDE: as a server I sampled my first cigarette but didn’t like it. My dad had given up smoking while I was young, probably an economic decision as health risks were not yet firmly part of the culture and there were none around the house. I was quite an impressionable child but thankfully I never picked up on the habit. The only time I regretted my decision was while at college; smokers could hang around in the toilets during loo-breaks to avoid tough-going lectures.
The church task I most recall was the single church bell which I was allowed, very occasionally, to ring. This required a climb up to the belfry that was in the main hexagonal tower of the church. It was hardly campanology. The single rope had a big furry handle, the cord passed through a free pulley in the ceiling to disappear into the bell chamber. You gave it a long steady pull and could cling on it to ride up high as the bell flipped back. The downside was that it was centrally mounted and in the floor at that location was a trapdoor. This door flexed a tad and was not flush-fitting, so you could look through it down on to the altar, fifty or more feet below. As you rode the rope back down you inevitably hit that trapdoor, the stuff of falling nightmares, though not enough to displace those of spiders.
I later served as a Sunday school teacher which meant reading out bible texts to rapt younger children (I always liked the sound of my own voice) and then handing out those large cartoonlike full colour sticky stamps of bible scenes, a ‘sacred’ version of kids’ stickers today. There were no thoughts of iconoclasm in our High-Anglican version of Christianity.
I was confirmed and still have the bible presented to me at my first communion by the then Bishop of Bath & Wells on 31 May 1959, just a few weeks past my eleventh birthday. By the time I was fourteen I had fully investigated religion from many aspects and concluded that it wasn’t for me.
ASIDE: Forty years later I briefly returned to live in the West Country, and become the Commercial Director at the Royal Bath & West in Shepton Mallet, I was responsible for use of the agricultural showground for other than the Royal Show. This included raves and exhibitions and becoming prison cells during the Glastonbury Festival.
We held a controversial Hells Angel event each year. The Bishop of Bath & Wells had close links with the showground organisation. He was a down-to-earth and worldly experienced guy but this show probably tested him. He came to see the event dressed in his civvies and I walked him around..
We passed a huge shiny Harley, the owner pitching for visitors to have their photo taken beside or on it, for a fee. I waved him aside but he wasn’t easily shaken off. He called out to the incognito bishop ‘You can have your picture taken with my chick on the back!’ As we continued on past he added ‘She’ll get her tits out!’. The bishop didn’t break pace and smiled wryly. I took joy later in letting the exhibitor know just who it was that he had pitched!
My father was born three years after WWI and I was born three years after WWII. As a child I recall seeing this as a good sign as if my son was to be born three years after WWIII then it meant I would have survived it.
Both my Grandfathers had died before I was born so my backward extended family consisted of Nan Denton and Nanny Dilling. Nan was sixty when I was born, Nanny just forty-nine, but both were appeared as kindly little old ladies to me.
I had more contact with Nan who provided me with one lasting attribute – a love of playing cards. She taught me cribbage at the age of five and I spent hours playing with her, loving all the exotic terminology – ‘fifteen for two’, ‘one for his nob’…
I saw Nanny rather less often in part because she had re-married Fred Dilling, so I did have one step-grandfather. He was a dour and remote character who repeated the same anecdotes at every visit. He had a deep depression in one side of his skull, something from one of the wars that was never explained. I recall an old artillery shell sat in their fireplace, leading my imagination to connect the two but without any evidence this was the case.
My dad had a recess behind his ear too, a relic of WWII. The family suggested this was while serving in Eritrea Africa where he had additional salt pumped into his system via this point, which conjured many strange pictures while I was young. Now I know this was a cavity created by a mastoidectomy removing the honey-combed mastoid bone that drains the middle ear.
Post WWII jingoism and comics tended to define our fathers and grandfathers as heroes, victors over a clear fascist evil. They spoke little of their experiences and it was these physical signs that we children had to use as pointers for our imaginations – to run riot!
I never worked out whether Dad’s generation was truly reticent about war stories because they were truly shocking or if they were merely carrying on the folk myth of remaining silent. In my teenage years he did speak of the one bit of action he saw. In the RAF as a ground-crew LAC he was on an aircraft carrier that was being convoyed past Gibraltar in heavy fog. This suddenly lifted and sitting right in the middle of the convoy was a German schnellboote, or E-boat. Before it could react the convoy’s destroyers surrounded it and forced its surrender.
While talking of physical flaws, I remember early in our relationship telling Jane that a scar on my thumb was a parrot bite and I extemporised upon this traumatic event. Jane was very sympathetic. It was years before I ‘fessed up that I had no idea what had caused the scar.
Through step-grandad Fred I had a step-uncle Frederick, aka Freddie. He lived in, what was then for me something of a mystical concept, London. On the few occasions he visited Bristol I had to be in my Sunday best and on my best behaviour to enter the presence of this family demigod. I learned later he was an air traffic controller, a role probably derived from something to do with the aerospace factories at nearby Filton.
I attended Nanny’s funeral aged ninety-one, and heard several young nieces commenting on me ‘talking nice, just like a doctor’. I lived in London and realised that somehow I had become their generation’s Uncle Freddie.
ASIDE: Back then Bristol jobs were primarily in aerospace (British Aircraft Corporation [now BAe] and Bristol Siddeley Engines [now Rolls Royce]), cigarettes (WD&HO Wills), chocolate (Frys) or printing and packaging (Robinsons and Mardon Son & Hall).
Nanny and Fred had two boys of their own, John and Richard, also step-uncles of course. They were both Teddy boys, with bright drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, brothel creeper shoes and remarkable hairstyles sweeping high above their heads and swooping into a DA (duck’s ass) at the rear.
On balance, having two step-uncles who walked around like colourful tropical birds was a lot more interesting than the occasional visits of the demigod; alhough John and Richard both hung on to that fashion statement far longer than the fad deserved.
One oddity that I had to wait over sixty years to understand was my middle name, Soulsby. My grandfather and father were also called Robert Soulsby Denton and I had been fobbed off with the family view that it was probably from an antecedent’s maiden name. The truth was much more interesting.
My great-great-grandfather (GGF2) Peter Denton (1809-1871) was an earthenware potter in Prescot Lancashire where the family had been based for a period, and where most were shown on censuses to be agricultural labourers. Peter moved away. Given his occupation you might assume he would have moved south to the Potteries, but his employer relocated him first to Hunslet in Yorkshire and then on to several Durham locations.
Census records show that a Hannah Cruddas (née Soulsby) died in 1860 and at some stage her daughter, Margaret aged ten, moved to Trimdon Grange to live with her uncle, Robert Soulsby (1822-1882), a Durham miner. Peter Denton’s son Joseph (1852-1935), a tailor and my GGF1 (great-grandfather 1), married this Margaret Cruddas in 1874. As her mother was Hannah Soulsby one could easily conclude that this was the derivation of the usage of the name.
However, at 14:30 on 16 February 1882 there was a gas explosion on the Harvey seam at the Trimdon Grange Colliery. It resulted in the deaths of seventy-four men and boys; many were killed by the ‘after-damp’ gases produced following the explosion. The enquiry established that the mine was ‘not more than ordinarily gassy’ but it was a dusty mine and watering should have been carried out daily. Instead it was done ‘not in all places, but where it was absolutely necessary’. Chillingly, the enquiry concluded that the much-heralded Davy safety lamp being used by these miners ‘affords no security whatever against the occurrence of grave disasters of a similar kind’.
The youngest of the fatalities was twelve years old, the oldest sixty – the latter was Robert Soulsby, Margaret’s uncle. His death left behind a wife Anne and four children – a video of a folk song commemorating the disaster is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_rQRlf5btI . Do watch it until the end when it mentions Robert directly. National press accounts of the disaster are available at www.dmm.org.uk/news18/8820217.htm
In 1982, at the centenary of the disaster Arthur Scargill, ‘King Arthur’ the leader of the National Union of Miners, unveiled a pit-wheel memorial. In 1989 the new Sedgefield MP Tony Blair (left) launched a campaign to restore it – seen here listening to a folk group.
Forty days after the disaster on 28 March 1882 Margaret and Joseph had their fourth baby (my grandfather) and named him Robert Soulsby in memory of his ill-fated great uncle.
No deep mines remain in the Durham coalfield; there had been over a hundred at the coalfield’s production peak. Visiting the area in 2016, a Trimdon retailer told me that every year locals still assemble at the Trimdon Grange memorial, march through the town and are then bussed off to attend the Durham Miners’ Gala, held on the second Saturday in July. The gala has been celebrated annually since 1871 (except during world wars and miners’ strikes).
You would have thought this tale would have been passed down with the name but I only discovered this history when I was sixty-eight years old. However, I had already carried on the tradition. Given our more administrative world, to avoid confusion I used a prefix name; my son was Matthew Robert Soulsby and he named his first son Daniel Robert Soulsby. Keep it going Dan!
WWII impact on Bristol
The first twenty years of my life were spent growing up on a council estate in Horfield, Bristol. We lived in two houses there, 14 Ludlow Road (smaller mid-terrace property, circled top) and 145 Wordsworth Road (larger semi-detached house, circled bottom). We actually moved most of our belongings directly through the hedge between them.
With its aerospace factories the city and port came in for a great deal of WWII bombing – particularly as the River Avon conveniently reflected moonlight to direct the German bombers precisely to its location.
ASIDE: While living in Cornwall I learned of another such directional river. Taking too many losses flying to London across the south of England (revealed later to be down to radar), the Germans adopted a new approach and flew around Cornwall where on moonlit nights the River Camel conveniently provided a bearing to fly east towards London. Smart locals decided to inflict some damage as they made this turn above Padstow and put in anti-aircraft batteries. In October 1940 a plane was hit by them and repaid their accuracy by releasing its load onto Padstow, a town with no strategic significance. Six high-explosive bombs and a number of incendiaries were dropped in a radius of sixty yards, several more landed in fields. The bombs killed three, from three generations of the same family – aged 80, 45 and 3. They destroyed six buildings and damaged sixty. Later in 1942, Hitler/Goebbels had the Luftwaffe use the ‘Baedeker Guide’ to Britain to select targets, not for their military value but for their cultural and historic significance – to attack us psychologically. Baedeker raids lasted for two years targeting Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, Canterbury…, eventually the Germans realised the high cost and low effectiveness, and turned attention to London.
In 1940/1941 there were seventy-seven air raids on Bristol, six of these were major. On the night of 2 November 1940 (to become my wedding date – twenty-eight years later) the bombers dropped 10,000 high-explosive bombs and 5,000 incendiary bombs. In total 1,299 people were killed and 1,303 seriously injured. Some 697 had to be rescued from bombed buildings – including my mum and her family near St Michael’s Hill, central Bristol. This raid also destroyed St Peter’s Church near Bristol castle. It had been a workhouse and housed the city’s Poor Records. This raid therefore frustrated my research for sources for my MA assignment seventy-eight years later!
By 1944 there were V1 and V2 rocket sites being built in France that would have had Bristol well within range, but the D-Day landings speedily overran the sites. Thankfully none were therefore ever fired at the city.
As kids growing up in the 1950s we had no appreciation of these earlier horrors but instead were delighted by the many bomb sites that became our playgrounds. There was a big one about eight homes to the right of the picture of Ludlow and Wordsworth roads above.
As soon as you could walk you were playing on these sites, the absolute antithesis of today’s ferrying children everywhere and restricting them to indoors or to sleepovers. Hordes of us from eighteen months to eighteen years old ran riot across these ‘adventure playgrounds’. Of course we all hoped to find an unexploded bomb among the rubble. As an older sibling you had to keep an eye out for your younger sprogs, which was limiting. One older boy in the group was said to have shellshock, but that was a WWI issue; his was probably just an impediment.
ASIDE: There was quite a variety of odd behaviour locally despite our mostly ethnically narrow population. Five doors down was a young man who would go berserk quite regularly; opposite was a girl who screamed and shouted every day until her mother agreed she could not go to school. In my extended family we had two daughters who were not quite locked away in the attic but they were seldom seen. Local ethnic diversity was provided by the two large Irish families who could be recognised by their children only ever wearing wellington boots. One of my particular friends did have a German mother, his father having met her during our post-war occupation of the Fatherland. She kept to herself as there were still strong feelings afoot.
A mile or so away there was a deserted army camp that the older kids would visit. It provided a great backcloth for our games – including in its cells. We had no fear of crossing a railway track to get to it and there was also a stream good for tadpoles and sticklebacks. This stream regularly disappeared through a series of various diameter culverts, each of which we chose to clamber through en route.
I also recall making our own rifle by hammering closed one end of a piece of copper piping and fixing it onto a wooden stock with bent nails. We hand-drilled a hole for the fuse to sit in and tamped down the contents of two or three ‘banger’ fireworks with toilet paper. We charged it with ball-bearings and further wadding, then fired it at a sheet of corrugated steel which the ball-bearings successfully penetrated, thankfully none rebounding at us. A modern health and safety person would be having kittens at these events; perhaps the result of rose-coloured specs, but I recall few mishaps.
ASIDE: When we lived in Spain, the Las Fallas celebrations each spring with the burning of large tableaus and effigies in the centre of the cities would have given any self-respecting H&S man nightmares. On one occasion a row of latex figures bowed under the heat and the embedded rockets passed less than 30cm over the crowd’s heads. The fireworks regularly set fire to nearby balconies but the crowd just pointed this out to the bomberos who promptly hosed it down. It was the sight of toddlers lighting and dropping bangers into drains that was perhaps most shocking.
While pondering fireworks I was at my cousins’ house one Bonfire Night and we left our, admittedly quite meagre by today’s standards (‘Standard’ fireworks pun intended), lying on the pavement and a spark or some skulduggery set them all off. The pavement was higher than the house and one rocket went straight through the hedge, didn’t smash the window but cut a clean circle in it, went through the nets and curtain leaving equally clean holes, and then straight through Nan Denton’s armchair which thankfully was the extent of the damage. Perhaps we were a bit too gung-ho back then and more care was necessary.
If it was too wet to play on the bomb-site, our first family home in Ludlow Road had the ultimate facility – an internal alleyway between us and our neighbours. It was perfect, an all-weather location for football or cricket, balls rebounding off the side walls adding unpredictability and interest. It acted as a great echo-chamber too. As you got taller you could climb it with your feet pressed on one wall and shoulders on the other, in my case stopping well short of any spider webs. Endless fun, though probably not for Mrs Bray who lived next door.
We also had a shed for bigger groups. I encountered the board game Monopoly from somewhere and became so besotted with it that I made my own set, including hand-written property, Chance and Community Chest cards. We would sit in the shed on rainy days and played it for hours. Seeing my enthusiasm, my parents bought me a ‘proper’ set for Christmas or a birthday, but it never commanded the same level of interest that my scruffy home-made set had engendered.
Down that alleyway was a coal bunker. A coalman would routinely arrive with a horse and cart, hoisting hundredweight bags of coal onto a leather patch across his shoulders and march them through the alleyway to the coal bunker. There were squabbles in the road between those cultivating roses who collected the droppings his horse left behind.
A popular early family tale was one of a number of famous Mum-isms when a man turned up in a long white coat. My mum, despite his appearance, thought she heard him say ‘Coop Fuel Service’ and offhandedly told him to shove it in the bunker. The man looked perplexed and repeated ‘Coop Funeral Service’. We lived at number 14 and, unbeknown to Mum, someone had died at number 4. The guy was delivering an occupied coffin back to that house for the wake. My Mum always pronounced it as fruneral, so no wonder she didn’t recognise it when it was said properly.
On another occasion she assumed a caller was a meter reader and marched him through to the bottom of the stairs where the meter was located, ignoring what he was saying. He was a new young insurance agent who had probably been fed stories of housewives’ propensity for sexual encounters with their smartly dressed agents. When she wondered why he was taking so long she found him sat at the bottom of the stairs looking confused; she was lucky he had not stripped off and gone upstairs.
Our local cinema, the ABC Cabot, was across two busy main roads but offered us a window on the outside world and into alternate universes.
The ABC Minors Club presented a morning of entertainment for a small entry fee; my memory is sixpence (2.5p) or it may have been threepence. The programme was in two parts, first a whole series of cartoons and then one or two short films – regular doses of the Range Rider, William Tell, Flash Gordon, and comedy too Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, The Three Stooges, perhaps even the Marx Brothers.
However, in between these segments there was a pause while the curtains were drawn across the screen and some guy in a suit would come out to present the latest fad. The earliest I can recall was the yoyo. He would bring onto the stage several children who could make the plastic macaroon sing and dance, by performing the ‘sleeper’ or ‘walking the dog’. We would save up to buy one but all ours would do was come to a limp halt at the bottom of its string, and then routinely it would take five minutes to untangle it.
There was much more success with the second plastic fad the hula hoop. At least with this I managed to keep it turning for a count of one thousand – once. The technique is not like riding a bike because as an adult during a hula hoop revival I found five spins was my peak.
ASIDE: From this era I still remember my mum’s Co-op divvy number – 103143 and my dad’s Fireman number – 357. Later still I was quickly able to recall my NI number for all my part-time jobs – so how come passwords prove such a challenge today?
Thin on books – and comics
So, it was school lessons and Saturday morning pictures that took us out of our comfort zone, but comics helped too. Not very regularly I got the Eagle comic with Dan Dare as the front-page feature. It was bigger than the Beano or Dandy with features that made it seem a little more serious than the others. My cousins got a regular series of comics and as we spent a lot of time parked with our aunt I got to see them while visiting, including girl’s comics such as Bunty!
As mentioned above, there was a phase when war comics were my thing. These were educational too. For example, they taught me German – Achtung Englander, Feuer, Gott in Himmel, Hände hoch, Donner und Blitzen, plus of course quality English dialogue such as Eat lead, Fritz. See Hannover Fair later when my German was further expanded.
Ours was not a house of books. I recall a small bookcase (made in woodwork lessons on the way to one of my ‘O-levels’). Throughout my childhood it contained a copy of Doctor at Sea and a small set of those book-club editions with simulated gilt leather covers, flimsy pages and severe ink show-through from the other side of each folio.
There were however two exotic collections acquired by my grandfather as a part-work. One was the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia, dated I believe from 1908. It had been bought in sixty or more paper-bound issues. My grandfather had further invested in a set of twelve leather covers for the issues but he obviously baulked at the cost of actually getting them properly bound. They remained in their separate bound pieces which made referencing a little more haphazard when undisciplined in putting them away. There was something rather more earnest and other-worldly in the definitions and accounts that helped me to adopt a style in my schoolwork that was distinct from my schoolmates.
The other collection was also a part-work and was both exotica and erotica. My grandfather had acquired Dante’s Divine Comedy, though the family called it by the name of its first part, Dante’s Inferno. These large partwork issues were festooned with detailed illustrations of scenes from his nightmarish visions; most figures were nude as they were thrown into the Inferno, subjected to torture in Purgatory or achieved bliss in Paradise. An impressionable young lad found the nudity of those images was its greatest appeal. I can’t say I ever tried to read the work itself.
On balance I see that the local cinema club was much more wholesome. Although it did have dangers. At around ten-years-old, coming home from the cinema one morning I unwisely scampered across the road with friends and a motorcyclist coming around the sweeping bend had to hit one of us and chose me. He was breaking as he hit my leg and I can still remember the shock – and the tyre print across my calf. There were no cuts, no break, just this black rubber tread pattern that helped to conceal much of the bruising.
I also recall one of my earliest research projects. In 1961 and aged thirteen I kept a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings of the ‘Profumo affair’. There was sex with Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, there was a Russian spy and a political scandal. It served as one of the early stages of the Sixties overthrow of the establishment. Later, my mum found it, declared it disgusting and binned it.
Noticed what is missing from these early memories? Television. That’s because few of us had one, and radio targeted adults – until Radio Luxembourg took off in 1963. Radio One was not launched until 30 September 1967 so there was little technical stimulus for us back then, although chemistry sets proved great fun. We had fewer toys, a cardboard compendium of games, plasticine sets that rapidly ended up grey, as did the little tin containers of water colour paints. It was war comics and bomb debris that fed our imaginations – and these were free!
Our acquisition of a black-and-white television was not until the mid-‘50s. We had to pile in to someone else’s house to watch the Coronation, after which we had a street party down the centre of Ludlow Road, perhaps my earliest memory. It was fancy dress and I went as a five-year-old dressed as Robin Hood with hat, bow and arrows and quiver made by my dad (see Matt in a similar outfit above).
ASIDE – when we did get a television my key memory is of our postlady’s family descending on us each year for the FA Cup. She was called Ethel Chipp. Her husband was Ernest Chipp, his father was another Ernest and their son, and I kid you not, was called Charlie Chipp. Small wonder he was an ardent train-spotter; he was a bit of a Charlie-no-mates. Ethel would always take a break from her round at our house (and probably others) where she got a free cup of tea and distributed gossip. They had no TV so were invited to ours for the FA Cup. We all sat in a darkened room with the curtains drawn, as resolution and angles-of-view were limited. I mostly recall that they had the nerve to shush me in my own home! It was the era of children being seen and not heard.
Bristolian usage has a lot of Old English buried within it – ‘who bist thee’, ‘casn’t’ and ‘gert’. Then there are a number of rather lazy expressions such as ‘Where’s ee too?’ ‘Hark at ee’, and several unique expressions ‘Alright me lover?’ (how are you?), to ‘coopie down’ (crouch), to ‘scrage your knee’ (scratch it), the ‘snow is pitching’ (it’s settling). Perhaps the oddest is that we called trainers or plimsolls ‘daps’, bizarre in the very city where Samuel Plimsoll was born and came up with his famous Plimsoll line for ship loadings. The strangest phenomenon is our adding an ‘L’ on the end of words ending with a vowel. BBC’s Nationwide show (an early One Show) went around the city getting people to read two signs and most read them as ‘The Primal Donnal of the Costal Rical’ and ‘Africal is a malarial areal’ … but denied adding the L.
Even the city’s Latin motto Virtute et Industria (By Virtue and Industry) isn’t safe:
Now we be Bristol kiddies, we comes from Bristol City,
Where all the boys be ‘andsome, and all the girls be pretty
We’m proud of our ‘ome town, we never lets’n down
We got this little motto what we sings up Be’minster Down!
Chorus: Oh, Virtute et Industrial, long live all the brewers,
Build more pubs and bettin’ shops, don’t waste’n on the sewers!
Virtute et Industrial, let’s ‘ave another drink
Virtute et Industrial, an’ never mind the stink!
Let progress be our watchword, hooray for all the planners
They keeps the traffic movin’, and never minds the tanners
From Lulsgate thees can tear, off to Paris, now, by air,
But the buses down Old Market street’s enough to make thee swear!
With one-way streets and flyovers, we know which way we’m facin’
Hast seen our brand new bridge, up there in Cumberland Basin?
The cars go by like thunder, and up and round and under,
Where they goes, nobody knows, tain’t no bleedin’ wonder!
Highlights of (Adge Cutler and) The Wurzels’ ‘Virtute et Industrial’
There is still a subroutine in my head when I confront the word idea or ideal. In Bristolian there is an expression, ‘That’s a good ideal’ when it means of course ‘idea’. My subroutine runs and hopefully I don’t add the ‘L’ where it is unnecessary, using it only when it is required. I mentioned above that my Mum always said fruneral and she also changed chimney into chimley. I claim it is only when I’m tired, though Jane accuses me of doing it more often, when I say call for coal and pall for pole. What is it about those Bristolian Ls?
ASIDE: When being dismissive my Mum used three distinct words ‘san, fairy’ and ‘Anne’ to say it does not matter. It was only when I started to learn French that I realised this derived from ‘ça ne fait rien’. It was WWI English soldiers who created my Mum’s version, as they also renamed Ypres as Wipers.