Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Buckingham Road & Blasts From The Past

You could see quite a wide arc of Buckingham Road from our back gate, much more than the view of Tooley Street. It’s only in recent years I’ve realised that the road actually bisected The Old Green, where houses no longer stood and extended to the foot of York Road itself, probably even encompassing the unexpected little row of four dilapidated cottages straggling the edge of that enticing playspace and overlooked the Catholic Primary School where my brother went at the tender age of four. Even we, who were only too aware that we fell into the category of Impoverished Poor were cautiously self satisfied, even sanctimonious when surveying the decidedly less than salubrious conditions those living in the cottages tolerated. Even in 1948 they seemed to represent the kind of housing more commonly found a century or two before. Each consisted of two tiny ground floor rooms with a corner staircase leading up to two even smaller sleeping areas above. The cottages had no running water and this had to be collected from a tap outside. Neither did there even seem to be gas lighting, the occupants all appearing to use oil lamps of some description. Two lavatories serving the block had been erected close to the lower end of our own street and could be entered by a door adjacent to the alley that led directly to the front entrances of the York Road houses and provided a quick access through to Simms’ Corner Shop. My mother often commented that she certainly wouldn’t want to live like that and added that it would be easy for disease to spread. These observations were odd considering the even more disadvantaged conditions of her own early years but probably indicated that for the first time in her life she felt in a better position than someone else – these local residents in particular. I no longer remember who originally occupied the end cottage where we practised ball games and hand stands against the wall, but I do recall the flambuoyant couple who replaced them. My mother told me that Myra had appeared on the Halls for years with her husband as a Magic Duo, performing tricks like Sawing The Lady In Half. For some reason we called Myra’s husband, a bad tempered man who clearly despised children, Treacle Pants. The exciting thing about this couple as far as my mother was concerned was that they were not simply tenants; they had actually purchased their cottage for the grand sum of two hundred and fifty pounds. As this information spread through the neighbourhood as it did rapidly, Myra and Treacle Pants were accorded a certain amount of respect befitting genuine property owners. Next door to them lived the Stewarts who eventually had three children, Beryl, Julie and Richard. Julie was born in the same week as my brother, and to me was an altogether more appealing baby. She was first and foremost female which I felt was infinitely more acceptable than the child we had been forced to accept. She was usually dressed in pink which I found most attractive and Mrs Stewart had lovingly embroidered her name onto the pillow cases that propped her in her pram for the world to admire – Julie-Anne! Not simply Ann without an E like my younger cousin, but Anne with a proper E at the end like a person in a book. What could be better? Had my own mother gone in for similar embroidery I realised that in any case Bernard John would not look nearly as eye catching. When the babies were a few weeks old and Beryl and I were entrusted to rocking them in their prams and perhaps pushing them to the end of the street and back, Beryl confided that her parents had been hoping for a boy. I could hardly believe my good fortune and at once devised a plan to persuade her to do a swap as I was sure my parents would just love a girl. Well I knew I certainly would. The fall out from the execution of this plan was momentous when a couple of hours later each mother went to attend her newborn only to find a Changeling in its place. I won’t go into unnecessary detail but the incident did nothing to make me popular and Beryl joined the list of those who were not to play with me any more. Molly said wisely that it had been a stupid idea to begin with and she couldn’t understand what made me think it would make anyone happy. The Murphys lived next door to the Stewarts with several children, one called Josie who was older than me and I don’t remember much about her. At the end of the row were The Shipps who had one child, a girl a year or two younger than me called Kathleen. Kathleen was outgoing and even though she was younger always seemed to be the bearer of interesting bits of information relating to the subject I had so recently been told must absolutely never ever be discussed again. Molly and I listened avidly whilst Kathleen regaled us with doubtful snippets of information about the number of her mum’s friends who had somewhat surprisingly given birth to puppies or kittens. We always endeavoured to include Kathleen in games not only because of her remarkable sexual knowledge but also because her mother regularly made huge roasting pans of toffee which she broke with a hammer and distributed generously. Kathleen’s father was a volunteer fireman and their kitchen had a device alerting him for when he was needed for fire fighting. He would then speed off on his motorbike. Those who were already old themselves in the 1940s claimed that they could remember houses standing on The Old Green in times gone by but they must have been referring to far, far back as an Ordnance Survey map of 1905 seems to show two areas of wasteland already in evidence. There were no shops in Buckingham Road but it did have its own pub, The British Volunteer which first opened in 1889 presumably when the houses were built. It was known locally as The Volley and well attended on Friday and Saturday nights when the piano that for years needed tuning and never got it, belted out the same catalogue of songs that everyone knew and in the same order. Nellie Dean, Sweet Adeline, Waiting At The Church, A Long Way To Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, Show Me The Way To Go Home, Oh Mr Porter, Any Old Iron, Two Lovely Black Eyes ……I could go on and on. Most of us living close to any pub where these numbers were sung vigorously on a regular basis became totally familiar with all the words and they still lie there in the sub-conscious needing just a few chords to bring them to life again. My mother had an excellent singing voice, inherited from her own mother and the early years of my childhood are filled with memories of her singing her favourite melodies which she did regularly. Sadly she failed to pass on this musical ability to either me or my brother although my oldest son must have inherited his aptitude from somewhere as he became a professional violinist, and my daughter who ended up favouring a career in Law rather than one in music, is certainly possessed of perfect pitch. My memory tells me that the Dawson family lived at No 54 Buckingham Road although I was told the other day that they definitely lived in Tooley Street. Possibly there were two lots of Dawsons in the district, but the ones I knew had a daughter called June, an outgoing and well developed girl, a year younger than me and already importantly wearing a bra at the age of 10. June was rightly proud of this early step towards the world of adult women and keen to show the pink satin item of underwear to anyone who expressed interest. `Me and my mum went and bought it from Marks & Spencers on Saturday,’ she told me with more than a small note of self importance in her tone, `And it’s size 32’. I couldn’t help feeling even then that a size 34 might have been a rather more prudent purchase. Beryl and Horace Ribbens lived near the pub and I imagine they must have been the Tooley Street in-laws. Further down the street Ann Coppins lived with an aunt and uncle and although I played with her from time to time she was a reticent girl, always secretive about her parents and sometimes said she was not really supposed to talk about them. Next door to her was a rather unfortunate little girl with a Scottish background. Her name was Elsie and she was permanently confined to a wheelchair. She was very keen to be included in as many activities as possible and had a most uncomplaining nature so that when various among us dragged her from her chair, convinced we could teach her to walk, she was most accommodating. At least once a week one or other of us would rush to her mother or grandmother urging them to come and look because we were totally confident Elsie was about to take a step or two unaided. She never did. The Bennetts lived at No 26, Frank and Grace with son, young Frankie and daughter Pat, both of whom were probably in their late teens and Little Joan who was my own age and much spoiled by everyone in the family. There had been a second son called Georgie, a year younger than Joan but he had died during World War Two following a nasty accident involving an air raid warning and a newly poured pot of boiling tea. Mrs Bennett was quite friendly with my mother over a number of years who said she had never really got over the child’s death and was over protective of Little Joan as a consequence. When I was about 8 or 9 Pat Bennett married an Irishman called Mick, moved out to what had been for years an empty shop on the corner of Tooley Street and had a baby girl called Linda. All and sundry were advised by Mick who clearly disapproved of his in-laws and their neighbours, that under no circumstances was anyone to talk Baby Talk to Linda as he was keen to have her grow up speaking Proper English. Neither was Joan allowed to push Linda around the streets in her pram but that may have simply been in response to my own baby swapping activities which everyone seemed to be familiar with. The Bardoes lived at No 28, Wally and Eliza with their three boys, Kenny and the twins Alan and Colin. Both Kenny and Alan were overtly macho boys who like to play aggressive games and didn’t at that stage of their lives, have much time for females. Colin on the other hand was a sensitive and insightful boy who not only greatly enjoyed playing with girls, but was a master at taking existing games and creating astonishingly creative twists. One entire summer, primarily choreographed by Colin, we played extensive Pony Club games although not one of us had ever been on a horse’s back. Colin researched all the salient equestrian facts needed for the organisation of a gymkhana, even making silver cups by covering egg cups with foil and appropriating broom handles and old socks to form the basis of each individual steed. Mares and stallions were very soon lined up in a Buckingham Road abandoned Anderson shelter and the game continued for weeks. I cannot pretend it was totally popular with local housewives continually misplacing their garden brooms and the work socks from their washing lines. We were all very fond of Colin and it was with great sadness that decades later I heard via his twin brother Alan that he had died very young. It would be true to say that the children of Buckingham Road, like those of York Road and Tooley Street, had in many ways a happy childhood although I am certain we were a thorn in the side of the adults around us, most particularly those who were childless or whose children had already grown up. The couple next door to the Bardoes undoubtedly came into that category because before the war they had made the significant and costly purchase of one of the earliest TV sets to be commercially produced. When broadcasting resumed in 1947 they were of course inundated with requests for invitations into their front room to witness the extraordinary technology. If we were refused we simply jostled each other outside their front window, even standing on each other’s shoulders to scrutinise the tiny screen to best advantage. It is unlikely that this long suffering couple thought our childhood was as much fun as we did.

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