Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Learning how to survive

Volume 1 – chapter 11 – part two
My family were Methodists, or to be more precise, Primitive Methodist, but we had no difference of opinion with the Church of England. I suppose this would be why my mother had no trouble accepting one of their schools, which now became my next place of learning. It stood next to a church which filled one side of the Fenton Town Hall Square. It was only a small school with maybe four or five classes containing 30 or 40 pupils in each. The building in which it was located was a grim and grimy hall surrounded by the appropriate numbers of classrooms. It all looked ancient to me as did the teachers who worked in this decrepit establishment. For example, my teacher when I commenced there, was a Mr. Groucott who was a wizened little man in his sixties or early seventies; he was a man slow in both mind and body. I suppose he was past the age of retirement, possibly he had been retained because of the war, and the consequent shortage of teachers.
If you ask me about learning at this school I would have to reply that I have no recollection of it, though I suppose there might have been some. The other children may have been absorbing something, but in my case I was not conscious of any progress what so ever. I was still a square peg in a round hole, as the saying goes, and that was in spite of the effort my mother made to inculcate me in the good books of both my teacher and the pupils in my class. Not long after I started at this new school, I had a birthday, so my mother decided that it might help me to make friends if she gave my class mates a birthday treat. I’m not sure how she managed it, but in spite of the rapidly tightening grip of rationing, she succeeded in purchasing a suitable quantity of pork pies to give to my class mates. The road that ran past the school and across the front of the Town Hall Square was called Church Street; of course it was. What else could it have been called? About 150 yards in one direction it joined the main road that ran from Longton to Stoke, and the shops in the locality of this road junction went by the grand name of the ‘Royal Oak’. One of the shops was Mr. Wright’s bakery, and it was from this excellent gentleman that the pies were purchased. They were baked as a special order, and I felt quite important when I escorted my mother back to the school with a washing basket full of hot pies. Did this subterfuge do me any good? Maybe for that day I was a little more popular with my particular class, but the envy it caused in the other children probably made matters worse.
My troubles were not yet over regarding relationships with the other children, but gradually a change was taking place. For one thing I was growing bigger and stronger, and my mental and emotional attitude was steadily changing. Until now my natural response had been to try reasoning and a conciliatory attitude, but slowly I was beginning to realise that this tactic was not working. The change in my demeanour was not sudden, but gradually a metamorphosis was taking place, the process being so gradual that neither I, nor those around me were aware it was happening.
Being a church school one would have thought that the behaviour of the children attending it would have been shall we say a little more Christian? I did not find it so; they were no different than the young savages that I had met at the other schools I had attended. It did not make any difference that at the beginning of each new week the whole school attended a church service. Being a church school, maybe it was thought that a dose of religion would prepare the mind and condition the soul in readiness for another five days of Christian teaching? While we were within this impressive edifice of the church, we undoubtedly felt some calming effect. There was certainly an atmosphere, reminding us, maybe there was a power of some sort that required our obedience. Within the environs of the church the children became docile, their behaviour almost civilized. I suppose I found these solemn and sometimes soporific services boring as most children did. However, for me there was a special duty which added a little interest to proceedings. For some reason I was chosen to assist the organist, my job being to provide the wind power needed by the large pipe organ. From the back of this instrument a wooden beam protruded, passing through a slit in the wall into a small room. The end of the beam was shaped into a handgrip, and when the organist began to play an assistant hidden away in this little room would pump the bellows, and continued doing so until the playing ceased. Little did I realise at the time that someday I would have the pleasure of playing a church organ myself.
The effects of attending church never lasted once we had escaped back into the outside world. Within minutes we were behaving as we always had done, and the bullies and sadists amongst us took up their unpleasant ways according to their nature. It’s impossible to understand why it is that such people derive so much pleasure from the suffering of others. I was still one of the victims, but now to a lesser degree, and I was finding to my great satisfaction that responding to aggression with aggression was achieving results. It is not easy to change one’s position in an established pecking order, and I found now, as I was to find in later years, that once someone has decided that they are in a position of dominance, in is extremely difficult to convince them otherwise.
An example of my difficulties occurred about now, and the incident illustrated for me the fact that there would be no breakthrough, the struggle would continue. There was a group of boys who saw me as one of their targets, and the group had a leader, whose name was, if I remember correctly, Billy Brown. Billy was a nasty piece of work to put it mildly, and I make no bones about the fact that I was scared of him, especially when he had his several cronies backing him up. On one particular day it was play time and I was confronted, probably for no other reason than to provide a little amusement. With my back against a wall, and surrounded by several enemies, there was no escape. There was only one choice left, and I had reached the point where I knew I had to fight. I do not have a hot tempered nature, when I am angry I feel coldness, and I decide very calmly what I will do. At such times I lose my natural caution and take actions which under normal circumstances would be foreign to me. Without emotion, and in the frame of mind I have just described, I attacked Billy with a fusillade of punches. I intended to hurt him, and I did, far more than I ever imagined I would. To my surprise my opponent fell to the ground gasping and choking, and then I realised that one of my punches had struck him in the throat, and this had cut off his breathing. He was in trouble but I had no feeling of remorse, I calmly turned and walked away, thinking that he had got what he deserved.
At the time it seemed like a major victory, but by the end of the day I was to find that it was not all over yet. By the end of the day Billy had recovered and was thirsting for revenge; when school finished and we poured into the street, the gang was waiting for me on the pavement. The moment I appeared the group of four or five ran at me, their intentions abundantly clear. Now I was to find that if one individual could not beat me into submission, then they would use numbers to do it. First, however they had to catch me and it was soon obvious that I was capable of out running them. My lead was only a short one, and as a result I was not able to follow my usual route towards home, I had to run in a straight line along the road, and shortly I found myself approaching the cross roads at ‘Royal Oak’. Immediately I knew that I was in trouble, because the main road was busy with traffic, and there was a policeman on point duty where I had to cross. My situation was desperate and with very little choice in the matter I ran into the road in front of the constable. The officer was not having that and he shot out a hand and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck returning me to the pavement from whence I had come. Instantly my enemies closed in around me and I disappeared beneath a shower of blows, but fortune favours the brave, and the next moment I found my attackers were falling back, allowing me once again to escape. It transpired that next to me on the pavement had been standing a rather wiry old lady armed with a large and solid umbrella. She it seems objected to a common assault, or should we say an attempted lynching, being conducted in a public place, in broad daylight. In view of her feelings she had responded by setting about this group of unruly boys, belabouring them mightily with her staff of righteousness, and scattering them in disarray. I therefore escaped to live and fight another day; I always regretted the fact that I was never able to thank my champion for her service to humanity.
In a dog eat dog world I was beginning to learn how to survive, and the secret was apparently: When in Rome do as the Romans do. With the passing of time I was becoming one of a common herd; learning to act like them, and unconsciously those around me were accepting me. Without realizing it I was beginning to act like them, even to think like them, and gradually the children ceased to be the main enemy. Now it was the representatives of authority I hated, and I resisted, like everyone else. The most prominent target was of course the teachers, whose grip on us was only tenuous at best. We were young savages, unruly, undisciplined, and untutored in every respect. If we made life a misery for the teachers they in their turn responded in kind, a fight fire with fire approach you might say. It was a vicious circle and everyone knew it and accepted the rules of the game. I was part of this scenario like it or not, and I was fast learning to deal with it.
Often it was my quick wits, or perhaps a better description would be to say my native cunning, that gave me an advantage. Like the day we were supposed to be out in the playground, and ordered not to enter the building on pain of death. Such an order was of course a red flag to a bull, and the adventurous amongst us were soon inside the forbidden territory. The teachers would have expected our disobedience and soon discovered about a dozen of us in one of the classrooms. We knew that there would be no mercy and the punishment would be severe if caught, so we ran like the wind. Out of the classroom into the hall, and across to a narrow door which exited into the playground. Once outside safety was to be found among all the other children, but the problem for me was that I was at the back of the crowd. As we approached the outside door I could see that it was going to take too long for everyone to get through it. Those in the rear were certain to get caught, and that was going to include me. Next to the two doors we were using was a folded partition used to divide the hall in two, and thinking fast I decided to gamble by hiding behind this partition. Doubling back I stood beside it, and at that moment the teacher who was in pursuit came dashing through the door into the hall. Crossing quickly he grabbed at the last child trying to escape into the yard, and had he turned at that moment he would have seen me standing by the partition. Fortunately he didn’t turn and I was able to creep quietly back the other way and make my escape.
Another example of my quick thinking was the day that I took a shortcut home after school by way of the graveyard that surrounded two sides of the school. The graveyard was part of the church, and naturally the children spread out into this area when at play. This had been causing some damage to the graves, and we were under strict instructions not to enter. This was all well and good, but for me it meant an additional few minutes making my way home, and going home was surely not playing or likely to cause damage. So I decided to take the risk, because even if seen there was no one in authority that stood the slightest chance of catching me. That’s what I thought, but what I did not know was that the church had recently obtained the services of a new young and very athletic verger.
So off I went cutting diagonally across the holy ground, only to find when almost halfway across that I had been spotted by the male equivalent of the flying nun. This young and agile man of god was a new broom and he was determined to sweep exceeding clean. He had a holy mission and he was not going to fail, the sinner would be punished and the righteous would prevail. I took off with my usual speed and confidence but to my horror quickly found that this Christian superman was gaining on me. That he should go to such trouble to run me down made me even more worried. My offence must be more serious than I had realised, and I had vivid thoughts flash through my mind that at the very least I might be subject to some sort of flagellation. Maybe I would suffer what they call excommunication, whatever that might be, but whatever it consisted of it did not sound pleasant. It seemed to take forever to cross the graveyard, but finally I exited the church grounds into the road that ran past the back of the church. I looked back and couldn’t believe it; the wrath of God was closing with me fast. My trespasses onto holy ground got me into this mess, but possibly - In for a penny, in for a pound - a second bite of the apple might just save me. On the other side of the road was the vicarage which was surrounded by a wall about eight feet high and topped by a grass bank which rose a further five or six feet. The wall was made of large rough-hewn stone blocks, and I had climbed it a number of times. With the thought that this speedy man of God might be a runner, but was he a climber, I took to the wall going up it like a rat up a drainpipe. Fear lent me wings at this moment, and I am glad to say that a man in a cassock is not quite as agile as a fearful boy, and I escaped once again.
Children are moulded and formed by the influences around them; one of the most important of these is the thoughts and ideas of their contemporaries. New comers to the school quickly discovered the resident views and took them on board. One of which was that the children attending the Catholic School, which was a short distance away down a side street off Church Street, were our enemies. They in their turn had a similar view of us, and no opportunity was wasted to prosecute a campaign against each other. Usually it was on the way to school or when returning home at the end of the day, that clashes took place. Long before I joined this happy throng, a system had developed which consisted of each side joining together before passing through the zone closest to the enemy. The superior numbers would ensure safety, and if battle was joined, it was hoped that we would have a numerical advantage. More often than not these groups would see no clear advantage, and so passed each other by on the other side of the road, content with hurling epithets and the odd missile. However, there were occasions when a smaller group was observed, and those with the advantage charged in a vengeful assault. For many of us the whole thing was just another way in which we amused ourselves, and added a little spice to an otherwise dull and uneventful day. Rarely was any serious damage done, and at worst the assaulted party were given a nasty fright, and chased to the gates of their school.
The events I describe illustrate how life was a constant battle for everyone, and how distressful it might have seemed to a stranger or an outsider like me. There is no escaping it, or ignoring it, the only option is to adapt to the best of your ability.
As day by day we conducted our personal wars, there was of course a much bigger war going on around us at the same time. The Luftwaffe provided the most obvious signs that we were at war, but in a less dangerous way our lives were affected just as much. There was the news reports in the newspapers, and the continuous flow of information directed at us on the cinema screens. Even more intrusive was the regular news reports on the radio; which now held pride of place in just about every home. It became habitual to present oneself in front of the radio when the main news of the day was being read by those impeccable doyens of the English language, the announcers on the BBC’s Home Service network. A lateral effect of this was an actual improvement to the state of business, at a time when so many were being adversely affected by war time conditions. There were still many homes that had no electric power, or if they had it they possessed very few power points, which meant that they usually ran their wireless sets on batteries. Commonly known as accumulators these acid filled devices made of glass were attached to the radio and used until they were flat and needed re-charging again. Then for a small fee, the accumulator shop would take in your flat unit and replace it with a freshly charged one. Often in the past people had not rushed to replace their batteries, but now with daily news reports, it had become much more essential that the radio was up and ready to go at all times; as a result the accumulator shop was always busy.
In their usual efficient Teutonic way, the German Air Force appeared in our skies with monotonous regularity. They searched for every target they thought important, and mostly those targets were in places other than where we were. This did not prevent the sirens from sounding an alert, and on so many nights we went to our shelters while the enemy planes droned over head. I can remember well the night that they attacked Coventry, it was a clear still night, and the glow of the firestorm they created could be seen lighting up the distant horizon, about 50 miles to the South. I stood on the top of Uncle Charlie’s air raid shelter absorbed with the scene until dawn finally hid it from our view. On other nights there were raids on Liverpool about 40 miles to the North/West and on Derby only 30 miles away to the East. There were other targets which the Germans went after, such as Manchester only 30 miles to the North of us; we were sitting right in the middle of all these places feeling that we were some sort of bull’s eye.
The fact that we were not the target ourselves did not make it feel any safer, and on some occasions we were too close for comfort. We were bombed directly a number of times though we never knew why; the rumours and theories we boundless. Some said they were just terror raids with no military or industrial target in mind, but others believed that they were after places we ourselves thought were important. There was the Shelton Steel Works for example which was only a couple of miles away, or might they not be after the railway goods yard at Longton, on a mile or so from where we lived at Fenton. The closest the bombing came to my home was on the night that they attacked Fenton Park; which bordered Cemetery Road running parallel to Broad Street two streets away. The fence around the park would have been about 200 yards from our house in a direct line, but although so close, we experienced little effect when it happened. I can think of two reasons why they bombed our local park, one reason was that they did not drop any explosives; the attack consisted entirely of incendiaries. Also the accuracy of the attack resulted in only one stray bomb falling outside the boundaries of the park. These small thermite bombs were about eighteen inches long and maybe four inches in diameter, and they were usually dropped in what was described as baskets. When aircraft carrying incendiaries released their loads, a whole area would be covered with a carpet of them. The one bomb that fell maybe a short distance away from the others must have been faulty or damaged, which caused the deviation. It crashed through the slate roof on one of the houses opposite the gates of the park, and started a fire in the attic. The next morning I joined the curious locals viewing the damage, and we stared in fascination at the small hole made in the roof of the house it had hit. There was no other damage to be seen, and I heard later that a fireman had arrived soon after the bomb and climbing into the roof space, had smothered it with a bucket of sand.
Why did the Germans bomb our park? The most popular theory at the time was that they were trying to attack Swynnerton, a large munitions factory which lay about eight or nine miles away to the South/West. The night had been clear and moonlit, and the opinion was that they had seen what they thought was the blacked out layout of a factory complex. Be that as it may, they certainly made a good job of destroying a large part of the park. We might have felt quite aggrieved about this, had we not reminded ourselves that the park was earmarked for conversion into vegetable allotments, and the burning of the trees and bushes only served to speed this process up. It was also something of an irony that it had been built during the First World War by German prisoners. Now it was Italian prisoners that were to be put to work completing the transformation. When all was ready and the crops growing under the feminine touch of members of the Women’s Land Army, the locals derived much satisfaction from buying excess produce at the park gates on a Sunday morning at very moderate prices.
One further thing I recall very vividly about the bombing of the park, and that was the fact that the fires in the park burned on for several days, and because it was the end of summer and the country dry, the fires spread into the fields which lay along the long back boundary. Mostly it was just grass that was destroyed, but one problem was the wooden fence posts around the fields which also began to burn, and efforts had to be made by firemen to save them. The firemen were assisted by members of the public; I thought it very exciting to don a military gas mask left at home by my father, and join the fire fighters. I did little to help matters I suppose, and admit that I was more interested in demonstrating my ability to enter the smoke where it was the densest, rather than fight the fire.
The air attack was the most apparent and dangerous way in which the war affected our lives, but to me it seemed impersonal and remote. We never saw the enemy we only waited to see what he would do to us next. I wanted to see what we could do to him, which is why I suppose the activities of the Home Guard were much more to my liking. When they held their weekend exercises around the streets, or occasionally in the nearby fields, a number of children including myself were always in close attendance. We watched their every move with the greatest interest, and were ever ready to criticize if we thought they were getting things wrong. We knew the drill, or at least I suppose I did, there was not a sergeant major alive that would have, or could have, cast a more critical eye over their activities. They tried to get rid of us of course, but we were as persistent as a swarm of flies, and just as big a nuisance. My particular favourite was the street fighting exercises, and I derived great amusement out of watching some elderly man when he knocked on the door of a house and asked for permission to snipe from their bedroom window. Often they were known by the lady of the house, and it was not unusual to hear responses such as You’re not tramping on my nice carpet with those great boots Fred Watson.

Then there was the day when the skirmishers worked their way along from Fenton Manor towards the crossroads at Royal Oak. A group of them gathered in the entrance to the ‘Cinema’ just short of the main road, when a young officer in an open sports car, it was an MG I recall, pulled up alongside them and threw a fire cracker. When it exploded in the foyer close to the cashier’s booth, the officer jumped out of his car and drew a circle with chalk around the entrance and the group of skirmishers. He then announced that a hand grenade had been thrown, and everyone within the circle was either dead or wounded. The seven or eight men involved were then ordered to lie down, but just as this scene was being enacted, the doors to the auditorium burst open and the audience began to stream forth; alarmed it seems by the explosion. It would be an understatement to say total chaos reigned though it would be short of the mark to say that the degree of amusement this drama provided, for those of us looking on, exceeded the best Laurel and Hardy film ever seen.
Often when the Home Guard held a training session, at the end of the exercise they would assemble at the Cenotaph in the square outside the Town Hall. On the occasion which I describe, it appears the plan was to form the platoon up and for them to march smartly away. This was another moment, when those of us who watched, found reason to laugh and poke fun at the untrained and unskilled volunteers. They were in the early stages of training and had not yet been taught to drill. I suppose it was more important to teach them to fight and use their weapons; smartness and parade ground efficiency was not essential to their ability to survive combat. Be that as it may, it did not alter the fact that to those of us who watched, there appeared to be little reason to feel any confidence in their soldierly qualities. I can see them now, attempting to dress ranks, and slope arms, to move to the right in threes, ready to march smartly away like a squad of the finest guardsmen. What a shambles they made of it, and how long they remained on the square trying to get it right. One could not imagine that anything more could happen to humiliate these unhappy volunteers further, but when fate is being unkind it usually goes all the way. Fate now twisted the knife in the wound by rubbing their noses in their already acute humiliation.
Being working men our week-end soldiers could only train on their day off, which was Sunday. On the Sabbath the Boys Brigade always attended church, religious improvement being one of the mainstays of their organization. At this precise moment the smartly uniformed boys came streaming out of the church at the side of the square, forming up close to the unfortunate Home Guard. They looked very smart in their blue uniforms with a white cross belt, and a blue and white cap, sometimes called a cheese cutter. Quickly and expertly they went through their drill, struck up their band, and with their bugles and drums providing an appropriate military rhythm, they wheeled smartly to the right and marched smartly off. At that moment I felt some sympathy for the abashed men in khaki, and feel it appropriate to say at this point, that we knew that they were brave men, willing to risk their lives on our behalf. We may have laughed at them, but we were proud of them, and had no doubt that they would perform well if called on to fight. Having made this observation I still recall the occasion with some amusement.
The effects of the war were all around, but somehow they had become part of normal everyday life. When something happened for the first time, one did not stop to wonder was this the result of war. Children I am sure didn’t think that way, and I know such thoughts never crossed my mind. Over a period of several months a regular flow of refugees arrived from areas under heavy air attack. They would arrive by train, and were kept overnight at various centres around the city; to me and I suppose most children this was not out of the ordinary. Neither did it seem strange that I should be chosen as one of a group of boys to man a hand cart, being sent off each morning to transport luggage for these newcomers. All day long we collected the meagre possessions of these unhappy refugees from a church hall a short distance away, and with a list of addresses we trundled our way around the district dropping off a couple of bags here, and a suitcase there. Thinking back to this event, it occurs to me to consider why I was one of those chosen for this duty. Was I someone who was seen to be reliable and trustworthy? Was my selection an honour and a privilege? Or was it possible that I was one who was seen to be a lost cause, someone to whom the loss of classes would make not the slightest difference? I shall never know the answer to this intriguing question, but then it is of little importance now.
Once the flow of refugees ceased the church hall returned to its former use, one of which was a magic lantern show held in the evening once a week. For sixpence you could join the happy throng and be transported into the magic world of the silent movies. Mostly the young audience were entertained with Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin, and The Keystone Cops, but now and again we were treated to a full length movie, and one that I shall never forget was The Lost World, a story based on the book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It must have been an old copy of the film, because it broke down several times during the showing. These intervals during which we sat with varying degrees of impatience made not the slightest difference to us. The pleasure and satisfaction we derived from this adventure into a world of prehistoric animals and various nightmarish creatures was no less intense. I for one entered the story being told and repeated the experience time and again as time passed; the magic of it will remain with me for ever
Describing our way of life for those who never experienced it is no easy task, but it is essential to my story. I must do my best to paint a picture in the minds of the reader, and to create the feelings I had at the time. Can you imagine for instance how big a part the movies played in our lives? How much we needed the escapism provided by this rapidly growing form of entertainment. Just about everyone went to the pictures at least once a week, and for many addicted to the make believe worlds they created, several visit’s a week was not unusual. In Fenton we had two small movie houses within walking distance. The favourite for most of us was the Cinema at Royal Oak - the scene of the bomb scare created by the Home Guard. - In the other direction towards Longton, was the Plaza, but that was less popular having mostly wooden benches to sit on and very few comforts. - It was sometimes referred to as ‘The Bug Hut’ because one walked in, but rode out. - The price of entry was of course appropriate to the facilities and quality of performance, it varied from nine pence and a shilling for the cheapest seats at the front of the auditorium to the best seats which cost from one shilling and nine pence to two shillings.
In addition to the local cinemas there were many others all over the city, and it was usual for large numbers of people to catch the bus in search of films of their choice, every day of the week. At Longton there were a couple of cinemas, the Alhambra and the Capitol, and at Stoke there was the Hippodrome, the Majestic, and a favourite of mine, the Danilo. The main centre of entertainment was Hanley which had the Empire, Regent, the Roxy - which specialized in X-rated films, like Frankenstein and The Curse of the Vampire - also one of the most luxurious cinemas was the Odeon, though its prices were above average. In other parts of the city there was to be found a Regent, and a Ritz, and several others, but suburbs such as Tunstall, and Burslem, were foreign places to most of us, and a journey of more than two or three miles was usually considered out of the question.
I probably had more money to spend on entertainment than most of my compatriots, but even so the major part of our time was spent entertaining ourselves. There were the usual games we played, some of a sporting nature, and then there were games we invented. There was ‘Tipsy Cat a game in which two teams took it in turns to strike a short pointed piece of wood with a stick, causing it to spin up into the air, during which time the striker had to hit it laterally propelling as far as possible. We played ‘Ride Em In a rough game in which the winner was carried on the back of the loser. There was ‘Tin Can Whippet’ where we all hid and one person had to search. If the searcher found someone they called them out and ran to a tin can in the middle of the road, which was weighted with a large stone, and they would throw the can and run and hide. In the meantime the one who had been discovered had to come out of hiding and run and fetch the can. Returning it to the marked spot, they then went in search of those in hiding in their turn. To add interest to the game, if another in hiding saw that the searcher was well away from the can, they could run out and throw it, shouting ‘Tin Can Whippet’. The searcher then had to retrieve the can before going in search again.
There were many other games, but eventually we would become bored with them and look for something more exciting to do. Sometimes this led to amusements of a more dangerous nature. One such pass time I well remember was a method of making loud explosions. Someone discovered that if a small pin hole was punched into the base of an ‘Andrews Liver Salts’ tin, - Such a tin had a lid that had a sloping rim that was fitted by forcing it down into a hole smaller than its overall size. - Then placing a small piece of carbide inside the tin, one would spit on it causing carbide gas to be produced. After the lid had been replaced very firmly, a match was applied to the pin hole which ignited the gas. The resulting explosion blasted the lid off with considerable force, and with a very loud bang. The fun was to try and make the loudest noise we could, and to see how far we could make the lid fly.
We were also creatures of habit returning to seasonal games which came round as regularly as the seasons themselves. As if by magic the children would all suddenly appear with top and whip, and for a week or two the fun of whipping the top took place in every street and every playground. More predictable was the annual competition for the best conker. - To the uninitiated, horse chestnut. - When the nuts were in season everyone collected them and each nut was strung on a short piece of string and the competition began. Two players would take it in turn to hit the other players’ conker with theirs and eventually one of them would shatter. The winner then had a conker which was a ‘Oncer’, and if a second victory was achieved it became a ‘Twicer’ and so on. To add to the interest it was also an agreed rule that a winner could also include the victories accumulated by the defeated competitor. There was always great excitement when two seasoned veterans confronted each other, and usually a crowd would gather to see a champion of 125 victories face another with maybe a further 98. The outcome meant that one of them would become a champion with a score of 224. This all depended on the honesty of the players of course, and it is certain that at times a proud competitor would have succumbed to temptation by exaggerating their score. There was often much debate about the acceptability of treatments to harden and improve the toughness and durability of one’s conker. There is no doubt that various methods were tried, such as drying and even roasting. Then there was pickling in vinegar, and other such processes. When competition finally came to an end the champions were carefully stored away, and produced in all their glory a year later.

It might come as a surprise to many when I say that the best time of the year for fun and excitement was, in my opinion, winter. The arrival of snow was a certainty; the only unknown factor was when it would arrive. Whenever it was you can be sure that there was no delay in commencing our winter activities. A favourite for which the local children would band together was yet another form of rivalry and contest. This was the snowball battle. These engagements would go on all day long, and often continued on subsequent days. Usually they were static affairs with a particular location chosen for the event. One popular place was the backs of the houses we lived in. The back yards of our houses faced each other with a narrow access in between, usually a cobbled way just wide enough for the dust cart to use when collecting the bins. Here we would build a snow wall to block maybe two thirds of the access which was maybe ten feet across, and the opposition would do the same within easy throwing distance for snowballs. Sometimes a snowman would be built behind the wall and this was considered our symbol of power, and thus the target for attack by the opposing forces. We would make a supply of ammunition and this was continuously replenished by the smaller members of the group, and by the girls if there happened to by any. The bigger boys and those with a strong arm bombarded the opposition with a fusillade of missiles. From time to time one side or the other would sally forth in an all out assault, the objective being the destruction of the snowman. Usually the attackers would be driven back by a hail of snowballs, and the tumult would die down for a short period. At meal times a truce would be struck and the contestants would disperse until battle was joined once again.
Though the weather was freezing cold we never felt it, being far too active and glowing with health and vigour. I do recall however, that if gloves were removed so that better snowballs could be manufactured, or for more accurate throwing, there were some amongst us who suffered the discomfort of chilblains. Not everyone had gloves anyway, and cold fingers probably led to another way we invented to make a winters day more bearable. This was the ‘Winter Warmer’ which may have had a number of forms, but for us began life as a small tin can with a lid, in which a piece of cloth was set to smoulder. This device was held in the hands, or could even be placed in a pocket, where the fingers were warmed in readiness for further action. Everyone wanted to have the best warmer so it was not long before efforts were made to improve them. Larger tins came into use and soon they contained a small fire which could be used like a miniature brazier. Ventilation holes were added and finally a small aperture at the base of the can through which ashes could be removed. The top or the warmer was now open and to provide a maximum of heat, coal became the fuel of choice. Even with the largest tin can the fire was only a small one and coal enclosed in a small space does not burn easily. So what did we do about that? The answer was to attach a wire handle so that now the can could be swung, generating a vigorous flow of air to the fire. It soon became common practice to swing the miniature brazier in a complete circle vertically, and the resulting combustion was impressive to say the least. We now had our own version of a mini blast furnace, and we were very pleased with ourselves when we were enjoying our super heated warmers full of red hot coals.
What we were doing had become a dangerous practice you might think, and if you thought that you were right. Inevitably accidents were bound to happen, and they did. On one occasion a boy was swinging his warmer when the wire handle broke and he was showered with burning coals. He had some bad burns and was not allowed to return to this activity, but the rest of us continued, though with some care and caution.
Another winter pass time that I enjoyed immensely was sledging. I had an excellent sledge, made for me by Uncle Charlie, who had gone to much trouble to add steel runners. When prepared with a coat of ice, these runners allowed me to glide effortlessly over the snow without any friction what so ever. I am not inclined to boast as a rule, but I have to say that I became very skilled in the art of tobogganing. I was fast, had good control, and learned to be adept at avoiding other traffic. Speeding down the steep sloping streets was very exciting; though for sheer fun sliding was even better.
In the winter most of us wore boots with large flat nails in the soles, much like army boots used to have. Such footwear was ideal for sliding, another popular game we used to indulge in when conditions were suitable. Down the middle of the road we would compact the snow, and sometimes even add some water which quickly froze, and in no time we had a path of ice up to maybe 50 or 60 yards in length, or even more. The street where we lived had quite a steep slope, so you only had to step onto the slide and immediately you were gliding down the street gathering speed all the way. With a short run one could be travelling fast at the start, and by the time the end was reached a fast runner could not have kept up with you. There were all sorts of variations that kept it interesting, we did many of the things that ice skaters do, plus additional things, such as forming a train, and games like Keep the kettle boiling, that sort of thing. Most of the children, and even some grownups, had hours of fun sliding in the street, and we could never understand why some grumpy adults objected to our activities. One elderly lady even came out with a shovel full of ashes and threw them on our slide, and at the time our opinion of her was impossible to put into words. There appeared to be no reason to object to our slide, no one would slip on it if they kept to the pavement. Apart from a few people on foot, there was no other traffic; thanks to the shortage of petrol and the winter weather. This was the way I saw it at the time, but I was to discover that our winter activities had a negative side to them.
Every year we made a slide, so I am not sure which year it was that our slide may have caused a disaster. I can’t say with any certainty that the slide was to blame, though it may have contributed to what happened. There was little motor traffic but there was still a number of horses in use, for example we had a rag and bone man with his horse and cart, visit our street every few weeks. Occasionally we had a man selling block salt, and sometimes a farmer selling milk, but regular visitors were the two bread delivery vans which came at least once a week. We were customers at the nearby Co-operative Store, so it was from their bread van that we purchased what we needed. I had made friends with driver and he used to let me ride with him, delivering loaves to the doors in our street. The van was drawn by a dapple grey Shire horse called ‘Tess’ who was big and strong but gentle. She knew her job well, stopping and moving on without any instructions from the driver. Everyone liked ‘Tess’ and it was obvious that the driver loved his horse, and thanks to her we had bread all the year round, regardless of the weather and the war. One winter’s day with the snow and ice thick on the ground, ’Tess’ appeared at the top of the street, and I went out to meet her. She had a large canvas sheet over her back to help protect her from the weather, and to keep her warm. She had quite a long day’s work, and so had her usual bag of oats attached to her head, from which she could feed herself while on the move. We had begun the deliveries and all was proceeding as usual, when suddenly she began to slip and slide. I was a few yards away handing a loaf of bread to a customer who had come to her door, and when I turned I saw poor ’Tess’ was down. It proved impossible to get her up again, and when a vet was called we were given the shattering news that she had broken a leg. She had to be shot, and the death of that horse upset me more than all the death and disaster caused by the war. Had our ice slide caused this tragedy? I shall never know, but we did learn later that the usual anti-skid nails had not been fitted to her shoes; an accident waiting to happen perhaps?
Is it any wonder that winter was welcomed by many of the children, and considered to be a fun time; though I am sure most adults would disagree with this view? I suppose it is usual to remember the good times and forget the bad, though if I make an effort I can recall the less amusing side of winter without too much trouble. The frozen water pipes, the ice on the windows of the bedrooms, and after the war shortages began to bite, the desperate search for coal with which to keep that essential fire going. A fire was needed night and day if one wanted to prevent the house from freezing up altogether. Winters in England can be very cold and people sometimes die from hyperthermia, even today it still happens. With a war on everything was rationed, including coal and other fuels, if you could get them. The coal man used to come once a month and deliver our ration which was four 1 cwt (112 lbs) sacks of good quality anthracite. A sack would last about three days, maybe four if the weather was not too bad, and if you were careful. The end result was that there was always a queue of desperate people at the local coal merchants requesting an additional emergency ration. Often I was in this queue, and sometimes managed to return home pulling a small trolley in which I had a quarter cwt (28 lbs) of what was sometimes poor quality coal. If supplies were low it was slack (small particles) and dust, and that was all you were allowed for the week. This was still not enough to keep even one room warm when the weather was bad, and so some people resorted to a last desperate measure. A way of carrying one or two sacks was devised, and of they would go to the nearest slag heap. This was the place where a coal mine tipped the waste dug out of the pit, and the one at the Glebe at Fenton was very large indeed. These mountains of waste were scattered all over the Potteries, and could be seen for miles around.
From the age of nine or ten years I played my part in this cold and dirty procedure, which was also dangerous. The authorities tried to stop it, but either they did not have the resources to do so, or they recognized the desperation of the people and turned a blind eye. We lived about half a mile from the Glebe slag-heap, and I would take an old bicycle with two sacks tied across the crossbar and make my way to the site. With a heavy hammer in one hand and a sack in the other I would climb the side of the heap looking for pieces of coal, and pieces of slag with a layer of coal attached. The layer of coal was easily split from the slag or stone, and an hour’s work would usually see the sack full. The second sack then had to be filled, while keeping a sharp lookout for the police who occasionally visited the site. A greater danger was the lumps of debris that came bounding down the steep sides of the tip. A rail line was laid to the top of the heap, and the small wagons carrying the waste were pulled to the top where an automatic trip lever emptied the contents. The larger pieces would bounce away down the steep slope, resulting in a number of scavengers being injured by these missiles. After a couple of hour’s hard work the next job was to get this black gold home and I must say it was exhausting work for a young boy. I must have looked a pathetic sight stumbling along the road, black with coal dust, cold, and sometimes wet.
This was how life appeared to be in the first two or three years of the war. For me there was nothing strange or unusual about it, after all I had nothing that had gone before with which to compare it. For most adults I’m sure the life they had known had completely changed, and when the war ended the life that followed must have been unlike anything they could have imagined.

No comments: