Saturday, 18 February 2012

Not everyone is kind in the cold wide world

Volume 1 – chapter 10 – Part 2
About this time, or shortly after, I was allowed to try my hand on Douglas’s quality accordion, which I would have given anything to call mine. To everyone’s amazement I was able to play it reasonably well and more interestingly without the aid of music. This was not quite as amazing as it first sounds, because I had owned a small 12 bass accordion for some months and had taught myself to play on it. Aunt Jin and my mother decided immediately that I should begin to take music lessons, and a half sized (48 bass) instrument was found for me. - I was never happy or satisfied with this instrument with was called a ‘Soprani’ though it was only a poor imitation of the famous Italian make the ‘Palo Soprani’ - And so my involvement with music began. I suppose it could be said that I discovered, and became involved with, one of the loves of my life thanks to Douglas and his sweet sounding accordion. Like him I also was too shy to play in front of others, though we did play together once or twice not long after I had begun to take lessons. At the time I thought it strange that Douglas was so experienced, and yet he could not memorize the score. When we played from music written for two instruments, I did not need the music after two or three rehearsals, but my cousin always needed the music in front of him to play.
I had discovered that I had an ear for music, and that could have been developed with the right encouragement. It did not happen and my talents were neglected which is I suppose the story of my life. Maybe I had inherited that lack of drive or willingness to apply myself from my mother, but even a confident child needs encouragement and guidance. My mother loved music, and could see that it held the same attractions for me. She bought me musical instruments, and sent me for lessons, but did not make me study or take exams. My music teacher, an elderly man named Mr. Stanistreet, persuaded me to sit the first steps examination. The exam was held at a local school in Hanley, with all the students from all over North Staffordshire sitting together. This was one of my first experiences involving learning, the pressures of an exam, and the demands placed on the student. I disliked it intensely. The fact that I passed with ‘Honours’, with a mark of 98% did not influence my feelings one iota. When required to attend a presentation ceremony at the city’s main centre called the Victoria Hall, - Which was a slightly smaller version of the Albert Hall in London, - I simply refused to attend. My teacher went on my behalf, explaining when he went up to receive my certificate, that I was indisposed.
While on the subject of certificates, and returning to my cousin Douglas, I can record that he had another skill, which I was keen to emulate. He had spent a considerable amount of time at the Longton Public Baths, courtesy of his mother, and had become a superb swimmer. He had swum for the county, and even won events in national competition. Later, he told me that when in the army, the local Arabs in the Middle East had enjoyed making money by betting on swimming races between themselves and British soldiers, races that they usually won. When his comrades discovered that Douglas was a champion, they used him to win their bets. Like Douglas, I attended swimming lessons on a regular basis, with Aunt Jin as my main coach. I became quite a proficient swimmer, though once again a lack of drive and encouragement meant that my ability was to come to nothing. If I am to be accurate, I have to mention that I did obtain a proficiency certificate from school, for completing a distance of 25 yards. When I joined the army I passed the army’s physical training test number 6, which was a swim of maybe 50 yards. Not an easy test, the swimmer had to wear full battle dress, and had to remain afloat for a minimum of 1 minute at the end of the swim. Even for a good swimmer this was far from easy, especially as the test took place in the choppy waters of the Adriatic Sea. I shall never know whether I could have achieved the same success as Douglas, but this account it yet another indication of how my life was to unfold.
But returning to the benefits of living close to Aunty Jin and the Nicklin family, it is fascinating to recall how such events shape and form your life. I might not have realised it at the time, but the influence my Aunt had on my life was so much greater than I could ever have imagined. Of course I was aware of physical events which often remained as memories; some very vivid and startling, but I never realised just how much her existence in my life effected my future. She had played a part in my involvement in music, and she had improved my swimming skills, but I have other memories of my Aunt.
There was the day that the Bradbury twins decided I would make a suitable victim for their bullying. The twins were young men in their late teens, and they lived a short distance away, around the corner in Warrington Street, two or three houses along from the one in which I was born as a matter of fact. I had been passing their back gate along the cobbled stoned back access to their house, when they suddenly seized me for no apparent reason. Taking me by my arms and legs, they began to swing me back and forth with the intention of throwing me over the wall into their back yard. If they had succeeded, I might have been badly hurt, because the wall was about five feet high. On the other side of the wall was a weed-covered garden covered with piles of debris, including large pieces of concrete and other similar rubbish. Fortunately, fate came to my rescue in the form of Aunty Jin, who at that moment passed the entrance to the backs. Seeing what was happening she reacted as her nature would have dictated. With an angry shout, or should I say war cry, she came charging to my rescue with her umbrella held aloft. Like most bullies the Bradbury boys were not well endowed with courage, and though their opponent was an elderly lady, they dropped me like the proverbial hot brick and bolted through their back gate.
Her position as assistant manager at the Longton Public Baths allowed her to provide it’s pleasures to me as often as I wanted them, and of course without any expense. - I can never recall having what is described as pocket money, though my mother was always generous when I needed funds for anything. - The baths were built probably in the Victorian era, and they were a well-known landmark having a boiler room with one of the tallest chimneys in the County of Staffordshire. Quite an achievement when you consider what a large number of chimneys my home county had. The main feature was a large swimming pool, which had adjacent to it a second slightly smaller pool, which was sometimes used for ladies only. Then there were the Turkish Steam Baths, which today would probably be described as saunas. Also there was a row of ordinary baths, which could be hired for a small fee. In a city with a large number of houses without a bathroom, it is not surprising that this last facility was a very popular one. What a luxury for a grimy workingman to indulge in a large bath with as much hot water as he could desire. There was no time limit, and the bather could soak in a warm and comfortable environment for as long as he wished. Also popular were large cups of OXO available for the princely sum of half a penny, and if you had money to burn, the more expensive BOVRIL could be purchased for the modest sum of a penny.
It was natural that I should enjoy this little world, which was the kingdom of my Aunt, with her august presence I had little to fear. I spent many happy hours playing in the pool with a crowd of others, mostly children. What never occurred to me was the fact that this was not just my world, or my aunts, but a public place where anyone could enter. The less desirable element in our community was also attracted to a place where everyone was undressed, and activities unsupervised. No one knows, because I have never mentioned until now, that in my ignorance and innocence I came close to a fatal experience. Why have I never talked of it? I suppose because I was very young, and after it was over there seemed little point in it. There were two incidents that I remember though they did not occur on the same day. They might have been related but I cannot say they were with any certainty. Yet again they involved young men who were bullies; with what today one might describe as sociopathic tendencies.
The first incident involved a youth who was enjoying pushing youngsters into deep water and then watching them struggle. He targeted children who either couldn’t swim or were such poor swimmers that they found themselves in difficulty, when suddenly immersed in deep water. I watched the man’s face while he stood on the side of the pool and eagerly absorbed the fear and desperation of the child in the water. My instinct warned me that here was an individual that I should keep well away from, and I did for quite some time, but the pool was busy and eventually I was caught unawares.
Walking round the deep end of the pool I was suddenly pushed violently from behind, and crashed into the water. I knew instantly that I had become another victim of the sadistic bully, but being a good swimmer I was not the fearful victim he expected me to be. Before I rose to the surface I formed a plan, holding my breath for as long as I could, I relaxed and hung in the water until my natural buoyancy made me rise until the top of my head was just breaking the surface. It seemed to be ages before I could hold my breath no longer and lifted my head to breath. Looking around the first thing I saw was the youth standing on the side of the pool with a look of alarm on his face; he seemed paralyzed with fear at what he had done. Then seeing my recovery and realizing that I had tricked him, a procession of emotions passed across his face, relief, disbelief, and finally anger. How could he punish me for my deception? The only thing he could think of was to jump on top of me, which is what he now tried to do. I was too far out from the side of the pool and he dropped short, I of course swam quickly to the side and climbed out, and the last I saw of him was his unskilled efforts to follow me. I quickly made myself scarce, but never reported the incident to anyone.
This was an unpleasant experience, but hardly life threatening, but worse was to come. It was not many days later that I was again having fun in the pool, and while splashing about in the midst of numerous other youngsters, I was seized from behind by an adult or a much bigger and stronger boy. This individual had moved up behind me with a towel in his hands and wrapping it around my face, he pulled me backwards and downwards. His technique was well practiced, I found myself helpless in his grasp. Holding me fast against his lower body at a depth of at least a foot or eighteen inches below the surface, I was completely at his mercy. I struggled violently, and expected my attacker to let me go, once he had enjoyed the experience of frightening me. Time seemed to stand still, and after what to me was an eternity, I began to see stars and feel other manifestations of suffocation. Was this the same sadistic youth who I had outwitted on the earlier occasion? I will never know because I never saw the face of my assailant. The more I struggled the more determined my attacker was to hold me fast. One last desperate thought crossed my fading mind, and that was could I make my assailant believe that I was finished? It was all I had left, so I stopped struggling, and went limp in his grasp, and it worked. Thinking I had lost consciousness the sadistic lunatic who was attacking me relaxed his vice like grip, and with a frantic lunge I broke free and surfaced sucking air in deep gulps. It took me some minutes to recover, and look around, so it is not surprising that I was never able to identify the person responsible. Even his disappearance gave the impression that he had done this sort of thing before, and knew how to lose himself once he had committed his crime. Again I never reported the incident, but what could I say about it? I could not describe the perpetrator, and I could not imagine anything being done about it. Maybe I had learned to keep my troubles to myself, and I was just glad to have survived. I need hardly say that my visits to the baths were few, and far between for quite some time afterwards.
Like it or not, I was now fixed in one place, and moving on was no longer going to be an option. Not that it ever occurred to me to think of such a thing; home was where my mother was, and she was not going to move again. Circumstances ensured that we had to stay, though my mother was no longer happy at Fenton. She had the support of her family around her; however this was not the life she had left behind some three years earlier. Escape was never far from our minds, thankfully were able to from time to time. We had made one escape from the dangers of Derby, but to me it seemed very much like having jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Again it was Aunt Nin and Uncle Bill that came to our rescue. Not long after we left them, they also moved to a safer place. Rolls Royce sent Uncle Bill to work in their new factory at Llandudno Junction, so my Aunt decided to buy a small hotel. Often referred to as a Boarding House, it was at Rhyl in North Wales. It was called ’Plas-Collen’ and this cosy old house with accommodation for about thirty or so guests, became a haven for us until well after the war had ended.
When you consider that the difference in temperament guaranteed that my mother and her sister would fall out after a short time in each other’s company, it is amazing that we spent so much time together. Though now I am aware of a number of reasons why this would be so. To begin with my Aunt did not have enough money to buy the lease on their hotel, so they borrowed money from my father. I am not sure when this loan was paid back, but it must have made it difficult to say ‘No’ when we wanted to visit. Then there was the question of the help that my mother could provide in running the business. There was the odd employee engaged from time to time, but mostly it was just Aunt, with whatever assistance she could get for her husband. No wonder she welcomed us as often as possible, taking advantage of our long visits covering several weeks. My mother was a hard working Jack-of-all-trades, who was a willing assistant, and just as importantly, did not require wages.
After the war there was always the busy holiday season, then in the winter is was usually quiet, with few guests. To begin with the hotel was full all the year round, not with holidaymakers, but with civil servants. There were many of them, sent to expand Government Offices and to run the expanded war effort. It was always fun to visit my Aunt, who always seemed determined to enjoy life, and have a good time. Maybe it was the effects of the war, but there was often a devil may care atmosphere at Plas-Collen. Sometimes the guests helped in the kitchen, and party time was the order of the day, no matter what day it was. To me it seemed like one big family who were determined to enjoy life, no matter what. On one such occasion I stood in stunned amazement when a group of the guests set about each other with wet fish. They had been enjoying sherry and other beverages before dinner, though they were supposed to be helping out with the preparations. They were hell bent on enjoying themselves, and Hitler, and Mussolini, could do their worst. If they had been standing there at that moment, they would have undoubtedly received a slap in the face with a wet cod. Even Churchill himself would not have escaped had he been present, though in his case, the blow would have been delivered with affection rather than in anger. These were serious minded civil servants I am describing, who probably provided the fish in the first place.
I spent a large part of my time at Rhyl, including just about every holiday that came around. Christmas in particular was a time we always went to stay for a week or two at least. With the war in full swing travelling was not easy, especially for a woman alone with two children, so for Christmas 1940 my mother grandly hired a local taxi man to drive us the 70 odd miles from Fenton to Rhyl. I suppose this must have been quite expensive, but it was certainly convenient, so this method was used again a number of times. Later the following year the taxi was used again, and I shall never forget that on this trip we stopped for a refreshment break half way between Nantwhich and Chester, I think it was near a small place called Tarpoley, and while my mother and the driver were in this country pub I wandered about outside. There was a high walled garden behind the pub, and next to it was a rustic sort of building which had a driveway alongside it between the garden wall and its own high wooden fence. In the garden on the corner where the grass covered drive began there was a very large pear tree which was laden with fruit, and as I rounded the corner into the drive I beheld the largest pear I had ever seen lying on the grass in the middle of the drive. I needed both my hands to pick it up, it was so big and heavy and ripe and soft; what could a boy do but sample it’s delights, and I can assure you delightful it certainly was. The honey sweet juice ran everywhere, my face and my hands were soon dripping; I shall never forget what a heavenly moment that was; a memory to treasure, a moment to savour each time I think of it.
My memories of Rhyl are all happy and pleasant ones, and for a while I completely escaped from the smoky depression of life in Stoke-on-Trent. Though I must hasten to add that life did not always run smoothly at Plas-Collen, but as I have said, life was a much happier experience when I was there.
Once again it was Uncle Bill who provided much of the enjoyment that came my way, and is it any wonder that I was always eager to return, even if it meant being away from home and travelling alone. Fishing was his main interest and hobby and I was always included when I was with him. His favourite was trout fishing, and he was fortunate enough to have access to a very desirable stretch of the Clwyd River which ran through the Bryn-y-pin Valley about 7/8 miles inland from Rhyl, so from time to time, we would go and fish for trout at this beautiful location. - This opportunity came about because Uncle Bill had made friends with a retired Manchester businessman who was developing a chicken and turkey farm at this very scenic location. - Being young I was not all that enthralled with such a tranquil pastime, but even for me it did have its moments. There was the time for instance when I had been set up with a light rod and a wet fly, and was instructed to stand at the top of a shallow race in the river, and let my fly travel down the rapids in the hope of a strike. I did this for a while, but being left alone and getting bored with the lack of activity, I soon began to get sloppy about the whole procedure, letting my fly drift further into a deep pool on a bend in the river just below the shallows. What a shock I got when a good-sized salmon took the fly, and started to leap in the pool where he had been laying. I had no idea what to do next, though I realised afterwards that there had been no chance of actually catching the fish with a trout fly and such light tackle. I shouted for help of course, and held the rod while the salmon played merry hell with my line for several minutes, but inevitably the line broke and the fish was gone.
The Clwyd was quite a good salmon river, and when the fish were running the local fishermen would net them at the mouth of the river which debouched into the sea at Rhyl. Occasionally my Aunt would purchase a fresh fish and serve it to her guests as a special treat, and I admit to enjoying the attention I received when sent to buy the required fish straight from the net at the river mouth. With a piece of cord through its gills I would carry my prize back along the promenade through the holiday crowds, attracting considerable attention and interest, and on one occasion even an enquiry regarding the possible purchase of my prize.
For Uncle Bill any form of fishing was of interest, and he had a good selection of sea rods in addition to his trout rods; I spent many hours with him angling for flat fish at the end of Rhyl pier. There was a practical aspect to this pastime as well, with food strictly rationed and fish often in short supply. Mostly our efforts on the pier were disappointing, so we also devised a more effective way of complementing the larder. What we did was set long lines, and that usually achieved much better results. For the uninitiated I should explain, the method was to place about 20 or 30 yards of heavy line between pieces of broom stale. Every 12 or 18 inches along the line we would tie a short piece of lighter line, each with a baited hook. ( lug worms or rag worms dug from the beach were the usual bait,) the anchors were then buried in the sand at low tide, and the baits covered with a handful of sand to keep the seagulls off until the water covered the line. At the next low tide, we would present ourselves eagerly to see what we had caught; but as with all fishing we were sometimes pleased with the results, and sometimes there was disappointment, with little or nothing to show for our efforts.
The times I spent at Rhyl were always pleasurable, and until my Aunt and Uncle moved on I was always happy to return for another sojourn with them. In 1949, I went to live with them, working for my Uncle in his auto-engineering workshop. In 1952, I went to stay with them while I was recuperating from the illness, which resulted in my discharge from the army. In 1955, I was back again trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. However, I am getting ahead of myself, in my efforts to show how big a part Rhyl plays in my story.

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