I was born in the bedroom of a mining village house nearly 76 years ago … and what a wonderful childhood I had! In retrospect it seemed to me that summers were scorching hot and winters were very cold with plenty of snow. I can’t remember who said that I wasn’t born, but knitted by the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), and pushed through the letterbox when my mother wasn’t looking!
My Mother had a leather strap hanging on a nail in what we used to call ‘the back kitchen.’ I remember it stinging when she chastised me, which was often. My father never raised his hand in anger once; he was a miner and a true gentle man. I loved them both.
A Naughty Boy
I remember being ‘encouraged’ to leave the house early in the morning and left to my own devices. I got up to all kinds of mischief.
The milkman left bottles outside most properties in the row. Perhaps you remember the style – cardboard top enclosures with cream visible in the top two inches. I was adept at removing the top, swigging the cream, physically topping it up and carefully replacing the cardboard … use your imagination.
No mean feat for a little lad. Thinking about it now, it was remarkable I could hold my water and use it to refill another couple of bottles. Couldn’t do it now!
Then the inevitable happened. A neighbour, half asleep, wearing white voluminous night attire and hair in curlers, caught me in mid-flow. I can still hear the strangled screech and the rough tugging of the ear; and me with trousers about my ankles, being marched back home with the lady shrieking loudly for my mother. Me Ma spared me no mercy. I hated that leather strap. Sometimes it was inevitably ‘lost’. I used to blame ‘Scampy’, our excitable and noisy Yorkshire terrier.
Trouble used to follow me around. Me Ma pleaded with the headmaster of the local school to admit me early, and he reluctantly agreed. Albeit, although fewer in number and despite the leather belt, my nefarious activities continued.
The village school was rather small and built in a quadrangular shape. You entered as an infant, moved up to juniors and, if you didn’t pass the 11+, passed out the other end as a senior. Most boys ended up working on a farm or down the pit. I ended up at the local colliery. At the tender age of 14 I embarked on a soul-destroying job on the surface, picking stone from coal. This lasted for about a year, then I was offered an apprenticeship as an electrician.
I enjoyed school. There were two entrances, one for boys and the other for girls. Teachers had separate staff rooms and there was an air raid shelter in both playgrounds. This was late 1945, so they were boarded up when I became a pupil.
Pigs, Church, Hens and Other Birds
My Aunty Sadie and Aunty Mary lived next door to each other and both kept open house. As a kid, I would lift up the latch, go in and sit down; sometimes say nowt then just return home. Aunt Mary always had a cauldron of something hissing and bubbling on the fire – I guess it was mash for the pigs, although my only, somewhat hazy memory of a pig is one hanging up on the wall outside.
A more vivid memory is the tree stump in the back garden where Uncle Ted would dispatch the hens (we never called them ‘chickens’). After decapitation they would run around for ages afterwards. He would give us the legs and we would practice making the toes move by pulling a ligament – and frightening the smallest person we could find. Another of my pastimes was to release Aunt Mary’s hens. She wasn’t very pleased – and neither was my Mother. Time for the belt!
Goodness, re-reading what I have just written sounds horrendous and I can’t imagine anything like that happening today. My parents were good people and I don’t blame them for the mischievous child I was.
They sent me to church every Sunday. Even though I collected the stamp proving that I had attended, it was a sham. I always volunteered to stay in the vestry and pump the organ. Using my feet for this task meant that I could read a comic at the same time. My favourites were the Dandy, Beano and Film Fun. In retrospect, Dennis the Menace was probably my role model, though I didn’t realise it at the time!
Kids in those far-off days did unusual things like digging out a hive of white-arsed or sandy bumbler bees, transporting the buzzing bundle of boundless energy into a back garden wilderness, simply to watch them going about their business. Thus I was familiar with the excruciating pain of a bee sting from an early age and soon became immune.
I tried – unsuccessfully – to trap Spuggys ( House Sparrows ) by propping up the galvanised bin lid with a stick and hiding in the netty at the end of a piece of cord. They were attracted by the food and when they went to get some, I pulled the string. The resultant clattering din not only scared the birds away, but also annoyed the miners who were trying to get some sleep. I wasn’t popular!
Incidentally, in the North East, we always referred to the lavatory as the ‘netty’. My father told me this was one of the words left to us by the invading Romans. On the Roman Wall, and at intervals, you will find a gabinetti. The word, meaning a toilet, is still used in Italy today. We simply truncated the word to ‘netty’.
The word evokes one of my most painful memories. Think strap. At school we were encouraged to write poetry and the best efforts were mounted on a wallpaper frieze adorning the classroom wall. I thought that I had written a masterpiece, but it never appeared.
At home and in my innocence I recited the verse to my Mother, together with gestures reminiscent of the classic ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ …
In the words of Queen Victoria, she ‘wasn’t amused’ and I felt the full fury of her wrath.
My First Metal Detector This section is adapted from a longer and previous lost blog post …
We made our own amusements. Remember, I am evoking a time when it was not out of the ordinary for children to enjoy unlimited freedom and, like many of the local lads kept a jackdaw as a pet … my first metal detector!
Jacky (imaginative name) was ‘acquired’ from the local quarry as a fledgling and ensconced in a rough and ready-made small cree hastily constructed by my father. You could tell the boys who kept jackdaws by the running streak of black and white droppings down the back of their jerkins – for some reason the bird would involuntary defecate when landing on your shoulder.
The jackdaw is known to be a gregarious bird and especially fond of people. I found Jacky easy to adopt and keep as a pet. We had great fun. He was noisy, inquisitive, enjoyed performing amusing tricks and even learned to imitate (in his raspy voice) my calling of his name.
I reckon that if all the birds in the world took an intelligence test, then the jackdaw would top the scores. It is a well-known fact that he will fly off with any pretty little object that catches his eye and Jacky often returned home with spoons, rings and other bright shiny objects that he had stolen.
One day he returned with an Acme Thunderer whistle he had snitched from a guy refereeing at the local football match. That was his undoing. An irate fan downed Jacky with a catapult when he returned for a second forage. I cried for a week. You never forget your first metal detector!
Test Results for the Jackdaw
- Ergonomics – very light, able to fly and well designed, but can be quite messy – 9
- User Friendliness – comes when called. Operates better without supervision – 10
- Build Quality – rather fragile, I suppose. Avoid catapults and stroppy pigeons – 8
- Weather resistance – you’ll never have to put it in the airing cupboard to dry off – almost waterproof – 10
- Performance – discriminates well. Avoids dross and other dull crap – 10
- Value for Money – Minimal initial outlay – 9
- Battery Life – Perhaps its Achilles Heel – needs frequent and constant top-upsof grubs, black beetles and centipedes – 6