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Monday, 4 June 2007

Shamans in short trousers

Percy wore a long, sand coloured coat and a brown flat cap. His face was red, weather-beaten and he looked a bit like Mr. Punch. He was our milkman and delivered it punctually on horse and cart. We would lie in wait, lurking behind cars or in alleyways and then leap on the back. There we hung, hidden by milk crates, pursued by Kiowa and mouthing silent but deadly gun noises: the Deadwood Express, now peppered with arrows, tearing along at one mile per hour and Percy the Milkman oblivious to the carnage around him. Or so we thought, or liked to think. The Deadwood Express ended halfway down Greenwich Road opposite the graveyard where the horse had its stable.

To the right of the Power-station at the bottom of our street, ran a narrow alleyway bounded by a high brick wall. On the other side was a long unkempt field, for some reason called ‘The allotments’, though nothing grew there, and any would be gardener would have had to have been fairly agile because there was no way into it other than by climbing over the wall. It held a sea of grass that rose into a railway embankment, thick in gorse and bramble, rich in wartime artefacts.

It was a world dominated by gangs - innocent but real. Our opponents, whom we feared - or at least I did -, came from Kingswood Avenue. The ‘Kingy-elly Gang,’ (Adding the letter Y to the end of a word makes for a pleasing rhythm and is the essence of abbreviation in Liverpool.) When they flowed over the wall at the furthest end of the field we would wave sticks at each other, throw a few stones, and then one or the other, sometimes both, would retreat in clouds of defiance and clods of earth.

Once we built, what we hoped would be a lasting monument to our tiny nation-state: a deep, roughly circular underground den, its roof made from earth and branches, and the whole thing cunningly disguised by a thick layer of grass. Rain poured through it.

In children’s picture books, rabbits and voles live in intimate and cosy burrows, which on the page resemble snuggle-up-able orange or brown blankets. Our den was dark and wet. We sat on lumps of mud and were always in danger of ‘trench-foot’. We tried lighting a small fire and almost suffocated. Smoke tore at our lungs but we stayed as long as we could, unwilling to admit another bad idea.

It was but a natural progression to inhaling smoke direct. Cigarettes. Miles or Kevin Hartley, Alan or Steven Davis, maybe Carol Charters, I can’t remember who first introduced them. They were bought singly, or pinched in ones or twos from parental packets, and referred to as ‘looseys’ employing the ubiquitous Liverpool consonant.

In the days before marijuana - at least for pre Beatle schoolchildren - we sat underground passing round the single cigarette, Shamans in short trousers. To cough showed weakness and provoked mild derision - depending on who had coughed. To leave a ‘ducks-arse’ however was the greatest sin of all. The origin of the name is shrouded in mystery. No one had ever seen a duck’s arse, let alone felt one. Poetry perhaps. Our first introduction to metaphor. In real terms it meant passing on a cigarette wet in spittle and I was the greatest sinner of all. I coughed and spluttered, and was brutally re-assigned to guard duty, banned from the inner circle of hardened smokers. My brother was not so lucky and it took him some years to kick the habit.

Then one day, on a whim, or perhaps because of a collapsed roof and a blazing hot summer, we decided on a swimming pool. The cavity became even deeper; our ambition knew no bounds, and soon a human chain was passing along buckets of water from the nearest house to our hole in the ground. In our minds we’d visualised a deep blue cooling pool. We got a chocolate brown mess that we felt honour bound to paddle in.

Now small houses crammed together occupy where we used to play.

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