Out Now!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

The Dog and the Mangle

For my children who will never enjoy the simple pleasure of mangling wet washing, or teachers and other enemies of the people. Ours was squeezed into the kitchen.

Our kitchen was a 4ft by 6 ft box large enough for a sink, stove, and mangle. It also held a small fridge and an over-large cabinet that held everything else. The best parties are held in the kitchen, they say, but not in ours, though it once held a dog.

A mystery dog, referred to, but only in one iconic story. It was a bull terrier that held pride of place in 14 Ribblesdale, until our mother came along. Our dad spoke of it with pride but it was always the same story. It began with a knock on the front door and my mother, not wishing the dog to run out, tied it to the mangle table before answering it.. The caller kept her talking for some time and then left. When she turned round she found the dog half-way down the hall and half choking and dragging the mangle table behind him. The story ended with nods of approval from senior members of the family, well, the men at least. ‘Bull terriers never bark warning,’ ‘when they bite, they’ll never let go’ and ‘they’re loyal to a fault.’

We never got to find that out because our mother fought to make the house a pet-free zone. We did however get to use the mangle, which was the C19th answer to the spin dryer. Clothes were squeezed between two large rollers, and in the days before television, it represented one of the smaller highlights of the week, because ‘only strong boys could turn the handle to a mangle.’ And simple ones.

Eventually we wore our mum down. It began, like most things with deceit. She had gone off for a long weekend with our dad and we were staying with our grandparents at 24 Helsby. Now that was a treat, even better than the mangle. She took us to ‘The Wizard’s Den’ in Dale St. where we stocked up on itching powder and other essential sundries, and we persuaded her to take us to a pet shop in the same street.
“Are you sure, boys?”
“Yes, mum gave us the money to buy a small pet.”

It was a case of wish becoming reality and we brought back an albino guinea pig and two hamsters, maybe a mouse or two. She allowed us to keep them in a dressing table drawer until we got home, and only now do I fully realise how tolerant she was, and how gullible - or possibly mischievous.

As I remember our dad was amused and we were allowed to keep them in a hastily constructed cage in the back yard. It was the thin end of the wedge. We acquired a small Dutch Rabbit that was never to be allowed into the house. Only one day our mother accidentally stood on its leg, causing it to limp. From then on she was called Susie and was allowed into the kitchen where she followed our mum like a small, well trained cat. From there we moved on to hedgehogs and we ended up with a pets’ graveyard, big enough for a Stephen King novel.

Eventually the flood-gates opened wider than was good for us, though we didn’t think so at the time. Our uncle John, now a lorry driver, brought home two wild English rabbits - they may have been hares - they were bloody big. How, or why he caught them God only knows, but he brought them to 14 Ribblesdale.

These were big beasts, and fierce. They drove away cats and took umbrage at not being allowed into the house. Several times they tried jumping over the wall, but never quite made it, and they intimidated us as we ate. There’s a risible horror movie about giant killer rabbits. They came from Aintree.

Our table was directly next to the window and as we ate, first one and then the other would leap onto the window-sill and bang their heads against the glass, or else just stare at us. Daring us to eat. I think Hitchcock blew it with ‘The Birds.’ He should have made ‘The Rabbits.’

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Life in the Fast Lane

I'm on the left. Tony is pulling a gargoyle face. It was a hobby we had.

Our car was a small black Austin with leather seats, foot-boards below the passenger doors and small yellow indicators that flicked out like dead canaries when the car was about to turn left or right. Whilst our dad was at sea, it was kept in a garage - one of four converted stables - opposite Melling Avenue, and was only brought out when he came home.

Our dad, a seaman with an innate distrust of anything faster than a ship, drove a sedate 30 mph. and we ignored with some disdain those who overtook us at a reckless 40, turned away from the curious stares.

All that was after we got the car started.

Starting ‘Biggleswoop’ - (the name of the car. Don’t ask me why) - involved cranking the engine. A thick metal rod with an angular handle was inserted into the front of the car and then turned. For most of my childhood, I just assumed he was winding the car up like some great mechanical clock and that in itself was the reason for our cautious speed. Go any faster and the car might run down, leaving us stranded somewhere in the country. My mechanical knowledge remains much the same. We sat in the back praying the sun wouldn’t go in before the car started. Finally, after a bit of a cough, would come the first apologetic murmur and the car would shudder and then grumble into life.

Sometimes I wonder where I got the 30mph stuff. Ainsdale beach - a common destination - was only ten miles away, but it seemed like it took an hour to get there. Whatever the speed the landmarks remained the same: to our left a Crisps factory, (Smiths) Vernon’s Pools, the Race Course Garage; to our right Aintree Racecourse and in the far distance the great towers of our local chemical works. At the Old Roan, we turned left along the A569 and for the first time smelt country, in reality a small garden cemetery, then a few houses and finally Ince woods.
Sometimes we stopped there and walked around a small pond, wondering what our mum and dad found so much to talk about. We ate small cheese sandwiches and then we went home.

Sometimes we parked next to a mound of gravel that we’d climb up and hide behind, until the novelty wore off. We ate small cheese sandwiches and then we went home.
And on good days we’d go to Woodvale. This was a small airport. It’s only claim to fame was the fact that Charles De Gaulle once landed there, and it had a windsock which was only important to us. When we saw that we knew were only ten minutes away from the beach. Opposite the airport was a large stretch of common, and beyond that woodland. That was heaven. Our mum in her red coat, our dad in his grey gabardine would walk slowly, hand in hand and allow us to tear off like dogs unleashed. They always caught up with us because at the far end of the common was a thin strand of trees, bushes and a ditch. Beyond, a garden forbidden to us, though sometimes we strayed.

The woods began across the road and it was easy to get lost in them. Memory is a strange and wonderful thing. Powerful too, though not always useful. Where is the use in regretting something past? What is so magical about a great mound of bramble? A narrow tunnel wove through to its centre. It was dark and green and thorns tore through elbows and knees, but at its very centre was a secret glade humming with bees and full of butterflies. I’d lie on my back for hours (5 minutes is an hour or two for a small boy) knowing that until I felt the need for a small cheese sandwich, no one need ever see me again.

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.