Round about three
Canvey in the early 1930s. Impressions of childhood.
This eloquent and subtle record of childhood was written a few years ago by Dudley George. Enjoy!
Once upon a time, when I was very small, there were no winters. Well…not that I recall. There were sparklers on November nights, Christmases with presents and Easters with eggs – but no winters to remember.
The mountainous summers of my boyhood were composed of long, lazy, wasp-dodging days, when grasshoppers rejoiced in their green cathedrals, flies in the kitchen were hard put to find room on the Honeypot flypaper, evening bluebottles lingered on west-facing walls and warm bloodied little children found it too hot to sleep through the gnat-humming nights.
How many times I was taken to the beach during those pre- school summers, I shall never know. I do know that the eager journeys there were much shorter than the reluctant trailing home. I remember playing on the sand in clammy rubber paddlers with a sailboat motif – much too tight for comfort, but far too loose to keep the pebbles out. My costume – hand-knitted from a Davy Jones’ pattern and designed to drag you under – sagged when wet to below my knees and felt like slimey seaweed. I had a swimming ring with a duck’s head on that was hard to blow up and a lovable giraffe that was hard to stay on. There were gentle waves for paddling; rougher ones for swallowing; tears for wiping; and outstretched arms to run to, where I could shiver in the warmth of a clean white towel, and where the smell of the sea seemed stronger. I would close my eyes and listen to the multitude of seaside sounds coming from far beyond my orange eyelids, and wish it were for ever.
Sometimes my father would come with us. “Of course it’s safe!” he would snap at my mother and, leaving her to mind her tongue and our clothes, he would hoist me on his back and swim to the deep, deep water where the pale pink jellyfish were; to where the seagulls rode the glass-smooth swell, sliding down the watery slopes caused by passing pleasure boats.
My father knew everyone of importance – or so it seemed. He would wave to the man who swept the streets or the one who collected the deckchairs. He knew the lady with the shooting gallery, her mother on the coconuts and the man in charge of the swings. “How does Daddy get goes on things for nothing?” I asked my mother. “Because he knows the man,” she said. And when he returned to us, I would hold his hand more tightly.
I can still smell the sun on American-cloth of fabric-bodied cars, when Mickey Mouse was five years old, lemonade was yellow, and I fell in love with Roma.
Sixteen sweet years of prettiness – an innocent femme fatale. Instinctively, as young girls do, she mothered me, and I obeyed her every word. I can still taste the well-sucked cardboard on the Walls Sno-fruits she bought me, and her saying: “spit” as she wiped my mouth with her hanky (or was it mine?).
She wheeled me to the seafront many times and although my mother paid her, I thought she took me out of kindness. Perhaps she did. She was my Roma and I was besotted by her. Eventually, as many friendships do, ours ended. She was young and carefree and I was young and fickle – of course it couldn’t last. She left me, to join a concert party and I found others (but not as nice) to buy me things.
Uncle Sam’s Minstrels were housed in a white, weatherboarded barn of a building, the sides of which were open from elbow- leaning height to eaves. Fixed to the gutterboards were blinds of sailcloth which could be rolled up or let down at Uncle Sam’s discretion in order to coax a few more coppers from those outside. As I remember, the collecting boxes were optimistically large and sounded sadly empty. I suspect that the total of coins cajoled was sometimes less than the trouser buttons so freely donated.
Of all my recollections, that of the blinds is very clear. Many were the times I was lifted up, only to meet them coming down. I remember that same coarse, brown, coalbarge canvas unfurled in our faces with all the subtlety of a well-blown raspberry, proving to be as tormenting as Salome’s seventh to a sex-starved sailor.
With a roll of drums and a crash of light, the Minstrel Shows began. No distasteful double meanings or sophisticated wit, but an opening chorus of ebony colliers – all teeth and eyes and minor discords – boasting more genial uncles than a pawnbrokers’ outing.
Uncle Peter sang silly songs and we all joined in the bits we knew. Uncle Clarence, with timely interventions, told jokes of chickens crossing roads, of elephants and sausages and things we thought were funny. Aunty Flora and Uncle Teddy pulled coloured flags from nowhere, while Aunty Violet played In a Monastery Garden on her musical saw.
There were sketches – well seasoned with a dash of sauce – served on a cream panorama. Uncles who danced and juggled and Aunties who danced and sang…all versatile…all talented – a complete compendium of seaside fun.
It was soon after my romance with Roma ended that I was taken, as a special treat, to an evening performance of the Minstrels. I sat on my mother’s lap and laughed and clapped when she did, and my father came in late through talking to Uncle Sam’ so I don’t suppose we paid. The men were dressed in costumes of four black and orange, with orange ruffs to match; they all wore mortar boards.
“Why don’t their hats fall off?” I asked. “I expect they stick them on.” The whispered reply succeeded in hushing me and I thought of the stickiest thing I knew, and that was golliwog jam.
There was a song about climbing up a mountain, where they all ran up and down a ladder. An aunty with a large white bow in her hair, tap-danced and sang “I’ve got rhythm in my nursery rhymes” assisted by an uncle in a schoolmaster’s gown, who pointed to the words on a blackboard, we all joined in.
I liked the aunties with their pill-box hats. In the glaring lights, their lips were red, their eyes were blue, their dresses were sleeveless and their smiles were for us. They had ruffs around their necks and wrists which were like the frill round my birthday cake, and their shiny satin skirts; both pleated and depleted were-the smartest I had ever seen.
The band struck up another tune and a different aunty entered. “Look,” my mother said quietly, pointing at the stage, “it’s Roma.” And so it was. Looking more lovely than I had ever seen her, and dipping to the music on dimpled knees I had never noticed before, she shook her finger at the audience and warned them that the love-bug would get them if they didn’t watch out. It was too late. I had just been bitten by her for the second time.
The impact she had on me was indescribable. Here was the princess of my story books – the epitome of beauty and all I desired. “It’s Roma,” I whispered to my father in breathless wonder. “Yes,” he said, waggling one foot in time to the music. And I knew I loved her more than anything…but, somehow, not in the same way as strawberry jam.
I thought she hadn’t seen us sitting in the dark, but in the interval she came to see us. “Hello,” she smiled, bending forward. “Are you enjoying it?” I nodded shyly. Beneath the softer lights, her eyes still sparkled, and I gazed silently in adoration. Her make-up and costume far outshone anything I had ever seen – even the bright glossy paint on my new soldier skittles. She was as colourful as a clown on a circus poster. Roma was ‘on the stage’. She was famous. And I was so proud that I knew her. She had always liked me, and I liked her more than I ever had.
Outside the Globe of Death, two pensioners sucked slowly on their pipes and watched intently as two khaki-clad riders mounted their motorcycles on rollers, kicked them into life and opened the throttles wide . Each machine’ s drumming bark drawing a crowd more quickly than a barker’s drum.
Uncombed boys with grass-stained knees and rucked-up socks (but most with socks rucked down) searched in vain their perforated pockets for sixpences already spent, and resolved to help their parents more…starting from tomorrow. Abandoned mums shielded their satin bundles from the noise and watched as their excited husbands forced their way to the front – “Honestly, Frank, you’re a child!” And even nice just like young ladies, cool as Dresden in their summer prints, paused for a moment, stifled a sigh, succumbed to the smell of Castrol, and stayed till well past teatime.
The tall lady with the toffee tin and roll of tickets, smiled at my father, and to the sounds of Sousa, we went in to join those who had paid. Confronting us and filling the tent was a huge metal latticework globe, painted silver to hide the rust. Its strong steel wire supports stretched out and down to nestle it on a bed of timbers. A bike growled reluctantly as they coaxed it up the ramp and, clinging to my father I watched them slam the curved door and shut it in its cage. Snarling loudly and looking for a way out, it circled round and gathered speed – each circuit higher than the one -before, spitting fiery fumes like a foul-mouthed dragon and changing direction as it rose from round and round to spluttering up and coughing down – and pausing at the top to ask the way. Sometimes the engine ‘cut’ completely from lack of air, as the audience below, stretching their necks to gasp, sucked it in so fast that it caused a shortage.
With a snarling buzz of angry wasps, the show continued. Two riders rode in opposite directions, touching shoulders as they passed. The toffee-tin and ticket lady, her feet glued to the bottom of the cage, swayed only just enough to escape disaster; her blindfolded partner hurtling by in lipstick-smudging nearness.
A motorcycle combination was trundled in. The music was augmented by a fanfare of oscillation and a voice invited anyone who dared, to ride in the sidecar. Heads turned and words were mouthed from friend to friend. Rowdy youths performed the well-known dance of stumble forward, two steps back, then turn and clout the one who pushed you, and why- don’t-you-go? glances were passed along the lines, as the man with the sidecar revved the bike and the eyes of the ticket lady searched the crowd.
There can be no doubt that those who did risk a ride found it far more thrilling than anything the fairground had to offer. It was certainly much less safe. Even the chair planes that swung you out had chains to keep you in, and a failure of power would only slow you down. The sidecar was different. Once inside, there was nothing for it but to hold on tight and pray that the near-stalling that had gone before was only part of the act.
The invitation was repeated; the music began again and a colleague joined the ticket lady. Together they prowled the gangways, seeking the brave or the foolish. A flurry of handkerchiefs blossomed, spectacles were shone profusely, and a snuffle of noses were wiped. Well-fed men rolled emaciated cigarettes, licking them at length and studying them intently. An army of boots entrenched themselves more firmly into the short-cut, long-dead turf, and one of the nice young ladies smiled at her fiancée and gripped his hand – convinced that he had stood his ground for her sake. There were those who were dared to but didn’t dare to. A few who would have liked to but didn’t like to. And the majority, who thought the thought unthinkable.
I suppose it was natural that my father should volunteer, for I know from experience that a great deal of his life was spent ignoring the rules of self-preservation. Not from bravery or bravado, but because he saw no danger in anything/ he invariably exceeded the stated dose. It may have been that he felt sorry for the ticket lady and gallantry prompted him, or perhaps he felt obligated as he hadn’t paid, but before I could pout my bottom lip – he was gone. Seconds later, blurred by my tears and segmented by the metal mesh, I saw him climb into the bullet-shaped sidecar and with the roar of a thousand blowlamps and to the sound of Sousa, I watched him blaze away.
Out of control, the tears streamed down my face, overflowing its gentle shallows and forming a Vandyke of salty wetness as they gathered beneath my chin. Beyond my sobs I could hear the droning of the motorcycle, stalling with frightening regularity as it threatened to drag the sidecar to certain doom. I had never been so lonely. The globe and the tent were very big and I was very small, and a blue-grey haze from the burning oil was drifting about, like the smoke from a witch’s cauldron. I wanted my Daddy back.
Eventually, by the grace of God and the courtesy of St. Christopher, my father returned from his tour of the globe unharmed. Perhaps he expected our reunion to be warmer, but his “Don’t be silly” and his hug and kiss did nothing, except to make my lip droop more. The breathless sobbing was hard to stop – and I didn’t really want it to.
With futile attempts at consolation, he carried me home to my mother where, slightly moist, and tired from top to toe, I blotted my tears on her turquoise blouse in the safety of her softness, and listened as my father told his tale. I don’t remember what she said, but I recall the look she gave. And he went without his tea and found things to do in the evening gloom of his garage.
Some twenty years later, a beautiful young lady named Carol, started work at the same company as myself. I had only known her a few weeks when she remarked that her mother knew me. “She used to take you out when you were little.” I would have loved to have met Roma again, but perhaps it was best that I didn’t. I suspect we would both have been disappointed.
The pretty young girl who dazzled me has gone from my life for ever. But I still think of those summer days when Mickey Mouse was five, lemonade was yellow and I fell in love for the first time.