I’ve always thought that to start an autobiography with the phrase ‘My
earliest recollections are of…’ was a very trite thing to do, sort of like the
proverbial dark and stormy nights of literary legend. However, when that
recollection involves coming within a cat’s whisker of setting the family home
ablaze and possibly wiping out the entire French dynasty in one mischievous
stroke…what choice do I have?
It was the first of many houses that I remember living in. My dad bought the
house, he owned it outright. It was the end house in Shand Street, right next
to the docks at Garston in south Liverpool. Shand Street was the last street
which ran off King Street, right at the dock entrance. It was about as far
‘Under The Bridge’ as you could get without getting your feet wet in the River
Mersey. We had running water, which ran from a huge brass tap into a
massive Belfast sink which boasted a wonderful pattern of cracks over every
square inch of it, inside and out. We had gas too, which fed the wall lights in
the back ‘living room’ and later on, the stove which was parked in the lean-to
at the back of the house.
In the living room we had a coal fire, and this is where I almost ended
everything before it had really had a chance to get going. My siblings were all
of the opposite sex, one older and two younger than me. (This is the main
reason for my habit of securely locking the bathroom door on every visit even
now, much to my wife Anita’s annoyance.) We were in the living room one
winter morning having crept down the stairs while our mum slept in her room.
Dad had gone out to work. He worked six days a week. After many complaints
about the freezing cold, after the novelty of melting patterns on the ice
coated windows with fingertips had worn off, I decided I could light the fire
just like dad. I will say right now that I was definitely cheered on and
encouraged to do this daft thing by said siblings.
The best way to light a coal fire, after the paper and kindling (or later,
firelighters) had been properly stacked and positioned, was to light the paper
and then ‘Draw’ the fire using a draw screen. The draw screen blocks of the
front opening of the fireplace and forces air up through the coals from the
bottom vents. The resulting furnace-like roar of the blazing coals as they
crackle and pop behind the screen is a curiously satisfying sound still.
The thing is, back then only the posh people had proper fire screens. We had
to make do with the short handled shovel or the poker, and a full two page
spread from a broadsheet paper. As soon as the fire had caught enough to
definitely stay alight all by itself, the shovel preferably, would be stood on the
front of the grate, wedged between the ornamental castellation and propped
against the top of the opening by the wooden handle. The full broadsheet
page could then be spread across the opening supported against the shovel
as the vacuum pulled it toward the fire behind.
Now, watching the light of the fire behind one flimsy sheet of newspaper can
soon become quite a hypnotic experience for a five year old. It starts with a
dancing red light glowing behind the paper and then progresses to a slight
browning of the paper at each side of the metal part of the shovel. These
entrancing brown spots soon turn black and grow from the centre outwards.
The final phase of this incredibly interesting spectacle can be almost explosive
as the whole thing bursts into flames and starts flying around the room, as it
did on this occasion. A particularly large piece of burning paper landed on the
scattered unused sections of the broadsheet which immediately burst into
flame on contact. This generated lots of jumping up and down, along with
very loud screaming and wailing from at least two of my siblings – the ones
that were old enough to really understand what a mess we had gotten
ourselves into – which brought mum bounding down the stairs and into the
room. After dealing with the flames and pouring water onto the melted
linoleum, she duly imparted a different sort of heat to my ‘stupid’ and ‘idiotic’
It could have been much worse. We could have had curtains and carpets, or
a wooden floor under the lino instead of a stone slab floor. This was 1950’s
Liverpool and the house my dad bought was already almost ninety years old.
Despite these obvious hardships, Garston was a magical place to spend your
childhood years. We had Robinson Crusoe’s Hut, The Cast Iron Shore, (The
Cassie), Crab Island, Dungeon Shore, Hale Lighthouse, Hale Marshes, Oglet
Shore, Dingle Cliffs, Knotts Hole, and of course, the Docks. We went to the
‘Bag wash’ with mum and clambered over the huge wooden drying racks. We
went to the ‘Pictures’ on Saturday morning, then played out the film on the
rugged wasteland opposite the cinema building.
We didn’t have paedophiles or rapists back then, but we did have ‘Let ‘im
have it Hanratty’ and later, Ronnie Biggs the great train robber. It was safe
for us to explore our own territory to our hearts content. We defended our
territory with a fierce determination. Every street had its own gang, every
gang a bunch of scruffy six to eleven year old ‘hardnocks’. It seemed that
there was a pub at the end of every street though it was probably only every
second street, so the adults appeared to have their own ‘gangs’ too.
On Saturday afternoons we would gather around the end of the street by the
pub to watch the inevitable fight after throwing out time. The best ones were
the ones that featured men from different streets, one of whom was obviously
in the wrong pub. The winner was usually the one who could unbuckle and
whip his thick leather belt through the belt loops of his trousers the quickest.
This didn’t work at all with elastic snake buckle belts, which is probably why
we stuck with sticks and stones when we fought with the gang from the next
Friday night was fish and chips night. Dad got paid on Friday and brought the
dinner in wrapped in newspapers. I remember the smell, tangy vinegar which
made my eyes water and my mouth too. After the fish and chips dad would
pull out the Friday treat, chocolate! It would be sixpenny Cadbury bars or a
packet of Rollo’s.
Dad always wore a large green jacket, almost military in style, with lots of
bulging pockets all over it. Those pockets contained treasures beyond belief,
but they were firmly out of bounds to us kids.
To be continued