A Journey back in time


We are conditioned to look forwards – our bodies growing upwards in balance with our vision and understanding, and so often childhood is looked back upon through rose-tinted glasses.
My own childhood, the youngest of three girls with a younger adopted brother was … uneventful. By that I mean there was no violence or extremes of poverty, beyond the privations of the post-war years.
My father an engineer and obviously earning good money because he complained about paying supertax, which was 19 shillings and 6 pence in the pound on anything over £2,000 per annum. Mother received £11 a week to clothe and feed a family of six and had to beg for money to pay Miss Hirons, our piano teacher. Father paid for a beach holiday each year and expensive dinners which he alone enjoyed with his golfing cronies.
We didn’t mind. Except at Christmas when I had to write a list with prices before he gave me some money to buy them, detailing precisely every penny … even the penny for the public convenience.
As I said, we didn’t much care about that because we hated his being in the house and equally he hated being there. Thank heavens for his job which meant he departed early every Monday morning for work in Darlington, Scunthorpe, Sheffield or London, and as the house relaxed, we ate our breakfast and headed off to school.

Why did we hate his being in the house?
Looking back, I cannot remember a single kind word, his entire attitude being one of criticism. If I got 90% in an exam, why hadn’t I got 100%? If I was third in a piano competition, why wasn’t I first? Never a well done … and I was his favourite. He loathed my brother because he was adopted, spent all his time picking at him and we spent all our time protecting him.
But no violence – he never once smacked us. I learned many years later that Mother, when we were bombed out of our homes in Croydon and living with relatives near Birmingham, had taken him into the garden and told him, if he ever laid a hand on any of us, she would kill him. And he never did.

And Mother? Don’t get me wrong. She cared for us – we had good food and clean clothes. That was her way of showing love. Looking back, I guess all the gaiety and affection she had possessed as a young woman was driven out of her by father’s constant criticism and bad temper, and the bits  left she hid deep inside herself. A hug and a kiss didn't exist or if it did, I don't remember them ... we made do with a distant smile of approval. Although she nursed us all religiously day and night when we were ill.

Christmas was the best for us and the worst for Mother. At Christmas, she cleaned brass and washed curtains, expected of any housewife in the times through which we were living … cleanliness is next to godliness … and so hard did she work, by Christmas Day she was too tired to eat her dinner.

My aunt visited every Christmas. I was probably thirty because Mother admitted that she was my brother’s real mother. Born out of wedlock, a slur on any self-respecting family, she was lovely and helped defuse the two days my father was at home … Christmas Day and Boxing Day. We didn’t care, for us it was Christmas and exciting; for Mother two days of torture, although even the walls gave a sigh of relief when he departed for golf the following day.

I remember his being sent luxury gifts from grateful clients at Christmas Time, although Mother had to beg for the money to tip the postman and the dustman and milkman. One year it was a turkey. Sent by train from the north, we drove to New Street station to collect it. Delayed – it had gone off – its feathers ruffled and disintegrating.  One year it was a car – an A30. He had been responsible for the heating system in Austin and Morris.
So every year, his contribution to Christmas was an unctuous smile after a glass of whisky and a walk to see his relatives, particularly his mother. Clad in black, it was easy to see where he learned his critical ways. I was sitting with her the day she died. It was a Sunday and she told me off for knitting. We hated going to visit. It was our penance for all the wicked things we had done throughout the year.

So why go back?
Because it wasn’t all bad. There was laughter and fun; me, arguing ferociously with my best friend next door, all of us loving to read. And to get him out of the house, I took Father to the cinema on a Saturday night.

There was even laughter at the way we scuttled about whenever we heard his key in the lock; and the sitting room where we had all been relaxing emptied. Later as we entered our teens, the laughter turned to mockery at his behaviour together, coupled with a determination to leave as soon as we could do. (That didn’t stop him shouting at me in public – the year I was 21. I was working weekends in a highly respectable cocktail bar in a highly respectable hotel. He wandered in with golfers and saw me. On that occasion a gang of rugby players provided a barrier against the abuse, while another smuggled me out.

One famous occasion, Mother hadn’t been well and had drunk some of his whisky. When he came home that Saturday night with his golfing buddies and demanded whisky, we huddled in the scullery wondering what to do – he would definitely notice and demand an explanation.
In the end, I rushed into the sitting room where he was sitting with his pals. ‘Father, I’m ever so sorry but we spilt the whisky.’
Leaping to his feet, he chased into the scullery, where Mother had decanted a teaspoon of the amber liquid into the sink.
But we got away with it.
And laughed afterwards.

I was glad to leave at 18. But the house wasn’t to blame for our childhood. That held many wonderful memories – many of them funny and so for the past few years I have been promising my brother (who is disabled) to visit. Three times we have cancelled our train tickets because of his health. This time we made it.

It was tough, up and down steps, and discovering the new Birmingham to be overwhelmingly different from the old. New Stree that was has, over the course of half-a dozen years, been moved along to make way for longer platforms and a concourse full of shops.

However, if there is a word stronger than nightmare, it should be applied to the traffic in the roads around the city centre. Eventually finding the correct bustop, we stop-started our way along the Coventry Road, exclaiming at intervals and eagerly looking for buildings that we knew. One was the cinema in Small Heath – boarded up but still there.
I went to Church Road Primary and my Auntie Kate had a sweet shop further up the street. I vividly remember walking past and seeing the window draped with purple and a picture of King George VI. The house and shops are long gone replaced by tall buildings, broad roads and a Tesco petrol station.

But there exactly as we had left it was our house.

The road was shorter than my memory of it, the house and garden smaller. Knocking on the front door, the owner was thrilled … wondering if TV cameras might jump out of the bushes. The rooms had also shrunk, the dining room where we were allowed to rent a TV for one week at Christmas time. The sitting room with its door opening into the garden through which my sister made her escape (see: Age and the Antique Sideboard)

The current owner has been there thirty years and she remembered our neighbours, the Stanleys. Mr Stanley had died about ten years before. That’s where I first saw television. June 1953, all the neighbours were invited to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. We sat in rows, plied with sandwiches, for that’s what you did on special occasions, never moving throughout the long ceremony, ending with a magical coach ride in a golden coach and a royal wave from a balcony.
Good memories.