The Good Old Days:
Lest anyone be taken in by the phrase ‘the good old days’, then let me assure you that ‘good’ was the last word to describe them. 90% of those in the area where we existed must have been on the bread line, and even then our bread was decidedly stale.
Industrially, the picture was bleak, and we’d hear harrowing tales, perhaps a ‘hodge pot’ of different stories, of lines of unemployed men and women being subjected to an auction type bidding process for any vacancy. The Boss or Foreman would come out and address the poorly clad, often hungry applicants thus:
‘I need a packer! Who among you is a packer by trade?’
Hands would shoot up whilst eyes, dull with lost hope from years of the most appalling and grinding poverty after those terrible years spent in the trenches of France and Belgium, would light up with renewed hope.
‘Me Sir, I’m a packer Sir! I fought with the 24th Leicester’s Sir! I’m a good worker Sir, even though I was wounded at 2nd Ypres, and gassed at Villiers Bretonneau Sir! My lungs are as good as new Sir! I won’t let you down Sir! I’ve got a medal Sir, I have, well, I would have had it still but I had to pawn it to get a few coppers to buy food for the missus and kids; they gave me the medal for standing and fighting when the rest of me mates lay dead and dying around me, so if I didn’t let them down, I wouldn’t let you down, now would I Sir!’ …….
And then that man, grey of face, worn with worry and distress among that small crowd of men, fatigued and hungry, smoothed down his ragged clothes or tried to dust off his old khaki great coat, army for the use of, as he desperately tried to stand straighter so as to catch the eye of he, who with just a simple nod, could change the whole future for that man’s family for the better. These men then, who some few years before had been cheered as the Nation’s saviours, had marched so proudly back to the land that in the first few halcyon years of victory had hailed them as heroes, fit only to receive the best that a grateful country could offer, were now to have the cup pressed to their lips.
‘How much do you think a job with me is worth in wages?’ he’d be asked.
‘£2 a week seems fair!’ he’d answer, even though he knew £2 a week was near slave labour.
Another hopeful would be asked the same question and, with eyes downcast, he’d reply ‘£1 17/ 6pence’. At this, the first man would desperately butt in….
‘Please Sir, he can afford to work for that much even though it’s well below the union rate, but I can’t afford to take less than two quid for the job even though that’s five bob below the union rate. I’m behind with the rent and the landlord’s threatening to put us out on the street. One of my kids has consumption; he caught it off the missus. She’s in the Sanatorium and not expected to live!’
If he’d expected mercy or compassion, he was to be disappointed. There were thousands in the same desperate strait as he, and many even worse off! The Boss/ Foreman would nod to the second man who jubilantly followed his new employer into the works. The rest, near in tears, would turn away.
Someone else would say,
‘I would’ve taken less but the missus aint too good and the ‘babbies’ need me around to take the strain so I can’t leave her. Still, ne’er mind, eh! This way we can all starve together! What a bleedin life!’
Mam’s health wasn’t very good; Ted would demand better food because ‘I pay my board,’ and Mabel was getting progressively weaker with that terrible cough that echoed around all the rooms, night and day. Mabel’s own cutlery had cotton tied around the handles to warn us not to use it, and the smell of the Lysol in her metal sputum mug which had to be carried downstairs to the outside lavatory was overpowering; nothing was left to our imagination because we knew of its terrible phlegm/blood stained contents which she brought up. God knows what percentage of it was lung tissue.
The old Man was still stirring things up for us and threats flew back and forth. It wasn’t funny going out into the street knowing that at any time his face might appear around the corner or from an entry and the ceaseless ‘pumping’ would begin again.
‘Did the old woman go out with her fancy man last night?’
‘What time it did she come in last Saturday?’
It went on and on. It was no use pretending she didn’t have a fancy man although I didn’t know what the expression meant. What I do know however is I began to fear him even more than I did before, and it didn’t help when people around us began to describe him as mad. Mad he certainly was not but I knew what mad was. If adults said ‘your dad is mad’ then mad he must be.
Each and every day a grim procession of people who lived or existed in the next street passed our front door and today it never ceases to amaze me that although our plight must have been far worse than theirs, I always regarded them as the poor. Perhaps the difference was Mam had a job in the ‘shoes’ (shoe factory making shoes) and they mostly had no jobs. So, Mam’s wage plus Ted’s board, pittance though it was, kept us off the parish. We knew from the sights we saw and the yelling we heard at pub chucking out time, that so much of the dole or relief paid out to families, mainly in the next street which was really an ‘abandon hope all ye who live here’ place, went into the local publican’s pocket. The sobbing of women and hungry children was loud in the land. What a tragedy that within 10 years we had full employment, a welfare state, in fact everything going for us after decades of poverty, and yet the politicians gave it away to ingratiates who then promptly turned around and bit the hand that fed them.
Mam’s usual greeting to any friend, relation or acquaintance she might meet in the street was invariably the same and this reflected the shaky state of the industries in the city, for she would say ‘have you had to have any short time working lately?’ This referred to the sending home of employees by the foreman or woman (the boss always got them to do his dirty work) because there just wasn’t any work or orders in the factory. Being laid off was a tragedy, for no wage was forthcoming for days, and in homes where every penny was spoken for, this meant a drastic reduction in diet.
Mam being able to go in on a Saturday morning was a luxury, although with many firms this was part of the working week. Extra time? Double time? Don’t make me laugh! Often we kids would arrive home from school to find Mam already there; the table laid and Mabel’s needs taken care of. For Mam to be at home to greet us was a luxury we could well do without……….
‘I’m on short time’ she would say brightly, ‘Ah well, there’s plenty worse off than us.’
It was high summer, and my memories are that every day was bright and sunny 24 hours out of the 24. I can only remember the rain coming on the Saturday afternoons whilst we were in the local cinema (or as we called it, the pictures) the Shaftesbury, known to one and all as ‘The Shaz’. The children’s matinee was always called ‘The Tupenny Rush’ and that was what it seemed like with all the big kids jostling the smaller lads in an attempt to get a seat at the back so as to kid all and sundry they’d paid threepence for their seat.
In those early days silent films were still around and it struck me that with the type of make-up used nearly all the women looked as though they were desperately ill. After sitting fascinated, watching the image on the flickering screen, each boy came out from the cinema at a rate of knots, and because invariably the film or serial shown had been a cowboy picture, we would go flying down the street, pasting our own bottoms with our right-hand whilst holding on to an imaginary rein with our left, imitating Tom Mix or whichever star had taken the leading role. One silent film was to do with a lovely young lady being put into a tomb whilst her sweetheart held his head in his hands. However all was not lost as, for some reason that time has denied me, she came back to life. Another favourite was a serial, the tune of which held me as much, if not more, than the action. The tune was ‘poet and peasant.’ Invariably after arriving home from the film, we would find Mam doing the ironing on the living room table which she would cover with an old blanket. Within 10 minutes of getting in our Ronnie would have a sick bilious bout. Mam said it was because he didn’t blow his nose properly, but I think it was coming out of the dark cinema after watching the flickering shapes into the afternoon light that made him ‘bring up.’
As the sun on most of those glorious summer days that I remember so well, seeped oh so slowly away making room for the twilight shadows, the still warm comforting air closed around us and our little family would, as so many other families were doing, sit outside on or around our doorstep, front and back doors plus windows wide open, trying to draw the cool evening air through. The warmth around us fought hard to remain but at times it was so sultry we found it hard to draw breath into our lungs. Poor Mabel must have been in agony, although she rarely, complained. God knows, she had little enough of her lungs left to draw upon. Gradually the sky would grow dark and great threatening storm clouds would gather, and as the first wisp of cooling air touched our cheeks we would hear in the distance the first rumbling of the approaching thunderstorm. Looking into the blue/ black threatening heavens, we would see dozens of those little black fluttering mammals, so rarely seen today; Bats. It would be impossible to hazard a guess as to how many there were as they poured out of the holes in attic brickwork or through gaps where slates were missing. Bats, whose swooping and fluttering and lurching seemed to take them all over the lowering sky. How did they avoid one another I wondered? Legend had it that if a bat got itself tangled in a woman’s hair, she would have to be shorn bald! Then the chill in the air deepened and the first great spots of rain dappled the ground. At once a new smell could be discerned as the dust was laid in those spots at least. Passers-by hurried their steps and those who didn’t seem to be aware of what the flickering and rumblings presaged were called to by those standing in their own doorways.
‘Hurry home Mr/Mrs or you’ll get soaked!’
With the dust laid, and as the last distant rumblings of the retreating storm faded away into the distance, gas jets were lit, and we were prepared for bed knowing that with the heat gone from the day, we would all sleep easier and not be disturbed too much by that terrible coughing from the back bedroom!