Tanktops And Bellbottoms
A Memory of Birkenhead.
Tank tops and bell bottoms-memoirs of a Birkenhead lad
I was born in Birkenhead in 1954 at the back of Central Station, opposite the Haymarket, and still remember being hungry all the time. We were poor, as was everyone we knew. A Catholic family, no birth control, the more kids you had the more Catholics there were, the more donations the church receives. Rather cynical I know. And I remember Father Lennon wobbling down our street on his bike and the gossip was "he's been at the holy wine again". Even so, we were always at Sunday mass with the collection plate going around, even though we were all hungry. You would say to your mum, ”I`m hungry“ and she would say, ”No you only think you are, get out and play!”. There was always the temptation to accidentally tip the collection plate, spill the coins on the floor and grab what you could while looking innocent. Yes we were hungry - and I don't remember any fat kids either, or if there was a fat kid the mother would say "its glandular" when we all knew she was getting a food parcel every month from Cincinnati or Ohio. And the kid had a dead giveaway crew cut.
We were down by the old Haymarket, I think the pub was the Borough Arms, opposite the old market steps and we would wait for hours outside in all weather for our grandad to come out with a little see-through packet with a pickled onion, a cracker and a cheese triangle in it. Heaven. Next door was the pawnshop and Monday morning was your dad's`suit for seven and six, get it out on Friday, half a crown for his shoes'. Along Borough Road was a Chinese laundry where we would take our granddad's collars to be starched. I went to St Werburghs and the best thing that I remember about the school was the headmaster, Mr Doran, getting up on stage one morning at assembly and pulling out an old, torn and tattered, yellow piece of net curtain. He dramatically waved it about and told us that our lungs would be like that if we smoked. It worked for me, I never forgot that and have him to thank for never smoking. At the time, kids my age were smoking - it was mad, and I remember the mobile sweet shop selling 'ciggies' outside the school in Whetstone Lane to the kids and Mr Doran ran outside and shouted at them to get away. They did - around the corner, and kids were complaining about the extra distance they had to walk to get their fags. 9 year olds.
We moved up to Mollington Street and that was a little boys' dream; real steam trains to play on, a coal wharf and a gas works to play in. It's hard to imagine today what it was like keeping yourselves occupied all day after your mum saying “frig off out and don't come back `till tea time!”. So we would, in all weathers, playing two balls, allio or hopscotch with the girls, or footy on the little bridge in the middle of our street when, more often than not, the ball would go over and one of us would climb over, slide down the steep hill which was full of nettles, and wait for the Rock Ferry train to go past then carefully step over the electric lines to get the ball. No one was ever hurt but only through pure luck, thinking back.
The steam trains were being phased out for the diesel electrics and were mothballed, perfect to play on. So we would take the goat chair, line it with last night's`Echo' and fill it with coal. Yes, we were hungry, but the fires were lit. We graduated to removing the brassy pipes from the redundant steam trains and selling them to Johnny Marriots' scrapyard. The spanners were bigger than me. He would give us half a crown, the 'robbing get' and we would go to Woolies in Grange Road to buy an Airfix kit. I can't remember which shop, probably Robb's or Rostance's, where the toy department was downstairs. Me and my mate Sheilsdy were longingly looking at the Airfix kits and dreaming, when suddenly he started groaning and holding his stomach (he had a big duffel coat on) and staggered up the stairs, still complaining about his tummy ache - until we got outside and he had a 'Flying Fortress' up his jumper. I would never have the bottle for that, especially as the shop was like 'Are You Being Served', "yes sir, no sir" and all respectful. We slowly graduated from playing hopscotch, allio or two balls to playing war and then helping ourselves to bits of old steam trains and free coal.
On the railway, there was a great big turntable for steam engines where one kid could turn a handle and a whole steam engine would turn back the way it was facing. Amazing engineering! We were filthy, hungry and happy. The gas works had a giant mountain of a black sand-like substance. It was actually the residue left after coal was squashed into coke, something of that nature, the fact was it stank. After rolling down this hill and being shot at by the enemy (I killed 20 of them), the next morning the whole school at St Werburghs' was evacuated as a gas leak was suspected. It was me!
Even though the whole world and his dog were robbing the coal from the coal wharf the only one to get caught was my dad. There was even a picture on the front of the Birkenhead news of the police dog that caught him. That was the highlight of the week's news then. Three months he got, and we had a street party for him when he got out.
One last story about the railway - we knew where the fog signals were kept - in an unlocked little hut that today's health and safety would have kittens about if they knew. We called them detonators and that's exactly what they were. Explosives. A 2 inch round cap filled with gunpowder with two lead straps attached. They were for warning trains there was danger ahead when it was foggy or something like that. They were strapped to the railway line at intervals and when the big heavy train went over them they exploded. Loudly. They had to be loud so the engineer could hear them above the noise of the footplate. He would then slow down to a predetermined speed every time he heard one. It seemed to be foggy quite a lot when I was young and we would be pinching them and strapping them all over the place and when one went off during the night we would claim it. Trains were shunted all night and day. I am sure one job description was a 'shunt' - us kids would call them something similar that rhymed when we got chased, and they gave up because they were too fat. Or we would climb up on to the top of a backyard wall and drop a brick on a detonator and see who would be the deafest for the longest. I still use that as an excuse when my wife asks me to do something I don't want to do.
Christmas, looking back, was sad. Times were hard, but to be told that and still see other kids with presents you never got was tough. One year I got a balloon, a pomegranate with a pin and a red plastic racing car with four black wheels that actually turned. Other kids would have prams or bikes. If your dad had a really good job then maybe a Johnny Seven gun that even fired hand grenades! One Christmas a kid named Billy from up Argyle Street South, with whom we were friends, came down our street with a Milky Bar Kid cowboy suit on with all the trimmings - a big hat, tassels on his pants and two six-shooter cap guns. He was shooting anything that moved, so we chased him out of our street screaming. He was crying, either with laughter or terror I don`t know but it was funny.
No money, hand me down clothes and holes in our shoes. We put cardboard inside but if you were posh you put a piece of lino in your shoe instead. Unless it was Easter, then we would all have our Easter rig-out, courtesy of Okell's in Exmouth Street next to the fire station. I think it was something like a Hawaiian short-sleeved shirt, a pair of elasticated shorts (you didn't need a snake belt) and a pair of jelly shoes that lasted a week before they fell to bits. Even if it was cold we would be paraded in our Easter rig-out. My poor mum would then tell us we were going to New Brighton and off we would walk. No buses, no money and walk everywhere I seem to remember. One year I was flomping (don't ask, I don't know why but it's what we called dropping off a wall or great height by hanging by your fingers and letting go) off the prom to the beach and broke my leg. It was brilliant. I got a ride in an ambulance, a clean bed and fed with real hot food, (it was probably mashed potato and peas with Horlicks but to me it was wonderful). And they even put a plaster cast on my leg which I envisioned all my friends signing. No one did but I didn't mind, I was the centre of attention until the next day when it hurt like mad. No sympathy at all then, I was simply in the way or a nuisance. Never mind. One year my mum must have felt not up to it and we stopped near Seacombe, a little bit of sand under the last of the four bridges and she told us to play there as New Brighton was closed. It was 1965. I remember that because someone had a tranny (transistor radio) and 'I Can`t Get No Satisfaction' was on. Then it would be back to Molly Street and the gas mantels, cast iron ranges that needed black leading, donkey stoning the step, cockies, bed bugs and in the summer, flycatchers that were simply strips of paper that you hung down from the light and were covered in honey, I think. Our Jimmy would take it down with dozens of flies stuck on with their little legs kicking and chase me down the entry. The ragman would shout “YANGO” or that's what it sounded like to me and you would get a balloon or a goldfish in a plastic see-through bag that lived for a day if you were lucky. You knew which houses filed a halfpenny down to fit in the gas meter instead of a shilling as all the bricks outside their front door would be scratched. The 'tom-toms' would be heard and everyone knew the gas man was in the next street. Your mum would delegate you to let him in, saying “me mums out” when she was hiding in the back kitchen. Then he would empty the coins on the lino, keep most of the shillings and give back the filed down halfpennies and foreign coins. It was a game played out to the correct rules on both sides and it worked. A few years later, 'telebank tellys' took money in the back and the same thing happened.
My mum had a treat every Saturday night. A bottle of ale, Old Dan, with a newspaper wrapping of shrimps or prawns from the old market. They were disgusting and they would scare me with their black eyes and whiskers and she would happily sit there listening to the radiogram and cracking these horrible little monsters in half and eating the insides. Yuck. Then one Saturday she never finished them saying they tasted funny. She then put them on the back kitchen floor for our cat to eat. The cat turned its nose up as well, and as it got darker the shrimps were glowing. What you have to remember in this narrative is, I am writing events as I remember them with a little humour aside so please don't comment on my history. In my brain these events are true. The prawns/shrimps glowed in the dark. No one in our street had a phone and everyone used the railway office in an emergency, which was handy. Half an hour later a fire engine arrived and two men got out dressed like spacemen. They carefully and laboriously picked up these prawns/shrimps and put them in a bucket and went away with no explanation (missing the ones us kids were throwing at each other and were all over the place). It was the talk of the street for a day or so and quickly forgotten. Which is what the government wanted as we were all close to a nuclear meltdown at the time from Sellafield which was dumping toxic waste into the Irish sea for years. Hence the three-eyed shrimps and two-headed crabs (joke). The contamination was played down but it was extremely serious. The government spiel at the time was, yes there was contamination but within acceptable levels. No mention of what level was acceptable. Back in the old days, there was no internet or mobile phones and the TV had a couple of channels only which were most likely censored. How technology has changed our lives. That scandal would have brought down the government if it had occurred today. I suppose my mum was tougher than she looked, or certainly harder, as my older sister June lifted the bin lid one day and told me to look. Inside were four tiny newborn kittens. Dead. Every time the mother cat had kittens my mum would immediately drown them in a bucket of water. It costs money to have the promiscuous cat “done” as it was called, so it was the kindest way to deal with the situation at the time apparently. Everyone did it.
Our June, the eldest, was after a new coat one day and kept asking for a hammer rack. I found out when she got it, it was an anorak. When I was about eight years old I had a ride in an e- type Jag. One of our cousins was named John Reid and he played the guitar and formed a group. They were called the Klubbs and were heavy metal, which isn't everybody's cup of tea but was becoming very popular all over the country. They must have been good because John told me they had signed a record deal with EMI or Parlophone, I can't remember which one, and the first thing he did was buy a brand new red e-type Jag. Hence my ride - with him showing me the eight-track music player, (I never had a clue what he was talking about but pretended I did and said “WOW”). The Klubbs never made it big, but even today there are fans who remember them. Our John opened up 'Stairways' (by The Fireman's) with his own record deal money. I helped him liberate dozens of seats from an old picture house in Old Chester Road, The Flea Pit I think it was called, and we had a hard time passing them up to the large second floor window around the back, but did it in the end. Lots of local bands would play and practise in The Stairways, even punks a bit later on. After a while, he must have mellowed and he opened a few off-licenses called The Head Waiter I seem to remember. A clever lad with ambition our John, even if his hair was weird when he was playing in the band - a gingery afro I recall.
Alf Felix had the corner shop, and one year I found a ration card down the back of our sofa. It was not needed by then. I was not to know, but the best bit was there was half a crown inside. I was in an emotional turmoil. What should I do? My family was poor, my shoes were leaking, my mum would love a present so I went to Felix's and bought 10 Wagon Wheels and scoffed the lot. Yes I was sick, but of the best kind. Alf Felix wanted to adopt me, why I don`t know, but it would have been one less mouth for my mum and dad to starve so I don't know why it never happened and don't dwell on it. I would go to his shop, six years old, and get five Park Drive or a 'loosie' for my mum, and some Spangles and an Arrowe Bar for me. If I was lucky I would get some 'Spanish Gold' (it looked like worms but was yummy). Jock Gray had the off license on the corner of Helena Street and Rodney Street and would serve children with bottles of Guiness or stout and I would get Uncle Jo's mintballs.
I was picked on /selected by Thomson's Mission to go on a charabanc to Abergele in Wales for a camping trip one year. Every large family was given the opportunity to offload one of their brats for a few days and I was chosen. I must have been seven years old and never been away before and I suppose I should have been homesick - but nope, I was scaring 12-year-olds with ghost stories in the tent at night - some of them were crying! Day time was walking up and down hills, peeling spuds and playing football. Real showers, clean bedding, and regular meals. I didn't want to go home.