Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Peacetime and football. Up the Gas.


To his credit, my father tried hard to develop a relationship; he tried hard to engage me in conversations, but I was having none of it. I always blurted out some lame excuse and made a rapid escape out of the front door. Undaunted, he persisted and finally found a weakness in my defences. He discovered my love of football. He was a good story teller after a few beers, and I had an insatiable thirst for football history and knowledge. It wasn’t long before I was curled up at his feet, in front of the fire, whilst he filled my head with stories about his beloved Bristol Rovers.

He told me about the very first game Rovers had played in the Football League. He told me about the great players of the past. He spoke with pride about the men he called the five ‘Macs’ who played for the club in the 1930s. He whispered their names in almost reverential awe; James McCambridge, Robert McKay, George McNestry, John McLean and Wally McArthur. His biggest hero was clearly the goalkeeper, Jesse Whatley. Listening to Dad, Jesse must have saved every penalty ever conceded by the club. He promised me he would shortly take me to watch a game at Eastville. I didn’t wholly trust the stranger, but on this occasion he was as good as his word, and I didn’t have to wait long.

It was Saturday, the first day of December 1945; an occasion that will long remain in my heart and my memory. The day was a cold, grey and misty one. Mum had ‘wrapped me up nice and warm’, and I was wearing my navy blue raincoat and my black cap. Dad was anxious to get going, but Mum was fussing around me, making sure everything was covered up and that I was wearing a vest to protect my sickly chest. Finally we got moving, ventured out into the thick fog, and set off down the hill. It was a special moment; man and child; father and son; side by side; not quite shoulder to shoulder, although I did try briefly to match strides with him. I soon gave up on that, and I relaxed, determined to savour every moment of our very first adventure together.

The fog was growing thicker by the minute. “I don’t like the look of this,” muttered Dad, and then he went off on what had become a familiar rant about the Directors. “They are a crowd of Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers, a crowd of amateurs who’ve made a few bob and think they can run a professional football club.” Dad grumbled away as we made our way gingerly down the hill. He had just discovered that Rovers had sold the ground at Eastville to the Greyhound Company, and were now the tenants instead of being the Landlords. “They’ve sold the family silver. One day they will lead us back out of the league, into bankruptcy and then oblivion.”

He was still grumbling under his breath as we crossed Marlborough Street and then carried on down Whitson Street. He paused awhile as we reached the Haymarket before leading me into St James Churchyard.

“I am just popping into the Bay Horse, for a swift half. Stay here and wait for me.”

I found a stone which I dribbled around the park. “Kelly to Lawton, Lawton to Mathews… here comes the cross……Kelly shoots…Goal!!! We were winning 5 - nil by the time he returned, and then we scrambled aboard the bus that would take us to Eastville. The bus bumped and rumbled its way slowly over the cobblestones and through the fog. It wasn’t long before I was out of my comfort zone and lost in completely unfamiliar surroundings.

“Stapleton Road - Rovers Ground,” shouted the bus conductor. The crowded bus emptied in a flash, and we were now being swept along the road in a sea of men, all wearing hats or caps, raincoats or overcoats, scarfs or mufflers, and all, seemingly, with a cigarette dangling from the corners of their mouths. The air was heavy with the buzz of excited adult conversations and many frequent bouts of coughing. Dad placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder as he guided me around the corner at His Majesty’s Cinema. He then took my hand and held it firmly for the first time as we marched up the incline. The gates of the Gasworks appeared out of the mist and we turned off to the right into the car park. The cinders beneath our feet crunched reassuringly, and for the first time I experienced that very special smell. I was to learn in the fullness of time that the smell was a heady mixture of the Gasworks to the left, the River Frome to the right, and the inimitable scent of the Tote End toilets straight ahead..

My father guided me to the ‘Juvenile’ turnstile with instructions to wait for him on the other side. I suddenly felt alone, nervous and abandoned as I waited for what felt like an eternity, and it came as a relief when he finally emerged, bought me a programme, and then led me up a few steps to reach the terracing. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just arrived at the famous ‘Tote End’. Visibility was poor, and we could barely see the far end of the pitch, but I could see enough, and the size and beauty of the stadium took my breath away.

“The Palace players have got lost in the fog. There are only 4 of them here,” announced a large man wearing a bus conductor’s uniform. As he spoke, the speakers boomed out a message that the start would be delayed. I decided the bus conductor was more knowledgeable than both my father and my cousin, Patrick.

“Kids coming over,” shouted a voice and some of the children in the crowd were passed over the heads of the crowd to the front. I declined Dad’s offer to do the same for me. I wanted to remain with the men. I particularly wanted to be close to the fat bus conductor, because he was clearly a source of good information. I wondered whether he had some form of hotline into the dressing rooms. “Any minute now,” he shouted and then I heard the Eastville roar for the very first time, as the players appeared from the tunnel to our right.

I carefully studied my programme, putting faces to numbers as the players warmed up. I was particularly intrigued by the name of the Crystal Palace number 9.  Fred Kurz didn’t sound very English. In fact, he sounded very German. My wild imagination told me that he was probably a German spy. It didn’t take long for Jack Weare; the Rover’s goalkeeper to become my first live footballing hero. He was wearing a similar green, roll necked sweater to the one that my cousin Patrick always wore, and what looked like the same black woollen gloves. There was an air of calm assurance about the big man’s presence between the posts, and about everything he did. He was an island of calm, composure and serenity in the middle of a stormy sea. Crystal Palace were wearing red and blue shirts. They did much of the early attacking, and I had a clear view of every move. Visibility was improving, but it mattered little, because most of the action was taking place right in front of me. However great the pressure, my hero, Jackie, was in control and I felt confident that Palace would never score.

“Windy!!!” shouted the crowd at the far end, and the bus conductor repeated the cry for us to follow suit at our end. Dad explained that this was a standard response to a visiting defender passing the ball back to his own goalkeeper. I was soon shouting out loud with the rest of the crowd, but couldn’t understand why the same course of action by a Rover’s player was always greeted with loud, prolonged applause. Despite all the pressure from Palace, it was Rovers who took the lead. We could barely see the far end, but we knew from the mounting crescendo of roars that Rovers were attacking, and then finally an ear-splitting roar signalled a goal.

“’Nobby’ Clark, I think,” reported the bus conductor as the back slapping, hand shaking players emerged from the mist, and we all shouted “Well played ‘Nobby’.”

But, in football as in life, nothing good lasts forever, and yet again, a hero of mine turned out to have feet of clay. A harmless looking cross bounced into the Rover’s penalty area and Jack Weare,, hitherto my rock of calm authority suddenly turned into a hapless panicky juggler, and the ball into a piece of greasy soap. It fell eventually at the feet of a Crystal Palace forward who tapped it into the empty net. As he wheeled away in delight I realised it was number 9, Fred Kurz, the German spy. I promptly removed the unfortunate goalkeeper from my list of heroes and replaced him with Ray Warren, the captain.

Ray Warren wasn’t a big man, but he had a big heart, and it was a kind heart. I’d already noticed the encouragement he had been giving to our right back, who was struggling against the Crystal Palace winger. Ray was always there behind him, saving the day with a whiplash tackle, patting him on the bum or back and shouting instructions or encouragement to him. Now he was consoling his disconsolate goalkeeper in similar fashion.

Visibility deteriorated in the second half of the game, and most of the action was at the far end.

“Get rid of it,” was the constant cry from the bus conductor, and everyone echoed his advice apart from Dad, who was shouting “Keep the bloody ball.”

I stayed silent. I wanted to shout ‘Get rid of it,’ along with the majority, but I didn’t want to appear to be disloyal to Dad.

It ended 1-1 and the crowd streamed out of the ground. Dad led me across the road, gave me six pence and instructed me to “get off at the Horsefair, and buy a bag of chips. Tell your mother that I am going to the dogs, and I will be home later.”

Mum made a face when I gave her the news. “I hope he doesn’t lose all of his money. He’s promised to buy some new furniture.”

 

Friday, 20 July 2018



Just a boy from Bristol

PART TWO


"We will have bluebells in the spring, and roses in the summer," said Mum when we moved into Halsbury Rd, and for the first time we had a garden of our very own. Sadly for Mum, whatever she planted, however hard she worked, the promised flowers refused to grow. When I wasn't playing football, Knock out Ginger or Releaster 1-2-3 in Eugene Street, i wandered off down town. I travelled far and wide, exploring all the many bombed buildin...g sites which were all over Bristol. I admired, in close up, the beauty of the blue, purple, white and yellow clusters of Buddleia, Campion, Rosebay Willow herb, and bramble bushes; I sat, like a young king, astride piles of bricks and rubble; I closed my eyes and listened to the birdsong and the buzzing of the bees, and then I picked clumps of the colourful weeds, and rushed home to present them to my mother. She always smiled sadly, and kissed the already drooping plants, before neatly arranging them in empty jam jars. They always faded and died inside a few days, but I never stopped trying. I desperately wanted to find Mum the flowers she was so desperately craving.     

            

Sunday, 3 June 2018


 
 





Compliments and Candy





















 










 By Michael John Kelly















 
Chapter One

 

 The whole of the moon

 

He had long since abandoned his long and fruitless pursuit of perfection. Life had taught him that perfection was merely an illusion. It was like a rainbow, or a reflection in a still, clear stream. A thing of beauty, right there in front of his eyes, but remaining forever tantalisingly just out of reach. The reality was that there was always a flaw; always some tiny imperfection that would spoil even the most magical of moments. He had slowly and reluctantly accepted that near- perfect was as good as it ever got.

That fateful Saturday morning in Bristol was a prime example. It was April 11th, 1992, and all the ingredients were there for the making of a perfect day.  Saturday was, by some way, the highlight of his week, and not only was the weather set fair, but it was spring, and spring that fairest of all seasons, had always been his favourite time of the year. As usual, however, there was something which wasn't quite right, and today it was the time. His watch told him It was 6-05 am, and John Joseph Barton had never been an early morning man.

He sat behind the wheel of his car, grumbling, muttering and cursing under his breath as he reflected on the unfairness of life. He was a few months short of his fiftieth birthday, and time, which had once been his closest friend, was fast becoming an arch-enemy. There was always so much to do, and so little time in which to do it. He groaned, sighed, stretched, yawned and then lit his second cigarette of the day. He grimaced at the realisation that another promised attempt to quit his nicotine addiction had once more resulted in failure.

“Tomorrow,” he whispered. There was always tomorrow,  but deep down inside he was acutely aware that his tomorrows never seemed to arrive. He turned the ignition key, switched on his radio and set off on his journey.

The early morning traffic was light and his spirits slowly began to rise as he made good progress through the leafy suburb of Redland. Redland always looked good, but at this time of the year, the stately looking houses and tree lined avenues were at their best.

As he turned into Coldharbour Road, the voices on the radio were already beginning to annoy him, as a succession of so called experts pompously paraded their egos and opinions as to how and why Neil Kinnock had contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in that Thursday's General Election. The majority of the speakers expressed surprise at the result, but not so Mr. Rupert Murdoch. He was more than happy to let it be known to the world that he had personally played a major role in the eventual outcome. He was boasting loudly about his flagship newspaper, The Sun. He bragged about its banner headline, which brashly screamed to the world that ‘It was the Sun wot won it’.

 Barton smiled ruefully as he listened to the discussion. He was not a political animal, and he felt a distinct sense of relief as the talking finally ended and the music started. Shakespear’s Sister sang the number one song in that week’s hit parade, Stay with me.

If this world is wearing thin

And you're thinking of escape

 I'll go anywhere with you

Just wrap me up in chains

But if you try to go out alone

 Don't think I'll understand

 Stay with me

 John Barton attempted to sing along, but his efforts  were hesitant and badly off key. He quickly gave up, and conceded that he was far from fluent with either the lyrics or the melody. The failure brought another frown to his face as he realised that with each passing year, popular music was slowly leaving him behind.

He was soon smiling again, however, as The Waterboys followed with The Whole of the Moon.

I pictured a rainbow

You held it in your hands

 I had flashes

 But you saw the plan

 I wandered out in the world for years

 While you just stayed in your room

 I saw the crescent

 You saw the whole of the moon

 This time, he was able to join in, and sing along loudly and confidently, and this time he was both word and pitch perfect.

Coldharbour Road had seamlessly become Kellaway Avenue, and the Golden Hill playing fields of Bristol Grammar School loomed large to his left. Those ancient fields were heavy with history and tradition, and the news that they were about to become the site of a new Tesco supermarket had fuelled massive protests.

 Barton frowned at the thought of those famous old pitches, the scenes of so many dramatic last minute tries and match saving tackles, disappearing under a sea of concrete, but he was a realist. He was well aware of the power of profit, and had already accepted the eventual and inevitable outcome. Despite this, he still gave a token honk and a wave to the handful of weary looking protestors who were already lining up outside of the entrance gate, and he still felt a pang of guilt that he wasn’t standing alongside them. Instead, he turned right and headed down the narrow track across Horfield Common, which led to the Ardagh Bowls and Tennis Club. As he pulled into the car park, The Waterboys were building up to the climax of the song.

Yes, you climbed on the ladder

 With the wind in your sails

 You came like a comet

 Blazing your trail

 Too high

 Too far

 Too soon

 You saw the whole of the moon

The car came gently to a halt just as the Waterboys were coming to the end of the song, and he closed his eyes as he held the last, long, lingering note with them. The third cigarette of the day reached his lips, almost before he had finished singing, and then he switched off the engine, and sat back in his seat.

He felt a profound relief that both the car park and the Common were deserted. He wasn’t in the mood for idle gossip, casual conversations or false bonhomie with total strangers. Today, he could well do without them. He inhaled deeply on his cigarette, blew several smoke rings, and then tossed the gold coloured Benson and Hedges packet on to his passenger seat. There it lay along with a growing pile of empty packets and a whole week’s supply of Sporting Life newspapers. Craning his neck, he glanced into his rear view mirror and studied the sole reason for his being up at this ungodly hour. The shiny black Labrador puppy calmly returned his gaze, tilted her head to one side, and then he heard her tail thumping furiously against the upholstery. His mood lightened, his icy heart melted, and he smiled for the first time that day.

The puppy tumbled clumsily and somewhat inelegantly from the rear seat and was soon rolling in the damp, recently mown grass. Barton left her to her own devices and headed for the heart of the Common. Here, he stood and watched the sun creeping into view over the Purdown hills. It truly was one of those near perfect early spring mornings. The breeze was soft and so gentle that it barely disturbed the newly formed blossom, which was hanging proudly from the boughs. The sky was a faultless blue for as far as the eye could see, and the sound of birdsong was everywhere. From time to time he caught a glimpse of a single bird on the wing, but it was the invisible chorus that commanded his attention; the wall of sound that was pouring from the trees and the bushes. He had never listened closely to the dawn chorus before, but now he closed his eyes and marvelled at the variety of cheeps, chirps, warbles, trills and whistles he could hear. There were so many different sounds and so many different species. He felt just a little bit inadequate that he was unable to identify a single one of them.

Annie could have identified them all. He pictured her standing there with the palm of her hand raised, demanding silence. Five feet five inches of fiery red headed, Irish stubbornness and determination. Her head was on one side; her eyes closed, lost in deep concentration. Eventually she would have smiled that smile; the smile of triumph; the smile that always followed the moment of victory after a heated discussion or an argument. Yes, Annie would have been able to name them all. 
‘Blackbird… Bullfinch… Chaffinch… Thrush… Dunnock… Wren… Robin.’ Annie was a walking, talking human encyclopaedia with regard to birds. But Annie wasn’t there, and now he felt that familiar pang of frustration and irritation. He and Annie never did anything together these days. Right now she was at home, tucked up in the marital bed, alternately sleeping or dozing fitfully as she waited for his return.

Once upon a time they had been the golden couple; the envy of the neighbourhood. Theirs had been the first names on every party invitation list, but somehow they had lost their way. Somewhere deep in the past they had started to drift apart. He knew precisely when it had all started to go wrong, but had always been loath to admit to it.
  ‘When the sex stops, love flies out of the window’. He recalled his mother’s cautionary advice on the day of his wedding.

 Dear old Mum! Her advice had always been rather basic, but crammed full of wisdom. Wisdom almost certainly derived from bitter, personal experience. He should have listened, he should have taken heed, but still he felt sympathy for Annie. Hard though he had tried, he had been unable to make her dreams come true. All she had ever wanted was to be a good mother. Fate had decreed otherwise, and they had remained childless.

“Shannon! Shannon! Shannon! Shannon!” The voice interrupted his dreamy thoughts. It was female and each cry increased in both volume and urgency. The rising sun was low in the sky, and he was forced to shield his eyes from the glare. He quickly picked out the slightly obese yellow Labrador lumbering slowly towards him. The dog looked friendly enough, tail wagging, and tongue lolling. He leant forward to greet it.

“Steady on old girl.”

                        
  Chapter two

 

Onwards and upwards

 

She drew back the heavy white curtains, and invited the soft, first light of daybreak into her spacious bedroom.  She lingered awhile at the window as she closely studied and admired her garden. The awesome power of nature, and the ever changing seasons of the year had always been a source of fascination to her. It bordered on being an obsession, particularly at this time of the year. For now it was spring; spring, the season of love, hope, promise and regeneration. The tell-tale signs were everywhere. Wherever she looked, she could see them. The green shoots of recovery, the buds, the blossom, the tiny clusters of pastel shaded early season flowers. She was proud of that garden; every square inch was the product of long hours of back breaking toil; it was all her own work. She stretched, smiled, and then skipped, almost childlike across the pale green carpet to the ornate full length, gold framed mirror in the far corner of the room.

“Happy birthday to you,” she sang quietly as she studied her reflection, but then she frowned as she remembered that her mother was throwing a party that night to celebrate the occasion. A party at her mother’s house invariably meant the introduction of a wholly unsuitable, predatory male to the table. Her mother had a mission in life to find a suitable partner for her daughter. Her mother was many things, but she wasn’t a good matchmaker.

Placing her hands on her hips, she stood motionless, intently studying her image. She was naked and fresh from the shower.  She held the pose for upwards of 10 seconds, and then swivelled slowly, almost imperceptibly, first one way and then another. It was a well-practiced routine, which enabled her to view her body closely from almost every conceivable angle. Finally, clearly satisfied, she smiled and nodded self approvingly. All those long hours at the gym had paid dividends. She looked good and she felt good. More importantly, she felt strong again. The previous 12 months had been a long and difficult period in her life, but now Jack Maxwell was finally out of her bed, out of her house, and almost completely out of both her heart and her head.

 “Onwards and upwards”, she whispered, and then giggled as she opened the nearest of the range of built in white wardrobes which covered the entire length of one wall. Maxwell at his very best, had been a master craftsman, and he had proven to be a class act when free from his demons. This room was the product of his finest moments, and there were reminders of him everywhere.

She studied the range of colour co-ordinated accessories hanging in the first of the wardrobes. They were arranged in perfect order; everything was totally symmetrical, for she was a perfectionist. There were six available colours; red, green, black, yellow, blue, and pink.

 "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", she worked her way along the line, jabbing and pointing with her left index finger. The age old rhyme selected pink as the winning shade, but she frowned and hesitated, before reaching out instead for red.

“A woman’s prerogative”, she whispered, and then promptly changed her mind again and chose blue.

Turning again to the mirror, she painstakingly brushed her dark, shoulder length hair, before braiding it expertly into a single plait, which she then carefully arranged to fall casually over her left shoulder. She dressed quickly, scorning any underwear or make-up, with the exception of a hurried application of Clarin’s to her face. She then turned her back to the mirror, and peered first over her left shoulder, and then the right as she meticulously studied her rear. With both hands she patted her buttocks three times as a sign of satisfaction.

The large yellow Labrador who had been lying on the floor at the foot of the bed, had been watching her every move. The dog seemed to understand that now was its time. It stirred, rose, stretched and then lumbered eagerly over to her, clearly anxious to receive its collar and lead.

“Good girl. Shannon,” she stooped and lovingly smoothed the dog. Shannon had been Jack’s pet, but he had turned his back on the dog, just as he had abandoned everyone else in his troubled life.

 Shakespear’s Sister was singing Stay with me, as she switched off the radio, and attached the soft pink lead to the matching, studded collar.

“Come on girl, let’s rock; let’s go, let’s get lucky.”

There was a spring in both of their steps, as mistress and dog set off on the short 2 minute walk to Horfield Common.

The brisk walk along Maple Road led them to the lower entrance to the Common, and upon arrival she hesitated only briefly before deciding to walk in a clockwise direction. Together the two of them set off up the gentle slope which led to the car park. She always enjoyed the solitude of her early, Saturday morning start. She preferred the silence and the peace that dawn always provided, but as she turned into the car park, she was both surprised and just a little disappointed to find a car parked there. It felt almost like an invasion of her privacy, an attack on her personal space. The disappointment was quickly replaced by inquisitiveness. The gleaming powder blue car was not only a top of the range Mercedes, but was also a sparkling, brand new model. The bonnet was warm to her touch, and she knew the owner wasn’t far away. She looked around surreptitiously and then stole a furtive glance into the passenger window. She pursed her lips and whistled quietly.

“Every picture tells a story,” she whispered.  

It took but a minute to find the owner. There he was, standing in one of her favourite spots, lost in thought, staring towards Purdown and watching the sun-rise. His black Labrador puppy was happily playing at his side. The stranger looked remarkably unremarkable. Everything about him screamed ‘Mr Average’. He was average height, and average build, with average good looks. He was not unattractive, and was smartly, but inexpensively dressed.  She came to the conclusion that he was probably just the wrong side of 50.

“The man from C and A,” she whispered, and then giggled and snorted.

 “This way Shannon,” she turned on her heel and retraced her steps, now walking anti clockwise. This way she would be guaranteed to meet the mysterious stranger head on.

He was still there when she reached the bottom corner, still in the same spot, still watching the rising sun.

“Go say hello,” she released Shannon from her leash, and the dog set off towards the stranger.

“Shannon! Shannon! Shannon! Shannon!”  She took a deep breath, and then trotted off in pursuit. “It’s Watson to the rescue,” she giggled and snorted. as she ran. Something told her that this was going to be fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 2 June 2018


An audience with Gloria An extract from Just a boy from Bristol Part2

 

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Dad quietly as he lit a cigarette and settled back into his rocking chair. Only a few minutes earlier we had been dancing around the living room, playing happy families, as we held hands and sang Auld Lang Sine together. Now, it was all over. The church bells had stopped chiming, the car horns had ceased beeping, and the dustbin lids were no longer clattering. The streets of Bristol fell silent again. It was 1st January 1950; another new year was upon us; it was time for yet another round of well-intentioned resolutions, but It was also time for a period of reflection. Time to look back on last year’s shattered illusions and broken dreams. “A new decade, which is rich with promise. Now, we will see and taste the fruits of victory.” Dad was waxing lyrical. He always waxed lyrical after a couple of pints.

I had been looking forward to 1950 with anticipation, because it was a particularly special time for me and all the other children of my generation. 1950 was the year when we became teenagers. One by one our little gang reached, and celebrated the milestone. Patrick was first, at the start of the year, and then it was my turn in May. Johnny, as ever, brought up the rear. Like many of the milestones in life it proved to be a bit of an anti-climax. The only changes I noticed were the spots and pimples, the temper tantrums, the mood swings, and the ever increasing problems with that ‘little bit of skin between your legs’ that Granny Kelly had warned me about. But in truth, there were also many exciting changes. We now had our very own special world. A self contained world in which we created our own collection of heroes. We no longer worshipped at the altar of the past, we had our very own sporting, musical and screen heroes to fire our imaginations. All that I was lacking now was the elusive girl of my dreams. Someone to share my special world with.

The girls of my generation had also  become teenagers, and we watched with growing awe and lustful admiration as they developed the most delightful curves in all the right places. Sadly, most of them failed to make the most of the enhancements  and the streets of Kingsdown and St James were awash with nervous looking girls who crept timidly around with slouched, rounded shoulders and folded arms, as they struggled to hide their burgeoning assets. One girl, however, was delightfully different. Her name was Gloria, and Gloria wore her breasts with pride. She walked around the cobblestoned streets of Kingsdown with shoulders back, and chest out. She invariably wore a tight fitting, white aertex shirt, and sported a bow of pink ribbon and a white butterfly slide in her blonde hair. She swayed around the streets with an easy grace and confidence. Her indigo blue eyes closely studied every passing face, and she rewarded any admiring glance with a toss of her fair hair, a flirtatious smile, and a nod of appreciation. Sadly, she was from somewhere on the upper slopes of Kingsdown and as our paths rarely crossed, I was only able to admire her from a distance and infrequently.

Sunday night was cinema night for us boys. The Academy or the Scala were our usual chosen venues, and on this particular Sunday night, we had been to the latter. The film over, we chatted underneath the arches at the foot of Cotham Brow for a while, before saying our goodnights and then we made our separate ways home. I headed off up Cotham Brow with Tony Rees who lived in Victoria Walk.  We parted company half way up the hill and I then headed alone for Somerset Street, which ran parallel and behind Kingsdown Parade. Somerset Street had always held a special fascination for me. It was packed with tall, impressive houses, and was narrow and cobblestoned, with a pavement on one side only. As I reached my destination that night, I remember it started to drizzle, and I felt the soft summer rain brushing against my face. The rain grew slowly heavier and I started to run. As I turned right into Spring Hill, my thoughts turned back to earlier days when I had struggled up and down that hill with the heavy accumulator batteries which we used to power our precious wireless set. At that very moment Gloria appeared from the little lane where I had taken the batteries for charging. We almost collided as she stepped out onto the hill.

“Hello, my name is Gloria,” she waited for a response, but I had now turned into a blushing, stammering wreck, and there was no chance of a response. “What’s wrong, has the cat got your tongue? … Never mind, I will be here next week…same time, same place,” and then she was gone.

Bob Hope and Jane Russell were the stars of the film showing at the Academy the following week. We had already seen Paleface twice before, but with Jane Russell on screen, it was an easy task to persuade the boys to watch it again. The light was fading as we wandered out into the night after the viewing, and we lingered at the foot of Ninetree Hill, still chuckling as we talked about the film. Tony Rees, who never missed an opportunity to entertain, swung into action, and paraded up and down, his shoulders swaying and his hands hovering over imaginary holster and pistols as he re-enacted, word for word,  the gun fight between Bob Hope and the gun slinging outlaw.

‘Hey listen, the man that's after you just killed my brother. Here's a tip: He draws from the left, so lean to the right.

 He draws from the left so lean to the right.

Son, I'll let you in on something. Along towards sunset there's a wind from the east. So you better aim to the west.

 He draws from the left so lean to the right. There's a wind from the east so better aim to the west.

 I know this Joe like a book. He crouches when he shoots so stand on your toes.

 He draws from the left so lean to the right. There's a wind from the east so better aim to the west. He crouches when he shoots so stand on your toes.

 He draws from the left so stand on your toes... There's a wind from the east, better lean to the right... He crouches when he shoots, better aim to the west... He draws from his toes, so lean toward the wind. Ah ha! I got it!’

For the umpteenth time that tight we howled with laughter. Tony bowed to his fans. “I thank you,” he said in his best Arthur Askey voice and made his way home.
The conversation switched to Jane Russell and, inevitably to her breasts. We fell silent for a while, before Patrick spoke. “They aren’t really shaped like that you know. Underneath her sweater there is a contraption built with tiny scaffolding poles, which holds it all in place.” It was a perfect conversation stopper, and we all stood and stared at Patrick in silence. I felt a wave of envy sweep over me. I wanted to emulate my cousin, Patrick. I was also desperate to acquire just a fraction of his knowledge of the female anatomy. But the talk about breasts had made my mind up. I mumbled my excuses and goodnights and headed off, at speed, up Ninetree Hill. I had an urgent appointment; I had an audience with Gloria

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Good Friday Raid.


It was Good Friday, and Mum went shopping. She came back with some Easter biscuits. We could only afford two, so Mum and Mary had to share one. The biscuit was delicious, and it was my lucky day, because Mum wasn’t very hungry, and she gave me most of her half.

Father Doyle called in the afternoon. Mum told me to act as if I were still ill. She sat at the top of the bed with me, and told Father Doyle he should keep his distance, as what I had was very infectious. He stood by the door and told us a story about Easter.

He told us about the Last Supper and Judas Iscariot. He told us about Pontius Pilate and Barabbas, and then he told us about Jesus Christ. How he was forced to wear a crown of thorns, and how he carried the heavy cross up the hill of Mount Calvary. He told us how Jesus was crucified and died. It was a cracking story and I was right into it. I was waiting anxiously for the happy ending, and I was quite disappointed when Mum interrupted to tell Father Doyle that it was time for him to leave. He threw some holy water at me from the bottom of the bed, shouted ‘Dominus vobiscum’, and made a hasty exit down the wooden stairs.

 

Back then, when our city was under nightly siege from the German bombers, I would always go to bed fully clothed, apart from my boots, which sat by the side of the bed. That way, we were always ready for a quick getaway. I often wondered if my mother ever slept. She always seemed to be there at the ready when the sirens sounded. She roused me from a deep sleep at just before nine o’clock that night. We sat and listened to Alvar Lidell reading the nine o’clock news. Yet again, there was no good news. Our armies were in retreat, our shipping was being sunk and our cities bombed. I waited in vain for my father to get a mention, but once again, he didn’t.

“I don’t know why we bother to listen.” Mum looked glum. She took off my shirt, lifted my vest and started to rub the Wintergreen on my chest. I was still half asleep and not really listening as she chatted away.

Just before ten o’clock, the sirens sounded for the 538th time since war had been declared. This time, it was the real thing. The guns were barking away, the searchlights were scanning the skies like demented fire flies, and the dreaded drone of the bombers filled the air. Mum sat on the bottom of the bed, with her head in her hands. She started to cry as she rocked back and forth.

“I don’t know what to do” she said helplessly.

I was listening to the voices in my head. They were doing battle. It was Mr. Lloyd versus the Doctor

‘Another night in there could kill him.’

‘If one of those big bastards has got your name on it, you’re a goner.’

‘It’s every man for himself.’

I knew what I had to do.

Mr. Lloyd won the day; I jumped off the bed, and sprinted out of the house. I was heading for the sanctuary of my tunnel. I heard Mum’s frantic voice calling me. Slowly, it faded into the distance, as I ran bare-footed and bare-chested down Hotwell Road.



 

Mr. Lloyd had been adamant. There was no chance of ‘Jerry’ coming to call on Good Friday. ‘Stands to bloody reason.’ he said. ‘Jerry’ didn’t come over at Christmas, so he won’t be over for bloody Easter.’ Yet again, Mr. Lloyd was wrong.

 

It was quite a long haul from where we lived in Hotwell Road to the tunnel on the Portway. I had made the journey on many occasions with my mother, but never in the middle of a major air raid. I had always walked slowly; lagging behind Mum; usually dragging my heels, and insisting on numerous pit stops along the way. That Good Friday night was very different. By the time I had set out on my panic fuelled dash to safety, the raid was in full swing. The first wave of enemy bombers had avoided the customary frenzied, but wholly ineffective gun fire, and the first bombs had been delivered. Amongst the early casualties were the buildings housing the Cheltenham Road Library, and the neighbouring Colston’s Girls’ School.

I was still only three, and my running style was, to say the least, lacking in coordination. My arms and legs had minds of their own, and flapped wildly in different directions, but I had no intention of hanging around, and the one hundred and fifty three German bombers flying overhead in perfect formation added both strength and resolve to my young limbs. Furthermore, the knowledge that any one of the planes could also be carrying the ‘big bastard with my name written on it’, gave wings to my heels. That night, I ran every single step of the way, and to my eternal shame, I ran with neither a backward glance, nor a second thought for the safety and welfare of the mother and sister whom I had left behind.

The man on the door of the tunnel looked quite startled as I burst past him, and splashed my barefooted path through the puddles. I was heading towards my bunk at the very far end of the tunnel. A queue was already forming for the smelly toilet block behind my bunk, and the crowd gave me a good natured round of applause as I arrived.

I knew Mr. Brookes would be waiting; he always was. He was sitting, as usual, on his bunk. He was peering anxiously into the gloom, and looking out for Mum. Mr. Brookes slept on the lower bunk, which was directly underneath me. He was a good looking man, with dark hair, a black moustache, and a shiny white, sparkling smile. He bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable, the famous film star, but he had a high pitched squeaky voice. He sounded just like Donald Duck, and to make matters worse, he was afflicted with a very bad stutter.

I liked Mr. Brookes. He always made me laugh, and he always made Mum smile. He was one of those people who constantly told her she looked like Hedy Lamarr. More importantly, he always had a large bag of toffees in his pocket, and I loved toffees. I loved them more than anything in the world, apart from Easter biscuits, or maybe fish and chips, and maybe pig’s trotters.

“Where’s your m-m-m-m-mother?” enquired Mr. Brookes as he clasped his hands together and gave me a leg up to the upper bunk. His stutter always seemed to be far worse whenever Mum was involved. I waved vaguely in the direction of the entrance. I never dared to speak with Mr. Brookes myself. On the one occasion I had, I found myself mimicking his stutter, so I restricted myself to sign language only.

We didn’t have long to wait. Mum wasn’t far behind me, and she soon came splashing through the puddles herself. She was carrying Mary in one arm, and my shirt, a pullover, my boots, a pair of socks and a dry blanket in the other. Her face was a mixture of relief and anger. I knew that look well, and experience told me the anger would prevail. I prepared myself for a smack. It never arrived, because Mr. Brookes stood between us with his arms outstretched.

“L-L-Leave it be, M-M-M-Mrs. Kelly. He’s only a y-y-young child. We are fighting the b-b-b-b-bloody Germans, not each other.”

Mum let it be, and Mr. Brookes gave me a toffee. Mum dressed me, and tucked me in for the night.

I always tried to sleep, but sleep was hard to come by in the tunnel. The canvas in my bunk was damp and rotting, there were more holes than canvas, and I was basically lying on the rubber webbing, and could clearly see Mr. Brookes in his bunk below me. There was a constant buzz of nervous conversations. The toilet queue shuffled in, and back out again. Mothers scolded their children, and the children cried. Men drank beer, played cards, and argued, with the arguments becoming louder as the drinking increased. The little, old, white haired man who lounged in his brightly coloured deck chair would, from time to time, squeeze a tune from his accordion, and Mr. Brookes would squeak and stutter away, as he chatted nonstop with my mother. Mum sat, always looking extremely uncomfortable, in a wooden dining chair, cradling Mary in her arms. Mr. Brookes alternated between sitting and lying on his bunk.

The only light in the tunnel came from the handful of oil lamps and candles people had brought with them. These provided an eerie, yellowish half-light, and created strange, flickering shadows on the brick walls. Water ran down the walls, and dripped constantly from the curved roof.

The early bombing was light and sounded to be far away. We felt in no immediate danger, and it came as no surprise when the all clear sounded before midnight. Mum rapidly prepared us for our homeward journey. I could clearly hear the disappointment in Mr. Brookes’ squeak as he said his goodbyes, and gave me another toffee. We lingered on the way out, and Mum had a chat, and shared a cigarette with the man on the door. I was glad that did, because within minutes, and before we had left, the sirens wailed the alarm again. The Luftwaffe had regrouped and they were back for another go. This time it felt and sounded as if they meant business. The bombs sounded closer. It felt as if we were the target, and we were all uneasy.

Somehow, I managed to get to sleep, but it was a troubled sleep, and a troubled sleep meant troubled dreams. I dreamt that I was helping Jesus Christ carry his cross up the slopes of Mount Calvary. Jesus was wearing his crown of thorns, and the blood was streaming down his face. The cross was over his shoulders, and I was doing my best to lift it from the base. It was too heavy for me, and I wasn’t much of a help, but I struggled on, doing my best. Mr. Lloyd was with us, and he was waving his fists, and swearing at the Roman soldiers. Father Doyle was beating his chest and shouting ‘Pax vobiscum.’ I suddenly realised I was bursting for a pee. There was a low stone wall to our left, and I asked Jesus for permission to go behind it to relieve myself. He nodded agreement, and as he nodded, the blood on his face splattered on to mine. I went behind the wall, and emptied what was a very full bladder. When I came back, the road was empty. Everyone had gone. It started to rain heavily, and I raised my face to the skies. The rain washed away the blood of Christ, but then I heard shouting. I woke up just as another drip from the ceiling of the tunnel landed on my face.

I realised I had been dreaming, and then I realised I had wet myself; I had wet my bunk, and I had wet Mr. Brookes. He was on his feet now, a look of disgust on his face as he shouted at Mum whilst he wiped himself down with the backs of his fingers.

“He’s just a child.” said Mum defensively.

“He’s b-b-b-bloody three.” Mr. Brookes squeaked loudly in reply.

I needed to put him straight. I leant over the side of my bunk and looked him in the eyes.

“I’m not b-b-b-bloody three.” I yelled. I’m nearly f-f-f-four.”

There was a stunned silence, and then slowly, everyone started to laugh. Even Mr. Brookes joined in and the old man in the deck chair squeezed his accordion, and played a tune. Everyone joined in and sang along with a rousing chorus of K-K-K-Katie, b-b-beautiful Katie,

You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore.

I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. It felt as if I had just told my first adult joke.

The ‘all clear’ sounded at four thirty and as everyone else settled down to sleep, we prepared to make our way home. Mum had a brief chat with the man on the door, and then we set off.

I will never forget the walk home that night. It’s just as if some great artist had painted a canvas, and placed it inside my head. The moon smiled down at its reflection on the river, and we had what was almost the perfect silence. It was broken only by the sound of our footsteps. Mum was wearing the same green coat, with the black fur trim; the same coat she had worn when we’d made our journey from Kingsdown to Hotwells all those months earlier. Mary, who was dressed all in pink, was leaning over Mum’s left shoulder, and she was oblivious to everything. She was chuckling and chatting away to the white woollen doll which Mum had knitted for her. I was waddling along in the rear; lagging behind with my trousers wet, cold and clammy against my thighs. My socks were down around my ankles, and the early morning breeze was whipping cold against my bare legs. All I wanted was some sleep and some food.

We turned the final bend into our bit of Hotwell Road, and walked into an inferno. Anchor Road was burning from one end to the other. Jacob’s Wells Road was badly damaged, and there was a massive fire on College Green as the big shop that Mum loved so much became a pile of smouldering embers, and a memory. The sky over Brandon Hill was blood red, and Park Row was on fire yet again.

A neighbour came running down the road, threw her arms around my mother, and whispered something in her ear. The pair of them sobbed together, as they rocked in one another’s arms for several minutes. Every window in our house, together with most of the doors had disappeared. We spent the night in a strange bed, in a strange house, and when I woke up, it was late afternoon. Mum was dressed, ready and waiting.

“We’re moving.” She whispered. This time I didn’t argue. This time I didn’t mind. This time I wanted to go.

Mum had already rescued the clock, Dad’s photo and my tennis ball, so we set off down the road. We were heading off to another adventure. Mary was leaning over Mum’s shoulder again, still playing with her doll, still chuckling and chatting. Mum expertly steered the push chair with her spare hand.

“It will be a new life and a better life.” Mum smiled and strode off at speed again. “We’re going to Long Ashton; we’re going home.”

I asked to see Mr. Lloyd. I wanted to say goodbye. But my request only started Mum crying again. She explained that he was still in town, doing a ‘fact find’. I wanted to believe her, but I had seen the hole in the garden where the Anderson shelter had once stood, and I was worried.

I slowly fell behind, but I wasn’t dragging my heels. In fact, there was just a hint of a swagger in my step. I’d realised that it was Saturday, and on a Saturday we always had cheese and chips for supper. That was one of my most favourite things in the whole world. All I wanted now was for Mum to stop crying.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

St James Churchyard



It was around about this time I learnt my first harsh lesson in life. I learnt that nothing good lasts for ever. It was a warm April afternoon, and Mum, Mary, the pushchair and I headed down to St James Churchyard. This is now the site of the Primark store, but was then a triangular, concrete surfaced park. There was a weighbridge, a few scattered benches and, it seemed, something like a million pigeons. I would wander amongst the birds like a young St Francis of Assisi, scattering stale bread crumbs for them. They were very tame, and it gave me a great sense of power.

 
 On this particular day I had run out of bread crumbs and turned to Mum for reinforcements. To my shock, she was talking to a stranger. He was a tall, thin man, with very white teeth. Apart from a white collarless shirt, he was dressed entirely in brown. Shiny brown shoes, three piece  suit, and a trilby hat, which was perched at a jaunty angle on the back of his head. A mop of thick, black curly hair was protruding from the front. He was reaching forward to light a cigarette for my mother. It was the first time I had ever seen her smoke. His hand was cupped across the cigarette protecting the flame of his lighter from the breeze. His long fingers were touching her cheek. I sensed trouble, I didn't like this stranger, and I have always trusted my instincts.
They sat smoking and talking for some time. There was a lot of laughter and Mum was giggling like a young girl. I had never heard her laugh like that before. Then, Mr 'Brown' was on his way. He waved and said "Goodbye Michael." as he left, heading along the Horsefair towards Milk Street. I ignored him and didn't reply.
"His name is Tom." explained my mother when I questioned her. "He just wanted a chat."