JUST A BOY FROM BRISTOL
Through the eyes of a child
On the 3d September 1939 a war started that would change the course of history. It also denied millions of children, across the world, of the opportunity for a normal, happy childhood. I know, because I was one of them.
My father had re-enlisted in the Royal Navy as soon as the storm clouds of war had started to gather over Europe. He left my mother to bring up two young children alone, in poverty, and in what was a scary, changing world.
My mother was an incredibly beautiful young woman, but she was emotionally fragile. She was a wild, scatty, free spirited, capricious butterfly, who was constantly fluttering around, unable to settle. In many ways she was totally unsuited to the task in hand, but she was a mother, and she did what mothers do best. She cared for me, did it well, and I will be eternally grateful to her. Mum, I thank you for teaching me how to love, I thank you for the journey, and I thank you for the many wonderful memories.
I was only two when my father went off to war. I was far too young to have any memories of him. All that I had was a small, crumpled photograph, which showed him as a young man wearing football kit. He had scribbled a message on the back.
I won't be long, don't worry, because I will be lucky.
That photograph lived behind the clock, on the mantle shelf of whichever house we were living in for the duration of the war. Whenever the going got too tough, Mum would take it down and read the message aloud to me.
My earliest memories are of the spring of 1940. I was still a few months short of my third birthday, but I was a precocious child, and the memories are very clear. We were living, like three rats, in a tiny basement flat in Badminton Road, St Paul's. The house was on the junction of Ashley Road, Lower Ashley Road and Sussex Place. I shared the double bed with my mother. My baby sister, Mary, slept in her pushchair, under the window in the cramped living room area. I envied Mary's ability to sleep. It would stand her in good stead when the bombers flew over Bristol.
The fighting hadn't reached Bristol yet, but the effects of war had. The strict rationing meant a shortage of food, and, in our case, there was always a shortage of money. There were frequent trips to the pawn shop, and there were ration books, black outs at night, gas masks, and air raid drills. Despite all of this, life carried on as normal. Rumours would spread like wildfire when shops had food supplies, and housewives would gossip away as they formed long queues outside of the shops. .
My best, and my only friend, was Mrs Grant who lived across the road. Mrs Grant was a formidable looking Irish woman. She was short, sturdy and permanently wore a pinafore and a hairnet, which covered an army of rather vicious looking metal curlers. She may have been a woman, but she had whiskers, warts and muscles. I had already decided that if and when the Germans ever invaded Badminton Road, I would hide behind her. Those curlers would be more than a match for anything the Germans could throw at us.
Mrs Grant and I had a symbiotic relationship. She would ply me with biscuits, cake and sausage sandwiches; I would answer her many questions and supply her with information about my mother. The questions would come at me thick and fast.
"Where was your mother going yesterday afternoon?" "Where did you last live?" "Do you remember your father?"
There was nothing major I could tell her, because I really knew nothing, but I valued those extra rations, and I would fabricate stories about my mother's movements and intentions. It all seemed to work rather well, and I lived in an idyllic world where I could have both a full stomach and a clear conscience.
The highlight of my week was a Sunday morning when the Salvation Army band came a 'calling. They would stop at the top of the road and belt out a couple of brassy numbers. It was my first taste of live music, and its appeal has never left me. I was fascinated by the big bass drum and the drummer. He was a large man with a florid complexion and a bushy, black moustache. For the final leg of the journey back to the Citadel, I would march alongside him, my left index finger across my upper lip to simulate his moustache, my cheeks puffed out to simulate his size. With my free right hand, I would air drum like a maniac. Boom! Boom! Boom!
When the show was finally over, I would trudge slowly home. It seems inconceivable in this day and age, but there I was, yet to reach the age of three, and I was already walking around St Paul's all alone and unattended. I knew no fear though, the area bounded by the triangle of Brigstocke Road, Ashley Road and City Road was my manor, my hood, and I would strut around those streets like a miniature boss.
It was around about this time that I learnt my first harsh lesson in life. I learnt that nothing good ever lasts for ever. It was a warm April afternoon, and we 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 brown suit, and a brown 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 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."
That night was a cold one, and I was curled up in front of the coal fire with Mum. She was trying to teach me to read, but I wasn't in the mood. Tommy Handley and ITMA were on the radio. I didn't understand a word of it, but loved to guffaw along with the studio audience. Looking back, I loved the combination of the coal fire and the flickering gaslights. It was very intimate and atmospheric and the memories evoke very special feelings.
Suddenly, there was a tap on the front door.
"I'll go." Mum was quick off the mark, but I was quicker. This could be the German invasion, and I needed to get Mrs Grant.
I got to the door just before my mother.
I blinked into the darkness. I knew the voice, and then I recognised him. It was Mr 'Brown' from the park.