Category Archives: Growing up in the nineteen fifties

She died with a fag in her mouth.

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In the early 1900`s my family ran a large greengrocer`s shop in Acocks Green.  Above the shop was a huge, five bedroom flat where I was to be born in 1953.  My grandad Edward would get up at the crack of dawn to take his horse and cart five miles to the market to pick up produce to sell and my nan Polly and Edward`s sister Mary helped him in the busy shop.  Mary was always a heavy smoker, she always had a cigarette dangling from her mouth and in spite of her twenty to thirty a day habit managed to live well into her eighties.  She had been a nurse and brought many grateful soldiers back to full health during the first world war.  I know this because as a child, I was given her autograph book signed by lots of the men she nursed and it was filled with some fascinating drawings and poems which accompanied their thanks to her.  One drunken night in my twenties I gave it away to a woman who really loved it and I have regretted that but hey ho, it was a long time ago.

One night during World War 2 a few years before I was born, there was a heavy bombing raid over Birmingham.  Everyone apart from Aunty Mary fled to the large and damp concrete air raid shelter which had been built in the fields at the back of the house to protect the local community.  Mary was a stoic and she refused, as she put it, “to be made to leave her own home because of  The Hun.”  Referring to German soldiers as The Hun was a highly effective piece of propaganda seized upon by British politicians in WW2 in order to demonise the German troops.  Remember Attila the Hun?

Mary had gone to the loo that night presumably to have a fag and take her mind off the air raid.  She was perched on the throne refusing to be put out by Hitler when a bomb happened to fall right outside the flat, exploding and creating a massive crater in the Warwick Road.  The accompanying vibrations to the building literally blew Mary off the toilet so on that occasion, she must have been somewhat relieved to find herself still in tact.  Actually the night time raid also hit St. Mary`s Church in Acocks Green and did a huge amount of damage to that lovely building but like my Aunty Mary, the church too, survived.

Some years after the war, I had been born and spent a lot of my time with my nanny and Aunty Mary who now shared a house together in Dudley Park Road in Acocks Green.  They had retired and my mother and father were always occupied with shop business not that I especially minded at that time, my nanny was my favourite person in the world.

I used to watch Aunty Mary preparing food in the small, nineteen fifties kitchen.  She and nanny always wore aprons and Mary`s fags and matches would be kept available in the pocket of her apron.  She always smelt a mixture of fags and Rennies, I remember it distinctly.

I have a vivid childhood memory of watching Mary making gravy for Sunday dinner in a large roasting tin, the ever present fag hanging down. I was fascinated and childishly horrified as a good inch of ash which had been perilously close to dropping, finally departed from the cigarette and fell like a humungous grey snowflake, down with a gentle plop into the roasting tin.  Unperturbed Mary simply continued to stir the ash into the gravy.

After my nan died, Mary went to be taken care of by my Uncle Alan who lived in Great Barr and from time to time, we would all go to visit her and say hello to my cousins Stephen and Rita.  Alan`s wife Elsie was a very house proud woman and I remember it was a bit like visiting royalty.  My uncle, also a greengrocer worked very hard and the house reflected that with fine furniture and beautiful carpets throughout.  It must have been all the more galling for him therefore, to cope with the manner in which my Aunty Mary had chosen to die.

That day, she had lit a fag and as in WW1 all those years ago, retired to the toilet for a quiet smoke.  God called her, it was her time and she passed away and let her body slip off the loo and on to the newly laid pale green carpet.   Unfortunately, her body was blocking the door so too late, my Uncle Alan managed to push it open only to find the rascally fag that had fallen from her lips had already singed a large burn into his new carpet.

Aunty Elsie must have had kittens but that recollection of my ancient Aunty Mary, always makes me smile.

Monks, golf and climbing chestnut trees.

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At the back of mum and dad`s shop were open fields and a private school for boys which was called Wellesbourne School.  Wellesbourne had an outside swimming pool which years later when the school had closed and was derelict, our neighbours` dog fell into.  The poor thing was there all night until my brother Martin and I sourced the barking, climbed over the wall and hauled him dripping, out of the murky water.

Wellesbourne school was next to a friary which used to exist in Acocks Green and was part of Sacred Hearts and Holy Souls Catholic Church community.  The monks would often go out onto Wellesbourne`s playing fields and practice golf, their brown cassocks flowing around their ankles.  Martin and I would gather up the golf balls and return them and the monks would bless us and make us feel very pious.

We had a lot of friends round about in Acocks Green and we would all meet up and play Acky One Two Three together until dusk and go home sweaty, filthy, happy kids. Children can`t do that very easily these days, play out on their own all day and have adventures which is a pity.  There was a concrete air raid bunker at the back of the flat which had a sloping roof and we would all climb up on there, me, my big brother Al`, Martin, the Slater sisters, Pamela and Gail and sometimes Tishca (Patricia) and Terry Price would join us and Terry would flirt with my sister Sue.

One time Martin decided to dig a tunnel, he dug into an earth bank with a spade he got from dad`s shed.  He dug in quite a way and then the whole thing collapsed on him, it`s lucky we were all there to dig him out again or he might have suffocated.  Martin was always getting into scrapes, mum sometimes used to call him the black sheep of the family which was untrue, he was just an inquisitive, brave boy. I loved him then and I still do.

I felt a sort of awe for my brother Alan all through my childhood and teens, I have never worked out why that was except that he was enigmatic and therefore very cool and interesting to me.  Al` suffered from terrible inner ear infections as a child which would leave him delerious with pain.  Mum and I used to sit by his bed and hold his hand through the night and he would weep, it was awful and wouldn`t happen these days.  Very unfortunately these childhood infections have left my darling bro` with tinnitus which has nearly driven him insane over the years and almost entirely deaf now, which is a great shame as my brother is a very gifted saxophonist and blues harmonica player.

As a child I loathed my sister Sue.  She was six years older than me and incredibly bossy and wouldn`t let me join in with her and her friends and wouldn`t allow me to go to her birthday parties and so on.  She got to stay up much later than me and had a grown up relationship with mum and dad which I was very envious of.  I remember saying the f word when I was about four, I suppose I`d heard one of my brothers saying it and Sue slapped my face hard telling me never to utter the word again.  I carried on loathing her until I was about fourteen and then I fell madly in love with her and remained so until her much too early demise, nearly five years ago.  I miss you every day my dearest sis.

At the back of the flat on the bit of land we used to call The Black Patch (which was really just the Midland Bank car park,) grew a magnificent Horse Chestnut tree.  It is huge, it`s still there and is a protected tree because it is so old.  When I was four I decided to climb up into it`s vast heights and then of course, I couldn`t figure out how to climb down again.  I`m laughing now at the recollection but I remember my father`s face, he was furious with me and had to get the long ladders and climb up to get me down.

My parents never smacked us to discipline us, they had both been `strapped` as children by their fathers` leather belts and I think they must have made a joint decision never to dish out that kind of punishment.  I believe I was sent to bed after the tree incident, without my tea!

Hi-yo, Silver! Away!

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My brother Martin and I were extremely close as children in fact you could say we were joined at the hip as we went everywhere together.  We loved to play super hero games and tying a bath towel around our necks which magically transformed into a cape, we would zoom around the large flat we lived in, he as Superman and me of course as Supergirl. Martin was a terrible tease and couldn`t let me walk past him without doing something to me.  He would trip me or pinch my arm or anything annoying so that I would retaliate.  Then we`d have a full blown wrestling match on the hall floor which generally ended up with me shouting “Submit! Submit!”, when my bro` got me into a figure four.

Martin took me roof hopping as a child which involved us climbing up fire escapes and drainpipes to breathtaking heights on top of Woolworth`s roof.  From there we would jump across a humungous gap to land on the roof of the bingo hall next door and so on until we couldn`t get any further and then we`d have to go all the way back.  I can only imagine my parents were busy in their greengrocer shop, their hearts would have stopped if they`d had any idea what we were up to!  We loved to hang around the back of the bingo hall on a hot summers day because they would leave the doors open to let in some air and Martin and I would shout out random numbers as loudly as we could up to the hall to try and confuse the players.

When Martin was quite small, about 5 or 6, he loved to dress up as a cowboy, he would play cowboys and Indians for hours with me in the fields at the back of the shop.  Dressed in pretend leather chaps, his silver plastic gun slung around his hips in a black plastic holster, a red `kerchief tied around his neck, his cowboy hat upon his head he would become the Lone Ranger and I was his Tonto.

One afternoon a very angry man entered mum and dad`s shop, in fact angry would be an understatement he was apoplectic.  The stranger`s beautiful and very expensive open top sports car, which had been parked at the top of the shop drive was now buckled and bent having rolled down the slope of the drive and into the Warwick Road .  It had come to a stop leaning against a lamp post.  My father was confused, why did it have anything to do with him he wondered?  The angry man was shaking something in his hand which upon closer examination proved to be Martin`s toy gun which he had obligingly left on the passenger seat of the car when he climbed out, after taking the handbrake off……….

Whoops!  The angry man said that Martin had legged it when he had spotted him.   Alarmed, my parents rushed to see where Martin was.  He was strolling nonchalantly down the garden path at the back of the flat, his empty holster still buckled around his hips just as though he hadn`t got a care in the world.

Growing up in the nineteen fifties.

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I was born the year the Queen came to the throne, 1953.  My mum was 43 when I came into this world, she told me she had “wept buckets” into the Belfast sink when she found out she was pregnant with me.  Not a great start.  She went to see Dr Hernan to see if he could do anything about it but he was Catholic and sent her away.  Thanks doc, I owe you one.

Like so many of us in the fifties, I was born at home.  My aunty Mary helped deliver me, my older sister Sue was brought to see me at two thirty in the afternoon.  Gazing sniffily at me in the blue Moses basket she said,  “Nanny made me eat cabbage for my dinner,” before wandering downstairs again.

My grandfather on my dad`s side was called Edward.  I never met him; he died some weeks before I was born.  He was a greengrocer and ran a high class, double fronted green grocer shop on the Warwick Road in Acocks Green called E.Pitt and sons.  My dad ran it when he came back from Cyprus after World War 2.  One side of the shop sold fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, the other side sold corn seed, sacks of spuds and animal foods.  It was great living in the huge flat above the shop.  The Midland Bank was next door providing occasional excitement when people tried to break in and steal money.  This happened twice in my childhood and I remember the police at night with dogs all over our back garden, shining torches at the terrified faces of the young, would be thieves, telling them to come down off the bank roof or they would send the dogs up.

In the flat`s kitchen we had an iron range.  Mum would bathe me in the big old ceramic sink before bed.  She still used to do the weekly wash with a dolly and put the clothes through the mangle outside.  In winter the shirts would freeze like stills in a photograph, all along the washing line.  My brother Martin used to like to try and mangle my fingers when I was a child.  As I grew up mum had a helper, Nelly Stone who used to walk me to the infants school when I was four.  I didn`t like the smell of her hands, I think it was probably carbolic soap, that florid pink stuff do you remember?  Uncle Albert used to help out in the shop, he would gather me up in his arms and bear hug me after school and pretend to punch me, I guess he must have loved me.

I hardly saw my mother and father when I was little, mostly we were looked after by our Nan as mum and dad were busy in the shop all the time.  In the early mornings dad would be off in his lorry at five thirty to the market in Birmingham for fresh vegetables.  At the back of the shop were the stables where my grandfather kept his horses, he used to go to market in a cart.  As kids we used the barn space upstairs as our own private roller skating rink.  We had those silver adjustable skates you could buy from Woollies with the pretend red leather straps.  We could lean through the upstairs stables windows and pluck pears from the trees that grew in the bank garden.

On Sunday evenings we were allowed to stay up late to watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium on the black and white TV.  We used to go down the stairs from our sitting room into the shop and help ourselves to peanuts, all sorts of exotic fruit like bananas and lychees which most people hadn`t even heard of in those days.  Dad would peel the lychees and pop them into our mouths telling us they were sheep`s eyeballs, we never believed him but would giggle a lot, every time.  I also had a penchant for dog biscuits and munched my way through many a Bonio as a child.  I still have great teeth and I`m nearly sixty.  Sometimes dad would hang hare and pheasant up for sale at the front of the shop and he was bitten twice on the hand by banana spiders who had hitched a lift over here in the crates, all the way from Africa.  My dad`s hand swelled up like a football.

At four in the afternoon schoolkids would pop their heads in through the shop door and shout out to mum and dad,  “Got any spec`s mister?”  and dad would toss them all a bruised apple or a tangerine.

Happy, happy days.