Thursday, November 18, 2021

Smuggling cigars

Dad's stepfather George Pokham was a merchant seaman who worked mainly on the ships carrying various items between the London Docks and the Baltic ports. Only short runs and he was rarely away for more than a week at a time. 

With her somewhat difficult experience with her first husband, our Grandmother did not trust the second one to come straight home after being paid off and she would regularly be at the dock gates and often inside waiting for George to leave the ship. Security was not as great in those days, there were only the Dock policemen on the gate, it was quite a regular occurrence for wives with their children to wait inside the gates for their husbands to come off the ships with their pay.

Gran usually had a couple of the younger boys with her on these occasions and they would run up to George to be lifted up and swung round with great shows of paternal affection. He was also stuffing their pockets with contraband cigars during this process. He would always speak to the dock police at the gate and offer his bag for inspection. Ironically this was at the gate in Pennington Street now being used for the upmarket event venue called Tobacco Dock.

Dad was never sure if Gran or even the policemen for that matter was in on this minor smuggling, but it seemed to happen every time. The blind eye may also have been related perhaps to the fact there was a small block of Police flats in Pennington Street at that time, so many of the regular gate police were neighbours as it were. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Before Duvets

 Winter has arrived without a doubt in the Northwest of England so we have changed over to the winter weight duvet. 

Perhaps there are still a few people like me who can remember a time before duvets in English bedrooms,  although there is a popular song in these parts called "when I was a lad" which refers to greatcoats on the bed!

The first duvet I encountered was shortly after completing my National Service in the Military Police and spending most of that in the Suez Canal zone I decided to take a hitchhiking holiday in France.

I set off from the ferry at Calais and headed for P\aris and got some lifts on the way, and spend a couple of nights in the little bivouac tent I carried astride my haversack.  I spoke no french.  Although I had learned some French at school, whatever  I knew at 16 had disappeared by the time I was 21 so I relied on a French/English phrasebook, much to the amusement of any french person I tried to speak to.  I was able to speak the french phrases quite fluently which gave the impression that |I knew what I was saying but unfortuna\gtely I could not understand any replies.   Still, I got by although for the most part I lived on bread and cheese which I could buy just by pointing.

Obviously, I did not use the main routes and did a fair amount of walking on the quiet country roads. One day I had not got any lifts so was quite tired by the end of the day and I knew that I was still some way from the Amiens, the nearest town. Seeing a sign on the gatepost of a farm I went in and asked for a room for the night.

  No English was spoken at this house but I was welcomed being both young and English.  I was given a good meal of soup and some homegrown ham and bread and then shown to the bedroom.  Anyone familiar with "Allo Allo" would recognize the room, a sloping ceiling and a large iron bedstead with an enormous feather-filled duvet which I assumed was an eiderdown.  

I was a little nonplussed at first as there was no sheet under the duvet, not knowing that this was not regarded as necessary, and getting in the bed the weight of the cover took some getting used to. But I was tired and soon adjusted and slept like a log until close to midday the following day much to the amusement of my hosts. Still, I had breakfast and was on my way after paying a very trifling amount which I am  sure was much below the going rate even for then. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Catholic tories

In the 1950s I was a young Labour councillor on Lewisham Council.  Having been brought up as a Catholic one of the things I found difficult to grasp was that there were Catholics on the other side of the council chamber.  Tories!  On the Labour side there were several Catholics including John Henry a former fireman with a scarred face as testament to the bravery of his calling and Fred Copeman, OBE, a former member of the International brigade fighting the fascists in Spain just before the war.  My father had been a councillor in Stepney between the wars,  was a Papal Knight and an active trade unionist.

The Pope at the time was preaching social justice and the Catholic Church in the UK was  active in working to secure better conditions for working people.

So how could these "good Catholics " belong to an organisation that ignored all that?  I found it difficult to even be friendly to these blue Catholics.

I was naive of course not yet having come to realise that in a conservative world,  no matter what people professed as a religion, personal gain and advancement took priority. 

Sixty odd years have passed and nothing has changed.  A Tory can claim that they believe in helping those well off and spout the current catch phrase "levelling up " but what they actually do does not bring that about. Conservative government still means that the rich get richer by means of old boy networks, cronyism and access to government contracts.  Legislation that protects the rights of employees gets whittled away so that it ends up being meaningless. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Press button "B"

 Many phrases like this one, well known in the past no longer have any meaning.  It of course referred to the system of payment in public telephone boxes.  The red public phone box was on almost every street corner in the days when there were few telephones installed in private houses and before the invention of mobile phones.  In many remote areas of the Uk, they were the lifeline for a village and the only means of communication with the rest of the county.

 To use a public phone box it was necessary to make a prepayment of the necessary number of coins before dialing the number you wished to call.  If someone answered the call then it was necessary to press button "A" to make a connection.  If there was no reply then press button "B" to get the coins back.

Quite straight forward you would have thought but it did not always work that way.  The coins used for many years were pennies.  Probably the most common coin in the Uk in terms of usage so that they were also then the most worn.

. Pressing button B to get them back often resulted in two coins getting stuck together and not falling through into the receptacle cup as intended.  After a few bangs on the black box, they could come through but otherwise, the frustrated caller would go off. The next person in the box could be lucky and their coins could dislodge the stuck coins and they could make a call by pressing button "a" or their own coins would get stuck as well, adding to the blockage.

Then perhaps along came an enterprising young boy who would manage to dislodge the blockage by various means.  Most youngsters "tested" the phone box on every occasion.  Often it was just a question of pressing button "b" and retrieving the coins left behind by a caller who had been frustrated in making a call and dashed off without retrieving their money.  Otherwise, a few sharp bangs on the box would do the trick, or the judicious use of a penknife, the necessary adjunct to any schoolboy's pocket then, could release stuck coins.  Didn't work every time of course, but it was always worth a try, and if you are sauntering along with nothing else to do.......

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Army sport

Until I did my national service I had never seen a game of rugby. Bear in mind that this was in the days before TV.

Whilst doing my military police training we were supposed to have Saturday afternoons free but if the camp rugby team were playing at home then we were obliged to watch. Standing on the edge of a football pitch that did not look like a football pitch and the goalposts were a strange shape as well. Not my idea of a free Saturday afternoon!

And I did not understand what was going on at all. Having played football at school and attended a few professional games I was well aware of the need to keep the ball on the pitch. These rugby players seemed to spend a lot of the time throwing the ball off the pitch and then throwing it back on again. All very strange. 

And then there were the scrums.  A very odd procedure to someone who had not seen the game previously.  The two teams seem to huddle together on the pitch and try to push their opponents until suddenly the ball is thrown into the middle and then kicked out again. Being of a logical bent even in those days I could not work out the point of that. 

After the match, both teams went into the Naafi, got drunk together, and sang bawdy songs.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Come straight home

I am sure that I was not a particularly stupid child but I did not seem to be able to understand the stricture "come straight home from school".  At infants school in Wapping the way home was through the park (now called recreation ground) and there was a playground in the park...How was I expected to bypass the playground and go straight home, even though I knew that my mum was watching from the window of our top floor flat and could see me? 

 Later when we were evacuated to Brighton, the way home went past a monumental mason working in his outside workshop. I got lost in amazement as I watched him chisel out the lettering on a gravestone then later fill it with little lead triangles and then paint over the top. How I wanted to go in and get a closer look and learn how to do it, and the time went by!

 When we moved to Guildford and I was billeted at Shalford which was about two and half miles from school then there were plenty of distractions along the way.   Lewis Carrol's house with illustrations from Alice on the garden entrance: the river Wey ran for quite a long way along the road and at times there were folk rowing there or the water birds to watch.   In the winter months a meadow alongside the river was flooded from a sluice gate in the river and froze. Custom designed for small boys to skate on. 

Living with my mum after running away from my evacuee billets we lived in a small cottage in Trinity churchyard.  At the foot of the stairs leading into the churchyard there was a second hand bookshop which had a box of damaged books available for free.  Always worth a look for a few minutes or more. 
And so it went on.  Going straight home was never an option. 

Friday, April 30, 2021



Rambling is one of those words which have a number of meanings.  When we were young it mostly meant a weekend activity with a group of friends going for a walk in the countryside.  A group of us from the local branch of the Labour Party League of Youth in Lewisham used to go out to Farnborough, Kent to the end of the number 47 bus route and follow one of the walks listed in a small book sold by the Evening news. 

Most of the walks started off by going through the churchyard but then diverged to different walks, some circular  returning to Farnborough, others finished elsewhere like Down or Halstead, mostly at a pub. These were never particularly active outings like keen ramblers seem to do these days with there alpine walking sticks and backpacks.  Ours were  more a country stroll with frequent stops just to loll about in the grass and talk.  We used to do a lot of talking in those days, rather more than groups of similarly aged young people in the twenty-first century. 

 At the end of the day it was usually wend our way home by the next available bus, and if we had been in the pub there was usually some singing including the Red Flag and the the Internationale, much to the consternation of homegoing church goers.  Getting a bus  could be hit and miss on a Sunday evening so the alternative was a walk to the nearest country railway station and the train to one of stations near home depending on which line we were on. The train journey was frequently free as country stations in those days were rarely manned on a Sunday so there was no one to buy a ticket from and at the other end there was no ticket collector either. It didn't seem illegal when there was no one to collect the fares. 

That kind of rambling is for the relatively young and fit.  As you get  older there is a greater inclination to do the other kind were your mind rambles around in a haphazard way, trying to remember a name that escapes  or a memory which is no longer as clear as it used to be.   C'est la vie.