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Around The Sun: I Never Knew We Were Poor

Steve Harrison tells of growing up in austere times.


We come into the world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. There are no pockets in shrouds, no storage cupboards in caskets.

I didn't realise how poor we were until I got my first job. A colleague asked me how I had survived, growing up on a housing estate where most of the residents were impoverished. I didn't know how to answer the question then, and I still don't know how to answer it now. All I can say is that it didn't seem as though we were poor.

Our family were in the same situation as the other families who lived on the estate. Of course my mother was constanly telling us there was no money to buy this or that, but our lives were not centred on an absence of cash.

Most of the things we owned were either bought on credit or handed down to us. Once a year, around Easter time, we children were taken to the Co-Op store, there to get some new clothes: a couple of pairs of underware, perhaps a new pair of trousers, shirts and, occasionally, shoes. We three kids were marched into the shop, there to be kitted out, but money did not change hands. My mother signed an agreement to pay for the clothes in instalments over the next twelve months.

We then had our hair washed and combed. After dressing up in our new finery we were paraded before aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. And after that it was off to Grandma and Grandad's house. I suppose my mother was making some kind of "look how well off we are'' statement. At each house we visited we were given cakes, biscuits, and sometimes lollies. Relatives commented on how big we had grown and said we looked nice.

This showing off the new clothes event seemed to last all day. Eventually, when we were exhausted, we were marched back home by our proud mother, and there made to change into our older, grubbier clothes.

Other items of clothing were handed down to us by neighbours who had older children. We were growing up fast, growing out of our clothes. Items were regularly passed along from family to family. Socks were darned. Trousers had patches sewn on them. Collars were removed from shirts, turned over so that the inside was now on the outside, then sewn back on again. Shoes were repeatedly soled and heeled, and sometimes bits of black-painted carboard were inserted into them to conceal holes.

Life was spartan but we all shared in the same poverty.

Most of our play things where objects we found and made use of. With a bit of imagination an old car tyre could represent a car. Christmas was the only time when we got a new toy, also bought at the Co-Op on credit. I was the proud owner of a Meccano building set. Each year my parents bought me new pieces to expand that set. I loved building things. Dad observed my creative efforts, rarely commenting, just nodding his approval, each nod bringing a snowfall of ash from the cigarette which was always dangling from his lips.

Dad got his pay packet every Thursday. Most of its contents were spoken for by the Co-Op.


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