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American Pie: Down Memory Lane - My Childhood Neighbors

…As was typical of suburban, working and middle class people of the time, social contact was confined to occasional exchanges over the garden fence, or a few pleasantries if one met a neighbor in the street or the local grocery store. It took years to assemble a comprehensive picture of the lives of any of them, and there were some surprises…

John Merchant reveals some of those surprises. One of the neighbors, whom he did not know at the time, was Monty Python cast member Michael Palin.

For more of John’s columns, all of them as enjoyable on a second reading as they were on a first, please click on American Pie in the menu on this page.

The house my parents moved into after they were married was three years old, as were most of the houses around them. It was part of a new suburb, and represented the realization of a dream, shared by many of the inhabitants, to move away from the steel mills and coalmines where they were raised. The suburb had been a dairy farm, surrounded by woods, and there was a nearby park with a swimming pool, tennis courts and bowling greens. A short walk to the electric trams provided a noisy, but quick trip to jobs and shopping in the city.

The people who lived on my road were about as mixed as one could hope for. Their ages ranged from young parents in their early thirties, to retirees. Their occupations included schoolteachers, bank workers, middle managers, and small company owners. My immediate neighbors were retired schoolteachers on one side, and on the other an artist and gallery owner. Two of my playmates’ fathers were railway steam engine drivers. One drove the long distance, elite expresses, and the other, local freight trains.

The one enthusiasm most of them had in common was gardening. Our gardens weren’t large, but were virgin land, so there was an element of pioneering involved in getting them into shape. Old tree roots had to be dug out, rocks large and small needed to be removed and turned into paths and rockeries, or used for drainage. The suburb had been built over a seam of blue ganister clay, much prized by metal smelters, but the bane of aspiring gardeners.

Turning this infertile material into friable soil was a constant battle, no matter how much fertilizer and mulch was added. But it did grow wonderful roses, a property that my parents took full advantage of. Creating gardens took up quite a bit of everyone’s spare energy and time, so there wasn’t much left of either for socializing, even if they had been so inclined.

As was typical of suburban, working and middle class people of the time, social contact was confined to occasional exchanges over the garden fence, or a few pleasantries if one met a neighbor in the street or the local grocery store. It took years to assemble a comprehensive picture of the lives of any of them, and there were some surprises. I was eleven years old before I knew that my one neighbor was a nationally respected watercolor artist and engraver, and that his gallery was one of the best in our city.

I discovered, long after I left the area, that a Monty Python cast member, Michael Palin, had been a neighbor, albeit several houses away from mine. The adult son of another was a philosopher, the only one I have ever known, and who, characteristically, always seemed deep in thought. We had our share of eccentrics too - people who lived alone, talked to themselves and dressed strangely. As kids, we were convinced that at least one of them was a witch.

From one end to the other, the road I lived on ascended in a moderate gradient. The difference in elevation from one end to the other prescribed the style and size of the houses, and the means of their occupants – smaller houses and humbler folk at the bottom, as is the way of the world. Appropriately, our house was in the middle.

Once World War II got under weigh, a roster of A.R.P. (Air Raid Precaution) wardens was formed from those men who were ineligible for military duty, and my father was one of them. Their job was to patrol the neighborhood at night during air raids, and caution anyone who was showing a light.

The long nights and shared fears during bombing raids made friends out of many of these men, who hitherto had hardly acknowledged each other’s existence. The experience opened up an unprecedented window of communication. One man who shared duty with my father returned home after an air raid to find his wife dead from wounds caused by a bomb that had taken off the back of his house, but left the front intact. It took him years to recover.

The neighbors on the opposite side from the artist were two retired, schoolteacher sisters, and the husband of one of them. The husband was a bookish, somewhat scholarly man, but had the mundane job of gate guard at one of the steel plants. This dichotomy was not uncommon at the time, because World War I had caused a disruption in the lives of so many people who had never been able to return to their true following.

In our neighborhood, it was also not uncommon for a woman to live with a brother-in-law and her married sibling. My threesome were dear people, though at the time I thought the women were typical schoolmarms, and they were. But they literally were responsible for turning my life around. I had been a sickly child, and had in consequence missed a lot of schooling. The disruption of air raids, causing loss of sleep and school closings, sometimes for weeks, only made matters worse.

I had been a good student before these disturbances, but was falling seriously behind. The two sisters took matters into their own hands and started to tutor me. In short order they brought me up to my best performance. Given the rigidity of the education system at that time, my future opportunities would likely have been much more limited had those ladies not coached me as successfully as they did.

My artist neighbor mentored my creative talents, and no doubt would have had a greater influence on me had he not been stone deaf. Being unable to hear was only half the problem. When he spoke it was at maximum volume. After an hour or so in his company my ears would be ringing and I’d have to make excuses to leave. In one of the worst air raids on our city, his gallery was destroyed and all its contents. Being an “Act of War,” the insurance did not compensate him.

By present day standards, most of the neighborhood people I grew up with lived ordered, structured lives that now would be considered humdrum. But as I reflect on it, I think this contributed to their ultimate longevity. The very sameness of their daily routines, their moderation and reticence kept them healthy, often into their nineties. James Lee, Mrs. Parkin, Mrs. Loy, Mrs. Hardy, Mr. Hook, Miss Palmer – they’re all dead now, but they died of old age, as neighbors should.

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