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A Shout From The Attic: Safety First

...Her last words to me, before she hit the side of the first air raid shelter were, “Don’t let go!” I could tell by the panic in her voice, even at that distance, that she was frightened, but already it was too late...

Ronnie Bray recalls what happened when he took René out to teach her to ride a bike.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's gloriously readable autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

All this talk of safety! When I was a boy, most men had abandoned the open or ‘cut-throat’ razor for the ‘safety razor,’ a term no longer applied as all razors are now deemed to be safe. But the straight razor, honed to perfection on a leather strop, was anti-safety and unforgiving.

The combination of an open razor at jugular vein, and a sudden spasm of hiccoughs or a violent sneeze, has left many a woman a widow, and many a child fatherless. Such a juxtaposition of open razor and violence, either from within or without has also accounted for the loss of innumerable, ears, noses, bits of lips and all sorts of human detritus that the owners were hoping to hang on to for a bit longer.

At least you knew what to expect with an open razor, whilst safety razors, not potentially as fatal as their earlier relatives, nevertheless have a nasty habit of lulling the novice, the unsuspecting shaver, or the careless scraper into a false sense of safety, rendering them immediately careless and open to the most inconvenient nicks and cuts that bleed on clean white collars and require the application of dabs of toilet tissue to stem the flow of lifeblood, which dabs are immediately forgotten in the rush to be dressed and out so as to impress some sweetling whose rich smile is tribute to the blood-soaked tissue now crusting on your face, that extinguishes her ardour in inverse proportion to the broadness of her smile. Safety, indeed! And that contemplation of razors ancient and modern brings me round nicely to René’s first – and only – bike – and air raid shelters.

My friend, Pete West, had an Anderson shelter in his back yard. It was made from several lengths of curved corrugated iron, galvanised and bolted together to form a round arch that rested in a pit or dugout that was, er ... , dug out to receive it. The ends were then bricked up and a wooden door and frame suitable for a kitchen was affixed to one gable and earth piled high around the sides to absorb any of the German block busters that might just land at the top of Bath Street in Huddersfield.

Our back yard was exactly that, a yard, which in good, non-colonial, English means that it was a paved area. We had a narrow strip of something minimally softer than the paving slabs that was euphemistically called ‘the garden’ but no one ever gardened it, except for my adventurous efforts into horticulture one disappointing year, but it was too narrow to accommodate an Anderson shelter.

Not to be thwarted, the powers-that-be fixed two massive steel-plated wooden doors at each end of the common passageway between our house at 121 Fitzwilliam Street, Huddersfield, and 123, the Barrett’s home. The idea being that in case of an air raid warning, both families and the lodgers, comprising about sixteen or seventeen persons in all would closet themselves in the dark in the steel closed tomb secured by the four doors, one pair close-mounted at either end of the passage-way, to withstand the rude blast, and wait insouciantly for the bombs to drop.

Scattered about, apparently willy-nilly, but doubtless conforming to a secret, highly effective Master Plan for public safety, were brick structures as big as bungalows, having huge concrete slab roofs and maze-like entrances so that bomb blasts could not force their way straight into the shelters but, instead, blasts had to get through the door by projecting it at high velocity inside and towards the startled shelterers, before making its way around the corner of the entrance to do further damage.

These big air raid shelters were in public places to maximise safety for those who managed to elbow their way through the doors in re-enactments of the panic-in-the-streets that accompanied the Orson Welles broadcast of “War of the Worlds” whenever the siren screamed its eerie darknight wail.

Soon after the end of the War, René found herself in possession of a monster safety bicycle. Having been brought up on the huge driving wheels of penny-farthing bicycles, it took some time before bike wheels reached their normal diameter of 26 inches, and René’s was a prior model that had been reduced to a cumbersome 28 inches. It was an enormous bike for a small girl, and was described as a ‘lady’s safety cycle’ of the sit-up-and-beg variety, as was common for sensible people and overweight policemen who wanted to get around and were not in any hurry. The inclusion of the word ‘safety’ should have us reaching for our tin hats!

Contemplating air raid shelters and their design principles, it seemed inevitable that if one got a direct or near hit, the whole thing would collapse and kill or seriously maim its sheltering occupants who, wrapped snugly against the midnight cold in pyjamas and nightshirts, with overcoats, scarves and hot water bottles, passed their noisy nights by guttering candlelight sure in the confidence that fools and ordinaries have in scientists and other masters that the structures would withstand a direct hit from a 2,000 pound present from some nice young man in the Luftwaffe who looked remarkably like the young man we sent out synchronously on parallel deliveries over Dresden and Berlin in well-beloved Lancaster bombers. The best thing about these places of safety was that you did not die alone.

It was with these and other thoughts in mind that René and I set off one Saturday morning to teach her to ride the megalocycle and begin her adventures on the open roads in an age when one was still likely to be bitten by a passing horse. Why we chose the Highfields instead of the closer Greenhead Park, I cannot say, but we did (we never said we were geniuses!). Highfields is high if you look at it from St John’s Road, Birkby, because the very large field of about thirty acres, rendered plural in its ancient name, runs uphill and soon over-elevates the church steeple. But if you look at it from the New North Road end, the field is definitely a low one. "It’s all relative,” as Einstein said when he saw his wedding pictures.

To cover all eventualities, such as if a crowd of people spontaneously decided to walk up or down Highfields during an air raid, the Corporation had erected two of the big brick-built, concrete slab-roofed air raid shelters at one side. And it was towards these that René rolled soon after I had let go of the saddle. Unkind rumour had it that these shelters were useless because they were not near any place where people congregated and the Corporation had only built them to use up some surplus money at the end of the financial year.

Learning to ride a bike in that far-off simpler time was a matter of getting someone to hold the bike upright while you got mounted and comfortable, then the someone gripped the saddle firmly to prevent the bike from falling over if it ran below stalling speed. Once over stalling speed, due to centrifugal force, bicycles do not fall over. They are capable of some alarming manoeuvres but falling over is not in their repertoire. Her last words to me, before she hit the side of the first air raid shelter were, “Don’t let go!” I could tell by the panic in her voice, even at that distance, that she was frightened, but already it was too late.

Near the top of the greensward field, I had held the almost me-high frame upright as she clambered up the green tubes to perch herself on a saddle that must have cost two cows their skins and which was supported by springs that would have done sterling service on the driving wheels of the Coronation Scot locomotive. She wobbled at first, but I gritted my teeth and held on grimly to the saddle, keeping the machine upright as she writhed to maintain equilibrium. I was inspired to push the bike at a fairly fast pace and then I was inspired to let go and stand and watch as the steed took my sister down the field at gathering speed. I was not worried: it was, after all, a safety bike!

What prompted René to shout, “Don’t let go!” and then to turn around in the saddle, causing the handlebars to move from the perfectly straight line she had steered to make sure that I hadn’t let go only to find that I had let go, and that I was but a dot in the distance, I don’t know. As soon as she discovered that she was riding the bike without assistance, she hit the side of the air raid shelter, towards which, doubtless, she had veered for safety. She was not badly hurt and I consoled her with the intelligence that she could really ride her bike because she had done so. That brightened her and, after I pointed out what the brakes were for, she rode it again without any help from me. I felt vindicated for my unique method of teaching bicycle skills and we went home smiling together.

Funny how sometimes we are safe when we think we are not, and not safe when we think we are. Life is full of nasty surprises when it shouldn’t be. But when the Lord says,

“I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep:
for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety”

Now, there’s a promise of safety that I trust!


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