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The Scrivener: Always Doing Something

...When the weather was fine in the summers of childhood which were always warm we staged concerts in our back gardens. The lawn was the stage and a big (to us) wooden clothes-horse draped with blankets was the back-drop...

Brian Barratt recalls the imaginative and enriching days of his childhood.

Here's an article to read, re-read then store in your computer's treasure chest.

An invisible railway line, with several stations, ran up and down the wide footpath in front of our houses on London Road at New Balderton. Invisible to all except me and my pal who lived five doors down. He started it, with his railway running up and down the path at the side of their house, and moveable cardboard signals pinned to the wooden fence (they were visible), and a complete time-table (which he wrote in an exercise book) so that he knew which train was due and when to jog up and down making chugging and tooting noises.

But I had a radio station up in the back bedroom where I slept in a creaky old wrought iron and brass bedstead which didn't creak when it was manufactured sometime in the reign of King George V whose beard I admired when I saw it in old photos. The nightly schedule, my 'Radio Times' newspaper, was also written in an exercise book. I didn't make chugging and tooting noises but I did all the different voices and sang the tunes out of tune when I broadcast the programmes before I slid between the sheets, afraid of the dark and listening to the heavy drone of Lancaster bombers in the war-time sky.

We bought little books of train numbers. The LNER station was a good place for trainspotters to buy a platform ticket for a penny and wait for trains to identify and tick off in the book. The express passenger trains were best because they thundered straight through the long thin station on their way non-stop from Edinburgh to London and we stepped back to avoid being sucked off the platform by the wind and noise.

There was a railway bridge not far from where we lived on London Road but the line ran for only a couple of miles between the gravel pit in Balderton and Cafferata's brick and plaster works near Beacon Hill which I knew a lot about because my father and an uncle and two aunts worked in the office and my father didn't like my uncle because my uncle was the manager. Only one short goods train trundled slowly under the London Road bridge each week but we never saw it come back.

When the weather was fine in the summers of childhood which were always warm we staged concerts in our back gardens. The lawn was the stage and a big (to us) wooden clothes-horse draped with blankets was the back-drop. The audiences were invisible until my pal's mother arrived home from shopping one day and announced that my clothes-horse back-drop on their back lawn was visible from the front gate and passers-by could see it. She flustered in a middle-class state of what-is-the-world-coming-to and made us dismantle my pride and joy and I couldn't understand why. I decided that parents shouldn't have children.

Our circuses were the best game and the girls' mother, just two doors down, didn't mind what we did with clothes-horses, blankets and washing lines on their back lawn or who saw us doing it. The girls were twins. I liked one of them more than the other and asked her to marry me but I was only 9 or 10 and she didn't think it was a very good idea because she was two years older than me at the time.

The girls did the acrobatics but they kept their frocks on and somehow hid their knickers. Well brought up girls did not display their knickers in those days. With another boy from Primary School I worked on a balancing act where one of us climbed onto the other's shoulders but one of us kept falling off before he got there. I was much more successful as a clown because my ambition was to be a circus clown but one thing held me back. I could do the funny walks but I could not turn a somersault so I decided I would become a psychiatrist instead. But that was later.

On rainy days there was Harbutt's Plasticine to keep me occupied but I didn't like the modelling clay which was sold as a substitute and I despised the modelling wax someone gave me one Christmas. It was very silly: the colours were weak, it was useless for model making, and it was perfumed. My three favourite smells were Harbutt's Plasticine, dusty musty old leather-bound books, and the home aroma of the full warm teapot wrapped in one of my mother's thick knitted tea-cosies which had woolly lumps in them.

There were model theatres, too. You cut all the beautifully coloured parts of the stage and proscenium and the characters out of a book and assembled them yourself. You stuck the characters onto long wooden sticks to move them on and off the stage. And then a girl at Primary School brought her shadow theatre to show the class, so I made one, using Meccano to make a strong framework for the painted cardboard proscenium and a sheet of Ma's greaseproof paper for the screen. With coloured filters I added lighting effects to the torch-battery lamps and I took it to school a few days later to show the class.

My pal down the road wanted one too so his father made one for him. It was a long wooden box and you had to plug it into the mains because the lamp inside was an electric light bulb. The rear of the stage was inaccessible so everything had to be done through two narrow slots at the sides. It was a failure but I didn't say so.

We collected things. I had the family collections of old coins, but the best one was the 14th century Edward II penny I found in an old Army trench across the road after the War. Old bank notes, but we were puzzled by the German notes for 50 million marks. Postage stamps, the easiest things to collect in those days when people wrote real letters. Cigarette cards, which we eagerly bargained for and swapped and some boys had albums for them. Sea-shells and pebbles and skates' dried-up empty egg cases from Skegness beach. A rabbit's skull which I found in a woodland copse when we were picking violets and primroses. And birds' feathers, particularly the peacock tail feathers my sister brought home from Dawlish when she was working at Luscombe Castle, which was an evacuation home for girls during the War. And she sometimes brought a tin of thick, clotted, Devonshire cream. I was allowed to eat two teaspoonfuls scooped from the tin when it was opened. I decided that was bliss but I didn't know the word bliss.

We put blackouts in the windows every night and huddled under the big heavy dining table with carved legs while bombs fell on the factories. We listened to the anti-aircraft gun firing from an open area among the trees across the road and it made our brass letter-box and door-knocker rattle so I called it the rat-a-tat gun. The twins two doors down had a brother in the RAF whose plane disappeared behind a cloud over Germany. I had nightmares. At the end of the War, cinema newsreels of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Belsen and Ravensbrück were hard for a 9-year-old to watch and understand.

Clothing was rationed so old clothes needed constant darning and repairs. Food was rationed. Children were allowed just four ounces (114 grams) of sweets per week. I decided to buy Bassett's Dolly Mixture. You got a lot of them in a 4-ounce conical paper-bag and I carefully counted them out, rationing myself to five or six a day.

We were for ever doing things, digging things up, finding things, making things, taking things apart, mending things, showing things or hiding them if they were naughty, drawing things, writing about things. And when I said I wanted something my mother told me, '"I want" never gets'.

'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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