Or Are You Just Very Small?

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Before beginning this week’s blog I feel compelled to make mention of the Grenfell Tower Fire.  and the terrible tragedy that happened there; at least 30 dead and 70 missing  overall (including the 30).  If this blog is about anything – aside from loss of one kind or another – it is about the working class neighbourhood of my childhood and youth, it is about people living together, striving together and struggling together as well as laughing and learning and growing.  It’s about camaraderie and love.  I feel that I was lucky to grow-up in such a neighbourhood: it has shaped my sense of shared purpose and given me an understanding of endeavour, graft and belonging that not everyone gets to encounter.  It was not perfect and I spent a part of my life afraid of who I might run into around any given corner and another part worried about what my middle class friends who I went to school with might think of me, perhaps even something close to shame about not being quite like them. That’s what a dominant narrative does to people – it keeps them in their place, and it makes them feel bad for not being the same as those who have privilege, and then offering tempting sign-posts and pathways that not everyone can take. And calling people failures when they miss the chance – perhaps a single chance – on offer to them. I have been lucky. I was lucky that when I fell through a greenhouse and nearly died, the NHS patched me up, I was lucky because although we were poor we had enough food and a house that was warm, and that was our own. I was lucky I had somewhere decent to live. I was lucky that I was educated in the 70s and 80s before we imposed a curriculum that stopped people thinking for themselves and I was lucky to be able to go to university on a grant and fees paid (and just as lucky to receive bursaries for my MA and PhD).  I was lucky to get a good job, and have a career. No one gets to be that lucky now. Working class people have been marginalised and demonised – and options are increasingly limited even if they are educated, even if they have a job, even if they have a sense of place and community. But fundamentally people need to be safe in their homes because none of those other things can happen if they are not. David Lamy had it right in this video. People need somewhere decent to live – that’s the first and last of it.  People were crammed into that tower block – families of five and six sometimes, in two bedroom flats that were just 75.5 metres squared.  Families with young children and older people on the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th floors.  And higher still.  It beggars belief.  This was an accident waiting to happen and now that it has the only saving grace is that the community is angry and rising.  I hope they can translate that anger into real change so that this does not happen again.  So that political change will enable this working class community and others to expect a fair chance, and the power to effect positive outcomes in their own lives.

Or Are You Just Very Small?

Vera met her husband-to-be on a bus.  It was not the most romantic of venues and she was not the most romantic of people.  She thought she was on the shelf.  I asked her which shelf once, and she said, “The one at the back of the cupboard, where there’s all the stuff that you never really use.  Like tinned potatoes. And Spam.”

The reason she was on the bus was that she was a conductor.  They had to make a special cut of the uniform for her because she was short, very short (and not as slim as she might have been.)  It was grey and even with her child-bearing hips she looked dashing. And taller, elegant even. But she could climb up and down the stairs quicker than you could say Jack Robinson and never missed a fare.

“You’d always get folk trying it on, even in the good old days, but no-one passed me by.”  She would snap away the faces in her photographic mind and then whizz round each and everyone checking the fares. She enjoyed the power of her ticket machine.

Her husband was a bus driver and it was love at first sight.  Unfortunately, Alan was already married.  “He was unhappy, you see, Love.  He’d got married in the war, lots of people did and then lived to regret it.  Folk didn’t expect to live.  She was nice enough, but they weren’t well matched…but I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?”  Vera laughed.

Alan was more than 20 years her senior, almost in his 50s.  An old man really, by those standards, but she loved him anyway.  Right from the off – it was the way that he smiled.  Shyly.  He’d fought for his country – in the RAF – flying all sort of raids and was immediately a hero in her eyes.

They spent their dates dashing around on a motor-bike, Vera riding pillion.  “He used to go so fast, like a super-hero.  He was in my mind.  I could picture him in the bomber, flying low, battling…”

“Killing people, Vera?”  I smiled.

“Well, it’s alright for your generation,” she said, “Getting all moral about it.  You don’t know what it was like.  Hull was trashed.  Alan and his mates saved this city for such as thee and me.”

I shut up then.  Unlike most adults Vera had a habit of talking to you about everything and anything: she didn’t pull any punches.   We used to go together to the swimming pool to supervise the Cubs and Scouts who were doing swimming badges.  Not quite sure how I got dragged into that – must have been something to do with T, my brother, and my reputation for swimming with David Wilkie, I only did this once (on a sponsorship event) but you only needed to do something that often where I lived and then you were located there forever.  Mary Brearley, swimming sensation.  Not true.  I remember saying to Vera once, in the pool, “Are you kneeling, or are you just very small?” And she laughed a lot, and repeated it to anyone who’d listen.  “You’re funny, you,” Vera said. I wasn’t

I used to wait for T at the end of the Cub meetings where Celia Worley, the Akela*, seeing me, would make some disparaging comments about the Guides. I’d just smile. Mostly, I’d chat to Vera who was bringing her lad, Steven, to the Scouts.  The others used to tease him about the presence of his mam – but she liked to wrap him in cotton wool. And Steven didn’t mind.  He was a mummy’s boy.

“We never expected to have him.  But I was very careful until the divorce came through, and that took forever because she didn’t want to let Alan go, and you wouldn’t, would you?  I mean even now that he’s in his later 70s, he’s lovely isn’t he? So tall and handsome.”

It wasn’t a word I would use to describe him.  He just looked like an old man to me.  A bit like Michael Foot – the politician, thin as a pin and a shock of white hair.  I didn’t answer Vera, but she didn’t need me to, she’d just carried on.

“But eventually he came and we couldn’t love him more.” She smiled, and looked wistful.

They lived on the Boulevard and I used to be awestruck by the amount of Lego Steven had on the table in the front room.  I once asked what he was building and Vera just shrugged.

“That’s his dad’s department.  Sit in there for hours, they do, building away.  I don’t interfere – it’s important that he has time with his dad.”

There was a silence then, and I suspected that I was supposed to fill it but I didn’t know how to. I knew his dad was old. And that he might die soon. Steven was 13 going on 14 and people used to tease him for playing Lego with his dad.

“Alan won’t last forever, I know that.  I really do.  I knew that all along.  He wasn’t a mistake you know, even though I wasn’t a spring chicken by the time he came along – nearly 40.  But we love him.  Steven is the best thing that ever happened to us.” She paused, “We’ve talked about it.  He knows.  He knows his dad will die sooner rather than later.  And I know too.  It’s not like we’re prepared but it means that we take each day as it comes, and we love each other through every minute of it, because that’s all you can do.”

A few months later, when I walked past their house on my paper-round, the curtains were tightly shut in the middle of the day.  Upstairs and downstairs: shut against the world. I knew what this code meant.  Alan must have gone – he must have died over night.  I had sort of half been looking out for it. I felt for Vera who loved him very much and Steven too.

Then the news came through. At four in the afternoon, the day before, Steven had made his way home from school.  Normally, his mum would have been loitering somewhere close but she hadn’t come.  No worries, he’d just taken himself home.  He’d opened the front door, calling her, and then his dad, and still nothing had alarmed him.  Maybe across his mind, he’d thought about his dad and that maybe something had happened but surely his mum would have come to school and told him? But it was Tuesday and on a Tuesday his dad visited an old friend who was ill.  Maybe his mum had got caught up at the shops?  She liked to chat, that was true.  Many an hour he’d stood beside her as she’d told a tale or two.  So Steven walked in.  Through the hallway, into the kitchen and there, half into the pantry was his mum, on the floor: dead.  Of a brain hemorrhage.

He didn’t know what to do.  He rang an ambulance.  He was numb.

Then his dad had come home, and he’d taken over.

I often asked about them in my phone calls home from Universtiy: Steven and Alan.  Within a year or two, before his 16th birthday in any case, Steven’s dad had died too. And he went to live with his mum’s sister in North Hull.

 

*Akela – my aunt Joan – once said to my mum when she was talking about Akela, “That’s weird J, because the woman who runs the Scouts round here is called Akela too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting with the Humber Bridge

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“Oh do God, Oh do God, Oh do remember me – foreveeeeer”  My sister and I sang enthusiastically, standing on the top of the flyover – a position that passed for a hill in Hull which is generally flatter than a frying pan. We had learned the song that morning at church and fueled by the free biscuits and tea we’d gobbled down after the service, we were experimenting with being very good Christians indeed. If God could hear us singing we figured, we would be saved.

I wasn’t sure what we were being saved for, or from but I liked the idea of it.  I was concerned about KM though.  She was singing out of tune.

“Do you think God would mind if we don’t hit the proper notes?” I asked.

“God doesn’t care about such trivial matters,” KM said with such authority that I nearly believed her.  She was 16 months older than me so she often knew better or at least she thought she did. She had just had her 11th birthday.

It was a beautiful April Sunday and we were walking to our school some three miles away to go to a swimming gala.  I was going as an extra, with the chance of swimming if someone else didn’t turn up.  Also, I was my teacher, Mrs Johnson’s project: she was certain that swimming would heal the ills of the giant and ugly scar on my leg from my accident the summer before.

My sister and I walked companionably, KM pacing herself with my limp.  We were still in our church finery, including our best coats.  Mine was a turquoise mac, with neat pockets to the side, and a collar that in the height of 70s fashion, practically reached my lapels. The outfit was set off with an incongruous black and white string bag that was slung lazily over my shoulder and contained the remains of some meat paste sandwiches in grease proof paper and my hastily assembled towel and a cossie.  KM’s kit was, in comparison, neatly arranged. Her lunch remained uneaten.

When we arrived at school Mrs Johnson was there, and so too was Mrs Armstrong, the needlework teacher, and Mr Baker who was a secondary school teacher and the father of one of the swimmers. They were surrounded by a dozen eager kids in the bike sheds.  Their cars were parked  parallel to the dragon’s teeth: concrete posts that marked the edges of the playground.

Mrs Johnson was a typical PE teacher, practical and efficient; she was dressed in a blue tracksuit, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Mrs Armstrong represented a contrast; she wore a floaty Laura Ashley type dress with unruly curls of hair spilling all over her shoulders.  She was giving up her Sunday for the good of the children.  And we appreciated it. Mr Baker was reminiscent of a character from a Kestrel for a Knave: short and stocky, he wore white tennis shorts and a pair of sports socks with a blue and red stripe pulled up to his mid-calf.

We were allocated Mrs Armstrong’s car for the journey to South Hunsley School where the gala was to take place.  I sat behind the passenger seat, next to the child seat that carried Mrs Armstrong’s 3 year old daughter.  My sister was behind Mrs Armstrong. I forget who was in the front seat.

We set off to North Ferriby – a village on the foreshore of the River Humber. Mrs Armstrong was sketchy about the geography of the place we were headed (although she’d been before) and made the decision to, where possible, tailgate Mrs Johnson.  Mr Baker took up the rear of the convoy.

1974 was a time of change in and around Hessle Foreshore with infrastructure changes and the early stages of construction beginning for the Humber Bridge.  (When the bridge opened in 1981, it was the longest single suspension bridge  in the world but it has now been passed by 7 other bridges.  It sits proudly astride the Humber Estuary.) In 1974 the north tower of the bridge was nearing completion.  What this meant on the ground was that heavy and articulated Caterpillar Machinery carried gigantic pieces of concrete and metal about the place, and a series of temporary traffic lights controlled the movement of all other vehicles to accommodate them.

To be fair to Mrs Armstrong, there is no reason why she should have known any of this, or known that she needed to look out for changes.  Her focus was on getting there, on not losing sight of Mrs Johnson and on managing her raised anxiety at carrying children in her car who did not belong to her.

At least, I assume this is what she was thinking about when she jumped the traffic lights.

There was something oppressive about the atmosphere: it was muddy and the trees that had protected the foreshore for years were, in large part, being preserved meaning it was suddenly cooler and darker.  Mrs Armstrong was oblivious to the situation and continued to drive forwards.

I am not sure whether the Caterpillar vehicle saw us first, or whether Mrs Armstrong finally saw it heading towards us: to be honest it was pretty hard to miss – bright yellow and burdened with a piece of concrete the size of a small house. Both drivers jumped on their brakes simultaneously.  The only blessing was that Mrs Armstrong’s nervousness meant she was driving slowly.

We skidded but could not stop and swung 360 degrees hitting the Caterpillar smack bang on its side – exactly where I was sitting. I heard the glass smash. I bent my body to my legs and hoped for the best.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw that my sister had done the same.  The impact of the collision sent Mrs Armstrong’s car catapulting into the air and my stomach flipped as we left the ground, rolling over twice before we came to a resounding stand-still, upside down resting neatly alongside a crash barrier.

I don’t know who helped us out.  I do know that when I looked back  at the mangled car I saw two things that have stayed with me: firstly, where I had been sitting the car was squashed completely so that I couldn’t have sat up if I had wanted to and secondly, Mrs Armstrong’s daughter was screaming and dangling upside down still strapped in her car seat. I really don’t know what happened to her.

Slightly dazed, my sister and I looked at each other.  We didn’t hug.  We were not a hugging family.  We did however empty out the glass from our pockets – it poured like water.  My lovely turquoise mac was ripped on the arm but aside from that, I was unscathed.

Mr Baker drew up in his car like the cavalry.  The police, who had appeared as if by magic, suggested we climb in and carry on our journey.  I sat in the back on someone’s knee, and off we went leaving Mrs Armstrong behind to pick up the pieces, later swimming in the gala as if nothing had happened.

So far as I know at school, no one ever spoke about the accident again and the only indication that it had even happened was that Mrs Armstrong arrived for work in a different car completely: a big black Standard Vanguard that belonged to her father.

My sister and I considered our good luck and for quite some time believed with absolute conviction that our  visit to the church followed by our singing on the flyover earlier that day had made all the difference. Do Lord Remember Me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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