Saturday, 29 July 2017

Childhood Secrets

The going wasn't always easy for we junior citizens of the Undemocratic Republic of Mother & Fatherland back in the day, (Peterborough, late 1950s into early 1960s).

I'm not saying life was lived under a permanently repressive regime. Peterborough was actually a fascinating environment to grow up in, unusual for the times. Our next door neighbours were Italian and Polish, my playmates from along the street included Helmut (Austrian), Lima (Lithuanian) and Tamara (Ukrainian) as well as the usual Johns and Julies; there was a Greek-owned B&B (it called itself a Hotel) on one corner of the street, an extended family of West Indians at the other end, a smattering of American Air Force personnel (servicing the nearby Alconbury airbase) and digs for Peterborough United footballers with their wives and kids. Lime Tree Avenue was pleasingly and spectacularly diverse for an English street on the cusp of the sixties, but the Undemocratic Republic seemed stuck in a pre-war time-warp where 'Though Shalt Not' appeared to be the state motto! Therefore we frequently gazed in surreptitious envy at the rights and freedoms permitted to the children of more enlightened neighbours...

...like the freedom to watch TV (banned in the Undemocratic Republic - we did not possess a set); the right to spend pocket-money on sweets and comics (a frivolous waste, forbidden on pain of forfeit of funds); the entitlement to free speech (aka answering back - likely to incur corporal punishment); and for a heathen (see my blog from a fortnight ago) the unalienable right to do as one wanted with one's Sundays (no chance - church in the morning, Sunday School in the afternoon and church again in the evening if we'd protested about either the morning or afternoon impositions).

In such a predicament, books were our lifeline - either borrowed from the library or purchased (an approved use of pocket-money) from the city's SPCK Christian bookshop in the cathedral precinct. The latter were invariably Puffin paperbacks. They were my window into a brighter, broader world beyond the sheltering shadow of the Undemocratic Republic (in much the same way that Beatles albums were a beacon of hope in the former USSR). Communication with the elders was limited and so knowledge came primarily from the written word. For instance, all I knew about sex as a pre-teen I gleaned from the pages of the Puffin Book of Muffin! (No, it wasn't actually called that. I wish that it were. It was full of stark facts and black and white diagrams.)

It can come as little surprise, then, to hear that we junior citizens revelled in reading seditious literature about kids who had shucked off the yoke of the oppressor: the Famous Five, the Big Six, the Secret Seven were particular favourites, kids who were doing it for themselves, braving danger, ignoring curfews, solving crimes and righting wrongs very often more effectively than their adult counterparts.

The Secret Seven in all their sartorial magnificence!
At the time I was surprised such subversive reading matter was tolerated in Mother & Fatherland. In practice we were just being played, kept tame - but never realised it at the time. Enid Blyton's books may have outstripped the Bible in terms of sales but they peddled vicarious pleasures, paradise deferred, a parallel set of illusions. Real life couldn't match up to the fable.

I was nine when my cousins Keith and Martin plus Aunt Amy came to stay. This was a novelty in itself.  Uncle George had recently died at an indecently young age of a heart attack. Smoking and drinking were rumoured to be his downfall - both banned, of course, in the Undemocratic Republic. We boys, lured by the possibility of being the Fantastic Four, conspired to have a secret midnight feast in the bedroom. Did I mention that eating between meals and taking food upstairs were also strictly not allowed? I was nominated to smuggle a banana - the first time, to my knowledge, that I had ever wilfully deceived my parents. I did this by hiding it down in my underpants. I was walking nonchalantly from kitchen to stairs via the dining-room when I was challenged over the stud-like bulge in the front of my trousers. Foolishly I denied the charge - the lie possibly a more heinous crime than trying to smuggle a banana in the first place. I was humiliated and sent to bed early without any tea as punishment. The dream of the Fantastic Four was also consigned to an early grave.

I never again misunderestimated (thank you, George W Bush) the pervasive intelligence network spanning Mother & Fatherland. That night, a hardened undercover agent was born - working alone and tirelessly, but in secret, for eventual liberation from the shackles of innocence, to a world beyond books, into the realms of experience.

I've had no time to write a poem this week, nor to identify anything that would fit. Maybe something about Stud Bananas will surface eventually, or a wry reflection on the Puffin Book of Muffin. Who knows?

Thanks, as ever, for reading the blog. I hope you enjoyed it. Have a good week, S ;-)
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3 comments:

Christo Heyworth said...

Thanks very much for this, Steve - there are so many parallels with my own childhood experience, though looking back, I lived in a much more democratic atmosphere, especially after my father died when I was seven - my parents insisted on church-going and Sunday school, but I think that was more to give them a break rather than for indoctrination purposes.
I'm sure it was par for the course according to all my junior school and neighbourhood friends, not that such attendance has produced a generation of churchgoers - quite the opposite.
And you are so right about the liberating effect of so much children's literature borrowed from Layton Lending Library. It was not until I was much older that I recognised how poor we had been, and how my mother (who never remarried) must have worried and struggled with the pittance of income we had, though Dad's death had at least secured ownership of our home (presumably insurance related to the mortgage).
The most secretive parts of my childhood that I still regret is my mother's decision not to reveal that my father had died of a massive heart attack on a Summer night, and my being sent by train with an aunt (my mother's younger sister) for "a holiday" with another aunt, uncle & cousin in Birkdale, a district of Southport.
Mum arrived a couple of weeks later and explained when I was playing in Uncle Lawrie's garden that Dad was now "with Jesus", and that I should not be upset.
I trace the beginnings of my agnostic, more probably atheistic, view of life to "back then".
For several years until my early teens, I chose to believe that Dad had not died, but was off on "secret Government work" as a continuation of his former career in the RAF during the 1930s and WWII. I'm told denial of parental death is commonplace among young children, but, good as the motives were of my mother and extended family, not giving the the chance to grieve along with Mum nor to attend Dad's funeral was trypical of the time (1953), but not something I recommend to parents in sililar situations - Anne & I involved her elder half-brother Damian in all of the arrangements for our daughter's funeral as the best way to effect closure for him.
It has been interesting to listen to William & Harry talking about how they remember Diana as their mother, to pay tribute to her many achievements when so often Diana is represented as a beautiful clothes-horse, and to applaud their recall of her constant laughter and utter devotion to them as small boys: A Mother's Love is the most essential element of childhood to creating generous-spirited human beings. As one of my colleagues used to say in the Staff Room when I taught in a Boys' Grammar - "Just wit till you meet his mother - THEN you will understand."

Anonymous said...

Love the idea of the Undemocratic Republic. Very entertaining blog, sir!

Anonymous said...

Great blog Steve, excellent as always. Thank you.