About three years ago I decided to write a family history and made a valiant effort to fit the pieces together for my children; but, as time went on, I found I was increasingly inserting my own memories and the whole thing was beginning to take the shape of a memoir instead.
I discovered a need to place myself in the centre of the writing because some kind of half understood force was requiring me to write in a particular way about my own memories; but I was still able to use the documentary information I possessed to provide a historical context. It is as accurate an account as I can deliver. It should give a reasonable idea of what times were like for a small boy in Bradford just after the war and, although personal to me, might very well arouse complementary memories in those of my own generation who lived in Bradford as children at more or less the same time. If it has any historical value at all, it may even be of interest to later generations who will have no memory of this time but may be interested in exploring the flavour of those days which, although possibly dominated by drab austerity for adults were, in fact, for ‘us kids’, times of joy, adventure, colour, excitement, exploration, emotional richness and hope.
I was born in a nursing home somewhere in Bradford Moor in early 1944 and spent the first seven or eight years of my life with my parents and, later, my younger sister, in a terraced house on Evelyn Avenue in Thornbury. Some of my earliest memories are my clearest. This is one of the ways I remember my mother:
She was a talented singer who had been encouraged by her schoolteachers to enter competitions and to join the children’s pantomime chorus run by the local impresario Francis Laidler. For several seasons she had been a ‘Sunbeam’ at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford and had sung and danced in front of capacity audiences; but now she sat alone, beside me, her hands smelling faintly of chopped vegetables, singing softly, as I lay in my little bed, half asleep, half awake, drifting towards oblivion.
Lulla lulla lulla lulla bye bye
Does you want the stars to play with
Or the moon to run away with?
They’ll come if you don’t cry.
Lulla lulla lulla lulla bye bye
In your mammy’s arms be creepin’
And soon you’ll be a-sleeping
Lulla lulla lulla lulla bye.
And my father, who I loved very much, but who could seem rather frightening at times:
After leaving school and beginning work in a textile company, my father had won a scholarship from the Bradford Chamber of Commerce that allowed him to travel in Germany for a few months. He won this opportunity because, after starting work, he had studied hard at night school to become fluent in the language, even though he had never been to Germany. By the time he returned, he was bi-lingual, which is why Army Intelligence later became interested in him when he ‘joined up’ just after the war started. He was drafted into field security, acting mainly as an interpreter helping to interrogate captured German officers, suspected Nazi collaborators and spies.
Life in the back streets was rich and varied. The alley at the back of our house saw a procession of colourful visitors over the years and was the main focus of our games and social lives. Here is one regular visitor I remember:
I was fascinated by the rag and bone man’s cry that pierced the air above the rumbling of his cart’s wooden wheels as it progressed over the stone and cinder surface of the alley. My friends and I sat on our garden wall in silence watching the grimy faced driver pass by clicking his tongue at his scrawny pony as it pushed against the creaking leather bindings between the shafts, its hooves clopping and slithering over the stones as it made its way to the end of the terrace. A stringy, mop-headed boy sat on the back of the cart staring at us from amongst the worn out army great coats, pots, pans and bits of old stove already collected. Occasionally, a pinafore-and-turban clad housewife would appear at her back garden gate and the boy would jump to the ground and collect an old washtub or bag of clothes to put with the other items on the cart in exchange for a couple of shillings or a few balloons.
Transport during my early boyhood didn’t involve a family car; that came a little later. I found Bradford’s public transport, especially the trams, a constant form of fascination and excitement:
Swaying tramcars, cream and brown, rattled on their iron rails along the main Leeds Road at the top of our street, clanging, rumbling and sparking beneath a dull yellow sky. They were intriguing, exciting, slightly frightening and wonderful fun to travel in. I was therefore sad to see one day workmen dig up the cobble bedded tram rails and replace them with smooth asphalt for the new, usurping trolley buses that immediately began to creep along the road on big fat rubber tyres, wheezing from stop to stop and swishing in the rain backwards and forwards between Bradford’s sooty outskirts and its monumental city centre.
Last day of trams on Church Bank ©Bradford Libraries
The Saturday morning cinema matinee was an exciting source of information about other worlds (especially America) as well as tremendous entertainment:
With our two pennies entrance fee clutched in our hands we boarded the bus amidst shrieking and shouting and the clanging of studded boots on the stairs accompanied by the thump of fists against flesh as some kids settled quarrels on the way to their seats. We found somewhere to sit and rubbed the condensation off the windows to see out onto the black shiny-wet roads and the slate roofed sooty buildings. We passed shops and chapels, a garage, a long terrace of houses, dusty privet hedges, an old factory and several pubs. When we got to Stanningley we would all leave the bus in a continuous stream and join other lines of kids from other buses and make our way into the cinema. The whole place smelled of cleaning fluid, stale tobacco smoke, bubble-gum and farts.
I spent many long summer evenings caddying for my father on Phoenix Park Golf Course:
I liked it best when we got to the lower end of the course where the main railway line between Leeds and Bradford ran adjacent to one of the fairways. There was a level crossing near the tee-off and, when we got there, if I heard the clanging bell warning of a train’s approach, I would run to climb onto a wooden bar half way up the wobbling gate waiting, fascinated, looking for the first signs of the train down the line.
The little black dot would grow larger and larger and my excitement would mount on discovering it was an express. The smoke billowed out of the funnel; the steam driven thrusts of the piston and the wailing of the whistle drew closer and closer. Then, suddenly, with a soft woofing explosion of hot air, it was upon me and I could smell the oil and feel the heat of the fire from the cab as the engine roared past, screaming and rocking and rhythmically racing along the iron rails. I would lose myself in the enveloping noise, hanging grimly on to the gate, refusing to get down, my eyelids forming slits against the onslaught of sparks and soot, my hair blowing about my head and the slipstream tugging at my vibrating innards.
In my next blog entry I’ll say something about our move to Eccleshill, but to be going on with, I’ll share a few situations with you that I didn’t put in my memoir to see if any other memories are jogged. Some that we might all remember include:
Queuing along the inside of a magnificently decorated grotto at Brown Muffs (or was it Busby’s?) to see Santa Claus.
Eating pie and peas in the high backed settles at ‘Pie Tom’s’ in the Kirkgate Market.
© Bradford Libraries
Sitting in the burgundy plush seats at the Alhambra waiting to see (amongst others) Norman Evans (over the garden wall) and Margery Manners (principal boy)……………. I remember very well seeing Wilfred Pickles play Buttons there with half a dozen or so live ponies on the stage. This means I almost certainly saw a young June Whitfield playing opposite him as Cinderella.
Anybody recognise any of this? I’ll try to think of a few more next time.
In the meantime, my memoir is on the library shelves, I believe, if you want to take a look.