Chapter 3 – Extra-Curricula Activities
I was a strange and solitary character in my teens, I think. Then, as now, I am quite happy with my own company as long as I have something to occupy me both physically and mentally.
Having been to Grammar School – which only served to give me the desire to seek knowledge elsewhere – I didn’t fit in to the working-class atmosphere of Stafford Road Factory. It was “them”, not me who created the implied class-gap between their way of living and talking and this Grammar School Boy. Many of my fellow-employees resented the fact that I’d managed to get a “proper education” and they hadn’t.
Maybe me quoting bits of famous poems didn’t help my standing in their community, but I did not do it to impress or show off: it just came naturally. And it has been part of my psyche ever since.
In recent times, I wrote a piece called “One & Only” which dealt with the subject of onlychildness. It about sums up what a lot of we who have no brothers or sisters feel about life and our attitudes to it.
Anyway, because Mom had taken me out to Codsall and a few other rural places on days when there was no school, and because Dad and I used to cycle out to similar places and – he being a country-boy born and bred – telling me about the things I saw about us, I loved the open fields. The solitariness of rural Staffordshire before the motor-car swarms came was sheer upliftment to this only-child.
I can’t remember when it started, and I know I didn’t ask Mom for permission to do it, but I began to walk from Dunstall Road right out into the farm fields surrounding Wolverhampton. This I did on Saturdays and Sundays, and briskly wander out to Brewood, Pattingham, Codsall, Worfield and all sorts of places which were small villages then.. Overpopulation and better living conditions of ordinary people have made them expand enormously since those days!
I had an intimate knowledge of the roads, the lanes and the byways within and ten- or fifteen-mile radius of Whitmore Reans. I would walk – and, having checked this carefully, am greatly surprised – twenty miles or so on a Saturday and the same on a Sunday. And I did it alone, at all seasons of the year and in all weathers. I still use the technique I learned back then for walking on icy and snow-covered roads.
It was in the lane which used to pass the old gypsy-camping field near Codsall that I saw an exotic, yellow bird. I was full of my exciting view when I got home. I told Mom and Dad that I’d either seen an escaped canary or a golden oriole. Dad asked me to describe it: size, markings, whatever. He identified it as a yellowhammer, a bird I never knew existed. Every time I see those bright birds or hear their call now, I remember that first moment of spotting one.
I wonder if I will ever go back to my old walking routes – probably in our car now – and see how they will have changed.
I must have been pretty fit as a teenager, and I was to become even fitter.
At Stafford Road Factory, there was a workman called Jack Richardson. He’d had a steam-engine fall on him while he was working to repair it. That is the matter of fact way he described it. The accident broke lots of his bones and tore his flesh. He survived, and was told that he should do some sort of exercises to help his ripped muscles recover. So Jack got himself a pair of dumbbells and began to build his muscle power.
He enjoyed his gentle weight-training so much, that he let it be known that he’d gladly help others to enjoy weight-lifting and body-building. Hence a club was formed in a cellar at the Bushbury Arms in Showell Circus.
Jack told me about the club and said that, as I sat down at work all day, I should take up some form of regular exercise so that I didn’t end up a hunchback or something. He did not know about my long-distance walking prowess! Mom said it would be alright, so I decided to give it a try.
I took to it like a duck to water. Here was something I could do which didn’t involve being shouted at by a schoolmaster or having to be part of a team.
I forget the size of the weights with which I could do squats or snatches or whatever the other lifts were called. But I do know they were pretty impressive as I progressed from weedy office-wallah to a bit of a body-builder
Most of the lads who went to the club did so for the enjoyment of the exercise. One or two became competitive weightlifters and one of them used to take part in local amateur shows along the lines of the Mr. Universe competitions. He was a real poser and enjoyed rippling his muscles in front of an audience.
I used to take my lifting-kit – shorts, plimsolls and a tee-shirt – in a bag when I walked all the way to the club. There were no showers there, and I always jogged home the distance of about four miles after sweating the evening away. It was safe to come home in the dark back then, and Mom could see that I was sufficiently muscular for potential attackers to steer clear.
Mom used to go to All Souls Church, a Unitarian chapel opposite the Women’s Hospital by the West Park. For some reason, I went with her. It was not through any religious fervour, but I did like the non-ritualistic attitude of the Unitarians. Indeed, I would help with the tidying up and the cutting of the strip of grass along the side of the building.
There was a small church-hall beside the chapel, and I learned that Olde Tyme Dancing went on there twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays I think it was. Again, somebody talked me into going to one of the dances. I found I liked it. People of all ages went there to learn the Valetta, the Old-Fashioned Waltz and the Lancers. There was no social snobbery, and everybody danced with everybody else so that even the single ladies got round to dancing with a man. I have always thought the sight of two ladies dancing as a couple looks odd – Joyce Grenfell’s song sums it up perfectly.
Ernie Laws was the President (or something) of the Unitarians, though they had a dog-collared minister who conducted services (more of whom later). Mr. Laws had a daughter, Penny, and her mother cajoled me into going to the dances with Penny. I suppose she was my first girl-friend, though we kept our distance except when we danced.
Penny played the violin a little. Once, somebody suggested that she and I – me on trumpet – performed a duet at one of the Sunday services. Mercifully, it never happened!
The Olde Tyme Dances were run by Arthur Bood and his wife, who would also teach us the steps. I remember the tight grip his wife had on me when we danced together. Years later, I discovered that my Cousin Audrey had married their grand-son. It’s a small world in many ways.
So all these activities helped me tolerate my work environment. Whenever the darkness of Stafford Road Factory enveloped me, my mind would reach out to Billy Bunn’s Lane or the hymn-playing clock at one of the Staffordshire (Shropshire?) village churches or thinking of how I could improve the weight of the barbell I would be lifting that week or of socialising with a lot of nice people at the dances.
Through all my teenage years, even after escaping the misery of my school-days, I kept reading books. I preferred non-fiction, but I read most of the so-called “great works of fiction” and a lot of detective novels: Sherlock Holmes (of course!), The Toff, and Peter Cheney’s comical and hard-hitting Lemmy Caution adventures – “A chick in a kimono answered the door. I punched her on the button and she folded”,
All those books helped fill the gap that formal schooling had never properly filled: my personal education. Though never trotting out all the knowledge I gained, I have all sorts of things – ideas, curiosities, facts – stored in my brain and those, coupled with my roving imagination have given me great pleasure all my life.
Music, of course, helped me to enjoy life. Jazz had remained my passion ever since Johnny Muir had played me the Hot Five’s “Muscat Rambles” when I was twelve. But skiffle – a strange phenomenon – came along in the early 50s, and I was and still am a Lonnie Donegan fan. It was he who made me realise that anyone could get up and entertain if they really wanted to; though that does not belittle Lonnie’s talent. His ordinary-bloke image made his way of performing accessible – and all those records simultaneously in the Top Ten must have taken professionalism as well as talent.
I still played lead-trumpet with The Stomping Stevedores, but we did few public gigs. The last one I remember was at All Souls Church Hall where we played to a smallish audience of mainly elderly folk. They tapped their feet obediently, but were clearly not jazz enthusiasts.
Then, along came Elvis, and I grew sideboards (which we had to call by the American word “sideburns”), but I did not become an immediate rock-‘n’-roll fan.
So, all-in-all, my teenage years, weighed down though they were with the heavy darkness of my paid employment, were not entirely dull or wasted. The next phase of my social education was to begin very nearly at the end of those teenage times . . .
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