Skating On Thin Ice

Advent 7: Cheap and cheerful winter sports for the adventurous

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The upside of bitter weather while growing up in the 1950s and 60s was that we could go skating for free.

By the time we became teenagers almost all of us could skate.  We spent our Saturday mornings at the skating rink in the nearby town. This involved a journey on the local train, a bus ride and finally a walk to the rink, but we made the trek on a regular basis.

Skating rinks were rough places. I imagine they still are. Daring boys on speed skates wove dangerously in and out of circling youngsters wobbling on blunt, well worn, hired figure skates. Dire warnings were issued about the necessity of wearing stout gloves, because if you fell and somebody skated over your bare hand, they would cut your fingers off!

Pop music blared out of echoing loud speakers. The refreshment area served up unhealthy treats in grubby surroundings. You had to stumble there on your skates across ancient stained felt carpeting torn by generations of blades.

It was great fun.

Our ambition was to have our own skates. I got a pair for my combined Christmas and 13th birthday present. Once you had your own skates, you could skate outdoors when the ponds and fields froze.

The pond where we skated was a private duck pond in a walled estate, surrounding a large house.

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Local children were allowed access in freezing weather.  The impressive front entrance gates to the estate were at the very far end of the village from our street. It was a long walk after a day at school and a hurried tea, carrying your skates. There was however a much shorter back route.

This involved following the single track railway line which ran across the fields. It wasn’t that dangerous. There weren’t that many trains and it wasn’t far. You could time your walk to ensure the track was clear. In any case you could hear and see a steam train coming miles away.

At one point, where the field ended beside a road, I seem to remember we had to climb over quite a high back gate into the estate. In the dark. (It must have been the gate in the photo). But it did cut out a long, boring walk, so we didn’t mind, it was worth it.

At weekends in the daylight there was another place you could skate when the circumstances allowed. One of the fields in a dip some distance behind the village was prone to flooding.  When this froze you had a natural ice rink, which was smooth and unrutted. We only managed to get there on rare occasions, but it was a bizarre experience, skating in the middle of quiet, frosty, deserted fields, with no houses or other people in sight.

The only image I could find of anything approximating to it, was of winter in Lithuania, where people are apparently still in the habit of creating their own homemade ice rinks wherever the lie of the land allows.

Your own private winter playground, for free.

Happy days!

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In The Bleak Midwinter

Advent 6  On coal fires and chilblains

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The constant background to my childhood memories of 1950s winters is the cold and waking up to windows covered in frost!

I never lived in a centrally heated house till I was well into my late twenties. I relied on open coal fires or, later on in student days, to a hissing radiant gas fire for my main source of warmth.

One of the first skills you learnt as a small child in the 1950s was how to roll up old newspapers into tight little balls to set the fire each morning. Certainly by the time I was five I knew how to build a fire from newspaper, thin sticks of wood for kindling, then gradually adding small coals to form a neat pyramid in the grate. Once the fire had caught, you could begin to add bigger lumps with a pair of tongs.

I seem to remember you got a badge at Brownies for firelighting. It was a necessary basic skill.

And the only places in the house that were ever warm was the kitchen when the oven was on and whichever room had a fire. All those cosy pictures of families gathered around the hearth were not because they all loved each other’s company so much. It was because everywhere else in the house was freezing.

However, when I was a teenager I actually got a birthday present of my own electric fire for my bedroom. (I think this was intended to enable me to study in the evenings)  It was a futuristic design, like a sort of yellow and red toadstool. It smelt of warm paint and burning dust.

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How I loved my heater! I would dash out from under the covers in the morning and turn it on before diving into bed again, till my room started to get warm. The sheer joy of getting dressed in front of a personal, private source of heat!

By the time I got to secondary school, the new buildings there were centrally heated and, if you got to the classroom first, you could get a desk next to a radiator and toast your feet. The bliss of it!

Then you got chilblains, of course.

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Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam

Advent 5  Remembering a time before skinny was good

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Although I dutifully attended Sunday school throughout my childhood and teenage years, it always struck me, that when some pious person announced that God had called them to a different way of life, it was seldom a change that they didn’t actually fancy for themselves.

Should somebody have renounced a highly paid, agreeable career and a sparkling social life hanging out in fashionable nightspots, I’d have been impressed.  But when someone sitting in an uninspiring office bored to tears, suddenly heard a divine call to travel to foreign parts and serve the poor, I did wonder that the Almighty’s wish had so mysteriously presented such a convenient and welcome escape

I was always a cynic I suppose.

This occurred to me recently while talking to a young relative who was confessing how much she hated school and the exam treadmill. Learning was no longer any joy to her.

But she saw no easy way out, short of Jesus calling her to be a sunbeam in some benighted area of the world.  She was desperately seeking a good excuse to escape the oppressive, spirit-sapping slog of A levels and the module upon module examinations that university education had become.

I thought how different my experience had been fifty years ago.

To be sure school was often monotonous, but it was not a prison sentence.  Only a few of us aspired to college or university.  There was full employment, so if you weren’t suited by school, you simply left and got a job.  You didn’t need qualifications for many jobs, so there was no inescapable pressure to achieve exam success.

For instance, my best friend left school as a young teenager with no qualifications and few skills. She lied and claimed to be able to type at a reasonable speed. After a few days her employer discovered her deficiencies, but finding her a cheerful, willing youngster ready to work and learn, kept her on and trained her up.

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Neither was there the extreme pressure experienced nowadays to be physically perfect, nor the competitiveness to sport expensive designer gear. We still made many of our own clothes and, while we wanted to be like the film stars we saw on screen and in magazines, this only amounted to stuffing padding in our bras! We actually wanted to put weight on!

Until Twiggy came along, being teenage skinny was not a good look!

My young friend, however, was model thin, but still far from happy.
“I hate the way everybody just wants loads of stuff!” she lamented. “All that matters is what you have and how much it costs!”

While she might politely listen to the memories of my teenage years, they were as far removed to her own experience as the Middle Ages.
In terms of material goods and career opportunities she and her contemporaries had, and have, so much more than we ever did.

But, bombarded with the relentless advertising for Christmas stuff, all she longed for was the comparative simplicity of a different age!

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What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping

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I don’t sleep so much now I’m old, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to go to work! 

Also, since I discovered audio books, I can just plug myself into my earphones and listen. I like value for money (the influence of that thrifty childhood again) so I go for long reads – hence Dickens.

Thinking about Advent and preparing for Christmas, I quickly arrived at the topic of shopping. At this point I googled for pictures of the grocers’ shops I remembered from the 50s. Then I noticed that these were pretty thin on the ground, although pictures of older shops from the 19th & early 20th centuries were common. But, guess what? They looked much the same!

Had Charles Dickens walked into the grocers on the corner of the road where I lived at five years old, he would have felt quite at home. The dark wood fittings; the large block of butter from which a lump of the requested weight was scooped with a flat wooden spoon; the ornate cast iron till.

Most of my friends and I ran errands from an early age. Far fewer people had cars, so side roads were often empty. We children were accustomed to considering the streets our territory. All of us were thrown out of the house to play. Housework, washing and cooking were much more onerous then. Children underfoot were an unwanted hindrance.

I was scared of the grocers. It was gloomy and confusing. You had to ask for items, which meant you had to memorise exactly what you had been sent to fetch.  I doubted my competence and the grocer in his Dickensian apron wasn’t very helpful in prompting, though he must have known what my mother usually bought. She went there all the time. We didn’t have a fridge, so had to buy perishable items day by day.

My experience might not have been quite the equivalent of Scrooge sending a boy for the biggest goose on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t that far off.

Yet I’m glad I grew up in a time when children were generally expected to be self-reliant and to be useful, whether in going for messages, or in removing themselves from under busy adults’ feet.

In braving the grocers, I learnt to face up to uncomfortable situations and to put aside my own individual qualms in the interests of the general good. 

Even, if in this case, it only amounted to ensuring there was sufficient butter to put on the bread for tea!

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Simple Pleasures – A Winter’s Tale

Advent 3  Playtime BH&S (Before Health & Safety)

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This was my best primary school. I attended there after we yet again moved house.  There were fifty six in my classroom, I do not tell a lie, and one poor teacher sitting at her high desk in front of our straight rows of single desks. On Friday afternoons she used to open her desk lid and, hiding behind it, have a silent cry.

To ensure discipline when she was really stressed she would issue stern warnings that anybody who talked would get the belt. On bad days she could collect a small queue. I was only caught once. It was mostly the boys who suffered.

The great advantage of the playground was that it sloped. The building was at the bottom of a hill. This ensured that winter playtimes held the promise of unlimited joy.

As soon as the weather turned bitter and the ground icy, we would make a series of slides. At the steepest end of the playground was the most demanding of daring and skill, then there were five or six others in descending levels of difficulty. You queued up at the one matching your ability and took turns. With practice you could improve your standard and progress to a more prestigious level.

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I can’t remember any adult supervision. It was much too cold for any sensible person to leave the staffroom until the bell needed to be rung.

At secondary school we only had one outdoor area that sloped.  This was an enclosed square yard fortuitously created when a new building had been added. It was bounded by the girls toilet block, a window fronted corridor where the men’s and women’s (separate) staff rooms were situated, and the rear wall of the gym.

This was a hazard when it came to winter slides, as there was very little run-off space between the ends of the slides and the brick wall. However we had seven years of sliding practice behind us by this stage. It was just an added challenge.

Nevertheless one particularly icy winter, somebody fell more awkwardly than normal and even we could see that adult help needed to be summoned. This was a problem. There were notices on the staffroom doors threatening dire consequences for any disturbance.

Two brave messengers were deputed to knock at the men’s staff room. We watched anxiously through the windows.

A gowned figure, cigarette in hand, threw the door open. Billows of smoke issued from behind his impressive outline. The messengers pointed towards the injured figure on the freezing ground and stuttered apologies.

“How many times have you been told to be careful?” was the bellowed response. We were in no doubt at whose door the fault lay.

Nevertheless medical help was summoned and the careless culprit removed to have his leg set at the cottage hospital.

After that sliding was banned.

It posed too great a hazard to the comfortable sanctuary of the staffroom.

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The Perils of the Shivery Bite

Advent 2 On the unintended consequences of freedom to roam

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I told a lie yesterday when I said I had only a single childhood memory of Christmas. I woke up thinking of another one.

It must have been well into December and in North East Scotland that meant it was dark and cold by the end of the school day. Nevertheless on Tuesday afternoons after school I went to swimming classes. In Aberdeen in the 1950s every school child began swimming classes as soon as they started in the Infants.

For some reason (I think it was the prevention of child drownings plus the enthusiasm of some counsellor to produce an Olympic champion) Aberdeen had set up a free swimming programme for all children and built an Olympic standard pool. It had the deepest deep end in the country and proper diving platforms. The city was very proud of this.
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I just thought all swimming pools were like that and swimming was what all children did.

Nobodies’ parents (that I knew anyway) ever took them or collected them from these classes. Mothers were far too busy cooking tea and fathers were at work. We just walked to the baths from school and then daundered home afterwards.

But first, and always after swimming, we had our “shivery bite”.

There was a chip shop conveniently opposite the baths so we always stopped for a 3d poke of chips before we made our way home. This could take quite a time, hanging around relishing the steamy aroma of the fryer, sharp with the tang of the vinegar.

This particular evening I ate all my chips before starting for home. I walked on my own, because by this time we had moved house and I was no longer on the tram route. I had to cut through the back roads to our new flat.

It wasn’t a brightly lit route lined with cheerful houses. I went down a steep narrowish wynd at the side of the baths, then along an ill lit lane of storage depots towards the rear of the main shopping street. Even I thought it was a bit spooky, but it was usually deserted and you had good sight lines if anybody should appear, so it would have been no problem taking to your heels. I often dawdled, hard as this may seem to believe.

This particular evening I was just getting towards the end of the lane when I saw a figure advancing from the distance.  I was horrified to realise it was my mother!  I was immediately struck with dread. I must be in trouble if she had come looking for me! What forgotten crime had come to light that I had committed?

It never occurred to me that she might be worried!

Nor was she!  She was furious!

As a great surprise treat she had bought tickets for the pantomime, and now it was so late we would never make it. We hadn’t got a car and public transport or Shank’s pony would never get us there in time.

I was marched home in disgrace, doubly guilty for dawdling and wasting precious money.

I was just coming up to nine years old!

I never did make it to a pantomime, but, on the plus side, I could dive and life save by the time I was ten!

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!

Christmas Past

Advent 1 On being careful what you wish for….

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I have very few childhood Christmas memories. In fact I can only think of one.  Perhaps Christmas wasn’t such a big deal before modern marketing and credit cards.

After the end of World War 2 rationing went on for years, and not just food. Clothes and toys were scarce too. I can remember how careful I had to be of my two precious picture books, specially imported from Holland, my mother told me. The first new coloured children’s books printed after the war.

For the Christmas after I started school I had only one desperate wish. I longed for a doll with hair you could brush. I only had two inherited baby dolls, who rejoiced in the names of Emmeline and Dorothy, but who wouldn’t win any prizes in the glamour stakes. They were both bald.

I wanted a “china” doll with a painted face, eyelashes and opening eyes, plus the all important long golden plaits.

Such things were hard to come by, but my mother searched until she found one and on the afternoon of Christmas day I carried my prize off to my bedroom to brush her hair.

It was then that the disaster happened!  Her hair came away from her head tangled in the little hard brush.  I was distraught with guilt and panic. I hid the crime under my bed and cried. Sooner or later I knew it must be discovered.

But wonder of wonders, when my mother sought me out it was not me she was angry with. She railed against the manufacturers and shopkeepers responsible for ruining children’s Christmas. My growing doubts about Santa Claus were amply reinforced by her determination to call these mundane, non supernatural bodies to account.

At some point in the following weeks a replacement doll appeared, but I never felt the same about her.  I fell back on the secure reliability of Emmeline and Dorothy, and kept Gloria for show.

Like all my generation, I grew up knowing you couldn’t always have everything you wanted. You had to make the best of whatever came your way.

We were a bridging generation, living through the privations of war and postwar, the growing prosperity of the 60s and 70s, then onwards ever onwards into the blatant, credit-driven consumerism of the 21st century.

It’s hard to shake off that early training in the careful tending of scarce commodities.

A few years ago I stood behind a woman in the queue at our local garden centre. She had a trolley full of silver Christmas decorations.

“I fancied silver this year,” she was explaining to her companion. “We had red and tartan last year.”

I was rivetted by this revelation that there were people who actually changed their Christmas decorations. Surely these lived in a box in the loft until they rotted or broke and even then were only replaced item by item as the need arose?

There wasn’t very much pious preaching about recycling and conservation in my childhood. We simply never discarded anything that could be used or reused!

Even now the chairs at my own table are the sturdy wartime utility ones that used to stand around my parents’.

I still can’t bear to throw them away!

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