What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping


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!


Lesson 66. Life in a Hostile Environment

Lesson 66 on Extra curricular activities

Owen’s estate was situated on a steep hillside facing into the prevailing wind and the school was near the top.  Playtimes on windy days were a bracing experience but the infants loved them.  They couldn’t wait to get out there. Their biggest dread was a wet playtime, when they couldn’t go outside. From half past nine onwards they would demand regular rain checks.

The attraction was Playing Parachutes. This involved running around with your arms extended above your head so that your unbuttoned coat billowed out behind you. The playground was filled with small shrieking figures zigzagging at speed in all directions, while the adults on duty cowered in coats and scarves. The children were unbelievably hardy. They would come back in exhilarated and freezing cold, buzzing with satisfaction.

Of course they had plenty of practice.  They spent every possible moment they could outside. When we talked in class about things we enjoyed doing top of the list came “Playing out!”

If you drove past the estate on light evenings every open space was populated with children of all ages running around, kicking balls or chasing one another. There were plenty of green spaces on the edge of the estate and hardly any through traffic in the estate itself.  The main road looped around the outskirts.

When I first went to the school, I had been curious about the area and had asked about walking or driving around it. I was counselled not to think of doing so.  Nobody ever went through the estate except those living there, those who had business with them (such as the van man who sold the duty free cigarettes), council workers of one sort or another, or the police.

When a pupil was unwell, and needed to go home, two members of staff would drive the sick child down the hill once mum had been alerted by phone. It was a long walk for a small poorly person and many families had no transport of their own. Nobody ever went into the estate by themselves.

It was a sensible precaution.  One day when the postman parked his van at the bottom of the school path while he delivered the letters, by the time he got back to it, somebody had managed to break a window and steal the parcels left on the passenger seat.

When Ofsted were coming, the head was keen to ensure the site looked bright and well cared for, so she bought bedding plants for the flower beds. They were kept in readiness but only planted on the evening immediately before the inspection.  The caretaker and his German Shepherd dog then guarded them throughout the night. That way they weren’t stolen until later in the week.

Still, it’s an ill wind!  The fact that nobody in their right mind ventured into the Badlands of the estate meant that the children held possession of the streets. Untroubled by cars or strangers they played out hour after hour until darkness fell.

There was no point setting homework.