Street Life: Are We Nearly There Yet?

A day trip was the nearest thing to a holiday many kids could look forward to in the fifties.

Since 1836, when John Jennison opened his Pleasure Gardens, Mancunians have flocked to Belle Vue. Our journey there was not as simple as today’s car ride. We had a fair walk, followed by two buses. Transferring from one vehicle to another, we must have looked like refugees about to cross the Gobi desert.

Dad hefted the pushchair. Weighing a couple of stone, its only concession to transportability was a fold-down handle. Mum carried her handbag, the baby, plus all the changing paraphernalia, including wet nappy bags (no disposables then). My burden could be macs and/or umbrellas, and a bag with stuff like damp cloths and sticking plasters.

Our first port of call was generally the zoo. The animals were interesting, though their welfare left a lot to be desired. I’m still haunted by the memory of the famous polar bear as he paced around that stark enclosure.

My parents paid up for rides and ice creams. But Mum wasn’t going to stand in a long queue for over-priced food and drink when a few butties and a (glass) bottle of ‘mineral’ would hardly be noticed amongst our survival gear.

The Belle Vue memory I do cherish is gliding at treetop level on the Scenic Railway. The cost – and long queues – were drawbacks for rides like the Caterpillar. Those ‘free’ fake ruins we loved to play on must have been a godsend for parents.

For something farther away than Belle Vue, an enterprising neighbour might organise a coach trip to the seaside. The whole street would set off for the day, and if it was Blackpool, it might even include the illuminations.

Local newsagents acted as booking offices and designated collecting points for day excursions. Outside the paper shop, kids would compete to be the first to spot the ‘chara’ approaching at its maximum permitted speed of 30mph!

Special clothing for leisure activities didn’t exist then. The small crowd of women would be in ordinary dresses, light coats, nylon stockings and comfortable footwear as they waited for the coach. And if not actually in their Sunday best, kids would be respectably dressed. I would have my hair in two plaits with ribbons and a couple (or more) hair slides. My outfit would be a candy striped frock or similar, white socks, and leather or newly whitened canvas sandals.

Adults and children held diametrically opposed theories for what constituted the perfect day trip. All kids wanted was to get cracking with buckets and spades, while adults deluded themselves that the farther the destination, the more exciting the outing (a notion that would soon be dispelled).

About 10 minutes into any journey by train or coach, there would be a plaintive chorus of “are we nearly there?” or “I’m starving, can we eat our butties yet?”

My personal exception to the distance versus enjoyment ratio was New Brighton, where half the pleasure lay in the train and ferry to get there.

Deckchair hire was an expense, so to keep costs down, a decision had to be made about the fewest number they could manage with. Then someone was nominated to fetch the tea tray. A deposit of 10 shillings secured a pot of tea, milk, sugar and the required amount of thick white cups and saucers to be taken onto the beach. By the time the tray arrived, we kids would have discovered what delights the greaseproof paper packets held. Whatever the filling, sandwiches were invariably warm, soggy and sandy.

Where underclothing was concerned, mum made no concession to season or location. Modesty demanded my dress doubled as a changing tent. Vest, underskirt and navy knickers had to be removed under it, before wriggling into that elasticated pea-green swim suit.

Southport was our favourite seaside destination, so unless there was a sudden downpour, those ghastly swimming costumes never got wet. We loved the Peter Pan (later Happydays) playground in Southport. Grandad could usually be pestered into taking us there before he settled down to read the newspaper, with his trouser legs rolled up and a knotted hankie on his head.

Disposable plastic and electronic games devices were unknown. Back then, we set out with little more than a few sandwiches in greaseproof paper and a couple of comics for the kids, and lived to tell the tale.

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Street Life: Saturday Pictures

My old headmistress insisted on calling cinemas ‘picture palaces’. The Adelphi’s art deco style certainly made it seem more palatial than the two other cinemas within walking distance (see ‘Flicks in Moston‘ by Alan Hampson).

The Adelphi matinee cost 6d, and inside the cinema, lollies were 3d. The shop opposite sold them for 1d, which left tuppence for sweets – well worth the inconvenience of sticky ice-melt running down your sleeve as you frantically sucked the lolly while queuing to go in.

The harassed looking Adelphi commissionaire had a moustache and withered arm. Wearing a uniform more appropriate to a Ruritanian operetta, the poor man was expected to keep control of a bunch of rowdy kids. But once inside, he got his own back on his lolly-stained charges.

The Adelphi was quite large and far from full on Saturday afternoons. Yet the commissionaire insisted we fill the front seats before letting us start on the second row, and so on. Only the late arrivals got to watch the screen without having their necks cricked back at an unnatural angle.

Not a discerning audience, we would watch anything so long as there was a picture and sound.

The usual programme contained a mixture of cartoons, cowboys, space fantasy and short comedy films. My personal favourite cartoon characters were Mr. Magoo, Tweetie Pie and Sylvester, which I preferred to Disney’s Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

When the nearest thing to ‘abroad’ was the Isle of Man, cinema acted as our ‘window on the world’, and we accepted what we saw there as real, or at least possible.

None of us believed in the futuristic spacemen who could both see and speak to earth from a rocket exploring the galaxy. At the same time, our credibility seemed flexible enough to accept the existence of a wild west with cowboys roping steers and shooting one another. The one implausible cowboy character was the rather rotund and misnamed Hopalong Cassidy, but I could certainly believe in his partner, Gabby Hayes.

Back then, thanks to cinema, Yanks were the ‘foreigners’ we knew most about. Kids might have been excused for thinking you would meet Amos and Andy, Our Gang, and the Three Stooges as you strolled down any US side-walk.

With that in mind, it struck me that my counterpart living in Manchester, New Hampshire, might have had an equally strange view of the British. Would she expect to encounter Sherlock Holmes, wearing his trademark Ulster and deerstalker, as he hunted for the Blue Carbuncle in a swirling ‘London particular’?

The final item in the matinee was always a serial, which concluded with the words ‘don’t miss Next week’s thrilling episode’. Virtually every serial featured the same outcrop of rock in the same desert, with little variation in plot.

Typically, a hero (often a cowboy) set out to right some grievous wrong. His adversary was sometimes masked but always dastardly and villainous. The two would be involved in a perilous chase, culminating in a thrilling ‘cliff hanger’.

Each week, with our very own eyes, we watched the stagecoach or motor car containing the hero plunging over the cliff edge. The following Saturday, the reprise showed the vehicle swerving away from the canyon’s edge in the nick of time. Discussing it on the way home, the miraculous escape was universally pronounced a ‘right swizz’.

Each serial had 12-15 parts, so practically nobody saw one all the way through. But come Monday, there was sure to be someone in the school yard willing to relate the thrilling climax (with actions for those who missed it on the previous Saturday).

Occasionally we got British ‘shorts’ featuring child actors such as Harry Fowler. One I recall was a gang of kids who decided to try window cleaning to get money to go hop-picking. They had no ladder, so had to design and build an ingenious device to do the upstairs windows. The film makers were obviously unaware that, to Mostoners, the idea of hop-picking was as foreign a concept as some of the things the ‘Our Gang’’ kids got up to.

Years later, I discovered there were such things as Junior Cinema clubs. I was miffed to have missed out on the badges, songs and yo-yo displays the ABC and Regal minors’ enjoyed.

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Street Life: Are you sitting comfortably?

‘Listen with Mother’ started two days before my third birthday, and I always called it ‘my programme’.

Miss Chamber’s classroom had a wireless set, so each day at 1.45 her kids could continue to ‘Listen with teacher’ at school. My misfortune was to be in the ‘overspill’ reception class, necessitated by the baby boom when servicemen returned home after the war. Sadly, our prefab annexe never thrilled to the sound of Faure’s Dolly Suite.

Much as I enjoyed Children’s Hour, it was on at 5pm, so unless it was dark or wet, playing out took preference.

One of Children’s Hour’s supposed aims was to introduce nature to city kids like me. ‘Out with Romany’ and talks by Nomad were interesting, but the countryside they portrayed seemed less real to me than the fictional stories in the programme.

The serial readings brought characters like Jennings and Worzel Gummidge right into our living room. Dramatisations of classics such as the Secret Garden and the Railway Children sent me scurrying to the library for more books by the same author.

For me, the personification of a ‘triumph of hope over experience’ was Uncle Mac (Derek McCulloch). Every Saturday morning I listened in the hope that the Happy Wanderer, Runaway Train or The Auctioneer would not come up on Children’s Favourites yet again. But from bitter experience I knew nothing short of a nuclear holocaust would prevent that man playing those same tunes week after week, after week.

My sister’s age group could ‘Watch with Mother’ instead of merely listening. I was too old really, but have to confess Picture Book, Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, Rag, Tag and Bobtail, not forgetting The Woodentops, became something of an addiction.

Today, it’s difficult to believe there was a ‘toddler’s truce’ that shut broadcasting down at 6 pm. I dare say some children were in bed before the restart at 7 o’clock, but not many of them lived in Moston.

The radio’s ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ like Violet Carson were side-lined on radio, while children’s TV programmes became the province of middle aged, middle class men who spoke with a plum in their mouth.

For ‘All Your Own’, Hugh Wheldon conducted starchy interviews with children about their hobbies. The only bright spot I recall was a boy who used grape stalks to make trees for his superb model railway layout created entirely from recycled material.

Whirligig, a sort of variety programme, showcased acts the BBC believed were suitable for children. Apparently it was where Sooty and Rolf Harris first came to our notice.

In Crackerjack, Peter Glaze and other actors performed comic playlets, very loosely based on historical characters. But the highlight of the show was Double or Drop. Contestants were asked a series of general knowledge questions, which earned either a prize or a cabbage. The one who didn’t drop anything they were holding, was the winner and got to keep all their prizes (don’t know about the cabbages). Runners up were presented with the famous Crackerjack propelling pencil, which became as sought after as Blue Peter badges, a generation later.

In the fifties, schools broadcasting came via old valve wireless sets that took an age to warm up. In order not to be caught out, our teacher always turned the set on far too early. For weeks we had to sit through the final five minutes of ‘Bridge of the San Luis Rey’ (dreariest book ever).

My husband’s school joined in ‘Singing Together’, while mine opted for nature study. Both were accompanied by the relevant pamphlet. The colour photography in the nature study one was so exceptional that I hung on to my copy for years.

In the old days, most households possessed only one television or radio set, and adults were the sole arbiters of what was viewed or listened to. In the middle of Saturday afternoons children’s programmes, the television was unceremonially muted, and the wireless turned on to warm up.

Apparently it was absolutely necessary for dad to hear the football results immediately, while Grandad religiously checked his pools coupon in case he had to claim for that elusive £75,000.

Meanwhile, I stared at the Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho as they postured silently on the TV screen. In our house, it seems the BBC’s pledge to ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’, got temporarily suspended during Sports Report.

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