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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Street Life: The Old School Yard

Our school yards were far from being the playing fields of Eton, but they were the place we developed non-academic skills that have lasted a lifetime.

For instance, by manipulating an intricately folded piece of paper, and offering you a selection of options, I could tell your fortune. And although I learned the skill nearly 70 years ago, I can still make a Christmas cracker out of a hankie.

Up to age seven, we were ‘mixed infants’, and playtime activities tended to be choreographed by adults. Ring games like ‘farmer’s in his den’, ‘poor Mary sat a weeping’ and ‘in and out the woods and bluebells’ were the sort of gentle games they favoured. A good tug-of-war at the end of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ was the best you could hope for.

Left to our own devices, juniors often played games that were reserved especially for the school yard. Two I recall were ‘The big ship sails through the Alley, Alley O, and ‘the whip’.

The latter was sometimes banned because of its lethal consequences, the least of which was a bitten tongue or bloody nose. To play, a line of kids linked arms and the leader ran pell mell, twisting and turning. Praying to stay on their feet, the tail-end Charlies covered twice the distance of the front runners at warp speed, flailing about like rag dolls.

For girls, an activity lacking a chant was the equivalent of dancing without music. Clapping games like ‘my mother said, I never should, play with the gypsies in the wood’ and, ‘each peach, pear plum’ were popular.

At playtime, there would be several long ropes, each with girls either skipping or waiting their turn to skip, all chanting rhymes that seemed to have been universally known. One of these was ‘Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Jews, bought his wife a pair of shoes’, etc. The most popular had actions or cues for the next skipper to enter the rope. ‘I was in the kitchen, doing a bit of stitching, in came a bogey man and pushed – me – out’ (exit first skipper) is an example.

At playtime, you might see a girl standing with arms outstretched reserving a ‘two ball’ wall until friends arrived. The attractive looking sponge balls from the newsagents had a sloppy bounce compared to tennis or hollow rubber ones. But as long as they bounced, a good two baller could cope successfully with the most ill matched specimens.

According to which of the extensive repertoire of rhymes we chanted, actions included passing one of the balls around your back, under the knee, or tossing it up vertically while keeping the other in play.

Dipping was employed for deciding things like who would be ‘piggy in the middle’, or ‘first ends’ at skipping. Possibly the best known was ‘Dip, dip, dip, my blue ship’, but ‘eany, meany, miney, mo’ was also common.

With no school field, our games lessons took place in the yard. But unlike one school in Ancoats, ours was at least on ground level. George Leigh Street was one of several city centre schools to have a ‘sky’ playground on the roof.

In the juniors, games equipment seems to have consisted of little more than bean bags and wooden hoops. Some activities demanded jumping between hoops laid on the ground, but otherwise we used them for skipping races. Before the hula hoop craze came along, nobody had the imagination to twirl it around their middle.

We played netball, because the harder balls used in rounders were more likely to break a window or end up in the traffic on Kenyon Lane. Stripped down to blouse and navy knickers, the older girls first had to erect the portable netball posts. Teams were chosen, and different coloured woven bands distinguished one from another.

At my first school, the sexes were separated by a high wall which resulted in gender specific games. To judge by boys’ street games, that wall hid much rushing round the yard with outstretched arms being Spitfire pilots, or thigh slapping as cowboys, not to mention British Bulldog.

At nine, I moved to a ‘mixed’ school where ‘kiss chase’ was played. I modestly stayed loyal to games like skipping or two balls (for a while at least).

Street Life: Bootees and Bickipegs

I was born in the legendary ‘terrible winter’ of 47.Even when coal ceased to be rationed, the supply often ran out before the next delivery. Consequently, to survive the privations, new-borns had to be toughened up from day one.

My mother used to pin me into the bedclothes of my cot, to prevent me getting my hands free during the night. Even with ice on the inside of windows, I never lost a single finger to frost bite, so it must have worked. However, it has left me with a phobia about having my arms confined.

We were the Virol, rusks and National Dried Milk generation, when clothing substituted for the central heating lacking in our houses. Swaddling was out of date, but babies less than 5 lbs were kept in cotton wool jackets (not removed, even for washing) until the required weight was achieved.Even when a house had a bathroom, lack of heating meant babies were often bathed in a large pot sink in the warm kitchen. A mother whose baby wasn’t wearing wool next to the skin, with its little bottom plastered in zinc and castor oil, would make herself the talk of the Welfare clinic.

Terry nappies were expensive, and only came in one size – huge. They had to survive daily boil washes until the family’s youngest child was toilet trained. By the early fifties, most babies wore rubber pants, but knitting patterns for the ‘pilch’ (a natural wool garment worn over nappies) was still available.

Vest and nappy were covered by layers of winceyette, leaving the now globular-shaped baby to be topped off with something smart but impractical. The preference was for dresses, romper suits or the unisex leggings and matinee jackets with gender appropriate headgear.Unlike many fathers of the time, dad could change a nappy, though his method was unorthodox. He was also happy to baby-sit while mum had a night out at the pictures with my grandparents. One night, following a 12-hour shift on GPO ‘Christmas pressure’, he settled himself to listen to Saturday Night Theatre with his tired feet in a bowl of water. There was a scream, and dad was halfway up the stairs before realising it came from the wireless rather than my cot. Mum arrived home to find him sheepishly mopping the sopping carpet.

The presents babies received were like children of the past: seen but not heard. We had to be satisfied with the sound of rattles and humming tops, while today everything from a mobile to a potty plays a nursery rhyme or animal noise.The most traditional gift for new-borns was a teddy bear. Dad won mine at a fair before I was born. I would describe Ted’s appearance as unique rather than scary, but for the sake of persons with a nervous disposition, his picture has been withheld.

None of my surviving toys has ever been washed. With children’s propensity for putting everything straight into their mouths, it’s amazing so little consideration was given to hygiene and safety in the past.

Another inexplicable thing is the adult conspiracy that kept children believing babies materialised from nowhere. My own first intimation there was ‘summat up’, was getting home from afternoon school to find a ‘little stranger’ asleep in my old cot.

Prior to my sister’s arrival, living alongside me were 4 adults in a small council house. If she had been born in the 21st century, her bath, bouncy chair, Moses basket with stand and the myriad other essentials she couldn’t have done without, would have necessitated an extension.

Unoccupied coach-built prams were a menace in narrow lobbies and passages. But no self-respecting mother would fail to put the swanky pram outside for her baby to get its daily dose of ‘fresh air’.Children stayed in their prams far longer back then. By removing some of the base panels, an older child could sit upright with the rest of the ‘bilge’ being utilised for the shopping.

Tumbles from prams must have been common before harnesses were fitted as standard. Strangely, when there were far fewer speeding motor vehicles, more toddlers were to be seen wearing reins looped over the arm of a parent or responsible sibling.Today’s all-terrain pushchairs and ergonomic baby seats are all very well, but as a child, I would have traded the lot for a bottle of that concentrated orange juice from ‘the Welfare’.

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