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).

Meet the author: John Poulton

‘Head Hunted’ is John Poulton’s latest novel set in a fictional Lancashire school. September term starts with the head teacher suddenly deciding to retire. The search for a replacement takes place over the ensuing academic year but it’s not as straight forward as you might expect.

Internal candidates competing for the role each believe they are the perfect choice but who, if any, will win? If jousting was fashionable things might have been easier. The wide-ranging mix of personalities is just as you might find in any work situation but the ‘behind the scenes’ view of school life from the vantage point of the staff room is less familiar. The entertaining plot has a good pace with plenty of humour and the occasional shock.

Although the author has 30 years’ experience to draw from he is more than ‘a retired teacher’.

At the age of 16 John left school to become a telephone engineer. With access to cash he spent his late teens living life; going abroad and enjoying a thriving Manchester music scene. As a young adult he became an amateur actor, learned to play guitar, joined a band and volunteered as a youth leader.

“So what prompted the change of career?” I asked.

“The idea was put to me by a monk on a seaside coach trip to Bournemouth. It had never crossed my mind until I had a chat with him. He just suggested it and ‘the lights came on’. I knew I was going to go for it.”

So, in his early twenties, John returned to education. After studying A levels in the evenings, he gained entry to Southampton University and, with a degree in Theology, completed his training at Cambridge University. In 1988 he took a post teaching RE and theatre studies.

“What aspect of teaching did you enjoy the most?” I asked him.

“The interaction with people and the ‘penny drop’ moments of wonder when a kid ‘got it’. I’m naturally gregarious and extraverted (a show off) and being in front of people plays to my strengths. I like to communicate.”

Over the years, John has become an accomplished classical guitarist, singer/songwriter, qualified hypnotherapist and travelled extensively. Inspired by a trip to Africa, he became chair and trustee for the Rwanda Group Trust charity.

He currently spends time helping to care for his elderly father, cycling and walking, while music, theatre, travel and writing remain his life-long hobbies; the latter being expertly combined on his own travel blog website – ‘Should I Go 2’. 

He has also written three other books:

  • Missing the Bus – a memoir of his early life
  • The Luck of the Crane – a novel set against the backdrop of the Rwandan Genocide
  • Atheists for JesusJesus for Atheists – a short theological textbook setting out known historical facts about Jesus

“Do you have a favourite?” I asked.

“I like each of them for different reasons. ‘Missing the Bus’ was for my mum, so it’s special.

I’m proud of ‘The Luck of the Crane’ because I feel passionate about Rwanda and what its people went through.

I’ve always wanted to explain the points that are presented in ‘Jesus for Atheists’. Again, I’m passionate about that and it’s closely linked to my teaching vocation. It’s a discussion I’ve had so many times and just thought I’d write it down.

My favourite book is ‘Head Hunted’ right now, though. I suppose I’m looking back with rose coloured spectacles, but we had such a laugh, both in class and in the staffroom. I’m celebrating those memories.

I always wanted to write a humorous book and ‘Head Hunted’ gave me that opportunity.”

‘Head Hunted’ is self-published and available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

If you’re planning a holiday and need ideas, John’s travel blog ‘www.shouldigo2.com’ is definitely worth a look. Just click the image below.