By Eithne Cullen
Welcome to November’s Thoughtful Tuesday page. Here at Write On! we’ve been following the theme ‘Writing With Wonder: The World Through Children’s Eyes’ and I’m sharing some pieces which evoke childhood and the memories we keep from our growing-up years.
The first piece is Vic Howard’s memory from Barking in the past but first, he tells us about his life and writing. I’ll be using more of Vic’s writing on the Thoughtful Tuesday page in the future. This is how he introduces it:
I was born and grew up in Barking. I lived there from 1938 until I finally left in 1970. There were times when I lived in London and others when I did my National Service, but generally, it was my base for my first 32 years. I have spent most of the past 50 years living in Sweden, but have strong and sometimes fond memories of a Barking that has long gone.
My series of articles began because I wanted to record the life and times of the Pesci fish and chip shop family. That led in time to a whole series of recollections. I tried hard to make them entertaining as well as informative. I like writing and do a lot of it, though nothing very serious; mainly articles for magazines, or regurgitations of my early life.
As well as sending some lovely black and white photos to go with the article, he also sent this fabulous painting, called Little William: a bright reminder of the fun of the fair. I’m happy to share this colourful image to remind us that the world wasn’t in black and white in those days and the sounds and colours of a fairground are happy memories for many.
The Barking Park Annual Fair
There had been a carnival held in Barking since at least the 1930s. After WWII, the practice was resumed and every year, Barking Park became host to an enormous fairground. The name of the owner and organiser, which was displayed on various attractions, was T Holland. I have no further knowledge of who T Holland was, but he/she always parked their caravan just inside the main gates for everyone to admire, and it was worthy of admiration. It was obviously custom-built and was lavishly decorated with mirrors, bevelled glass windows and lots of shining metalwork. It was also quite long. It would be easy to imagine that the effect was gaudy and brash, but it wasn’t. Like some Catholic churches in Bavaria that seem to drip gold paint and cherubs, yet manage to convey a feeling of perfection, so did Holland’s caravan.
Further in the park, and covering several acres of grass, was the fairground itself, with all the usual booths, stands, dodgem cars, big wheel and roundabouts. Behind these were the fairground workers’ caravans and the generators. These were almost all American ex-army vehicles of enormous size that produced a lot of noise, clouds of exhaust and the electricity required to illuminate the fairground. It was, in every way, a traditional fairground.
The side booths, which were large tents with a small stage at the front on which the colourfully- dressed barker stood drumming up customers, held every kind of curiosity. Quite often, these were a disappointment once you got inside, but I can still remember not being able to resist paying to see “The World’s Smallest Woman”. She turned out to be a perfectly formed lady of middle age, who lived in a sort of large dolls-house interior inside the tent. Her height was no more than 18 inches She was not a dwarf or deformed in any way; just a perfect miniature, with a tiny, high-pitched voice. She was well dressed and her living quarters were pleasantly furnished. She appeared to enjoy conversations with the paying customers and seemed to have no objection to her situation. I could hardly believe my eyes and thought it was a shilling well spent. Of course, it would not be allowed today and, on reflection, one ought to be ashamed of witnessing it, but they were different times and the memory of that little lady has stayed with me for over 70 years.
The stands occupying the centre of the fairground were the Roll-A-Penny kind or Lucky Dip. There were few eating places, apart from a candyfloss stall and hot-dog stand. Eating was not the never-ending pastime it is today and the now ubiquitous Coca-Cola was still a foreign luxury rarely seen in Britain. Pizzas had not yet arrived in Britain, nor had hamburgers. Blue jeans * had yet to become a fashion item, though they could be bought in shops selling workwear: thick, heavy and dark blue. Not the elasticated light blue of today’s spray-on variety. The girls still wore long skirts or dresses, while the boys looked as tough as they could and, if they could afford it, wore long-jacketed Teddy-Boy suits and slick haircuts. The older generation still wore suits and ties and often hats.
Dodgem cars were a popular attraction, as were the large roundabouts, especially the one known as The Caterpillar, that had a cover that swung over the occupants as it swirled around. After a few turns, the cover would suddenly fold back and spectators hoped they would find couples kissing. All very innocent. I hate heights, so avoided the big wheel, but I did venture on the giant swings once and regretted it very quickly. My stomach and head objected to the experience.
One evening in the early fifties, I took my camera to the fair and took some candid-camera shots of people enjoying themselves. Maybe you were among those I captured on film?
© Vic Howard, 2021
Vic tells us he wrote this some years ago for the Barking Historical Society and that we can find these under Vic’s Memories on their website, though you have to dig deep to find them. He has also posted photographs to go with these memories and we’re sharing some of them here.
This poem from A J Wilson is a perfect addition to today’s page, a different kind of ‘ writing with wonder.’ The image she sent in to accompany her work is fabulous, reminding us of those photos capturing the vulnerability of a baby and the importance of its place within a family.
Black And White Years
sat on a plump settee
curly haired with a big bow
a cute girl, four years old
griping a bundle in her lap
her big brown eyes
look back at the camera
she’s not impressed –
what is this thing on my lap
wrapped in a blanket
staring up at me,
we were happy as a family of three
what will you pretend to be
I am told I will love you
I will be your big sister
new brother of mine.
© A J Wilson, 2021
And finally, we mustn’t forget that November is the month of remembrance. Valerie Fincham and Linda Rhodes have recently published Reflections Of A Rifleman, with the support of Valence House. The book is the story of Valerie’s grandfather, Walter Edward James, a house painter from Shoreditch who fought in the First World War.
He wrote his memoir into an exercise book illustrated with his own coloured drawings. The writers contacted Pen to Print to let us know about the book and to share some of its contents. It’s a very clear account of events from the perspective of the soldier fighting in the trenches and a reminder of the horrors of that war, which was called “The war to end all wars.” If only that were true. Here’s an entry:
September 12th 1916
We have moved further up towards the line and are now in dugouts in the Mametz Wood. It hardly resembles a wood now, being but a collection of tree stumps, shell holes, blown-in dugouts, barbed wire, bully beef tins, battered shrapnel helmets, and pieces of equipment of all sorts.
Here and there, legs and arms protrude from the earth. Just outside my dugout, a leg is sticking out from a shell hole. A leg complete with puttees and spur: evidently the leg of some artilleryman.
Big shells are bursting with monotonous regularity on our vicinity and we have had several casualties since arriving in the wood. The bombardment seems as if it will never end. A little distance to our rear is a dressing station, at which a continual stream of walking wounded is arriving.
Salvage parties are searching the wood for discarded rifles, ammunition and equipment. I am one of a party detailed at dusk to take up Mills bombs and ammunition to the front line.
And one from September 15th 1916:
The High Woods (Flers)
It is not yet dawn. In about five minutes, the signal will be given and we shall be out of the trench and over the top and facing what is coming to us. We know who are opposite us in the German trenches. Raiding parties have returned with proof that the line is held by the famous Third Bavarian Division.
Our artillery is putting down a barrage on their trenches such as I have never witnessed before. It seems impossible that anything could live under it.
Red lights are going up in dozens in the German lines, calling for more artillery support, and in answer comes their barrage.
Three minutes to go now.
Men are being killed and wounded from high explosive and shrapnel, as the enemy shells burst almost on our parapet. My thoughts turn to Jimmy Hurst and Tug Wilson, home on leave in Blighty: reading about the war in the News Of The World on Sunday. Ah! They were lucky. They had escaped this lot alright.
Two minutes to go.
A man pitches forward almost on top of me, blood gushing from his mouth. Young Varnall, poor little cuss, hardly 18 yet.
”Get ready, boys. Everything all correct? Mills Bombs! Steady…” The loud blast of the platoon officer’s whistle. Clambering up on to the parapet. Over you go…
This extract takes place in England in autumn 1917. Walter James has been wounded and invalided home but has now recovered. He is at Deepcut Barracks (Blackdown Camp) near Aldershot, waiting to return to France:
A Visit To The Glass House
I returned four days over my time, with the usual result: guard room, company office next morning. I was ordered to be confined to barracks until the day of departure for France.
About a week later, orders were posted up that the drafts of the various battalions in Blackdown under orders for France would be inspected the following afternoon at two o’clock by the general officer commanding the district.
At about one o’clock (that is, an hour before the inspection), I, with two more men of the draft by the names of Wright and Clark, suddenly decided we could not be bothered by the spit and polish of a general’s inspection, and thought we would have a few hours in London before going to France again.
Accordingly. we made a big detour round the back of the camp, and, keeping our eyes skinned for our mortal enemy, the Redcaps (military police), we reached Chertsey, and by means of old draft leave vouchers faked up to date, boarded a train to Waterloo, which, however, we left at Vauxhall, in order to dodge the Redcaps, who are numerous at Waterloo.
We spent the night in the home of Wright, whose father, immediately on seeing us, got the wind up to a great extent and insisted on us returning. So, after an early breakfast (about four o’clock), he gave his son a pound note to pay our fares back and we departed. We caught the first train from Waterloo (about five o’clock), and arrived at Farnborough (about three miles from Blackdown) about half-past six.
Just before we reached camp, we heard sounds of martial music approaching near, so we dodged behind the hedge. As the band proceeded past our hiding place, we perceived to our dismay that behind them were our draft, fully equipped. They were en route for the railway station, and France! Here was a fine how-do-you-do. Clark wanted to fall in with them there and then. Wright and I had to hold him down.
After the procession had gone out of sight, we continued on our way to Blackdown and reported ourselves at the orderly room. We were immediately escorted to the garrison clink and each locked in a separate cell.
The following morning, an escort took us in front of the company officer, who read over the charge to us: “Breaking out of barracks, absenting yourself from general officer’s parade and evading a draft for France whilst on active service. What have you to say?”
“We admit breaking out of barracks, but we had no intention of dodging the draft. Catching so early a train as five o’clock in the morning showed we wanted to be in time for the draft. We did not think the draft would depart so early”.
“Remanded for commanding officer. Escort and prisoners – right turn, quick march.”
Next morning. Outside the battalion orderly room with our escort, myself, Wright and Clark. Wright is the first to be marched. After an interval, he is marched out again. Then Clark is marched in, and later out. Then comes my turn. Sergeant major shouts, “Prisoner! Hat off! Escort and prisoner! Quick march! Mark time! Halt!”
“Number 322019. Rifleman W.E. James. Breaking out of barracks. Absenting himself from general officer’s parade. Evading a draft proceeding to France, whilst on active service. Anything to say?”
“I admit breaking out of barracks and being absent from general’s parade. I did not wilfully avoid going with the draft. I was under the impression the draft would leave Blackdown much later than they did.”
“Will you take my punishment, or do you prefer to be tried by court martial?”
“I will take your punishment, Sir.”
“Twenty-eight days detention.”
“Escort and prisoner! Right turn. Quick march.”
The next morning, the three of us were escorted to the Aldershot detention barracks, known to soldiers by its nickname “The glass house” on account of its glass roof. I had the biggest sentence of the three, 29 days.(Clare’s note: It says 28 days further up??) Wright had 14 days. Clark had 10 days.
Thank you for sharing these fascinating stories from your grandfather’s life, Valerie.
Reflections Of A Rifleman by Walter Edward James is available from Valence House Publications in paperback and is also available on Amazon.
I hope the wonderful submissions we’ve had this month encourage you to submit your own writing to Pentoprint.org.
Stay warm and stay well.
We're sharing some pieces which evoke childhood and the memories we keep from our growing up years.