My childhood living in poverty In a suburb of south Manchester northern England in the 1960s.
Only Bread and Butter
They were hard times back in the early 50’s and 60’s, for I was one of thirteen, four boys and seven girls ‘oh’ and of course not forgetting Mum & Dad. I was the third youngest of the boys and my father worked in the iron foundry in Manchester northern England. Life in our household wasn’t far removed from the time of Dickens. As for my mother, she was the driving force of the family, all five foot nothing of her. We lived in a small council townhouse. To the left of us was a family of four, the Durant family; they had everything, nice clothes for their kids and their Ford Zodiac was always washed and polished on Sunday mornings. They would make a point of leaving one of the car doors open so as to expose their leopard print seats and furry-dice. DJ Tony Blackburn was playing his top ten hits of the 60’s from the pirate radio station ‘Caroline’ on the car radio, which could be heard up and down the neighbourhood.
Mr Durant was a successful businessman always very smartly dressed in a pin-striped grey suit with his flared trouser bottoms, while his wife, had bleached blonde hair and a big lump on the end of her nose. I remember my mother giving me a thick ear for sticking out my tongue at her when she turned the other cheek, and for always laughing at her. ‘All fur coat and no knickers’, my mam would say. Most of the time Mrs Durant stayed at home and would stand at the front gate with a fag wedged in her big mouth, exposing her cheap lipstick and intent on making idle chat all day with who ever she could manipulate to listen to her gossip.
Then to the right of our house, was the Roberts family, I think we nicknamed them little and large. Mrs Roberts was very short and very wide; she walked around with a face like a slapped arse. Mr was tall, thin and henpecked, they had a little corgi dog that walked around with a limp, named Charlie, who had more intelligence than all of them put together. David, their son, who I would sometimes hangout with, was always in trouble with the law, even though they did their best to conceal his bad behaviour. I recall an instance when he stole a motorbike; he stored it round the back of their house. The stench of the petrol fumes used to filter through into our kitchen. I remember him looking round at me, as I was sitting at the edge of the kerb; he was just showing off when he decided to perform some wheelies down our road. I could hear the bike before I could see it; there wasn’t any silencer or exhaust, and it sounded more like an Apache Helicopter Gunship swooping down over its target. He came a cropper and crashed into a bus-shelter, the bike and the shelter were demolished and somebody must have called the police. He was arrested and dragged off to the local cop-shop and never to be seen for some time, his parents tried to play the incident down but it didn’t work.
We lived in a three-bedroom house,on the ground floor there was a small L-shaped living and dining room with a small kitchen equipped with a tiny gas cooker, sometimes in the winter when my dad was at work, we would gather in the kitchen and switch on the oven and leave the door open so that we could keep warm. There were a couple of food cupboards; its only occupants were a few cockroaches in the summer. The back bedroom overlooked our unfriendly neighbours, I remember on one occasion when I was looking through my mams upstairs window, Mrs Durant was in her garden hanging her out her smalls, the wind had blown her dress up over her head and it got caught-up in her rollers exposing her posterior, she turned around and caught me looking at her, and shouted up at me, her face was beetroot-red.
‘What you staring at you filthy swine, I have a good mind to tell your mother.’I sought refuge behind my bedroom door. Both our neighbours had well-stocked gardens, ours was decorated with some old bike spares and a couple of plastic imitation flowers stuck in the middle, surrounded by weeds. At the top end of our garden there was a wooden fence, separating us from the council garages, In the cold winter months fire wood was scarse, sacrifices had to be made, so that meant the fence didn’t stay up very long. I was delegated the job of cutting it down, I used a handsaw that I had stashed on a ledge near the surface of a manhole in my backyard; but I had great difficulty trying to lift the cover off, as I was only about seven stone, my muscles were like knots-on-cotton. I wasn’t built for such labours, nevertheless, I was able to prize open the lid just enough to wedge a stick under it to hold it in place, and when I had returned the saw I would just kick the stick away.
From the kitchen there was a door leading to a small hallway where the gas and electric meters were housed. Following on from there was the staircase minus some of its spindles. At the top of the stairs to the left was the box-room ‘not enough room to swing a cat’, my mam would say. Next to that was the second bedroom where many of us would have a rota system in place for our sleeping arrangements, in the one and only flea-bitten double bed. Never had a night gone by without somebody wetting the mattress. When my mam made the bed I would say to her that the top on the hot water bottle was loose and it leaked on the bed, just to avoid another internal inquiry.
It was easier just to keep moving the bed sheets around until I could find a dry spot. In the cold winter nights I would take my coat upstairs to bed and it would double-up as a blanket. There was no wallpaper on our interior walls, just multi-coloured emulsion paint where and cracks were visible, sometimes I could smell the damp. There was only one light in the room and that was a fully exposed, it was enormous, the size of a goldfish bowl hanging from the thread bare wires in its fitting. The ceiling resembled a spider’s web, cracked and unpainted. Whoever was last in the sack would have to switch the light off, then climb into bed and find their slot by walking over the rest of us. This lead to a riot, followed by my mam charging into the room with a stick and she would whack one of us over the head, usually me.
On the other side of the landing was my parent’s room, that wasn’t much bigger either. Next to that there was a small toilet and a tiny bathroom. Carpet was nonexistent upstairs, only lino ( cheap flooring), or what was let of it; this was made from oil-based material, which was highly flammable. I used to tear parts of it off to start the fire. When I needed to get from one room to another, I would run across it to avoid getting cold feet. Sometimes I would slip on my backside from its shiny cold surface and end up with a few bruises.
The only other source of heating was a couple of portable paraffin heaters; the only way that I could ignite the wick was to rotate a little control wheel up-and-down, the smell from these unhealthy portable burners was inhumane; what made matters even worse was the fact that there were no vents in the room, the fumes and vapours had to escape somewhere, and they did ‘Inside my chest.’ I remember one night when I tried to move one of these ugly steel monsters nearer to my side of the bed. I wrapped my hands around the side handles, which were also made of steel, I recall screaming like I’d never screamed before, the tears seen to gush out, not just from my eyes but also from every pore in my body, my hands were blistered for days.Opposite the front of our house was a busy main road, which separated us from the row of houses on the other side. They were a bit more modern than ours, so we always regarded them as snobs; and I think they looked down on us as the bottom end of the economic social scale. We never really had much to do with any of them. But there were occasions when I was sent over to knock on a stranger’s door with a begging bowl and ask for a shilling for the meter, other than that we just mingled with the people on our side of the road.
Further on there was a row of shops, the first one was the chippy, which boasted a large front window where I would peep through it to see if they had any left-overs from the dinnertime fry-up; there was one particular assistant who had a soft spot for me, I think her name was Sally, because I would always pick-up any fag-ends that were scattered at the front door of the shop. She probably felt sorry for me and would wrap-up some fish-bits, and then she would give me the nod to enter the shop for my reward. Sometimes, there were a few particles of fish amongst the debris in my little parcel, I used hide around the back of the shops and devour its contents, sniffing the aroma of salt and vinegar, I would suck the remaining juices from my fingers until they were all crinkly and white at the ends.
Next to the chippy (Fastfood store) there was a grocers shop, butchers and newsagents followed by greengrocers. The grocers store is where we would go to buy goods on the slate, my mother conjured up this unwritten arrangement with the proprietor, on the understanding that she would wipe the slate clean every week. However, this obligation was never fulfilled on time, when we needed more supplies and the bill wasn’t settled, she would send me elsewhere and pay by what little cash we had. On many occasions the shop owner would send one of his assistants round to our house to seek payments; I was sent to answer the door to tell them that there was nobody in except me, this scenario would continue as far back as I can remember.Even though food was always scarse, Sundays was usually our biggest meal of the week, it was the only time that we would all be together; my favourite meal was barley soup mixed in with bacon ribs, that we bought from the butchers for about sixpence. My mam would cook this in a big black pan on the front room fire, it was about the size of a an enamel bucket, because there was no way of controlling the heat, it was a matter of just taking the pan off the fire to simmer-down and then return back on the coals.