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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Bonfire Wars

For the first 11 years, 2 months and 12 days of my life I lived in the same house: that's except for the three separate weeks I spent in caravans on seaside holidays, and for the extended hospital stay I had with meningitis when I was two.

It was more common in those days for mothers to give birth at home, so I was born in the front bedroom of the Victorian two-up, two-down that my parents had lived in since they'd married six years earlier. Eventually in June 1969 the entire area was demolished as part of a slum clearance program and we moved to the semi where my mum still lives today, and where my father lived for the remainder of his life. The novelty of separate bedrooms for my sister and I, and of actually having a garden was nothing compared to the luxury of an inside toilet, and a bath that didn't hang inside the back yard wall until we dragged it inside to fill it, once or twice per week.

So I experienced my early childhood in a very different environment to my later years, and in totally different circumstances to how my own children experienced theirs; The area where I was born was rough: there's no denying it, but my parents made up for that by doing their best to make the inside of our home a contrast to the miserable exterior. My sister and I had everything money could buy; unfortunately the money there to buy it was always limited, as my dad worked in various jobs throughout his working life as a milkman, an unskilled factory worker and a window cleaner, so though my parents often only just managed to 'make ends meet,' their own willingness to go without so that their children wouldn't have to made me, as an innocent child, feel as though I was a lot better off than I really was at the time. I remember being always well fed, well dressed and well loved.

The house I lived in was on one side of Salmon Terrace a cul-de-sac off Liverpool Street. Older relatives told me that the houses on Salmon Terrace had once had little 'postage-stamp' sized front gardens, similar to the houses on other terraces off the street, but during the Second World War, they'd all been commandeered and dug up to build a communal bomb shelter. I'd always wished we'd had a garden to play in, but also used to think that the shelter, had it still been there, would have been an incredible place to play. Unfortunately, it had been filled in and covered with tarmac at the end of the war, so Salmon Terrace was left with a large hard-surfaced communal area, which I suppose was as good a place as any to play.

As a small child, of course, most of my time was spent indoors, but as I have a sister who's five years older than me, I was also allowed to play outside the house in the terrace, where my sister and I were under standing orders to play only where my mum could keep an eye on us from the front window of the house. Somehow though, at times, I managed to slip away from my sister, and to momentarily avoid parental attention, and being a little bit adventurous I'd slip around the corner of the terrace onto the main street to join some of the other kids playing there. Of course at this age, I never dared to break the number one rule: DON'T CROSS THE ROAD! 

I don't remember what age I was when the rules were relaxed, But by nine or ten I knew the entire area like the back of my hand: every local street, every 'back passageway' that ran between and behind the blocks of houses, and most of all, the areas where most of our play took place: the 'bombed buildings'. These were areas that had been badly damaged by air raids during World War Two and had subsequently been demolished and cleared. Redeveloping places like this wasn't economically viable at the time, so while the surviving residents were rehoused miles away, often in 'temporary' prefabricated homes (which survived well into the 1970s) the sites of their previous homes were left as a reminder of what wartime life had been like when our parents had themselves been children.

There were two such areas in Liverpool Street. There was the area known by the local kids as Bommies which was where a block of three or four houses had once stood next to the local grocers shop. Further down the street was the area called Field. To my young eyes this place was massive and looking back on it, I think it must have once been the site of about ten blocks of houses. Field was the central point of Liverpool Street's juvenile community.  We played football there, we floated homemade boats in the enormous puddles after the rain had filled many of the deep hollows, and best of all, Field was the site of the annual Liverpool Street bonfire.

November the fifth was important to us in those days. The kids from every street in the area would organize their own bonfire on a piece of waste land. Now I'm not talking about little bonfires here: these were massive! It's a fact, that in those days, when local people decided to buy new furniture, they'd do it in October, because they knew they had a way of disposing of their old table, old couch or chairs just by mentioning to the local kids that they could have the wood for their bonfire. It would be the sole purpose of kids in the street during October to gather whatever combustible items they could and build up the street bonfire pile, until it towered way over our heads.

Rivalries would develop between the local kids at this time of year. Friendships at school with kids from neighbouring streets would be put on hold. They were the enemy because it was their aim to build a bigger and better bonfire than ours. Our spare hours at that time of year would be spent partly gathering items for the bonfire, but we'd also guard our bonfire from the attempts of those criminals from neighbouring streets to steal our wood. Of course it was only right that we organised raids on their bonfires too.

In the 'Bonfire War' Liverpool Street's closest neighbour, biggest rival and worst enemy was Brighton Street, the next street along. From the bottom of our terrace, if we got a 'leg-up'  to scramble up the wall dividing it from a similar cul-de-sac on Brighton Street, we could actually see the site of their bonfire, over on the opposite side of their road. This surveillance was necessary on a regular basis: if their hoard was noticeably smaller than ours, then we'd know to expect raids; if however they had a lot more than us, then it gave us a chance to have a crafty look at what we could possibly pillage.

It was October, 1967. I was nearly ten and as a result was looked upon by the younger kids as a Bonfire War veteran. The lads, who were supposed to be guarding our pile, had let us down and we'd lost a lot of stuff to Brighton Street recently. We'd even had a raid from Manchester Street, the enemy on our opposite frontier, who'd run off with a lot of smaller items: dining chairs, bedside cabinets, etc. It had been a surprise attack: loads of Manchester Street kids had swooped down and grabbed the most easily portable items they could get their hands on and then retreated before the alarm could be raised. Small items would normally have been too high up on the pile for them to get a hold of, but we'd been having trouble stopping our bonfire from falling over for a couple of days, ever since the last raid from Brighton Street had resulted in the loss of two supporting armchairs and a mattress we'd used for bracing. This was a dirty, underhanded trick, since they'd attacked when they knew there'd be nobody about. We suspected that they were actually using 'big lads' since the raid had occurred well after every respectable eleven year old's bedtime.

It was a Thursday night, and I was due on bonfire guard duty after I'd had my tea. Returning from the front door, Mum dropped a bundle on the settee. The paper man had just brought our weekly delivery of TV Times and Radio Times (you needed both in those days,) Weekly News (for Mum,) and 'Dandy' and 'Beano' (supposedly for my sister and I, but Dad would often grab them first.) I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and noticed I had about twenty minutes before I was on guard duty. Dad was reading one of the comics and my sister Karen had grabbed the other, so I picked up the TV times and went straight to the page for Saturday teatime.

'Batman' was the cult TV programme at the time and every week, episodes on Saturday and Sunday ('same bat-time, same bat-channel') featured one particular villain. Originally, Batman had dealt with The Riddler, The Joker and The Penguin on a three or four weekly cycle, (with occasional appearances by Catwoman,) but just recently a few new enemies had been introduced, like King Tut, Egghead and Ma Parker and they didn't really appeal as much. But this Saturday, The Joker was back! It occurred to me that as soon as word got about that there was a good Batman adventure this weekend, the streets would be devoid of kids, for at least half an hour on Saturday and Sunday. I worked out a plan in my head and rushed out for guard duty and to explain it to my colleagues!

I should have realised when I told them, that there was a flaw in my plan; I should have noticed that their eyes lit up when I informed them of the Joker's return, a lot more than they did when I explained my plan to raid Brighton Street on Sunday teatime. I was as keen to see Batman on the TV as the rest of them, but it seemed that they weren't as ready as I was to sacrifice this privilege for the sake of our bonfire.

So when Sunday teatime came, only me and two seven year olds turned up. If our mission was to be successful, we couldn't afford to wait, so after persuading one of the youngsters that his plastic sword wouldn't be much use at all, we armed ourselves with stout bits of wood, (being the leader, I got the heavy chair leg,) and started the short journey up Liverpool Street and along Witty Street to the corner of Brighton Street.

It was late October, so by now it was getting quite dark. It was as much about glory now as it was about gathering wood, so the plan was to creep up quietly to their bonfire site, then grab the largest, most prestigious items we could find and leg it back to the safety of our own street. I told the youngsters to stay hidden in the shadows of the fish and chip shop whilst I surveyed the terrain. It was almost a clear run from the bonfire site back to this corner, and then we'd be home free if we avoided the road works we'd just passed on Witty Street.

We crept along Brighton Street with all the skill of commandos, (or even with the stealth of ninjas, had we known what ninjas were at the time.) We reached the Brighton Street bonfire after a few minutes and straight away I spotted one of our armchairs. It was providing strategic support to a couple of wooden pallets that had all manner of small items piled on them, and removing it would have brought the whole lot done, probably accompanied by enough noise to bring kids rushing from nearby houses. Then I spotted our mattress; at least it looked like our mattress: all old mattresses looked very similar, but I thought I recognised the pattern of stains on it. I cautiously lifted one corner of it to see if it could be safely removed, though a mattress lacked a little of the 'trophy' value I was hoping for. I wasn't sure if my daring raid was in itself enough to give me kudos among my friends, unless the prize was also enough to impress.

As I lifted the mattress, I spotted the sofa underneath it. It was standing flat on the ground, and didn't seem to be supporting any other weight on it. I instructed my two troops to hold the mattress clear, then I grabbed the sofa and carefully though firmly began to drag it out from the core of the bonfire. I was surprised at how easily and quietly it cleared the pile, and realised that it had something to do with the castors it was on. I considered whether we could push it along, and even toyed with the idea of riding it triumphantly as my lackeys pushed me home, but realised that probably wouldn't be a very good idea. I looked it over. It had only one arm, and was open at the other end. Looking back, I suppose it could have actually been a chaise longue, but it's very unlikely that anyone in Brighton Street would have ever had such exotic furniture; it's more likely that the arm at the other end had been pulled off. I instructed my fellow raiders to take the open end of the sofa, and throwing my chair leg onto the seat cushion I lifted the end with the arm, and we began to run as quickly and as quietly as we could up the street toward the Witty Street chippy.

Whether I'd lost track of time, or whether Batman hadn't been particularly good this week I don't know, but we were suddenly met with shouts behind us as the Brighton Street 'gang' emerged from houses all along the street as we passed. Fear helped me find that little bit extra from somewhere and I ran faster than I thought I possibly could. I could hear the little lads on the other end of the sofa audibly crying and screaming in terror by now, over the shouts and threats coming from our pursuers. We were level with the last block of houses before the corner, when suddenly the door to a house in front of us opened and a lad of about sixteen emerged and stood before us snarling. I ran full force into him and knocked him over sideways before he even knew what had hit him. We continued our mad dash toward freedom.

Suddenly we slowed down. Even though I was still running as fast as I could, it seemed like I was dragging the whole sofa along the street by myself now. My suspicions were confirmed as my two compatriots passed me; they ran screaming around the corner into Witty Street, one empty handed, one carrying a plastic sword. I stopped and turned. The enemy were still a fair distance away, and the lad I'd knocked over hadn't even got up yet. I wasn't going to surrender my prize so I picked up my chair leg from the sofa's seat cushion and prepared to face the enemy. I counted them: six was it? Maybe seven? No, eight of them. Most of them bigger than me and all tooled up with various makeshift weapons. They stopped momentarily as they drew level with the sixteen year old who'd got to his feet by now. He was looking really, really angry as he grabbed a piece of wood from one of the others, then gave it back as he spotted one of the other lads holding one he preferred: this one had a large nail sticking out of it.

I wasn't going to face this lot alone, so I had a decision to make: should I cut my losses and retreat empty handed, or should I risk being caught and try to still escape with my booty. I remembered the castors on the sofa then, and without thinking I dropped my weapon, and raced around to the other end of the sofa and began to push. It moved, almost as quickly as we'd been able to carry it earlier. I don't know exactly how I negotiated the corner, but somehow I managed it, though I seemed to have gone down the kerb and was now pushing my prize along the road on Witty Street rather than along the pavement.

I heard the sounds as my pursuers turned the corner themselves. I estimated the distance they were behind me, and realised that since they were running that bit quicker they'd probably catch me before I'd reached safety. I began to wish that the street wasn't so flat, that if I'd been travelling downhill, I could have ridden the sofa on its castors like a cart. I was exhausted and had got to the point where I knew I would have to stop soon. The thought popped into my mind that at least I had something to lie down on for a brief rest before my pursuers fell on me. I felt ashamed as tears welled in my eyes, though I realise now that this was less a show of emotion and more a reaction to terror. I was a young lad of under ten, and I had no idea what older kids and teenagers were capable of, to the extent that right at that specific moment I seriously believed that I was going to die.

I realised that the sofa had gathered some momentum by now, and decided that rather than just stop, I'd try to use that momentum to go a little further. So it was that exhausted, I dived head first onto it as it rolled. My weight going forward seemed to add to its momentum and my speed increased as I rode the sofa on my belly. For a brief moment I began to believe that I might actually escape after all. That was until I hit the road works on Witty Street.

Any safety barriers that might have once surrounded the shallow hole in the road had long since disappeared (Well, roadworks barriers were all made of wood in those days, so they were probably hiding inside somebody's bonfire pile, possibly ours,) so one edge of the sofa tipped sideways into the hole as the castors struck it, sending me rolling off onto the road toward the pavement. This was it then, they had me. I remember finding a little consolation in the thought that at least I'd come so far that after they'd killed me, they'd have the trouble of carrying their sofa all the way back before the police arrived. I glanced toward it, hoping that the hole was deep enough to cause them some trouble in recovering it, but though tilted to one side in the shallow hole, it was still easily retrievable. Then two things happened at once, though what I saw registered before what I heard: The gang of lads from Brighton Street had stopped and were backing away slowly, and then one by one they broke off from the group, turned and ran. I could hear it now: The calls of the horde of Liverpool Street lads charging up from behind toward me, every one of them ready to defend me (or more likely to defend the sofa.)

The Battle of Witty Street had only just begun and already, victory was ours.

We recovered the sofa from the roadworks with three of its four castors still attached, and it was pushed the rest of the way back to our bonfire. I'd cut my leg when I fell, so I got to ride on it. Some kids had run ahead and spread the news of what had happened, so from the corner of Witty Street all the way down to Field, I heard the cheers of the kids from our street. I was a hero, if only for a short time: I was the hero of the hour, and I can tell you, I milked it for all it was worth.

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