Sunday, 4 December 2011


Bert, one of my mother’s neighbours, has died aged 90. He is about the last of the parents of my friends I knew as I was growing up.

I used to see him sitting in the Wheel pub with his pals. That hostelry went four years ago, sold off by the brewery for building land, replaced by “executive dwellings.” Now Bert too has been turfed over, in his case hopefully topped by a nice piece of granite. I hope he is now raising a pint in the heavenly Wheel on the other side.

When his family and mine were near neighbours, our lane was a compact little world, linear but short, knew everyone on both sides; Mrs Whittingham with the big teeth who rarely went out, Mrs Yardley whose son married a Mooney. Mrs Lewis who had a sexy son. The Lamberts, their mother wore a turban left over from the war, next to them a Catholic family which seemed rather strange, and I knew my father deeply disapproved of Catholics. Mrs Handley whose quiet, elegant husband had been something in the RAF, then there was Betty, my mother’s friend a single lady who taught maths at the High School. She excelled at gardening and calligraphy. So it goes on up the lane, and down our side. Next to us, Miss Mayland and her sister Mrs Soames. Miss Mayland surprised everyone by marrying a Scotsman when she was in her 50s, this was so wildly unconventional that no one was really surprised when she died soon after.

Next to them lived Miss Farmer who taught at my primary school. On my first day there I was told that she often hit her pupils, but only the boys. She was a large ungainly woman with a skin the colour of parchment. She lost her black cat, Sooty. He went missing in the orchard and fields once at the back of our gardens. He was found dead, strangled in a hedge and there were rumours that the man who owned the land had killed him.

I felt sorry and took two tiny pictures that I’d bought on holiday to school to give Miss Farmer to cheer her up. I remember her taking them from me with an odd look on her doughy face. Years later I heard that this small gesture had broken her and she’d had to rush home. Another teacher came in for the afternoon.

The village was composed of long standing farmers, middle class families with children, and a few single women teachers who were highly active and impressed everyone with their long exotic holidays to places like Burma and Egypt.

After the war a council estate was built to house overspill families from Wolverhampton. It immediately gained a bad reputation. Respectable people didn’t go there, but they speculated on the people who did live there, who were generally thought to be a bad lot. I am not sure why as there was hardly any crime whatever. Probably rumours of drunkenness and wife beating. There was one vaguely dark skinned family. The father was Irish and the mother had apparently made off and left him with four children. This family was famous in the village for being “bad,” and the children felt separate from us at primary school. One of them did break the law in his late teens, by breaking into our chemists. People say he was looking for drug money. This caused a lot of excitement and talk but was so far beyond most people’s imagination and so was quickly forgotten.

My parents and most of these people in the lane knew each other well because they all belonged to Toch H a charity set up for servicemen during the Great War. The women met on Tuesday nights, the men on Fridays. My father also did the accounts for the Scouts. I was so relieved that this didn’t involve any kind of uniform.

At Christmas these people in our lane held, or at least drinks, sausage rolls and crisps. We went from house to house eating and stealing sherry.

In the summer there were weekend fetes, each charity in the area booking a Saturday on the school field or by the village hall, culminating in the great Flower and Produce show, held in Codsall Wood, the next village in the grounds of the local manor house. This had been the home of the Gaskell family, which had been wealthy since the restoration of Charles II whom they helped on his flight into exile. Once they gave the house up in the 1980s, it was used by the local authority for adult education classes, heavily patronised by the single ladies. There were also village “treasure hunts,” by car, with everyone following written clues. Betty almost always won this.

I didn’t take much interest in what my parents and their pals did outside the home, they only existed for me inside it, my father in his chair next to his ashtray, and my mother in the kitchen, or standing surveying her terratory, from her ironing board. She ironed everything, pants, socks, large cotton handkerchiefs, and my brother's work jeans, taking pride in putting sharp creases down the front of each leg.

Most of the people in the lane had small jobs, teachers, electricians, sanitary inspector, gas board, travelling sales, but they all had good sized houses with gardens, a car outside and a two week holiday away once a year. Bert and his wife Dorothy went to Weston Super Mare every year of their married life until old age.

Children went to the local state schools and then university – no problem.

What a settled life that was, and I can’t see that that generation or mine, “drained the economy,” and “ruined” it for the next generation as we are now accused. Life was rather non-acquisitive. The adults I knew hardly drank. Bert only started going to the pub regularly in old age. My parents and their friends never resorted to buying things on hire-purchase as it was called, that would have been considered as bad form as buying cake instead of making it. Credit cards were unknown. In our house there was one cheque-book which lay in a draw rather guiltily, only taken out for grand purchases, after the matter of buying or not buying had been debated for months with my mother usually against it.

The adults around us didn’t swear, get divorced or expect much out of life. Perhaps in the great back-wash of the war they didn’t want any more excitement. By the age of eighteen I had to get away. I wanted the great unknown, and felt that by losing myself in the world I would find myself.

I expected to find fulfilment and success, and of course I didn’t realise that the village I had left behind would melt away like Brigadoon, in this case buried under new bricks, roads and metal fences. Much of the local farm land has been sold for building, the lanes widened and girded by metal fences for the sake of safety we never needed before. Traffic lights illuminate every junction and large signs tell everyone where everything is, just in case anyone gets lost. It is in fact now more of a small town, an adjunct of Wolverhampton than a village.

The summer fetes, even the flower and produce show have stopped as no one has time to organise them. The manor house has recently been sold to a private developer. The village along with the people I knew has vanished.

“That’s progress,” my mother says, echoing traces of a creed British people really believed just after the war. When she says this I look at her in astonishment, as if she'd declared that the world is flat.

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