Once I met a teacher on a training day. We were sitting by the window watching the children at playtime. I didn’t know her very well but we’d been politely chatting about the common issues we’d experienced throughout the various stages of our careers. Suddenly, she let out a huge mournful heartfelt sigh:
“We’ve tried everything,” she wailed pitifully. “We’ve set them, given them booster groups, extra homework, more specialist training and they’re just not getting there.” She was assuming I knew who she meant when she said “they”. “We’ve had their parents in, the advisors in and a joint project with the local grammar school showing how maths can be really cool.” Now I was beginning to catch on.
“Oh, you mean the tiny percentage of children from predominantly working class backgrounds you can go blue in the face with?”
“Yes,” I concurred. “That percentage.” I stifled a giggle. I could see her beginning to spit blood.
“Do you know what?” She took a deep breath. “We arranged a whole programme of extra weekend work with one boy’s parents; focusing on division remainders and decimals. They both agreed they would go over it with him and make sure he understood it before the test I was giving them the following Monday.” I nodded.
“And?” I had a good idea what she would say next.
“Well, he came back with nothing but a note from his mother apologising because her brother was over and he wanted to treat them to a weekend at the seaside,” I smirked. She put her head in her hands. “Don’t they know?” she snorted between clenched teeth. “Don’t they know how important this is for this wretched boy’s life?”
She continued to rattle on about how he and a few others had simply thrown all her hard back in her face and were strangely uninterested in “improving their chances.”
“Different standards, different outlooks,” I offered in return. She reddened.
“You can’t say that. It’s no excuse.” The conversation ended. Obviously, I was not providing the right sort of response to ease her sense of failure.
I’ve had lots of children like this. Under the relentless drive of determined heads, I have slaved away dutifully bringing up my percentages to national standards and beyond. As an experienced teacher, I’ve seen potential and gone for it. Children were encouraged, even pushed if necessary, but always with an air of encouragement and relevance. Every plenary, if we had time for it, was spent pointing out how their work was connected to real life issues.
I think the real trouble lies in upbringing. When I say trouble, it is trouble for the teacher hell-bent on getting those sub-levels up. They would shriek in despair at those little red oblongs on their clever little spreadsheets, shared and tutted at in countless staff meetings.
Take that teacher for instance. She was probably quite successful at her own school. The odds are that her parents would have been encouraging and supportive. They probably gave appropriate praise and reward when certain goals were reached. Her friendship group might have been similar. They might have even joked about those who did not appear to match their own drive for academic success. It was probably the same at college or university. They might have entered their chosen profession in the hope that their own patience and encouragement would help set a good example to “that percentage”.
It can be quite disheartening when children and sometimes parents appear less positive or determined than the teacher. But the teacher must remember that sometimes children don’t have the same outlook or ambition that was a feature of their own childhood.
If today’s driven education, based and judged on figures in a box is the absolute future; and the whole system of recruitment and reward in employment is tied directly in with these figures, I dare say that in a few generations time, everybody would see it as their duty to conform. They would reach their potential. The would be seen to achieve it every day; in every lesson by dint of having their whole education experienced measured through SMART targets assigned to every conceivable task.
Of course, the trouble with my argument is that there is no resolution. Just acceptance. I accept the differences. In fact, I celebrate them. I can observe the practices of others and their children without being judgemental. I don’t have a middle-class nose so I can’t look down it. I have my opinions but they are my opinions. I have had the pleasure of teaching whole families. At least one of these families have belonged to “that percentage”. And the attitude of their parents?
“Oh they’ll be all right. They know when to work.” Who am I to argue? It’s the beauty of teaching. I miss it!
It was a grey Monday. Perhaps all Mondays are grey. Even for the retired, Monday still holds an air of melancholy. For me, the first day of the working work has always had that sense of despair and desperation. “Go through the motions,” you say. “Get it over with.”
Yesterday was Monday. But it was the last Monday of the month. The local MS Society branch was having its monthly drop-in at the big Sainsbury’s. The wheelchair was charged, sitting silently facing the front door. My favourite gloves rested casually on its arm.
The sharp rasp of my velcro shoes cracked through the stifled air, still resonant with the nuance of toast and strawberry yoghurt. The door opened and I slipped outside.
The far away grey, witnessed through the remoteness of the front window was now all around. I was out in the real world. Down the hill was the stop. A few casual bodies wrapped themselves around the frame of the shelter. Then they saw me. Five pairs of steely eyes watched incongruously as I crept slowly towards them.
“Ts a bit cold innit?” Uttered the tall grey man perched on the narrow plastic bench. I smiled a sort of grunt smile. He studied my chair. Behind him, I knew they were looking. I knew what they were thinking. I cast it aside. “I know children stare,” I thought. “So do adults but it’s harder to catch them doing it.”
I’ll stop writing like a cheap crime novelist now. But I’m trying to reflect the importance of the occasion. We have been making a concerted effort to give me back some independence. It’s quite a wrench to actually get out of my comfortable little sofa rut and actually do something under my own steam.
The bus was brand new. But the aisle was narrower than the others so I scuffed a bit of the shiny padded plastic facia. It was also too hot. But I was on it. Sainsbury’s is easy going for the chair. It’s nice and flat and the cafe was not too crowded. Anyone who needed to move did it with a smile. I had a lovely chat with some fellow warriors over tea and biscuits. We were talking about disabled friendly days out. It gives me some confidence to know that others are quite happy to go out and about.
Then I usually see someone I used to work with. Now that’s good-some connection with the recent past. Getting the bus back was a surprise. It was an older model but it had an automatic ramp. Then I saw someone else I knew on the bus. Getting off, I realised that it wasn’t just me on the learning curve. The driver too admitted a slight misjudgement through inexperience as I went down the ramp straight into a hedge.
It was a comedy moment. He had parked too close to one of Crowborough’s impossibly narrow pavements and I hadn’t even noticed. Nevertheless, he helped me shift the chair back onto the twisted bumpy and narrow pavement and I was home. Soon I’m going to get the bus to the shopping centre and buy something.
There is no point in being political. No matter who you follow, which party was in power or who you’d like to blame, the eighties saw a period of fundamental change. This is not the right time for a political rant. A lot of people fell on hard times in this decade. For me, the eighties started well. After a few months of unemployment, I began working and we had a big family wedding.
The job at the community centre was a scheme which finished in August of 1979. Hello dole. I found Dominick House the most depressing environment I had ever known. Lines of unused fixed grey chairs waited patiently in line, quietly hoping to be relieved of their sad, pointless destiny. From behind barriers of smoke stained glass little people in ties and grubby collars eyed you suspiciously before saying their piece to the cardboard index form resting on their side of the counter. I cannot remember if the glass ever came down but at one point the staid civil service dress code was relaxed. It didn’t improve the mood.
Fortunately, I had found an inspirational piano teacher who set me off teaching the piano.
By the end of the year, I had achieved a diploma (LTCL) which gave me a credible qualification.
My brother’s wedding was a big old do. He was married at Our Lady’s in Leasowe, the reception was at the Twenty Row and the evening took place upstairs at the Chelsea. A very Wallasey sort of affair. At least the church is still there. I do not recall the order of closures and I’m not even sure what closed or is still open today. But since 1980 and up to today, places have just vanished.
The Stanley had already gone. That old barn of a place with its thinning patchy lino floor, the over loud jukebox and the sharp edge of intense voices, putting the world to rights, had faded into the stony ground it had stood on. It was sad. It was my first proper local. Others followed but the Stanley was my first love. Other pubs went through changes of name or theme but it was clear they were struggling. Eventually, they left all us. I just had to accept their demise. There was nothing I could do about it. Going out was not an option for some people.
Most of the shops in Borough Road were also going. Again, I cannot name them. It was a general thing. Close close close! A lot of these businesses had been there for ever. The unique personality of Seacombe was eroding away. Instead of a myriad of colourful, often quirky shop fronts, we were left to view hoardings and bars as though some anonymous force had come in the night to hide away the area’s history. At the bottom of Kenilworth there were two sweet shops; Townsend’s and Connor’s. Mrs Connor was a delightful lady, happy to serve children with their little penny sweets and quarters of pineapple chunks. Townsend’s was the newsagents. The lady in there was a little more fractious with the children. So we went to Connor’s. There was also a baker’s, a greengrocer’s, a chippy and a bicycle shop. I gave the bike shop quite a lot of business. It was usually tyres or replacement lights.
After having to sell my old car, I pedalled around a lot and so things were quickly worn out. Cycling over the four bridges was a liability.
Once the tramlines were covered by puddles and I went base over apex into a beautifully sculpted pile of mud and filthy water. I splashed spectacularly. There was blood amongst the sweat. Other equally spectacular mishaps followed. When I was younger, my parents had never been keen on me going about on a bike, but now I had one, and was guilty of riding furiously. Served me right.
My other brother then got married. Two families with established Gandy connections came together.We had the evening do at New Brighton baths. I was to go to one final wedding party in 1989. Then the sea took it.
The decade was nearly three years old when the biggest hammer blow came. The Gandy was to close. Dad had been there for thirteen years and Mum for fifteen. At the age of fifty-one, both my parents were being left high and dry on the scrapheap of the unemployment register. That was it; their working careers were effectively over. My father had a couple of other short-term jobs after that but any chance of full-time permanent employment had gone.
It was the same for many others. Even for younger people the future was unclear. There was nothing. Anyone who still had a job was in fear of losing it as local amenities closed one after the other. Personally, I was unaffected. I was teaching children from the other half. This was the families who were not under the threat of redundancy. My patch stretched across a lot of the Wirral; Mostly Bebington and Prenton. I even went as far afield as Frodsham. I had no pupils in Seacombe.
Business was never consistent but I had enough to give me a comfortable existence. My parents were struggling however. It was not the end they wanted. Mum was a wizard with the finances. She knew the times of year when we would be stretched and she was prepared; a little bit here and a little bit there. She kept a fund available for the really hard times. Saving for Christmas started in January. I know of other families who have needed to do this. It’s one of those times when people who did not need to save like this would look down their noses and sneer:
“Well there’s not much of a Christmas spirit in that is there? How can Christmas be magical if you’re preparing for it from January? It seems so cheap buying half price decorations.”
I was having a whale of a time. The beauty of starting work after the schools finished was not having to get up early. I also started my Open University course. This was the start my beautiful relationship with the reference library.
That grand old lady of Earlston with its well-trodden stone steps and lightly creaking body shaped chairs, was an oasis of peace and tranquility. On most days, I would turn up and do my work. People were respectful. They spoke in hushed tones. The books were as old and gracious as the building itself. Sometimes I would pick one and open just for the pleasure of looking at something that had been created before I was around. They were all hardbacks with comforting textures and muted colours. There was nothing garish here. I still loved to see the model boats in their glass cases. I first saw them at Seacombe Ferry when we came over from Fazakerley.
In 1984, there was a brief burst of optimism. Over in Liverpool, there was a garden festival. There were going to be tall ships arriving with a collective sail out one Saturday night. The week before, King Street and Seabank Road became very busy thoroughfares. It was novel. A brief burst of tourism. But it wasn’t to see us and the special placed we lived in; it was to see the ships. And this was the eighties so everyone was in a car. By the Saturday, the place was heaving. I have never seen so many cars parked on our road. My parents wandered down to see the ships. It was a unique and memorable sight. Then came the great exodus. Within minutes, our road became clogged with cars. I nipped out to the offy to get some supplies to find a whole line of steaming chugging vehicles buzzing away pointlessly in the middle of the road. Outside our house was a gleaming mini. Inside they looked patient and optimistic. I returned and settled down to watch the Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the end, I decided to go back out and top up my supplies. The same mini was outside our door. It looked less shiny.The occupants were standing outside looking desperate.
There was nothing they could do. We discussed the different routes they could use but they were stuck. It was indeed a unique and memorable occasion.
Just before Christmas in 1985, I had the letter telling me of my graduation. It was a holiday to remember; not that I did remember much of it. At the time, my father was half way through a two-year spell working for the MPTE cleaning buses. Once more, he had to face the ignominy of redundancy. For me, three other piano teachers stopped working in Frodsham. I cleaned up. One evening’s teaching became three evenings plus Saturday morning and all day Sunday. In fact, it was seven days a week.
All over Seacombe, things were still closing rapidly. Whole swathes of old housing were flattened. I didn’t notice when the old shops and big houses in Brighton Street disappeared. But it gave us a clear view of the drill hall. Now I could hear the sharp cracks of target practice and the faint booming of five-a-side football. Borough Road was becoming distinctly residential.
That wasn’t a bad thing as it was offering extra housing. But I was losing count. I was spending less time in Wallasey and was looking to use my degree to find a place on a PGCE course to go into school teaching. I was still intending to stay in Wallasey however.
As it happened, after a year at Leeds University, I was finding it hard to land a job on the Wirral. The music advisor interviewed me on each occasion and made it perfectly clear that he considered my chequered past inappropriate for work under his jurisdiction. I had actually been forewarned about this rather self-important narcissist. I will refrain from reflecting on my response at the time.
Needless to say, I found a school who wanted me in North London and that was that. When Oldershaw rang up inviting me to interview the day after, Mum’s tone was a little curt when she informed them of my defection to Enfield. So in July 1990, I left Wallasey.
Now I have memories. I see the changes every time I return. In particular, I remember the countless reports in the local press informing us that New Brighton was about to be transformed. It was going to be put back on the holiday map. It never happened. New Brighton has morphed into a shopping centre by the sea. Whatever I or anyone else thinks of this, it shows change in a changing word. Extra employment is always helpful but perish the thought of these high street names deciding to close up because of “rationalising” assets.
My first London address was in Muswell Hill. I liked Muswell Hill because it reminded me of the old Liscard. There was a roundabout with shops on the streets. It had a Marks and Spencer and even an army and navy shop. The affection for my home town remains strong. It might be something to do with getting older. Three times a year I visit with my wife and daughter. Rose loves seeing Grandad Joe and her big cousins. I have to really think hard if I’m turning into Kenilworth from Brighton Street because all the familiar landmarks have gone.
Like my father, I was unable to see my working career through to retirement age. Since taking up teaching, I have been dogged by a progressive debilitating chronic illness. But I’m still here. Horizons may broaden but roots still run deep.
The second spell at The Gandy was a bit longer than the first. These days they’re called gap years. Prospective students may find some temporary work with some corporate national to save up and go travelling. I chose a year in the Gandy followed by ten days in Lloret De Mar. I had just spent a year getting a couple of A levels from Withens Lane. I could have gone straight into higher education but I felt the need to prove myself; that I could do a prolonged full-time period in work. So I started as a goods receiver in the warehouse in Oakdale Road. It was clearly better than the factory. I was in another tin office but it was by the door; a very big door that went all the way up to the ceiling and wide enough to get a lorry in. (That is a big lorry; because you can’t say lorry without putting the word big in front of it.) And it was the summer. I was free to pass through the gaping door to work inside or out. Opposite was the field and the little children’s play area. In the distance was the back of the factory. It stood as a stark reminder of where I could have been. But here I was in the relative quiet of the warehouse with nothing to assault my ears but the tinkling of distant radios and the bubble of the chatting ladies, discussing the universe and beyond as they neatly boxed up the brake shoes and discs. It was an unusual landscape. Turning from the playground, I would be confronted with the flour mills. Now they were dark and satanic. I had watched the Liver Building undergo its major cleaning operation. To my surprise it was white; freed from three-quarters of a century of the billowing black smoke of a million coal fires. I fancied the mills were white too. Or at least they were not meant to be a dark grubby brown. Behind the warehouse was rough scrub.
I wondered how many rusty bedsteads and bicycles were littered amongst its coat of sharp nasty briar and bramble. This was industrial land. It belonged to the people who lived and worked there. It was there to be used and abused. I actually felt sorry for it. On the other side there was the approach to the tunnel. What thought did the thousands of passing motorists give to this sad little stretch of unloved earth? They were more concerned with getting on, fiddling in their pockets for change and grumbling about the price of the toll. That hasn’t changed. This desperate landscape was now mine. Again, I was in admiration of those that were dependent on its existence. Even though I was resting a while, I was still a passing stranger. It was my chance to become like everyone else; part of the daily grind. I could laugh, complain and deal with things. Best of all, I had money to go to the pub. What else would a young working class man want? There is a question. A whole lifetime of study could go into it.
My favourite pub was The Stanley. Standing at the bottom end of Borough Road, it became a regular venue for Sunday nights. But I liked all the Seacombe pubs. I thought of the Seacombe Ferry as something from a bygone age. It seemed massive. But somehow it was never to be full again. For many ferry passengers, it was like the old bit of land by the tunnel. It was just there. Something to be walked past without a second thought. I always liked to pay a visit to the grand old lady. The King’s Arms, The Shepherd’s Rest and The Dale were also frequent stopping points. Then there was the Labour Club and the Conservative club. I went on the Labour Club’s trip to Haydock races in late August one year. One of the Carry On films does a coach trip; I think it’s “Carry On at your Convenience.” Well, it was a bit like that; a riot on wheels. There was a lot of drink and so many memorable characters. I was fascinated by this old bloke called Jimmy who would sing and play the spoons. He was a hero. If you wanted a lesson in how to work hard and play hard, Jimmy was your man.The Nelson became pub of choice when Eric the Cad was the manager. Within a short space of time, my two brothers, two of my cousins and I had all worked there. It was often packed to the rafters. There was one pub up by the Pool Inn but I cannot remember its name. (some animal’s name?) Well, I never went there! (No offence.)
Reality struck after the Christmas of 1974. I had seven months to go. It was dark and cold. It was dark when I went and dark when I came home. This was a miserable time. I did not have to imagine the grim murky days. I was right in amongst them. It was one of those things I had to stick to. Booking a Spanish holiday in January was little consolation. But I was glad to be doing it. I could look my parents in the eye as an equal. Having announced my intentions of a career in teaching via college, there was suspicion of my appetite for real work. To a lot of people outside the profession, teaching appeared easy; great holidays and short working days. But that is another argument.
(That’s not me.)
The work and social life continued and the time did go by. The first highlight of the year was the end of January. We were going home in daylight. The work itself was slowing down. The job was changing. I was getting more involved with handling the empties. That is the old brake shoes that were returned to be recycled. I was dealing with scrap.
One cold windy afternoon, when there was little to do, I dragged the young cleaner outside and announced that we were going to clean up the yard. We did. It was refreshing and invigorating. We were fighting the beast of the winter wind with numb filthy fingers. But the yard was cleared. It was almost cathartic. Sometime in January, I discovered the delights of the late night tunnel bus back from Liverpool. Getting off on Gorsey Lane to walk the full length of Gorsedale Road knowing full well that the driver could have dropped me off just before the booths and I could have gone up the ramp and nipped back through Lloyd’s Corner, made the task a tortured one. Once again the wind knew just how to find me.
It turned out to be brilliant summer. The weather was glorious and I was coming to the end of the Gandy marathon. After returning from holiday I signed on for three weeks. I hadn’t thought it through. I should have worked until the end. But it gave me my first taste of Dominick House. I would get to know it much better in a few years.
The summer of 1976 was a bonus. I had signed on for the College summer break but they found me a job. I was going to work Cadbury’s. All through my time at the Grammar, wafts of the gorgeous chocolate would come swimming over us in the playground. And now I was going to work there. It was handy; well the money was. And I was doing the night shift. I packed tea bags, cookies, strawberry creams and ice pops. One of the other students asked me where the freezing room was. I told him there were thousands of freezers all over the Wirral and beyond. I don’t think he twigged. I was glad to have worked nights. It was something else to put me on a par with my parents and neighbours. It was the long hot summer of the ladybirds but my main problem was wasps. They were on the night shift too. Around the rubbish bins were legions of wasps looking for the sweet life. All that sugary sticky ice pop goo.
My final job of the seventies was at Seacombe Community Centre. Before Dominick House the Labour Exchange was in Riverview Road. Then it was the community centre. I felt humbled.
I was humbled by the people’s generosity. They were generous with their time and effort. The place was full of real working class heroes. Some were in there every day doing work for nothing while I was fumbling about and getting paid for it. The work was nothing high and mighty. I did a lot of painting and stuff for the youth clubs. But in that year, I found a real sense of place with my home town. In that windswept corner of Seacombe, resting in the bare angular shadow of the tunnel ventilation shaft, there was a little pocket of human kindness. I had worked at the Gandy, The Brighton, The Nelson, Cadbury’s and now the community centre, the most local of all. I wondered if I was in Seacombe to stay.
We all like a bit of shiny and new. It can say so much: “Look we’re going places.” “Aren’t we clever?” “Now we mean business.” “This is something very special.” I knew I was going to a new school; not just new to me but a brand new school that had been built especially for us. This was Wallasey Grammar school. The old building was in Withens Lane. To me in was very much like an old public school. Its E-shaped design harked back to the last century. I don’t know when it was built but it had all the visual authority of something stern, cold and very forbidding. I knew it was not really like that because my elder brother was already there. He had several stories about the teachers who had difficulty controlling the class.
The new building was in Leasowe. Leasowe did not mean much to me at the time. It was somewhere you passed through on the way to Moreton. And that was only once a year to go to the junior chess congress at Eastway School. Equally epic was the fundamental changes that were about to happen in the education system. It was the last year of the 11-plus before it was abandoned for a three tier school system. Or so I thought. Of course I was only eleven years old and to me if it happened in Wallasey, it happened in the whole country. A good fifteen years later, a primary deputy head once advised me to teach in an area with no 11-plus. I nodded sagely. By some strange twist of fate, I ended up teaching in Kent for seventeen years. In Kent it is big. I still smile and if I meet Rick again, I’ll tell him. He will smile too!
Well, I went to the new school in the September of 1967. I was expecting to see a shinier version of the other newish schools. They were mostly window panels over a concrete support slab. Pre-fab in all but name. But I saw bricks; mostly bricks. They offered a neat rich red hue combining sleekly with the dark wooden cladding sitting proudly above them. Everything was square. There was a courtyard, a multi-level playground and the new gym was a symphony of shining floor and wall bars.
I felt rather pleased returning on the number three in my over-sized school blazer. The bus driver even asked me about it as I waited to get off. Then just as I stepped off, two boys a bit older saw me and clocked the uniform. That was it; a hard time for me until they became bored. There was no point in fighting back. I just patiently pick up my stuff strewn recklessly all over the pavement and walked home. Most people I knew were quite happy for me to be going to the Grammar but some saw the uniform and kicked off.
The following year, my younger brother had to spend two years at Gorsedale before going to Mosslands. I was very pleased not to be going to Gorsedale because of the obligatory tales of having one’s head flushed down a dirty toilet bowl. My new school was quickly broken in. I don’t think a great deal was spent on the furniture. Table tops came loose, cupboard doors jammed and the pale grey lino flooring became riddled with black streaks from the soles of shoes. Some students had gone to exceptional lengths to spell out “special” words. I thought it was hilarious. The pale matt toilet walls were ripe for graffiti. But most memorable was the mud. It was everywhere. Leasowe mud must have been exported to every other part of the town. I assumed it was the price of building on reclaimed marshland. The original playing fields, where the leisure centre now stands was littered with huge deep puddles. They stank. If you played rugby and managed to stay relatively clean, your were unceremoniously hurled into one of these odious pools of fetid mess. We all had to play rugby.
The year before we turned comprehensive there was a mad flurry of extra building work while established teachers (some still taught in gowns),
left in droves.
There was definitely an air of fundamental change. In 1969/70, Football became part of games. But we couldn’t play. The original grammar boys were still stuck with rugby. I know it’s a popular game but the last thing I ever wanted to do was stick my head between two other boys sweaty muddy bottoms and push. That’s the second row for you. The second row of the scrum that is, as opposed to the pecking order in some twisted public school ritual.
At least being in the B team gave me an opportunity to have a brief look at some other schools. For both rugby and athletics, I went as far as Manchester, Southport and certain parts of Birkenhead. It was mildly interesting. Schools were schools!
I left school at sixteen to work in a bank. It didn’t last. Then came my first spell at The Gandy. By that time, both my parents were working there. Dad had gone there in 1971. He was on the pre-form and it was hard graft. He did not completely avoid strikes but they were less frequent and the factory was around the corner. After the bank disaster, it was a good way of using my time over the summer. In a couple of months I was going to be eighteen and I think the foreman had an idea that I would join my dad on the pre-form. Personally, I just wanted to earn a bit before going to the Tech College to get my A levels.
It was not a good start to life on the factory floor. The previous week I had been away with Wallasey Youth Orchestra, spending my days playing and socialising somewhere in a nice big house in the Wirral countryside. I can still remember going in at 7.30 on the Monday morning. I stepped into the factory leaving the fresh morning air behind. The grey clouds formed instantly. There were no windows; just greyness. There was a small tin office by the clocking on station. I saw the rows of cards. Here were people’s lives, summarised in numbers. Their whole livelihood and existence reduced to printed clock times.
I saw ranks of drills; big grey monsters on stands with women, equally grey in their overalls, feeding them giant half moon brake linings. Further along, I saw giant ovens. Their doors would open to reveal the dragons mouth, stacked with steel cages baking the brake materials.
After a week, I had seen most of the factory. It was all grey. The mood was grey. And the time. It was four and a half hours in there until lunch time. That was longer than any lesson at school. All that time without looking out of a window. My hat goes off to the soldiers of The Gandy; day in day out, they would turn up and do their long hours of incessant brutal work. They built their lives around it. They bought their cars and paid their mortgages with it. They kept the businesses of Seacombe and beyond with it. It was work. A lot of people I spoke to revealed their sense of inevitability. “Oh, I always knew I’d come and work here,” they would say. And there were my parents. They had built their lives around The Gandy.
It left me torn. I had the opportunity to follow in their ways. Seacombe was where I grew up and I was happy there. But I wanted more than the factory routine. I didn’t want to be a Gandy hero. Some individuals openly criticised me for having ideas above my station. “I’ve seen you going round with that big guitar thing,” they would say. (It was a cello) “What do you want to play one of those things for? They’re all puffs.”
(That’s not me by the way!)
They could have been right. At that age I was not able to fully explain the pure pleasure of playing in an orchestra; working tirelessly away to master the first movement of Borodin’s Second Symphony. In the September, I left to go to Withens Lane.
Once I was passed a certain age, the playground expanded. There was the promenade and the beach; such a vast expanse of traffic-free roadway stretching invitingly to New Brighton. The river was epic. It was both friend and foe. A friend for its size and sound. The rippling of the waves and the bubble of the gentle rollers, constantly changing in pitch and volume, gave a true sense of eternity. It was an enemy for its power. Countless times we would try to hold it back. No matter how thick or tall we built our barriers of sand, the river always won. On windy days it became a bigger enemy. Not in the sense of being the imaginary enemy but in the sense of becoming a threat to the land. Many a vehicle was battered and bullied by the brutal tide. Returning drivers, expecting to see the two neat rows of parked cars lining the Seacombe end of the promenade, found little more than a mess of bent steel and chrome. You can imagine their faces, peering cautiously out of the window towards the terminal. Despite the roughness of the crossing, everything looked to be in its place. The incoming tide was long gone and Wallasey was still there. Then as the ferry approached, the carnage came into view. Running up the walkway there would be a mixture of hope and panic. The reality would then stare back at their stunned, open-mouthed faces. There was always a reporter there, recording motorists’ reactions and taking spectacular photos soon to be emblazoned across the front of the local papers.
The Mersey destroyed New Brighton Baths. It ripped the heart out of its time honoured, slightly scruffy-chic elegance.
When I had to use the boat on such days, I would wait, watching from the landing stage as the ferry approached. Heaving and flexing like some tortured animal the pilot struggled to hold her parallel to the dockside. Frantic attendants scurried about the capstans in fearful reverence of the wounded beast as they tried give it some temporary solace from the incessant turbulence. Once a rope snapped. The sharp crack of gunshot echoed around the cold empty terminal. No-one moved. Only brave people were crossing that day. Then there was the final grinding push as the struggling boat made contact. I used to love watching the massive tyres as they squirmed and screamed against the side of the boat.
The Mersey was a big player. It gave me identity. During my teens the county authority of Merseyside was created. We were no longer living in Cheshire. It suited me. I liked living on the side of the Mersey.
When we first moved my dad was working at Standard Triumph in Speke. He had tales of taking the ferry on lonely cold Godforsaken mornings, with the soporific hum of the engines and lilt of the waves making it a struggle to stay awake. Once I went on a school trip to Speke Hall. That gave me an idea of how far he commuted, year in year out; through cold, relentless rain and angry winds, screaming their winter threat between the three graces. As I grew into my teens it was becoming clear that work was beginning to get him down. He looked around for other work but he thought better of it. He doesn’t really know why. Perhaps it was the thought of change. The family had gone through a lot of change. I don’t blame him for wanting some sense of permanence. But it was not permanent. There were strikes; loads of them. I don’t know how they did it. We were still sent to school all clean and tidy. They still paid for our school trips. some of the stoppages seemed endless. Once a week he would need to go in for a union meeting. It was then a decision would be made about the strike. Dad had a “yes we’re going back” face and a “no, we’re still on strike face.” Neither face was a happy face. But things were to change.
The river and prom were not the only parts of our extended playground. There was the Breck. I’d heard of the Breck at primary school. But we lived in Seacombe’ it was too far away for a midweek or weekend adventure. I had to wait until holiday times when I could go and visit a friend nearby and spend the whole afternoon finding different ways up Granny’s Rock. Sometimes a boy at school would turn up on a Monday morning with his arm or leg in plaster. Granny’s Rock would be blamed. It gave us hero status.
I always saw Central Park as some sort of escape. It was a haven from the torment of teenagehood. I had started growing some plants in the tiny garden at the front of our terrace and was keen to see more of the same. I thought the gardens in Central Park were wonderful. Spring was the best. Daffodils, wall-flowers and tulips would throw a refreshing splash of colour across the green close cut edges. I would sit on a bench and bathe in its glory. Of course, everyone else thought I was really odd. At the same time, I was learning the piano and cello and listening to classical music.
“He’s a bit weird that brother of yours isn’t he?” Both my brothers would quote their friends with great relish. They tended not to express the same sentiments themselves. I think my mum would have self-combusted; she loved her music too. I did not do myself any favours however. I liked being a bit odd. I often took myself off on long walks around the town. I wanted to know where every road or passageway led to.
At the age of twelve I discovered the docks. They were just down the road and I could wander freely around them. I enjoyed standing on the bridge by the level crossing, waiting for a steam train to flood me with its swirling toxic smoke. I never went further. That was Birkenhead. The buses were blue. Apart from the trains and bridges, there were the lock gates. I would stand in the middle of them trying to see if the water was rising or falling. The highlight was a raised bridge.
I’d get as close as I could to watch as the great hulk slowly rose into the sky, throwing off all manner of stray water and detritus. Then there was the great, silent parade of the passing ship, gingerly picking its way through the narrow strait. Faces would appear on the decks above. We would stare at each other: “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What’s your life like?” We never spoke, but I was making my first real contact with people from another part of the world. That is the beauty of a port.
Finally, there was a time when I was returning home from Liverpool late one night. I had been to a concert with Mum and we were waiting at the Pier Head. As the Birkenhead Ferry was leaving, a rather drunken man asked my mum and her friend which boat it was. “Woodside,” came the reply, before they turned back to each other and continued talking. They never noticed; in fact, nobody noticed. I was the only person see him burst into action and dash towards the water’s edge before making a giant leap for the departing craft. He missed. He went in and the boat went off. I walked over and there he was, clinging to one of the chains under the tyres. Poor man. I received a letter of commendation from the Mersey Shipwreck Society for my vigilance. My name was mentioned on Radio Merseyside. A brief moment of fame!
From Fazakerley to Seacombe. It was a familiar journey. My other Nan was in Liscard with my Auntie and her family. Every two weeks we took the bus-ferry-bus to go and see them. I liked Fazakerley. It was big and open. We had big gardens and big fields. The fields are now home to a massive hospital. It was a great playground.
Moving to Seacombe was a culture shock. Even for a young fun-loving seven year-old, I knew it was different. It was not big and open, our garden was tiny and it was not a playground. There was traffic. We were surrounded by main roads. Wherever we went it was a symphony of engines, roaring to the melody of urban life. I remember looking round for potential adventure. There was the promenade and the beach, the alleyways behind the houses and two sets of garages at each end of the road. The three groves, Mulberry, Myrtle and Wesley looked good too. A cul-de-sac was a football and cricket paradise.
Alas, some of these places were out of bounds. The prom certainly was; it was across one of the main roads with a big river on one side. It took some getting used to but gradually it began to feel like home. Borough Road was great. It had shops. There was a wood shop (Winson’s), a couple of butchers, a fishmongers, Frank Hunter’s the furniture shop and the Dolls’ Hospital. I loved the Dolls’ Hospital; all those toys. You would walk in the shop to have your eyes assaulted by a myriad of colours and happy smiling painted faces. All those boxes. It was a birthday money treat. I don’t know which one I preferred more; the Dolls’ Hospital or the Hobbies Shop in Liscard Crescent. At the bottom of Kenilworth was Mercer’s the grocer. That was a main food supply. There were also two small supermarkets, one of which was Tescos by the post office. At the bottom of the road were the other old shops. There was Johnny Halam’s junior boxing club, a pet shop and a barber’s shop. But it was the houses and flats above those shops. They were massive with three floors and an attic. We had some friends who lived in one of these places. We could go up onto the attic and actually creep along into other people’s houses through little wooden doors in the wall. “Look at you, you’re filthy,” said Mum. It was a common remark; less of a remark, more of a lament. The longer we were there, the bigger the playground got. Best of all was the church on Brighton Street. I don’t think it was being used because we could climb over the wall in Wesley Grove and get into it. Almost every door was open. The main church felt like a cathedral. It was dry and wooden. The ceiling was high away in the heavens and the peripheral staircases offered ladders to adventure.
As we settled into our new lives everything became fun and familiar. “When are we going to Riverside?” I once asked my Mum. “You’re not,” came the curt reply. Now this brings me an important point. Before moving to Kenilworth, we had spent four months at my Auntie’s in Liscard while our house went through. I naively celebrated the idea of four months of no school until my Mum took us along to Egerton Grove.
I was seven and in year 2. Now this was a Liscard school with a fairly mixed catchment. It had three bands; A, B and C. I remember my Mum telling Miss Skinner, the Infant headmistress that I was bright and had been a top pupil in my last school, Formosa Drive. But I was from a huge council estate and spoke like a junior docker. In truth, she didn’t believe us. She then put me through some rather rigorous on the spot testing. I remember her sharp tones and deep sighs as she kept being surprised at the way I waltzed through them all. In the end, I was put into the A class and that was that. But had I experienced my first example of class bias? I’m not going to get a chip on my shoulder about it but it just amuses me. There was my mum, fighting my cause to get in the A class, the headteacher’s cynicism and the subsequent pique Mum showed when I expressed a wish to go to Riverside School. We stayed at Egerton Grove. The number fourteen was a daily adventure. In the fine weather we would spend our bus fare on sweets and walk home. We would often go through the park. We’d take ages. It didn’t matter because tea was always when my dad got in; unless he was working overtime of course. And here comes another salient point. From the age of seven and a half, despite not being allowed to go down to the prom, my two brothers and I were trusted to go to school and back on our own. You know when you talk to younger people about this trust and freedom and they give you a look; well it is true, even though we rode our luck. There were some real roughies we had to avoid. Yet on the other hand, we would talk and play with complete strangers; strangers who became friends. There had always been antagonistic talk about the children in the neighbouring streets. Many threatened confrontations had allegedly been arranged in a fanfare of bravado and bluster. They never happened. But I never felt the need to join in with this communal swagger. I liked meeting new people and finding out about them. For me it was a great thing. Trust comes before mistrust.