I am not sure if I was actually born at home or in a maternity hospital, births and deaths were not matters which were greatly discussed in my family. I do know for sure, however, that I was born on the 5th February 1930. My mother and father were, respectively, Elsie Elizabeth Tarbuck (nee Cully) and Thomas James Tarbuck. On my mother's side of the family there were Irish connections, my maternal grandfather coming originally from County Meath, just outside of Dublin. He had settled in Birmingham some years before the end of the last century and my mother was born in Birmingham. My paternal grandfather was a regular soldier, and ended his army service as a colour sergeant in a Hussar regiment nick-named the ‘Cherry-Pickers' or ‘Cherry-Bums'. My father had been born somewhere on Salisbury Plain and the family only came to Birmingham after his father had completed his service. This must have been in the years between the end of the South African or Boer War, in which he served, and the start of the first World War. Of both my grandmothers I knew nothing, since they had both died before I was born and they were rarely mentioned within the family.
Originally I had three older brothers, Bernard, Leonard and Dennis; but Len died whilst I was very young and again I have no memory of him. Therefore I grew up with, to all intents, with two older brothers. Bernard was considerably older than me, being born in 1915 about twelve months after my parents were married. There was quite a gap between Bernard and Len. My father had served the whole of the war 1914-1918 in the army, and there seemed to have been some problems between my mother and him when he returned home. One of the dark secrets of the family was only revealed to me after they were both dead, this being that my parents had been separated at some point. The full circumstances of this separation I never did learn, but it is obvious that the marriage was resumed some time in the early 1920s, and it was after that that we three younger boys were born.
I was the last child, and being the youngest tended to be spoiled. I think the death of my brother Len, from peritonitis, must have had something to do with the way I was cosseted by my mother. Given the five year gap between myself and Dennis it meant that we were never close as children. We had a cousin, Donald, who was almost exactly Dennis's age and they became inseparable through childhood and into early adulthood. Effectively this meant that I grew up on my own, making my own friends outside of the family. Bernard always appeared as an adult in my eyes, the fifteen year gap being magnified in my childhood. He was always something of a glamorous figure to me as a child, being apparently independent, able to afford to buy racing cycles, go on holidays on his own or with friends, and definitely not under the thumb of our father.
During the 1930s my father was, first, a stoker-handy man at a photo-engraving factory in the centre of Birmingham and later was promoted to being in charge of the goods inwards and despatch department. My mother did the office cleaning at the same factory and also cleaned at a private house two afternoons each week. Bernard had been apprenticed at this factory as a ‘router and mounter', which entailed the finishing of photographic plates by hand and mounting them on printing blocks. In those days this was a highly skilled trade and could command a high wage. Unfortunately, as was common in those days, when Bernard completed his apprenticeship when 21 he was sacked and new apprentices taken on. The result was that he had to find other work and when he married in 1939 he was working as a bedding salesman in Lewis's Department Store in Birmingham city centre. He didn't return to his trade until 1946 after he was demobilised from the army.
We were a Roman Catholic family. But surprisingly, given the Irish connections, my mother was not received into the church until after I was born. She had all the zeal of a convert and this left its imprint upon my childhood. I attended the Oratory Infants and Boys Schools in Ladywood, Birmingham until 1944 when I left school at the age of 14. Both of these schools were unremarkable, given the times, and I emerged from them reasonably literate, semi-numerate and with little else by way of formal education. Of the infants school my most enduring memory is that of the head teacher, she was a Sister of Charity and administered punishment - to infants - with a slender block of wood to the hand. She was a fearsome sight when in full fury, sweeping along the school corridor, full-length blue skirt billowing and her great white head-covering like the sails of ship bobbing around her pinched face, red with anger. I was quite glad to leave and move on to the junior school, until I was faced by my first class class teacher there. She turned out to be an envenomed harridan who could literally make the windows shake when she gave us a tongue lashing, often to be followed by an assault with the cane on some chosen victim. All the teachers made use of the cane, some more than others, and some with obvious relish. There was only one teacher at the school who I have any feeling of warmth for, he was the headmaster Mr. Holland, who in my last year taught me and instilled a taste for reading and books which has endured.
Most of the teachers seemed to regard their pupils as alien savages to be subdued, disciplined and prepared for work with little or no nonsense about education for life. I suppose in some ways we were aliens to our teachers, since we were working class, they were middle class and the gulf between us was immense since we inhabited different worlds. I am not suggesting that my school days were terribly unhappy, rather they were looked upon as a period to be endured and got over as quickly as possible. One did not look to teachers for friendship, mutual interests or respect. The main feeling that animated most of the boys was fear, you kept your head down and hoped you would not be noticed when the shit hit the fan, as it frequently did. If this sounds more like a penal institution than a school it is because that is how is seemed to us inmates. The school was surrounded by high walls and fences, and the gates were locked when we arrived, so it may be imagined how we felt when released! School, in the culture I grew up in, was not seen as a means of expanding ones personality, nor even as means of furthering oneself. As an institution it was seen as an alien intrusion into ‘real life'. My brother Dennis was asked to sit an examination for a scholarship to a Grammar school, and had to get our parents permission. I well remember seeing my father throwing the slip away and saying to Dennis ‘You don't want to go to that toffy-nosed place do you son' and Dennis agreeing with him. It was not that our parents did not care for us or our welfare, it was that the world of books, education and everything associated with them seemed to belong to a different world that had no relevance to getting a ‘good job'.
Lest I give the wrong idea, let me say that contrary to many, if not most, working class children in the 1930s I did not have a deprived upbringing. Both parents worked and I think we probably had a slightly higher standard of living than the majority of those around us. Certainly, regular holidays at the seaside or in the country each summer were a feature of family life. We were certainly never short of food, clothes, heating, gifts for birthdays or Christmas. My father had a new suit each year, paid for ‘on the never-never', but still he had them. Both parents drank, my father to excess at times and parties were a regular feature of home life.
The parties remain in my memory because as I got beyond the infant stage Dennis and I would creep down stairs to listen and observe. Sometimes we would go amongst the revellers, when Dennis deemed it safe to do so. No doubt he had learned to judge the point at which my parents had reached in the consumption of drink. Often, on a Saturday night a part of the band from a local dance hall (The Palais de Dance) would appear after they had finished work, bringing some instruments with them, drums, saxophone or clarinet which with our piano would provide music for the party. At the same time a publican friend of the family and his wife (the Bradley's) would arrive after closing time, bringing crates of bottled ale to help the party along. The Bradley's ‘party piece', when sufficiently uninhibited, was that he would strip down to his long-Johns, she would tuck her dress into her knickers, and they would perform a ‘cabaret act'. My mother provided a buffet supper, so altogether our house took on a carnival atmosphere on these occasions.
However, despite the Saturday night revels the whole family would be at 9-30 mass every Sunday morning. My mother was most insistent in this matter, although I suspect my father was not always so keen. These two strands drink and church seemed to be the two dominant strands in my childhood. Sunday mornings for church and Sunday evening for the pubs! Particularly in the summer it was a feature of our life that we went to pubs with gardens. My father and uncle Alf would prop up the bar inside, whilst my mother and aunt Moff would sit sipping drinks outside keeping their eye on Dennis, Donald and myself. In some respects this stood me in good stead, since I have never been over-fond of drinking in pubs and I gave up religion when I was about 13. I am not sure which was the worst, having to kneel in dark cold churches listening to priests droning on in Latin or sitting outside pubs until they closed, waiting for Dad.
I do remember that Christmas was usually a happy time when I was a child. Like most working class families, we kept our front room for special occasions, and Christmas was one of those, a fire would be lit in the grate, usually of coke which gave a lovely warm glow, and a Christmas tree with fairy lights was set up. The presents for us children were placed at the end of our beds in pillow cases, I knew from an early stage it was dad who put them there, but it made no difference to the excitement of opening those gifts. Then on Christmas morning it was breakfast in the living room and playing with presents in the front room until it was time to go to church. Our Christmas dinner was usually of the traditional kind, Turkey and Plum Pud to follow, with liberal helpings of drink for the adults. Then playing in the font room again in front of a glowing fire, with Dad nodding off to sleep in an armchair, and Mom putting the finishing touches to trifles and cakes in kitchen. It seemed a very safe world in those days.
One of the pre-Christmas treats was being taken to see Father Christmas. Mom usually took Dennis and me to one of the big department stores in the centre of Birmingham, and I still remember how I revelled in the sight of the Lewis's windows. Lewis's was the largest store in town, and devoted many of its windows to Christmas scene tableaux, often with mechanical moving figures. Mom usually had great difficulty in dragging me away from these sights, it was only the lure of actually seeing Father Christmas that eventually did the trick.
Politically, Birmingham, pre-1945, was overwhelmingly Tory or rather Unionist as they were then known in the city. This was a local legacy from Joe Chamberlain, who had led the Liberal Unionists into the Tory fold over Irish Home Rule when Gladstone had first attempted to introduce it. Both my parents were Tories and anti-Semitic to boot, with some rather derogatory views of the Irish thrown in! So, the influences I grew up with, to not put too fine a point on it, were zealous Catholicism, Toryism and racial bigotry. Yet I was not aware of any feeling that this was a repressive atmosphere, on the contrary it was rather relaxed, cheerful and definitely boozy. It was certainly not a positively political atmosphere. I doubt if my parents had ever been members of a political party, they belonged to what came to be know as the ‘silent majority' (but not on Saturday nights!) or deferential working class. But, if I did not feel repressed neither was I stimulated intellectually, rather we children were left to our own devices in many respects. And so long as we conformed outwardly there were no problems. Not that we were neglected in the formal sense, far from it, as I have suggested, materially were above average. It was overall a cheerfully philistine ambience, laced with unthinking prejudices.
This, usually, happy childhood does not have many events that impressed themselves vividly on my conscious memory. A few events spring to mind, such as the death of my paternal grandfather whilst we were on holiday in Skegness. This entailed my father returning to Birmingham for the funeral, whilst the rest of us carried on our holiday. Grandfather had been living with us for a few years before he died but had always been a remote figure to me and his death hardly seemed to cause a ripple in our family life. Only one event that could be remotely called political in these years occurred for me. The house where we lived at the particular time was on a main road which led to the Birmingham reservoir in Edgbaston, which was used as a venue for outdoor and indoor meetings, sports events etc., and one day I heard a great deal of noise outside. I went to the front door and opened it to see a long column of men dressed in black marching by, there were police with them and many bystanders were shouting, swearing too! I couldn't understand what was going on, but my mother came through from the back and pulled me back into the house, slamming the door. She seemed upset, but couldn't explain why. In retrospect I now realise that what I witnessed was a march by Oswald Mosely's Blackshirts. My mother was upset, not because of any political feelings but by the possibility of violence or trouble with the police that was associated with such events.
Two events wrought some radical changes in our life. The major one was the outbreak of the second world war and the second was a change in my father’s work. The war brought changes to me along with millions of others. The most important of these changes was the evacuation of our school out of Birmingham. Initially we went to a village called Catshill, near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. Dennis and I were billeted with a childless couple, Maggie and Bill Hall, with whom - after a period of adjustment - we adapted quite well. Despite being away from home this was a happy period. We boys were looked after very well and for the first time in our lives we had access to open countryside in an unrestricted manner, which after grimy Birmingham was very welcome.
We were able to roam freely after school hours and learned to cope with animals at close quarters for the first time. We even learned, from the local boys, how to snare rabbits, with little real success since foxes usually got to the snare first. Our parents were able to visit us regularly, since the village was near enough to Birmingham to make day trips by coach possible. One of the most enduring memories of this period is the aroma of freshly baked bread. The Hall's house had originally been the living accommodation of a shop that abutted on to it, but was now separated. Behind the shop was one of the two village bakeries. This meant that early mornings were filled by the delicious scent of freshly baked bread pervading the house. The actual bakery ran down one side of the garden, and on winter afternoons if Maggie was not at home when school finished Dennis and I would stand leaning against the wall warming ourselves, since the oven ran along the inside of the wall. Winter morning breakfast at Maggie and Bill's was before a large coal fire with plates of bacon or sausage sandwiches. It was like home from home. This was very different to many experiences of children evacuees during the war, so once again I was lucky.
More generally, of course, such an event as this evacuation meant, for my brother and I, that we learned to cope with leaving home in a relatively painless manner. We were, on occasion, forced back on our own resources, rather than being able to rely upon our parents. Another aspect of this period, which must have sunk into my unconscious, was Bill Hall's influence. Catshill was close enough to Longbridge, on the outer rim of Birmingham, for Bill to work at the Austin Aero Plant. He was a trade unionist and a Labour supporter. Although I cannot remember him ever discussing such matters directly with Dennis or I (I was only 9 or 10), it is clear that the general atmosphere in that household was different to that which we had previously been used to. We were provided with a somewhat different view of world to that of our parents. Bill was always ready to answer questions, if he could, and seemed to enjoy my quizzing him about many topics. My father had never been one for conversation. Maggie was a slightly plump, tender hearted woman who seemed more upset at having to scold me for any reason than by my actual transgressions, whereas both my mother and father were quite ready to clip us around the ear. The significance of this change in life style would be extremely hard to determine, since my brother Dennis has never shown any inclination to depart from the mores imbibed in our parents home. Nevertheless, the whole experience made an impact upon our lives. And as time went on the war began to intrude more and more until it dominated our existence.
At some time it must have been judged safe for our school to return to Birmingham, unwisely as it transpired. We now lived in a large house in Oliver Road, right opposite the school we attended. We had moved there some time just before the outbreak of war in 1939. Bernard had married on Boxing Day (December 26th) 1939 to Minnie Ford, and for a time they had lived with us. However, Bernard volunteered for the army and had joined the Worcestershire regiment. Minnie then moved back to live with her parents, and stayed there until Bernard returned home in 1946.
At this time men and women were being directed into war work, and moved around the country in the process. We had two Geordies billeted upon us through this process, again this was compulsory under war time regulations. The two men, Bill and Bob, had been unemployed for some years before being directed into work in a foundry in Birmingham. Both were men in their late thirties or early 40s and unmarried, and soon became a part of our family and social life. In fact Bob stayed on in Birmingham after the end of the war and hung around our family periphery for a number of years. If he had any family in the north it was not such as to attract him back, he was a lonely quiet man, and always seemed grateful to be accepted into our circle. Bill, on the other hand, returned north as soon as he was able.
Why I said it unwise for us to return to Birmingham is that shortly after Dennis and I returned home the bombing of the city began in earnest. Dennis had had to return anyway because he had turned 14 and left school. He went to work as a chippie on building sites, mainly making tea to start with. The bombing was long and severe, which entailed us spending nights in the ‘Anderson shelter' in our back garden. Sometimes if it was too cold to stay in the shelter, or if it had flooded from rainwater, we would huddle under the stairs at the top of the cellar steps. Bombs would whistle down and explode with a great roar, shaking the house and rattling the windows until some of them fell out on occasion. I vividly recall one night when the raids had started early, Bill and Bob, had just purchased themselves new suits - their first new clothes for many years - and had been to the pub with Dad to celebrate. They had just returned home when incendiary bombs fell on our school opposite, they rushed out and helped to fight the ensuing fires. Bill had crawled onto the roof and probably had saved the whole school from destruction. However, in the process his new suit was very much the worse for wear and for some time afterwards he would bemoan his fate, having waited for years to afford a new suit of clothes they were ruined the first time he wore them.
It was eventually decided to evacuate the school again, and this time we went to a village called Oakthorpe in Leicestershire. For me this was not a happy period, Dennis was not with me and because of the distance my parents were not able to visit. Although the people I lived were kind hearted I could not settle, I felt isolated and alone. Eventually I returned home again.
By this time my father had changed his work and this meant a change of home for the whole family. He had obtained the post of caretaker of two large blocks of flats, which in those times were considered to be luxury flats. The tenants were obviously well-heeled, being doctors, solicitors, bank managers etc. Along with the job went a family flat, so for the first time in our lives we had the benefits of constant hot water, central heating, a bathroom and a refrigerator. Not luxuries today, but definitely so by the standards then obtaining.
More important than the new physical environment was the impact that the occupants of those flats had upon me. Almost without exception they treated my father and mother in a manner that implied we were inferior, they had attitudes ranging from the condescending to the downright rude. It hurt me to see my parents accepting such treatment. It must have been this experience that gave me my first glimmerings of class consciousness, since the line was clearly drawn between ‘them and us'. I cannot claim to have worked out a full-blown theory of class relationships and the problems associated with the private ownership of the means of production, such ideas came later. But when I came into contact with socialist ideas and theories of class struggle they seemed eminently reasonable to me on the basis of lived experiences at home and at work. One thing I certainly learned early in life was that there seemed to be those who gave the orders and those who actually did the work, and those who gave the orders usually ended up with the bulk of the ‘loot'.
I observed it was my father who stoked boilers to keep the flats warm and the water hot, mowed lawns, replaced washers, unplugged blocked sinks and drains and did a hundred other jobs that made life comfortable; but it was ‘them' who seemed to have a much better life style, most had cars. It was my father who organised fire-fighting when bombs were dropped, whilst some of the most offensive creeps stayed behind in the air-raid shelter. It seemed to me that there was something wrong with the way the rewards in life were distributed. And, again, I must emphasise that as a family we were not subject to grinding poverty, we were relatively well off, compared with most working class families. But the comparison for me was not with such people but with those who seemed only too pleased to accept the labour of my mother and father while adopting, what we called, a ‘toffy-nosed' attitude towards them.
What puzzled me at the time was that my parents accepted all this as though it were a part of the natural order of the world. They, my parents, would actually cringe before their ‘betters', in a manner that I came to think of as repulsive. So, I kept most of my thoughts on such matters to myself. I also noted that my parents would complain to each other about the ‘bloody Yids' who lived at the flats, yet they seemed to me to be no worse or no better than the other occupants. There seemed to be no logic to such complaints when the Gentiles acted in the same way. I think I eventually ‘sussed' out that it was not racial or religious characteristics that were blame-worthy or the root of the problem but rather class relationships. Coming to terms with these problems was a part of the process of learning to cope with the fallibility of parents, who before had always seemed to be all-powerful and all-knowing.
On top of this the war dominated our lives. This was particularly so when the heavy bombing of Birmingham began in earnest again. We all lived with the dread of the wail of sirens (something that even now makes my stomach churn) that would herald another night in the shelter, listening to the throbbing drone of bombers as they circled over the city. The most terrifying sound was the whistle of the bombs as they were released, to be followed by roaring, shattering explosions or more subdued thumps if they fell further away. The nearer the explosion the greater the shudder that ran through the air raid shelter or house. Fortunately our flats were never hit directly by explosive bombs, but incendiary bombs spattered onto the roof a number of times, but were dealt with before they could take hold. Never the less many houses in the immediate vicinity were destroyed. At times the bombing went on night after night after night, until it seemed that they were a normal part of everyday life and it came as a surprise if we were missed one night. All this imposed an enormous strain upon everyone, the lack of proper sleep played havoc with nerves, people would look haggard and become irritable.
In February 1944 I left school to begin work full time. I had already been working part time since I was 13. I had decided to become a butcher, or rather my parents had decided, so I went to learn the trade. I worked at a number of shops, each move increasing my wages by a few shillings per week, there was after all a shortage of labour! I started work part time for 10 shilling (50 pence) per week and obtained £1-00 per week full time initially. Half my wages went to my mother, whilst I had the luxury of ten shillings a week to spend on myself. Because of the labour shortage I was taught how to cut and serve meat very quickly, so I did not have to endure the ‘apprenticeship' of pedalling a delivery bike and endless shop cleaning. Within a few months I was cutting up whole sheep, sides of beef, making sausages and serving behind the counter.
So ended childhood, so I thought. In those years 1940 to 1944 I learned something about two types of war: the class war that has never ended, and the fighting variety in which the givers of orders get the rest of us to do the actual fighting when they make a cock-up of running the state.
GOING TO THE ‘FLICKS'
From an early age I was taken to the cinema, or flicks as we called them, by my mother. She was an ardent film fan, who like millions in the 1930s and 1940s made at least one visit to the cinema each week. In our case though, it was usually more frequent. Towards the end of the week, when money was getting short, I can well recall hurrying off to the local shops to take empty ‘pop' bottles back to get the tuppence deposit back to make up the price of admission, for my mother, Dennis and myself.
In those days, before 1939, it was possible to gain admission to some local cinemas for as little as four-pence for the front seats. So for a few empty ‘pop' bottles and the coppers left in the bottom of her purse my mother was able to give us all a night out, father almost never went to the flicks.
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in the semi-darkness of a cinema, being alternately convulsed with laughter as such stars as Laurel and Hardy or being frightened witless by some evil ‘bady' with the heroine in his clutches. With laughter there was always the danger of wetting my pants, since at the age of four or five my control was not yet perfect! And if the terror up there on the huge screen got too much for me, I could always bury my head in my mother's ample bosom; peeping out between fingers to see if the danger had passed!
In those days, of course, most of the films were in black and white. Only in the later thirties did colour become available and then only for prestigious productions, such as Gone With The Wind. It was not uncommon at that time for a film to start off in black and white and then to switch to colour in the last reel, especially for the finale of a musical. This would be greeted by ooh's and aah's by the devoted clientele. There were even attempts to purvey as ‘colour' movies shot on film that had an overall blue or magenta hue, which added a somewhat surrealist atmosphere to the story. Fortunately this did not last for very long as a vogue, since true colour drove them out. However, right up to the 1950s black and white films predominated. And it was still possible in the mid-forties to make ‘technicolour' a special feature of the attraction in advertisements, ‘see Bing (Crosby) in COLOUR for the first time' was one such blurb.
Nor, in those days, were we ever short of a cinema to go to. In Birmingham not only were there several central cinemas, but also numerous local ones. Within easy walking distance from our home there were three cinemas, and many more merely a short bus ride away. Moreover, at the local cinemas there would be a change of main feature and supporting film twice per week, with old films being shown on Sundays. For a really ardent fan it would have been possible to have gone to the cinema every day of the week to see different programmes. And there were full programmes. There was usually a ‘main attraction', a short (Pete Smith Specialities), newsreels, adverts, and a supporting full length feature film. All for prices ranging from four-pence in the front seats to three shillings and six-pence for the circle seats at ‘posh' cinemas.
Many of the ‘main attractions' still turn up on our TV screens, but the supporting films less so. While many of the latter were shoddy, low-budget, movies, occasionally good films could be launched as supporting features. There seemed to be a major and minor league as far as films, actors and actresses were concerned. And if players got caught up in the minor league (the B movies) they seemed doomed to spend the rest of their professional lives in supporting features. Just as records had their A and B sides, so movies were also classified as A or B, and the B tended to be synonymous with bad!
There also gradations in cinemas. Near where we lived there was a cinema that boasted the name of The Regent, but locals called it the flea pit or Louse. It was a small building, packed in between back-to-back house and engineering factories. But it still sported a comissionaire in gold-braided uniform, who also doubled as bouncer, since it was not uncommon for sections of audience to get unruly if the projector broke down, a not uncommon event. Another of his functions was to walk up and down the aisles spraying scented water vapour over the audience. This was to keep the smell down on hot days. It was not so strange to do this as it may now appear. Few of the houses in the area had bathrooms, we had to use a tin bath in front of the living room fire once a week in our house, and some of the local population made even less frequent use of such facilities, even supposing they had them. Washing machines were just about unknown then, and certainly were in working class homes, so clothes were washed less frequently than is usual today, and changed less frequently. So, it was not surprising that on a hot summer day or evening when the cinema was packed to capacity a certain aroma was in evidence. The Louse was obviously a left-over from the silent film era of the 1920s, it had no balcony and was quite small; but it served its purpose and for the four-pence mentioned earlier it was accessible to the poorest of the employed. As for the unemployed and unaccompanied children they could sneak in through the exits if they were lucky.
There were, of course, many other cinemas built in the 1930s and some could truly be described as opulent. These ABC's or Odeon's were usually large, with capacious balconies, built in the rococo style lavish with gilt, soft carpets in the foyer and often with glass chandeliers ablaze, soft sprung seats and in the winter they were warm. Coming from homes, many of which were still lighted by gas, with heating - an open coal fire - only in one room, with little carpeting, it it no wonder that the cinemas were called ‘Picture Palaces' in popular parlance. To go to one of these was to have a small taste of luxury. Some of the suburban cinemas, with mainly middle class clientele, even boasted tea-rooms, where waitresses in black uniforms and white aprons and caps skivvied around at ones beck and call.
And, of course, the cinemas clad their employees in house uniforms. The door was opened for one by a person dressed in a uniform with more gold braid on it than an admiral's. One was shown to a seat by an usher or usherette, and all these minions were under the command of a Chief Commissionaire who's uniform was even more ornate. Hovering in the background would be a dinner-jacketed manager, standing like the host of a country house welcoming his guests.
All this before one actually saw the film, so one was suitably prepared to be wafted along into never-never land, where all hero's and heroines were handsome/beautiful, all had great gleaming teeth, were obviously well-fed and always ended up ‘happy ever after'. Given the drab lives most of us who came clutching our money, it was an almost sure-fire formula for success, since we came back time and time again.
If one was fortunate, one of the added attractions at these establishments was the organ. Half-way through the programme the house lights would dim once more and a spotlight would shine on the pit in front of the screen, slowly the organ - perhaps a Mighty Wurlizter - would rise, the organist clad in a white tailed suit, sitting there trilling away on the powerful instrument with a selection of the popular tunes of the moment. Some of the organists were real performers, in the literal sense of the word, they would stand and face us, bow, waive and then address the organ with hands and feet flashing on keys and foot-pedals in complicated dances as the music swelled louder and louder, more complex, long trills, all for our delight. Coloured lights played upon the scene from the projection box, adding to the kaleidoscope of sound and movement. Cinema organ playing is now one of the lost arts.
As mentioned earlier, I was introduced to this wonderland at a very early age. My mother would often slip us into a matinee, which meant that I must have been pre-school age. So I grew up as a regular film addict. Even today, when those old movies appear on TV I can usually not only name the stars but also the supporting players. This I do with glee and affection, they were all part of my childhood. Seeing these films today, I can now see how bad many of them were, and I must admit that they do evoke a feeling of nostalgic warmth that is quite unwarranted by their content.
With the coming of the war in 1939 things changed somewhat, ice-cream became a rare commodity, and the confectionary kiosks were closed, sweets and chocolates were rationed. But apart from that the flicks were booming. Not only was male unemployment eliminated, but women were also working outside the home in ever increasing numbers. This produced a relative affluence as compared with pre-war and much of this was reflected in cinema attendances which soared. It then became common that one had to queue to go in, and long lines of people patiently waiting outside cinemas became an everyday sight.
One of the special treats for children before the war was the ‘tuppenny-crush', that is the special Saturday morning children's shows. The price of admission, as the name implies, was tuppence. These were always boisterous affairs, with long snakes of children waiting for the doors to open and a real rugby scrum once they did. On Saturday mornings one rushed to get the best seats available on the ground floor, since there was no restriction about where one could sit. Each week we go along all agog to find out what had happened to our current hero or heroine of the serial, Flash Gordon, Gene Autrey, Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Rin-tin-tin (a dog), Our Gang etc. etc. Each episode of these serials was avidly devoured, evoking absolute devotion and participation. We all joined in the show, with shouts of advice and warning, ‘look out he's behind you' or hisses and jeers for the villains (in black hats in the cowboy movies or speaking foreign accents!). Oddly, it is the memory of these serials that survives, rather than the main feature films that were shown at these sessions. And some of these serials are still shown on TV 40 or 50 years later, still delighting the young viewer (and some not so young)!
As I became older, especially after I left school to start work when I was 14, I became independent of my mother for my cinema outings. That sometimes presented a problem when an A Certificate film was being shown, since those under 16 were supposed to be accompanied by an adult. However, I soon learned which cinemas enforced the law and which ones turned a blind eye. Sometimes one could hang around outside a cinema looking for an unaccompanied adult and ask them to take you in. But soon I was able to stroll into practically any cinema of my choice, especially as I began to look 16. This meant that I was able to go further afield, sometimes right across the city to partake my chosen films. With a packet of Embassy cigarettes tucked in my pocket, I could ease down into a soft seat and wallow in escapism.
One thing, however, despite the folklore about young people doing their courting in the semi-darkness of the cinema, I never did. When I went to the flicks, even with a girlfriend, it was to see the show, not put one on of my own. For me snogging was for after the cinema, I didn't spend twice 1/9d to waste it in frivolity of that kind, I had my own priorities. I think I lost one or two girlfriends that way.
But all in all, the cinema played quite an important part in my early life, and as I got older into my teens, I began to absorb much of the newsreels. Despite their obvious propaganda intentions, they still conveyed something of what what going on in the world.
The full horror of the Nazi death camps was revealed when newsreels of them were shown very soon after the end of the war in Europe. They can only be described as revolting, and I think speeded up my own political education.