3.Work and new horizons
Some time in the last year at school I had come to a conscious decision to reject religion. This had been my private thought for some time when one day, whilst eating dinner with some other boys, I voiced it to others for the first time. Those of us who did not go home for dinner or go to school dinners used to eat our sandwiches in a disused classroom. We were unsupervised and there were probably only six or seven of us who regularly used this room for this purpose. As happens with such small groups of boys our topics of conversation were usually flippant and not given to much serious talk. However, this particular day we had been having a general moan about the excessive time we spent at church, it must be remembered that this was a Roman Catholic school so we were all subjected to the twice Sunday visits to church and regular harangues from one or other of the priests who came to the school plus enforced participation in many religious ceremonies. I am not sure exactly who it was who first voiced the thought, I cannot swear it was me, but at some point someone said ‘I think all this religion is lies' and we all agreed. I was most surprised to learn that the others had been having much the same thoughts on this topic as myself, since none of them had indicated any interest in my other preoccupations. However, what this revelation did was provide moral support for me in my own beliefs, even though we could not take any active or open steps about them. We all continued to play the parts allocated to us by the adults who controlled our lives, one of the other boys in particular carried on serving as an altar boy whilst having these private thoughts. Perhaps this is some indication how little adults really know about the private world of children.
However, I left school shortly after this particular event thus losing contact with these fellow non-believers and was thrust back into my own private thoughts. This meant that for at least 12 or 18 months after this I continued to attend church and outwardly conform.
As I have mentioned I began work as a butcher, this was early in 1944 and this gave me more personal freedom that I had enjoyed hitherto. One of the benefits of starting work was that I now had considerably more money than previously, another was that my parents also began treating me somewhat differently. The precise manner of this latter aspect is difficult to determine, but I suppose it was a part of the transition from childhood to being an adult. I now worked six days a week (with Monday and Wednesday afternoons free), cycling each day back and forth to work, being given some responsibility at work and at home for my own life.
Some time in 1944 I began attending a mixed youth club at the YWCA Centre in Broad Street Birmingham. This was to provide some useful experiences for me. The YWCA was quite close to the centre of Birmingham and functioned not merely as a youth club but also ran many types of activities, including a canteen which was open seven days per week and was open to all members of the armed forces. Dances were held each Saturday night, with a live band, and were very well attended by civilians and members of the forces. One of the advantages for me of this place was that it was on a direct bus route from my home, this meant that I could hop on a bus and arrive within ten minutes. The Centre ran various educational activities, these included talks on current affairs, gramophone music recitals etc. On top of this there was the canteen with cheap tea, cakes etc. plus the usual range of table tennis, billiards, darts. The biggest bonus for me at that stage was the fact that it was a mixed club. Having attended an all boys school, and having no sisters, girls were still very much a mystery to me, and the club provided the opportunity to mix with the opposite sex in a manner not open to me before.
I was tall for my age and looked slightly older than I was, this was useful when it came to girls, since because of the war young men were in short supply. However, my height did not endow me with the confidence needed for smooth social interaction with the opposite sex. I was painfully shy and rather tongue-tied, my first few weeks at the club were spent very much on the side lines observing the activities of the other members. It was not me who made the first contact with people, it was usually others who initiated any talking. But eventually as I began to know people I developed a little more self-confidence to the point where I could participate in some of the activities.
Apart from the youth club there were a number of other social activities that I now indulged in. The cinema was booming in those days, and there were cinemas all over the city, many changing programmes twice per week, plus special Sunday programmes. It was possible to see many films every week, with British and US films vying for one's attention. Music clubs flourished, with resident musicians, who were mostly part-time, plus visits from professional bands. A cinema near to where I lived mounted band sessions on Sunday evenings instead of films, for the price of a cinema seat it was possible to listen to some of the top British bands in this way. The RAF Bomber Command band was a definite favourite, as was Jack Jackson, Sid Dean, Felix Mendelsohn. So, leaving school meant for me a widening of my horizons in many ways, the contact with the adult world of work, visits to the youth club, cinema, music clubs and contact with girls.
But if I was to make any headway in my social life there was one essential thing I had to do, learn to dance! I signed up at a local dance studio, and was soon being initiated into the mysteries of the Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep and Waltz. Although I was still very shy when it came to actually asking a girl to dance, I at least knew the theory now, the practice took a little longer! I suppose my essay into dancing lessons brought me my first ‘girl friend'. I was working in a small butchers shop in Ladywood, which stood among many other shops, one of these was a small tobacconists and sweet shop. The couple who ran the shop were customers of my employer, and I often used to pop in with some package for them, sent by Len Lane - my employer - I didn't enquire too closely what was in these packages, but they were a part of the ‘under the counter' trade that was rampant amongst the small shopkeepers during the period of rationing. The tobacconists had a daughter about the same age as myself, and one day when I was in their shop the girl's mother asked me if I was prepared to accompany her daughter to the dance studio. I was rather taken aback, but agreed. The girl, it turned out, was as shy of boys as I was with girls. A couple of nights each week I would put on my best suit and solemnly collect the girl and escort her to the dance studio. There we would be given our lessons and then I would walk her back home. If I remember correctly, she used to hold my arm, but that was the extent of our contact. We were both rather tongue-tied when we were alone together, and never did get to know each other. However, whilst I was doing this ‘escort work' I was never short of bar of chocolate! It didn't last long, since I moved on to another shop which was in another district, I was offered more money, and the dance lessons stopped.
Not all of these new experiences were pleasant. One of my tasks at the shop I worked at was to go to the central meat market and pay the bill for the owner. I used to cycle down into the centre of Birmingham each Monday to carry out this chore. There had been a particularly heavy bombing raid one Sunday night which lasted almost until dawn and as I cycled down Holloway Head I noticed smoke still rising from a street to my left. As I got nearer I saw water running down the gutter of this side street into the main road, it was red. I stopped my bicycle and looked up the side street, Firemen, faces black and looking very weary were still directing water hoses onto several smouldering houses. Water was flowing out of the wreck of one house and this was the sources of the red water, it was mixed with the blood of victims underneath the blackened ruins. I had experienced many air raids by then, and seen one or two small injuries caused by flying glass etc. but they had been nothing compared to what I witnessed that early morning. That was the true nature of war, mangled bodies bleeding under a mound of rubble. It seemed a world away from the false glory portrayed on film and in books which attempted to stir up patriotic fervour. Without actually seeing the bodies under that rubble I well understood what had gone on, the blooded water flowing past my feet was eloquent testimony to the realities of war. When it was announced over the radio that on any particular night there had been a 1000 bomber raid over some German city I knew full well just what that meant.
The ending of the war in Europe in May 1945 brought an immense change to everyone's life. I remember the day that the news came through, someone came rushing along the street shouting ‘It's over, It's over'. We all knew what they meant, we had been expecting the news for some days. We immediately closed the shop, I wrote in the biggest letters possible on the shop window ‘Closed VE day'. Then we all went home, but I was felt so excited that I went to the centre of Birmingham to Victoria Square, it was packed tight with crowds, the pubs were still open, and music was blaring from public address speakers. People were laughing, dancing, a few crying, kissing each other, climbing lampposts, and in general letting out all the pent-up feelings that they had felt over the years of the war. As I walked back home I found street parties being held, pianos standing in the middle of the street, being thumped on with great gusto, beer flowing, and again dancing in the streets. The relief was enormous and could almost be felt. The newsreels of the period only give a faint picture of what was felt that day and night, you had to be there to taste that wonderful feeling of relief which bordered on hysteria. But it was back to work the next day.
As the general election of 1945 drew near there was a series of forums mounted at the youth club, to which the main political parties were invited to state their case. I remember Labour, Conservative and Commonwealth sending speakers, but I cannot recall the Communist Party having an opportunity. Just what the latter would have said cannot be known for certain, for the CP started the election campaign calling for the return of a new Coalition Government made up of all ‘progressives'! Fortunately the electorate had much more sense and returned Labour with its biggest ever majority. It was just after the general election that I began to be active in politics, I joined the Ladywood Labour League of Youth.
After a period as a member of the Ladywood Ward LLOY I transferred to the Rotten Park Ward LLOY, there I associated with Bob Scott, Sylivia Murray and Rhoda Guest and gradually we four became the inner core of the branch. The election of the Labour Government had raised expectations, it was as though people were waiting for some dramatic change in their life. This was particularly so amongst members of the Labour Party and Youth League. For many members the election had been the culmination of many years of work and struggle and they really did look forward to a ‘New Jerusalem' being built. At the same time there had been a small revival of fortune for Independent Labour Party in our locality, and we four came in contact with Jimmie McKie who was a leading member of the ILP in Birmingham. We met Jimmie several times for discussions and although we did not join the ILP we certainly did get a taste for political discussion of a somewhat higher level than was available from the Labour Party.
It was my friendship with Bob Scott that enabled me to stop attending church on Sunday mornings. Instead of going to church I got into the habit of sloping off down to Bob's house each Sunday morning. There instead of listening to the drone of Latin mass and kneeling on hard forms I spent a much more pleasant and profitable few hours. Bob's mother had died some years before and there was only Bob and his father living at home. Bob would emerge bleary eyed when I banged the door, tousled haired, still in his pyjamas and dressing gown, make some tea and we would sit either side of the fire talking about all the things that interested us. Later on Mr. Scott would arise and there might be some cooked breakfast on offer if I was lucky, but the breakfast didn't matter, what did was the company. Bob's father was a very pleasant, intelligent person who took part in our talk when the mood took him, always to our benefit if not always to our liking. I was always struck by the friendship between Bob and his father, a relationship that was non-existent between me and my own father. At some point my mother must have realised that I was not going to church on Sunday mornings, and became quite concerned about this. I clashed with my father about this, but stood my ground and the matter seemed to have been dropped. However, one day when I returned home from work on one of my half-days I found a young priest sitting in the kitchen/living room with my mother. My mother left me alone with the priest who began nervously asking me about ‘my faith'. Finally he asked me ‘do you have any problems?', I looked him straight in the eye and replied ‘No'. Of course, I meant that I didn't have any problems because I had made my mind up to reject ‘the faith' some considerable time before. I think the priest knew what I meant, since he looked slightly baffled but could not find a way of pursuing the matter. As I have said, he was quite young, and no doubt rather inexperienced and must have been nonplussed by my rather elliptical replies to his questions. He left and I never did hear any more about the matter. My parents obviously decided not to press the matter, and I certainly was not going to raise it. It became something that was not referred, I still got up on Sunday mornings and went out and we all pretended that I was going to church! But none us actually believed this any more. I suppose in this respect I was fortunate, my parents obviously did not feel up to any tussles about ‘the faith', and having brought in the heavies (the priest) felt they had done their duty. I was no longer a child who could be forced to do exactly what they wanted, and so long as I did not flaunt my own ideas or act in a blatant manner which would offend them, I was left to my own devices.
Arising from the feelings of expectation induced by the election of the Labour Government and our contacts with the ILP we four in the Rotten Park LLOY began to feel somewhat disappointed at what we thought of as the slow way in which changes were being brought about in society. We expected far more involvement of the Labour Party in the such changes as were going on, yet all that seemed to be happening was that the Party did not concern itself with anything but raising money for elections and the preparation for local elections. In those days there were local elections every year, in November. At some point we began publishing a small duplicated LLOY paper entitled Socialist. Gradually we began to sell copies to other branches of the LLOY in Birmingham, although the circulation was never very high. The paper was certainly critical of the Labour Government but was tolerated by the adult Party since it was seen as juvenile ‘high spirits'.
It was in Bob Scott's front room that we ‘plotted' each issue of Socialist. Rhoda, Sylvia, Bob and myself would gather and toss back and forth ideas for articles. Our efforts were amateurish but we found it all exciting and fulfilling. We had the feeling of ‘doing something'. But it was not all sitting and talking, as young healthy people we were always roped in for electioneering work, canvassing, folding leaflets, then delivering them, ‘knocking up' on polling day etc. Rotten Park Ward in those days was a mass of back to back houses in terraces reached via dark entries, these had outside toilets and usually had two rooms on the ground-floor and two bedrooms. These houses were interspersed with factories, mainly engineering works, so the whole neighbourhood had a depressing industrial atmosphere, this was in the days before the Clean Air Act or anyone thought about industrial pollution, the whole area had been thrown up during the boom times of the Victorian era.
One would have thought that such an area was ideal Labour territory, but actually the Ward was a marginal one, because there were large areas of pleasant middle class houses on the edges of the area. This meant that the struggle for the Labour Party was always to get their voters out in sufficient strength to achieve a victory. We knew where our supporters were, so polling day was one of the maximum mobilisation of party members, who were sent out in posses to ‘get the vote out'. Sometimes this took the form of standing in the middle of housing close, ringing a handbell, and then our members rushing around asking the people who came to the door if they had voted. Elections in those days were quite hectic. They were also very often fought very hard and not always scrupulously, pasting one's own posters over an opponents posters was one of the favourite methods of ‘dishing' the opposition. This, of course, was in the days before party political broadcasts, so that electioneering was carried on in the streets, and by real house to house canvassing, plus public meetings which were usually well attended.
Rotten Park Ward was fortunate in that it had as its election agent someone who was particularly gifted, Tom Macintosh. Tom planned each election like a military campaign, knowing when to make a push here and there and when to abandon some areas. He drew up a street plan with each house marked on it, and these in turn were marked red or blue according to the declared voting intentions, this was so that we did not waste our time trying to get Tories out to vote. The cards were very useful, since one could tell at a glance which houses to call on and which ones to miss. Liberals, by the way, were not considered worth recording they were so few!
This was quite a hectic period in my life, there now seemed so much to do, so many things that I could devote my energies and small income to. I seemed to have many avenues which I could explore, each one beckoned me, promising excitement and even adventure, who knew what was just over the horizon?