Thursday, 17 August 2017

1958 - A Year of Adventure

That's me at the back with the hunky Spaniard!

I haven’t posted a memoir-based post for some time so I’ll take up the story from when I first broke-up with my Beloved Bad Penny (see post from 8/11/16). This would around the beginning of 1958. All my friends seemed to be either engaged or at least seriously ‘courting, by then, considered essential in those days if you weren’t to be left ‘on the shelf.’ Help was at hand in the form of Winnie, whom I had met through some mutual friends. She had just broken up from a fairly long-term relationship and was as much at a loose end as I was, so we started going around together. Winnie was a year or two older, smaller than me, but with a jolly, cheery manner that made her fun to be with. Even then, Winnie was saving up to immigrate so couldn’t afford a regular holiday. We read about Friday Bridge Agricultural Holiday Camp in a newspaper advertisement and wrote off for details. When the brochure arrived, we learnt that the camp had originally been an Italian POW during the war. It had lots of the same facilities as a normal holiday camp but you could work on farms during the day to earn some money. We decided to give it a go and it turned out to be one of the best holidays I ever had.
            The accommodation was very basic, army-type beds and a single locker in a dormitory, and the food left much to be desired especially the sandwiches handed out after breakfast. The work was varied, mostly strawberry picking, and it was hard, back-breaking work, very often dirty, but great fun. We didn’t work every day; we took a couple of days off to hitch a ride into Wisbech and March, or Cambridge to look round the colleges. And everywhere, the juke boxes were playing Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover.' You can hear it here
            On the camp, there was a bar and a dance several times a week but best of all there were lots of lovely foreign students, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Swedish. Our own favourites were two Swedish boys, Bjorn and Georg, but as they left after our first week, we consoled ourselves with a lovely dark-browed, dark-eyed Spaniard from Madrid called Fernando. It was all good innocent fun; with everyone sleeping in segregated dormitories, there wasn’t much opportunity for anything else.
We made friends with a Londoner, Jean. Tall, slim, tanned, with an urchin haircut, she was stunningly attractive and a complete extrovert. She had a way of saying things like, ‘Disgusting – but dee-lightful’ that made it sound very naughty. Or she’d say with a dramatic sigh, ‘Roll on death and let’s have a bash at the angels.’ She was so different from anyone that either of us had ever met and we admired and envied her. Yet she was not in the slightest bit conceited. Instead she had warmth and spontaneity, which we later learned was characteristic of an East Ender, which she was. She worked for Zetters football pools which, being a seasonal occupation, left her free during the summer to take jobs such as strawberry picking. Her life seemed so glamorous compared to our humdrum existence.
Besides the two Wakes Weeks in the summer, Horwich industry closed for an additional few days in September and we followed up Jean’s invitation to visit her in London. Neither of us had been previously and although we were only going on a long weekend, we were nervously excited. We travelled overnight on a coach, arriving at Victoria Coach Station very early in the morning yet Jean was there to meet us. Groggy from travelling overnight and stupefied by the clamour of early morning London, we ascended into the cavernous heights of Liverpool Street Station and into the madhouse that is Commercial Road.
Our first real sight of Stepney on a Saturday morning had its own peculiar sights and smells, stale fat, rotting vegetables, urine, all mingled with a tangy heady aroma that we later learned came from joss sticks. That area of London was even then a polyglot of humanity from all corners of the world. Awesome sights and smells never to be forgotten for two lasses from a Lancashire mill town. Jean lived in a tenement-like flat in Flower and Dean Street, with her father, a Maltese sailor who was at sea at that time, and her mother, a diminutive sandy-haired woman. Being a Geordie who had lived most of her married life in Stepney, she made us doubly welcome though the flat was cramped and crowded with exotic knick-knacks.
London, shared with us by Jean, was a unique experience. It was the time of espresso coffee bars and we went to them all, including the Two I’s where Tommy Steele had been discovered. One of the most widely played records on the juke box then was, ‘Volaré’ (you can hear it here ) which seemed to sum up the heady continental atmosphere of the coffee bars at that time. Our own favourite was Heaven and Hell. It was split over two levels with the ground floor all white plastic and chrome, while the basement was dim, dungeon-like and wildly exciting.
I think it was in there that I met Stefan, who was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Despite our general ignorance of world affairs, we all knew about the Hungarian Uprising, possibly because it involved the young. We’d been stirred by the sight of the students rioting against the Russian tanks and been saddened to see them mown down. The Uprising had lasted only days and most of the dissidents had fled, Stefan being one of them. It made him seem very glamorous to me, even though he could barely speak a word of English. He later sent me a postcard from Budapest asking if he could come and work in Horwich and live with me and my family. I never replied, I’d got cold feet by that time.
We went all over the place with Jean, dancing at Hammersmith Palais on Saturday night, Petticoat Lane Market and the Tower of London on the Sunday, gawped at the prostitutes still walking the streets of Soho, a crazy pub called Dirty Dick’s on Commercial Road, which had cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and sawdust on the floor. It was a big tourist attraction. I don’t know if it’s still there but I’m sure Health & Safety legislation would have something to say about it. At least the glasses were clean.
Horwich seemed decidedly parochial after London and we were left with feelings of dissatisfaction over our lot. Winnie met her future husband shortly after that and they were already planning to emigrate to Australia. What followed, for me, was a troublesome period when I seemed to meet up with the wrong lads/men who I’d prefer not to talk about. It was to be another few years before I plucked up the courage to leave Horwich and go to America.
It’s kind of ironic because, with my books being centred around Horwich, the town now plays a bigger part of my life than when I lived there! 
And as a postscript, Friday Bridge looks like it's now run by a recruitment company for migrant agricultural workers. You can read about it here. It doesn't look to have altered much except for the much posher accommodation.