Let me take you for a stroll down my street of memory:
This day I see, I surmise, must be one of those deceptively long and seemingly never ending, summer days of typical childhood memories. I like to picture it in a cinematic way. First an aerial view of Hull, then zooming in like a falling Icarus above Hessle Road, the docks, and the tiny people like thousands of swarming ants. Down, down, down to the strains of Connie Frances singing, 'Who's Sorry Now'. Down, down to doom level. Then miraculously, we are safely on the ground and walking. We can hear the racket of many loud engines and the blowing of their horns, and that universal sound of children playing. And above this din you can hear the cries of begging gulls swimming the skies.
The pavements and terraces as we pass are a mass of screaming jostling kids – raggy-arsed boys and rag-doll girls with bread and butter pudding faces. Walking colonies of nits, lice, and fleas! We must weave around them like down-hill-slalom-skiers. The prancing girls turn skipping ropes and play double-ball against a wall or in the air, while the boys, more frantic, invent games that require them to wrestle, or chase each other around like wild yapping dogs. Later, when all the factories close their tired gates, and the traffic becomes almost nil, you'll see the older kids reclaim the filthy road as their playground. Then serious games of rugby will be played with rolled up and tied newspapers as a ball. And all kinds of invented skylarks and games with crazy names: 'Eggitybudge, British Bull Dog, Poisonous Finger, Realleyo, and games played with small rubber balls, or even tin-cans. The games will continue late into the evening, until the echoes turn blue, and the street lights come on -- sucking in the fast closing black gob of night. Finally, the kids only giving up after been threatened with violence by their parent's constant barking at them to come in.
At the bank end of Gillette street there are more fish factories than houses. At the top of my terrace we now stand watching an articulated-lorry pulling two trailers stacked high with giant tree trunks -- twenty feet long and with a circumference of wagon wheels. They tower over us. The length and awkwardness of the vehicle, brings the insane traffic to a stand still -- blocking the street, while trying to jack-knife backwards through the narrow gates of Bay's wood-yard. Where, those great aged tree trunks will be gradually pushed through one banshee screeching saw after another, till finally they are cut down into wafer-thin, short planks, and knocked into boxes to transport fish to every part of Britain.
Looking up, you can see, perched on the roof tops, lines of hungry indignant looking seagulls, like impatient vultures greedily eyeing the fish offal on the back of the stopped, waiting lorries.
A worker with his hair and clothes speckled with sawdust and wood shavings comes from the wood-yard and stands in the middle of the street holding up a hand to the already waiting vehicles like a copper on traffic control. After looking thoughtfully like a cricket umpire at the potential space to spare on both sides of the lorry and the opening, he goes in behind the zigzagged load and begins shouting, and giving the driver hand-jive like signals to help him back-in his massive load. The load is so long and the street so narrow that the pavements on both sides are also blocked... Each attempt to align the trailers within the opening fails, and is abandoned, only to begin the manoeuvre once again. Ever growing knots of frustrated mumbling people tie up the pavements on both sides of the street waiting to pass.
Then suddenly, from around the corner of a terrace emerges Old One-legged Harry Crane -- a real piece of work -- with his shock of bone-white hair, now intensified by the sunlight. As ever, he is in his one-legged brown suit, which is neatly cut and hemmed below the stump of the missing leg, and flaps to and fro as he comes swinging along on his ancient crutches -- his frame of wood -- his cross. Everyone knows the story of how Harry lost that leg... They would tell you that Harry's leg was lost in a hole in France, which he marched into, and later hopped out of like a blooded robin. His lopped off limb was left in that hole in no-man's-land in France. The hole in the ground became a hole in a man, and that black hole also held all the voices of his lost comrades in arms.The sun now makes stick shadows of his wooden strides as he wrestles along on the power of woodwork.
Seeing the situation, he laughingly calls out, 'Look out boys I'm coming through!' And the man in the middle of the road, spotting him quickly rises his hands to the driver and shouts 'stop!' And everything jolts to a sudden halt. The people quickly make way for Harry, swinging nonchalantly through a gap behind the trailer. Laughing like a horse, he calls out, 'I 'aven't learnt to stop with these buggers yet! I might fall down, if I do!'. The waiting groups laugh with him, and take advantage of the situation by following in his wake. The man giving directions, and the very ruddy, frustrated face of the driver in his mirror force a thin dud smile at Harry, and then each other.
The gulls seem to sense the distraction and suddenly swoop down and grab up pieces of offal from the fish-barrels on the back of a waiting lorry. One rises up with a dangling fish skeleton in its beak pursued by a flock of squawking robbers.
The stressed looking driver now returns to the trouble of having to manipulate his Chinese puzzle through the tight space, which is causing an ever greater build up of traffic along the street. Some of the more impatient drivers blast their horns, their nerves jangling in frustration. But for the people in the street this is no big deal... it's a regular occurrence. And they know everybody must wait -- well, everybody except Harry Crane of course -- oh and maybe the blind-man, too -- known only as 'the blind-man' – who lives in the next terrace to me. He wears nothing but off-white clothes just like his stick (well, what does he care about colour -- at least everyone sees him coming).Yes, I'm sure everything would stop for him, too when he comes click-clicking along. And what now suddenly comes to mind is: where exactly did he get those off-white clothes? Off-white hat, off-white mac, off-white trousers, down to his very off-white shoes? Did someone -- god dam it – paint them for him...? Or were they handed out to all blind people by the Blind Institute? I bet that's right! Was it so...? Ah, but it's all surmise now. Anyway, let us leave them with the obstruction, and with my child's recall we'll venture further up the street towards the Hessle Road. We continue dodging the playing urchins, and passing the kid crowded terraces, which are separated only by narrow alleys. So narrow that the back doors had to be made to open inward. Here the rats, yellow mangy cats, and scavenging packs of skinny dogs haunt and search the dustbins, which are the rock bottom of the food chain.
Going further we may come across Old Mrs Honeygold, -- poor old sod -- slowly going on her way to the shops, pushing her empty battered old pram for stability! A sweet, kind, soft spoken, little old lady, who even on hot days like this is always well muffled up in her long black Victorian dress that sweeps the ground, and her round, flat, cake-like hat. Not being able to see her feet gives one the impression she is on wheels, slowly rocking and rolling over the uneven street like some wind-up mechanism.
She has a pet tortoise with a shell as large as a dinner plate, which spends summer days creeping in slow motion like a spider about the terrace. Children like to bring it lettuce or cabbage leaves, and sometimes they find it escaping on to the street, getting dangerously close to the road.... They'll pick it up and take it back home, and she'll give them a sweet or two. She is the oldest soul in the street, as old as anyone gets, but, no one can say just how old, or which of them, her or the tortoise is older.
A bread-van goes hurrying by, doing its rounds, delivering to the three or four corner shops in the street. Look! two young boys unseen by the driver are riding on the metal step to the back door -- with grinning dirty faces they cling to the hand rails, shouting to all the kids as they speed by. It's those young rascals Eddy Church and Jimmy Grace who live at the top end of the street. They're in the same class at school as my brother, Peter, who is one year older than me. And they are always in some kind of trouble. And those two in a few years will spend time in a remand home; deemed out of their parents control by the authorities. Then they would only be seen on their holiday leave. They jump off as the van stops, making sure the driver, getting out of his cab to make his deliveries, doesn't see them. Then they jump back on as the van takes off again.
As we continue along the street the smell of frying fish fills our nostrils -- we have come to Oakes' Fish-Shop with its steamed up windows. It must be eleven thirty in the morning now, as one of the women who works there is opening the door to let in the growing queue, that is always there trying to beat the mad dinnertime-rush about to take place. Soon the barrow-boys also stinking of fish will arrive -- sent out from the factories with long lists of orders for the workers' midday meal.
With sweat running down his pale wooden face little Billy Oaks the fish fryer is dropping fish and chipped potatoes in to the big fat filled deep fryers. And two women start frantically wrapping the orders in old newspapers as fast as they can. The queue will soon run from the counter around the walls, out the door and along the street. You could, and many did, collapse from the heat while waiting on a hot day like today.
We suddenly hear the sound of horse's hoofs clip-clopping. Look! here comes old Hoss-Shit Charlie plodding along on his moth-eaten old horse and ancient cart. He pulls the beast up, and jumps down on his bowed old legs to shovel a mound of horse-shit onto his cart. A small cheeky faced bag of rags calls out! 'Where there's muck there's brass eh Charlie!' But Charlie only glares, and never speaks.
All along the street on both sides we see boys and girls of different ages forming into their gangs, hanging around, squabbling and scuffling amongst themselves. Becoming more and more bored by the minute -- with nothing to do all day but fill the tabula rassa, which by degrees will determine the severity of their day's dastardly deeds. Their eyes are watching for something -- anything... They don't even have a clue what to hope for...any distraction from this...
One crew is already trying to catch some of the hundreds of fat bluebottle-flies that glisten like coloured glass in the sunshine. They wait for them to land on the windowsills, and begin edging a cupped-hand nearer and nearer, before nabbing them with a well-timed sweep of the hand! Caught! One boy pins the fly down on its back by its wings with two fingers, while another carefully slips a loop in a length of cotton over and around the fly's frantic kicking legs, and quickly pulls it tight! And hey presto! You have a fly on a lead.
Yes, and I confess I was just another of these irked and cruel boys. And that was the kind of wickedness we little bastards got up to. All kinds of bad and mad stuff. But what mattered to us little bastards above all else, was that big boy's game of violence. Violence was around a thousand corners, had a thousand reasons, with a thousand faces -- all ugly and all mindless. An infection -- a contagion of nefarious aggression. With a thousand symptoms of a full blown decease called fear.
In this paradigm of violence and ignorance, bullying and fighting were no more than popular pass times. Every kid wanted to be the hardest in his gang, in the terrace, in the street, in the school. You had to be rather hard or good at sports to impress anybody. And god help you if you wasn't. Jesus! even the girls were hard. And back then, we actually thought it was all normal. Reading a book was looked on as being sissy, or idle, while cleverness should be expressed as an ability to make money, or otherwise it was just getting above yourself.
There was no soft side to Hessle Road. No gentleness, it was both a rock and a hard place -- an underworld full of subjugated souls. Pride seemed soon rubbed out by constant compromise. Here men, women and children were brutalised by landlords, bosses, the living conditions, and each other, and were generally tormented by everything of the same kidney. Which produced in them a Piranha like mentality.
I have lasting and upsetting memories of drunken men dragging their screaming women home from the pubs by their hair. The women's eyes black and blue from the beatings their bastard husbands had handed out. The women of the street would come from their houses and curse these beasts, while their own men stood by yelling at them to get in and mind their own business. Childhood heart were soon blackened and hardened, pulverised for years by the soggy-end of life. It was the dark ages. All the senses blind. Minds as cramped as their lives. And all us kids would be looking on, being educated in this disgraceful school of butterfly breakers.
Families back then were only large, and then there were the Bates', Frazers', Gordens', and the likes -- not families but tribes -- with maybe eight, nine, ten kids (who was counting). And somehow these broods packed themselves into those tiny cringing two-up-two-down brick heaped hovels. Looking into those houses was like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.
I can only picture a family like the Bates' as a single unit of cowed and graceless flesh. Spotty as dominoes, with teeth the colour of lions, tramping the streets -- look-a-likes -- ragged and dirty waifs -- boys and girls with the same snotty noses, and the same lost-look, and the same scribble of uncombed hair. Youngest to oldest walking in Indian file -- a caravan going to and fro to school or the shops. With their hobnailed-boots clacking and scraping, they took the form of a straggling but well-shod centipede. They would scour the streets picking up every shard or splinter of broken box-wood any bigger than a lolly-stick, to take home to burn. They were just eight, nine, or was it ten unnoticed souls like sad tears rolling down that hard indifferent surface. And I wonder where are they now... How did they fare? I don't think I ever knew any of their first names -- truly they were never more than a vague compound -- and just how sad is that? It makes me want to scream from here to Hull.
So, this is the surface of my street and its boneless life, with its slow suffocation by ugliness. I can still feel the claustrophobia that stuck like glue. A place with no true colour -- if something was red, it would be a dirty red. A very strange limited colour palette would be needed to paint it – a mongrel muck mix.
The whole rotten barrel was in a state of disrepair. Everything was out of kilter. The ugliness wept and jarred against the senses. Everything that could be broken would be broken: the road, the houses, noses, arms, legs, faces, heads, necks, backs, silence, promises, marriages, families, lives, spirits. A place where even dreams didn't work. A slum nothingness -- a black hole-end sucking at emptiness.
I think we've come far enough -- I think I'll leave you here... Remember you're with a child, and as a child I wouldn't want to be alone here... A lone boy at the wrong end of the street; I'd be a easy potential victim. It would be safer for me to creep like a lizard, a hunted creature through the labyrinth of stinky alleys that run behind the front houses of the street. Anything could happen to you here -- from a quick on the spot beating from one of these gangs of goons, I could be humiliatingly, and embarrassingly de-bagged and tormented till the tears finally come. This is the local sport, and I could easily become the fresh meat.
But, lets not get too nostalgic... This is just one day, but it could represent all days... I only wanted to give you a seasonal postcard of sunny Gillette Street -- a full frontal -- bollocks and all. Well... I think my phone's ringing....