ABOUT THE BOOKIn the history of Britain there is a shortage of Second World War stories detailing the lives of ordinary families living in poverty, the children’s games and the black market profiteering that history has forgotten.
The story of young Eric and John is here to set the record straight. Two boys growing up in the midst of rationing, with a flair for mischief and a sense of humour history will never see again – what could happen? Quite a lot, apparently, if the exciting family life of Eric and John is anything to go by. Telling of their family life in war torn Birmingham where poverty was rife, Eric’s account is full of wit and the kind of humour history should remember. From the infamous Bread Pudding Incident to the charming children’s games like ‘Penny on the Brick,' you will find laughter and warm memories of time spent in an age before computers, when children had to entertain themselves. Yet there is poignancy here, too, as Eric and John find themselves swept up in the greater tide of war as evacuees, made to travel to the country with no chance of looking back . . .
EXCERPT FROM EPITAPH TO 'NICKLE ECK'
Chapter 4 ‘Grandad’s Hodge’
One Saturday morning in 1943, when we were living in Dalston Road, Acocks Green, John became patriotic.
“We must help the War effort,” he declared.
I looked for the nearest exit, which was an essential element in my survival plans whenever John had an ‘IDEA!’ (He thought in capital letters).
“Urgh, how?” I should have known better; I should have quietly left home and taken up botany.
John looked me up and down – which didn’t take long.
“You’re very small because you haven’t got any brains,” he concluded.
I knew that any retort would only confirm his diagnosis, so I kept quiet.
“We need to make something to sell to buy National Savings Certificates,” John expounded.
“But what can we make?” I queried, timorously.
“Submarines,” John replied.
“But won’t that wake The Babby?” I asked.
“The Babby” was Fred, our first wartime brother, who weighed just over a massive 12lbs following an heroically long birth at home. The midwife commented each day of the long waiting period that the Babby was late. It seemed to me that it had probably forgotten the due date, not having a diary to refer to. Just after Fred was born, the midwife brought him downstairs, sat me in a chair, and carefully put him on my lap; it felt like being smothered by a large fragrant dog.
This, then, was the infant in his pram in the hallway, sleeping off several pints of full-cream milk with sugar added to match his gigantic appetite. Wartime babies qualified for extra rations which John and I helped to consume. John said that Fred couldn’t eat meat or bread, so we were helping him out by eating for him; I hope he was grateful for our gesture as in adult life he became a JP with an MBE.
John glared at me again, so that my small stature shrank even more, and continued.
“Toy submarines – you Granite Swede; we will make a mould out of Plaster-of-Paris and fill it with molten lead,” he explained, as if to a child, and triumphantly produced one of our few toys - a small metal submarine which had a flat bottom.
Plaster-of-Paris was well known and often used to reinforce makeshift splints at First Aid depots during enemy bombing raids. We could easily acquire some from these unguarded First Aid centres. Who’d ever pinch items to be used for the injured? We would – and did! John explained that most of it was wasted anyway, as it was broken off when the casualties reached hospital.
Lead was a different matter. I wisely didn’t ask about obtaining this material, as I had visions of crawling over the church roof hauling off pieces of guttering – pretending to be a gargoyle if anyone noticed me.
“Idea!” John said, ominously.
“Oh, no!” I wailed, racing to the kitchen door.
But John was too quick for me. He dragged me back and grabbed me firmly by the back of the neck as he stared into my eyes like a giant snake, while I awaited the bite of his forked tongue.
“Tennis,” he said.
I relaxed. “That’s alright,” I thought. John released my head.
“It’s a game,” I said.
“Not the game, boiled brain,” John thundered, “the line markings.”
Very confused, but willingly, I followed John as he collected a claw hammer from Dad’s toolbox and strode to a nearby park, which had a semi-derelict tennis court as most of the players were serving in the Armed Forces. I had the job of stripping the lead as I was small enough to squeeze through the rotting fence. We surveyed the scene, John pointed to the old markings and, sure enough, they consisted of thin strips of lead. He handed me the hammer and told me to strip up a yard or so of the base line, while he kept watch.
“Won’t they miss it?” I asked nervously.
“They probably did when it was there,” said John, enigmatically. “Now shurrup and yank.”
I pulled up a section and we carried the weighty piece home. John cut several chunks off with a chisel and put them into a cast iron pot with a lip, originally used for melting wood glue in the garage.
We returned to the kitchen, where we mixed the plaster in a tin and pressed the toy submarine upside down into it.
While waiting for the plaster to set, we put the pot of lead on to the largest burner on the stove to melt, which it soon did – giving off great clouds of smoking fumes. We hurriedly opened the kitchen door and windows, and turned the burner down to ‘simmer.’ The house would not be habitable for several days, but that’s a different story . . .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For almost 20 years he worked for Bass Charrington, controlling licensed premises throughout the Midlands, and also for Mitchells & Butlers in Birmingham, during which time he was with the Hall Green Little Theatre and became a stalwart member of the Blossomfield Club in Solihull, where for many years he performed, directed and was co-writer of original musical comedies produced and performed there.
At one time a presenter for BBC Radio Birmingham, Eric spent ten years with the Monitoring Section of the BBC World Service in Berkshire, becoming well-known locally for his acting talent, especially mimicry and humour, winning numerous awards over the years.
Eric was married twice and met his second wife in Henley-on-Thames, when she directed him in J.B. Priestley's When We Are Married. At that time he was semi-retired working as a warden at Windsor Castle, where he endeared himself to his colleagues but was often reprimanded for displaying his unique brand of humour to the general public.
Retiring to Devon in 2001, Eric enjoyed boat restoration, brewing very strong cider, cultivating rare trees and plants and reading. He began writing his stories in 2004 - and also began tales from his adult life, regrettably unfinished. He and his wife performed in Salcombe, where he is celebrated in the South Hams for his performance in the famous music hall sketch 'Dinner for One' (YouTube - Dinner for One, Eric).
His final memorable performance was at the 2011 Dartmouth Drama Festival, five months before he died, where he brought the house down in the two miming sketches from Michael Frayn's Alarms & Excursions, directed by his wife. His expertise was as sharp as ever and, as always, he received tumultuous applause.
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