The amazing lives and times of Yorkshire’s matchstick kids

| January 7, 2013 | 0 Comments

Eric Firth writes about growing up in Bradford during the 1930s and 40s. Part 1 (continued next month).

WWII gas maskI recently read the The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by American writer Bill Bryson. Now Bill is a decent sort and I know he likes England, having lived here many years. He’s even heard of Bradford, which says a lot for an American.

The book is about his 1950s-60s “gee shucks fellas” all-American childhood in Iowa, and after reading and enjoying it I thought, “That’s not much of a childhood compared to us Yorkshire and other English kids who grew up in the 1930s and 40s.”

Born into the Great Depression of the 1930s, the last generation of LS Lowry’s “Matchstick Kids”, we weren’t thin, we weren’t even skinny. We were bony. Not that we needed a depression to make us bony: it’s the way we were, a result of poverty, unhealthy living and shocking working conditions in smoky woollen towns and overcrowded two-up-two-down back-to-back houses containing over-large, under-fed families.

I was born in January 1933: they would have been really tough times, but not for us newborns. We all had two devoted parents who’d see us through the greatest depression no matter what the cost. I certainly do remember, though, sitting on the floor next to our large Bush radio – taller than me – with my mother and older brother and hearing a man with a very posh voice say, “We are at war with Germany”. Only a short time earlier, an even younger me heard something about a man not wanting to be a king. I can still see the worried look on Mam’s face as I asked, “Is there going to be a war?” Her reply: “It looks like it”.

From depression straight into World War II, no danger of us fattening up there. We should be so lucky. Schoolkids of the 40s would wake up, get a quick swill from the ice-cold tap at the top of the ice-cold cellar steps, grab a jam sandwich and try to sneak off to school, our mothers shouting, “ No you don’t, not without your gas mask, get back ‘ere” – they didn’t miss much, 1940s mams.

We hadn’t forgotten the gas masks, we just hated them. They hung around our necks nearly strangling us, and when wearing them in school for gas mask practice we could hardly breathe. It was even worse when playing football. We usually, kindly, gave the youngest kid the honour of keeping an eye on them for us, promising him a kick of the ball before we finished.

Leaving the house, we’d head up the dark gloomy passages onto the cobbled stone streets. Here we’d read strange new messages on walls, like “Dig for victory”, “Is your journey really necessary?”, “Careless talk costs lives”, and shop windows with notices declaring, in the brightest of whitewash, “Closed for the duration”. “Wot’s duration mean, Eric?” “Dunno, Jimmy.” Then one day a nice lady told us it meant till the war is over.

We hadn’t got round to graffiti yet, but soon GI Joes would be informing us that “Killroy was here”. “Who’s Killroy, Eric?” “Dunno, Jimmy”.

Thanks to Eric. Continued next month.

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