The Champion Fighter
I was born in the upstairs bedroom at 38 Littleton Street, Walsall. In those days, home births were common, and the midwife would come to the house. I was born during the night, and the next morning my two sisters were told “come and look at your baby brother!” They didn’t think I was real, as they said I looked like a doll.
Barbara was ten when I was born, and Carol was eight. They used to take me to the local park (the Arboretum) in my pram. When they got back to my mom’s house she would send them back again as they hadn’t been out for long enough, saying “Walk the other way round this time”. Later, I would pedal my red wooden train with them pulling me on a string.
My parents bought some German wind-up toys from a sale, and amongst the toys was a monkey, stuffed with straw. It was old when I got it, and I called it ‘Monkey’. It’s head fell off several times over the years, and I learned to sew it back on.
At the age of four, I started school at Hydesville Tower school. The school was about a mile away from our house, and I believe I walked there and back on my own every day – I can’t remember anyone taking me. There was one main road to cross, but the traffic in those days was much less than it is now. I remember going to the school for the very first time with my mom, and being impressed that they had wire lockers. I wore a school uniform – khaki shorts and a blazer, and in the winter a navy mac (raincoat).
Hydesville was a ‘posh’ private school, and I had elocution lessons from Miss Bryan, the headmistress. I remember having to practice the vowel sounds – A, E, I, O, U – and was given a piece of paper showing the shape the lips had to be in for every vowel. One of the practices involved putting a pencil over your top lip and holding it there by rolling your lips. Miss Bryan taught us decorum, and that it was important to never eat in the street!
After games at school I had to part my hair, but didn’t know which side to part. Now, I knew that when I was in front of my mother’s dressing table mirror, my parting was on the side nearest the fireplace. So I imagined myself walking out of the room – parting now over there, out of the house – parting now facing the street, and all the way to school. It took me a little time to realize that left is left and right is right, no matter which way you move!
One special day in 1952 we were all invited into Miss Bryan’s study to watch the Queen Elizabeth II coronation on her black & white television. There can’t have been many pupils in the school if we all fit in one room.
We had lunch in the big hall at school, and I remember the mashed potatoes. One day I was held back after school and made to eat mashed potatoes on a plate. I must have refused to eat them at lunch time. I remember the cooks were very apologetic when they put a plate of mashed potatoes in front of me. Another day I had to sit at a lunch table all on my own, probably because I was talking too much. When desert was served, I was missed out. So after waiting for a few minutes, thinking “Do I call it sweet or pudding?”, I walked nervously over to Miss Bryan’s table and said, “Please miss, I haven’t had any sweet”. “Sweet?” she said very loudly, “We call it pudding here!” I still don’t think I got any.
At the age of about six I was in a school play. For some reason, I had to play the part of a girl. I must have done that OK, because on the night of the performance I heard miss Bryan say to someone, “We couldn’t have done it without Kirkup”. I was very proud to hear that.
One of my friends at school was a boy called Ian Crolley, who stuttered. He lived in Goscote – not a good part of town, and kept snakes as pets. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him about the snakes, but one day I went with him on the bus to his house, and sure enough there were two snakes in a cage.
For Christmas that year I got a Trix electric train set, which was terrific. I had it mounted on a big board, and it was laid out in my attic bedroom. When school started again we all talked about what we had for Christmas, and several boys had received train sets. “Is it clockwork?” someone asked me. I said that no, it was electric. I had never heard of clockwork, and thought it must be something really good by the way they talked about it!
Around the corner from Littleton Street was Teddesley Street, where my friend Derek Onions lived. We used to play in the street – cars were few and far between in residential streets in those days. Our favorite spot was ‘The Rink’, a bomb site (waste ground) behind a factory which backed onto Teddesley Street. We never found out why it was called The Rink. Some days we would make paper airplanes and fly them in the street.
One summer day we went to the Arboretum park. At the back of the Arboretum was an area called ‘The Extension’, which had a paddling pond and a small stream. The stream was interesting because it had tiny fish in it, and there were several bridges where you could look down into the water. At one point there was a small weir – a dam about twelve inches high, which the water ran over. After playing there for some time, Derek decided that he would walk across the weir. So he balanced on top of it, arms outstretched, and started to make his way across the slippery wood. But he lost his balance in the middle and fell in, getting completely wet! The water was only a foot deep, so it wasn’t dangerous. So we went back to Derek’s house, with him dripping wet. A couple of hours later I was at home, and Derek’s dad came to the door, angrily asking to speak to my mom. He said that I had pushed Derek into the water. I said that was not true! My mom got angry with him, and shoved him out the door. I was banned from seeing Derek Onions after that.
Around the corner in the opposite direction to Teddesley Street was Hatherton Street, where the dreaded Mills brothers lived. They were the local toughs and had runny noses. They would call to you in the street, “What do you think you’re looking at?” I had to pass their house on the way to the paper shop in Hatherton Street, and always rushed past and hoped they didn’t notice me. On summer days we used to leave our front door open, and one day I came into the hall to find one of the Mills brothers standing there. “Can I have that football?” he asked, pointing to my new football which was on the coat stand. “No you can’t have that one”, I said, “but I’ll get you another one.” I ran upstairs and found an old ball from my bedroom. But by the time I went back to the downstairs hall, he had gone, taking my new football with him.
Next door to 38 Littleton Street was the Littleton Arms, a brown smoky pub. My job was to take the empty beer bottles back to the off-license counter for my dad, and get bottles of R Whites Lemonade pop with the deposit money. I had a little metal crate to hold the empty bottles.
Because my parents were busy with their D&P business (photo developing and printing) in the summer, I was sent away to my Aunt Betty Casey’s house in Sunderland, in the north of England. I had never met her, but was put on a train with a label on me saying ‘Casey’, care of the guard in the guard’s van. (I thought ‘Casey’ meant that I had a suitcase!) I had to change trains at Crewe, and somehow managed to do that. On arrival in Sunderland I was picked up by people I didn’t know. The Caseys had a baby picture business that they ran from their house – like my dad used to, they would go to baby clinics and take pictures of babies in prams. Betty Casey was mean, and if you put too much butter on your bread, she would make you scrape it off again. She had an unpleasant son called David, who was a few years older than me. David’s interests were soccer and fighting. Every night we had to have a fight before going to bed, and of course I always lost. I was bewildered as to why I had been sent to live with these people who I didn’t know, and didn’t like. I was sent to the Caseys for several summer ‘holidays’ and dreaded going there.
While at the Caseys we would sometimes go to play with some of David’s friends. One day we were playing on some waste ground, and found a part of a machine, with ball bearings inside. We tried bashing it to get the ball bearings out, as they were like marbles. I found a big house brick to bash it with, but as I was bringing the brick down, one of the boys put his hand in the way, and I hit his hand instead. He was in a lot of pain and I got into trouble. Another day we were on the local beach looking at the rock pools. We heard whistling and shouting behind us, and when we turned around we saw that the tide had come in and cut us off! Someone had to wade out to us from the main beach and lead us to safety.
At Littleton Street, we had a black and white cat, called Hoppy. I don’t know where he came from – he was probably a stray, as we certainly would not buy a cat. He must have had some other name to begin with, because one day while walking in the street, he got run over by a car, and broke his leg. He was taken to the vets (I’m surprised that my parents would do that), and for many weeks had his leg in plaster. So we called him ‘Hoppy’.
Because both of my parents worked downstairs in the D&P business, we had a neighbor called Mrs Norrey, who used to do the washing, and sometimes prepare the meals. She lived right behind our house, and could walk through our back gate to come and go. I’m not sure how long Mrs Norrey worked for us, but one day my mother and Mrs Norrey got into an argument about boiling some handkerchief on the stove, and Mrs Norrey was given the sack. (let go) Hoppy must have liked Mrs Norrey, because he started to divide his time between our house and hers. That was a bit embarrassing, as we no longer talked to Mrs Norrey, and it was difficult to get Hoppy back. This went on for a while, and Hoppy visited us less and less. Eventually he decided to live at Mrs Norrey’s house, and we only saw him from our kitchen window when he was walking around her garden. He never came back to our house.
I had some health problems as a child. I remember falling down the stairs onto the marble tiles in the entry way, and having an egg-size bruise on my forehead. I had my tonsils out, followed soon afterwards by my adenoids. For some reason, instead of being sent back home after my operation, as you would have thought for a six year old, I was sent to a convalescence home, near Reading. It was a frightening place, and I remember seeing that some children were strapped down to their beds. I must have been there for several weeks, because I remember my parents and Carol coming to visit. It felt as though I had been locked up in an institution.
As we lived in a photographic household, I was given my own plastic camera. I loved the way the shutter went ‘ker-plunk’, and spent hours walking around the house and neighborhood, framing perfect pictures and pressing the shutter. There was never any film in the camera. I read some little Kodak booklets we had on the right way to take pictures – frame the picture with foreground interest, elbows in to your sides, hold your breath, ker-plunk. Then my big chance came – I went with my mother for a weekend at a hotel in Weston-Super-Mayer, and I was given a film! I had twelve pictures, and I knew I had to make every one count. To get a picture of the hotel, I climbed a tree in the grounds, and had the building framed by the branches of the tree. The pictures came out well, and I was proud of them!
One of the ‘reps’ who sold to Walsall Photofinishers was called Mr Jackman, who worked for the old-established firm of Johnsons of Hendon, in London. Mr Jackman gave me a little polished wood contact printer, with a lightbulb inside and a glass plate to hold the negative and contact printing paper. It was a great present, as the chemicals were all downstairs to develop the pictures that I made.
When I was about ten years old, and living in the house at Littleton Street, I invented a game that I called, ‘The Champion Fighter’. No one else could join in – only I could be The Champion Fighter. I was the best fighter in the whole world, and many other people wanted to kill me, so that they could be The Champion Fighter. There was even a dramatic Champion Fighter theme song, which I can still hum.
My bedroom was in the attic at the top of the house, approached by rickety lean-to stairs which I could rock from side to side by hanging onto the banister and leaning to and fro. This was where most of the Champion Fighter battles would take place. My main weapon was a cap gun, which no longer fired caps as the hammer was broken off. This was no great handicap as it fired an unlimited supply of imaginary bullets, and I would provide the noises.
When I went out, I had a Champion Fighter uniform, which I would wear as often as I could. This was a Boy Scout sweater, with a badge on the shoulder. Champion Fighters had to be incognito, so this was a disguise. I always walked with the badge side towards policemen or people I wanted to impress. The Walsall police force were in on my secret of course.
To play the Champion Fighter game, I would lie casually on my bed, reading an Eagle comic or a Biggles book, gun close at hand. Then an attacker would appear on the stairs, saying something dramatic like, “You have breathed your last, Champion Fighter”, or ”Take that, Champion Fighter”. They were always respectful as I was, after all, The Champion Fighter. I would either shoot them as they came up the stairs, or lie in wait and knock them out with an accurate blow to the head.
Sometimes, a whole gang of assailants would appear at the same time. My technique in beating a gang would be to take the first shot from low on the ground, then dodge bullets by diving onto my bed, while firing from the hip. I was a dead shot and never missed, and because of my clever dodging and shooting from the floor, was never wounded. My wounded assailants would always cry out things like, “Aaagh, I am hit!”, or “We must get away from The Champion Fighter while we still can!” It was a terrific game to play on your own!