I was (to use that unfortunate expression) ‘brought up’ in London but, as soon as the Germans began their timeous campaign to create much needed public open space in our particularly crowded borough, the Clarke family was transferred to the quiet little village of Streetly some twenty kilometres north of Birmingham.
My father, who was involved in the early days of plastics manufacturing, was not called up during World War II because his work was considered of strategic importance. He left London to work in a small factory half-concealed on the edge of a pretty silver birch woodland on Streetly’s western border. I am not sure to this day what he was doing, but I do know that he spoke of it only out of the corner of his mouth.
He also did his bit for Britain by joining the ARP, a voluntary corps whose members ran around during and after air raids tidying up after the Germans. ARP stood for Air Raid Precautions though my mother insisted it stood for ‘’anging Round Pubs’.
We knew suffering of course. For the six years of war we were forced to eat our crusts. And we would queue from dawn at Gillings the grocer’s when a shipment of oranges came in from South Africa – and come away with one for each child in the family and purple stamps in our ration books.
Clothes and shoes were also rationed and the shoes we wore were made of compressed cardboard. My mother hammered into the soles stout metal studs called Segs. Even my sister, who cried piteously about the indignity of it, had to wear Segs. The idea was to save our soles because there was a wartime shortage of cows and, therefore, of leather.
When my sister and I walked down Foley Road we sounded like the Brigade of Guards. Dull red sparks flew from our shoes in all directions, sometimes setting fire to hayfields. Walking on Segs was like wearing roller skates because they elevated one some distance above the ground. For years I never knew what it was to walk at ground level and it was only in 1945, when the war ended and the cows came home, and we could walk around without Segs, that I discovered I was quite a short fellow.
A couple of years after the war our biology mistress announced that the time had come to teach us about animal reproduction. We could all sense that she was hugely embarrassed because in those days sex was like Operation Overlord, the plan to invade Europe – one simply never talked about it. We were appallingly ignorant about it because, after all, there were no late night TV films with men springing into bed with women.In books, when the man took the woman in his arms and her robe slipped off her shoulders to the floor, the author would resort to using dots into infinity…
We were so marvellously ignorant about where babies came from that most kids happily accepted the stork theory. Those of us who were more scientifically informed subscribed to the cabbage patch theory.
Our teacher, looking at the floor, asked if any of us knew anything about sex. I thought she had said ‘Segs’ and that she wanted to reminisce about the war, so my hand shot up. She was surprised – I think everybody was – but she bade me say my piece and I began saying how if you had lots of Segs it made you walk tall and how really good Segs could set hayfields on fire. I told her how it took me quite a long time to get used to Segs and how, quite often, I would end up on my back.
Noticing the way her eyes snapped open I warmed to the subject and told her how, the more Segs you had, the longer your shoe leather lasted. And I said how, thank goodness, Segs down at the village cost very little and how the cobbler’s wife would even give a discount.
At this stage she held up her hand for silence and bade us turn to page 117 of our textbooks and read, quietly to ourselves, about sexual reproduction in the common newt.
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