I think it was at Chatham that I came across a Conservative Party rally on a street corner. They were singing ďVote, vote, vote for Mr Churchill.Ē It was a parody. I can remember the tune but not the name of the song for which it was originally written. Iím pretty sure that it wasnít Winston Churchill. It may have been his son Randolph. I was rather surprised to hear Tories singing.
Weíre coming up to the worst time of my life but Iíll cover some more of the pleasanter things before then. In the years immediately before the war I started going to Speedway meetings that took place on a cinder track inside the dog track at a local stadium. The sport was invented at Maitland in New South Wales and Australian riders took it to Europe and became big stars. The biggest was probably Cyclone Billy Lamont. By the time I saw him regularly he wasnít winning many races but he was exciting to watch. There had recently been a change of riding style. Instead of leg trailing and going flat out around the bends they found that if they cut the motor and put the left leg forward they could slide round the inside of the track and that was quicker.
Billy never changed. I stood near the bend and had to duck when he came round to avoid being covered in cinders. He had earlier been such a big star that when he had to go into hospital in England once crowds gathered outside and newspaper posters reported that he was ill. Iíve read in recent years that promoters used to give the riders extra money to make a race of it. Itís possible that they gave Billy some incentive to keep riding round the outside of the bend. About 30 years ago another writer and myself toyed with the idea of writing a film about those early years of Speedway. We tracked down Billy Lamont. He was totally forgotten in Australia, lived in modest style at Meadowbank and worked as a night watchman in a factory. He told us that he hadnít seen his press cuttings etc for years. They were in boxes in his garage somewhere. Yet heíd been as much a sporting celebrity in Speedway as Don Bradman had been in cricket.
I also went for quite a time to all-in wrestling. I had no idea that this was a total fake and that the entire performance would be repeated in a different town a day or two later. One that I can remember, and I was completely sucked in, involved a wrestler with a shaven head wearing Nazi regalia. He came into the ring and was booed when he gave a Nazi salute. His opponent was a cleancut English wrestler. The ďGermanĒ fouled him and won all the points. Finally the Englishman couldnít stand it any more and began treating the German as he, himself, had been treated. Eventually the German was flat out on the canvas beating his hand on the deck to show submission and begging for mercy but he got none. The crowd loved it. Those blokes were great actors.
In 1937 Mabs arrived on the scene. Dad took Mum to the maternity home and then he, Les and myself sat up until late playing a card game called pontoon. About 11 he rang up the hospital but was told there was no news and to ring again in the morning. When he did we learned that we had a sister. That was the normal treatment for fathers. Even in 1965 when Debbie was born I was given the same instructions but said that I wanted to stay. They had no idea what to do with me and parked me in the matron's office. It was the same in Melbourne for the birth of Ingrid in 1967. They were having an exceptionally busy night and they plonked me on a bench right outside the delivery room. I heard 5 babies arriving. By 1970, however, things were getting better and a young sister invited me in to see Sara born.
A few more details of domestic life in what is already the dim and distant past. I suppose itís really less than 70 years but thatís quite long in human terms, a lifetime for many who arenít lucky enough to hang around until theyíre 80. Letís start with washing clothes. Most houses had a small laundry with a bowl-shaped stone copper. You might have taps over it or else you had to carry water from the kitchen or scullery to fill it with water. It had a small fire underneath and you lit that to heat the water. My mother had what she called a possing stick. (that may be a dialect word.) Monday was usually washday and it was hard work. She stirred and agitated the clothes with the stick which was plain wood a metre or so long and about as thick as a walking stick. It was hot and steamy in there. I think she scrubbed the clothes with a scrubbing brush and soap. Then they had to be put through a mangle to squeeze out water and give them half a chance of drying in a British winter. We had a mangle that was probably old fashioned to begin with which is why it survived the auction. It stood two metres or more high, the frame was cast iron and very heavy. It had two large wooden rollers turned by a handle on the side. If you saw the BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend you may remember the simple-minded and uncoordinated young man who Dickens named Sloppy. He had been looked after by a washerwoman (some people could afford to employ somebody else to do their washing for them.) Sloppy turned the mangle for Mrs Higden. Private charity in the 19th century filling the role played by a sheltered workshop now? ďO Mrs Higden, Mrs Higden, you was a woman and a mother, and a mangler in a million million.Ē The washed clothes were hung out on a length of rope stretched out in the backyard (weather permitting). A pole of about 3 metres with a cleft end at the top was used to raise the line higher. The bottom end of the pole being to the ground. Clothes didnít always dry outside and after washday the house would be steamy as they hung about the place drying. This was especially the case if there was a baby and wet nappies were frequently draped over a clothes horse in front of the fire. next