Richard Littlejohn's England (as imagined by John Walsh): Our writer predicts what the Daily Mail columnist will reveal in his memoirs
Littlejohn's new book, which is published next week, is a paean to the England of his childhood; an England that has, in his own words, gone to hell in a handcart
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Wednesday 14 May 2014
The local Mixed Infants School was a mile away, and we had to walk to it, and walk home, every day, through the bucketing rain, the howling tempests, the incessant hail and the snarling of the wall-eyed Staffordshire at No 27 Grim Terrace. There was no expensive, top-quality Range Rover to run us to the school gates in comfort, I'm glad to say. Just imagining it makes me sick.
The school itself was a minimally adapted Victorian lunatic asylum with a torture chamber, padded cells and glacial radiators. I don't ever remember it being closed, even in the most freezing winters, just because snow had locked us all inside what was effectively a refrigerator.
What a happy contrast to the pathetic modern habit of shutting a school just because the classrooms are too cold to teach the pampered little darlings!
My teacher, Eric Sutton, was probably the most important man in my life after my father. An ex-Army NCO, he liked bellowing at small boys in the playground. A fearsome cane hung on the wall of his study. I seem to have forgotten whether he ever actually used it, on me or anyone else, but he was, to me, the living embodiment of the headmaster in the TV shows Whack-O! and Bottoms Up!, played by Jimmy Edwards as a bullying, alcoholic, manipulative sadist.
Whatever the weather, we were sent into the playground to play football and cricket. The school didn't have a playing field, but the headmaster thought it was character-building for us to play on the hard concrete surface and he was absolutely right. Halfway through the lunch break, the First Aid room would fill up with casualties – scraped flesh, split lips, damaged knees, broken elbows, gashed heads, gouged eyes – and the floor would be sticky with blood. We didn't mind. A few scrapes, fractures and maimed limbs were the currency of childhood. Any boys caught fighting would be sent to the gym by the headmaster to put on boxing gloves and punch each other's heads in for six minutes. These days, I suppose, the local education busybodies would come round and try to ban this manly practice on the grounds of neglect or cruelty. Ridiculous, isn't it?
Holidays at home - far better than France (Getty)
I loved sweets, but I ate far too many Black Jacks (am I even allowed to say the word "black" these days?) and wine gums, until my teeth rotted in my head. God knows what the health Nazis would say in 2014 about giving kids sweets all day long. They'd probably try to advise against it or something.
Anyway, going to the dentist at the local Town Hall was like being taken to jail or an execution yard. Everything smelt of disinfectant and terror. The equipment was scary, the dentist was Satanic and his assistant, far from resembling Barbara Windsor with a white uniform displaying 6in of cleavage, looked like she swabbed the floor in an abattoir.
They gave me a local anaesthetic which didn't work until the treatment was over, and I was dragged away: bleeding, groaning, retching and half-dead. Happy times. Now, of course, you're expected to sit in a comfortable chair, listening to soothing music and watching a ceiling video screen while an Australian chap anaesthetises you thoroughly and makes your teeth better without pain or fuss. I ask you. It's elf-n'-safety run riot.
And don't get me started about trips to the seaside. They were paradise. There we'd be, the whole family in Grandma's Ford Popular, driving down to Southend – they hadn't invented poncey child safety seats in those days, so if Grandma stamped on the brakes, we'd go flying through the car and smash our heads on the windscreen – with picnic hampers full of ham-and-egg sandwiches, and thermos flasks full of tepid tea. Gale force winds came roaring up the Estuary, scouring our faces and chafing our chins. We often had the beach to ourselves, because some people didn't like the artillery shelling at the Ministry of Defence firing range on Pig's Bay, next door.
Rose-tinted memories: the Fifties were a time when boys were boys and toys were toys (Getty Images)
Southend Pier, more than a mile long, was crammed with fruit machines to fleece the dim and gullible day- trippers. It truly was a Golden Age of British seaside holidays. I can't imagine how it could have been forced to close because people started taking cheap flights to southern Spain and France, where the beaches are sunny and sandy and all that rubbish. Ah, the bliss of munching a saveloy when you're just out of the chilly sea. They were made of mechanically recovered pig intestines, mud and roofing nails, shoved into a condom and fried in batter, and regularly gave you tetanus. These days, modern, risk-averse 'elf snoopers would try to get them banned, on the grounds of allowing people to live longer.
We learned all about girls' bodies from discarded naturist magazines, showing naked men and women hiking across the moors and playing volleyball. But the ladies' genitalia were mostly airbrushed out. It was 'Elf'n'Efficiency gone mad.
In swimming pools, there was enough chlorine to turn your hair white. It was supposed to stop you getting verrucas, but it didn't work and gave you conjunctivitis as well. These days, needless to say, if the local council thought there was something dodgy in the water – polio, say – they'd probably drain the pool and get some environmental wallahs to clean the thing before letting the kids go back in.
You know what? I'd rather have the old days back. Fresh air, civic pride, innocent fun, shouty teachers, corporal punishment, sliding tackles on concrete, black eyes, terrible food, North Sea beaches, Watneys Ale, rotting feet, nudie mags, conkers, doing what you were told by your elders and betters. A simpler time with simple pleasures, before the Sixties came along and spoilt everything.
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