Throw art y’moldies! This was the period when people went everywhere in charabancs, those overblown, single-deck buses with their thin tyres and great over-hang at the back. Derby Day, early in June, was a great outing in our part of South London, especially as it was on the route directly to Epsom Downs. There was a lot of talk about the race and every year there was a tremendous fair at the course, it attracted crowds of all ages and classes. I don’t know if the custom still exists, but when I was a child, we would go to Balham High Road to see the charabancs coming back from the races. The passengers were in high spirits, streaming coloured paper out of the windows and as the traffic was slow due to its volume, there was time for interchange between the people on the bus and the people lining the road. We were there in crowds; the atmosphere was almost like that at the Coronation. People were shouting and laughing and children used to call out ‘Frow art y’ mouldy coppers!’, one assumed that the winners were so well heeled a few coppers meant nothing to them. A window on the bus would open and a fistful of coppers would descend in a hail on to the pavement and then there would be a scrum between those whom my Gran called the ‘gutter-snipes’ for what they could grab. I was not allowed to join in, I had merely to observe and enjoy the ambience, although I suspect she found it hard when a fistful would land at our feet. Sometimes dolls and stuffed toy animals would come sailing out, won at the funfair, and often sweets too. The excitement felt by the gutter-snipes and the returning gamblers was contagious and had to be experienced to be appreciated, what with the heads and smiling faces leaning out of the bus windows and the cross talk between the pavement watchers and the passengers, it was almost as if we had all been there to see the races. As I got older I used to go to see the return of the revellers on my own. There was no chance of missing the event, the roars of the crowd as another fleet of busses passed at the top of the road was alarm enough.
DEAL – The Big Catch. My mother’s family, her uncles and aunts, all lived in or near Deal, where I went for short holidays with an aunt. The whole atmosphere was a revelation, they were all so ebullient, so full of fun, nothing was too much trouble, and meal-time was like a feast with everyone talking at once and the place filled with men. It was a new world. The family business was still going and they had this huge house with an immense garden at the bottom of which they kept chickens. I had already been blooded in Africa, so when my great uncle instructed me in how to pull a chicken’s neck, while I know I hated the idea, I did not flinch. I suffer from what the French call the English Disease. I think I could dispatch a human quicker than an animal, sometimes I think, with more reason. My cousin was about ten years my senior but he took me under his wing during that visit. He showed me his BSA 0.22 rifle, a powerful gun, and demonstrated how, with three shots he could shoot the stem off a pear hanging at the top of a huge tree and drop the fruit. It never occurred to me then to wonder where the bullets finished up. The rifle had belonged to the boy next door who had foolishly been using bottles for target practice when one piece of glass had ricocheted back into his eye and permanently blinded it. I was allowed to shoot at the stems of pears too, but with no success, except it gave me a love of target shooting I have never lost.
It was on an earlier holiday, before going to Africa, that I discovered how considerate and resourceful families can be when they set out to entertain, and how much fun can be had when they are all together. My Great Uncle suggested we should go fishing off Deal pier. They bought me a line, sinkers and hooks, and a rectangular wooden frame on which the fishing line is wound. The whole lot probably cost sixpence. Off we set. We went to the very end of Deal Pier for deep water and they showed me how to bait a line with a worm and throw it over the rail. I was barely the height of the toprail, if that, and had difficulty seeing where the line finished. They explained that when I felt a tug on the line, which was the fish biting, I was to tug back and then wait to allow the hook to catch the fish, then if it tugged again I was to haul in the fish, which I did, several times, going home as proud as Punch with the string of fish I had caught. It was only years later that my aunt told me that the others had been standing on the lower tier of the pier, tugging the line and putting on fish they had bought at a fish shop. Many a time I have fished since and been exhilarated with my catch, but never since did fishing give me the thrill those few fish, which in truth I had not caught, did that day.