Down the line (10 of 16)
Chapter 3 Life 'Down the Line'
On other occasions we would go on the pier, said to be the longest pier in the world at one and a quarter miles. It was fun to travel on the little electric trains and be right out over the sea. Eventually the day would end, we got changed behind towels, usually the only boy, one side of the deck chairs, the girls the other side. Then back on the train to Laindon. We would be too late for the last bus back to the bungalow, so we had to walk over the hill. Sometimes we would do this in the moonlight, which we kids found a bit creepy, what with the owls and the dark trees. But what fun those days were!
The adults also had a good time at the bungalow. The bungalow next door was built by Tom Driscoll, who with his wife Flo were life long close friends of my parents. In fact ‘Auntie Folly’ has a special place in my memories. The story goes that as an infant I could not pronounce her proper name Florence – the nearest I could get was “Folly”. So all through her life she was known as Folly or even ‘Fol’. Tom and my Dad did not have a fence between their plots, they had a combined area of grass, which was a nice touch and created a big grassy area for our ball games. There was continual to-ing and fro-ing between the two bungalows. When Dad or Tom made a cup of tea, one would call out “tea up!” and work would stop.
When it rained Folly would come into our bungalow or shed and would knit and chat with Mum. We had a wind-up gramophone, a grand cabinet affair with carved legs, and a motley collection of shellac records. We kids knew them off by heart: Barnacle Bill the Sailor, Paddlin’ Madeline Home, The Blue Danube, In Eleven More Months and Ten More Days I’ll be Out of the Calaboose. I suppose Dad bought the lot in a junk market somewhere.
Dad always had an eye for bargains. Once he bought a load of old stage scenery, which yielded a useful supply of plywood. Before it was cut up it provided fun for us children – remember there was a lighthouse complete with a wavy sea.
In the summer we had lots of visits from all of our many relations, who found the bungalow an enjoyable day or weekend out in the country. There was never any fore-warning of these visits, there was no telephone. Over the hill from the station or up the avenue from the bus, would come uncles and aunts; the first indication we had was a “coo-ee” or “hello kids” shouted from the distance. They were always welcome; they brought their own food. And there could be so many of them! All the wives would help with preparing meals.
There was always a local source of vegetables, and my Russian grandmother knew how to pluck a chicken and skin a rabbit. The men visitors would help Dad in whatever way the could, sawing and nailing, mixing cement, cutting the grass.
Grandfather Zayder sometimes turned up, which was surprising because it was out of keeping with his pub-frequenting London routine. He was a shy portly old man, who never lost his original Russian-Jewish accent. His purpose in life seemed to be double whiskies. He would disappear without a word from the bungalow, and return hours later having walked to ‘The Laindon Hotel’ and would find his way back again in the dark, falling into ditches and stumbling into herds of cows. Never the less I think he quietly enjoyed seeing all the family together, perhaps it reminded him of his pre-immigration days in his Latvian village. The women went to Robinson’s farm for more milk, and the men to Hendersons for more paraffin. They would improvise a communal outside dining table from boards and trestles, and every chair and form would be brought into service so that we could all eat together. There could be a dozen or more of us.
Cricket matches would be played on the grass while the women knitted and chatted from their deck chairs. It was a good atmosphere. There was one distant relation, Jack Tranis who was nicknamed “I’ll-Go” because whenever a ball was knocked into the bushes he would cry out “I’ll go”! Jack was married to Becky, who was Lily’s sister, who was Uncle Henry’s wife. Becky had some skeleton in her cupboard, a little matter of ‘other men’; the grown-ups would suddenly shut up when discussing the subject when we children came within earshot.
My mother and Folly often occupied a couple of hours going for a ‘poll’ i.e a stroll, ‘polling’ about. They polled round the four avenues admiring or criticising the plot-holders’ gardens and bungalows. They knew who had the best show of wallflowers, who had the best Marguerites. They knew who sold marrows, who sold the best fruit, who made jam and honey, who had puppies and kittens for sale. If they polled further along the Lower Dunton Road, they could buy a chicken at McKenzie’s farm, or eggs from Davidsons (who was the local sand and cement merchant as well). We children were always interested in going to Mr Davidson because we would rummage in the undergrowth for the china eggs that was supposed to encourage his hens to lay more eggs. When no one was looking we would pocket these eggs as trophies!
Mum and Follv had nicknames for the plot-holders. One bungalow was painted dark yellow all over – that was ‘the Mustard Club’, another had bright red paintwork and that they called ‘the fire-station’. A woman neighbour who was a chatterbox was called Mrs Talk-a-Bit. Incidentally, Mrs Talk-a Bit had a son, a little older than myself, who I admired: he had a nice loose-leaf scrapbook of Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane), all neatly written up. How I would have liked to do that – but I was an untidy urchin, I would not be capable of a neat scrapbook. Then there was an old man, one of the indigenous inhabitants of Dunton, who was a bit strange and stared at passers-by a lot; he was ‘old Bats’ (i.e batty). Another untidy smelly woman who sold lovely eating apples was given the Yiddish moniker Sorra Gella (slovenly woman) Their ‘polling’ was also a chance to learn the estate news and gossip: the farmer Robinson’s son had won a place at university; the Henderson’s son had been accepted into the RAF. A local man had died, from, it was said, always sucking a blade of grass, which poisoned him. We were amused by the notices that appeared on garden gates, one offered kittens that would be six weeks old in three weeks time. We all looked in at a bungalow in Hillcrest Avenue where the plot owner showed us a grass snake he bopped with a stick.
As the bungalows took shape and the weekenders became established, the Dunton Estate became a community. The East London conventions still applied: we all kept our respectable distance. Sometimes there would be a grass fire, and then the neighbours would rally to beat it out. So we all got on well together, after all we all shared the same aims and we all shared the lack of amenities. The common interests were the garden flowers and vegetables and fruit. I cannot recall any serious incidents involving ambulances or hospitals; we were not unduly bothered by grazes, sprains, insect bites and the like.
Generally, on the Dunton Estate in those pre-war days there was a established a neighbourly sense of community. It was different to the East End, more relaxed, more easy going – basically the difference between urban and rural life styles. My auntie Minnie found a local whist drive to go to. We all went to a local gala held in a field – Mr Davison, the sand and cement supplier, entered the greasy pole event. And we marvelled at the biggest pumpkin and marrow competition.
No words can adequately express the carefree life we kids enjoyed at the bungalow in those few years before the war: the sun, the clean open air, the rural scenery. How we enjoyed Mum’s simple sausage and egg breakfasts. We did not roam too far from the bungalow – all we wanted was near at hand – we knew where to avoid the ditches and stinging nettles and ant-hills, which boughs of the crab apple tree would break off when we climbed it, which was the driest side of the Robinson pond to fish from. The happiness and contentment, the outdoor life, the trips to Laindon and Southend, and the tiredness at the end of the summer days. We were so lucky – we had everything a child should have.
10 of 16