A-Z of Childhood

Necklace of Stars, poetry, quilts
A memory alphabet, by Tony Shelton

A for Aeroplanes. I drew hundreds, but only going from right to left.

Birds. I knew only blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons, robins on Christmas cards, and
the starlings which invaded to summer feast on next door’s overgrown cherry tree.
All the rest came much later. I was a city boy.

Class. What class are we? I asked my father as he read his Daily Telegraph. Working class,
he replied in a flash and turned to the Daily Mirror. It was good enough for me.

Death: When the old king died, I didn’t know what to feel. What was he to me? When my
father died, I didn’t know what to feel. He just never came home from hospital. I think I am
now ready to get to know my father.

11-plus. My first life hurdle. My first taste of anxiety, with the threat of failure and
condemnation to the notoriously rough Rowan Road secondary modern. And my first sweet
taste of success as I stop, halfway up the stairs, to tell my father that I have passed, and the
only memory I have of his praise.

Fire. Father should have known that stretching the Daily Telegraph across the newly laid
fire to encourage combustion was risky, since fire engines were a common sight in our road.

Games. Wednesday afternoons meant rugby, being crushed in mud at the bottom of a
heavy scrum, the acrid smell of the paint factory in the air, or cricket, suffering with the
streaming eyes of hay fever. The dread grew from Monday onwards.

Hard times. In 1947 my father and I trudged through the snow, pushing my old pram to
collect coke from the gas works, pausing on the way back for my reward, a brawn sandwich
in Sam’s Wonder Café.

Ignorance. When a tall, slim young woman called Freda came to stay with us in our
holiday caravan, I accepted it as normal until, years later, I saw the photograph of the four of
us and put two and two together: a ‘friend of your father’s’ mother would have said; if I had
asked.

Justice. I avoided Mr Bacon’s blackboard ruler, Miss Dooner’s slipper, the flying
woodwork tools of Mr Woodiwiss, the Head’s cane and the boot of blind Mr Judge but I was
once pulled up by my hair and slapped on the leg in the playground by Mrs Wilson and for a
moment, felt proud.

Knowledge. I knew things, I collected facts, swapped them, argued about them but I
never knew how to think.

Lino. We might not have had carpets but we had modernistic lino, light brown with lines
and squares, a Mondrian floor, a trendy choice of the young couple my parents must once
have been.

Mitcham Common. A paradise of long grasses, bushes, scattered trees and The Swamp,
where we waded in wellies, looking out for frogs and the boa constrictor, and became lost for
a timeless moment.

Nails: When Michael Naylor changed seats with his twin sister Anita so she could sit next
to me, she took my hand under the table and dug her sharp nails into my soft palm until she
saw the first tears. I didn’t know why. I still don’t. My first encounter with conspiracy.

Out. Out of doors, out with a friend, out on your own, looking, finding, watching, wandering,
wondering, out of contact, out of sight out of control, out of this world.

Posh Helen Bowdon lived in a posher-than-average house, had a queen voice to match
and was always picked to play the lead in the school play, until the year when the part went
to Yvonne Wilson who lived with her mum in a cottage and wore a gypsy ribbon in her hair.
Helen Bowden fled weeping, locked herself in the girls’ offices and wouldn’t come out. She
was still there when the bell rang and all the kids stood outside chanting La dee dah la dee
da, Come on out wherever you are until it was time for tea and she could creep home.

Quadratic Equations. Maths x 2 + Thursday mornings = fear + loathing.

Robin Hood. My Saturday evening Marxist hero with his band of men and own jolly sing-
along song.

Spheksophobia. I helped father dig the potatoes at the end of the garden until a painful
sting sent me crying indoors and caused a life-long fear of wasps.

Tooting. My Casablanca with its fabulous Moorish Granada and the exotic market, full of
large pieces of meat, strange things to buy and the echo of men shouting.

Underpants. Why do I have to wear pants? I asked. To stop you getting spotty, said my
father.

V-Bombers. Vulcan, Victor and Valiant roared over the air show runway, bringing father
and son closer in a communion of awe.

Winkle Pickers. At 15, I took the part of a teenager and bought impossibly pointed shoes
and yellow socks that glowed in the dark but no-one seemed to notice enough to
compensate for the pain.

X-ray Eyes. I always wanted the see-through vision of Superman but all I got was a
xylophone.

Ynot. It was an embarrassingly long time before I learned to write my name the right way
round. It now makes a memorable password element.

Zoo. Every child should remember a trip to the zoo. I don’t, though I know I was taken. I
have let my parents down.
Embroidery from The Great British Tea Ceremony, St Helens

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post. The embroideries that illustrate this blog post are images from The Great British Tea Ceremony section of the arthur+martha book THE WARM /&/ THE COLD. They were made by the Four Acres community in St Helens.