Prefabs: Pride and Prejudice

“Whatever you do, don’t play with those Pilgrim Way kids”

When I first wrote about growing up on a post-war prefab estate, I  had no idea that local people living nearby might have formed negative attitudes toward such places and their residents, deserved or otherwise. As a prefab boy, I was not aware that I and other prefab kids may have been seen as social pariahs by middle class home-owners. But following the publication of my 2015 memoir Prefab Days I was intrigued by a comment from a former schoolmate, who quoted a woman living in a “proper house” not far away, doling out essential advice to one of his friends: “Whatever you do, don’t play with those Pilgrim Way kids”.

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Prefabs | Pilgrims Way update

Fryent Country Park Story – Part 5

Paul Kennedy has brought to my attention a Pilgrims Way update by local historian Philip Grant, on the Wembley Matters blog. It’s a must for all prefab old boys and girls. Click here  to read this interesting post, the latest episode in the Fryent Country Park story.

Some key quotes which certainly chime with my memories:

“Paul remembered the woods and fields as ‘a child’s paradise to play in’, and not just in summer. ‘When it snowed we’d sledge at great speed down a very long steep hill next to Barn Hill pond, stopping only when the barbed wire fence of the cow’s field at the very bottom loomed into sight.” (By the way, I once fell through winter ice on Barn Hill pond. Lesson learned.)

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Sir John Franklin, Lincolnshire hero

Last week I got the sack! At my time of life too.  For the last five years I have been running a blog for a well known hotel in Woodhall Spa, England, now suddenly a victim of the Covid-19 crisis. So I have got my cards and the blog has been taken offline. Of the 381 posts published, one or two stories I think are worth re-publishing and updating here. Here’s an one such, originally posted in October 2014, slightly edited and updated today:

 

If you head out East from Lincoln toward the Lincolnshire coast and you get fed up with the main road, you might take the old road through Spilsby. And if you decide to take a break there, you may, as I did sometime after we settled in mid-Lincolnshire in 2001, come across the memorial in the main square commemorating the life and death of Spilsby born and Louth educated Sir John Franklin. On May 19 1845, Franklin’s exploration ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sailed out from the River Thames, with 128 officers and men, in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage.

Interesting enough in itself perhaps, but suddenly in the international news in 2014, when Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, announced that one of the two ships used for Sir John Franklin’s fatal attempt to find the Northwest Passage had been discovered, over 160 years since it was abandoned in the frozen wastes of the Canadian Arctic.

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Canteen Days

“Canteen” | a place in a factory, office, etc. where food and meals are sold, often at a lower than usual price.[Cambridge English Dictionary]

“Craic” | (Irish English) enjoyable time spent with other people, especially when the conversation is entertaining and funny [Cambridge English Dictionary]

 

I hear some people are finding it hard to stay at home and shun human contact during this Covid-19 crisis. Understandable, especially if their regular lifestyle involves daily socialising. But I am experiencing an unexpected bonus. Ever since I stopped going to work I have found it increasingly difficult to find the time to keep up with this blog; suddenly I have no excuse but to knuckle down and resume normal service. Thanks pandemic, for the first time in ages I have time on my hands.

I am fascinated with communal eating, and it’s ironically apt at the moment, when eating out is banned until further notice, by edict of BoJo. In particular, canteens are a thread which runs through much of my life, from school dinners to university refectories, via worker’s canteens, in the UK and overseas.

Even without the virus crisis I just miss the canteen experience these days, as a social diversion, a welcome pause in the working day. Looking back, there have been periods when no canteen was available on a daily basis, such as when I went freelance after leaving the BBC in 1983. At such times, the lack of a canteen was a minor disappointment, something missing in the working day.

Of course, it’s not just about the food, but the craic as well. Actually, like Commisario Montalbano I am rubbish at eating and talking simultaneously, so it’s eat-first-chat-second for me if I have a choice, but for sure there’s not much to be said for eating alone. .                 Continue reading

Prefab Days update: the green thing

When I wrote Prefab Days, little did I suspect how much interest it would stir up, notably among former residents of the Pilgrims Way estate in Kingsbury NW9. The original post was written for a museum housed in a prefabricated building, and I had to work to a word limit. One of the memories which I chose to leave out of the article concerned a cast-iron object in the street, just outside our back garden, known locally as “The Green Thing”.

Perhaps a subconscious motive for leaving the green thing out of my story was that, as I recall, my sister and I were forbidden to go anywhere near it, even though it held a magnetic attraction for other kids as the place to hang out. I am pretty sure this ban was just one outcome of our Dad’s horror of playing in the street. However I may have defied the edict on at least one occasion because I remember an event which took place right next to the green thing, which I mentioned in “Prefab Days”:

“When we moved in, work on the infrastructure was still going on, mainly finishing the roadway and footpaths. The labour force was a couple of German prisoners of war, supposedly supervised by British soldiers. We kids were strictly instructed not to fraternise with them, but of course we did, as the squaddies seemed to be notable by their absence. One of the POWs smuggled toys to us somehow, and I remember with affection the tiny metal tractor that came my way.” I am sure this happened next to the green thing, where there was a pile of sand, presumably used officially for laying paving slabs and unofficially as a sandpit for local kids less constrained than us.            Continue reading

A musical gift for the new year

Another year almost gone! I’m sorry I have not posted many stories this year, but you know how it is. Nobody told me that time speeds up the older you get. Dirty trick if you ask me. Anyway, whether you are a regular reader or you have just stumbled on this blog, please accept my best wishes for 2020, and many thanks to those who have contributed comments and “likes”.

My prezzy is a recent memory – one of my personal 2019 highlights, an evening with the Unthanks. (Who? Read on….) I hope you like it. It might cheer you up in these nightmare days of Trump, Boris, Brexit and other insane causes for depression. Escapism? You bet.

The Unthanks?

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Mark Williams: the pop hero from Dargaville NZ

Mark Williams should really have been born hollering: “Here I come, ready or not.”

I often see or hear the work of former journalism students on radio or TV who I taught at university a few years ago, and it’s always a pleasure. But such an experience is even more pleasing when it comes out of the blue, as an unexpected blast from the distant past.

When I was working recently on my post about our life in Dargaville, New Zealand, I happened across an image that rang a faint bell. I almost missed it, but even as it flashed by I thought I recognised a schoolboy called Mark Williams, who I knew briefly when I worked as a teacher at Dargaville High School in the late sixties.

What I not could know then was that Mark would become a national pop sensation only a few years later, the first local act to top the New Zealand National Sales Chart on June 27, 1975 with ‘Yesterday Was Just The Beginning Of My Life’. I had no idea until now.

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A prefab memoir

I recently happened across this rather candid audio clip in which Mr Ray Newman remembers his childhood in a post-war prefab and later in a council house in Somerset. Pros and cons, with some colourful language!

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Prefabs update: Pilgrims Way talk

Pilgrims Way NW9, looking toward Barn Hill. Origin unknownPretty much as I remember itFellow Pilgrims Way denizen Paul Kennedy recently sent me a file used to illustrate a talk by Philip Grant of the Wembley Historical Society. The talk covered all the prefab estates built just after the war in Wembley, including Pilgrims way, and draws on evidence held by Brent Archives. The Pilgrims Way section is about half way through the talk, and includes a letter from Charlie Watts and some images I have not seen before. Thanks Paul!

Here are some of the slides Philip used, but you can also download the complete presentation Kingsbury’s Post-War Prefab Homes (pdf file – 8Mb) Continue reading

My window faces the south, Part 4: Netley days

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A few weeks ago, out of the blue the phone rang to tell us that our old, and much-loved next-door neighbour Tony Bray had died. This sad news, followed by his memorable and moving burial at sea near Gosport a few days later, reminded me just what a formative period this was for us all.

Looking back, Tony, his wife Adrienne and their two sons remain right up there in the top ten greatest strokes of luck we ever had. There’s only so much research you can do when looking for a new home – estate agent blurbs, surveys, casing the joint, it’s always hit-and-miss, and one of the most important factors, your new neighbours, is the hardest factor to find out about. In this case we had won the lottery, but we didn’t know it straight away.

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