During the first pandemic lockdown, I decided to have a go at writing a work of fiction. Not a very original response to adversity, I know, but it did at least keep me busy, and time flew by. Even before Covid 19 provided the cataIyst, I had been toying with the idea of a novel based loosely on my own and others’ experiences of being brought up on a post-war prefab on the outskirts of London. A fictionalised autobiography I suppose. As it has turned out, it’s more fiction than biography.
One of my motives was to find out if I could write credible fiction. Characters, plot, dialogue, narrative arc – all that stuff. I did write some comedy dialogue when I was in the BBC, and had some input into inventing characters, but most of my writing has been factual, up to now. My worst problem has been getting the real characters out of my head, my family and neighbours.
Well, eventually I decided just to have a go. All I knew was how it would start. A genuine early memory, embellished by a photograph or two. My first experience of a prefab estate, even before anybody lived there. A snapshot, embedded in my brain. Injected into the brain of Tom, the central character:
“One image sticks, like a scene in a film. Black and white of course – life was black and white then, apparently.
A young mother struggles with a double pushchair across frozen rutted mud. A four-year-old boy tries to keep up, hanging gamely on to the lurching unsprung pushchair. He’s wearing the overcoat mum has adapted from a cast-off, light blue serge, and the grey, scratchy woollen balaclava she has knitted for him. This is his birthday treat. February the fourteenth, 1947. Valentine’s day. Mum wanted to call him Valentine but Dad thought that sounded sissy, so he is now called Tom instead. A proper boy’s name. Too excited, he begins to skip, only to fall on the ice, sharp as broken glass. Well, I told you, she said. His brother just grins.”
One big problem was that my own memories, even if I could trust them, were nowhere near being enough to provide enough content for a novel, so rather than drop the whole idea, I approached some of people who had written comments about their memories on this blog, and put them into the mouths of fictitious characters. Here’s one example, the memories of Charlie, Tom’s brother:
Email message – firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com
Hi bro. Thanks for your last. I have had a good go at your blog and I must say my first reaction was why are you and Giselle doing this? I don’t really get this kind of stuff, memoirs and all that. I know you got talked into it, but I think it’s an obsession with you now, especially the prefab stuff. Some of the other memoirs are pretty interesting – loads of stuff I didn’t know about in fact. You do have the knack – I liked quite a lot of your accounts of teaching and journalism. Far more readable than our life on the estate. Anyway, now you want my memories. I’m not keen, but I don’t want to disappoint you, so I’ll do my best. Actually, Maia seems very keen on this – she’s always been fascinated by our family. So different from hers I suppose. I don’t mind being named. I think all this false name stuff is just cowardly. But for God’s sake don’t let anyone have my contact details.
Email message (date)
firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com
Well I suppose I asked for that. Did you read all the comments on the prefab blog posts? I must admit this has become something of a Frankenstein’s monster, and I admit to being obsessed. I just love writing, and I am really interested in the anti-prefab angle. The thing is, all these people we grew up with seem to remember you rather than me, and I’m not surprised. When I was pedalling away on the fretwork machine, or on the bike, or building radio sets, you were out there on the street, chasing one or other girl, fighting with the bad boys, or learning the three chord trick on the guitar I made for you. You were Mr popular, and I was always proud of you for that. You even managed to make dad laugh, for which you deserve a medal. In any case, this is for Giselle’s research, not my blog. She’s just trying to write the story of the post-war prefab boom, partly through the memories of the likes of us. Of course we won’t divulge your contact details – I never do. Please thank Maia for bullying you into this. She’s a treasure.
firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com
So sorry this has taken so long. My turn to confess this time – I really enjoyed doing this. It also made me think more about my life, so different from yours. Leaving school at 15, joining the merchant navy, girl in every port (I wish!), playing in the band, meeting Maia, deciding to stay in NZ, hitting the Auckland music scene, working in the wine trade, settling in Titirangi, two kids of our own – the whole nine yards. It’s a very strange thing to sit on the beach and think back to our prefab days. And I’m really sorry I was so shitty about your blog. The more I read it, the more I understand what motivates you, but I still find much of it boring. What I most remember is how I looked up to you when we were kids, even though we fought so much, as brothers do I guess. I was embarrassed by your bloody plywood pipe racks and wooden toys, but I can now reveal that I was secretly proud of you. Not to mention the home-built wireless and hi-fi. Looking back, the difference between us is that you made the best of the hand we were dealt, and you’re still doing that. I just ran away at the first chance I got, then built a new life. We were both right, but in different ways. Nobody can change the past, but there’s no harm in thinking about it I guess, so long as it’s not just an escape from the present. Prefab memoirs attached!
Attachment: Charlie’s memories
I can’t remember moving into the prefab, and I don’t remember what Tom calls the old house at all. I suppose to begin with, Tom used to protect me, and I did look up to him. But I suppose later on he used to annoy me, and we used to fight over anything at all, according to my mum. Tom reckons our dad banned us from playing in the street, but I didn’t know that. My earliest memories are mum playing the mandolin and listening to children’s hour on the wireless. I suppose dad must have abandoned the ban at some point because the things I remember best either happened in the street or up on the hill behind the estate, or at school.
All those years back the estate roads were very quiet. Not many vehicles used the estate road and if they did they always drove slowly as they knew us kids would be out and about playing in the road. One of our favourite games was roller skate hockey, mimicking the Wembley Lions ice hockey team that we’d often seen at the Empire Pool. During the matches ice hockey sticks would often get broken and if so we’d rush to the front of the ice rink and ask for the broken sticks, which we took home and repaired with angle brackets and insulation tape. The puck was a circular taped up tobacco tin. The only disadvantage was there was no area of the estate road that was flat, so one team always had a disadvantage of having to skate uphill.
I remember a big day in 1953 (but not as big and grand as the Queen’s Coronation) on the estate, with flags and banners and people clapping and cheering as one of the tenants returned home from fighting in the Korean War.
In our back garden our dad built a large brick coal bunker and every summer he ordered a ton (20 bags) of coal as you’d get a special summer discounted rate. When it was delivered my job was to count the bags as some of the coal men were not always honest. Each bag had to be carried on the coal man’s back from the road to our prefab which was probably 50 yards or so. When they had finished mum always made them a cup of tea. In those days we didn’t use mugs only cups and saucers, the coal men would then tip the hot tea from the cup into the saucer to cool it and then slurp it from the saucer.
Milk was delivered six days a week by the United Dairy based at top of Church Lane. First by horse and cart then by electric milk float. I remember one Christmas “Jim the milkman” had been given a tot at so many prefabs that he was well and truly sozzled. He wasn’t in any fit state to drive the horse and cart back to the depot, so someone took the horse and cart to the top of the estate and then the horse took over the journey back. The horse had done the journey twice a day six days week for so many years it knew the way.
“Jim the milkman” was a likeable chap always ready to help anyone, when I was younger I had ricked my neck, and seeing me he asked my mum’s permission and gently but firmly straightened it out in one click.
When our next doors neighbour’s rabbit contracted Myxomatosis, they couldn’t face doing the kindest thing in that situation themselves so they left a note in their empty milk bottle asking Jim to put it out of its misery, he did just that with no fuss. He was always helping folks out.
I remember as a kid saving the newly mown grass cuttings and feeding it to the horse. Eventually the horse and cart was replaced by an electric milk float, it was never the same.
There was a sequel. Something that happened right outside our side door. One day we heard the whine of the float as it went by, then a loud bang, then a lot of swearing and a child wailing. The swearing came from the milkman (Jim?), the wailing came from a toddler whose toy pushchair was firmly wedged under the milk float. It took some getting out, and when it finally emerged the pushchair was a mangled wreck, but its passenger, a teddy bear, only had mild concussion and some loss of stuffing, easily mended.
Bread was delivered by the Co-Op bakery. The paraffin man came round autumn and winter, as the only means of warmth was the coal fire but it only heated the front room, and that not very well, so almost everybody had at least one paraffin heater of some kind. They were pretty dangerous due to the naked flame inside. One of my mates had a Valour in the hall which was knocked over and burst into flames. His mum screamed to him to open the front door which he did and she threw the whole thing flaming out onto the front path.
The rag and bone man came around the estate on a regular basis crying out loudly. “Any old iron rag bone”. If you gave him a decent bundle of clothes he’d give you a goldfish in a plastic bag full of water, us kids thought that was great.
I used to play with a gang of boys in those days, even though our parents disapproved. We used to think up all kinds of tricks to play on other kids, especially girls. We also targeted kids from the posh houses who used to pass by the estate. One little girl used to ride her Gresham Flyer on the main road just outside the estate. We distracted her and put a banger in the little boot of her tricycle, and it blew the lid off. I think her mother reported the incident to the residents association. She called us prefab hooligans.
One of my first girlfriends told me a weird story. Whilst going out of the estate on a lovely summers day she passed one of the prefabs back garden and saw the bloke that lived there sitting in a deckchair sunbathing, dressed only in a swimming costume. She thought nothing of it, but on her return home much later that evening he was still there. She thought it was strange, as the temperature had dropped considerably by then but the following day she discovered that when his family had arrived back home they found he was in fact stone dead!
Miss Timmins was the head mistress when I started in the infants, Mr Pratt was the headmaster of the juniors. I was caned by him for being in a gang, not that we did anything wrong just that we called ourselves the Marmite gang! Mr Denton, the deputy head took us for PE in the hall upstairs. I remember the two gigantic hymn books hanging up in the hall for the children to sing from. Also in the hall were the shields of the four school “houses” Nelson (blue) Faraday (yellow) Elgar (red) Goldsmith (green). Going back to Mr Denton, I was sent to him for messing about in Miss Thompson’s art class. She said “Tell Mr Denton what you’ve done”. He was teaching Class 1 at the time, in one of the HORSA huts. I knocked on his door when he called me in I told him what I’d done, he took me into the cloakroom between the two classrooms of the HORSA buildings and gave me three lashes of the cane on my backside. He always had a row of lads waiting outside his class to give them the cane. I got the cane for leaving the jar of water on the desk after an art lesson! There was a boy called Leonard who received the cane 36 times in one term! The classes were very large, in our class there were 50 children.
I never messed about in art again! Mr Denton smoked cigarettes and I always remember him on playground duty with a cup of tea slurping it through his teeth.
(HORSA is the acronym for the ‘Hutting Operation for the Raising of the School-Leaving Age’, a programme of hut-building in schools introduced by the UK Government to support the expansion of education under the Education Act 1944 to raise the compulsory education age by a year to age 15.)
I remember that one day I got sick of it and went home soon after lunch. Mum got stroppy and walked me to school next day, warning the teacher she should see that I stayed there. She did. I hated lessons but I have since learned that there are times in this life when you have to wear stuff you’d rather do without.
But things changed when we had to sit the 11+ exam. I failed it because I hadn’t paid attention much in class. Unlike my brother Tom, who was in the year above me. He was a typical swot but I just loved being outside playing or doing sport, specially football and cricket. Some kids supported Spurs, others were keen on Arsenal or Chelsea, and there were a lot of fights about who was the best. We all used to collect cigarette cards specially the football heroes like Stanley Matthews and Danny Blanchflower.
I don’t remember much about Miller’s Way secondary modern, except flirting with girls, playing for the school first eleven and joining a skiffle band called the Merry Millers. We were inspired by Lonnie Donnegan. I started on the tea chest base, but I wanted to play the guitar and I didn’t have one, so my brother Tom who was a dab hand at fretwork made me one in his woodwork classes at his grammar school. Somebody taught me the 3-chord trick and I was away.
By then I had learned how to keep out of trouble. The teachers were mostly useless and nobody learned much. I didn’t fancy woodwork or metalwork, but I did like art. The girls used to do typing and domestic science, which was mostly cooking. One of my best girlfriends was called Chiara, and she used to give me food she cooked, and just to be with her I asked if I could swop woodwork for domestic science. This was unheard of, but they let me do it. For all their faults, the teachers were quite progressive for the times I guess. Me and Chiara used to cook Italian dishes we cooked from recipes Gerry’s mum lent us. She was from Italy. My parents hated the spaghetti and tagliatelle I brought home, but we had some laughs when dad couldn’t manage to get them into his mouth without getting sauce all down his shirt, and he never pronounced her name properly. Chiara could swear in Italian and she was beautiful. She didn’t live on the estate, and when she came home with me, there were some funny looks. Looking back I think she got a fair bit of racist crap, probably because of the war I guess, but she had been well trained by her brilliant mum Mirabella so she was excellent in the use of bad language and rude gestures. Chiara was the best thing in my teenage life, and we did really love each other. Sometimes she used to sing in the band, and years later I heard she became an actress and ballad singer in America.
Tom’s first guitar fell to bits quite quickly, so he made another one for me, and by the time I left school I could play loads of chords and even some lead-guitar riffs, and I joined another band. We used to do gigs at weddings and parties, and even earned a few bob. But it was just a hobby, and my mum and dad were badgering me about what to do after school. The so-called careers teacher was useless, so I went with Tom to our local library, where they had lots of careers stuff, and I looked up information about becoming a chef, but that meant going to college. I wanted something that didn’t involve sitting in any more classrooms, but the message came through loud and clear that you couldn’t expect walking out of school with no O levels and expect to saunter straight into a brilliant career and make loads of money.
I thought about the police and the military, but for some reason I always fancied the navy because two of our cousins did that, so I joined the local sea cadets for a while. This was a new world for me. We were a long way from the sea, but we did get to row a large boat on the reservoir a few times, which was fun, and the old salts who ran the sessions were great old blokes with all kinds of far-fetched memories of their lives at sea. One of them, Danny, had been a ship’s cook in the merchant navy for many years, and he had some brilliant stories to tell. He explained that if I was serious I would have to start at the bottom rung and apply to go to a training school, and he would give me a reference. He also told me a lot about his life, good and bad. Looking back, he was right about most of it. So I was the first to move out of the prefab, bound for Plymouth. I was dead lucky – these days you need a degree or something to become a ship’s cook, and there are few Brits in the game now.
A few years after of our prefab had been pulled down I had sailed the world in and out of the kitchens of the Shaw Savill liners Southern Cross and Northern Star, feeding officers and passengers bound for South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. My favourite was New Zealand, and eventually I built a new life here. One day, sitting on our veranda, I watched a bungalow being towed along the Northern Wairoa river near Dargaville. It reminded me of my prefab days somehow.”
Special thanks to Paul Kennedy for providing some of Charlie’s memories.
These are only drafts! I have not visited Prefabulous since last summer, but now we are back in severe lockdown (and it’s snowing,) I am going to have yet another go at it. My biggest mistake was to read other novels while I was researching and writing; I just lost confidence. I think I’m over that now so I might serialise it on this blog, if only to properly thank all those who have been so helpful.
First job: decide on the order of chapters………….
Hi Peter, don’t give up on the book, we all need to read something lighthearted in these strange times. I’ve been trying to finish mine since 2011 called Back in the Sixties based loosely on the scrapes etc me and my mates got into.
Thanks Paul. Good to get some enouragement. Your project sounds like a hoot – love to read it when your’e ready.