Boys Will Be Boys - not forgetting the girls
As a member of the Salvation Army I was discouraged, aye even forbidden to take part in any game or pastime on the `Lord`s Day`. My friends, or pals as we called ourselves, didn`t look upon me as anything different from themselves because of my non-involvement with them on Sundays. I was no saint and they knew it. I would join in anything they got up to during the week but Sunday was different. They had great respect and, dare I say it, love for my family and appreciated my position.
As it was, I often passed the time on Sundays by taking tram rides with friends who were similarly restricted. Our favourite was the Churchill Circular on the Nos 13 or 14 cars operating on reverse routes. The evening was spent listening to the wireless. This would change when I left the `Army` in the fifties. Most of the following narrative took place before then.
The extra daylight hours during the War were greatly appreciated and put to full use by us. Our games were numerous and were in the main influenced by the season of the year. A game could be in fashion one day and the next day another had taken its place. We even played cricket but not one to satisfy even the most liberal purist of the game. A flat piece of wood would fill in for a bat with the stumps chalked on to a wall. All bowling had to be underarm.
Most of these pastimes involved no expense, and for those that did, our weekly pocket money would be sufficient. One such game was bools, marbles being the proper term.
Our bools consisted of various types - plain glass with colour inners, cherries, and steelies (ball bearings). They were kept in old stockings or a leather bag with a drawstring.
As in all sports, there were good players and bad players. This led to a system of buncing. Buncing was the pooling of bools by two or more persons, with the best player or players doing the playing. The game involved a circle being drawn on the ground, ideally on a soft surface where it could be indented. This was achieved by pivoting on your heel and turning through 360 degrees at the same time marking the ground with your instep.
From an agreed distance the competitors pitched their opening bool at the circle and the one landing nearest the centre had the first plunk. Plunking was the art of flicking a bool by the action of the thumb against the forefinger that held it. The idea was for the plunked ball to strike an opponent`s and this would be deposited in the plunker`s bag. From where it landed, the plunker would then take aim at the next nearest and so on until he missed the target.
The nearest to the circle from the original pitch would then be given the opportunity to access it. This game went on until all bools had been taken. A new game then began.
A successful bunce could accummulate a fair profit, and this was shared out according to the original investment. I was only a fair player so I was content to allow another person to play for me. A lad called Tam Veitch was recognised as our best player and no wonder. He could hit another bool with almost 100% accuracy. Such was his skill, I bunced with him as often as possible.
A very popular game was `cuddy hunking` with two teams of boys of undetermined numbers. It required a boy from one of the sides standing with his back to the wall. With his fingers entwined and his open palms facing upwards in front of him, the second member of his team would bend over and lay his forehead in them. The third person would then bend down and tuck his head between his buttocks and at the same time grasp him around the thighs. And so on until the whole team was tied in this way.
The first member of the other side would then run forward and leapfrog as far as possible onto the bent backs. He was not allowed to edge forward from his landing position. He was then followed in turn by the rest of his team. The idea was for the whole team to succeed in landing on the backs. This was not as easy as it sounds. The best leaper would go first to be followed by the second best and so on. The first team had to remain in position for a determined period without buckling under the weight or else go in again.
The teams would then reverse the situation. No points were awarded, but it was great fun.
Numerous ball games were played with one particular favourite being `dodgy`. Forming into a circle with legs apart and each foot touching the persons` on either side of you, a tennis ball would be dropped into the centre. All had to wait until the ball left the circle between someone`s outstretched legs. This person then had to retrieve the ball whilst the others ran clear.
From the spot where the ball was picked up, it would be directed at one of the scattering others. If it struck him, then that person was out. If it failed to strike or the target caught the ball in his hands on the full, then the thrower was out. The circle would then reform minus the excluded one and the game begun all over again. A sore face could be the result from the accurately thrown missile at speed. Sometimes there were tears.
When a few of us felt like another game involving a ball and with insufficient numbers to make up football sides, we often elected to play `headers`. Involving only two persons, each would stand about 15 feet from each other while facing up. The first person would throw the old tennis ball up in the air then catch it with his head and try to direct it past his opponent. It was the opponent`s job to try and stop it passing by him. Then it was his turn to do likewise. The game ended with an agreed number of goals having been achieved.
Hide and Go Seek
A game that involved the girls. With one person being `het`, that is the one who had to do the seeking, the others would run and hide while the chaser had to cover his/her eyes for a short period. This meant a fair bit of running around. After being spied, the chaser and the chased had to race back to the den to see who arrived there first. If it was the one who was `het`, then he/she would then go after another, the `found` one remaining out of the game. On the other hand this person could be freed by a fellow player who came out of hiding and got to the den before the seeker. It could be very exasperating for the one who was `het`.
Just another form of hide-and- go-seek. This time the den was the can that was standing out in the open. If the can was kicked while the searcher was out looking, then all who had been caught were free to hide again. The game invariably ended with the searcher saying "Im fed up, I`m no playing".
Minnow fishing at Puddocky, collecting caterpillars and keeping them in an old match box with a bit of leaf in it. Catching butterflies, keeping rabbits, always hoping they would breed, swapping cigarette cards, and the usual bools, all had their place in our calendar. Even making aeroplanes out of newspapers was another of our interests. Much more dangerous was the use of slings or I should say catapults. A `Y` shaped twig and an elastic garter band was all that was required.
Often we would make our own drink refreshment. A bottle with some liquorice stick and water would be left in some dark corner of the house to mature. We called this `sugarelly water`. Each day it would be examined to see how it was coming along. While waiting on it to mature, a bottle of vantas could be bought from the local shop. This was just flavoured water aerated with some bottled gas of some sort.
Britain and America were producing many films for the home front depicting the progress of the fight against the Germans and the Japanese. We may not have had much money in our pockets yet we were still able to attend the cinema at least twice a week. War films were very popular with us boys. We would re-enact a lot of what we had viewed and one such film gave us an idea for a game. It was called Room 14. We would call our game by the same name.
Room 14 was used by the Gestapo to interrogate and torture suspected spies and resistance fighters. We were thrilled by this and thought it would be a real goodies and baddies scenario.
Alhambra Cinema Both now closed State CInema
We were divided again into two teams. The older boys took it as their divine right that they should be the Gestapo. Likewise, us younger ones accepted the situation without demur, the pecking order, and became the goodies, the unfortunate victims.
We were given a little time to hide before being sought out. Once rounded up and captured, we were taken to an area in the `Coppy` where we were bundled in. There we were knocked around, tripped, punched and kicked with little care for our welfare. We were actually beaten up and sometimes tears would flow. Obviously no information was expected but this made no difference. the beatings continued.
Looking back, this was a sadistic game for the brutality was real. I can hardly believe it now. We as the underdogs actually got a twisted enjoyment out of it. None of us were forced into playing it.
Occasionally we developed the tribal instinct of asserting ourselves against a neighbouring street. In our case we had two traditional `enemies`, the Broad Pavement (the broady), and BridgeStreet. With the former we were content to keep our rivalry to football but occasionally it developed into stone fights.
Split heads were the result and a visit to Leith Hospital Outpatient Department a necessity. All this before the NHS. Once during a fight I got the brilliant idea of using the pig swill bin cover as a shield. I had just settled down behind it when I was caught smack in the middle of the head by a chuckie. The blood was everywhere as I raced home. Stitches were required. Your own fault I was told by my grandma.
We were ever up to mischief and never knew what we would do next. During the 1940s horse drawn vehicles were the norm. Horses were the main traction forces for carriages of all types of goods throughout the town, especially to and from Leith Docks.
Two of the main users were the railway companies, London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and London Midland Scottish (LMS). Both companies sub contracted out to Wordie, and Mutter-Howie respectively. I always remember that Wordies horses wore blinkers whereas Mutter-Howie`s didn`t.
The carters sat on a pile of folded sacks at the front of the flat top cart with their feet resting on the rear of the horseshafts. A whip was always to hand.
Living near the docks as we did, we were accustomed to the carts trundling their way back and forth up Sheriff Brae and Mill Lane to Great Junction Street. Sometimes when we were at a loose end for something to do, not often as I hasten to add, we would sit at the kerb`s edge and await the passing of a cart, making sure another one was not close behind.
Running behind it, we would clasp our hands over the rear end and swing our feet under it onto the wheel axle. Slung like this with only our fingers showing above the rail, we would travel some distance before a busybody called out, `He, ahoy!` This alerted the carter of stowaways, and with a single movement, he would grasp his whip and bring the thong down with a sharp sting onto the fingers. This would be followed by a mouthful of expletives. A cart travelling in the opposite direction would be our transport back. Never a dull moment!
Well before the age of television and `gameboys`, we were never at a loss for amusement. Left to our own devices, we filled the day well. Swimming in the Water of Leith from the old cemetery in Coburg Street, fishing for crabs at Coalhill with bent nails tied to a piece of string, swinging on the old chains at the shore, and snaring pigeons with maize gathered from outside Wilson`s Mill in Yardheads. I add that the pigeons came to no harm as we let them go immediately. We may have been a tough lot but we were never cruel to animals or cheeky to adults.
Guiders were a great source of enjoyment for us. We would manufacture them ourselves from old flooring taken from the `haunted house`, a long derelict building, in Market Street. Old pram wheels no matter how buckled were put to use. Nails, taken from the old floorboards, or if we were lucky, bought from Johnny-a-Things in Henderson Street. This was the name given to Dalglish, the drysalter.
Often we would customise the guider with a remnant of an old carpet or sometimes we would have a toolbox-cum-seat at the rear. If pram wheels were not available, old ball bearing races would be fitted. Unfortunately the noise from these on the pavements were a source of annoyance to those housewives whose houses bordered our `racetrack`. Guiders never saw a second year. They were discarded with as we had nowhere to store them.
In winter, sledges took their place. Again we made them ourselves. Failing that we could always use the house shovels or tea trays to slide on. Our snow course was the area of ground behind the Broad Pavement that had the underground air shelters site on it. This was known as the `black grund`. No misspelling, the missing `o` is deliberate. The landfill over these provided the necessary slopes.
This same `grund` was forever flooded in places, and we used these pools to paddle around in with our wellies. This was also parallel to John A Barrie`s rag warehouse and sometimes we would challenge each other to see if we could thrown stones up and over the building into Parliament Street. When I think of it now I shudder. Any stones that managed to get over could well have caused some injury to somebody passing below.
On the subject of rags, to raise some cash we would sell anything that came our way to old Lizzie in St Andrew`s Street. A wizened old dear, she sported a man`s cap on her head and a old shawl about her while she sat smoking a clay pipe amidst all the old rags. The takings from her shop was only a few pence and a couple of fleas as a bonus.
Clay pipes were also used by us at times to blow soap bubbles. Unfortunately the stem would often stick to our lips and off would come the skin as we pulled at them.
Palace Cinema - now a bar/restaurant Capitol - now a bingo hall
Not the name of a wild fruit but a former shipyard that was sited in Sheriff Brae. The area became out of bounds to us when the War began. Adjacent to the old yard was the Eldorado ballroom. Both of them were commandeered by the army. The yard was used as a depot for military vehicles that include a number of mobile smokescreen trailers.
In the days leading up to D-Day, the ballroom was used as sleeping accommodation for troops with numerou palliasses strewn about on the floor. Wooden huts had been erected outside for kitchens and latrines.
As I said, it was declared a no-go area for us but this only hardened our resolve to defy it. Often we would find ourselves mixing with the troops as they went about their daily chores. Over the period the troops moved on to be replaced by others. The `Eldo` eventually housed a Polish contingent. Many were the times we were tutored in the Polish language. We had never heard a foreign language before and so we became quite fascinated.
The Poles became very friendly towards us, and I suppose we did remind them of their own children back home. All this took place while on the lookout for the caretaker, Speedy, who was forever chasing us out.
One day, in full battle gear, the soldiers were assembled in Cable`s Wynd, Yardheads, Sheriff Brae and Giles Street. It was an awesome sight for us all as we stood there enthralled as they were stood to attention. With much shouting of orders, they were marched off. Off to war and we never saw them again. They had become part of our lives and we missed them terribly for a while afterwards.
Another of our overseas visitors had been the Americans although they were mainly based uptown. They were very popular guests with their flamboyant bearing and smart uniforms. Occasionally we would take the tramcar up to Princes Street and accost these GIs with the words, "Any gum, chum?" An affirmative answer would be followed by a hand going to a chest pocket and drawing out a stick of Wrigley`s chewing gum. No gum has ever tasted as sweet since. How we must have looked like street urchins to them. To us they were the personification of what we saw in the American films.
Picnics were another source of enjoyment to us in those days. A more gentle pursuit than we were used to, they were nevertheless looked forward to greatly in the summer months.
A No 12 or 25 tramcar to Seafield for a day at the beach, or a No 7 to Liberton Dams got us away for a few hours from the austere surroundings of the town. Mrs Lynch, a mother of six children would accompany us with her brood. Another six of us would augment her family for the day. She was a very tolerant and understanding person.
Foodstuffs were very basic as was to be expected in those times. Plain bread that could be saved from the rations, margarine with a spreading of jam to enhance the taste. A bottle of vinecta or lemonade washed it all down. Whilst at the dams, we would fish for minnows in the running water although this did not compare with Puddocky, a stretch of the Water of Leith flowing past Warriston Cemetery.
Sunday school picnics were a little different. For these we were provided with a bag of buns and sandwiches, and tea was sipped from our tinnies that were slung round our necks with a ribbon. The Salvation Army took us to Ashbrook, an eventide home in Ferry Road for our annual outing. This meant a journey by special tram to the junction of Ferry Road and Granton Road, and a walk of what seemed like miles to our destination.
"Where were the girls all this time?", you might ask if you have lasted the course throughout this narrative. Oh there were plenty enough, but the sexes kept to themselves most times. Boys would play boys` games and girls likewise. However there were times when we did mix. Bearing in mind that we were all mainly in the six to ten years age group, the fraternising was simple.
Often I would take part in their games of `beds`, and play a customer at one of their shops. A shop would be drawn out on the pavement with a piece of red sandstone. Champed rock of various colours would serve as stock whilst pieces of glass recovered from the crevices in the road setts would be used as currency.
The game of `doctors and nurses` did take place at times. Be honest, anyone reading this must have taken part in a game of this sort at times. Our hormones were beginning to stir. Although nothing really came out of this rather than our interest in the opposite sex was becoming more apparent. Our innocence was being challenged.
Only as we approached our teens did we find the girls more interesting to know and likewise them.