What a start to the Bank Holiday sunshine: jumping off the bus the other evening, listening to ChérieFM, the French “pop love music” station, via Bluetooth headset, when my face totally lit up as I heard Johnny Nash singing “I can see clearly now the rain has gone” (1972). I was 15 back then.
The early May Bank Holiday, 2018, saw the highest temperatures in London, for this day, in over thirty years. We were basking (gloriously so, I love it!) in temperatures round 280 Celsius. A couple of other incidents over this weekend, however, have triggered rather a lot of memories from my younger days.
The first incident was a divorced couple I know, having a particularly sad, rough, time. I hope my intervention helped! Another was an amazing walk-down-memory-lane phone call, with Paul, my boyfriend from when we were both 17-year-olds.
The divorced couple and their child reminded me, in different ways, to the bank holiday experiences, at home, when I was a little boy myself. My father had always been a bit of a “womaniser”. On bank holidays he would promise to take my mother, Lil, my younger brother, Steve, and me out for the day, hopefully to Barry Island! Lil would get us dressed and ready to go, when all of a sudden, the “old man” (as we called him for many years) would insist on going to get some petrol, by himself. Steve and I would be looking through the front-room curtains, waiting for him to come back, realising as minutes passed into time that he had broken his promise yet again. He would return home very late at night, indeed, certainly after we children had gone to bed. My mother would have waited up for him. When she would ask “Where the hell have you been?” he would reply “None of your bloody business!”
As a one-car-family and a mother who never learned to drive (it didn’t seem to be the done thing, for many women, back then), once she realised that the old man wasn’t coming back, she would take us fishing for sticklebacks, or whatever they were, at Waterloo Gardens or Roath Park Lake. She would also take us to Penarth seaside with an old lady we called Auntie Winnie. Winnie reminded me of the Lion, in Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz. Many years later I ended up in Penarth as the assistant priest, at St Joseph’s RC Church. But as children, Steve and I were never too keen on that resort. Not only was it just a pebbled beach, unlike the sands at Barry Island, but there was no fairground attraction, either. When the tide was out, the sludgy-sand would squelch through our little toes like walking through a bucket of slugs! So, our favourite venues were either Barry Island or the more expensive and more exciting Porthcawl; they had fairgrounds.
For many years, the Easter Monday Bank Holiday was always a great occasion for our local streets. There would be various ‘floats’ on lorries, preceded by an Irish bagpipe band, replete with kilts. The parade would leave from the Roath Labour Club at the top of our street and go up and down a number of local streets, all of us children following on.
The late May Bank Holiday was the one we would call the “Whitsun Holiday”. On that occasion each year, Ebenezer Baptist Chapel (Pearl Street, now a Sikh Temple), where we went with our mother throughout our childhood years, would put on a Sunday School Whitsun Treat. The chapel staff would organise several open-backed lorries to be chock-full with long wooden benches, just plonked on, and unrestrained of course! They would take us – along with lorries from lots of other Cardiff Baptist chapels – to some big open fields for our “Whitsun Treat”. That would include egg-and-spoon races, three legged races, hopping in old sack bags, numerous other games and then a sharing of food. The “youf” of today would think we were from a different planet, let alone a different era, if they heard of such goings on!
Twenty-first century Health and Safety and Safeguarding brigades would also have had a field day, had they existed at that time. The open-backed lorry, probably (in our chapel’s case) cleaned up from the local coal merchant, a chapel elder, would just be jam-packed with all of us children and parent(s). We would be hanging over the sides, laughing and joking, waving at passing cars and other chapel lorries. As we climbed up into the back of our lorry, one of the other chapel elders was there to give us a helping hand. My mother was a tiny bit chubby, but this man’s wife was even chubbier! He would help us onto the back of the lorry, one by one. As soon as Steve and I would get home from the day, my mother – generally, a non-swearer – would say:
“That dirty ol’ buggar put his hand on my bum, to heave me up, again!”
We used to laugh and wait for the same experience at Whitsun the next year, too!
Then there was the football! That’s a whole other story! In the early years of my adolescence, after my parents’ separation (I was 10 at the time), my father used to take Steve and me to Cardiff City Football at Ninian Park Road. We would go with him every-other week; I hated football then, as I do now! When I was about 14 / 15 I joined the Junior Red Cross. Guess where I would end up, every other week, on first aid duty? Cardiff City Football! I occasionally hear the name John Toshack these days. Is he a retired coach now? He must be a good age? But back then, he was a young up-and-coming player, when I went there. Even though I disliked the game, I used to enjoy getting the players’ autographs in a little book (and catching a sneaky look at them all in the bath tubs or walking round the changing rooms scantily clad or naked, as we first-aiders left through the player’s tunnel!) If only I had joined St John Ambulance instead – they did first aid duty at Cardiff Arms Park Rugby Stadium. Now we’re talking!
Anyway, enough smut! Back to the football. On first aid duty with the Red Cross, I would sit on a stretcher on the touch-line, with a Mrs Phillips. She hated football, too, so she would bring a bag of knitting, and we would be sitting on the stretcher, looking into each other’s faces (i.e. away from the pitch) as we talked and talked and talked – and she knitted! Men behind us regularly shouted, “Don’t you two ever give it a bloody rest?!?”
Mrs Phillips had a daughter a few years older than me. One year, the biennial Cardiff Searchlight Tattoo was in Cardiff Castle and I was on first aid duty. I must have been 15 or 16 at the time. There was a soldier at the Tattoo (maybe 17 – 20 years old) that I really had a crush on! We got on so well together; one evening I even took him home and my mother made us both a meal, and we had it – the meal! – in the front room! That was posh! But despite the fun we had together on his time off, there was just one thing on his mind! He wanted me for one thing only! Typical man! He wanted me to get him a date with Mrs Philips’ daughter! They did eventually date, and I think that’s how I developed a loathing for those three little words in the English language – “My – girl – friend”. Hahaha!
Many years later, when I was a Franciscan novice at Chilworth, Guildford, Surrey, with 11 of us in the novitiate – the biggest intake since the early 1960s – the Novice Master was an old bloke from West Ham and a total football freak. I used to wiggle my way out of football so often (well, who needs an even number when you’ve already got 5-a-side!) When I thought I’d cracked it, skiving out of football with every excuse possible, one day Fr Cassian said to me that we were playing the lads from the local Catholic Seminary: Chilworth Novices v Wonnersh Seminarians. Fr Cass said they needed me to make up the numbers, but he promised to keep the ball away from me! He was a total chain-smoker, with terrible lungs, and a shocking wheeze. In fact, he dropped dead – literally – on a football pitch when he was around 70. He must have died a happy man.
Anyway, Cass’ ‘promise’ of keeping the ball away from me was dead in the water. The captain of our team (another novice, whom I was like chalk-and-cheese with) decided to put me in goals! Twelve times the Wonnersh ball came towards my goal area; 12 times I just couldn’t seem to make the ball stop! I was never asked to play football for the rest of my 7 years in seminary.
What a result!
The other big story this early May 2018 bank holiday weekend was the conversation between my teenage years’ boyfriend Paul, (him of the ‘hiding in the wardrobe’ fame told elsewhere here). But that walk down memory lane, on the phone with Paul, is not for here or now. It helped me clarify, however, the wonderfully formative ways we young gay males grew up back in those days immediately post- the 1967 partial decriminalisation of male homosex in England and Wales.
I’m not sure when, how or if I will tell some of those other stories, in the years to come. So many of us from back in those days, of the first partial decriminalisation, carry with us some precious memories, for sure; no doubt, for some people, there are traumatic memories, too. Those early experiences have helped so many of us, mentored and formed us – in many ways – with a resilience and joie de vivre that later generations may find hard to understand.
Thanks for reading! As with all these pages, feel free to add your comments below.
Memoir: published on International Red Cross Day, 8 May 2018