Thirty years ago today I got up somewhere between breakfast and lunch time. I can be reasonably sure that I had three pieces of toast and a Nescafe with two sugars.

I dressed and left the house, walking past The Green, a grassy area where we played football and cricket when I was younger. Past the single tree ringed by posts and chain, that gave you something to lean against at half time. The far edge of The Green banked down to a minor road, a bank to which we ran faster than we were otherwise capable to lay flat and, we hoped, unseen whenever the cricket ball was clogged towards the main road and a likely coming-together with the door panel of a passing car.

A minute further on, past the conker tree growing in the garden of a house that had been empty for as long as I could remember. As long as I could remember back then may well have been three weeks. It was large, detached and one of a few that ran the short distance between the factory and the school opposite my house, a few entirely out of character with the rest of the estate.

The bus stop outside the factory had always been missing a window. The middle one. It gave you somewhere to park an idle arse while rolling a cigarette, hoping that there might be a bus before you ran out of tobacco. In summer, the odds were on your side; the open holiday camp a couple of miles up the road meant more buses ran between home and town. Otherwise you took your chances. The Bus Gods were rarely on your side. Once in a while, I’d pop in on my mum before catching the bus. She worked in the factory as a secretary for maybe 30 years. She’d come to reception and we’d chat for a while, usually just catching up.

Often, I’d walk rather than wait for the bus. Sure enough, at the foot of the hill a few hundred yards on, one would pass you as often as not.

Here at the hill, you had two choices: left took you up past bungalows, along the road where an old lady had once come screaming from her house (assuring me she knew my dad) to admonish me for cycling no-hands, then through a lane and down the main road for the 2.2 miles that the speedometer of my dad’s clapped out Vauxhall told us it took to get to the cinema, or head up the hill, past a few shops, along the old railway line and into town that way.

I went up the hill. A hill that had seemed impossibly steep when I had my first bike, a hill I took weeks to drum up the courage to come down without brakes. Up and past the road where one of the teachers lived – thankfully not the one I’d accidentally called ‘dad’ in front of everyone in class.

On the corner, the tiny newsagents, Charlie’s. I’d scared my parents half to death by walking this far alone as a three year old, before a neighbour saw me and walked me back. It was the sort of shop that didn’t have a name plate above it; everyone just knew it as Charlie’s. Every day, my dad stopped the car here for his cigarettes and The Sun. You had to stand outside if two people were in there, it was that small. As a kid, there was no umming or ahhing over whether it was to be a Nutty or a Star Bar; you chose sharpish to allow someone else in.

Onward, over the junction and a filthy look thrown in through the window of the larger newsagents, towards the proprieter who three years earlier had loudly sacked me for a reason he wouldn’t make clear (“YOU KNOW WHY”) when I was covering for a friend who was away over Christmas. It had been a cold December of dark dark mornings, one of which brought the pre-dawn news that ‘a Beatle has been shot’. For some reason, we all assumed it was Lennon.

Over the main road and past the layby where, if I was feeling lazy or running late on the way back from school, I’d wait for my dad to pick me up on his way home from work. 4.37, give or take, he’d be there. Back in the day when people finished at that time of the day.

Opposite the layby, a rough track cut deep through a sea of housing, the line of the old railway that Beeching closed in the 60s. I had run through this cut a few years before, chased by an older kid with hair like Hitler who had taken the shout of ‘get him’ from a friend who I’d dead-armed and outrun rather too seriously. I’d hot-throatedly outrun him too, but then spent most of the next school year warily keeping an eye out for him, imagining that he’d waste no time in to doling out whatever he felt ‘get him’ deserved.

Down into the cut for half a mile or so until passing under the bridge, where someone had thoughtfully sprayed a message indicating that this was indeed the spot where a friend had apparently become ‘over-excited’ in his trousers while engaged in snogging.

Along the top of the golf course, where another friend had once taken a golf ball on the temple on the way to school, leaving him with a hugely impressive cut and rainbow bruising. The same golf course where my dad, uncle and I would once in a while play pitch and putt, me lofting the ball skywards while my dad skimmed the thing irritatingly through fallen branches and puddles to within a few feet of the hole. The golf course where a friend, on his own at night, a few scoops to the good and dressed in full Mod regalia, had given the come-on to a group of Teds, with predictable results.

The trainline ended adruptly at a main road.

If I’d worked at the weekend, I’d take a sharp left turn and up the hill a few yards and into a labyrinth of backpaths that spat you out near the police station to cut across the car park – always with the thought that someone in uniform would take you to task for shortcutting across police land – down the narrow road to the pub, where you could usually be assured that there’d be someone likewise not studying hard, to play pool with. One, maybe two pints and a few frames, before heading into school, not necessarily for a lecture, but certainly to catch up with friends.

If I hadn’t worked at the weekend, I turned right at the end of the trainline and into school, beerless. Three years it took me to get an E and an O at A level. Still, it was this miserable E and O, combined with several years of idleness to follow that apparently afforded me the status of ‘Mature Student’ and with it the passport to get on to a degree course.

By mid afternoon, almost unfailingly, we had walked into town either from the pub or school, to a tea room. Sometimes the one below the barbers where a couple of months earlier I had taken a tiny photo of Ian McCullough from Echo and the Bunnymen, cut from a magazine, asking him to cut it like that. I must’ve held the picture upside down.

More often, it was to the top of what passed for a department store in the town. A friend’s mum occasionally worked on the ground floor. If she was in, one of us would distract her with a ‘hello’ while he slid past and up the stairs. This, the department store where my dad had bought us both duvets, a move from blankets and sheets that was so unfathomably glamorous then that’s it’s hard to do it justice now. Upstairs, a clutch of idlers warming ourselves around a pot of tea, repeatedly returning to the counter for a pot of hot water to revitalise the tired teabags.

Today, as with all days in town, involved the record shop. This is what dinner money was for. If I bought something, I walked home; if not, I’d take the bus.

Thirty years ago today, I walked home: a 12″ single into the plastic bag, then turned upside down into another, doublebagged against the rain.

I took the other route home, past three houses that I then wasn’t to know would be my home in years to come. Past the underwear shop, through whose window many of the towns young had first become familiar with the seemingly neverending mysteries that in some fantasy future might reveal themselves. Up the hill, past the wall painted large with CREAM BY POST which made us snigger every time. Opposite, the sports and games shop, a place of magic where I’d bought my first table tennis bat, playing 4 nights a week as a 10 year old.

The shops eventually thinned out by what had long been a solicitors, but for years before and for decades to come would still be known as ‘the old post office’. The solicitors where 17 years later I would pick up a handful of papers from my father’s solicitor and shake his hand for the last time.

Onward, slightly uphill, past the dentist named Dr Skidmore, funny on all but appointment day, and the place where I hunted without luck every time for evidence in the lines beneath that Laughter Is The Best Medicine.

A minute more, and past the Catholic church where for a year or two when I was 9 or so my dad would drag me on random Sundays. The prickly, hot dread of being seen by friends. In one of those papers I picked up from the solicitors, my dad had left instructions not (as expected) to be buried at the Catholic church but in the Church of England one on the edge of town as ‘it had the best view’. I had half a mind to have him buried at the Catholic one to settle the score.

Five minutes more took me to the corner opposite the sports club, where a week or two before I’d stood in the darkness, laughing with a couple of friends, one of whose Special Brew intake had unexpectedly made the return journey through his mouth and nose and onto the pavement. In the tiny world of drunkness, we were only vaguely aware of the speeding car approaching until, squealing, it took the corner on two wheels before skating on its roof and into the entrance wall of the sports club.

All that noise instantly to silence with only a tight hiss of exiting steam to break it. We went to help. The driver had freed himself, panicking. I recognised him from years before at primary school. He was trying to run, away from the reality but his legs wouldn’t take him. They weren’t broken but his ankle was damaged and his shins throbbed. We talked at the side of the road, mostly about primary school, the people we still knew and those who were who-knows-where. The police arrived, he was calm. I never saw him again.

Half an hour’s ambling, before cutting in and running the imaginary gauntlet of ‘no-hands’ woman, past the bungalows, the factory, the conker tree, the bus stop, The Green, the tree ringed by posts and chain, and home.

The kettle on, the coffee made, a sodding Blue Riband* to go with it unless, in a rare fit of sanity, my dad had actually done the civilised thing and bought Penguins.

The stereo on, rollie rolled, the single and then one B side followed by the other, at first through speakers and when my dad went to bed through headphones, over and over until I fell sleep.




* The horror of the Blue Riband has left me with a rule for life: never eat a biscuit that floats.

  • Coincidentally I was also sacked from a newsagent with a “YOU KNOW THE REASON WHY” comment. In my case I did know the reason. This was made patently clear when the newsagent emptied the waste paper bin of Neopolitan wrappers* , counted them and weighed out the equivalent of wrapped sweets. I earned £4 a day but was eating £5 worth of chocolates. Fair cop I suppose

    *neopolitan chocolates were small rectangles of smooth Swiss perfection . The nutty ones were best.

    • Im starting to wonder whether no-one resigns from a paper delivery job…and yr right about the Neapolitans. I’d forgotten all about them too

  • This post really cheered me.
    It brought back so many childhood memories that would take a comment of a similar length as your post to even begin with. I’m sure you would *love* to hear about the times we played with the railway lines placing pennies in the cracks to watch the trains squash them, or the time a British Gas engineer rescued me and my mate from the clutches of some older guys on the rough estate we had foolishly wandered into, or my exploits trying to deliver papers past the inevitable scary Dobermans, or many of the other fantastic anecdotes. However you’ll have to remind me to tell you those some other day. Since you mentioned cycling no-handed I thought I’d tell you about my bike. Whilst my sister had a gorgeous drop-handle, being the younger sibling I ended up with a bit of a mongrel bike made up from scrounged bits from various older lads on the same street. But by the age of 9 I had got it into mint condition and loved it as much as the 17 year old who lived opposite loved his XR2ii. One night I was called in for my bath distracting me from locking the bike in the garage. Next morning it was gone but before you crack out the violin, don’t worry we found it half a mile away from home in an alleyway (the area was all back-to-back terraces with alleyways in between). Unfortunately it was minus its braking system: Pads, calipers, cables. All that was left behind were the now dangling levers. Now if I had a 9 year-old child I’m fairly sure I’d replace the brakes for them. My parents had a different view to priorities so from that day onwards I was left with the only way to stop the bike being to reach back with my right leg and wedge the arch of my DMs onto the top of the tyre. Whilst being effective I eventually realized that this approach wasn’t sustainable when one day I painfully found sock on tyre. Needless to say my parents were very unimpressed with otherwise perfect shoes being ruined by having an arch-shaped hole on one side. At no point did it occur to them that it might have been their fault that they had a 9 year-old loose on the steep streets around where we lived with a cocked leg as his only brake. Still if they had replaced the brakes the next day, you and your followers would have been denied this fascinating anecdote, so I think they made the right choice.

    P.S I never did get the drop-handle, this bike was eventually replaced with a Raleigh Grifter, but don’t get me started on that one.

    • Great story. And I would like to hear the others! The Grifter was a bike….and the special few had a RED one. I never really liked them and certainly didnt have one…mine, like yours, a mongrel which I was hugely proud to have fixed up with apehangers which were marvellous for wheelies but, alas, left one vulnerable to disaster should there be an insufficiently tightened nut…

      • The Grifter was a spectacular bike. If you liked your bikes so heavy that a child can hardly lift the thing. It also feature the brilliant design of a twist grip gear changer (3 speed no less!) which is a great if you like to randomly change gear after performing any jump or experiencing the slightest of bumps. Mine was blue 🙁

  • The night of the overturned car..
    I’m sure you had a “sick in the mouth” walking on Salterton Road resolved by sticking two fingers down your throat and retching to one side with no fuss nor any discernible break in stride. Revolting trick but earns my begrudging respect to this day.

    • You say ‘revolting’ but compared to all the fuss and palaver of a noisy barf, I think a dignified yip into the gutter is the mark of a comparative gentleman. You should be grateful I was considerate enough in my aim not to splash yr sidelace-ups…

  • I got sacked from a Saturday job at local chemist for “you know why” reasons. I didn’t really but maybe it was the way I sniggered when young men came in asking for condoms. Actually I got sacked from all of my Saturday jobs eventually, the supermarket because it turned out I was too young, the child-sitting because my brother and friends came round and were noisy, the chalet-cleaning job for sweeping dirt under the carpet and having an argument with my friend which involved throwing filthy cleaning water at each other. There wasn’t much incentive to clean the chalets to be honest, they didn’t look much better afterwards and many were foetid with the stench of damp mould about to ruin somebody’s holiday. It did pay 3/- an hour though which meant that for a mornings work I could buy a bottle of nasty white wine in the pub that night. I’ve just remembered the name.. Charles Kinlock – we used to ask for a bottle of Charlie!

  • That all took me right back Mark…..the green…..the pub……the smiths……..the haircut (!) …………Waltons department store………..spending hours over one hot chocolate, which became a cold hot chocolate………Thanks – for reminding me of so much of the town.

  • You are the Devonian version of the lad from the Hovis advert, aren’t you? Except not really as cutely tousled.
    I got fired from a part time job in a delicatessen for slicing the Parma ham too thickly which, as you know, is the worst sort of middle class error. Because i was young and idealistic I went to the head office and complained to the Managing Director that this was neither just nor fair.
    Instead of telling me to “‘eff orf” he gave me another job in a small supermarket where I sat on a till, stacked shelves and spent my lunch hours eating one pickled onion from each jar in the store room.

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