Saturday, 22 June 2013

Upmarket ice cream van

One of my bon mots about my 'privileged' childhood was that the ice-cream van that plied our posh upper-lower-middle class streets would chime the waltz from Gounod's Faust. Many's the time I told this anecdote to peals of laughter from my listeners, who thought I'd devised the most capital conceit.

Not so. The ice-cream van doing its rounds on hot summer days in Hanwell, London W7, did indeed play the waltz from Gounod's Faust. Messrs Page and Bryn's excellent 'Google' device enabled me to find this newspaper article from 1954 (in the decade before my earliest memories were shaped).


Greys in Essex lies 30 miles to the east of Hanwell. The article harks back to a happier time when PC Plod had little better to do than to track down and persecute ice cream vendors for their over-enthusiastic musical self-promotion.

For many years, this particular music was lost in the folds of my hippocampus; until that is Classic FM burst onto the airwaves of British radio. Classical music had hitherto been the exclusive, nationalised, domain of BBC Radio 3; a dreadfully elitist station dedicated to playing none but the most abstruse of orchestral pieces by Pierre Boulez, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Penderecki and other pots-and-pan merchants. Classic FM, 'a ghastly descent into populism', would frequently play the waltz from Gounod's Faust, and at last I was able to discover the name of the tune that would herald the approaching ice-cream van. Here it is, below, click to listen.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Lorries, vans and buses

A.E.C., Albion, Atkinson, Austin, Bedford, Bristol, Commer, Dennis, Dodge, E.R.F., Foden, Ford, Guy, Karrier, Leyland, Morris, Scammell, Seddon, Thornycroft; a proud roster of British manufacturers that once produced commercial vehicles seen in great numbers on Britain's roads when I was a child growing up in the 1960s.

Of all these names, only Dennis and Ford are still in business; Ford will be closing its Southampton plant this year and moving production of the Transit van to Turkey. Dennis is now Alexander Dennis, making only buses and fire engines. The Leyland name still exists as a badge on DAF trucks built in Leyland, Lancashire; both Leyland and DAF are owned by US company PACCAR. Such is the fate of the UK's once-thriving commercial vehicles industry.

I'd been thinking about a book I had as a boy, the Observers Book of Commercial Vehicles, by L.A. Manwaring. On a whim, I bought it via Abe.com (an excellent website spanning tens of thousands of second-hand bookshops around the world). It was a 1966 first edition, in excellent condition with dust jacket; for it I paid £13.50 including postage. Not quite the edition I remember (maybe it was the second edition I had), but nonetheless a splendid journey into nostalgia, sparking off memories of the lorries, vans and buses that drove around Britain at that time.

Not only Britain - a fair representation of continental trucks appear in the book, vehicles I would have seen on the road between England and Poland... Berliet, B├╝ssing, Krupp, Magirus Deutz, Saviem - plus Soviet Bloc trucks - GAZ, KRAZ, Tatra, and ZIL.

A wonderful book bringing back the diversity of manufacturing from around the world, before the industry's consolidation into a handful of brands from a smaller number of huge multinational companies. Certainly worth snapping up from a second-hand bookshop via Abe.com if you have an interest in classic commercial vehicles or simply as an exercise in nostalgia.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Some photographs on the occasion of my brother Marek's 50th birthday


Above: Marek practising his writing; July 1969, in the dining room at 15 Croft Gardens. Note the radio tuner, old-fashioned telephone (HANwell 8068), the G-Plan coffee table. The clock used to be an integral part of the tiled 1930s fireplace that once gave heat to this room. The 1955 Clean Air Act made London a smokeless zone, our father removed the fireplace and chimney flue to great an extra several square feet of floor space. Marek is wearing 'St. Michael' brand Wynceyette pyjamas. Photo: Bohdan Dembinski.


Above: here he is again, four years earlier, stepping gingerly towards the water. Seaford, August 1965, with our father, Bohdan Dembinski. On the horizon, the first of the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs that lie between Seaford and Eastbourne. Photographer unknown.


Late summer 1969; our last summer at Croft Gardens. We're playing in the lilac tree, our pirate ship, our space centre, our paratrooper-transporting cargo plane, our Himalayan peak. In the distance, the summerhouse, with its corrugated roof.

A beautifully care-free childhood; looking over my father's negatives, I scanned over 60 of them to put together a book for my brother and parents. The memories that the photos brought back were entirely happy ones.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Spools - making do and mending

I woke up this morning with a childhood memory I needed to share - wooden cotton reels, which were found aplenty in my toy-box, once my mother had used up the thread. Two things stand out from this memory.

One - the culture of making do and mending. My mother knitted most of the woollen jumpers worn by my brother and myself, sewed a lot, by hand or else using a manual Singer sewing machine, which she still has. Clothing that wore through - including socks - would be darned. The relative cheapness and disposability of clothes these days has put an end to the need for darning; for darning, my mother would use Sylko cotton threads made by J. Dewhurst and Sons. Below: the very image I woke up with this morning! Isn't the internet a wonderful thing!


The reels would be affixed to the top of the sewing machine on a chromed rod, pushed through the centre. The  reels would also have on them a notch, which served to attach the end of the thread after sewing. My mother kept (and keeps!) threads in large wooden box on four legs that opens at the top; inside are pins, needles, scissors and all other accessories required for stitching, darning and mending.


Once the thread had been used up, the wooden spools were not thrown away - they turned up in the toy-box  and served alongside square wooden blocks of roughly the same size (painted red, blue, yellow and green) in the creation of buildings. Wooden columns to grace the frontage of castles and palaces, or bastions behind which plastic soldiers would hide.

Back in the 1960s, people were less throw-away than they are now. Plastic (the ideal material for cotton reels) was too expensive then, but by the 1970s it had supplanted wood. The latter is sought after by collectors!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The joy of a toy

Die-cast metal toy cars were the quintessential toy of my childhood, along with Lego bricks and plastic model kits that needed sticking together. I've written about the latter two here and here. Essential to my desire to own more and more toy cars (I had over 100 when we moved from Croft Gardens to posher Cleveland Road at the end of my Grey Jumper'd Childhood) was the catalogue.

At the time, the two main brands were Corgi and Dinky. These toy cars were generally 1/43rd scale. Smaller in size were Matchbox toys, a third staple of my car fleet. From time to time I would get a Spot-On car or Budgie (Dinky/Corgi size) or Husky (Matchbox size). There are many websites showing photos of the toys themselves - but if you're my generation, beware - going to these sites may well result in a serious loss of time, spent wading in purest, golden nostalgia.

The joy of getting my little hands on the toy car was heightened by the anticipation, which began by hours-long gazing at the catalogues, which Corgi, Dinky and Matchbox published annually. The 1960s, my childhood decade, was a time of rapid innovation in the toy car market. From toys that offered no more than rotating wheels, rubber tyres and plastic windows that I'd play with in my earliest childhood, to fully-featured toys with opening doors, bonnet and boot revealing a detailed interior and engine bay, each new catalogue brought with it a wealth of new expectations.

For the toy to bring hours of pleasure to me, it needed features. And the very apex of die-cast toy sophistication for me was the Corgi Toys James Bond Aston Martin DB5, which helped make the Christmas of 1965 the best ever of my childhood. Another was the Corgi Toys Mini-Cooper Magnifique, released in 1967. My urgent fingers would open and close the doors, tip forward the seats, slide the sunroof, examine the engine - and prepare the car for long-distance journeys.

Many others spring to mind from that golden age - the Corgi Toys Lincoln Continental (four opening doors, opening bonnet and boot and colour TV in the back!); the Dinky Toys Rolls-Royce Phantom V (again, four opening doors, opening bonnet and boot); the Corgi Toys Porsche Carrera 6 that rolled further and faster than any other toy car in Oaklands Road Primary School playground.

Yet thinking back, it was catalogue-gazing that brought me most pleasure. The joy was in the anticipation, imagining how it would be to open that box and to wheel out those four ounces of metal on four rubber tyres and push them around the floor.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

In Gunnersbury Park

Gunnersbury Park, less than two and half miles (4km) from our house on Croft Gardens, was a favourite place to pop out for some fresh air. To this day the park offers a variety of recreational facilities including boating pond, a putting course, a local musuem, some ruins (a 19th C. folly) - but for me, most importantly, the swings. And not only swings, slides and roundabouts - but climbing frames. My favourite one, left, was built to resemble a tanker truck. You could clamber all over it or pretend to drive it. Here I am demonstrating use of hand-signals - which in the autumn of 1962 were still in common use.

Right: the relevant page from the Highway Code that I would study diligently as a child. At this time, my father drove a Morris Minor 1000, which had semaphore trafficator (lovely archaic term!) masts which would pop out from between the side windows. This system was in use until the early 1960s, and hand-signals were useful in case the trafficator broke.

Left: back to the park and another climbing frame to conquer. Photos by my father, Bohdan Dembinski, who was 39 years old when he took them.

This is around the time of my fifth birthday; by now, I'd have been at primary school for a few weeks. There was a similar climbing frame in Oaklands Road Primary School infants' playground, though not as high and with more densely spaced tubes.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Images of India from childhood


I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been taken up by an interest in the British Raj. Was it my dream of Bombay, unprompted by anything I've read or seen or deliberated upon, augmented by reading about the Great Hedge of India?

An India not of cool hill-stations, but of dusty cantonment bungalows, of cities laid out by the Victorians to European precepts, of teeming crowds at bazaars and railway stations, of neo-Gothic architecture arising from dusty plains; an India of humid monsoon clouds.

Thinking of these images prompt me to consider where, in my deepest childhood, did I first encounter notions of India, of the British Empire's presence there.

As I have written here before, Oaklands Road Primary School was ethnically diverse even in the mid-1960s, with one-third of my class being immigrants or children of immigrants, who ended up in West London as the result of European war or imploding Empire.

Less than 20 years from India's independence, there were signs (other than the growing number of South Asians living in Southall, the suburb bordering Hanwell's western edge) that the country had once been a British dominion. Much of the pre-decimal coinage I carried in my pocket was minted before 1948, dating back to Queen Victoria. "IND. IMP." was there on all of them - a reminder that Victoria and her heirs, Edward VII, George V, and George VI. We knew then that the IND. IMP. meant Empress/Emperor of India; however, our Queen Elizabeth II was no longer Empress of India.

Below: coins from my childhood (from top left) - a Queen Victoria penny, Edward VII penny, George V halfpenny, George VI halfpenny (pre-1948) and George VI halfpenny (1949 - note lack of 'IND: IMP.' in the inscription around the rim.

Below: the George VI halfpenny (pronounced 'hayp'nee') from 1943. Emperor of India. As a child, I thought that in profile George VI looked a lot like my father.


In the classroom, America crept into my child's consciousness far more strongly than did the Raj of Imperial India. The Janet and John books on which we learned to read, were lifted, complete with illustrations, from the American Alice and Jerry series. When I started thinking back to what stories we read then which were about India... I remembered one - just one, which ended up with tigers chasing themselves around a tree and... turning into melted butter. Gosh! The tree..., the whirring tigers... let's see if I can google it. Yes!

O dear. Is it right to mention this book, to admit to having had it as a set text at primary school? Well, here it is... The Story of Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman, first published in 1899.

The pictures finally come out of copyright in four years' time, 70 years after the death in 1946 of Ms Bannerman - copyright law is absurd. The entire book, for those of my readers educated before the dawn of Political Correctness, can be seen here.

Certainly, the book resonates with me back to my childhood, but does not explain my strange and sudden fascination with the Raj... It is an entirely new fascination, and as such, it lends itself to online research. The internet's a wonderful thing!