Tuesday 17 July 2012

Boys and girls

As the reader will appreciate, my time in Kingsley was spent well in advance of the concept of political correctness and The Health and Safety Act, much abused by idiots, had not been conceived. Life was very different and there was  much more freedom, both in speech and actions, back then. I often wonder how we all survived. If viewed by today’s standards much of what we did, as the daily norm, could not exist. For a start boys did what boys did and girls likewise. It was not the norm for girls to join in with the boys, they played girly games based upon dolls, nurses etc whilst the boys played soldiers, cowboys and Indians and went birds nesting etc. In fact, the then, common verse summed it up rather nicely. Sugar and spice and all things nice, that is what little girls are made of. Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, that is what little boys are made of. I can't imagine such a ditty being acceptable in today’s classrooms! Be that as it may, there was a clear divide between the activities of the two sexes.

Boys went about in groups, I hesitate to call them gangs as to do so would, no doubt, convey an altogether false image based upon modern images of thugs and thuggery associated with gangs. Although the groups in Kingsley were roughly based upon the two council house estates, Gold Hill and Woodfield, there was never any aggression or nastiness between the two. In fact the groups were often blurred by members of one joining in with the activities of the other. It all worked rather well and without conflict. I suspect this was due to much more discipline in both the home and schools  and the ever present village policeman. The policeman knew us all and had a pretty good idea of what was going on within his village. You didn’t mess with him.

Perhaps even more surprising was the array of implements we carried and used on a daily basis. Many of which would not be permitted today and for the most part would be designated as offensive weapons. For example, bows and arrows, catapults, air rifles and pistols and knives various. Wooden spears and pea shooters were produced and carried by most boys at some time or another. As far as I was concerned, my first gun was an air gun which fired corks. Air pistols and Dianna or Webley air rifles followed at various stages as I grew up. Pen Knives and sheath knives were readily available and carried most of the time. We had knives for cutting sticks, whittling, skinning and filleting and all manner of other uses, but none, absolutely none of those uses were of a violent nature. I never knew of a single occasion when a knife, or indeed any other weapon was used against a person or in anger. Quite simply this sort of behavior did not exist within our community. Why? simple, because we had all been brought up to respect such implements and taught how to use them properly. All had valid uses in a rural setting. We were also in no doubt that one breach of the accepted standards would not only result in the wrath of God descending upon us, but, these our most cherished possessions,would have been removed from us with little chance of them being returned. It will be appreciated that we did not have televisions, computers and the mind boggling range of electronic games which are now available to modern children. It followed, therefore, that those possessions which we did have were treasured and not put at risk of removal. For the most part our playground was the great outdoors and many of our most popular toys had to be made from materials which were to be found in the hedges and woods.

Pea shooters were seasonal as they were produced from the hollow stems of cow parsley. A straight length of the stem, about five inches long, was cut from the plant and each end of the shooter was cut square. Peas were not used, we used the buds of the hawthorn bush. These tight little buds would be picked from their umbrella like clusters and stripped of their stems. These were then placed in the mouth and forced out through the tube of the pea shooter by blasts of air from the mouth. The little buds would come out under some pressure and could be directed quite accurately in any direction. Not dangerous in themselves, the production of pea shooters carried with them a considerable danger to the unwary or ill trained country boy. It was vital, when selecting the stem to be used,that the right plant was chosen. Although, thankfully, it never occurred in Kingsley there were usually reports in the press of boys dying as a result of selecting the stems of the very poisonous hemlock plants as their pea shooter. Placed into their mouths the poison soon did its deadly work. It is difficult, when you know the plants concerned, to understand how anyone could make such a mistake. Hemlock, although not entirely, is more of a water side plant. It also has quite clear red / crimson spots upon its stems. Unlike the cow parsley stems, which are ridged, the hemlock stems are smooth. Notwithstanding all of these factors most years reports of tragedies appeared. Pea shooters no longer being the playthings they once were such matters are a now thing of the past.

Catapults  occupied much time in their construction as it was necessary to locate a suitable branch of appropriate size with an even fork. The fork was required to be about four to five inches long on each side and the handle below was generally a hands width. Probably about four inches. Hazel trees were much favoured for catapults but ash was also good and very hard. Having selected a suitable forked stick, the tops of each fork were carefully slit with a knife to a depth of about an inch. Into these slits the catapult elastic would be placed. The end of each side of the elastic would be bent back to form a small loop and the resulting double strands would be stretched until they could be pulled down into the slits. The loop would be on the side of the fork away from pulling side. Once the doubled elastic had been placed into the slit the loop end expanded back to its former size and thus prevented itself from being pulled through the slit when the catapult was in use. the slit above and below the elastic would then be tightly bound by string or cord to prevent the slit from extending down the fork and the elastic from working its way out of the top. This, of course was the same on each side of the fork. The two lengths of elastic would them be cut at the preferred length and each side would them be looped through a piece of leather and bound on each side to form a pouch, this formed the receptacle from which missiles could be launched. Pebbles were the preferred ammo but any stone could be used. These little weapons could be surprisingly accurate and had a considerable range. We used them mostly for shooting at tin cans and bottles and other static targets. Unfortunately we would also use them to target small birds but our success rate was never very good. The other delight was to use the catapult to skim pebbles across the surface of the pond. By getting down low and firing the pebble to hit the water surface at not too steep an angle, a considerable number of bounces could be achieved as it sped across the water. Great fun!

Bows and arrows were much used toys and again the preferred wood for our bows was the hazel. Long, straight and of even thickness, the hazel was ideal. A length of several feet would be selected, on to this a groove at each end of the stick would be cut about an inch from the end. The groove would be cut on the slant in order, that when bent and strung, the string would be at the right angle and not slide from its position. Arrows were made from small straight branches, again mostly hazel. However there was a large clump of Yellow Rod plants that had, no doubt, been thrown out from a garden which grew on the scrub land below the pub. (Cricketers). This area was between the pub and the stream and was just sort of common in those days, there were a few trees as well as brambles etc. Anyway, the dried stems of the Yellow Rod which were left after the plant had flowered dried up at the end of the summer made very straight and light arrows. About eighteen inches in length, a two inch nail would be pushed down into the pithy core of the stem at widest end. This added a necessary weight to the otherwise very light shaft. The pointed end of the nail went into the shaft and the blunt end was flush with the end of the arrow. These were remarkably good arrows and groups of boys could often been seen gathering these much prized stems.

Hazel being, for the most part, long and straight also provided the shafts for both spears and thumb sticks.The spears were used as toys for our regular games of cowboys and Indians. Although they were thrown by the "Indians" at the cowboys and their wagon trains they were not aimed at individuals. Having said that, on one unfortunate occasion, a misplaced throw of my spear resulted in Lorralie (?) Haydon receiving a blow to the side of her forehead. The incident, bad enough as it was, was made even worse for me by the fact that the poor girl arrived in school for the next week or so with a huge bandage around her head and forehead. My humiliation was complete, all whom asked were, correctly, advised that Derek Yeomans had done it!!! Horror of horrors, I have never forgotten it.

Our sticks were carved in all manner of designs which were made by cutting shapes out of the bark of the wood. This enabled the white wood below the bark to highlight the circles, triangles, bands and zig zags which we cut into the darker bark. Sometimes a stick would be shaved completely and no bark at all left upon the shaft but this was not the norm.

More of such matters in a future edition.

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