In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
An Austrian blighted my life, as least as far as toys were concerned. I never met the man, thank God, as he was around fifty when I was born and he died before my seventh birthday. Again, thank God. I didn’t even appreciate what he had done until many years later.
Many of my German friends mumble darkly into their beers as they complain of the Austrian con trick of persuading the gullible world that many of the great German composers were Austrian, while Hitler was German. He was not, but Austrian or German, he spoiled my life.
Like many people, I was born into a world which has now disappeared. It is a world that many of us may look back on with nostalgia and affection, especially if we hadn’t actually lived in it. I’m sure that bits of it were good, and equally convinced that much was bad.
I was born in July 1938, and it must have been a Sunday, as Wisden informs me that there was no first class cricket being played. On the previous Tuesday, England had just drawn the second Test with Australia at Lords’, with Wally Hammond scoring 240 and the peerless Bradman getting a hundred. Before the Don returned to this famous cricket ground, the world would have been ripped apart, and a ten-year-old Belfast schoolboy would be fascinated by the great man, and by the prince of games. Only later would I discover the exquisite hell of girls.
Fourteen months after my birth, the War started, although I don’t think it was my fault. To those of my generation, there was only one war, the War. I do not remember having many toys, then or later. Metal was at a premium, and I recall the iron railings in our garden, and everyone else’s garden, being taken away to ‘make Spitfires’. Well that was all right, then.
I remember a tatty old cardboard box of Brittan’s metal toy soldiers, in Guards uniform, and glory be, their arms moved, pivoting at the shoulder. When a limb became detached, through old age, or rough treatment, it was reconnected using a matchstick, as the limbs were hollow, and the proud Guardsman returned to duty, somewhat stiff legged or armed. If I had other toys, they left no impression, apart from a few Dinky cars and cigarette cards. Certainly, no Meccano or chemistry sets graced the Matier bedroom. On reflection, in respect of the latter, this was a very good thing.
The war seemed remote and even when the city was blitzed, as it often was, I was too young or stupid to feel any danger. My parents would sometimes take me to see the effects of Hitler’s attempts to unite Europe, and on occasion, there were small metal pieces of shrapnel to collect to become substitute toys. We viewed, open-mouthed, the odd downed Luftwaffe aircraft on display, and in the absence of toys, we replayed the Battle of Britain, Spitfires chasing Messerschmitts all over the trafficless street, our arms outspread, our mouths making noises fondly imagined to be like Merlins, in between the rat a tatting. The problem with this game was that no one wanted to be German.
I don’t know what the adults thought, but it never entered my mind that we would lose. Even the entry of the Americans into Belfast meant only free chewing gum, and wonder of wonders, bubble gum. Those of the female persuasion became very excited about something called ‘Nylons’. Again, and it is a childish impression, people did seem to be patriotic. My Mother used to tell me how angry I became when my sister got ‘German Measles’ as it was then called. In true Churchillian fashion I demanded, at the age of four, “Why can’t she have British measles?” But, I guess, that’s women for you.
My Dad was clever with his hands, and with the contents of his toolbox, and in no time at all, we were equipped with wooden swords and guns. Bows and arrows enjoyed a period of popularity until some unfortunate nearly lost an eye. Exit the long bow, stage left.
My sister had a doll, and a doll’s pram, both pre war and second hand, and these contented her until May 1944 when a real baby arrived in the shape of my second sister. I truly do not remember any other toys in that period, though there must have been. I didn’t know it at the time, but my Mother and Father had their time cut out housing, clothing and feeding their brood.
We played in the streets until it was dark, and then wandered home. There must then, like now, have been paedophiles, but no one seemed to worry. I was in the street for D-Day, VE Day, and VJ Day, the last named at seven years and one month.
The street remained the playground after the war, although bicycles had arrived to amuse us. I am ashamed to say that I hated my first bike, as it wasn’t new, didn’t have drop handlebars, and the other boys had new bikes, with drop handlebars and three speed Sturmey Archer gears. My first new machine, a Raleigh Robin Hood came when I was fourteen, and cost, from memory, about sixteen pounds, a small fortune..
Cricket and football were important, and as we became richer, a comparative term, after 1945, there even appeared a new football, which required inflating by mouth, It was immensely tricky to tuck the bladder tube inside the leather and then tie the lace. A birthday present when I was fourteen was a Denis Compton, three star cricket bat, which was lovingly rubbed down with linseed oil, probably far more often that was necessary. I think the ball slipped off the bat rather than being struck.
My father always liked a bit of a flutter, and did the football pools. In fact, he was an agent for one of the companies, one of his many little side jobs. About 1950, he won £685 on the pools, an immense sum of money in those days when he was probably earning six or seven pounds a week.
Sometime in Coronation year, I met Anne, and then Millie and then Sandra, leaving each of them as virginal as I imagined they had been when we met. My toys subsequently became ‘big boys toys’, and included hobbies and the requisite accessories. The ultimate big boy’s toy happened in 1997, when I bought my first Jaguar. I had had cars for many years, mostly with my job, and starting with an RAF Land Rover, but this was different. Cars are primarily a means of transport, but that is not all they are. They are objects of beauty and desire, like the girls and like cricket, frequently aggravating but in my heart, the best toys of all. Well, maybe second best.
Written by my Father B.M