Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, Chapter 4, Edgbaston, November & early December: “The ABC Minors Club”[Note: You “old timers” to the post will recognise the featured picture. For you more recent arrivals, it’s the ABC Edgbaston cinema (1928-1968). The home of the ABC Minors Club where Reggie and Stan go]
We switched to our cold weather school uniforms shortly thereafter: royal blue suit jacket, white shirt, school tie, long dark charcoal trousers, black oxfords. There were no separate “little boys” and “big boys” standards at our school. This was based on the weather rather than age of the student. At least when it came to the boys.
But, although it had started taking baby steps toward being a coeducational institution in the late 1920s, becoming fully so by the last time Ramsay MacDonald stepped down as prime minister, it had yet to wrap its mind around the idea that girls needed some modicum of protection from the elements too. It still expected them to drag around all year in pleated waltz-length skirts, allowing them only the option of wearing overcoats, mittens and/or Bermuda socks during cold weather.
It was well, in a sense, we’d set off the fountain when we did, given the miserable weather on Guy Fawkes Day and the subsequent Bonfire Night. Thereafter, that weather became increasingly commonplace. Water began to leak through the windows and rooftops of many homes in the West Midlands, dripping down ceilings, in some cases leaving them sodden and water logged.
Grammer’s house was one of these.
True, it was the same age as ours, nearly twice the size, fully detached rather than semi-detached as ours, and far more warm and inviting in normal circumstances. But it hadn’t been properly weatherproofed or upgraded, as ours had been. It was no match for weather of this magnitude.
Water poured down the chimney flu, dousing any proper fire. It seeped down the walls and dripped through the ceiling. Lamps were lit sparingly, from fear that power cords or wall sockets had been compromised. Pots to catch water lay everywhere. Some of the upstairs rooms, including Auntie Gene’s old room, simply became unusable. It had become necessary to box up and move out whatever could be and to place protective covering, as best we all could, over the more cumbersome furnishings.
Mum had wanted her to move in with us until the wet weather stopped. Grammer was having none of it.
This was her house and she was staying in it, come what may. Recently, with childlike insensitivity, I’d dubbed it “Soggyhall.”
But it wasn’t only that the house failed to keep out the weather; it was Grammer herself, who’d worn, in Mum’s words, “a face like a fourpence these days,” ever since the funeral. Grammer remained sufficiently house-proud to keep the place clean, fastidiously so. But otherwise, he seemed listless, unable to marshal much interest in anything. The sunshine inside her had gone out. Going there now—so long a treat and haven, something to be anticipated—had become a chore and burden, something that I sought, at best half-successfully, to get out of.
Stan and I stayed indoors during the week, “working” on our Goon Show routines every afternoon, until we had a good 20 or so at our fingertips, switching roles lest his English end up sounding too much like either Peter Sellers or Spike Milligan. But for the most part we simply grew more studious during the week, partially to keep a low profile in the wake of our Diwali high jinks but mainly because we’d discovered the ABC Edgbaston.
Or rather, Stan had.
I’d known about it since I was five, and that it had a special program for kids every Saturday morning—the ABC Minors Club. But I’d no one to go with, and didn’t want to go alone. Now, Stan wanted to go, so we worked hard, seeking—and finally receiving—our parents’ permission to go on Saturday to the ABC Minors Club.
It was soon part of Mum’s Saturday morning routine to take us there, where we’d join our fellow ABC Minors Club members, complete with our brand new membership cards and badges. We never (as best I recall) caused trouble for the monitors, who were the older kids who got in for free by supervising younger ones, not only seeing to it we behaved but that we kept the theatre tidy. We were content to vigorously join the sing-alongs; watch the all-kid content program of shorts, cartoons and feature films; cheer the heroes; boo and hiss villains; and fawningly adore all the “special guests,” usually from TV but also from movies—no matter how big or small their roles were—who showed up in person. Sometimes they’d even perform, but even if they only dropped in to say “hi,” they created happy memories that I’ve kept to this day.
First time we went there in our school uniforms. But classmates who’d been Minors Club members longer quickly cautioned us that this wasn’t a smart move. Though kids like us from Birmingham’s southwest end were the backbone of the membership here, there was a rather substantial block—about 10-15%—whom we called “Aston kids,” though they could’ve been from Lozells, Nechells, Handsworth, Ladywood or any of Birmingham’s similar “garden spots.” They were tough, scruffy, very often strapped for funds, frequently living in the very areas that Mum said no longer had acceptable housing. And almost universally white.
Many of their cinemas had been bombed during the Blitz and had never reopened.
Others had closed for any number of reasons. Leaving the kids to make the rounds to different theaters each Saturday over seven or eight weeks, before they returned; few were loyal to us alone. Thus, generally, a different group of “Aston kids” was there every week.
At first, I thought they were mean. Slowly, as I’d later get to know some of them better, I’d realize how much I didn’t understand.
© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved.
G. H. McCallum
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