Walking Backwards for Christmas: The Aston Kids

Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, Chapter 4: Edgbaston, November & Early December 1960: The Aston Kids

Aston Kids[the featured picture is a photo of some children at play (see lower right-hand corner) outside a block of “back-to-backs” in Birmingham, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, most likely in Aston, but possibly in Ladywood]

Kids like us, from the south end, lived in leafy neighborhoods, in detached or semi-detached homes. Most “Aston kids” rarely saw a tree, and lived in shabby, decrepit, tumbledown terraced houses, or worse, inside narrow, cramped, poorly ventilated “back-to-backs,” with communal outdoor toilets, and where bugs had to be burned off the ceiling every night. For them, it was all a struggle, while much—at least materially—had been handed to us.

So it’s not surprising that they resented us like mad; it wouldn’t take much to set them off. True, when we wore our uniforms outside of school, we, too, were economizing. The uniforms were doing double-duty as dress-visiting clothes that most of us couldn’t afford any more than the Aston kids could. But, they didn’t know that. The sight of a pair of toffs from the south end, particularly a racially mixed pair, who looked as though they were shoving their tony, prep school backgrounds in the Aston kids’ faces was almost certain to thoroughly set them off.

Our classmates gave us the address of a second-hand shop where we could find suitably shabby attire to help us keep a low profile, and minimize our chances of being harassed and beaten up by idle groups of Aston kids looking to cause trouble after the show. We did just that, though both our mothers squawked no end at first, and Dr. Gupta reminded Stan that changing his clothes wouldn’t change his skin color or his religion.

But, they came to see that it was primarily about class hatred, secondarily about race or religion, even though our dads still considered terminating our going to the Minors Club (for our “own good,” of course). Finally, they did come to understand the logic of what we were doing. Even so, both our mums tended to hover around the theatre when it came time to pick us up.

Nearly all the Aston kids behaved themselves within the theatre itself.

For one thing, even though they weren’t a majority of the monitors, Aston kids — who had a real economic incentive to do the job well — were a disproportionately high number of them, and were quite intolerant of any misbehavior on the part of siblings and their mates that reflected badly and could lose them their status. For another, unlike most of us, most Aston kids didn’t yet reside in a place where they had regular access to a television set. Even those who did watched on glorified radios, with screens not much larger than nine inches. Their time in the cinema was much more precious, the experience far more overwhelming. It took them away from their daily lives even more than it did the rest of us. So usually they stayed on their best behavior—at least until they were outside again.

At first, we even enjoyed the Children’s Film Foundation’s well-intended (but technically weak) serials and features. Even if they talked down to us, they’d been made for us too. It’s the thought that counts, right?

Over time, our enthusiasm for them flagged a bit. But had we realized then the stage, film or pop stars some of the kids in those films would grow to be, we still might’ve been a bit more tolerant.

But there were cathedrals smaller than that cinema, and going up on that proscenium in front of the screen, before a cavernous auditorium and balcony full of kids was too terrifying to contemplate. Stan and I could get admitted free on our birthdays, if we told theater management what our birthdays were. We’d have received a birthday card from the Minors Club that doubled as free entrance pass.

But it also meant that the management would call us up on the proscenium as a small ocean of kids sang “Happy Birthday” to us.

We decided we’d rather pay the admission and be spared that prospect—or at least I thought we had. And, of course, we were never, ever going to join in the fancy dress contests at Halloween and Christmas, much less in the talent contests that the ABC Minors Club put on the rest of the year.

Aside from enjoyment of the ABC Minors Club itself, there were two bonuses for me in all this. First, it was an extra half-day of fun to spend with Stan each week; second, it cut the time I had to spend in “Soggyhall” down to Sundays, and even then only after church. Road conditions had become so bad that during the rain it was rarely worthwhile for them to drop me off then return to collect me. So, to my great relief, Mum and Dad would stay with Grammer too. Sundays thus became family visits rather than just me and Grammer being left to hang out morosely together.

© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.