How I survived beyond 1967

20th July 2001 at 01:00
Implausibly, given the weather in these islands, we do seem to cling to a curious folk memory of glorious summers. Surely all our youthful summers can't have featured heatwaves? Wasn't it in New York, rather than Leith, that real children played under the spray of liberated fire hydrants to save them from dehydration?

Yet, if I think back, all the signs of deception are there. Seldom did Uncle Mac complete Children's Favourites on those far-off Saturday mornings without including Nat King Cole singing "Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" - no mention in those lyrics of miserable families peering dolefully through the fogged-up windows of over-full chip shops in a wet and windy Rothesay.

Before we were even in our teens, we sighed nostalgically when that same show featured the quintessentially English Messing About on the River, even though Josh McRae was a Fifer and most of us had been no nearer to the river than the opening chapters of The Wind in the Willows.

As teenagers we were similarly duped by the summer sounds of the Beach Boys, Bobby Goldsboro with Summer (the first time) and, God help us, even Mungo Jerry's In the Summertime.

Many of us who spent 1967 in school uniform, doing three hours' homework a night, smile reflectively at the sound of Scott McKenzie's San Francisco, as if Haight Ashbury and all its hippie freedom could be found between the Spar grocer and the local bus station.

I recently resolved to research this weird collective aberration, and returned to the site of my first memorable summers to see what I could recapture of the reality. It was my first visit since I left in 1959.

The tiny village school looked even smaller than I remembered. Here I had spent a year as a six-year-old more than 40 years ago - in the heart of rural Lancashire, just arrived with my recently widowed mother from Edinburgh, taking all the changes in my stride because I was too young to do anything else.

Although the building was small, the roof of the outhouse at the back must have been all of 20 feet off the ground - and it was this roof I had climbed on and run along as part of my six-year-old game.

I have to admit at feeling a bit faint at the realisation, and as I walked round the village, the horror of it all slowly came back to me, for climbing on that roof had been one of my milder occupations.

Maybe the summers of 1958 and 1959 were unusually warm and sunny, because my memory is of endless days spent playing in the woods, not scared by the odd tramp. The steep banking was still there, 30 feet high, with green-slimed stones set into it - how did I avoid falling when playing all those years ago?

Traffic would have been negligible on the main road through the village compared to the steady flow of today, but it was characterised by the regular passage of half-built truck chassis from the local Leyland plant, being test-driven at high speed by fierce-looking men in goggles. I used to run across that road every day, immune to the squeal of suddenly-applied brakes and irate drivers.

Down the brae on the other side of the main road was the railway line to London. Irresistibly drawn to it, we would lie down by the side of the track for the thrill of feeling the ground vibrate beneath us as the steam-hauled expresses thundered by, just feet away.

It was then just a short walk to the Royal Ordnance Factory. In the absence of MoD police, it was the work of minutes to slither under the fence and gather pocketfuls of detonators which exploded with a satisfying bang when flung against a wall.

We could round off the afternoon in those post-war days by visiting the disused army camp and collecting cartridge cases and spent bullets.

Looking back it seems remarkable that I survived, and in these days of hard-learned lessons about children's safety, memories of my rural escapades make me less guilty about my own son's comparatively sheltered upbringing.

Clearly our summer memories are as fitted to horror stories as pastoral idylls. Summer was certainly fun in my childhood, but only in the same manner as bungee-jumping and paragliding. That early formative experience goes a long way towards explaining why I've spent so much of my career as a union member, and a school manager, fulfilling the role of health and safety officer. Mind how you go!

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