You might recall that in my second post on this blog I said I would write about Allan Ahlberg’s autobiographical book “The Bucket, Memories of an Inattentive Childhood” (by the way, I have a first blog post, which no one seems to be looking at: here). My local library has now come up with the goods, and I have read this slim volume, not so much an autobiography as a collection of sketches, poems and memories from Allan Ahlberg, with illustrations mostly taken from his other books.
Ahlberg was born in London in 1938, adopted by a couple who lived in the West Midlands (Worcestershire then), and brought home by his new mum on the train to smoky Oldbury to meet his new dad, who was working on that day, as on every other. They paid the solicitor £2:15:1. In itself, this is a history to reflect on. When Allan was told by a spiteful girl that his mum was not his real mum he confronted this strongest of strong women, capable of intimidating larger neighbours who dared chastise her child (“My kids…Hit your own.”), and she was reduced to tears, ‘her raw red cleaner’s hands twisting away at her apron as she struggled to speak’. But this isn’t a misery memoir. Ahlberg only touches on the sensitive nerve of his adoption as an aside in his account of the harem-scarem of a 1940s working class boyhood in which he, and all his peers, ran pretty wild (but with their own traditions of conformity) through the streets of Oldbury and Smethwick, protected from the sky by its smothering of antiseptic smog. This medical tang still hangs over Oldbury when the air is still. In those days, we learn, it came from British Industrial Plastics, Guest, Kean and Nettlefold, Danks, Chance and Hunt, Accles and Pollock, Brades – names in some cases living on in the street names of the area.
To those who know Oldbury and Smethwick reading the book holds that added frisson that one is able to locate one’s own history in its pages – why is that so satisfying? It must be something to do with being able to place yourself on a bigger map. The book is so precisely set in place that I could imagine retracing the children’s steps on their annual, unsupervised, trip to a bluebell wood beyond Brandhall Golf Course. I know the canals, now overshadowed by roaring motorways. In Rood End Cemetery, where Ahlberg’s parents are buried, I seem to know that that other son of Oldbury, Jack Judge, who wrote ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ for a bet, is also buried (Stalybridge – he’s ours!). I must check if this is true. If you know please mention it in the comments section.
But even without the local interest this book tells a story which is known – childhood. Ahlberg calls it ‘An Elemental Childhood’, characterised by encounters with dirt, sparks and water. Play was with worms, birds’ eggs and snails. The children were outdoors children and despite the industrial landscape knew about nature from allotments, municipal parks, gutters and canals. Ahlberg does not shirk telling it how it was: children who evaded the rough and ready adult control of park keepers and watchmen were sometimes drowned in pools or fell through ceilings in derelict buildings. But children were also independent, forming themselves into football teams in West Smethwick Park, organising ice slides on the snowy playground and taking themselves off to the woods in the spring with the baby in the pram. There was plenty to be scared of in dark hallways and alleys. In those days even domestic appliances were heavy gauge and intimidating – the mangle in particular – and the ham slicer at the butchers seemed to be menacingly alive to the child who could only glimpse it through gaps in the counter top. And although childhood is changed now, it still remains true that small children are the little people finding out about an alien land belonging to the giants.
Allan’s eyes took it all in, and his author’s voice spilled it all out again in his charming but also sometimes slightly wicked, and even a little anarchic, rhymes and stories. Childhood playfulness survived in his love for playing with words. In one story, for instance, the clothes horse of his childhood is transformed into a mischievous horse made of clothes. This sharp eye, sharpened further by imagination, gives the lie to his teacher’s damning verdict of 1946, “Allan could do much better work. He is most inattentive ….”.