I was born in 1954 and grew up in the bandit country on the north-west frontier… of Wolverhampton. The Luftwaffe hadn’t taken the lead in town planning, not like in Coventry and Birmingham, so the council had to be held responsible for the devastation wrought.
In front of the town hall they replaced a market square, surrounded by ornate Victorian facades and walkways, with a Civic Centre whose design seemed to have been out-sourced from behind the Iron Curtain. A large hole sat in the heart of town for a few years and when the builders eventually filled it up with plate glass and concrete, the old arcades were gone. In London or Brighton they would have given them a heritage paint job and paid someone to stand at the entrance in a top hat and brocade trimmed uniform.
We lived further out; out in the building sites where everyone was being given the same buff-coloured council houses.
When we were kids we used to dig holes and light fires; in gardens, behind lock-up garages, in the nettle-pocked scrubland around the Methodist church hall. Hidden from the main road, at Dunstall behind the old cinema, was a derelict mansion. No one bothered with security fences, or signs of dire warning back then. Mainly, we just kept away from the holes in the floorboards when we sneaked in. The canal ran close-by and we’d wander along the towpath and slide on shoe-soles down the sandy slopes under the bridge, our voices echoing from the high, blue-brick arches. Mom had taught me to swim after a little girl from a couple streets away drowned, so I was okay to play down by the water. At Aldersley, near the first of the locks that step up to the town, the ground was honeycombed with tunnels where houses used to stand. We would hide and talk in terracotta cellars, scrambling through debris and sitting on the remnants of collapsed walls.
Sometimes, we’d make arrows and tip them with wire that we flattened and sharpened between stones. Digging small holes and covering them with larger stones, we could stash our ammunition across potentially hostile territory, knowing, like squirrels searching for their hazelnuts in a hard winter, that memorising locations might be the difference between life and death.
Hallowe’en was swedes, not pumpkins; and life on the edge was knocking on doors and running off. Bonfire season brought potatoes stuffed into mattress springs and dropped into waning flames. Later, a stick hooked through a spring caught you a meal from the embers. Any potato with a thin layer of heat-softened flesh was a culinary triumph.
Keeping warm was a preoccupation not understood by those who have lived all their lives with central heating. Waking on winter mornings, your bedroom sat in the bitter beauty of a translucent light filtered through ice ferns frozen across the inside of single-glazed windows. Most days the collision of glass and outside air spawned puddles of condensation that poured over the edge of sills and streamed across lino tiles. Beyond the narrow bubble of the single coal fire’s heat, bedsheets held the cold with a cloying dampness rooms with radiators will never know. The first sound I heard each morning came from my parents’ room; the scrape of a match, followed by a rasping cough as my dad sucked in the first tobacco-tinged air of the day. The last breath of the previous night had been drawn from a nub-end that he balanced on a bedside ashtray. Woodbine, Senior Service, Park Drive, the nicotine-packed decongestants of a pre-cancerous age. Adverts proclaimed the benefits of paraffin heaters as cheap and moveable sources of warmth, not mentioning the invisible smells. For us this was a brief folly soon thrown on the scrap man’s lorry after our own canary-in the-coalmine moment, courtesy of an asphyxiated budgie, stiff in the bottom of his cage.
Then, when I was nine, we moved to a new flat rising grey above a sea of beige bricks. Now we had it all; an all-electric, underfloor heated, high-rise flat – and the bronchitis that had been my constant winter companion seemed not to have a head for heights.
After the last children’s programme had ended at ten to six, I would read and look out of my window. Being on the sixth floor gave me a sense of perspective. My first real, chosen-by-me book was The Tale of Troy, then Jennings and Derbyshire, The Silver Sword and Sherlock Holmes, Mary Renault and The Iliad… I didn’t know which ones were supposed to be clever, I just liked the fighting and the secret worlds of children. On Sundays, sitting in the club while my dad played snooker, a man from the local shop would come into the bar selling newspapers from a bag. I’d buy the Valiant, and read about Captain Hurricane ripping open Tiger Tanks with his bare hands and the occasional grenade.
If the child is father to the man, then maybe that’s why I ended up writing a school history book on Ancient Greece. I didn’t want to. They made me do it. I was on a course for teachers and the tutor said ‘You will write some passages for the children to read.’ It was a day out of work, so I wrote. I wrote about Victorian England and houses that reflected the income of their occupants. The lady tutor said, ‘These are very well-written.’ And that felt good, so I wrote some more without being told to. Our flat, and my nan’s on the floor below, was full of books. But you took books off shelves, it wasn’t my place to write them…
I’ve still got copies of those early works the tutor liked so much. I’d used personification and anthropomorphism, though I didn’t know that I had: I didn’t know what they were. Homer and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle must have smuggled them in when I wasn’t looking.
Tim Franks is 63 and lives in Wolverhampton. He began writing in his twenties and was subsequently contracted by OUP to write history books and aspects of the Oxford Reading Tree: the bestselling school reading scheme at the time. Tim has had a short story read on Radio 4 and his fiction has been widely published. He is currently concluding the initial draft of his second political crime thriller.
Tim is the latest writer to feature in our memoir series. He is taking part in the Mantle Lane Press Spring Showcase at Birmingham Literature Festival, on from 27 – 29 April. View the full festival programme here.
Your photos wanted!
Living Memory is a Heritage Lottery Fund project exploring photography and life stories from across the Black Country.
The project will be appearing at two local events coming soon:
Haden Hill House Museum – Exhibition, Talks, Workshops and Collecting Sessions, 18 June – 1 July: The first temporary exhibition of the Living Memory project showing new work made by pupils at St Michael’s School, Rowley Regis, Walk Works CIC, and a selection of photographs and stories submitted to the project.
To share your stories and photos, visit Living Memory.
Banner image: Jonathan Billinger